Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Let's All Hold Out!

NFL training camps are very dull. That's not just me talking. Bill Belichick said as much, so it MUST be true. Compared to the Pats' coach's all-encompassing love of football, Tristan took Isolde home as a closing time bar pick-up after a seven margarita night.

For the participants, training camp combines the mental pleasure of preparing one's taxes with the sheer physical joy of laying asphalt in 100-degree heat. Spectators don't have to wear pads, but the thrill of watching punt coverage drills wears thin after, oh, 15 minutes tops. Camp is tedious enough that everyone involved treats the first exhibition game of the season, the most chaotic and meaningless competition in sports, as a treat akin to Christmas morning.

Camp, however, remains way more interesting than training camp holdouts. One of the blessings of involuntary free agency is knowing one won't have to read or, worse yet, write about Deion Branch's contract dispute.

Can't we just cut to the chase? Come Sept. 10 at 1 p.m., the chances are 9,999,999.99 out of 10 million a more-or-less gruntled Branch will be in the Pats' offensive starting lineup for the season's opener against Buffalo. Knowing that, why sweat the details? Why follow the self-serving words of Branch's agent on a daily basis? It's difficult enough to get Belichick to say anything of substance about the players who're IN camp. He's not gonna say squat about a player who isn't and everyone down to the infants in Tom Brady number 12 jumpsuits knows it.

NFL holdouts always remind me of Cleavon Little holding the gun to his own head in "Blazing Saddles." The player suffers a self-inflicted financial wound to convince management he's seriously pissed off about his contract status. Sooner or later, this strategy's limits reveal themselves even to the likes of Terrell Owens, and after a face-saving compromise of some sort, the player returns. If he's bearing a grudge, we all have to wait until he's a free agent to see it.

There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare, indeed, shockingly so. No one was more surprised and appalled when the Patriots cut Lawyer Milloy than Belichick, the man who did it.

Branch is no rookie, so the amount of camp he misses will have a minimal effect on his play upon returning. He already knows how. Richard Seymour's holdout last season had no impact on his performance. More players than I feel like listing have missed months of regular season games and practices and come back to help their teams win Super Bowls. Why should anyone fret over a player of Branch's ability skipping a few weeks of soul-crushing sweat in August?

Not to date myself, but Boston sports used to have a perennial holdout. John Havlicek never signed a contract until the last possible minute, say before the last exhibition game on the schedule. Red Auerbach was perhaps the meanest and most vindicitive front office guy in a contract dispute that ever lived. But in Hondo's case, he never seemed to mind the holdouts, or even notice them.

Taking a tip from a master, I've seldom noticed a holdout since.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Difference Between Baseball and Football

In the NFL, everyone insists that the commissioner works very hard. In baseball, nobody can do that with a straight face.

When Bowie Kuhn was fired as baseball commish, yours truly wrote a Phoenix column proposing my own candidacy for the position. It was meant to be humorous. In the event, however, I would have been a FAR better choice than the dignitary the owners hired instead, Peter Ueberroth. My platform for the office was a firm promise to do nothing and plenty of it. Never having heard the fable of King Log and King Stork, the owners went along with Ueberroth's collusion scheme on free agency, which wound up costing them a cool $3 billion in damages.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagiliabue is retiring after a most successful 18 year tenure. The old football saying is "don't replace the legend, replace the guy who replaced the legend." Tagliabue defied that maxim, succeeding Pete Rozelle, and making pro football even more profitable and, most important, peaceful than his sainted predecessor. The owners are preparing to vote on Tagliabue's replacement. Hard work the job may be. Nevertheless, I am again a candidate for office. If elected, I will serve.

If Bob Kraft and Gene Upshaw agree a job is difficult, it is. But close examination of Tagliabue's tenure and what the owners say they're looking for in his successor gives me hope. Let me put it this way. I couldn't do worse than rumored candidate Condi Rice, and would come to the job without any lost wars on my resume.

The first and most important task for the NFL commish is to keep the TV money tap flowing in an ever-wider stream. Since the networks lose money on the NFL, this looks difficult, but is actually not. Tagliabue didn't mess with the formula created by Rozelle when he invented Monday Night Football, and neither will I.

The NFL delivers a guaranteed audience. Monday Night on ABC was not what it once was, but still ranked in the Neilsen Top Ten. At any given moment, one of the four major networks will be sunk in the cellar producing a prime time schedule nobody watches. When the time comes for renewing pro football's TV package, that network will overbid wildly for the privilege of having one show with a pulse. Thus, less than a decade after walking away from the NFL in high dudgeon, NBC is back this fall with Sunday Night Football. Simple, no?

