Thursday, July 28, 2016

Give Him a Problem, He's a Happy Man

Within the parameters of his press conference deadpan, which run the gamut from Buster Keaton to "traffic cop who's just pulled you over for going 90," Bill Belichick seemed almost jolly yesterday during his opening of training camp remarks. Even odder, the Patriots coach was downright candid on how he planned to handle his most obvious and serious challenge of the preseason.

You can go years between Belichick statements of policy and strategy (I know, believe me). But the coach did not hesitate to say how he planned to cope with Tom Brady's four-game suspension at the start of the 2016 NFL season. Maybe that's because Belichick thought his solution was so obvious even sports media should have figured it out for themselves.

During the preseason, Jimmy Garoppolo will be treated as if he's the starting QB. Once the suspension is over, Brady's back. Simple, eh?

But what does that MEAN. How many reps will Garoppolo take from Brady? How much of the exhibition games will he play? How will Brady prepare for a season he won't start? Belichick didn't say, and I thought the questions were a little mean. NFL coaching is a terrible job. Let the man get some enjoyment out of it. Let him tussle with issues that'll help keep him awake during what is by my count the 42nd training camp of his life. Besides, if Belichick HAD answered them, the questioners would have nothing new to report during camp themselves.

I am not so far gone as to think Belichick is anything but unhappy that Brady won't open the season in Arizona in September. Yet I do believe that a small part of his football-obsessed soul is at least piqued by the arrival of an unprecedented coaching challenge. Unprecedented but also in an odd way easier for any coach, let alone one of his ability, to address.

In the final analysis, a four-game suspension is a lost time injury for which a team can prepare. It is the equivalent of Brady suffering something like a sprained MCL during one of his brief exhibition game appearances. Pro football's SOP in that instance is "Next man up and let's go." Here, Belichick has the chance to shape that next man to his heart's content, KNOWING exactly when Garoppolo will take the step up for real.

The six weeks of tinkering this gives Belichick has to give him no little consolation for losing a Hall of Fame QB for 25 percent of the Pats' season. Judging by his demeanor yesterday, I think he's looking forward to it. And that bodes well for all 100 percent of said season.

Training camp is significant, no, essential for any NFL team. It is also very boring for all concerned. It is re-registering your car and doing your taxes for three weeks straight while sweating profusely and suffering muscle pain. Nobody loves anything more than Belichick loves football, and he once told me (and others) training camp gets real dull. The boredom is magnified in the case of a team that's been on top of the league for over a decade as the Pats have. The most diligent perfectionist (the only personality type Belichick tolerates in a player) can think they're being diligent and perfect in a tedious practice while their soul is only going through the motions.

Now consider the coach. Like I said, he's been to over 40 of these things. How can he maintain his inhuman focus day after inhuman summer day? Making practices interesting is one of the primo challenges for any coach in any sport. Less noticed but just as difficult is making those practices interesting to the coach himself.

Those challenges are no problem for the Pats this summer. The coach has a camp with a ticklish problem requiring lots of fret, infinite attention to detail, and most of all, a constant need to adapt to changing circumstances (nobody knows how Garoppolo will do. Belichick must wait to find out like the rest of us). He won't be bored. Neither will the veteran Pats. They all know damn well they have to as close to their best as possible in September. In a way, they start the season with playoff games. News flash: Professional athletes are insanely competitive people who adore being presented with just such a situation. They may fail, but not from lack of attention.

The Pats aren't better off because Brady will serve his suspension. Far from it. But they have to be a lot less bored in the next month because of it. That's not nothing. How can something be nothing if it cheers up Belichick?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Great Athletes Are So Different From the Rest of Us, Chapter 1,785,982

Phil Mickelson was about five minutes past signing his scorecard for the final round of the 2016 Open championship. That document showed that Mickelson had shot a six-under 65 at Royal Troon and didn't make a single bogey in the process.

