Wednesday, December 07, 2016

December's Team

If Dave Dombrowski didn't already know Red Sox fans are bipolar, he sure does now. Trading a raft of well-regarded minor league prospects for Chris Sale and Tyler Thornburg was guaranteed to lift one of the two poles to heights of dizzy rapture while sending the other pole into a slough of winter despond.

In less fevered baseball climes, the additions of Sale, one of the best lefthanded starting pitchers extant, and superior reliever Thornburg to what was already a divisional pennant winner in 2015 would result in universal acclaim for the general manager who pulled off the deals, especially if he didn't surrender a single major leaguer in the process. And indeed, Dombrowski is getting a kind of universal acclaim. It's just that in Boston, all sports acclaim comes served with a side order of querulous doubt.

Adding Sale and Thornburg, especially the former, caters to one of the two prime neuroses of Sox followers -- their need to start each season and go through said season with the belief that their team should not ever lose a game. If Boston isn't a primeval juggernaut, it's nothing.

A headline on the Website of the Globe captures this twisted belief neatly. It read "Will Sox moves make Ortiz reconsider retirement?" (Note to Papi: For God's sake, man, don't do it.) Sure, a 95-win team just got better. But that's not enough. We need a 120 win team to feel good about ourselves.

Right underneath the cited headline was one for another story, one that showed how the Sox community will find perverse suffering even in moments of hot stove league triumph, when their 2017 really is undefeated. It read "Did Dombrowski gut Sox farm system?"

No fans in baseball obsess more about their team's minor leaguers than those here in New England. This has been true as long as the 40 years I've lived in Boston and doubtless long before. Writing about the Boston farm teams are how Peter Gammons got his start way back when. He saw a need and filled it.

The need to believe that Boston has a farm system stocked with can't-miss prospects who will make the team unbeatable in two-three-four years time is as strong a psychological imperative for fans and baseball media as the need to believe that the current Sox team is a cinch for at least the American League pennant. Forget that a farm system which has produced Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr, has already done its job for the next five years and then some. Forget that baseball teams run in cycles, and that there is a time to sow long term and a time to reap short-term pennants.
If there aren't possible replacements for guys on the big league roster who do something sinful like go 1 for 20 in a week in June, the Sox are doomed.

In other words, Sox fans believe that the future is now, and that's it's also not now. Worse yet, they feel very strongly both ways. Worst of all, there's no such thing as a cinch in baseball and never will be.

I've seen more than a few Red Sox GMs come and go in my time here. The above paragraph is why even the winners have moved on.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Just Not That Into It Anymore

Ratings for the Cowboys-Redskins game Thursday evening were off the charts, so we probably won't hear that much about the NFL's television problems for awhile. Not hearing about something does not mean it goes away.

A game featuring one of the popular "national" teams on a national holiday held in the late afternoon broadcast window ought to have high ratings. What the hell else are people going to do on Thanksgiving after they eat dinner? Run Black Friday practice drills? Add to that situation the fact that Dallas-Washington was an entertaining game, and success was well nigh a given. Remember, the NFL's primary strength as a television show is the ancient phrase, "there's nothing else good on right now."

But here it is Sunday morning, and as I, a lifetime NFL fan since before the birth of the AFL, contemplate the 1 p.m. games one realization overpowers me. I don't give a damn about any of them. Whoever wins or loses means nothing to me. I look at their possible entertainment values and think, "maybe's there's something that needs doing around the house." Cleaning tile grout would offer more personal satisfaction than Giants-Browns or Bills-Jaguars.

I will watch the Pats-Jets game at 4:30 because I take a personal interest (not rooting, but personal, as in, I used to cover the team) in New England's fortunes. Broncos-Raiders should be a good Sunday night game. I might watch the first quarter. I am traveling tomorrow, and can't commit to a late night.

Try as I might, I can't remember the last time I watched more than a quarter of any Monday night game. I think it was Chiefs-Pats in September 2014, but I could be wrong.

I use myself as an example of what I think are the real threats to the NFL's status as the Last Big Network Hit Show. One is simple and curable. Night football used to be Event TV. Now overeliance has turned into just another NCIS spinoff. It's skippable. You've seen enough football already by the time it's Sunday night, let alone Monday night. Thursday night is and always has been Roger Goodell water-ski jumping over the shark tank.

