Friday, June 30, 2006

Boom! Goes the Metro Section

(Sorry, don't know how to do links, go over to and judge the offending essay for yourself)

Buying a newspaper during a major holiday weekend is very much like ordering fish in a restaurant on a Monday. It MIGHT be fresh. Then again...

The desire to be in Mattapoisett by dinnertime must'be got the better of Globe Metro columnist Brian McGrory. The nicest adjective one can give his column in today's paper would be "schizophrenic."

The 4th of July, of course, means fireworks. The "fireworks are dangerous" story is as routine a part of newspapering as "Mayor serves turkey dinner to down-and-outers" is at Thanksgiving. McGrory's effort in this timeless non-news story category, however, is downright weird.

Half of McGrory's article was a routine denunciation of fireworks as dangerous items Massachusetts is right to ban for public consumption, along with snide remarks about New Hampshire's decision to keep fireworks legal. To your true Globie, New Hampshire is Mississippi with snow.

The other half, and there's no other conclusion to be drawn, was an advertisement for the New Hampshire Fireworks Merchants Association, making it clear to all residents of no-fun Massachusetts that the delightfully lethal explosives needed to commemorate Independence Day are for sale right across the border. McGrory included PRICES!! There was no mention of senior citizen discounts, but that must've been an oversight.

Thanks to McGrory, Globe readers now know just how many illegal, immoral, dangerous fireworks will fit into their holiday budget and where to get 'em. The essence of journalism is service.

Most days, McGrory is a pretty good columnist. This reader went over today's piece three times, because the possibility exists that McGrory meant to be snarkily dismissive of the Bay State's fuddy-duddy refusal to let its citizens blow stuff (and themselves) up. Before the proper amount of coffee, subtlety is lost on me.

As I said up top, you be the judge. My verdict: If McGrory was aiming for subtlety, he succeeded far too well. If not, well, the NHFMA owes him big time. Maybe they'll send him a few Roman candles.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

NBA Forgets E in ESPN

Pedro Martinez had nothing last night, leaving nothing to watch but the NBA draft. Or so I thought.

So much for David Stern's reputation for showmanship. As news, the draft didn't make any. As art, it was an excruciating blut that managed to be both too frantic and too tedious to watch without real pain. Let's put it this way. When Stuart Scott is not the worst element of your sports television show, you've got a cosmic bomb on your hands.

Boo-Ya's fawning interviews with the lucky draftees were as awful as ever, but they were easily outstunk by one of the grossest, most basic errors in TV. ESPN could not keep up with the event it was covering. Viewers channel-surfing the event (and that's just how most fans watch drafts) had no chance of figuring out what was going on. Hell, some of the draftees couldn't.

Thabo Sefolosha, a pleasant young man from Switzerland, was the 13th pick of the first round, and delivered the winning quote. Before Scott could gush a question, Sefolosha glanced upward at the baseball cap atop his head and asked "Should I still be wearing this hat?"

Sefolosha may not have a pro quality jumper, but he can handle the ball of reality. The cap he was wearing bore the 76ers logo. That was the team that putatively drafted him, except Sefolosha, Scott, and the audience all knew his rights had been traded to the Bulls well before the pick was made. None of ESPN's eye-torturing graphics pointed this out, so any Sixer or Bulls fan watching the graphics for an update wasn't just uninformed, but misinformed.

Why? Stern's Napoleon complex, which is reaching rubber room dimensions, demands that trades aren't official until HE announces them from the podium. The audience? Stern holds them in the contempt evident in every pregame player introduction in the league. If those boobs get off on that freak show, they'll put up with whatever I dish out.

Failure to recognize trades rendered the proceedings unintelligble, as the league's franchises swapped picks with the abandon of Wall Street fantasy leaguers on a crystal meth binge. The Bulls may not be done yet. I'll bet at least one draftee went out to party with friends and family last night and woke up this morning convinced he's playing for a team that already traded him.

This dealmaking frenzy, of course, is a strong indication the NBA's front office masterminds placed little value on the draft in the first place. Teams who think there are difference makers available look to trade up in drafts, not sideways. Portland and Chicago swapped the 2 and 4 pick when they could have had the same players standing pat.

Danny Ainge, never one to be left out of a dealmaking frenzy, rated Boston's 7th overall pick so highly he essentially traded it to the Blazers for the chance to dump Raef LaFrentz's contract, and that's not a bad deal, all things considered. Ainge also acquired two more point guards, thereby shoring up one area of his team that wasn't a glaring weakness. Some front offices get hooked on a particular roster slot. In the '90s, the Jets had about 14 tight ends and the Red Sox a half-dozen first basemen/DHs.

Drafts are not-ready-for-prime-time programming and always will be. The NFL knows better than to put its hugely popular draft into the 8-11 p.m. broadcast slot. Drafts are lists, and while people love lists, they love reading them, not watching them.

Long before Jim Grey made his latest plunge into the special world of the Lakers, I switched off the set. I was daydreaming about earlier NBA drafts-the one in which Ainge was selected, to be specific.

Back then, the NBA draft wasn't televised. It began at noon on a Tuesday, attended by a small crowd of reporters and season ticket holders crammed into the Blade and Boards club at the old Garden. The first two rounds took less than 90 minutes, Red Auerbach came out to tell us how he'd swindled them all once more, we ate cold cuts and potato salad, then went home by 3 p.m.

Trading perfectly good corned beef for Stuart Scott is a very, very bad deal.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


In the eternal competition to find the single most irritating Boston sports non-story, the "will fans boo returning ex-Red Sox" currently maintains a lead of several lengths.

This tedious tale burst from the pack when Johnny Damon came to Fenway last month as a Yankee. He got booed with a few cheers thrown in. Tonight, Pedro Martinez returns to Fenway to pitch against the Red Sox as a Met. He'll get cheered with a few boos on top, like jimmies.

And who on earth cares? Fans pay their money and can do whatever the hell they want, as long as they understand that their opinions don't change facts. If someone wants to reveal themselves as a small-minded moron by jeering a ballplayer for the sin of putting his paycheck ahead of loyalty to the sacred Red Sox, let them go for it. Their noises off didn't change Damon's status as a high-quality major leaguer, and won't alter Martinez's status either.

Let me put it this way. When Pedro's plaque goes up in Cooperstown in a decade or so, there won't be a sentence reading, "some Red Sox fans and some media members found him too high-maintenence for their tastes."

Immortality dissolves public opinion. Ted Williams was the ULTIMATE high-maintenence ballplayer. The Kid was approximately a billion times more controversial in Boston than any Red Sox of the past 45 1/2 years since his retirement. No one was more criticized, both fairly and unfairly. Williams could be a self-pitying boor, and was called out for it. On the other hand, what is a player supposed to do when writers rip him for a) taking too many walks when his team needed extra base hits and b) not laying down bunts and opposite field grounders for singles when opponents put a shift on?

It's been a long time since 1960, and the number of New Englanders who participated in the great Ted debates has shrunk accordingly. Know what? Ask the remaining old-timers left about Williams and a significant percentage will lie their senior asses off. Go ahead. Poll Bostonians aged 70 and over. See how many now say, "Oh, yeah, Williams. I always hated that selfish jerk." If you find one, call Diogenes. His search is over.

So it will be with Pedro. Is Martinez overly sensitive and prone to pout over slights more imagined than real? Yes. I have first-hand experience of that side of Pedro's nature. It is more than counter-balanced, however, by Martinez' intelligence, charm, sense of humor, and the fact he IS sensitive, aware of the needs of others as well as his own. I've had first-hand experience of those sides of Martinez, too. In the conformist world of baseball, a player has to be pretty secure in his own skin to let the New York Times run a front-page story on his gardening prowess.

The above paragraph was an assessment of Martinez as a person-as if he were a neighbor, or a co-worker, or a distant family member. Now we'll throw the biggest fact onto the scale. Pedro Martinez was one of the two greatest pitchers I ever saw in 50 years of watching baseball, and there are days when I think he was the top dog of the two.

Great pitchers come in many flavors. For a hurler who could get hot and spur his club to a 23-6 month, Jim Palmer might be tops. For one playoff game you couldn't lose, there's Catfish Hunter. But for sheer dominance, for going to the park convinced the other side would be flat out lucky to get a hit, let alone score, there are only two names in my mind, Pedro and Sandy Koufax.

Baseball enthusiasts could go back and forth ranking those two forever and a day to be named later. Koufax's numbers from 1963-66 and Martinez's from 1997-2000 are eerily similiar. Looking behind the data, each man has plenty to bolster his case.

Koufax had two unhittable pitches, fastball and curve. Martinez's change-up gives him three such weapons. Koufax dominated because he had to. His Dodgers scored runs at the same pace Italy's World Cup team scores goals. But Sandy was the top pitcher in an era when pitchers dominated the game as a whole. Pedro rendered hitters helpless in the midst of the game's all-time offensive explosion. He created dead-ball numbers in the steroid era.

Koufax, of course, dominated through incredible pain. His career and future left arm use were at risk with every pitch he threw, and everyone knew it. His retirement at age 32 was greeted by as much relief as sorrow. Martinez has had a more traditional approach to injury. He's babied his arm through a number of them, has to be carefully handled, and has lost quite a bit off his turn of the century fastball. This has led fans and commentators of the chickenhawk breed to call him soft.

On the other hand, Pedro's still here, still a quality major league pitcher, one who made the most difficult transition of learning how to use his brain to make up for that lose 5 mph off the old heater. Would Koufax have done the same if he'd been making the $13 million per year Martinez does instead of $100,000 per annum? We'll never know.

This pleasant comparison of two artists who brought me joy has led me to digress from my original point. Red Sox fans and their enablers in the media would be easier to take if they'd TRY to get over themselves once in a while. Those who boo Damon or Pedro, those who try to make that a news story, are really saying the following, "I'M what's most important about the Red Sox, not these players. The team only matters because I like/cover them."

That's a crock of shit. I covered the Red Sox for 25 years, and I didn't matter. Fans can have season tickets for just as long, and while the club is happy for the money, the Sox story would be the same had those fans spent the dough on something sensible. The play's the thing, or, in this case, the players.

Anyone wishing to discredit themselves is free to boo Pedro Martinez. As Ted Williams has already proved, however, it's a particularly futile exercise.

