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Game 20 – One Lousy, Stinking Run

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Cubs 0, Reds 1

Box Score / Highlights

The Good  Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d type: Jeff Samardzija looked like an ace today. Maybe that’s overstating it a tad, but I’m very impressed with him and the Cubs’ starting staff in general to start this season. ESPN Chicago beat writer Jesse Rogers wrote about just how effective the starters have been through the first twenty games of the season, and how their performance has made the team’s weaknesses all the more infuriating. Wednesday was no different, with the Cubs wasting another quality start from Samardzija. The first batter he faced hit a high bouncing grounder back up the middle and he made a stab at it with his pitching hand. The result was a bashed index finger that looked pretty gnarly for the rest of the game, but didn’t inhibit his performance. He was dealing for most of the afternoon–be sure to check out the pitches he threw to strike out the side in the 3rd–and his only hiccup came on a Todd Frazier homerun in the 6th. If the Cubs had any consistent offensive presence, they could have walked away with this game.

The Bad  But they don’t. Dale said it best: “We’re just having trouble hitting the outfield grass when we get people on base.” Yup, that’s pretty much it. I will say I can handle this kind of loss a little better than another heartbreaking blown save, but it still stings. The Cubs go to 6-14 with the loss, and and all twenty of those games have been decided by four or fewer runs. If the bats ever heat up, this might be a fun team to watch.

The Ugly  The biggest threat the Cubs posed to the Reds today was in the 8th inning. With runners on 2nd and 3rd, pinch hitter Alfonso Soriano struck out swinging (for my money, Soriano’s to excitable a hitter for those types of situations, but whatever) and David DeJesus came up hoping to get the Cubs on the board. With a 2-2 count, DeJesus hit a grounder up the middle that looked sure to drive in a run. Instead, Zack Cozart ranged over to nab it, throw to first in time for the out, and stomp his cleat right through my chest. And with that, another winnable game slipped through our fingers. Oh well, on to Miami.

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Lingering Injuries and Speedy Recoveries

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

I’m coming off two weeks of crippling back problems, so I’ve got pain and recovery on my mind. But I’m a lifelong Cubs fan, so pain of one kind or another is never far from my thoughts.

What I am wondering these days is if our thinking on sports injuries is totally skewed; if we’ve adopted the shorthand of labeling guys as “injury-prone” or “quick healers” and lost sight of just what these modern gladiators go through for the sake of our entertainment.

You can’t follow Chicago sports without hearing about the ongoing story/controversy surrounding Bulls’ star Derrick Rose. Rose suffered a grisly injury, tearing his left ACL in the first game of last season’ playoffs. He has been medically cleared to return to the court for a while now, but does not yet have enough confidence in his repaired knee to test it in a game.

And while Bulls fans and others across the NBA continue to grumble and complain about Rose’s supposed cowardice, many athletes across the sports world have encouraged him to ignore his critics and stick to his own timetable. The common reasoning is that these guys know their bodies better than any doctor, and they shouldn’t rush back from an injury and put themselves at further risk.

Having had my right ACL replaced, I can’t argue with that. It’s a weird injury to suffer–it feels like everything in your knee has unraveled, sort of like busting a lace on your shoes. And from the moment it happens, it’s hard to remember what your knee felt like when it was still healthy. That goes on throughout the recovery process, first as you keep it agonizingly immobile for a few weeks, and then as you slowly start to relearn how to bend your knee and trust it to hold your weight. As your leg hangs virtually useless from you body for weeks on end, you start to lose faith in it. You get comfortable not trusting it, not depending on it, and not even really needing it. It’s like a rebellious faction of your body you’re trying to bring back under your control.

No doubt the Bulls have had the best doctors in the world working with Rose, employing the most aggressive physical therapy to get him back into shape. But his line of work requires him to have complete confidence in his physical abilities–to trust them to work in instantaneous harmony, and not betray him with weakness or inconsistency. That’s not something a doctor can sign off on. It takes time to learn to trust your new knee, because no matter how superb the surgery was, it will never again feel like it once did. It takes patience, and that’s not something athletes or we fans are particularly good at.

