Thursday, April 30, 2009

Smithfield flu?

Now we're hearing from the International Porcine Protection Council, or an industry-representing group with a name along those lines, that a country ham sandwich is no more dangerous today than it was last month, or last year.

Furthermore, they want any sort of germs that have slipped across the border to be labeled "Mexican," or anything other than "swine."

Apparently, all the news coverage of a scary new strain of the flu -- we now have cases in Virginia -- is making some folks sweat, that is folks in the business of selling swine meat to a hungry world of consumers.

Meanwhile, Lowell Feld at Blue Virginia has some worthwhile thoughts on the swine flu story and its possible connection to Virginia and its politics.
There's been a great deal of discussion recently about the swine flu, of course. There's also been discussion, but to a far lesser extent, about the possible role of a Mexican subsidiary of Virginia-based Smithfield Foods in the disease's outbreak. The issue even came up at the Virginia Democratic governors' debate last night, with the candidates being asked if they'd taken money from Smithfield...
Click here to read all of Feld's post.

Click here to read a Rolling Stone article about Smithfield Foods' gigantic pork-producing operation published a couple of years ago. It's an eye-opener.

Who knows? Once all is said and done, maybe this new malady will end up being called the "Smithfield flu."

Derby Day

The details for the Biograph Theatre's 30th Derby Day reunion party are here. There are also a bunch of stories there about the long-lost repertory cinema, and some of what went on there.

Click here to watch a film at YouTube that was shot in the Biograph in 1974; it's called "Matinee Madcap." Click here to see a short video clip about the Biograph's 10th anniversary party in 1982.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Specter joins Team Donkey

Sen. Arlen Specter has left the Republican Party to join the Democrats. That makes 59 on the donkey side of the aisle.

So, do you think the stalling maneuvers up in Minnesota, to block former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken from being seated, will let up any time soon?

Not a chance!

Still, when Franken finally joins his colleagues in the Senate, he will become the 60th Democrat, which will do much take the filibuster away from the current crop of obstructionists, whose only mission seems to be undermining whatever Obama is trying to do.

Of course, the GOP's hard-right spokespersons have been calling Specter a Republican-in-name-only for years, so it has been easy for them to say goodbye to him. But maybe after the last couple of elections their credibility isn't what it used to be.

So, will Specter's defection set a RINO stampede in motion?

Stephen Colbert has put a fresh label on the phenomenon -- "donkey flu."

Update: Click here to read the RT-D article on Specter's move with lots of comments from readers.

All things Mexican

Even though I'm in trouble with money -- the lack of it -- maybe today is my lucky day, when I look around and think what could be wrong.

1. This morning I talked my bank into seeing it had made a mistake and I have 22 dollars more than I woke up having.

2. I don't have a penny tied up in any Cinco de Mayo promotions this weekend. There's one set to happen on Brown's Island on Saturday.

The folks who stuck their necks out on that party must be wondering what they did to deserve such a strange twist of fate. With the nearly hysterical news about the "Mexican" swine flu in the air, just imagine the effect that's going to have on all things Mexican for a while.

Hopefully, the pandemic threat will soon pass and we can all get back to worrying about money again.

Before anybody plunges over the xenophobic cliff -- yes, among others, I'm talking to you, Virgil Goode -- they should read this AP story:
Townspeople blame their ills on pig waste from farms that lie upwind, five miles (8.5 kilometers) to the north. The toxins blow through other towns, only to get trapped by mountains in La Gloria, they say. They suspect their water and air has been contaminated by waste.

Granjas Carroll de Mexico, half-owned by Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, Inc., has 72 farms in the surrounding area. Smithfield spokeswoman Keira Ullrich said the company has found no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of swine influenza in its herd or its employees working at its joint ventures anywhere in Mexico.
Click here to read the entire article.

Developers flee, rather than stand for questions

The show that's been traveling around town selling the building of a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom made a stop at Hill Middle School last week. The meeting was ended in a way that was less than satisfying to some who had bothered to attend, hoping to have their questions answered. has a piece up that I wrote about the event.

Tougher questions were asked. A man brought up Bostic’s history with Richmond Baseball Initiative, the group that effectively put the kibosh on the plan to renovate The Diamond, with its push for a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom five years ago. Bostic bristled. He labeled the question, “unfair!” Then he blustered about The Diamond’s $18.5 million renovation plan. He cracked that the figure would have turned out to be “$30 million.”

Click here to read the entire piece.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Torture: hell or high water

Politics has drifted into uncharted waters now that torture has come to the surface.

Would any reasonable person tell you that waterboarding a captive 183 times could actually have much to do with helping him tell the truth? Now it seems the true purpose of the program may have had more to do with attempting to justify the then-coming invasion of Iraq ... come hell or high water.

