Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Updated Gimlet

Here's a small departure from tradition in the form of an augmented Gimlet. 

The Gimlet, according to a 1953 Raymond Chandler novel The Long Goodbye, is half gin and half Rose's lime juice. And what better authority could there be?

The point of the traditional Gimlet is lime, and I wouldn't argue with that. It's simple and to the point. Give the gin a little fillip of dry citrus and nothing more. 

But who can leave well enough alone? We can have a traditional Gimlet anytime, but that doesn't mean we can't fiddle with it a little, no?

So, perusing my liquor cabinet, I thought: Why not replace the lime with lemon, and try adding something allied, but mysterious, to the combination?

The combination below is intriguing. 

3 Parts Boodles gin
2/3 part limoncello (lemon liquor)
2/3 part Cotton Candy liquor

Well shaken, and served up in frosted cocktail glass with a thin

Lime wedge garnish

A traditional Gimlet will look slightly yellowish, from the lime juice. This version is just a tiny bit warmer in tint, since the Cotton Candy liquor is pink. 

The flavor is clear lime-like, but mysterious and subtle. Light, and evanescent. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

China's One Child Policy Relaxed

As readers of this blog know, I consider population growth the major problem in the world today, so the announcement by China of a relaxation of its official one child per family policy is disappointing, to say the least. 

China is officially a Communist state, though its actual functional profile bears little resemblance to the kind of government envisioned by the pioneer Russian revolutionaries of the early 20th century. The leaders of the new China think in terms of what they construe is the common good, to the exclusion of certain other social goals, such as free enterprise and opportunity. Their version of enforced, selective entrepreneurism has led to a rapid economic growth model, in the process steering their people away from a largely agrarian society to one more closely resembling the industrial paradigm of the 20th Century West, built on a manufacturing base. China's leaders, realizing the complicated problems facing their nation, initiated the one-child per family policy in 1983, which is estimated to have prevented something like 400 million births. Many critics in the West point to the draconian nature of a government which would dare to dictate fertility rates to its people, and enforce them with penalties. 

There is no doubt that China takes a different view. Acknowledging that controlling population cannot be accomplished through voluntary compliance, it made mandatory what most sensible ecologists and environmentalists know is a high priority for the health of humankind and the biosphere we occupy: the control of our numbers. 

We know that if we can't figure out ways to moderate population growth, nature will in her implacable way do the job for us, through famines, wars and disease. We tend to think of shortages and regional disputes and opportunistic infections as isolated instances of risks and accidents of circumstance. But in reality, these phenomena are part of a universal condition which is only expressed at the peripheries of our awareness. Indeed, they are just the same force expressed in different ways. 

Our earth is getting smaller, not just in metaphysical or imaginary terms. Before the discovery of the "New World" the earth seemed to people as an enormous, inestimable extent. In just six centuries, we've overrun the planet, and are now challenging the ecological limits in every corner of the globe. In this context, nearly every kind of problem we now regard as separate and unrelated, is clearly part of a single problem: Overpopulation. 

China's approach to solving this problem may seem extreme, unless one is willing to acknowledge that the choice to moderate population is but another kind of limit, but with a difference: It's deliberate, rather than random; intentional, and planned, instead of passive, or apathetic. 

Some in the prosperous West believe that economic prosperity will naturally moderate peoples' impulse to fertility, that over-breeding is itself just another "symptom" of the failure of civilization to meet humanity's needs, and that as the standard of living rises generally, population growth rates will "level off" and lead to a kind of permanent stasis. Whether or not you believe this to be myth or miracle, one thing we know for certain: If we can't figure out ways to control population, nature--in the form of disasters, plagues, wars or famines--will do so inexorably. 

Overpopulation is the root cause of most of the worst ills that confront humanity, including polluted air, lack of notable water, crushing poverty engendering sexual and labor slaves, global warming, dreadful migrations of refugees across continental landscapes, and the extermination of other species. The championing of population growth to foster economic growth is among the most myopic of arguments ever devised.

Growth from an overflowing pool of dirt-poor laborers simply allows these horribly impoverished people to be exploited and marginalized as a permanent economic underclass. Perish the thought that we would allow populations to shrink, thereby increasing the demand for workers, so that they would be recompensed fairly for their labor--true economic growth, shrinking the gap between those with wealth and those without. 

