Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Connie Mark Was A Smart Man.

Memorial Day can be cold and wet. Kids still have a month of school to go. The ocean won't be warm enough for swimming until the 4th of July at the earliest.

No, the only sure indicator of when New England spring has become New England summer is that's when the Red Sox decide they didn't really have enough pitching after sll. Summer is here. It'll arrive officially some time after 7 p.m. when David Pauley, just up from AA, makes his first major league start as the Sox play Toronto.

All ballclubs have their cultural quirks, and after 35 years of living in the Sox' neighborhood, yours truly has become accustomed to theirs-except this one. Every March, otherwise rational people, both fans and actual members of the Boston organization, fret that the Sox might have too many capable pitchers for their staff. And somewhere between the 50 and 70 game mark of every season, some kid Pauley comes up to signify the Sox don't have and never did have enough hurlers to go around.

The sadder but wiser ending to this annual morality tale doesn't baffle me. All 31 other major league teams come to the same conclusion at approximately the same point of their season or even earlier (For the Yanks, summer arrives with Carl Pavano's first trip to the DL). The mystery is what clouds Sox' minds in March. There has never been such a thing as a team with too many quality pitchers. There never will be, either. Since lack of pitching is the primary reason the Sox went 86 years between world titles, it's impossible to see why anyone think they'll be the first team to experience that happy predicament.

Adding a special piquancy to Pauley's start tonight is that three starting pitchers who were vital contributors to the Sox' 2004 championship run could very well make the 2006 All-Star team-the National League All-Star team. Pedro Martinez of the Mets, Derek Lowe of the Dodgers, and Bronson Arroyo of the Reds all have ERAs lower than any Red Sox starter. Oops.

Martinez and Lowe left as free agents after the Series win. Getting outbid for a player's services is not the same thing as letting them go, a fact one wishes "disrespected" free agents would figure out. The Sox traded Arroyo to Cincinnati before the start of this season for raw young slugger Wily Mo Pena. That's on them.

God knows Theo Epstein is smarter than I am and knows more baseball in the bargain. It's a fluke of spring that Arroyo is 6-2 and leads the NL in ERA for the Reds. He was a useful back of the rotation guy for Boston, and by September Arroyo's numbers in Cincinnati almost surely will drop to the same performance level. Pena, apparently never coached at any level, has the potential to be an excellent outfielder in a few years' time.

General managers can live in the future. Spectators cannot. We're stuck with the three dimensional reality of the here and now. That's a reality where plugging an overweight, over 40, contemplating retirement David Wells into the Sox rotation was a triumph of hope over sanity.

When a veteran pitcher starts to drop off a little, as Curt Schilling has, or a lot, as Randy Johnson has for the Yankees, it's not a surprise, it's the actuarial tables in action. Ditto for when a veteran pitcher gets hurt, as Mike Timlin was last week. For that matter, it's no accident when young pitchers get hurt. Kerry Wood has gone from phenom to 30-year old with the Cubs, and his stints on the DL are as regular as the phases of the moon.

Nobody has enough pitching. That's why pitchers are almost always traded for other pitchers. The only famous trade of a competent starter for a position player that worked out for the team dealing the pitcher was when the Orioles got Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas. In other words, if the Reds had dealt Ken Griffey to the Sox for Arroyo, it might've been a good deal.

One would like to think that reports the Sox were unhappy that Roger Clemens will likely re-sign with the Astros were inaccurate. What organization would willingly seek the services of the highest-paid temp in labor history, a $3.5 million-a-month mercenary who'd appear in its clubhouse once every five days, and who'll turn 44 on August 4? What team would plunk down that much dough for a man no one has seen pitch since last October?

The answer to both questions, of course, is all of them. Thirty-two teams would be delighted to add Clemens to their rosters this very afternoon, and the only regret of most is Clemens doesn't want them.

OK, he's Roger Clemens, the greatest pitcher of the last 30 years, maybe the greatest pitcher ever. That was just as true last winter, when Clemens had "retired" for the second time. His spring suitors could've wooed Clemens then. They didn't. It was easier to imagine Clemens finally reaching the end of his trail on their tens of millions of dimes before the games began to count.

Spring's over. Summer's here. Front offices now imagine the Clemens who dominated the National League at ages 42 and 43 the last two seasons. They also see he can't do much worse than some of their other starters.

Connie Mack said baseball was 75 percent pitching. That's one of the proofs he was a smart man. It's also why Clemens will soon become a richer one.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The '60s Just Keep On Dyin'

On ESPN's Sportscenter last night, Hall of Fame baseball writer and soi-disant rock and roll fan Peter Gammons gave the following opinion on the report Roger Clemens had re-signed with the Houston Astros.
"It's like the great old Buffalo Springfeld song ," Gammons said, "something's happening here and I have no clue what it is."
Luckily for Gammons, Steve Stills likes sports. Or used to.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Second place

Nobody remembers who finished second is a primal sports cliche. Yet the holiday weekend was dominated by a pair of runners-up.

