Monday, October 31, 2005

Never Say Never

I have seen the future and it is very much like the present, only longer. -- Kehlog Albran

When the petroleum companies celebrated Hurricane Katrina by raising gasoline prices to ridiculous levels, at least until states invoke anti-gouging laws, a co-worker of mine said, “Gas will never go below $2 per gallon again.” Now I don't agree with that for a couple of reasons. Firstly, gasoline was overpriced at 30 cents a gallon in the 1960's. We know that because, even at that price, oil companies were making obscene profits. Supply-and-demand don't apply in a cartel situation.

Secondly, I've heard so many “never” statements that ultimately were false, that I don't give them much credence. Here are a few.

“The prime rate will never go below 10% again.” Remember the heyday of double-digit inflation in the late 1970's and early '80's? The prime went to about 21% or so, which violated usury laws in some states. When they started to fall, my boss at the time made the assertion that they wouldn't fall far. I bet him $10 that they would drop well below 10% eventually. How he expected to win, I don't know, because “never” is a very long time. I guess he thought he would outlive me and collect from my estate. Anyway, I changed jobs not long after that. When interest rates dropped, I sent him a letter about the $10. He never did pay up.

“There will never be a non-Italian Pope.” Conventional wisdom amongst Catholics was that, after centuries of Italian Pontiffs, the tradition had taken such hold that there was no way someone of another nationality would be elected. I wonder if how long it'll take for people to say, “There will never be another Italian Pope.”

“Life will never be the same after 9/11.” Well, airlines are already talking about reducing security, people travel to countries where there are terrorist threats, and terrorists are still blowing things up as they have done for centuries. I haven't noticed any significant change to my life, and, unless you suffered a personal loss in the attack, neither have you. As to those who did suffer the loss of friends and loved ones, you share the same changes faced by people every day who lose husbands, wives, children, and friends to accidents, natural disasters, and wars. That doesn't minimize it. It's just that it was that way before 9/11 and will continue to be that way.

“People will never shop for things on the Internet.” When Amazon was astounding us all by losing remarkable amounts of money while its stock price kept increasing, many pundits were saying that online shopping was a passing fad. Today, polls show that shopping online is the second biggest way people waste time at work on the Internet, after porn surfing, of course.

“Free agency in sports will never work.” I'll admit it. I thought pro sports would collapse as salaries escalated, and competitive teams would dwindle down to a few. Hasn't happened. Professional sports may wither some day, but it'll only be greed or fan boredom that'll do the job, not free agency.

“That record (or whatever sports accomplishment you wish) will never be broken.” All records are made to be broken. Except for the one about the most putouts by a fielder in an inning of baseball. Three is all you can get, so that record can only be tied in perpetuity.

“The Red Sox will never win the World Series again.” “Nuff said.

“The Cubs will never win the World Series again.” Boy, it's a good thing “never” is a long time.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

“Always” Isn't Necessarily a Long Time

Time, time, time, see what's become of me...- Simon and Garfunkle

George Gamow, a physicist with a sense of humor, once wrote a popular science book called 1...2...3...Infinity! He drew the title from the practice of an African tribe that had no words for numbers in their language past the number three. If they had a group of objects that was three or less, they were counted as one, two, or three. Any more than that and the count was “many.” It worked for them.

It seems that time is like that. Many years ago when I was in college, an instructor (it might have been Aristotle, but I think he was on sabbatical that year) told us about a survey about how people perceived change. Say a change has been made in a procedure workers use. For the first three months, people will say the procedure is “new”. After three months, they'll say they've been using the method for “a few months or a year”. After six months, they'll say the change has been in place for “a long time”. And if the change is still in place after a year, workers will claim they've “always” had to do things that way.

I could be off a little on those time intervals because I am relying on an over-used memory-cell bank. It could be that “always” occurs even earlier, like nine months, but you understand the overall point. Interestingly, I've had more than one pregnant woman swear after about seven months that it felt like she'd been pregnant forever. More to the point, I can attest to the principle because of an incident that happened to me back in the early 1970's.

