Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Movie Reviews - Lightning Round

I know it's been a while since I posted a review, and I've seen several movies in the meantime. Additionally, the year is coming to an end, and I'd like to have most of these movies reviewed by the end of the year, so you can prepare yourself for my "Movies of the Year" post (which will undoubtedly be dominated by movies that did not come out this year).

So, in order to provide a more complete picture of my film experience this year, I'm going to be going through sort of a "lightning round" of reviews. They'll be a little shorter than usual, but they'll be posted much more frequently. Hopefully I'll get through any movies you were hoping to hear me write about. If, after the first of the year, there are any movies I didn't review that you were really hoping to hear me talk about, by all means, badger me.

The American League MVP

So ends another awards season for Major League Baseball. And whether you were rooting for Hellickson or Hosmer, Halladay or Kershaw, Braun or Kemp, we can all agree that the award winners all had tremendous seasons, and each deserves accolades for their accomplishments.

That being said, neither Justin Verlander nor any other pitcher should ever win an MVP award.

(Yeah, it's gonna be one of those posts. Pull up a chair, get out your angry pencils, and let's do this.)

The fact that they're eligible for the award should not encourage baseball writers to cast their votes for pitchers. A change in the eligibility will never happen, because baseball prefers ambiguity (see: strike zones). But writers need to take it upon themselves to make this one of those dozens of "unwritten rules" in baseball, because plain and simple, pitchers cannot be the league's most valuable player.

I'd imagine I've got at least half of you riled up at this point, thinking that I've got a lot of nerve. And maybe I do. But I've got my reasons.

First, there is some truth to the thinking that pitchers have their award, and hitters only have the MVP award. The Cy Young Award and the Most Valuable Player Award each have long histories that we can look back at and remember some of the great seasons we saw. In 1999, baseball created the Hank Aaron Award, to be awarded to the best hitter in each league. In fact, the award was likely created specifically to allow for the possibility of a pitcher being worthy of an MVP award. You know when you started hearing about the Hank Aaron Award even existing? This year, when people wanted to justify voting for Verlander for MVP. Hank Aaron was a tremendous hitter, but the award is essentially meaningless if nobody knows who's winning them.

Additionally, the Hank Aaron Award incorporates a fan vote component, which makes the award intrinsically flawed. Fans are stupid. Unsurprisingly, the AL award has gone to AL East hitters every year since 2004. And by the way, Hank Aaron spent all of two seasons playing in the American League, hitting .232 with 22 HR and 95 RBI in 222 games. If you're going to perpetuate this farce, you should at least have another name for it in the American League. Babe Ruth, anyone?

But I think the greater argument here is that, quite simply, a pitcher can't come close to the overall impact of a position player, and that includes starting pitchers as well as relievers.

First, let's address the one stat that gets cited often to compare pitchers to hitters: wins above replacement (WAR). The theory behind the statistic is that, over the course of a season, by playing well (or poorly), a player at any position gives his team an adjusted chance at victory when compared to a potential replacement player. The statistic uses a theoretical AAA player as the replacement. The concept of trying to value hitters against pitchers is useful for GMs in salary-planning, and for those MVP votes in which a pitcher earns consideration.

Two issues, though. First, the use of a single statistic to determine value between a starting pitcher and a hitter is always going to have flaws, simply because the roles are so incredibly different. Second, it's apparent that baseball writers are not acknowledging WAR as a make-or-break statistic with regards to MVP votes. Matt Kemp posted a WAR of 10.0 in 2011, the highest since Barry Bonds in 2004. That span includes three different MVP seasons by Albert Pujols. I'm willing to cede that the actual NL MVP, Ryan Braun, has his own viable portfolio, but you'd think that, if we're referring to WAR at all, a guy who has a WAR that's 30% higher than the next closest player would be a shoo-in for the MVP.

(As a reference, Verlander posted an 8.6 WAR; Jose Bautista posted an 8.5.)

We're all quick to admit that wins are one of the most of the most team-dependent statistics on the planet. But if Verlander had, say, 20 wins, rather than his major-league best 24, would this have even been close? (If you're unsure, look at Cliff Lee's 22-3 2008 season, and the fact that he finished 12th in the MVP voting after a season with a similar lack of a front-runner. Or look over at the NL, where Clayton Kershaw posted very similar numbers to Verlander this season, yet also finished 12th in his league's MVP voting). You're wondering if Detroit was that good? They rated third in the majors in batting average, fourth in runs, fourth in on-base, fourth in slugging. They could put up runs with anybody.

So maybe Verlander gets an anecdotal bump in his resume as a result of his no-hitter in early May; it certainly put Verlander front and center. The relative difference in the impact of an everyday player versus a starting pitcher is similarly anecdotal. Obviously starting pitchers have impacts beyond their innings (saving the bullpen, etc). And obviously hitters have impacts beyond their own at-bats (base-running, "protection" for other hitters, etc.). But I think we've got one more piece of the puzzle that pushes starting pitchers out of the discussion: weather.

