Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Available and Opinionated

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in July 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Boys will be boys.  And so will young men, it seems.

Somewhat lost in the at-or-near first place Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals is the absence of both teams’ young phenoms – Manny Machado and Bryce Harper – from the lineup for large chunks of this season’s first half.  Winning masks all warts.  It’s like beer for not-so-pretty-faces.

Machado didn’t make his 2014 debut until May 1, the result of offseason knee surgery.  On June 8, he threw a 21-year-old fit after a pitch from Oakland A’s reliever Fernando Abad buzzed by his surgically repaired knee.  Machado purposefully let his bat helicopter onto the field after an empty swing at the next pitch.  The benches cleared and a lot of bad breath and choice words were exchanged.  It was, shall we say, an unattractive moment.  The temper tantrum cost Machado five games, a suspension he served last week.   

Not to be “out-controversied”, Harper, continuing his reckless play, ripped up a thumb sliding into third on April 25, had surgery and missed two months.  But he’s back now – with an attitude.  The day after playing his first game since April, Harper, as reported by The Washington Post, popped off about his position in the batting order and the team’s defensive alignment.  He didn’t like batting sixth and wanted to play center field, not left, despite being on ice for two months.  Harper also offered to anyone and everyone that Ryan Zimmerman should have continued in left field and defensive stalwart Danny Espinosa should have remained at second base.  The intended or unintended message behind Harper’s loose-lipped commentary was this: I’m better than the guys hitting in front of me and Denard Span (one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball) should be on the bench. 

Youth often lacks proper physical and verbal temperance.  Harper is good, but his hype still leads his production.  He has never hit 30 homeruns, had 100 RBI or flirted with a .300 batting average in a season.  Harper’s never been a serious MVP candidate and currently has had as many surgeries as All-Star Game appearances (2).  After being called up in 2012 at age 19, Harper stayed healthy and played 139 games.  Last year, that number fell to 119 as he battled knee issues, a consequence of a collision with an outfield wall.  Through last Sunday, Harper’s posted for just 28 of 87 games in 2014.  The song apparently, as Led Zeppelin might say, remains the same.

And this guy has an opinion on how a major league team should be managed?  This reckless and bumptious youth has the audacity to challenge, and maybe undermine, first year manager and long-time major leaguer Matt Williams?  Clearly Harper needs to be humbled, put in his place, served a slice of humble pie and prescribed an aggressive course of ego-arrest.  He needs a timeout chair, to stand in the corner and have all his electronics taken away.

Or does he? 

I love this cast of Nationals.  They are classy, easy to like and the best professional sports team in Washington, D.C.  But sometimes they are too nice.  The camaraderie is too great.  Their gentlemen factor is too high.  They represent themselves, their families, MLB and the nation’s capital too well.  You’d introduce your daughters to these Nationals and loan them expensive yard equipment.  Those are commendable qualities, but in the world of ultra-competitive athletics, they can lead to “the S-word”: soft. 

The Nationals can be a little soft, okay.  They don’t handle adversity particularly well and haven’t psychologically recovered from a playoff collapse against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012.  They need an edge, someone with nerve and daring.  They need a bold voice that agitates, challenges and re-draws comfort zones – even if the voice isn’t obviously qualified to do so.  They need Bryce Harper.  Most teams – sports or otherwise – need a Bryce Harper.  The Bryce Harper’s, if properly harnessed and balanced, create healthy discomfort; and in healthy discomfort there is growth and, often, greater success.  At the highest levels of competition, good guys don’t always finish last, but they rarely finish first…and isn’t that the point?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sports, Music & Life On The Margin

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in June 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

In economics, the margin is magic.  It’s Disney World, the Super Bowl, a Rolling Stones concert, Mardi Gras, a golf major with Tiger Woods in contention (remember those?) and, closer to home, the Tiki Bar opening.  The margin is where the action is and where the cool people hang.  Be there or be square.  If you’re not there, you’re not anywhere.  The margin – it’s all that.  Who knew?

