Monday, June 27, 2016

The Archduke Ferdinand Bowl

Preparations for the pep rally were well underway at noon on June 14 along the Quai de Chartrons in Bordeaux, France. That is to say, dozens of young men dressed in either in Hungary's national colors of red, green and white or in black T-shirts bearing what I assumed to be the Hungarian language's equivalent of "Roll Tide" were either drinking beer in sidewalk cafes or lined up to buy beer in adjoining markets.

About an hour later, the singing and drumming began. Loud singing, louder than the drums. And just as residents (including this temporary) one of the nearby street Cours du Medoc became accustomed to the din, the march started, straight underneath our windows.

First came the cops, about a dozen French police. Then came about two dozen press photographers and TV video crews, walking backwards. Then came the rolling rally, roughly 300 Hungarian men, maybe 30 Hungarian women and a few children, singing even more loudly, chanting louder than that, and setting off the occasional highway flare. I am impressed by anyone who can chant and drink beer at the same time, and they all could.

The march disappeared from view and then from sight, headed for the ritzy stretch of Cours de Medoc that holds the city offices of some of the world's most famous wine chateaux and the denizens of those offices who give themselves airs and graces you wouldn't believe. My temporary neighbors went back to their lives with a sigh of relief. I sighed as well, but not exactly with relief. I knew I'd meet the marchers again quite soon.

Two tickets in Section 20, row 27, Stade Atlantique for Austria vs. Hungary, an opening round match of the Euro 2016 soccer tournament. It was my Christmas present for my daughter Hope, and through changing circumstances, six months later I'd be sharing it with her. I knew they were upper deck seats in the end zone. I was now hoping they were in the neutral fans section.

Euro 2016. The second-biggest soccer tournament in the world. The allegedly biggest terrorist target in the world and the reason Bordeaux contained so many local and national police, special riot police, and soldiers, all armed to the teeth and all (my guess because the French are such avid movie fans) excellent at looking tough, as if they knew six ways to kill a man with their crew cuts. Euro 2016, which had already seen running street violence between English drunks, Russian hooligans and those riot police in Marseille.

Oh, yeah, Euro 2016 was also the reason local public transit workers had called a strike for June 14, as part of ongoing protests of French labor law changes. Since security already prevented anyone from driving within a mile of the stadium, maybe those Hungarians were on the right track as to how to make the six p.m. kickoff.

It was supposed to be the all-time worst day in Bordeaux commuting history. It wasn't. My daughter met me at the light rail station in her neighborhood at 5:40 p.m. Three minutes later, we boarded a tram for the stadium. Ten minutes after that, we were there. Security was as quick, and let it be said, no more intrusive, than at Fenway Park, let alone Gillette Stadium. Had we not stopped to buy souvenirs, we would have made the national anthems, not that I could've told them apart.

As you may have guessed, our seats were right next to the section containing the marchers. Given the chance to sit down, which they did not take, the Hungarians were louder than ever. But that's all they were, loud. Nearby Austrian fans were not harassed verbally or otherwise. There were no fights among a group of people who'd been drinking for hours. The entire sellout crowd of 44,000 posed fewer problems for security personnel than one would find at an Eagles exhibition game at Lincoln Financial Field.

This was the 131st meeting of Austria and Hungary in tournament play, way more than Alabama has ever played Auburn. For a neutral, one who hadn't thought of either country in terms of sports or any other reason for decades, there was little to choose between them. Austria were better passers, the Hungarians had more individual ball skills. Hungary's goalie wore sweat pants. As soccer first halves are wont to do, it ended nil-nil.

In the second half, Austria scored what appeared to be the first goal at the end of the stadium away from me. But no. It was negated by a penalty that earned an Austrian a red card. A few minutes later, Hungary scored. My pals in the T-shirts surpassed themselves in joyous frenzy. By the time Hungary scored a late-game clincher, they were kind of frenzied out. Unable to be any louder, the Hungarians settled for a sort of delighted buzzing murmur after their initial roar.

The game ended, and the Hungarians stuck around to cheer their heroes some more. This was the nation's biggest soccer win since early in the Cold War, I later learned. Hope and I headed for the tram station. I didn't know, but now do, that French soccer stadiums will sell you a beer on the way out. They DO have a more civilized way of life, damn it.

Ten minutes later, we were on a tram headed home. It was packed full of Austrian fans. For the first time, my international soccer experience was quiet. Quiet as could be.

