Saturday, March 29, 2014

How to Kill a Sport

There were four close games in the NCAA Tournament last night. They should have been exciting. Unless you were an alumnus or gambler, they all ended with a whimper, not a bang. An endless whimper.

The final minute of game clock time of all four games added up to one hour and five seconds of real time. None took less than 12 minutes. Tennessee and Michigan took 18 and change to run off 60 seconds. As a result, the two late games didn't end until past midnight EDT.

For action, I'll stay up late. To watch officials having very bad nights huddle around the replay monitor and coaches exercising their mighty brains while their players stare blankly in time outs, I won't. Greed is why tournament games contain commercial breaks every time play gets interesting. College basketball's own rules and habits are why four minutes became an hour.

Here's some modest rule changes. Once there are two minutes to play in the second half, each team has no more than two time outs. Once it hits one minute, they have one.  Replay is returned to its original purpose only,  determining if buzzer-beating baskets did in fact do so or not.

It's either that, or forbid coaches from entering the arena on game nights.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The One Class Reunion Where Nobody Looks Any Older

Last night was almost perfect. I had a beer, a sandwich, and was clicking merrily between two, then three NCAA tournament games. But in this sports coma nirvana, there was a faint, small cloud of remaining consciousness.

"For this to be really perfect," what was left of my mind piped up, "I need to having this meal with a bunch of my fellow mugs, in a very noisy bar surrounded by other groups of mugs. And me and my my group should all be about 25 years old."

Thanks to the uncanny ability of CBS and Turner Sports to synchronize TV timeouts across a continent, my thought was given bursts of time to expand. It is the root, I believe, of why there's so much rooting during the tournament for a sport which outside of some very limited precincts (Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina) is an afterthought among sports fans in most places, and a poor number two to college football even in those locales where college sports rules the roost.

It's not the only reason. There's handicapping for one. If Warren Buffett says something is worth a billion bucks, who's not going to pay attention? As the NFL has proved to its inordinate wealth, Americans are almost as fond of the one-and-done format as they are of, well, wealth. There's also the calendar. What else happens in sports in March?

But I believe my wistful wish for eternal mug youth is at the heart of why what is fortunately less often called the Dance punches above its weight in U.S. sports consciousness. The tournament is when those most of those who watch it go Back to School, which is capitalized because they do so in the Rodney Dangerfield movie sense of the phrase.

College is not a universal American experience, but it is a widely shared one. Even if no one outside the 68 schools involved gave a damn, if you add up all their current students, families and friends then add alumni and their families and friends, you're starting to reach a big slice of the citizenry. The total population with some connection to college is many times larger than that.

Again, not universally but for most folks, college is a pleasurable experience recalled with fondness. For some poor souls, it's their fondest memory of all. Even young people like remembering pleasant experiences. For the middle-aged and older, it can be the only hobby you have if you're not careful.

Through some mysterious kink of social psychology, the NCAA Tournament brings out the sophomore inside millions of Americans. Watching games between teams composed of unknown players, some representing previous unknown institutions of higher learning makes it possible to revert to the practices of youth, especially male youth. I haven't been in a sports bar since 2006, I think. What on earth would make me long for it? It sure as hell wasn't the Buffalo Wild Wings commercials.

Here's where I think the calendar combines with nostalgia. The tournament is held in late March and early April -- spring break time. Spring break is one of the most fondly held memories of college. Even students who never went to some beach to get blitzed and burnt wish they had.

Grown-ups don't get spring break, even though we need it much more than those pesky kids. This doubtless is a very good thing for society, especially for Florida police forces. So the NCAA tournament has become substitute spring break. Those too old or tied-down for carousing let fly their Dionysian side by streaming first-round games on the smartphone when they should be working. It may not be much of an impression of carefree rebellious youth, but it's something.

Nobody ever went to Milwaukee or Spokane on spring break. Except yesterday, when millions of people watched arenas there on TV to do so.

When I was an actual youth of proper mug age, I sometimes wondered what America would be like when we as a society reached maturity. Then I realized that would never happen. For four weeks in March and April, that makes it more fun to live here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bracket Crepe Hanging

The most insightful comment on handicapping the NCAA Basketball Tournament was delivered a few days ago by Florida coach Billy Donovan.

"There's a reason," Donahue said, "why some guy put up a billion dollars for anyone who could predict all the games."

First, maximum kudos for Donovan for either not knowing or pretending not to know who Warren Buffett is. Secondary kudos for dropping a wet blanket on the annual frenzy in which innumerable sports fans forecast the championship of a sport that unless Nielsen Co. is a big fat liar, relatively few of them ever watch.