The giant yellow scoreboard by the 18th green showed that this was not good enough. Mickelson's playing partner Henrik Stenson had shot a ridiculously superb 63 to finish at 20-under par, a total that shattered numerous major tournament records and incidentally beat Phil by three strokes.

Nobody focuses on the bright side so much as those announcers who interview pro golfers on tournament broadcasts. The chap handling that chore for NBC asked Mickelson if he took solace in  the fact he had played his best in one of the greatest final rounds in golf history (Mickelson's score for the tournament would have won or forced a playoff in 141 of the previous 144 Opens).

Mickelson's stare of blank astonishment indicated the chap with the blazer was actually a seven-eyed create from Planet Qoxxo. There was a second of silence that seemed much longer, then Lefty turned in a championship display of repressed emotion.

"No," Mickelson said. "No, you inhuman monster, I just played one of my great rounds and STILL lost the Open. How can you imagine I feel any way but bad" was what Mickelson obviously meant.

All golfers from 25 handicappers to Jack Nicklaus remember everything they ever did on a golf course. Some part of Mickelson's brain was doubtless chewing on the fact that was his 11th second-place finish in a major, and that's he even runner-up in that awful statistic, behind Nicklaus's 14 second places.

Roughly two questions later, Mickelson went on a relatively long spiel about how in fact he was happy with his game and had all sorts of good feelings about tournaments to come. It wasn't canned blah, his emotions were too raw and close to the surface for that. What might have appeared as signs of a split personality was merely the top athlete's coping mechanism in action. To survive the trauma of Troon, Mickelson's mind was jumping ahead to Baltusrol, site of the PGA Championship in 10 days time.

The second most important element of the magnificent blessing and horrendous curse of the competitive zeal at the heart of every great one in every sport is that losing hurts them so much more than it does for anyone else. Fans who think their home team's losses blight their lives are only playing at the pain which most pros live with on a near daily basis. When said top athlete is measuring himself in performances which come only four times a year, as Mickelson is the pain is more exquisite still, but for all of those wealthy famous men and women, losing is a burden so heavy it would drive them mad with frustration -- except for one compensation within their souls.

The most important element of that competitive zeal is the part, the larger part, that says after each defeat "that won't happen next time. I won't let it."

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Supremely Bored, if a Trifle Amused

It is the right of every citizen of the United States to appeal their case in litigation to the Supreme Court.

Few get to do so, however. It is also the right of the Supreme Court to tell said citizen to get lost, a right the court exercises regularly and frequently.  That's why the case of Tom Brady v. the NFL will almost surely peter out into one of the following two endings, neither satisfactory for him.

Ending 1: Brady considers the odds and decides to accept the decision of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. He cuts his losses, cuts loose from the Players' Association legal team, and serves a four-game suspension at the start of the 2016 season.

Ending 2: Brady fights on. He appeals to the Supreme Court, which has its clerks read the briefs, enjoys a hearty chuckle, and sometime after the first Monday in October when it resumes session, issues a one sentence ruling telling Brady to get lost. Sometime could be anytime. It could be that first Monday. It could be after Super Bowl 51. It could be before the final four games of the regular season, or before the start of the playoffs. Whatever time the ruling came, it'd be either really or desperately inconvenient for the Patriots.

I suppose fairness requires we consider Ending 3, in which the court takes Brady's case and we'll parse the fine points of constitutional law with Scott Zolak for months on end. I give Ending 3 one chance in 10,000. It takes the vote of four of the eight, used to be nine justices to accept an appeal. Unless half the Court has Brady in their fantasy leagues, that won't happen.

Don't know if you've ever noticed this, but Supreme Court Justices have somewhat outsized egos. Compared to them, Cristiano Ronaldo is plagued by doubt about his worth. It's not their fault, really. The combination of being really smart, having oodles of power and a lifetime job would breed an extreme sense of self-importance in any human. Our Constitution sets them up to become jerks.

