Tagged: Major League Baseball

Year in Review: 2018

My 2018 was filled with baseball. I umpired more than 200 games plus attended more for the enjoyment of the game. I have no clue how many games I watched on television or listened to on radio. Whatever the number, it was a lot. 

This year I watched games in six different ballparks. I attended four Cincinnati Reds games at Great American Ball Park. I always attend at least one game when the Braves visit the Reds. I also attended a game against the Giants in August with a fellow listener to the Effectively Wild podcast; he was in the home stretch of a road trip to visit all 30 MLB teams. The other games were more random, yet just as exciting.

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First game of the year, Braves at Reds. My wife and sister-in-law supporting their hometown team, while I do the same. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
I finally watched a Florence Freedom game from the stands. I have umpired several games on the field for the local youth leagues. The Frontier League is underrated, like most Independent Baseball Leagues. The play on the field is fun and exciting, even though the team lacks a Major League an affiliation. The fun of attending a game remains. As an added bonus, my wife and I accidentally attended a double header, it was awesome.img_20180829_201148The Florence Freedom split a double header with the Normal CornBelters. (The Winning Run/ DJ)

 

 

My wife and I took another three week summer road trip. While it did not involve as much baseball as our honeymoon did last year, we still visited several important places in the baseball world. The first stop on our trip was in Kansas City. Visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was my top destination while planning the trip. Saying it exceeded my wildest expectations is an understatement. As wonderful and well done as the Hall of Fame is, Jesse and I both agree the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is better. We understand Cooperstown deals with everything baseball, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum focuses on a much smaller portion of baseball. However, something about the museum eclipses the magic of Cooperstown.

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Welcome to the Negro League Baseball Museum. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
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The greatest players in Negro Leagues history are still playing in Kansas City. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
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The jerseys of the Negro League Museum. (The Winning Run/ DJ)

The next day we drove to Omaha. Among our stops there were the current, TD Ameritrade Park, and the historic, Rosenblatt Stadium, homes of the College World Series. Standing where so much baseball history has taken place gave me goosebumps. The drive between the ballparks felt like traveling from new Yankee Stadium to old Yankee Stadium. The new park is fine, but nothing like what it replaced.

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The entrance to TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
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What is left of Rosenblatt Stadium. (The Winning Run/ DJ)

Our last baseball stop on our road trip was in Fargo, North Dakota. Inside the West Acres Mall is the Roger Maris Museum. While Maris is best remembered for his 1961 season, the Museum, which consists of a video room and long window display, walks you through Maris’ life and career. The simple museum is perfect for the two time MVP who often seemed happier when avoiding the spotlight.

The highlight of my baseball year was the road trip I took with Bernie. Four games, in four days, in four cities. We watched the Lansing Lugnuts, Detroit Tigers, Fort Wayne TinCaps, and South Bend Cubs play. While the Major Leagues are the pinnacle of the sport, Minor League Baseball gives you more for your money. You can sit closer, attend more games, and see future Major Leaguers play today. Beyond the great baseball, such a road trip allows you to explore new cities. Bernie and I ate our way through each city, especially Detroit. We both needed a salad and a workout at the end of the trip.

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A beautiful sunset as we watched the Lansing Lugnuts play. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
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Bernie caught a plush baseball at our first game on the road trip in Lansing. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
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Welcome to Comerica Park, home to the Detroit Tigers (The Winning Run/ DJ
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Much closer and we could have suited up for the Fort Wayne TinCaps. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
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Our seats for the final game of our road trip as we watched the South Bend Cubs play on Mr. Rogers Day. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
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Batting practice home run ball hit by one of the Minnesota Twins. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
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View from our seats over the Tigers bullpen in left field. (The Winning RUN/ DJ)

2018 was a wonderful year of baseball for me. I spent far too many hours umpiring, watching, and traveling for baseball. It was an excellent year of exploring the game. I am excited to see what 2019 brings.

DJ

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The Joys of Umpiring

Why do I spend so much time on baseball? Simple, I love the game. The same goes for umpiring. I am passionate about umpiring, it is something I truly love. My playing abilities were never going to have me sign a professional contract, or even a college scholarship. Working behind the plate keeps me connected to the game. Good umpires only care about getting the call right. Who wins or loses is not my concern, I am competing against myself to get every call right. While I am not always successful, the competition is part of the joy of umpiring.