Yet, in spite of the righteous indignation of this moment, even with the disgusting details of what was done in the name of protecting post-9/11 America in the air, there’s a peculiar problem with the torture issue. Many Americans can’t stomach looking at such depravity for very long.

Some current and formerly-elected officials are counting on that.

Like its blood brother, child abuse, the subject of torturing prisoners is too creepy for everyday people to dwell on for very long. They don’t want to look below the surface into the dark reservoir, where the soul-crushing motives of the perpetrators are hidden.

While that reluctance is easily understood, whether it’s being administered to children or prisoners, the effects of repeated torture go on into the future. The aftershocks go on and on, whether it's alter boys or the wrongfully imprisoned. Torture inevitably poisons the future.

Malcolm Nance served as a counter-terrorism and intelligence consultant for the U.S. government. In his own military training he was subjected to waterboarding. In his testimony before a House committee devoted to examining torture and enhanced interrogation techniques, Nance said: "[Waterboarding] is an overwhelming experience that induces horror and triggers frantic survival instincts. As the event unfolded, I was fully conscious of what was happening. I was being tortured."

Sen. John McCain once said of waterboarding: "It isn't about whether someone is really harmed or not. It's about what kind of a nation we are."

It's been 63 years since 10 prominent Nazis were executed, having been found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Trials that followed World War II. Their fate said for all to see that in the civilized world, even during war, torture is going to be viewed as a crime against all people.

Today our representatives are being watched by millions all over the world who have an interest in seeing how America handles an issue so difficult to look at.

It's time to stop averting our eyes from what pain and deprivations are being inflicted on the powerless, however they got that way. Good Americans of all political persuasions need to steel themselves. Clearly, it's time to see the only way to put behind us what wrongs have done to the victims is to examine the details honestly.

Then justice must be served.

Bopst at No. 52 and counting

Congratulations are in order for Chris Bopst. His offbeat but very entertaining series of weekly radio shows at RVANews has reached the one-year milestone.
God knows how much time I have put into all of these shows. For every hour of Bopst Shows you hear, there are about 7 to 8 hours dedicated to creating them. A lot of this time can be blamed on working with an old computer, but I take this job of (hopefully) entertaining you here very seriously.
To read the rest of Bopst's comments and listen to The Bopst Show: "Other Forms of Stimulation" (Episode 52) click here.

And, kudos to RVANews for making the music and musings of Richmond's own Mr. Bopst easily available to its readership.

Friday, April 24, 2009

At the ol' ballgame

The view from the press box

Last Saturday I took in a college baseball game at The Diamond. A few old friends helped me watch George Mason beat VCU by a score of 8-2. The weather was perfect and Mason looked pretty good. I think they are ranked 25th in the country.

The crowd was small, maybe 400 people. The facility itself had a strange look to it. Yes, it felt haunted. Up in the press box, cords and other stuff had been hurriedly pulled out of the wall. There was no spread laid out for the media and R-Braves staff to gobble up. No sign of the departed Braves was in evidence ... it had a bombed-out look.

Throughout the stadium, there were a few old R-Braves signs leftover. After 43 years of games on the Boulevard, now they are the G-Braves, who play their home games in a new baseball stadium in the suburbs of Atlanta.

The concession stands and the scoreboard still display R-Braves logos. The other advertising signs on the outfield wall, the paid-for spaces, seem to all be from last season, when Richmond's AAA team was still playing there. For now, why bother to take them down?

The playing field looked fine; VCU is taking care of it. The Rams have been playing their home games there since 1985, when the place opened. Now they practice there, too. VCU's media guide says The Diamond is a "state-of-the-art facility."
Another base hit with men on for the Patriots

For a college team maybe that's true. Over the last 10 years the Rams have won three-fourths of their games played on the Boulevard.

It struck me, again, if somebody wanted to do it, that 55-year-old location -- counting its Parker Field days -- could be converted into a perfectly adequate place to play minor league baseball again. Maybe you'd need to knock down the cement superstructure and make the seating much less than it was. Perhaps no overhead covering, like the fields the Big Leagues play their preseason games on in Florida.

Much of what seems on the surface wrong with The Diamond looks like it stems from neglect. For years it seemed Bruce Baldwin, the sourpuss former R-Braves general manager, had a policy of spending as little money as he could.

If a team of eager young architects had the assignment of making that place acceptable again for $15 to $20 million, I bet they could come up with a design. In these hard times for the construction business that kind of money might buy more renovation than it would have a year ago.

But just using leftovers, a baseball game was played on a beautiful April afternoon.
Still watching for signs ... but signs of what?