Somehow, I don't see four of those folks voting to hear extended arguments involving gas laws, football air pressure, or even the finer points of the NFL and NFL Players' Association Basic Agreement. The Court likes to envision itself debating constitutional principles that could alter the destiny of the nation, not some case whose practical effect would be to give Rex Ryan and the Bills false hope of winning the AFC East.

As I said, the Justices take themselves (and to be fair, their job) very seriously. As I also said, they're all very intelligent, more than smart enough to know that taking Brady's appeal would immediately uphold the unwritten constitutional principle "America is ridiculous." It'd be a head-on slide into the national freak show. I bet we'll see Anthony Kennedy on "Dancing With the Stars" before that happens.

Brady never gives up in a game It's a big part, probably the biggest, of his greatness. So maybe he'll appeal and take his chances.

But Brady does give up on a play from time to time. We've all seen him go limp to protect himself when the rush closes in and a sack is inevitable. There's always another play coming up. Why tempt disaster.

Brady would have a lot more plays left with 12 games to go in the season than he will on the first Monday in October. Not to mention the first Monday in December.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Archduke Ferdinand Bowl

Preparations for the pep rally were well underway at noon on June 14 along the Quai de Chartrons in Bordeaux, France. That is to say, dozens of young men dressed in either in Hungary's national colors of red, green and white or in black T-shirts bearing what I assumed to be the Hungarian language's equivalent of "Roll Tide" were either drinking beer in sidewalk cafes or lined up to buy beer in adjoining markets.

About an hour later, the singing and drumming began. Loud singing, louder than the drums. And just as residents (including this temporary) one of the nearby street Cours du Medoc became accustomed to the din, the march started, straight underneath our windows.

First came the cops, about a dozen French police. Then came about two dozen press photographers and TV video crews, walking backwards. Then came the rolling rally, roughly 300 Hungarian men, maybe 30 Hungarian women and a few children, singing even more loudly, chanting louder than that, and setting off the occasional highway flare. I am impressed by anyone who can chant and drink beer at the same time, and they all could.

The march disappeared from view and then from sight, headed for the ritzy stretch of Cours de Medoc that holds the city offices of some of the world's most famous wine chateaux and the denizens of those offices who give themselves airs and graces you wouldn't believe. My temporary neighbors went back to their lives with a sigh of relief. I sighed as well, but not exactly with relief. I knew I'd meet the marchers again quite soon.

Two tickets in Section 20, row 27, Stade Atlantique for Austria vs. Hungary, an opening round match of the Euro 2016 soccer tournament. It was my Christmas present for my daughter Hope, and through changing circumstances, six months later I'd be sharing it with her. I knew they were upper deck seats in the end zone. I was now hoping they were in the neutral fans section.

Euro 2016. The second-biggest soccer tournament in the world. The allegedly biggest terrorist target in the world and the reason Bordeaux contained so many local and national police, special riot police, and soldiers, all armed to the teeth and all (my guess because the French are such avid movie fans) excellent at looking tough, as if they knew six ways to kill a man with their crew cuts. Euro 2016, which had already seen running street violence between English drunks, Russian hooligans and those riot police in Marseille.

Oh, yeah, Euro 2016 was also the reason local public transit workers had called a strike for June 14, as part of ongoing protests of French labor law changes. Since security already prevented anyone from driving within a mile of the stadium, maybe those Hungarians were on the right track as to how to make the six p.m. kickoff.

It was supposed to be the all-time worst day in Bordeaux commuting history. It wasn't. My daughter met me at the light rail station in her neighborhood at 5:40 p.m. Three minutes later, we boarded a tram for the stadium. Ten minutes after that, we were there. Security was as quick, and let it be said, no more intrusive, than at Fenway Park, let alone Gillette Stadium. Had we not stopped to buy souvenirs, we would have made the national anthems, not that I could've told them apart.

As you may have guessed, our seats were right next to the section containing the marchers. Given the chance to sit down, which they did not take, the Hungarians were louder than ever. But that's all they were, loud. Nearby Austrian fans were not harassed verbally or otherwise. There were no fights among a group of people who'd been drinking for hours. The entire sellout crowd of 44,000 posed fewer problems for security personnel than one would find at an Eagles exhibition game at Lincoln Financial Field.

