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).


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