Before 8:45, Hope and I were sitting at a bistro table, studying the menu and wine list. In 40 years of attending garden variety Boston sports events, from Red Sox games to BC basketball, I have never, ever had a quicker, more painless travel experience. There's also much to be said for two-hour long games and six o'clock starts. It was hard not to compare Austria-Hungary to the day-and-night long experience, parts of which are real ordeals, of a Patriots Monday night game and ask, why do US fans put up with that?

The tournament rolls on. Austria never made it out of the group stage. Hungary was eliminated by Belgium yesterday. Nobody's that sad in Budapest. Just making it out of their group was the country's biggest win since the 1950s. For them, it's on to World Cup 2018.

If they get their, one American will at least know all their chants. Two hours of repetition and I've pretty well memorized them.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Spanning the Globe to Bring You the Constant Variety of Perfect Hindsight and Second Guessing

So I'm back. My undisclosed pleasure trip was a three week sojourn to France with a quick side trip to San Sebastian, Spain in the Basque country. I missed a lot of big time sports event while I was away, and then again, I didn't miss a thing.

The sad death of Muhammad Ali got just as much attention in France as it did here. I didn't watch either the Stanley Cup, NBA Finals or US Open live, although the latter two were on French TV, which has as many cable sports channels as we do, because the six hour time difference meant 3 a.m. starting times. But I could see highlights in the morning, and follow basketball and golf through the pages of L'Equipe, the French national sports daily that had two reporters at the NBA Finals and one at the Open. Therefore, I did not miss the breaking news that LeBron James remains a pretty fair basketball player and that the United States Golf Association remains as pompously dysfunctional as ever.

But I didn't lack for sports, neither on TV nor live. I couldn't get away from them. At least, it was impossible to escape Euro 2016, the soccer tournament for the national teams of that continent this year being held in France, including games played where I was, the city of Bordeaux.

For Euro 2016, soccer overtook wine as Topic A in Bordeaux. Topic A1 was fevered. neurotic assessment of Les Bleus, France's team. France is a nation that loves drama, seeing life as a series of crises interrupted only by long meal breaks and August vacation. The French as rooters accordingly bear a striking resemblance to Red Sox fans circa 2003 or so. They know their team has talent, but it's a source of as much or more anxiety as joy. And like the Red Sox of those years, Les Bleus themselves are very good at generating internal drama.

The week before the tourney began, Karim Benzema, a star for European club champion Real Madrid, said he had not been picked for the French team because coach Didier Deschamps had succumbed to pressure from right wingers who objected to Benzema's Arab ethnicity (he was born in Lyon).

There IS a lot of racism in France, as much as here. On the other hand, over the winter Benzema became the subject of a criminal investigation for making a sex tape of a fellow member of the French team and maybe blackmailing him with it. One could see that Deschamps might've found that harmful to dressing room harmony.  As noted,  France loves drama, so the whole matter gave the country a good wallow in its neuroses. And let's face it, the Benzema affair was a billion times more fun to wallow in than Deflategate. Our US sports scandals just aren't world class. We must do better.

One would have thought that Topic 1A would be will Euro 2016 get me blown up or shot, but it wasn't. Oh, there were plenty of police and soldiers, some carrying machine guns, on site at both Bordeaux's stadium and in the city center where the Fanzone, a several square block soccer theme park and beer garden where games where broadcast on Jumbotron-sized screens. Their presence increased in both numbers and intensity when France was playing, too. But then, there were also a lot of soldiers and cops in public spaces the week before the tournament started. That's just how life in French cities goes since last November's atrocities in Paris. People have adjusted. Outside tables at cafes, bars and restaurants were as hard to come by at lunch as ever.

No, the non-soccer concerns of the Bordelais about Euro 2016 were the same as they'd have been in Boston. How will these games affect my parking and commuting? What kind of a hassle are the fans of other countries going to be in my neighborhood?

There are no unoccupied street parking spaces in Bordeaux and as far as I could tell there never have been, so I don't know why that was a worry. Traffic sucks and always has, as in any 21st century city. Public transit soaked up the visiting fans without a hitch -- despite theoretically being on strike on game days.

French workers are staging strikes in various industries to protest labor law changes. Let's not get into it. Bordeaux's bus and streetcar workers were supposed to be on strike the day of the game I attended. Service was disrupted to the extent that streetcars going to and from the stadium ran only every seven minutes instead of five.

As for visiting fans, there were many. Even tiny Iceland had 30.000 of them roaming from city to city. And there were serious disturbances in some places, notably Marseille. But Bordeaux lucked out. It had no games with England nor with Russia. Instead, it got the Irish, a horde of jolly inebriates wearing lethal looking sunburns. The Hungarians were loud, drank as much or more beer than the Irish fans, but alongside the usual bros and dudes were women and the occasional child. Men ready for serious aggression seldom travel in mixed company.