Way back in that time of the first gasoline crisis (which has nothing to do with this story, but I thought I'd stick it in to show that nothing ever changes), I was working as a Quality Engineer for a small company. A big chunk of my job involved writing and updating procedures for just about anything that needed documenting. This was on account of how I rite so gud. Sorry about that; I'm feeling much better now.

At that time, when I'd been with the company for a year or so, the government got very anxious about mercury contamination. Strangely, they didn't seem worried about all the mercury in Lake Erie; rather they worried about mercury being in materials that might end up in or near a nuclear reactor. Why? I don't know. Third base.

Anyway, we made battery covers that went into batteries used in nuclear subs and a door seal that was used in reactor installations. Both types of parts had to be made from material that had been tested for mercury. Now the only way we were going to contaminate anything with mercury was to throw a thermometer into the mixing machine, but a regulation is a regulation, so I wrote a procedure to test materials and quarantine them for use on these products. The foreman of the compounding area, a tough-talking but basically friendly guy name Lyle, moaned and groaned about how impossible it would be to keep track of the material, how orders would be late if we had to wait for tests, and so on and so on. But he had no choice, and, like most good foremen, after he had his gripe he made some good suggestions to improve the procedure then made it work.

About a year and a half later, the feds began to realize that they were paying a lot to test material that had little or no chance of containing mercury. Hey, you didn't think we were going to foot the bill, did you? There's nothing wrong with a fair profit (honest, I really do believe in capitalism; it's greed I can't abide), and you'll never make money doing freebie unnecessary testing. At any rate, someone in Washington had an epiphany and reduced the testing requirement to a yearly test of a randomly selected batch of material.

I figured Lyle was going to add me to his hero list for reducing this requirement. So, I was shocked when he intercepted me in the factory, holding a copy of the draft revision of the mercury test procedure.

“What are you doing?” he cried. “You can't change this procedure.”

“Why in the world not?” I said, completely confused.

“Because we've always had to do this! If you change it, we won't comply with government stuff!”

It took me around twenty minutes to convince him that:
We didn't start doing this until I wrote the procedure;
I hadn't been with the company since it opened in 1945, therefore, we couldn't have done it “always.”
The feds were capable of coming to there senses.

I'll have to admit that even I had trouble believing that last one.

I finally did convince Lyle that we could change the procedure, though I'm not sure I convinced him that he hadn't being following it for all 17 years of his tenure with the company.

Einstein was quite possibly the greatest mind of all time, but I have to take slight exception to the relativity of time. The speed of light has less to do with our time sense than our speed of acceptance.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Fear of Speaking

"They say people fear public speaking more than they fear death. So technically, if you kill a guy who's scheduled to speak, you're doing him a favor." – Codoso diBlini

Some years ago, someone took a survey to find out what people feared most. I don’t recall who took the survey; there’s always somebody surveying people about something. Presumably, some phobia-treatment lobby was interesting in developing their marketing targets. At any rate, the number one fear that people had was “speaking in front of a group.” This outranked other much more impressive (to me at least) fears like death, flying, spiders, snakes, and airline food.

This is ridiculous.

Even though I’ve heard people talk about not liking to get up in front of a group to give a speech, I find it hard to believe that anyone can consider this experience more frightening than the possibility of an untimely gruesome death. What’s the matter with you people?
I think it’s the stupid advice that’s been given by well-meaning persons about how to deal with making a speech. There are three axioms in particular that, rather than calming one, will make the experience even more daunting. Therefore, I would like to expose these “helpful” hints for the frauds that they are.

Dumb Piece of Advice #1
“To avoid being intimidated by the audience, don’t look at them. Look over their heads and focus on the back wall of the room instead.”

So there you are, staring at the back wall. You have no idea if anyone is listening to you or reacting to what you’re saying. Don’t worry. They have no idea what you’re saying because they keep looking back at the wall to see what it is that you’re staring at.

Dumb Piece of Advice #2
“Pick out a friendly-looking face in the crowd and maintain eye contact with this person while you’re speaking.”

This is diametrically opposed to the first piece of Dumb Advice and is equally bad. Now, the audience is wondering about the relationship between you and the one person in the room you’ve chosen to talk to. That person is wondering if you’re a stalker.

