Coming Events: A closer look at the Solo in Enemy Territory Project

Earlier this week, I got a text from my buddy that said the following:

“Driving to Champaign this Saturday for PSU at Illinois. Alone. Guest blog post for Keystone Sports Spot?”

No one had ever asked to do this for me before so I jumped on the opportunity. After all, the more writers the better and I’d never say to an old college journalist friend. After I told him it should be a cool take, he replied:

“Especially since I’m the loser driving an hour and 45 minutes to see a game alone. Haha.”

To which I replied:

“I’m going to two Mets/Pirates games alone this week.”

My buddy didn’t hesitate to say, “Hahaha. You win!”

That’s when we came up with an editorial idea.

So what’s the point in my telling you about our little mobile exchange? Well first, if you didn’t realize it already, I’ll be having my close friend Pat on the Keystone Sports Spot to guest blog about the Penn State vs. Illinois football game this Saturday. Like myself, Pat graduated from Penn State in 2010 and he was also a journalism major.

Second, we’ll be putting together a 2-part series documenting our recent sports experiences from some pretty unique angles. Pat is venturing from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. to Champaign, Ill., alone. He, of course, will be going as a Penn State fan.

Penn State had a rough season before it even started. Up to this point, Penn State has been ordered to pay $60 million in sanctions, had a four-year football postseason ban enacted, and all of its wins before this season dating back to 1998 have been vacated. What’s more, Penn State cannot win the Big Ten Championship and has lost 17 scholarship players since March because of personal reasons, NCAA sanctions or dismissals. Essentially, Penn State isn’t playing for anything right now. What could make their next matchup fairly less relevant?  They’re playing against a 2-2 Fighting Illini team that lost at home last week to Louisiana Tech, 52-24. Illinois will be lucky to have a winning season, let alone contend for a Big Ten Championship or a decent bowl game.

Not the greatest matchup.

Similarly, I will be attending two Pirates vs. Mets game at Citi Field this week, also by myself. This situation threatens to be more agonizing than the Penn State game. It’s September and neither the Mets nor the Pirates are even close to making the playoffs.

Before the Pirates series started, the Mets had a record of 69-83. They were the fourth-worst team in the National League and were 23 games back of the division lead. Fan apathy is at a season high.

The Pirates were faring only slightly better. Before they met the Mets, the Buccos had a record of 75-77 and were 16.5 games back of the division leading Reds. More noticeable, however, was the Pirates’ epic collapse this season the second year in a row. Only a few months ago, the Pirates were leading the NL Central and were 16 games over .500. Not only did it appear that they would finish with their first winning season in 19 years (yes, with a 1 and a 9), they appeared to be a possible playoff team. At the beginning of this season, a second wild-card spot was added to both leagues, further enhancing the Pirates shot at the post season. Their odds increased by 12 percent, in fact. But somehow, the Pirates blew it and are on the verge of completing the most epic collapse in the history of baseball.

Essentially, we will be documenting the irrelevance of four teams – two early in their season and two late in theirs – and chronicling our experiences of going solo into enemy territory. If you have no idea what to expect, don’t worry. Neither do we.

Enjoy.

– Pete Dombrosky

Editor-in-chief, Keystone Sports Spot

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Kyle Stark Raving Mad

So when I posted my last blog entry last night entitled “How Clueless is Pirates Assistant GM Kyle Stark?” I didn’t think that my opinion of the Pirates assistant GM could get much lower. I noted that he had been obnoxious and disrespectful to two former Pirates players who approached him about jobs within the organization, one of which had helped the Pirates win at least one World Series. This offended me as a Pirates fan, a baseball fan in general and as a decent human being who will always show respect to my elders.

But just like I should stop being surprised that the Pirates keep having losing seasons and employing people like Kyle Stark, I should probably stop being surprised that Kyle Stark continues to come off even more as an ignorant lunatic.

Late last night, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic posted on his blog the next clue into Stark’s strange and disconcerting journey down the rabbit hole (and his attempt to drag the Pirates minor league system with him). Kovacevic explained in his Friday column that it was an email sent by Stark on June 28 to his minor league managers and coaches (Pirates GM Neil Huntington was copied on the email; Pirates principal owner Bob Nutting and president Frank Coonelly were not).