Inspired by Donovan's comments, I've spent the past few days scouring the how-to bracket guides and actual predictions offered by mass media outlets and their journalist employees on the tournament, and I've found them all to be most illuminating. Alas, the light they shine isn't on college basketball, it's on the people and institutions making the predictions.

It was uncanny how the analysis offered and forecasting techniques discussed were the exact same approach used by the media outlets where I saw them to discuss, analyze and forecast EVERY topic they cover. These articles weren't predictions, they were expressions of a methodological worldview.

The tournament articles on Nate Silver's new 538 Website were full of math, some with work shown, and percentages. The article in today's Wall Street Journal assumed the only reason anyone who make out a bracket was to gamble, and was therefore straightforward value-based investment analysis. Esquire's Website's guide to bracket-filling was accompanied by photos of a mostly undressed starlet. And so on.

Best of all was ESPN's. Every single analyst on their post Selection show picked Michigan State to win it all, on the "best performance in a conference tournament by the team of one of the supercoaches who we slobber on and goes on our shows a lot" theory. It would've caused a real crisis of conscience for the gang if Duke had beaten Virginia in the ACC tournament. Nice of Coach K to spare his guys that anxiety.

In fairness to the sycophants of Bristol, math, value analysis and the starlet theory all like Michigan State, too. It is the general consensus of the predicting community that the Selection Committee must've been asleep since the Super Bowl and thus made prohibitive favorites Michigan State and Louisville number four seeds in the grossest miscarriage of justice since Dred Scott.

It's the general opinion that seeding was erratic, to put it kindly. The consensus is so strong in this regard that as part of its buy low strategy, the Journal recommended picking Wichita State, the most disrespected one seed since maybe Rutgers in 1976, to make the Final Four, as no one else in your pool will.

The consensus could be right. Louisville and Michigan State are splendid teams.  I, however, have come to distrust the power conference tournaments as bracket guides. Their results are not reliable, because for many of their participants, the conference tourney is nothing more than an historic and prestigious set of controlled scrimmages. That's not much of a preview as to how a team will react when it's one and done for keeps.

I am also leery of predictions made on the grounds the Selection Committee didn't know what it was doing. Like all committees in the history of mankind, it's hardly infallible. But it is always composed of men and women who know ever so much more about what's happened in a college basketball season than just about everybody else, Digger Phelps, Nate Silver and me most definitely included. They have reasons for their seedings, and those reasons should be weighted, or at least guessed at, before turning in an office pool entry.

Working at home as I do, I got no office pool. What I got today is a Final Four guess, based on observation, some years of experience, and not inconsiderable guesswork. That methodology won't get me a fancy Website, but it's proven about as sound as any other method over the Marchs of yesteryear.

I got Arizona, Kansas, Villanova and (sigh) Louisville. I'm pretty sure all four won't be wrong.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Maybe This Sabermetrics Thing Is Getting Out of Hand

The Federal Aviation Administration has chastised the Washington Nationals. The Nats were using a drone aircraft in spring training without FAA approval.

Oh, sure, the team SAID it used the drone to take team photographs. But this certainly puts a new light on all those injuries on the Braves' pitching staff, doesn't it?

Wanted: An Indoors Voice of the Fan

WEEI is searching for a replacement for afternoon drive-time host Mike Salk. I can't comment on whether that's a good or bad thing, since I never once heard Salk. I evidently had company there, which is why WEEI is now looking for another host to recapture or at least lose less of its afternoon audience.

I have a suggestion for the number two and falling sports talk station. It's not the name of a specific candidate. That'd be presumptuous and I don't know any in the first place. No, my suggestion is about the TYPE of host the station should be seeking, or perhaps more accurately, the type of attitude said host should project on the air.

It's way past time Boston sports fans heard a daily oral reminder that "Please, everybody just calm the %$#! down out there!"

How about a talk show personality dedicated to the propositions that the sky remains firmly in place and that on roughly 363 days of the sports year, there is so too a tomorrow? How about a man or woman dedicated to the fundamental dull truths that it's a long season, the football takes funny bounces and that in a short series anything can happen.  How about a voice that doesn't use straight-line projection as their sole means of analysis, conflates winning and losing with human morality and above all, is willing to use the three dirtiest words in 21st century sports commentary "I don't know"?

This will never happen, but it should. WEEI is never, ever going to outhysteria its p.m. competition, so it might as well fail with an original approach as with the same old tepid radio copycatting. A niche audience for a cult eccentric is better than no audience at all. I myself might consider tuning in for an occasional dose of sports calm radio. That'd be more than WEEI got for its money from Mike Salk.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Hub to Fun: Drop Dead!

