Today I hit the road to see the Washington Nationals play at Philadelphia's Citizen's Bank Park, at 3:00 Monday, joining Phil Faranda, one of the earliest and most regular visitors to this Web site. Along the way I'll pass by RFK Stadium, where the Nats are at this very moment playing their first game in their "new" home. It's just an exhibition game, serving as a charity fund raiser and practice for the ground crew, concessionaires, etc.
The big remaining mystery for the history books is, Who will be the first-ever batter for the Nationals? Endy Chavez was sent back to the minors, so it will probably be either Nick Johnson (first baseman and former Yankee who resembles Babe Ruth) or Brad Wilkerson (versatile fielder and slugger, whom I just saw on a brand new television ad for Chevy Chase Bank). See mlb.com. The Nats' lineup is still up in the air, while their batting performance in spring training has lagged behind their pitching, to everyone's surprise. So how will they do this year? I have no idea, but at the very least I expect the team to show a lot of spunk, trying hard to please their new fans on the Potomac. Like most baseball analysts, David Pinto figures that the Nats will finish their inaugural season in last place in the NL East, but he doesn't rule out a third place finish. Me neither!
"After further review," it now appears that Peter Angelos got himself one heck of a sweetheart deal. The Nats will get a mere ten percent of the new "Mid-Atlantic" broadcast joint venture's profits in the first year, gradually climbing to a peak of 33 percent after twenty years!Thomas Boswell tried to put an upbeat spin on this outcome. He is right to say that teams that get used to plush comforts and safety cushions tend to get lazy and lose, and that Washington's wealth, population, and vitality will more than make up for the handicap, but to me it's like the Nationals are being forced to play with one arm tied behind their back for the indefinite future. I guess this lousy bargain goes to show how ineffective large groups (in this case, the other 28 MLB owners) are in a negotiation with an individual counterpart who is as determined and crafty as Mr. Angelos is. I can't wait till the O's and Nats play each other next year!
Yes, sports fans, Washington baseball is now an official reality, but it will still take some getting used to. History will record that the first man ever to bat for the Washington Nationals in a regulation game was Brad Wilkerson, who hit a "Texas League" single to center field on the fourth pitch. History will omit the fact that I was about 120 feet above the field at Citizen's Bank Park (truly spectacular -- more on that later!), up in the nosebleed section with camera in hand. The Nationals scored the first run in the second inning, but the Phillies scored two in the bottom of the inning, and went on to win, 8 to 4. The good news is that the Nats played well, getting 13 hits and committing only one error. Terrmel Sledge (note corrected spelling) hit the Nationals' first-ever home run in the sixth inning, and in the seventh inning he had a chance to hit a grand slam that would have [put the Nats back ahead], but grounded into a double play. Arghhh! Nevertheless, because of that home run, I've pledged never again to make fun of his name. That will be hard.
Except for a very strong westerly wind, the weather was fine, with clear skies and mild temperatures. The view of the Philadelphia skyline was truly awe-inspiring. I was impressed by the large number of Washington fans who made the trek up there for their new team's first game; I would guess there were at least 500. Since both teams have red caps, however, it was hard to tell them apart. While strolling near the bullpen area behind center field I gave a "Go Washington!" cheer to encourage the Nats relief pitchers, which elicited immediate responses of "Washington sucks!" A warm welcome to the National League from the City of Brotherly Love! Many, many thanks to Phil Faranda for scoring the tickets and for treating me to a tasty Geno's cheese steak. He and his friend Keith made the historic game an even more enjoyable occasion.
I've heard from two folks who went to Sunday's exhibition game at RFK, one of whom, Rudy Riet, posted a photo on his Random Duck blog. Also present, according to the Washington Post (scroll down), was D.C. Statehood Party loudmouth Adam Eidinger, who disrupted the unveiling of the Nationals logo last November to protest public funding of the new stadium.
UPDATE: I meant to mention that I saw one fan at the game in Philadelphia who was wearing a Expos jersey. If I hadn't been otherwise occupied, I would have stopped to chat with him. There is no joy in Montreal this "silent spring," and the Washington Post quotes some former Expos fans who are extremely bitter.
Besides getting revenge against the Red Sox for the humiliating collapse last October, the best part of the Sunday night opening game in the Bronx was the thunderous applause for Tino Martinez, who has returned to the Bronx after being traded off to the Cardinals a few years ago. So now there are four Yankee players who were on the team during the glory days of the late 1990s.
I noticed that Adam Dunn hit two homers, helping the Reds beat the visiting Mets at Great American Ballpark. Just think, if he keeps up this pace, he'll rack up 324 home runs for the season!
CORRECTION: I just learned from Matt, who does updates on the ballparkconstruction.com Web site, that the new version of Busch Stadium will open next year, not in 2007 as I originally wrote on my March 29 posting, which has been corrected.
Thanks to timely hits and a remarkable "cycle" (single, double, triple, home run) by Brad Wilkerson, the Washington Nationals won their first game last night, beating the Phillies 7 to 3. With such a small outfield at Citizens Bank Park, triples must be few and far between. Vinny Castilla got four hits as well, putting an end to his recent "cold streak." This afternoon the Nationals beat the Phillies 5-4, thanks to a tenth-inning home run by Jose Vidro. In their first three games, the Nats have amassed a total of 40 hits. WOW!
RFK; the new stadium
I saw a brief video clip of the first D.C. United home game of the season, at RFK Stadium. It looked like they did a pretty good job of doing the rapid switchover to the soccer configuration, and I noticed that the left foul pole was moved to center field along with the movable portion of the lower grandstand. There was a hitch, however: one of the metal support beams scraped the wall as that section was being rotated, causing damage to the area near the Nationals' inside batting practice area.
Several D.C. Council members are disputing the cost estimates for purchasing the land where the new stadium will be built. See washingtonpost.com. No doubt, there will be ugly confrontations and threats as this process moves forward.
En route to the game at Citizens Bank Park on Monday I passed by RFK Stadium, Camden Yards, and the site of Memorial Stadium on the north side of Baltimore. Three of those four pages have new photos; there will be more from RFK soon enough...
Yesterday's Washington Post had another article on Tom DeLay, accusing him of taking money from lobbyists to pay for a trip to Russia in 1997. Earlier reports made similar allegations about his trips to Great Britain in 2000 and South Korea in 2001. I have high regard for journalistic integrity at the Post, whose news reporting is not nearly as subject to editorial bias as the New York Times or CBS News. Yet all the recent negative stories about DeLay do make one wonder whether there just might be some political agenda behind it. Remember how the Democrats' allies in the press forced Newt Gingrich to retire as House Speaker over that stupid book deal? There are a lot of similarities between these two cases in terms of gruff personalities and how each man brought problems upon himself, but DeLay is not strongly identified with any particular reform campaign, as Newt was. DeLay has denounced the attacks as part of a campaign to cripple the conservative movement, and there may be some truth to that, but a biased press does not excuse a party leader from poor judgment that reflects poorly upon his or her party. Anyone who remembers the "Keating 7" savings and loan scandal (all the guilty congressmen were Democrats except for John McCain) or the Jim Wright book deal scandal of the late 1980s should know how important it is to maintain high ethical standards. Some Republicans in Congress are rallying behind DeLay, but I will wait and see. Based on what I know right now, however, I don't think he's worth defending. President Bush will be much more likely to overcome skeptics and get something passed on Social Security reform this year if he is not burdened with the baggage of more Tom DeLay scandals.
Birding has taken a back seat lately, because of baseball. On Saturday Jacqueline and I drove up to the Shenandoah National Park, where we saw a Pileated woodpecker, a White-breasted nuthatch, and a Common raven. On the way there we saw several Tree swallows and a few Northern rough-winged swallows, for the first time this spring. Yesterday I saw a Swamp sparrow and a Field sparrow behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad, the latter being the first one this spring. After the intoxicating experience of seeing all those exotic birds in Costa Rica (note a few late-late additions to that page, at the bottom of the "second batch"), it's hard to measure up. But you never know what to expect; it was just over a year ago that I saw the first Western tanager ever observed in Augusta County, or for that matter (I think) the entire Shenandoah Valley.