The owners have stated they'd like an owner who could expand the NFL internationally and in "new media", i.e., the Internet. And if his tears could cure cancer, that would be nice, too. Pro football is to the rest of the world as soccer is to the US. Folks tune into the Super Bowl (World Cup) to see what the fuss is all about, have a good time, then forget the sport until the next one rolls around. So despite the road trip benefits, the Bills won't be moving from Buffalo to Paris anytime soon. As for the web, well, if anyone figures out how to get folks to pay f0r Internet information, they shouldn't bother with the NFL, but should immediately run for dictator of Planet Earth.

The NFL wants more money? Fine. Here's an idea, an easy one, too. How about moving a team to LA? What with it being the second biggest city in the country and all, that might help the old balance sheet. All the commish needs to do is wring his hands helplessly when some rat bastard greedhead mogul abandons his home town for the City of Angels. I could do that.

So what does make the commissioner's job a hard one? That would the people who hired him, Alex. The 32 NFL franchise owners are not dummies by a long shot. They're all fabulously wealthy however, and wealth makes people willful. Also crazy. Owners are determined to get their way, no matter how demented that way might be.

For every nice quiet billionaire like Paul Allen of the Seahawks or Bill Ford of the Lions, the commissioner is confronted by an Al Davis, a Georgia Frontiere, a Dan Snyder. He must treat these beauties with respect, even deference, when in real life, he'd change subway cars if they sat down next to him.

That's not easy. Upshaw summarized the commissioner's job to the New York Times as "all politics." It is, too. American politicians spend all their time listening to rich people bitch, then asking them for money. In that sense, the commissioner's job is a little easier. He listens to rich people bitch, then helps make more money, a much ore satisfactory exchange.

As it happens, I do a superb job of listening to rich people bitch. The trick is, don't listen. Running the NFL is no chore for a dreamer. A daydreamer, however, is just the man it needs.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Tiger Must Have a Mute Button

There are many reasons Tiger Woods is the best golfer of our time, working on of all time. After his British Open triumph, the 11th major tournament victory of Woods' career, it's apparent what one of them must be.

When Woods is out there on the golf course, he can't hear the world's TV broadcasters rhapsodizing about Tiger Woods' magnificence. If Woods could hear how he's covered, he might hate himself.

There's respect for an all-time champion, and then there's fawning sycophancy. Golf commentary, which leans towards the latter anyway, has crossed the line by light years in Woods' case. Magnify Tim McCarver's comments on Derek Jeter by a factor of 100, and you have the sound of any network broadcaster describing Woods' play. On the Golf Channel, it's more like North Korean TV discussing Kim Jong Il. Dear Tiger is human perfection-only better.

There are times Woods deserves every over the top accolade he gets. Yours truly had the privilege of covering Woods' 2000 US Open win at Pebble Beach, the most dominant golf performance in history (that's a stat, not an opinion) and of course my prose ran a shade or two towards the purple end of the spectrum. What separates the sycophants is their insistence on luading Woods when he doesn't deserve it. They even make excuses for Woods, as if ever needed any.

In the third round at Royal Liverpool, Woods had three separate three-putts on the back nine, missing putts of under 6 feet on all of them. That's the stuff 20-handicaps are made of, not an Open champion. Woods was the only person to say so. It's a cliche to say great athletes are their own harshest critics, but in Woods' case, he's his ONLY critic, or at least the only one you see on TV.

Hero worship is bad for the hero. He either starts believing his press clippings, which is fatal, or develops contempt for the worshippers, a slower but equally fatal disease. Either way, life gets one-dimensional. It's not just lonely at the top, it's dull to boot. Ennui drove Michael Jordan, Woods' role model, all the way to Double A baseball.

There's scant danger of Woods having a similiar mid-jocklife crisis. Hi ego won't get a bellyache from the constant overdose of butter and sugar it gets from the golf world. Woods won't let it take a taste. This is not meant as a pejorative, but isn't it obvious that the secret of Woods' success is his supernatural powers as a control freak? Compared to Woods, Bill Belichick could play the lead in Clerks II.

Consider the Open. Woods has struggled with driving accuracy all year. So in this tournament, he used the driver once in 72 holes. Simple, no?

No. A million pros have given 10 million hackers the same game plan. Put the driver in the bag, ace. A 200-yard shot from the fairway is a better fate than a 150-yard shot from parts unknown. Get a grip.

Nobody follows this advice, at least not for long. Hitting the driver is fun-the most enjoyable shot in the game. That's for duffers. Think how much fun it is for Woods, one of the longest hitters ever. Think how Phil Mickelson lost the US Open because he couldn't let go of the driver on the 72nd tee. The ability to hit the ball further than most other folks is what separates pros from amateurs in the first place.

