Monday, October 15, 2018

Brevity Is the Soul of Wit, Also of Pitching

A brief summary of the 2018 American League Championship Series.
Game One: Red Sox pitchers walk 10, hit three batsmen, allow two homers.
Game Two: Red Sox pitchers walk 5, nit nobody, allow one homer.

Both the Boston and Houston lineups can and have do plenty of staff-wrecking on their own hook. The winner of the series will be the team whose pitchers help their opponents the least.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Trailing by Several TDs in the Game of Love

People are complicated, even football coaches and football heroes. Because of that fact, human relationships are quite complex. They're full of ambivalence. They're messy, even if they share five Super Bowl titles.

So learning that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have a relationship that's complex, messy and with its fair share of friction comes as news only if we deny that the two of them are human beings. Granted they each go out of their way to cover up their humanity, but people they are. Gifted people, which puts added strain on their relationship, since the gifted are extra complex, not least because they know damn well they're exceptional.

Expecting any team's NFL head coach and quarterback to have an endless honeymoon live-happily-ever-after relationship is childish. Worse, it infantilizes both parties in the relationship. It denies them their individuality, their pride, their own competitive natures. Pro football teams generate far deeper emotional ties within themselves than do more normal businesses, but they ARE businesses, and the relationships within them are business relationships, not romances nor pure friendships. A coach and a QB have a transactional relationship, no matter how close that relationship might be. Belichick is Brady's boss. Brady is Beliechick's most valuable employee. That's the truth at the bottom of how they interact.

Oh, how I wish the two of 'em would say words to that effect. Maybe then Pats fans and NFL media would drop the "Tom and Bill face life" soap opera and treat them as the grown, difficult men they are. This is about the vainest wish I've ever made. Belichick says nothing about football's emotional side, let alone his own, Brady says things that mean nothing, and I'm not sure which is less informative.

What would drive a great coach and great quarterback apart? Several traits they have in common. One, a ferocious and unhealthy love of competition and the need to win at it. Two, the near inhuman will, powerful ego, and yes, selfishness that come with the need to compete and triumph.

History offers examples. Otto Graham was not enamored of Paul Brown. Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw never liked each other. Troy Aikman won a Super Bowl with Barry Switzer, a coach he despised. It took the latter's illness and death for Joe Montana to reconcile with Bill Walsh

We don't need books to know Belichick and Brady have mutual resentments. We need only examine human nature. Unless they were saints, and they'd fight to be the first to deny that, it is only natural each of these prideful men might feel deep down they don't get their fair share of credit for the Patriots' unmatched success over two decades. One damnable thing about credit is it's hard to split down the middle.

Football is Belichick's life. It's what he is. He's entitled to resent the popular notion that without Brady, he'd never have made a Super Bowl as a head coach, let alone win five. After all, he saw something in the skinny kid at 2000 rookie camp worth keeping him around for. I saw that rookie camp and thought I'd never see Brady make that year's preseason cut.

Brady has more going on his life than football (I love how that drives some outsiders up a wall), but that aw-shucks facade doesn't fool anybody. He knows damn well he's at the very pinnacle of his demanding profession, one of the legends who'll be known by only one name long after he leaves the sport, long after he leaves life itself. He's entitled to feel that his coach could more freely acknowledge, in both public and private, that Brady has been pretty good at football over the years.

Does each man occasionally, or perhaps more often, that they get a "divorce." I'd bet big money the answer is yes. Yet, here they are, married for 19 years in the closest coach-athlete relationship in sports. And of all the historical feats Brady and Belichick have shared, the longevity of their joint custody of the Pats is the most amazing of all. There's been no other coach and QB who've stuck together anything like that long. Nineteen years is about half of Brady's whole life, and more than a quarter of Belichick's. There must be some reason they put up with other that's a good deal more relevant than the backstairs gossip being bandied about.

Love's great for real marriage, but for business, need is the core of a productive relationship. As much as Brady and Belichick may resent each other, which is probably more a subtext than the driving force of their day-to-day interaction, they are also smart enough to look at the scoreboards they've shared since 2001 and realize it all  wouldn't have happened if the other guy hadn't been there too.