The following is the email from Kovacevic’s blog and my analysis/response to Mr. Stark (my comments in bold):

From: Stark, Kyle

Sent: Thursday, June 28, 2012 5:22 PM

Subject: SECOND HALF – OUR WHAT

So what do we need to get done in the second half?

Over the last four days, we’ve reconnected with our WHY — turning boys into men so that we can re-bond a city with a baseball team and change the world through baseball.

Turning boys into men isn’t really the goal here, it’s pretty much to turn young men into competent baseball players who can eventually contribute at the big league level, which is especially important because there’s a lot of baseball yet to play and the major leaguers who are already up with the club are bound to get tired in a month or two. Remember that epic collapse last season? Yeah, it happened around the end of July and we should try to solidify the team’s depth with some confident youngsters to make sure that doesn’t happen again this year. I’ll give you credit for stressing that the team needs to re-bond with city, but it might be saying a bit much to “change the world through baseball.” Let’s just try to change the team with a winning season and go from there.

We’ve refocused and clarified our HOW — relentless, systematic and cohesive. All of these discussions have been tied to the ‘one thing’ that we need to move forward in the second half – we’ve trained them up, now we need to help them trust it and transfer it on the field. 

You say you’ve trained them up, but you better make sure that they don’t need some further training. In fact, they should probably just keep training for the rest of the season because that’s sort of what ball players do. They keep working on getting better and they never stop striving to be better. A few extra grounders and some time in the cage couldn’t hurt…

Which brings us to our WHAT …

As we talk about turning boys into men and developing them as PROs, this requires a few key characteristics. Those characteristics match our PRO values and are vividly captured by Bernie’s story about Olympic thrower Mac Wilkins and his views on what makes an Olympic champion. Mac explained that gold medal winners live by three golden rules — Dream and be creative like a Hippie. Have the discipline and perseverance of a Boy Scout. Be crazy and take risks like the Hells Angels. …

Woah, hang on a second. Those sound like three types of people who have very little to do with each other. And if I’m being honest, I don’t think any one person should possess all of those characteristics. In fact, if I had to come up with a single person that does, it would definitely be this guy…

Kyle Stark’s ideal professional baseball player.

1. Dream like a Hippie — PASSION — Elite people have big dreams, are driven by those dreams, and believe that they can achieve them.

Yes, and hippies take acid, dance around in the mud and listen to Hendrix. Then, they climb to the roof and jump off because the believe they can fly.

2. Prepare like a Boy Scout — RELENTLESS — Elite people have extreme work ethic, train exhaustively to get better, and prepare fully so they can be their best when their best is needed.

Spot on, Kyle. If this was your only suggestion in the email, I’d say the Pirates farm system will be doing quite well with its development by September.

3. Trust like a Hell’s Angel — OWNERSHIP — Elite people trust their preparation, own their strengths and weaknesses, know what they do best and build conviction around it, and compete with reckless abandon.

Well, I agree with you that trust is important and ownership is key, but let’s take a step back with the Hell’s Angels stuff. It’s probably not the best group of people to strive to be…

The biggest impact we can have in the second half is developing more Hell’s Angels.

Of course! Wait, what?

Well, now that I have given it literally no thought, drank some varnish and closed the car door on my head numerous times, this is starting to sound like a pretty solid idea.

We are really good at working before games. We excel at developing Boy Scouts. However, men play in the Big Leagues and that requires the reckless abandon of a Hell’s Angel. 

Exactly. Because when I see successful teams like the Yankees, Reds, Nationals, etc., it always seems like they just don’t give a damn. In fact, last night I saw Robinson Cano field a grounder and intentionally beam the runner with the ball right in the head. Then he stuck his hat down his pants and tackled the home plate umpire. And then, the Nats announced they were going to keep Steven Strasburg in for about 250 (give or take) pitches every game because the best medicine for a surgically repaired elbow is reckless abandon.

This is a mentality that is developed. It is a harder mentality to develop with less control, more gray area, and less science.  However, it is the separation between good coaches and great ones, good development systems and great ones, and good organizations and great ones.  Training guys to unleash what they’ve got is an art and needs to be our WHAT in the second half.

