May 15, 2010

Mr. SKIA's Bad Ideas*, Vol. I: Fighting a Red-Light Camera Ticket

* By popular demand -- okay, one person kind of semi-intimated that she'd like me to write about topics that are non-sports related -- and to celebrate the one-year anniversary of this blog, I present to you a real-life story from my real-life life.

For years now, I've been telling anyone who would listen (and believe me, there's not many of those people left) that there was no way I would ever pay any sort of automatically-generated traffic ticket, keeping in line with my distinguished record of self-important, half-assed antiestablishmentism. I would make my usual poorly-formulated arguments based on a vague familiarity with constitutionality -- It's a violation of due process! and the like -- and would contend that I was actually hoping to get one so that I could fight it to the bitter end.

The end comes quickly, as it turns out.

Bitterly too.

A few months ago, Mrs. SKIA (we've been a one-car family for almost two years now) received a violation notice in the mail. I'm sorry, make that a VIOLATION notice, because that's how ominously it was written on the envelope.

According to the VIOLATION notice, there was a video of our often-calamitous rolling-right-turn-on-red transgression available at www.RedLightViolations.com. Shockingly, each time we tried to watch it -- and regardless of the seemingly infinite number of recommended software/codecs I downloaded -- we got an error message and could never see our alleged misfeasance. I, of course, took this to mean that it was entirely unprovable.

Given my oft-stated stance on these things and my continued unwillingness to just throw away a hundred dollars, I decided to fight it. And not via the milquetoasty Contest by Mail option -- I have no faith whatsoever in the power of my words to persuade -- but by choosing to Request a Trial, as I felt like I could be oh-so-compelling in person. Plus I wanted to make it as costly as possible for the dickwads trying to screw me.

And so I researched (about an hour ahead of my scheduled court date, naturally) how to fight these tickets. Unfortunately, everything I found was either A. In regards to California law (and Illinois is still stubbornly refusing to be in California); or B. Said they were basically impossible to beat.

Undeterred, I set out for Mrs. SKIA's 3 p.m. court date -- she has a real job and can't be bothered to pursue such trivialities -- at 2:53. My original plan was to walk, but in a development strangely out of character, I was running late, so I had to drive the 3/4 of a mile down the street to the hard-earned-tax-payer-money-extraction zone, or as it is more commonly known, the courthouse (which is really just a room in the police station.)

As I strode haughtily into the courtroom, Judge William H. Rainonmyparade (note: not his real name) announced, "All of you are here -- well, 99% of you, anyway -- because you didn't come to a complete stop when making a right turn on red," immediately neutering my typically-false cocksurety, which had been entirely predicated upon 'Well I didn't run a red light; I was making a right turn.'

Stripped of my greatest weapon -- and, yes, I'm so misguidedly delusional that I thought I was turning right was an unimpeachable defense -- I glumly listened to people being called to the bench only to have their justifications and entreaties fall on deaf ears.

However, about 10 people in, the summoned guy flashed a badge to the bench. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but Judge Ruth Bader Favoritesplayer responded, "Well how would that go over in Chicago?" The guy -- apparently a city cop -- answered in a way the judge must have found pleasing, because he said something in low tones and let the guy walk out of the courtroom without stopping at the currency vacuum set up in the back. A murmur arose from the rest of us. "Mur-mur," we said.

The next person was called up, and in the face of the video evidence -- Did I mention there was a big screen TV facing the judge, and the court lackeys queued up the incident for the judge and accused to see? -- proclaimed with a heavy Latin-American accent that his car had, in fact, stopped. Said it more than once, and forcefully so. But Judge Sandra Day O'Yourefullofcrap wasn't buying, and after some back-and-forth found him guilty. At this point, the guy went off; I'm going to quote him directly here, because you weren't there and I defy you to dispute the accuracy of my transcription:
I guess if you flash a badge, then it's okay. You're going to take a hundred dollars from me in this economy? It takes me a week to make $100 right now! This isn't right.
The judge tried to explain himself, but the guy kept interrupting him with either the badge comment or the not-right thing, until Thurgood Marshalllaw finally said, "If you don't let me finish, I'm going to find you in contempt of court. I let you say your peace, and if you don't stop interrupting me, you're going to go to jail."

Now, I don't think this poor fellow had a very good grasp of the machinations of the judicial branch of his adopted nation, because here he got really upset and really, really loud. "You're going to throw me in jail for a ticket! You just let that guy off! This is bull-."

Thankfully the defendant thought better of appending that with shit, and his father -- who I don't think spoke English, and I'm guessing was the actual accused red-light violator -- then began ushering him out of the courtroom, although you could still hear him lamenting his fate and the unfairness of it all in the adjoining entry area, to the extent that the court-appointed officer was sent out in order to shut him up/shoo him away/throw his ass in jail. But it was then that I began to accept how fruitless trying to fight this thing would be. They'd have video evidence that our car slowed to 3 mph instead of zero, I'd sound just as pitiful as that guy, and I'd be hopelessly screwed.

