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May 31st, 2014:

Saturday video break: Brain Damage

An iconic song from an iconic album:

Two iconic songs, really, since “Brain Damage” leads inexorably to “Eclipse”; I’d say 90% of the time the former is played on the radio, the latter comes along as well. By the way, the notes on the video says this is an “Early 1972 mix”, so if it sounds a little different to you, that’s why.

An iconic song needs an iconic cover:

That was the first Austin Lounge Lizards song I ever heard; it was immediately followed by “Jesus Loves Me But He Can’t Stand You”. Needless to say, I had to learn more about them, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Sriracha dispute settled

The City of Irwindale’s long national nightmare is finally over.

Sriracha’s spicy relationship with the City Council cooled off a bit Wednesday after officials unanimously dismissed a lawsuit and public nuisance declaration against manufacturer Huy Fong Foods.

The standoff between the city and Sriracha creator David Tran began in October when the city filed a lawsuit against his iconic company. The battle sparked fears among Sriracha fans there would be a global shortage of the popular condiment and its bottle with the tell-tale green cap.

An informal meeting Tuesday between Tran and city officials, accompanied by a written statement from Tran, provided the council the assurance it needed that Huy Fong will address residents’ odor complaints.

“We forged a relationship. Let’s keep that going,” City Councilman Julian Miranda said Wednesday.

[…]

Before the vote to dismiss the public nuisance order, Irwindale Chamber of Commerce President Marlene Carney gave a presentation to the council announcing the chamber will launch a marketing campaign “to talk about the positives of doing business” in Irwindale.

Tran on Tuesday credited representatives from Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Business and Economic Development for bringing the city officials to his factory.

Residents complained last fall the fumes seeping from the factory during the chile grinding season burned their eyes and throats and forced them to stay indoors.

The company recently installed stronger filters on its rooftop air filtration system, which Tran said he tested with pepper spray.

It is unknown if the new filters will be adequate until the company begins to process chiles, which is expected to begin in August.

“At the commencement of this year’s chile harvest season, if the air filtration system does not perform well, then Huy Fong Foods will make the necessary changes in order to better the system right away,” Tran wrote in a letter to the council.

With the settlement of this dispute, there’s now no impetus for Huy Fong to consider relocation, so this should bring the entire sriracha saga to a close. There may yet be expansion possibilities, but the prospect of moving the manufacturing facility, which never really progressed the “vague threat” status, is no longer operable. We can all now resume our normal lives.

I will say, it’s a bit mind-boggling that Huy Fong and the city of Irwindale could have had such a breakdown in communication. You would think this was the sort of routine disagreement that could have been resolved with some ordinary conversations and negotiations, instead of turning into international news. David Tran says in this LA Times story that he “fears that he’s lost market share because he has been forced to reveal so much about his production process”. Maybe, but I think he’s also discovered just how strong his brand is, and by all indications his business is continuing to grow. I’m pretty sure this will all be a net positive for Huy Fong in the end, if it isn’t already.

Finally, regarding that expansion possibility, a Google News search for “Jason Villalba”, the State Rep that has spearheaded the wooing of Huy Fong shows nothing new since his much-ballyhooed visit earlier this month. If there really is something to this possibility, I figure it’ll get mentioned as part of whatever ceremonial recognition of the peace accord with Irwindale takes place. If nothing like that happens, I figure it’s at best a long-term, not-yet-on-the-road-map idea. We’ll see.

Game room enforcement back on in Harris County

Better choose your eight liner provider carefully.

After clearing a few legal hurdles, Harris County’s new game room regulations – on which the city of Houston is piggybacking – are set to take effect Friday.

Late Tuesday after a hearing, a federal judge denied a request from a game room owner and operator for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked the new rules from being implemented. The accompanying lawsuit against Harris County – the second filed since Commissioners Court approved the regulations in December – still is active, with another hearing set for next month.

Under the regulations, game rooms with six or more video poker or “eight liner” machines will be required to obtain permits, pay a $1,000 annual fee, shut down between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., and leave windows unobstructed. The shops also will be required to identify themselves with signs reading “Game Room” and would be barred from requiring a membership for entry, a practice officials say keeps police out.

The new rules were originally set to take effect in March, but the Harris County Sheriff’s Office decided to delay implementation until May 30 to allow more time for game rooms to comply.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. According to Hair Balls, a motion for preliminary injunction is set for June 23, but enforcement is now happening. So be careful where you gamble, you never know when the heat may be on.

Somebody doesn’t like something about the Astros

I’m still not sure what we’re supposed to conclude from this long but mostly unsourced screed about how the Astros are running their team.

The Astros have become one of baseball’s most progressive franchises as they try to rebuild and avoid a fourth consecutive 100-loss season.

But general manager Jeff Luhnow’s radical approach to on-field changes and business decisions has created at least pockets of internal discontent and a potential reputation problem throughout baseball.

“They are definitely the outcast of major league baseball right now, and it’s kind of frustrating for everyone else to have to watch it,” said former Astros pitcher Bud Norris, now with Baltimore. “When you talk to agents, when you talk to other players and you talk amongst the league, yeah, there’s going to be some opinions about it, and they’re not always pretty.”

The criticism, through interviews with more than 20 players, coaches, agents and others, comes in two parts:

On the field, the Astros shift their defenders into unusual positions to counteract hitter tendencies more than any other team, including in the minor leagues. They schedule minor league starting pitchers on altered and fluctuating rotation schedules, what they call a “modified tandem” system, a development strategy unique in baseball.