The overall experience for this Yank surrounded by Euro 2016 was the same sense I had from Super Bowls and Olympics I attended, just less intense because I wasn't working. The event seems to define all reality. The world outside it becomes indistinct and unimportant -- except for those long meal breaks, of course. And along with the immersion, I felt a twinge of regret. Our country as a whole can never experience such a sports-only daydream. We're too big. The Copa America tournament is still going on here in the US, but as with the 1994 World Cup, when the show moves from, say Chicago to Houston, Chicago goes back to its old reality. No country, not even ours, is rich enough to have tens of thousands of people traipse around on airplanes for three weeks to follow the home team or occupy a city center for a week between games. Only medium-sized countries like France can create the proper Soccer Theme Park atmosphere.

The game I attended deserves a post of its own and will get one. This essay has been somewhat disjointed, but my theme can best be summarized by glimpses of two pure tourism side trips my family made from our Bordeaux base.

Getaria is a fishing village in the Basque region of Spain, where we went to eat turbot grilled over wood fires. Sarlat is a small town in the Perigord region of France, where there are many enormous castles and roadside stands sell foie gras. Each town's tourism depends on making it seem as if life hasn't changed much there since about 1500.

In each place, every TV in town was on, and they all had the game on, whichever game it was. In Sarlat, it was Northern Ireland-Ukraine.

Spanning the globe to find the constant variety of sport is easy. The trick is finding a place on the globe you can avoid it.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Notes on Posting

1. Posting will be more intermittent (how is that possible, you say), possibly even non-existent the next few weeks as I will be on a pleasure excursion. Part of the pleasure is removing myself from cyberspace most of the time.

2. As noted above, my posting has declined anyway. To avoid long-winded self-reflection, always a reader grabber, I'll be as succinct as possible. I enjoy following sports as much as I ever have, but I find myself having less to say about it. For example, the Golden State-Oklahoma City series has been fascinating to watch, and there's nothing I could write here that hasn't been said in jillions of other forums. Basketball isn't that complicated. In Game Seven, one team's two big stars are going to have a better game than the other's two big stars, and that'll decide things. When I was getting paid for my opinions, I was never hesitant to grasp and belabor the obvious. Now that I write for my own amusement and hopefully that of others, that seems a particularly pointless exercise.

3. If I have what I think is an original look at sports, or if some event or commentary on events arouses my emotions to the point I have to vent, I will post immediately, even on my pleasure jaunt.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Hot Take Gets Away From Blowhards, Beans Math.

I thought the cascade of dumb began this morning on 98.5, when the Toucher and Rich show raised the idea that Red Sox manager John Farrell was responsible for Jackie Bradley Jr.'s 29-game hitting streak ending last night, because Farrell moved Bradley to leadoff in the batting order. I was wrong, When baseball meets mean-spirited idiocy in this town, always bet on Felger and Mazz.

Let's give the two rabble-rousers, or do I mean just rabble, credit for a first guess. They ripped Farrell for the move when the Sox lineup was posted Thursday afternoon before Bradley's 0-fer-4 against the Rockies. Today of course, they were full of specious self-congratulation, while second-string third banana James Stewart recited stats showing how Bradley had been tearing up the old pea patch when he batted seventh, eighth or ninth in the Boston order.

It's pretty hard to have a 29-game hit streak and NOT be compiling gaudy stats, but no matter. The argument, to use a word this idea does not deserve, was twofold. 1. Bradley was mentally thrown off by his promotion to the top of the lineup and 2. You shouldn't change anything when a batter's on a tear.

Proposition one could only come from a long distance from a baseball clubhouse. Unless they are a utility infielder or backup catcher ALL players think they have the goods to hit at the top or middle of any lineup. Without that belief, they would never have made it to the big leagues.

In 1973, highly touted Phillies rookie Mike Schmidt hit a cool .193. I attended the 1974 home opener,, which Schmidt won with a two-run homer batting out of the eighth spot. Driving home afterwards, I heard a postgame radio show where Schmidt said, "I've never thought of myself as a number eight hitter." Neither did the Phillies starting about a week later.

If Bradley Jr. is as good a hitter the rest of 2016 as he's been to date, it would be criminal malfeasance for Farrell to keep him at the bottom of the batting order. To belabor what ought to be obvious but isn't, and as was known by John McGraw and is known to the most advanced sabermetricians, the purpose of the batting order is to maximize a team's chances to score runs. Having the best hitters at its top is how this is done, because the guys at the top get up to bat more often than their brethren batting sixth or lower.

