The ballad of Malcolm Reynolds

*****

“Mal: Ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is?… Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I’m about to say.”

River: “I do. …but I like to hear you say it.”

Mal: “…Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turn of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens, makes her a home.”

*****

“You’d like Firefly. Forrest is a lot like Mal.”

My (internet) friend, Cathy, told me this several years ago, before I’d discovered Firefly. ‘Forrest’ was a character I’d written- an introspective, thoughtful, somewhat tortured sort.

Cathy had described some great one liners from the show, and I commented that this “Mal” actually seemed to resemble ‘Travian’ (another character I’d written) a lot more. Someone who was more prone to one-liners than Forrest.

I have a hard time describing why I love Firefly to anyone who’s not familiar with the show. It does hit a lot of my weaknesses: it’s science fiction, in space, with quick, clever dialogue, and characters that are more than they appear.

But one of the reasons was the main character, the captain, who was both thoughtful and sarcastic: Malcolm Reynolds. Capable of deep, resonating quotes like the above, and dispensing wit with a wink. The fact that he was an amalgamation of characters I already wrote and enjoyed greased the wheels for a love and appreciation I have a hard time explaining. But I’ll try anyway.

 

*****

Simon: “I’m trying to put this as delicately as I can: How do I know you won’t kill me in my sleep?”

Mal: “You don’t know me son, so let me explain this to you once. If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.”

Simon: “…Are you always this sentimental?”

Mal: “I had a good day.”

*****

Cathy was close. It wasn’t just that he was what I was writing; it was that I was writing someone I wanted to be, in many ways, and he was close to that.

Malcolm Reynolds was a complex character. Looking and acting so much the hero, even as early on in the series it’s established that his ship and crew (on a SPAAAAAACEship) were criminals, acting outside the law, taking jobs to survive in a spread out universe. Are they right or wrong? It’s not black and white. In Firefly, the governing Alliance is presented as an omnipresent bureaucracy, cold and unfeeling, and would be easy to paint as the villains. But it’s not that simple. Even in the first episode, as Mal and the ‘good ship Serenity’ get away, it’s only because they trick the Alliance into thinking there’s people in trouble elsewhere.

When I first got into Firefly, I’d grown up on Star Trek, and was at a place where I was probably disillusioned with it. I’ve gone into that before, so I’ll summarize my problems with Trek here: I’d seen all the stories, and knew how they were going to end. There was nothing new in the universe that could be presented to me. The conflicts were flat, and the characters mostly repetitive. Occasional brilliance could not mask what I saw as a lack of creativity.

The characters I wrote, even in the Star Trek setting, were something of a reflection of that frustration: they were good, but not without their warts. One character I wrote, Forrest, was with a rebellion, but a “good person”, and constantly debating his own place in that rebellion. Travian, the other one, was with Starfleet (the “good guys”), but a mischievious, wisecracking person, who didn’t always play by the rules, and had dark secrets of his own.

I could easily overanalyze the how and why of the characters, the Trek universe, and what it had to do with me liking Firefly. Were those characters my own frustration, playing out in prose? Or did I see my own universe as complex, as more than rules and regulations and good and bad? Was I trying to figure out my own life through art? Was I seeing what I wanted to see?

Perhaps that was the case. But Firefly didn’t need my existential conflict for me to love it, and nor did Mal Reynolds need my own fictional avatars for me to admire him.

*****

Mal: “Well, would you look at this. Appears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?”

Zoe: “Big damn heroes, sir.

Mal: “Ain’t we just.”

*****

Cathy was right: I liked Mal. I liked his cleverness, his steel, his smirk, the way he inspired people. I admired the complexity of the character, of the Firefly universe, how even in the middle of a normally dramatic situation (as above, during a rescue), they were cracking one-liners. It was a perfect reflection of the age I grew up in, which prized sarcastic detachment in any situation.

I wanted that detachment. I wanted Mal’s toughness, his leadership, the way he inspired people. As someone who struggled socially, who struggles in relationships, I wanted to seem cool, and collected, because I was never that. Mal was who I aspired to be, in a lot of ways. I fed off his wit, and through the lens of the show, saw how that detachment really affected him, how emotional he really was. I saw his struggle with intimacy, with relationship, and saw so much in there that I related to. That was me. Or least, that was who I wanted to be.

I would never be the hero, the leader who got respect like he did, strapping and decisive and clever. I would never live on a spaceship. But there was so much of Mal Reynolds I admired, so much I wanted to be, and so much of him I stole without even knowing I had. I knew the character before Firefly, in the avatars I’d already written.