Twenty, no, ten years from now, everyone who boos Pedro tonight will deny they ever did it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Kids! Paul Lynde Sang It Funnier

What most ails America? According to generations of pundits, the blame for our nation's woes rests solely on our nation's children. Weaned or not, they suck.

Our precious way of life is doomed because children don't go to school long enough, don't do enough homework, watch too much TV, play video games, and sometimes, dear God, express an interest in sex. By contrast, the children of (fill in most menacing alien nation here) don't have TVs, win spelling bees before learning to crawl, and conduct Nobel Prize caliber lab work on Saturday nights because girls/boys sap your strength for the hard work of overthrowing the USA.

The first time I heard that crap was when I was a kid, a little kid in third grade. I didn't know enough science, and that's why Sputnik proved the Soviet Union was going to bury us. Those Russkie kids didn't waste any time on cartoons or kickball, no sir! They learned physics! Then, when their parents tried to kiss them goodnight, they informed on their folks for interrupting their studies.

Fifty years later, I'm a third grader's age away from Social Security. And adults who get paid to have some insight into society are still trotting out the same old lie that America's kids just can't compete with them furriners. Our children are wimps! They'd rather go swimming than read a book on a hot July day, and that's why General Motors is laying people off.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, 2006 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, presented this ancient chestnut today, having the unmitigated gall and cruelty to drag his own daughter into the piece. Kristof's essay was every bit the unalloyed bullshit the Sputnik worriers laid down a half-century ago. Maybe he watched too much TV as a kid.

The robotchildren of tomorrow who alarmed Kristof were those of China. Now there are kids who're on the ball-at least at some schools. Kristof retained just enough reporting integrity to acknowledge that most schools in China aren't any good, for the same reason many American schools aren't. Grown-ups are too cheap to put sufficient resources into them.

Ah, but the "best schools in Shanghai and Beijing" are a different story. At one of them, Kristof's child's third grade homework was scornfully dismissed as first grade level work. Reading this, my blood ran cold, and I began a frantic search to see if we still had chopsticks somewhere in the kitchen.

Needless to say, elite Chinese teenagers have no time for sex, TV, video games, or sleep, and need none. They're learning, learning, learning, and if an American child pauses to stare at a sunset, you can kiss that pension goodbye, buddy.

There isn't enough scorn to heap on Kristof's thesis. Begin with the obvious. China is a nasty police state and its social habits aren't necessarily worth emulating. Move on to the only slightly less obvious. China is an old society. Ideologies may come and go, but the basics of China's school system haven't changed since, oh, about 2000 years before the US came into being. It's always been geared to identify and train a small, elite class of bureaucrats to do the actual governing required to keep society running.

The system helped China become a world power, and couldn't stop it from declining into a Third World country after that. Perhaps it takes more than homework to build a society.

The truth, of which is Kristof is well aware, is it's police state enforced low wages that drive China's power on the world stage. That, and America's willingness to overlook tyranny in pursuit of cheap sneakers. Grown-ups, not kids, are responsible for those facts. Grown-ups, not kids, regularly refuse tax increases for the purpose of maintaining, let alone improving, American schools. Grown-ups, not kids, don't want evolution taught in science classes.

Blaming kids for not being slaves themselves is a grown-up's way of denying responsibility for things that are a grown-ups fault. It was despicable in the '50s, it's despicable now, and the editors of the Times ought to have told Kristof, "Nick, you can do better. This ain't running."

They didn't and it did. So here's an offer to any and all children who live in Kristof's neighborhood. Get in touch before Halloween, gang. The eggs and toilet paper are on me.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


The late rock promoter Bill Graham used to tell a story unprintable in my corner of cyberspace that ended, "you're standing there like a schmuck, with your good suit on." The moral of the tale was that while Graham could produce more hype than any man in the music business, his skill was useless if his acts didn't deliver.

So it was with David Beckham earlier today. Beckham is the only international soccer star known by name to Alice and Hope Gee, who of course have never seen him play. Beckham was born English, and plays most of his soccer in Spain, yet he's a permanent resident of the nation of Celebrity. He married a Spice Girl. He had a movie (a good one) named after him. Since Americans love British tabloid celebs as much or more as our own, Beckham is as much a presence on ET as he is on ESPN.

The author can't say he watches a great deal of world-class soccer on TV. But in the matches he did catch where Beckham participated, he'd never seen the superstar/show biz star actually DO anything of note.

It would be an exaggeration to say I thought Beckham was a fraud. But my nostrils detected a whiff of Brian Bosworth when his name came up. No surprise, really. Soccer's the sport giving boxing a run for its money in the "stars ruined by life at the top" competition. Or so Diego Maradona informs me.

Beckham is on the back nine of whatever his career really was, a fact mournfully evident to anyone watching him attempt to keep running throughout this World Cup. I was not prepared for his moment today.

England was tied with Ecuador 0-0 in the second half, looking every inch the World Cup favorite on its way to a most-deserved upset loss, when Beckham was awarded a free kick outside the Ecuadorian box. On the far side of the field, another English player wildly gesticulated towards Beckham that he'd be running to where the kick should land.

That was Dick Williams pretending to order Johnny Bench intentionally walked. Beckham whacked an untouchable shot to the near side. It bent around the goalie and into the net, just like the movie title said it should. England 1-Ecuador 0. The hype, the tabloids, it all made sense. When the national team dearly needed a hero, Beckham was it.

Another set of English celebs, the Rolling Stones, really ought not tour anymore. Their set at the Super Bowl was a painful embarrassment for all concerned. But in their usual 2-hour concert, about two or three times a night, the time machine works, and the Stones really bring it. The unlucky ones born too late to catch the Stones in their prime get to see what the fuss was all about.

The time machine worked for Beckham against Ecuador. I'm glad for my chance to see what the fuss was all about.

Make a Real Weird Wish, Then Blow Out the Candles.

My birthday's coming up this week (none of your business what number, thanks for asking). This is not an occasion usually marked by much pomp and circumstance. Good wishes from my family, maybe a book I haven't read yet, and I'm happy.

This year's different. I have my eyes on a gift, a very special gift, and there's no way to try and get it but public solicitation.

If any power on this earth or higher can arrange for yours truly to be assigned to the same sensitivity training class Ozzie Guillen winds up in, it'll be my bestest birthday EVER!

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Nerds to Baseball: Branch Rickey Was a Dope!

In a lengthy and thoroughly depressing article, today's Wall Street Journal reports that the scientists, economists, and other researchers with too much time on their hands are making a big business out of statistically quantifying the element of luck in baseball. After this triumph, these threats to American sanity will then move on to create formulas that'll give every person on earth their real TLQ (True Love Quotient) and VORF (Value of Religious Faith) numbers.

The Journal article revealed so many fallacies in the luck analysis racket one hardly knows where to begin (for one thing, the methods used are poor sciernce). But let's start with the most glaring problem. The object of all research is allegedly to increase the sum of human knowledge. The luck debunkers have labored long and hard to come up with "new facts" that are re-statements of truths anyone with the slightest interest in baseball learns as a small child. Jamming arithmetic into an observation on the order of "the sun tends to rise in the east" isn't research-it's guys goofing off from their day jobs because baseball is more fun than monetary policy or string theory.

Luck is an undefinable concept. What the figure filberts in lab coats mean by the term is "significant statistical deviance from the norm." Of course, they then get to determine what "norm" means, which renders their work what the scientific community calls "a circle jerk." Let's take a look at some of the earth-shattering insights these methods have produced.

Did you know that hitters sometimes strike the ball very very hard, yet a fielder catches it anyway? And sometimes this happens to the same hitter for weeks and months at a time? Well knock me over with the Sporting News!

In 2004, Chipper Jones, who'd been a most competent batter for a very long time, went into a slump, dropping off in almost all offensive categories. An economics professor at Sewanee calculated what SHOULD have happened to every ball Chipper hit that season and concluded Jones had nothing to worry about. He'd merely hit into bad luck and would likely rebound the next year.

Did it ever occur to the good professor that maybe, just maybe, Braves manager Bobby Cox, who sat in the dugout watching every single at bat Jones took in his star-crossed 2004 campaign, had come to the same conclusion without benefit of advanced math? Or that perhaps this conclusion was so obvious and such a common occurance in baseball that nobody inside the game bothered to mention it? Obviously not. I hope this chump has tenure. He needs it.

The most prominent organization cited by the Journal is a company called PayTrade, an on-line tout sheet for fantasy baseball players. PayTrade diligently attempted to de-luck the 2006 season to date, comparing those figures to what transpired in three-dimensional reality. The results were startling. The amount of hooey America's hucksters think the rest of us will swallow never fails to surprise.

PayTrade's analysis failed on its own terms. Its most noteworthy luck-based variances had nothing to do with luck-they were the result of tangible actions by real live ballplayers. The researchers ignored the most basic truth of all baseballs stats-more than one person contributes to every number. The other guys have much to do with how YOU do.

Like any sportswriter, I'll start with the local angle. According to PayTrade, the Red Sox are in first place thanks to luck. In a pure horsehide universe, they'd be in third place in the AL East behind the Yankees and Blue Jays. The "luck" cited was Trot Nixon and Wily Mo Pena (who's been on the DL for some time) being far more productive than could be expected.

That analysis reads like a parody of the sterotype of the absent-minded professor walking straight into an open manhole while pondering the mysteries of the cosmos. The reason the Sox are in first has nothing to do with luck, unless one means Boston was lucky to get its hands on Jon Papelbon.

In 2005, closer Keith Foulke had a wretched year. So far in 2006, Papelbon has been the most effective pitcher in baseball. Effective, hell, perfect! He's only blown one save in 24 chances thanks to an ERA of 0.25. Surprise! The Red Sox are doing much better in close games than they were before Papelbon got the closer's job. That's not luck, that's a player excelling. Yet the first premise of the luck research crowd is that one-run games (the ones closers are most likely to appear in) are the bedrock expression of luck's role in baseball. The Yanks don't really need Rivera. The ninth inning's a coin flip anyway.

But wait, Paytrade's examples get sillier yet! One individual cited as being extra lucky so far this year was the redoubtable Ichiro Suzuki. The Mariners' superstar shouldn't be hitting .355, as he is. A study of where he put every ball in play reduces his average to a luck-free .286.