It should also be noted that the leadoff man gets more plate appearances than any other hitter. For a batter with a lengthy hitting streak, this improves his chances of getting one in a game. Farrell was only trying to win a ballgame, but he was also giving Bradley the best possible chance to keep his streak alive.

In the event, two of Bradley's outs were flies to the center and right field walls in Fenway. He wasn't so shaken by his promotion he couldn't make solid contact.

The belief Farrell tampered with a hot streak and thus lost it is pure and simple, no make that just simple, superstition. You can go down to Foxwoods this weekend and watch people lose serious money at craps and roulette following what Felger, Mazz, and God help us, more than one ESPN commentator passed off as insider baseball analysis.

The dumb doesn't bother me. If I had hours of radio time to fill, I'd say plenty of dumb stuff too. What's awful about this rip of Farrell is that it's such a perfect example of the sports talk radio ethos. Something bad happened. So it MUST be somebody's fault, and that person must be brought to account. There's no success. Winners are just the beneficiaries of other people's reprehensible failures.

A lot of hosts around this great land of ours become well-off and well-known espousing that worldview.  But I have to think a steady diet of bile and vinegar is raising hell with their digestive tracts.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Too Much Future Can Make a Front Office Tense

Gratuitous cruelty isn't very nice, so it would be wrong to tell Celtics fans to cheer up and remember that Michael Jordan was a third pick in the NBA draft.

Nor can we tell Danny Ainge that the trouble with trades is that it takes more than one team to execute them.  Beating all contrarians to the punch, the Celtics' front office boss said so himself last week with visible regret.

There's no denying that last Tuesday's draft lottery took a lot of the wind out of green sails in this burg. The question is, why? In terms of possibilities for improving their more than decent but less than imposing roster for next year, the Celtics are no worse off with the third pick than they would've been with the first or second, whether Ainge chooses to use the pick for immediate improvement or trade it for same. The risks are the same, the likely rewards haven't changed, all that's lost is a little glamor.

Fans fall for glamor all the time. An NBA lifer like Ainge seldom does. So why did he seem so glum at the lottery's conclusion? My guess is that he was glum after because he was glum before. After assessing trade possibilities and draft possibilities, Ainge had already concluded that the coup of acquiring the Nets' 2016 first round pick is going to be less coup and more like the resignation of the Minister of Agriculture.

It would be foolish to say that a GM as daring and resourceful of Ainge has no chance at all of filling his hand this summer. But it's more likely he'd fill it with two pair than a full house. Trade or draft, the Celts ought to improve themselves for next season. They might even wind up better than the Atlanta Hawks or Miami Heat. A peer of the Cavs, Warriors, Thunder and Spurs? Wait  'till year after next.

It's possible the Kings would part with DeMarcus Cousins -- for a price that'd be more than another lottery pick. They acquire those on their own. It'd take a valuable piece or two from the current Celtics, including Isaiah Thomas to grab Cousins, who let's just say represents a high-reward, high-risk investment. He would be a better best player on the team than Thomas is. He would also cause Brad Stevens more sleepless nights. And leaving personality out of it, it would come down to swapping a backcourt scorer for a frontcourt one. Backcourt points are easier to replace. Easier does not mean "it'd be a cinch."

The price would be lower for Jimmy Butler (a 30th pick in the draft, BTW). So would be the ROI. He's a marginal All-Star shooting guard. As the Hawks series showed, the Celts could use some extra shooting from just about every position on the floor. As I understand the carom shot theory of franchise building popular among the Celtic faithful, the acquisition of Butler would help convince a real top-shelf free agent, namely Kevin Durant, that Boston represents his best chance to win a title.
I find this less than convincing. For one thing, Durant might win said title THIS season. For another, he already plays with Russell Westbrook, a far better player than Butler.

Deceit is a vital part of sports personnel management. Ainge might be playing a most effective con. But after the lottery, it sure seemed he was becoming resigned to the line of least resistance, using the third pick on whomever he deems is the newbie best able to garner the Celts a few more regular season and especiallyplayoff wins in 2016-2017.

And there's nothing wrong with that at all. In a peculiar quirk of fate, the 2016 draft actually features some seniors as well as the usual crop of one and dones and teenage Europeans. To get immediately better, and let's hope that's his goal, all Ainge has to do is avoid the primal NBA draft error -- reaching for height.

Falling in love with big people is to the basketball draft what trading up to get a quarterback is to the NFL. For every time it works (Ed Macauley is in the Hall of Fame, and Red Auerbach traded him to get Bill Russell), there's about 10 times where it fails spectacularly. This was true in 1985 when Joe Kleine and Jon Koncak went 10 picks higher than Karl Malone, and it was true in 2009 when Hasheem Thabeet was picked second, ahead of third pick James Harden and seventh pick Steph Curry.  It'll be true in the 2029 draft, too.

