“The Three Kings” by George Mackay Brown

The following Epiphany carol by one of the great Scots poets George Mackay Brown was apparently set to music by one of the great American folk musicians Pete Seeger. I cannot find the tune or any evidence of it outside of the book The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown edited by Bevan and Murray. If anyone can find the chords and tune or a recording of it I would greatly appreciate you telling me where to find it.

They’re looking for what, the three kings,
Beyond their border?
A new Kingdom, peace and truth and love,
Justice and order.

One was black and one was brown
And one was yellow.
A star crooked its jewelled finger.
The three kings follow.

How did they fare, the three kings?
Where did they dine?
They lived on a crust or two
And sour wine.

One was yellow and one was black
And one was brown.
They passed a scorched and rutted plain
And a broken town.

Whom did they meet, the three kings,
Among the thorns?
Herod’s captains hunting
With dogs and horns.

One was brown and one was yellow
And one was black.
Here’s what they found, a refugee bairn
Wrapped in a sack.

What did they do, the three kings,
When they got home?
In Vietnam, Rhodesia, Kashmir, troubled they bide
Till the Kingdom come.

George Mackay Brown in Stromness, Orkney Islands, Scotland. Image from Orkney.com

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Christmas Curmudgeon Ruins an Unnecessary Christmas Carol

In my last post I made the argument that we’ve started singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” wrong. I pointed out an errant dotted half note which affected the meaning of the song. A single note, however, is not a big deal. I can live with that. In fact, when we sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel” at church the next Sunday, I was happy enough that the song was punctuated correctly on the song sheet even though we stuck around Emmanuel too long.

The same cannot be said for what I fear I will sing on this coming Sunday. On Christmas Eve services across the land churches will sing “The First Noel” as if it’s a necessary part of the liturgy and no one will say anything. But I suspect I’m not the only one who will be barely tolerating this completely banal and borderline inane carol that has been matched to a tune that seems written for completely different lyrics.

Let’s look at that tune first. If you get motion sickness from the up and down and up and down, skip to the next paragraph. After the pickup notes, the melody begins in earnest with, no joke, a major scale in the key of the song. So, if you were to sing it in the key of C, the notes, beginning with the “No” in “Noel,” are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. That is not a melody. It’s practice. We talkin’ about practice. The rest of the tune also sounds like a warm-up to the rest of the service. If in the key of C, all the notes of the melody are played on the white keys of the piano and most of them are played after a white key right next to it. Up and down and up and down the same white keys.

I’m okay with simplicity sometimes. An uncomplicated melody is a blessed thing on a blessed night. A symbolic reminder of the understated way an all-powerful God chose to enter the world as a baby. Which is why we sing “Silent Night” and “What Child is This” and “Away in a Manger.” Do we really need “The First Noel?” Do the lyrics add anything to our understanding? Do they draw us to worship God in important ways that the other carols and hymns don’t allow us to? No. In fact it does the opposite by conflating narratives from two different Gospels, furthering our collective biblical illiteracy.

The first verse is about the shepherds in chapter 2 of the Gospel of Luke. Beyond that, it’s hard to say because people don’t speak in the way they are written in the first verse. I think it means that on that night of Jesus’s birth, angels told shepherds about it by saying (in French but sometimes anglicized as “Nowell”) “Christmas Christmas Christmas Christmas, the king of Israel is born.” If anyone else has a better explanation, I’m up for it.

“Hey, look at that star.” “Ooh, a star at night. Wake me when the angel comes.”

While you’re at it, could you tell me what was “so deep” about the cold winter’s night? Were there deep snow drifts? Was the temperature deep? Was it deep into the season of winter? None of these make any sense if we are going by the story as told by Luke. But it’s not all from Luke, which brings us to the second verse where the shepherds see a star in the East that shines “both day and night.” Wrong and wrong. The shepherds know nothing of a star because they didn’t need to. Angels told them everything. The star, from the Gospel of Matthew, in the Church calendar has to do with Epiphany, not Christmas. But still we sing “Christmas” four times in a row in French because we don’t know the Church calendar, the Bible, or French. And what of this “both day and night?” Are we just to glide by this line with no care in the world that it makes no sense to see a star during the day?