Today's Washington Post reveals the ugly side of the mad scramble to get tickets to see Nationals games: the flagrant abuse of insider connections to bump other folks out of choice seats at RFK Stadium. Pundits such as George Will, Fred Barnes, and Morton Kondracke, as well as dozens of high-powered lobbyists and Paul Begala (former Clinton aide) have managed to score first class box seats, while us honest toilers get pushed further back in line.
Which reminds me, if the D.C. Council is really serious about making the new ballpark the centerpiece of a community revitalization plan, and proving that it really is serving a broad public interest, they should insist on a non-negotiable stipulation: Holders of tickets to luxury suites and box seats must pass through the same turnstiles as the rest of the patrons do. (Seeing the elite entrance at Citizens Bank Park on Monday made me think about this.) To me, attending a baseball game is an act of civic participation on par with voting; you don't see separate lines for rich folks at polling stations, do you? To reinforce such a "no discrimination" principle, there should be a prominent sign above every gate reading:
This ballpark is of the people, by the people, and for the people!
In response to all the demands that the artificially enhanced batting records of recent years be qualified with asterisks, Mike Bauman writes on mlb.com that the same should apply to records set before the year 1947, when the racial barrier was first breached by Jackie Robinson. His suggested "footnote":
*This record was set when only a portion of the population was allowed to play Major League Baseball.
Well, you gotta admit he has a point. From a strictly legalistic position, however, he is wrong: Racial segregation was the established rule in the old days, and records have to be evaluated on the basis of whether players were abiding by the rules in effect when they played. As far as we know, Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig were following the rules, but there is considerable doubt about whether the record-smashing sluggers of the last ten years were doing so. Of course, Bauman is not really serious about this, he is just pointing out the futility of establishing a clear-cut line to separate the true-blue clean players from those who cut ethical corners to one degree or another. It is one hell of a mess.
Candid admission: I used to take steroids! It was a nasal spray prescribed by a doctor, however, as a treatment for my allergies to pollen, mold, dust, etc.
I forgot to mention a startling discovery I made as I was driving into Washington on Monday morning, en route to Opening Day in Philadelphia. Just as I reached the top of Arlington Ridge on I-395 south of the Pentagon, and as traffic crawled along at a turtle's pace, I took a look toward the east to see whether RFK Stadium was visible. I couldn't see it, but what I did see on the far horizon was even more amazing: FedEx Field, home of the Redskins since 1997! It is located in the Maryland suburb of Landover, about eight miles east of Capitol Hill. It was the first time I had ever seen it; I didn't realize that it is situated in an upland area.
Prince Charles and Camilla will "acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed" at tomorrow's nuptials. Episcopalians (the "Church Lady," perhaps?) will recognize those lines from the General Confesson (traditional version) in Holy Communion services. It's an appropriate solemn gesture of repentance for this tragic couple, who will be married in a small, private civil ceremony, and then be blessed by the Church of England in a star-studded gala service at Windsor Castle. Then it's off to an idyllic honeymoon on the barren, windswept hills of Scotland. See foxnews.com.
This otherwise-marginal historical landmark happens to have great relevance for the Anglican Communion, in light of recent events. Ever since Henry VIII and the break with Rome, the English monarchy has had a special role as "defender of the faith." Would the Church of England's moral authority erode under a king with a sullied past? The Anglican Communion has teetered on the edge of outright schism ever since Gene Robinson was consecrated as bishop of Vermont in November 2003. Robinson left his wife and children back in the 1970s to live with another man, raising grave questions about the church's position on morality and the sanctity of marriage. Most Anglican churches in Africa and Asia, which account for a rapidly growing fraction of the global population of Anglican communicants, insist on traditional morality and reject the ordination of homosexual priests and bishops. Many Episcopalians (i.e., American Anglicans) seem to give little regard to such protests by traditionalists, but last month the Episcopal Church U.S.A. agreed to a moratorium on the ordination of new bishops, to give the church time to heal. Fine.
Then this week Bishop Robinson reopened old wounds when he suggested that Jesus Christ might have been gay; see The Telegraph. That article mentions a Web site, Virtue Online, "the voice for global orthodox Anglicanism." Robinson later said he that had been misinterpreted, but the general thrust of his comments does little to raise confidence that he puts a high priority on healing the church. Robinson's ordination has opened a can of worms, and as long as he assumes a high public profile as bishop, reconciliation among the Anglican faithful will be be very difficult.
Last night's 9-0 blowout inflicted upon the Nats by the Marlins was a jolting reality check, but they managed to eke out their second extra-inning victory this evening, winning 3-2. Jose Guillen hit the winning homer, and aging veteran Vinny Castilla got his first homer of the season as well. Occasional lopsided defeats are to be expected when teams are undergoing a big transition such as this, and I'm very encouraged that the Nationals are figuring out ways to win in close-scoring games.
Meanwhile, the Marlins' franchise owners are again lobbying hard to get the Florida legislature to chip in on a new stadium. It would be built next to the Orange Bowl, and the owner Jeffrey Loria has pledged $192 million, nearly half of the estimated cost. By today's standards, that's a lot, but Governor Jeb Bush remains reluctant. Otherwise, the Marlins will be "homeless" and may end up moving to Las Vegas, Portland, or even Monterrey. (It's probably too early to start thinking about Montreal, but who know?) See Washington Post.
Soccer at RFK
RFK Stadium is now back into the soccer configuration, to the apparent satisfactory to the D.C. United soccer players. There are a few uneven spots in the temporary turf where the dirt infield is for baseball games, and that may even provide them with a bit of home field advantage. They are no longer using the seating sections that used be be moved into the third base / end zone gap when the grandstand was moved into left field for football games. A photo in today's Washington Post shows a big vacant gap in back of the home dugout, and the seating chart on the D.C. United Web site confirms this. Those end zone seats aren't really needed, anyway, since attendance at soccer games rarely exceeds 20,000, and the upper decks are hardly used at all. It's looking more and more likely that the Nationals' home will be called "National Guard Field at RFK Stadium."
Restoring League Park
The city government in Cleveland is finally starting to move ahead on plans to restore the site of historic League Park, setting aside [an initial] $100,000 up for the project, [whose estimated total cost is $18 million]. It is now being used as a neighborhood park, but was rather dilapidated when I visited it in 1998. See Cleveland Plain Dealer. (This happened while we were on vacation, and I just now found out.)
With sparkling blue skies this morning, I couldn't resist the temptation to do a little birding, so I drove out to Augusta Wetlands, in the foothills west of town. Here are the highlights of what I saw:
Northern rough-winged swallows
Chipping sparrow *
Broad-winged hawk *
Wood ducks (M & F) -- 12!
Blue-gray gnatcatcher *
* = first of season
Also heard but did not see Belted kingfisher and White-breasted nuthatch.
That sets a record for the earliest in the season I had ever seen a Blue-gray gnatcatcher; before today, the earliest date was April 11. Likewise for the Broad-winged hawk, but their migration schedule seems more erratic. The Chipping sparrow was unusually late in the season, however. I don't think I had ever seen more than a few Wood ducks together before, so seeing a full dozen of them in one place was quite remarkable. I also saw something strange in a small stream: Some kind of lizard or salamander with red spots along its spine was grasping a small frog as if to strangle and eat it. Can anyone explain that behavior to me?
I was checking the Cornell/Audubon eBird news site, and these two items caught my eye: "Common Redpolls Stage an Unusual Off-Year Irruption!" and "Tracking the Great Gray Owl Invasion." (Does the INS know about this?) The unusual southward movements of those far-northern species this past winter may have something to do with the fact that my brother John was able to such excellent photos of them while travelling in Minnesota earlier this year. Click on the birds' names to see a popup photo.