Off the field, the Astros are said to handle contract negotiations and the timing of player promotions with a dehumanizing, analytics-based approach detected by some across their operation.

The central question is how much criticism should be inherent to their process and how much should signal trouble in a game where word of mouth spreads quickly?

“Ninety-five percent of what we do is very similar to what all of baseball does,” Luhnow said. “We’re being a little bit different for very good reasons in some areas that we think are important.

“It doesn’t affect our ability to make people happy at the big league level. It just doesn’t. It affects their ability to perform better and be more prepared. That’s at least our hypothesis, and what we believe. And to tie that together with (how we handle) contracts is ridiculous.”

As far as the shifting goes, we all know that the basic idea for this dates from the 1940s, right? Lots of teams are employing it heavily these days, due to a combination of much better data about where each individual batter tends to hit the baseball plus a crop of managers and GMs that are willing to do what the plain facts say they ought to do. As the widespread deployment of this tactic is still new there are sure to be adjustments and countermeasures taken along the way, but for now whatever griping there is about it – the story basically had none – is the usual reactionary BS that tends to dominate baseball conversations. This is why we can’t have a better Hall of Fame balloting process.

As far as the “tandem rotation” system in the minors goes, that’s another stathead pet rock that goes back at least 30 years. The basic idea behind it is to develop young arms while minimizing the risk of injury. For all the advances we’ve made in tracking and measuring what happens on the field, we still have no idea what causes some pitchers to thrive and others to blow out their arms. A team that can crack that enigma, or just show some tangible advantage over doing what everyone has always done, will reap a huge benefit. I have no idea if this particular idea will work, but it can’t hurt to try, and the minors is the place to do it since player development and not a team’s won-loss record is the primary goal.

It almost feels silly to even discuss these things because despite being prominently mentioned early in the story, the rest of it has nothing to do with them. I guess those things are proxies for the real gripe, about how the Astros evaluate players and handle contracts.

When players are first promoted to the majors, they need not be paid more than the standard minimum salary of $500,000. Once in the majors, a player’s service-time clock begins, which eventually will determine when he is eligible for salary arbitration (three years, or two-plus in some special cases) and free agency (six years) – both vehicles for bigger paydays.

The Astros have benefited from making contract offers to young players at low rates and holding back players in the minors for service-time reasons.

Last year, Jose Altuve, signed a guaranteed four-year, $12.5 million deal (the Astros can extend it to six years) that made him even more valuable than his statistics alone – players who are productive and inexpensive are the game’s most valuable commodity.

Top prospect George Springer, who was promoted to the Astros after the season started, will not be eligible for free agency until he is 30 after the team delayed his move to the majors. The Astros said service time wasn’t a factor in the move that could potentially save them millions.

The Astros saved themselves money. But the question is whether the team handles these matters in a way that fosters confidence, and how much they should care about that perception in a business worth half a billion dollars based on a core product of 25 players.

“Players are people, but the Astros view them purely as property that can be evaluated through a computer program or a rigid set of criteria,” one player agent said, echoing the comments of others. “They plug players into it to see what makes sense from a development or contractual perspective, and it does not engender a lot of goodwill in the player or agent community.

“They wield service time like a sword (in contract extension negotiations) and basically tell a player, ‘This is what you are worth to us, take it or leave it.’ ”

Extension offers for players who have little or no major league experience have grown in popularity in recent years as teams try to get them at a bargain price, and the Astros have made several such offers.

The premise is not what some agents said bothers them, but how the Astros approach dealings and appear to handle clients.

Springer had an offer last year that reportedly was worth about $7 million guaranteed with the potential to earn more. The Astros also have made third baseman Matt Dominguez an offer worth $14.5 million for five years, plus two options, and outfielder Robbie Grossman received at least one similar offer – $13.5 million for six years plus two options, a person familiar with the offers said.

None of the players accepted. Luhnow has a policy of commenting on contracts only if a deal is finalized.

None of this is unusual. Every team does it to some extent. Offering multi-year extensions to young players that might sign for huge amounts elsewhere once they become free agents is standard practice now, to the point that teams like the Yankees that have traditionally done business by signing such players have had to make adjustments because the free agent talent pool ain’t what it used to be. Generally speaking, teams make this kind of offer to their rising stars with a year or two left in their team-control years – it doesn’t make sense to do it much earlier than that. If the Astros are insulting or alienating the kind of players they’d like to retain at a competitive salary, they’ll find those players will choose instead to play out the string and sign with another team. It’s just too early to say whether they’re headed down that path or not.

What was really amazing about this story was just how few people were quoted in it. One unnamed Astro, one unnamed agent, and two former players – Jed Lowrie and Bud Norris. Lots of potential axes to grind in there, but no objective outsider/analyst perspective, other than one positive statement about the effect of the shift defense. I have no idea what we’re supposed to make of this. Sure, it’s easy to point at the on-field performance, but we all know they started from a point of having zero talent. They’re finally developing that talent now, and it would be nice if they could keep the players they grow. It’s fine to point out that their managerial style – talking contract negotiations here, not player positioning or pitcher rotations – might be a hindrance to that. There was so much smoke in this piece it’s hard for me to say if that’s a legitimate concern or a bunch of mindless nattering by the handful of malcontents that every organization has. If it’s the former, there will be plenty of visible evidence for it soon enough. I’m not going to worry about it until then. Chron columnist Randy Harvey, who sees things more or less as I do, and PDiddie, who sees it differently, have more.