Category: Musings Page 1 of 18

On Scott Boras and Patriotism

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Sports have long held the enviable position of being one of the few industries in America to seamlessly mix business with politics. Making this feat all the more impressive is the professional sports leagues gleefully flaunting this relationship so publicly without much pushback. There are American flags proudly sitting atop the stadiums. We stand for the national anthem. Some stand again in the same game for God Bless America. There are Memorial Day and Fourth of July fitted caps readily available at our favorite sporting gear stores and websites. And we’re constantly reminded of how sports have saved the collective American psyche time and time again. All of this happens without much pushback from the same people who can’t have a respectful conversation with anyone who holds a political viewpoint that is minimally different from their own.

These tenuous claims of patriotism from American professional sports leagues may be the best marketing campaign in this country’s history. It is a foolproof approach. What is more effective than equating the consumption of sports with civic duty especially in the midst of our country’s greatest challenges? In many ways, the appeal to patriotic identity serves as a “break glass in times of emergency” safety net. It stands as a tried and true call to action to bring back “normalcy” during the worst of times including a devastating global pandemic. The frame of patriotism allows those that stand the most to gain from a hasty reopening of professional sports a cover for their true intentions. It allows the powers that be to move in silence when necessary. And this is where we find Scott Boras.

In his New York Times opinion piece, Boras tugs at our red, white, and blue heartstrings. He refers to the call from FDR to Commissioner Landis to start the games up to lift the spirits of not only American citizens but the brave soldiers fighting in World War 2. Boras then recounts the crucial role baseball played in consoling the country after 9/11. The Mike Piazza home run against the Braves is an incredible moment in baseball history. George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch was an incredible show of strength for many. To be clear, these moments are important. Sports are an important part of the collective national identity. They are real-time events that can beautifully capture the spirit of our country. But the framing of the relationship between sports and national pride isn’t solely based on a virtuous commitment to identity.

It is also important to point out that these moments are all in response to geopolitical tragedies and not a biological catastrophe. Life isn’t currently at a standstill because of war or a heinous act of terrorism. Many of us remained largely confined to our homes because of a deadly virus. The conflict isn’t defined by geographical borders or opposing political philosophies. The virus isn’t overseeing test missile launches or imposing tariffs. It is silently ravaging communities, nursing homes, hospitals, school systems, employment, and basic social interactions with absolutely no regard for who it inhabits. COVID doesn’t care for nation-states and their silly squabbles.

And this is where Boras’ appeal to our patriotic spirit falls woefully short. Sure, some folks will use the fighting American spirit to boost the morale of those around them. That is more than fine. It is a totally different matter to compromise the health of thousands of people in the name of entertainment or national identity. One can make the case that entertainment is an essential business, but that would take a pretty significant leap in logic to arrive at that conclusion. Unfortunately, many places in our country aren’t in a position to protect their citizens well enough to give any certainty that another outbreak is limited. America hasn’t handled this as well as South Korea or Taiwan, two countries that were able to start their baseball seasons. So why resort to using a rallying cry that is more appropriate when humans are in conflict with other humans? Scott Boras answers this question:

However, we face a challenge in the coming weeks and months: How do we harmonize the concerns of health experts with the unwanted effects of those public health efforts? Experts believe we need isolation and social distancing, but that has led to lost jobs, increased stresses of every type and a diminishing of the social tapestry that binds and enhances our lives. After many weeks of following safer-at-home protocols, people are understandably restless and looking for an outlet.

Scott Boras

Brazenly flying in the face of medical experts feels like an expected response. Despite isolation and social distancing saving thousands upon thousands of lives, these measures are immediately minimized through the economic lens. Yes, the financial impact is devastating. As a freelance filmmaker who depends on the gig economy, this is a terrible experience. But everyone’s health is paramount at the moment. We should never lose sight of that. So, why do people like Boras choose to do so?

Simply put, it is more important for the power brokers of the game to restore their influence and gain. There is an emerging belief in certain sectors of the country that some people losing their lives so the economy can start up again is a sacrifice worth making. So the power brokers weaponize the lore of Americana to inspire many to take a significant health risk. Boras is manipulating the idea of the perceived American identity to benefit from that very narrative. We need baseball because he needs baseball. He doesn’t need it as a respite from death and destruction. He needs it to gain a semblance of power that the virus has neutered. His influence is severely limited if his industry is offline. His last gasp efforts are opinion pieces in the New York Times in an attempt to regain his bully pulpit.

