Archive for 2012

“Be Alert for Foul Balls!”

19 September 2012

Sunday, September 16, Cubs versus Pirates at Wrigley Field, bottom of the 7th inning. Chris Leroux pitching, Luis Valbuena at the plate. On a 2-1 count, Valbuena hit a screaming foul ball down the right field line and into the stands just beyond the visiting team’s dugout. WGN briefly showed a woman sitting in her seat, shocked, surprised, quite still, surrounded by people all looking her way with concerned looks on their faces. Then the television cut away, and Len Kasper made the usual-yet-earnest comment about “we hope that fan is all right.”

Umpire crew chief Joe West, stationed at first base, called “time”—and for a few minutes Kasper, Bob Brenly, and “guest conductor” Lee Smith vamped about the wisdom of suspending play momentarily while the fan could be checked out, and more importantly while everyone around her was distracted by the activity. It is a smart decision, and no surprise it came from West, whose 34-year tenure makes him the most veteran of active umpires in the majors. After all, no one wants to be the umpire that called “play ball” only to have another fan get hit by a ball because they were watching the stadium crew help someone else. Meanwhile WGN, like most sports broadcasters, took the courteous and privacy-respecting route and did not show the (possibly injured) fan again.

Of course there is no mention of the incident in any coverage of the game, no way of finding out what happened or if she’s all right.

There’s nothing unusual about any of this, but what set me to thinking about it was a moment an inning or two earlier. As a left-handed batter approached the batter’s box the television showed, in the background, a family in the front couple of rows just to the home-plate side of the visitors’ dugout. Mere feet from the short brick wall—and beyond the protection of the backstop safety netting—were two little kids. Each about three years old, goofing around, having a blast at the ballpark, their elders amused by their antics, just a little scene of pure, “take me out to the ball game” joy.

And yet—both of those children had their backs to the field. They had not the slightest clue of what was happening there. If the foul ball blast that hit the woman an inning or two later would have gone toward one of those kids, no one would have been close enough or have had time enough to react. That ball at that velocity hits a kid in the back of the head, that kid is dead. Period.

It raises a question that has been raised by many before me: how prevalent are spectator injuries in baseball? Among the big-league sports I suspect that baseball and hockey are the two most dangerous with respect to spectator safety, and I’ll wager that baseball is more dangerous than hockey due to my anecdotal impression that more balls than pucks leave the field of play.

How dangerous? Hard to say. Major League Baseball has never undertaken a study of this—or at least never made one public—and for good reason. For MLB to pay close attention to the phenomenon it might give the impression that the league thinks there’s something of an epidemic, and that could cast a harsh light upon MLB’s “assumption of risk” defense.

Warning sign at Wrigley Field. I am not a fan of these signs; in my opinion the levity of the image undermines the seriousness of the warning. Photo by wallyg.You see, MLB ballclubs (and minor-league and independent ballclubs too) engage in what’s generally considered to be a reasonable level of spectator safe-keeping: backstop netting; plexiglas shields atop low, close-in walls; signs and public address messages warning about the risk of foul balls, etc. But beyond that the assumption of risk all lies upon the fans. It’s even printed on the back of every ticket, in boldface albeit extraordinarily tiny letters: “Holder assumes all risk incidental to the game of baseball… including (but not exclusively) the danger of being injured by or in connection with any broken or released bat or any thrown or batted ball. Holder agrees [ballclub, et al.] are not liable for any resulting injuries.” In other words you enter the ballpark at your own risk, and your use of this ticket constitutes agreement to those terms.

Personally, I think that’s fair. I know the risk, yet consider the entertainment value of attending a live game to be worth that risk. On those (rare) occasions I get seats close to the field, I am acutely aware of the danger and make sure to maintain a high level of attention to the game. If I wanted to go to the game more for the social aspects, to hobnob with friends and shoot the breeze and enjoy Wrigley’s vaunted “huge beer garden” atmosphere, I’d prefer seats much farther from the action so I don’t have to worry about high-velocity foul balls (and broken bats, another issue altogether).

But back to the question: How dangerous? Well, one frequently cited study—which everyone cites but I cannot find online—“gives the incidence of injuries to MLB fans from foul balls as 35.1 injuries per every million spectator visits.” One site that mentions it equates this to 350 injuries in one season for a ballpark with 10 million total visitors, but I think this figure is—aside from dumbfoundingly obvious math—as disingenuous and obfuscating as the original. No ballpark, not even Yankee Stadium, comes close to even half of that 10-million total.

How about this, instead: at Wrigley Field, with a typical near-sold-out attendance on the order of 40,000 fans, there would be an average of 1.4 injuries PER GAME.