Brady may think Belichick's a grouch. He is, after all. But I bet he also thinks that if Bill hadn't been his first pro coach, his most likely career outcome would've resembled Ryan Fitzpatrick's, bouncing from team to team, bouncing between starter and backup., maybe the occasional playoff appearance. Fitzpatrick's had a more than respectable career. A legend he ain't.

Likewise, no matter how much it may gall Belichick to hear or read he owes his success to Brady, the coach is realistic enough to know that without his Hall of Fame QB, his own career path would most likely have followed that of Wade Phillips. Many years as a highly regarded defensive coordinator for various teams mixed in with a couple of head coaching jobs where the lack of a QB got him fired. Phillips' career could be called distinguished without stretching. He's not going to Canton and Bill is.

Belichick has shared another fraught professional relationship in his career with one Bill Parcells. Oh, they've reconciled now, on the surface anyway, but the mutual tension was real and should have been. Being Parcells' number henchman had to have left scars. Parcells was a blast to write about. To work for? No thanks.

At one of the nadirs of their frenemyship. I think when Parcells was at Dallas, a reporter asked Parcells about Belichick. Bill said only "we won a lot of games together. That's all I can say." His tone and facial expression made it clear that in his mind, anyone who didn't immediately understand his answer knew nothing about football at all.

If winning is what drives you, if it's what you value most, then people who help you win have a quality that far outweighs any of their other traits. You might resent them. You might hate their guts. But you need them for the Ws to which you are so profoundly addicted. Perhaps I'm old school, but to me, the idea that Belichick and Brady have resentments and animosities makes their relationship praiseworthy, not something to be sniggered at. Isn't that teamwork in action?

Forget the second-hand drama. As long as the Pats keep winning, Brady and Belichick will tolerate each other. No, that's not quite the right word. They will continue to depend on each other.  If New England goes 7-9 this season or next, the Foxboro Bickersons might get a divorce. Otherwise, they'll co-exist win to win, and probably more wins than that.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Vanilla is First on the List of Icee Cream Flavors for a Reason

No event in sports generates as much overthinking as the NFL draft. The men making the selections run so much bullshit past their competitors and, most importantly, their own customers (fans to you) they lose themselves in halls of funhouse mirrors they built themselves.

Fans love the crap dished out to them and come back for more. It's understandable. For once, their opinion is as good as the masterminds they root for and subsequently wind up hating. Nobody will find out whether Draftee X can or cannot play at the NFL level for some time.

Bill Belichick doesn't play the draft game very much. Most years, like this one, the Pats' choices are straight-ahead picks that ought to, but don't, result in little controversy. I always thought his endless series of low-round trades were a confession he was getting as bored with the draft as I was.

But the draft bullshit game doesn't need fodder. It generates its own fuel of 100 percent methane nonsense no matter what the Patriots or any other team does.

Exhibit A: My favorite piece of post draft analysis as heard yesterday on the Sports Hub.
Co-host Mark Bertrand: "What I want to know is why won't the Patriots draft for need?"
Co-host Scott Zolak: "Well, what are their needs?
Bertrand: "I don't know!!" This was said in exasperation. That's when I almost rear-ended that school bus.

What Bertrand meant to say of course, was that the Pats used their two first round picks on offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn and running back Sony Michel when he thought they should have picked defensive players. But it sure was funnier his way.

Of course the Pats drafted for need. They lost offensive lineman Nate Solder and running back Dion Lewis to free agency, and replaced them. How is that controversial, or even very interesting?

I don't want to get lost in the mirrors, so I'll try to make this as simple as possible. All teams enter the draft with a list of their needs for the upcoming season ranked in order of their priority, and a list of hundreds of players ranked in rough order of their perceived ability. If Belichick took Michel despite the fact "analytics" have downgraded running backs to placekicker levels in NFL priorities, it's likely he did so because Michel was really high up on the Pats player list.

It is impossible for any team to get worse by adding a good player. Can't be done. I am very much of the "best available football player" school of drafting. Belichick is one of the teachers who made me that way. Unless/until Michel busts out (could happen for sure), I will assume that's what he was after the first 30 picks of the 2017 NFL draft.