Woods put his ego in the bag alongside of his driver and hit irons off the tee. The logic involved was not complex. Woods doesn't just hit his driver longer than the other players, he hits all the other clubs proportionately further as well. Ergo, eschewing the driver is a smaller sacrifice for him than for his rivals. This analysis proved correct.

The triumph of intellect over ego is a rare thing in human affairs. Frankly, most of us can't empathize with it. Woods is idolized, but the all-too-flawed Mickelson, who'd rather live on the edge than win safely, is loved by the galleries in a way Woods won't be until he's older and more fallible.

That day appears to be at least 15 years in the future. Woods is deaf to the treacle his play inspires. Lucky him. Maybe he'll lend out his mute button when the PGA rolls around next month.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

History Lesson Re: Boston Herald Front Page, 7/20/06

The centerpiece of London's Trafalgar Sqaure is, of course, the gigantic pillar upon which sits the statue of the admiral who that famed battle, Lord Horatio Nelson.

Underneath two centuries of pigeon poop, the monument contains no, repeat, no mention of Nelson's celebrated affair with Lady Emma Hamilton.

Nobody's personal life is inscribed on the Vince Lombardi Trophy, either.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Sabermetrician of the Year

Jon Lester is far more than a rookie pitcher off to a lovely start for the Boston Red Sox. He's the stuff of offseason research papers by baffled numbers nuts, a reason why pitching coaches and managers have been known to drink together late at night.

Lester's brief career defies logic. He's a statistical anomaly who's in the process of becoming a statistical impossibility.

Baseball arithmetic decrees that a rookie pitcher, or any pitcher, who has walked 29 batters in 45 1/3 innings should have an ERA of 5 or higher, has gone a month without a win, and is headed for long relief or Triple A as soon as the GM gets into the office. Lack of control=disaster is a formula that predates Bill James. Also Connie Mack.

As you may have guessed, the base on balls total cited above is Lester's. His record is 5-0 with a 2.38 ERA after going eight one-hit shutout innings against the Royals last night. In a supreme display of his unique pitching pattern, Lester walked four Kansas City batters, yet the time of game was a sprint of 2 hours, 25 minutes, a figure the Sox usually reach by the bottom of the fifth at Fenway Park.

Rookie pitchers, again, nearly all pitchers, slow their pace of play to a wounded crawl after walking a man in the Sox' home park. Lester obviously did not. His composure is a joy to watch. It's a rare pitcher (Catfish Hunter was one, Jim Palmer another) who ALWAYS remembers that the man on first can only beat you if you let the man at the plate help him.

Less than 50 innings of work are not any sort of base for predicting a pitcher's future. There are three possible paths for Lester's development, and the first two are 10,000 times more likely than the last.

1. The percentages will kick in, and Lester will start surrendering some catastrophic three-run homers to punctuate his walks. Baseball's book got written for good reason.

2. Lester's control will improve, and he'll continue to succeed, but in a more conventional fashion. That'd be the best bet at this point.

I'm rooting for path number three. It'd be fabulous if Lester continued to defy baseball arithmetic for the rest of this season and beyond. Every successful player is a statistical anomaly to some extent. You can't have averages without some people performing above the norm. Baseball followers, including myself, forget that simple fact from time to time. Lester's staggering defiance of pitching's norms are a refreshing reminder.

Any pitcher who can work a 2:25 game at Fenway is on my team, not to mention those of every sports section copy desk in America.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

All the News Our New Fit Can Print

Five percent less stuff will take place on planet Earth, thanks to a business decision by the New York Times. The world's paper of record is literally shrinking, reducing the physical size of each page to save newsprint (the term for the actual paper). Therefore, the Times will contain five percent less news content each day.

In other news news, the Los Angeles Times has abolished hockey. The largest paper west of the Mississippi will no longer cover road games of local NHL franchises the Kings and Ducks. LA and hockey have always been a weird fit, but for a big city daily to abandon beat coverage of a home town pro franchise is unprecedented.

Falling profit margins are the alleged cause of these changes. That's only a partial truth. Falling profits due to declining circulation and loss of ad revenue to the internet have a partner in crime on the inside-stupidity. Readers, that is to say, former readers, have figured out they're being offered less product for the same price, but newspaper management hasn't tumbled to the fact their customers are on to the dodge. Papers call those customers "readers" then proceed on the assumption they can't read.

It isn't as if newspapers are the first business threatened by technological change. They may be the first industry whose response is essentially, "OK, we give up. Now please but an ad."

Back at the turn of the last century, the new-fangled horseless carriage posed a dire threat to every blacksmith in America. Smart blacksmiths began learning how to repair cars. Duller ones persevered as their customer base slowly declined. But none of them, smart or dumb, were crazy enough to respond by putting only three shoes on every horse.