Part of that is due to the occasional speedy recovery or guys who just seem to just “heal fast.” For every dozen Derrick Roses there’s a Ray Lewis, who only needed a matter of weeks to return from a torn triceps muscle. Whatever it was that aided Lewis’ superhuman recovery–whether it was the rumored Deer Antler Spray or some other sketchy substance–he made it back to the field in record time for one last victory lap and another Super Bowl ring.

So what’s the eager fan to do? Do we root for our guys to claw their way back onto the field, employing any and every means necessary to patch their bodies? Do we submit to the Jose Canseco “Steroids Are Good For You” school of thought, and ignore the dangers athletes might face in the process? Or do we pump the brakes on our fanaticism, understanding that a lost season isn’t the biggest tragedy in life or even in sports, and root for guys like Rose to return to the court only when they’re 100% ready to be back?

If this whole thing has any link back to Cubs baseball, maybe it’s this: like most of you, I’ve made my share of jokes about towel drills and soft pitchers. In the past there probably wasn’t much certain ex-Cubs could do to convince me they didn’t baby their injuries, quitting on the team and their own careers. But realistically, I don’t know what their bodies are telling them, and how or why they knew something was wrong.

Nor do I know why something as simple as a joint slightly out of alignment can keep me hunched over, render my legs numb and useless, send body-shaking spasms throughout my back, and virtually incapacitate me for days on end; or why a week and several treatments later I feel almost completely back to normal. The inescapable reminder in all of this is that our bodies are delicate, wondrous creations, and that we shouldn’t take so lightly the sacrifices of athletes who put theirs on the line for our enjoyment.

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Renovating Wrigley

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

By now I’m guessing you’ve heard the news: the Cubs and the city of Chicago have a deal come to a tentative agreement on a plan to renovate Wrigley Field (here’s a brief rundown). That agreement now must make its circuitous way through the various city councils, boards, and approval committees before it’s officially a done deal, but it’s still a major and long-awaited step in the right direction.

Of course, the whole thing could still fall apart. Tom Tunney–Alderman of the 44th Ward of Chicago and longtime attack dog of the rooftop owners–is said to be on board with the plan in principle, but don’t be surprised if he and his litigious constituents continue to throw speed bumps in the way of the renovation. In fact, count on them to get downright medieval on the Ricketts family when the Cubs owners finally announce where exactly they intend to put their proposed 6,000 square foot video board. At over three times the size of the manually-operated center field scoreboard, the proposed video screen promises to take up a substantial portion of the outfield skyline. And while the Cubs have said the placement of the video board won’t interfere with the view of any of the rooftops they have a contractual relationship with (which I assume means it’s going directly in front of the building that used to be home to the big red Budweiser sign), that likely won’t stop the rooftop owners from complaining.

What else could go wrong? A lot, I would think. Maybe Joe Ricketts, the partiarch of the Ricketts family and founder of TD Ameritrade, will again consider criticizing President Obama, sending Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel into fits of rage as he angrily ignores the Ricketts siblings’ phone calls for another eight-to-ten months. Maybe the corrupt-to-it’s-core political machine of Chicago will need more wheel-greasing than the Ricketts’ can afford. Maybe a five-year renovation plan is horribly naive, and Wrigley turns into baseball’s most beloved money pit (estimates are that it already costs the Ricketts at least $15M per year in repairs alone, so perhaps this isn’t so unlikely).

Of course money probably won’t be the Ricketts concern for long, if it is now at all. The new video board alone ought to draw at least $20M annually in advertising fees. The Cubs will also expand from thirty to forty night games in the coming years, and extend their beer sales by at least half an inning. And in a few short years, the Cubs will be ready to renegotiate their TV deal, with a new contract netting them somewhere in the multiple billions of dollars–or perhaps exponentially more if they create their own network (my guess is that’s their long-term plan).

So don’t feel bad for Tom Ricketts, even if he has to pay off or completely buy out a few of the most troublesome rooftop owners along the way (very likely). In fact, I say we should be proud of him. His willingness to pony up the funds for this project–a reported $500M (although I think it’s really closer to $300M, with the other $200M for the hotel project coming from a private LLC Ricketts heads up)–is admirable, especially considering how fleecing the taxpayers has become the preferred means of ballpark renovation/construction in recent years.