Meanwhile, Paul DiPasquale's familiar sculpture, "Connecticut," still peers out at the Boulevard, watching for something. Perhaps it's the spirit of regional cooperation that built what has been his home since 1985.

-- Words and photos by F.T. Rea

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Baseball stadium meeting a fizzler

With news about a new local baseball team in the air, a presentation ostensibly about baseball was made at my old junior high school, Albert H. Hill, by Paul Kreckman of Highwoods Properties and Bryan Bostic of Richmond Baseball Club, the folks who want to build a new stadium in Shockoe Bottom.

Earlier tonight the two men who took turns sharing the microphone promised that after they delivered their spiels they would answer ALL questions from the audience.

So the audience of 65 to 75 people sat and listened politely. Then the questioning period began.

It wasn't long before some of the questioners seemed to express doubt of what they had heard from the speakers, which irritated Bostic right away. So only those who hadn't already put a question to the speakers were allowed to ask questions after that.

Three members of City Council were there: Charles R. Samuels (2nd District), Bruce W. Tyler (1st District), and E. Martin “Marty” Jewell (5th District). They had little or nothing to say.

The questions from the audience got progressively tougher, so the meeting was ended. All in all, it was a surprisingly weak presentation. It wasn't much about baseball. It was mostly about money and real estate.

The oddest thing about the evening was the way Kreckman threatened his listeners several times, with a smile and a mild tone, that either the ballpark gets approved for Shockoe Bottom, or Highwoods will walk away from the projects planned in both the Bottom and on the Boulevard.

More about this meeting will follow soon.

Update: Click here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Police riot on VCU campus in 1974

There’s been lot of talk about “change” in the last year. Given some of the news about evidence of rampant abuse of the law that went on during the Bush White House years, no doubt change will be painful for some who supported the Bush response to 9/11, without question.

Some years are all about change, whether anybody wants it or not; 1974 was one of those years too. The most obvious change in the air in 1974 had to have been the investigation of, and the resignation of, President Richard Nixon. The whole culture shifted that year, as tastes in music, clothes, politics, movies, drugs, and you-name-it, took off in new directions.

In 1974, being into social causes promptly went out of style for the glib and trendy cats. Going into that year, no one would have guessed the most popular gesture of group defiance on campus -- the protest march -- would morph into spontaneous gatherings to cheer on naked people as they ran by. Yet, in the spring of 1974, streaking on college campuses became a national phenomenon.

Richmond’s police chief announced that his officers would not tolerate streakers -- students or not -- running around in the city’s streets, alleys, etc. But the VCU police department said if it took place on campus, streaking was a university matter and would be dealt with by its personnel.

The relationship between Richmond and VCU was still somewhat awkward in this period. And, leading up to this point, there had been an escalating series of incidents on or near the VCU campus; police dogs had been set loose in crowds and cops had been pelted with debris.

So, the City’s Finest and had some history with what might have been seen as the anti-establishment crowd based in the lower Fan District, leading up what happened on the 800 block of W. Franklin St. on the night of Mar. 19, 1974.

Several groups of streakers had made runs before four streakers rode down Franklin in a convertible at about 10 p.m. The crowd of 150-to-200 cheered as the motorized streakers waved. The mood was festive. I was in that crowd, at the time I worked a block away on Grace St. at the Biograph Theatre.

Seconds later a group of about 50 uniformed policemen stormed in on small motorbikes and in squad cars from every direction to arrest those four streakers in the car. No VCU cops were involved.

After a lull in the action, the Richmond cops inexplicably charged into the crowd. Bystanders were dragged into the middle of the street. One kid was knocked off of his bicycle and slammed repeatedly against the fender and hood of a police car. Others were beaten with clubs or flashlights. It was a shocking. It was a riot -- a police riot.

When the dust settled 17 people had been arrested. Most of them were not streakers. They were taken randomly from among the peaceful, decidedly apolitical crowd that had been watching the adventure from the sidewalk.

While I’ve seen some clashes between policemen and citizens over the years at anti-war demonstrations and a few brawls, up close, what happened that night on Franklin St. was the most out of control behavior I've ever seen from a large group of uniformed officers of the law.

Well, that’s surely because I didn’t go to the Cherry Blossom Music Festival, a month later in that year of riots and changes. From (April 27):
A four-hour battle with police rages after the Cherry Blossom Music Festival in Richmond, Virginia. The concert, held outdoors in Richmond's City Stadium and billed as "a day or two of fun and music," features the Steve Miller Band, Boz Scaggs, Stories and several other groups. But the music soon takes a back seat to the rioting that begins after police start busting people for possession; seventy-six people are arrested, and scores are treated for injuries.
Click here to read more about the amazing Cherry Blossom riot. There were photos on the front pages of Richmond's daily newspapers that showed all sorts of mayhem, including a big-haired hippie jumping up and down on a police car, while other cars burned in the background. This melee put the kibosh on any outdoor rock 'n' roll shows, with alcohol available, in Richmond for several years.

