Sports: Can the 2015 Chicago Cubs Win 90 Games?

Chicago_Cubs2Can the 2015 Cubs win 90 games?

For avid Chicago Cubs fans, this offseason may seem like a Christmas Eve from our childhood. We don’t know what lies ahead, but it’s probably really great. The 2014 team showed signs of life, the farm system is regarded by most experts as the best in baseball, and the team has serious bank to spend on free agents during an offseason where the market is strong with their biggest need, starting pitching. Oh yeah, and Joe Maddon, one of the most respected managers in baseball just signed on to helm the dugout at Wrigley for the next five years.

But the question isn’t about can the Cubs win 90 games if they sign Jon Lester and Max Scherzer and trade for Cole Hamels (if they did, 100 wins wouldn’t be out of the question) but rather could the Cubs as presently constituted go from 89 losses in 2014 to 90 wins in 2015?

It’s not as farfetched as it may seem. In 2013, two teams, the Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians rose 93 and 94 losses respectively in 2012 to 90 plus win seasons. The Cubs, 73-89 in 2014, could follow in their footsteps. Here’s how.

To go from 16 games under 18 over is a big leap, but the Cubs are almost halfway there already. Consider that the 2014 Cubs essentially had two seasons, the first quarter and the remaining 122 games. During the first quarter the Cubs were awful; they went 13-27 and the bullpen was a mess.   They overhauled the bullpen at that point creating a trio, Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon that were the Windy City equivalent of the Kansas City Royals deservedly ballyhooed late inning trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. From the forty game marker forward, the Cubs went 60-62 the rest of the way, essentially a .500 team.

The run differential of a 90 win team is roughly plus 80 runs. How from even money do the Cubs get to plus 80? It’s fairly simple: what they won’t do is as important as what they will. For instance, the 2015 Cubs are highly unlikely to give Edwin Jackson 27 starts if his E.R.A. resembles his 2014 mark of 6.33. Also the team won’t give Travis Wood 31 starts if his E.R.A is 5.03 again. Obviously if those two rotation slots turn into Jon Lester and another elite pitcher then major change can be expected but even if those two slots go to say Erik Jokisch and Felix Dubrount, two pitchers likely to pitch around an E.R.A of 4, it would likely improve run prevention by about 85 runs.

There should be substantial improvement on offense too. More than 1440 plate appearances won’t go to placeholders like Mike Olt, Darwin Barney, Emilio Bonafacio, Junior Lake, and Nate Schierholz, all of whom posted OBP of .320 or under and didn’t hit for power.  Instead those at bats will mostly go to hot shot prospects like Jorge Soler, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant.   Since all three are regarded among the top prospects in baseball, expect substantial improvement. And there’s a wild card, Javier Baez belongs in both categories. He was a big minus offensively in 229 plate appearances in 2014, but his resume suggests that he could be a very big positive as early as 2015.

The 2015 Cubs are a team that are essentially at .500 and about to upgrade their offense substantially via homegrown prospects and if they just weed out the bad elements of their starting rotation and replaced them with league average performers, they are likely improve their run prevention by a large margin. So the Cubs may project as a 90 win ball club even without a big name free agent signing.

But as a fan, I’d like to see the Cubs first playoff game in seven years next October started by someone like Jon Lester, Max Scherzer or Cole Hamels.

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I Talk to Women on the Street All the Time

I Talk to Women on the Street All the TimeShoshana-Roberts

The awful video of men catcalling actress Shoshana Roberts as she walked the streets of the city that was released by Hollaback last week, and the voluminous responses that it has drawn started me thinking about my own habits. You see I speak to women I don’t know about five times a week, more if I’m out and about a lot. They almost never seem to mind.

I didn’t regard this as remarkable until the brouhaha over the video erupted. I don’t regard what I do as anything special, but then I began to think that I should share my experiences as perhaps a tonic to the controversy, or at least to expose another point of view and to parse what’s up with the other guys.