Barry Bonds hit his 715th career home run, passing Babe Ruth to stand second on the all-time list. Sam Hornish won the Indianapolis 500. Hornish isn't a runner-up, but Indy is. Once the premier auto race in all the world, the 500 is now an exercise in nostalgia for regular sports fans and gearheads alike.

Let's dispose of the less interesting second placer first. Bonds' feat, like many of baseball's great career accomplishments, became a grim actuarial forced march during its end game. This isn't surprising. By definition, all-time career accomplishments take place towards the end of careers, when a player is not the man he was in his salad days. Add the pressing that comes with approaching a sacred number, and voila, instant mediocrity. Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn remained stuck on 299 wins for almost the entire second half of the 1962 season, and had to come back as a pity part of another team's roster in '63. He got 300 on this third try, then retired.

Bonds would be well-advised to follow Wynn's example, but we should be so lucky. Knees shot (30 pounds of extra muscle are just as hard on the body's joints as 30 pounds of extra fat), nationally loathed, fanatic perfectionist Bonds must know he's just another imperfect player now. Why keep it up? Perhaps Bonds enjoys how uncomfortable he's making everyone else with an interest in baseball.

At any rate, Bonds' quest for 715 made it clear any quest for 756 homers to pass Hank Aaron is almost surely beyond his powers now. There won't be many takers for a $15 million a year .240-hitting DH next winter. Bonds is nearly out of our lives. Com'on Barry, take the last step out the door. You'll feel better.

The Indy 500 used to be the most of everything in auto racing. It was the fastest, richest, most famous, and, oh yes, most deadly contest the sport had. That's what made it an irresistable spectacle. This year's edition, where the final margin of victory was fractions of a second, the lead changed hands on the last lap, and runner-up was the son of the third-place driver, scored high in the spectacle department. Wonder if anyone noticed?

You used to be nothing in auto racing until you tried Indy. Formula One drivers came from Europe, stock car drivers from the South. This year, Tony Stewart, the most gung-ho driver extant, one of the last to believe in crossover racing, skipped Indy for his regular NASCAR Sunday drive. Contractural obligations come first. Formula One was busy with the Monaco Grand Prix, as the drivers hauled away their usual freight train full of Euros.

NASCAR has better marketing and rules-mandated close competition. Formula One is infinitely more technically sophisticated than either form of American racing. It's not just the occasional right turn, either? A political argument led to a disastrous split in the open-wheel (Indy car) racing community that has yet to heal. All those factors have contributed to Indy's loss of stature.

Here's the puzzler. Despite its faded glamor, Indy remains by far the FASTEST of the world's most celebrated auto races. Drivers turn green flag laps at 220-plus mph, far faster than NASCAR lets its cars go, or that's possible on Formula One courses. Yesterday's average speeds for the three races mentioned here were as follows.

Indy 500: 157 mph.
NASCAR Coca-Cola 600: 128 mph.
Grand Prix of Monaco: 93 mph.

What am I missing here? Wasn't the desire to see who had the fastest car the whole point of auto racing in the first place?

Politics Makes the Same Old Bedfellows

The current president of the United States is the son of the president before last. There has been a Dole or a Bush on the Republican ticket in every presidential election since 1972, and Libby Dole and Jeb Bush are eligible to keep the streak alive two years from now.

Over in the other party, the two leading candidates for the next nomination are the man who served as vice-president of the most recent former president, and the same former president's wife.

Complete lack of imagination appears to be the true bipartisan ideal in American politics.

The awful Ryan Seacrest noted with pride last week that more votes were cast for the winner of this season's American Idol than for any president in history. This statistic may be related to the rules of the singing contest. It starts with brand-new contestants every time.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Incomplete Through Games of May 26

Once upon a time, the Sunday sports section of almost every newspaper would carry a complete list of major league batting and pitching statistics through the games of the previous Friday. Every baseball fan took a 10-minute plunge into the smallest possible type each week, checking up on familiar and unfamiliar names who didn't play for the home town nine.

On this Memorial Day weekend, when even those of you WITH jobs have extra time to loaf with the Sunday paper, neither my New York Times nor Boston Globe carried those listings. The Globe didn't even have league Top 10 stats.

Don't bother, Globe and Times. I know your answers already. We didn't have enough space. The readers can get those numbers off the Internet. The less and less newspapers do for their readers, the better they get at writing their own epitaphs.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ted Johnson

Anyone looking for an honest linebacker to safeguard their journey through life might give Ted Johnson a call. The former Patriot is in between his second and third careers right now.

