Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Special Comment: Chicago Cubs 2013 Report Card

Today I was perusing some old posts and I came across this one.  It was written nearly two years ago and I have not written on the Cubs since.  I felt it was important to point out a couple clever things from it:

(1) "#2: Trading Sean Marshall

Sean Marshall was the lone bright spot on the extremely disappointing team last season (aside from Starlin). He was one of the best relievers in baseball. The Cubs got Travis Wood in return. I think he’s a starter, or something, and they needed one? Regardless, it shows that Theo has no idea what he is doing."

Update: Travis Wood turned out to be a pretty good move, so I forgive Theo for that.

(2) "I hope Wrigley Field falls a hundred thousand visitors short this year. I hope real Cubs fans will boycott this team."

Update: Attendance has continued to fall.  Who knew?

I moved back to Chicago after going to law school in New York for three years.  One of the things I was looking forward to was living in a city where other people cared about the same team as me.  I am not a Yankees or Mets or Giants or Jets or Nets or Knicks or Rangers or Islanders fan and the only time I could muster speaking about them was when they were playing a Chicago team.  Sadly, I came back to a team that just made me feel sad and depressed.

I write this because the Cubs have been in the news, a bit, and because the Championship series are in full swing (go Dodgers and Tigers).  There is $500 million in planned renovations for Wrigley Field, and the story is that the team has not even bothered to secure permits to begin the construction work.  Some angry fans suggest demolishing Wrigley Field and moving the team to a "friendlier" outlying neighborhood of Chicago (or out of the city entirely).  I doubt that will happen, but $500 million?  Did I read that right?  This apparently involves installing a large jumbotron which will block views from the rooftops across the street.  Having watched one game from those rooftops I will say that it is an experience that every Cubs fan should have at least once.  I'm glad I got to have mine, but who needs a jumbotron?  Need more advertising revenue?  How come the team seemed to do just fine in the past without these accoutrements?  Some people say that the Ricketts family is to blame (not Theo) and I am tempted to agree!  That two-year-old post referenced at the top of this post bemoaned the loss of Ryne Sandberg, and I am still not over it.  I remember hearing that Tom Ricketts used to sit in the bleachers and watch games, and I thought that was great because I did the same thing.  But did they really grow up fans?  I don't think Theo grew up a Cubs fan either.  

Now I will give a bunch of people grades:

Dale Sveum: D+

Sveum was fired, and two years ago I wrote, "maybe he will be a good manager."  I don't think he was a terrible manager (hence the "+") but I don't think Ryno would have gotten fired.  I read an article in the Sun-Times that said, be happy Sveum is the manager when the Cubs suck because it would be unfair to saddle Sandberg with such a bad team.  Fair enough!  But I still think Sandberg would not have gotten fired.  And let me be clear that I don't blame Sveum for getting fired.  It was practically impossible for him to make this team contend.  But if Theo/Jed/Ricketts have a plan to make this team contend in 2014 (maybe 2015 now?) then they must have known whoever managed 2012 and 2013 would be unlikely to last.  I read they're interviewing Rick Renteria and Dave Martinez.  If they cared about winning they'd be looking at, I don't know, Bob Brenly maybe?  

Alfonso Soriano: B+

For his age, and for his endurance through nearly the end of his contract, Soriano was one of the most reliable players on the team this year.  Notably he was traded to the Yankees for their playoff push and performed admirably, showing that he still could play another year in the majors.  His numbers (.254, 17 HRs, 51 RBI) were not great, but for his age, for playing in 93 games, and compared to the rest of the team, he deserves a B+.  It is too bad he will not be with us next year.  He was my favorite player since he was signed to the team.  

Anthony Rizzo: C-

Rizzo was the first move that Theo made where I thought, "Okay, maybe that is a good way of bringing young talent to the team."  Rizzo had a decent 2012 season, but he had a very disappointing 2013 season.  I doubt people expected him to make the All-Star team, but I was under the impression that he was supposed to be an All-Star caliber player.  He was a rock at first base, playing 160 games, and he drew 76 walks which was good for #1 on the team (along with his numbers in HR and RBI).  But he batted .233.  I am tempted to give him a C, because apart from the low batting average he wasn't exactly horrible, but the minus highlights my cynicism about relying on young unproven talent.  I would still give Rizzo the job starting first base next year but I would ask him to try to improve his average above .250 or maybe even .270.