*****

Simon: “You had the Alliance on you. Criminals and savages. Half the people on the ship have been wounded or shot at- including yourself- and you’re harbouring known fugitives.”

Mal: “We’re still flying.”

Simon: “That’s not much.”

Mal: “It’s enough.”

*****

Mal was a lone wolf, or at least he tried to be. That hit me too. Growing up, I isolated myself in some ways. Sometimes due to anxiety and fear, and sometimes because it was what the loner in me wanted. I got more comfortable in my own skin as I grew up, but I still wanted the ability to separate from a situation when it was murkier than I wanted. It was easier to stew in my thoughts and emotions than confront them. That caused me trouble, and more than likely cost me some friends.

One way good characters really impact me when I see myself reflected in them, or see what I want to be embodied in them. Firefly had wonderful characters, much beyond the lead, who were all relateable, in their own strange way. And the stories, for the one season it existed, were both familiar and original. There was a depth to the universe, to the plots, that hooked me right away. For a time, I could escape and get caught up in this place, this futuristic, wonderful universe, that was still somehow down to earth (that-was). The fact that it was only one season and one movie probably enhanced the legend, made the quality of it stand out more.

I would probably have enjoyed Firefly even if Malcolm Reynolds was different, or less effective. I’d probably still go to Firefly marathons every few years, and start Firefly quote trees on my Facebook wall every so often, and share these terrible in-jokes about the series with fellow geeks who loved the show. There was a lot to love about it, and I probably didn’t go enough into that here, for this post that will likely be my manifesto for Why I Love Firefly.

But much like the crew of the good ship Serenity, I found myself drawn to Mal Reynolds- the character, the man, and what he represented. He and the other characters on Firefly drew me to it, as much as anything else there. I can still easily get lost in Firefly; in a fun, imaginative, but still very relable universe, which still inspires me to this day.

*****

Mal: “Y’all got on this boat for different reasons, but y’all have come to the same place. And now I’m askin’ more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this- they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean.  A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. But I do not hold to that.”

“So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.”

MLB 2K14

BASEBAAAAAAAAAAAAAALL

(* for wildcards)

AMERICAN LEAGUE

EAST

1. Red Sox – Smart, deep, and talented, basically the worst.

2. Rays* – Good at baseball, but also the worst, because they employ criminals.

3. Yankees – That infield could be the worst.

4. Orioles – Used to be the worst, then started getting kinda good.

5. Jays – Actually the worst, but could be better if they aren’t super unlucky.

CENTRAL

1. Tigers – Will probably sign Stephen Drew or something because they know how to act like a big market team.

2. Royals - I’ve got a feeling.

3. Indians – That tonight’s gonna be a good night.

4. White Sox – That tonight’s gonna be a good night.

5. Twins – That tonight’s gonna be a good good night alright I’ll stop.

WEST

1. A’s – Some injuries, sure, but they do this (almost) every year.

2. Angels* – Rebound potential in the lineup, though pitching still iffy.

3. Rangers – Might pass the Angels with some luck, but early injuries hurt them worse.

4. Mariners – Need more hitting.

5. Astros – The grand, awful experiment continues.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

EAST

1. Nationals – Back on top, baby!

2. Braves – Arms blowing out all over the place, could be a problem.

3. Phillies – The long, slow decline continues.

4. Mets – Some excitement, but need some more time.

5. Marlins – See above, except less good.

CENTRAL

1. Cardinals – Really, really good, you guys.

2. Reds* – Losing Choo, but pitching’s good.

3. Pirates – Sensing a fallback with Burnett gone, and Lirano (probably) worse.

4. Brewers – A full year of Braun gets them closer.

5. Cubs – Building, but not there yet.

WEST.

1. Dodgers – Way better than anyone else in the division.

2. Giants* – Like the Hudson signing for them.

3. Diamondbacks – Whatever hit the Braves pitchers hit them too.

4. Rockies – Not sure what’s going on here.

5. Padres – The least exciting name goes with what might be the least exciting team (non-Jays division).

Revisionist history: MLB 2K13

Clearing out the draft folder, looking back at terrible predictions. This may not be fun. Old in italics, new not. I haven’t updated with offseason stuff, I’ll save that for when I do previews.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

EAST

1. Rays – Portrayed as the plucky underdog, but that pitching staff has some thunder.

Actual finish: Second, won wild card game. Pitching staff fell off a little, offense struggled, but the Rays kept doing Rays things, finding guys off the scrap heap and getting every last bit of value out of them (including former Jays Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson). They’ll rinse and repeat until the pipeline of young talent stops.

