Little League, Starbucks, and What We Owe to Each Other
Transactionalism versus contractualism.
(1) On Thursday night I’m going to host a livestream AMA where you can ask Ted Johnson, Cathy Young, and Will Saletan anything you want. Get your questions in early using this form. You can ask me stuff, too. But I’m always around.
(2) We’re going on a journey today. I hope you’ll take the ride with me.
1. Clay Travis, Little League Parent
This is a small thing. A trivial thing. But it stands for a much larger whole about what is wrong with our country. Conservative radio host / public health expert Clay Travis got himself kicked out of a Little League game for cursing at an umpire. Instead of being ashamed of himself, he’s on the air bragging about it:
Clay Travis went on a tirade against a little league umpire for calling his 11-year-old son and other kids out for rarely-enforced rule violations — and got himself ejected from the game in the process. . . .
He explained that the ump took a 10-minute bathroom break between half innings of the game, then detailed how the ump — shortly after his return — called Travis’s son out for batter interference on a play where the opposing team’s catcher attempted to throw a runner out at third base.
“If you’ve ever been to a little league game — I’ve been to hundreds — I’ve been to a lot of college and major league baseball games,” Travis said. “I’ve never seen this call.” . . .
Travis said he confronted the ump after he made the call. . . .
“So when he calls my son out, I say, ‘You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,'” Travis recalled. “That’s exactly what I said. I reacted immediately because of the significance here. It’s a one-run game … my kid’s been hitting well. Good chance that he’s gonna get a hit or put a ball in play, and potentially get two runs.”
The host claimed that the ump unraveled after Travis started giving him the business.
“The umpire comes undone!” Travis said. “He rips his cap off, the inning’s over. And he’s like, ‘You can talk about this on the radio if you wan, but you can’t talk with me here. You’re gone!’ So he throws me out.”
Travis argued that the ump, despite the fact that he was overseeing a game involving 11-year-olds, should be held to a professional standard.
“If you’re getting paid, I don’t care who the other people are,” he said. “You should be held to a professional standard.” . . .
“‘I don’t care who these boys’ daddies are!'” Travis said, mocking the ump. “Screw you dude! You’re a loser! You’re a really crappy job.”
Let’s unpack this, piece by piece.
First, batter interference is absolutely a call you see fairly routinely. Especially at the rec/Little League level where kids are still learning the basics of being in the batter’s box. You see it about as often as you see catcher’s interference, where an inexperienced catcher leans toward the ball and clips the bat with his glove. These are routine calls in Little League.
But the correctness or incorrectness of the call is beside the point. Let’s pretend that the umpire misapplied a rule: that the ump called a balk on the pitcher, even though the rules for this particular league had a “no balk calls” policy. Let’s pretend that the ump was just demonstrably wrong on the facts.
That still doesn’t justify getting upset at a kid baseball game. Travis says the play had “significance.” No, it didn’t. There is nothing riding on any of these games. No scholarships. No playoff bonus. No free-agent year. The only thing that’s on the line is the development of the kid’s character.
Second, the idea that Little League umps are getting “paid” and so must be held to a “professional standard” is insane. Umps everywhere below the college level are paid what is essentially an honorarium. Enough to cover lunch. Umping Little League is not a “job.” It’s volunteer work. A labor of love. It’s a guy doing a mitzvah for the kids because without umps they can’t play the game.
Getting mad at a Little League ump is like having your neighbor make you dinner and then getting pissed that it wasn’t cooked to your satisfaction.
And as for standards: The quality of umpiring increases as you move up in level. Anyone who doesn’t understand that the umps calling a Little League game will not be as skilled as the umps calling a college game is daft. The skill level of umps moves in relation to the skill level of the players. To continue with the food analogy: This is like going to Wendy’s and freaking out when you find that they don’t have foie gras on the menu.
Third: If there is going to be a discussion with the ump about a call, that’s up to the coaches. Not the parents. If you are a parent at kid sports, here are your jobs:
Get them to the game.
Make sure they’re wearing sunscreen.
Bring extra water.
Cheer for Jaden and Braden.
Use the car ride home to impart wisdom and life lessons.
You, the parent, have no business coaching from the stands or arguing with the refs. Most travel leagues make the parents sign an agreement promising not to do the kind of thing Travis is bragging about and warning that they’ll kick your kid off the team if you do.1
Fourth: I’ve seen parents kicked out of kid baseball games. And it breaks my heart, because whenever it’s happened, I’ve looked at their kid on the field and that poor kid is mortified.
If you throw a fit from the sidelines of a kid sports game, you’re not standing up for your child. You’re embarrassing him. You’re shaming him in front of his coaches and his teammates and a bunch of random strangers, too.
So even if you were right on all counts—on the side of the angels—why would you do that?
Here’s the thing: I could understand if Travis made a mistake. Maybe he was having a bad day. This happens. I am not always my best self. Neither are you.
But to publicly brag about it afterwards? To see this incident not as a regrettable mistake, but as a badge of honor?
What does that say about the state of our society? About our willingness to accept the idea that there are things we owe to each other?