Unconstrained fertility is truly an immoral path for humanity to follow. China's decision to relax its one-child policy to allow for two children, has been interpreted by some as an encouraging sign. There's no doubt that China believes it can afford to do so, given its immediate economic priorities; it's being interpreted as a sign of improvement in the West. But the time is soon coming when such steps will need to be re-considered, if we're to have any chance at heading off the dire predictions of which the latest wave of "isolated" tragic events are the clear early warning-signs. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

O'Hara and the "Open Poetry" Debate

Frank O'Hara was, by all accounts, a very social person. With a wide circle of friends, some intimate, many familiar. As an active member of the New York art and literary scenes, he met or came into contact with hundreds--thousands, probably--of people, many important or noteworthy or interesting. Frank was voluble, and charming, and forthright. And very emotional too.

Frank O'Hara (at left) with John Ashbery

One of O'Hara's best and most famous poems, "My Heart," proposes a concept of poetry that is "open." 


I'm not going to cry all the time
nor shall I laugh all the time,
I don't prefer one "strain" to another.
I'd have the immediacy of a bad movie,
not just a sleeper, but also the big,
overproduced first-run kind. I want to be
at least as alive as the vulgar. And if
some aficionado of my mess says "That's
not like Frank!", all to the good! I
don't wear brown and gray suits all the time,
do I? No. I wear workshirts to the opera,
often. I want my feet to be bare,
I want my face to be shaven, and my heart—
you can't plan on the heart, but
the better part of it, my poetry, is open.

What might it mean to claim that the best part of one's poetry is "open"--as opposed, then, to closed? What exactly is O'Hara telling us about his poetry, about himself, and possibly about how to measure the best qualities of our poetry?

What might "open" mean as a quality or descriptive in verse?

I've thought about this for years. Once upon a time, I might have said (or thought) that O'Hara strove in his poems to engage the reader with a greater jeopardy or vulnerability, to "bare" his private soul, thereby bringing himself closer to the reader (his audience). Does an "open" poetry imply intimacy with the poet? Might it imply a favorable kind of embarrassment of this intimacy?

As with many typical O'Hara poems, the argument begins almost at random. The poet declares that he must be various--"I'm not going to cry all the time/nor shall I laugh all the time." And goes on to describe himself in terms of a dialectic between one extreme kind of behavior or another. This is another way of saying that he's unpredictable, and that this unpredictability is a hallmark of his character. This variability is clearly seen as a favorable aspect. Interesting people aren't predictable, or at least this particular writer isn't; and he places a value on that. 

Unpredictability. Then, suddenly, at the end, he catches himself in mid-sentence, starting to describe his heart, he qualifies it--"you can't plan on the heart"--which is really just a way of restating the premise of the poem (predictability), and says, instead, "but/the better part of it, my poetry, is open." It's as if he had been going to say "my heart is open" but instead decides that it isn't his heart that is open to the reader, but the poem ("my poetry"). The surprising line comes across like a declaration of principle, almost a poetics. 

Once upon a time, again, my first tendency would have been a confirmation of how I thought about O'Hara's verse, which always seemed, in its difference, to be about the casual familiarity of direct speech, against the rhetoric of poetic style(s). O'Hara's poems, after an early period of more doctrinaire writing in the early 1950's, seemed more and more to assume the flamboyant and giddy spirit of party-talk, the kind of idiomatic language and candor of personal conversation. O'Hara showed how you could build an otherwise traditional poem out of ordinary contemporary speech, touching all the bases, while going naked. There was even a notorious anthology, Naked Poetry [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1969. Edited by Robert Mezey and Stephen Berg], whose title became the catch-phrase for the negligent unfettered "free" verse of the post-War era. "Naked" might have seemed attractive as a description to some, while others may have seen it as the beginning of the end of good poetry as they defined it. Any poem "going naked" into the world might have had a certain original purity, but it also implied a naive misapprehension of what well-written poetry was supposed to be. 

But over the years, I've come to question what my initial impression of that "openness" might mean. When we think of open, we might describe it as a sort of welcome mat. Come in, everyone is welcome here, no one is excluded. No reason to feel that poetry is an exclusive club with specific requirements including a strict dress code. But how would we go about describing this "open" quality in terms of poetic function? What constitutes a "welcoming" style versus an unwelcoming one? Would we describe a poet who was very popular as being more "open" to his readers than a poet who was obscure. In what sense does O'Hara mean "open"? 