Boras is like many other men in positions of power during the pandemic. They can’t see the trees for the forest because the details don’t really matter. What matters in their minds is returning to “business as usual” as soon as possible even if comes at the cost of more American lives. Unfortunately, this mindset is a core tenet of America’s true identity. One core belief is ensuring profit margins reign supreme in the face of any human crisis whether it’s enslavement, world wars, terrorism, or pandemics. And yes, this approach is within the rules of the economic game. In a vacuum, there isn’t anything wrong with trying to rekindle business. But we don’t live in a vacuum despite some wanting to apply that caveat when appropriate.

There hasn’t been a moment during this lockdown when I’ve been more confident that baseball will return than now. The steward of baseball economics has spoken. Baseball will make its return this year. It’s the American way.

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The Rob Manfred Conundrum

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Rob Manfred is the perfect embodiment of sports in 2020.

There has never been a time in American professional sports when the intent of owners and league executives is more clear. Similar to the office of President in the minds of some men, sports are an incredible avenue to generate profit. Team owners laugh and scoff at the idea of winning championships. Their grins spread from ear to ear at the thought of the earnings their shiny toys generate. These are savvy businessmen who largely view the franchises we love as nothing more than an additional stream of income. And despite being totally unable to increase the popularity and relevance of his sport, Rob Manfred makes his bosses very happy. He has secured lucrative TV and licensing deals among other revenue-producing ventures. In some ways, Manfred’s reign is a rousing success.

Life would be great if all of our jobs were that simple. We make our bosses happy and sometimes we reap the rewards (at least during “normal” times). The issue for Manfred is his responsibility extends beyond making money hand over fist for billionaires. The commissioner is the steward of competitive integrity for the league. In order for business to maintain public trust, he or she needs to ensure that the product on the field is fair. The Apple Watch offense, the Houston Astros’ scandal, and the Boston Red Sox sign-stealing scheme are clear demonstrations that Major League Baseball has a cheating problem. The league is like the Ashton Kutcher of pro sports. The foundational integrity of the game is at stake. And yet, Manfred is seemingly content with doing the absolute least to protect it.

It is hard to imagine someone dropping the ball in two significant investigations. At the very least, the first probe should have been a roadmap for the second one. Instead, the Boston “punishment” is impressively weaker than the Houston punishment. In fact, the details of the Red Sox investigation slightly suggest the players were in some way victims of the cheating scheme. This is a quote from Manfred’s statement:

I feel bound by the agreement not to impose discipline on Red Sox players who testified truthfully in this matter. Even if I were not so bound, I do not believe that the Red Sox players who suspected that Watkins used game feeds to decode sign sequences should be held responsible for his conduct. Watkins knew of the rules and was responsible for not utilizing the replay system to decode sign sequences. Some players may have suspected that Watkins was using the replay system improperly, but they did not know that with certainty. Others had no idea how Watkins obtained the sign information. 

Rob Manfred

In Rob Manfred’s absurdist world, the video replay system operator is a bigger culprit than the players on the field. The idea that some players “suspected” Watkins was up to something but didn’t know for sure is laughable. Was Watkins simply a connoisseur of sign stealing? Was he building up his resume to be the future manager or general manager of the Houston Astros? Are we really to believe the video replay system operator wasn’t in partnership with at least one Red Sox player in a sign-stealing scheme? As my grandmother likes to say, I was born at night, but not last night.

The commissioner can’t help but view his decisions through the lens of labor. I’ve said this in a previous column, but it bears repeating. Manfred will do everything he can to limit the leverage of the players union. He granted the Astros and Red Sox players immunity in exchange for open testimony so the Players Association didn’t have a rallying cry for future collective bargaining. Despite their collective public denouncement of the Astros cheating scheme, there is no way the players would accept the precedent of historical player suspensions. It wouldn’t bode well for the future of their union members. As it currently stands, the owners are in the driver’s seat when it comes to CBA negotiations. The union has weak leadership. Manfred doesn’t want to give the players a lifeline. The rationale makes total sense, but it comes at the cost of the game he leads.

