A Front Office of One
Today is Deion Branch's last day as an NFL general manager. The week the Patriots gave their holdout wide receiver to work out a trade for himself expires Sept. 1.
Although almost every team in the league could better itself with a receiver of Branch's caliber, including some franchises with distinct weakness at the position, the flesh market has been quiet so far. Make that silent. As the Patriots well knew, it was next door to impossible for Branch to find a team that'd give him the new contract he wanted AND fairly compensate the Pats for losing his talents. Otherwise they wouldn't have let him try.
So the odds, as they always did, favor some sort of compromise between Branch and his current employer. That's not the point of this post, which is more in the nature of idle speculation. What if Branch had succeeded in his quest?
Suppose Branch had found a sucker, er, Super Bowl hopeful willing to pay him big money and give the Pats a package they found irresistable? Wouldn't it then make more sense for New England to turn down the deal and give Branch a new contract with one condition, that he spend his offseasons as Scott Pioli's assistant? We have to assume the Pats have already explored dealing Branch. If he could succeed where they failed, his hidden talent as an executive would clearly outweigh whatever draft picks they'd get for his playing services.
The "work out your own trade" gambit is not uncommon in NFL contract impasses. Sooner or later the laws of chance dictate that some progressive franchise will tell a recalcitrant star, "You're hired! Again! And twice!"
Bill vs. Bill
There have been at least three stories in the press this year, the latest coming yesterday from the Dallas AP, recording meetings and/or dialogue between noted football coaches but not exactly buddies Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick.
These exchanges of information and possibly even homely human interaction should come as no surprise, but they wouldn't be in the paper if they weren't supposed to be a surprise. Parcells and Belichick aren't buddies. Neither is a hail-fellow-well-met, to put it mildly. Since Belichick was once Parcells' assistant and is now his peer, and has one more Super Bowl to his credit to boot, there's a jump to assume their relationship is built on professional enmity and jealousy.
It is, a little bit, but mostly not. The Parcells-Belichick relationship is really a novelist's fodder, not a sportswriter's. It covers over two decades of interaction between two gifted, demanding, and at times difficult men. It's easy to see the points of friction on the surface. What matters is the bond no friction can erase.
Belichick was Parcells' chief henchman for many years. Galley slave would be a better job. Belichick returned to that position after failing as a head coach in Cleveland, and Parcells treated him like galley slave in charge of cleaning the heads. Now the shoe's on the other foot. Belichick has surpassed his former boss' accomplishments, and will likely keep on doing so this season. Parcells' best player is Terrell Owens. Belichick's is Tom Brady. It's not difficult to guess which coach sleeps easier o' nights.
In the course of duty, yours truly has attempted to get each Bill on the record about his feelings towards the other. It wasn't the most pleasant of chores. Each man intensely disliked the subject, but upon prodding, oddly enough, both Belichick and Parcells, as different as they are, used the exact same words to summarize their personal history.
"We won a lot of games together."
If only cold type could convey how FINAL both coaches made that declaration sound. It was a line in the sand, and outsiders would either get it or they wouldn't, the more fools they.
Victory is the bedrock tie that'll bind these two guys together no matter how they regard the other. It's beyond like, dislike, love, hate, or any other emotion. Winning is the point of each man's career. Shared victory is eternal. The other baggage of the Parcells-Belichick relationship is just part of the crap that every coach endures in the pursuit of even more victories.
For normal people, the saying is, "you can choose your friends, but not your relatives." In the NFL, it's "you can choose your friends, but not who stands next to you in the Super Bowl team photo."
Patriots 41-Redskins 0
"Anyone can be a prophet of doom. It takes real courage to be the man who when times are good, says so."-economist John Kenneth Galbraith
So be it. Since the final game of the Pats' preseason will be of interest only to those guys competing for the final roster spots, we can all come to a just and reasonable forecast of their 2006 season.