Dumb Piece of Advice #3
“To relax yourself, imagine that everyone in the room is naked.”

You’re about to make a speech. You’re nervous. And talking to a group of naked people is supposed to relax you? Unless you’re a male speaking to a group of Victoria’s Secret ™ models, you should be stuck between terror and revulsion. And, frankly, a room full of naked underwear models probably wouldn’t exactly relax the average male.[1]

Avoid these well-intentioned but idiotic pieces of advice, and your next speech will be a rousing success. Unless there are any spiders or snakes in the room.

[1] In the realm of great minds thinking alike, on October 11, a couple of days after I originally wrote this, the very funny Non Sequitur comic strip showed a man in his underwear about to give a speech. A fellow next to him says, “No…I’m pretty sure that the trick is supposed to be picturing the audience in their underwear…” See? Other people think it’s dumb advice, too.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Some Memorable Sports Moments

ESPN has their greatest, funniest, weirdest or whatever sports moments of all time. I just have moments I remember just because they were funny or unusual; many involve the teams I grew up following. Most of them will never be in those “of all time lists”, but I like them.

-- How to freak out an All-Star hitter: Jim Kern was a fireballing pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, appearing in his first (and only, if I recall properly) All-Star game. His first warmup pitch was 8 feet over the catcher's head; so was the second. The third was 8 feet short of the plate. And so it went for all his warmup pitches. I wish I could remember who the batter was that watched this display. All I recall for sure is that he did not dig in at the plate. So Kern grooved three pitches down the heart of the strike zone to strike him out. Quite possibly the greatest psych job of all time.

-- The “Mad Hungarian” gets shown up: Al “Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky was a relief pitcher for the Royals. He had a fu-manchu mustache, a maniacal glare, and a routine before each batter that was geared to intimidate. He would go behind the mound, head down, shoulders hunched, in some sort of deep concentration. He would then pound the ball into his glove and stride onto the rubber to face his victim. It helped that he was a sometimes-wild fastball pitcher. One the Indians were in KC to play the Royals. Hrabosky had come in to save the game, and Cleveland had sent a rookie (whose name I forget, regrettably) to pinch hit. When Hrabosky turned to stalk to the mound, he saw the Indians batter behind home plate, shoulders hunched, clutching his bad fit to squeeze sawdust out of it, mimicking his routine. Hrabosky was not amused; he struck the rookie out on four pitches.

-- Size doesn't matter: In the sixties, the Euclid, Ohio (just outside Cleveland) high school basketball team was everyone's pick to win the state championship, primarily on the strength of their 6 foot 9 inch center, Al Vilchek. They easily made it to the state semi-finals, where they were to meet Columbus South. No one on the Columbus team even approached Vilchek in height, but the team was loaded with superb athletes. To take the opening tap, they pitted one of their sub-6 foot guards to jump against Vilchek; Columbus won the tip. This team that was so short (tallest kid was maybe 6-4) was packed with remarkable leapers. They jumped to shoot, they jumped to pass. And pass they did; the ball seldom touched the floor. When Vilchek went up for his first shot, it was gorilla-blocked into the stands. After 10 minutes, Vilchek was done; he couldn't shoot, he couldn't block, he couldn't rebound without one of these leaping smurfs getting in the way. The Euclid coach had mercy on Al, pulling him early in the second half to salvage his ego. Columbus, of course, trampled Euclid and ultimately won the state title.

-- “Baby Huey” was no Babe Ruth: This isn't exactly a moment, but Bob Chance's career with the Cleveland Indians didn't last much longer than that. At first, it looked like the Indians had a gem in the genial first baseman who could hit a ball a country mile. Chance, whose physique reminded people of the the cartoon character “Baby Huey” (a large pear-shaped sort of guy), started the season belting balls all over the place, gathering bunches of homers while hitting over .400. It looked like the Indians were going to be set at first base for years. Unfortunately, Bob had a weakness for low pitches, and pitchers around the league began to exploit it big time. Chance would swing at anything around his ankles, even balls in the dirt. The average plummeted, the bench beckoned, and “Baby Huey” ended up playing in Japan. However, not all was bad, because Bob was very popular in Japan, although he never did conquer the low pitch.