Boring drafts are happy drafts. Know whose draft was even duller than the Pats' this year? The Eagles.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Hopeless Duty, I Mean, Tradition Like No Other

Three out of every four years,  February is my month for watching regular season college basketball. At the end of it, I am on reasonably familiar terms with at least half of the top ten teams. But every fourth year, like this one, the Winter Olympics come along. The spectacle of insane daredevils risking life and limb on ice and snow is far more appealing than viewing a parade of time outs where alleged genius coaches assault their young charges with their mighty brain waves.

The above is a long winded way of saying I didn't see much college hoop last month. When the Olympic flame was doused, I was struck with the horrid realization, "holy shit, the NCAA tournament is in less than three weeks." So by way of compensation, I overdosed on conference tournament watching.

Conference tournaments for the one-bid set of schools you could not locate on a map are magnificent drama because the stakes are so high. Tournaments for the so-called power conferences provide more than the occasional entertaining game as well.  Unfortunately, for the reason I watched them, handicapping an NCAA bracket forecast, they are useless. No, worse, they are actively deceiving. A plunger who bases his bracket on conference tourneys has a swell chance of seeing it busted before dinner time today.

Let's take an example. In ITS conference tourney, San Diego State looked as if it could give the Lakers a good game. They are an 11 seed. Are they a value bet, or a conference tourney mirage? Beats me. One thing I learned a long time ago about sports gambling. Nothing is more unreliable than what one thinks is the evidence of their own two eyes.

A sensible person would probably not fill out a bracket in Winter Olympic years, let alone expose their guess to whatever corner of public stumbles onto this blog. But I've been doing brackets for 40 years, and making them public for over 30. I'd rather be thought a fool than a coward, I guess. That's not smart.

I am not going to do a full bracket analysis because only Final Four and National Champion count unless you're in one of those mega-pools, which is even dumber than what I'm doing here. Without confidence but with resolution, I will offer at least that.

Final Four:  Cincinnati, Gonzaga, Villanova, Michigan State. Villanova over Cincinnati for the title.

If, and of course I mean when, that forecast goes south, you can't say you weren't warned.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Roger Bannister, 1929-2018

Sir Roger Bannister has died at age 88. He spent most of his life in a career in medicine, far away from the world of sports while at the same time being one of the most famous human beings in the history of sports.

That paradox stemmed from the damp afternoon of May 6, 1954, when Bannister became the first man in history to run a mile in under four minutes, a feat that had been tried unsuccessfully by so many previous track athletes that it was seriously thought to present some sort of physiological or psychological barrier that might never be broken.

Bannister broke it. A year later, he retired from running. There was precious little money in track and field in the '50s and none at all in British track and field. He returned to becoming and being a neurologist, and spending the remainder of his days in his paradox -- a life outside the public eye while being extremely famous.

As a small child, I knew who Bannister was, just like I knew who Sir Edmund Hillary was. They'd done amazing things. But in what's become a reasonably long life, I never laid eyes on Bannister, not in person, not even on TV, except for a few fuzzy film clips of some long ago races. That's real fame, the kind that exists separately from the man or woman who earned it.

Today, a sub-four minute mile might earn a high school kid a D-I college scholarship. The mile itself is hardly ever run, track being one area of US life that succumbed to the metric system. Records of all sorts are broken so often in that sport they attract no attention except at the Olympics. Why has Bannister's accomplishment remained so renowned for so long?

To try and answer that question is to require a deep dive into the sports consciousness of the child I used to be. Back in the days when black and white TV and frozen dinners were miracles of modern life, adults said "records were made to be broken" but they didn't really mean it. In every sport, us kids were also confidently told there were some records that never could be broken and would stand for all our lives.

Take baseball. Nobody was ever going to garner more base hits than Ty Cobb, hit more home runs in a career than Babe Ruth, play more consecutive games than Lou Gehrig or strike out more batters than Walter Johnson, because, well, they just couldn't, that's all. Of course, each of those records was shattered in my lifetime, hell, before I passed out of middle age, because in reality, records are numbers, not barriers. They get passed, not "broken." Sports are a unique form of human endeavor because there really are no limits to what can be accomplished.

