Saturday, May 02, 2015

Frank Olivo 1949-2015

Rocky isn't the real symbol of Philadelphia sports. Frank Olivo was and always will be.

Olivo was an otherwise typical teenaged fan who was cajoled out of the Franklin Field stands and into serving as Santa Claus in the halftime show of the Eagles last home game of the 1968 season. The regular Santa, no fool he, had failed to show up.

Among the dozens of truly lousy Eagles seasons in the franchise's history, 1968 stands out. The team lost its first 10 games, then won two, managing to blow their chance to get the first pick in the 1969 draft, their chance to get O.J. Simpson. The crowd for a meaningless loss to the Vikings was well beyond sullen into mutinous.

And so Santa Olivo got booed when he appeared on the field. Booed loud and long. The booing then escalated into the throwing of snowballs. And a national sports legend was born, a legend in which Olivo's home town has always taken perverse and ferocious pride. Who could host a tougher sports crowd? We booed Santa! We threw things at St. Nick!!!!

As an Eagles fan himself, Olivo understood. "They weren't booing me," he said at the time and thereafter, "they were booing everything." He embraced his iconic status as a scapegoat. "I've had my 15 minutes of fame for 40 years," he told an ESPN film crew.

Those 15 minutes should go on as long as they play ball of any sort in the City of Brotherly Love. Every time Ryan Howard strikes out on a breaking ball four feet outside the zone, the first time Sam Bradford leaves the field with an injury and when DeMarco Murray fumbles at the goal line, there will be the noise that is the music of Philadelphia sports, the noise that greeted Frank Olivo that long past December day. He will remain the symbol of the boo as delivered by its undeniable world champions.

Farewell Frank. May there be no boos where you are today. Unless of course, Philly was always your idea of heaven.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What Price Nostalgia? Comcast Corp. Will Soon Know

This coming Saturday will be the ultimate throwback promotion in sports. The biggest events on the calendar will be a horse race and a prizefight, meaning that a fan can experience a whole day in which he or she is living in 1935.
First up, the Kentucky Derby, the only horse race in America that still attracts non-racing fans in large numbers both in person and on TV. This is partially because the Derby is a truly thrilling event, and mostly because it takes on the first Saturday in May, From the swells in the clubhouse to the spring break extension for Midwest colleges in the infield to the folks at home making their own mint juleps and running betting pools, it's an excuse to have the first good outdoor party of the year, the same way the Super Bowl serves as a party to forget February has just started.

For TV viewers who don't bet, the Derby is free. Watching a horse race on which one has not bet, however, is kind of missing the point. It's like watching the movie on an airplane flight but not paying for the headphones.

For the nightcap, I term I use in all its senses, there's the Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather fight scheduled for 11 p.m. Eastern, meaning probably 11:45 Eastern. This encounter deserves the title Fight of the Century, if only because it's taken most of the 21st century to get these two into the same ring. It has been relentlessly promoted by corporate entities ranging from ESPN (understandable) to Air Asia (huh?). These two boxers are also about the only ones sports fans who aren't fight fans (those under 85) have ever heard of.

The fight is expected to gross as much as $250 million. It damn well ought to, seeing as high-definition pay per view will be $99.55, thank you very much. This means the alliance of HBO and Showtime producing the program can hit that number with an audience about the same size as that of "America's Test Kitchen" on PBS.

In keeping with the day's nostalgia theme, Pacquiao-Mayweather will honor one of boxing's oldest traditions -- it's a ripoff. In 2009, it might've been a great fight worth your $100, the classic matchup of Pacquiao the aggressive slugger and Mayweather the gifted boxer. Alas, Manny hit the far side of the hill about the same time Mitt Romney's campaign began to get going. Mayweather can still duck punches, and Pacquiao can't throw them as well. Since the prime attraction of the bout is the desire of normal folks to see horrible person Mayweather get his block knocked off  (a desire Mayweather exploits with great skill), there are going to be a lot of disappointed and poorer fans at the fight's end.

Gosh, that sounds familiar. In 1935, it happened every Saturday night in every American town big enough to have an auditorium. We've come a long way since then. Progress means that the athletes in our most popular sport wear helmets, so we can pretend their brains aren't getting scrambled.

We have not made so much progress that Floyd Mayweather isn't a very, very rich man. Throwback Night promotions always sell.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Political Show Business Trial

The White House Correspondents' Dinner was last Saturday night. As is the quaint/dismal custom, Barack Obama fulfilled one of the duties of the office of President not thought of by James Madison and performed a comedy monologue. By most nonpartisan accounts it was a reasonably good effort for an amateur.

Comedy is hard. Some Presidents are going to be better at it than others. I don't think it's fair the Leader of the Free World is expected to entertain a group he or she would rather see placed under mass arrest in a popular art form for which they are ill-suited. It ought to be their choice.

If the President is a really good dancer, he could do "Once in Love With Amy" a la Ray Bolger. If she was an amateur magician as a kid, it could be card tricks. An opera excerpt? Ventriloquism? Sure, why not? I personally would like to see the Chief of State try a little improv, just to hear the audience suggestions.