All of this begs the question, what are Rob Manfred’s intentions? Is he just an extension of the owners’ desire to cash in on the game? Does he genuinely care about the health of the sport? Is he at all interested in moving the game forward? It is becoming painfully obvious that Rob Manfred lacks vision. The obsession with pitch clocks, mound visits, and three batter minimums is nothing more than window dressing for an utter lack of progressive thinking to make the game better.

Under Manfred’s watch, we’re experiencing the major league version of corporate profit margins, downsizing, and lack of awareness. We’re witnessing a broken free agent and arbitration system. Minor League baseball will soon lose multiple affiliations. The amateur draft, under the guise of the coronavirus pandemic, will almost certainly cut down its rounds in the years to come. The sport has yet to make inroads in black communities and it severely lacks mainstream stars.

And yet, financially the game has never been healthier. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the revenues were pouring in. The business side of baseball is booming. The bottom line is a great smokescreen for a stagnant game. The frustrating part is a lot of us know it’s stagnant, but we keep coming back for more.

And that is what makes Rob Manfred great at his job. He can feign being tough on baseball crime knowing that baseball fans will really be the judge and jury for teams like the Astros and Red Sox. He just needs to do the bare minimum because he knows the fans will do a lot of the heavy work. Fans will continue to watch on tv and pay for tickets. We’ll keep buying apparel. Some will keep creating gifs for social media consumption so MLB doesn’t have to spend more money on marketing. And others will write blog posts complaining about the commissioner’s unimpressive performance. All the while, Manfred continues to make his bosses happy.

Rob Manfred is the perfect embodiment of sports in 2020.

Waiting For The Yankees

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I love sports as much as anyone.

Sports consume me. They are on my mind the majority of every day. Honestly, I love them more than anything outside of my family. This has been the case since I was a baby watching Yankees games with my grandfather and having no idea what was going on. Sports are a part of my identity. I dearly miss them.

I am also not in a big rush to have them come back.

We are experiencing a global human crisis, unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. At this point, it would be difficult to find someone who isn’t directly or indirectly connected to this virus. There is no need to recount the harrowing numbers. Many of us have felt the long-reaching impact of the pandemic for over a month now.

There is a natural tendency to find and hold onto things that remind us of normalcy. The quarantine has thrown our routines for a loop. When things are in disarray we look for anchors. Sports are that anchor for many. So it makes sense that we want them to return as quickly as possible. I share that desire, but not at the expense of health and safety.

In a recent interview, Dr. Anthony Fauci said there is a way to bring baseball back this summer. Fans wouldn’t be able to attend the games. It would require weekly testing, strict quarantining, and detailed surveillance. On the surface, this is encouraging and hopeful. And we all need hope nowadays. We also need a context that extends beyond the sports world. Taking a step back, is the country really in a position to handle a return to sports in the immediate future?

There are endless stories about our brave medical professionals fighting on the front lines with inadequate protection. In New York City, there are nurses wearing garbage bags while treating sick patients. Doctors are wearing empty salad containers over their faces. Medical staffs have to repeatedly disinfect N95 masks for re-use. Without getting into the politics of why this is the case, it is patently absurd that weeks into the pandemic hospital staff must resort to YouTube level DIY solutions to protect themselves and others during a pandemic.

Understanding the larger picture, is it appropriate to bring sports back under these circumstances? Boredom pales in comparison to matters of life and death. Unfortunately, our collective idea of normalcy no longer exists. Those days of normal are now apart of the lore of yesteryear.

The need to experience a distraction or an escape during trauma is valid. One issue is a return to sports reminds us of that trauma at every turn. We will see empty stadiums. The dugouts may be empty because the players may sit in the stands six feet apart. The announce teams will constantly tell us about the weird context we’re all consuming these games in. We aren’t going to escape anything. We’ll have to actively disconnect from what we’re seeing and hearing just to attempt to suspend reality. That is a tall task.