One Move And the Ball Gets It!

If Doug Mientkiewicz had a sense of humor, he'd have brought the damn last ball of the 2004 World Series with him to Boston. Then he'd have put the sacred relic of the Red Sox' triumph inside a sack full of rocks, chartered a boat, and headed into the Atlantic.

Once outside the 12-mile limit, the Royals infielder could send the blasted souvenir to a watery grave. Oh, the humanity! Instead of merely sending the ball to the Hall of Fame, Mientkiewicz would earn at least one man's Hall of Fame vote in perpetuity.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Non-Traditional Vote of Confidence

Barry Bonds caught a break yesterday. He got to bat against a pitcher whose legal problems are worse than his own.

The Giants' star has yet to be indicted for perjury or tax evasion. Phillies hurler Brett Myers, on the other hand, has already been arrested for domestic violence. In what had to be one of the more awkward social occasions of the baseball season, Bonds hit his 721st career homer off Myers. Showing selective ethics to the twelfth power, San Francisco fans gave Bonds a standing ovation and booed Myers.

It's widely suspected Bonds will move up a class in legal jeopardy by the end of the week. The federal grand jury investigating him for perjury and tax evasion expires, and is considered likely to wind up its business with an indictment or two.

These expectations were fueled in large part by Bonds' own attorney, Laura Enos, who said last week her side was "very well-prepared" to defend its client on either charge.

Very well-prepared? That sounds like something Bill Belichick would say before a Super Bowl. Big-time defense attorneys aren't supposed to be so circumspect. They get paid to radiate confidence and to pooh-pooh any notion their client could've done anything less than praiseworthy, let alone illegal. This ability becomes more necessary the guiltier the client actually is.

Enos issued a "clarification" yesterday that was standard-issue "they got nothin' on my guy" boilerplate. No matter. The world now thinks her client will be placed in the dock. Swell. Just what the sports world needs is MORE news about Bonds.

Don't expect any indictment to fluster Bonds in the least. As an egomaniac with a persecution complex, standing trial will only vindicate Bonds' deep, dark thoughts about his ludicrously pampered and fortunate life. Besides, the last time Bonds was in court, sued for child support, the judge wound up asking him for an autograph.

Friday, July 14, 2006

A for Effort, A+ for Beating Alabama

Today's New York Times has a front page story below the fold detailing how Auburn football players got very high grades for independent study courses in sociology that were more nebulous than usual for the discipline.

Awhile back, the Times had another college football "scandal" story involving fake grades below the fold on its front page. It must've been a bad scandal to get such great placement, because the rest of page one, banner headline and all, was devoted to the stock market Crash of '29.

Not to disparage the fine work done on the Auburn story by the Times' Pete Thamel, but there can be no more futile beat in journalism than covering the uneasy, oft sleazy relationship between college athletics and college academics. Winning on Saturday has trumped the Socratic ideal of scholarship for, well, for always. In "My Life and Hard Times", James Thurber recounts a scene in a pre-World War I Ohio State classroom where a professor frantically attempts to keep star tackle Bolenciewicz eligible for the big game. This broadly comic tall tale wasn't very different from the efforts of the Auburn sociology department to boost Cadillac Williams' grade point average.

All right-thinking people are supposed to deplore the corruption of academe by the grubby pursuit of triumph on the playing field. It's a bona-fide Problem. But when a Problem isn't solved for going on a century, the inevitable conclusion is that no one really wants to. And if no one wants to solve a Problem, is it a problem at all?

In short, what Auburn wants to do to foster its football program is Auburn's business, and there's no reason the rest of us should care. College football is a superb sport that gives millions of Americans great pleasure. Few of those millions are so brain-dead as to suppose the "scholar-athletes" are 100 percent, or even 50 percent, committed to higher education.

What's surprising is how many athletes ARE passable scholars. Someone who plays a Division I sport on an athletic scholarship essentially is working a full-time job to pay for their college education. Lots and lots of unathletic Americans do the same thing, but we don't sterotype them as dumb jocks if it takes them longer than 4 years to get a degree. It must be very strange to be a college football hero these days. People simultaneously idolize you and look down their noses at you, then insist this contradiction is your fault, not theirs.

College sports "scandals" are losing what little power to shock they had, mainly because of the changing nature of colleges themselves. From Harvard and Yale down to "Round the Corner CC, these institutions are the most money-crazed institutions in our money-crazed society. Fund-raising isn't just the school president's 24/7 job-it's everybody's. Students from my son's school, BU, get paid a pittance to cold call parents and ask if they'd like to donate a little something on top of $40 K annual tuition, room, and board. Jack Abramoff wouldn't have the stones to pull that move.