Stepping on the field to call a game is thrilling. Getting paid to do it is beyond my wildest dreams. The pay for umpires will never make you rich, but it is a wonderful side job. The money I have earned umpiring has paid for a three week road trip each of the last two years.

You are getting paid to umpire baseball. Your appreciation for what is a good fastball or curveball grows as call increasingly higher level games. As the play on the field rises, you realize just how good Major League players are. Multiple times after calling a pitch I knew I had zero chance as a batter to hit the pitch, even if I knew it was coming. Umpiring has kept me involved with baseball beyond, just reading news articles and watching games on television.

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There are good days and bad days of umpiring. I would go to the Emergency Room after taking a foul ball to the throat during this game. (The Winning Run/ SCL)

Umpiring has shown me how little I know about baseball. Studying the rule book to make calls at a moments notice gives me more questions than answers. Baseball fans know the basics, but the seldom used rules can be the most interesting. As you begin to truly understand the rules of baseball you begin to see the game as a whole. The puzzle pieces slowly come together.

The best part of umpiring is having a front row seat to the game. You see the crazy and amazing plays, including a triple play. Over the course of a year you will watch good and bad baseball at every level. There are days you do not want to umpire. You are tired and beat up. The days when it is more of an effort to get to the field on time ready to hustle, even then umpiring is a wonderful thing. Some of the best games occur on those days. Umpiring, like everything in life, is not always perfect. However, if you stay with it, work hard, show up on time, and put in the work, you will reap the rewards. Nailing the tough calls, the great plays, the beautiful sunsets, a perfect curveball are an umpires rewards when they are true to themselves and baseball.

DJ

Ballplayer

Chipper Jones was the face of the Atlanta Braves during their run of consecutive Division titles in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The pitching trio of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine were equally important, but Chipper was on the field everyday. If the Braves needed a big hit, Chipper was the guy they wanted, especially against the Mets.

Chipper Jones’ memoir Ballplayer written with Carroll Rogers Walton rewinds the Hall of Fame career of one of the greatest switch hitters to ever step on a baseball field. Hard work meant never settling for good, it meant understanding the results would come after listening to his coaches, putting in the work, and preparing for success. The highs and the lows of his career are laid out for everyone to inspect. Chipper does not sugar coat anything. This refreshing take, even in addressing his much publicized infidelity, only adds to the respect he earned during his career. He could have avoided discussing the financial woes he faced as a young player. He explains the physical toll of playing for so long. Readers come to understand injuries robbed Chipper  of long stretches of time and some of his abilities on the field, even after he recovered. There are no excuses in the book, just the facts and an understanding that life is not always perfect.

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Ballplayer gives an honest look inside Chipper Jones’ Hall of Fame career. (Penguin Books)

While his play on the diamond may have looked natural, Ballplayer shows you the hours, days, and years of practice it takes for even the most gifted athlete to make it in the Major Leagues. Players are too often viewed as robotic until they make a mistake. Baseball and the life playing in the Major Leagues requires is stressful. The constant travel, few days off, missed family time, and the physical and emotional strain of the game is too much for most people. Baseball players have the same issues we do, except they live under a microscope. Baseball is a hard game played by hard people, this should never be forgotten.

The loyalty Chipper gave to the Braves was reciprocal. He never chased more money through free agency, instead staying with the team that believed in him as a high schooler in Jacksonville. Loyalty to the game, respecting his teammates and opponents, striving to make himself and others better is what separates those who play the game and those who have an impact. Baseball gives you back what you put in, and Chipper Jones gave a lot of himself to the game.

Ballplayer is an excellent read for anyone who loves baseball. Chipper lets you inside his Hall of Fame career, on and off the field. He tells it like it is, never trying to make himself look better. The honesty is obvious as you read. Those who watched the Braves’ dominance will be flooded with memories of Chipper charging a ground ball and flipping it to first, his toe tap as a fastball screams towards the plate, the beginning of Crazy Train as he walks to the plate. Chipper Jones is among the greatest players to ever play baseball, and yet his memoir shows the humility necessary to successfully play a game filled with so much failure.

DJ

Can He Get On Base?

Lost in the discussions about the Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year Awards was the inaugural MLB Executive of the Year Award. The player awards are based on a player’s performs on the field. The Executive of the Year Award is based on a front office putting a contender on the field. Drafting well and player development are critical if an organization is to build a winning team. Executives are judged on long-term work not short-term performance.