Seventy points of batting average is one heaping slice of good fortune. Perhaps Ichiro should retire from baseball, move to Vegas, and play roulette the rest of his life. Ah, but as often happens in science, the real news was hidden in a footnote. Paytrade concedes that Ichiro's average might reflect his ability to beat out ground balls normative hitters can't.

Ichiro's fast? No kidding. Aside from that hilarious discovery of the obvious, we note Paytrade's research boils down to "this guy's lucky, unless he's good." At that point, this reader concluded, "this research is useless, unless it's useless AND stupid."

In another Paytrade exclusive, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and David Ortiz hit into more ground outs than could be expected, but possibly the shifts teams employ against them have some effect on that statistical anomaly. If only I were making that up.

You'll also be happy to learn the world champion White Sox were the luckiest team around last season, thanks to their plethora of one-run wins. That Chicago was built on the formula that's ruled baseball since Ruth went to the outfield: Pitching+Power=Winning was merely coincidental.

Real baseball teams don't just compile statistics and compare them to norms-they alter their behavior in accordance to what the stats say, which in turn alters the stats. That's why fielders have gloves. That's why Rickey said luck was the residue of design. That's why if the Queen had balls, she'd be King.

The author is a great admirer of Bill James. I was reading his work when it was published in samizdat paperbacks available only at the odd sporting goods store. Unlike some of the real scientists mentioned in the journal, James' baseball study has always followed a strictly scientific method. Oh, and he also watches every game he can.

But I sometimes think James must wake up in Lawrence, Kans. each morning feeling like Dr. Frankenstein. Statistical analysis of baseball is no longer a tool for understanding and enjoyment. It's become a religion, and the one thing religion can't contain is the acceptance of uncertainty that's the foundation of the scientific method.

Is there luck in baseball? I sure don't have the nerve to think I know more about the game than Branch Rickey. But I've always used a different quote to sum up my belief, or rather disbelief, in the role of luck in sports.

In his first and best novel "Semi-Tough", the great Dan Jenkins created a scene between the protagonist and narrator, the Giants' running back Billy Clyde Puckett, and the star of the Giant's Super Bowl opponents, Jets linebacker Dreamer Tatum. The Giants have rallied to win a bizarre 31-28 victory, and Tatum has come to the Giants locker room to offer congratulations.

Touched by the gesture, Puckett politely tells Tatum, "a lot of things could have gone the other way."

Tatum responds, "Learned something a long time ago about football, baby. What could have happened, did happen. That's what I know."

Me. too.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Newspaper Poetry

Newspaper poetry is the art of saying the most possible in the rigid forms of daily journalism, compared to which haiku is as long-winded as Thomas Hardy. Caught a wonderful example of the genre this morning.

My favorite reading every Friday is the time I spend with the "Distinctive Properties and Estates" advertisements in the Wall Street Journal's Weekend section. There's something soothing about envisioning lavish homes in the world's pleasure spots, even those that are in places I wouldn't live if I had the money. What craze among America's wealthy is sending them marching like lemmings to Charlottesville, Va? I''ve been there. Nice place. But the rich have better options for gracious addresses, many better.

In today's Journal, an ad in the back of the estate ads was newspaper poetry at its best. Some anonymous real estate agent was struck by a moment of genius. That's not snark. Most of us are still waiting for our first one.

Here, more or less verbatim, is the poem


Abandoned Farming/Mining Settlement, Less 2 hrs from Albuquerque, 20 acres-$17,900 (per acre, I assume).

Old Farming and Mining Community. Incredible Setting! Including Frequently Running River.....

That's poetry folks. The tale of the birth, life, and death of an entire town in the old West, all told in the one adverb "frequently."

I'd pack a canteen, potential buyers.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Insert Bad Nuremberg Joke Hed Here

Ghana 2-US 1. Oh, well, I suppose it's progress for American soccer that it's reached a level where bad calls can have an effect on our national team's losses.

Were the US a more traditional power in the world's most popular team sport, we'd fire coach Bruce Arena, deliver a few death threats to returning US players, and move on. That's what Serbia, Poland, the Czech Republic and the other first-round losing nations are up to right now.

But American soccer is more of a political movement than a sport, and like earnest Democrats, soccer fans can't just say, "hey, we lost, that sucks." They must ponder the Meaning of It All. Fortunately for them, the meaning of the USA's 0-2-1 record in the 2006 Cup is obvious to anyone.

Scores may be low in soccer, but there's no sport ever invented where a team could play three games, score one point by design and another by accident, and not go home a loser. The US team's offense was a study in lack of imagination and a total lack of finishing skill throughout the tournament. Our "creative" players were a collective snooze. If I could recognize that deficiency, it was obvious indeed.

US soccer now has the resources, talent pool, and yes, fan base interest to become a true international power in the sport. What it doesn't have is the vital element of any team that can't be provided by pouring more money into it or by establishing another 10,000 youth leagues. That would be star power, the ineffable all-important difference between good and great. That only comes through evolution, and soccer's still too new here to have evolved that far. It hasn'
t produced its gifted mutants, it's X-Men.

Look, you can teach a million kids how to hit a baseball, and odds are some of them will develop into big leaguers. But you can't teach a kid how to hit homers. He's got that in him or he doesn't. Coaches can teach football players how to block and tackle, or even how to look for daylight when they've got the football. No one knows what made Barry Sanders what he was. Over the years, probably ten million American youngsters practiced basketball as diligently and took as many jump shots as did Jerry West. There's still only been one of him.

Because those games have deeper roots in American soil, they've thrown up more gifted students than has soccer. Dwyane Wade is his own superstar, but it sure didn't hurt him to have Michael Jordan to study. Who're American soccer kids going to study, the plethora of ex-player commentators on ESPN? Those guys weren't as good as the current players they've criticized the past two weeks.

All teams in all sports are dying to lay hands on gifted mutant great ones, of course. But it's worse in soccer. The nature of that game is such that without players containing the x-gene, a team can't score at all, and all its strength, speed, fundamentals, and desire mean nil.

Awaiting the passage of time is the coldest of comforts for fans. US soccer, however, has no alternative. The x-gene can't be grafted onto a player like he was a rosebush.

On the other hand, the passage of time WILL work. Darwin was the world's first percentage player. In due course, US soccer will evolve its creative genuises. We won't have to expose the 2010 team to the bite of a radioactive spider.

When Johnny Comes Marching Home-Still In His Tank

WARNING: Serious, thus quite possibly pretentious, socio-political essay to follow. Feel free to skip it, fellow members of the grasshopper party. I'll try harder not to slip into antdom in the future.

A quick glance at today's news in the papers and TV will save one a lot of time over the next five months. The elections of 2006 are already over. Wake us up on November 8th.

As usual, the Republicans won the elections, thanks to their unique campaign slogan, "Vote for the party that promises to keep right on losing the war in Iraq!"

This counter-intuitive message is not really surprising. Politicians must play the hands they're dealt, and the party of George Bush can't run away from his war even if it wants to. Hubert Humphrey spent too much time shilling for the war in Vietnam to be a believable dove when he ran for president in 1968.

What's noteworthy about this week's Iraq "debate" in Congress is that both neutral observers AND THE OTHER PARTY are implictily conceding the GOP's message is a winner. This doesn't reflect a high opinion of the American electorate. It's the business of both Republicans and Democrats to understand the nebulous thoughts of the body politic. Their current consensus holds a working majority of the citizenry will continue any war indefinitely as long as the sacrifices are born by someone else. That is, so long as the dying is done by one's neighbor's loved ones, and the money spent is given by, oh, poor folks in need of medical treatment, the voters refuse to lose face by giving up on what to date has been something short of a success.

I must confess to sharing this low view of my fellow citizens. In my lifetime, nobody's ever lost an election by betting on the hate, fear, greed, cruelty, and cowardice of the tax-paying, God-fearing white American male. My question is, what happens AFTER the election. Not to the country, we'll continue our imperial decline at more or less the same pace, but to the armed forces we're cheerfully putting through the Mesopotamian meatgrinder. Various military experts have warned our army is near its breaking point. What might that look like by the 2008 New Hampshire primary.

The United States instituted the all-volunteer military in 1973 because it ran into an inescapable historical fact. No nation has ever been able to wage prolonged wars of occupation with a conscript army of its citizens. The Roman Empire was conquered by draftees, and maintained by volunteers. The great colonial empires of 19th century England were won by volunteers. Pre World War I France had two armies, one of conscripts to guard the frontier against Germany, one of volunteers in the colonies. The last nation to try such a war with a conscript army, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, collapsed entirely under the strain.

We have a volunteer army. What happens to a country when that force is unhappy in its work? If civilians endorse staying the course when the military sees only futile slaughter, how is the disagreement resolved?

The professional officer corps has already gone public with its opinion. They speak through John Murtha. So far, their fears for the army they lead have met with a resounding "tough shit." What's their next step? America's officer corps might be the best educated, most aware such group of men and women in military history. They already know resignations would produce the same answer.

That leaves mutiny, and history shows that's exactly what happens when a volunteer army has had alls it can stands and can't stands no more. Charles DeGaulle became president of the French Fifth Republic in 1958 when the professional officer corps revolted over the Fourth Republic's paralysis over the war in Algeria. De Gaulle then double-crossed the forces who brought him to power, but that's another story. When Roman emperors lost battles or came up short on payday, Roman armies deposed them.

It's not far-fetched to see some sort of American military rebellion. We're not immune to history. We couldn't remain half-slave and half-free, and we can't abuse our soldiers for our own bad reasons, either. The rebellion might not be a public event-just a quiet meeting between the president and the Joint Chiefs resulting in an announcement the war in Iraq has been won and we're coming home. Or it could be more dramatic-a beribboned general interrupting "American Idol" to announce a shakeup in Washington's roster.

America is a lucky country. In this case, we're fortunate that the unifying glue of our professional army is idealism. An individual has to have a great deal of profound belief in a nation's value system to join an army whose first principle is submission to elected civilian leadership-a belief that can take more pounding than the average citizen's faith in the USA.

But there's one thing I learned in the '60s, when very nice, hopeful, kids who had plenty of faith in the USA began deciding that faith was misplaced. It's not a happy lesson, either.

When idealists crack, the results are ugly indeed.