At many schools, one suspects Auburn included, the football team is the Big Rainmaker on Campus, the driving engine for large-scale fundraising efforts. Given that status, a few independent study courses of dubious merit are a small price to pay. Indeed, the most newsworthy aspect of Thamel's story was the refreshing lack of guilt displayed by its subjects.

The business of college football is never going to change. Maybe there's no reason it should.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The World Loves to Overlook the Obvious

Manny Ramirez hustles as much (or as little) as 99.98 percent of all other major league players. That's pretty much all the time with some flagrant exceptions.

Ramirez, however, has many critics who say he's preternaturally lazy on the field anywhere except at bat. This slanderous fallacy stems from reading way too much into some clearly observable facts. Ramirez is no threat to beat out a grounder into the hole, and more than occasionally fails to reach balls hit into left field.

The mystery is how these facts add up to a character flaw when ANYBODY who's seen Manny play more than a few times, which basically is everyone in New England, has all the evidence they need to reach the correct conclusion about Ramirez's deficiencies. They're physical, not psychological.

Mother Nature gave Ramirez about the worst first step of any professional athlete this side of the Professional Bowler's Association. Nose tackle Ted Washington would beat Manny out of the starting blocks ten times out of ten. Ramirez's hand-eye co-ordination is so superb it's hard to fathom how his feet-eye co-ordination could be so poor, but nonetheless, it is, and leads to 90 percent of his "lazy" rap.

Ramirez is not a slow runner, once he gets up to speed. This, however, takes him as long as the average 150-car freight train. On a routine grounder, Manny's reaching maximum velocity approximately one stride from first base.

The same is true of Ramirez' fielding. All Sox fans can remember some amazing Manny blunders in the outfield. They can also, if they're honest, remember an equal number of spectacular plays. Think back fans. The overwhelming majority of Ramirez's stellar glove work have come when he's reached top speed. The bulk of his butchery stems from being frozen in place at the crack of the bat.

Ramirez would need a fielding average of .150 to erase what he does for the Sox with his bat. Red Sox sluggers are always subject to unwarranted abuse. It's a civic psychosis. What's interests me about the accusations of laziness thrown Manny's way is how they reflect an overly common trait in sports analysis-looking to a competitor's mind rather than his body, searching for hidden meaning where none exists.

Well, "Manny accelerates poorly" doesn't fill many columns or hours of talk radio, so one can understand why outsiders might fall into that trap. But athletes themselves do it all the time. They'd rather admit to being "flat" or "complacent" or any number of character flaws after a loss than say, "hey, today we weren't the best team out there."

That I don't get. And never will.

Always Glad to Help, Commissioner

Bud Selig wants all players named All-Stars to show up for the All-Star Game. So why doesn't he take actions within his power to make 100 percent attendance an annual reality.

Just make it mandatory, Bud. Call up Don Fehr (you have his cell number, right?) and have language inserted into the Basic Agreement making All-Star participation a contractual obligation for any Star not on the disabled list. Presto! Alleged slackers like Manny Ramirez would be required to don uniforms for the Midsummer Classic.

Of course, Fehr certainly would demand players get a little something in return for fulfilling that requirement. One can't eat honor, after all.

Until and unless Selig is willing to take that step, his bleating about the All-Star Game will remain hooey. But then, a commissioner without hooey would hardly be a proper leader for our national pastime.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Deus Ex Stupidity

Penalty kicks are an unsatisfying means of determining a world championship, or a sandlot argument for that matter. They're also unworthy, unfair, and worst of all, unserious. If FIFA, soccer's ruling body, was searching for a way to convince casual American sports fans that theirs is a stupid game, the half-assed tie-breaker employed in the World Cup was just perfect.

Penalty kicks are so dumb, they robbed Zinedine Zidane of his richly deserved moral burden of being the goat of France's loss to Italy.

With about 10 minutes to play in overtime, the French midfielder was red-carded for head-butting a taunting Italian rival. Until then, Zidane had been the Cup's sentimental favorite. In one breathtaking moment of rage, he turned into sport's biggest symbol of individual disgrace since Roberto Duran said "No Mas."

As our Parisian correspondent J.F. noted, Zidane's butt would've called for disqualification in a boxing match. Name any disapproving adjective, and it applies to the star's moment of id. The one thing Zindane didn't do, however, was give the Cup to Italy. Penalty kicks even take the disgrace out of a game.

France was forced to play 10 on 11 for the final 10 minutes, but Italy was so winded it couldn't manage a semblance if a scoring threat despite its advantage. Obviously, Zidane's absence affected France's chance of winning via normal means, but the Italian defense was so rigorous (Italy's numbers 5 and 8 were by far the most effective men on the pitch) and scoring is so difficult under any conditions, that ten-minute gap was less than a decisive blow.