This was the 131st meeting of Austria and Hungary in tournament play, way more than Alabama has ever played Auburn. For a neutral, one who hadn't thought of either country in terms of sports or any other reason for decades, there was little to choose between them. Austria were better passers, the Hungarians had more individual ball skills. Hungary's goalie wore sweat pants. As soccer first halves are wont to do, it ended nil-nil.

In the second half, Austria scored what appeared to be the first goal at the end of the stadium away from me. But no. It was negated by a penalty that earned an Austrian a red card. A few minutes later, Hungary scored. My pals in the T-shirts surpassed themselves in joyous frenzy. By the time Hungary scored a late-game clincher, they were kind of frenzied out. Unable to be any louder, the Hungarians settled for a sort of delighted buzzing murmur after their initial roar.

The game ended, and the Hungarians stuck around to cheer their heroes some more. This was the nation's biggest soccer win since early in the Cold War, I later learned. Hope and I headed for the tram station. I didn't know, but now do, that French soccer stadiums will sell you a beer on the way out. They DO have a more civilized way of life, damn it.

Ten minutes later, we were on a tram headed home. It was packed full of Austrian fans. For the first time, my international soccer experience was quiet. Quiet as could be.

Before 8:45, Hope and I were sitting at a bistro table, studying the menu and wine list. In 40 years of attending garden variety Boston sports events, from Red Sox games to BC basketball, I have never, ever had a quicker, more painless travel experience. There's also much to be said for two-hour long games and six o'clock starts. It was hard not to compare Austria-Hungary to the day-and-night long experience, parts of which are real ordeals, of a Patriots Monday night game and ask, why do US fans put up with that?

The tournament rolls on. Austria never made it out of the group stage. Hungary was eliminated by Belgium yesterday. Nobody's that sad in Budapest. Just making it out of their group was the country's biggest win since the 1950s. For them, it's on to World Cup 2018.

If they get their, one American will at least know all their chants. Two hours of repetition and I've pretty well memorized them.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Spanning the Globe to Bring You the Constant Variety of Perfect Hindsight and Second Guessing

So I'm back. My undisclosed pleasure trip was a three week sojourn to France with a quick side trip to San Sebastian, Spain in the Basque country. I missed a lot of big time sports event while I was away, and then again, I didn't miss a thing.

The sad death of Muhammad Ali got just as much attention in France as it did here. I didn't watch either the Stanley Cup, NBA Finals or US Open live, although the latter two were on French TV, which has as many cable sports channels as we do, because the six hour time difference meant 3 a.m. starting times. But I could see highlights in the morning, and follow basketball and golf through the pages of L'Equipe, the French national sports daily that had two reporters at the NBA Finals and one at the Open. Therefore, I did not miss the breaking news that LeBron James remains a pretty fair basketball player and that the United States Golf Association remains as pompously dysfunctional as ever.

But I didn't lack for sports, neither on TV nor live. I couldn't get away from them. At least, it was impossible to escape Euro 2016, the soccer tournament for the national teams of that continent this year being held in France, including games played where I was, the city of Bordeaux.

For Euro 2016, soccer overtook wine as Topic A in Bordeaux. Topic A1 was fevered. neurotic assessment of Les Bleus, France's team. France is a nation that loves drama, seeing life as a series of crises interrupted only by long meal breaks and August vacation. The French as rooters accordingly bear a striking resemblance to Red Sox fans circa 2003 or so. They know their team has talent, but it's a source of as much or more anxiety as joy. And like the Red Sox of those years, Les Bleus themselves are very good at generating internal drama.

The week before the tourney began, Karim Benzema, a star for European club champion Real Madrid, said he had not been picked for the French team because coach Didier Deschamps had succumbed to pressure from right wingers who objected to Benzema's Arab ethnicity (he was born in Lyon).