Let’s start with some background. I moved to NYC in 1978. My primary motive was to attend a great university (Roar Lion Roar!), but a key secondary motivation was that I wanted to be in a place where people felt free to be out loud and proud so to speak regardless of their sexual preference. For someone of my age, yeah do the math, I’m 54, my background of being African American and growing up in upscale mixed and middle class white neighborhoods with some background in business and a lot more in the arts, made me pretty unusual (I think it’s far less so today). Thus, I had my own issues with self-definition and broadcasting that identity, so I admired nonconformists.

When I see a woman on the street in clothing that appeals to me, I like to offer compliments, but I try to do so in a mindful way. I’m keenly aware that this woman doesn’t know I exist. Her life isn’t poorer for that fact, and my attempt to gain her attention for a few seconds is a dialogue with often sordid results. Yet, most of the time, I’ll approach anyway, and say “excuse me, can I just tell you that those shoes/that dress/that color/your accessories/or hairstyle really really rock.” My remarks are always warmly received and if I get a green light to go on, I might say tell her that she’s representing the NYC that I moved her to be a part of, or that people unafraid to put out that kind of stylish energy is what keeps me here despite the high rents, or something like that.

You see, it’s not about lust; it’s about empathy and identification. Underpinning what I’m saying is that if I woke up in her skin, I can only hope that I would be bold enough to dress so expressively.   I’m aware that women have thousands more clothing and accessory choices than men, but they also have hundreds if not thousands more archetypes that they must rise above or at least vary from to be distinctive. My comments are a way of cheering the women who are champions at this task.

My takeaway, aside from the warm approval of a pretty woman, is that for a moment at least, I’ve aligned myself with an ally in the struggle to retain the NYC I cherish. Yes, sometimes, it’s gone deeper and lead to a relationship on a few occasions and several friendships, but I don’t enter the dialogue with any expectation of that.

It’s that expectation factor that makes me wonder why anyone catcalls. No woman is going to stop and say, “hey, you invaded my space and attention span with what is at best a hollow compliment, let’s have lunch together.” It’s a dramatic failure of empathy too; I can’t imagine that any of these guys who catcall have given five milliseconds to the idea of what must it be like to be in her shoes.

The most cynical precincts of my mind think that men who catcall are part of the backlash against recent gains by women in getting the tools for upward mobility. Women outnumber men in colleges and in job retraining programs. Feminine social skills are enabling women to rise in all levels of the employment world, while traditionally masculine jobs are on the wane. The backlash notion of course leads to the idea that the catcall is a rape threat, which it sometimes is.

Overall, I suspect that the motives for catcalling may fall into several different categories and most are driven by a big lie that was told to me by a couple of my male elders when I was young. The lie is that a woman who is flamboyantly dressed is doing so just for me. I rejected that straightaway. That woman (any woman, really) doesn’t know who I am and more to the point doesn’t care. My stepping to her with an agenda that leads with lust isn’t going to change that in a positive way.

Instead for me that flamboyantly dressed woman is an opportunity to learn something about presentation, physical self-confidence and poise. So my observations and commentary, where appropriate, are just a continuation of the education that I moved to the city 36 years ago to begin.

Martin Johnson was a full time journalist for 27 years, writing about music, cinema and sports.  His work appeared in the Wall St. Journal, Vogue, the New York Times, New York magazine, Rolling Stone, four books and many, many websites.  Now he mostly writes because he has to in order to breathe.

Posted in Gender, Life in the 50s, Media, Politics | Leave a comment

Is it a Stampede? The Bulls After A Week

spalding_nbaball_hiresNine days into the 2013-14 NBA season, the Chicago Bulls are 4-1.  This isn’t unexpected; the league gave them an easy early slate.  None of the Bulls first eight opponents made the playoffs last season (though that is highly likely to change this year for the Cleveland Cavaliers).