Back to the streakers on campus angle: Richmond's city manager, Bill Leidinger, promised me there would be an investigation into the conduct of the local police on Franklin St. on Mar. 19 by an outside organization.

In exchange for that promise, I didn't go to the press with some volatile charges being made by a guy who said he had photos of the beatings. Unfortunately, he may have talked about them too much -- he claimed they were stolen from his car, while he was in a store, on his way to deliver the pictures to me. He got so scared he left town.

Leidinger did not make good on his promise. Eventually, Richmond's police department held an in-house investigation of its own dirty doings on Franklin St. It found that it had done nothing wrong. I regretted trusting Leidinger.

Maybe 2009 will yet launch a new style in cinema, something as startling as the French New Wave of the early ’60s was. Maybe 2009 could set loose a new sound as fresh as bebop or rockabilly were when they were new.

Maybe 2009 is the year a former vice president gets indicted for his role in ordering the waterboarding of a prisoner 183 times. Or, are we still sweeping things like that under the carpet?

-- 30 --

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tea-flavored Kool-Aid?

Yesterday in Richmond lots of people drove through the rain to the main post office to mail in their tax forms. No one can dispute that.

However, according to what you want to believe, either a handful of people, or great throngs attended a political rally to do with taxes that was staged Downtown. Similarly, it was either part of a nationwide grassroots phenomenon with a life of its own, or it was a bad imitation of the same, which came from the top down.

Today, all over the country teabaggers are bragging about their success to anyone who will report on what they claim happened. Having been to a few political demonstrations in my travels, I'm familiar with the process of ginning up the numbers, with regard to crowd-size. And, I know that some of those who want to rain on the tea party's afterglow are underestimating the numbers.

And, it goes...

Speaking of numbers, given the trouncing the Republican Party took on the most recent election day, there can be no argument over whether it needs to find new ways to promote its principles and policies. So, whatever else they were, the tea party protests were a step toward something different, if not new.

Given the humiliation those who slavishly backed former-President George W. Bush's rhetoric and performance have had to endure for the last year, it's understandable they would want to complain about how uncomfortable it has been for them. Their trouble is 70 percent of Americans are happy with the man who defeated their presidential candidate.

Still, what exactly the teabag tempest was about looked fuzzy to me. It came off as a rude bag of mixed metaphors and convoluted symbols. Like, was the protest over government spending? Over high taxes? Over guns? Over religion? Over socialism?

Or, was it mostly about people sipping out-of-date Kool-Aid and calling it tea?

Some are already saying yesterday's tea party will be seen in the future as the day proper Americans turned the tide and began to regain their control over this country's direction. But I suspect it will be seen more as a goofy stunt that played out as a wake for the bad old days of a mindless brand of conservatism.

Whatever else Bush accomplished in his eight years of lies about war, tax cuts for the wealthy and huge deficits, he did unglue the coalition that allowed cultural conservatives, neoconservatives, fiscal conservatives, Libertarians, and so forth, to agree and work together comfortably.

My guess is tea-flavored Kool-Aid won't work as the new glue.

Slave Trade Museum in Shockoe Bottom

Instead of focusing on Shockoe Bottom’s floods, its farmer’s market or randy saloons, a new piece I just wrote for is about righting the record of what was going on down there in the 1800’s, before the Civil War. And, get this — it makes no mention of baseball, whatsoever, but it does offer hope to those looking to improve that neighborhood.

“Doing the Right/Smart Thing” is about making an honest effort to properly understand the business of selling slaves.

When people speak of reparations for the descendants of slaves I understand the sentiment, but the idea of putting a dollar value on such a gesture explodes in my head. Good intentions, or not, it won’t work. The only thing we can do now, to do any justice to those who were sold like beasts of burden, is to tell their story as honestly as we can.

Click here to read the entire piece.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Vick, Vick ... Vick

Since he seems to be in the news every week, it's easy to get into a conversation with sports fans about former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. Recently, Vick has been in the news for appearing in court over his bankruptcy filing. And, he apparently has some potential legal trouble to do with the misuse of money in a pension fund.

Some guys like to argue over when Vick will play football again in the National Football League. Some condemn him as an utter fiend, who deserves no forgiveness. And, some speculate about what he ought to do to demonstrate his remorse and how he has been rehabilitated.