There IS a lot of racism in France, as much as here. On the other hand, over the winter Benzema became the subject of a criminal investigation for making a sex tape of a fellow member of the French team and maybe blackmailing him with it. One could see that Deschamps might've found that harmful to dressing room harmony.  As noted,  France loves drama, so the whole matter gave the country a good wallow in its neuroses. And let's face it, the Benzema affair was a billion times more fun to wallow in than Deflategate. Our US sports scandals just aren't world class. We must do better.

One would have thought that Topic 1A would be will Euro 2016 get me blown up or shot, but it wasn't. Oh, there were plenty of police and soldiers, some carrying machine guns, on site at both Bordeaux's stadium and in the city center where the Fanzone, a several square block soccer theme park and beer garden where games where broadcast on Jumbotron-sized screens. Their presence increased in both numbers and intensity when France was playing, too. But then, there were also a lot of soldiers and cops in public spaces the week before the tournament started. That's just how life in French cities goes since last November's atrocities in Paris. People have adjusted. Outside tables at cafes, bars and restaurants were as hard to come by at lunch as ever.

No, the non-soccer concerns of the Bordelais about Euro 2016 were the same as they'd have been in Boston. How will these games affect my parking and commuting? What kind of a hassle are the fans of other countries going to be in my neighborhood?

There are no unoccupied street parking spaces in Bordeaux and as far as I could tell there never have been, so I don't know why that was a worry. Traffic sucks and always has, as in any 21st century city. Public transit soaked up the visiting fans without a hitch -- despite theoretically being on strike on game days.

French workers are staging strikes in various industries to protest labor law changes. Let's not get into it. Bordeaux's bus and streetcar workers were supposed to be on strike the day of the game I attended. Service was disrupted to the extent that streetcars going to and from the stadium ran only every seven minutes instead of five.

As for visiting fans, there were many. Even tiny Iceland had 30.000 of them roaming from city to city. And there were serious disturbances in some places, notably Marseille. But Bordeaux lucked out. It had no games with England nor with Russia. Instead, it got the Irish, a horde of jolly inebriates wearing lethal looking sunburns. The Hungarians were loud, drank as much or more beer than the Irish fans, but alongside the usual bros and dudes were women and the occasional child. Men ready for serious aggression seldom travel in mixed company.

The overall experience for this Yank surrounded by Euro 2016 was the same sense I had from Super Bowls and Olympics I attended, just less intense because I wasn't working. The event seems to define all reality. The world outside it becomes indistinct and unimportant -- except for those long meal breaks, of course. And along with the immersion, I felt a twinge of regret. Our country as a whole can never experience such a sports-only daydream. We're too big. The Copa America tournament is still going on here in the US, but as with the 1994 World Cup, when the show moves from, say Chicago to Houston, Chicago goes back to its old reality. No country, not even ours, is rich enough to have tens of thousands of people traipse around on airplanes for three weeks to follow the home team or occupy a city center for a week between games. Only medium-sized countries like France can create the proper Soccer Theme Park atmosphere.

The game I attended deserves a post of its own and will get one. This essay has been somewhat disjointed, but my theme can best be summarized by glimpses of two pure tourism side trips my family made from our Bordeaux base.

Getaria is a fishing village in the Basque region of Spain, where we went to eat turbot grilled over wood fires. Sarlat is a small town in the Perigord region of France, where there are many enormous castles and roadside stands sell foie gras. Each town's tourism depends on making it seem as if life hasn't changed much there since about 1500.

In each place, every TV in town was on, and they all had the game on, whichever game it was. In Sarlat, it was Northern Ireland-Ukraine.

Spanning the globe to find the constant variety of sport is easy. The trick is finding a place on the globe you can avoid it.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Notes on Posting

1. Posting will be more intermittent (how is that possible, you say), possibly even non-existent the next few weeks as I will be on a pleasure excursion. Part of the pleasure is removing myself from cyberspace most of the time.