Poor John Smoltz! He threw fifteen strikeouts against the Mets yesterday, and he still lost the game! Not a very auspicious start of the season for his return to the role of starting pitcher for the Braves. New Met Pedro Martinez certainly showed his stuff, after getting roughed up in Cincinnati last week. So the Mets finally won a game!
Meanwhile, the Nationals again got shellacked by the Marlins (or Josh Beckett, more precisely) yesterday. They are now 3 and 3, and will at least have a solid record behind them as they prepare for the glorious Opening Day at RFK Stadium on Thursday. The Nats will appear, as guests of the Braves, on a nationwide broadcast for the first time tonight, courtesy of TBS. WTTG FOX-5 in Washington may broadcast some Nats' games instead of WDCA Channel 20 (WB) after all, but nothing is official.
Just in time for the long-awaited inaugural home game of the Washington Nationals, I've added a page for the "home away from home" in which they played during their last two years as the Montreal Expos: Hiram Bithorn Stadium.
UPDATE: The MLB Franchises page has been updated to include the relocation of Montreal to Washington, with new data on the age of stadiums into which the teams moved. RFK (at 44 years) turns out not to have been the oldest stadium into which a relocated team ever moved; that honor goes to Memorial Coliseum, which was 45 years old when the Los Angeles Dodgers first played there in 1958.
By now we are well accustomed to the scare tactics and distorted logic being employed to try to thwart President Bush's proposed reform of Social Security. As a prime example, an editorial in last Wednesday's New York Times denounced President Bush for saying while in West Virginia (see speech text HERE) that the Social Security "trust fund" is nothing more than IOUs. They say, "Mr. Bush wants Americans to believe that the trust fund is a joke. But if the trust fund is a joke, so is the full faith and credit of the United States." That totally misconstrues the point that Mr. Bush was making, which is simply that what you put into Social Security system has almost nothing to do with what you get back from it. U.S. Treasury obligations per se are most certainly not a joke, but one must keep in mind that "investing" in them does not promote the creation of real wealth, as with corporate stocks and bonds, but merely facilitates the transfer of financial burden from one generation to the next, in a never-ending game of passing the buck. Phil Faranda put it very succinctly: "Mr. Okrent: debits are on the left, credits are on the right."
Precisely because Social Security is not a real "trust fund" but operates just like any other government "entitlement," with automatic benefit payments, it needs periodic fixups and occasional major reforms. In some years there is a surplus that every elected leader wants to spend as quickly as possible, and in other years there is a deficit, and everyone points fingers at each other. That is no way to provide for retirement or family emergencies. E. J. Dionne unwittingly proves that point in today's Washington Post . His first sentence offers hope that some bipartisan compromise may be possible, and the next sentence shows, once again, that Democrats see Social Security not as a self-sustaining financial cushion in which all Americans share an interest, but as a redistributionist piñata:
You can reject outlandish claims that Social Security faces some sort of "crisis" and still acknowledge that it faces a gap in funding for the long haul. The estate tax should be part of the solution.
Frankly, I would agree with Dionne that the Republican plan to permanently eliminate the estate tax (what he calls "The Paris Hilton Tax Cut") was going to far, but the fact that he regards a 45 percent rate as reasonable shows that it's just an easy cash cow for him. Like any narcotic that is harmless in small doses, ever-growing reliance on the estate tax has had terrible consequences in the past, such as forcing many family farms out of business. Say what you will about the equity of the federal estate tax, it should have nothing to do with shoring up the long-term deficit in Social Security.
But isn't Bush getting killed politically by touching "the third rail"? A poll in the Wall Street Journal would seem to indicate deep divisions within the Republican party over the Social Security issue, but Bush seems limber enough and determined enough to score at least a partial victory. Indeed, almost everyone tacitly acknowledges that the current system cannot be sustained in the long run, so it's mostly just a matter of putting up with populist heckling and navigating the procedural rapids on Capitol Hill. I'm encouraged by the frank talk of bold alternatives by such Republicans as Lindsey Graham, and President Bush to his credit welcomes open debate. Nevertheless, Bush shares some of the blame for failing to articulate his intentions and ultimate purposes more clearly, as lampooned in Sunday's Doonesbury strip. It was a mistake to say there is a "crisis" in Social Security. I'm more convinced all the time that the term privatization is scaring people off, and that the emphasis should be on eliminating the automatic escalation of Social Security benefits, while providing more incentives for people to save (via tax exemptions), rather than diverting funds from Social Security payroll taxes.
For the curious and/or confused, here is a do-it-yourself alternative Social Security benefits calculator, from Patrick Ruffini:
Monday's Washington Post detailed the mad scramble to acquire land in the South Capitol Street neighborhood where the Nationals' new stadium is to be built. Land values have doubled since last year; it's almost like Oklahoma in the late 19th Century. I recall well the bleak but soon-to-turn-upscale Buzzard's Point area, which would make a good scene for a violent action movie with exploding warehouses and car chases. D.C. officials are trying to maximize the development impact of the new stadium, and have instructed the chosen architectural firm, Helmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum (HOK) to take that consideration into account as the new structure is designed.
D.C. officials are considering a proposal from Deutsch Bank, which would pay $246 million in exchange for development rights around the new ballpark, which are expected to yield $18 million in revenues per year. That would reduce the amount of funds to city would have to raise through bond issues from $550 million to $313 million, which in turn would reduce the local tax burden. See Tuesday's Washington Post. It sounds like a bunch of accounting gimmickry and tax dodging, if you ask me, and I trust that D.C. activists will keep a close eye on what transpires. That same article also mentioned a lawsuit that aims to block the stadium construction filed by Robert Siegel. He is not the pleasantly erudite NPR news anchorman, but the owner of The Follies, a gay night club / porno bazaar located on O Street S.E. One should not discard the possibility that he may be more interested in getting a higher cash payout than in preserving local cultural traditions...
I just learned of a (relatively) new baseball blog, United States Of Baseball. It's by Peter Hendrinos, a sports writer who recently wrote a rather provocative take on the steroid issue: "The Scandal That Doesn't Exist." I think he's downplaying it, but it's good to hear from a contrarian perspective and avoid the herd mentality of too-pious outrage. (Gambling? Drugs? I'm shocked! Shocked!!) Indeed, there may be a "silver lining" around the dark cloud of doping: Fans may lose interest in the crowd-pleasing Long Ball and regain an appreciation for the finer points of the sport: the art of pitching, base running, the smart tactics of "small ball," and fielding excellence.
I caught a glimpse of the Dodgers game on TV sports highlights, but couldn't see the new up-close box seats. FYI, Mike Zurawski sent this link with a photo of the new, more intimate Dodger Stadium, from ESPN.
There are a few minor touchups on the Baseball main page, aiming at easier navigation, plus a new map of the cities that currently have big league baseball teams MLB franchises page.
Unable to stay inside on such a beautiful morning, I went out to take some scenic photos (to be posted on this site soon), and then trekked over to Betsy Bell Hill to see what I could see. At first there was little activity, but eventually I got rewarding views of woodpeckers and a few newly arriving spring migrants who had spent the winter in the tropics. In chronological order:
Red-bellied woodpecker (M)
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers (M, F -- heading north)
Downy woodpecker (M)
Blue-headed vireo (first of season -- winters on Gulf coast, Mexico)
Northern parula (M; first of season -- winters in West Indies)
Yellow-rumped warbler (M; first in several months! -- heading north)
Pileated woodpecker (squabbling with Red-bellied WP)
It's hard to believe that it was not all just a dream. Some will say that it was too bad Livan Hernandez didn't get the shutout, but from the perspective of a true baseball fan, that nerve-wrenching ninth inning made it as close to a "perfect game" as you could get. The defensive highlight of the game was first-baseman Nick Johnson's spectacular diving stop of a would-be double. The Nationals are now alone in first place (!??) for at least a day, and the team's overall balance and depth are very impressive.
