So Long, Big Papi

Come next October, the New York Yankees will have to bid farewell to one of the most pivotal players in their recent team history.

Only, he doesn’t don pinstripes. He wears red socks instead.

David Ortiz, 40, announced via Twitter last month that next season will be his last as a professional baseball player. Big Papi, as he’s commonly known, will end his prolific 14-year career in Boston after three World Series titles, one World Series MVP Award and nine All-Star appearances to name just a few of his major achievements with the Red Sox.

He also hit a two-run homer off Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the 12th inning of the 2004 ALCS to begin the epic reverse sweep of the Yankees that still leaves many New Yorkers cringing.

“He’s the ultimate Yankee killer,” said Joe Castiglione, who has been the radio voice of the Red Sox for more than 30 years. And since joining Boston as a free agent in 2003, Big Papi has often acted as just that.

“I won’t miss him at all,” said Raj Madan, 47, a lawyer, father of three young Yankees fans and a sworn enemy of Red Sox Nation, an inheritance he received from his father. “I don’t know how he does it, but he always manages to get a hit in these important situations.”

Madan added: “I hate him.”

New Yorkers cast Ortiz as their villain just as they christened Derek Jeter as The Captain. With the rivalry thriving over the past 15 years, the two power players became each other’s foils. Jeter represented the establishment – a clean-cut, great all-around player who never ruffled any feathers.

“He was glorified as everything that is right about baseball,” said Eric Nadel, a Brooklynite by birth but an announcer for the Texas Rangers by profession.

And Ortiz is the slugger. He’s a designated hitter—only appearing on the field four or five times a game. He has personality. He’s outspoken. He’s confident. He may have taken PEDs, although he denies knowingly taking any steroids. And, said Castiglione, “he loves being in the spotlight. And when he is, he’s great.”

For the Red Sox, at least. For the Yankess, his clutch power is, to be put simply, the worst.

Big Papi’s ability to terrorize New Yorkers is so great that a construction worker who was a Red Sox fan briefly buried an Ortiz jersey beneath the new Yankee Stadium in an attempt to bring a curse against the Yankees. It didn’t work. The Yankees won the Series the next season.

But while Jeter faded toward the end of his reign in New York, Ortiz has remained dominant in Boston. He hit 37 home runs last season and during the 2013 World Series, he batted a ridiculous .688 with a 1.948 OPS.

It’s stats like this that have left New York hating him.

But one New Yorker who certainly holds no ill will toward his rival is the Captain himself. As Ortiz tweeted his retirement, he included with it a video he made for The Players’ Tribune, the website Jeter created post-retirement.

And while no celebrations have been announced—and Ortiz himself has said he doesn’t desire a Jeter-esque goodbye—the 2016 baseball season promises to be the unofficial David Ortiz Farewell Tour.

The two teams face off for the final time of the 2016 season at Yankee Stadium on September 29. Castiglione is confident the Yankees will fondly honor Ortiz “even though he’s broken your hearts a few times.”

It will be sad to see him go. But maybe with Big Papi gone, we can finally get number 28.

//800 Words, Columbia Journalism School, December 4, 2015


Fast Walking Lanes

If you want to survive New York City sidewalks, remember one thing: You need to move.

If you find yourself walking down a busy street and have forgotten this advice, don’t worry. Surely someone will be kind enough to remind you.

Nudges and shoulder vs. shoulder contact are common tactics. And there are the verbal cues you’ll hear with some regularity. But if you’re in need of a crash course in walking like a New Yorker, there’s no better classroom than rush hour Times Square.

The trick is to move out of the way of everyone you find. Think of it like the classic ‘80s video game Frogger. Instead of avoiding cars, however, it’s tired commuters and awestruck tourists in your way.

You’ll find the late-20s likely-banker trying to make his way to the Morgan Stanley building on 48th and Broadway. With a company emblazoned vest keeping him warm this early November morning, headphones on and looking down to avoid any direct eye contact, he delivers the standard and physical brush-past-with-purpose.

There is the suit-clad young woman moving toward the Skadden Arps building on 42nd Street. “Excuse me,” she says as she weaves in and out of the stationary figures blocking her path and hopping over the puddles left over from the morning’s rainfall.