And yet, none of these above reasons are why I can’t stand “The First Noel.” If I couldn’t sing theologically questionable lyrics to inane melodies, I’d never step inside a church without a pipe organ. My main problem is that the lyrics don’t seem to go with the tune. In the first 13 notes of the first verse there are 9 syllables, which means that four syllables need to be sung over two notes a piece. That can be fine. See the “Emmanuels” in “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” where the extra notes add emphasis to the point of the song: God with us. In “The First Noel” we stretch the word “The” over two notes, and we do it twice in the first line. In fact, the first three syllables get two notes a piece, which makes me wonder if someone just took the existing lyrics and forced them into an already existing tune, not putting any more thought into it.

Then, we have to sing “the angels did say” instead of “the angels said” in order for the line to rhyme with “fields as they lay.” But why end the line there anyway? We are stretching words out in some places and adding syllables in others for poor rhymes with no reason. Then, we sing “in fields where they lay” a second time, holding the note on “they” for some unknown purpose. It can’t be for delayed gratification because we already know what they’re doing. They’re laying. Oh, but what could they also be doing? Keeping their sheep. What a surprise! That these shepherds will be shepherding. And then, to get the words to rhyme again, we have to sing something that rhymes with “sheep.”

Why not “deep?”

What’s deep?

How about the winter.

What does that mean, the winter being deep? Do you mean the snow during the winter?

No, I just need something to rhyme with sheep.

Fine. What comes next?

“Christmas Christmas Christmas Christmas.”

Hmm, what rhymes with Christmas?

How about we sing Christmas in French and then change back to English so we can rhyme “Noel” with “Israel”?

Hmm. I have a better idea. Let’s just skip it and sing “Lo How a Rose Eer Blooming”?

“Christmas Christmas Christmas Christmas.”

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Christmas Curmudgeon Upset at how These Young Kids Ruined his Favorite Hymn

I was going to write about my least favorite Christmas carol, but that can wait. I’m going to start with a song that isn’t sung like it used to be sung, which has confused its meaning. Sometime in the last 1100 years since it was written, but more frequently now since many of us have gone to singing songs without reading music, people have started singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” all wrong.

Here’s the best version (that is, with proper punctuation) of the first verse of the song as printed on songsheets without the tune:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here,

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Notice the punctuation in the first two and last two lines here. There is a comma after the first Emmanuel. That is because, in an inflected language, Emmanuel would be in the vocative case. That is, the singer is calling on Emmanuel (Hebrew for “God with us”) to come, and then asking Emmanuel to ransom Israel. The verbs are in the imperative mood, which doesn’t take an explicit subject, so the name Emmanuel is set apart from the clauses. Hence the commas.

Now notice the similarly structured last two lines of the verse. See how there is no comma after Emmanuel? “Rejoice” is still in the imperative, but the singers are not calling on Emmanuel to rejoice. Rather, Emmanuel would be in the nominative or subjective case, while “Israel” is in the vocative. The verb “come” in the final clause is in the indicative mood. That is, Emmanuel is not playing the same role in the final phrase as it is in the first even though it is in a similar position. Rather, the singer is calling on “Israel” to rejoice, because Emmanuel is fulfilling the call to come that was expressed in the first phrase.

This is a wonderfully poetic turn of phrase. Both phrases begin with “Imperative imperative, Emmanuel,” but the part of speech of Emmanuel has changed in the shared word which makes all the difference. We’ve gone from hope for better times to assuredness of better times.

But there is a problem in the way we sing it. Or at least in the way I’ve sung it on two occasions in the last couple weeks. In most versions, the song is sung in 4/4 time where each of the first 5 syllables is sung on its own quarter note while the last syllable of the first Emmanuel ends on a dotted half note. Those extra two beats represents the comma and it’s appropriate. (I’m sure you know the tune, so just sing it and hear how we stay on the last note of Emmanuel three times longer than the first note of Emmanuel.)

