Monday, September 26, 2016

Arnold Palmer

Arnold Palmer's reign as golf's undisputed champion was quite brief, lasting from his comeback win at the 1960 US Open, the event where he really became "Arnie" and the 1962 US Open he lost in a playoff to Jack Nicklaus. His reign as golf's most cherished legend never ended and never will, even in death.

After that '62 Open, Palmer was one of the Big Three along with Nicklaus and Gary Player. He never won a major after the 1964 Masters. By the end of the '60s, he was no longer a true contender in the majors. Nobody cared. He was Arnie forever, maybe not the golfer fans wanted to be (all golf fans play golf), but always the golfer they loved the most.

Don't get me wrong. Palmer was a great champion. He won seven majors, including back to back Open championships, a tournament he pretty much saved by rekindling American interest in it. But the overriding fact of Palmer's career, no life, was the enormous affection he generated among people who never met him.

What makes some athletes loved, while others, equally great, must make do with respect? Why is one boxer Muhammad Ali and another Joe Frazier, one outfielder Willie Mays and another Hank Aaron? Why was Arnie Arnie and Nicklaus, the golf's all time champ, Jack, given more reverence than true fondness?

Beats me. That question gets close to mysteries of human existence way, way above my pay grade. But I'll hazard a guess. The athletes who inspire the most love are the ones who best project love for what they do, who show exuberance on top of their excellence.

No one ever lived who loves golf more than Nicklaus, who's a warm-hearted passionate person to boot. But Jack's love showed itself in scholarly focus and steel concentration. Palmer's love for his game was worn on his short sleeves. It was a reckless love, a teenager's love, foolish and wonderful all at once. Two of Palmer's most famous tournaments featured defeats due to blown leads, the '61 Masters and '67 US Open. Those only made fans love him more. Fans know love hurts sometimes.

Palmer took that love and used it to become the first sports brand/marketing conglomerate. When a man is still doing commercials in the last year of a long life, his connection with the public is an awesome power.

What generated that power? In the end, it might be boiled down to a simple formula.

Arnold Palmer, champion golfer, embodied a truth all us hackers come to know. There's no such thing as a bad day on the golf course.

No truth of life is always true. Today will be a bad day for every golfer on every golf course on the planet.

Jose Fernandez

The death of any young person is the ultimate cheat, an unspeakable tragedy far beyond my power to express in suitable words. I will miss seeing a great pitcher. To his family, teammates and friends who must deal with the loss of Fernandez the person, I can do nothing but offer my total sympathy. I hope anyone who's ever watched baseball will do the same, and I'm sure they do.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Last Thuught Before Sleep Last Night

Perhaps John Elway knows more about quarterbacks and quarterbacking than almost all the rest of us.

More than Bill O'Brien anyway.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Cliches Get That Way for a Reason

The nonpareil Atlanta Braves starting rotation of the '90s had a motto. "Work Fast, Change Speeds, Throw Strikes." I'm sure it didn't originate with them. Probably Old Hoss Radbourn thought of it first.

Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Rick Porcello. 89 pitches, 65 strikes, and for once, a Red Sox game that was over before I felt like going to bed. Porcello's been one of the stars of the 2016 team all season long. Now he's my personal Boston baseball hero. What I've been yelling at pitchers to do for, oh, 40 years or so, he did as well as anyone could.

My fondest hope for the national pastime is that Porcello's brand of twirling becomes contagious.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Etiquette of Closure

Dillen Betances had nothing last night. From about his second pitch on it was clear that the ordinarily outstanding Yankee reliever had no zip on his fastball nor control of it. To have him try to finish what had been a 5-2 lead over the Red Sox in the ninth was an invitation to disaster.

Betances was left in, and blew up as spectacularly as when careless folks forget to defrost their planned deep-fried turkey on Thanskgiving. Hanley Ramirez hit a three-run homer and Boston won 7-5, in a game the Sox needed to win, but that the Yanks absolutely couldn't afford to lose.

Second guesses of New York manager Joe Girardi were few and far between. Closers pitch the ninth and are expected to finish it. The revolutionary strategy of the '80s is the iron dogma of 2016. If Betances couldn't complete the assignment, too bad for him and his team, but that's baseball.