Can a poem open outward, to encompass the world, or other people, while another poem, tightly wound inside itself, actually put readers off, push them away? Whitman, relevantly enough, was a poet who actively sought to encompass his readers in a large democratic embrace--it was an article of faith in his work. Eliot, on the other hand, often seemed to create a very limited vision of his world, one neither welcoming nor cheerful, designed to separate the poet from the rest of humanity. In his criticism, he was often so straight-laced and buttoned-up that he seemed to be a gloomy English schoolmaster slapping his readers on their wrists for not knowing what he knew and they didn't. 

The influence of Eliot and the academies throughout the period from 1900 through about 1955, insured that the prim and proper poem, serious and committed to traditional modes and tropes, would be the standard in the periodicals and the world of publishing. O'Hara's poem--and his declaration here--had by the time of the poem's appearance become almost a cliché of the New American Poetry. Other poets of the period--Whalen, Creeley, Eigner, Schuyler--had already been writing what we'd then (and now) describe as a poetry of greater "open-ness" and variability. 

Would O'Hara's "open" statement have been construed as a description of what his poetry did, differently than, say, what Robert Lowell or Richard Wilbur or Donald Justice did, circa 1960? Hadn't Lowell previously "opened" himself to intimate autobiographical disclosures during the 1950's in Life Studies and For the Union Dead? In what sense might Lowell's thawed-out disclosures not in fact been "open" gestures towards his audience of readers, in the same sense as O'Hara's talky, wise-cracking, swishy overtures were? 

Or was O'Hara's proposal of an "open" poetry merely an illusion, constructed on the fly?

There are different ways of configuring O'Hara's dichotomy of open/closed. Would a poetry restrained by elaborate grammar and strict fixed verse forms be construed as closed? Would its "closedness" be defined by its style, or by the numbers of readers who responded unfavorably to it? Or would a closed poetry be one in which its syntactical violations were so numerous and radical that it put its readers off? Is Joyce's Ulysses a closed writing, or an open? Is openness to different, even radically different, ways of writing a fulfillment of the descriptive? 

We think of grammar and syntax, as aspects of a system, which grew up through oral transmission and was then conditionally "fixed" with dictionaries and grammars, but which continues to mutate in the marketplace of communication. We think of grammar and syntax and spelling and so forth as aspects of the accepted grace of consent. If the foundation of language exists to restrict the range of responses to language and present reality, might that edifice be subject to invasion and restructure? How might we go about renewing our sense of what it means to communicate, relevantly and immediately, to the facts of our personal lives, or to the facts of our present political realities? Would such a program be about finding new ways to employ words, and the structures we make from words, or would it be a more successful effort to "communicate" (or reach out) to a larger and larger audience of readers? Are these two approaches mutually exclusive? Does a writer such as Shakespeare in fact bridge these two continents, by making persuasive dramatic analogues in a language as lively, inventive and powerful as any we know? 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Is Critical Mass reaching Critical Mass?

When I was a kid growing up in Napa California during the 1950's, I had a paper route for four years, starting when I was 10. My route covered 12 suburban blocks, in the hills of Alta Heights, and totaled  over a hundred customers. I had to roll the papers up with rubber-bands, put them into two big canvas bags which I wrapped on my handlebars, and pedal round the neighborhood, throwing the rolled papers onto lawns or porches. It usually took about 90 minutes to complete. I had to do it six days a week, and there was no back-up. I had gotten my first bicycle a year earlier for Christmas, a big, green and chrome model with a little horn and a passenger rack over the rear tire. Some of that stuff came off when I started the paper route. 

In those days, adults didn't ride bicycles, at least in suburban America. Kids and teenagers did, but riding a bike above the age, say, of about 13 was considered childish, and was definitely un-cool. In the 1950's, we were living in the midst of the Age of the Automobile, which had transformed America, bringing prosperity and convenience, making America the richest nation in the history of the world. The suburban paradigm, which grew up during the 20th Century, was based on the automobile, allowing people to commute and travel with ease. The automobile became king, with a whole cultural franchise built around the ownership of brands and the glorification of driving.