2. Blue Jays* – Offseason winners after flashing some cash, but will be a very tight race.

Actual finish: Last. Everything that could go wrong did: Injuries and ineffectiveness out of the gate and throughout the year doomed the Jays. R.A. Dickey wasn’t an ace, Josh Johnson wasn’t even passable, and Brandon Morrow was hurt. Dead spots at 2B, LF, and C didn’t help, but the starting pitching was the biggest problem, and needs to be addressed (again).

3. Yankees – Lost a lot of punch, getting older/worse/hurt.

Actual finish: Third. At least this was kind of close, with injuries and age finally starting to show up for the Bronx Bombers. Eeven the reliable C.C. Sabathia started to slow down. Even if they re-sign Robinson Cano, they might have another couple years of bottoming out before being good again.

4. Red Sox – Not far off, but need some luck to make the postseason.

Actual finish: First, won World Series. The Red Sox are familiar with the Blue Jays’ plight, having been very unlucky last year (though having Bobby Valentine at manager didn’t hurt that). They may have overachieved some, but there is legitimate talent as well, and they didn’t overpay for what they got in the offseason. Aaaaaand they won it all. I’m almost at the point where I can say that rationally.

5. Orioles – Surprised a lot of teams last year, it won’t happen again.

Actual finish: Fourth. Their placement in the division is mildly misleading, as the Orioles are also a legitimately good baseball team, having grown some talent to go along with the close game luck they got in 2012. Some legitimate starting pitching would go a long way to putting them in the class with the Red Sox and Rays at the top.

CENTRAL

1. Tigers – Victor Martinez coming back and Torii Hunter coming in helps solidify their hold on the division.

Actual finish: First. Great pitching, good lineup, easy division. Max Scherzer being better than Justin Verlander is mildly terrifying going forward for a team that didn’t really need another ace-level pitcher. Given the weakness of the division, the Tigers should be good for a while.

2. Indians – Did good waiting out top free agents, but still need some pitching.

Actual finish: Second, won wild card game. The Indians rode surprising contributions from an unheralded starting staff and rode out disappointing seasons from their big money acquisitions (Bourn, Swisher) to a late season run that got them into the second wildcard. They’ll need to keep grooming young talent to stay here, but this has to be counted as a successful season for the Indians.

3. White Sox – Lost a couple pieces, need some help from replacements to go higher.

Actual finish: Last. Everyone got old at the same time in Chicago, except for beleagured ace Chris Sale, far and away the team’s best pitcher. With the old guard moving on, and a shallow minor league system, the White Sox may need to bottom out before getting better.

4. Royals – A curious offseason, trading one of the game’s best prospects for a good (but not great) starter.

Actual finish: Third. Hard to tell if this was a successful season or not for Kansas City, who elbowed their way into wildcard contention late on the backs of hot starting pitching. Shields and Santana worked as well as they could have, and Kansas City finished above .500. This might be the peak for them, and they need to improve to really contend for the postseason.

5. Twins – Barren farm system just starting to get restocked, and the major league club is a disaster.

Actual finish: Fourth. Turns out there was a team worse in the Central than the Twins, but less than 70 wins in a cupcake division isn’t much to celebrate. They’ve finally started to build again, and are now waiting for the high ceiling talent they started drafting a few years ago to bear fruit.

WEST

1. A’s – Won the division last year, and the two closest teams got worse.

Actual finish: First. Pretty happy to call this, even if outside of the easy logic I went with, it’s hard to see how they won the division with traditional measurements. Great depth across the board and unexpected no-name contributors (hello, Josh Donaldson) drove the second best team (by record) in the American League.

2. Angels* – Killer lineup, and some questions about the pitching staff.

Actual finish: Third. So much for that lineup. Mike Trout is still amazing, but Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols had bad seasons, and it’s uncertain as to whether they’ll ever live up to their big money contracts. And yes, the pitching stunk. There’s work to do in Anaheim before they’ll be good again.

3. Rangers – Strange to see the Rangers with good pitchers and uncertain hitting, usually that’s Anaheim’s thing.

Actual finish: Second. A late season rally got the Rangers into the second wild card tiebreaker, but they lost, and it might cost Ron Washington his job. There are arguments for that, but the Rangers’ fall had more to do with how much hitting they lost between the offseason (Hamilton, Mike Napoli) and in-season (Nelson Cruz). They’ve got a great organization, so they won’t be down for long.

4. Mariners – Extending Hernandez a great idea, but went after the wrong bats.

Actual finish: Fourth. So the all bats thing played out about as well as most people expected, and the improvement in offense (marginal)led to a downfall in defense. The pitching might be decent, and there’s some young talent here, but they might need a year or two before challenging the As and Rangers.