-- Open field? What's the open field? Back in the “three yards and a cloud of dust” days of Woody Hayes, Ohio State fullbacks had a simple task: take the handoff, put both hands on the ball, and plow straight ahead. Don't juke, don't dance, don't run to daylight; just plow. For Bob Butts, this style fit him like a glove. But one glorious game, Butts got his handoff, dived into the line ... and found an opening! Suddenly he was in the open field, galloping like a rhinoceros through the secondary. With both hands still on the ball, Butts rumbled down the field, looking for all the world like he was lost. He continued on the same path he had been going when he hit the line, never even turning when he got near the sidelines, so he went out of bounds on his own. I don't think he ever broke a run like that again, which is just as well.

-- Watch the bouncing ball: Steve Yeager, long time catcher for the LA Dodgers, got injured in many and varied ways. One reason you see catcher's masks with a chin flap is because Yeager managed to get a piece of a broken bat stuck in his neck. But, there are worse things than a splinter in the neck. During one televised game, a batter fouled a ball into the ground which bounced backwards into Yeager. Yeager went down in a heap. The announcers somehow managed to miss where the ball went, so they speculated on a knee injury. When the replay came up (and it was a beauty, super slo-mo from the dugout camera, providing an unimpeded view of the trajectory of the ball), showing clearly that, with the angle of the bounce, even his protective cup was going to be scant solace. One announcer said, “Let's see what happened to Yeager. Okay, there's the ball hitting the ground and bouncing ... oooh ... well, no wonder he's down.”

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Myth of Management

The first myth of management is that it exists – Robert Heller, The Executive Dream

There is a Yiddish term, chutzpah, which is normally defined by an example: A man who would kill his mother and father, then throw himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. That's chutzpah.

Here's a new example: The management of a company that is in bankruptcy petitions the court to allow it to give its executives bonuses in order to retain their expertise, despite the fact that these executives have driven the company to this point, costing thousands of ordinary employees their jobs and despite the fact that the remaining employees are being asked to take cuts in pay and benefits. Now, that's chutzpah!

When Enron did this, it was unsurprising because the company had demonstrated a callous disregard for its customers and investors. So why should they give a flip about regular employees? Now, Delphi, automotive supplier to most of the auto industry, has done the same thing. With General Motors apparently on the verge of filing Chapter 11, it's a trend we could do without.

In 1972, Robert Heller wrote a book called The Great Executive Dream, a humorous but deadly right-on look at management trends and methods. In it he proposed the Ten Truths of Management. These simple statements go a long way to explain just how we've gotten into the corporate morass that business, both here and abroad, has become. I hope Mr. Heller doesn't mind if I list a few of these with some short comments of my own.

1. Think before you act; it's not your money.
Unfortunately, I think most boards have interpreted this in a totally backwards way. It's not their money, they get paid no matter what, so what the heck ... let's buy that other company.

2. Cash in must exceed cash out.
We had an entire dot-bomb era that thought you could stay in business without following this dictum. They found out otherwise. Now we find the automotive industry has forgotten that the arrow of cash flow must be inward. They put out huge incentives to generate sales, then were surprised to find out they lost a bundle. If you’re losing a thou or two per car, you’re not going to make it up on volume. Now they're also finding out that when gasoline prices get out of hand, people stop buying over-priced SUV's and want to buy economical, but low-profit-margin little cars. Remember the '70's guys? Evidently not.

3. Management capability is always less than the organization actually needs.
But management compensation is always way more than the organization needs to pay to get that kind of “talent”.

4. If sophisticated calculations are needed to justify an action, don't do it.
The prevalence of the personal computer has made it easier to blow smoke up people's butts than ever before. The most dangerous corporate booby trap is an executive with Excel and Powerpoint on his PC.

5. If you attempting the impossible, you will fail.
Consultants get rich because they know that they can promise anti-gravity propulsion, and some executive will believe it, because it's not up to him or her to actually make it happen.

