Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Perfect May Be the Enemy of the Good, but the Good Is the Enemy of NBA Championships

The things Celtics fans need to remember about Danny Ainge is that he has high standards, and those standards were created through intense personal experience.

The Celtics' basketball chief created a little stir over the weekend by giving an interview to my old Herald colleague Steve Bulpett in which Ainge admitted the obvious, that the current Boston team is nowhere near talented enough to be a serious NBA title contender. Just as candid but perhaps less obvious, Ainge also strongly implied improving that situation would be difficult verging on impossible.

Quite a burst of pessimism for the can-do Ainge, an activist of the first order. He's got a team that went to the conference finals, and the number one pick in the 2017 draft. Why the note, make that symphony, of caution?

The vital sentence in the interview tells the story. "We have plenty of good players," Ainge said. "We need great players."

We're all prisoners of our past, and the more glorious said past, the stouter its prison walls. When Ainge thinks of NBA championship teams, he has to be reminded of the Celtics team he started for in the '80s that went to four straight Finals and won two of them. The other four starters are all in the Hall of Fame. Then his mind may go to the 1992-1993 Phoenix Suns. Ainge was sixth man on that team. It went to the Finals and lost. It had Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson.

Of course, Ainge need not dwell on the distant past. The recent will do. He is the architect of the Celtics team that won the 2008 championship and made the 2010 Finals. That team contained three surefire Hall members in Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. It also had Rajon Rondo, who could've made Springfield if Rajon Rondo hadn't kept getting in his way.

Those memories are why when Ainge looks at the Celtics of this season, he doesn't see 53 wins, a conference finals, and a bright future. He sees that most dreaded of entities "a real nice team," the equivalent of the Milwaukee Bucks or New York Knicks the '80s Celtics would dispatch from the playoffs with varying degrees of difficulty, but a constant sense of predestination. Talent was going to win out. Talent always wins out.

That's an oversimplification. Every NBA player, even the league leaders in DNP-Coach's Decision, has talent. Tens of millions of human males play the damn game, and only 400 or so make the league. That's the tiny top of a very big pyramid. By talent, I should say, "historic talent." The kind of talent fans remember all their lives. The kind of talent that sells tickets. The kind of talent every NBA champion ever has possessed.

If the draft class of 2017 contained the equivalent of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or even the equivalent of Garnett or Barkley, Ainge wouldn't have sounded so glum. In his judgment, better than mine I'm sure, it doesn't. Nor are there any Kevin Durant's in the free agent class. In terms of his overall merit, Gordon Hayward is basically the white Al Horford. Any team would be glad to have either and rightly so. No team would do advance Finals planning because they got 'em.

If the 2017-18 Celtics are to meet Ainge's standards, he has only one option. Luckily, it's one that worked before. Find a team with even dimmer prospects and a disaffected superstar desperate to move to a winner. Who might that be? No clue here, but I remember that very few people thought Garnett would become a Celtic before Ainge swindled old pal Kevin McHale to get him. If Ainge has such a target in mind, I'd be surprised if he's told anyone yet, not even Brad Stevens.

But if the draft and its immediate aftermath go by, and all Ainge has to show for his troubles is the use of his number one on yet another teenage guard, don't be surprised if his good cheer seems a little forced. He (and I) will not be fibbing when Ainge states Markelle Fultz makes the Celts a better team.

But Ainge (and I) know that "better" means the Celts might beat the Wizards in six games next spring instead of seven.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Someday They'll Make It to the Salty Show

Stopped at the liquor store after the grocery store this morning to pick up wine for dinner. Also was looking for a single bag of potato chips to have with my liverwurst sandwich at lunch.

The assortment of snack foods by the sales counter next to the lottery machine wasn't promising. The chips were from Uncle Ray's, a brand I had never heard of. Off brand junk food is a risky proposition.

But then I saw the logo of a ballplayer on the right hand top of the bag and the proud endorsement that was its caption. Uncle Ray's is the OFFICIAL potato chip of Minor League Baseball.