Without getting too technical (hopefully) and gouge-your-eyes-out boring, the margin is about real-time decision-making by producers and consumers and the value – measurable or estimated – of those decisions.  Marginal cost, a good’s variance in total cost for changes in quantity, determines if, for example, a producer should allocate an additional shift to a manufacturing line.  For consumers, marginal utility measures the benefit – joy, fun, practical usage, etc - derived from a good.  When Mick Jaggar wails through the Stones’ classic “Satisfaction”, he’s a man desperate marginal utility via sex, less commercialism, etc.

Complicating producer and consumer margin-thinking is the law of diminishing returns/utility.  It says that if Ford blindly adds labor to manufacturing, the labor will gradually lose efficiency and eventually be completely counter-productive.  Speaking more plainly, a beer on a warm summer’s day is a no-brainer - tremendous marginal utility/satisfaction; the eighth, though, may be less “refreshing.”  Alas, more is not always better.

And then there are the externalities realized from margin decisions.  The Nats’ move to D.C. was an economic boon for MLB and the town, but the team’s presence has created an enormous social benefit – a positive externality – for the community.  Conversely, our beer drinker’s decision to consume to excess will likely have an adverse impact – a negative externality – on anyone in his sloppy, drunken presence.

That’s a bunch of dribble for saying that decisions to do stuff - buy, sell, produce, consume, play, work, etc – or to not do stuff – remain idle, pass, forfeit, etc – have tremendous influence (marginal utility) on our lives and the lives of those around us (externalities).  At this point I assume the power of the margin has you researching economic theory – provided you’re still awake.  Anyway…

Margin-based activity does not normally consume my thoughts (and so what if it does?).  However, recent considerations of a margin-frequenting musician and a billionaire owner had me dusting off old economic lessons (for good or ill).   

The guitar-harmonica-bass wielding rock star is Sheryl Crow, an artist who didn’t achieve mainstream fame until her early thirties (a late bloomer in her field), overcame breast cancer in 2006 and a scary bout with a benign brain tumor in 2011.  Crow certainly faced moments on the margin where she questioned her professional future and the value (or wisdom) of continuing her career.  But Crow never let her guitar rest, a decision that indicates music retained a marginal utility too great to abandon.  For local fans, the positive externalities from her determination reached an apex during a recent concert at the St. Leonard Fire Department.  Had Crow chose differently at the margin, there would have been no benefit for a worthy local cause, no dancing, no smiles and no memories.  There would have only been silence.

On the other hand, Daniel Snyder, billionaire owner of D.C.’s professional football team, isn’t navigating the margin with Crow’s skill.  The name of Snyder’s beloved team is under assault - the result of rightful social progression, evolution of language and careful consideration of our nation’s sometimes troubling history.  To date, Snyder has consistently chosen defiant opposition and refused meaningful discord.  It is an unfortunate position steeped in misguided nostalgia and emotion, a flawed formula for the margin, a place committed to unemotional, unbiased analysis and identifying a moment’s optimal alternative.  The team’s name will change - eventually.  In the meantime, Snyder’s clenched fist of skewed pride will create increasingly greater negative externalities for his organization, its players and fans of professional football. 
 
When navigating the precarious and powerful margin, I suppose the trick is to keep your marginal utility in the black and your externalities positive.  Or, for this article, be like the rock star, not the billionaire owner. 

Star Talents & Qualities

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in June 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

In 2005, MLB’s hollow promises ran dry and the fiendish opposition by Peter Angelos, curmudgeon owner of the Orioles, was overcome - finally.  The Montreal Expos moved south, donned script “W” caps and were reborn as the Washington Nationals.

The honeymoon was brief.  For years there wasn’t much to celebrate beyond the team’s presence.  Stephen Strasburg didn’t arrive until 2010.  Jayson Werth was signed a year later.  In 2012, Bryce Harper was called up and the Nationals managed their first winning season – eight years since fleeing the great white north.  Before “that” - the dark period between 2005 and 2010 - there was Ryan Zimmerman…and little else. 