As you do some research on the Hell’s Angels, you come across three main qualities that set them apart and symbolize their mystique:

I’m going to guess 1. Their propensity for brutal violence — including homicide — against other gangs as well as innocent bystanders. 2. Their willingness to engage in drug-and-alcohol-fueled crime sprees. 3. And oh, I don’t know, their U.S. Department of Justice given status as an organized crime syndicate and public perception as some of the scariest people on motorcycles you’d never want to encounter in your life.

1. Swagger — There is an extreme confidence in themselves, their brothers, and what they’re about. They carry a chip on their shoulder and dare others to knock it off. They have an edge. Do our players have an edge? Do we have an edge? What are we doing to develop that edge?

The Pirates haven’t had a winning season in 19 years. That should qualify as a big enough chip on their shoulders. But I guess if you really wanted to piss them off and lose focus on playing baseball you could have Navy SEALs come to camp and put them through a rigorous training regimen that even common military personnel would find taxing. That ought to make men out of them!

2. Reckless abandon — Not only do they have an edge, but they live life on the edge. They’re described as free-spirited, which can be defined as somewhat irresponsible. 

So you want your players to be somewhat irresponsible? Well I guess the Red Sox did get a TON of good media last year after they started being irresponsible in the locker room. I like where your head’s at Kyle…

They risk. They have no fear. They have a care-free and “care-less” attitude. You could argue that on one hand they care so much about who they are and what they do, but on the other hand they could care less in some areas such as what others think of them, of potential risks, of probabilities, etc. They’re more focused on possibilities than probabilities. They’re not consumed or swayed by what others think. They sell out to their purpose and live life fully and in-the-moment (“this pitch”). There has actually been a leadership book written about this approach to life, i.e. living life, experiencing it, and learning from your experiences. 

I bet it’s entitled “The Hell’s Angels: Why Modern Day Politics and Sports Would Benefit From Their In-Your-Face-Style” By Chuck Manson.

Their name comes from World War II fighting squadrons known for their extraordinary and dangerous feats of aviation. Do our players play with reckless abandon? Do we have reckless abandon? What are we doing to develop this mentality?

Well, I suppose we could bring in some Navy SEALs and…oh, already suggested that. I guess we could make them all fly fighter jets and shoot at each other? (And as far as the major league club goes, signing Clint Barmes, Rod Barajas and Nate McLouth in the off-season should count as reckless abandon, right?)

3. Bound by brotherhood — At the end of the day, they are fiercely loyal to each other. It is about the group and the bonds that exist between members. They can fight with each other, but someone external better not say anything negative about them. They love each other. Are our players bound by brotherhood? Are we bound by brotherhood? What are we doing to develop this bond?

That settles it. All players from every minor league team and managers too, grab a knife, cut your hand and shake on it. We’re gonna be blood brothers!

As the calendar turns to July, we are selling out and committing to this approach. We’ve trained them. We need to train their trust now. Our focus should be on developing Hell’s Angels. That requires …

Or you could teach them how to bunt, steal bases, turn double plays correctly and be mindful to know the situation while on defense and offense. Ahhhh, no, you know what? You’re right, that’s what all the other teams do. We need to be different. And…not good…at baseball.

– Building confidence (helping players know what they do well, perfecting those traits so we’re not just working on weaknesses, speaking greatness into them, etc.)

But working on weaknesses would probably be a good idea too. You know, so they aren’t so bad at basic fundamentals. Did I mention bunting?

– Encouraging risk (pushing players beyond their comfort zones, putting them in risky situations, viewing the risk as success rather than its result, celebrating risk taking, etc.)

Damn straight! Who says we can’t all try to stretch singles into triples? Bollocks to the system, let’s skip practice and go base jumping!

– Going alongside them (being a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage,’ asking questions rather than giving answers, celebrating aggressive failure and the lessons that come from it, etc.)

– Adding chaos and intensity to our training (get them out of their comfort zone, add stress, add competition to the work day, etc.)

Yes, the more stress the better. Because I know for a fact that scientists and doctors have no idea if stress can negatively impact a person’s health or not. Whatever doesn’t kill ya only makes you stronger, right Mr. Stark? Besides, playing anywhere from 135-144 games over the course of a summer to try to earn a promotion to the majors while staying healthy and keeping their numbers high enough to avoid a demotion probably isn’t stressful enough. I know, let’s light their gloves on fire and hold their families hostage during games! That should really get them out of their comfort zone!

