Georgia on our minds

Commissioner Rob Manfred congratulating 2019 All-Star Game MVP Shane Bieber. Did he think deep or hard before moving this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta?

Most of us, generations be damned, grew up hearing the two most certain of life’s certainties are death and taxes. Everyone has candidates for the third certainty, including that which reminds us of one thing that crosses partisan lines even if the partisans forget the other side does it, too.

Translated to baseball terminology, that thing seems to be demanding a replay review when ball four is called in election races on what they think they threw for strike three. When such a review turns into something such as a new state election law, as in Georgia, there comes a fourth guarantee: somebody isn’t going to like it.

A lot of somebodies don’t like the law. Such somebodies as former Georgia state lawmaker Stacey Abrams and President Joseph Biden. A lot of not-so-much-somebodies don’t like the law, either, and their agitation as much as any other factors have prompted among other things major league baseball’s government moving this year’s All-Star Game and college draft out of Atlanta’s Truist Park.

Abrams had skin in the game going in. She lost Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race to Brian Kemp, who signed the omnibus bill into law earlier this month, by 50,000 votes, claiming then-Georgia secretary of state Kemp erased thousands from state voter rolls.

Kemp had skin in the current game going in, too. For the heinous offense of certifying that now-former president Donald Trump didn’t push the winning run across the state plate in the bottom of the twelfth, regardless that Kemp wasn’t exactly known to favour anyone other than Trump, Kemp faced Trump’s none-too-silent wish to see him thrown out of the league.

The most understandable result of Trump’s post-campaign campaign to overthrow his loss to Biden might have been Georgia and other states reviewing and tightening up their election laws. The only place where fury and back-and-forth charges of foul get more furious might be a baseball game decided (in truth or in allegation) by a close call for or against one or the other side at the final out.

Election shenanigans have been as common in American politics as yard signs, and they didn’t begin or end with such ancient players as New York’s Tammany Hall, Chicago’s Daley Machine, Kansas City’s Prendergast Machine, or Nassau County’s (Long Island) Margiotta/D’Amato Machine. Wherever you landed observing Trump vs. Biden, your least shocking revelation would have been one or another state addressing their election laws in the aftermath.

When Kemp signed the new Georgia election law, Abrams charged that it “suppresses voters, criminalizes compassion & seizes election authority from local + state officials.” That statement wasn’t half as incendiary as Biden’s prompt denunciation of the law as both un-American and as “Jim Crow on steroids.”

Georgia’s real history with Jim Crow is grotesque enough, from state poll taxes (1877) and literacy tests from which descendants from Confederate and Union soldiers were exempt (1907) to the “white primary” rule (1908) that prohibited non-white voting explicitly. Jim Crow in any southern states was (and remains) a portion of American history for which the nation can never be proud.

Now, about the new Georgia election law. Examine deeper than what you see excerpted in the press and aboard social media. Comparing it to Jim Crow is nebulous. It only begins with the fact that mandating seventeen days pre-election (two Saturdays included) for early voting—with mandatory eight-hour-minimum open times and allowance for twelve-hour (7 a.m.-7 p.m.) times—doesn’t exactly “suppress” voters.

A good number of states lack that allowance, including Biden’s home state Delaware which isn’t going to put it in place before the next Congressional election year 2022. Biden himself—with different priorities and a far less grotesque personality, he’s like Trump in showing you wisdom by standing athwart it—also said the Georgia law imposes limits on absentee voting that “effectively” (his word) deny voting to “countless” people. That’s not exactly what the law says or does.

For one thing, no-excuse absentee voting stays in place with just a couple of adjustments. I’d be hard pressed to think a voter is being “suppressed” because the absentee ballot application window is a “mere” 67 days, or because such applications you can now do online, because the state secretary of state is now required by law to offer them online. Or, because the absentee ballot must be received by election officials at least eleven days before Election Day.

Some of the new law’s critics harp about the voter identification portion, which has now shifted it from matching signatures to identification numbers from a voter’s driver’s license or free voter identification card. Lacking either, a Georgia voter can present a photocopy of a utility bill, a bank statement, a paycheck, a government check, or an official document that includes his or her name and address. All they have to do is include the last four digits of their Social Security numbers if they don’t have driver’s licenses or previous voter ID numbers.

If that’s “voter suppression,” I’m Willie Mays. And if that’s something designed to keep non-white voters from voting, I’m hard pressed to comprehend the 2016 Gallup survey that found 77 percent of non-white voters supporting photographic voter identification. You’d think (properly) that non-white voters have just as much stake in preventing real (not alleged) voter fraud as white voters have. And you’d be right.