Box Scores Speak Louder Than Words

(Author's Note: was sick with wicked summer cold yesterday, so the following post is not as timely as it could be. Or it wasn't until Joe Torre helped me out).

You know the moment. Every baseball follower does. There's a point in ONE GAME of the long, long season where you look at a ballclub, not a hopeless case like the Pirates, but a would-be contender that began spring training with postseason expectations. and think "Sorry fellas, not this year."

This premonition of doom may or may not be correct, but it sticks in the brain until said team proves one wrong, or as happens about 100 times as often, right.

The "not this year" moment rarely strikes a ballclub before the summer solstice. It's even more rare when it hits both teams in a game. So take a bow, Yankees and Phillies. You made June 20, 2006 an "On This Date in Baseball."

Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard hit two homers, a triple, and had 7 RBI. The Phils lost anyway. Such statistical anomalies often accompany true slugfests. What made Howard's effort a true "wait till next year" performance is that the Phillies lost the game 9-7. On his career night, Howard's mates did exactly nothing to back him up. Go get 'em Ryan! We're right behind ya!

New York's leading negative indicator came right after the Yanks had rallied to grab that two-run lead in the top of the 8th. In an interleague game in June, when astronomically speaking it was still spring in the northern hemisphere of planet Earth, Yankee manager Joe Torre deemed it prudent to bring Mariano Rivera in for a two-inning save attempt.

OK, the Yanls were on a three-game losing streak. We'll further stipulate that as in every season since 2002, the non-Rivera New York relief corps ranges from undependable on its good days to straight up putrid on its bad ones. Torre's been well aware of this since March. A man doesn't become a Hall of Fame skipper by not recognizing what Scott Proctor brings to the table.

In past seasons, however, it's taken Torre much longer to ACKNOWLEDGE the rottenness of his bullpen. Aware that Rivera is his best pitcher-indeed, that Mo's the one irreplacable man on the Yankee roster, Torre has chosen to absorb the occasional eighth-inning meltdown so that Rivera, no spring chicken, could remain in fighting trim. Two-inning saves were for September series against the Red Sox, not for June in Philly.

When Rivera walked out of the bullpen before the bottom of the 8th last Tuesday night, Torre's thoughts couldn't have been clearer if he'd screamed them over the PA system. Without Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield, the Yanks cannot count on slugging their way out of enough bullpen-induced problems to remain contenders in the AL East. Joe's got to play his ace on almost every hand he's dealt.

If Sophocles had been a Yankee fan, Rivera's appearance would've been accompanied y a chorus chanting tragic premonitions in classic Greek. This two-inning save foreshadows an inevitable conclusion. Sometime in August, probably no later than the Jets and Giants' annual exhibition game, Rivera will become either ineffective or injured. Either fate will terminate the Yanks' playoff chances in short order.

But wait, there's more. Only 24 hours after his two-inning save, Rivera took the mound again, pitching the final inning of New York's 5-0 win over the Phils. That's right. With a five-run lead and a shutout working, Torre still saw no sane alternative to Mo recording the final three outs. The smart money says move up the date on Rivera's injury to when the Jets and Giants report to training camp in late July.

There IS of Greek tragedy to the Yankees' plight. As the poet wrote, those ballclubs the gods wish to destroy, they first make sign Kyle Farnsworth.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

How to Read the Newspaper, First In a Series

Political reporting is often difficult for average voters to understand. This isn't because the average voter is dumb. They're not SUPPOSED to understand it. Political news in our nation's elite journals are messages sent by insiders to other insiders with the reporter serving as glorified letter carrier rather than serving any public interest.

Learn the codes, however, and political news becomes both easy and fun to read. Take the front-page story in today's New York Times headed "On Iraq, Kerry again leaves Democrats fuming."

The article itself is a little fuzzy. A variety of unnamed sources who we're supposed to infer are damned important are mad at Kerry because he insists on making senators vote on his resolution to set a date for getting US troops the hell out of Iraq.

A controversial position that. Also an election late and a dollar short, but no matter. The Times own polling most recently showed that almost 80 percent of self-identified Democrats AGREE with Sen. Kerry's position on this issue. Who are all those Democrats fuming at him.

Here's where newspaper codebreaking comes in handy. Take the article in question and starting at the headline, replace the words "Democrat" or "Democratic party" with the words "Hillary Clinton."

Now re-read the piece. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

Sorry, Mr. Stern, I Don't HAVE $250,000

A quarter of a million bucks is probably close to the figure Mark Cuban had budgeted for the Dallas Mavericks' victory celebration, so the fine leveled for his criticism of the officials after Game 5 of the NBA Finals won't be much a setback for the volatile billionaire.

NBA commissioner David Stern handed out that harsh penalty not to shut Cuban up (Stern knows that to be a futile endeavor), but to prevent Cuban's hotheaded charge that the refs were slanting all their calls towards the Heat on league orders from gaining wider currency. Too late.
Conspiracy theories abound among basketball fans quieter than Cuban. One must expect that reaction from followers of a game whose college edition has had more game-fixing scandals than any other, not to mention an embarrassing number of its own refs nailed for tax
evasion in the not too distant past.

The Oliver Stones in hoopland are even now scanning the box score of Miami's 95-92 title-clinching win in Game Six and noting the following statistical anomaly. Heat guard and series MVP Dwyane Wade had 21 free throw attempts last night. The entire Mavericks team had only 23.

I love a good conspiracy. I also need a job, and it'd be a pleasure to offer my services to Cuban as his personal gumshoe on the zebra case. Unfortunately, the Game Six foul shot discrepancy, and the fact all the officiating controversies in the series centered on Wade prove that the calls that so infuriated Cuban were NBA business as usual, or at least as far back as I can remember (first game seen:1960 All-Star Game).

It's my guess Stern doesn't dislike Cuban as much as the Mavs' owner enjoys thinking. Yes, the commissioner wishes Cuban was quieter (he's got company there). But the quality Stern most likes in an owner is the ability to make money with his team. This Cuban does quite well thank you. The commissioner is also a shrewd enough marketer to see the benefits of having a designated "bad boy rebel" owner as a foil to his button-down dictatorship.

Refs may have cheated the government, but I'd be shocked if any of them conspired to cheat the NBA's paying customers. It's not in their nature, for reasons that have nothing to do with ethics. Pro basketball officials are skilled athletes of normal size who monitor the play of superskilled athletes who're also the world's largest athletes. To do this, refs need and have egos many times the size of the average NBA star's. The senior officials who work the Finals have egos 1000s of times bigger than Cuban's. Joey Crawford will miss a call now and again, or take malicious pleasure in whacking someone with a T, but do those things because some suit at the league told him to? Never.

The rules these little Caesars (that phrase has nothing to do with their personalities. There's no nicer guy than Dick Bavetta. It's a job description) enforce in split-nanosecond decisions are so vague as to make consistency almost impossible. Perhaps if King Solomon, James Madison, and Judge Wapner worked a game they could come up with a standardized block/charge call, but I doubt it.

Refs, however, do have a common frailty, one they share with all humanity. If they see something incorrectly, it's because they're seeing not what they want to see, but what they expect to see. This has led to the following rules of NBA officiating. They were in force in this year's Finals, at the 1957 Finals, and all the Finals in between.

1. Stars get more favorable calls than non-stars. In case of tie, decision goes to the player with the higher salary.

2. Players attempting to instigate and control action get more calls than players reacting to action. Ever wonder how Dennis Rodman got all those offensive rebounds without pushing people? He didn't. As the aggressor, he was rewarded. The big men who couldn't block Rodman out were punished for their passivity.

3. As a result of rules 1 and 2, no type of NBA player gets more trips to the foul line than a high-scoring guard who drives to the hoop on a regular basis. Dwyane Wade is the current prototype for that type of player.

Wade got a lot of calls. But so did Michael Jordan before him. Allen Iverson gets a lot of calls, and George Gervin got a lot of calls, and Oscar Robertson got an enormous amount of calls for this era. Jerry West, Isiah Thomas, the list goes on and on. By contrast, equally gifted players who weren't such consistent drivers didn't get their share of calls. Hal Greer's stop and pop jumper at the foul line got him to the Hall of Fame, but without benefit of that many free throws. No one bitched longer and more consistently to officials about non-calls than did Rick Barry. He often had a point.

The Mavericks' best player, Dirk Nowitzki, gets his fair share of foul shots, more than his share, the Spurs might say. He also doesn't miss many. He was a perfect 8 for 8 in Game Six. That's not many attempts for a 7-foot forward in the midst of a 29-point, 15-rebound performance.

By Games 5 and 6, Nowitzki wasn't taking the ball inside for shots too often. Whether this was due to Miami's defense or Dallas' game plan I cannot say. In Game Six, Nowtizki often passed to other Mavs with wide-open looks at the basket. That's sound strategy, unless as happens, the guys you're passing to, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, and Jerry Stackhouse, are shooting a combined 17 for 54 from the floor.

There's Cuban's conspiracy. In a game the Mavs couldn't lose, their second, third, and fourth-most important players couldn't roll a marble into a manhole even if standing on a grassy knoll.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

They Never Boo A Bum

Alex Rodriguez is a stiff. Everyone knows this.

Yankee fans know. They've taken to jeering Rodriguez with righteous anger every time the New York third baseman makes an out at the Stadium. The more fevered among those fans, the ones worth never venturing east of the Mississippi in order to avoid, say A-Rod is not a "true Yankee." As compared to Oscar Gamble, one assumes.

The legion of Yankee-haters know, too. They greet every A-Rod out with glee. He's what they've spent futile lifetimes wishing all the Yankees were-a paper tiger, a soft player who does more to hurt his team than help it. Red Sox fans, who sang a very different tune when they thought A-Rod would joing their team, are particularly vociferous in this opinion.

There are only two subsets of the baseball world not currently united in disdain for the 2005 American League MVP. Those would be non-Yankee pitchers and statistics.

Just emerging from one of the worst slumps of his career, the aftermath of a food poisoning attack, Rodriguez currently is hitting .285 with 15 homers and 50 RBI. That projects to a full season with around 35 homers and 120-plus RBI. Those figures are slightly below A-Rod's amazing career norms, but they still don't represent a season that'd get a slugger kicked out of Cooperstown. To the extent one considers the current crop of "clutch hitting" stats valid (my view: handle with care), Rodriguez is also within his career norms. So why all the hate for A-Rod?