Most of the attention has been focused on the Bulls injury situation which is understandable since they have yet to have their starting five available for any of these games, but there’s an interesting statistical trend.  The team is in the top 10 in Offensive Efficiency.  No, they didn’t fire Tom Thibodeau; the Bulls are also a top ten Defense too.  The newfound offensive prowess comes from their marksmanship and their ability to get to the line.  The latter is partially the impact of Derrick Rose’s return after missing most of two seasons with knee injuries.    I’d love to argue that the former is a reflection of the team’s offseason acquisitions, Pau Gasol, Niko Mirotic, and Doug McDermott making an impact, but Gasol’s productivity aside, it’s just as likely due to the schedule.  Only one of the Bulls first five opponents is in the top ten of Defensive Efficiency (and oddly enough that team is Milwaukee).  The other four range from Minnesota (13th) to Cleveland (28th).  There are only a smattering of defensive stalwarts among the Bulls upcoming opponents, so they may enjoy an extended stay among the league’s top offenses.

If they sustain this then the Bulls and not the Cavaliers should be the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the finals, but I’m going to think it’s a fluke for a while longer.

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At WSJ on The Art of Conversation by Kenny Barron and Dave Holland

Art of ConversationListening to this stellar recording for review made me wonder if it’s harder to play softly as these musicians often do during the sessions that produced this music than it is to play loudly and flamboyantly.  After all it is harder to write shorter than longer.

Anyway, I think it’s outside of the paywall.

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At WSJ on Jason Moran’s All Rise: A Joyful Elegy to Fats Waller

jason-moran-meshell-aint-misbehavin-all-rise-blue-note-leadThis review was a blast to write.  Jason’s music is always full of more ideas than I can parse in 800 words.  Someday I want to write a piece on those hats.  More than any other New Yorker Jason can rock hats and not look like a hipster.
I believe it is outside of the paywall.

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Archives: At WSJ on Maya Beiser’s Uncovered

A fun review to research, especially all that original/cover side by side listening, and fun to write, even though I was distracted with other projects.  And as I say in the piece, it’s a really good recording.


A Classical Take on Classic Rock

‘Uncovered’ triumphs because it never sounds novel.

Aug. 27, 2014 6:05 p.m. ET

Cellist Maya Beiser’s new album features covers of works by Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. ioulex

It seems likely that “Uncovered” (Innova), the new recording by cellist and composer Maya Beiser, will be the only classical record this year that starts with the lyrics “Hey Hey Mama/the way you move/gonna make you sweat/gonna make you groove.”


The words are from “Black Dog,” a song written by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and a big hit for the band in 1971. The Zeppelin repertoire isn’t new to Ms. Beiser; she covered “Kashmir” on her previous recording, “Provenance” (Innova, 2010). But “Uncovered” is the innovative cellist’s fullest foray into the repertoire of classic rock and blues. The recording features Mr. Beiser’s take on works by Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Howlin’ Wolf and seven other essential tracks. She will tour the material starting next Thursday in New York.

Ms. Beiser has achieved renown in the classical music world for her facility with a wide range of repertoire. She has also deftly integrated such technological innovations as multitracking and video seamlessly and intelligently into works like her 2012 opera, “Elsewhere.” Her 2011 TED talk, “A Cello With Many Voices,” has been watched more than 800,000 times, and she has commissioned work from or collaborated with many of classical music’s leading figures, including Louis Andriessen, Tan Dun, Philip Glass, Osvaldo Golijov, Michael Gordon, David Lang and Steve Reich. In addition, she was the founding cellist in the groundbreaking new music group Bang on a Can All-Stars.

Ms. Beiser, who is 49, has said that this project takes her back to her roots. She grew up on a kibbutz in northern Israel, and while the cello works of Johann Sebastian Bach affected her as a child and inspired her to take up her instrument, she was also moved by chants from Arab prayers in nearby villages, and by the music of Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin, which her parents played on the family’s stereo.

She performs Joplin’s riveting and distinctive cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and in the press materials Ms. Beiser explains that the famed singer was a special inspiration to her. “The first time I heard Janis Joplin I felt shaken to the core. Somehow her unique, raw expression snuck its way into the inner shrine where, until then, only the likes of Bach and Schubert were allowed to enter. It felt so sacrilegious that I was giddy with guilt. Just imagine a young acolyte of any dogma, experiencing her first transgression.”