Now comes the news that Vick is considering becoming a reality TV performer.

The incarcerated NFL star has talked to producers about launching an unscripted program. The proposed documentary series would follow Vick beginning July 20, the day of his scheduled release from federal custody, and show him trying to "make amends for his past." Sources said eager producers even visited the suspended Atlanta Falcons quarterback in prison in the hope of signing him. As a result, a few parties claim to have obtained rights to a Vick project.

Click here to read the entire article.

There are still plenty of Vick fans who refuse to accept that their favorite pro football player got what he deserved. Crimes or no crimes, they want him back on the playing field because he’s fun to watch. They also assume his talent for football will trump all else.

However, the NFL is by far the most buttoned-down of all the professional sports overseeing bodies. It will decide whether to allow Vick to play again. But it certainly doesn’t want PETA activists dressed up like bloody dogs demonstrating at every game. And, isn't that what will happen if Vick returns?

Try to imagine an NFL game's broadcast beginning with a series of corporate logos for sponsors of the game flashing up over the moving pictures of anti-Vick demonstrators in front of the stadium. Then imagine boycotts of the products and services of the companies with those logos by millions of dog-lovers.

In hard times, finding advertisers willing to pony up zillions to be associated with professional football is one thing; finding companies willing to run the risk of being connected to a villain with Vick's baggage will be another.

So, maybe Vick better be good on that reality television show. Those Vick apologists who think he will be playing football any time soon on Sundays are indulging in pure fantasy.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Your choice: teacher or warden

This cartoon of mine was first published by Oh! Magazine in 1991. It parodied a television commercial about oil filters. Understandably, Oh! didn't last long; it folded before that year ended. The scan above is of a 1992 reprint in SLANT. As you might imagine, teachers loved it.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

When fairness mattered

“That’s not fair!” is a commonly-used exclamation, employed more and more by those expressing disappointment that something hasn't turned their way. Frequently it has little or nothing to do with the actual issue of “fairness.”

In days gone by, complaining about a lack of fairness usually had to do with equality issues. They were calls for justice, calls for the leveling of playing fields. Now it’s mostly a spontaneous complaint meaning the speaker’s expectations weren’t met.

As so many young people have become fond of saying, “That’s not fair!” for precisely that reason, it’s a phrase that sometimes grates on my geezer ears.

In a nutshell, here’s what “fair” means, as defined by Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary:

Marked by impartiality and honesty; just; conforming with the established rules.

Although being fair is an aspect of honesty, this rant isn’t about all the elements of integrity. After all, a thief or a liar can still be fair. And, sometimes people overseeing justice for society wouldn't have known fairness if they had stepped in it.

Key to dismantling the laws that perpetuated the Jim Crow Era’s institutionalized racism were legal arguments that pointed at guarantees ALL American citizens were supposed to have, not just SOME. Those arguments called upon the government itself to stop facilitating “unfairness” to do with how public funds were spent.

The stubborn Massive Resisters' defense of segregation in Virginia's public schools 50 years ago was based on another affront to the definition of a word; in this case it was the word “equal.” Their catchphrase, “separate but equal,” was swept into history’s dustbin of doubletalk, because any fair judge could see that in practice, “separate,” inevitably meant, “unequal.”

Thus, the Supreme Court unanimously said that maintaining separate public schools for black students and white students wasn’t fair to the taxpaying black families, whose children were attending what were clearly substandard public schools.

Of course, having a major television network use the word “fair” to promote its warped news presentations as “fair and balanced” makes a rather sick joke out of what constitutes an honest effort to be fair.

Speaking of jokes, comedian Stephen Colbert, of The Colbert Report, coined a new term in 2005 -- “truthiness” -- that continues to speak volumes on the way authenticity and integrity have become archaic concepts to many who labor at the business of disseminating political information, whether they are working for a publisher or a politician.

After the sacrifices that have been made for the sake of extending fairness to one and all, it's sad for my geezer eyes to see the concept of what constitutes fairness getting fuzzy.

Dig it: True fairness can stem from the randomness of nature, or it can flow from the adherence to agreed-upon standards. Every time the meaning of the word “fair” gets tortured, for the sake of whim or expediency, it's another little step away what has been a cornerstone of our open and freedom-loving society.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Obama's need to change

While I enthusiastically support President Barack Obama now, just as I did when he was seeking the office, a problem is developing. It's about torture.

Writer/cartoonist Ted Rall has zeroed in on the problem:

Ah, the great shell game of American justice. You can't prosecute the torturers because their lawyers advised them that torture was OK. You can't prosecute the lawyers because all they did was theorize--they didn't torture anyone. You can't prosecute the president and vice president who ordered the torture because they have "executive privilege" and, anyway, who would put a head of state on trial? What is this, Peru?