I tell you, I stood up a broken man when I heard Mrs. SKIA's name called, but as I walked up to the bench, some of my cockcertainty started to return. I can do this, I thought. I'm smart, I'm charming, I'm convincing, I'm ...

Dead wrong.

That thought occurred to me in the midst of what I fancied as a remarkably compelling argument. I began by pleading not guilty -- telling my new bro Oliver Wendell Homes about my video-based internet travails, and that I could not in good conscience say I was guilty of something I couldn't see -- and then I was shown the video, in which I (or the missus) clearly did not come close to stopping.
Mr. SKIA: Yes, but I remember there being an green arrow.

Judge: But there is no arrow there.

Mr. SKIA: Well where would the arrow be?

Judge: (pointing) In that area there. And there is no arrow.

Mr. SKIA: But there's so much light behind it. How do I know it's just not getting washed out?

Judge: Because I've seen the arrow before, and I'm telling you that it's not there.

Mr. SKIA: But how do I know the camera was functioning properly? Can you show me a video from that night with the green arrow on?

Judge: No, but it never turns green in this video.

Mr. SKIA: (more to the A/V tool controlling the feed) Can't you queue another one up that shows the arrow?

Judge: No, I'm telling you it's not there.

Mr. SKIA: I understand that, but how do I know ...
And it was here that I thought to myself, What the hell am I doing? They don't have to prove jackshit to me. I was acting like I could just deny it forever, and as long as I never capitulated, I wouldn't have to pay. I realized at that moment the utter futility of my whole approach, so I abruptly shifted gears, adding, "I mean, not that it matters what I think, you're the one that's important."

Now I meant this as a sign of respect for the court and this man's position. But Charles Evans Hugestickuphisbutt, perhaps inflamed by previous insolence, instead took offense. "Now hold on there. Don't just say that. There's a reason you can have this trial, because I am not the only one that matters. You're wrong if you say that."

And at that point, I just gave in. I had a semi-pissed off judge, had lost any chance of garnering sympathy, and didn't even care that my attempt at prostration was totally misinterpreted. There was no burden of proof to show me the camera picking up a properly-functioning arrow, so I just wanted to cut my check and get the hell out of there. Judge Byron "Whizzer" Whitenoise said a few more things that I don't even remember, and I dejectedly shuffled off to fork over the hundred bucks.

I suppose I should have realized that You can't beat City Hall didn't become a common refrain by accident; that shit's true, man. But I did learn one very important thing, a lesson I'll take with me for the rest of my life, and one I hope you will too: You can passive-aggressively stick it to City Hall via check ...

May 8, 2010

A Tale of Two Kiddies

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times (for me to be late in posting).

Starlin Castro burst onto the scene in Friday's 14-7 win in Cincinnati, making much of my analysis of his promotion moot. I was planning on applauding the Cubs for trying something bold yet relatively low-risk, with little potential downside. If a team needs a shot in the arm -- and the Cubs no doubt did -- digging into its prospect pool is a much better way to do it than, say, sending one of your best starters to the bullpen. And while even my favorite baseball writer, Rob Neyer, criticized the Cubs for not waiting a little longer just to avoid Castro getting Super-Two arbitration-eligibility after the 2012 season, I thought it was refreshing to see any front office -- let alone the Cubs -- make a baseball decision based on what it thought was the best interest of the team instead of its finances.

I was also going to beseech the Cubs and their fans to be patient with Castro, and to exercise caution sibce he wasn't going to be some sort of savior. Obviously, the second part of that is surely out the window, as expectations are likely through the roof.

But while some might end up saying that Castro's 3-run homer / 3-run triple performance is the worst thing that could've happened, I'm going to take the opposite stance. It was absolutely the best possible scenario for the kid, his future, and the organization.

Because what that performance has bought is a little bit of patience, which is exactly what the Cubs need and have lacked in the past. It might sound like some sort of crazy oxymoron telling a team to be patient when they've undeniably rushed a prospect, but that's exactly what the Cubs need to be now that he's here.

I hear all the time -- and as a cautionary tale with Castro -- that Felix Pie's flame-out arose because he was rushed. The fact is, he wasn't. Pie spent a full season at each level -- although he did miss half of his AA year with an injury -- and held his own despite typically being one of the youngest players in his league. At the time of his initial call-up, Pie had 1,973 non-rookie-ball plate appearances, 931 of them at AA or AAA. Castro's had 630 and 243, respectively.

No, Pie's issues had nothing to do with being rushed; the problem was that the Cubs were completely impatient, and never really gave him a reasonable opportunity to establish himself.