The easy answer is money. The highest paid player in the game gets the most abuse. Twas ever thus, but Manny Ramirez, the SECOND-highest paid player in the game, is also having a not-quite-as-good-as-usual season so far, and he's getting nowhere near the flak Rodriguez is taking.

The fact based answer is short, simple, and from A-Rod's point of view, sour. Through no fault of his own, he's getting many, many more clutch at bats than before. All of 'em in fact. The 2006 Yankees can't afford Rodriguez to produce at an All-Star or even MVP level. He's got to be better than that for them to win.

The Yankees' pitching remains what it was in 2005-just good enough to get by if one's lineup is producing over 900 runs a year. Their annoally revampled bullpen is as unreliable as ever in innings 6-7-8, and Randy Johnson might have hit the end of the trail.

The Yankee offense remains built on the same principles as it's been for the past decade. Work the count, get a lot of men on base, and sooner or later, someone will fuel a big inning with a clutch hit. It's a sound strategy, or it was until New York's RBI someones began keeling over.

Hidekl Matsui and Gary Sheffield are out for the season with wrist injuries. They produced a combined 57 homers and 239 RBI in 2005, and not even George Steinbrenner is expected Melky Cabrera and Andy Phillips to pick up the slack. That's A-Rod's job, the lion's share of it, anyway.

For openers then, Rodriguez is being counted on for a 50 homer, 175 RBI season AT A MINIMUM by fans famous for their judicious, reasoned expectations. That burden means his every plate appearance with men on base now looks like the game's turning point. Given his inevitable 65 percent failure rate, that translates into a boos for A-Rod.

Now we get to what clinical psychologists would find truly the interesting motives of the current craze for A-Rod bashing-Rodriguez' standing as a symbol. Forever more, irrationally, incorrectly, and inescapably, A-Rod will represent what depending on one's symapathies was either the most humiliating or glorious event in Yankee history-the 2004 American League championship series. The Yanks traded for Rodriguez to keep the Red Sox at bay, then became the first team to kick away a 3 games to none lead in baseball history. Talk about cause and effect in action!

As anyone without guacamole where their frontal lobes should be recognizes, blaming a team's biggest star for its failures is fallacious-no, make that dumber than a picket fence. As a fan of the 1964 Phillies, the team the '04 Yanks got off the hook, and thanks fellas, I learned at an early age that any historic triumph or failure in a team sport is a true group effort. If EVERY member of the team contribute, it doesn't happen.

A-Rod went swirling down the bowl in Games 4-7 of that ALCS, but so did all the other Yankee hitters. As I recollect, the entire Boston comeback began when Mariano Rivera, whom even Red Sox know better than to criticize, failed in the clinching save opportunity in Game 4. Does this mean Mo choked? Hardly. He failed, as it is the fate of all athletes to do once in a while when they're needed most.

So don't give me that "A-Rod's not a true Yankee" guff. In terms of true Yankeedom, Rivera's up at the same level as Lou Gehrig. He probably spends much of his time in the Stadium bullpen planning the best spot for his monument.

For outsiders, A-Rod is today's baseball quiz. If you think he's a stiff, you flunk. Write on the blackboard 1000 times, "Good players aren't why teams lose. Not having enough of them is."

For A-Rod, what can I say but "welcome to New York!" You knew the job was dangerous when you took it. The jeers you're getting in the Stadium have everything to do with Yankees fans' love of themselves and almost nothing to do with you.

For solace, Rodriguez should obtain and read the poem whose title I swiped for the title of this piece. It was written over 60 years ago by a sportswriter far better than yours truly, addressed to a player in A-Rod's historic peer group, one whose relationship with the fans was far worse and more tempestuous than the MVP's current struggles with the Yankee faithful.

Grantland Rice wrote the poem as friendly advice to a young Ted Williams.

It's Not How, It's How Many

The title of this note is one of golf's oldest and truest cliches. It's hard to believe that one of the best professional golfers on the planet would forget the saying while standing on the tee of the 72nd hole of the US Open, but Phil Mickelson did, with the predictably disastrous result of a double-bogey to lose tournament by a single stroke.

Know what's harder to believe? Mickelson's not the first nor will he be the last of history's great players to pull such an elemental rock in crunch time of a major. Lefty's self-destructive decision to go for broke when prudence was the only sane call may have infuriated Johnny Miller, but golf history is littered with similiar Pickett's Charges.

Here's one so similiar I can't believe I haven't seen it referenced yet. In the 1961 Masters Arnold Palmer, as beloved a favorite as Mickelson was at Winged Foot, came to the 18th hole on Sunday needing par to win and bogey to tie. Did Arnie lay up with an iron? Did he prudently send his second shot into the heart of the green for a two-putt? Nah! He was Arnold Palmer, damn it. Palmer's drive was a little wide, so he didn't have the best angle at the flag. He tried to hit the approach stiff, dumped it in the left front bunker, and made 6.

Palmer, of course, was as much a gambler on the course as is Mickelson, the main source of their popularity. Surely their tourney-losing decisions sprang from their reckless personalities.

Tiger Woods, by contrast, as about as reckless as Alan Greenspan. Yet if golf's supreme rationalist made the same mistake as Mickelson, in almost the same situation.

At the 2003 Masters, Woods was coming off a birdie and making a Sunday charge up the leaderboard when he reached the third tee at Augusta National, the shortest par 4 on the course and a hole that begs long hitters to pull out the big one and go for the green.

EVERY golfer knows that a hole begs one to do something, the wise man does the opposite. Woods did. He took a five-iron, then let caddy Steve Williams persuade him to use the driver instead. The resulting double-bogey cost Woods any chance of being the first man to win the Masters three times running.

(That's Woods' version of the story, anyhow. He wasn't blaming Williams, merely pointing out the folly of a golfer letting anything override his first instincts. There's a subset of golf opinion that says Mickelson's caddy Bones Mackay should've prevented his man from hitting driver on the 18th last Sunday. I'll accept that statement only from anyone who has documented proof they stood up and told their immediate superior. "Hold it boss. That's a totally bad idea you have there")

Well, Woods and Palmer recovered from their debacles to go on and win more majors. Will Mickelson. Will his lobotomized 18th at Winged Foot blight his career and memory forever more?.

By taking damn fool gambles when there was no need, Sam Snead blew a THREE-shot lead on the 72nd hole of the 1939 Open. He had an 8! and the snowman cost him the title. In 25 more tries, the man who won more professional tour tournaments than any other never, ever, won a US Open. This blot on Snead's golf escutcheon means exactly zip to his status as a legend of the game.

So Mickelson will recover from his humiliation. He'll do so thanks to the character trait that caused it. The difference between great golfers and the millions of others who play the game is that the average player's worst catastrophes come from lack of confidence. Pros go bad thanks to an excess of same.

That's why Johnny Miller didn't have a bad word to say about poor Colin Montgomerie's double-bogey on 18th that blew HIS chance for his first major title. Monty made an amateur's error. He stood over his approach shot and thought, "whatever you do, don't leave it short and right." Any swing that begins with the thought, "whatever you do, don't..." invariably does just that.

The golf world feels terribly for Monty and is holding up Mickelson's debacle as an object lesson in the dangers of hubris. Odds are, however, the next world-class player facing the choices Mickelson had will make the exact same decisions. It's how they got to the 72nd tee of a major with the lead in the first place.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Len Bias

Len Bias died 20 years ago today of a drug overdose, shortly after being drafted by the Boston Celtics as the second pick of the 1986 NBA draft. The Celtics had won their 16th NBA title that season. They're still looking for number 17.

Twenty years is a long time. My children are almost grown, lifelong Boston residents, and they flat out don't believe their father's assertion the Celtics used to matter. But among Celts' fans of a certain age, like the dedicated, clueless optimists who now own the franchise, the belief has taken hold that Bias' death was the bibical plague that sent the Celts spiraling down into 20 lean years after 30 fat ones (date on first title banner:1957).

That theory is almost irresistable. It's neat, tidy, and has cosmic overtones found in all the world's major religions. The Celts acquired the pick they used on Bias by trading Gerald Henderson to Seattle. How grimly fitting that Red Auerbach's last great swindle should become the disaster cursing the franchise forevermore.

The "if only Bias had lived" wail so popular in the Celtic community is also based on some cold hard hoop facts. Bias was a monster collegiate star, a forward with quickness akin to Scottie Pippen's and strength reminiscent of Karl Malone's. The marvelous Celtics of the '80s were visibly wearing down even during the 1986 season, their best of them all. Had Bias joined them, the Celts might have stayed atop the NBA heap for a season or two more as Larry Bird and Kevin McHale's bodies began to give out.

The more time passes, however, the less enamored I become of the Bias-as-Biblical-benchmark theory of Celtics history. For one thing, it's hard not to notice that the theory excuses 20 years of franchise mismanagement since 1986. Had Bias lived, he'd be 42 now. There's a statute of limitations on tragedy. The Bias story has no effect on the fact Danny Ainge may or may not know what he's doing.

Then there's this one question that's bothered me for two decades. It's not one I brought up at the time, out of respect for human decency, or one I ever wrote about in subsequent Celtics' season because it seemed, well, a tacky thought at best. But history requires a clear look at the available facts, so here goes.

If Len Bias had NOT died on June 19,1986, if his crack overdose had resulted in nothing more than briefly losing consciousness and emerging with withdrawal pains, why are we to assume he would've then stopped using drugs? Well, crack was fun, but I'm a Celtic now. Better straighten up, get back to the weight room, and help Larry get banner 17.

Here are a few of Bias' fellow 1986 NBA high-draft choice peers. Roy Tarpley. Chris Washburn. William Bedford. All three were lottery picks, and none died of an overdose. All ruined their careers in short order thanks to ongoing drug issues. It would seem far more likely that Bias would've joined their ranks had he lived than that he'd have become the linchpin of the fourth re-incarnation of the Celtics' dynasty.

The mid-'80s was the high water mark of the cocaine/crack craze in the USA. Kids with money, whatever their social, racial, and economic background, were awash in the stuff with predictable results. It didn't get as much ink, but many more promising Wall Street careers than NBA ones were sacrificed to boosting Colombia's GDP. Had Bias survived his OD, he would have functioned in an environment where he had all the money he needed to buy drugs, and knew a great many other people who doing them. That's a tough environment for going straight.