My public-minded son wrote a letter to the Globe last week which got published. Josh diffidently suggested that staging an Olympic Games in Boston would be an enjoyable  experience for area residents, and therefore, why not do it?

Reaction was swift and came in two forms, teasing from his friends (my favorite comment: It'll solve Boston's stray dog problem!) and condemnation from the bottom-dwelling psychopaths who comprise newspaper Website comment threads. The latter scum, alas, had their finger on the pulse of our fair city/state/region. It is breathtaking if unsurprising how quickly, vehemently and negatively Boston, from the power elite down to afternoon radio talk show callers, moved to ridicule a survey which claimed the city actually might be able to host a Games if it put its mind to it.

Which is true as far as it goes. Hell, if Atlanta could do it, Boston can. Frickin' Cairo could've done about as well as Atlanta, but that's another story. A recent article in Sports Illustrated discussing U.S. host cities for the 2024 Games noted that Boston is just the sort of town the International Olympic Committee LIKES to have host Summer Games -- a noted tourist attraction with lots of services for rich people which IOC members will sponge up when they attend. That last point was mine, not the magazine's.

So if Boston wished to host an Olympics, it could happen. But of course, we don't want to. The Globe, reveling in its traditional role of civic wet blanket, published columns gleefully attacking the idea. Tom Keane, that fungal blight of the op-ed section, had my favorite response, to wit, Boston doesn't need to put on a Games. We KNOW we're great, not like those insecure wannabe world-class cities like Barcelona, London and Tokyo. It was the perfect Masshole expression of arrogance without accomplishment. On NECN, I saw that some cluck has already formed a group to oppose a Boston Olympic bid that as of yet doesn't exist -- preemptive dog-in-the-mangering.

Reluctance to host a Games is logical. An Olympics is an incredibly arduous, expensive and stressful enterprise requiring years of work and adjustment to work by millions of people, 10 Big Digs taking place all at the same time with an unbreakable deadline. There is no chance of any real economic reward and every chance of big losses. As Josh and most Bostonians are sharp enough to figure out that the only payoff from a Games is fun and a very special kind of fun, the pleasure taken from an enormous cooperative effort to please others.

And there's your deal-breaker right there. "Cooperation" is just not present in the Boston, Massachusetts word cloud and "fun" appears sporadically at best. The Athens of America just doesn't have what it takes to put on an event successfully hosted by Athens, Greece.

Let's put social pyschology for a paragraph or two and address the mundane nuts and bolts problem that makes a Boston Olympics a far greater challenge than most host cities face. Where would we put it?

There are many sports facilities in Boston, but a Games requires at least three we do not have, an Olympic Stadium of 80,000 seats or so, a swimming and diving venue with thousands of seats, and a velodrome for those weird indoor cycling events. This is the reason past host cities have been sprawling metropolises. They had the land. Even London had the relatively undeveloped South Bank of the Thames.

Land is hard to come by in Greater Boston and harder still in Boston proper. But let's assume we can find the space. Using it for the completely frivolous purpose of an Olympics would require putting commercial real estate development of said space on hold. It would require the neighbors of said space to put up with severe dislocations of their lives and/or livelihoods -- just to make other people happy for three weeks at a future date.

Let's ask Bob Kraft what the chances are for that. The Patriots are located in Foxboro because for over 50 years, Boston, or more accurately zealous interest groups within the electorate, has ferociously resisted any proposal to build a football stadium within the city limits. An Olympic stadium is obsolete the day they douse the torch. I'm not optimistic civic pride would trump both money and our collective hatred of change.

Human flaws are merely human virtues gone askew. Flinty New England independence, canniness and reverence for tradition are fine things, until they become the NIMBY and "where's mine" attitude that permeates all too much of life around here. The Beacon Hill Historical Commission won't let sidewalks comply with the Americans for Disabilities Act? Historic preservation is valuable no doubt, but common decency and a sense of shame are more so.

Any city which decides not to bid for an Olympic Games is doing the sensible thing. And if the reaction to the idea of a Boston Games was "sorry, but it's just not for us" I wouldn't be so sorely tempted to volunteer my services to the poor (rich really) dreamers who are trying to put together a bid. But the jubilant "won't-do" attitude expressed by opponents of a Games bothers me much more than I expected. I've lived here for 40 years and I love it. It hurts to see someone or something you love take pride in their very worst characteristic.

When it comes to the Olympics, Boston will put its worst foot forward. It'll be what it all too often is, a world class city with a bush league state of mind.



