July 31, 2009

Thanks, Conan!

It's hard to believe some book publishers still don't think Mr. Met has "broad appeal." He's good enough for "The Tonight Show" and Conan O'Brien - how much broader can one get, I wonder?


July 30, 2009

Points System – Part 2

If you haven’t read Part 1, this blog post isn’t going anywhere… go ahead and click yourself over and come on back when you’re done. Or feel free and do the Memento thing, and read the second part first. Either way…

Here’s some more inspired lunacy from the “points policy” many casinos in Atlantic City use for their employees. As we said, you get only “12 points” before facing possible termination for cause. Now, these points do not stay on your permanent record forever – over the course of two-plus-decades (which many dealers have actually put in: starting at a salary of around $4.25/hour and getting raises at minimal increments after an annual performance review – with a maximum salary at $8.50/hour. That’s a tale for another post…) every dealer would likely be fired if there wasn’t some method of “removing points” from the total. And indeed there is… after twelve months on your record, your point disappears. So, if you call out sick twice each in October, November and December and somehow manage to avoid a pattern callout in the process, you’ll have six points on your record. Don’t miss any more days, and come the next January 1, they’ll all be gone and you’re free to call out again – and if you’re going to miss work, you’d better call out. Why? Because a “no-call/no-show” is an automatic four points in one fell swoop… and if you’re on the grave shift (4 AM-Noon) and you’re not feeling well and you call into the casino’s scheduling office, you’ll find it is closed, because it doesn’t open until “business hours” which for some reason doesn’t include your shift, even though the casino is obviously still open for business. They do have voice mail, but if it is still filled with messages from the previous shift, it might not record your message, or the shift manager might not even check it before it gets erased the next morning, or it might not even matter…

Once, nearly a full week after I called out sick, a shift manager came up to me and asked if I had been a “no-call/no-show” the previous Thursday. I thought back for a second to remember what day he was talking about, and then replied that I had been sick that day and left a message on the machine at around 1AM when nobody answered, as we were supposed to do. Because I had a good relationship with management and would never simply “not show up” for work, the shift manager did believe me, and added, “Yeah, that machine hasn’t been working lately. Got to get that thing fixed. I didn’t think you’d do that. Don’t worry about it.” I can’t imagine things would have gone as well with someone with perhaps a less-than-perfect reputation for honesty who was faced with a similar “he said, the machine didn’t say” scenario.

Moving on… what if you’re simply running late? You still have to call, and if you’re more than twenty minutes late, you’ll still get charged with half-a-point. After two hours, you get charged the full point, and they still expect you to show up. But why? If the points system is in place simply to make sure dealers show up when they are supposed to, and you have a legitimate reason for being late, and you do call in to let them know, why are you still being punished? And why would anyone actually show up after already being charged with the point? At that point, wouldn’t it simply make more sense to take the whole day off, since you’re being penalized as if you did anyway?

And what if you have to leave early? They’ll let you go, if they feel generous… but it still costs you half-a-point. The night my wife went into labor – and there wasn’t a person on that shift who wasn’t fully aware that I was about to become a father for the first-time, I wasn’t exactly quiet about it – I had been at work all of fifteen minutes when my cellphone vibrated. At that hour, there was only one person calling me, for only one reason. I alerted the pit boss and let him know I was going to have to leave, pronto.

“It’s time?”

“It’s time.”

He said he’d get right on the phone and have someone to “tap me out” – casino speak for getting someone to cover my tables for me. Within five minutes, everything was set. I was tapped out and shook the pit boss’ hand, along with several other well-wishers, and headed for the escalator down to the exit. Before I got there, one of the shift managers was getting off the “up” escalator, on the phone, in the middle of a conversation, but he signaled for me to wait a moment. I assumed he wanted to congratulate me as others had be doing, but imagine my shock when the first words out of his mouth were, “You know we’re still going to have to charge you a point for this.”

That’s how brainwashed many in casino management are – not all, but most. I actually said to him, dripping with sarcasm, “Well, gosh, maybe then I should stay…” and paused for a moment while he actually seemed to be waiting for my decision, as if there was one to be made. As it turned out, when I returned two weeks later after taking a bit of family time to be with my wife and newborn son, I discovered no additional points had been charged to my account.

However, I have seen first-hand many times as other shift managers and pit bosses had that knee-jerk reaction of “how many points is this worth” – even just before tapping off a dealer in his sixties to tell him that he needed to go to the hospital to check on his wife who had been in an accident while he was working. Yes, rules are rules, but where is the humanity?

Nowhere. And policy changes are clearly made with the intent to “push out” dealers who pull in a higher salary so they can save a few bucks an hour. How else can you explain this “new rule” that came into play shortly before I ended up leaving the casino…

Say you want to take a weekend off in August to go to a friend’s wedding. You get the invitation in May, and fill out a “special request form.” Now, usually given that much advance notice, and with the actual invitation in your hand, you’d think there’d be no problem getting those days off. You’d be wrong. Generally speaking, you wouldn’t know until the week before those dates, when the schedule for that week was posted as to whether or not you’d be “given the days.”