Starlin Castro: D+

Castro was a bright spot two years ago.  I think he was an All-Star in 2012 but I might be mistaken.  Regardless, no one fell so hard and so fast.  Like Rizzo, there were a couple positives.  He was a rock, playing 161 games and getting 666 (!) at bats, but he batted a meager .245.  He led the team with 163 hits, but he only drew 30 walks and had 129 strike outs.  He was not always the lead-off man, but he is fast, and he only stole 9 bases (Soriano, 14 years older than Castro and playing in nearly 70 less games, stole 10).  I feel harsh giving him a D+ (I just changed that from a C- because I think Rizzo was a better player overall) but I think he deserves it.  Still, like Rizzo, he is one of the "future building blocks" and should start at shortstop next year.  But I would caution that if he doesn't improve by the All-Star break, he should be benched/demoted/traded.  

Nate Schierholtz: B-

Schierholtz was a more respectable version of Rizzo.  He batted .251, and came in 2nd with 21 home runs, and put up 68 RBI.  His on-base-percentage was lower than Rizzo's, so I am starting to feel like I am giving Rizzo too hard of a time.  I don't know what to say about Nate.  I thought it was a fairly good move to pick him up, but I'm not sure if he is still in the Cubs "plans" for 2015

Darwin Barney: D

Oh, Darwin, I really don't want to give you a D because you seem like such a nice person, but I'm sorry, I can't give you a D+.  .208 is just not going to cut it.  Barney was a good fielder (I think he won the Gold Glove in 2012) but his numbers just came up short this year.  Like Castro, give him the starting job again, but if he doesn't turn it around by the All-Star break, start considering how much of this young team should stick around for the impending trip to the World Series in 2015.

Travis Wood: B+

I was tempted to give him an A-, but I can't give that to someone that went 9-12.  Granted, his supporting cast was terrible, but he needs to hit at least .500 to get an A-.  His other numbers were good, and justify his being the lone All-Star on the team this year.  200 IP is what everyone aims for, and he hit it on the nose.  His ERA was a very respectable 3.11.  Wood, along with the Samardzija, should remain at the top of the rotation next year, and few Cubs fans have any complaints about them.

Jeff Samardzija: B

He was more pedestrian with an 8-13 record and a 4.34 ERA, but he threw 213.2 innings and struck out 214 for best on the team.  I don't think it's out of the question for him to make the All-Star team next year but of course, he needs a stronger supporting cast.

Edwin Jackson: C

Jackson was the Cubs biggest off-season acquisition.  Everyone thought he was going to be great--exactly the type of veteran they needed in the back of their pocket for their big run a couple years down the line.  And he did about as good as he could have with a weak offense, but he was also quite a disappointment.  Jackson had his worst season since 2007 with Tampa Bay where he went 5-15.  He went 8-18 and had a 4.98 ERA.  He was reliable, at least, and threw 175.1 innings.  But this was just, not enough.  I watched him pitch a few games where he seemed to "have it" and given that he is locked into a multi-year contract, he will probably take the #3 spot in the rotation next year.  Let us hope he can improve his consistency.

Jake Arrieta: B+

Honestly I don't know who else to name amongst pitchers because I don't know who the other 2 starters were on the team.  It seems like they just kept putting new people into pitch.  But Arrieta started 14 games so I figured he could be included.  He was above .500 (!) but his ERA was 4.78.  Most impressive was his opponent's batting average at .216.  I think he deserves a full year in the rotation, if he can handle it, and who knows maybe he would even bypass Jackson?  Unfortunately I don't know who the #5 starter would be, and I think the Cubs definitely need to pick up one high quality pitcher, if not two.