5. Astros – Beating the Twins out for the worst AL team this year, but bottoming out is probably the right idea.

Actual finish: Last. Yeah, they’re awful. Maybe this bottoming out thing will work- after several years of a barren farm system, it was probably the right call, but it’s a pain to watch. They have some young talent, but for now, they’re an automatic series victory for the majority of baseball.

National League

EAST

1. Nationals – Will be staring down at the division for a while, I think.

Actual finish: Second. A late run couldn’t quite salvage a dissapointing season in Washington. Some hitters underachieved, and occasional injuries kept them from what many assumed was a straightforward path to winning the NL East. There’s talent here, but there’s more to do before they’re back on top.

2. Braves* – Losing Chipper hurts, but the machine will keep rolling without him.

Actual finish: First. A hot start gave the Braves a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, despite an abysmal year from free-agent signing B.J. Upton. Pitching continues to be an organizational strength, and will keep them contending for a while as long as Jason Heyward and Justin Upton keep hitting.

3. Phillies – The solution for them wasn’t to keep getting older.

Actual finish: Third. The Phillies may actually- really- be starting a rebuild now, with a few late season trades, and Roy Halladay having broken down. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels will be rotation centerpieces, but with the entire infield getting creaky, this is a team in decline.

4. Mets – Will stay out of the basement (barely)…

Actual finish: Fourth. They did, in fact, stay out of the basement, and by more than I anticipated, courtesy of young pitchers Zach Wheeler and Matt Harvey, among other highly touted prospects. Harvey’s UCL injury puts next year’s progression in doubt, and the Mets need some hitting to go with their young flamethrowers to get anywhere.

5. Marlins – …Mostly because these guys sold EVERYONE to Toronto- thanks!

Actual finish: Last. The biggest difference between the Marlins and the Astros is that the Marlins are further along, and have some talent at the major league level (Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Fernandez). There’s still a couple years of growing, but there’s reason for all 12 remaining Marlins fans to be excited.

CENTRAL

1. Cardinals – A great lineup, solid pitching, and excellent prospects ready to step in.

Actual finish: First, lost World Series. This year went almost according to plan for  St. Louis in a surprisingly competitive division, as they kept graduating talented pitchers to the major league level behind an excellent team. The young pitching will keep them great for a while, even in a tough division.

2. Reds* - Not a slight on them, they should be with the Cardinals almost step-for-step.

Actual finish: Third, lost wild card game. Another good season for the Reds ends in disappointment with a wild card loss to the surprising Pirates. The addition of Shin Soo Choo made their offense elite, though their defense and pitching lagged behind. They might need some youth to stay competitive.

3. Pirates - Have started hot and faded the last couple years, figure that doesn’t change.

Actual finish: Second, won wild card game. The Pirates flipped the script a little, riding a hot start and challenging the Cardinals and Reds all the way, managing to sneak into the wild card game. Even with a playoff loss, this season is a success for Pittsburgh. Questions in the rotation remain, but they’re well positioned going forward.

4. Brewers – Have lost a lot of talent the last couple of offseasons.

Actual finish: Fourth. No surprises hear either, as the Brewers struggled to a fourth place finish. The suspension of Ryan Braun for PEDs didn’t help, but it’s unlikely that he would have made much of a difference. Though Braun will be here for a while, they’ll need a lot of reinforcements to make up ground.

5. Cubs – Still a long ways to go.

Actual finish: Last. Though this was another painful year in Chicago, the building plan is in place, and the path is clear. The trade of Matt Garza brought in more young assets, though a tougher Central division makes the climb a little more uphill for the Cubs.

WEST

1. Giants – Hit all the right buttons the last few years, is that going to change?

Actual finish: Third (tie). As a matter of fact, it did change for San Francisco, as starting pitchers who used to be very reliable struggled through down years. Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito leaving means there will be some changes, and with a veteran lineup, they may struggle to get back in contention.

2. Dodgers – Probably need to hide the chequebook from the owners, but the spending should almost have the desired effect.

Actual finish: First. Early on, the Dodgers scuffled, but the arrival of Yasiel Puig and the return to health of Hanley Ramirez drove a hot streak that gave them a division lead they would never relinquish. Yankees West has shown no fear of a salary cap, so as long as the owners keep fronting money, they’re not going anywhere.

3. Diamondbacks – Trading away talent for grit is a wonderful theory, until you discover that talent can’t be taught.

Actual finish: Second. Though second in the division, the Diamondbacks were a .500 team, with their pitchers struggling to match last year’s output, and yes, missing the talent of Justin Upton in the outfield. But their front office has shown an astute eye for judging talent, so they should be back next season.