I yield to no one in my admiration and respect of the '80s Celts. They're the first team I covered on a regular basis, and what a happy experience it was-at least for me. But they were an exceedingly tough-minded group of men, and if they found some rookie had a drug issue affecting his performance, I don't think they would have been the most supportive co-workers around. Auerbach, Jan Volk, K.C. Jones-this was a management group without either the experience or insight needed to cope with a valuable employee with a self-destructive substance abuse issue.

That's a strong assertion. Here's a fact to back it up. In the chaos of the late '70s before Bird arrived, Marvin Barnes was brought to the Celtics in yet another desperate move. Barnes was using drugs, or so the Celts thought. So a team official discreetly approached me and Phoenix colleague George Kimball for any information we might have as to Marvin's habits.

Here are two white alternative journalists with long hair and salaries at the poverty line. Ergo, they must use drugs, and further ergo, they must know where and when our very rich black basketball star is using drugs. Seldom has so much cluelessness been packed into a single thought.

The evidence convinces me that had Bias lived, the odds were much better he'd have become another Chris Washburn than another Karl Malone. That conviction may be why I never did write on the subject of his death until today.

The avoidable death of any young person is an insupportable tragedy. The idea Len Bias' might-have-beens were probably almost as sad as what did happen to him is a massive overdose of sorrow.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Like many other Floridians, Tiger Woods recently bought a boat. Yeah, it cost $20 million. For us landlubbers, be it a kayak or the Queen Mary II, a boat is a boat is a boat.

Woods has been back home since missing the cut in the US Open on Friday, but for the week, he anchored his 103-foot mini-luxury liner in Long Island Sound and used it as his living quarters. As S.J. Perelman's old line went, it shows what God could do if he had money.

Woods parked his tub not at some hoity-toity yacht club, of which Mamaronek, N.Y. has its share, but in a commercial boat yard highly visible to the general public from the Boston Post Road, the main drag of Westchester and Fairfield counties' toniest suburbs.

This would be an unremarkable fact were it not for one tiny detail about Woods' yacht. Its christened name is "Privacy."

Ladies and gentlemen, there is the essential, implacable insanity of American celebrity in a nutshell. First, buy a boat visible from outer space then name it "Privacy." Top off that contradiction by sailing said boat into the largest metropolitan area in the USA and parking it where the highest possible number of people could look at it.

Don't tell me this was not a deliberate act. Woods doesn't commit any other kind. If Tiger wanted seclusion from the public eye for the Open, he could've made a couple of phone calls and the Navy would've happy let Woods anchor at the New London sub base and helicoptered him to and from Winged Foot.

And lest we forget, Tiger Woods is not just a man of superior intelligence, he's also icily logical and rational, with a physicist's soul inside Nike clothing. If fame and fortune caused Woods to do something so self-contradictory as living on the "Privacy" just off the highway, what effect must they have on less well-grounded, dopier celebrities?

As attornies for Tom Cruise and Britney Spears will tell you, there's an entire subset of American journalism devoted to covering celebrities who jump the tracks. The evidence suggests the real news is when a celebrity doesn't.

World Cup Note #2

This morning's opening match is Japan vs. Croatia. It's nil-nil early in the second half as this is being written, but truth to tell, this essayist really watching too closely.
My only thought on this tilt is the post-match press conference translators are sure gonna earn their dough today.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Why fewer people are buying newspapers, an ongoing series, alas.

The front page of today's Boston Globe is primarily devoted to cute pictures of a zebra at the Franklin Park Zoo. The only world or national news story on the lead page of New England's largest newspaper bore the following shocking headline.

"Gates' Successor Faces Tough Act to Follow at Microsoft."

Stop the presses! Get the Pulitzer Committee out of bed! Back in my journalism youth, the response to such an earth-shattering insight was "Heard about the Lindbergh baby?"

That story isn't news. It's an editor eager to get an early start out of town on a Friday afternoon. Considering that the Globe is losing fistfuls of circulation AND ad revenue, one would think the paper might try a little harder.

One would be wrong. Entitlement dies hard. Too bad it often takes entire businesses to the grave with it.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Wrong Again!

We'll never know if a 9-week layoff from competitive golf affected Tiger Woods' play at the US Open, but something did. Woods missed the cut in a major for the first time as a pro, shooting his second consecutive 76 today at Winged Foot. So my pre-tournament guess Woods would play well because he usually does, was incorrect and now inoperative.

And now I'm missing my old job, because life's empty without the instant "you moron" feedback working sportswriters receive after a prediction goes wrong. It let us know fans care.
It also lets us know fans are missing a few guesses themselves.

Nothing is less relevant to how well someone does the job of reporting and commenting on sports than picking winners. Nobody in my former racket has the byline Nostradamus. If anyone did, they'd be making big money in Vegas sports books, not lesser dough living on airplanes, press boxes, and the Marriott concierge level. Those predictions in playoff and regular season previews all newspaper run occupy about six seconds of each writer's time, and one's main concern is not picking exactly the same winners as the other writers in the section. The wonderful Norman Chad has the right idea about making picks-play it strictly for laughs. That's all they're worth.

Sportswriters make predictions for three reasons. 1. Readers love 'em, feeling it's a way to keep score on those reprobates in the press box. 2. Arguments are part of sports and sometimes you just have to take a position. It'd be a pretty weak effort to cover the Kentucky Derby and not go on the record calling a winner. Same goes for the Super Bowl. I did an annual NCAA bracket pick on Selection Sunday for the Herald. If you're supposed to know college basketball, that's mandatory. 3. This is the most dangerous one. Sometimes you get a hunch.

We will now examine both the best and worst prediction columns of my Herald career, each of which created some buzz, although, natch, the bad one drew a FAR wider audience. Each had nothing to do with my abilities. The right one was applied knowledge rewarded by dumb luck. The bad hunch was applied knowledge trumped by a team doing the unexpected. I also wrote it poorly, hence deserved to be punished.

The day of Super Bowl XXXII in 1998, the smart Mikey wrote a column predicting the Broncos would upset the Packers by the score of 31-24, and listed six statistical feats Denver had to perform to finally drag John Elway to the top of the NFL mountain. The Broncos won 31-24. They also performed five of my six numerical musts.

Smart Mikey had this moment psychic power because neither of his Herald colleagues Kevin Mannix or George Kimball were about to write that the Broncos would end the NFCs 14-game Super winning streak, and dueling picks columns on Super Sunday are a hallowed Herald tradition. I put my mind to how an upset MIGHT happen, and came up with some numbers. The final score was pulled out of thin air.

Was I smart? A little. But not too much. I'm sure the important of Terrell Davis having a big day had occured Mike Shanahan long before I wrote it. Football's complicated to do, but relatively simple to segment into power points.

Now for dumb Mikey. In December of 2003, an injury-riddled New England Patriots' team had pretty much clinched its division with a 10-game winning streak. Before the next game (against Jacksonville, I think) I declared that seeing as the playoffs were coming up, now was the time for the Pats to suffer the inevitable end of their streak. A loss would cost them nothing, and the increasing odds that burden any long winning streak would become a thing of the past before one-and-done play began.

This was not a popular sentiment. My belief, hunch, need to fill space on a Tuesday, call it what you will, was not that the Pats would derive psychic benefits from tasting defeat. I didn't believe any NFL team in our 21st century of parity could win 15 games in a row, the number the Pats needed to run the table through the Super Bowl. I had history on my side. It was as well-supported an opinion as my belief the Broncos might be able to beat up the Packers' defensive line.

I was right, too. The Pats couldn't win 15 in a row. By the time they lost their first game in 2004, their winning streak stood at 21. They were becoming one of the greatest teams ever, a team that hadn't had enough bodies for PRACTICE in October 2003.

I wasn't Smart Mikey in 1998 or Dumb Mikey in 2003. The Broncos played to their capabilities and the Packers didn't, so I looked good. The Patriots were indeed a great team, so they proved me wrong and made me look bad. And more power to them. The best part of my old job was the chance to get paid to watch greatness. Looking smart or dumb was irrelevant.

Bostonians in and out of the media waste rain forests full of oxygen discussing the manager's decisions every time the Red Sox lose. Hey, people, there's a reason they say skippers "play the percentages." The "right" decision may only have a 51 percent chance of success. If the 49 percent shot comes through, Terry Francona is NOT an idiot.

Tiger had a rough week. Too bad for him. I still believe Winged Foot and not rust was the cause of his troubles, but Woods contradicts me in public (fat chance), so be it. Maybe my next hunch will lead to a Smart Mikey revival.

I can't end without my favorite sportswriting prediction story of all time. Former Globe columnist Mike Madden was the paper's turf expert and a devout horseplayer. Still is. The day of a Derby in the early '80s, Madden wrote a column picking win, place, and show. The three nags finished in that exact order. A frickin' trifecta bet comes home in print. Amazing! Madden is a genius!

The next week I saw Mike at the old Fenway press dining room, and hastened to congratulate him on what had to be a very heavy score.

Madden looked as devastated as the little kid at the end of "The Yearling."

"Score?!" Mike wailed. "I went broke after the sixth race!"

(If you don't know racing, the Derby is always the ninth or tenth race of the day at Churchill Downs).

Thursday, June 15, 2006

US Open Note #1

Glad to have one suspicion confirmed. Those club and yardage numbers announcers are always giving out on TV. They're making them up.
The 9th hole at Winged Foot West this week is a mellow little 514-yard par 4. An ESPN announcer, Chris Berman I believe (pause here for millions of simultaneous heavy sighs), dispensed the following infomation about a player's efforts there this morning.
"Vijay (Singh) just played this with a driver and a 9-iron," Berman announced.
Yeah right. Look, I know Vijay hits the ball a looong way. I've stood five feet behind him and watched Singh hit it loooong and loooooonger. But give us some credit for math, fellas.
Let's give the affable Fijian credit for a humongous 330-yard drive. That leaves Singh with a 185 yard 9 iron into the green. No. Into a US Open green, where a miss is certain bogey? Double no. Not a standard issue 9 iron, anyhow.
Announcers should tell the truth. Not only are the pros different from other golfers, so are their clubs. What Singh calls a 9-iron bears the same resemblance to the ones in amateur golfers' bags as Tony Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet Monte Carlo does to the Chevy of the same make the amateur drove to the course.
Tour Pros should go back to calling clubs by names. Calling Singh's short iron a niblick would be more accurate than giving it a number.