In large urban areas the automobile eventually caused congestion, and our huge freeway and hiway system, built to facilitate and accommodate the four-wheeled vehicular traffic, got bigger and bigger, often becoming inconvenient, and dangerous, rather than efficient and fun. For better or worse, cities and roads have become the province of cars. The shopping center was invented for them, and whole districts of our cities and towns were designed to serve and exploit the car economy. 

The automobile paradigm caused a reaction among city planners and regional administrators. Looking to Europe--which developed and evolved over two thousand years in the pre-automobile era--they proposed to de-emphasize the automobile, turning some downtowns in America into auto-free zones, thinking or believing that this would lead to the sort of delightful and pleasant scenes one sees in England, or France, or Italy. The failure of the "European" urban pedestrian paradigm, as a forced-fed alternative to the automobile, was immediately apparent. These cute little pedestrian districts mostly failed, because they didn't address the central fact of American life, the car. People shop in cars, they recreate and visit and travel by car. Cars are indispensable.            

And yet we know that the Age of the Automobile is probably only a phase in the evolution of Western Civilization. Dependent upon fossil fuels, the vehicular paradigm is bound eventually to decline, as we use up existing stocks on the planet. Is it possible to imagine a world in which our dependence upon the automobile is significantly reduced, without sacrificing the convenience and efficiency which it makes possible?

As a practical matter, owning and operating and parking a personal vehicle in the city today is becoming pretty burdensome, if not too expensive. Public transportation may be reliable and easy, or unreliable and frustrating. As a commuter from the suburbs to the city for 27 years, I wore out my tolerance for solitary commuting by car, and by bus (AC Transit), and by commuter train (BART). Any system you have to take five days a week becomes a drag. Could I, would I ever, have considered commuting by bicycle? In my case, it wouldn't have worked. 

Many people today are coming by necessity or interest to believe that bicycles may be the answer to the problems that vehicular traffic in congested cities present. Riding a bicycle is healthy, and certainly cheaper than driving. In other parts of the world, bicycles and motorcycles are much more common. In Europe, and in the Far East, bicycles are much more widely used. And with that greater use, comes an entirely different set of problems with which to deal. Biking advocates in Europe have formed pressure groups, and engage in public protests referred to as Critical Mass.   

In the San Francisco Bay Area, we have become accustomed to (if not comfortable with) monthly Critical Mass protests. 

In theory, encouraging people to ride bicycles instead of driving their cars is a good thing. In reality, within the context of how our world works at present, there are limits to how much biking our current transportation system can accommodate, without becoming as crowded and inconvenient as it can be with automobiles alone. We are probably in the midst of a transitional phase in our transport systems, from one primarily dominated by private cars, trucks and busses, to one in which there are more two wheeled, human-power vehicles on the road. 

In the news this week have been attempts in San Francisco to get a law passed--based on the so-called "Idaho rolling stop" law--which entitles cyclists to pass through Stop Signs, and proceed slowly if there is no cross traffic. These "rolling stops" are designed to make cycling easier, and to prevent the police from ticketing riders who do it. 

As we all know, cyclists today rarely obey traffic regulations, so passing this law might in effect be nothing more than an acknowledgment of what already happens. When I was a boy, no one paid much attention to bicycle regulations. No one wore helmets, bikes often rode on sidewalks, and usually didn't come to a full stop at stop signs. We lived in a simpler world, then, when people believed that cars were the answer to all our transportation needs. Bikes were for kids, a toy and a recreation. 

If you want to imagine what might some day happen in America, if the bicycle revolution continues to gather steam, check out the traffic jams they have in large cities abroad. In India, for instance, or Rome, or other urban areas where bikes have become common.

   Traffic in Hyderbad, India

Advocates for the new "rolling stop" ordnance demand that we accommodate their openly scofflaw behavior by making it legal to ignore current traffic law. 

In my experience--admittedly anecdotal--cyclists--in the Bay Area, at least--have become cocky and "in your face" about their refusal to follow the law. Engaging in Critical Mass protests, designed deliberately to cause distress and aggravation among motorists and the citizenry generally, has done nothing to further their cause. Perhaps believing they occupy some moral high-ground, they seem to think they not only don't have to obey the law, but that they have a duty to do whatever they can to antagonize motorists and pedestrians alike. 