In other words, every game that’s played at Wrigley results in an injury to a fan. On average, that is; and assuming that study is accurate.

But who knows? Because MLB isn’t saying, and the broadcasters are keeping mum, purportedly out of politeness to the injured. (A cynic might point out that the broadcasters undoubtedly want to play nice with their teams with which they have such lucrative contracts, and I would not be surprised if there was some kind of gentleman’s agreement there, however tacit, like the good old days when newspapers refrained from printing photographs of FDR in his wheelchair.)

Which is not to accuse anyone of some sort of evil collusion. Like I said, in my opinion the ballclubs are doing what’s appropriate with regard to fan safety, and it’s encumbent upon us as fans to take some personal responsibility for our own well-being.

That said, I would most definitely subscribe to a weekly newsletter that published a run-down of all the fan injuries in Major League Baseball. Something simple, not too detailed or privacy-invading… “Sunday, 9/16, Pirates v. Cubs at Wrigley Field, bottom 7th, Luis Valbuena batting; woman struck in arm, refused treatment.” Or (and this is for real), “Friday, 7/6, Reds v. Padres at Petco Park, bottom 2nd, Will Venable batting; man struck in shoulder WHILE UPDATING FACEBOOK STATUS, nothing broken.” (That guy’s lucky not to be in the hospital or worse, and he knows it.) Heck, even just a stats line would be interesting: “This week: 95 games played, 3028 foul balls, 6 minor injuries, 1 injury requiring treatment, 0 deaths.”

This is not something meant to call out MLB for a possible epidemic it’s ignoring—serious injuries are, it seems, relatively uncommon, and deaths are exceedingly rare. Instead it would be meant to raise public awareness of the need for alertness while at the ballpark. Best of all, maybe it would save us all from the day when we find ourselves watching and enjoying a game, only to see some family’s day turn instantly from joy to tragedy as their little towheaded lad’s skull is crushed by a ball that would otherwise, under better and more attentive circumstances, be merely a “line drive out of play,” and a game-day souvenir.

 

Canning the “smart cans” for a while (if not longer)

10 April 2012
Categories: Chicago

Vanishing actEarlier this week, the trash can disappeared from the street corner near my office. The only sign of its prior existence: two quartets of severed bolts protruding from the darkened pavement, their shiny tops a bright testament to their recent rendezvous with a reciprocating saw.

Chicago Tribune article explains the disappearance: it was a BigBelly “smart can,” and it was deemed a potential hazard to next month’s NATO summit.

This raised all sorts of questions for me.

Are the BigBelly cans a good idea?

Yes, I think so. They’re solar-powered, so they require no infrastructure to install: just plant and go. Their internal compactors mean that they have much greater capacity than ordinary cans, and their output will take up less space in a landfill, which is a huge issue for the city these days. Also, according to the Trib, they send an email when they get full, a system that appears to result in quick response—in addition to its labor-saving benefit to workers that only have to empty cans that need emptying. Fuel savings and reduced air pollution are other positive factors. This is a technology that works.

How much of that labor-saving benefit is now being negated by having to remove the BigBelly cans, and later re-install them?

A lot, I’ll bet. Most of it, maybe—the cans were only installed a year ago. And yes, the work is being done by city workers so we’re all paying for it. Meanwhile who knows when, if ever, the smart cans—which cost nearly $4,000 each, part of a $2.5 million deal—will return to Chicago’s downtown streets. (“When the city’s public safety departments have deemed it appropriate to do so,” says the Streets&San spokesperson. Uh-huh.)

But isn’t the city right in thinking them less easy to check “for anything dangerous”?

Are we safe yet?Well, yes, I suppose so. With their drop-box hatches it’s not all that easy to view the contents of BigBelly cans. But aside from that, they’re not all that much more opaque than old-fashioned wire baskets, as the photo at right shows—the wire baskets house solid plastic inserts. Let’s be realistic: it is, unfortunately, not that difficult to make an effective, er, “dangerous anything” that can be readily camouflaged as innocuous-looking garbage, such that any wire basket more than half-filled with trash will conceal it from all but the most thorough checks (i.e., dumping everything out and sorting through it).

So, if it’s not likely to make much of a safety difference, why do it?

Here’s the rub: if something hidden in a wire basket goes bang and hurts people, the word is that it was hidden “in a trash container.” If it goes bang in a BigBelly can, that brand name is splashed all over every headline—right above a big colour photo of mayhem and destruction. In short, this is all a matter of pre-emptive face-saving on the part of the city, which has an option to buy many more BigBelly cans in the future.