Of course, there are arguments for an immediate return to sports. Some will say if the medical experts deem it safe to play than what is the issue. Why should I read a “rando blogger” and his silly complaints? I get it. But it is important to point out that the leading medical experts still don’t fully understand how the virus behaves. They are still in the process of learning all of its characteristics. As a result, the recommendations for protection are constantly evolving. One week we’re told it’s ok to go outside without masks. The next week wearing a mask in public is a requirement. The potential distance at which the virus could travel in the air changes as more research is done. Even in places where social distancing was enacted relatively early, the rate of infections remains scary.

Some parts of the country may re-open if they meet certain criteria while others will remain in lockdown. Federal, state and local governments remain at odds with one another on how to properly and safely move forward. We are hardly seeing a consensus amongst the people in charge.

To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of the medical experts. They have been tremendous. They are in a really difficult position and their incredible efforts do not go unnoticed. Instead, this is acknowledging that our understanding of this novel virus changes with more information. Recommendations from the medical community are fluid so there is no guarantee they will give the green light at the first sign of improvement. Their primary responsibility is to mitigate the spread and protect our healthcare system until a vaccine is found.

There are some who will argue that certain places in the country are less impacted than places like New York City, Philadelphia, and Detroit so it’s ok to start sports up again. I’m glad many people aren’t living in these hot spots. It sucks living in this country’s ground zero. The reality is you don’t have to live in a hot spot to be at risk. We are all at risk right now. The simple point is we don’t want this thing to spread. The lower number of cases in specific areas isn’t protection from the virus. Social distancing, testing, and protective equipment protect us from it.

Speaking of those things, there is also the issue of test, PPE and medical equipment availability. There is a nationwide shortage of tests. Contact tracing isn’t available. States are competing against one another for ventilators. Everyday citizens are volunteering to create masks for medical workers. It looks pretty selfish and tone-deaf to have sports leagues command so many resources when there is a such a startling finite amount of resources available.

I have a close friend who most likely had the virus. Despite showing all of the core symptoms, he wasn’t give a test because the symptoms weren’t extreme enough. He didn’t fit the qualifications to get a test simply because there weren’t enough to go around. They sent him home. He had to ride it out not knowing if he was carrying the virus. This reality is a tough one to reconcile.

Keep in mind, the quarantine plan for players has very real challenges. In order for baseball to return, MLB has to account for team staff, medical staff, clubhouse staff, stadium employees, tv crew, transportation staff, kitchen staff, maintenance staff, and hotel staff. You aren’t going to quarantine everyone. If tests and safety equipment are readily available for everyone involved to play games, shouldn’t these precious supplies first be available for our medical professionals and citizens who are immediately at risk?

I’m pretty sure some of you are reading this looking for anything to tell you things will quickly return to the way it used to be. Trust me, I wish I could provide that for you. But it is important to stress how crucial of a time we’re in. We’re talking about life and death. Sports are an important piece of our lives, but first, we need to ensure that we all have healthy lives to live. We also need the athletes, coaches, and staff to be healthy. It just feels like sports should return when it is appropriate and safer to do so.

The good news is we will get sports back. We will see our beloved Yankees again. They are going to win the World Series when the season starts up. The season may start in June. It may start in July. We may have to wait until next year to see them win it all. But they will be back. Sports will be back. We just need a little patience to see this through.

Stay safe and stay healthy.

Playing Around with Realignment Ideas

Like Randy did yesterday, I’ll start by checking in with you. I hope, as everyone here does, that you’re doing well and staying safe and healthy–physically and mentally. With that said, we still have no real baseball to keep us warm, so let’s dive into some fantasy ideas about the game, shall we? Today, I’ll focus on realignment.

I’ll start off by saying that I doubt any of this ever really comes to fruition. MLB–and baseball in general, really–is inherently conservative and slow to change in big, structural ways, so these things are likely way too out there. One thing that does seem close, though, is the universal DH, so for this mental exercise, let’s just assume the DH is now universal (as it should be).

Back to the Future

This is the simplest, least disruptive one I can think of. It’s one I mentioned on the most recent episode of our podcast: eliminate divisions, and balance the schedule. The top four teams in each league then make the playoffs. If you want to also eliminate in-season interleague play (which I’m not sure many would want to with a universal DH), move one of Houston or Milwaukee back to their original league. This makes competition a little more fair and equitable, with everyone playing (as much as possible) the exact same schedule. This doesn’t allow, for example, the Yankees and Astros to pad their win totals against the Orioles and Mariners as much as they used to. It does curtail big division rivalries–Yankees/Red Sox, Dodgers/Giants, Cubs/Cardinals–since those teams would see each other less. However, wouldn’t those matchups be all the more special and important due to the rarity?