And then there’s that person who is probably just having a rough morning. The best you’re getting from him is a blunt “Move!”

It’s not because New Yorkers are mean. “We’re just busy,” David Sabshon, 25, said as he defended his native people. “New Yorkers walk with a purpose. We’re destination orientated.”

In a city with almost 8.5 million residents and around 50 million tourists annually, according to NYC & Company, the local government has yet to find a way for everyone to coexist peacefully and politely on the city sidewalks.

But perhaps a solution is not far off. Liverpool, England, introduced the first ever fast-walking lanes in its city center last week. The city used only painted lines to create separated paths that opened to the public after a recent survey showed “slow walkers” are a chief annoyance among shoppers.

This comes as a surprise to no one who has ever been inside a mall, in a city during the holiday season or walked down Fifth Avenue during daylight hours.

But quelling annoyance isn’t the only incentive for bringing dedicated fast and slow-walking lanes to New York City. Over 1,500 pedestrians in the United States sought emergency room treatment in 2010 for injuries stemming from cellphone usage while walking, according to a study by the Ohio State University.

Locals and tourists alike said they were interested in seeing the introduction of these new divided paths in Manhattan.

“I feel like we keep bumping into people!” said Juan Trujillo, 29, who just arrived in the city for a vacation with his girlfriend, Vanessa Medina, 30.

“We’re tourists,” she noted, “but we’re trying to powerwalk everywhere so we can fit it all in. It would be great to avoid the foot traffic that gets in the way.”

The congestion is commonplace in this city. With sidewalks only so wide, it’s easy to find yourself stuck between teenagers traveling four-wide and a tour group moving as an amorphous blob. In those instances, even the kindest among us have to refrain from broadcasting our inner monologue of “you need move out of the way!” before electing the street as an easier alternative.

Though her interest was piqued by the idea, lifelong New Yorker Donna Lahav, 57, was skeptical about the practicality.

“It’s a good idea, sure,” she said, “but you put up a sign and then what? People already ignore signs.”

She may have a point. New Yorkers are not the best at following traffic — both car and foot — laws. The past year has seen the introduction of “no cell phone” pedestrian lanes in cities like Chongqing, China; Brussels, Belgium and, briefly, Washington, D.C. But the Liverpool fast-walking lanes are the first of their kind, leaving only a limited model to draw from to subdue Lahav’s concern.

Regardless of potential public interest, no immediate plans to bring fast-walking lanes to New York have been publically disclosed by the city’s Department of Transportation, which declined to comment for this article.

For now, New Yorkers will just have to deal with the sidewalk headaches they’ve learned to disdain all too well. Just look down, put headphones on and set music to deafening.

And to those in need of musical inspiration, look no further than a Ludacris song. He may have been rapping about a fight, but his words are perfectly applicable — albeit somewhat abrasive—to a New York City walker: Move bitch, get out the way.

//800 Words, Columbia Journalism School, November 12, 2015


2015 Baseball Statistics

No one expected a single mother on welfare writing about a boy­-wizard to be the first self­-made literary billionaire. A teenage peasant-­girl was not the obvious liberator of the French from the oppressive Middle Ages British. And the junior senator from Illinois wasn’t supposed to beat the former First Lady for the 2008 democratic nomination.

But they all did.

And according to statistics, the Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays, Chicago Cubs and New York Mets were not the teams destined to be the final four in the 2015 baseball season.

But they all were.

Longtime fans of the gentleman’s game know statistics rule supreme. Some teams may have emotionally sympathetic storylines on their side, but without a winning record, they’ve got nothing.

In early April, FiveThirtyEight.com—Nate Silver’s polling and data­-obsessed site—analyzed the predictions of 140 EPSN panelists for the 2015 baseball season. The raw figures were the first-­ever baseball set published by the mega sport­ Bible, and given ESPN’s five-­year winning record with basketball predictions, reliability was a reasonable expectation.

To put it mildly, their projections were not exactly accurate.

Of six teams ESPN counted as having the highest probability of making the playoffs, only three did, none advancing past the first round. The three others did not qualify, both the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers finishing the season in last place with losing records and the Washington Nationals managing a final record just over .500.

And the eventual final four left in the 2015 playoffs? Nowhere close to favorites to take it all come November.