New England was a good team last year. It'll be a good team this year. Its title hopes are as good as anyone's and better than most. Opening Day is less than two weeks away, so why not just wait and check back in when we have more data?
You can beat the market, nor always, but often enough. Many smart, rich people do just that. But you can't FIGHT the market. You get trampled.
Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli have beaten the NFL flesh market more than any of their 31 competitors. This offseason (anything before opening day is offseason) is the first time I'm wondering if they got a bit greedy.
The burden of proof is on me, big time. They have three Lombardi Trophies and I have a blog. Not a fair fight.
Faint heart ne'er won fair maiden. The Deion Branch affair leaves me as concerned about the judgment of the Pats' brain trust as did the departure of Adam Vinatieri. In brief, I am worried Belichick has violated one of the principles he taught me when I covered his team-don't borrow trouble.
On balance, I just don't see how spending an extra couple of million a year is worth losing a guy whose kicks were the margin of victory in three Super Bowls. On balance, I think it's nuts to go to the mattresses to fight over a Super Bowl MVP's contract.
These arguments are much different from losing folks like Willie McGinest. The older an NFL player gets, the more money he wants up front. It's only logicaL Imagine retiring at 35, dear reader.
Driving a hard bargain is good business. Thinking every bargain must be a hard one is the worst business imaginable.
My man the Rude Pundit had the best line about the English language I've seen in some time today.
"The exclamation point," said M. Pundit, "is pretty much the rhetorical equivalent of the backwards baseball cap."
I like using exclamation points. It's my tabloid heritage. But after reading that line, it'll be awhile before I use my next one.
A Place for Sports in Society
In some hellhole named Coushatta, La., a school bus driver has made news by forcing his black students to sit in the rear of his bus. No kidding. He's gonna get his ass sued off, of course, but litigation is far too commonplace a punishment for crap of this magnitude.
What we need here is a mediator. We need a calm, friendly African-American male who can talk to this nitwit as one man to another and lead him to see the error of his ways.
Ron Artest, Coushatta's calling you.
Mom loves Joe Morgan. What to do?
No kidding. My mother thinks the Hall of Fame second baseman and ESPN analyst is fabulous. He's her favorite announcer. Quote "I'm so fond of Joe" Unquote.
Most baseball fans of my acquaintance would love to see Morgan dangling from a lamppost on Cooperstown's main street. While in neither camp, I lean towards the latter interpretation of Morgan's work. "See, he got the ball up" is a far worse sound than nails on a blackboard.
On the other hand, I know that the location of any pitch is the most important feature of every ballgame. If Morgan has chosen this principle to drive home past the point of mania, at least he picked the right one. And besides, national announcers can never win. EVERYONE hates them. Forget managers and coaches. The one thing every fan thinks they can do better than everyone else is call the game on radio and TV.
It ain't that simple. Tony Kornheiser is finding that out at this very moment. There's no tougher job in sports than announcing a nationally broadcast game. Those who do so are well compensated and damn well deserve it.
For proof of the above statement, let's travel back in time-t0 the fall and winter of 1972-73.
Yours truly was the lead singer of a C&W rockabilly band, the Oso Family, we're still a legend in Missoula and North Platte. We lived in Green Mountain Falls, Col., a suburb of Colarado Springs. Among our neighbors was Cheryl Gowdy. daughter of Curt.
Cheryl was and I presume still is beautiful. I was lovestruck. But I couldn't make a move because in the back of my mind was the awful thought "I'm an American sports fan. I've called your father every dirty name in the book. "The five attributes of the superstar." "Sudden victory." I want to kill him. This puts a crimp in romantic thinking.
