Friday, May 10, 2019

Indecision Is Always the Wrong Decision

One of the surest ways to be unhappy is to never quite know what one wants, because then whatever one gets doesn't quite suit. It has seemed to me for some time that what many Bostonians see as Kyrie Irving's emotional erraticism (to be polite) stems from the fact the for-now Celtics guard just doesn't know what he really wants from basketball.

Irving wanted to be top banana on an NBA team, so he left Cleveland for Boston. Then being top banana has made him feel very uncomfortable. because it comes with increased public interest. He wants to be a mentor to young players, yet also wants said youngsters to defer to established stars such as himself. And in strict basketball terms, he isn't at all certain how or even if he fits on the team where he thought he could be the hero. There are many things to criticize about Irving's ruinous performance in the Celtics' dispiriting playoff loss to the Bucks, but we should never be shocked if an NBA guard at a loss for ideas reverts to the "shoot more, they'll drop eventually" bromide. It's a confession of basketball intellectual bankruptcy.

As for the future, it's possibilities seem to have put Irving in a perpetual quandary. Does he want to stay in Boston, sign with the Knicks as a free agent, became player-coach of the Lakers? Who knows. All one can tell from Irving's words on this or any other basketball subject is that he doesn't know himself.

This is very bad news for the Celtics, because until Irving figures out what he wants, they can't begin to decide what they want.

It may be tempting for distraught Celtics fans to urge Danny Ainge to let or even force Irving out of town, but this would be imprudent if Kyrie wants to stay. In the sport with the fewest players, teams dump their best ones at their own risk. James Harden has a, shall we say, checkered playoff history, but everyone including the Houston Rockets knows they'd be crazy to get rid of him. Irving isn't nearly as good as Harden, but the same principle applies.

Here's where the indecision kicks in. Suppose Irving wants to stay all summer long, and the Celtics operate on that assumption, then he gets to training camp and once again only sees the downsides of his situation. We know the answer. The 2019-2020 season would be a duplicate of the unhappy to the max 3016-2019 season. And there's no way to guard against that, because Irving's restless mind would be equally sincere in both wanting and not wanting to be a Celtic.

There is Irving's alleged fantasy of signing with the Knicks as a free agent, where he would be joined by Kevin Durant and maybe even Zion Williamson to form another NBA superteam. Probably that's a nice daydream for Irving, but it's totally dependent on Durant to make it come true. If he re-ups with the Warriors, Irving would be left in New York as the star on a bad team, not a good one like the Celtics. He'd have to take 30 shots a game just to keep interested. He'd be unhappy.

For comic relief, there's always the notion (and a restless mind like Irving's has many notions) that he could reunite with LeBron out in LA. The Lakers are currently the brightest, smelliest dumpster fire in the NBA. Adding Irving to the mix would be pouring jet fuel and plutonium to the flames. It would lead to some memorable Charles Barkley monologues though.

Well, Irving's gonna do what he's gonna do. Then he's gonna try and undo whatever it was he did. He's indecisive by nature. What about Ainge's indecision, the kind that afflicts normally decisive people when they realize all their options are bad ones?

If the Celtics lose Irving, they will have less talent than they have now. They will be a  team dependent on 1. A return to the form of yesteryear by Gordon Hayward., 2. Defiance of the NBA actuarial tables by Al Horford and 3. The blossoming of Jalen Brown and Jayson Tatum into All-Stars. Not a percentage bet, that.

(I omit the possibility of swinging a trade to rent Anthony Davis for the last year of his contract because while it could happen, I believe it would have happened back in January if it was a probable deal).

But of course, if Ainge strives to keep Kyrie in green for the foreseeable future, he will have the same old Irving for whom the grass is always greener wherever he isn't. Irving will say the right things, then some wrong ones. He will be great one game and not so great the next two. The truth is, while a gifted player, Irving is just not consistent enough to be top banana of an NBA team. That's in pure basketball terms, no comment on Irving's personality at all.