Of course, if you didn’t get them outright, you still might be able to find a part-timer to work those days for you… but, oh yes! Part-timers aren’t allowed to pick up days any more. And so, having already RSVP’s for the event, and maybe even booked hotel rooms or bought plane tickets, you go to the wedding anyway – at the cost of two points that you shouldn’t have had to “spend.”

And that was before the “new rule” came to pass which dictated that any person calling out on a day for which they were denied a special request would be charged double the points. So what ended up happening, was that if there was a day you absolutely needed to take off, you wouldn’t put in a special request for it, since if you were somehow denied the request, you’d be double-penalized – and therefore more dealer started accruing points on days they might well have had a chance to be given off, but couldn’t risk asking for.

As a result, fewer dealers requested days off for a short time… and then a funny thing happened. Many dealers started putting in special requests for days they didn’t need. They reasoned, and correctly so, that with fewer people putting in requests for days off, they would take a shot at getting a day or two off. If they didn’t get it, then no big deal. They had no plans anyway. But if they did… hey, it was like winning the lottery unexpectedly not having to work on a weekend.

And so a system designed to give dealers who absolutely needed time off for important events – graduations, weddings, family reunions, school plays, etc. – became a lottery for guys who simply wanted to watch the Eagles game from the comfort of home.

It boggles the mind…

July 29, 2009

Prejean to the Choir?

Rant time. So, I’m in the process of trying get a book published. I didn’t expect the process to be a simple one, but I was not prepared for the level of frustration this quest would cause me.

As some of you may know, I was once the mascot for the New York Mets – quite the unique job. Over the years, I’ve frequently recounted stories of some of the things I experienced both on the field and behind-the-scenes and nearly every time, the reaction I got was, “You should write a book.” Well, that’s all well and good, I thought, but nobody knows who I am. I’m not Tina Fey who gets a multi-million dollar deal handed to her on a silver platter, or even a lower-level personality like Chelsea Handler, who is somehow able to convert a little talk show on E! into a New York Times best-seller. Nor am I a “Real Housewife” – since apparently every single person on that show can score a book deal, writing ability notwithstanding. Mind you, I don’t begrudge these people their book deals. I understand that celebrity sells, but I have to believe there’s a place for quality writing in the writing of books.

Once I was hired by ESPN.com to write on a regular basis, I figured the time was right to attempt to test the publishing waters. I wrote a book proposal and it wasn’t too long before I ended up with a terrific literary agent who not only loved the idea for the book, but was very optimistic about its potential for success. After working carefully with my agent, refining the proposal, we sent it out to potential publishers. Some passed outright, which was to be expected. What I didn’t expect was the large number of responses we received that read something along the following lines: “What a great proposal! AJ is definitely a very talented writer. I couldn’t stop reading. Loved it! But I have to pass…”

Look, I can accept rejection. But again I ask, shouldn’t book publishers be looking for well-written books from actual writers who they can establish a long-term relationship with?

Case in point, I recently read that Carrie Prejean has gotten a book deal. (If you just said, “Who?” I rest my case.) She’ll be writing “Still Standing,” a memoir all centered around the one moment in time that made her famous for all of a day or two, when, as Miss California, she answered a Perez Hilton question on gay marriage. (Oh, yeah, you kind of remember her now… )

Really? An entire book? Does anyone really care about this? I mean what’s next – a book deal for the former Miss Teen South Carolina (“such as South Africa, and the Iraq, such as…”) on geography tips?

Or how about a sweet six-figure contract to that couple that had their wedding party dance down the aisle in that YouTube video making the rounds? I can see it now – “Chapter 10 – Sunglasses or No Sunglasses” and “Chapter 13 – That Aisle Is Narrower Than We Had Planned For.”

We’re still shopping the book around, and I’m still optimistic that we’ll be able to find a taker… but every time I see a book deal handed over to someone who probably had no desire to write a book in the first place, probably isn’t going to be writing the book without help from a ghost-writer or two, and in all likelihood will be completely off the pop-culture radar by the time the book sees the stores, I cringe.

Not every book is for everybody, but I’ve read books on topics I wouldn’t normally have an interest in solely on the recommendation of a friend who simply said, “It’s really good. You’d like this.” Haven’t you?

Sigh.

Hey, Perez Hilton, if you read this… give me a call and ask me something. Maybe I can come up with a crazy enough answer to get the publishers to come running.

July 28, 2009

Points System - Part One

One of the things few people know about the casino industry, unless they’ve worked in it, is the little game that management plays with your time off. Because there is a need to be open 24/7/365, and that means nearly every employee is asked to work at least one, if not both weekend days – which are always busier than the rest of the week – it is imperative that the casinos ensure that the call-outs they receive are at a minimum, lest they not be able to open as many tables as demand would dictate. But while I recognize this desire is not madness, but rather necessity, the method they have chosen to enforce attendance is simply insane.

Each dealer is given 12 “points” to use throughout the course of the year. If you call out sick, you are charged with a point. They will alert you to your point total as it creeps closer to double-digits, but once you have reached that magic dozen points, essentially, they assert that they have the right to fire you for cause. On the surface, I do agree with this policy. After all, if you can’t commit to show up to the job you’ve agreed to do, then naturally, the employer should be allowed to replace you. However, the “theory” of the points system runs nowhere near the train tracks of its actual practice.