Now I had to buy them.  Any company so daft as to use the words "minor league" in its marketing must spend all its capital on product development. Actually of course I bought them for the grins, sure Uncle Ray's were going to be terrible. They weren't. Oh, an Uncle Ray's chip still has some holes in its game, such as inadequate crispiness, but they didn't taste so bad at all, at least not with liverwurst and a beer.

So my scouting report on Uncle Ray's is: Rough but shows promise. Needs further work at this level, but in a few seasons, it could be the official potato chip of the San Diego Padres.

Monday, May 08, 2017

A Brief Paper on Sports Marketing Theory

Gee's Hypothesis was formed yesterday afternoon channel hopping between the PGA Tour, NASCAR, the NBA, the Premier League and the Red Sox, especially the first two.

Here it is in all its elegant simplicity. The brightness of the economic future of any given sport is in inverse proportion to how often one hears the words "erectile dysfunction" during the commercial breaks of its television broadcasts.

Demography is a bitch. It's very hard to grow the audience for a game when the primary fear of that audience is that it's growing old.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Taken Out of the Ball Game

There is a nontrivial number of people who are just complete assholes. They inhabit every city, town, village, hamlet and unincorporated area of plant Earth.

There's also a nontrivial number of people who're nasty bigots, and they too can be found wherever humans dwell. I'd go so far as to say if one drew a Venn diagram of these two groups, it'd look almost like one perfect circle.

Therefore, that some moron shouted racial slurs at Orioles' outfielder Adam Jones from a seat at Fenway Park and that some other moron at Fenway issued similar slurs at a national anthem singer last week is not that much of a surprise. Nor is it an example of a social problem unique to Boston. Well, not most of it anyway.

Boston has a well-earned reputation for white racism. It's part of our image, and we can't say we didn't earn it. But times do change, and having been lucky enough to visit most of the U.S., I now would categorize this city's racial attitudes as following the same trend as most places. That is, Boston is way less racist than it was say 30 years ago, but there's still plenty of racism around.

What is unique to Boston, and more specifically unique to Fenway Park, is that white racists continue to feel that the ballpark is their safe space to indulge their prejudice openly. So many minority ballplayers for other teams, and from the Red Sox, have pointed this out I don't feel we need to go into chapter and verse. Fans who call talk radio to deny it are either deaf or feel shame at their own attitudes and behavior.

The fundamental insanity of abusing opponents for their ethnicity was best summarized by Braves' utility infielder Micah Johnson, who noted on Twitter that "the racist idiot who did this would weep tears of joy if somebody gave him a Mookie Betts signed jersey." Odds are that if that racist idiot met Jones in person, he would ask the outfielder for his autograph. Logic and hatred, of course, never meet. The point of calling Jones a name was to vent hatred in what was seen as protected speech, abusing an opponent.

Well, it's not protected speech. It's shameful stupidity. To their credit, the Red Sox have banned at least one verbal abuser from their home for life. This kind of aggressive policing is long overdue there. I'm sure the franchise is horrified. But it must bear the responsibility for past passivity. The Sox were letting socioeconomic trends drive fan behavior rather than enforcing a conduct code.

Those trends can be summed up in one word, gentrification. Just as Boston is nowhere near as racist as it was in 1980, Fenway crowds are much less rowdy, too. Tickets to a Sox game are hard to get and many many times more expensive than back in the day. This self-selects a more sedate set of spectators. It's hard to imagine that someone capable of unironically singing alone to "Sweet Caroline" is also capable of starting a fight, no matter how drunk they may be.

Gentrification has had an effect on all of Boston's pro sports crowds, all of which were quire rough in my young adult days. Not as bad as the Philly crowds I grew up with, but bad enough. The great Leigh Montville once said of Bruins crowds at the old Garden "it's a shame the 10,000 bad ones have to spoil it for the 4000 good ones." Sitting at the press tables for Celtics games used to include a wary eye for projectiles launched from the second balcony to protest decisions by the likes of Richie Powers and Earl Strom. People REALLY overestimate their throwing arms.