Why is that? Why is the specialist closer the only pitcher on a staff not subject to preventative replacement, the only one who's ALWAYS taken out only after it's too late to do any good? It is commonplace for the sport's true ace starters, the Bumgarners, Kershaws, Sales, etc. to be quickly yanked in the early innings of a game if their skipper thinks bad has no place to go but worse. But in the ninth, with one, two or three measly outs to go, a pitcher will be left to douse a potential win in gasoline and then light the fire with a Roman candle.

Girardi had a much better view of Betances than I did, and is far more qualified to judge pitching. He had to see what I did, that his stellar relief ace should never have opened the bullpen door. Bad night? Overwork? The reason didn't matter. The evidence should have. Yet a most competent and veteran manager chose to go down with his ship firing meatballs to the most dangerous lineup in the game. And 29 other managers would have done the same.

Baseball doesn't get new ideas very often, so it loves the ones it does get, loves them to death. The Closer was a new idea once. Now, it's just another dogma in a sport that says "you see something new everyday in this game" but doesn't really believe it.



Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Anatomy of an Overlay

I was on the golf course last Friday afternoon when it was reported that Rob Gronkowski wasn't on the Patriots' team plane to Phoenix. Didn't hear the news until the next morning.

I was on the phone and online Saturday afternoon as soon as it was reported that the spread on the Pats-Cardinals game had gone from Arizona minus six to minus nine. Too bad for me, I couldn't get to Vegas on such short notice. An opportunity for profit was missed.

A game point spread moving three points in a day means a full-fledged market stampede is in motion. Such stampedes create market distortions, the kind investment bankers spend their working lives trying to detect ahead of the suckers. And like all stampedes in all markets, the swing in the Pats game came from investors overrating one fact at the expense of any and all contradictory fact.

It's certainly a fact that Gronkowski is an outstanding football player. He might be the best tight end of all time. Losing him makes it more difficult for New England to win any game. But how much more difficult is the question.

Not three points worth. No tight end that ever lived is or was a three-point spread player. That honor is reserved for quarterbacks, and not many of them. Tom Brady's one, of course, but his expected absence was already factored into the original six-point spread. Pats getting six is a bet that without Brady, New England isn't as good as would be with him. Pats getting nine was essentially a bet that Jimmy Garoppolo would stink in his first game as a starter, so much so that New England's other offensive players would be rendered pretty much impotent.

That bet was a personnel judgment. Taking the other side of the bet was one Bill Belichick, who indicated through his every action in preseason that he thought Garoppolo would do just fine as a quarterback temp. Don't know about you, reader, but I would never make a football bet with Belichick. I just don't like my odds.

A lot of bettors lost a lot of money on that proposition because of two other facts they ignored, one a strictly gambling truth, the other a larger football truth that non-betting fans ignore every autumn weekend, causing them frustration if not financial loss.

Gambling truth: Bettors tend to overrate the short-term impact of injuries. Injuries work through attrition. They wear a team down and eventually overwhelm its depth. But for one game, substitutes tend to play almost as well as the starters they replace. Martellus Bennett is a Pro Bowler. Belichick and Josh McDaniels proved their playbook contains a goodly number of effective plays where the primary tight end blocks rather than catches. For one game, a makeshift offensive line can do just fine. It's by games three or four without starters where a team starts to really miss them.

Football truth: There are 45 guys in uniform for each team in an NFL game, and each and every one of them is important to the outcome. If the Pats lose Brady, Gronkowski and Nate Solder and the 42 remaining Pats play their best, New England will be competitive with any team. It's as simple as this. The Pats are a good team. The expression "good team" means a team with many good players, not just a couple of stars.

Good players, even great players, do not always play their best. If the Pats who took the field last Sunday night had to play all 16 games this season, they wouldn't win 'em all. They wouldn't win the Super Bowl. But they'd win more than they'd lose, and they'd never, ever, be a real nine point underdog against anyone.


Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The Worst Temp Job in Sports

I felt sorry for Jimmy Garoppolo since the day he was drafted. At this point, I want to Instagram him pictures of cute puppies and kittens captioned with inspirational messages.

The closer the Patriots come to Garoppolo's one-month stint as the team's starting quarterback, the wackier thoughts on the poor guy become among many media members and fans -- a group that is setting a trend in neurosis by being both manic and depressed at the same time.

Consider. Before training camp started, there was a train of, well, let's call it thought to be nice, that Garoppolo would perform well enough, perhaps brilliantly enough to enable the Pats to sweep four games and set up a huge quarterback controversy when Tom Brady returned from his suspension. The airing of this proposition caused Bill Belichick to lose his poker-face in a press conference, reacting with an expletive out of amazement, horror, or both.