There is no doubt Billy Beane, and the Athletics’ front office, has done more with less. Beane, the Athletics’ Vice President of Baseball Operations since 2015, is the inaugural MLB Executive of the Year. Each team has one vote, and baseball has spoken about Beane’s success in Oakland. Success has not come from large payrolls or big free agent signings, rather the opposite. This season Oakland became the first team to ever have the lowest Opening Day Payroll and make the Postseason. The Athletics must scratch and claw with every dollar to compete. One bad signing or trade can set the team back several seasons. Beane has made few mistakes. Oakland has 12 winning seasons and nine Postseason appearances since he became General Manager after the 1997 season.

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Billy Beane has made the impossible seem routine in Oakland. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Beane’s tenure as Oakland’s General Manager changed baseball. The application of Sabermetrics has helped level the playing field for teams unable to afford large payrolls. The Athletics created a path for teams, like the Rays and Royals, to find success. Moneyball changed baseball. Teams are now spending time and money on analytics to maximize the production of their players and to scout their opponents. Oakland enjoyed several successful seasons before other teams followed their lead.

Winning the MLB Executive of the Year Award only adds to Beane’s trophy case. He won the Sporting News Executive of the Year Award in 1999 and 2012. He won Baseball America’s Executive of the Year Award in 2002 and 2013. Beane has built success from hard work, not flashy spending.

It is doubtful a traditional rebuilding in Oakland would have resulted in similar success. Despite their challenges, the Athletics are competitive almost every season and Billy Beane is one of the main reasons why. Beane is the biggest owner or front office executive since George Steinbrenner. When you think of Beane you think of the Athletics just as you thought of the Yankees when you thought of Steinbrenner. Most importantly, when you think of Billy Beane you think of winning.

DJ

The End of War

Today we paused to observe Veterans Day in the United States. Yesterday, November 11th marked 100 years since the end of World War I, the war to end all wars. More than 15 million people, military and civilian, lost their lives during the four years the war raged in Europe.

The conflict broke out on July 24, 1914 following the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the July Crisis. The web of secret alliances and miscalculations by leaders on both sides led to all out war. The United States did not enter the conflict until the interception of the  Zimmermann Telegram. Germany was encouraging Mexico to attack the United States if America entered the war in Europe. Germany promised Mexico support in regaining lost territories including Texas. The admission by German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann of the authenticity of the telegram hastened American entry into the war on April 6, 1917.

The United States mobilized more than 4 million military personnel during the war. Among them were 788 former, current, or future Major League players. Players did not receive special treatment as Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, George Sisler, and Branch Rickey were assigned to the Chemical Warfare Service. Mathewson contracted tuberculous and died from the disease in 1925 at 45 years old. Cobb, Mathewson, Sisler, and Rickey were among 28 future Hall of Famers who served during World War I.

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Christy Mathewson (L) and Ty Cobb (R) while serving in the Chemical Warfare Service. Mathewson died from contracting tuberculous while serving. (Frank Ceresi Collection)

The brutality of the war led to more than 8.5 million military deaths among the belligerents. The United States alone suffered 116,708 military dead in the 20 months it was involved in the conflict. Eight Major League players lost their lives: Eddie Grant (Killed in Action), Tom Burr (Died in Training Accident Plane Crash), Bun Troy (Killed in Action), Ralph Sharman (Drowned in Training), Larry Chappell (Spanish Flu), Harry Glenn (Spanish Flu), Newt Halliday (Tuberculosis), and Harry Chapman (Died from Wounds). Three Negro League players lost their lives: Ted Kimbro (Spanish Flu), Norman Triplett (Pneumonia), and Pearl Webster (Spanish Flu). 26 minor league players also lost their lives during the conflict.

When World War I came to a halt on November 11, 1918, the concussive noise of shells stopped and soldiers could hear the birds chirping. One year later, President Woodrow Wilson spoke in remembrance of the sacrifice and lose, and of those returning home. On June 4, 1926 the United States Congress adopted a resolution that President Calvin Coolidge issue an annual proclamation calling for observances on November 11th in remembrance of the end of World War I. More than a decade later, on May 13, 1938, November 11th becomes an American holiday to promote world peace. Following two more devastating wars, World War II and the Korean War, on May 26, 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law that henceforth November 11th would be known as Armistice Day. Later that summer on June 1, Congress amended the law, changing the name to Veterans Day.