Amid almost no fanfare, Johnson left his post as a commentator on WBZ-TV's pre- and post-game Patriots' broadcasts, saying he felt too uncomfortable analyzing (read: criticizing) the performances of his former teammates. Speaking as a former sports journalist, it's too bad Johnson is leaving the business. It needs guys (and gals) with the guts to confront a conflict of interest-even if the conflict was only in Johnson's own mind.

That's what made Johnson's decision so honorable. He cared more about his duty to his audience than it did.

The "Pats 5thQuarter" is a show devoid of information or entertainment. It gets a high rating catering to fans whose devotion to their team is so total they'd rather watch Bob Lobel stand outside a locker room than an actual game between two other NFL clubs. They watch the pregame show to see people predict a Pats' victory. They watch the postgamer to watch an utterly burnt Bill Belichick give one-sentence answers to reporters' questions as his soul longs for the comfort of a hot shower.

Johnson could have kept his post and tossed nothing but verbal posies at the Pats for many seasons to come. The audience would have eaten it up. There's more than one ex-jock in Boston earning a good living doing just that.

Johnson couldn't. He knew his true responsibility to his audience was to call 'em as he saw 'em and let the chips fall where they might, whether the audience liked it or not. It's depressing how many professional broadcasters who never played sports would rather curry favor than tell the truth. Boo-ya! Here was a man with a built-in excuse for pulling his punches who couldn't draw a paycheck for giving less than his all to his employer. May Johnson's tribe increase in every line of work there is.

The old fairy tale that football builds character never recovered from the trial of Orenthal James Simpson. We don't know who or what built Johnson's character.

We do know they built well.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Some Days It's Not About You

Big city tabloid newspapers, where I used to earn my bread, and sports talk radio both thrive on baseball. This indisputable fact is weird, considering neither format fits the game at all.

Case in point, last night's Red Sox-Yankees game, yet another 3-hour plus installment of what's gone from baseball's most historic rivalry to its most geologic one. Had it been any other two teams, the moral of its story would have been New York 7-Boston 5. The end. Who do you like to make the NBA Finals?

Ah, but the Sox and Yanks aren't just any two teams. They have 4 tabloids and 4 sports radio stations to support. By all that's holy in Arbitron and the circulation department, those clubs CAN'T play a game devoid of deep meaning and vital import for the future.

New York and Boston play 19 times a season, so of course some of their games are instantly forgettable. The result is a 9-inning molehill transformed into the Himalayas of overanalysis.

Here's the real news of the game. 1. Yankee starter Jaret Wright hurt (again). This is fairly significant. 2. Aside from Mariano Rivera, New York bullpen still blows. Significant, but hardly new information. 3. Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez remain pretty good hitters. Heard about the Lindbergh baby?

Hard to conjure up a back page headline or two hours of jammed phones out of such thin gruel, especially in Boston, where the game's gruel was close to pure liquid. But nature doesn't abhor a vacuum as much as the media does.

Ergo, my former Herald colleagues scratched among various topics including managerial strategy to fill their alloted space, while on local talker WEEI, hosts were forced to ponder whether Ramirez had violated baseball etiquette by "showing up" New York pitcher Scott Proctor by standing at home to admire his massive 7th inning homer.

Baseball etiquette! Like a sport where people spit in public has such a thing. The game of Ty Cobb, Sal Maglie, and Pete Rose is now supposed to emulate the Court of Louis XIV. You can't show up a stiff anyhow.

The end result is that some astute baseball reporters and commentators made themselves look a little foolish today. It's not their fault. They were asked to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with a box of Crayolas.

The big-city tabloid philosophy is that every event of every day ends in an exclamation point. The truth of baseball is exactly the opposite. With few exceptions, every game is supposed to be just like every other game. Look at the sport's most profound cliches. It's a long season. You can't get too high or too low. Baseball's philosophy is the Aristotlean search for the golden mean. Save those exclamation points for the playoffs.

Talk radio is misnamed. It should be scream radio. It lives off the emotionally overwrought. There are more of enough of such unfortunates among the Yankee and Sox fan bases to keep those stations profitable. But this skewed worldview turns otherwise sensible hosts into clown acts at warp speed.

Simply put, a Sunday NFL game gives the radio host an entire week to vent on what happened before the home team can get on the field once more and prove him and his listeners wrong. In baseball, an afternoon drive time rant can be rendered inoperative before the host gets home for dinner. Presto, he's instant horse's ass. After two homers and 5RBI in two games, methinks there's less "ARod the choker" talk in Gotham today.

The Sox and Yanks go again tonight. I wish my friends in the New York and Boston media all the best. Capturing fog in a first baseman's mitt is easier work than putting the exclamation points in a May ballgame.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

See You in Cooperstown, You Bum!

