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.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

SEC Update, Spoilsports Edition

Upon further review, the Arkansas State Senate found a problem or two in its law allowing the carry of firearms in public places and has offered an amendment to exclude the University of Arkansas football stadium.

I hope they remember to draft the amendment so it includes the basketball arena.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

You Can Throw Out the Record Book When These Two Teams Meet, But I'd Keep That Kevlar Vest Handy

The Arkansas state legislature has passed a law permitting the carrying of concealed firearms in a variety of public places -- including the football stadium of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. Beginning in 2018, loyal fans may pack heat in the stands as well as bourbon.

One has to think Arkansas coach Bert Bielema is of two minds about this bill. On the one hand, it seems likely his team will get more than its fair share of marginal calls from the officials. On the other, a 7-5 season could have worse consequences for the coach than just talk show calls and a trip to an off-brand December bowl game.

As for visiting teams, well, you know the cadre of enormous state troopers that surround every SEC coach at home and on the road? Those guys are really going to have their pay.

Whoooie-Pig! Sooe-BLAM!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Gosh, I Can't Wait! Tell Me More!!

Minding my own business watching the NCAA tournament a few minutes ago when the phone rings.
I have caller ID so I wait a ring to see what it is.

"Call from Final Reservation."

Thank you, no. Perhaps you should speak to your marketing department.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Tradition of Failure Like No Other

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Men's Basketball Tournament Selection Committee checked into a New York hotel last Wednesday and spent the rest of the weekend in seclusion watching television and having meetings. Presumably they were all binge-watching "The Americans" much of the time because their college basketball viewing options didn't seem to impress them very much.

The committee began work with a list that had North Carolina, Villanova, Kansas and Gonzaga  as the four top seeds and ended it with the same list. Conference tournaments, we don't need no stinking conference tournaments! And a good thing for North Carolina and Kansas that the committee didn't, as both schools didn't even make the finals of the ACC and Big 12 tourneys.

In the former, Duke beat North Carolina in the semis. They beat Louisville and Notre Dame, too. Duke got a two seed. Committee chairman Mark Hollis told CBS the group had Duke listed as a four seed on Wednesday. He made the promotion to a second seed sound like an unprecedented papal dispensation, a reward too good for the likes of college kids, even if they'd beaten the Spurs, Warriors and Cavs in succession. Worse yet, he left millions of otherwise good Americans finding themselves taking Duke's side in an argument.


I'm sure those remarks went over real well at CBS and ESPN, each of which pay serious money to broadcast those conference tournaments to fans who're now told that a group of certified basketball experts considers them essentially meaningless. A lot of those fans will take that opinion to heart as they fill out their brackets. This will be a mistake. Of course, it'll be a mistake if they ignore the committee's opinion, too.

Having criticized, I must now express some sympathy with the committee's choices. The rules of the game require that four teams must be seeded first in their regions. In the 2016-2017 season, there were basically two teams with one seed credentials, Villanova and Kansas, and about 10 perfectly reasonable number twos, very strong teams with wholly reasonable expectations of playing for a national championship that at some point or another didn't play very well at all.

This places the handicapper (and that's what the committee does after all) in a serious quandary. How does one play chalk when there's too much of it? Look at the two seeds. Duke, Louisville, Kentucky and Arizona. Nobody would faint dead away if that's the Final Four. Look at the threes. Florida State, Baylor, UCLA and Oregon. That would be a startling Final Four, sure enough. But any one of them (well, not Baylor and Oregon) could be there and we'd all nod our heads as if we'd thought it all along.

As far as "upsets" go, SMU and Wichita St., seeded sixth and 10th respectively in their regions, could beat any one of the teams seeded ahead of them. The handicapper will note the importance of the word "one" in a contest where it takes six victories to win the grand prize.

So what the hell, in for a penny, in for ridicule from friends and family.

Sweet Sixteen: Villanova, Florida, SMU, Duke, Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Florida State, Arizona, Kansas, Iowa St., Creighton, Louisville, North Carolina, Butler, UCLA, Kentucky
Elite Eight: Villanova, Duke, Notre Dame, Arizona, Kansas, Louisville, Butler, Kentucky
Final Four: Duke, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky
Championship: Kansas over Arizona.