Zimmerman attended high school in Virginia Beach and played baseball at the University of Virginia.  In 2005, the rebooted Nationals, an organization pillaged of talent while languishing in Montreal and in desperate need of a franchise player, selected the local prospect with the fourth overall pick in the MLB Draft.  Since debuting later that year, Zimmerman has been everything for the Nationals: a silver slugger, gold glove awardee, an All-Star, kindling for a budding fan base and a pillar in the community.  Until all the aforementioned “help” arrived, Zimmerman was the only player on the roster likely to be a Nat beyond a single presidential election.  He wasn’t just the team’s third baseman and best player; he was the Nationals’ identity. 

It would be sacrilegious around these parts to compare Zimmerman’s connection to the area, arrival in Washington and meaning the Nationals franchise with the real-life fairytale of Aberdeen’s Cal Ripken Jr., Baltimore and the Orioles; but there are similarities.  Baseball acumen aside, there aren’t two better people in the game. Ripken’s reputation speaks for itself.  Zimmerman is the consummate professional, a gentleman’s gentleman and in 2006 put his name on the ziMS Foundation, a charity dedicated to combating Multiple Sclerosis, a disease afflicting his mother.  I personally witnessed Zimmerman’s community work when he spent an unpublicized afternoon with a group of very sick kids at Children’s National Medical Center in 2010.  I’ll never forget it.

And now there’s another parallel in Ripken and Zimmerman’s stories: a position move.  Ripken, a long-time shortstop, was moved to third base in 1997.  Zimmerman, a third baseman with hot-corner skills that were once compared to Brooks Robinson, is now playing left field.  Unlike Ripken, whose shift to third occurred late in his career, Zimmerman’s reassignment to left field is happening in his prime and as a result of an uncooperative right shoulder ravaged by injury.  Father time - Ripken’s culprit - defeats us all; Zimmerman’s circumstance – bad luck – is much more difficult to accept.

But here are a few thoughts, as reported by Adam Kilgore in The Washington Post, from Zimmerman on the matter.  Regarding his viability at third base, Zimmerman said, “I don’t know if I’m the best option over there anymore.”  Zimmerman touched on the impact to the team with this gem: “My goal is to win games…get to the playoffs…this gives us the best chance.”  And then, the reincarnated outfielder offered this reflective thought: “I have a hard time taking anything negative from baseball…I’ve had a pretty good life…I look at it as more of, maybe just a new chapter, something like that.”

That’s about as good as it gets – textbook stuff.  A potentially toxic issue was completely diffused by objectivity, humility, optimism, selflessness and class.  I initially characterized Zimmerman’s reactions as obligatory for an established professional athlete.  Alas, I’m showing my age.  There are few people today – athlete or otherwise – that would have handled an analogous situation with such dignity.  And if any D.C. athlete qualified to play the entitlement card, gripe and placate an inflated sense of self-importance, it would’ve been Ryan Zimmerman.  But Zimmerman is the anti-diva.  He’s a throwback to a period when people routinely thought beyond the boundaries of their personal world and considered others - team and teammates in this case - ahead of themselves. 

Zimmerman’s perspective is as rare as his baseball talent.  I suspect Cal Ripken Jr. is tipping his cap to Nat’s new outfielder; for what it’s worth, so am I.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Batter Up

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Parenthood is packed with milestones and phases. Things come, things go and, before you know it, a decade has slipped by in a dizzying flash of shit, vomit, sleepless nights and enough moments of sheer joy to justify perpetuating our species.

A baby is born, requires a first diaper change and cracks a smile.  A “coo” shows up one day, a “dada” or “mamma” the next and several-years-but-a-moment-later a rage-filled “you suck, dad” crops up as pre-pubescent hormones are set ablaze. Play groups, pre-school classes, soccer, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, band, basketball, swimming, art lessons and Taeqwondo (oh yeah, I could go on and on) rapidly enter and exit a young family’s daily operations as offsprings rifle through childhood and parents grip the wheels of life.

I left out one tried and true family event: T-ball. It is a rite of passage for parents and children. I played and can still see the trophies on my dresser. I was terrified when I started and loved it when I finished. Fielding was okay; hitting was coolest thing in life (to that point).