Alex Rodriguez's 439th career home run was a no-doubter, soaring through a stiff breeze to land in the last row of the Green Monster seats atop the left field wall of Fenway Park.

As Rodriguez circled the bases, there was also no doubt in the minds of a fevered minority of baseball fans and the media quacks who cater to their illness. To them, A-Rod's bomb was yet more proof that the American League's 2005 MVP is a no-good, gutless choker.

Rodriguez hit the two-run shot last night in the top of the ninth with the score Red Sox 9-Yankees 1 (New York lost 9-5). It was, therefore, "meaningless", a vainglorious act contrivuting only to Rodriguez and not his team. A real star would've done something to REALLY help the Yanks. Presumably in this case, A-Rod should've turned in history's first five-homer game. Then New York would've won, assuming A-Rod also switched from third base to pitching.

Rodriguez's credentials are in question for two reasons. He's in a bit of a slump, hitting only .270, and is on track for a measley 35-40 homer, 110-120 RBI season. What a pantywaist! More seriously, A-Rod had a miserable three games against the Mets last weekend, and as we all know, any event that takes place within the five boroughs has infinitely more significance than the same event in another location. One loss to the Mets is a truer indication of worth than a 12-RBI game against the Blue Jays.

Logic suggests the absence of Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui from the Yankee lineup plays some role in Rodriguez's struggles, just as Johnny Damon's presence has contributed to Derek Jeter's superb start at the plate. But we're talkin' baseball, not logic. We're talkin' the eternal, moronic, unbeatable belief that when a team loses, it's always the best player's fault. He shoulda been better yet.

Rodriguez is a sensitive sort, so he won't heed the following bit of advice. Relax and enjoy the sneers, Alex. You're in good company. The "gutless puke" residence might be the largest structure in baseball Valhalla.

In the author's lifetime, the following hitters have carried reputations as guys who couldn't delivered when it mattered, men of hollow accomplishments and hollow souls: Ted Williams, Orlando Cepeda, Carl Yastrzemski, Mike Schmidt, Jim Rice, Dave Winfield, Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez, and for a short time in the late '50s, God save us all, Willie Mays.

All of those worthies are in the Hall of Fame except Rice, who should be, and Ramirez, who will be. Counting new scapegoat A-Rod, they have a combined total of over 3500 homers and 20.000 hits. In the most amazing statistical anomaly in human history, none of those hits and homers helped their teams win games. Bud Selig really should have Bill James look into this.

James is a busy man, so I'll do it. The anomaly stems from a simple formula: 1+1=1. One statistical fact plus one emotional truth equals one nasty fallacy.

Fact: Hitters fail. In over 95 percent of baseball games, there are more outs than hits. In 99.9999 percent, there are more outs than runs.

Emotional truth: To fans, whenever their team's top slugger comes to bat, it's a clutch situation by definition. It doesn't matter if it's the top of the first or the bottom of the ninth. By God, that out is why we lost today.

Combine those elements, and voila! A legendary hitter stands revealed as a cowardly stumblebum. It's a wonder any of them drew a salary.

Those who believe this are morons, of course. Had Rodriguez hit that homer in the first, the game's final score wouldn't have changed. They're also communists who hate the free market economy. The market set Rodriguez's $25 million a year salary, and while the market can be wrong, it's seldom that wrong.

Fans can be excuse for their pathologies. Rooting is a socially acceptable way of id-venting, after all-a setting where irrationality is accepted behavior. The alerr reader will note a disproportionate number of slugging scapegoats played in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia-the cities boasting the game's noisest and most arrogant fan bases. They're PROUD of going overboard. It's a civic birthright.

Reporters and commentators who egg on the delusional have no such excuse. They' have a professional responsibility to maintain at least a tenuous connection with reality. At least they used to. Loud, stupid, and uninformed has become a path to a big paycheck.

As a capitalist, I must point out that A-Rod proves there's still more money in being a choking slugger than in dissing one.

Monday, May 22, 2006

I Was a Phish for the FBI

When the going gets tough, the tough look at Congress and cheer right up.

No matter how much of a hash American citizens have made of their own lives, all of them are doing better than Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.). Justice Department documents aren't usually light reading, but Jefferson's 95 page corruption indictment last week could've filled an entire issue of the Onion without anyone noticing the difference. To say the congressman was dumb as a stump insults wood.

Press reports have led on the delightful fact Jefferson kept $90 grand in swag in his freezer. My favorite, however, is that the feds used a co-operating informant to nab Jefferson in an imaginary Nigerian business deal. His loot was supposed to be a payoff to that nation's vice president.