As for the old Foxboro Stadium, it was inconceivable that one would go to a Pats' game in the company of a grown woman, let alone with a child or children. In the '80s the Pats were in no position to screen customers for behavior. So half-full or sellout, the stands were full of every cop's dream, young men in groups who were drinking too much. There were no Monday night games in Foxboro for over a decade because people died at them.

Now, Gillette Stadium crowds are Lady Byng trophy contenders. Gentrification has a lot to do with it, as does New England's status as a historic dynasty. Season tickets are treasured. Fans don't want to endanger them.

More importantly, they know they can endanger them. Security at Gillette is strict, visible, and enveloping. There's never going to be any kind of crowd of 60,000 plus without a few problems, but those get dealt with. The result is that a Patriots game is now a family friendly event, if your family happened to inherit 5000 shares of Google back in the '90s.

Some have even complained Pats' crowds are too well-behaved, too quiet, spoiled by historic success and without their "true" fans, i.e., the sort of feebs who call Felger and Mazz. Maybe so. Given my druthers, I'd rather go to a sports event where I'm SURE I won't get vomited upon. I used to enjoy watching a good fight in the stands (the sainted Roger Angell loves them!). Now, I see 'em as a pain in the ass. Maybe that's from decades of watching games with deadlines in the front of my mind, or maybe my soul's seen some gentrification, too.

And of course I and everyone else can do without hearing racial slurs. Sports are recreation. It is hard to recreate when reminded or our society's most dreadful problem. The Sox have no need to tolerate horrible customers. They have plenty who aren't horrible, and plenty more non-horribles who'd like to get a ticket if they could.

So the franchise did the right thing this week when it banned that fan. Sad to say, it'll probably have to keep on doing the same thing for some time to come. May it not be as long a time as I've been watching Boston sports.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Spring (Sports) Fashion Notes From Paris

Baseball caps are surprisingly common headwear among French men. Not just generic caps, or ones for soccer teams, but the real American McCoy. In 10 days in the country, I saw at least three twentysomething chaps wearing Red Sox caps, and one bicycling down the Quai de Chartons in Bordeaux wearing an Astros cap!

Before Rob Manuel believes MLB has reached marketing heaven, he should listen to my expatriate daughter Hope's explanation. These caps are not worn as allegiance to OUR national pastime. The heads under the caps may not have ever seen a game, or name the team whose logos are on the caps. They are most often souvenirs, purchased by French tourists/students/business travelers in the United States as an authentically American souvenir which also keeps the sun out of their eyes.

(I will confess this does not explain the grizzled street person I saw outside the St. Paul metro station in Paris' 3rd arrondissement last Saturday. He was 45 going on 70, in the uniform of the down and outer complete to wine in a brown paper bag. He wore a grimy but unmistakable Buffalo Sabres cap!)

But by far the most common ball cap seen in France, by a factor of maybe 100 to 1, is a Yankees cap. A decent minority are the genuine dark blue/black article, but more are fashion statements made in Europe, or at least in Vietnam, in all colors of the rainbow plus brown. The Yankee logo on each, however, is unmistakable.

These caps really ARE fashion statements. The real ones are worn by young black men (and some white) as a means of standing with hip-hop culture. One kid near Place de la Republique made a real commitment, wearing a Yankees cap and a Brooklyn Nets jersey.

But the non-regulation Yankee caps make a more general statement. They say that the wearer identifies with, has been to, or wishes he could go to, New York City, which is one of the three places in the US about which the average French citizen has some hazy knowledge or at least mental image, California and Texas being the others. Don't sneer, dear American readers. Aside from an image of Paris and maybe the Riviera, what do you know of France? Could you tell what are the distinctive qualities of the Auvergne or Dordogne? Why expect a lifelong Parisian to know about South Dakota or Oregon?

I suppose it's no surprise that the most relentlessly and irritatingly branded sports team of the most relentlessly and irritatingly branded city in our country and probably our planet has penetrated as far as France's metropolis and its provinces. But after awhile, the sight of all those Yankee caps generated a certain sad comparison, one that evoked no surprise but much pity.