Picking Buddy Hield or Kris Dunn is not the stuff banner dreams are made of. It is, however, the type of solid but incremental improvement teams in the Celtics' overall good but not great situation are lucky to get to make. If that's how Ainge's maneuvering (I'm sure it's far from finished) ends up, he might not be overjoyed, but he shouldn't be glum.

Two pair isn't the strongest hard in the deck. But sometimes it's enough to win a pot.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Recipe for Ridicule

There are a great many cookbooks in my house. There's a ceiling-to-floor set of bookshelves worth of them. Everyone in my family, me, Alice, our children Josh and Hope, is into food and into cooking. Over the course of the years, we've acquired quite the collection. Historical cookbooks, fad diet cookbooks, cookbooks by famous chefs, even novelty items such as the "Star Wars Cookbook."

I won't be adding Tom Brady's new book to the shelf next to its only possible companion volume "The 1987 Patriots' Wives Cookbook," which is real and one of the treasured momentos of my sportswriting career.  There will be no end of fans who'll pony up $200 for his souvenir cookbook, but I'm damned if I'll be one of 'em. What does he take me for?

To be fair to Tom, let me say up front that cookbooks can serve many purposes other than offering practical advice and instruction to the home cook. To take one random example from my shelf, a cookbook by famous chef Thomas Keller is food porn. It's coffee-table book expensive, but that's way less than dinner at his restaurant the French Laundry would be. No one who buys it is even going to try to follow one of its recipes, for lack of the two most vital ingredients of each one -- decades of formal training and a large staff of assistants. But it's fun to read them, look at the pictures, and wander into a daydream of tastebud lust.

By all accounts, Brady's book is basically divided into three parts, a straightforward account of his rigorous dietary habits with recipes attached, detours into nutrition quackery (no tomatoes?), and fierce diatribes against the American food industry. Parts one and three are all to the good. The food industry can always use a swift kick in the ass, as long as the kicker understands the essential futility of the gesture. Assisting others to eat more healthily is a worthy goal, and I'm sure some of Brady's advice is sound. As for part two, we can shrug that off. Throughout American history, there's never been someone who altered the national diet for the better who didn't have some quack in them.

But missionary work and the profit motive are not good partners. I'm sure Brady sincerely wishes everyone ate better as he defines it, but it's hard to spread the good word to the masses at $200 a pop. My suspicion is that the book is a preview of Brady's stated plan to create a network of fitness-related businesses after he retires from football at age 72. Those businesses will not be seeking to convert society as a whole. They'll be top-shelf offerings charging top dollar aimed at the carriage trade. That lets me out right there.

A $50 Tom Brady cookbook would not be out of line. One costing four times as much doesn't make me curious to see one of the secrets of the quarterback's superb fitness, it only generates unworthy smart-ass thoughts.

Thought one: Between Dad's diet and the fact Mom is a supermodel, I'll bet the Brady children always go to a neighbor's house for after-school snacks. They won't rebel as teenagers through clothes, music or substance abuse, they'll sneak out for pizza.

Thought two: The most important element in Tom Brady's continued excellent health are the five dangerously (to themselves) large men in his offensive line, guys who intake around 6000 calories a day.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Jarndyce v. Jarndyce v. Goodell v. Brady v. Sanity


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Federal judge Merrick Garland has asked President Barack Obama to withdraw his name from nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Garland phoned Obama with his request approximately six seconds after a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, reinstated the four game suspension imposed on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for his alleged role in the so-called Deflategate affair in the 2014 AFC Championship Game imposed by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. By a 2-1 vote, the panel reversed a 2015 decision by District Court Judge Richard Berman which had overturned the suspension.

According to a senior Obama Administration official with knowledge of the call, Garland cited the likelihood of the 2-1 vote leading Brady and the NFL Players' Association to appeal the ruling and the possibility the case would reach the Supreme Court in making his request to the President, as well as his age of 63.

"Life's too short for that shit," Garland is said to have told Obama.

According to the same official, at least 15 other U.S. appellate judges currently on are hold after phoning the White House "within minutes" of Garland's initial message.

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and John Kasich had no initial reaction to Garland's decision or the Brady ruling. In a message on Twitter, candidate Donald Trump vowed to "only appoint judges who like football. And not soccer!"

"We're on to the draft," was the only comment by New England coach Bill Belichick.

In a possibly related development, ESPN television personalities Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless were each hospitalized early this afternoon for treatment of incipient apoplexy,