Forty years later, Curt Gowdy's work is a regular feaure of ESPN Clssic. Compared to some of the gang working national events today, he's freakin' Edward R. Murrow. I'd love to denounce his successors, but the trouble is, I like them too,
Big Ten college students have a Brent Musberger drinking game, and a fuuny one it is, but trust me, you won't meet a better person to have dinner with in a strange small town than Brent. Red Sox fans hate Joe Buck and Tim McCarver for an alleged Yankee bias. They're wonderful folks, and may I suggest that said bias results from the Yanks beating the Sox more often than not. Yeah, McCarver makes no bones about Derek Jeter being his favorite player. He could've made a worse choice.
My man Joe Buck has made about the worst career choice imaginable, trying to double up as pregame studio host and lead broadcaster for Fox's NFL telecasts. That's just too much work, and Joe's doomed to fail miserably. That doesn't mean Joe's bad at his job, it means he was so good at it he flew too near the sun.
No one can speak for three to fout hours without saying something terminally idiotic. Socrates, Shakespeare, and Einstein couldn't. The next time you want to strangle Al Michaels, remember that.
The Most Preposterous Lie in American Political History
Move over, "I did not have sex with that woman." Sure, you thought you were a whopper that'd stand the test of time. All of a sudden, you're number two.
The White House press office informed C-SPAN this week that President Bush has read 60 serious non-fiction books this year, 25 of 'em this summer alone.
As my former peer Ted Sarandia would say, "wow!" Pols have been trying to pull the wool over these eyes for a half-century, and some of them had balls of pure brass the size of regulation NBA basketballs when they tried.
This one, however, takes the cake. George W. Bush has been president for awhile now. Just as by Bill Clinton's second term Americans knew he was an incorrigible horndog, we know Bush hates reading. Many of us do, although few of them run anything.
I'd have an easier time believing Paris Hilton, Pete Sheppard, or Barbaro read those tomes than Bush.
It's Just Boston Being Boston
What does the self-anointed smartest baseball town in the world do after the home team gets swept in a five-game series in which it surrendered 49 runs?
Argue whether or not it was their slugger's fault, natch.
Manny Ramirez took himself out of yesterday's 2-1 Sox loss to the Yankees in the 4th inning, citing a hamstring cramp. He was immediately charged with malingering by fans and media types whose own hamstrings felt swell.
Fact the first: Ramirez is an extremely durable player who averages more than 150 games played a season
Fact the second: Manny takes injuries, even minor ones, VERY seriously. He's not what one would call a fast healer. This is contrary to baseball's "rub a little dirt on it" ethic, but might be one reason Ramirez usually plays almost every day.
Fact the third: For players and fans alike, Ramirez is an occasionally exasperating teammate to have on one's side. Bitching about official scoring calls is bush league behavior. In times of trouble and woe, nonchalance is easy to confuse with not giving a damn.
Fact the fourth: The first three facts don't count. Without Ramirez, the Sox would be 26 1/2 games out of first this morning, not 6 1/2.
The complaints about Ramirez are the same ones made back when he first came to Boston from the Indians in 2001 They've always reminded me of producers and directors bitching that their bankable star for their big budget blockbuster is a royal pain. Or else they bring to mind the wails of those lottery winners who say a windfall of $40 million or so wound up wrecking their lives.
Hey, Hollywood big shots, you hired that impossible star to make money. Shut up and count it. As for the lottery winners, the $40 million isn't their problem. They were miserable as poor schooks, too.
Being Ramirez's teammate, manager, GM, or owner creates some unique stresses, for which all the Sox have my limited sympathy. With runners on base, however, Manny's presence is not without its compensations. 'Tis a far, far better thing to have 130 quirky RBI than an all-hustle .240 left fielder.
Sox fans, of course, are the Ramirez lottery winners. They reap the benefits of Manny's slugging (without Ramirez, David Ortiz would be an All-Star, but not an MVP) while reserving the right to whine about his flaws. The whining would have more credibility if they weren't the same complaints their forbearers made about every Boston slugger since before World War II.