Notice how the second measure on the last line has 6 quarter notes even though the time signature says it should only have 4 quarter notes in a measure.

The problem is that we do the same thing with the Emmanuel of the penultimate line, which makes it sound like we are calling on Emmanuel to do the rejoicing and who(?) to do the coming to thee, we don’t really know. The way it’s written above makes it fairly clear. There are 8 syllables in the first line and 8 syllables in the second, but the line is enjambed (which just means that the sentence spills over two different lines).

But when a poem has enjambed lines, one should still read it aloud as a grammatically correct sentence with proper punctuation. For instance, here’s the first two (enjambed) lines of Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty:”

She walks in beauty, like the night 

Of cloudless climes and starry skies; 

One should read this line, despite the way it looks on the page, as it’s punctuated. Perhaps you should put an ever so slight pause or stress on “night,” but it’s important to read it so that we know that she’s walking like the night of cloudless climes, etc. and not merely like the night.

Such is the case with earlier versions of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” where the music handles the enjambment of the last two lines either by inserting a half measure in 2/4 time to cover the last syllable of the Emmanuel and the “Shall” from the last line, or by sneaking in two extra quarter notes in that one measure. Each of these syllables bears a quarter note and it works. In these versions, the “Re-joice” is sung over 4 beats twice in a row, matching the call to rejoice by singing it high and long and then we go right into what Emmanuel is going to do.

Not so, today. In more recent versions Emmanuel in the last line is sung the same way as in the first line. But things are not the same. The mood has changed. It’s a shame, but it’s also an illustration of our inability to sing interesting tunes today. We sing with overheads or song sheets that don’t have the music on it. We rely on the song leader, who may not be able to read music either. Oh well, things change. It’s still a beautiful song. It’s just a little dumb now.

Hey kids, get off my lawn! And take this terrible rendition of a great hymn with you!

You know what’s a lot dumb, though? I’ll tell you in the next post since this one went longer than I expected.

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The Opposite of Poetry

The opposite of poetry is, presumably, prose. But there is poetic prose and prosaic poetry. So what is the opposite of poetry? I’m not sure, but I’d like to present a possible example. It is the copy on a can of Bomber Brewing IPA, which is brewed about 2 kilometres from my house in east Vancouver.

I usually like reading the quasi-literary descriptions on craft beer cans and bottles. There’s a challenge to describing taste in an elegant and enticing way that can capture some of the experience of tasting the beer while also leaving a little mystery so that the person holding the can still has some agency. It should enhance the drink and not dictate it.

Two beers sit in my fridge. The copy of one is adequate and the other makes me feel stupid and not thirsty.

The adequate one is from Phillips Brewing and the beer is Electric Unicorn White IPA: “Electric Unicorn is a hop-infused white ale; best enjoyed while riding a mystical mono-horned laser beast, racing through the galaxy to the sonic backdrop of screaming metal guitars.”

It’s silly, but it captures a little of the whimsy a white ipa has in its mere existence. It’s kind of a silly beer. Not sure about that semicolon, but it doesn’t get in the way, I guess.

The bad one, Bomber IPA: “Like the northwest convergence of the ocean and mountains; only the best hops enter our brew kettle, combining with balanced malt for this complex configuration of quaffability. It’s a beautiful thing…” (semi-colon and ellipses in the original[!])

What? I’ve met the people who brew this and they are native English speakers who are clearly pretty smart. I do not understand this description. What is like the convergence of ocean and mountains? The hops and kettle? Or is it the hops and malt? And if it’s the hops and malt, how are they converging like the ocean and mountains in the northwest? Are the ocean and mountains a “complex configuration?” And how is it like the best hops? And why the semicolon after a dependent clause? It’s not a beautiful thing… it sucks.

There are 23 breweries within walking distance of my house. I don’t need this abuse.

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Psalm 23 scans not as a Hebrew poem // English poetry in my ears is the 23rd Psalm

Some passages unanimously deemed poetry may not be so, in fact. Ps 23 is a case in point…       ––Wilfred G.E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to its Techniques (1984), p. 45.