It MIGHT make the Celtics the NBA powerhouse it was assumed they were last fall if Ainge were to bite the bullet, trade the Celtics' promising youth and mighty depth to get Davis and THEN got Irving to stay. Irving as outside scorer second banana has a fine track record -- in Cleveland. But it might not, too. After all, it was his dislike of being Best Supporting Player that led Irving to Boston in the first place.

So many conditional tenses and ifs, mights and maybes in this essay. Indecision has a bad effect on English prose, too. I'm glad I wasn't born with Irving's brand of restlessness. It's not a formula for happiness.

I'm triple glad I'm not Ainge right now. All I can advise the Celts' decision maker is a trite observation that has nothing to do with basketball metrics and a lot to do with basketball teams.

Unhappy people almost never make those around them feel happy.

Monday, May 06, 2019

The Four Dirtiest Words in the English Language Are?

Such an easy question. They are the announcement"hold all tickets," followed by the flashing sign reading "Inquiry."

That rush you felt picking the winner of a horse race, be it the Kentucky Derby or the 5th at Aqueduct on a February Wednesday? Forget it. Now you will sweat in mystified frustration as the stewards review the tapes to see if the race was conducted on the up and up, or if a horse and/or his jockey violated the rules installed for safety and fair competition.

Sometimes, the majority of times actually, the inquiry lets the results stand, and you cheerfully if no longer triumphantly cash your ticket. But other times, well, the foul claim is upheld, and the race results altered by officiating fiat. Your winner is now a loser. The universe is a hostile entity that hates you. You wuz robbed.

Anyone who's gone to the track more than sporadically has experience that sensation, and come to the realization that they wasn't robbed, just a victim of the random chance that lets many if not all horseplayers to die broke. It doesn't happen all that often, but often enough to make it a universal experience for the shrinking regular audience for thoroughbred racing.

So it was just a matter of racing luck that the Derby, the one race out of thousands for which the audience actually expands to include regular sports fans and even not fans, saw a foul claim upheld last Saturday against its original winner Maximum Security, with second place finisher Country House installed as the victor after an agonizing 20 minutes of delay. The reaction of the 150,000 at Churchill Downs was strong disapproval. Maximum Security was a 9-2 favorite, Country House a 65-1 long shot, meaning there were about 00 Maximum Security bettors for every Country House plunger (BTW, the brave deluded souls who got that payday from Country House are precisely the kind of horseplayers who go broke fastest).

Since this was the first time in 145 Derbies a winner had been disqualified for a foul, and since the Derby audience is the sport's largest, much controversy has ensued. Maximum Security was the best horse in the race, managing to win after shying and cutting across the paths of several other horses, causing at least one to he momentarily pulled up. That horse was not Country House, who was in an outside position of the clubhouse turn safely removed from the incident.

A better formula for sports argumentation could scarcely be imagined, and argumentation we have had. Aside from Maximum Security's owners, trainer and jockey, who lost the most last Saturday, the argument has broken into two rough camps.

The first, and probably larger camp is exemplified by the President of the United States, who tweeted on Sunday that Maximum Security's DQ was a major injustice he attributed to "political correctness."  Whatever that meant, Donald Trump was echoing the emotions of millions of others and also their demographic profile. He is one of those fans for whom watching the Derby may be their only annual experience of horse racing. And if I can judge by social media searching, an overwhelming majority of those fans believe Maximum Security was robbed, that his swerving did not affect the outcome enough to nullify the race's original finish.

(I wonder how many of those people live in Greater New Orleans and remain indignant that a non-call, a decision not to enforce a rule,, knocked the Saints out of the Super Bowl.)

The fans who have defended the stewards' decision are almost all more serious students of the turf, men and women who've been to many racetracks and seen many races. They have learned two things through hard experience, that DQs are a part of the game and more importantly, that they need to be.

Racing has rules in part to insure fair competition. It's sophistry to claim Maximum Security's swerve across the track didn't affect the Derby's outcome. If it had a negative effect on any other horse it did so by definition. No one can say what would have happened if Maximum Security had kept to his lane. We just know he didn't, and impeded other horses in the process.