It's simple supply and demand. If there was less night football, the audiences for it would grow. As of now, oversupply is choking off my demand. I suspect I have company there.

The most serious issue confronting the NFL Show is the one I'm contemplating this morning. The whole foundation of the show's commercial success is the premise that while a lot more people will tune in to see the home team play, enough people will tune in to games involving other teams to make them profitable as well. A real pro football fan will turn on the TV at one and if Giants-Browns and Dolphins-49ers are his or two options, the fan will watch one of them.

Maybe I'm not a real pro football fan anymore. Or maybe, just maybe, one whole NFL game and parts of one or two others is all the pro football any fan really needs.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Better Stones Make Better Walls

Bill Belichick has not and never will discuss personnel decisions in public. That assertion is based on what, 17 years of evidence now.

It is the duty of sports media personnel who cover the Patriots to ask about said decisions, even if they know damn well, as they do, they're not gonna get an answer from New England's head coach.

The above paragraphs are a formula for dissatisfaction on both sides, as witnessed by failed dialogues on the trade of Jamie Collins to the Browns and the healthy scratch of Jabaal Sheard for last Sunday's game with the 49ers. Reporters with a written outlet on the Web or print may be able to delve behind the scenes to get at the motives for a Belichick decision. TV and radio folks must get that soundbite, even if it signifies nothing.

Belichick placed the appropriate amount of weight on my advice and counsel back when I covered the team -- none if he thought I had a point, less than none otherwise. All the same, I think the coach is doing himself a disservice by his current all-purpose nonanswer to personnel decisions.

"We're going to do what's best for our football team," Belichick says. This statement manages to be both terse and patronizing at the same time. It implies that the questioners are impugning the coach's motives for any decision when they are doing no such thing. What they want to know is WHY he thinks a decision is best for said team. Given Belichick's record, it's likely a candid explanation would be most persuasive.

But Belichick won't take that road. He believes clamming up best serves his team and the players in it. Again given the record, there doesn't seem to be any evidence he should change that opinion. But there is one problem with the "what's best for the football team" mantra. It makes Bill look like a dick, which he isn't always or even often. It is a snotty brushoff, breeding ill will where there's no reason for it. Belichick is silent on personnel matters for business reasons. He should have a businesslike nonanswer.

Here's one I offer in the spirit of holiday giving. "I will not discuss personnel decisions in public," says some future Belichick who will never exist. It's the simple honest truth. It's not personal and does not contribute to Belichick's supervillain caricature. As a side benefit, it would make further questions on the same topic look like the badgering it would be. Might even cause some reporters to switch to a topic Bill will talk about.

Reporters are going to keep asking Belichick questions he won't answer because it's one big reason they get paid. Belichick will continue to rebuff them because he's sure that helps him keep getting paid. It's a stalemate annoying to all parties, but it could be LESS annoying.

If there's one thing a person ought to be able to be honest about, it's silence.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Some Sundays Are Just for Chores

One of the most difficult feats in pro football is for a good team to play consistently well for 60 minutes against a very bad team. Pushing hard against no resistance breeds slips and falls. In another tribute to the wisdom of Bill Belichick, the Patriots didn't even try to do so against the 49ers yesterday.

Not that the Pats' top priority wasn't winning, mind you. But once New England scored touchdowns on its first two possessions, other priorities came into play. Priorities like "it's raining hard, so why don't we just run the ball" and above all, "let's minimize injury risk, especially to Tom."  Certain that San Francisco's offense was incapable of overcoming a 10-point deficit, the Pats' offense was somewhere between very conservative and timid the rest of the first half.

Defying all expectations, especially mine, the 49ers managed to trail only 13-10 at the half, presenting a dangerously close impression of a competitive professional football game. The chains came off the Pats' offense, Brady was allowed to make plays and hang the risk, and that impression vanished behind the low clouds. Final score: 30-17, one of those numbers that says "not much of a game" if one was lucky enough not to watch it.

There are no morals, lessons or examples to be derived from this one. If Belichick were to say only, "we're on to the Jets," he'd get no argument here. What should have happened did, and about as quietly as anything can ever happen in the NFL. It's going to make for some very hard airtime to fill on sports talk radio and the panoply of Pats-related cable TV shows.