The one thing I never saw in 10 days in France was anyone wearing a Mets cap.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

They'll Have to Start the Playoffs Without Me.

Dear readers, my haphazard posting will cease from this one until April 24th due to foreign travel. They have sports in France, too, so I will return with new material, I hope.

Sports Are Fun?

Felger and Mazz is the highest rated sports talk show in Boston. In their past two shows, in less than 10 minutes of sampling, I heard the following scalding takes.

1. Red Sox players are wusses for getting the flu.
2. A Red Sox player was letting the side down by attending his grandmother's funeral rather than showing up for that vital third game of the season against the Tigers.
3. Golf was more fun when Sergio Garcia could be ridiculed as a loser.
4. Justin Rose was a wuss for displaying good sportsmanship as he dueled with Garcia down the stretch at the Masters and after his loss.
5. In fact, good sportsmanship in general is a turnoff.

That's entertainment, baby. Everybody of prominence in sports sucks and only you, the fan, is worthy. In fairness, Felger and Mazz will rip callers, too. And this screed isn't really aimed at them. They're just giving the people they want. It's the audience that wants it which bothers me.

Boston is one of about 15 American cities whose residents will tell you without being asked that it has the sports fans in the country. I find that a hard claim to reconcile with the area's obvious appetite for a view of sports composed of pure vinegar. The ratings suggest, no, state that Boston fans would rather hear something or someone denigrated than consider their happy status as of this date in 2017.

The Red Sox made the playoffs last year. The Patriots won the Super Bowl. The Bruins and Celtics are both in the playoffs, and the latter's prospects seem bright. Hell, Harvard made the Frozen Four. You'd think fans in this burg would be in the mood for sports chatter full of sweetness and light, or at least a little homerism. Guess not.

Look, if snide is what Boston fans want, that's fine under the no accounting for taste rule. But at least those fans should acknowledge their fondness for the dark and bitter take. I'm not asking for people here to become as irritatingly and professionally positive as Cardinals fans, just for a little balance. These are the fat years gang. Just like in the Bible, lean years will come soon enough. Why not have a harvest celebration of success?

I'm a Philadelphia fan. We're more honest. We're the worst and we know it. By golly, we're proud of it. We're willing to recognize our inner asshole as an important if not exactly praiseworthy part of who we are.

Better a plain boo than a snotty sneer.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sports Are Hard to Play Well, but Not As Hard to Understand As Is Thought

Sergio Garcia won the Masters yesterday, his first major tournament victory in almost two decades at the top level of professional golf. His melodramatic playoff triumph over Justin Rose was as packed with plot twists Shondra Rhimes can only envy this morning.

As is the custom, Garcia was draped in the green jacket of Augusta National. As is also golf's invariable custom, he was then enveloped in a cloud of psychobabble. No sport is so relentlessly insistent that it's a game of mind, no, soul, over matter. This is true to some extent, but not nearly as much as golf writers and broadcast commentators try to tell us. They (many of whom are former players and should know better) prefer a spiritual explanation of events to a mundane physical one such as "Sergio made some damn good shots because he's got talent."

On the Golf Channel, Brandel Chamblee attributed Garcia's victory to "love," meaning Garcia's attitude towards golf had improved due to his recent engagement. I wish Garcia and his future bride every happiness, but if the love of a good woman is the key to winning golf, how come I haven't bagged an Open or two? Could it because I don't play very well?

On a slightly less ethereal plane, other commentators and columnists declared Garcia had learned to overcome his psychic handicaps, a bad case of rabbit ears and a tendency to have his whole game go south in the clutch. This facile portrayal of Garcia is "volatile" reminds us that much golf commentary is still based on the national prejudices of early 20th century England. "He's a Spainard, don't you know?" It's also based on three established facts. Garcia suffered a significant number of close but no cigar finishes in previous majors, some of those were due to putting woes, and went through a very public display of total frustration with his game in 2009-2010.