A get-rich-quick quick scheme involving a prominent member of an African government. In other words, more or less the same proposition every person on earth with e-mail receives at least six times a day. And Jefferson fell for it!! Greedy, gullible, and in the mnority is no way to go through life, son.

If there's one born every minute, then the House of Representatives was created in less than a full business day.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


Note: First person writing is to be avoided. This time it can't be helped.

In my former professional life, I saw both a man and a horse die on a racetrack, the man in a stock car, the horse on a simple practice gallop.

They were both horrible, grief-ridden experiences no one could ever forget. In their immediate aftermaths, however, the horse's death was much more disturbing and difficult to accept. Years have passed, and I still wonder why.

The question is back this morning. If Barbaro must be put down, which sadly looks quite likely, he will be mourned by millions who had no idea of his existence before the Kentucky Derby, maybe by as many people who mourned the death of well-known superstar Dale Earnhardt. How come?

The relationships between human beings and the animals we've domesticated are as deep and complex as the ones between our fellow humans. In the case of a racehorse dying young, the wellspring of our grief may be guilt. Race car drivers accept the risks of their trade with eyes wide open, with human calculation of the danger compared to its rewards. So do jockeys, whose job, by the way, is many times riskier than auto racing.

Thoroughbreds don 't. They can't. Horses aren't deep thinkers. They're BRED to compete, and the urge to run and win is part of their genetic makeup. It's all they know, the sum total of their consciousness, and we, homo sapiens, put it there, the same way we bred horses as beasts of burden, weapons of war, and any number of pursuits with a dreadful rate of premature and sudden death.

Barbaro has no idea why his right back leg hurts so badly. But we know why. It's a tough "why" to live with, too.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Taking Back America One Pop-Up At A Time

Barry Bonds is both smart and malevolent. It figures his scheme for a PR makeover would involve fiendish torture for innocent sports fans.

Bonds' status as poster mutant for baseball's Steroid Era makes him unpopular. Then again, most Americans have a profoundly ambivalent attitude about those who break the rules to get ahead in life. When the Giants visited Philadelphia for a weekend series, Philly fans jeered Bonds as only they can. When Bonds hit career homer 713 about 22 miles into south Jersey, those same fans gave him a rousing ovation. Most of them took a picture of Bonds rounding the bases.

Bonds has remained stuck on 713 for going on two weeks. By now, all of the nation's fans are in his corner, rooting with all their hearts for Bonds to hit homers 714 and 715 in his next two at bats if not sooner.

Until that happens, the baseball community will be bombarded with news stories and columns about Bonds, broadcasts about Bonds, barroom arguments about him, and ESPN cut-ins to his every plate appearance. May's already the most cluttered month of the sports calendar. Bonds has crowded it past the breaking point. The longer he drags out the chase to pass the Babe, the more the tainted slugger forces the fans to confront an issue that makes the vast majority of them extremely uncomfortable. Nobody likes discomfort.

Worse yet, Bonds isn't exactly a boon companion for a long journey, even a psychic one. His LEAST annoying trait is self-pity. And there's no possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation between this player and his game's fan base. Bonds is an unrepentant megalomaniac who did what he did to salve a bruised ego. "You think Sosa's a star? I'll show you people what happens when a real star goes Big Pharma!"

In short, people would rather not think about Barry Bonds at all, but until he hits number 715, anyone who watches baseball is stuck with the churl. It's pain, not pleasure, that's making fans pull for Bonds to pull one into the seats every time he comes to the plate. The standing ovations he'll get for his next two homers will be expressions of relief, not admiration.

So for now, let's all shout "Go Barry!". It's the only way we can help make him go away.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Public Affairs Musing

Warning: Every so often, a thought on some actual issue of the day crosses my mind. I promise any such postings will be as brief as possible, making them easier to skip.

The rains in New England have stopped for now, and the lawn services are making up for lost time this morning. Around the corner, my personal favorite service, Keltic Landscaping, was unloading mowers, rakes, and blowers.

Keltic is my favorite because all of the guys on the truck look like they're from Kosta Rica. They are Latinos and if they're immigrants, it's doubtful they sought visas to pursue a career in mulch spreading.

No surprise. Landscaping work has employed low-wage immigrants since forever. Check out how many Japanese gardeners appear in Raymond Chandler's stories.

Try as I might, I couldn't visualize the Keltic crew as a threat to the Republic. Nor could I see why they shouldn't become citizens if they wished.

We can make room for immigrants who wish to join the USA by giving the citizenship exam to native-born Americans. After we deport the 100 million or so who'll flunk, there'll be plenty of room for newcomers.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Nil-Nil and Counting

There are times when soccer's main purpose appears to be the creation of hilarious briefs for the American news industry. It's always reassuring to learn the rest of the world is at least as unhinged as we are.