The truly vital reason racing has rules, however, is because the sport is so dangerous for its animal and human competitors alike. A thoroughbred is not a stock car. It's a hugely powerful and vulnerable living being giving its all, bred for centuries to give its all.  Nor are jockeys encased in a protective steel cage like Kyle Busch. They have a helmet that doesn't even cover their ears, which does a fat lot of good when they're trampled by a horse or two running at top speed.

The Derby has a field of 20 every year. This is by far the largest field of any race in the US. Most have like between 5 and 8.  Since Churchill Downs' track doesn't get any wider, this means the Derby has the highest potential for disastrous accident of any race. It's the one where the rules ought to be most strictly enforced.

It is significant that the officials in horse racing are called stewards, not umpires or referees. The word conveys the idea that their most important responsibility is to take care of the participants in each race, to make sure they all had a fair chance, to make sure there are sanctions for endangering other competitors. It speaks well for the stewards at Churchill Downs that they were willing to take the considerable heat they had to know was coming to uphold their trust.

If you haven't guessed by now, I am, if not a devout, a more than occasional racegoer and have been for quite some time. I stand with the stewards of Churchill Downs for simple reasons based on my own experiences.

I've had winning tickets go up in smoke when my horse was DQ for a foul. It sucks. I have also, however, seen horses destroyed after an injury, and seen jockeys hustled from the track in an ambulance.

Those occasions sucked far, far, far worse.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Never Understood Why People Liked "Friends," Either

The NFL draft is a very important event for pro football, so it's perfectly understandable that fans pay it a lot of attention.

The draft, being an event with hundreds of as-yet unknowable conclusions, is a perfect means of creating arguments. Fans of all sports love arguments, so I get that element of the draft's appeal as well.

The draft's popularity as a television show, however, I will never understand. It combines the worst features of two genres, the game show and the reality program, that are basically ignored by anyone too young to be the target of those safe bathtub ads with Pat Boone. Why the Internet hasn't killed it as dead as your daily local newspaper is beyond me.

Boil it all down, the draft is a list of names. There's nothing the Internet does better than lists. Moreover, those lists can be easily correlated with the five kazillion pre-draft lists detailing the bona fides of all possible selections along with four kazillion conflicting opinions on same. These are precooked sports arguments -- just add the clicks and serve.

Anyone with even modest digital literacy can do all this on their phone or laptop while putting their TV to better use, indeed, about the only use it has left, the live broadcasting of sports events. There is no need for the tawdry and utterly predictable "show" of the televised draft. All of us have heard Roger Goodell booed, thank you. It's an old routine that palled sometime before the end of Deflategate.

The Bruins play the Islanders at 7 pm EDT. The Spurs and Nuggets tip off at 8. The Stars and Blues drop the puck at around 10. I mean, you could even watch baseball. All are superior entertainment to the draft broadcasts.

And yet, those broadcasts will be, as they always are, the highest rated sports programming of this night and indeed week. Why this is I do not know, but I have a guess. It isn't just that pro football is popular. I think it has more to do with why I watch reruns of "Perry Mason" so old and predictable I can name the murderer before the second commercial break, or why "The Simpsons" is still on the air.

TV satisfies the human need for the familiar.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Probably Wants to Sit By Himself on the Team Bus Today

Jorge Polanco of the Minnesota Twins hit for the cycle last night. It was only the 280th time in history a batter had a single, double, triple and home run in a single game. Polanco had another single for good measure for a perfect five for five night at the plate.

We can assume the Twins' celebration of this feat was somewhat muted by the game's final score, which was Phillies 10 - Twins 4.

How could this happen? Cursory research, the only kind that gets done here, does not reveal how many of those 280 games were won by the teams whose players hit for the cycle, but logic says it has to be a very high percentage, and those lost must have been slugfests of the 13-11 variety. A cycle is 10 total bases (Polanco had 11). His OBP for the game was 1.000, his slugging percentage 2.200. How could such prowess fail to push one whole bunch of other Twins to home plate?