In an interview before the game, President Bush explained why he refrained from taking an active role in pushing for the return of baseball to D.C., and I suppose he's right. He also made a big point about how baseball should reach out to African-American kids, which is very good, but there is also a big Latino minority residing in Our Nation's Capital, and I would hope the Nationals reach out to them as well. In that respect, it was quite fitting that Vinny Castilla (from Oaxaca, Mexico) stepped up to the plate as the Opening Day (& Night) hero. Then Diamondback pitcher Lance Cormier ruined what would have been a monumental accomplishment by Vinny, hitting for the "cycle," one week after Brad Wilkerson did so. If you ask me, any batter who hits a double, triple, and homer before getting hit by a pitch deserves to get a "cycle" in the record books. Here's what Thomas Boswell wrote on that little incident in the Washington Post Live Chat this morning: "
I suspect that this affront to Mr. Castilla's attempt to complete the cycle with the president on hand will not go unnoticed. If not this weekend, then eventually. Baseball is a game with multi-year memories."
[in response to a related question]:
No brawls on Opening Night (or in a World Series). On Saturday and Sunday we revert to Normal Baseball. A lot will depend on whether the Nats thought it actuually "slipped." Which happens. But it didn't look that way. Castilla had tripled in two runs on an outside pitch and hit a two-run homer on an inside pitch. To Arizoan, he probably "looked to comfortable up there."
Then he went on to my query:
Staunton, Va.: RFK Stadium looked so good last night, that it made me wonder: Is there any chance they can stretch out construction of the new ballpark for a couple years, to make up for all the "lost years" at RFK?
Tom Boswell: Talked to a member of a potential ownership group yesterday on their guess at a stadium opening date. For '08, no way. For '09, probably. For '10...it could actually take that long if they don't start hustling."
You're going to see plenty of RFK. But, if an honorable group buys the team, they will pour plenty of money down the RFK rat hole to improve the fan experience each year. THEY MUST. It's a pure seed-corn business decision. (As well as the right thing to do.)
But this one really hit the mark for me:
Baltimore, Md.: Hey Tom,
Up here in Charm City; where the whining has really hit fever pitch. Let me tell you from this perspective; Angelos' pettiness has harmed the once proud Orioles franchise much more than the mere presence of the Nats ever could have. He is a myopic man who thinks that litigation and brinksmanship can win every battle; it is all he knows. He really misplayed this one; much less leverage than he really believes he has, as the owners will not let him devalue the Nats further prior to sale. He should embrace the new rivalry and welcome the Nats, not because he's a nice guy, but because it's smart business.
Tom Boswell: I'm over Angelos. Enough with the guy. Get the Nats-on-TV stuff solidified and then lets go on to more interesting subjects. And almost any subject is more interesting than Peter.
I had forgotten the reason they had moved the home opener in D.C. from April 15th to the 14th; it was to make it possible for Commissioner Selig to be present for the Jackie Robinson Day ceremonies in Los Angeles. (See MLB.com) Actually, Robinson had retired just before the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn. In his honor, I've made several corrections and improvements to the Negro Leagues page, as well as the pages of the nine stadiums that were once the home fields of Negro League teams. Also see the Negro League Baseball Players Association Web site.
After taking a close look at the video of the apparent "bean ball" thrown at Vinny Castilla on Thursday night (in ultra-slow motion on my iMac), I've concluded that it was not intentional. The ball curved sharply inside, and pitcher Lance Cormier winced after it hit Vinny. Hence, no need for the Nats to uphold "honor" by retaliating. Up in Boston, meanwhile, Yankee right fielder Gary Sheffield seemed to me to be within his rights to let an obnoxious interfering fan know his feelings. His tit-for-tat shove was a "proportional response," and he did not go into the seating area or throw any furniture. I hope he won't get any suspensions. Alex Rodriguez did his part to build friendly relations between Boston and the Bronx when he saved a young Bostonian lad, Patrick McCarthy, from an oncoming vehicle.
D.C. blogger Rudy Riet (Random Duck) relates his experience at RFK's home opener with text as well as photos.
Bill Blake saw the White Sox Opening Game, and sent some new photos, two of which are posted on the U.S. Cellular Field page. It has a couple new improvements this year, including a new practice area for kids behind the left field seats.
The phenomenal five-game winning streak of the Nationals has solidified a remarkable "love affair" that has blossomed between the team and their new home city. On some days they show overwhelming offensive power, and on other days they show a feisty competitive spirit. Yesterday's comeback victory over Arizona was a combination of both. Sweeping the Diamondbacks might not seem like a huge accomplishment, given their low place in the standings in the years since their World Series title, but this year they had been at the top in the NL West, which must mean something. Now the Dodgers are the only team in the majors with a higher winning percentage than the Nats. Believe it or not! Meanwhile, the Orioles managed an even more improbable sweep of the Yankees for the first time in five years. Booo! Thomas Boswell waxes euphoric about all this in the Washington Post, but it's way to early to draw any big conclusions about pennant races. (Or is it?)
"Screech," the bald eagle mascot of the Nationals, officially "hatched" yesterday. I suppose if the kids like him, it can't do much harm, but what about dignity? Do the Nats have to play "follow the leader" with every promotional gimmick concocted by other teams?
I heard on the radio on Saturday that the Yankees are finalizing a deal with the city of New York to build a new stadium next to the "House That Babe Built." Several press reports say pretty much the same thing; according to MS-NBC, the two parties "are completing a 'memorandum of understanding' and ... an announcement is expected around May 1.'" If so, it's a terrible shame. It's instructive that this news comes just as Mr. Steinbrenner issued a highly inappropriate "apology" (called "bombastic, ridiculous and pointless" by Thomas Boswell; see above) on behalf of his team for their mediocre start. If he didn't treat his players like expendable commodities or pawns on a chessboard, playing fantasy baseball with real human beings, they might perform more like a real team, as was the case in the late 1990s. He just doesn't get it.
Mike Zurawski sends word that Coors Field has joined the trend of squeezing more rows of box seats in the area behind home plate. The team's Web site seems to confirm this, but I haven't seen any officials announcements to that effect.
UPDATE: So the Yanks tied a major league record by scoring 13 (thirteen) runs in the second inning against the visiting Devil Rays. Too bad they couldn't have spread some of that offensive firepower around. They let Tampa Bay score eight runs and still won by an 11-run margin. The Nats got another reality check as the Marlins grabbed a 9-0 lead by the seventh inning, but at least they showed enough spunk to get four rebound runs by the end of the game. They left a lot of men on base (12), but the Marlins left even more: 14. Quite a pitchers' duel going on in Houston: Tim Hudson is holding his own against the "Rocket," 0-0 after seven innings.
On Saturday evening I joined an Augusta Bird Club outing led by Allen Larner to the Blue Ridge in hopes of seeing one of the more remarkable mating rituals of the avian world: the evening flight display of the American woodcock. (Jacqueline and I had seen a woodcock once before, in November 2003.) About 15 members showed up, and while we did see a Blue-gray gnatcatcher and a few other songbirds, no woodcocks were heard as the sky turned to black. While waiting in the chilly night air, I drew everyone's attention to Jupiter in the southeastern skies, the identification being based on the three adjacent moons I saw; up to four of its moons can be visible with binoculars. After two hours, we were ready to give up, but just as we were about to get back in our cars we heard the distinctive peent call of the woodcock, rather like the call of a nighthawk. Soon we tracked him down, and with the aid of flashlights were able to get good looks at the odd long-billed bird, about 40 yards away. It's a relative of sandpipers, but lives in moist woods, feeding mostly on earthworms. I managed to follow his upward twirling flight path up to a height of over 100 feet (higher than I expected), and then as it came fluttering down with an odd twittering sound, mostly caused by the wind in his wings, much like the Mourning dove. Very curious behavior, indeed. It's nice when patience pays off!