4. Padres – Some sneaky-good youth there, but will be well out of the playoff running for now.

Actual finish: Third (tie). The strangest team name in baseball showed some signs of life this year, but franchise player Chase Headley struggled. If he returns to form, and they keep adding offense around him, the Padres might improve next season.

5. Rockies – Expensive offence, but at least the pitching is awful.

Actual finish: Last. Rinse and repeat for the Rockies, who can’t seem to muster enough starting pitching to go with a very good offense. Until that changes, there’s very little reason to think a veteran team will do any better next season.

Building blocks

For adults of a certain age- okay, probably a lot of ages, if we’re being honest- it’s easy to get nostalgic about Lego, the blocks that so many of us played with growing up. My brother and I were among those kids. I recall having a box just full of different blocks, and the hours spent building all sorts of fun things with them. I also remember getting sets and the fun I’d have building from instructions, and the one huge pirate ship that I wanted that was somehow $120- nope, Mom and Dad weren’t springing for THAT.

I walked through a Lego store several months back, and was struck by how much MORE there seemed to be now. It wasn’t a section in a toy store as I remembered, it was its own entity. They had Bulk Barn-esque bins for different kinds of a blocks, and different sections with an amazing amount of sets to build. And, yes, some were even more expensive than the mythical pirate ship that I remembered.

Between the store, and the continued evolution and tie-in of the sets and video games, it’s been interesting to see the presence of Lego again now in different things that I consume. While I don’t have the sets to build any more, I’ve played several of the Lego video games. They all follow a simple formula: take an established franchise, and make it fun, destructive, and easy to play. Batman, Lord of the Rings, the Avengers, and Harry Potter are just a few of the franchises who have been Lego-ized for video game (and probably building set) form.

But I was skeptical of the Lego Movie. This was different from the games, or the complicated sets in the store: they weren’t grabbing another franchise to use for their story (although they actually DID for parts of it, but no spoilers!). They would have to- pardon the pun- build their own. Would it work?

As someone who loved Lego growing up, I’m pleased to report that yes, it absolutely does. If you have a pulse, you can probably find something to enjoy in this movie.

There were a lot of kids in the theatre with my brother and I when we went to watch. That didn’t help my skepticism coming in, but the movie seemed to be universally getting great reviews, and people I knew who’d seen it were really recommending it. Even at work on Friday before seeing the movie with Dennis, I overheard a customer talking about it with a co-worker, as if confirming my decision to go.

“We’re going to see the Lego Movie this weekend.”

“Oh, I want to see that.”

“We’re actually seeing it again . It was great!”

“I’ve heard it’s so much fun.”

“Oh, it was amazing.”

In retrospect, the fact that they didn’t have a franchise or a story to build on made it easier for the Lego Movie: they could just make their own, much as many of us did with the blocks when we were younger. It started out fun and playful, and continued that way the whole time, rarely letting a light story get in the way of a well-earned laugh. And while it was a very kid friendly movie, there were a lot of references that people of my generation would appreciate, as has been traditional for animated movies for quite some time. The animation is delightful, and fits with what we know about Lego: they make Lego water WORK.

The story isn’t anything original, but the climax and resolution hit just the right notes, and is probably more aimed at adults than kids, which I found quite surprising. But it works. It all works. And the range of characters was surprising, and delightful as animated movies often do: Liam Neeson, Alison Brie, Will Ferrell, and Morgan Freeman, all completely in their elements, and giving us fun surprises that we don’t often see from them. I’d love to tell you about them- or share them with fellow moviegoers- but I’m sticking with the no spoilers policy here.

I mentioned really enjoying it on Facebook yesterday, and one friend of mine captured it well: “I did not spend more than a split second of the movie without a smile on my face, and said smile continued for quite some time afterwards. It was so much fun – and dare I say awesome..” Fun is the word. Fun was the objective. While it had a story, it was designed to make you smile, whether with knowing cultural references, winks to franchises and pop culture both current and past, or things about Lego that you already know and love.

I’ve become a bit of a cynic about new movies: there’s a lot of tie-ins, remakes, and obvious attempts to cash in on my childhood and what I enjoyed growing up. I’ve been surprised sometimes: the new Star Treks have been great, for example. And I’ve been proven right: the new Spider Man, while a fine movie on its own, was completely unnecessary with the recent iterations so fresh in our minds (and yes, served the sole purpose of allowing Sony to keep the rights and build new sequels).