For the last five years my kids have participated in the introductory phase to the American Pastime. It ended for me last Wednesday night when my son played his final T-ball game. I’ve watched my last game with kids running in the wrong direction, spectacularly errant throws, the occasional amazing play and every player playing for the ultimate prize: the post-game snack!!! 

I have had a picture of my son’s first T-ball at-bat on my phone for three years. I took it from behind the backstop. Poor kid was only slightly bigger than the bat and his over-sized helmet robbed him of half his vision. So as he strode to the plate for his final T-ball at bat last week, I couldn’t help myself - I snapped a photo from the same location. He was bigger, of course, and I was proud, but sadness was the dominant emotion. I was closing a chapter on a special phase…and I wasn’t ready to let go. There will be other things, I’m sure, but for me the melancholy associated with closing a familiar, well-worn book isn’t overcome by the joy from cracking open a new one.

Years ago I was driving home from a summer vacation and I noticed a roadside sign that read something like, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I remember it because it was sage advice. As a for a former T-ball parent…I’m trying to embrace it. I’ll get there, eventually.

Happy Father’s Day to my fellow domestic warriors. 

Moneyball Imitates Lifeball

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in May 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

I am way behind on movies.  The origin of my cinematic delinquency is my daughter’s birth a decade ago.  The arrival of a second demon a few years later didn’t help.  Kids, fatherhood and movie watching don’t mix – unless they are the Disney variety.  Otherwise there are simply too many diapers to change, fights to referee and extracurricular activities to support.  But a recent cross-country flight provided an opportunity to throw on an adult flick (no, not that kind) and Moneyball was crossed off my short list of films to watch when my most precious resource – time - allows.

Moneyball is a documentary of sorts on the Oakland A’s, General Manager Billy Bean (Brad Pitt) and the usage of Sabermetrics (advanced statistical analysis) to evaluate player performance and determine best-value acquisitions.  Stubborn adherence to the theory has enabled the A’s – a small market team with a fraction of the payroll of financial behemoths like the Yankees or Dodgers – to absorb the loss of several high-priced free agents and remain perennial contenders.  In fact, as of this writing, the A’s have the most wins in the American League (AL) and are in first place in AL West.

The magic of Sabermetrics is that it places value on stuff – skills, attributes and contributions – not immediately apparent or interesting to the naked eye.  It has made statistics like Wins Above Replacement (WAR) part of baseball lexicon and forced junkies of the game of consider if a player’s On-Base Percentage (yawn) is actually more important to team success than homeruns.  Sabermetrics is about raw data.  There’s no emotional component.  Sabermetrics doesn’t over-value Albert Pujols or Derek Jeter based on name recognition or marketability.  It doesn’t know the reputations or salaries of “Player A” or “Player B.”  It doesn’t care.  Advanced statistical analysis is all about identifying assets that will make a comparative contributions to victories – period. 

But, as Hunter S. Thompson might say, “enough about that” (baseball, that is).  Moneyball is a movie about Sabermetrics and baseball; it’s just not only about Sabermetrics and baseball.  Simply put, and “As the Spreadsheet Turns”, sometimes spending the most money on the sexiest players is a wise move; sometimes it’s fool’s gold. Sometimes the best players are the fastest, throw the hardest and hit the farthest. Occasionally, though, such visual superlatives are non-substantive window dressing.  They are illusions. Tricks. 

Does that sound familiar?  Useful?  Does it feel like a test?  Sabermetrics – a theory that judges on substance and not what immediately romanticizes the flawed human eye – begs to be applied in our everyday assessment of people, whether they’ve ever swung a bat or not.  There’s no specific statistic or formula for people-evaluation, per se, but the concept of Sabermetrics – avoid the distraction of eye-popping traits - translates.  Is the best spouse the most attractive or wealthy?  Is the flashiest dresser and smoothest talker the best choice for a critical professional project?  Will the pursuit of the coolest people, those with beneficial connections, the most Facebook “friends” and Twitter followers really produce the best friendships?  The answer is maybe – if luck smiles upon thee.  But the best value, the optimal person for “the job” – spouse, friend, business associate, etc. – is more likely the quiet, unassuming gem lurking below the radar.