I don’t blame the city for doing this; I really think it’s in our best interest, although I’m still a little disappointed to see these neat pieces of smart tech vanish from the streets. But let’s not pretend it’s going to make anyone any safer. It’s no substitute for what’s really needed, which is for every member of the public to take personal responsibility for public safety: to maintain awareness, to report suspicious activity, to “see something, say something.”

And finally, the big question few in this town ever seem to see fit to ask…

Which of former Mayor Daley’s friends and/or family made a buck off the BigBelly deal?

Come on, you know that’s what makes this “The City That Works.”

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, et al, by John le Carré

20 March 2012
Categories: From the armchair

I have of late become totally obsessed with the spy novels of John le Carré.

I started with his classic The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, a paragon of the genre, then went straight into Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—wanting to finish it before checking out the latest film adaptation starring Gary Oldman. That book was so riveting that I don’t think I’ll be able to stop at least until I finish the entire “Karla Trilogy,” and as such I am now well into The Honourable Schoolboy.

The thing that so fascinates me about these books—aside from the mere fact of their high literary quality—is this: I think we’ve all gotten used to the notion that a “spy thriller” is what we get from James Bond or Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan. To wit, a contiguous sequence of action set-pieces; squealing tires and machine gun staccato and elaborate fisticuffs and a massive explosion at the end. But le Carré uses almost none of these tropes. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is bookended with brief moments of violence, but that’s it for “action” as we’ve come to expect.

His actors aren’t supermen, nor indestructible forces of nature; they’re real people, human, fallible, prone to doubts and fears and errors. The stakes are high, so they tread carefully—and when a colleague dies, they feel the loss deeply. They don’t steel their jaws and move on in vengeful stoicism; they cry.

What happens in these novels is, for the most part, people sitting in rooms talking. Or walking together and talking. Or just… thinking about things. Much of the action takes place off-stage, while we learn of it through someone (usually George Smiley) sitting at a desk and reading the pages of an agent dossier or case report.

And yet—it’s all so gripping. There’s tension on every page, and the build-up to the climax (albeit often a quiet, sitting-in-rooms-talking kind of climax) keeps the pages turning. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is almost a mystery novel, rather than a spy novel, as Smiley gathers the clues that allow him to expose the mole within the Circus. As a protagonist, he’s closer to Jane Marple than James Bond. When, toward the end of the novel, he carries a gun, it’s almost shocking. You don’t want him to have to be so uncouth as to have to arm himself, let alone squeeze the trigger. But you root for him all the way nevertheless.

On top of that, there’s the fact that the author himself worked for the British intelligence services for many years. The sense of reality contained in his tales is so deep that I have to remind myself that these books are not historical non-fiction; that George Smiley didn’t really exist; that MI6 was not infiltrated by Soviet moles in the 1970s and very nearly brought to its knees (at least, so far as we know).

And it’s clear to me that the real world of spycraft is much more like the world of le Carré and George Smiley, all research and information-gathering and thinking, than it is like James Bond or Jason Bourne. And that makes these novels all the more interesting and exciting.

How to make the perfect grilled cheese — without killing yourself

3 March 2012
Categories: Uncategorized

In Episode 45 of the ever-entertaining, always-informative podcast How To Do Everything, guest contributor McKay Marshall gave his technique on “How to make the perfect grilled cheese.”

I found his method to be dangerous and scary. Not saying it’s wrong, but it is for experts only. Grabbing ingredients on the fly, using a pan that’s “as hot as you can get it,” his inversion technique for flipping—these all need someone who knows what he or she is doing and can work at a short-order cook’s pace, not to mention a spatula that is shaped to allow you to invert a pan over it without the risk of burned fingers.

One of the How-To guys (Ian, I think) said this “high-action method” was “making [him] tense.” It did me, too. They likened it to mixing a drink à la Tom Cruise in Cocktail. But when you screw that up, you spill booze and break bottles. Screw up Marshall’s grilled cheese method, and you’re throwing around scalding hot oil and melted cheese. Next stop, burn unit.

My method takes only slightly longer, but anyone can do it with very little kitchen expertise. To paraphrase “The Tortoise and the Hare,” low and slow wins this race.

Start with your mise en place—a French chef’s way of saying “get your shit together.” Butter one side of bread, set it butter-side up on your work surface, then butter the next slice and set it on top of the first, buttered sides facing each other. This back-to-back layout keeps you from getting butter on everything, and now you have an open-faced area on which to put your cheese—grated cheese will melt better than slices—and any add-ons. (As an aside, my favorite addition is roasted green chiles from a can.)

Meanwhile, heat up your pan at a setting only one or two notches above simmer at most. I highly recommend a cast-iron pan, which does the best job of grilling and also avoids the health risk of dry-heating a non-stick pan. If you must use a non-stick pan, either put the sandwich into a cold pan, or use Marshall’s butter-in-the-pan-not-on-the-bread method.