A group of Purple finches has been hanging out behind Lee High School/S.A.R.S. for the past week or so, but I haven't seen any warblers there yet.
UPDATE: I saw the first Chimney swifts of the spring flying overhead late this afternoon. They seem to be arriving later for the last few years. Also, I saw a Northern (yellow-shafted) flicker for the first time in months.
There is one new page: Baseball site map, with interactive thumbnail diagrams, and one revised page: Stadium chronology, which includes the relocation of the Expos to become the Washington Nationals.
UPDATE: The Nats lost to the Marlins again tonight, 6-3, and now share first place with the Fish. Once again, they tried hard for a comeback but fell short. The entire NL Eastern Division is extremely tight so far, as is the AL West. The Marlins have the lowest team ERA so far this season, 1.87; the Nationals are number 25 out of 30 on that list. In terms of batting and fielding, however, the Nats rank well above average.
Only weeks after the government of Bolivia narrowly averted being tossed aside by opponents, Ecuador is now in the midst of a similar wave of mass protests, what one might call a "quasi-insurrection." The issue in Ecuador is abuse of executive power. President Lucio Gutierrez arbitrarily dismissed the entire Supreme Court, and responded to a wave of street demonstrations, after and declared a state of emergency in an effort to silence dissenters. This did not have the intended effect, however, and yesterday he rescinded the declaration rather than risk a bloodbath or mutiny. Even though Ecuador's Congress unanimously approved the mass dismissal, the protests escalated, showing that the specific grievances are secondary to the main goal of ousting Gutierrez. Jaime Nebot, mayor of Guayaquil, led the protest march attended by tens of thousands. What may have triggerred this wave of protests was the recent supreme court ruling that cleared former president Abdala Bucaram ("El Loco") of corruption charges, which many people say was part of a deal by Gutierrez to secure more political support. One protester's sign alluded to the fact that the president's first name (Lucio) rhymes with the Spanish word for "dirty" (sucio). Now his support is dwindling rapidly, which is in a sense poetic justice, because he himself spearheaded a coup in 2000. His days may be numbered. See CNN.com. Ironically, U.S. diplomats feared he would follow in the radical footsteps of Hugo Chavez, but instead adopted a conciliatory posture toward Washington. His successor would be tempted to change course in order to assuage nationalist-populist sentiment.
Comparing the situations in Ecuador and Bolivia might help determine which way the continent is heading. In Bolivia, opposition to economic policies was the central grievance, and opportunism by coca-growers provided extra leverage for the opposition. One underlying similarity between the two countries is that indigenous rights groups are in the forefront of protest. The Andean Group, headquartered in Lima, Peru, used to play an active role in harmonizing politics among the countries in the region, encouraging democratic transitions, etc., but it has been withering for over a decade. Now the dream of regional integration seems farther away than ever. Events in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador in recent years seem to have established a new process by which sitting democratic heads of state can be removed from office by extra-constitutional means, without waiting for the next scheduled elections. This might be interpreted as an appeal to manifestation of the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, emphasizing the "general will" of the people rather than constitutional norms. It is yet another sign of how weak democratic traditions and state institutions are in much of Latin America.
So what's up with those Dodgers, anyway? Has the spiffed up, more intimate Dodger Stadium spurred them to excel? Does their total dominance over other teams reflect anger at the Angels for (re-) invading their territory, in terms of urban affiliation? Barry M. Bloom at MLB.com recalls that this is the fiftieth anniversary of the Dodgers' World Series win over the Yankees. He notes the remarkable accomplishment that the Dodgers began the season without several of their top players, including reliever Eric Gagne, who is almost without equal. The Dodgers may have picked up a bit of good luck when they donned Brooklyn uniforms to mark Jackie Robinson Day.
Speaking of which, I hope the Nationals don't try to sweep under the rug their franchise history as the Montreal Expos the way the Senators-Twins, the Senators-Rangers, or the Browns-Orioles seem to have done. Neither the Pilots (1969) nor the original Brewers (1901) or Orioles (1901-1902) had enough of a history to warrant much commemoration.
Zach Day has quickly rebounded from a rough outing against the Marlins, pitching seven shutout innings, as the Nats beat the Braves 2-0. At least they're still above .500 in home games. Jose Vidro's homer in the third inning was all the Nats needed to win. Up in Toronto, meanwhile, the Yankees trounced the Blue Jays 11-2, apparently regaining their composure.
In addition to the new diagram on the The Diamond, page (home of the R-Braves), the updates shown on most of the non-stadium baseball pages are now automated.
¡Qué rápido! After a few weeks of mounting protests, the Congress of Ecuador voted to remove President Lucio Gutierrez from the office today, replacing him with Vice President Alfredo Palacio. The Congress actually had to flee and reassemble in another, safer building before the 62-0 vote to remove the president was taken; the other 38 members were presumably taking cover. An FM radio station is said to have played a major role in coordinating the opposition forces' campaign against Gutierrez. The military pledged support for the new leader, who applauded the end of the "dictatorship," proclaiming "Today the people of Ecuador have decided to re-found the republic." Whether this change will succeed in quelling the street chaos remains to be seen. Ecuador right now reminds me of the Corcyran civil war described in Thucydides' The Pelopponesian War, revealing the bestial nature of man when unfettered by a strong government.
Yesterday's surprising postponement of the committee vote on whether to recommend confirming John Bolton as U.N. Ambassador raises important policy issues in its own right, but it also provides fascinating analogies with past controversies over high government officials. Conservatives were so embittered by the way Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork was treated on Capitol Hill in 1988 that they made his name into a verb, a very appropriate one at that. Senator Voinovich (R-OH) withdrew his support for Bolton at the last minute, forcing Chairman Lugar to postpone the vote. See Washington Post. Voinovich was vilified today by Rush Limbaugh and quite a few Republicans today, but I watched that committee meeting on C-SPAN2, and I thought he made an excellent point: If being an arrogant S.O.B. disqualifies a prospective nominee, then what about Richard Holbrooke, who served in that post under President Clinton? By all accounts, he was a brutal bully in private meetings, and was used to getting his way at the negotiating table by indiscriminate use of bluster. And what about the legendary (but concealed from the public) fury of Bill, Hillary, Henry Kissinger toward hapless underlings? Are we detecting a pattern here? Clearly you don't claw your way to the top of the heap in Washington by being Mr. Nice Guy, nor should we expect to get much reform done at the United Nations with a "Herman Milquetoast" approach.
So, I am less concerned about Mr. Bolton's social graces or the way the Democrats are gleefully taking cheap partisan potshots at him than I am about the possibility that he may have persecuted and isolated dissenting analysts. If he indeed kept vital intelligence information away from Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, as is alleged, that alone would be grounds for rejection, I think. There is nothing wrong with allowing more time to find out whether some of the accusations against Bolton might be valid.
Coincidentally, Mr. Holbrooke had a piece in the Washington Post today, putting an upbeat spin on the continuing ethnic conflict in Kosovo. The 1998 U.S. intervention there was as much his doing as anyone else's, so he has a lot to answer for. What should have been a job for Europeans instead ended up with U.S. forces enmeshed in an intractable conflict that had no direct bearing on U.S. interests. As The Economist put it at the time, it was "liberal imperialism" at its finest. I must say, though, I was struck by Holbrooke's conciliatory words towards Condoleeza Rice and praise for recent active engagement by the Bush administration with regard to the Darfur/Sudan atrocities. That is one issue on which nearly all Americans can agree. Is this the rebirth of bipartisan foreign policy?