The four minute mile was the most symbolic record in sports that May day in 1954. When Bannister took a most arbitrary time limit and passed it by less than a second, he became a symbol himself. He didn't break a record, he broke the very idea of records themselves. Not to get too spacey, but any time any athlete goes faster, higher, scores more, wins more titles, whatever, than anyone else has done before, Roger Bannister is part of his or her story -- even if the athlete has no clue who Bannister was.

Tom Brady wants to win a Super Bowl at age 45? Bannister says, sure, why not? Forty five is like 4.00. It's just some number.

There are still records in sports that appear dauntingly unbreakable. Nobody's come close to scoring 100 points in an NBA game as did Wilt Chamberlain. The pro golf Grand Slam seems to be less likely than ever.

And yet this morning I will cheerfully bet those records will fall, too. I may not be alive to see it, but fall they will. I know that because I shared part of my life span with Roger Bannister.

They won't put "Records are made to be broken" on Bannister's headstone. But they ought to.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Altius, Dude, Altius As We Can Get

Like many Olympic sports, snowboarding is decided by judges. Snowboarding wasn't in the only Winter Games I covered way back in 1994, so I have no idea what the sport's judges are really like, but based on my experience with other judged sports, I can guess.

Basically, Olympic judges are officials of their sport who've been around it since childhood and don't stray too far from the stereotypes of said sports. That is, Olympic boxing judges run to the hilariously incompetent and corrupt, gymnastics judges seem to be in excellent shape for their ages, and so on. Figure skating judges were cruelly but not totally inaccurately portrayed in the movie "I, Tonya" as stuffed shirts drawn from the stuffy elites of their various countries.

So the mental picture I have of snowboarding judges is both vivid and inescapable. They are middle-aged men and women with great suntans verging on skin cancer. The men have beards, the women run to braids, and they all wear cowboys hats even if they're from some place like Slovenia. When not judging, they live in resort towns such as Telluride and Chamonix with no visible means of support.

And when judging, they are stoned as loons. Also when not judging.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Patriot Way of Cognitive Dissonance

It is best to cut a bit of slack to NFL franchises that have just lost the Super Bowl. Everyone drawing a paycheck from it is in the grips of severe depression. They're a little to a lot off balance, and apt to say and do things they will regret come, oh, April.

But there's cutting slack, and then there's ignoring objective reality. The idea that the return (did he leave long enough for that to be the right noun?) of Josh McDaniels is a signal all will be well in Foxboro next season is the latter. The idea the Patriots are a near cinch to be back in the Super Bowl next year is another fallacy. I know because it's the same fallacy on which I based my somewhat erroneous Super Bowl prediction last week.

I thought the Pats would win the game because they usually win games. Charles Schwab makes a point of saying past performance is no guarantee of future results, but straight line projection is a trap all humans fall into sooner or later. The humans associated with the New England franchise appear to have both ankles firmly snared in it. To be blunt, the Pats seem high on their supply.

Political scientist Brendan Nyhan has a series of Twitter posts on US current events in which he asks "Imagine if you saw this in another country." I ask Patriots fans to do the same. Take these events of this past week and slap the names Tennessee Titans or Chicago Bears on them.

As the overwhelming consensus favorite, the team lost the Super Bowl despite magnificent performances by its future Hall of Fame quarterback and ditto tight end. This was because its defense gave a disgraceful performance revealing some true weaknesses, most having to do with foot speed, or rather, the lack thereof.

The future Hall of Fame coach benched a starting defensive player for the Super Bowl for reasons he refuses to divulge. He allowed the player to dress and be on special teams, but kept him on the bench as the Eagles rolled off 20-yard gain after 20-yard gain. Unsubstantiated stories then were leaked to the media about said player, indicating he'd been sat down for a wide variety of disciplinary reasons. The player denied this in a social media post endorsed by a number of his teammates -- including the franchise's quarterback.