Looking a little way into the future, it isn't difficult to imagine what may be coming to our urban streets. As bicycling grows in popularity, the congestion and jostling once associated exclusively with automobiles, will become several times worse, as two- and four-wheeled vehicles, and ordinary pedestrians vie for ascendancy in an increasingly crowded urban matrix. In that context, no one will have any moral leverage against another, since the compromises we have made to accommodate one faction, will end up making everyone unhappy. It's another confirmation of the old adage "be careful what you wish for." If you believe that converting, say 50% of all private vehicles to bicycles, it's doubtful that the result will be to anyone's liking, particularly in crowded cities. 

I may be entirely naive, but I believe that problems such as urban congestion, are but one of a number of consequences, or symptoms, of crowding brought on by excess population and uncontrolled growth. The "critical mass" which bicyclists like to think of as a tipping-point for the trend away from unwise reliance on automobiles, is actually one such symptom. Choosing to ride a bicycle, because of necessity (it's all you can afford), or pleasure (riding for fun or exercise) does not imply that biking represents a superior vision of our future. 

Bicycle coalitions and cocky, in-your-face cyclists deserve to face the same realities as drivers and pedestrians. The answer to congestion isn't in fighting people over shrinking space, but in seeking solutions that reduce demand, and that begins with population control, and regional low- or no-growth initiatives. If we fail to find ways to moderate our rapacity and unwholesome breeding, none of the temporary stop-gap measure are going to matter.  

In the meantime, we'll continue to see the majority of cyclists blasting through intersections at 30 mph, oblivious to signs and pedestrians and motorists alike, flipping everyone the bird, screaming and wobbling willy-nilly into adjacent lanes, and generally raising hell. Allowing cyclists to ignore traffic regulations won't make them (or anyone else) safer. It will only make matters worse. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The 9-Up, or Beam me Up, Scotty!

The history of American soft drinks is not nearly as predictable as you might think. Before the advent of soft drinks, potions and nostrums were limited to substances which would self-preserve, without the contents being under pressure, or saved from spoilage by refrigeration. Alcohol will "keep," but most other organic ingredients quickly "turn" and go sour or rotten unless something is done to lower their temperature or keep the air and impurities out. 

The Wikipedia entry for the commercial soft-drink 7 Up provides a nice summary of how the innocent sweet drink we all know today evolved over the 20th Century. (As a child, I consumed unconscionable amounts of this stuff, along with Byerly's Orange, Nehi and Squirt.) 7 Up's origination appeared two weeks before the Stock Market Crash in 1929, as Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda. It contained lithium citrate, a mood-stabilizing drug. Lots of such "patent medicine" products were once marketed as being healthy or promoting a sense of well-being. The company changed hands several times after the war, and is presently controlled by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. 7 Up has been reformulated several times over the years. The lithium citrate was removed in 1950.  There are various theories about what the name "7 Up" actually means, including theories about the ph measure of the drink, and the atomic mass of the lithium content. It probably doesn't matter, since the name has entered the language, in the same way that Coca-Cola has. Current day 7 Up doesn't contain any fruit juice at all. Some of the previous ad jingles I can distinctly recall include: "You like it, it likes you," "Fresh up with 7 Up," "Nothing does it like 7 Up," "Never had it, never will [caffeine]."  

The lithium got me thinking about something else. The late poet James Schuyler's break-out book of poems was titled The Crystal Lithium [New York: Random House, 1972], which incidentally was also the title poem of the collection, which had appeared originally in The Paris Review. The poem as set out in long, talky lines, and was a kind of revelation of a certain kind of American Modernist style and image-making. Schuyler was a great friend of the painter Fairfield Porter, and often visited and stayed at his place in Southampton; Porter often made oil portraits of the poet. 

Schuyler by Porter in 1955 

I'm not sure who first told me what the lithium crystal actually meant--perhaps Barry Watten--but the connection is Schuyler's use of it as a drug for his bizarre mental instability which plagued him throughout his life, and which he wrote about frankly in his work. In his manic phase, his erupting imagination wasn't under sufficient control to allow him to think clearly, but the Lithium, which he took on prescription, allowed him to write effectively, and was the enabling key to his highly admired work in the 1970's and 1980's. The book's title is thus an acknowledgment of the importance of psychoactive chemical influence in the life of a talented creative artist. Schuyler's Freely Espousing [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1969], The Crystal Lithium, Hymn to Life [New York: Random House, 1974]. and The Home Book: Prose and Poems, 1951-1970 [Calais, Vermont: Z Press, 1977], were all important to me in my own work as a writer. Schuyler's perceptual keenness of observation, his frankness and wit, were revelations to me at the time. 