I don't mean the riots and mass disasters that blight the game. Those tragedies result from serious social ills ranging from racism to primitive facilities to police incompetence, none of which are unknown in this nation. What fascinates me are the occasions when lunacy rules the world's most popular sport harming nothing but rationality. This is especially amusing when it involves those sober welfare states of the European Union.

The runup to this afternoon's Champions Cup final in Paris between Barcelona and Arsenal is setting a zaniness bar that'll be difficult for the runup to next month's World Cup to clear. All the non-soccer fans out there need only think what Sportscenter would l0ok like if either of the following two events occured in connection with the Super Bowl.

1. Last night, two masked gunmen broke into a city council meeting in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, held a weapon to a hostage's head, and demanded tickets to the game. They ran away without either harming anyone or getting the ducats. One wonders if these two Napoleons of crime gave any consideration to what would've happened if they'd gotten away with tickets and then used them.

2. The New York Times reported that Ole Borgan, a Norwegian linesman assigned to the Cup final, had to be replaced after allowing himself to be photographed in a Barcelona replica jersey.

"It was from the sheer joy of being picked," said his countryman, head ref Terje Hauge. All the world knows how overemotional Norwegians are.

Great stuff, that. Placed on its mettle, the World Cup is limbering up for its month in the sun with some hi-jinks of its own. For openers, there's the Budweiser scandal. FIFA, soccer's ruling body, sold Anheuser-Busch the rights to be the Cup's official beer. Only one problem. Germans HATE Bud. They don't even allow it to be sold under that name. World Cup venues will have two sets of beer stands. One will push something called "A-B Bud". The other will feature home-bred German beers brewed under regulations dating back to the Black Death.

Hint to thirsty Americans: Lines at the A-B Bud stands will be short.

More significantly, Italian soccer, like every other element of life in that country, is now in the midst of a major scandal. It's an alleged conspiracy between the officials of major teams, referees, and players infinitely more complex, and as far as Italians are concerned, more important, than the plot outlined in the DaVinci Code.

The leading player involved just happens to be the goalie of the Italian national team. But don't worry fans. According to his coach, he's a "serious person."

I've read everything I can find on this scandal, and although I can't remember any names, I have learned one fact I'll never forget. Italy has sports talk radio! That must be supreme entertainment, whether you speak the language or not.

So Arsenal-Barcelona will be must-sort of watch TV in this house in a few hours. If it weren't for the need to look at the damn games, soccer would SO sweep this country.

Update: Barcelona won 2-1, and there was more action than is common in important soccer matches. This might have been due to referee Hauge's decision to red card the Arsenal goalie early in the contest, forcing the Gunners a man down the rest of the way. Calls like that bring out the inner conspiracy buff in fans of any sport.

Update 2: Italian TV sportscaster Aldo Bascadi has resigned following accusations he was paid off to say nice things about Juventus of Turin.
Maybe that's how Brett Favre is doing it.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A Fan's Programming Notes

For some seasons now, the Red Sox cable outlet NESN has provided a condensed replay of the previous night or day's game in the afternoon. This year, they've added to the broadcast, offering the previous game's pregame show as well.

I can't blame NESN for this absurd horror. Revenue is revenue, and any option's better than Charlie Moore's Outdoor Adventure. The audience, on the other hand....

Look, sports fans provided me with a decent and enjoyable living for many years. I go to extremes to tolerate their many quirks, foibles, and psychoses. But there has to be a line drawn somewhere, and here's the place.

I'm sorry. Anyone who voluntarily watches the pregame show for yesterday's ballgame has provided their heirs with the evidence needed to demand and win a competency hearing.

Welcome to Yogichusetts!

We had to change our state's name due to its demographic crisis. As Lawrence Peter Berra once said, nobody comes here anymore, it's too crowded.

As part of its ongoing "Dude, Where's Our Subscribers?" series, last Sunday's Boston Globe did a front page story on the astonishing fact more folks are moving out of Massachusetts than are moving in. The major reason cited by expatriates from the Hub of the Universe, you'll be shocked to learn, was money. Either they got better jobs somewhere else, or had to move to find a less expensive place, i.e., a house they liked and could afford.

The article ignored its central paradox. No matter how liberal Massachusetts might be (not as much as outsiders think), it hasn't repealed the law of supply and demand. If life here is expensive, the cost must rest on a clamorous demand-lots of people who WANT to live in the state.

For openers, the state drawing the most ex-residents was New Hampshire. Sociologically speaking, that's not moving out of Boston at all. Those former citizens of the Bay State are exurbanites forced to the fringes of the greater metropolitan area, as evidenced by the Manchester, N.H. airport recently changing its name to the Manchester-BOSTON airport.
People who leave town, any town, for a better paying job are not news in our mobile, materialistic. competitive society. They reflect nothing on the city they just left or on the one they moved to, either. Our fair city has become pretty much another corporate branch outlet. Why worry that its residents act like it?