What's the worst way to lose a ball game? Nats shortstop Cristian Guzman found out the hard way on Thursday when Washington was one out from a "mini-sweep" (2-game) of the Braves, but then committed a throwing error that ended up losing the game, 2-1. I was angry at Guzman as I followed the game on MLB's Game Day (once again, the TBS-televised game was blacked out)* in our area, but I later saw that the field was so muddy that players could hardly keep their footing. That was why Marcus Giles didn't score from second on Johnny Estrada's single, which instead loaded the bases. Well, let's take heart. Starting pitcher John Patterson has been extremely impressive so far, having pitched at least 13 straight shutout innings. With an ERA of 0.86, he is currently fifth in the National League rankings (20 innings or more). Can we have some run support? The Nationals seem to have taken the disappointing loss well, at least. Reliever Chad Cordero took the blame for loading the bases in the ninth, and Guzman didn't use the mud to make excuses. But you know what? When it comes to baseball in Washington, even a gut-wrenching loss like this one is better than no game at all! I would hate to be in the Braves' shoes and win a game with zero RBIs: shame! Besides, the Nats are still tied for first place!
* Orioles get sued!
Comcast SportsNet has sued the Baltimore Orioles and their "Mid-Atlantic Sports Network" over what a Comcast executive called the [Peter] "Angelos tax," which was the price for getting broadcast rights to Washington Nationals games. As a result, there will be virtually no Nats games on cable TV in Virginia for the foreseeable future. See Washington Post. I could just S-C-R-E-A-M! Are the rest of the MLB owners aware of how much money they are losing by letting this issue drag on?
The Nationals dropped their first two games up in Shea Stadium, and now have a three-game losing streak, plunging from first to fourth in the NL East. I can understand losing against Tom Glavine, but today's 10-5 defeat makes one wonder if the magical honeymoon is over. There's a lot of fine young talent on the team, and superb management, but the ex-Expos' transition to their new identity is still underway, and some bad days are to be expected. If they only had an owner...
The Cubs will have a hard time making up for the loss of Nomar Garciaparra, out for at least two months due to a bad groin pull. Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe hinted that steroid use may have made Nomar more fragile and susceptible to inury, which he of course denies. See MLB.com.
In the next few days, all of the baseball stadium pages will be reformatted so as to be more compatible with a broader range of browser software. The main difference you will notice is that there will be more consistent spacing around the diagrams and photographs, which will be redone in a way that speeds up the page loading process. The intent is to make it easier to jump from one page to another. This is in preparation for the inclusion of fan comments on each stadium page... Then I will unveil the revised, "dynamic" diagrams of Wrigley Field, depicting its evolution through the decades.
The Nats got revenge today (and averted being swept), beating the Mets by a resounding 11-4. They embarassed the heck out of Mike Piazza by stealing base four times, including twice by Vinny Castilla who went four for five, and is now batting .386, among the top ten in the majors. Last week Vinny set a new Major League record for consecutive errorless defensive plays at third base (272), but it came to an end on Friday. The streak began in July 2004, when he played for Colorado. Do the last-place Rockies regret letting him go? People said his high slugging marks were boosted by the thin air in Denver, but this veteran is for real. Career year? I'd like to know why the grass field at Shea stadium looked like a wet carpet today.
The Yankees got revenge on the Texas Rangers, meanwhile, but are still in last place in the AL East. The Orioles (!) are in first place. Something is seriously amiss here...
Pot calls kettle black
Speaking of the Orioles, there was a full-page ad in today's Washington Post by that franchise's Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, titled "NATIONALS FANS HELD HOSTAGE BY COMCAST." The open letter, signed by MASN VP Bob Whitelaw, accused Comcast (see April 22) of heavy-handed tactics, deception, and unreasonable litigiousness in the war over broadcast rights. The format and aggressive tone were both remarkably similar to an open letter in late March by a certain franchise owner who shall go nameless. MASN wants D.C.-area fans to know they're on our side: "We continue to work tirelessly to provide you with more Nationals baseball games in your home." On their terms, of course, and only after having done everything humanly possible to prevent the Nationals from ever coming to existence in the first place. Chutzpah on parade! I'd like to know why they are still blacking out Nationals games broadcast on TBS when the games are not yet available on cable TV.
Satellite photos; Firefox
Major league kudos to Rudi Riet for bringing to my attention what seems to be the best online source I've seen yet for satellite ground photos, sponsored by Google. He did all the necessary searching to nail down the coordinates for nearly all present baseball stadiums, and some long-gone ones, posted on hisRandom Duck blog. That's the kind of devoted, painstaking effort that warms the heart of any researcher. NOTE: You'll need updated browser software and plugins to use it, and my Safari version 1.0 wouldn't cut it. (I've been holding out for the next upgrade of Mac OS X, "Tiger.") Rudi pointed me to mozilla.org, from which I downloaded Firefox, which works very well. Many thanks, Rudi!
Ticket to keep
Responding to my recent post "Phantom fans and tax reform," Gary Dunaier of Flushing, NY (home of the Mets and site of the 1657 Flushing Remonstrance) offered a reason why someone might buy tickets without intending to use them: For their value as collectable souvenirs. Well, it's a free country and we can all spend our money pretty much as we see fit, but doesn't that practice result in fewer available seats for people who actually show up at the stadium? Do the ticket booth workers in most stadiums make a practice of selling standing room tickets toward the middle of a "sold-out" game if they know that a significant portion of the sold tickets aren't being used?
Today's Twins-Tigers game in Detroit was snowed out! Maybe a domed stadium there wouldn't have been such a bad idea after all. Actually, I saw a few snowflakes outside our window today. Weird...
With all the recent talk about culture wars, intolerance, and dogmatic virtuecrats on both the Right and Left, it is fitting to recall a proud chapter from our country's past that took place in the village of Vlishing (now called Flushing), on Long Island, in 1657, while England was embroiled in civil war. I recently saw a book review about the Flushing Remonstrance and remember learning about the event, as well as Susan B. Anthony, George C. Rogers, and other bits of American history, from my stamp collecting days. It was a formal letter of protest to Governor Stuyvesant, who had decreed that Quakers and other religious noncomformists should be banned. It set a precedent for multicultural tolerance and pluralism, which became fundamental cultural norms as the colonies evolved toward independent nationhood. It should remind us all that public policy and laws should never coerce people into behaving according to the norms of any particular denomination. That principle might not be enough to settle the Terri Schiavo controversy, for example, but it certainly would accord professional pharmacists the right to dispense or not dispense medications and treatments as their own ethical standards dictate. For the full text, see www.nyym.org/flushing/remons.html
UPDATE: Donald Sensing talks about religious tolerance in light of the overtures by new Pope Benedict XVI toward the Muslim world. Given the ongoing persecution of Christians and "blasphemers" in Pakistan and other Muslim countries, it would seem that reciprocity in that regard is a long way off.
After years of haggling with state and local governments, it appears that the Twins will finally get their wish with a new ballpark in downtown Minneapolis. It would be located on the west side of downtown, and would have 42,000 seats but no retractable roof, which the Twins wanted. (B-b-bring y-your overcoats!) "Under the proposal, the Twins would contribute $125 million [of the $444 total cost], including a $40 million payment up front, with the balance to be paid prior to completion of construction." See the Twins Web site. Today, however, Hennepin County Board postponed voting on the very controversial funding plan for the stadium for at least one week. See Minneapolis Star Tribune. That sounds like a familiar scenario. Indeed, D.C. Council member Marion Barry was quoted today as saying that the fight over the new baseball stadium in Washington is not over yet.
Upper deck blast
Brad Wilkerson hit the real first home run into the upper deck of RFK Stadium since 1971 tonight, landing in the right field corner. It helped the Nats to beat the Phillies 3-1, rebounding from last night's 5-4 loss. That was another "hard day's night" for Zach Day. The Nats are now 11-10 for the season, holding their own in a tough division.