    Schuyler late in life

This little animadversion is just the sort of distracting detour that I often engage in these days. The internet allows you to wander off into a wood or meadow, off the road of life, and discover or reconfirm something you either hadn't thought about for a while, or hadn't even known existed before. 

7 Up, a commercially marketed soft drink, contained an ingredient that would one day be used by psychiatrists to treat patients. And an American poet who was struggling with his personal demons, could be freed of those demons, enabling him to fulfill his ambitions as a writer. 

All of which, as has been said, "brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to" cocktail mixes and the flavors that can be made from various familiar ingredients. I previously happened upon a taste combination that was suspiciously reminiscent of Coca-Cola. And the one here is suspiciously similar to my memory of 7 Up, which by the way I haven't tasted in many years. In homage to 7 Up and the non-existent lithium citrate, I've christened it the 9 Up. I can't explain why 9, you'll just have to take it on faith. But it's definitely served Up. 

I can recommend this one whole-heartedly. The coconut seems counter-intuitive--not sure quite why I decided to add it, but it fits in perfectly. The combination of lime and sweet lime is also perfect. One of my best inventions! Enjoy!

3 Parts Boodles Gin
1 Part fresh lime juice
1/3 part fresh sweet lime juice
1 tablespoon coconut syrup
1 tablespoon hazelnut liqueur

Shaken and served up with a translucent slice of fresh lime dropped in.

The Augmented Sazerac

Traditionally, the Sazerac is considered to be the official drink of New Orleans, whose history can be traced way back to the beginning of the 19th Century. Because of the French influence, the drink's basis has been considered cognac (or brandy), though variations of it can be made with rye or bourbon with no proprietary fuss. The primary spin of the Sazerac, however, is the absinthe, which, despite the very small amount used, is still the signature flavoring agent.

In the traditional Sazerac, you merely swirl the inside of an old-fashioned glass (a squat tumbler with a wider-than-normal diameter), dispose of the excess, and build the drink inside this coated container. For those who don't like the basic licorice flavor, this may be as much as they stand. For those who enjoy it,  that little a portion may seem stingy. Back before the recent absinthe revolution, people used Pernod or Herbsaint liqueurs instead of true absinthe, which was banned in the U.S. for many years due to the presence of wormwood, which is the "active" ingredient that produced the symptoms which originally got it into trouble here. In Europe, people still like some Pernod cut with tap-water, producing a milky pale yellow drink that's just about pure licorice-tasting. When I was a kid, we used to chew twisted black and red rubbery ropes of commercially marketed licorice candy--I could stand the red, but the black was so sour and "burnt" tasting, I couldn't eat the stuff. Licorice is used in a number of various common proprietary liqueur mixes (Galliano, for instance).

In any event, what I've done here is substitute a good blended (and aged) scotch for the goods, and treated the result as a variation on a classic recipe. The classic Sazerac recipe is for some simple syrup, dashes of Peychaud bitters, and a lemon peel, with the absinthe swirl preceding. My recipe substitutes blended scotch for the rye or brandy, Grenadine for the Peychaud's, and adds Drambuie and some fresh lemon juice. Perhaps it doesn't deserve to be compared to the classic New Orleans mixture, but it's close enough in my mind to bear a taste similarity.    

4 Parts Chivas Regal 12 yr aged blended scotch
1 Part Dambuie
1 Part Fresh Lemon Juice
1/3 part St. George Absinthe Verte
1 Teaspoon Rose Grenadine
 (makes two servings)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Giants 2015 A Year in Transition

It's been a long season again this year, a year marked by injuries and disappointments, and a few bright spots too.