Wellington Castillo: A-

Sure, he only hit .274, but that was one of the highest averages on the team.  Plus towards the end of the season (right before he got injured to end it) he really seemed to turn it on.  I remember watching him make a very athletic play at home plate to tag out a sliding runner.  Catchers should be most important for calling games and defensive prowess, and Castillo is good at each.  He is my favorite player on the team, so maybe he really deserves a B+ but I give him an A- for personal bias.  

Dioner Navarro: A-

Probably the best player on the team this year.  He hit .300.  Enough said.  He probably deserves a higher grade than Castillo, but like I said, personal bias.  Together, however, these two catchers make up an excellent platoon that does not need to be changed.  And Navarro is the "veteran" who will turn 30 in February.  So the Cubs should keep these two locked up for their run at the pennant.  

Kevin Gregg: B

Sure he blew 5 saves, but that's not so bad for a team that was truly awful.  He complained about getting pulled for a younger closer at the end of the season, but it's nice to see someone care about getting playing time on a team that really didn't matter at that point.  He re-invigorated his career, and was one of the few bright spots this year.

Junior Lake: B+

Young player, only played in 64 games, but hit over .300 for a good part of his time, and ended up at .284.  Really not too much to write about (and that's the problem with this team--I don't want to ignore anyone, but I'm going to have to--this team had too many players with too small of a data set to effectively analyze).  In short, Lake replaced David DeJesus in Center Field.  DeJesus was "solid" and Lake was arguably a better player, if much less experienced.  Hopefully he will grow into a surprise.

Donnie Murphy: B+

I liked Donnie Murphy because right around the time I moved back from New York he was in the middle of his "tear" where he hit 8 home runs in 16 games or something.  He ended up with 11 home runs in 46 games, which is still pretty good.  He hit .255, which is not astounding, but is definitely good for this team.  Also he was a 30-year-old rookie.  So he is my second-favorite player after Castillo, but I fear he may not get as much playing time next year.  Hopefully he is given a chance to start next year.

James Russell: B

A weak 1-6 record for a reliever, but a very respectable 3.59 ERA.  Like I said about Wood and Samardzija, you can't judge these pitchers on their win-loss record.  Russell pitched well enough that he should be a keeper.  And at 27 he should be in his prime.  

Ryan Sweeney: B

Played in just a few games less than Junior Lake and barely merits inclusion in this list, but he hit .266 which is good for this team, and I saw him come up with a big hit or two near the end of the season.  He would be good to keep around as a utility player.  

Kyuji Fujikawa: C

He only pitched in 12 games.  Along with Edwin Jackson, he was a "big news" pickup because he was going to replace Carlos Marmol as the closer.  He saved 2 out of 3 chances.  His ERA was 5.25.  But his data set is too small.

And that is my overall problem with this team.  While many of the players near the end of this list were "okay," it was the big-time everyday players that just did not perform this year.  I can't say bad things about Scott Baker, Brian Bogusevic, Brooks Raley, Luis Valbuena, Carlos Villanueva, or Zac Rosscup.  They were all "okay."  You can't really tell who deserves to stay.  

The fact is this rebuilding effort has yet to give anyone much to be excited about, though Ricketts noted that the Cubs minor-league system is currently ranked #2 in baseball.  That's great, but if 2014 sucks, and attendance falls yet again, maybe they should think about splurging on some big names in 2015.  For some odd reason, I think they can afford to do that.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

We All Sleep in the Same Room - Paul Rome (2013)

That said we never had a creative writing class together, and had we, I would have included him on the short list of best student writers I had read while in attendance at that institution, alongside, oh, Paul Rome, Adam White (technically from Dartmouth), Xenia Viray, and Jordana Rothman--and it bears mentioning that they all came from the same single class out of the eight or so I took.
-Review of Eeeee Eee Eeee (11/26/08)