Gosh, a golfer succumbing to frustration! That's never happened before, except to every man, woman and child who ever swung a club.  They almost all end when the golfer remembers that the sport's ever so much fun and that he/she isn't nearly as bad as he/she feared. Even before the Masters, there was a lot of discussion of a "new," happier Sergio. Could it be Garcia came to terms with the fact that major win or no, being among the top 20 golfers on earth wasn't so bad, and just went back to practicing and playing? If he did, well, that's the recovery process for all golfers, from hackers to champs.

Funny thing. In the final round of his victory yesterday, Garcia displayed every one of the alleged psychic crises that were the supposed causes of his past defeats. No one has ever denied Garcia's skill from tee to green, yet on the 10th tee he became distracted by noises off and duffed a drive, followed by another noises off distraction and a comically inaccurate approach. A classic rabbit ears bogey led to a following bogey and a drive into an unplayable lie on the 13th hole. Hundreds of word processors in the press center began showing variations of "same old Sergio."

Garcia saved par on that hole, birdied the 14th and eagled the 15th. This might be because his inner man has undergone a complete overhaul in the last few months, but a more likely explanation is that he's always been a superb shotmaker, and he made some when it would do him the most good because odds are any shot Garcia hits will be a good one.

Putting is the subject of more highfalutin' psycho-hooey than any other part of golf, because of the anomaly that while it is the most difficult skill in the game, it's the one that looks the easiest. Hackers in the galleries or at home on TV find it impossible to imagine that pros who can whack the ball more than 300 yards find it just as hard to a make 10 footers as they do. If they'd check out the stats on PGATour.com, they'd see putting comes unnaturally to all of the world's best. They can't all be chokers.

 Garcia missed a tiddling putt on 16 and a six-footer on 18 that would have won the tournament in regulation. Cue the "same old Sergio" ledes once more. It's too boring to state the obvious. "Garcia has never been a particularly good putter, and that bit him at crucial points down the stretch."

In the playoff, Justin Rose hit a drive that doomed him to bogey and Garcia made a flawless birdie, 10-foot putt included. Therefore, by the iron illogic of 21st century sports analysis, in two plus hours of golf, Garcia gave himself a soul makeover from insecure innate loser to lionhearted champion.

Golf is kinder than other sports. None of its commentators would declare that Rose choked. Nobody would dare to say that psychic weakness had anything to do with Jordan Spieth's final round 75.  They shouldn't, either. Spieth suffered a fate we've all seen in a million basketball games. He got way down early due to a quadruple bogey in the first round, fought his way back to contention, and found the fight had left him too spent to actually win. That's not a matter of virtue or the lack of same. It's Jerry West's old truth that "being behind makes you tired." Sports, even golf, are about energy.

If there's one real-life virtue needed in professional sports, it's perseverance. Garcia had it. He didn't give up on his game or the countless hours of drill needed to stay competitive in it. He at least ignored the thought that doom was his inevitable fate in majors, and kept on showing up for them. And in the 2017 Masters, persistence was rewarded, combined with the fair amount of luck needed to win any tournament and last but hardly least, Garcia's finely holed talent.

The need to make sports events tales of the mind and soul is understandable. Fans may not be able to break 90, or dunk a basketball, or hit a slider, but we all have thoughts and emotions. It's comforting to believe thoughts and emotions determine victory and defeat because it makes it so much easier to identify with the men and women who play those sports for their living and our amusement.

All top jocks have thoughts and emotions, too. But even in slowpoke golf, the sport where competitors have by far the most time to wrestle with their inner selves, thoughts and emotions come in a well beaten second to raw talent seasoned by a lifetime devoted to mastering techniques. Maybe this morning Rose is indulging in regrets and self second-guessing. Yesterday, he didn't think about anything about the next shot until he took his last one.

Want the real story of the 2017 Masters. Here it is. Sergio Garcia, one of the 20 or so men capable of winning any golf tournament he enters, did so yesterday in highly dramatic style.

Want the real story of sports commentary? If I had been covering instead of watching the 2017 Masters on TV, I would never have dared to write such a lede. And if I had, the editors would've spiked it. The idea that games of the body are actually mind games is the one is one myth that can't be challenged. Fans wouldn't stand for it.