Penalty kicks are what blow. After 120 minutes of play, let's put the game in the hands of chance. Karma will decide. It sure ain't skill. If the goalie guesses right, he might block a shot. Or a kicker might miss a shot he makes 90 percent of the time. In the event, a Frenchman did miss, and neither goalie laid a finger on the nine shots taken.

Gosh, that's sure justice. As a sporting spectacle, having the two clubs line up a the 18th hole of a miniture golf course and try to roll putts into the clown's mouth would've been better entertainment.

Consider the alternative, namely, playing until somebody scores a damn goal. Here would've been moral drama. Ten French players, handicapped by the selfish rage of their captain, versus 11 gassed Italians. Whatever the result, the conclusion would've been more satisfying to all concerned. Penalty kicks leave the loser with all the pain of defeat minus the bitter consolation that the other team did in fact play better.

FIFA, which appears to hire its executives from those fired by the NHL for incompetence, has no legitimate defense for the penalty kick. The games would go on too long? Tough luck for the world's TV networks, more fun for the rest of us. The players would get too tired? Uh, they're highly professional athletes. In a world where white-collar suburbanites find the time and energy to become triathletes, that excuse doesn't cut it. In a pinch, the game could loosen its substitution rules for OT.

I have now watched two World Cup finals decided on PKs, in 1994 with a delirious crowd of Brazilians, and yesterday with a very unhappy teenaged Francophile. Both the winners and losers were cheated of the fundamental right of all fans-to see the game decided by its actual rules, not a made up ending. PKs are to sports what dream sequences are to television drama-the mark of incompetent plotting.

PS: I was prepared to delve int0 the psychodrama of Zidane's meltdown, but on further reflection, I'm not sure that's what it was. The Frenchman, after all, was only the second World Cup star to be ejected from a tie game for a flagrant foul. English striker Wayne Rooney was tossed from his team's quarter-final PK loss to Portugal for stomping a foe in the groin.

There are two possible explanations for these wanton acts of violence. One is that the pressure of World Cup play bends the minds of competitors beyond endurance. It's possible, as the stakes are very high, but 30 years of close observation of professional athletes tells me to reject the idea. These folks are the ultimate creatures of habit, and World Cup final or club friendly, when they hit the pitch, it's all one. They've spent pretty much every waking hour of their lives trying to make each game be the same. The Ron Artests of this world are rare birds. The notion that not one, but two world-class superstars just happened to blow their minds in the same way in the same event defies probability.

This leaves the conclusion fouls like Zidane's and Rooney's are a commonplace in soccer, and most of the time, the criminal escapes scot-free. They didn't melt down due to the Cup's pressures. Those pressures were the reason they got caught. A Portugese player brought Rooney's foul to the ref's attention. The ref didn't see Zidane's headbutt at all, and it may have only been detected when the act was replayed on the stadium Jumbotron. That's like getting busted after being featured on "America's Most Wanted."

The World Cup draws soccer's best referees, and even the most devoted fans admitted most of the games were officiated in startingly incompetent fashion. Given that, it seems most likely that Zidane butted his tormentor for the simplest of motives-he thought he'd get away with it.

So much for soccer writing by yours truly for the next four years. Here's this casual fan's summary for the defensive, sensitive boosters of American soccer.

You're getting there, gang. I was much more into this Cup than any of the ones before it. Add an extra official and drop the PK shootouts. Then, maybe, the 2010 Cup will see the soccer revolution you've been promising for the last 40 years.

Friday, July 07, 2006

A Modest Suggestion for American League GMs

The July 31st trade deadline is fast approaching, and playoff contenders are searching for what they were sure they had plenty of back in March-starting pitching. Potential buyers have run up against the perennial problem with said search. Teams that possess capable starters won't trade them. One pays blue chip prices for penny stocks.

Amid the usual flurry of bullshit rumors, one pitcher's name has yet to be mentioned. This is odd, because his resume and situation are the stuff deadline deals are made of.

The pitcher in question is Greg Maddux. After a sizzling start, Maddux has been as ineffective as all the rest of his fellow Cubs. He's currently 7-9 with a 4.89 ERA, hardly the numbers of his Hall of Fame prime. Maddux is 40 and there's a real possibility he's done.

OK, there's the risk. On the other hand, he's also Greg Maddux, one of the two great pitchers of our time. If Maddux was unhittable in April, there's always the possibility he might be the same in August. Just getting away from Wrigley Field ought to wonders for his outlook on life.

Maddux makes significant money. For a contender that should be a feature, not a bug, in any trade. Dumping his contract means the Cubs will be forced to accept less of a price in human flesh out of the deal. Chicago might be the most screwed-up franchise in the big leagues right now (at least the Royals KNOW they're awful). Trading Maddux for young blood would be a traditional way of addressing that plight.