You call out sick on Wednesday, and you get a point. Now, if you’re sick again on Thursday, it gets considered part of the same “incident” – no further point charged, and usually a legit doctor’s note is all that it takes for a multi-day illness to be counted as a single point. Again, no issues there… but there are penalty points built into the system: Friday nights and weekends, and any other day deemed to be “high volume” such as Christmas or New Year’s Eve, are worth “two points.”

In addition, calling in the day immediately before or after your scheduled off-days is also considered a double-demerit. So consider that you could be sick on Tuesday and call out, have Wednesday and Thursday off, and then still be sick on Friday, but since it’s no longer a “consecutive call-out” plus it falls on the day after an off-day AND on a high volume day, this whole single illness would cost you – not one, but as many as FIVE points.

Of course, you have every right to challenge the ruling, but if you’re on shaky ground with the powers-that-be to begin with, the chances of them being sympathetic are minimal. In addition, they have what is called “pattern call-out” – also worthy of double-demerits. If they see that over a three-month period you have called out three times on the same day of the week, then those absences are bumped up from three points to six points… and if that day in question happens to be a high-volume day, you’ve already hit your twelve points – in only three call-outs.

There’s the big issue… you are given 10 personal days to use however you like, and even though you may well have time available to you, and the company will happily pay you for the days you have missed, you still can be fired for truancy if they so choose. Unbelievable!

Now mind you, there are part-time dealers who are hired by the casino. These dealers are only scheduled for at most, three or four days per week. Now when I started working in the casino, what happened was, if you knew in advance that you needed to miss a day of work, you would find a willing part-time dealer to take your shift, and you’d both sign a form indicating the swap. Now, even if you didn’t come into work, no points would be charged to you.

But what happened as the economy started its downturn and casinos started pinching pennies is that they changed this policy. Now, part-time dealers were no longer allowed to pick up days. Why? Because under labor laws, any employee who averaged at least 32 hours a week over a calendar year was eligible to buy into the company’s health plan. By ensuring that part-timers could never reach that per week average, they were saving lots of dough, but also in the process infuriating full-timers who now had no recourse but to call out and earn another point.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg… in Part 2, we’ll go deeper into the details of this amazingly flawed system.

Stay tuned…

AJ’s “Game Theory” Applied to TV Reality

So, if you read my “sticky post” – “What’s In a Game?” you’ll know that I categorize all athletic endeavors into one of the following four categories: a race, a game, a sport, or a judged exhibition. But those same categories can apply to many other things – for example, TV Reality Competitions.

The easiest show to produce, and in many ways, the most popular form is the “judged exhibition.” Shows like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent, Project Runway, Design Star, Top Chef… pretty much anything that has a subjective air to it as to whether or not a particular contestant was better than another qualify here. Of course, not all these shows are created equal. Certainly, the shows where the winner is determined by the “experts” themselves – as opposed to shows where whichever contestant is cute enough to inspire the most tweener girls to text in their votes wins – hold a lot more weight to me. And I’m still not sure how American Idol can manage to run long by as much as five minutes in their “results show” where all they need to do is say, “Sorry, Anoop, you’re going home.” But all in all, as long as the “skill” these shows highlight is worth watching, and the editing allows the program to move along at a brisk pace, the show will work.

As for races: we have The Amazing Race, whose title certainly says it all. Wipeout also fits into this category, though it is pretty much the exact same race every episode, shown multiple times within each episode, and I have no idea how that doesn’t get old really fast. Essentially, that’s the reason “race shows” aren’t more prevalent. Unless you attempt to get celebrities involved (like Superstars) or go to exotic locales around the world, they’re not likely to be engaging enough to inspire repeated viewing.

Games would be the category for any elimination competition in which the players vote themselves off, as in Survivor or Big Brother. The contestants involved in these shows are usually quick to attempt to eliminate those contestants who are really “playing the game,” as they are perceived threats to win the top prize. As there is one and only one top prize to be had, in essence, these shows have a ceiling to your winnings – the best you can to do is be the last contestant standing, at which point, you have won the game.

I would argue that the majority of dating shows, be they of the VH1 “Daisy/Flavor/Rock of Love for New York/Money/Millionaire” variety or The Bachelor and it’s various spinoffs and incarnations, while they follow a very similar format of eliminations as most “games” do, are actually sports. For one, the eliminations are at the whim of the person making the final choice, and therefore, there aren’t any hard and fast rules to follow. The Apprentice, with Donald Trump firing one contestant simply because she “volunteered” to join the project manager in the board room, and another because she once had a DUI, which had nothing at all to do with anything related to the competition itself, is a perfect example of the complete absence of any true “strategy” for winning.

Additionally, there isn’t really a ceiling on your ultimate success on these shows… winning the hand of a suitor may be temporary (even to the point of being completely reversed on the reunion show) or it might lead to an actual long-lasting marriage – which would allow you to “keep winning” long after the show has stopped sending its camera crews to follow you 24/7.

That’s how I see it. But feel free to challenge me…

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