In a poignant scene from Moneyball, Bean was in the Cleveland Indians’ GM’s office negotiating a trade.  Surrounded and outnumbered by graybeard executives, Bean nonetheless noticed that with each offer the GM communicated non-verbally with an out-of-place young man in the room that looked like an accountant six months removed from graduation.  After finalizing the deal, the group dispersed, but Bean hunted down the non-descript stats weenie in cubicle-ville.  He knew “the kid” – not the GM or flashy scouts – was the true star.  After a brief discussion on player analysis, Bean hired the young lad, brought him to Oakland and Sabermetrics was born.  Bean, in a way, used Sabermetrics in its more powerful form - to judge people - before using it in its more traditional way - to judge baseball players. 

Here’s to channeling our inner Billy Bean - and to choosing wisely. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

26 Minutes

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in May 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

He stood behind a podium, all 6’9” of him, adorned with in-vogue spectacles and a dapper suit, and bared his soul.  His unguarded honesty was befitting of a living room chat with only family and close friends, not the nationwide audience in attendance.  To his credit, he ignored the millions of eyes and ears, focused on the important few and reduced a massive moment to a quaint, deeply personal and inspiring conversation.  He shed many tears.  So did his teammates.  So did this writer.  So what?

It lasted just over 26 minutes – epic by acceptance speech standards.  Kevin Durant was the mouthpiece behind this masterpiece.  A local Prince George’s County prodigy, Durant was a one-and-done college star at Texas, the second overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft and is now, inarguably, one of the two best basketball players residing on Earth (LeBron James being the other).  Durant has done amazing things on a basketball court - scoring titles, Olympic gold medals, putting relatively tiny Oklahoma City on the professional sports map – but this, his NBA MVP acceptance speech, may be his finest basketball moment.  If you only caught the CliffsNotes version broadcast by our hyper-speed, attention-deficit media, I recommend a comprehensive, encore viewing courtesy of other Internet outlets.  Durant delivered a moment to be appreciated for its full content and substance, not truncated for brevity. 

His speech checked all the common and obligatory blocks.  Durant thanked the organization for drafting him, his coaches for pushing him and the fans for their support.  He acknowledged the writers’ votes and the motivation gleaned from his doubters.  But he went deeper - much deeper.  Durant, a relatively quiet, soft-spoken superstar, exposed a thoughtfulness and tenderness rarely seen in sports.  It was a side of Durant that, frankly, I didn’t know existed.  At the beginning of the speech, in half-hearted anticipation of the humdrum, I was barely paying attention.  At the 26-minute mark, having been introduced to the real Kevin Durant, his journey and his awareness of its complexities, I was wiping tears off my cheeks.

Durant broke from the script by thanking his teammates – individually.  He literally went “around the table” and identified each man’s specific contribution to his ascension to NBA MVP.  The specificity and uniqueness of Durant’s “thank yous” left no doubt that the MVP felt genuinely indebted to his teammates for their boosts of energy, positive thinking and encouragement.  He noted the smiles of younger teammates, the push from veterans, supportive text messages from Kendrick Perkins and a simply “KD MVP” note left in his locker by Caron Butler after a tough losing streak – a story that left both men in tears. 

Durant then turned to his mother, who he called the real MVP, and delivered his most powerful moment.  He credited his mother with overcoming the financial challenges of being a single mother of two boys, keeping those boys off the street, managing many moves and shortages of food and beating overwhelming odds.  Durant summed up his tribute best when he said, with his voice quivering, “Mom, I don’t think you know what you did.”  She probably didn’t.  The best moms don’t.  Few need to.  It – sacrificing for their children and finding a way – is just what they do.

In 26 minutes, Kevin Durant reintroduced himself and provided everyone within earshot a lot to contemplate.  I did the exercise.  I’m still doing it.  Here are my Durant-notes…so far.  Success and emotional investment are indelibly linked; if you don’t feel it, it will be hard to be it.  Humility is one of the most important traits a leader can possess.  Adversity should re-fuel determination, not diminish it.  Relationships are forged by listening, paying attention to detail and accentuating the best in people.  Anything…is still quite possible.  Everyone you encounter has something positive to offer.  Achievement by the one, no matter how great, is an outcome supported by the many – especially a selfless, tough, determined and loving parent. 