Polanco's own box score line tells the story. He scored but one run and drove in but one. That is, except for his solo homer, Polanco's slugging produced exactly nothing for the Twins.

This was of course not his fault. The other Twins went a sizzling 6 for 33 against Philadelphia pitching which for at least one guy was no mystery. They didn't get on base before Polanco came up, and they didn't do anything to advance him around the bases, either. Seldom has the old dugout adage "pick him up" been so thoroughly stood on its head. There was a 2004 Red Sox-Mariners game where Ichiro had four singles, stole second four times, and had no runs scored nor RBI, but that's the closest case I can remember.

What does Polanco's night of personal grandeur and massive frustration tell us? It's a simple lesson which is forgotten millions of times a day by otherwise well-informed fans and commentators. Baseball is primarily a game of Individual performance. "Primarily" and "wholly" are not synonyms.

The cruelest thing of all about Polanco's performance is that baseball being baseball, he's very likely to end an inning with a strikeout with the bases loaded in his next game.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Wages of Sin Are Usually Ridicule

When the high and mighty walk into open manholes, everyone else laughs. The immediate reaction, also the continuing reaction to the news that Patriots owner Robert Kraft was busted for soliciting prostitution was a barrage of off-color jokes, some quite funny. When it was known the bust involved Orchids of Asia, a very low-rent south Florida strip mall massage parlor, the barrage grew heavier, dirtier, and I have to admit, funnier.

I have no cannons of my own to join the barrage. Sure I laughed, but the whole affair makes me depressed, a sadness that grows the more I think about it. I feel bad about Bob Kraft, about wealth, about human males, of which I am one. Kraft's bust is pure yuck all the way down.

Start with Kraft himself. Let me confess I've always kind of liked him, ever since I covered the Pats' Wars of the Sullivan Succession back in the '80s when Kraft showed the real way to a reporter's heart by returning my phone calls. He has been a model sports franchise owner, learning through trial and error that football is not like regular business, and that the path to success is to hire football people you think are good at it, while focusing the owner's energy on his skill -- making money. He's made oodles of money and the Pats have won six Super Bowls. That's as fair a bargain as fans can expect.

And this is what he does for fun? Is the quest for fame and fortune so empty that it ends at the Orchids of Asia? Don't the Lombardi Trophies he can use for office doorstops provide enough of an inner glow that at age 77 he doesn't feel the need for a rub and tug in a joint no prudent man would enter without wearing a Hazmat suit?

Evidently not. Evidently great wealth breeds a sense he can do what he wants whenever he wants, and personal dignity be damned.

Also personal decency. Like any other business, prostitution comes in many forms, and the reason Orchids of Asia became a Jupiter police department priority is that its form was pretty close to slavery, with immigrant young women held against their will, helpless by their inability to make contact with the outside world that isn't all horny old men. That's not just yuck. That's an outrage that ought to shame all of us.

Why did Bob Kraft wind up there? Is he just a cheap bastard, unwilling to pay for the top-shelf courtesans he can afford to set up in their own mansions if he wishes? Maybe. I hope so anyway. It's the most flattering explanation.

The other explanation for Kraft bust is a damning one, literally so for the religious among us. It's possible Kraft knew perfectly well what the setup was at Orchids of Asia and that's why he was there. The youth and vulnerability of its sex workers were a turn-on. Degrading himself was a turn-on.

That's beyond yuck to pure disgusting.  I hope it's not so. Maybe Kraft was just horny and as stupid as that condition generally makes the human male. If that's the case, then the only punishment he will really suffer, a subsequent lifetime of being laughed at by millions, will fit his crime. I mean, I'm gonna laugh next fall when CBS gives its obligatory shots of Kraft in the owner's box at Gillette and Jim Nantz has to say something. How could anyone not?

Behind my laughter, however, will remain the dark suspicion something very much darker was going on when Kraft visited that massage parlor, a darkness for which society has never found a punishment. Worst of all, society's never even tried.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

There's a Limit to Even Mad Science

Mark Geragos must be a pretty good attorney. It doesn't matter how much Colin Kaepernick got in his settlement with the NFL. To force a settlement from a league that took Tom Brady to the appellate courts over the air pressure of footballs takes some quality lawyering.