After the Super Bowl, the future Hall of Fame tight end, coming off the latest in a series of serious injuries, refused to deny reports he was considering retirement.

If Pats fans read or heard similar stories about other franchises, they'd assume those teams had some serious problems on their hands, and they wouldn't be wrong. Antoine Saint-Exupery wrote that "defeat divides" almost 80 years ago. It's still true. It's the main reason no team has lost the Super Bowl and returned the next season since the Bills did it three times in a row in the early '90s.

Now for the "good" news. The offensive coordinator broke his word to another franchise and won't become its head coach after all. Tough luck on the other members of the Pats' staff Josh McDaniels recruited to join the Colts, but what matters is that New England's "succession plan" is still in place, McDaniels will replace Bill Belichick as head coach of the Patriots at some indefinite future date.

Question number one: What if that date is not two or three years from now, as is commonly assumed, but two or three weeks? There's no evidence that is true, but there's no evidence the common assumption is, either. Belichick has made sudden unexpected career moves before. It's difficult to see him walking away after a Super Bowl loss, but it was more difficult to believe he'd make a decision that helped cost his team that loss based on either inexplicable rules in Belichick's head or a terribly wrong "football decision."

Question number two. How's the Tom Brady "succession plan" coming along? If that one doesn't work, it won't much matter who replaces Belichick. I assume no member of the Kraft family is daft enough to let McDaniels, the man who made Tim Tebow a first round draft choice, anywhere near that decision. They in turn must be assuming that since Belichick drafted Jimmy Garoppolo, who's shown himself a capable starter after schooling by the Pats' coaches,  he can do it again with some other college QB, no problem.

Could be. Belichick's real smart. But creating starting NFL QBs, let alone championship caliber starters is a high-risk low percentage endeavor. You can scout talent, you can coach it up, but you can't control whether the talent is a winner and most importantly, a winner who can stay healthy. That pudding must be eaten on faith.

It took real guts for Belichick to keep Brady as starter after Drew Bledsoe was healthy again in 2001. This proved to be the rightest right personnel decision in pro football history, but if it hadn't, Belichick would be Wade Phillips today, the super valuable defensive coordinator nobody wants as head coach.

Belichick found another keeper in Garoppolo, and now he's being asked to do it again? The coach would be as inhuman as his reputation if he didn't find that demand to be on the far side of enough.

This essay is not pure contrarianism. As long as Brady can still play effectively, which NFL MVPs can be assumed to do the next season, and as long as the rest of the AFC East stinks, the Pats are not going to fall off a cliff into 8-8 Land, or even 10-6 Land. That's a far cry from the belief they have a permanent working vacation the week before the first Sunday in February.

I don't blame fans for making that assumption. They're entitled. The past is an unreliable guide to the future, but it remains the only guide we have.

No, what interests me is the "all will be well" attitude is so widely shared by members of the media who cover the Pats for a living. These men and women are not homers or softies. Each and every one is working with all their might (well, maybe not Shaughnessy or Zolak) to discover the real reason Malcolm Butler didn't play and if they find it, they'll be happy no matter whom it makes look bad.

But it was Globe reporter Ben Volin who wrote the "McDaniels is back, hallelujah" piece in the Globe today. It was Greg Bedard on Sports Hub who forecast the Pats will win at least 12 games next year and did so with evident scorn that anyone would think otherwise. Smart men, good reporters. In fact, I think they're reporting skills are at the root of their shared attitude.

To get close enough to any group of humans to report accurately on their doings, the journalist is going to be exposed to that group's attitudes and group identity on a daily basis for a long, long time. The reporter may maintain his or her own opinions and probably will, but simply doing a good job means that the group's attitudes and identity will come to inform its coverage. To boil that down, I think Volin and Bedard's opinions are strongly influenced by the attitudes and group identity of the secretive, somewhat paranoid humans who work at Gillette Stadium. If their sources within the Patriots' organization didn't think all was well, believe me, Bedard and Volin would say so.

Hey, the Pats might be fine. But if they believe they are, that makes it harder for me to believe it. Uneasy rests the head who wears the crown? Much, much uneasier should rest the heads that just lost it.