An informed public being the bedrock of democracy, I demand that the interlocutors of the upcoming 12,671,136 presidential debates ask each and every candidate just how they plan to entertain the tuxedoed masses at the 2017 WHCD. We're bound to learn more about them than from boilerplate blah on trade policy.

I make it even money as to whether Rand Paul or Ted Cruz is the first to promise lion taming.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Human Drama of Athletic Competition with the Humanity Taken Out

Tiger Woods duck hooked his drive on the 13th hole at the Masters yesterday and said a very bad word. At a rough estimate, of the million or so other Americans who were playing golf at that moment in this vast land, at least 10,000 were saying the very same thing.

Yet within moments, CBS commentator Ian Baker-Finch was given the heinous duty of apologizing to any of the TV audience who might've been offended. How much better had he chosen to end his career in a blaze of glory and said, "to anyone offended, fuck off!"

Nobody watches the Masters who isn't a golf fan, and there are no golf fans who don't play golf. Therefore there was nobody watching the tournament who hasn't either cussed at a bad shot, heard some other golfer do it, or both. Swearing and golf are inseparable companions, just like the sport's other good buddies, drinking and gambling. There were cartoons about golfers cursing in 19th century editions of the English magazine "Punch." There are probably 15th century Scottish woodcuts about it.

There's never unanimity in our society, so I'm sure there were some real life Ned Flanderses out there who were offended, for the sake of the children, of course. Holier-than-thou is never about a person claiming superiority over their fellow beings to justify the sticks up their posteriors.. No, indeed.

 I'm also guessing the offended were few in number. As the golf industry knows to its sorrow, most golfers are adults, make that adults-plus. Adults know that in the heat of competition, athletes get stressed. People under stress have been known to say things they might later regret.

In a sane world, Woods' swearing would've passed unmentioned on the air. But ass-covering is one of broadcasting's prime directives. Baker-Finch's apology was CBS saying, "it's not our fault."

Except it was. Woods didn't carry a bullhorn in his bag yesterday. It was CBS's microphones which were close enough to pick up his vocal anguish, microphones that are part of TV's inexorable drive to make sports on the tube as close to being there as possible, except better because you don't have to drive to the game, match or tournament.

That's a worthy goal, or would be if CBS (and all the other networks) didn't want to have sports both ways. They want to immerse the viewer in sports reality, but they also want that reality to be fake, to be the world of Chip Hilton books for boys, not the world of Lance Armstrong, Floyd Mayweather and, oh, yeah, Tiger Woods. This desire is particularly acute at the Masters, which CBS presents with a cheesy, smarmy solemnity which is completely at odds with the experience of the tournament in person.

Don't want to hear Woods cuss? Get the mike away from him. Don't want Bill Belichick or Gregg Popovich to blow off your inane in-game interviews? Stop doing them. Sports isn't "NCIS" or "Modern Family."  People watch because a game, match or tournament is an event beyond the control of anyone but the participants.

At least, we hope it's beyond TV's control. Some days I'm not so sure.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What Price February Glory?

Here's a thought experiment for Patriots fans here in Boston, and I trust they'll answer it with the intellectual honesty expected of NFL champions.

It's second and goal from the one with 55 seconds left in the Super Bowl, and in a flash of brimstone, temptation appears in the form of Mr. Applegate in "Damn Yankees." He has a proposition.

"You can let this play its course and Marshawn Lynch scores on the next play and you lose. BUT, it won't snow in Boston for the rest of the month," says the man of wealth and taste. "Say the word, and I'll cloud Pete Carroll's mind and he'll call a pass and you win. After that, you take your chances with the weather, but I'd advise buying some extra shovels."

Which would you choose? Which would you choose if we get that blizzard for the weekend the weathermen are freaking about?

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Defensaurus Rex

In keeping with NFL tradition, Rex Ryan was fired as coach of the New York Jets the day after the team finished its dismal 4-12 season. Somewhat less traditionally, Ryan was unemployed less than two weeks before being named head coach of the Buffalo Bills.

It's too bad for the Seattle Seahawks that Ryan found work so quickly. Had he not, Pete Carroll could've put him on the franchise payroll as a consultant for the Super Bowl. Ryan has knowledge the Seahawks would put any price on come around 6:45 p.m. this evening.

The Jets were a terrible team in 2014 that did one thing well. They were able to play the Patriots very tough. New England won both of its games with the Jets, but they were the closest games of the Pats' season, decided by 27-25 and 17-16 and each contest in doubt until either the final play or damn near. Considering the talent gap between the two teams, the Jets overachieved on the grand scale. New England had only two other games decided by less than a touchdown, and only the Ravens in the playoffs came as close to the Pats without beating them.

So how'd the Jets manage to be a quality NFL team against the Patriots when all the rest of the year they weren't? A glance at the box scores reveals one reason Ryan had little to do with. In each game, Geno Smith played like an actual pro quarterback. He wasn't Aaron Rodgers, but neither was he the Geno Smith who's the main reason Ryan has relocated to Western New York state.