Leaving aside the strange presumption that only he knows what is right about something deemed otherwise “universal,” I think Watson is onto something here. I may actually agree with him that Psalm 23, despite its beloved status in the Church throughout history, may not be poetry. At least insofar as it bears very few of the hallmarks that make up Hebrew poetry.

On the next page of Watson’s 450 page guide to Hebrew poetry (in which the only reference to the most famous Hebrew poem is that it doesn’t qualify as Hebrew poetry), Watson provides a table of indicators for discerning Hebrew poetry from the biblical era. The table includes: presence of established line-forms; ellipsis; unusual vocabulary; conciseness; unusual word-order; archaisms; use of metre; symmetry; parallelism; word-pairs; chiastic patterns; envelope figure; repetition; sound patterns.


Watson’s “Table of Indicators”

It’s not that Psalm 23 lacks any or all of these indicators. Rather, those that are there (parallelism, envelope figure?, unusual vocabulary?, word pairs) are loosey goosey and no more heightened than in many examples found in universally deemed prose. One has to look very hard to find semantic parallelism and those examples that exist are absent of any elegant grammatical parallelism. The line translated “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters” is at once, grammatically on the nose, while still seeming incidentally parallel. Even the Masoretes (medieval editors) didn’t bother to arrange that line to make the parallelism work on the page. I guess they thought, why bother?

Any argument for Psalm 23 as poetry based on accepted indicators or hallmarks (use of prefix and suffix conjugations interchangeably, no sign of accusative, no definite article) must still deal with the fact that we have hundreds of other witnesses of poetry in the Bible alone that do have obviously more claim to the poetic. If all Hebrew poems were like Psalm 23 would we even know about parallelism?


This is not a good use of the word “unanimously” (What we don’t talk about is him inexplicably including Psalm 1 in this category!)

In the end, any analysis of Psalm 23 as poetry should probably conclude that the psalm is either not poetry at all or is a poor example of it.

I’ve actually felt this way about Psalm 23 for a while but excused my concerns because of some poetic turns of phrase, which happen to be some of my favourites in the Bible, particularly the last verb weshavti (וְשַׁבְתִּי), which, without vowels could be translated either as “and I shall return” or “and my dwelling is” so that the first reading points to the pursuit of goodness and mercy in the first part of the verse and the second reading points to the house of the LORD in the second part of the verse. Such wordplay, however, is common in biblical Hebrew prose, so it doesn’t make psalm 23 any more poetry than some passages in the narratives of Jonah or Genesis.

Despite my concerns about the lack of poetic indicators in this “poem” it wasn’t until a conversation I had with a theologian and friend named David Taylor last week that I wondered, if Psalm 23 is not poetry, why is it universally deemed such.

David was teaching a class at Regent College last week on the Arts in Worship while I was teaching Hebrew and he told me that one of the questions he had his class do was finish the sentence “Poetry is…” In previous classes he said his students could not either answer the question or come to a consensus after sharing their answers. In fact, David said, poets themselves cannot agree what poetry is.

Which raises the question as to why I can even claim that Psalm 23 is not poetry. I should clarify: I’m not sure Psalm 23 qualifies as Hebrew Poetry. However, it should be pointed out that in Watson’s table of indicators, very few indicators translate well into English poetry.

For instance, I doubt if any of David’s students have ever claimed that poetry should contain parallelism. If so, they would have taken out of contention a very large swath of English poetry. Rhyme is a type of parallelism, but not one that Hebrew poets use with any regularity and that is absent in even universally deemed and acclaimed English poems (see Paradise Lost). Perhaps metre could be seen as another type of parallelism, but metre utilized or understood in Hebrew poetry is very different than in English poetry.

Such discrepancies between what constitutes Hebrew poetry and the general conventions of English poetry is why, I would guess, Psalm 23 is so beloved as an English poem while seeming somewhat anomalous in the Psalter itself.