6. The easiest way of making money is to stop losing it.
Note that this doesn't mean “stop spending money”. Losing cash and using cash are two different things. Unfortunately, executives think cutting R&D, outsourcing, and laying off workers are effective cuts, while increasing their own salaries, adding executive perks, and buying money-losing concerns is an effective strategy.

Of course, if executives suddenly got smart, Scott Adams would be out of a job. It would be a sacrifice, but one I'm willing to make.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Smells Like School Spirit

Hey Gators, Hey Gators, Hey Gators,We just beat the hell out of you.
Rammer, jammer, yellowhammer,

give 'em hell Alabama

University of Alabama cheer used after victories

Before embarking on this piece, I should explain where I stand relative to the Alabama Crimson Tide.

I lived in Ohio for the first 33 years of my life. Therefore, I am a true-blue Ohio State Buckeyes fan. I moved to Alabama in 1984, and, to live in the state you must pass the entrance exam. First you must learn the proper use of “y'all” (not “you all”, you Northerners who learned all about the South from Bugs Bunny). If I am addressing one person, I say “you”; if addressing more than one person or describing a group, I say “y'all”. You don't say “y'all” to a single addressee.

Second, you must declare your allegiance to Alabama or Auburn. There is no middle ground here. Even graduates of in-state universities like Troy or Samford have to state their preference. It's like a blood ritual. At any rate, being a fan of the underdog, I chose Auburn.
I say all that so that you understand that I am an unbiased observer when I say that I'm disgusted that anyone would find offense with the cheer quoted at the top of the article. 

Honestly, is no one allowed to show a little spirit and joy after a big win?

I'm not against so-called “political correctness” when it comes to avoiding ethnic slurs or demeaning characterizations. After all, I am a weight-challenged Hungarian, who would prefer not to be called a fat bo-hunk, even in jest. Words like bo-hunk, polack, wop, yid, and spic belong in a linguistic trash can. They are used to be hurtful or insulting.
I am less in favor of the current trend (which is a return of a trend of a few years ago) to change team names that might maybe possibly have a faint chance of irritating some group. Years ago, Stanford changed their name from the Indians to the Cardinal. I'm not sure which Native Americans they were supposed to be hurting, but it was certainly a quiet group. Similarly, St. John's University decided that Red Men was demeaning. Frankly, it never occurred to me that it was a reference to Indians at all. After all, Syracuse is the Orangemen, so why couldn't St. John's be the Red Men?

Lately, though it's gotten ridiculous, with Marquette deciding that Warriors was offensive (to whom, the Golden State NBA team?). Then the NCAA decided to institutionalize this nonsense by declaring that offensive or aggressive team mascots had to be eliminated. 

Then they took on the Florida State Seminoles.

Unfortunately, the real Seminole Nation rather likes the FSU mascot. They were insulted that the NCAA would think that it was offensive. They made so much noise that the NCAA backed off. The administrators then decided to take on the Illinois Fighting IllIni. Unfortunately for the NCAA, there is no such tribe as the Illini, so there was no one to offend. Once again, they backed off.

Hey, NCAA, if it's aggressive mascots you want to get rid of, then how about the Fighting Irish? Sounds pretty pugnacious to me, and it stereotypes the Irish folks as violent folk. Or how about Brutus Buckeye? Aside from being a little creepy (a guy with a buckeye nut for a head), it represents a dangerous missile. Have you ever been hit with a buckeye nut? Let me tell you, it's no fun.

Now, though, there are folks, even within the University of Alabama, who think that the RammerJammer cheer is “unsportsmanlike”. Okay, I don't like showboating at the expense of another player; Terrell Owens and Deion Sanders give me hives. I agree with Tom Landry that a player scoring a touchdown should act like he'd been in the endzone before. But players demonstrating good sportsmanship is one thing. Fans letting out a good yell at the other team's expense is quite another.

We're not talking about throwing junk at the players or attacking the other side's fan buses. We're definitely not talking about soccer hooligans, who would rather trash the stadium than watch the game. We're not talking about people setting fire to police cars after a big win. We're talking about people belting out a cheer that says, “We whupped your butt!” And a good fan knows that if the tables are turned next time, the other team's fans have every right to give it right back to 'em.