2. As noted above, my posting has declined anyway. To avoid long-winded self-reflection, always a reader grabber, I'll be as succinct as possible. I enjoy following sports as much as I ever have, but I find myself having less to say about it. For example, the Golden State-Oklahoma City series has been fascinating to watch, and there's nothing I could write here that hasn't been said in jillions of other forums. Basketball isn't that complicated. In Game Seven, one team's two big stars are going to have a better game than the other's two big stars, and that'll decide things. When I was getting paid for my opinions, I was never hesitant to grasp and belabor the obvious. Now that I write for my own amusement and hopefully that of others, that seems a particularly pointless exercise.

3. If I have what I think is an original look at sports, or if some event or commentary on events arouses my emotions to the point I have to vent, I will post immediately, even on my pleasure jaunt.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Hot Take Gets Away From Blowhards, Beans Math.

I thought the cascade of dumb began this morning on 98.5, when the Toucher and Rich show raised the idea that Red Sox manager John Farrell was responsible for Jackie Bradley Jr.'s 29-game hitting streak ending last night, because Farrell moved Bradley to leadoff in the batting order. I was wrong, When baseball meets mean-spirited idiocy in this town, always bet on Felger and Mazz.

Let's give the two rabble-rousers, or do I mean just rabble, credit for a first guess. They ripped Farrell for the move when the Sox lineup was posted Thursday afternoon before Bradley's 0-fer-4 against the Rockies. Today of course, they were full of specious self-congratulation, while second-string third banana James Stewart recited stats showing how Bradley had been tearing up the old pea patch when he batted seventh, eighth or ninth in the Boston order.

It's pretty hard to have a 29-game hit streak and NOT be compiling gaudy stats, but no matter. The argument, to use a word this idea does not deserve, was twofold. 1. Bradley was mentally thrown off by his promotion to the top of the lineup and 2. You shouldn't change anything when a batter's on a tear.

Proposition one could only come from a long distance from a baseball clubhouse. Unless they are a utility infielder or backup catcher ALL players think they have the goods to hit at the top or middle of any lineup. Without that belief, they would never have made it to the big leagues.

In 1973, highly touted Phillies rookie Mike Schmidt hit a cool .193. I attended the 1974 home opener,, which Schmidt won with a two-run homer batting out of the eighth spot. Driving home afterwards, I heard a postgame radio show where Schmidt said, "I've never thought of myself as a number eight hitter." Neither did the Phillies starting about a week later.

If Bradley Jr. is as good a hitter the rest of 2016 as he's been to date, it would be criminal malfeasance for Farrell to keep him at the bottom of the batting order. To belabor what ought to be obvious but isn't, and as was known by John McGraw and is known to the most advanced sabermetricians, the purpose of the batting order is to maximize a team's chances to score runs. Having the best hitters at its top is how this is done, because the guys at the top get up to bat more often than their brethren batting sixth or lower.

It should also be noted that the leadoff man gets more plate appearances than any other hitter. For a batter with a lengthy hitting streak, this improves his chances of getting one in a game. Farrell was only trying to win a ballgame, but he was also giving Bradley the best possible chance to keep his streak alive.

In the event, two of Bradley's outs were flies to the center and right field walls in Fenway. He wasn't so shaken by his promotion he couldn't make solid contact.

The belief Farrell tampered with a hot streak and thus lost it is pure and simple, no make that just simple, superstition. You can go down to Foxwoods this weekend and watch people lose serious money at craps and roulette following what Felger, Mazz, and God help us, more than one ESPN commentator passed off as insider baseball analysis.

The dumb doesn't bother me. If I had hours of radio time to fill, I'd say plenty of dumb stuff too. What's awful about this rip of Farrell is that it's such a perfect example of the sports talk radio ethos. Something bad happened. So it MUST be somebody's fault, and that person must be brought to account. There's no success. Winners are just the beneficiaries of other people's reprehensible failures.

A lot of hosts around this great land of ours become well-off and well-known espousing that worldview.  But I have to think a steady diet of bile and vinegar is raising hell with their digestive tracts.