But on a chilly Saturday evening inside a far-­too-­small bar in New York’s East Village, preseason predictions didn’t matter: the Cubs were about to play in game one of the National League Division Series.

Inside Kelly’s, the team’s lovingly sappy song Hey, Chicago, what do you say? The Cubs are gonna win today!was sung by hopeful patrons.

Unfortunately for Chicagoans, the Cubs didn’t win that day.

“It’s gonna happen,” insisted Sharon Sauter, 43, a life­-long Cubs fan, even after the loss. “Back to the Future II! It’s next week!”

Of all the preseason predictions, the earliest came 26 years ago. In a film starring a wide­eyed Michael J. Fox returning as Marty McFly, the Cubs took it all at a “100 to one shot,” on October 21, 2015. 

The Mets’ victory on the 21st, however, proved the Hollywood prophecy to be no more than science fiction (and perhaps a cruel addition to the Curse of the Billy Goat, a jinx on the Cubs for 107 and counting).

A quarter­-century after the film’s release, with all the advanced analytics now available, professional projections are seemingly no more reliable.

The ESPN forecasts were clearly far from predictive. Of the final four teams, the site had the Royals with the best chance of making the playoffs at a meager 35 percent. Blue Jays came next with a strong 13 percent, followed by the Mets at a respectable 10 percent and the Cubs at a hopeful two percent.

“The whole industry of predicting—it’s such nonsense,” said David Rahtz, 25, an assistant production coordinator for documentary films and a lifelong Mets fan.

It’s a game, after all. Preseason predictions are not published with a SPOILER ALERT disclaimer. And there isn’t a much beloved song asking for a perfectly accurate summary of the upcoming season.

But there is one sung between the top and bottom of seventh inning at almost every ballpark asking for someone to take me out to the ballgame for a chance to watch. No offense to peanut and Cracker Jack enthusiasts, but with prior knowledge of the game’s ultimate outcome, why would fans bother making the schlep to the stadium?

“You’re supposed to watch,” said Rahtz, “and let them play it out.”

On the other hand, if the numbers aren’t reliable, the front office adoptions of sabermetrics—the baseball specific analysis of in­game activity used to measure or project player performance and value—and the media obsession with analytical forecasts seem questionable.

To steal a headline published on FiveThirtyEight.com this August: is 2015 the year baseball’s projections failed?

On the surface, the answer is yes.
“There are people acting like they know what will
happen,” cautioned Jack Ross, 29, a freelance sports writer. “In reality, it’s kind of a shot in the dark.”

But perhaps the failure of statistics has been from a misunderstanding of their purpose, not an inability for the science to deliver.

Ultimately, baseball is a sport complete with the variables of human error, slumps and breakout performances.  Even with an understanding of this margin of inaccuracy, front offices have adopted sabermetrics as an invaluable source in team operations.

In a February report, ESPN counted only six out of the 30 teams in the league as analytical skeptics—those not entirely dismissive but not enthusiastic either—and just two as nonbelievers—teams finding little to no value in adopting the science.

With a majority of teams beginning to adopt this data-­driven thinking, a shift in usage of statistics has begun, said Caleb Peiffer, 30, manager of baseball operations for the Seattle Mariners.

“What’s happening now is that analytics are taking a different form,” he continued. “It’s become a way to quantify scouting reports and turn the two traditional poles into one system.”

This movement—by both teams and the wider public—toward a greater understanding of the game is, seemingly, a good thing.

Of the four final teams in the 2015 playoffs, all fell within ESPN’s top ­two categories of analytic devotees. Predictions didn’t call this post-­season, but sabermetrics may have helped cause it.

But it’s not the front office data crunching that has many fans of these “long­-suffering” teams excited for a shot at a championship title.

“The numbers are definitely important, especially when you talk about people like Theo Epstein,” said Danny Hagberg, 26, another Cubs fanatic suffering his team’s loss in Kelly’s Bar.

Epstein, a notable metrics proponent and the current president of baseball operations for the Cubs, was the general manager that brought two championship titles to the Boston Red Sox, breaking their own painfully long world ­title drought. “It’s not a coincidence,” continued Hagberg, “that certain teams with great young players made it this far.”