If there's a rainout, or even more so if a game is postponed, a starting pitcher's rhythm is off, and he likely doesn't come back in the subsequent game. We saw it in the playoffs this year; weather pushed both Verlander and CC Sabathia out of Game 1 after 1.5 IP and limited them each to one full start in a five-game series. Meanwhile, in the same series, Robinson Cano hit .318 and drove in 9 runs, and Delmon Young hit .316 with three home runs. The fact that an act of nature can almost completely negate the potential positive contributions by a starting pitcher for a game, and the fact that they only pitch in 35 games every year, is the last piece of evidence I need.

In the end, I think that a Most Valuable Player in baseball should be the epitome of a baseball player. To me, baseball is defined by the 162 game season, by far the longest in American team sports. It's a grind, and a guy who's able to get up ~150 times and compete at a tremendous level, that's the guy who's the best baseball player. A guy who has to perform 35 times a year, no matter how impressive he is during those 35 times, just doesn't capture the essence of baseball.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Penn State Sexual Abuse Scandal

I'm probably going to piss off a lot of people with this post, and alienate other people, and maybe get through to a couple as well. But I'm too upset with what I hear from too many people to not talk about this.

By now, most people know the testimony. Former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is accused of molesting eight different young boys over a 15-year period. Head coach Joe Paterno comes into the picture in 2002, when graduate assistant Mike McQueary observed Sandusky doing something to a young boy in a locker room shower (his grand jury testimony says sodomy, the testimony by Penn State higher-ups says McQueary reported a more vague level of fondling or other sexual contact; either way, up to no good). McQueary spoke to his father, who told him to speak to Paterno, and things went up the ladder, where a decision was made to bar Sandusky from bringing children to the campus.

How many people here are morally culpable? Probably everyone. But there's an order to things, and Paterno is not at the top of the list. How would I sort the villainy? Well, starting here:

Sandusky
Sandusky
Sandusky
Sandusky
Sandusky

Let's not lose sight of the actual situation. Jerry Sandusky is a sick and deplorable human being. He's far and away the villain here, since, you know, he was the guy who was actually raping children. Everyone else who's at fault (and there are plenty) would've never been put in a position to disappoint if Sandusky just wasn't a monster.

Mike McQueary

McQueary actually witnessed Sandusky in the act of committing one of these crimes, and what did he do? He called his dad and asked him what to do, then called Paterno the next day. McQueary was 28 at the time of the incident. He was a grown-ass man who saw another man raping a child, and did nothing. I can maybe understand being scared; it's an inconceivable thing to see, and in seeing it, you have to think that the perpetrator is capable of anything. So maybe you're too frightened to confront the guy alone. But come on. I'm sure other people were in the building; get a mob together if you're scared. And if nothing else, you call the cops.

The report said that both Sandusky and the victim made eye contact with McQueary at the time of the incident. So that kid saw an adult come across him being assaulted, and the adult walked away, and left him with his assailant. If we're making a list of things that will do severe psychological damage to a child, that's got to be on that list somewhere.

University President Graham Spanier
University Vice President Gary Schultz

Athletic Director Tim Curley

Curley was the person to whom Paterno reported what he heard from McQueary. Curley, along with Schultz, are the two people held legally responsible for their failure to report this incident to law enforcement authorities. They also both face perjury charges for what is believed to be dishonest or incomplete testimony to the grand jury.

Additionally, some combination of these three individuals came up with the response plan for Sandusky's assault, which was to take away his locker room keys and ban him from bringing children onto campus. ESPN's Jay Bilas addressed the toothlessness of this "punishment" perfectly by interpreting the message from Spanier as essentially saying, "Just don't do it here." It indicates an utter disregard for morality, and a complete focus on preserving university image. It's complicit, and disgusting.

Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar

This excerpt is from an ESPN article available here:
Victim 6 is taken into the locker rooms and showers when he is 11 years old. When Victim 6 is dropped off at home, his hair is wet from showering with Sandusky. His mother reports the incident to the university police, who investigate.

Detective Ronald Schreffler testifies that he and State College Police Department Detective Ralph Ralston, with the consent of the mother of Victim 6, eavesdrop on two conversations the mother of Victim 6 has with Sandusky. Sandusky says he has showered with other boys and Victim 6's mother tries to make Sandusky promise never to shower with a boy again but he will not. At the end of the second conversation, after Sandusky is told he cannot see Victim 6 anymore, Schreffler testifies Sandusky says, "I understand. I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won't get it from you. I wish I were dead."

Jerry Lauro, an investigator with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, testifies he and Schreffler interviewed Sandusky, and that Sandusky admits showering naked with Victim 6, admits to hugging Victim 6 while in the shower and admits that it was wrong.

The case is closed after then-Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar decides there will be no criminal charge.