Not to name names, Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein, but consider your mutual situation. Only one of your decrepit battleship franchises is going to make the playoffs, and it had better be yours. Wouldn't you feel more confidence in your squad if it was sending Greg Maddux to the mound every fifth day instead of Jason Johnson or Shawn Chacon?

No thanks necessary, fellas. What I miss most about journalism is the opportunity for public service.

Surly Waters Run Deep

At first, second, and twenty years' more worth of glances, Barry Bonds seems about as unlovable a chap as could be imagined. Here's a guy whose best public relations move of 2006 came when the ESPN show devoted to nothing but him "Bonds on Bonds" was canceled.

Appearances must be deceiving. There's SOMETHING about Bonds' that inspires devotion in others, at least in one other.

Greg Anderson, Bonds' personal trainer, is in a federal lockup this morning, charged with contempt of court. Anderson refused to answer questions from a federal grand jury investigating whether Bonds committed perjury in HIS testimony before the grand jury probing the BALCO scandal. Anderson's attorney, Mark Geragos (are there any other defense lawyers in California?), insisted his client's silence had nothing to do with Bonds.

Uh-huh. How can refusal to testify in an investigation of Person A not be related to Person A?

Bonds and Anderson have been friends since adolescence. And what friends they must be. I still have any number of old pals from high school days. Those friendships would come to a sudden end were either I or one of my buddies to ask the other to spend a single night in the pokey as a personal favor. Compared to Bonds and Anderson, Damon and Pythias barely knew each other.

So as Bonds limps towards the end of his memorable if regrettable career, he can take solace in the message fate gave George Bailey. No man is a failure who has friends.

It's a wonderful life no matter what your hat size may be.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A Tuesday Off Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Manny Ramirez just might be the most, make that only, sensible man in the Boston Red Sox organization. He's as bored by the All-Star Game as is everyone else but Bud Selig.

The fans voted Ramirez a starting outfielder for the American League in next Tuesday's Midsummer Irrelevance. Ramirez promptly announced through Sox manager Terry Francona that a sore knee would keep him from participating. Since Ramirez is in one of his cones of public silence, he's rather pointedly refused further comment.

No comment was necessary. First, Ramirez's knee is sore. Manny's reaching the age where chronic ailments are part of the game. The knee didn't keep Ramirez from hitting a homer about 1100 feet last night in Tampa Bay, but it's a real issue that will only get worse with time. The All-Star Game is not the American League playoffs. Any star who wishes to rest a minor hurt instead of flying cross-country for two at-bats is well within his rights under the baseball code of etiquette.

Ramirez would be within his rights even if he made up his excuse, as he may have done after a previous All-Star selection. His job is to help the Red Sox win games, and if three mental health days are what Manny needs to keep on doing just that, then three mental health days are what he should take. The All-Star Game is a gigantic waste of time, and Ramirez's presence wouldn't change that fact. Babe Ruth rising from the grave to play right field might not.

Consider the matter from Manny's perspective. The All-Star break is the only legitimate time off players get in the regular season. Baseball isn't physically arduous, but the mental drain of the endless routine is reak. You try making 5 a.m. hotel check-ins a weekly part of your schedule and see how it feels.

Instead of two days away from the game in the bosom of his family, All-Star Ramirez would take a Sunday night flight to Pittsburgh, then awaken early for a mandatory press conference he would not enjoy. Tuesday would be a game day, followed by a Wednesday flight back to wherever the Red Sox play on Thursday. Some fun, huh? The All-Star game may be a big deal for first-timers like Jonathan Papelbon. You'll excuse Ramirez for finding it all a trifle old.

I'll excuse Manny, at least. On this issue, Ramirez and I are soulmates. My personal interest in the All-Star game, never high, has faded to zero. All the usual "who shoulda got in" controversies left me cold, because I'm not sure who's on the two teams and who isn't anyway. Nice work, Bud, putting the official selection show on 7 p.m. Sunday of the 4th of July weekend, a time when a majority of 300 million Americans are outdoors.

Once upon a time, before free agency and interleague play, players brought some energy to the All-Star Game. Back in the '50s and '60s, when the National League's black and Latin stars were acutely aware of the American League's passive approach to integration, they brought one hell of a lot of energy, so they always won. Now, the game is a jumbled series of cameo appearances by 50 or more ballplayers, most of whom enter and leave before Joe Buck and Tim McCarver finish eulogizing them. As drama, the game has as much structure and pace as the latest edition of the yellow pages.