I don’t want to build the Lego Movie up to an impossible height, but it’s easily the best movie I’ve seen in theatres in a while, and I’m already trying to find an excuse to go again (probably with the lady). It entertained me, and showed me something new and compelling, which is really all I ask for when I spring for a movie ticket. If you have a pulse, or spent sometime with those building blocks growing up, I think you’ll like it too.

Blue crystal persuasion

So, continuing a grand tradition of me being late to a TV show, I started watching Breaking Bad from the beginning right about the time the last few episodes were coming to air. It was one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons of 2013, how many fans it had, and how well it was received in nearly all quarters. I will attempt to keep it spoiler free, for anyone who hasn’t seen the show and wants their experience unaffected.

For the four of you who are on Facebook and somehow missed the massive media campaign for the finish, Breaking Bad was the story of Walter White: an average, mostly boring chemistry teacher with a family. When he is diagnosed with cancer, he decides to cook crystal meth to support his family after he passes away. Which makes his life decidedly more interesting.

Some combination of time, commitments, and interest keeps me from enjoying most live television (Related: PVRs are great technology), but it was interesting absorbing the show after most of the greater cultural interest had passed. Netflix had made “binge watching” a show more of an accepted practice (which was ironic, given that this show was about drugs) and when I found myself with time, it was larger blocks, at sparser intervals. Even knowing some of what happened, it was an odd conflict: I missed part of being a greater group that absorbed it while it happened, but liked the freedom of taking it at my own pace, on my own time.

I’m not writing anything you haven’t seen anywhere else: Breaking Bad was a great show. The characters were compelling and realistic (well, mostly), the universe was well thought out, and there was an attention to detail you don’t always see in shows, today or ever. There was an economy to the show I appreciated: Not a moment or character was wasted. The writers appreciated and understood Chekhov’s law. Even the B plots were hooked into the main thread eventually, and no character comes away unaffected by Walt’s decision to cook drugs.

I’ve found myself appreciating grey areas in my dramatic TV/movie watching much more over the last several years, partially because I’ve come to believe that the world isn’t simple. At first, Walt’s decision to cook drugs to provide for his family is understandable, and we sympathize with him, to a point. As we see the character progress, it becomes more difficult to appreciate some of what he and others do. Walt becomes a terrible person, partially because he was resentful already, and cancer and other events in his life gave him license to be this way.

This is also part of why I drifted away from Star Trek, too: It got so black and white in recent iterations, and the characters were all bland, likeable, morally good people with very little real, relatable conflict in what they did. Trek in its finest forms used the science fiction as a backdrop for real life issues, and ran out of new stories to tell about the time Voyager came to air, and only found them recently when a new voice looked at the universe and didn’t recycle old scripts.

Breaking Bad was not for everyone. The lady mentioned she didn’t like gore, and I mentioned that when killing happened on Breaking Bad, it tended to be of the intense/gory variety. But it was never without a point. It wasn’t blood for blood’s sake. The economy was here: everything had a purpose. Everything was meant to affect you in a certain way, and it did.

There’s not really a right or wrong way to consume TV or media, really. At the end of the day, it’s all what you prefer, and I’m the last guy who should be soapboxing on what’s good or bad. Breaking Bad was excellent: the characters, the universe, and the plotting were well thought out and executed, and I appreciate that in whatever I watch.

Intangible evidence

Housekeeping: Importing stuff from the ol’ Xanga blog here. You can go even further back in the archives, and see how terrible I was at this when I started. But nice to have everything in one spot.

The before and after of the 2013 Blue Jays season isn’t something I really want to dwell on anymore. It was a team with great expectations and excitement that didn’t get to what we thought they would. Why they didn’t get there depends on who you ask.

My dad, like me, is a baseball fan, and we’d talk shop throughout the season. One thing he and I always disagreed on was the Jays rehiring John Gibbons as manager. From the moment it happened, he felt uneasy about it.

As someone who frequents baseball blogs in the Getting Blanked/DJF/Tao of Stieb mold, I was quite happy with the re-hire. Gibbons had been, in the eyes of some (and mine, in hindsight), unfairly scapegoated when he was fired previously, and in his prior tenure, shown tactical prowess and progressive thought in managing players, bullpens, and lineups.

This Dustin Parkes piece at the time of his re-hiring reads quite well now, including this money paragraph near the end of the piece:

On the whole, I believe that the hiring is a good one by the Toronto Blue Jays because I believe that John Gibbons is a smart man, and it’s a good thing to have smart people in charge. It’s not foolproof. It never is. Especially not in baseball, where so much is determined by randomness, despite what we think, feel or pretend to know.