Nor is it a shock that salaries provide more bang for the buck in, say, Indiana than in New England. In the 32 years I've lived here, Boston has ALWAYS had one of the highest if not the highest costs of living in the USA. This has not changed through several boom and bust cycles.
(Dear Globe editors: Didn't the rush of people leaving the state from 2000-04 give any of you the notion to compare the NASDAQ averages during that time? Or was the memory of the tech frenzy too painful?).

The only difference in Boston's demographic puzzle in 1974, when the city's economy was in tatters, and today's that I can make out is at the other end of the residential telescope. Massachusetts is suffering a net outflow of people not because more are leaving, but because fewer can move in.

This fact is not the stuff of doctoral theses. People most often move at two times in their lives, when they start working for a living and when they stop. Retirees will always be more likely to leave a cold-weather, high-cost city like ours than to migrate here (a surprising number stay). But what was once a tremendous place for a young person is now a rotten one.
"Cambridge, " a golf partner of mine once said, "is where they'll sell you your old college apartment for $250,000."

That was 15 years ago. Now it's more like 500-750K. The city was wracked by crime, economic doldrums and the busing crisis in the '70s, but it had a superb surplus of affordable, more or less livable rental housing in pleasant locations for people in their 20s entering working life.
No longer. Unless they come from wealth, the graduates of the world's largest college town are well advised to take their dreams and energy somewhere else.

There's no room at the start of the demographic chain. Many of those who began life in Boston 30-some years ago prospered. Massachusetts being a terrific place to live, they stayed put, driving up the price of getting in on their good thing. As one of those folks, I absolve myself of guilt. The Baby Boomers can be criticized for any number of reasons, but it's surely not our fault there are so many of us.

That's why the population drain hereabouts isn't going to lead to parking on Newbury Street anytime soon. The in-town space kids can't afford, their parents can.

It's the genius of the market, however, that every trend becomes its own correction. As its name suggests, trickle-down economics works best when it leads an economy down, not up. In my beautiful, wildly overpriced western suburb, the most expensive, expansive homes on the market have had their "For Sale" signs up for months now. Boston's young entrepreneurs, artists, and dreamers of 2026 should find plenty of housing bargains in Cambridgeport and Jamaica Plain.

Our Doug

Doug Flutie's career was a matter of some interest here in New England. His retirement at age 43 yesterday has already drawn just about every conceivable comment and recollection possible. I'll keep this brief.

The year Flutie made the Pro Bowl for the Bills, I bought my wife Alice his replica jersey for a nightgown as a Christmas present. My children got her a box of Flutie Flakes. She loved both presents. She loves Doug. She was enthralled by the doings of the gifted, hard-bitten little scamp, whose sports soul was half small boy, half old pro in an uneasy alliance. Before Flutie, Alice didn't care a whit for football.

There have hundreds of better NFL quarterbacks through history. Few of them had Flutie's special gift. He didn't simply appeal to folks who were already football fans, although of course he did. Doug CREATED fans out of previously uninterested bystanders.
In the final analysis, that's an amazingly vital attribute for an athlete in a game played for money-the fans' money.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Poor Hank

Barry Bonds hasn't hit a home run for a week and remains stuck at 713 career homers. This gives baseball even more time to ignore Hank Aaron.

Aaron's historical status is the game's most baffling unsolved mystery. He is the owner of baseball's most hallowed career record, its all-time home run king. The cold type of the Encyclopedia shows Aaron can't rank anywhere lower than fourth in a list of the best position players (non-pitchers) EVER, and has a damn fine case for heading the list.

Aaron's last season was in 1976. He's third all-time in games played, third in hits, and ninth in doubles. There are the homers, of course, but Hank also stands second only to Ty Cobb in runs scored, and had more RBI than any player who ever stepped on a big league ballfield.

I grew up watching, and fearing, Aaron. That was a joy, but I almost envy those too young for that privilege for the moment when they encounter Aaron's numbers for the first time and are struck with a flash of light spelling "Holy Shit!"

Yet whenever slugging records are menaced, or the stars of today are weighed against the legends of yesteryear, Aaron is slighted, almost overlooked.

There was only one such burning issue this past winter. Everyone in the baseball community from Bud Selig to eight-year old Padres fans was consumed with the meaning of Bonds' homer total and the artificial means he used to compile it. The Giants' swollen-headed misanthrope was going to have more homers than Babe Ruth! Something must be done, or should it? Contentious debate took place in board rooms and barrooms.