What's the flip side of a victimless crime? A perpless crime?

Click here to read Rall's entire column.

My hope is that Obama will soon realize that what has been his averted-eye policy to what seems to have been America's deliberate violations of dead serious international laws, to do with torture, must CHANGE.

Wanting to look forward, turn the page, is good.

But wanting to protect the authors of the Bush administration's torture policy is anything but good. Ignoring international calls for truth and justice is going to continue to undermine Obama's otherwise enlightened foreign policy initiatives as long as it goes on.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

JRFF 16, Apr. 12-19

The 16th annual James River Film Festival starts on Sunday, April 12 and runs through Sunday, April 19. What is the JRFF?

The James River Film Festival is a celebration of independent film, video and animation. Each April the festival brings nationally and internationally-known independent filmmakers to Richmond to screen and discuss their work.

Held annually since 1994, the festival has staged more than 270 workshops, screenings, and seminars. In addition, the program includes retrospectives; film performances with live, original music; and a juried competition of short films. JRFF awards up to $2,000 in cash and prizes – another way RMIC supports and stimulates independent filmmaking.

Click here to visit the Richmond Moving Image Coop's web site for the full schedule.

Festival passes $40 -- good for all of the festival events (except the Saturday, April 18 Gallery 5 show) are available for advance purchase at Video Fan and Chop Suey Books.

Individual Tickets -- tickets for individual films/events are only available at the door, 30 minutes before each screening. Ticket prices vary, and please note that many are free.

For more information call (804) 232-7642 or (804) 355-6537.

Ad money shrinking in sports

Yesterday the New York Yankees opened their season in Baltimore, where the Orioles roughed up one of the Yankees newest zillion-dollar acquisitions, southpaw C.C. Sabathia. Baltimore chased an ineffective Sabathia off the mound after four-and-a-third innings and went on to win the game: Balt. 10, NYY 5.

To the chagrin of Yankees fans, Sabathia, finished his day at the office with a 12.46 earned-run-average and a 0-1 record. It's a good bet he’ll have better outings as the season wears on.

In December Sabathia, 6-7, 250, signed a $161 million contract to wear the pinstripes for seven years of throwing strikes and balls. Well, yesterday he didn’t look like much of a bargain; Sabathia looked more like a 300-pound pitcher -- he was Charles Barkley-esque! -- who was worth way less than $23 million a year. Maybe $11.5 million-a-year?

Or, maybe half of that. Or, what?

Assigning a dollar value to what an athlete might be worth to his team today, or a month from now, seems like a tough enough job. How in the world the Yankees can feel good about being obligated to pay the fat guy who took an early shower yesterday 23 million bucks this season, next season, and so on, is beyond me.

In the economic climate we are in now, I can’t fathom how anyone associated with professional sports can feel good about the huge contracts the owners have signed with players, or more importantly, with broadcasters.

The optimists who think the money is going to be there to pay Sabathia must be thinking that the current trend in advertising in America is going to shift. They’ve convinced themselves that soon it will all go back to what it was before the economy tanked. The people who NEED the new Yankee Stadium to draw big crowds and millions of pay-TV viewers for years to come have to believe it will all go back, and then some.

Among other amenities, the new $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium has an art gallery, a collectibles boutique, a conference center for meetings and weddings, etc., a Hard Rock Cafe and over a dozen other restaurants/bars. In other words, there are plenty of ways to spend money ... if you have it to spend. By the way, the best seats sell for $2,625.00 per game.

Yet, as the baseball season unfolds there’s a good chance more baseball fans in New York and elsewhere will lose their jobs. Some of them will be able to afford to go to games at the posh new Yankee Stadium. Many will not. So, they’ll have to watch the games on television.

Of course, for the unlucky Yankees fans in New York or Richmond, who’ve had their cable TV disconnected, because they missed a payment, they’ll have to follow Sabathia’s adventures some other way.

Newspaper? Maybe not.

In the past, part of professional baseball’s dependable revenue stream came from flush fans spending their money on seats, hot dogs and gear at the stadium. However, for Major League Baseball the more important flow of money came from millions of fans spending their money on the products they saw advertised on television during games and watching highlights on ESPN.

Well, ask anybody in the ad biz. The clients aren’t spending money anything like they did last year. How long this will last, nobody knows. What’s happening to the daily newspapers all over the country is due in some part to the sudden disappearance of advertising money.