Geragos, however, may not have equal gifts as an NFL pundit. His statement that NFL teams now considering hiring the Nike martyr as a QB included the New England Patriots inspired this reporter to a spit take on the old keyboard. My first thought was Garagos must be related to somebody big in Boston sports talk radio.

"Consider," however, is a verb with many meanings. It could mean Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick discussed signing Kaepernick long into the night last week. It could also mean some drunk came up to  a Pats PR intern in a bar on Route One, asked him about Kaepernick, and the kid very properly refused to say anything. Amazing NFL rumors, ones far bigger than Kaep-to-Pats, have been started in just such circumstances.

Let's acknowledge that if Geragos wasn't just talking through his hat, his consider is probably close to the second meaning, not the first. But before I dismissed it as an impossibility, I remembered that Belichick has given tryouts to two other controversial (for strictly football reasons) quarterbacks who were otherwise unemployable in the NFL -- Tim Tebow and Doug Flutie.

In each case, Belichick did so not out of team need, but out of his own desire to weigh every possible option for his football team, or even for football itself. He didn't want to see Tebow leave the NFL without seeing for himself if he could find some way to employ Tebow's, uh, unique skill set. In the event, he couldn't, which Tebow took as advice to take his dreams to the Mets.

I firmly believe Belichick signed Flutie and kept him on the Pats' roster solely to have him try a drop kick in live action. Bill was much younger then, more willing to take a harmless flyer out of pigskin whimsy.

It's not impossible to believe Belichick has thought about signing Kaepernick because it's impossible to imagine him not thinking about any aspect of pro football that comes up or has ever come up. So let's play a little game. What possible circumstances could make New England think Kaep was worth the inevitable bullshit that'd surround his arrival? How could he help Belichick win games? And do these scenarios have any connection to reality as it exists at Gillette Stadium?

The most obvious thought is that Belichick wants to see if Kaepernick could be an upgrade over Brian Hoyer as Brady's backup. This has some connection to reality, but there's never been any suggestion anyone in the organization, Brady most importantly, is in any way unhappy with Hoyer. When it comes to quarterbacks, the Pats have adopted the policy the Colts had with Peyton Manning, as elucidated by offensive coordinator Tom Moore. Asked why Manning's backup saw almost practice time with the first string, Moore replied, "if 18 gets hurt, we're fucked, and we don't practice fucked." Unless Hoyer himself is unhappy, and why should he be, it's unlikely Kaep would be hired just as a backup.

Except for another unless. What if Belichick has decided that the 2019 college quarterbacks do not include any he wants AND can get with New England's draft spots? Then he might think of Kaepernick as a future bridge, a guy who could start while some yet-to-be rookie is groomed upon the unthinkable disaster of Brady retiring.

That's a plausible idea except for Brady retiring part. Tom's a terrible dissembler who can't even keep a poker face, and his every word indicates he's not leaving any time soon. That could change if he was faced with long-term rehab of a serious injury, or if the Pats suddenly declined to a 9-7 bunch, but those are long shots no coach would waste time preparing for.

So all in all, my personal guess is that Belichick HAS thought about Kaepernick, more than once, too. Kaepernick's good seasons showed a lot of skills, including the icy night where his 49ers won at Gillette in 2012. One thing about spending every waking moment on football thoughts is that it gives Belichick time to consider all sorts of such thoughts, from the concrete and immediate, to blue sky daydreams.

Geragos may have invented Pats' interest in his client, but it probably wasn't a lie, just a lucky guess. Well, kind of lucky. The bet from me is that Belichick spent about 20 minutes sometime since the Super Bowl considering Colin Kaepernick. He probably drew something on a napkin, or even pulled some tape from the Pats' library.

Then Belichick said to himself, "oh, fuck no!" and went on to consider something else.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Offense Gets the Glory Even When It Doesn't Deserve Any

Tom Brady was voted the MVP of Super Bowl 49. Afterwards, he gave the car that comes with the award to Malcolm Butler, whose end zone interception made him the Patriots' Super Bowl hero if not its MVP.