On Veterans Day we honor the sacrifices made by the men and women who served or are serving in the military. Their sacrifices are up to and including laying down their lives. Deployments overseas and the separation from family and friends. The physical, mental, and emotional tolls of their jobs. The military protects the nation from enemies, both foreign and domestic. The military is not a nameless, faceless entity. It is ordinary people giving their time, skills, and sometimes lives so their fellow citizens can live in peace. On this Veterans Day, 100 years after the war to end all wars, take a moment to reflect on those who have sacrificed for us all. We should not waste their sacrifice on petty squabbles, but work together to create a more peaceful nation and world so that war becomes a thing of the past.

DJ

And The Winner Is…

The Championship Series to decide the American and National League pennants are set. The Boston Red Sox against the Houston Astros in the American League and the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League. My personal favorite teams are not among the four remaining, so what better time to take an unscientific approach to decide who I want to win the World Series.

Starting with the team’s success every team has won at least one pennant. Their last pennants were: the Red Sox in 2013, the Astros and in 2017, and the Brewers in 1982 (American League). The 1982 American League Pennant remains the Brewers only trip to the World Series. The Red Sox last won the World Series in 2013. The Astros are the defending World Series Champions. The Dodgers last won the World Series with Kirk Gibson in 1988. The Brewers are still waiting to win their first World Series Championship.

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In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened. (www.mlb.com)

Looking at the home cities I have visited Boston, Houston, and Los Angeles. Sorry Milwaukee, maybe another time. My positive take from Boston is the rich history of the city colonial days to present. The food and drink is wonderful, which is made better by having extended family in Boston. Houston is a fun city. The food and culture is diverse and it never hurts to have a friend working for NASA to show you around. Los Angeles has great weather, great food, and beautiful scenery from the mountains to the beaches. Never visiting Milwaukee, I would guess the beer and brats are delicious and the lakefront area by Lake Michigan is nice. I would guess.

However, for all the great things about these cities there are drawbacks. Boston is cold and the people are not always warm and welcoming. Houston is the epitome of flat, urban sprawl. Los Angeles has its world famous traffic and pollution, not to mention it is expensive. In my mind, Milwaukee is always cold, and I hate the cold.

The ballparks the teams play in a different as well. Fenway Park is a historic park with a unique configuration and appearance. Baseball legends have played on this diamond for over a century. The history of the park all but speaks for itself. Minute Maid Park is modern with all the amenities baseball fans have come to expect. The weather outside rarely matters as the retractable roof creates perfect baseball weather inside every day of the year. Dodger Stadium is timeless in its simplicity and longevity. Legends, including the voice of baseball Vin Scully, have spent decades within its inviting confines. Miller Park remains on my list of Major League stadiums to visit. Beyond the ability to close the roof and have perfect baseball weather, the Uecker seats and the slide for Bernie Brewer are clearly the most important features of the park.

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Celebratory slide for Bernie Brewer.  (www.mlb.com)

The good comes with the bad. Fenway Park was built when people were smaller. There is not enough legroom between seats, especially for people who are claustrophobic. It is also an expensive park to visit as people flock to historic Fenway to watch the Red Sox continued success year after year. The roof on Minute Maid Park is not perfect. I had the pleasure of sitting under a leaky portion of the roof a few years ago. Luckily I was able to change seats, otherwise the torrential rain outside would have soaked me inside the stadium. The closed roof also means the cannon fire after an Astros home run is deafening. Dodger Stadium is expensive but the biggest complaint I have is the team does not market their history well. I could not find any memorabilia from their storied history. Maybe keep a few Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella shirseys around, people will definitely buy them. Where do I start with Miller Park. Ummm…it looks a little dark when I watch a game on television.

Everything else is superficial, it is the team on the field that matters the most. The Red Sox have a solid rotation with Chris Sale and David Price, arguably the best closer in Craig Kimbrel, stars like J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts, and the Most Valuable Player in Mookie Betts. The Astros have a proven winning lineup with Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa. A rotation of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Dallas Keuchel does not hurt either. The Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw leading the charge with Yasiel Puig, a resurgent Matt Kemp, Justin Turner, and a host of other All Star caliber players. The Brewers have the National League Most Valuable Player in Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, and Jesus Aguilar supported by an almost unhittable bullpen with Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, and Corey Knebel.

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Mookie Betts and the Red Sox look unbeatable. (Boston Herald/ Stuart Cahill)

Each team also has unique drawbacks. The Red Sox have spent a ton of money to assemble a great team. World Series Championships should be won not purchased. The Astros are the defending Champions, their repeating is less than thrilling. The Dodgers have tried to buy a World Series for years, this forever rubs me the wrong way. The Brewers still employ Ryan Braun. I am not a fan of his, not was busted for using Performance Enhancing Drugs, but his attempt to smear Dino Laurenzi’s name, the test collector, to save himself from his own stupidity forever stained his legacy. I have sat in left field when watching the Brewers on the road simply to boo Braun and will continue to do so until he retires.