We’re seeing the dramatic effect of the slashed ad budgets first in the daily newspaper business for a couple of reasons. It was already in decline. Secondly, with production and delivery costs, newspaper publishers are at a disadvantage to ride out a storm. Electronic media can cut rates and hang on much longer in a time of drastically reduced advertising budgets.

Beyond the collapse of banks and car manufacturers has come a collapse in the faith all sorts of companies have had in advertising of any kind. Say what you will about the American economy, successful advertising in some form has been a big part of making money.

Now, it seems, the public has stopped watching as much television. People appear to be tuning out ads, young people are especially good at it. It's like the consumers have finally developed an immunity to advertising's buzzwords, jingles and subliminal suggestions.

It has been widely reported that Richmond will get a new baseball team next year. If that’s true, the owners will want to sell lots of advertising, from signage in the stadium to ads in programs, etc. Without such support they will be in trouble.

This is the difficult climate in which the developers who want to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom are working. If they could do it without any risk to the taxpayers, without any guarantees to back up their financing, that would be one thing. But it doesn’t seem that’s the case with their project. It's my understanding they want Richmond's taxpayers to ultimately back their deal, if their projections for revenue don't pan out.

My guess is, there won’t be any new publicly-financed sports stadiums built in Richmond, or New York, or anywhere else for a while. It looks to me like John Q. Public has lost his patience with government "bailout" thinking that takes the risk out of capitalism.

If I’m right, the owners of the new baseball team, supposedly on the way to Richmond from Connecticut next year, had better get used to the sensible idea that a refurbished version of Parker Field/The Diamond is all Richmond will have in the way of a baseball stadium for some years to come.

Furthermore, in the next couple of years, I predict that players’ contracts in all pro sports will have to be renegotiated, as will the multi-zeroed contracts between leagues and broadcasters. The money just isn't going to be there.

The severe contraction being felt in the advertising business now is eventually going to change the value of a fat starting pitcher even to baseball's richest franchise, just as it will change the price of commercials in the broadcast of the game.

Baseball isn’t going to die. But the large advertising money that has propped up professional sports, is shrinking. That's true of all sports.

It says here, we’ve seen the last of the $23 million contracts for jocks for a good while. Likewise, we’ve probably seen the last of $400 million naming rights contracts for stadiums, such as that recently paid by Citigroup for the New York Mets new baseball stadium, also opening this season.

Where did a hurting bank like Citi get the dough for such a big advertising deal?

From the recent federal bailout program, at least in part. Yep, the taxpayers bought that advertisement in a time in which big corporations are afraid to risk their own money on ads.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Conformity at warp speed

Columnist David Brooks analyzes the mindset that paved the road to ruin.
To me, the most interesting factor is the way instant communications lead to unconscious conformity. You’d think that with thousands of ideas flowing at light speed around the world, you’d get a diversity of viewpoints and expectations that would balance one another out. Instead, global communications seem to have led people in the financial subculture to adopt homogenous viewpoints. They made the same one-way bets at the same time.
Jerry Z. Muller wrote an indispensable version of the stupidity narrative in an essay called “Our Epistemological Depression” in The American magazine. What’s new about this crisis, he writes, is the central role of “opacity and pseudo-objectivity.” Banks got too big to manage. Instruments got too complex to understand. Too many people were good at math but ignorant of history.
Click here to read the entire column in the New York Times.

The point Brooks mentions about conformity -- "instant communications lead to unconscious conformity" -- struck me as on the money, in particular. In this case "unconscious" could also be called "mindless."

Over the last 25 years, for most Americans thinking for themselves was out of style. Rather than pay attention to public affairs, too many citizens chose experts they followed, then they followed them blindly. Over time that sort of convenience-first habit led to believing in a mess of slogans, without any real understanding of problems or policies.

If the politicians and pundits they followed said government regulations were stifling capitalism, in spite of the fact that working people were working more hours for less buying power, the consumers lapped it up. If the experts told us that allowing huge mergers was in our best interests, we just shrugged and bought into it.

During that same 25-year period technology has driven the culture. Our thirst for fast information has led us into a conformity of thought and expression that has made us turn our backs on anything that smells of independent thought, let alone a maverick spirit.

In the early 1980s, I remember reading how camcorders and VCRs were going to create a generation of filmmakers that would overshadow their predecessors. We were told that with young people growing up fluent in the language of the filmmaker, because they would have the technology, wonderful new things would happen.

Well, is hasn't happened.

And, I doubt all these telephone cameras in our midst are going to make new Charlie Chaplins and Luis Buñuels come out of woodwork, either. If there is a renaissance to come in movies, it will come from independent thinking, from inspiration, not the widespread availability of cheap cameras.