(A small digression: RammerJammer is actually sung to the tune of Rock n' Roll part 2, the Gary Glitter song that's become a sports standard. How they cram all of that cheer into a song whose lyric consists of the word “Hey” shouted over and over is beyond me.)

Evidently, this cheer gets banned every few years, but fans are fans, and they love a great cheer. They love this one, even though part of it was swiped from the University of Mississippi (I don't know whether it's the rammer or the jammer).

Come on, Alabama bluenoses, let your cheerleaders and the real fans have some fun. And remember, in the cheer it's pronounced Alabamer. Hey, we can overlook some mangling to get a good rhyme.

Saturday, October 8, 2005

Censorship Follies

Hey, everybody! Something objectionable is coming on! -- Dodo in Animal Crackers, after hearing "objectionable content" warning on TV

I was inspired to write this by an article listing many of the books that people tried to have removed from libraries during the year 2000. Aside from the controversial sorts of books about homosexuality (I Have Two Mommies) or sexuality, there were other standard censorship targets like Huckleberry Finn (for homosexual innuendo on this occasion, I think) and Catcher in the Rye (which I found to be formidably dull when I read it 35 years ago). But also included were books like The Lord of the Flies, A Light in the Attic (Shel Silverstein's award winner), and the entire Harry Potter series. Flies was on my high school senior summer reading list, and I went to school in a small town, as conservative as could be. In fact, a good portion of my reading list for that summer was on this list. Where these people when I needed them?

But all this got me to thinking about the current conservative religious folks who call up the FCC every week to report some evil, satanic, or downright dirty program, hoping to have the miscreants fined into oblivion. We have Janet Jackson to thank for this nonsense, and, frankly, I am tired of it.

What's ridiculous about this attempted censorship is that it simply proves that everyone is really watching these shows. Look, the networks aren't going to waste time and money putting stuff on the air no one watches. Since these shows are so highly rated, evidently a lot of the people who object to them are watching them on a regular basis. Else, how would they know that someone did something lascivious last night?

People don't get it: If you don't like what's on, don't watch it. Don't let your kids watch it and explain to them why. Convince your friends not to watch it. Then the ratings go down, and the show goes away. But, don't send nastygrams to the FCC. I would bet every one of those complaints increases ratings by 5 percentage points.

You see, television executives go with the flow. In the beginning, TV was variety shows (Milton Berle, Red Skelton, and many, many others) and drama (Playhouse 90, to name the best). Then came the westerns, and the airwaves were flooded with them, like Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train (the first western soap opera), and Bonanza, to name a few. Some nights the schedule had nothing else. Later came the doctor and lawyer shows, then the movie nights (which saved the networks scads of dough, because there were no production costs), cop shows, and sitcoms.

The list of shows inspired by one successful program sounds like a Biblical begatting: In the beginning, Ben Casey, begat Dr. Kildare, who begat Marcus Welby...

Now, of course, we have reality shows (relatively cheap like the movie nights), and crime drama, endless crime drama. CSI this, CSI that, with a NCIS thrown in just to confuse everybody.

I almost forgot the sci-fi era, spawned by the space race. We had The Twilight Zone (arguably the best of all), Star Trek, Lost in Space, and The Outer Limits. The last brings back memories of an earlier censorship attempt.

Outer Limits had a lot of programs that had pretty impressive aliens and/or monsters, at least for the time. One of the first episodes involved a volunteer being surgically altered by the government to look like a very alien-looking alien. He would then be landed in a public area and shock the world, the idea being to get countries to back off the nuclear standoff to band together against a potential threat from outer space.

The alien, again by modern standards, wasn't all that horrifying. But the show did a great job of leading up to the moment when the monster was revealed, so there was some shock factor. According to some people, there was too much shock. Their kiddies had nightmares (like they never got them watching The Thing from Outer Space or The Blob), so such things shouldn't be shown on early hour television.