Lucky for those guys there are THREE games on Thursday to talk about.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Only One Team Can Win, but Both Can and Will Be Patronized

The World Series offers me a personal dilemma. I can't take sides between the Cubs and the Indians. I'm too close to both of them.

No personal ties, mind you. I did cover Terry Francona for a season and half in Boston, but I'm sure he doesn't remember me and he shouldn't. What's pulling at me in two directions is opposing parts of my own experience as a lifelong fan of a perennial loser that wound up winning for once. As a Phillies fan, memory helps me identify with the Cubs. Attitude makes me identify with the Indians.

I was 31 when Philadelphia won the World Series in 1980. I'd never seen them in a Series. My father had never seen them win one. Neither had anybody else, since the Phils had managed to win just two National League pennants and one Series game since the franchise was founded in 1883. Grover Cleveland wasn't even President yet.

So I can understand the delirious yet trance like state many Cubs fans have been in since last Saturday night. It's how I felt when the Phillies got past the Astros in five excruciating games in the NLCS. Hey, victory is possible! Doom is not a given. The cosmos doesn't hate us for rooting for this team. That 10-game losing streak to blow a seven-game lead with 12 to play in 1964 was the result of a team playing over its head reverting to its own level in a miserable way, not the result of original sin. My fan self became a different person before that Series started. If Cubs fans begin tonight feeling they're playing with house money, hey, I've been there, too.

Feeling like you can't win is bad for people in general, and it has an especially strong effect on fans. Neurosis, quitterdom, endless whining, all the qualities that made so many Red Sox fans so insufferable for so long before 2004. Sox fans are still manic-depressive, but at least they now temper their manic reaction to success with more genuine pleasure.

Also, jinxes are dumb. Teams win and lose because of what they do, not something that happened before their grandfathers were born. A Cubs win would mean their "lovable loser" persona would be tossed on the scrapheap of baseball history. Good riddance.

So it'd be nice if the Cubs win. But I won't join in the national "aww, isn't that sweet" chorus if they do because half, and maybe more than half of my Phillies soul feels the Indians side of the spiritual matchup. They haven't won a goddamn Series in my lifetime either, and they're stuck with the role of unsentimental underdog.

There are two kinds of teams in every sport -- the Brand Names and the Plain Old Teams. It's not always associated with winning and losing, since the Raiders and Knicks are still Brand Name outfits, but can easily be identified by scrutinizing a team's fan base.

Does a team have aggressive celebrity fans who haven't lived in its home town in eons? Do fans get op-ed pieces in the Times when it wins? Do the fans of Plain Old Teams hate the team just because of its fans? That's Brand Name, baby.

The Cubs are about as Brand Name as it gets and have been for decades. We need only cite Bill Murray crashing the White House press briefing in Cubs gear, but special mention goes to Michael Wilbon of ESPN wearing a Cubs shirt on the air last Saturday night. Wilbon was once a fine columnist. Now, he's a professional Cute Fan. Yuck.

The Indians are Plain Old. Not quite to the max, because the "Major League" movies were about a fictional Tribe, but aside from that, they have much more in common with baseball's Plain Olds. They are the brothers of the Rangers, Mariners, Diamondbacks, etc. They have no celebrity fans, unless one counts Drew Carey, which I don't. They have no poets and big-time political reporters singing their praises on Twitter. Indians fans are Indians fans because Cleveland is where they live or lived as a kid, period. The Indians can win the Series and their bandwagon will still remain smaller than a Prius. Their joy or sorrow will be theirs alone.

The Phillies are a Plain Old team if ever there was one. We got no celebrities, no Op-Ed pieces, no glamor. Nobody turned our 97-year losing skid into bathetic reflections on the transitory nature of life. People just thought our team sucked, which it did. There was no Phils' bandwagon after 1980 or 2008. We didn't want one. The famously negative, nasty behavior of Philadelphia sports fans is a defense mechanism, a way of shutting off the world. Who'd choose to act that way if it wasn't bred into you from toddlerdom. Nobody, and Philly fans like it that way.

So I can't pick a side tonight. If the Cubs win, baseball will be minus a stupid storyline and a great many nice fans will be happier than ever before. If I have to wade through a sewer of saccharine prose to see that, well, I can take it.