Nice work, counselor. Way to serve and protect.

Head Coach Joe Paterno

Paterno is the face of Penn State, and there's no denying that this happened on his watch. There's also no denying that Paterno was aware of something involving Sandusky; he has admitted as much, and said that he wishes he had done more, in hindsight.

We don't know what Paterno really knew. We know his testimony indicated that he was aware of an incident occurring between Sandusky and a child, and others' testimony corroborates that. We also know that he didn't hear about the incident from McQueary until the day after the event, and he was undoubtedly aware that McQueary apparently didn't think enough of the incident to contact the police at all. What we know now about Sandusky's continued harassment makes the choice obvious, but given the limited information regarding this one incident, and the question marks about the words McQueary actually used to describe the incident, and the fact that Paterno had known Sandusky for thirty-odd years, it's not cut and dry.

Consider your own job. Imagine a subordinate (we're talking about your job, because I have no subordinates to imagine) reported to you that another employee was engaged in a sexually inappropriate act with a child. Your main responsibility is to put that subordinate in touch with the appropriate person at your organization, or if you are the appropriate person, to get in touch with the authorities. After connecting the relevant parties, it's not your business anymore.

Paterno got Curley involved. Curley conducted his investigation (however much of a sham it might have been), came to his conclusions (however blind), and implemented his resolution (however insufficient). We don't know what Paterno was told about this process. It's not inconceivable that he was lied to by Curley and Schultz about the investigation, since those two are already suspected of lying to the grand jury.

Jemele Hill wrote a piece for ESPN (applauding Penn State for firing Paterno) that includes the following paragraph:
"For those who continue to cling to the notion that because Paterno fulfilled his legal obligation, he should be allowed to finish this season on his own terms, I pose this question: If that 10-year-old in the showers with Sandusky was your brother, cousin, nephew, friend or neighbor, would you be satisfied with how Paterno handled the situation?"
First, I think we can all agree that if it was your brother, you would want Penn State University brought to the ground. Not metaphorically; literally leveled with dynamite and wrecking balls. And you wouldn't care who was inside. You would just want someone to pay, and the more people who pay, the better. So let's try to appreciate that adding that level of emotion isn't going to result in reasoned discourse.

Second, flip the switch. What if Sandusky was your brother? Your cousin? Your friend? Wouldn't you look for ways, consciously or subconsciously, to convince yourself that the worst isn't true? Wouldn't you want to get your hands off the situation and put it in the hands of people whose responsibility it was to handle these kinds of situations?

American media, particularly sports media, tends to try to look at everything in a vacuum. One of my favorite shows, PTI, consistently asks un-nuanced all-or-nothing questions of its hosts. And maybe the best part of PTI is that Michael Wilbon and especially Tony Kornheiser offer decidedly measured and broad-scope responses to these questions. Taking the whole picture into account shouldn't be so rare.

But as I peruse through Facebook messages, and Twitter posts, and the comments attached to the various articles regarding this horrific story, I find very little in the way of thoughtful discussion. What's more troublesome is that I also haven't found much among those people who are paid to be insightful, like ESPN's Hall.

Another couple quotes from Hall's article:

"There have been 40 counts of felony sex abuse of minors levied against former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky, and though I am sickened by what Sandusky is accused of, our judicial system presumes his innocence until he is proved guilty.

But we're free to judge Paterno outside the constricts of the law. A lengthy indictment spells out what he did (or, more disturbing, what he failed to do) and what he knew."

"If Sandusky is proved guilty, he is obviously the worst monster in this sordid horror story. But it isn't a stretch to suggest that Paterno played the role of Dr. Frankenstein. He didn't create the monster, but if Sandusky is guilty, then Paterno is at least partially responsible for the tragedies of every one of the victims assaulted after that unidentified boy in the shower."

Throughout the article, Hall acknowledges that Sandusky's guilt is yet to be determined, and she consistently uses terms like "accused of" and "alleged." Paterno receives the benefit of no such doubt.

My last point here is in response to Hall's last point, and a point that is going to echo in the voice of every sportscaster on the planet, and I'm going to be angry about it every time. She declares that Penn State was courageous for ousting Joe Paterno. Her claim is that today's world sees football coaches as the "final authority" for high profile schools, and it's important that the Penn State board of trustees exercise their authority here.

My final response to that is my own post on a friend's comment on Facebook from last night:
"Everyone's mad. But Paterno leaving the school isn't going to make anyone less angry or hurt or disgusted or shocked. His departure is a front page story for a couple days, then PSU gets to shrink away while other tragedies (and other sports stories) overtake it, and the general public will forget and move on. But a lot of good people who rely on Penn State football for a thousand different reasons are going to suffer. What Sandusky did was damnable and shameful. What's happening to Paterno is just a damn shame."

Top 500 Songs - Dave Matthews Band

This was always going to be the hardest of my band lists, because I like so many of DMB's songs, and have liked them so differently over...