Nothing reveals the essential bankruptcy of the All-Star Game more than its two most celebrated attractions, the Home Run Derby and the notion that it "counts" because the winning league gets home field advantage in the World Series. The competition between the best no longer sells the game. Ersatz batting practice and false stakes were added. What a confession of artistic failure.

The Derby contains an irony Major League Baseball has yet to perceive. Performance-enhancing drug use remains the game's largest public relations problem, one symbolized by the idea of artficially enhanced home run totals. A home run derby, by definition, is a contest glorifying articifically created homers-the longer the better. Is that really what the game wishes for its marketing showplace?

As for the game counting, it doesn't-not to the majority of All-Stars, anyhow. Players aren't fools, and no Marlin, Indian, or Pirate is under the impression home field in the Series will mean anything to him come October. For that matter, since the All-Star winner was first awarded home field advantage in the Series, it hasn't meant anything to anyone. In 2003, the Yanks had the odd game, but the Marlins won anyway. In 2004 and 5, the Red and White Sox triumphed in four-game sweeps, making the home field edge a completely inoperative concept.

Boston's enormous false sports controversy industry will doubtless go into mandatory overtime mode blasting Ramirez's decision. Calling stars names is what we do here. Ramirez, quirky, enigmatic, and too good to ever lose, is a perfect foil for lazy bear-baiters. The calumny won't bother the slugger a whit. As noted, he's a sensible chap.

Enjoy your brief vacation, Manny. If you feel restless Tuesday night, feel free to drive out to my place. We'll find something better on TV than the All-Star game. I think it's the night for "World According to Jim" reruns.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

A World Record Time for Running in Place

Long winning streaks are way outside the baseball norm, so they require no comment besides, "fans, relax and enjoy it." It's only after a streak ends and its dust settles one can assess its effect on a team's long season.

The Red Sox' delightful 12-game streak ended last night. Surveying the standings, we see the Sox got less return than is usual for their fortnight of invincibility. They're in first place in the AL East by 3 games over the Yankees and 4 over the Blue Jays, a real but hardly crushing margin. One bad week, it's gone.

Every game has a winner and a loser. In the ordinary order of things, a team that wins 10 or more in succession makes up or establishes far more ground on its rivals than a 3-game cushion, for the simple fact that it tends to have beaten some of those rivals during the streak. The Sox, however, did not receive their fair "streak divided." The teams they beat aren't their in-season rivals. Their victories were all in interleague play over National League teams, so while they counted in the standings, they didn't count AS MUCH. The wins helped Boston, but the losses it inflicted didn't. In hockey parlance, they were "small two-pointers."

Boston's winning streak wasn't even an anomaly. Red-hot ballclubs are a glut on the American League market right now-yet all the rampaging teams are getting relatively little benefit from their skeins if triumph.

The Twins won last night, their eighth straight. Minnesota has won 17 of its last 19 games, yet remains in third place in the AL Central. Indeed, the Twins remain 11 games back. Their 17-2 streak gained the Twins exactly one-half game on the first place Tigers, and 2 1/2 games on the second place White Sox.

Interleague play is also responsible for this phenomenon. The Tigers and Twins are both 14-2 against NL clubs, the same as the Red Sox, while the White Sox are 13-3. Unbeknownest to all, or at least to me and my fellow East Coast residents who go to bed before midnight, the Mariners, no juggernaut they, have crawled back into the AL West race thanks to a 13-3 mark against the very junior Senior Circuit.

The thrashing the AL has put on the NL so far this season has been national news, but few have stopped to ponder its consequences. Perhaps that's because American League domination has had relatively few consequences, at least so far as standings are concerned. With the AL winning at over a .600 percentage, interleague play has been a rising tide that's lifted all its boats, while sinking all NL boats at the same rate.

Long winning streaks break races open when the competition can't keep up. For all their June struggles, which were real enough, the Yankees went 8-5 over the period the Sox went 12-1. New York was able to keep Boston in sight because it too was playing the feeble representatives of the NL East.

The situation is the same, well, Bizarro World same, in the National League. Contenders are mired in wretched slumps, but their rivals can't capitalize because the American League is killing them, too. The Cardinals recently lost 8 straight and 9 of 10. They're tied for first in the NL Central. The Mets were swept by the Sox, lost to the Yankees last night, and remain firmly atop the NL East. Life is good in a division where one's the only team over .500.

Interleague play ends Sunday, to the joy of 16 NL clubs and the sorrow of 14 AL teams. The 2006 version of this marketing ploy has left two unique contributions to the history of the game. Never has there been such total domination by one league over its peer. Statistically speaking, EVERY American League team has become the 1927 Yankees when taking the field against an NL foe.

The result of that dominance is rarer still. June 2006 has witnessed some of the least meaningful winning streaks of all time. Sorry about that, Twins fans.