“Uncovered” succeeds because of Ms. Beiser’s ability to make well-known material her own. For instance, she doesn’t try to mimic Robert Plant’s pungent yowl. Instead, she murmurs the opening lyrics and employs her multitracked cello to play Jimmy Page’s guitar riffs.

Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight” works because the cello covers the range, world weariness and menace of Howlin’ Wolf’s voice as well as his fleet, piercing harmonica licks. In addition, the spare arrangement allows percussionist Glenn Kotche to give the tune a different vibe; it’s a Chicago blues standard, but you hear the Delta fields lurking in the background.


Maya Beiser, a classically trained cellist, plays songs by Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin and others on her new album “Uncovered.” Photo: Jennifer Weiss for The Wall Street Journal

Some of the tunes that work best—Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” Muddy Waters’s “Louisiana Blues” and the AC/DC classic “Back in Black,” which was written by Angus Young, Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson—showcase Ms. Beiser’s ability to reach signature stances like Hendrix’s gruff vocals, Waters’s warm growl, and the Australian band’s searing guitar riffs with just a multitracked cello, bass and drums. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” seems made for a stringed-instrument cover, but Ms. Beiser’s gritty intro deepens the sense of loss in the piece and makes it even more elegiac. Similarly, King Crimson’s “Epitaph” lends itself to the setting nicely, and Ms. Beiser captures the mood and intricacies of the tune.

Not everything works. Nirvana’s “Lithium” simply never sounds like Ms. Beiser—even as I listen to her cello, I’m hearing Cobain singing the lead vocals. Also the recording closes with a version of “Kashmir” that now feels like old news. It isn’t different enough from her 2010 version.

The overall triumph of “Uncovered” is that it never sounds novel. The Vitamin String Quartet and the pop group Nouvelle Vague often recast rock classics into string-quartet or bossa nova settings, but it’s always done with a wink. In Ms. Beiser’s hands the cello can capture a wide range of voices, and with multitracking it can effect the sound of a power chord. On “Uncovered,” the cellist plays classic rock with the unbridled passion that she brings to her other repertoire; she doesn’t cover Sly Stone on this recording but she wants to take us higher.

Mr. Johnson writes about music for the Journal.





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Archives: At WSJ on Barrel Aged Beer

It’s a little counterintuitive, but this story began while I was researching a story on local gypsy brewers.  I was at the Other Half’s brewery, which had been up and running for barely a week at that point, so it was a big vacant space with big steel tanks lining the perimeter.  The brewers, Matt and Sam, had talked earnestly and enthusiastically about bringing the west coast style of pale ale to the NYC market.  The guys had gypsy brewed for a few months while their space passed its inspections, so I knew them for that style.  Then as we talked about the future, Matt gestured toward an empty corner and announced he had 100 wine barrels arriving later in the week.  “Man,” he exclaimed, “the possibilities are endless.”

This struck me.  I knew of dozens of bourbon barrel aged stouts and porters but wine barrels and lighter beers. I began to pursue a story and this is it.

Barrel-Aged Beer Is Making a Comeback

A growing cadre of brew masters is aging beer in casks that once held bourbon, brandy or wine.


Martin Johnson
Aug. 18, 2014 4:45 p.m. ET

Owner Matthias Neidhart holds a glass of Zymatore beer and a glass of the beer in its original format. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

With its barn, greenhouse and bucolic fields of camomile and berries, B United International Inc., from the outside, doesn’t look like a typical warehouse beer distributorship.

And inside the Oxford, Conn., facility, there is another anomaly: a room where beer is being aged not in huge industrial steel tanks, but in hundreds of hand-me-down wooden barrels. That is where B United, which distributes aficionado brands like Germany’s Schneider Weisse and Japan’s Hitachino, is giving some of its clients’ brew a secondary round of aging—in containers that formerly held wine, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages.

The Zymatore room at B.United International. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

“Select beers can actually soak up the flavors and aromas of the spirit previously housed in the wooden barrel in a way that…makes it highly interesting,” said Matthias Neidhart, founder and owner of B United.