Relatively few voices said "Who cares who's SECOND-best on the homer list? No way Bonds catches the immortal Aaron."

It's as if Aaron's record never happened. Babe still outranks him, no matter what the numbers say. Worse yet, Aaron's contemporaries outrank him.

Ever alert to commercial trends, the publishing industry threw out two new baseball biographies to coincide with Bonds' 714th. One was a new study of Ruth by Leigh Montville. The other was written by David Maraniss on Roberto Clemente.

There aren't two better authors on sports than Maraniss and Montville. Clemente surely deserves his life to have his life commemorated. But what about Hank? Where's his Boswell?Among other advantages Aaron has for potential biographers, he's still alive to tell his tale.

For Aaron, literary history repeats itself. In the winter of 1974, when it was apparent Aaron would surpass Ruth's "unbreakable" mark of 714 career homers, Robert Creamer came out with "Babe", his definitive and superlative Ruth biography. Aaron's quest earned him admiration, but it also stirred a great national wave of nostalgia for the hero he was passing by. The racist hater who plagued Aaron's life at that time were a tiny minority. Crueler by far was baseball's majority, who made it clear that they might respect Aaron, but reserved their true love for Babe.

Ruth was a prodigious and original American character. What that has to do with a man's relative merit as a ballplayer escapes me.

The sad truth of Aaron's career is this: He's been overlooked forever. He was a megastar destined to be eclipsed by others, even in his prime. Worst of all, the folks doing the overlooking knew this was unjust, but couldn't stop doing so.

Aaron spent his prime in Willie Mays' shadow. Mays was Aaron's match, but hardly his superior. The "Say Hey Kid," however, was lyricized as the embodiment of playfulness in sanitary socks.
Ruth was real. Mays' legend was pure moonshine. Mays was Bonds' godfather in more ways than one-including misanthropy. Aaron's image was of quiet deadliness. The world doesn't change much. Those who don't blow their own horn got lost in the shuffle than as they do now.
Aaron was National League MVP just once, when the Milwaukee Braves won the pennant and World Series in 1957. The writers never gave him the award again. Someone else always caught their fancy.

In 1963, Aaron led the league in slugging percentage, as well as homers (44), runs (121), and RBI (130). He had 201 hits, and for dessert, stole 31 bases. The MVP went to some bum southpaw named Koufax.

OK, the Dodgers were champs that year, and the Braves finished up the track. What explains 1959? Aaron led the league in hitting (.355), slugging (.636), hits (223), hit 39 homers and had 123 RBI. The Braves lost the NL pennant in a playoff with the Dodgers. League MVP went to ebullient Ernie Banks of the 74-80, fifth place Chicago Cubs.

Some folks have the knack for capturing the public imagination and some don't, no matter what their other gifts may be, and Aaron falls into the latter category. He's what fans say they admire in our hype-drenched age, but seldom really do.

Aside from a certain edginess on the issue of race (can't imagine how Aaron picked that up), the home run king is an appealing legend, modest and cheerful. He's still willing to take one for the team. Maybe that's Aaron's problem.

Aaron was a centerpiece of one of the most unpleasant spectacles ever seen on a baseball diamond during the 2004 World Series at old Busch Stadium in St. Louis. There's a slugging award of some sort named after Bad Henry, and Aaron was on hand to help Commissioner Selig present the title to that year's winner-Barry Bonds.

The steroid scandal was at full boil. Bonds had already testified before the BALCO grand jury. His feats were controversial, no, lethally radioactive. The trophy presentation was preceded by a press conference where questions were banned.

Aaron went out to the pitcher's mound and handed over the award bearing his name as if nothing was amiss. This was in the best interests of the baseball business, but it sure wasn't in the best interests of Hank Aaron, baseball legend. Given a superb opportunity to draw attention to himself, Aaron passed.

One has to conclude Aaron likes passing slightly beneath baseball's consciousness. Most underrated superstar in history, after all, is a singular title all its own.

History, however, is first of all meant to be accurate. Accuracy, not to mention justice, demands Aaron find more acclaim and a Boswell of his own.

I could find him a motivated biographer with time on his hands.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


As the floodwaters rise, with the mighty Shawsheen River expanding past its normal 3 foot width, this exercise begins, composed of equal parts ego and boredom. After almost 30 years of not keeping my thoughts to myself, communicating is an impossible habit to break, even if there's nobody listening.

Hell, a nonexistent audience is the darkest hidden fear of every newspaper writer, and if those of us in sports felt that way, imagine the poor dance critic or the suffering souls covering the Boston City Council. So I might as well start in cyberspace with the worst case scenario-a bulletin delivered to no one but myself.

That way, this enterprise will produce some astonishing growth rate figures, just by nagging my relatives.