The other reason the Jets gave the Pats fits is attributable to Ryan. It's the knowledge the Seahawks would sell Richard Sherman's so-far unborn child to get. The Jets defense was able to do what no other Pats' opponent could from October 1 to today -- contain Rob Gronkowaki. The unanimous All-Pro tight end was competent but no more in his two encounters with New York.

In the first game at Foxboro, Gronkowski had five receptions for 68 yards, decent stats, but hardly overwhelming. In the rematch in New Jersey, with the Jets playing out their miserable string, Gronkowski had six catches for 31 yards and one touchdown.

The relationship between Gronk's individual performance and that of New England's overall offense is an established fact. The better he does, the more points they score. I daresay that if you let Carroll know Gronkowski's stat line tonight would be a duplicate of the line from that second Jets game, he'd very much like his team's chances tonight. So would everybody else.

What's Ryan's secret sauce for Gronkowski? There aren't many actual secrets in football, so I'll guess his "schemes" relied on the fact the Jets' linebackers are quick enough to cover Gronkowski and (the hard part) big and strong enough to tackle him. Still, Carroll and his staff surely would have found film sessions and chalk talks with Ryan a comfort over the past two weeks.

NFL coaches cherish what they regard as secrets. It's extremely unlikely Ryan would blab away his methods for defending Gronkowski to some rival firm. He has his own reputation as a defensive wizard to maintain, after all.

But when it comes to the Patriots and Bill Belichick, Ryan loses whatever balance he has. Considering how he feels about his once and future divisional nemesis, the Seahawks should at least have given him a phone call last week.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Your Guess Is As Good As Theirs and Better Than Mine

 Last year was so simple. Writing a Super Bowl prediction took about three minutes. There was no doubt in my mind that Seattle's defense would thwart Denver's offense enough for the Seahawks to win. Did I expect a thwarting by 43-8? Hell, no. But the basic outline of the game was so clear I barely bothered to make the call in the first place.

Twelve months later, clarity has been replaced by blurry double-vision. A myriad of scenarios creating a Patriots win in Super Bowl XLIX have flitted through my brain the last week (too busy laughing at Ballghazi the week before to handicap). Every time one is just about to come into focus, it's been replaced by an equally hazy and ephemeral picture of a Seahawks' triumph. While these two admirable football teams have every reason to be confident of victory Sunday night, none of the rest of us should have any confidence in agreeing with them.

Check out the pundits' forecasts in the national media. These worthy men and women are paid to be never in doubt, right or wrong. Among the brief explanations accompanying the game picks on were "I don't know why I did this" and "I've changed my pick every time I've thought about it."

Exactly two of ESPN's over 50 forecasters called the game to be decided by more than 10 points. Ron Jaworski sees the Pats winning big, while Ray Lewis sees Seattle winning the same way. These forecasts are surely the result of which position each man played in THEIR NFL careers. All forecasters have biases, and homerism is usually the least of them.

It has been noted that Seattle was only 3-4 in games in which it allowed opponents more than 20 points. This is seen as an indication of weakness, as it is really difficult to hold the Patriots to such a low total. It has been less noted, but is also true that New England was 2-4 in games in which it scored fewer than 21 points, and that those two wins were over the Raiders and Jets. So while difficult, it can be done, and when done, the Pats are in trouble.

Go through the matchups and records, we see more equality. New England's offensive versatility is a theoretical advantage, but no more so than is Seattle's running game. Each has a superlative turnover ratio and excellent placekicking. Each team had one horrific and embarrassing loss in the regular season in the state of Missouri (we're scraping the bottom of the matchup barrel now. Always happens by Saturday).

One Super Bowl tell I have used in years past with good effect is that the team which had a tougher time in the playoffs has earned an advantage through having stared elimination in the face without blinking. As near-death experiences, there's nothing to choose between the Pats' comeback against the Ravens and Seattle's against the Packers. Super Bowl routs occur not because the loser gives up, but because it stops expecting good things to result from its best efforts. I don't see either of these teams  succumbing to despair.

If I knew how the Pats' offensive and defensive lines, the two groups in this tilt facing the largest challenges, would perform, a prediction would be a cinch. Not even Bill Belichick knows that, though. It is best to assume that they will battle their opposite Seahawk numbers to a draw or close to it.

Assuming that, we assume a close game. To assume a close game is to assume it will be decided on between three and six "big plays" the unpredictable turns of skill and fate which we know will take place but that only the foolhardy would predict who'll they'll benefit.

The Pats got here on a halfback option pass and a weird formation, the Seahawks on an onside kick and fake field goal. Look at that sentence and tell me you think either team is a safe bet tomorrow.

Here's an unsafe bet. Combing through my double visions, I didn't find ALL things equal between the Pats and Seahawks. I give New England the tiniest of edges for creativity. It is the team somewhat more likely to improvise a game-changing play if it's forced to do so.

I expect it will be,too. Say New England by no more than three points. If I could pick a tie, I would, but that's against the rules. There's never even been an overtime Super Bowl.

First time for everything.