If the Indians win, a great many equally nice fans will be happier than ever before and almost nobody else will be. I can take that, too.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

David Ortiz

The West Coast road trip immediately after the All-Star break was not a happy time for the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

It was becoming clear the Sox would not catch the Yankees in the AL East pennant race. In six days on the road, soon to be traded Nomar Garciaparra didn't speak. Not to the media, to anyone. In a start against the Angels, Derek Lowe got hammered off the mound and then got hammered in the visiting clubhouse as the game went on before doing the most ill-advised press availability imaginable.

The next night, David Ortiz, popular but not quite the beloved Big Papi of today, did a very foolish thing.

It is one of the lesser recognized parts of Ortiz's career, but a man not wrongly perceived as amiable is one of the most constant and aggressive complainers about ball and strike calls I've seen in over 50 years of watching.the big leagues. Ortiz gets genuinely angry on borderline calls. In this game, a called strike three by an ump whose name I can't remember set him berserk. Face-to-face screaming led to an immediate ejection, more screaming, and when Ortiz stomped back to the dugout, he didn't leave it, but began tossing bats onto the field.

It was a jolly good show, right up to the moment one of the bats took a bad bounce and came within millimeters of hitting that ump. That's an instant mandatory 10-game suspension. As it was, he got three games. It wasn't as if the Sox didn't need his bat. Ortiz risked his team's season to indulge in a childish display of temper.

Every reporter on the road with the Sox was at Ortiz's locker when the game ended. He was going to be Exhibit A in my early column for the Herald the next day on that ever-popular topic, "What's Wrong With the Red Sox." All I needed were a few defensive quotes from the miscreant slugger himself.

Didn't get 'em. Ortiz was the last Sox to go to his locker. He turned and faced his inquisitors with a sheepish but broad grin. "Gang, what can I say," he said. "I fucked up."

Ortiz was not Exhibit A in my column the next day. How could he be? Honest admission of error is rare in public figures in any walk of life, let alone a star ballplayer of a team in trouble.

In the event, of course, that unhappy team in trouble in July became the happiest, most astonishing story in Boston sports history, which would not have happened without Ortiz. Good thing that bat missed.

I don't want to overstate what I am about to write. Performance determines how the public views athletes, the rest is window dressing. San Franciscans adored sociopath Barry Bonds, and they should have. Big hits and plenty of 'em are why New Englanders made Ortiz Big Papi, why they resolutely overlooked his link to PEDs (again, as they should have). But window dressing is an important part of the sales process, even if it's the product that makes or breaks it.

David Ortiz is an emotionally candid man. He wears his heart on his sleeve right near his batting glove. As almost all of us do, he liked being adored, and fans could see his delight in their delight, just as umps could see he really was mad about that called strike.

That sort of openness is getting rare among elite athletes. They can't afford it. Look what it's gotten Colin Kaepernick. Safer to have one's agent craft sweet nothings for the Player's Tribune.

Ortiz hid from no one. It never crossed his mind he ought to. As a result, he never had to.

I don't know if Ortiz will make the Hall of Fame. Probably yes, but one never knows with the Hall electorate. If he does, I do know this. His acceptance speech will be of considerable interest.

 

Monday, October 03, 2016

Bills 16 - Patriots 0

Seldom if ever has the Michael Gee Theory of Random NFL Lousiness had a more complete validation than it received yesterday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

You may remember that the Theory holds that in every NFL season, every NFL team, even the eventual Super Bowl champion, will play a complete 60-minute stinkeroo in which failure is so complete it appears as if a visiting Bulgarian folk dance troupe was somehow sent on the field instead of the uniforms' usual inhabitants.

The Patriots, as Bill Belichick readily admitted, were terrible at everything. Offense, defense, special teams, game planning, in-house fan promotions, you name it. Had Tom Brady played quarterback instead of Jacoby Brissett, things might have been different. Buffalo might only have won 16-6. Forty-four men failing outweigh any superstar, even Brady.

Oh, well. Fans should remember the corollary to Gee's Theory, namely, that the annual debacle is an anomaly, not a sign of impending doom or even Things to Fret About. If it happens to all teams, and it does, then your team is no worse off for having endured the experience.

Pats fans especially should remember their team's next game is against the Browns. This is as close as pro football can get to one of those Division I-AA cupcakes SEC teams play to fatten up their home win records for the press guide and to give third-stringers a chance to play so they won't transfer out.