– Preparing them to compete rather than training all the time (get the focus on the competition, shift our purpose to preparation rather than working a physical technique, outward focus rather than inward, etc.)

But what if they don’t know the physical techniques yet? Yeah, you’re right. They could probably find some Tom Emanski videos on YouTube in their spare time anyway.

– Getting them outside of themselves and into the team (care about someone else, take care of each other, have each other’s back, etc.)

Yeah they definitely gotta have each other’s backs, just in case a rival motorcycle gang rides into town and tries to take their turf!

For this to happen, we must get out of our comfort zones and flex our own Hell’s Angel muscle. We must be extreme in our commitment to these ideas. This is ultimately about developing a mentality and a culture where this becomes our identity. A culture of risk and less control is unsettling for us control freaks! 

…and successful baseball clubs, but go on…

However, it is the answer to letting skill out and WHAT we need to do in the second half.

LB and Bernie will be following up with more details as we move forward. Sell out and commit to this. Coach with swagger, reckless abandon, and bounded by brotherhood and we’ll see those same traits in our players.

HOKA HEY — It’s a good day to die!!!

Yes, I’d say we’re all about ready to commit suicide after that. Thanks for the pep talk Mr. Stark.

How Clueless is Pirates Assistant GM Kyle Stark?

Disclaimer: I want to start this off with full transparency. Most of this blog entry is made up of some puzzle pieces I’ve put together over the last few days. Some of my conclusions are based on speculation and I by no means am selling this as complete fact. My only intention in the following is to make you think a little bit and consider some certain possibilities that seem to be in the tea leaves. That being said, I’ll get right after it.

I’m a big fan of the Pittsburgh sports coverage done by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. I follow just about all of their beat writers pretty closely because I consider them to be the best at what they do and the most entertaining while they do it. But without a doubt, my favorite writer is columnist Dejan Kovacevic. He’s a sports columnist that writes about every professional Pittsburgh team, as well as the basketball and football teams of Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia.

Lately, Kovacevic has been writing a lot about the second epic Pirates collapse in as many years, and he’s been right to do so. At one point this season, the Pirates were 16 games over .500. Now, they are 74-74. They’ve lost 10 of their last 12 and it certainly seems like it’ll take a miracle to prevent their 20th straight losing season. Some of Kovacevic’s columns have focused on how bad the players have been, while others have faulted coach Clint Hurdle, as well as the Pirates front office. I’ve been most interested in the latter.

On September 13, he wrote a column entitled “Pirates clueless about winning.In this piece, he absolutely grills Pirates management for innumerable mistakes ranging from poor off-season free agent acquisitions to  improper signings at the trade deadline. But the core of the story focuses around the inability of the Pirates organization to teach good fundamentals to young players so they are adequately prepared once they get to the big leagues. He cites the example of Pirates assistant GM Kyle Stark bringing in United States Navy SEALS to the team’s Florida Instructional League sessions in Bradenton. Rather than have these young players focus on fundamentals they’re clearly lacking, Stark said the goal was “to give our guys a unique training experience to reinforce various lessons we stress all the time pertaining to leadership, team building and mental toughness.” Kovacevic scoffs at this statement (and rightly so) because that was valuable time the young players could use to practice the fundamentals of baseball, i.e. the most basic concepts ball players need to know to succeed at their sport.

Not long after he wrote the SEALS article, Kovacevic explored, among other things, the opinions outside the Pirates organization considering the team’s minor league fundamentals. On September 18, he wrote another article entitled “Nutting correct to seek answers.The one glaring graf he used as evidence of how poorly other teams view the Pirates minor league development was the following:  I could fill the sports section with examples, or I could simply share what a farm director for another National League team told me Tuesday: “What the Pirates are doing down there is deplorable.” Again, he squarely puts the blame for this on the shoulders of Stark, the Pirates farm director.