This line proved to be unfortunately accurate. The results of the Jays season did little to prove my thesis, and everything to prove Dad’s. Despite spending on a lot of new players, the Jays struggled to a mere one win improvement on the disaster of 2012.

A lot of things happened. Where there is disagreement- whether at home or in the internet- is WHY things went bad. Injuries in the lineup and ineffectiveness in the starting pitching were the main drivers of the Jays’ failure. Good players missed a lot of time, and the Jays’ starters were second worse in the American League in ERA. But there were those who saw John Gibbons as unable to instill a “winning culture”, and maintained that this was a part of why the players underperformed.

Sports has lived for years on the idea of narratives, and I enjoy a good sports story that weaves into the result. Gibbons having a hand in that would be a good narrative. But one of the things I’ve been challenged on the last several years- whether in baseball or in life- is that sometimes things happen, and we won’t understand why. We don’t have all the information.

So, the Jays sucked. Was it because of injuries, ineffectiveness, or the manager? One could go back to the Red Sox of 2012 for an example as to how a bad manager can submarine a season. Bobby Valentine was a disaster from day one, alienating players and media, and showing none of the tactical acumen he’d had previously.

But that Red Sox team was also bitten by the injury bug, missing key players for large parts of the year, and like the Jays this year, had some players underperform. This year, they got a new manager, and won the World Series. So that manager must be good, right?

Who did they get? John Farrell, who’d managed the Blue Jays during that disastrous 2012 season. So he must be a bad manager, right?

Did John Farrell suddenly become a good manager between Toronto and Boston? Ask Sons of Sam Horn, who could rant for 30 or 40 pages on their message board about him. From my perspective, he improved some tactically, but showed some of the same frustrating tendencies that drove me crazy while he managed my team.

So of course Boston went on to win the World Series, and John Farrell almost won manager of the year. There is one thing that several baseball writers in Toronto noted: Farrell seemed happier on Boston. He was smiling. They’d never seen him that way when he was working for the Blue Jays. Was he in a better organization? Had the winning made him happy? Or did he ‘create a winning culture’?

It can become a bit of a chicken and egg discussion. Do we believe that John Farrell created a culture that allowed the Red Sox to thrive, or did they get better players, who performed better than the 2012 team, and that made them all happier/more successful? My argument with my father and others who want to blame Gibbons shows where I’d lean on this, but like most things, I don’t believe it’s that simple. Most things in life aren’t binary, and a baseball team with twenty five players and several coaches can’t possibly be straightforward.

One of the biggest debates in baseball today is how much influence the manager has on how a baseball team performs. They’re not a football or basketball coach, drawing up plays for their team to execute. Their biggest tangible influence is drawing up lineups, managing a bit of in-game strategy, handling the media, and deciding who pitches at a particular time. But there’s so much more we can’t see- what happens in the clubhouse, how they interact with players, how they handle conflict, how they work with the general manager, and so on.

I don’t work in baseball- I work a white collar job, at a bank. I’ve worked for good managers and bad managers in my different lines of work, and can attest to how a bad manager can affect how I perform. When you have someone who’s invested in your success, who communicates your role, and works with you on what you should be doing, it makes for a much better environment, and one I can thrive in. It’s one thing I enjoy about my current employer: The atmosphere is so, so much better than anywhere else I’ve worked.

I’ve also found more success when I’m in the right environment. It doesn’t mean I need to be friends with my coworkers, but if I can trust them, if I can work with them, if they’ll help me and let me help them, that also impacts how I work. That’s not rocket science.

Should this be so at the highest level of baseball? After all, these are highly paid professional athletes, who probably shouldn’t need to be coddled, right? In theory, yes. But athletes are people too, and have different needs and wants. A baseball manager is responsible for overseeing the morale of those twenty five men, for making them a team. Though baseball is a more individualized sport than most; more depends on the skill of individuals than a unit.

The problem is that we as fans only have what we can see to evaluate managers on: The results of the games, how they implement their strategies, how they interact with the media. We don’t see the rest of it, and we can’t measure it’s impact on how the players play. That’s part of why people like Oakland GM Billy Beane initially dismissed the impact of the manager: there’s almost no way to measure it, outside of lineup construction and bullpen management. And sometimes that’s as simple as “play the better guy”.

More progressive thinking has softened this stance. We can acknowledge that there are parts of the manager’s job that we can’t measure or prove. We can optically infer that maybe he handles player X well, or the media, or that he makes strategically sound decisions, but the ultimate deciding factor is the results. It’s easier to replace a manager than 25 players, after all.

So let’s look at the results, which is the primary measurement. For the sake of argument, let’s play the arbitrary endpoint game. Here are four managers:

Manager A: 894-1003. Managed three different teams over 14 years. One division title, two second place finishes.