The new Georgia election law also puts the famous drop boxes into law. They showed up in Georgia for the first time last year thanks to the pan-damn-ic, and now they’re legally mandatory with or without the coronavirus. The new law requires one drop box for every one hundred thousand registered voters or one for every advance vote location in any Georgia county, whichever number is smaller.

Abrams was right about one thing: the new law does “criminalise compassion,” sort of. Giving, offering, or helping give food and/or drinks to people within 150 feet of polling places or within 25 feet of voters in line to vote becomes a legal misdemeanor. Even, seemingly, when the benefactor isn’t discussing the election or particular favoured candidates.

The law also bars ordinary Georgians from photographing or recording their own votes. Guess who gets an exemption from that: the state secretary of state, whom the law requires to create “a pilot program for the posting of digital images of the scanned paper ballots created by the voting system,” with the images becoming “public records subject to disclosure.”

I’ve read about enough early proposals for inclusion in the law that were foolish at minimum, dangerous at most, and thrown out of the bill before it became a final product. But how the hell did that one slip in? How close do you think that one gets to the kind of thing you thought was reserved for the Third Reich, the Soviet Empire, and other authoritarian/totalitarian states who’ve used ballots when allowed at all against their citizens?

Kemp and any Georgia governor has a line-item veto power—but it affects only statewide and state executive budget items. Even he can’t be comfortable with the idea that his or any Georgia secretary of state can come that close to crossing the line from scanning paper ballots to making Georgians’ votes public.

You can bank it. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and his minions probably didn’t read the new Georgia law in almost any way, shape, or form. You can understand why, since the law’s volume is 68 percent (92 pages if you’re scoring at home) the length of Philip Roth’s legendary novella Goodbye, Columbus. But the mis- or mal-excerpting of the law did them no favours and puts baseball into a precarious position.

For one thing, the Atlanta Braves themselves aren’t thrilled with baseball pulling the All-Star Game out of their home playpen. Indeed, even Abrams herself has said Georgia companies shouldn’t jump all the way into boycotts but first “use the chance to publicly condemn the law, invest in voting rights expansion and support wide-ranging federal election legislation before they’re targeted with a boycott movement,” as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution puts it.

For another thing, former UN ambassador and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young demurs from any such boycott, especially involving Atlanta, whatever he thinks of the new law, telling The Athletic, “Everything doesn’t depend on sports. But if you hurt the sports, you hurt the hotels, you hurt the airport, you hurt every business in town . . . [Atlanta’s] the 44th largest economy in the world — and, you can quote me, I don’t know why anybody wants to [fornicate] with that.”

Manfred and his look more like knee-jerkers than thoughtful protesters who considered the whole thing reasonably. (They look, in other words, much the way Trump looked when thundering against Maximum Security’s 2019 Kentucky Derby qualification or on behalf of Pete Rose’s Hall of Fame entry without troubling himself with the deets on both rejections.) Lacking an immediate suggestion for an alternate All-Star Game site this year is the least of Commissioner Nero’s largely self-imposed problems.

On Wednesday night, some Republican lawmakers in Georgia’s state House of Representatives voted to cancel a tax break for Georgia-based Delta Air Lines, on the grounds that Delta objected to the new election law. “You don’t feed a dog that bites your hand,” said Georgia’s House speaker David Ralston. “You got to keep that in mind sometimes.”

Imagine the furies if Democratic officials behaved likewise. Oops . . . Lois Lerner, for openers, call your office.

Wherever you sit about the law itself, the thought of governing officials deciding a private entity needs to be punished for taking any position regarding any legislation or policy should scare the hell out of you. If they can do it to an airline, they can do it to anything, including the business of a game.

This Derby doesn’t quite fit that well

2019-07-09 PeteAlonsoHomeRunDerby

One of the 2019 Mets’ few bright lights, Pete Alonso proudly hoists his Home Run Derby winning trophy Monday night.

The remade/remodeled rules of the thing enabled Pete Alonso to win Monday night’s Home Run Derby in Cleveland’s Progressive Field. And Alonso, who’s one of the extremely few bright lights on a Mets team described charitably as a basket case, would have been the star of the show all around if it wasn’t for the kid named Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.

Gone is the longtime ten-outs window through which the Home Run Derby’s participants had to perform in the past. In is the three-minute, no-outs window through which they get to mash to their hearts’ content and their swings’ contact. Through that window did the chunky Blue Jay mash his way into becoming half of the only father-and-son tandem ever to win the Derby.

And, into the hearts of both the packed Progressive Field (commentators invariably noted the full house stayed full from late afternoon until the Derby finished) and the television audience. Hitting 91 home runs on the evening can do that for you, especially if you’re as effervescent as this son of a Hall of Famer showed himself to be.

It was great entertainment.