Here’s a final thought from Durant that will stick with me: “Basketball is just a platform in order for me to inspire people.”  Mission accomplished, Mr. Durant.

Digging LeBron James, The Temperate King

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com)

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Before electronic devices overwhelmed good old-fashioned horsing around, my cousins and I used Nerf basketball rims to play a hybrid basketball/football game.  It was brutal.  Being the oldest and biggest, I played the role of rim defender.  My younger kin were, essentially, willing and persistent crash test dummies.  In ridiculously confined spaces and with breakables all around, they would fake dribble (Nerf balls never bounced well), burst down “the lane”, leap and meet the full force of their older cousin.  There were no referees, only our honor and pride.  In other words, there was no griping or complaining and absolutely no tears.  The rules were simple: if they scored, I’d increase the brutality; if they failed and took more than three seconds to get up, I’d lighten up…theoretically. 

The game/wrestling match was inspired by the late-80’s, early 90’s NBA basketball we grew up watching.  As the last line of defense, I thought of myself not as the rail thin, physically unimposing kid I was, but as Bill Laimbeer or Alonzo Mourning.  Score on me at the cup?  Without pain?  I think not.  My cousins were Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins, ferociously attacking the rim with no regard for life or limb.  The absence of broken bones I can only attribute to the rubber skeletal systems of our youth.  Needless to say, those epic battles are only talked about these days; they aren’t reproduced.

A recent ESPN 30 for 30 piece on the similar-vintage Bad Boy Detroit Pistons reminded me of our epic family clashes.  Those Pistons, featuring the likes of Rick Mahorn and the aforementioned Laimbeer, thugs among NBA thugs, and Isiah Thomas, a phenomenal player whose basketball skill is often overshadowed by his adeptness as an antagonist, were perhaps the first NBA team to embrace being the league’s big, bad bully.  They weren’t as interested in beating elegant high-flyers like Jordan or Clyde Drexler as they were in breaking their will through constant physical abuse.  Compromise an opponent’s nerve, make him shy about going to the hole, and the scoreboard will take care of itself.  It worked, to the tune of back-to-back NBA Championships and it spawned several copycats – Pat Riley’s New York Knicks and Miami Heat, most notably – around the league.  

I hated those Pistons teams, but I respected their style of play.  The game now is, well, much softer.  Elegance and rhythmic flow sell better than a street fight - allegedly.  My cousins and I often scoff at what is considered a flagrant foul in today’s game and what today’s stars - LeBron James in particular - complain is excessive contact.  Our reply to James’ whoa-is-me facial contortions is usually something like, “LeBron is a pansy…he wouldn’t have survived back in the day.”  The truth: James could’ve dominated in any era.  Confession: I’ve warmed to James’ approach.   

Shaquille O’Neal possessed many fine qualities – size, athleticism and a sense of humor – but his ability to absorb hit after malicious hit and resist the temptation to respond with violent force is what I admired most.  Shaq would have been justified inflicting harm on opponents in nearly every game…but refrained.  LeBron James is a giant with a similar disposition – and I have tremendous respect for his temperance.  Yesterday’s “soft” is today’s “wise and mature.”

Were the Bad Boy Pistons cool?  In their day, yes, but sports have evolved.  Look around.  Football is less violent.  MLB banned home plate collisions.  NBA rules have outlawed old-school Pistons basketball.  Sportsmanship is up; violence is down.  Boorish behavior is now mostly jeered, not cheered.  Has society followed suit?  We are more tolerant, but remain a work in social progress (Donald Sterling anyone?).  Are we less violent and more respectful?  When faced with an antagonist, are we as capable of turning the other cheek – a sign of real strength - like LeBron James?  I’m skeptical.  Our games are better for the changes.  Wouldn’t we be wise to tag along?  If you disagree, keep watching antiquated Pistons re-runs.  But please don’t ask me to re-enact those Nerf basketball games to satisfy your blood-thirst.  I likely wouldn’t…even if I could.