Soccer officials are upset that the turf was not in very good condition for the D.C. United game at RFK on Saturday night. Even worse, the chalk lines were apparently off by several yards, so that the playing field was a parallelogram rather than a rectangle. Well, it was a very quick turnaround between the Nats' home game last Thursday and Saturday. Let's hope the grounds crew gets better with practice. Why don't they play the soccer games at FedEx Field??
I got some good tips on Yankee Stadium from Matt Visco, a new visitor to this site. He is actively engaged in organizing an effort to save Yankee Stadium, a very worthy and not hopeless cause. Hey, it worked in Boston. T.J. Zmina combined satellite images of PNC Park and Heinz Field from the Google service mentioned before, and combined them with an old one of Three Rivers Stadium to come up with a "Pittsburgh composite" image. All that's missing is Exposition Park, where the Pirates played before Forbes Field was built. According to a map in Gershman's book Diamonds, it would be about where the eastbound exit ramp from the bridge is today, that is, slightly closer to PNC Park than where Three Rivers Stadium used to be. Changes in street names and locations over the decades make it hard to be sure. Mike Zurawski informs me that the LC distance marker in PNC Park has been changed from "389" to "378," but after seeing the photos he referred me to, that is because the sign moved 20 or so feet toward the left field pole, apparently to make room for more billboards.
After nearly two weeks without a break, the Nationals had a much needed day off today. They need to regroup and focus on problems after recent missed opportunities such as yesterday afternoon. You would think that eight shutout innings and eleven strikeouts would be enough for Esteban Loaiza to win his first game as a National, but no-o. All it took was a solo shot homer by Jimmy Rollins in the top of the ninth to decide the series rubber match; the two insurance runs the Phillies scored didn't matter. I'd like to hear Frank Robinson's explanation for not replacing Loaiza with a reliever in the ninth. The Nats left runners on third base twice early in the game, almost unforgiveable. The last time they won a series was against Arizona, in their home opening series. Since that series, attendance at Nats' home games has averaged about 27,000. Not bad, especially compared to Montreal, but it could be better. Nick Johnson has been pulled from the lineup until a contusion on his leg heals; he's got a 16-game hitting streak going. The versatile Brad Wilkerson will move to first base for the time being.
Nats keep Bowden
Jim Bowden will stay on as General Manager of the Nationals through the end of the season. He had been working under a verbal contract that expires at the end of the month, under the assumption that the franchise would be sold by now. Because of the lingering legal issues, the team's value is still too uncertain for buyers to commit. Without Bowden, it's hard to imagine that the Nationals would have acquired so much first-class talent such as Vinny Castilla and Esteban Loaiza. In my book, Bowden is a genuine hero, going way beyond the call of duty to give Washington fans a real reason to root, root, root for the home team.
Red hot A-Rod
Alex Rodriguez hit three home runs, knocking in ten of the Yankees' twelve runs on Tuesday night. The Yanks have crawled out of last place, while the high-flying Orioles are having their best April in many years. Is it possible that the increased competition for fan support resulting from the Washington Nationals has given the Orioles the needed kick in the rear to be aroused from complacent apathy and start living up to their high historic standards? Just a thought...
Steven Poppe, who has never given up hope that Montreal can support a major league baseball team, brought this Web site to my attention: Encore Baseball Montreal. It's too bad they can't share one of the Florida teams, which could play in Canada from June through August, but that would probably be too hard on the players, as the ex-Expos found out.
The newly reformatted baseball stadium pages should be ready by tomorrow, complete with links to comment forms (not yet functional).
What a week it's been in Washington! After weeks of rumors and speculation, it does appear that Senator Frist -- a likely presidential candidate for 2008 -- is determined to force the issue of changing Senate rules on use of filibusters once and for all. On Sunday he appeared on a religious broadcast and suggested that opposition to the conservative judges nominated by President Bush indicated hostility to people of faith. (See Monday's Washington Post.) The Democrat leaders in the Senate, Harry Reid (NV and Richard Durbin (IL), as well as Joe Biden, suggested that a compromise is possible in which some but not all of the conservative judges in question would be confirmed. (Washington Post.) On Tuesday, Frist turned them down. He has put his reputation on the line, and has left himself no room to back down. Ultimately it will be decided by a few GOP moderates in the Senate, such as John Warner. In the Washington Times last week, he was quoted as saying "the right of unlimited debate has been a hallmark of the Senate since its inception."
As a conservative who strives to see issues from a detached perspective and puts a high priority on maintaining a degree of civility in our nation's political life, I see this choice with grave trepidation. As a scholar in political science I have a strong appreciation for the unique role and customs of the United States Senate, "the greatest deliberative body in the world." Yet contrary to what many Democrats are charging, ironically, the proposed rule change would not be a "threat to democracy," but would actually be a move toward a majoritarian form of democracy in which the popular will is translated more directly into public policy. Whether that is good or bad depends on your view of whether serious reforms our needed in our political system, and what the public's role in that reform should be. Traditionally, the Senate has served as a buffer against sudden fluctuations in public opinion, striving for broad consensus wherever possible. So if we are to accept that this proposed rule change to limit filibusters is necessary, we must be very clear on the reasons pro and con.
"Save the filibuster!"
A good starting point for laying out the aspects of this issue is the television ad campaign sponsored by People for the American Way, the left-liberal group co-founded by Norman Lear. It begins with a scene with Jimmy Stewart from the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and ends with a plea from a Los Angeles firefighter, Ted Nonini, who identifies himself as a "common-sense Republican." The ad and the associated Save the filibuster Web site are obviously reaching out to folks like me. Here is a quick assessment and rebuttal of their talking points:
The notion they advance that the Republican Party aspires to "absolute power" is patently absurd, something only a paranoid person would believe.
Dire warnings based on the fact that Federal judges get lifetime appointments suggest that the political stakes in their selection may be too high. So why not limit them to a ten-year term?
Republicans are not seeking to do away with the filibuster, but merely want to limit its use; minority voices will still be heard.
This issue is not about "checks and balances," in which parts of government prevent each other from getting out of hand, it is about the Senate's own (internal) procedural rules. The Constitution allows each chamber to set its own rules, and clearly specifies the circumstances in which a two-thirds supermajority is required. Filibustering judicial appointments is a matter of custom, not law. Unfortunately, it has gotten out of hand since the Democrats became the minority party.
The ironic subtext to this campaign is that these Democrats acknowledge, albeit implicitly, that they themselves might get carried away with policy mischief if they returned to power and the Republicans weren't around to keep them honest. That, of course, was the normal state of affairs from roughly 1964 until 1980: virtual one-party rule. The Republicans are not even remotely close to attaining the degree of power the Democrats wielded back then. Nevertheless, the Republicans do need to remember a fundamental point: What goes around comes around.
Some Democrats are outraged that Sen. Frist used his appearance on a religious broadcast for political purposes, and I can understand how they feel. When Bill Clinton was president, he often made highly charged political speeches from the pulpits of friendly churches, which seemed highly inappropriate to me. In my mind, the less that places of worship are used for political purposes, the better. So I would agree that Frist went too far in pandering to a constituent group, wrongly equating obstructionism by Democrats with hostility to faith.
Almost lost in the shuffle is the original question of whether the seven judges nominated by President Bush but thwarted by the Senate Democrats are well suited for the Federal Appeals bench. So, what about the nominees' qualifications? I don't pretend to know enough to make a firm assessment, but both Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown do at least have solid careers and have issued controversial opinions. The following comment about Janice Rogers Brown from the Save Our Courts Web site speaks volumens: "In addition, Brown has often been the lone justice to dissent on the California Supreme Court, illustrating that her judicial philosophy is outside the mainstream." To them, dissent from what it politically correct is an unforgiveable sin. To an impartial observer, such dissent plays a vital role in weighing the scales of justice. Remember Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the "Great Dissenter"?
