June 20, 2012

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 ...

June 11, 2012

Jorge Soler-ing Some Grievances

* This originally began as a comment on the Trib's website until it quickly grew too long (shocking!) and I remembered that, whether it's writing them or reading them, comments on websites are ruining my life.
I love the Cubs' signing of Jorge Soler. Love it despite the fact that I have precisely zero idea if he will pan out. None. I've never even seen so much as a 3-second video clip of him playing, so I haven't a clue if he's actually any good. However, he was in high demand (generally an encouraging sign), and this is exactly the sort of low-cost move the Cubs should be making at this stage in the game: For about what the Rockies paid career-.345-wOBA Michael Cuddyer for his age 33 to 35 seasons ($31.5 million), the Cubs locked up Soler - even with the potential for the arbitration-based salary outs - at least through his late 20s.

There was, however, one thing I didn't like: the incredibly lazy and uninformed analysis of the signing in the Chicago Tribune. To wit:
"The Cubs believe Soler's age and talent level merit a longer deal than usual, and gives them time to develop him and still have six years in the majors before free agency. The contract includes clauses that allow Soler to opt for arbitration instead of his allotted salary during arbitration-eligible years, though he can't leave for free agency until after 2020."
I can't tell if this is just written in an unintentionally poor, misleading way, or if it's just blatantly misinformed. Because regardless of how long Soler is in the minors -- even if it's seven seasons (or longer) -- the Cubs would still control him for six more years before he reached free agency. Those are the rules of baseball, and it doesn't matter how long Soler's contract is, any more than it did for Jeff Samardzija, who didn't just become a free agent because his original five-year Major League deal expired after last season; free agency is still governed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which says a player must have six years of ML service before becoming eligible. However, if Soler were to somehow make it to the majors say in 2013, he would be under contract and therefore unable to leave via free agency even after six seasons.
For the sake of accuracy, the last sentence should read "though he can't leave through free agency until after 2020 at the earliest." That might seem to be the picking of the tiniest of nits, but the contract is extraordinarily long because of its appeal to Soler and his sense of security -- 9 years and $30 million will tend to give one peace of mind -- and has as much to do with giving him development time before free agency as it does with Benito Santiago.

"The Cubs needed to sign Soler before July 2, when international signings are subject to a cap, a change in the collective bargaining agreement to level the playing field."
I know the Trib used to own the Cubs, but did the transaction with the Ricketts family stipulate the continuation of company-line spouting? The cap was instituted not for anything as noble as leveling the playing field, but rather to keep more money in the owners' pockets. In fact, it essentially gives large market owners a bigger advantage, as the international talent pool has been one of the only places (as opposed to veteran free agency) where small market teams could compete with the big boys (see Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Miguel Sano, et al). But why let the truth get in the way of a little bit of quaint narrative?
"The right-handed, power-hitting Soler is the Cubs' second signing of a Cuban defector in the last three months. They corralled left-hander Gerardo Concepcion in March with a relatively modest $6 million, five-year deal. Concepcion had a poor start at Class A Peoria, allowing 12 runs over 52/3 innings in his first two starts, but has improved since."
I suppose the last sentence is technically correct (as it would be virtually impossible not to improve on a 19.06 ERA), but Concepcion has been pretty putrid thus far. Now we're talking a tiny sample size of a young, inexperienced player, so I'm not saying it means anything; in fact, given the dollars involved, I still like the signing. But these are his numbers:
2 4 6.16 9 38 48 35 26 4 23 22
Concepcion has performed badly, with K and BB walk rates that will become especially alarming if they persist throughout the season. To imply anything else is not in line with reality, but at least the Tribune resisted its usual urge to throw dirt on any Cubs prospect with a miniscule sample of poor performance.
"Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer were in on Soler early, making his signing a priority after missing out on fellow Cuban Yoenis Cespedes, who signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the A's. ... Cespedes hasn't lived up to expectations yet, hitting .275 with six home runs while battling injuries."
I generally avoid drawing expectations-based conclusions from 131-at-bat samples that come two months into a four-year contract, but maybe that's just me.
"While declining to pursue mega-deal free-agent types such as Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, the Cubs have instead focused on paying for future talent, a risky strategy usually employed by small-market clubs."
Yes, this is a truly risky tactic, unlike the safe, sure strategy of signing a soon-to-be-past-his-prime performer to a nine-figure contract. You know, low-risk guys like Vernon Wells, Alfonso Soriano, and Barry Zito. Mike Hampton and Kevin Brown. Carlos Lee. Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth. Yes, those small-market clubs should surely stop taking so much risk on future talent and just go for certainty.

I also don't like the Trib's subtext here: "Chicago is a big market, they should be signing big-money players, not pinching pennies like the little guys." This line of thinking is utter bullshit, and is precisely what put the Cubs in this predicament in the first place. Major League free agency is incredibly inefficient, market-wise, and a terrible way to try to build a ballclub that currently has as few (talent) assets as the Cubs do. What would Pujols or Fielder be doing for the Cubs right now other than raking in ungodly sums of cash? Putting as much of their money as possible into the minor league system is undoubtedly the best way to rebuild; whether those players end up on the roster or are used as trade chips, it's a much more efficient way to do business.
I really can't describe how exhilarating it is that, for the first time in my life, I feel like the Cubs are being led by a capable group of people who really know what they're doing. Now if only I could say the same for those paid to cover them...