Julian Edelman was voted MVP of Super Bowl 53 last night. If he's got any class at all, nobody but members of the New England defense will ever get behind the wheel of his car.

Edelman had a fine game, catching 10 passes for 140 yards. And the Pats scored 13 points. If yesterday morning you had asked anyone on earth aware of the NFL, Bill Belichick included, what would happen in the game if the Patriots only scored 13, and they'd have answered that the Rams win it going away.

Didn't happen, because LA only got three points, and barely made those at that. Ask the same anyones on Sunday morning what's the final score if the Rams have 3, and all of them would have responded, Pats win by like 42-3.

That didn't happen either. Two of the highest scoring teams in one of the highest scoring years in NFL history combined for the lowest point total in Super Bowl history in an astonishing display of defensive prowess. And after watching it, the NFL gave the MVP to a wide receiver.

No offense to Edelman meant, but the Pats would've won this game if he hadn't been on the field at all. They'd have won if Brian Hoyer had played quarterback instead of Tom Brady. New England's defense was that good, and it had to be, because the Rams defense was almost its equal. The Pats came about six inches from a goal post of pitching the first Super shutout.

Offense is timing, and defense is about destroying timing. Has their ever been an offense who watches were as unsynchronized as those of the Rams? By the end of most pass attempts, poor Jared Goff looked like an unprepared student thirty seconds away from the final bell of his final exam. Not until the Pats were trading space for time late in the fourth quarter did LA look like it had a passing chapter in its playbook.

(To be just, Goff and the Rams had a handicap. Can we dispose of the blatant lie that Todd Gurley's been in excellent health the last three weeks? Teams do not put their best offensive player on part-time duty in the Super Bowl unless said player is hurt.)

Stephon Gilmore was as dominant as a cornerback can be. He didn't get the car. Tre Flowers, Dant'a Hightower, Devin McCourty, they didn't get it either. It isn't so much that Edelman's award was an injustice, it was merely incorrect. It's the symbolism that counts, how the award shows the 21st century pro football mindset. Faced with a game where offenses did very little and defenses almost everything, the NFL reaction was to pretend an offensive player was its leading difference maker.

Worse yet, 90 percent of America's football fans did worse than hate the game, they ridiculed it. In my own little Super Bowl viewing groups there were jokes about the punters (both Ryan Allen and Johnny Hekker were excellent, and take my advice, never joke about punting to Belichick). Jim Nantz was making fun of the game in the third quarter. The immediate national consensus about Super Bowl 53 was, what a boring game.

I don't get this. If the seventh game of the World Series is 0-0 going into the eighth, nobody says that's boring. A 1-1 tie in the last five minutes of a Game Seven Stanley Cup Final would have fans throwing up with tension, not cracking wise about their ennui. Why should football be different? Why is excellence from 11 players on one side of the ball lionized, while equal excellence from the 11 guys on the other side derided?

Touchdowns are more exciting than punts, sure. But if the game develops to a place where your punter is the most important man on the team, why not celebrate him if he does well? Three and outs are not engrossing in and of themselves, but when they pile up, as they did to both teams last night, it means some people out there are playing great football.

The entire Patriots defense was the collective MVP of Super Bowl 53. They just have an average, no, just a good game and Aaron Donald's on his way to Disney World as I write this.  Oh, who am I kidding. Rams win 17-13 and Goff would be MVP. That's how Eli Manning won two.

As I have said before, I played defense in high school. I am prejudiced. But if there isn't SOME collective award for the New England defense, we ought to invent one. Best defensive performance in a Super Bowl. Ever.

My horrible suspicion is that the award for the Pats' Super Bowl D will come at an owners' meeting this offseason, when yet again the rules will be altered to give the offense still more advantages, to create more scoring for the NFL's increasingly jaded audience.

Forget the car. The reward for Super Bowl greatness on defense will be the league trying to make sure it never happens again?