After weighing the good and the bad for each team my decision on which team to root to a World Series Championship comes down to a single person. Bob Uecker. Mr. Baseball. Bob Uecker has given his life to baseball. He has been the voice of the Milwaukee Brewers since 1971. He was Harry Doyle in the Major League movies. His appearances on Johnny Carson. Andre the Giant choking him. The Miller Lite commercials. He continues to complain about his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame only as a Broadcaster, the Ford C. Frick Award in 2003, and not as a player. A career .200 hitter with 14 lifetime home runs, including off Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, and Sandy Koufax. Yes that Sandy Koufax. The stats speak for themselves. Come on Brewers, give Milwaukee the World Series they deserve with Bob Uecker making the call.

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Come on Brewers, let Bob Uecker announce a World Series Champion!!! (Scripps Media-2016)

DJ

Balls and Strikes Aren’t Black and White

Try as you might, it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid politics. The polarization of American politics is steadily seeping its way into nearly everything, including baseball. The contentious Senate hearing for Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination has even brought umpiring into politics.

Texas Senator John Cornyn along with the Family Research Council are supporting Judge Kavanaugh, saying he is someone who “calls balls and strikes.” This analogy seems to irritate retired Major League umpire Jim Evans, who wrote a prospective piece for the Washington Post titled “Sorry, judges, we umpires do more than call balls and strikes.” Evans argues umpires are not machines, they must interpret the rule book constantly. Was a collision interference or obstruction, or simply players running into each other? Umpires also constantly make judgement calls on catches, tag plays, force outs, and yes even balls and strikes. No two players have the same strike zone. Yes, the strike zone is spelled out in the rule book, but the size of the strike zone is larger for Aaron Judge than for Jose Altuve.

Speaking of the rule book. How many amateur umpires, disgruntled fans, have ever sat down and studied the rule book? My guess is not many. It is not their job to know the rule book, but it is also not an umpire’s job to make people happy. Do I get every call correct? No. Do I spend hours studying the rule book? Yes. The rule book for high school baseball per the National Federation of State High School Associations is 88 pages. The rule book for Major League Baseball is more than 150 pages. Have you ever seen a Major League umpire consult the rule book during a game? Nope. High school umpires do not consult the rule book during a game either. The rules of baseball, all of them, should be ingrained in the mind of an umpire. The analogy of Kavanaugh calling balls and strikes is that he knows the rule book, the United States Constitution, and makes decisions based on what the Constitution says. I doubt when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution they foresaw every imaginable case the Supreme Court would hear. The Constitution and the various baseball rule books do not cover every possible scenario, judges and umpires must interpret how those rules apply to the case or play before them.

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Calling balls and strikes is not black and white. There is plenty of gray. (www.larrybrownsports.com)

Obviously a judge sitting on any bench, especially the United States Supreme Court, has a more profound impact than an umpire. However, simplify umpires into machines is off base. Umpires must make decisions quickly, they cannot spend weeks or months reviewing similar plays and the text of the rule book before making a decision. If an umpire waits five seconds to decide if a borderline pitch is a ball or strike people would complain. Judgement calls are part of being an umpire and they must happen quickly, not slowly and after careful consideration.

There is dignity in all work, dishwashers, mechanics, lawyers, CEO’s. Honest work is dignified work. Do not simplify another person’s job to make a point. Good umpires make a sometimes difficult job look easy, the same way a good teacher makes teaching a class full of energetic First Graders look easy. You only understand how difficult someone’s job is when you walk in their shoes.

Little in life is black and white. On the diamond and in court, interpreting the rules is necessary and creates gray areas. Gray areas necessitate institutions like the Supreme Court to settle disagreements. In baseball the umpire is the judge. Working solo, or discussing a play with your partner on appeal, the umpire is the Supreme Court. Their decision is final. There is no reviewing previous plays, umpires must know the rules, interpret them for the situation, and the render a verdict. They do it all in the snap of a finger. Can you imagine the Supreme Court issuing a ruling in less than five seconds? Neither can I, so stop comparing Supreme Court Justices to umpires. One clearly has a greater impact than the other, yet both deserve respect.  

DJ