Training camp and the exhibition season have come and gone. Now the idle speculation is guessing when Belichick will replace Garoppolo when the latter stinks on ice during his tenure. This startling reversal of popular narrative stems from one fact alone. In his exhibition appearances, Garoppolo was not perfect.

This imperfection led to a secondary idiocy, criticism of Belichick for letting Brady play in preseason games rather than having Garoppolo get all the "work he needs." We can settle that hash with a simple thought experiment. Imagine any football team with the priceless gift of knowing in advance that the starting QB would miss four games but barring injury, play the other 12. Would you, coach, prefer to have the player who'll start 75 percent of the games see more action than the one who'll start 25?

Reading Belichick's mind is not easy up close, let alone at a distance, but in this case, his actions make his thoughts transparent. The coach is convinced Garoppolo will be OK in live action. If he wasn't, the backup would indeed have played more in the preseason. For that matter, if Belichick really doubted Garoppolo, he'd have made it obvious before then. The coach would have brought  some career backup on the Josh McCown/Colt McCoy level into camp, rather than have his September starter's only possible replacement be an actual rookie.

Belichick might be wrong. But his track record should at least cause fans and media to await Garoppolo's debut with a measure of calm rather than silly fretting. The kid's not coming into QB the Browns or Titans. The other 44 guys who'll suit up Sunday in Greater Phoenix are pretty good.

BTW, Pats getting six looks like a good deal to me. In my experience teams with a backup quarterback thrown into the fray tend to reach their highest level in the guy's first game, then gradually revert to their norm as the Horatius-at-the-bridge mindset wears off. And let's face it, you might not get another chance to bet the Pats as six-point underdogs until somebody besides Brady is the permanent starter.

The likeliest forecast for Garoppolo is that like almost all new starting QBs, he will look both great at times and terrible at times. This possibility is both reassuring and depressing. He doesn't have to be consistently great for New England to prosper with him under center, he just has to keep the terrible down to occasional.

That should reassure the fretters, but it won't. Alas, should this forecast come true, we are in for a roller coaster ride at Big Crazy Amusement Park. Garoppolo will be taking Brady's job or getting benched with every twist of his performance, often during the same series. The Patriots have no peer when it comes to blocking out unwanted noise, but this will be one hell of a loud roar to keep from Garoppolo's ears.

If he's as sane on October 7 as he is on September 7, he'll have done fine, whatever the Pats' record might be.


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Clothes Make the Man Money

For sheer grossness, weather has little to equal a real hot, humid day in midtown Manhattan. It was over 90 with air composed of equal parts moisture, hydrocarbons and dirt particles last Friday, so the swarms of tourists were dressed for comfort and decidedly not style.

I was therefore not taken aback when a spied an early teenage boy sporting an NBA replica jersey at the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection. Van Gogh, Matisse and Jasper Johns had nothing against staying cool or trying to look cool, after all.

Nor was I too surprised that the kid sported a Warriors jersey. He might've been from the Bay Area. He might have been from the Upper East Side. It's a frontrunner's universe, baby.

But I was not prepared for what I saw as I got a little closer to the kid. He wore jersey number 35, and the name atop the number was, of course, Durant.

Kevin Durant himself hasn't put on the real thing yet, and won't for another couple of months. Yet I'd guess the busy beavers at the NBA merchandise department have had those things on sale since about six seconds after Durant announced he was joining Golden State in early July. I can't say how well they're selling, but I know they've put points on the board.

That kid, avidly taking in great works of Western civilization, stood at the epicenter of SportsWorld 2016. He was engaging in ADVANCE frontrunning, the anticipation of rooting for an invincible juggernaut (if he was just a fan of Durant the player, he could've bought a replica Team USA jersey during the Olympics). And he was also proof positive that sports themselves now exist as a wholly owned subsidiary of a particularly weird branch of the men's clothing industry. It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you move the merch.

It was crowded at the MOMA, it always is, so I soon lost sight of the boy and his jersey. I stopped thinking about him altogether. But about an hour later, walking down Sixth Avenue back to my hotel, I was struck by another, more horrible thought.

Which village in El Salvador, Senegal or Somalia has all its male children now wearing replica Kevin Durant Celtics jerseys?