Sports Glut Routs Sports Glutton

Something had to give. Telecasts of world-class sports events began yesterday at 9 a.m. and ran well towards midnight. They begin again today at 9 and will also last until midnight.
The World Cup. The Stanley Cup. The NBA Finals. The US Open. The Phillies (my team) vs. the Mets on ESPN Wednesday night. And of course, nighty Red Sox games.
How is the devout fan and ex-professional supposed to catch all the aforementioned action in a 39 hour period while making spare time for such non-essentials as dropping off the dry cleaning, looking for work, walking the dog, eating, sleeping, etc? Short answer, he can't. Triage is necessary.
One event had to be abandoned as a lost cause when the fan's eyes began blurring at approximately 10 p.m. EDT last evening. Care to guess which? Come on, it's easy. Multiply me by 250 million other US citizens. We're Gary Bettman's nightmare.
OF COURSE I clicked off the set in the tied period of Edmonton's stirring overtime win against the Carolina Hurrican to force the Stanley Cup Finals to Game Six. When in doubt, the American sports fan drops the NHL. The NHL dropped itself for a whole year last season, and the effect on my rooting life was minimal, no, to be honest, non-existent.
Too bad. Hockey is a wonderful sport to watch, fast, violent, melodramatic. Everyone associated with the game is stone crazy, too, a definite plus from my viewpoint. But the World Cup is only once every four years, and I can watch a game over breakfast, and so the NHL becomes a victim of an overcrowded calendar. It's a matter of priorities. Also weather. In mid-June, it's hard to bond with a sport played on ice. I got my annual high-stakes hockey fix watching the Olympics in February. Much more satisfactory from a set and setting standpoint.
What the NHL SHOULD do is shorten its interminable regular season and playoff schedule so it's playing its showcase event at a time when there are fewer big events taking place-like before Memorial Day. Given a choice between a Cup Final and a second or third-round NBA playoff game, I and many other would opt to follow hockey on the "higher stakes mean higher interest" principle.
Sports leagues, of course, NEVER shorten their seasons. It means committing the original sin of leaving money on the table. Knowing that, here's another suggestion for commissioner Bettman and his forlorn stepchild of a sports league
For the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals, the NHL should embed hundreds of little lime slices in the ice.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

His Memory's Not That Bad

Tiger Woods hasn't played a competitive round of golf since the Masters nine weeks ago. As is well-known, Woods has been away from the game coping with the grief and sad responsibilities that came with the death of his father Earl on May 3.

There is an opinion afloat in the golf community, one I heard stated in a men's locker room just last week, that Woods' layoff will negatively impact his chances in the US Open that starts tomorrow at Winged Foot.

Not too much in this world comes as a real surprise, but that opinion did. Why would anyone think such a thing? A moment's reflection by any golf follower should show its essential absurdity.

All golf fans actually play the game themselves, so it should be easy for them to walk a few steps in Woods' Foot-joys. What happens to the average mid to high handicapper after being forced off the course for a prolonged time? Not much, actually.

Northeastern, Midwestern, and Northwestern golfers endure a months-long vacation from the game every single winter. All have shared the mixture of hope and dread that comes before the first round of spring. Will this be the year they finally put all those lessons together and cut 4 or 5 strokes off their typical score? Or, more likely, will the first round be a horror show of lost muscle memory, full of yips and shanks punctuated by the occasional whiff?

A few golfers experience those extremes in their opening rounds of a new year. The overwhelming majority, however, probably 95 percent at a minimum, score about as well and/pr as poorly as they did last season and in the seasons before that. They play their normal game, within a small margin of error of their handicap.

Now that's us schlubs. Forget for a moment Woods' ability is so far above ours we couldn't find it with the Hubble Telescope. Just consider the fact we put in about one-zillionth the time, focus, and energy on our games as Woods does on his. If WE don't lose much off our playing form after a long layoff, why expect it'd ever happen to him?

When Woods tees off tomorrow, he'll play his normal game, that is, he'll be the best player on earth, give or take a few strokes. The "give or take a few strokes" will determine whether or not Woods wins his third US Open, not what he's been up to the last two months.

Sports and News are Different Sections of the Paper, Chapter 1762

Here's a hypothetical case. Imagine, if you will, one of America's best-respected football writers who's got a job at a national sports publication, Sports Illustrated, or, or the Washington Post, L.A. Times, or other big-time daily paper.

In the spring of 2003, our hero picks the Arizona Cardinals to win the Super Bowl in the upcoming season. But he doesn't stop there. Every time there's another major development in Cardinal land, another new coach, another new quarterback, another devastating injury, the writer does a piece declaring that the next six months could still see the Cards emerge as contenders for the NEXT Super Bowl, whichever Roman numeral it might carry.

As a former sportswriter, I can tell you what would happen to this guy. Long before the Cards drafted Matt Leinart this past April, the football writer's boss would've called him into the office for a chat. Depending on the boss' nature, the chat could've been a profanity-laced screamfest of a quiet talk of exquisite politeness. In either case, the message would've been the same.

Drop the topic. Stop writing about the Arizona Cardinals. Every time you do, you look like a lunatic, and we look like idiots for employing you. It doesn't matter how smart you are on other stories in football. This is an order.

Here's a case that's not hypothetical at all. Tom Friedman of the New York Times is a multiple Pulitzer Prize winner, a best-selling author, and the foriegn policy columnist for the world's most influential newspaper. Go back through my hypothetical sports case, substitute the phrase "the war in Iraq" for "Arizona Cardinals" and one has a pithy accurate description of what Friedman's been saying about Iraq since the war began over three years ago. American success in that horribly unfortunate land remains as much or more of a longshot than the Cards taking the field for Super Bowl XLI next February.

Wars are a little more important than sports, even than the NFL. When a sportswriter makes a wrong call on a game or a team, the most harm he or she can do is cost a few gamblers a few bets. When a war gets called wrong, America's finest young men and women die needless deaths, and the treasury bleeds out a few hundred billion dollars it can't afford to lose.

Given that disparity in consequences, one might think the Times had already brought Friedman in for HIS Cardinals chat. As far as we know, one might be wrong. Friedman is still peddling the same happy horseshit on Iraq he was before the war began.

My first thought was it must be nice to cover a subject where you're allowed to ignore the scoreboard. My second was a sickened sense of horror that sports sections and sports readers hold us poor sportswriters to higher standards than are the writers for the most important editorial pages extant. Times sports columnists I know were censored for disagreeing with the top editor's take 0n the massively irrelevant issue of women being admitted as members of Augusta National. Friedman gets a war wrong for three years, and that same paper's reaction was probably to put him up for ANOTHER Pulitzer.

Newspapers are how I made my living in a job I miss with all my heart. I'd prefer not to cuss in my blogspace. But there's no other way to cope with the issue posed in this essay.

No matter how you slice it, that's some seriously fucked-up shit.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Wait 'Til Next Quadrennium!

Soccer enthusiasts like to say one of their sport's charms is its accessibility. The fundamentals are self-evident, allowing a new fan to grasp much of the game without a lengthy learning period.

The enthusiasts are right, which was bad news for the US men's national team yesterday. There were no subtleties needed to explain its wretched 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic in its opening World Cup match. A spectator could've been watching his or her first soccer match, or indeed, their first organized sports event of any kind, and understood one team was playing its sport superbly, while the other was laying an egg of historic dinosaur fossil dimensions.

Hey, it happens. The Czech-US dynamic is duplicated on a million playing fields of a dozen different sports around the world each day. If anyone knows why this happens, call me. Call Pat Riley first, though. He needs an answer by 9 p.m. EDT.
A first game loss in the World Cup is an almost certain guarantee of a first round departure, meaning the US' cup ended about three minutes after it began. While sad, this is hardly startling. Big events wouldn't be big if they didn't offer outsized rewards and penalties to the contestants. a full 50 percent of the 32 World Cup finalists will suffer the same fate.

No, the true bad news about the US team's stinkeroo is how it will inevitably lead to the resurgence in another American sport that's far more popular than soccer, namely, arguing about soccer.

American soccer arguments aren't about players, coaches, or teams. We argue about the value of the whole damn game. This debate is especially intense among members of my former community of sports journalists, who should know better, but don't.

Soccer is the most popular team sport in the world everywhere but here in the USA, where's it comes in around fifth or sixth. For reasons that have escaped me for going on 40 years, this plain fact is supposed to be either an official Good or Bad Thing about American sports. The US defeat will send soccer's detractors into fits of smug sarcasm, and plunge enthusiasts into rage and despair at another squandered opportunity for the game to take its rightful place in the sports hierarchy, or at least to pass hockey, for God's sake.

As anyone who's ever met one knows, American soccer fans aren't really fans, they're missionaries, carrying a creed into a hostile land, and forever ready to preach their irritating gospel. Here's my hint to this crowd. Drop the defensive attitude. If you're following the world's most popular sport, act like it. If a neighbor or co-worker has little or no interest in the game, don't keep telling him why he should. Go watch a game and leave him alone.

Soccer's problem in America has never changed. It's a low-scoring sport, and Americans, including this one, like high-scoring stick-and-ball games. The four major professional sports leagues constantly cater to this preference, tinkering with their rules and equipment to favor offense at the expense of defense on an almost annual basis.

My PR advice for soccer fans is to turn this negative into a positive. Soccer may lack scoring, but as a result, the sport also has a refreshing lack of statistics. There's no VORP in soccer, no OBP, yards after catch, offensive efficiency ratings or plus-minus ratios. The typical soccer box score can be printed on a business card.

Americans are really ready for such a game. What Ben Hogan called the "paralysis of analysis" is threatening to strangle baseball, for example. Soccer has no nerd fans emerging from the basements to write snotty essays as to how they've discovered a revolutionary formula that can calculate baseball's vital elements to the ninth number to the right of the decimal point. They're going to be the next Bill James, except James can really write well, and they can't. The formula in question is invariably a math-laden equivalent to the statement, "that Albert Pujols is some hitter."