Mr. Neidhart is among a small, but growing cadre of respected artisan brewers using pre-used wooden barrels, in the belief that the residual flavors and lingering microflora from whatever liquid they previously held can enhance a beer’s aroma and taste.

Those elements don’t transfer from wood to beer automatically, brewers said, but are teased out during a secondary fermentation process involving wild yeast.

“Barrels that once stored a Syrah or Chardonnay to maturity can bring out so many more complexities in flavor,” said Zach Mack, co-owner of the Alphabet City Beer Co., an East Village bar that offers more than 350 varieties of craft brew.

The enthusiasm for barrel aging was first rekindled nearly a decade ago, when brewers discovered that aging beer in bourbon barrels could add tasty vanilla overtones to their porters and stouts. More recently, some have begun expanding their container repertoire, using barrels that have held everything from Sauternes and Scotch to brandy and rum, seeking flavor notes that range from sour to tannic.

New York area brewers are among the leading-edge wood-barrel users.

Garrett Oliver, brew master of the Brooklyn Brewery and editor of “The Oxford Companion to Beer,” said he is partial to bourbon barrels, which are typically made of virgin American oak and used only once before being sold. His brewery’s facility in the Brooklyn Navy Yard currently houses more than 2,000 wooden barrels for aging beer.

“Bourbon wood is quintessentially American, and that’s a big appeal for me,” said Mr. Oliver.

Brewmaster Ben Neidhart in the Zymatore room with barrels used to age beer. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

Matt Monahan, co-owner of Other Half Brewing Co., which opened in January in Gowanus, prefers wine barrels. “If you age a beer in a bourbon barrel, it tastes like bourbon,” he said. Other Half is currently using barrels that once housed Zinfandel, Sauternes and even the cult California Cabernet Opus One.

Wooden barrels aren’t exactly new; for centuries, beer was stored and aged in them. But after Prohibition, the American brewery industry dramatically consolidated, and growing companies seeking larger-capacity storage with greater sterility turned to massive stainless steel tanks.

The return to wood-barrel use comes at a time of greater experimentation among craft brewers with more traditional, less industrialized materials and techniques. Some Pale Ale makers, for example, are using techniques like “dry hopping,” popular in the 19th century as a way to stabilize beer and enhance its flavor, by adding hops during the beer’s secondary fermentation.

Wooden barrels usually slow down the aging process. Basil Lee, co-owner of Finback Brewery, which opened in January in Queens, said his company ages beer in both bourbon and wine barrels and chose its 13,000-square-foot space because it had room for longer-term brewing projects.

“I have tasted beers where you wished that they had aged more,” he said. “We sought out a space that would enable us the freedom to age beers for a year or two if necessary.”

Many large-production commercial beers typically age for one month; some lagers take up to four, experts say.

Mr. Neidhart of B United said slower barrel aging allows natural processes to take their course, rather than artificially helping them along with, say, rigorous climate control.

“Conventional brewing is all about controlling the process,” said Mr. Neidhart. “We are trying to return the control to nature.” He ages some of his clients’ beers for two or three years.

“Clients ask us when their beer will be ready and we tell them we don’t know,” he said.

Owner Matthias Neidhart holds two bottles of Zymatore beer. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

For all the effort, Mr. Neidhart said his barrel-aging program accounts for just 2% of his business, moving over 400,000 case-equivalents of beer annually.

And to be sure, barrel-aged beers are still a niche part of the $14.3 billion annual U.S. craft beer market. But their influence is spreading nationally. California craft breweries like The Bruery and Firestone Walker Brewing Co., for example, have recently launched extensive barrel-aging programs.

In New York, drinkers can find them in beer bars like Proletariat, Terroir and Owl Farm.

And some are beginning to show up in local restaurants. Other Half, for example, is brewing several barrel-aged beers exclusively for Roberta’s, a popular Williamsburg eatery. That is because barrel aging not only adds to overall complexity, said Mr. Monahan, but also tends to soften a beer’s finish over time, helping raise its food-friendly quotient.

Posted in Archives, Life in the 50s, Media | Leave a comment

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