That brings me to tonight. Kovacevic wrote a blog entry entitled “Wakeup Call: Do NOT let players off hook.” Here, he writes a few short points on why the Pirates players are also to blame for the team’s epic collapse. But that isn’t what intrigued me, it was one of the comments left by a reader below the story. This is what it said:
BarryVanBonilla
September 20th, 2012 – 12:08 am
By all means, let’s not let the players off the hook. But going back to your recent work, let’s not forget who assembled this team, who teaches it, especially those who have been around long to be attributable to the present regime (by no means excusing the Littlefield and Bonifay reigns of error).There is a cultural problem here, that I have discerned spending time around some of the individuals in question. I want to share some of what I’ve seen and been told, though I wish some of those directly involved would go on the record (since some have nothing fo lose).Your piece of a few days back captured issues I have seen firsthand, and heard from former players.  What I heard was reflective of systemic problems with priorities (team-building with consultants, core strength training, lectures, etc.) that took time away from on-field drills. As for the drills, there were complaints about them being formulaic, with inconsistent quality of training and a lack of effort expended toward making sure players kept doing something until they did it right.The more ephemeral criticisms centered around “too many (development) guys tapping on f******* computers and iPhones and not enough time doing hands-on training.” Also, too much “hairy fairy consultant ****,” presumably at the expense of hands-on training. I heard variations on these same criticisms from multiple individuals, and what I saw of Kyle Stark and his people at Pirate City was pretty uninspiring, inasmuch as they didn’t interact with players as much as with each other and their devices. There was a hell of a lot of standing around by players listening to lectures I couldn’t hear. The other criticism feeds off of the SEALS stuff. The military mindset is very much apparent if you spend time around them, and more so in the telling of people who have spent more time than I have. It has been described as offputting by people, and a lot of players appear not be responding well to it, according to its critics.

The other universal criticism of Stark is that he is not nearly knowledgeable enough about the actual game (as opposed to the theoretical game) to do his job effectively. Two former players told me that they approached Frank Coonelly about jobs with the organization. Both were sent to Stark. One former player told me Stark was an “obnoxious, disrespectful little ****.” My bias having met him is that this captures it quite well and applies to some of his staff as well (one of his direct reports laughed condescendingly at the idea that Kris Medlen would amount to anything, because he is too small, something I find amusing as I write this an hour or so after he tied Whitey Ford’s record of 21 consecutive starts resulting in a win for the Braves).

The other player was more specific (and riotously funny). He met Stark, who asked the guy what his experience was in baseball. He rattled off his years playing and coaching at several levels. Stark looked at (and tapped) on his laptop, asking: “Who did you play for? I haven’t heard of you.” The gentleman pointed to the wall behind them and said, “That’s me right there.” It was a large reproduction of one of the three world series celebrations since 1960 (left vague to protect the irate). Stark appeared not to “give a **** ” as it was described to me. Neither player believes Coonelly bothered to tell Stark who he was interviewing, which is borne out by the descriptions of the incidents.

There is a whiff of hypocrisy here. They talk about legacy, they bring these guys to spring training, put them in the dugout, but when they ask for a job they’re shuffled off to Stark. Now, it may well be that the individuals are not good potential coaches. To me, however, the going on and on about legacy and history, juxtaposed with the way they treat people who were important to the franchise, is telling. Several people told me that Clint Hurdle has had more to do with stressing the legacy than the others.

In sum, Neal Huntington’s team may be getting better, they may suck, but nobody I know (myself included) thinks they have any ability to relate to human beings very well. In my view, absent that ability (or a willingness to subcontract that part of your job to others who do have it), you’ve already failed. No matter how good your “metrics” are, you’ll ultimately wear out your welcome. My own impressions, outside of a select few people, is that this is a soulless, corporate operation that just happens to be in the business of baseball. That starts at the top, and that is why I don’t hold out a lot of hope.

I thought it was just a rant from some unusually intelligent Pirates fan at first, but throughout it, he/she kept declaring themselves close to the organization in one way or another. He/she said they had spent considerable time around the Pirates management and players in question and drew some conclusions from what he/she was told by certain people. Not only that, but below the comment, Kovacevic commented further about the commentator by adding:

DK: All I’ll add is that I can vouch for this individual’s veracity as someone close enough to make the above comments. Oh, and I’ll add that Huntington promoted Stark and Greg Smith last winter to the titles of assistant GM.”

So, we should be able to conclude that Kovacevic basically backed up the commentator’s validity. These were words written by someone who knew what they were talking about.