As each subsequent teams bows at the altar of the metric gods, many baseball lovers look to preserve the existing spirit of the game. One of them is John Sexton, president of NYU, a baseball enthusiast since childhood and teacher of the undergraduate course, “Baseball as the Road to God.”

“Frequently people go a step too far with statistics and think they are everything when they’re really not,” he said in his conference room surrounded by various academic and professional accolades and a few cherished baseball bats and balls scattered throughout.

“We want as much scientific evidence that we can get,” explained Sexton, “but there’s an art that comes into baseball that is important to maintain.”

“As far as sabermetrics,” he continued, “I don’t think that’s a bad thing. As long as we don’t lose the soul in the process and we don’t stop taking chances.” 

//Reporting 1, Columbia Journalism School, October 24, 2015


Safety Concerns for Male Sex Workers After the Closure of Rentboy.com

I’ll f*****g cut yo (sic) knee caps off...

Those words began the first text message Bryan Knight, a gay sex worker, received earlier this month from a potential client. He warned the anonymous man that his words were inappropriate. The response: Another explicit and violent text.

Danger is undeniably present in sex work and one that is not new to the business. But until recently, there was one site that helped considerably limit risky encounters for their 10,500 registered advertisers: Rentboy.com.

Designed for gay male escorts to meet those interested in purchasing their services, the site positioned itself as a platform for casual encounters, not a host for prostitution.

On August 25, agents from the Department of Homeland Security—who did not return a request for comment for this article—raided the site’s Union Square headquarters and arrested seven current and former executives who were charged with “conspiracy to violate the Travel Act.” They also seized servers and shut down all operations.

The men who advertised on the site were “selling their time only,” Michael Sean Belman, Rentboy marketing director, was quoted saying in the official federal complaint.

Homeland Security disagreed.

Knight, 30—the recipient of the violent text messages—advertised on Rentboy.com until the abrupt closure this summer. For him, the impact was immediate.

He describes himself as a professional “pleasure consultant” and has been involved in the industry for eight years.

Over the past two years, Knight saw the introduction of conversations and programs facilitated by Rentboy concerning sexual, physical and mental health. They directed their advertisers in need to counseling and STD testing.

For both Knight and others like him, it’s not just the services Homeland Security was concerned with that are gone, it these resources and outlets too.

“It’s pushed people underground to a world where there are a lot of safety risks,” said Michael Czaczkes, 28, a board member and the former president of the LGBT political organization, Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn. “People are still doing it. They just aren’t doing it safely.”

On Rentboy.com, professionals provided a name, photos, a few defining details (like sexual interests and bodily features), price and a method of contact all on their profiles. But it was up to the johns—those seeking the services—to make contact outside the site.

Rentboy offered a screening process for both workers and johns. The Homeland Security complaint noted site administrators screened each “photo, phone number, and credit card number to confirm validity.”

In the site’s absence, some men have turned back to established sites not specifically intended for sex work. Craigslist, Grindr and Adam4Adam—none of whom returned a request for comment—are some of the popular destinations, but these outlets don’t offer the same protection and have some history with violence.

In October 2006, Michael Sandy, 29, was killed in Sheepshead Bay by a man he met through Adam4Adam. Brian Betts, a Maryland middle school principal, was murdered in April 2010 by a contact he made through the same site. In November 2013, an Ann Arbor man, 71, was murdered by a 20-year-old who he met through Grindr. And just this past February, David Messerschmitt, 30, was murdered in a D.C. hotel room after soliciting gay sex through a Craigslist posting.

Yet, to some, there is appeal in these less official channels even knowing the possible danger.

“It’s hard to track you,” said Max, 24, an otherwise employed college-educated professional. “I don’t want to have a profile showing I’m a sex worker available online.”

But the benefits of anonymity don’t always curb his fears of using sites like Craigslist, which he says is his main source of sex work. “I wish there was a safer outlet. Now, you just have to do this dance in the shadows never knowing who is on the other end.”

Even with Homeland Security’s successful shuttering of Rentboy.com, it is clear sex work is in no danger of disappearing.

“We can only hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” said Knight. “But it hasn’t stopped me from working.”

//Reporting 1, Columbia Journalism School, October 8, 2015