Geographically Speaking

Let’s say you want to change things up fundamentally, like eliminate the AL/NL divide and expand the playoffs, but still keep the division structure. Let’s break the league down into two conferences–east and west–with three divisions each, much like the NBA or NHL.

What would the divisions look like? Eastern is the first three, Western is the second.

Northeast: Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Phillies, Blue Jays

Southeast: Rays, Atlanta, Orioles, Nationals, Marlins

North: Twins, Brewers, Tigers, Cubs, White Sox

Midwest: Cleveland, Cardinals, Royals, Reds, Pirates

Southwest: Astros, Rockies, Rangers, Padres, Diamondbacks

West: Angels, Dodgers, Mariners, Giants, A’s.

The playoffs could stay the same as they are now–three division winners, two wild cards–just with different matchups. In this fantasy scenario, I’d like to see the WC game expanded to a different format–a three game series (all in the stadium of the first WC winner), perhaps, or the ‘second wild card has to win two games, first wild card only has to win one’ plan.

The EPL Model, with an American Twist

Last but not least, let’s throw caution to the wind and eliminate the two league structure altogether. All 30 teams are in one league now–Major League Baseball!–and there’s a balanced schedule. The top eight teams make the playoffs and do the tournament that way. If that were the case, last year’s matchups (with a grain of salt for the schedule, obviously) would’ve been

Astros vs. Cleveland/Nationals

Dodgers vs. Cleveland/Nationals

Yankees vs. Rays

Twins vs. Atlanta

That would be pretty cool, no?

In any event, I don’t expect any of this to happen any time soon. But, MLB might want to consider shaking things up when baseball returns. They probably can’t do that for the 2002 season (if it even happens), but they can use this year as an excuse to reset things, to try new things, to alter the way they think and do things to try and get new fans or rekindle interest in the sport.

The Yankees May Play 2020 Without Their Biggest Advantage: Yankee Stadium

I miss this. (Screengrab via MLB)

Major League Baseball and the Players Association reached an agreement on Friday that outlined what the 2020 season will look like, if it ever happens. I covered all of that in some detail already, so check that out if you missed it. The new agreement is pretty significant in a lot of ways, though, so there’s a lot to say beyond what I already wrote – especially for the Yankees, for whom this season falls into a title window. One of those areas is the potential for neutral site games.

As a reminder, the agreement laid out three conditions for starting up the season, which are as follows:

  • There are no bans on “mass gatherings that would limit the ability to play in front of fans”;
  • There are no travel restrictions in place in the U.S. or in Canada; and,
  • It is medically safe for players, fans, or staff.

Those are very straightforward and prudent, but there’s a catch. That’s to be expected – both sides here clearly want to play if at all possible – and it’s an interesting one. If it appears that it will be impossible to meet these three conditions, the two sides can “consider the use of appropriate substitute neutral sites where economically feasible” before calling the season.

As I said the other day, neutral site games in empty stadiums feels like the most likely outcome to me right now. That will be a logistical challenge to say the least but it sure does beat no baseball. It’s also uncharted waters that may take away a significant advantage from the Yankees. Let’s get right into it.

The Yanks at Home

(Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

The Yankees and the Bronx are inseparable from one another, even if national broadcasts always inexplicably show shots of Times Square during Yankee home games. There’s good reason for this: the Yankees are really, really good while playing at home. The Bombers have played 891 games in the new Yankee Stadium since it opened up back in 2009. They’ve played 891 games on the road over the same period. Here is the team’s performance at home and on the road since (all regular season):

  • At Home, 2009-19 : 555-336 (.623), 4539 RS (+791 RD)
  • On the Road, 2009-19: 469-422 (.552), 4285 RS (+459 RD)

The Yankees are still quite good on the road – a .552 winning percentage is an 89-win team over a 161-game season – but they’re the best team in baseball at home. Over a full decade (!), the Yankees were a 100-win team at home. That’s nuts and nobody else is even close. Here are some of their relevant rankings:

  • Wins: 555 (1st, next closest is LAD with 543)
  • Losses: 336 (1st, next closest is LAD with 349)
  • Winning Percentage: .623 (1st, next closest LAD at .609)
  • Run Differential: 791 (1st, next closest LAD 652)
  • Pythagorean Winning Percentage: .587 (1st, next closest LAD at .585)

That’s quite the home field advantage right there. Remember, this is a very durable period: it includes two distinct premier Yankee teams (’09-12, ’17-19) and some middling ones (’13-16) as well. It’s an impressive amount of success at home.

It holds over the recent renaissance, too: the Yankees have the most wins (161), fewest losses (82), best winning percentage (.663), and second-best pythagorean winning percentage (.639) over those years. For those keeping track at home, that’s a 107-win pace. The new Bombers are even better than their predecessors at home, even in the postseason, where they’re 10-4 in the Bronx since the 2017 Wild Card Game.

Numbers are great and all, but let’s take a quick trip down memory lane for a visual representation of the Yankees at home. Exhibit A:

The place was rocking for that – as, I can attest, was my apartment at this time. So much so, in fact, that the Astros spoke about it while leaving town after Game 5. “New York is no joke”, former nemesis Dallas Keuchel told the press. “This is a wild place to play,” said George Springer. But here’s the money line: “It was crazy. I never heard anything as loud as it was yesterday when Gary hit that double. Loudest I’ve ever been part of,” said Carlos Correa. The Bronx Zoo, indeed.

What This Means Going Forward

So, I think the implications here are pretty clear: the Yankees are going to get stung hard if there are neutral site games this year. Every team is, really. Everyone likes to play at home! But nobody is better at it than the Yankees, so it stands to reason that they’ll be the most impacted.

Now, to be fair, we don’t really know what this scenario will look like. As I said, it’s a logistical nightmare. Can you even imagine trying to schedule an abbreviated season at new ballparks in a way that makes them actually neutral? For 30 teams? I cannot, but perhaps that’s why I’m a lowly blogger.

We do know one thing for sure, though: the Yankees will be impacted by this in some way. I would guess that this policy would be universal – I can’t imagine some teams playing at home while others are in Iowa or whatever – so that impacts the Yanks. But even if it isn’t universal, and only applies to the hardest-hit areas, that also includes the Yankees. New York is the epicenter of this thing, after all. So, much as we may not like it, Yankee “home” games may not be in the Bronx this year. There are basically two scenarios here: 1) neutral stadium games are played in front of fans or 2) they’re played in empty stadiums.

What does that mean for the Yankees? I’m not really sure, really. As a friend pointed out on Twitter, Yankee fans travel. We saw that, for example, in London this past year:

And we’ve seen it at basically every game played in Tropicana Field or at Camden Yards for the last 20 years. It’s not just that the fans travel but that there are so damn many of us, so wherever the team plays, there are bound to be Yankee fans. That’s one of the benefits of playing for a marquee global brand. So, for scenario one, I could be convinced that the Yankees are actually best-positioned. No other franchise has their reach or fanbase. That is real and can’t be discounted.

But this assumes that the benefits of playing at home are exclusively tied to the fans. I’m confident that fans are a big part of it, but there’s also a regular routine, waking up in your own bed, being surrounded by your family, etc. There’s more that goes into this than the Stadium faithful. So, really, this gets a giant shrug.

As for the second scenario, where there are no fans at all, we do have some context. The Orioles and White Sox played in an empty Camden Yards in 2015. Here are the highlights:

It’s weird! Zack Britton was there, though, and he recently said it was “bizarre” to play in the empty stadium. He told Lindsey Adler that he could hear Gary Thorne calling the game while he was pitching. It would take some major adjustment for everyone and I don’t know what would happen if the Yankees played ~60 games in empty stadiums, none of which were Yankee Stadium. It would be so uncharted that there’s no way to know, really.

One thing is for sure, though: either scenario strips the Yankees of their biggest recent advantage. If it happens, and I hope it does because give me weird baseball over no baseball, we can only hope that the Yanks’ considerable talent is enough to overcome that drawback.

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