Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Available and Opinionated

As published in The County Times ( 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 ( 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 ( 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.