(STAY WITH ME, I’M GETTING TO THE POINT SHORTLY)

In the comment, the person really attacked Stark and gave some examples. Primarily, I want you to consider what he/she said about two former players who approached Pirates president Frank Coonelly. Coonelly sent them both to Stark. One said that Stark was obnoxious and disrespectful (TO A FORMER PIRATES PLAYER WHOM THE TEAM PRESIDENT RESPECTED ENOUGH TO REFER). What’s worse, the Stark didn’t even know who the second former Pirate was. That’s when the former player pointed to a a picture of himself in a World Series celebration.

The commentator notes at this point that it was a picture of one of the World Series celebrations since 1960 (this is how he protects the player’s identity). So that player could have been on the Pirates team during the 1960,’71 or ’79 World Series win.

Now in the next graf of the comment, the author writes the following:

There is a whiff of hypocrisy here. They talk about legacy, they bring these guys to spring training, put them in the dugout, but when they ask for a job they’re shuffled off to Stark. Now, it may well be that the individuals are not good potential coaches. To me, however, the going on and on about legacy and history, juxtaposed with the way they treat people who were important to the franchise, is telling. Several people told me that Clint Hurdle has had more to do with stressing the legacy than the others.

This is where the commentator may have given away the identities of the two former players who approached Stark. “…put them in the dugout, but when they ask for a job, they’re shuffled off to Stark.” Earlier this season, I can remember only one instance when former players were brought back and put in the dugout for a game. Those two players were Bill Mazeroski and Bill Virdon. If you don’t remember, here’s the article documenting it. Also, in the commentator’s final sentence of that graf he points out that “several people told me that Clint Hurdle has more to do with stressing the legacy than the others.” I can back this up by a quote from Hurdle reported by MLB.com after Major League Baseball told Virdon and Mazeroski they weren’t allowed to be in the dugout because they exceeded the manager limit.

“I was told that’d be the end of it. It did not surprise me,” Hurdle admitted prior to Wednesday night’s second game of the interleague series with Minnesota at PNC Park. “It wasn’t really within the rules and regulations of the game, which I might have overlooked in my excitement to get them involved.”

It seems completely possible that the two players the commentator noted in his rant were Bill Virdon and Bill Mazeroski.

Both Virdon and Maz fit the criteria of being on one of the three World Series championship teams from 1960-1979. And I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to Stark when I assume that he knows who Bill Mazeroski is. Pretty much anyone who knows a lick about baseball recognizes the name “Mazeroski.” So that leaves me to believe that Kyle Stark didn’t know who Bill Virdon was.

I know that Bill Virdon wasn’t the most high-profile player in Pirates history. But he did play for the team for 11 years (1956–1965, 1968) and was the manager of the Pirates from 1972-1973. He is a notable player in the team’s history and it’d be a damn shame of Stark didn’t know who he was. If in fact it was Virdon who approached Stark, which then prompted Stark to Google his name, it would only speak more to the fact that Stark is completely clueless and has no business being in the position he’s in

And don’t forget that Kyle Stark was obnoxious and disrespectful to them and was completely clueless as to who one of them was. Can you imagine how terrible it would feel to be one of those old time Pirates greats and have an assistant GM treat you like that? Hell, even if it wasn’t either of those players who were the ones mentioned in the blog comments. If you were a Pirates player who had won a championship with the team during the glory days, when the foundation of the fan base was established for generations to come, and you were treated like that by a current Pirates employee, wouldn’t you just feel the urge to smack him upside the head and give him a lesson about how meaningless he was to the organization now?

I know it’s a very roundabout way to say that the Pirates organization clearly makes bad personnel decisions from top to bottom, but it’s an entertaining way to look at it.Again, I’m not declaring it as fact that Maz and Virdon were the two unnamed players in the comments of Kovacevic’s blog. I could be putting together coincidental puzzle pieces that aren’t actually there. But consider what I’ve provided you and draw your own conclusions and don’t forget that regardless of who the two players were, Kyle Stark treated them like garbage. Either of the unnamed players would have been prime targets for autograph seekers because regardless of their names, they were Pirates. And now, the Pirates are a joke of an organization and the fans deserve better than the last 19 (and soon to be 20) years of losing.

And if I am grasping at straws, then I have at least provided you with Kovacevic’s insight that is clearly undeniable. Either way, I’ve made my point.

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