But it wasn’t baseball.

And there was the chance going in that this year’s Derby could be won by a guy who wasn’t even an All-Star in the first place.

As likeable as he is, as promising as his future still appears to be despite his awkward career opening after he’d turned the minors into his personal target practise, Guerrero isn’t even a member of the American League’s All-Star team. And Joc Pederson, whom Guerrero beat to set up the final showdown with Alonso, isn’t a member of the National League’s All-Stars this time. The Derby operates by a slightly different set of criteria than the All-Star Game, which has problems enough every year.

But Alonso is an All-Star. So is Alex Bregman, the Astros’ deft third baseman who often seems to be six parts Little Rascal and half a dozen parts high on laughing gas, and you’re never quite sure which side dominates at any given time. Bregman was eliminated in the Derby’s first round after a mere fourteen blasts. He may not necessarily have been complaining.

Watching the showdown between Guerrero and Pederson, who put on a big show of their own (including two swing-offs) before Guerrero yanked his way to the final showdown with Alonso, Bregman got off the arguable second best line of the night: I couldn’t imagine three rounds of that. I was gassed after two minutes of it. The arguable best line of the night? It showed up on Twitter: Joc Pederson’s going after that $1 million like he’s behind in his rent.

And, on television, Dodger pitcher and All-Star Clayton Kershaw inadvertently provided the most charming moment—his two young children, Cali and Charley, accompanied Daddy to the ballpark for the Derby. There was Cali Kershaw, pretty in pink, pumping her hands and hollering, “Let’s go, Joc! Let’s go, Joc!” The little lady’s a natural scene-stealer, just as she was during last year’s National League division series.

This year’s Derby winner added $1 million to his bankroll for his effort. In Alonso’s case, earning $1 million for one evening’s glorified batting practise all but doubles what he’s earning all season long as a Met. And, entering the Derby and the All-Star break, Alonso out-performed the guy down the freeway in Philadelphia who signed a thirteen-year, $330 million contract by the time spring training was about two-thirds finished.

Alonso also made good on his very public promise to divide ten percent of the Derby prize money equally, if he won, between the Wounded Warriors project (which aids post-9/11 military wounded) and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, named for the firefighter who lost his life on 9/11 trying to save lives in the World Trade Center.

“There’s a lot I was hitting for tonight,” the exhausted Met said after he was handed the winning medal and trophy. “I’m just happy that I can donate some money to the causes that I wanted . . . I mean, I have the utmost respect for the people that put their lives on the line every single day. And I just want to show my gratitude, because a bad day for me is a lot different than a bad day for the service men and women that serve this country.”

Whom among the Derby participants is also an All-Star? Ronald Acuna, Jr. (Braves), Josh Bell (Pirates), Matt Chapman (Athletics), and Carlos Santana (Indians). Ridiculously, one of the Derby semi-finals was between two guys who aren’t even All-Stars this year. Alonso beat his fellow All-Star Acuna to set up the showdown with Vlad the Impaler, Jr.

Even an observer who isn’t irrevocably wedded to the more stubborn of baseball’s traditions is justified in saying that the Home Run Derby is more entertainment than baseball, since it is tied explicitly to the All-Star festivities, if it invites those who didn’t make either All-Star team as well as those who did.

And one is reminded even briefly that Yankee star Aaron Judge pre-empted any participation in this year’s Derby during spring training, when the Leaning Tower of the South Bronx said he was more concerned with helping his team win games after the All-Star break than with joining and winning a Derby. Judge won the Derby in 2017. His second-half performance wasn’t quite the same as his first half, and he won the American League’s Rookie of the Year award anyway. (He also may have exacerbated a shoulder issue while swinging for his Derby win.)

I analysed Derby winners’ seasons at the time Judge declined and discovered at least half of them had lesser than equal or better second halves of the regular seasons in which they won their Derbies. Last year’s champion, Bryce Harper (now a Phillie), had a better second than first half, to name one; Guerrero’s Hall of Fame father (then an Angel) had a lesser second than first half when he won the Derby, to name one more.

It’s great entertainment.

But it isn’t baseball.

And, contrary to the naysayers, nannies, and nattering nabobs of negativism (thank you, William Safire, of blessed memory), baseball games are better entertainment than million-dollar batting practise. Even million-dollar batting practise that turned out to contribute to two extremely worthy causes.

If there’s a 50-50 chance that a Derby winner will have a lesser than better second half after winning the prize, with or without Alonso’s admirable charity intentions, it’s a little more alarming for baseball than it is engaging for Joe and Jane Fan.

And guess who’s going to be the first to complain, of course, if and when their heroes in the Derby become less at the plate and in the field, especially if and when their teams hit the stretch drive running.