Think back a few years to when the Tribune Co. announced they were selling the Cubs. A lot of fans hoped Mark Cuban would receive serious consideration. I was among them, not because I like Cuban, but because I’ve appreciated his approach to owning the Dallas Mavericks. Cuban doesn’t need to make money off the Mavs–they’re a luxury to him, one that feeds his competitive nature. Rather than sapping the organization for every dime he can get out of it, he consistently reinvests in his team whenever and wherever possible. I remember hoping that the new Cubs owners–whoever they were–would follow the same kind of pattern and not see the team as just a cash cow, the way the Tribune Co. had for so long.

Ricketts doesn’t have the flamboyant flair or the outspoken abrasiveness of Cuban, but he’s also not trying to run the team on the cheap. By not relying on public money, he should bee able to streamline the renovation project without cutting corners. That is, at least as long as the rest of Chicago stays out of his way.

Like most Cubs fans, I love Wrigley Field. All things considered, it’s probably my favorite place in the world. And there is at least part of me that doesn’t want to see it drastically changed. But if it does need to be updated and renovated–and believe me, it does–I’m pleased to have the project in the hands of another Cubs fan. Someone who understands what’s so special about the place, and why it’s worth preserving for the next generation of Cubs fans. Let’s hope Tom Ricketts knows what he’s doing, and has the means to get it done. For all our sakes.

So put yourself in Ricketts’ shoes for a moment. What do you want to see done to Wrigley? If it’s your millions paying for the project, what are your priorities?

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Game 2 – No Offense

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Box Score / Highlights

Star of the Game – Wandy Rodriguez (.248 WPA)

The Good
Edwin Jackson didn’t look too bad in his Cubs debut. In five innings of work he managed to strike out five batters while giving up only three hits and a walk. The problem for Jackson was that he had one bad inning–and not even a Chris Volstad-esque bad inning. Garrett Jones led off the fourth inning with a single, and scored on Andrew McCutchen’s subsequent double. McCutchen then moved to third on a grounder, and then came home to score when Starlin Castro whiffed on Gaby Sanchez slow bouncer through the infield. Two runs wouldn’t seem to be an insurmountable deficit, but it is when you manage to put up only two hits.

The Bad
Only two measly hits! As they have so often in the past, the Cubs once again made Wandy Rodriguez look like the craftiest of veteran lefthanders, straining just to put runners on base (only one runner ever even made it to third base). The only time the Cubs came close to threatening Rodriguez was the seventh inning, and they were significantly aided by Rodriquez’s dwindling control. After hitting Anthony Rizzo and giving up a single to Alfonso Soriano, Rodriquez caught Scott Hairston looking. He then hit Welington Castillo to load the bases, and labored through a ten-pitch at-bat from Brent Lillibridge, whom he also struck out looking. Alberto Gonzalez took pity on Rodriguez’s tiring arm and flew out to end the inning. After the game, Dale pointed out that the Cubs have yet to record a hit with a runner in scoring position. Not exactly the kind of dry spell you want to start the season.

The Ugly
According to Dale and Cubs’ pitching coach Chris Bosio, in spite of shaky spring and his lousy outing Monday, Carlos Marmol is still the Cubs’ closer. Not a total surprise–more like a friendly reminder to emotionally prepare yourself the next time the Cubs take a lead late into a game. If and when that should happen again.

Up Next
The Cubs will try for the series win when Travis Wood faces off against James McDonald at 11:35am CT.

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First Impressions of the 2013 Cubs

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

It’s been years–probably many years, in fact–since I’ve been this unfamiliar with a Cubs team to start the season. I’m the kind of fan who usually can’t get enough baseball news during the winter months. And while most of the rest of the sports world is preparing their March Madness brackets, I’m always absorbed with Spring Training and how the Cubs’ roster is shaping up (give me meaningless exhibition baseball over basketball any day).