Following last year's triumphant, and improbable, championship run, it might have been expected that some of the propulsion from last year would carry over into this year's campaign. Great dynasty teams--such as the New York Yankees (1947-1964, ten championships, with 15 World Series appearances), or the Cincinnati Reds ("the Big Red Machine," 1970-76 with two championships), or the Yankees earlier (The Babe Ruth Era 1921-1932, 7 Series appearances, 4 championships), or, perhaps most impressive of all, the modern Yankee teams of 1995-2012 (with 17 post-season appearances, and 5 championships)--tend to repeat, but given free agency, it's unusual for all but the richest franchises to keep good teams together for more than a couple of years. Consistently good teams (i.e., the Cardinals, or the Braves, both of whom have had impressive multi-year runs in the last 30 years) are usually the result of superb management and shrewd player manipulation (trades and contracts and farm systems).

It's been shown that teams that play the star free agent market usually fail to deliver, while teams that nurture talent through their farm systems usually fair better. Trades can still be crucial to a team's success, but trading "up" can be very risky, depriving a team of significant money it might have used on lesser, but better suited, talent.

In the case of the Giants, their core key players over the current run were Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Brian Wilson, Brandon Crawford, Angel Pagan, Sergio Romo, Joe Panik, Hunter Pence, and Javier Lopez. Of these, all but Pagan, Hunter and Lopez were products of the Giants' Farm System, a fact which speaks to the importance of home-grown talent versus free agent blockbusters.

There are two reasons the 2015 Giants couldn't overcome the Dodgers for the NL West title--which presently is in its final stages, with the Giants 8 1/2 games back with three weeks to play.

First, the starting pitching. Four years ago, I predicted that Bumgarner would eventually surpass Tim Lincecum as the team's starting ace, and that has definitely come to pass. Lincecum's metoric rise from 2007 to 2010 was not a fluke, but it was evident that, given his slight body,and his tortuous wind-up, he wasn't a pitcher who would have a long career. The two Cy Youngs, and the blazing fast-ball that could strike batters out, were not destined to last. As his velocity declined, he began to press, and lost some of his control. By the middle of 2012, his ERA had doubled, and his strike-out ratio steadily declined. Meanwhile, Madison Bumgarner's star was rising. By the end of last year--and in the play-iffs--it had become apparent that MadBum was a superstar, the kind of player who can carry a team, who performs best under pressure. Big, lanky and focused, Bumgarner resembles Randy Johnson, with an easy, slinging motion, a durable body, and a determined bearing (which can't be taught or learned, but seems an aspect of inherited character). Bumgarner has become THE franchise player that every team needs to succeed. If and when he tests the free agency market, the Giants might find it difficult to match a rich team's high offer. But Bum is signed through 2019, so that isn't an immediate issue.

After Bumgarner, the picture quickly becomes bleak. The rotation at the beginning of the year was to have been Bumgarner, Vogelsong, Hudson, Lincecum and Peavy. But Peavy quickly went on the disabled list. After a handful of good starts, Lincecum deteriorated, and went on the disabled list. Hudson was intermittently effective, but eventually he too went on disabled. Only Chris Heston, an "old" rookie starter, was consistent. Vogelsong, who was never really a front-line starter, played down to his capacity, as he had in the previous two seasons. When Peavey and Hudson came back from the disabled list, they were ineffective. Lincecum was discovered to have degenerative hip disease. Cain, who had had elbow surgery and had been on the disabled list all year, returned with high hopes but was bombed several starts in a row, and went back on the DA again. As the year progressed, Heston began to falter, so that by mid-season or so, the starting pitching was Madison Bumgarner, and pray for rain. Anyone else on the mound, and the team could expect to begin the third inning of any game down by 3 or 4 runs. Again, for a team not noted either for its speed or its power, expecting a comeback, that's a tall order. Finally, when things seemed to be at their worst, the Giants got Mike Leake, a solid stylish 2nd line starter; however, since coming here, he's gone 0-3 with a 4.71 ERA--not exactly stats which are likely to turn the staff around. All of which accounts for the team's performance in the last several weeks. 

Second, injuries. Added to the pitching staff's woes, Jeremy Affeldt went on the disabled list, and Romo had intermittent problems too. Romo, who had been last year's closer, couldn't hack it this year, and gave way to Casilla. Casilla was lights out at first, but then he began to get hit hard in the second half. Among the relievers, Lopez and Kontos have been very good, Strickland has been impressive at times (which bodes well for the future--he's only 26). During the year, Aoki, Panik, Pagan, Pence, Blanco, Crawford and Susac have all had significant injuries. None of this of course could have been predicted at the beginning of the year. Being healthy is luck as much as anything. A smart GM should have understood that Lincecum, Vogelsong, Hudson, Cain, Affeldt and Peavy would all be question-marks. None of these pitchers lived up to expectations this year. In another year, I'd expect all these players either to be gone, or retired or doing mop-up relief by next year.      