I don't want to spend this entire review comparing Paul Rome to Tao Lin, but it's unavoidable.  I never had a writing class with Tao, but I had one with Paul.  It would have been fun if all three of us were in that same class--but that above quote suffers from slight inaccuracy: Adam White was not in that class.  I studied with him in Paris in 2003 and he just happened to write a novel while we were there that contained flashes of greatness.  The class to which I was referring was taught by Chris Spain.  I do not want to air dirty laundry but I cannot resist: Mr. Spain did not like me.  During one class, my peers gave comments on a story I had written while I joked quietly with a friend I brought in as a guest of the class (whom I also would list among the "best student writers" I knew if we had not suffered an "epic" falling out two years later).  Mr. Spain did not appreciate my gesture, as he felt it was enormously disrespectful.  He tore into me in the "notes" he handed out during the next class.  His "notes" were classic and I still have most of them saved somewhere.  They were his prescriptions for good writing, though he was always quick to mention that he was probably wrong about everything anyways.  He was very modest.  And in time, of course he was right: I needed more humility.  My ego was too big.  It was good to have too big of an ego, and maybe I would make it big after all, but more likely I would suffer a serious reality check before that happened.  Of course he was right.

Now I realize that 9 1/2 years ago, I had no clue what I was doing.  I majored in Writing and Politics at Gallatin because I liked it when people told me I wrote a good story.  There was no practicality to the matter.  In hindsight it was a colossal waste of $160,000 ($180K?) and I would be much better off today had I gone in for IT or Science or Economics or Business or almost anything else.  I was very much an epicurean.  I lived for the present and did not think of the future, unless it was a future where I was a rich and famous author that got away with being a big slacker throughout most of his adult life.  

Paul Rome acknowledges Chris Spain at the end of We All Sleep in the Same Room, along with a couple other MFA-preppers, saying, "their teachings resonate."  I would have done the same thing in my first novel, except I never wrote an acknowledgments section because nobody ever thought it was good enough to publish.  And to be fair, it is a bit of a mess, and people have told me I am a terrible writer because I do not believe (super-strongly) in the virtues of revision.   I think Paul and I differ on this count:

"After attending NYU's Gallatin School, Rome began his first novel.  Surviving countless edits and multiple formative relationships, We All Sleep in the Same Room is due for release by Rare Bird Books on October 15, 2013." 

That is from the "about the author" section of the press materials I received.  By my count, that is an 8 year gestation period.  And I guess this is where I start with my review: We All Sleep in the Same Room is engaging, humorous, insightful, and memorable.  And it's all over much too soon.

At 179 pages with fairly large type, it reads more like a novella than a novel.  And I have no problem with that!  I subconsciously listed Paul first in that line at the top of this post because the stories he wrote in class seemed effortless.  He has apparently made something of a name for himself in Bushwick with the readings of recent short stories he has written.  I've enjoyed them all!  In particular I remember a funny story about a "bromance" involving bird watching in Prospect Park.  And while this novel has a lovely arc, and builds and builds to a powerful climax, I must admit that I was let down by the ending.

I will do my best to avoid "spoilers" because it is a rare moment on Flying Houses indeed where we review a book two weeks before its release date.  

The main character is Tom Claughlin, a labor lawyer living in Manhattan, near Union Square.  He is married to Raina, and has a 3-year-old son named Ben.  As the novel opens, Tom is watching Ben being carried around by their new babysitter, Frank.  And here it is perhaps worth noting that I am glad Paul includes a male babysitter in the story.  Babysitting is not an equal opportunity profession, and there is little good reason for its rampant sexism.  

I wasn't sure what kind of novel this was going to be when I started it.  It struck me as almost some sort of mystery or detective thing, along the same lines as Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. But in fact it lands squarely in the "literary fiction" category.  

I don't want to give away the plot (it pretty much comes down to a few bad decisions) but the novel splits time between Tom's work life and his home life.  It is written in the first person, and spare.  It flows beautifully.  It reads like a charm.  It's endearing.  It's a pleasure to behold.

But I am sorry.  I cannot get over the ending.  This book has enormous potential and then the ending comes.  Some people may like the ending a lot.  I don't.  I can't help but compare it to "Breaking Bad," since that is the most topical "ending" as of this date.  I liked that ending because it wasn't a WTF ending.  WTF endings sometimes work best, and I have even tried a couple times to use them.  And maybe I'm just getting older, but I like to feel some closure at the end of a book.  Complete and total closure may be too much because a book is sort of different from a movie or TV show--it plays in your mind and seems to exist in a peculiar environment created by both your imagination and the author's.  As such the characters can seem even more real and ending their story can seem like their death and make you sad.