What I like best about soccer is I can just watch it. There's no scorecard to keep, no records to compile. I just sit there and take it in, like a movie. Since that experience is why one watches ANY game in the first place, soccer lets the overinformed fan touch base with his sensual side. It's sort of like the way a week on a vegatarian diet sharpens the palate when one returns to meat-eating.

Now for the other side of the soccer debate. The game's foes are, if anything, more irritating than its friends. When the topic comes up, their faces assume a permanent sneer. Soccer can't merely be ignored, it must be hated and ridiculed. How peculiar. How distasteful.

Soccer hate rests on two principles. One is that since the rest of the world loves the game, and we don't, the game itself's at fault. Americans are never wrong, after all. If some podunk land like Ivory Coast is better at soccer than we are, it can't be worth playing.

This combination of arrogance and ignorance is why we're so beloved around the globe these days. It leads seamlessly into the other major beef of the soccer haters-that the game is somehow effete and unmanly.

First of all, that's bold talk for a nation that's currently hiring mercenaries to torture its suspected enemies, but let's take this down to a homelier level. It's a lie. Soccer is grueling. Players are infinitely more fit than many well known American athletes in other games. It has no David Wells' or guys whose only skill is to have grown to be seven feet tall. Baseball beat writers are unfortunately prone to sneering at many sports besides soccer as "not real". Guys, you're full of it. The average major leaguer would perish midway through his first practice with a World Cup soccer team.

Boston morning sports talk hosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan are especially fond of the "soccer is for sissies" meme. Yours truly didn't just get off the Greyhound in the big city this morning. Obviously John and Gerry's rap is mostly schtick. The schtick would probably more effective if the two of 'em weren't famed for their sycophantic coverage of the blood-and-guts, hell-for-leather bonecrushers of the PGA Tour.

Dear soccer missionaries: Give it up. Soccer will or won't become more popular here. Yelling won't effect the process a whit.

Dear soccer haters: Give it up faster. If soccer is doomed to failure in the USA, why beat a dead horse? If it's not, you risk looking extremely stupid.

Ooops! Gotta run. France vs. Switzerland just started. You can throw out the wine lists when those traditional rivals get together. I almost forgot to mention my favorite part of World Cup 2006. Here on the East Coast, all the games take place during the day!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Home is Where You Go to Bitch About Your Bullpen

By any reasonable measure, Boston is my home.

Boston is where I've lived for 32 of my 56 years on earth. It's where I met my wife and raised our family. It's where I decided what I wanted to do for a living, and was lucky enough to practice that trade for almost three decades. I'd be perfectly content to live the rest of my days here, and the increasing realization that the exigencies of earning a living make moving a real possibility is a serious bummer.

But Boston isn't my home town. That's Wilmington, Delaware, where I spent the weekend attending my niece's wedding. I left Wilmington at 18, wouldn't live there to win a major bet, and yet I love it. There are pleasures and simple contentments I find in Wilmington that exist nowhere else, and they're all the sweeter for the rarity of returning to savor them.

Well, duh. Yours truly has just described a universal human trait, one especially prevalent in the USA with its notoriously peripatetic population. Your home town is where you grew up. Big deal.

It's only mentioned here because in our country, and as the World Cup makes clear, in everyone else's country, the socially acceptable way to express this nostalgia for the haunts of childhood is through sports. People change addresses with ease, they change political, social, and even religious beliefs. But change the teams you root for? Man, that's heavy, and frankly, it's disturbing behavior. My parents have done little I disapprove of, but when they confessed retirement in northern Florida had turned them into Braves' fans, I was appalled.

To the extent a longtime sportswriter can still be a fan, I am a Phillies, Eagles, and 76ers fan and will remain so no matter where the roof over my head may be. These are not the happiest nor easiest of franchises to follow. It's slightly creepy to be part of a fan community that takes such pride in being the most miserable and hostile audience in American sports. But destiny is what it is. Checking the Phils' box score first every day is a healthier tribute to childhood than eating cheesesteaks at every opportunity.

Since about 1700, the history of the New England economy has been one of short, dizzying booms, followed by long busts and even longer periods of stagnation. Given a choice, most people would rather be warm than cold. These two facts are why no team has more expatriate followers than the Red Sox. They have been a constant presence at parks around the country for generations, loud, sarcastic, pushy-delightful.

Meeting the exiles (and if you work for a New England paper, radio, or TV station, they seek you out) was one of my favorite parts of any Red Sox road trip. A man and wife wearing matching Jason Varitek shirts as they walk through Kenmore Square are just fans. The same couple doing so in a bar in Anaheim or a hotel elevator in Seattle are trying to tell you their life's story. New Englanders are not noted for being friendly and outgoing with strangers, but these former New Englanders always are. As someone associated with the Sox, however tangentially, they didn't think I was a stranger.

Sportswriters, including myself, tend to shun the company of fans. Any fans reading this, it's not personal. Sports is our job, and like anyone else, we're not always eager to talk shop off the job. Why was my reaction to out-of-town Sox fans so different?

It took a long while to come up with the answer to that question, because it had nothing to do with the fans. It was about me. There's one life experience I can never have in New England. It's too late to grow up here.

The exiles in the blue caps with the red "B' gave me the chance to do so by proxy.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Wilmington (Del.) County Club (South Course)

The legendary golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, Sr. died on June 14, 2000. This was a lucky break for your essayists.
After 18 holes on one of his typical heyday courses, I'm spared the time, trouble, and legal complications of hunting the SOB down and strangling him with my bare hands.
For the record, Wilmington South, which has held numerous USGA events including the 1971 US Amateur, is 7100 yards from the members' blue tees. That's longer than Winged Foot will be for the Open this week.
7000 plus plus humonguous double or triple-tiered greens. Fuck you RTJ, Sr!
In the interests of equal time, the pro told me he does give lots and lots of lessons.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Road Trip

There will be no posting until next Monday. Family business calls.

On a Stupider Note

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, host of "Countdown" is more than slightly hipped on the issue of steroids in baseball, so he was all over the Grimsley story. And people who're into the steroids issue say the darndest things.

Olbermann and New York Daily News reporter T.J. Quinn both noted that as of now, there is no reliable test for artificial Human Growth Hormone, one of the performance enhancing drugs Barry Bonds has been accused of using.

Quinn's solution, presented with a completely straight face, was that baseball should hold onto the player specimen samples it currently uses to test for steroids and amphetimines until science can come up with a breakthrough test for HGH, then conduct post-dated testing.

What a legacy for the commissioner! Somewhere on the outskirts of Cooperstown, N.Y. would rise an historical medical building, the Bud Selig Memorial MLB Urine Repository.

If It Ain't Cheatin' If You Don't Get Caught, What Is It when It Doesn't Work?

Jason Grimsley has pitched for over a decade in the major leagues without too many people noticing. Now he's famous, and all it took was getting busted for possession of performance-enhancing drugs, including human growth hormone.

Grimsley was unconditionally released by the Arizona Diamondbacks today, and is, as they say, "co-operating with authorities." He's evidently been deep in the performance-enhancing drug subculture for some time. This sheds new light on the whole question of drugs in baseball, because using them sure didn't seem to enhance Grimsley's performance by any noticable measure.

Grimsley's predicament has struck a blow for knowledge all the billions of heated words on the subject, no one has really set out to examine how much PE drugs help players perform, or even if they do. Scientifically speaking, for all we know, BALCO could've handed out placebos to Barry Bonds and company and achieved the same home run totals.

Many people inside baseball have long maintained that many more humdrum players of Grimsley's ilk have abused steroids and such than have big stars. This makes economic sense. The biggest earning step in the game is the leap from Triple AAA to the Show and those who live on the cusp of those worlds could be expected to do ANYTHING to remain on a major league roster.

The public impression, of course, is just the reverse. The outside world thinks that all suspected or confessed PE drug users come from the game's superstars. That fallacy is the celebrity culture at work. Reporters don't get the front page with stories linking the Grimsley of this world to steroids, and congressmen do not get national TV time to rake .230 hitters over the coals on the topic.

But the public isn't all wrong. It focuses on the big names who've been linked to PE drug use because theirs are the performances (not to mention hat sizes) that have changed the most dramatically.

Whatever edge Grimsley got from taking PE drugs is not apparent to the naked eye. He was mediocre with or without 'em. His case suggests that giving steroids to a stiff results only in a muscle-bound stiff with back acne.

Barry Bonds was the best player in baseball before he was ever suspected of PE drug use, to which he was apparently a relative latecomer. If the account of Bonds' use in "Game of Shadows" is accurate, then their use had an ENORMOUS effect on his performance. Bonds hit dozens of more homers a season. His slugging percentage soared by several hundred points. He went from the top talent of his time to the most feared and productive batter ever.

A similiar effect can be seen in two other confessed steroid users, the brothers Jason and Jeremy Giambi. Jason, a good hitter, became a much better one. Jeremy, a poor hitter, couldn't alter that reality through biochemical means.

These cases suggest that the benefits of PE drug use in baseball depend on the talents of the individuals who use 'em. Their value-added effect varies in direct proportion to the player's original unaided value. A drug-created tide does NOT lift all boats.

If that's true, then PE drug use is damaging to baseball in a far more profound way than what it's usually denounced for. There is as yet no proof big leaguers have suffered any permanent ill effects from PE drug use. It's just too early to tell. I've never understood why steroids have been blasted for helping players heal more quickly. Isn't that what all medicine is for?

And of course, if a majority of players were using PE drugs, and those drugs DID lift all players proportionally, then the "cheaters" would cancel each other out.

If, however, PE drug use helps turn the talent-rich into the talent-obscenely wealthy, then it
s dealing baseball's competitive balance a near fatal blow. The game's percentages are ground so fine, they can't take that sort of disruption. For example, shortstops have been throwing runners out at first by the same half-step for well over a century, whether the runner was fast or merely average. If, all of a sudden, fast runners CAN beat the throw from the shortstop on a regular basis, baseball is shaken to its core. Also, all games would last six hours at a minimum.

Somebody hitting 73 homers doesn't necessarily affect baseball's competitive integrity. It's just a number, and teams can always move the fences back or raise the mound again. But widespread use of artificial means that allow its top dogs to ascend faster than lesser players can keep up does.

PE drugs would seem to be the horsehide equivalent of repealing the estate tax.