Parallelism as often translated into English, can seem clunky and necessarily corrupts the word order, word order being a feature that can accentuate semantic parallelism in Hebrew. In fact, very few of the hallmarks of Hebrew poetry translate at all into English and when they do seem out of character to poetry in general (e.g. chiastic arrangement).

On the other hand, imagery works well in both and Psalm 23 has evocative images of shepherding that are surprising and yet easy to imagine and understand the significance of. More so than, say, images of ancient Near Eastern coronations, which are perhaps too foreign to translate into everyday life. In Psalm 23, the reader identifies with the helplessness and cluelessness of sheep in the wilderness. Such imagery is humbling, yet comforting, and if it seems played out, that is likely due to the ubiquity of the psalm itself in our culture. Psalm 23 is specific enough to imagine, yet vague enough to apply to any stage in one’s life.

“Please stop perpetuating the tired stereotype that sheep are helpless and clueless.”

There is also enough mystery (inconsistency?) in the imagery to bring us back and explore again. How can a rod and staff comfort me? What does it mean to have a table prepared before me in the presence of enemies? How does the table scene fit with the rest of the psalm? Is a sheep eating at the table?

Such ambiguities are important for second, third, and fourth readings of poetry as we understand poetry. I can work hard at understanding the psalm without feeling I need a degree in Assyriology or Ugaritic. Its qualification as English poetry, despite its impoetic* nature in its original language, may be due to accident or perhaps the skill of the translators of the King James Bible. But given the psalm’s ability to comfort people in times of trouble, to remind them of God’s caring and protecting nature, perhaps it was no accident at all. Or, perhaps even the early canonizers of the Psalter read the psalm, knew it didn’t seem to fit, but thought, like many of us, “I don’t really know how to define poetry, but I know it when I see it.”

I’ve printed the psalm from the KJV in full below (as a prose poem) for you to decide if it’s poetry or not.


The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (Ps. 23 KJV)

*I know “impoetic” is not yet a word, but it should be.

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An Addendum to the Greatest 3rd Place Team in Baseball

The reason I revisited the 1991 Texas Rangers earlier today was because my favorite sports podcast “Hang Up and Listen” had asked its listeners about their favorite non-famous athletes. I wrote in to tell them about Mario Diaz, who was the backup to the weakest starting player on the ’91 Rangers. Still, he was our favorite because his name was Mario, he had a moustache, wasn’t all that good, it was 1991, and he looked like this:

Does this look like another guy named Mario who was much much more famous in 1991? How about:

Of course we made a sign that said Super Mario Land for our bleacher seats. And of course Mario wasn’t super, but we did learn to love Mario Diaz. In fact, while Goose Gossage held on to a 0.00 ERA for a shockingly long time that year despite giving up other pitchers’ runs making him less valuable than he seemed, Diaz seemed to be really clutch. His only hits seemed to come at important times. Perhaps the advanced metrics (which didn’t exist at the time) wouldn’t bear out our biases, but he was valuable to us. His only home run that year remains tied for the most thrilling (to me) sports moment I’ve witnessed live. The other being Carli Lloyd’s 50 yard goal in the World Cup final to secure her hat trick.

Anyway, Josh Levin read my entry in Hang Up and Listen today. It starts around the 51:50 minute mark here: https://megaphone.link/SM7055772242



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(Potentially) the Greatest 3rd Place Team in Baseball

I don’t pay much attention to baseball anymore but at one time it was a major obsession of mine. I wrote history papers in junior high on the origins of baseball, spent hours poring over the Baseball Encyclopedia, often on Saturdays while a game was being played. I collected cards with my friends and spent alone time in the back yard practicing my swing with a Johnny Bench Batter Up.  My favorite board game was Strat-o-matic. My favorite player was Ozzie Smith who played for my favorite team at the time, the St. Louis Cardinals.

The reason I loved the Cardinals was simple. My father went to high school in Missouri and his brother and family lived in St. Louis. So I felt a connection to the area. Also, because I had an interest in baseball history the Cardinals kept popping up in my reading; my Strat-o-matic team was the 1934 Cardinals—the gashouse gang. Most importantly, as a small kid in the 1980s, the Cardinals were good (3 NL pennants and a World Series win) and fun to watch and the Texas Rangers, the local team, were definitely not.