In Pie's first time up with the Cubs in 2007, he was given 11 starts in his first 12 games, and posted a .233/.250/.419 line in 44 plate appearances. While certainly not great, it's a tiny sample size, five of his 10 hits went for extra bases, and he struck out only eight times. The main reason he "struggled" was that his BABiP was .265. Given his (supposedly) plus defense in centerfield, the Cubs undoubtedly should have given him more time. Instead, he came off the bench for the next ten games or so, went 1-for-6, and was sent back down to AAA.

In Pie's second go-round (also in '07), he started 19 of 20 games and went .228/.295/.354 in 89 plate appearances. Again, it's a very small sample size -- and not all that impressive -- but there were some positive indicators. For one, he drew eight walks, and yes, he was hitting eighth most of the time, but he still had to have the plate discipline to take the pitches (none of BBs were intentional), which is hardly a given with a hitter as young as he was. Plus he stole six bases in seven attempts and still wasn't striking out at an alarming rate. But the Cubs had seen enough, and started Pie in just two games over the next two weeks before shipping him back to Des Moines.

It should be noted that on these return trips to Iowa, Pie annihilated AAA pitching to the tune of 362/.410/.563. He returned to Chicago for good in August of that year, and started all of six games the rest of the way. Apparently, the Cubs decided they'd rather develop 32-year-old Jacque Jones in center, and while Jones did outproduce Pie -- .286/.333/.432 as a CF in 313 PAs -- he also had one 20-plus-game stretch (from May 16 to June 20) in which he went .173/.241/.253. And yet the Cubs, for the most part, stuck with him; he was still the beneficiary of regular playing time, which he used to show off both his XavierNadyPostTommyJohnSurgeryesque throwing arm and his remarkably circuitous routes to flyballs.

Thankfully, Pie was penciled in as the starter in '08. Unfortunately, that penciling lasted all of four games -- after going 3-for-15 with four strikeouts, Pie was in the lineup for just seven of the next 26 contests. On May 5th and 6th, Pie was given back-to-back starts for the first time since those four season-opening games, going 2-for-7 with a walk, which apparently earned him a third start. In that game, he went 0-for-4 with 3 Ks and that was pretty much the end of his career with the Cubs. He only got three at bats over the next handful of games before getting sent down, and by the time he came back up in September, Jim Edmonds was pretty much entrenched in centerfield; Pie was traded to Baltimore the following offseason.

And that should be the cautionary tale in regards to Felix Pie, not some claptrap about him being rushed, which is based not on the facts but rather him being 22 when he was called up. Castro, 20, has been rushed, but as his skill level -- and performance, for the most part -- has warranted it, I don't have much of a problem with it. But I will have a problem if the Cubs don't give him a legitimate shot to get settled in as a big leaguer.

Which is why his huge debut was, well, huge. Because it bought him a whole lot of rope.

Before Friday's game, my notes for this post included that the Cubs should write Castro's name in the lineup every day until the All-Star Break at the very least, regardless of the results. If you are going to bring a player up that quickly, you have to be ready to weather the storm of his struggles.

But there is no doubt in my mind that had Castro started 1-for-20, there would've been a whole lot of wailing about the Cubs jumping the gun, Castro requiring more seasoning, and him needing to be sent back down. I've referenced this before, and it's one of the main causes for my deep-seated hatred of his work, but look at what Paul Sullivan wrote about Pie on August 25, 2007:

Pie has not been able to translate the success he has enjoyed at Triple A to the Cubs, despite being given several opportunities. He hit .362 at Iowa but came into Friday's game hitting .217 in three stints with the Cubs, including a .121 average against left-handers.

Pie's "several opportunities" amounted to all of 174 plate appearances spread out over five months as a 22-year-old. So Sullivan surely would've been leading the Castro's-not-ready charge, and the fans -- for reasons I don't fully understand -- would've been just as eager to label him as yet another over-hyped Cub prospect bust, just as they did with Pie based on Corey Patterson's failings.

In short, Castro wouldn't have stood a chance had he struggled. But because of his huge game, people will now cut him a hell of a lot more slack. Even if he goes through a rough patch, they'll believe he can pull out of it based on that one good game. It sounds ridiculous, but there is no doubt in my mind that it's true.

Still, I beseech Lou Pinella and the Cubs to at all costs just let the kid stay in the lineup. If two weeks from now he's gone from 2-for-5 to 2-for-50, please just leave him alone. Give him a real chance. Because with Geovany Soto quietly putting together a spectacular opening to the season (.362/.516/.594 with an insane .484 wOBA), the Cubs could suddenly be very strong up the middle for years to come. I can't help but wonder what might've been with Pie because it looks like the Cubs are very close to having an eerily similar core of homegrown up-the-middle players to the one that keyed the Yankees late-90's dominance; I'm still hopeful that Brett Jackson can replace Pie into the Bernie Williams role. Sure, that sounds heady stuff, but it's backed up statistically, as Derek Jeter's career .317/.387/.459 line looks like an unabashed pile of shit next to Castro's .400/.400/1.400.

Go Cubs.