Quick Hits

Pokémon Go generates new enthusiasm despite festival failure

New legendary Pokémon released into Pokémon Go include Lugia (left) and Articuno

Here’s a piece of unsolicited advice: If you’re going to hold an event with hundreds of people all playing the same mobile game at once, it might be wise to stress-test the cell networks in the area first.  It appears that Niantic Labs failed to do so before holding Pokémon Go Fest in Chicago on Saturday, and the ensuing network issues were so bad that their CEO got booed when he got on stage to hype everyone up.  These issues also complicated players’ efforts around the world to catch as many Pokémon as they could during certain time windows to unlock global bonuses.  To Niantic’s credit, they did admit their mistakes and are issuing refunds to all attendees, as well as in-game credits.  They also went ahead and unlocked all the possible bonuses as well, which actually has made the game pretty insane to play for the past day or so.

Despite this though, I can report that in my hometown of Alpharetta, GA, the game has experienced a small surge in popularity.  Many of the players in my area didn’t go to Pokémon Go Fest (thank God), and one of the other happy consequences of the festival was the unveiling of two previously unreleased Pokémon, Lugia and Articuno.  Trainers have been teaming up to find where these Pokémon are lurking and defeat the legendary birds in battle so they can catch them.  Both tasks have been hard, as expected.  I battled both earlier today and failed to catch either.  But the community aspect of the game has picked up again, inspired by the addition of raid battles, which sometimes require several trainers to team up and take down super-strong Pokémon, such as the birds mentioned above.  They of course require the largest groups of players.  The gym system has also been tweaked, with only six Pokémon allowed in a gym at a time, and a built-in “motivation meter” that decreases over time and in battle.  I like this change, as it increases gym turnover and makes it somewhat easier to obtain Pokécoins, the in-game currency that allows players to buy beneficial items.

Republican health plan appears dead

Sens. Mike Lee (left) and Jerry Moran

This is less in the “breaking news” category, but Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) came out against the Republican health bill, which surprisingly passed the House and was sent to the Senate.  Their defections, along with those of Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Rand Paul (R-KY), meant the bill had less than the 48 votes needed to advance to the floor for debate.  The Senate bill, while less conservative than the House bill, ended up being criticized from both the left and right, as moderate Senators assailed the bill’s cuts to Medicaid as harmful to their states.  Surprisingly, though, more criticism came from conservative Senators felt the bill didn’t go far enough to repeal Obamacare.  Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) offered an amendment to make the bill more conservative, but that didn’t fly with the moderates.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) doesn’t want to give up just yet, though.  He is proceeding with a third bill, which would repeal Obamacare without a replacement, but would delay the process for two years so said replacement could be devised.  This vote is scheduled for Tuesday and appears likely to fail, as Senator John McCain (R-AZ) hasn’t returned from medical treatments after being diagnosed with brain cancer, and Collins and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) quickly came out against the repeal-only bill, and it’s hard to see that getting to 50 votes easily.  Also, the Senate Parliamentarian signaled that she would rule against key parts of the legislation, which might mean Republicans would need 60 votes rather than 50 to pass the full bill, which appears impossible given Democrats’ staunch unity against Obamacare repeal.  Not to mention that this bill would introduce even more uncertainty into the health care market, which has already resulted in higher premiums.   So while it looks like Republicans are probably gearing up to move on to tax reform, don’t underestimate this bill’s chances.  McConnell has used this sort of brinksmanship before to get Senators to vote for bills he wants, and the House bill looked all but dead before passing later.

Baltimore Orioles waste strong start

Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado has struggled in the early part of the 2017 season.

As late as May 20, the Baltimore Orioles were 9 games over .500 and looked like real contenders in the AL East.  Unfortunately, since then they have endured losing streaks of 6 and 7 games and they now sit at 47-51, 4 games out of a wild-card spot.  The main reason for that, as with many of the Orioles’ struggles of late, has been pitching.  Their bullpen has not been as good with superstar closer Zach Britton out with injuries, and their starters have given up runs at such an awful clip that they tied a modern-era record with 20 straight games in which they gave up at least 5 runs.  Pitching prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman have not panned out as hoped, and the team’s other starters have struggled too (witness Ubaldo Jimenez’s ghastly 7.19 ERA and -1.1 WAR).  Some offensive players have struggled too, as Manny Machado has taken awhile to get going, and Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis aren’t hitting with as much power as last year.

Faced with this underachievement, it may be time to blow up the team’s core and start over.  Britton, Darren O’Day, Mychal Givens, and other effective relievers are likely on the block, and some have even suggested that it is time to trade Machado to replenish a farm system depleted by trades for veterans that haven’t been able to lift the Orioles into the World Series.  With the Yankees and Red Sox making the competition in the division much stiffer, I could understand why the team might want to trade Machado, given that he is a free agent after next season.  But a case could be made for keeping Machado too… maybe with a few trades at the deadline and in the offseason, the Orioles could make one last run at a title with him in 2018.  They would have to be very aggressive in the trade/free agent market in order to do that, as the team’s problems won’t be fixed with a few surface-level tweaks.  Time will tell, but it’s hard to see this season as anything other than a disappointment, and there may be worse times ahead.

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