According to a Washington Post poll on Monday, two thirds of the American people are against the rule change. It sounds suspiciously like one of those sleazy "push polls" used during campaigns. What's more, how many Americans have the slightest idea about how Congress operates? Most have a hard time naming their own House representative and senators, much less being familiar with the issues being debated. So while such polls have little bearing on how Congress runs itself, the very fact that the arcanery of congressional procedures are making headline news may have a very positive effect: Average folks might actually start paying attention to what goes on in the Capitol building from now on. The fundamental point remains, however: Democracy does not mean policy is driven by polls, it means that policy is driven by the representatives elected by the people. If they don't like the results, the vote the bums out in the next election.
Glenn Reynolds has been reticent on this question, but has expressed occasional qualms about the religious right, which I share. See (InstaPundit). Andrew Sullivan has become utterly disgusted with the Republicans, seeing them as a tool of "theocrats" like James Dobson, and the risk of alienating more serious (economic) conservatives like him must be taken into account. Josh Marshall is predictably contemptuous toward everything the Republicans are doing, calling attention to a student "filibuster" of the Frist Center at Princeton University. See Talking Points Memo.) The Daily Kos recently provided a very apt interpretation of what is going on:
the "nuclear option" moniker isn't just appropriate because of its threatened effects on Senate comity, as so many current media accounts would have it. Rather, I think the name is appropriate because it captures just how raw a power play Frist's intended maneuver really is.
Exactly! An unwarranted grab for power by one side in a political contest, as we saw by the well-funded left-wing media campaign pushing John Kerry's election last fall, generally elicits an equal but opposite reaction by the other side, in a process of mutual escalation that continues until one side or the other backs down.
The ethics of bluffing
The "nuclear" metaphor may carry more extremist connotations than is really warranted, but it does shed light on a very apt precedent or model on which to base our decision on this question. Back in the early 1980s, many antinuclear activists cited the position paper of the Roman Catholic Church on nuclear weapons and the ethics of the strategy of nuclear deterrence. Is it moral to base a defense posture on the threat of using weapons of mass destruction that would kill millions of people? The Catholic bishops said that nuclear deterrence could be justified as long as it serves to prevent war from breaking out, but that the actual use of such weapons could never be permissible. The logical inconsistency of this position was all too transparent, but one could not seriously expect divinely-oriented thinkers to articulate a military strategy, any more than generals could give a sermon. Likewise, in the situation today, one could say that threatening to make the "nuclear" rules change is OK as long as the GOP senators don't actually follow through with their threat should the Democrats call their bluff. This highlights the difficulty, or near impossibility, of average citizens weighing in on an issue pertaining to how the Senate runs its own business.
Compromise: a virtue?
In the Outlook section of Sunday's Washington Post David Broder, brought a sensible perspective to the debate, urging the Democrats to compromise for practical reasons, not because he favors the judges. He believes the Democrats are in a losing position but don't yet realize it. There are many signs, however, that many if not most Democrats reject compromise outright, thinking the tide of history has turned in their favor. Yesterday Al Gore spoke to a MoveOn gathering, indulging in ever-more strident sarcasm. Curtailing the filibuster would "undermine the rule of law"? Utterly ridiculous. On the local front, a letter by a clergyman in today's Staunton News Leader referred to "Teams of raving fascist idiots in Washington D.C. calling themselves 'the Republican Party'." Well, isn't that special? There can be no compromise with people who think like that.
Going "nuclear"? A fair and balanced decision
Reasons to be "pro-nuclear"
Reasons to be "anti-nuclear"
It is the only way of tackling the underlying problem of too many elitist, unaccountable judges who lack respect for our nation's cultural heritage.
Curtailing the filibuster might come back to haunt the GOP if they lose a majority in the Senate; it would raise the stakes in the next elections even higher.
It would reward voters and conservative activists by carrying out policy pledges, thus living up to accountability standards.
It would risk alienating moderate and libertarian voters who don't want to go that far.
Flinching now would dishearten Republican activists while rewarding Democrat obstructionism, encouraging even stiffer resistance by leftists.
Republicans are on weak moral ground because they once filibustered against Clinton judicial nominees.
It would send a clear message that Republicans will not put up with diversionary nonsense and calumnies about Republican "extremists" from the left-fringe Democrats forever.
It would break a long-standing impasse, set the stage for a policy dialogue on new terms, and make it possible for moderates in both parties to start working together again for the public good.
How far to go?
Most Republicans are aware that restricting use of the filibuster could come back to haunt them some day, which is why there is so much reluctance about carrying out the threat. At the same time, there is an increasing awareness within GOP ranks that, if they want to get anything significant done in Bush's second term, it's now or never. The main problem is not "extremism" on the Republican side, but the inability of most Democrats to accept minority status. They never really came to terms with their historic defeat in 1994, which goes a long way toward explaining the feeling many of them had that President Bush was not legitimately elected. In the end, one's position on the otherwise-arcane procedural question depends on one's view of the fundamental public policy issue of whether or not the judicial branch has gotten out of hand by setting precedents and issuing rulings that facilitate and even encourage lawlessness and immorality. If you think that is the case, as I do, you need to take a serious look at the "nuclear option" as being our last best hope for serious legal reform. In politics as in life, opportunities that are not seized while the iron is hot are quickly lost forever.
Finally, it must be admitted that the Democrats brought this situation upon themselves. They've been spoiling for a showdown all along, confident that enough "common sense" (or wishy-washy?) Republicans will once again opt for getting along rather than getting ahead. As one who shares some of the moderates' discomfort with some of the more zealous religious conservatives, I am very attentive to opposition voices, at least the sensible ones. The fact that some moderate Democrats such as Joe Biden have offered compromises is encouraging, but at this late date it may not be enough. He, Lieberman, and others had a chance to distance themselves from MoveOn, et al., and now it's time to see which side has more determined support. If Republicans can't stand united against a patently bogus political campaign by far-left Democrats, they really don't deserve to govern the country. Backing down now would be tremendously disheartening to Republican activists, forfeiting a dynamic resource for future campaigns.
That leads me to the reluctant conclusion that the Republicans in the Senate must press ahead with a vote on the rules change, as long as there is a clear understanding that the added power will be used responsibly, and for clear principles. The power to either save the Republicans' long-term reform agenda, or put it in serious jeopardy by catering to fund-raising interest groups or certain factions within the party, is now in the hands of Senator Frist. If he lets majority control be used to advance an agenda that is not broadly supported within the party, there will be hell to pay one day, and the Democrats will not be in any mood to play nice when they eventually regain majority status. (It will happen some day, Grover Norquist notwithstanding.) If the Republicans flinch out of an exaggerated sense of duty to preserve (or bring back?) "good feelings" on Capitol Hill, they will cripple themselves for years to come. Once again, the Democrats will have succeeded in playing them for fools.
In one of the biggest news stories from the ornithological world in recent decades, the Ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, was apparently sighted in eastern Arkansas last year. A paper written by Cornell University biologists provides strong, if not yet definitive confirmation of the discovery. A few years ago a search expedition in the swamps of Louisiana failed to uncover any of these elusive birds. They are, or were, larger relatives of the Pileated woodpeckers, the model for "Woody." See Washington Post. Frankly this news is almost too good to be true, so I'll remain less than fully convinced until I see further proof. What's next, finding live dodo birds or pteradactyls? It's always refreshing whenever some marvelous new discovery in the world of science confounds stodgy old complacent beliefs. Learning never stops...
Ten or so members of the Augusta Bird Club went for a field trip at McCormick's Farm yesterday. Within minutes we saw a Greater yellowlegs, a Spotted sandpiper, and a Solitary sandpiper. The highlight was seeing a bright orange Baltimore oriole, who responded aggressively to my whistles. (My cheer was offset by chagrin at not having brought my video camera, and by an unshakeable grudge toward Peter Angelos. ) The only warblers seen were two Yellow-rumped warblers; the absence of warblers in these parts so far this spring is a cause for some concern...