But things change and, fortunately for me, they started looking up around the time I started driving. After suffering through teams whose best players were knuckleballer Charlie Hough and occasional All-Star reserve Buddy Bell, the Rangers started acquiring good players in the early 1990s.

This was a perfect storm for me. In 1991, I was 16 years old with a car (I inherited my fathers ’82 Mazda so that my mom wouldn’t have to drive me to 6:00am swim practice), the Rangers had potential that they never had before, and most importantly, owner George W. Bush hadn’t yet finalized the deal on the new Ballpark in Arlington. Arlington Stadium, three years from demolition, had well over 10,000 bleacher seats, all for the price of $4.00. Even at the time, that was 2/3 the price of a movie ticket. My friends and I went to as many games as we could. I likely went to more major league baseball games in 1991 than I have been to in all other years combined.

But though the price made it possible, the real reason we schlepped from Carrollton to Arlington night after night, catching series after series was because they were finally, mercifully, good. Or, at least, talented. I was recently drawn back to that 1991 roster and was shocked at how stacked the team was, but also at how bad they were. They only won 83 games and finished 3rd in the AL West, 10 games behind the Minnesota Twins. I looked at the Twins roster and was underwhelmed by its talent (Kirby Puckett and Jack Morris, aside).

The roster of the 1991 Texas Rangers, on the other hand, included:

SP: Nolan Ryan (Hall of Fame)

C: Ivan Rodriguez (Hall of Fame)

RP: Goose Gossage (Hall of Fame)

LF: Juan Gonzalez (2x MVP)

SP: Kevin Brown (2nd place in Cy Young)

RF: Ruben Sierra (2nd place in MVP)

heater aside, this guy is old

RP: Kenny Rogers

1B: Rafael Palmeiro

2B: Julio Franco

CF: Garry Pettis

SP: Oil Can Boyd

DH: Brian Downing

3B: Steve Beuchelle

That is a good team. Potentially a great team. The weakest position was Jeff Huson/Mario Diaz (ironically our favorite player on the team) at short stop. But this was the pre-Jeter/Nomar era where short stop was generally an 8th or 9th batter in the lineup so pretty typical of the time.

moustache aside, this guy is a teenager

It is a potentially great team, which is the problem—potential. The thing about this team is exemplified by the ages of its two best players—Nolan Ryan and Pudge Rodriguez. The team, as a whole was either too old or too young. When Ryan pitched to Rodriguez, the ball travelled 60 feet 6 inches and 25 years. Ryan, at 44, was two years older than I am now and Pudge, at 19, was only three years older than I was then! Remember, Rangers’ owner George W. Bush was the president’s son and not the guy who broke everything. This was a different world and I’m still not as old as the best player on the team.

Goose Gossage, whose stats suggest he was better than he was since he tended to give up other pitchers’ runs, was 39. Juan Gonzalez, who, at only 21, was 5 years away from winning his first MVP, while Brian Downing batted leadoff* at the age of 40! About the only player who was at the peak of his career was Ruben Sierra, whose stat-line was (amazingly) comparable to his 1989 campaign, which got him 2nd place in MVP voting. And he was only 25! Rafael Palmeiro had yet to discover steroids.

My knowledge of baseball has diminished over the years. I know who some of the great players are and followed the Rangers closely in 2011 when they lost one of the greatest World Series ever to my old favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals.‡ But I don’t really pay attention to potentially great teams anymore. I do wonder, though, despite my obvious bias, what other team had this much talent while finishing 3rd in their division because of bad timing.

*In a kind of proto-moneyball move, manager Bobby Valentine must have figured that Downing’s .370 OBP was more valuable at the front of the lineup than Garry Pettis’s speed.
‡I still have fond memories of those 1980s Cardinals teams but that 2011 series stung. David Freese is a villain in my eyes, despite seeming like a decent fellow, otherwise.
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