That Paul is able to accomplish this in his first novel is remarkable.  The novel seems plucked out of real life.  I couldn't help but thinking about my cousin and his wife, who are pushing forty and have a four-year-old and a two-year-old and all share a small apartment in Brooklyn Heights.  This vision of "small family life" in NYC is delightful--but it has a certain dark side that I won't get into.  

Usually I like to excerpt the especially beautiful passages, but there's not much I can include.  There's really not.  Like I said, the entire novel is a pleasure to read, and there is such a logical progression from sentence to sentence that nothing ever feels awkward or forced.  I can, however, point out one thing I am almost 100% positive is a mistake:

"'And you're happy for me?'
"I'm taking the bar soon, in January.'
'Wow.  So soon.'" (119)

Tom should be responding, "Really?  I thought you could only take it in February!"  I don't mean to be snarky but I mention this primarily because today I found out that I passed the Illinois Bar Exam.  So this is my own little memento on Flying Houses to remember a special milestone day.  But yes, the bar exam is administered in February and July--and from what I understand the last two days in each (except in California where it is 3 days).  Thus even though this novel takes place in 2005 (Hurricane Katrina is mentioned twice, along with a transit worker's strike) and perhaps it might be theoretically possible for there to be an earlier test date, I highly doubt that.

But to make up for that admittedly minor blunder, there is an excellent account of labor law litigation that I know several of my labor-obsessed classmates would read with interest.  It is a relatively small case, but the way it evokes passion in Tom is one of the highlights of the novel.  I was going to excerpt a passage from the climactic scene, but I will not spoil it.  All I can say is that Paul shies away from the typical portrait of litigation in mass media and goes for something much more realistic.  Perhaps it seems a bit like, "that's it?" but in that case it is true to life.  

In the case of the ending, however, the "that's it?" feeling is much more pernicious (for me, at least).  Because I feel like this novel is close to perfect.  I love the scene in McCarren Park, I love the scene at The Polar Express, I love the scenes at Tom's law firm, and I love the scene at the Christmas Party.  And then, something happens.  We don't exactly know what.  The reader can guess.  But it's not clear that's what really happened.  

Thus, We All Sleep in the Same Room suffers only from its WTF ending.  As I've said, I could be completely wrong about this.  I know the MFA contingent is a fan of WTF endings, but I don't know where Paul fits in with the MFA contingent.  He has not gotten his MFA and the question is, is he going to?  

When I reviewed Eeeee Eee Eeee, I interviewed Tao Lin.  I kind of wanted to interview Paul, too.  But I don't have many questions for him.  I would just ask him if he was going to get his MFA.  I'd imagine not.  Most people seem to do that to get their first book published.  Paul did it on his own.  And he did a good job of it.  Why get the MFA?  Because you can always improve your writing?  Maybe, but I know that 9 1/2 years ago Paul was a natural and nothing has changed.  I would not be surprised if Paul follows this up with a collection of short stories, since I would expect him to have a pretty good portfolio by now.  

But the big, big, big question: who is better--Paul or Tao?  Tao is an acquired taste.  Truthfully, Tao is more of an original, just because of the bonkers marketing machine that is his internet presence.  Paul is more of a "one size fits all" writer.  I don't want to say one writer is better than the other, but I will say that We All Sleep in the Same Room is better than Eeeee Eee Eeeee and Richard Yates and about as good as Shoplifting from American Apparel.  I have not read Taipei, though to be fair Tao did try to send it to me, but it is published by Vintage (i.e. "big-time") and Vintage does not care about Flying Houses (though Random House may...).  I have read that Taipei is Tao's best book yet, and that perhaps should be compared to this.  But it will need to wait.

Regardless of who is better, let Paul Rome become as famous as Tao Lin.  Let all of the NYU alumni of the Class of 2005 go on to fantastic, wonderful lives and careers where they create beautiful art.  I will look forward to reading all of Paul's work and I hope he goes on to construct a powerful oeuvre.  It is at least fun for me to pretend I was friends with people before they got famous.