Conformity isn't even an issue any more. Nonconformists today are seen by most people today, especially young people, as eccentric and perhaps threatening. I'd like to think the upheaval our society is going through will change this. Without fresh thinking there's no way our situation is going to improve itself.

Thinking for yourself in pursuit of truth is no vice. Conformity at warp speed is no virtue.

Friday, April 03, 2009

How can I miss you when you won't go away?

Disgraced former vice president Dick Cheney is still growling and finger-pointing, and the mainstream media are still noting what he says. It reminds me of what Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks sang in VCU's gym on Valentine's Day 1973:

How can I miss you when you won't go away?
Keep telling you, day after day

But you won't listen, you always stay and stay

How can I miss you, when you won’t go away?

-- Lyrics by Dan Hicks. 'Toon by F.T. Rea

Thursday, April 02, 2009

More RT-D staff cuts

The word in the word biz is that the incredible shrinking Richmond Times-Dispatch has shed yet more personnel. STYLE Weekly has the story here.
Among the well-known bylines facing the top editor today are Rex Bowman, Bill Geroux and Carlos Santos, all of whom are longtime state desk reporters. Veteran reporter Robin Farmer, whose husband is columnist Michael Paul Williams, packed the contents of her desk last night, according to sources. Longtime movie reviewer Daniel Neman, who was also covering Richmond's arts and culture scene, confirmed to friends that he was laid off at 9 a.m. Gary Brookins, the paper’s award-winning editorial cartoonist whose comic strip Pluggers is syndicated nationally, also received notice, according to sources.
Richmond BizSense's story says the total number of those laid off today may be over 50 people.
The Times-Dispatch is laying off between 20 and 25 editorial staffers and 30 non-newsroom employees, according to a handful of sources close to the matter. Around a dozen of the laid off reporters each had decades of experience. It’s also possible that the paper will cut the food section, according to one source.
Update: The newspaper itself has a story on the layoffs -- "Richmond Times-Dispatch eliminates 31 open positions and lays off 59 employees."

Update II: A blogger connected to the news about the news reacts -- click here.

With advertising revenues a paltry fraction of what they were just a year ago the newspaper's owner, Media General, finds itself in the same boat with newspaper publishers coast-to-coast. While it figures out what the hell to do in the long run, it must cut costs.

At least management waited until after April Fools' Day. Times are tough all over. Some of us writers wish we had a job to worry about losing.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Frederick, a fool for all seasons?

April Fool? Sure, there are plenty of candidates for this year's most obvious fool on the Virginia political landscape.
But from where I sit one face stands out as the Commonwealth's April Fool poster-boy of 2009: Jeffrey Frederick, the current chairman of the Virginia Republican Party.

Not in looks, but in attitude, Frederick reminds me a little bit of Sen. William Scott, Virginia's outrageously fool-like, one-term senator in the 1970s. The day before Nixon resigned in 1974, Scott sought out reporters to tell them he knew, from inside info, that Nixon would not cave in to the pressure and resign.

With Scott (1915-97) long gone, who better than Jeff "What, Me Worry?" Frederick, who appears quite prepared to be a fool for all seasons? At least, until the wise heads in the GOP make him go away.

On April Fools' Day, of all days, with this post, perhaps SLANTblog has set a new record for bipartisan agreement under its masthead.

-- Caricature by F.T. Rea

Crunching the baseball stadium numbers

Like some other longtime baseball fans in Richmond, Charlie Diradour is against the Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium deal. His Back Page piece in this week's STYLE Weekly details some of why he doesn't want professional baseball to leave The Boulevard.
But the deal simply doesn’t add up. First, Highwoods’ projected retail and restaurant development is outlandishly overconfident. The developer’s claim that it can build 192,400 square feet worth of retail and restaurants, and generate more than $78 million in sales, is simply not feasible. This is important because the sales revenues generate the taxes needed to pay for the ballpark.
As a person well-versed in real estate matters, Diradour offers a perspective that some who dream of building an amusement park/baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom may be overlooking. Click here to read Diradour's argument against baseball in The Bottom.
Then there's Garry Krantz's new feature on the baseball stadium project in Richmond Magazine.
The pitch sounds simple, but therein lies the curveball. Revenue projections are speculative, and Highwoods Properties’ executives have yet to disclose a single retail or other prospective business tenant for the complex. And while it continues to tout the project in public meetings with city residents, at press time Highwoods Properties had yet to submit formal development proposals to the city. The developers gave the city’s administration an Aug. 1 deadline to sign a letter of intent to progress with the project, placing it under Council’s consideration.
Click here to read the entire Richmond Magazine piece, which offers an overview of this issue that may be useful, especially to a reader not familiar with some of its history.

Click here to read my call for a referendum to settle this issue.