Here is a question about society: In your work—whatever work that is—would you rather have your performance judged by your managers, or by your customers?
There is not an obvious answer. Obviously, it depends on the field.
But for me, throughout my career, I’d rather be judged by my readers than by my editors. Because even though I’ve been blessed with mostly very fine editors, at the end of the day my editors and I were both working toward making something of value for the readers. They’re the ones I’m trying to serve.
Which is why I was surprised to read this piece about Starbucks suggesting that SBUX partners don’t like that the company gives a lot of credence to the opinions of SBUX customers.
Starbucks uses crowd-sourced ratings known as connection scores to evaluate the customer service at its cafes around the country.
In interviews, 17 current and five former Starbucks employees told NBC News that the system, which has not previously been reported on, made them feel powerless and at the mercy of customers’ whims. In two instances, workers said that low scores caused managers to reduce hours for store employees.
While the ratings have been used for years, many workers said that the connection score system has also helped drive a national labor organizing campaign currently underway at Starbucks. Since last December, employees at more than 80 of the company’s roughly 9,000 company-run U.S. locations have voted to unionize, a movement that the White House has hailed and that has helped energize other labor efforts.
“It’s just a really good indication of the way the partners feel that corporate is sort of out of touch with the reality of the job,” said Maddie Vanhook, a worker at a Starbucks cafe in Cleveland that unionized this week. “You’re just kind of pumping out drinks. I think a lot of people just get into a groove. But then somewhere in the back of your head, if you don’t say hi to everybody or you don’t have a little conversation with everybody in between all of this rush and noise and other stuff going on, it’s like, oh, you know, this will affect my store’s numbers.”
This makes me sad about our world. Let me explain.
Modern life has become transactional to a repellent degree. When you go into a cafe and the barista says “Hi” it isn’t—or it’s not supposed to be—a transaction impacting a score. You say hi to the barista, and she says hi to you, because you are two human beings moving through the world, doing what you can to get by.
In that moment, the barista is “serving” you, but in ten minutes you’ll be at your office “serving” some other capitalist master. We’re all working stiffs. We treat each other with dignity because that’s what we both need and deserve.
Transactionalism is different from contractualism. In a transaction, you are good to another only because they are doing something for you. Contractualism—we are getting into T.M. Scanlon territory here—posits that there are things we owe go each other irrespective of what has passed between us. That there is, per Scanlon “the positive value of a way of living with others.”
In a rightly-ordered society the barista could trust that, on balance, the people she serves will be good to her. She could trust amalgamated connection scores more than she could the individual verdict of a manager.
But in a world of Clay Travises? A world where you only don’t curse at Little League umpires if they give you exactly the calls you want?
Well, I wouldn’t want a society full of those people rendering judgment on my job performance, either.
Since Uvalde we’ve had a lot of discussion about what ails America. Is it gun policy? Is it a national sickness? This seems like a false choice. It’s both. We can (at least theoretically) address the policy components. But the national sickness part—the part where people only afford value to, and respect the dignity of, others if they get what they want from them?
That’s a tougher nut to crack.
You may have ideas on how to address this problem—if so, please discuss them in the comments. For my part, all I can come up with is that we should lead from where we are. Thank the umpire for making your kid’s game possible. Greet the barista and ask how she’s doing. Apologize for your mistakes and grant forbearance to others.
Demonstrate with your life that we owe something to every person we meet.
3. The Watch That Came in from The Cold
Watches + Spies = Awesome
It was barely recognizable as a watch when it first came to me. The case shape gave it away, but the dial and hands were hidden behind a rust-colored crystal. The caseback was deeply gouged with what looked like marks made by claws strong enough to scratch stainless steel. You could tell it was a Rolex – its still bright gold bezel and crown, stamped “Rolex Oyster,” gave that much away, but that was about it. The truth is, it could have been made by anyone, and it wouldn’t have made any difference to its uncanny feel. With its heat-crazed crystal and dented case, the watch looked as if it had risen from the depths of hell – and as if it had come back from the afterlife with a story to tell.
The watch belongs to a man named Erik Kirzinger. It had been worn by his uncle, Norman Schwartz, who flew covert missions for the CIA during the Cold War. The watch bears the serial number 613482, dating it to approximately 1947.
When Kirzinger received the watch from the Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base, in Hawaii, he wanted to know at what time the hands had stopped, because the opaque crystal completely obscured the view. Deciphering when the hands had stopped might offer a small clue to the watch’s mysterious history. While reading the The New York Times, Kirzinger stumbled upon a name that those in the watch world will be familiar with: Eric Wind. Kirzinger contacted Wind, and Wind contacted HODINKEE. “When I first handled it, it gave me the chills,” Wind told us. Soon after, the watch arrived on my desk along with an official report from Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), letters written by CIA officers, a collection of medals, and a marble replica of a star that would appear on the Memorial Wall at CIA headquarters.
In my experience, the behavior of parents varies inversely with the level of play. The more elite the kid baseball, the better behaved the parents are. You mostly get insane parents at the lower levels of Little League. I suspect this is related to a lack of perspective.