But not this year. The months since the Cubs staggered to 101 losses have been some of the busiest of my life, and much of the time I normally devoted to offseason baseball was highjacked and occupied elsewhere. I scratched and clawed to keep up with the Hot Stove, but I was consistently behind on the latest moves and news all winter.

Which brings me to Opening Day and a team I know very little about. And rather than cram for yesterday’s game, I decided to wait and see what kind of first impressions the 2013 Cubs made. Here’s what I took away from our quick introduction.

Booth Adjustment
Bob Brenly is gone, and he’s been replaced by longtime Astros commentator Jim Deshaies. I agree with Joe–Deshaies does sound a lot like Dan Roan with a cold. But in what little I watched of the TV broadcast, the Cubs’ new color man held his own without descending into tired routines about marriage or meandering dissertations on prog rock. Despite his flaws, I liked Brenly, so my bar for Deshaies is pretty high. Let’s hope he can bring out the best in Len Kasper (silence?) and not the other way around.

Yesterday I heard a lot of surprising and mildly confusing talk about Jeff Samardzija being the Cubs’ ace. While I’ll grant you that he’s likely the best pitcher we have, and probably by a not-small margin, I don’t know if that necessarily earns him the de facto title of “ace.” Someone had to take the mound yesterday, but that shouldn’t be the only qualification to be an “ace.” Now having said that, if Samardzija wants to be the Cubs’ ace, he just needs to keep performing the way he did yesterday. Pitch counts are always relevant on Opening Day, and after a laborious first inning, it seemed Samardzija might be looking at a short day on the mound. Instead, he was able to stay economical with his pitches and lasted through eight, doing more than his share to secure the victory. And about that first inning–what I found particularly impressive was the poise he maintained to hold on and get the last two strikeouts. Poise is usually in short supply for the Cubs’ Opening Day starters (see Zambrano, Carlos), so it was a rare treat to see it on display yesterday. Jeff Samardzija, trying hard to make me eat my words since 2012.

Young Guns
Here’s a quote from Jonah Keri’s season predictions article from Grantland, published yesterday. “Kind of wish I had a Cubs at 65 million–to-1 World Series betting slip right now. The starting rotation could be downright good once Matt Garza is back, and Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro practically scream breakout. At the very least, this team will be much tougher to push around in 2013.” I know the rotation has potential, but considering the frequency with which arms have deteriorated on the Northside in recent years, I’m a little nervous about getting too excited too soon. Instead, whatever hopes I have for this season rest squarely on the shoulders of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. I know I’m not the only one eager to see what kind of havoc they can wreak on opposing pitchers all season. Castro can effectively cover more of the plate than most hitters with twice the experience, and Rizzo has the kind of effortless power that’s been rare in Chicago for many years. I know neither of them is slump-proof, but I can’t help thinking it will be a real treat to watch them this season, regardless of what the rest of the team can do.

Plate Undiscipline
And about the rest of the team, it seems like switching hitting coaches has yet to bear significant fruit. I know it’s only one game, but fifteen strikeouts–especially when we had a lead working in our favor–is inexcusable, particularly when we only managed to take one walk. This team of youngsters, placeholders, and fading stars needs to put a special emphasis on plate discipline this year if they intend to go anywhere, and we didn’t see much of it yesterday.

Remember the rumored deal that would have sent Carlos Marmol to the Angels for Dan Haren? As I was listening to Marmol try to give away the game in the ninth, it honestly seemed like maybe I had imagined the Marmol-Haren deal, and that it only lingered vaguely in my subconscious. Not so. In fact, surprising as it may seem, there was a time not that long ago when Carlos Marmol actually had legitimate trade value. However, that value shattered faster than a Louisville point guard’s shin bone yesterday. It’s entirely possible that Marmol’s tenure as closer could already be up–I don’t expect Dale to have much patience with him this season, and if this patchwork team can carry a lead into the late innings, I doubt he’ll be willing to trust Marmol with it. Also, hats off to Dale for spotting the telltale signs of a classic Marmol implosion and getting out in front of it. Like Joe said, he ought to be credited with the save for getting Marmol out of there in time to preserve the win.