Manager B: 285-363 – Managed for four years with one team, never finishing higher than third in his division.

Manager C: 851-863 – Managed one team for ten years. Three division titles, though he had three fifth place finishes in his last four years with the team.

Manager D: 305-305 – Managed one team for five seasons. Finished as high as second, with two last place finishes.

So out of those four choices, none of them seem that great at first blush. So when teams interview those guys, they go deeper. They look beyond the results. What is their process? Will they fit into what we’re building? Are they “good people”? Are they smart?

Manager A is Joe Torre, prior to being hired by the 1996 Yankees. A headscratching move at the time because of an unremarkable managing/playing career, he went on to lead the Yankees to 6 AL pennants, and 4 World Series titles. Now retired, he is widely respected as an excellent manager.

Manager B is Terry Francona, prior to managing the 2004 Red Sox. He had a reputation as a player’s manager, that he was weak tactically, and the perception was that he’d been hired because of his relationship with player Curt Schilling. He won 2 World Series titles with the Red Sox, and his being hired by the Indians last offseason was universally praised.

Manager C is Jim Leyland, before he joined the 1997 Marlins. He was always perceived as a “good baseball man”, and benefitted from Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla (two outstanding individual players who had the reputation of being awful teammates) with his ten years with the Pirates. He has now won 6 league championships between the American and National League, and 2 World Series titles. He retired this offseason, and like the two managers before him, has an excellent reputation as a manager.

Manager D is, obviously (if you’ve played the arbitrary endpoint game before), John Gibbons, before coming to lead the 2013 Blue Jays.

Think about the narrative on the first three managers before they had their success. Based on the results, they weren’t good at their jobs. But they ended up winning championships. Was it them? Or the players?

We keep coming back to this because it’s important: the answer isn’t binary. My argument for Gibbons is strengthened by the idea that there’s a lot about the manager’s job we can’t understand and measure, and that the results are a poor indication of the job he’s doing. But that can also weaken it, depending on what we want to believe about the job he’s doing. While it’s dangerous to scapegoat him for everything that went wrong with the 2013 Blue Jays season, we shouldn’t position him as a good manager solely on the things we saw him do right, or based on a nebulous idea that he might be good at things we can’t see.

So Gibbons will likely get another season, from a thoughtful front office who knows much more about his job than I ever will. I support this, but cautiously, because as a fan, there’s a lot I can’t possibly know. He seems smart, and I like how he thinks strategically, but that and five bucks will get me a coffee. Another season like the last will likely put him back on the unemployment line, and continue the neverending debate about just how much a manager really does.

Three pages

I consider myself a reasonable facsimile of a writer, most days. I’m honest when I say there’s only a handful of things I’ve ever written and been completely happy with, but I think I do alright. I wish I had more time for it, but I’ve discovered that adulthood means making the most of the time you have, since it goes away quickly.

It will always be a strange contradiction to me that I can emote and wax poetic for strangers on the internet or on a stage, and then when it came time to write in a card, for the woman I loved, I struggled. The pen stayed in my hand, lifeless, uninspired, for long moments as I groped for words.

We’ve been together a year, she and I, but for some reason, it took me a long time to think of anything to say. I’ve told her over and over how I feel. There are text messages, any time of the day, simple reminders, because that’s important. And here, on the anniversary of our first date, I found my slate blank, my mind uncertain. I knew what I wanted to tell her, and for a bit, I didn’t know how.

Was it the perfectionist, needing it to be right, to be certain? Was it the fear, of saying the wrong thing? No, it wasn’t that. She’s done a lot to assuage my fear, to make the uncertainty that plagued me a thing of the past. I was better, more certain because of her, because of who she is, and what she means to me.

I’ve even talked about her here, in limited measure, carefully. Not wanting the over the top affection of youth, but not ignoring her as a part of my life that’s important and vital and certain and needed. I struggled with showing emotion, mistaking it for weakness. She showed me that was wrong, and accepted me as I am.

I found the words, and put them inside the card, to give to her. I got there, and discovered that she had managed three pages on paper, in immaculate (well, almost immaculate) handwriting. She’d found the words that I’d struggled to. Closet sentimentalist that I am, I loved it, like I love her.

In reading, I realized that was something she’d taught me too: put it all out there, be open, about what you love. I draw strength from her love, from the way she shows it, as she does from mine.

It’s strange, talking about that here, openly. I used to think it was unlucky, or it was uncertain, or that acknowledging it publicly would scare her away. It didn’t, and it won’t. And that’s amazing.

One great year with her. Here’s to more.