Now, we're not talking Slapout, Alabama, here. This was in Cleveland, Ohio, liberal Democratic stronghold of northern Ohio. Yet WEWS, the ABC affiliate, knuckled to the pressure, choosing to black out the moments when this week’s startling creature was revealed. The Cleveland Press, the evening paper that my Dad always favored, found this to be ludicrous. So each week, in the TV section, the paper had a still of the “Monster of the Week,” taken from the upcoming episode. It was a hoot.

Well, after a full season of “Monsters of the Week,” WEWS realized that they had been silly and, without fanfare, stopped hiding the monster. Eventually, even the episode that started it all was aired uncensored. The Press, having lost its easy target, changed to plugging the monster from the Friday night creature feature. Since this was just advertising, it didn’t have the same zing and was soon discontinued.

Perhaps our morality police need to move to an environment where news, entertainment, and even internet searches are limited by law to only what is deemed “appropriate” by the governing body. 

Do you think they’d be happy in China?

Friday, October 7, 2005

A Most Unusual Season – The 1964 Pennant Race

“I could see the fear in his eyes.” -- Gene Mauch

As long as we're talking about baseball...

Now that the White Sox have avoided an ignominious fate of blowing a huge divisional lead to the Indians, Gene Mauch's 1964 Philadelphia team's place in the Hall of Flops remains secure.

As World Series time rolls around, I tend to recall the olden days, when men were men and women were damn glad of it. And the Major Leagues consisted of the American League and National League, with no divisions, no funky playoffs. Two teams, the winner in each league met in the Series. No argument about who would have made it if they were in some weak-kneed division, no season running into Thanksgiving, no teams making with playoffs with .500 records. Yes, sometimes the pennant races were over by Labor Day, but more often at least one of the leagues had a barn-burner. In 1964, the National League had a remarkable race, featuring one of the most monumental collapses in sports history.

The Philadelphia Phillies had a long history of mediocrity, so it was only right that they were managed by the most spectacularly mediocre manager in baseball history: Gene Mauch. Mauch is revered as a managerial genius, having won 1902 games. Pretty good, except that he lost 2037; that's right, over 100 more losses than wins. This is a of genius? It took him 22 years to finally win a division title, but he never won a league pennant.

In '64, though, he actually did look like baseball's answer to Einstein (after finishing eighth, eighth, seventh, and fourth in his first four seasons). He was cruising through the season, with a comfortable enough lead on September 1 that he only needed to play .500 ball during the month to clinch his first league championship.

Philly's only competitors were the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds. St. Louis had already let it be known that they weren't going to rehire manager Johnny Keane after the season. The Reds were playing on emotion because of the illness of manager Fred Hutchinson, diagnosed with cancer (he died in October of that year). The Reds imploded into squabbling as September moved along, but the Cards kept plugging. And the Phillies hit the destruct button.

As the month progressed, Mauch's genius seemed to desert him as they lost game after game. Gradually the lead eroded, but with 2 weeks to go, they still held on to a 6 ½ game lead, which should have been a comfortable lead. But once Gene Mauch put his mighty intellect to the task, no lead was safe. The team proceeded to lose 10 straight games. Mauch mysteriously stopped using his best reliever as lead after lead was blown. Why? “I could see the fear in his eyes,” Mauch told a presumably stunned reporter.

Gene, if the guy can throw strikes, who cares if he's shaking like a leaf?

Thanks to such utterly brilliant insights, the Phillies ended up finishing second. And lame-duck manager Johnny Keane found himself in the World Series.

And now the story even gets a crazy postscript. The Cards, much to everyone's surprise, beat the Yankees, managed by Yogi Berra. So, after the Series, Gussie Busch swallowed his pride and prepared to announce a contract extension for Keane. It never happened because Keane handed Busch his letter of resignation first, because he had just been hired – by the Yankees! The loyal Berra had been given the boot so New York could hire a winner.

Unfortunately, for Keane, the team he inherited was over the hill with no young talent, more Bronx Bummers than Bombers. He was fired early in his second season, with a horrible losing record. Berra, meanwhile, went on to the Mets, where he won another pennant several years later. Berra ended his career where it began, coaching for the Yankees.

So Mauch is remembered as a genius while Berra and Keane's managerial careers are largely forgotten. Well, I just thought we ought to set the record straight.