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Morning News: Another Day Closer

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

Let me start by passing along belated birthday greetings to our beloved blogfather, Joe Aiello. Joe shares his birthday with Starlin Castro, which is fitting since they both exhibit surprising skills for their respective ages.

Steve Clevenger’s surprising and eye-opening camp has created an interesting problem for Dale, and may lead to the kind of versatility he relishes.

Perhaps the Cubs’ makeshift rotation isn’t as bleak as it might seem.

Jonah Keri previews the NL Central. Spoiler Alert: he’s not high on the Cubs.

The Cubs can’t escape Kyle Lohse.

Yahoo paid a kid $30M for a smartphone app.

A group of Russian tourists climbed to the top of the Great Pyramid in Egypt and took some spectacular photos from their illicit perch.

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Morning News: Friday Mop Up

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Not a ton of news coming out of Cubs camp lately. Expect another round of roster cuts sometime today. Bruce Levine says Matt Garza is pain free and about ready to start throwing off the mound again. Alfonso Soriano thinks the Cubs have as a good a chance as anyone, provided they get off to a hot start.

Noah covered the rumors nonsense about the Cubs possibly moving from Wrigley out to the suburbs. Rest assured, it’s not going to happen. However, if you find yourself in the pro-relocation camp, you can find some reassurance from Rick Reilly’s recent “column.” Reilly has long been a champion of shallow thought and sloppy research, but this entry represents a new low. Never mind the ridiculous conclusion he leaps to–probably in service of his hackneyed one-liners–the “math” he employs to get there would be laughable if it wasn’t so pathetic. Honestly, I know I linked to it but it’s really not worth your time.

Montgomery Burns’ Bud Selig’s World Baseball Classic Waste of Time and Talent has claimed another victim. Dodgers’ shortstop Hanley Ramirez will miss the next eight weeks after an injury to a ligament in his right thumb that will require surgery.

Elsewhere in Chicago sports, the Bears bid a fairly unceremonious goodbye to the face of their franchise Wednesday when they announced they would not be resigning Brian Urlacher. While it’s true Urlacher was hobbled by injuries last year, the defense was still noticeably better with him on the field. Better enough to merit more than a low-ball offer ultimatum. While I’m not sure it wasn’t the right decision, I know it could have been handled much better. Michael Wilbon wrote a nice article about the unsentimental nature of the NFL. And just for fun, here’s an article I wrote last year on sports divorces.

Also in ex-Bears news, former receiver and aspiring drug kingpen Sam Hurd has been re-indicted on even more charges. If convicted, he faces a couple decades in the big house.

Yesterday was the first day of March Madness. I have no idea what happened, other than that my Oklahoma State Cowboys got pantsed by twelve-seed Oregon. I’m not a basketball fan, and I don’t even partake of the “fun” of filling out a bracket. But if you’d like to see how wrong your picks were, you can check the day’s scoreboard.

Finally, if you live in Idaho, keep an eye on your dog.

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Morning News: Afternoon Edition

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

It’s been several weeks since I’ve been able to write anything for VFTB, and I didn’t intend for my first post back to be a half-baked and tardy news post, but we’ll see how it goes. Just know that I am very much looking forward to the upcoming season, and to being back in the groove of writing (and complaining) about our beloved Cubs. On to the news…

After two weeks resting his hamstring, Starlin Castro is scheduled to be back in the Cubs’ lineup today. In the same story, Dale says he thinks the timetable is late-April/early-May for Matt Garza’s first start of the season. On the other hand, the Sun Times says that he’s possibly on track to return sooner than expected. Ah, the inexact science of baseball injuries!

One other Garza note: Jim Bowden wrote about the Cubs outfield prospects in his ESPN Insider column yesterday, and while his analysis was less-than-riveting, he did mention that the Cubs appear more likely to resign Garza than trade him. No surprise that Garza’s injuries have greatly decreased his trade value. But like the rest of the league, the Cubs will be best served waiting to see if he can actually retake the mound before they make an offer.

I’ll assume this already received some discussion here, but for those of you who missed it, it turns out at least a few people do care about the World Baseball Classic. And thankfully, we have video evidence.