On the positive side of the ledger, Matt Duffy was installed at 3rd Base when Casey McGehee tanked, and he's been a revelation at the plate, as well as in the field. Having two miraculous rookies (Panik and Duffy) two years in a row from your farm system is pure gold. We don't even miss Pablo anymore! And now Kelby Tomlinson is showing the same surprising success. In the outfield, Blanco seems to be having his "career year" at the plate, hitting above or just near .300. Aoki was all-star material until he broke his ankle. Meanwhile, Pence (broken arm in spring training and muscle strain in mid-year) has been missing in action. Posey and Crawford are having great years, but neither is a genuine power threat. Pagan, despite missing few games, hasn't been his usual self, nursing old injuries.     

A good deal has been discussed over the media about the Giants front office decisions and choices. Brian Sabean succeeded with uncanny selections, sticking with tried journeymen, while coaxing along younger players. Not everyone has been happy with Sabean's decisions, but it's hard to argue with success. Three championships in five years suggests "dynasty"--no matter how it's accomplished. 

Teams which succeed are usually built around a concept. There's the idea that since pitching is "4/5ths of the game" a good squad of hurlers is the foundation of a successful team. Then there's the notion that if you score enough runs often enough, you need only have mediocre arms, as long as your team ERA doesn't get above, say, 4.50. Then there's the theory of the park you play in.

Since half your games are played at home, building your team around the potentials of a specific park makes some kind of sense. China Basin, where the Giants have played since opening there in April 2000, is an eccentric park, along the lines of Boston's Fenway (with its weird high left field fence). The outfield alignment creates an unusually deep right and right-center field, which makes hitting home runs to the right side difficult. Dozens of fly balls "die" each year at China Basin, which would in other parks be decent home run shots. When the Giants moved to the park, they had perhaps the greatest modern-day long ball hitter in the game, Barry Bonds. With his power, hitting from the left side, the dimensions mattered less. 

The left field fence at China Basin is typical, and not at all that deep. Despite this obvious difference, the team has never sought to get right-handed power hitters. Over the last eleven years, no one (even Bonds) has hit more than 28 home runs, and in every case more home runs were hit in visiting parks than at home. Throughout this period, the Giants neglected to avail themselves of any power-hitting right handed batters, with the occasional exception--Moises Alou, Bengie Molina, Juan Uribe, Pat Burrell, Mike Morse. It's true that Posey and Pence are technically power hitters, but as pure power sluggers they have never been considered as such. 

How much stronger a team would the Giants have been if they'd had, instead of Pagan, or Blanco, a true slugger who could knock in 100 runs with 35 home runs in a year? Typically, the team has tended to structure its outfield for fielding prowess, and that's paid off. But a team which depends on singles and scratching out runs, without some power, especially when it has poor speed, will find it hard to compete without "lights out"pitching staffs.  

It's fun (or sad, depending on how you look at it), to wonder what might have happened if the Giants had had the courage to go out and hire a 2nd top flight starter (to back up Bumgarner), and if Panik, Crawford, Aoki, Pagan and Pence hadn't all gone down. My guess is that they'd be in first place, but then there's the nagging question of reliable starters. Hudson, Peavy, Vogelsong, Lincecum--these guys weren't up to the task this year, and there wasn't a hell of a lot management could do about it, once they'd made their bets. 

So it's wait until next year. 

I wouldn't mind if the Giants trade one of those hot new infielders (perhaps Tomlinson) to someone else for a slugging outfielder with legitimate home run numbers), and they bit the bullet and acquired an ace like Greinke or Sunny Grey. Not signing Sandoval should have given them the money to have done this at the beginning of the year, but then all those injuries weren't anticipated either. 

But next year will be a different story, with the Lincecum era officially over and the journeymen leaving. We've not heard anything about any good new starters in the farm system, so I would expect the team to shop in the off-season. It will depend on who's available (Greinke will be a free agent), and how astute the traders are. If we want to get back to glory in 2016, there'll need to be some turnover, and a few new faces. Change is in the wind.