Saturday, March 08, 2014

Frank Jobe, 1925-2014

Frank Jobe, the physician who created ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction a/k/a Tommy John surgery, died this week. In the minds of man and in history, his permanent resting place should be Cooperstown, New York. How sad to say it probably won't be.

The world of baseball remains little despite the fact tens of millions of people live in it, and nowhere is that crabbed provincialism more evident than in the Hall of Fame. Its selection process reflects the blinkered worldview of a tribe that worships its history without the inconvenience of ever having a clue what history actually is.

This is not about the performance-enhancing drugs foolishness. That's a different Hall of Fame problem. This is about the sport's flawed definition of who qualifies as a contributor to baseball's story of what is was, is and will become.

There's an argument to be made that after Marvin Miller, who's also not in the Hall and won't ever get in, Frank Jobe was the most influential figure in baseball in the second half of the 20th century. He and John, his first brave patient, pioneered a surgical procedure that has altered the nature of pitching forever by saving the careers of more pitchers than I have the willingness to cite here. What was a miracle when performed on John has now become almost as routine a baseball occasion as spring training tedium, and baseball is infinitely better for it.

Sports medicine as a medical science is one of the most important developments in all sports since 1970 or so, and Jobe is a symbol of that reality. A sport which understood its history would give him its highest historic honor with grateful glee. It'd already have done so, when Jobe was still around to cherish it.

Baseball doesn't understand its history. Baseball World will spend the next six years arguing if Derek Jeter should be unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame (short answer, who cares? It's not like he's not getting in) and never give a thought to inducting Jobe.  The new and utterly unimproved Veterans Committee, which would actually have to do it, will continue its general rejection of the idea anyone but players and maybe some managers ever had anything to do with the sport. Next to a group of old ballplayers, a group of senior oil industry executives are the souls of gracious charity towards all and malice towards none.

I can think of no better way to describe the pompous arrogance which has become the Hall of Fame's stock in trade than this: Frank Jobe will probably never get in, and Bud Selig is next door to a lock;.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Farewell to the Land Without Enough Snow and Ice

The 2014 Olympic Winter Games may not have done as much to advance his geopolitical agenda as Vladimir Putin hoped, but they suited my book. The Winter Games did all I ever ask of them -- they made February seem like it was going faster.

There was an added bonus this year. The Games were sort of like the weekly PGA Tour tournament broadcast, in that it allowed me to ignore the blasted landscape outside and look at pictures of a place where it was sunny and warm. I have to believe that the Games spectators at Sochi who were walking around wearing shorts reached record heights of smugness, and I don't blame them. They were witnesses to a unique moment in Russian history, the first time ever in the thousand years of existence that things got screwed up because it was too nice out. Back in Paris, underneath Napoleon's Tomb you could the ghostly wail, "Sure, to them it happens!"

Maybe that's why NBC's ratings were up this year compared to the 2010 Games in Vancouver, although come to think of it, it was nice out there, too. More likely, the horrific weather which keeps rabbit punching the eastern and midwestern U.S. forced ratings up by forcing folks indoors. There was one week, why just last week, where I spent most of my waking hours in slippers, just putting boots on when it was time to clear more snow. In between, I watched the Olympics.

The appeal of the Winter Games is far simpler to grasp than that of the Summer Games, whose two main sports, swimming and track and field, attract fewer American spectators than lacrosse at all other times. The Winter Games have the primal appeal of other's people's danger. It's Evel Knievel times one milliion. Every event, with the exceptions of the rigorous discipline of figure skating and the incomprehensible discipline of curling, involves hair-raising perils or, in the Nordic sports, more aerobic ability than God meant human beings to possess. Who can turn away from the sight of cheerful attractive young people risking life and limb in something like freestyle slopestyle, which makes the Daytona 500 look like lawn bowling in the daredevil department?

In a terrible comment on my own sports addiction, I've even developed a fondness for curling, and have hopes that by the 2026 Winter Games I'll have a hazy grasp of what's happening on that weird ice lane and bullseye,  I happily adjusted to the evening routine of watching CNBC show me the day's curling in the hour right before suppertime. If ever a sport suggested, how about a cocktail?, it's curling.

Alas, that's all gone now. Come Monday, CNBC will fill the curling hour with hyperactive guys and gals in suits shouting out conflicting but equally disastrous investment advice. And we'll be left to face March, New England's longest month by far, with only college basketball as a crutch. Oh, I still like the NCAA tournament, but February is usually my college hoop study month, and I was too busy over at the luge.

Couldn't the NHL just drop the rest of its regular season and skip right to the playoffs the week after next?