NFL free agency is in full swing; here are just a couple quick hits from the NFC North. The Bears finally got serious about the disaster that is their O-line. They also decided Kellen Davis isn’t ever going to be the answer at TE. And the Lions picked up an old Dolphin.

Finally, a golfer in southern Illinois was swallowed by a sinkhole as he walked up the fairway. His friends were able to rescue him with the aid of some rope and a ladder. Check out the pictures in the video–he essentially took a step and disappeared.

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Morning News: Fast Tony Hits the Road

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

The Cubs traded base stealer extraordinaire Tony Campana to the Diamondbacks Monday. In exchange for the diminutive backup outfielder, the Cubs picked up two seventeen year-old pitching prospects. Despite his speed and his giant glove, Campana never proved to be enough of an asset to merit consistent playing time. And with all the outfielders the Cubs added this offseason, it’s no surprise they sent him packing. What will be a surprise–and a pleasant one at that–is if they really got anything in return for him.

Here is some info on the players coming back to the Cubs, from Diamondbacks international scouting director Carlos Gomez back in 2011 when both players were signed as amatuers.

Jesus Castillo – “He’s about 6-2, 165, 170 pounds. He’s long, lean and all kinds of projectable. He has a loose, cool rhythm about him, really free and easy. His fastball ranges from 82-89 mph, but he pitches 85-86 right now. I think he has a chance to throw a lot harder. His best secondary pitch is his changeup and the breaking ball isn’t bad. The spin is there, but it needs work and consistency. He gets really good extension, almost jumps off the mound. We think he can start; we see starter’s arm action and delivery from him.”

Erick Leal – “He’s 6-3, 180 pounds. He has a nice delivery, a nice arm action, and the highlight again is the breaking ball. He’s a kid who can spin it. It’s 74-76 mph already and his fastball is 86-88. He has the physical size, the delivery, a breaking ball and a present, useable fastball for his age. He’s one of those guys who looks like he might have slipped through the cracks. A lot of that same type of guy was going for more earlier in the year. His delivery is pretty balanced, but he drives pretty aggressively out front; he really gets over his front side well. You can tell the extra breaking ball spin he gets is a function of his finish.”

Coming off his best season in a Cubs uniform, Alfonso Soriano is still facing incessant trade talk, and he’s not backing away from the prospect of a move. As he’s said before, he’s only interested in waving his no-trade clause for an Eastern or Central division team, but that his first preference would be to stay and win with the Cubs. Soriano’s value is as high as it’s been since he signed with the Cubs, and a strong start to the season would only drive up the team’s asking price. If he’s really serious about staying in Chicago, I recommend he goes back to playing routine singles into doubles, jogging out of the box, and cowering away from the outfield walls again.

According to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale (so who knows if it’s really true–but still), the Cubs tried to hire former super utility player Mark DeRosa to replace Bob Brenly as their TV color commentator. Instead of taking the job in the broadcast booth, DeRosa signed to play for the Blue Jays. I can’t blame DeRosa for trying to extend his playing career–especially when the next-best option was to spend half the year with Len Kasper.

The dreaded pop-up machine has claimed its first victim of the new season.

While I’m not naturally inclined to feel sympathy towards any Brewers players, I do feel sorry for their first baseman Mat Gamel, who re-tore his recently-repaired ACL over the weekend. I tore my ACL and had to have it replaced. It’s a miserable injury I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Tonight the Blackhawks face off against the Canucks with history on the line–a win or an overtime loss would give them sixteen straight games with at least one point to start the season, tying an NHL record.

Sad news for any Lakers fans out there–longtime owner “Dr.” Jerry Buss died Monday. Buss belonged to the elite fraternity of men who were so rich and successful that no one could tell them how bad their hair looked. Seriously, do an image search–it was a rat’s nest of Trumpian proportions.

Several weeks ago I alerted you to the story of a woman facing arrest and fines in Florida for riding a manatee. Now a man is in similar trouble for posting pictures of himself and his two daughters playing with a manatee calf. For the moment, let’s set aside the stupidity of the law itself and get to the real heart of the issue–who exactly is out there trolling Facebook for pictures of people with manatees and turning said people into the law? That’s the person who needs to be locked up.

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