When everything’s ready, and the pan is hot but not searing, pick up the entire back-to-back sandwich and place it into the pan as if you’re cutting a deck of cards: take the top slice with its cheese and put it on the bottom, and the bottom slice and put it on top, so your sandwich is now fully assembled as it starts to grill.

Cover the pan very loosely with a lid—enough to trap some heat and speed the cheese-melting, but not enough to trap steam and make the bread soggy. By the time the bread is nicely grilled, which will only take a few minutes, the cheese will have begun to melt—this will allow you to flip the sandwich normally. Grill the second side uncovered. While this is happening, you’ll have time to clean up without risk of overcooking the sandwich.

Ten minutes, start to finish, and with any luck no calls to the fire department.

Bigger is Not Better

10 February 2012
Categories: Music appreciation

WXRT (93.1 FM Chicago) is my favorite radio station. Its morning team in particular, Lin Brehmer and Mary Dixon, are the best in the business: informative, insightful, and erudite, and hilarious without ever resorting to the blaring, obvious comedy of other morning shows. It’s a regular part of my weekday-morning routine—and to be frank I find my day a little off-kilter whenever anyone else stands in for Lin or Mary at the mic.

Every year XRT runs a listener poll, which is a great way for the station both to generate listener involvement and to get feedback on its programming. The results are pretty good: of course “Best Albums” and “Best Songs” are not necessarily the best of all the year’s music—they’re the year’s best releases that XRT has been playing. Still, that’s to be expected given the responder base—XRT regular listeners—so there’s nothing inherently wrong with the results in those categories.

I have a major problem, however, with one of the other categories: “Best Concerts.”

The problem is simply one of volume: the bigger the show, the larger the potential number of voters for it, and therefore the more likely it is to make the list—regardless of quality.

Take a look at the 2011 results. I think we can take as a given that people who didn’t see a particular concert are unlikely to vote for it; but that everyone who attended a concert is a potential voter for it. If we assume that each of the top 10 concert events on the list were sold out (a safe bet), we can determine each event’s potential voter base by multiplying the capacity of the venue by the number of shows/nights in the event. When we do this, not one of the events listed has a vote potential of less than about 4,000. (Well, okay, the smallest is 3,880—the capacity of the Chicago Theatre.) The average vote potential for those ten events is over 60,000.

Multiple shows, such as Wilco’s 5-night, venue-hopping “residency,” are lumped in together as a single event, regardless of whether a voter meant the incredible first-night show with Mavis Staples at the Civic Opera House, or the intimate final-night appearance at Lincoln Hall. This is about the only way smaller venues will appear on the list. (Last year, Buddy Guy’s 16-night residency at his own Legends took 3rd place: a very small venue—550 capacity—but a lot of shows.) Meanwhile Lollapalooza has placed in the top 5 every year (except 2009, when it took 9th) since it arrived in Chicago in 2005; regardless of how terrific the Coldplay or My Morning Jacket or Foo Fighters sets might have been, Lolla’s 3rd-place finish this year was surely not harmed by having a vote potential of more than a quarter million.

“I put on shows at the Saturn so that the kids can see the stage, afford the tickets, and hear the music. So screw stadiums.” — the immortal Max Wolfe, in Get Crazy

In an interview celebrating Lin Brehmer’s twenty years with XRT (as an aside, congratulations to my “best friend in the whole world”), he stated that among his favorite places to see live music are: Metro, Park West, Old Town School, SPACE, Lincoln Hall, Schubas. As he so concisely and forthrightly put it, “Small is usually best.”

And yet, because of the vote potential of the bigger shows, not one show that played at any of those venues made the “Best Concerts” list—even though four out of Brehmer’s six made XRT’s list of “Best Venues.” That’s because these smaller venues lack vote potential. The most incredible, once-in-a-lifetime show in the history of the universe, appearing for one night at, say, Metro has at most a vote potential of 1,100—and the other venues Brehmer mentioned are smaller still. There’s simply no way for that to compete against any show, good or mediocre, at Soldier Field (65,000), or Wrigley Field (42,000), or Alpine Valley (37,000).

I think XRT should weight its “Best Concerts” results based on vote potential. That, or make it clear to its listeners: these might have been the biggest shows of the year, but they weren’t necessarily the best.

By the way, given that my proposal could undermine Lollapalooza’s dominance of the list, and XRT is a major promoter of both the main event and many of its affiliated “secret” after-hours shows, I have no expectation that XRT will do anything other than utterly ignore this argument.