Ted Williams. Carl Yastremzski, Jim Rice, Mo Vaughn. They were ALL selfish, lackadaisical, and couldn't be counted on in the clutch. Those Hall of Fame busts and MVP trophies were merely clever disguises of each man's true inner bum. Having cried wolf about their batting superstars for generations, Sox fans and Boston commentators don't get the benefit of the doubt when they rip Ramirez, even if their criticisms have some validity. The inability to see the slugging forest for the un-run out pop-up trees was THEIR problem long before Ramirez became a Red Sox, or indeed, long before he was born.
Besides, if Ramirez was jaking it yesterday, that gives the two of us something in common. Manny lost interest in the Red Sox season at the exact moment I did.
As Good as a Hit, Just Not Quite As Interesting
Twenty eight walks in 27 innings. That's how many Annie Oakleys the Red Sox pitching staff has allowed in its last three games with the Yankees. That's a stat of stupendous ghastliness, a cosmic blot on the 2006 season. Not incidentally, those walks have created three of the most tedious, soul-deadening ballgames it could be anyone's displeasure to watch.
One guy can be wild. It happens. When six or seven guys all can't find the strike zone in three successive games, Something's Wrong. Very wrong. One stops wondering why those pitchers can't throw strikes and starts wondering if they really want to.
Great stuff and the promise of youth are all very well. The habit of challenging major league hitters, however, is also learned early in a pitcher's career. If the under-30 twirlers the Sox cherish are en route to becoming nibblers during big games, then Boston is well and truly screwed for the remainder of this decade.
A walk an inning means you lose disgracefully. That formula is as ironclad as the law of gravity, which it currently resembles as far as Boston's place in the AL East is concerned. To put the number into further perspective, 28 walks is the total Curt Schilling and David Wells, two Sox pitchers to have yet to appear in the series, have allowed ALL SEASON.
Luckily for Terry Francona's internal organs, Schilling and Wells will start the next two games against New York. That's no guarantee of victory, but it is a guarantee fans might get home before dawn. Schilling and Wells might get killed, but it won't be a murder-suicide pact.
Pitchers of Schilling's ilk are rare. Wells' stuff is hardly exceptional. He rarely throws pitches batters can't touch, so he'll get toasted every so often. Pitches hitters can reach, however, are also known as strikes, and "reach" is not a synonym for "hit really hard." The preceding sentence is why Wells is still earning millions at his trade past age 40.
Young pitchers who want to be old pitchers had better throw strikes. Gopher balls are correctable mistakes. Walks with the bases loaded are character flaws.
Attention Massachusetts Gubernatorial Candidates!
Want to sweep to victory in November, dear pols? Here's a simple proposal worth at 30,00 votes for you. Put an end to the sentence Boston sports fans dread most.
"The MBTA reminds you the last train leaves Kenmore Square/North Station at 12:35 a/m."
Last night's rag arm fiesta between the Yankees and Red Sox ended at 12:52 a.m. The T spends millions of dollars a year urging citizens to take mass transit to large public events, then shuts it down just when needed most. Anyone wishing to see the last pitch, and many must've just to be sure the damn game actually COULD end, was out of luck if they'd taken the trolley to Fenway Park. Cabbies gotta eat, too, but to any fans who parked at Alewife, Quincy Adams, or Riverside, a $30 or so surcharge added to the substantial cost of a ticket made sure none of them ever again will use the T at any time. Who can blame 'em? It's double taxation. First, a fan pays big money to watch stumblebum relievers walk their way into endless big innings. Then, he must pay even more money to get away from the stiffs.
The T shuts down early to save money and preserve our town's historic if false reputation as a nowhere burg for those who don't go to bed at sundown. Fair enough. The costs of overtime to keep the system running in case of special events like Mike Timlin's meltdown, however, have to be far less than the revenue lost from fans who could use T service, but don't because they can't trust it to be there for them.
Presumably the T has radio service to all stations and trains. When faced with a situation where large crowds obviously will be needing transport after 12:35 p.m, like when a game's in the top of the sixth at 11 p.m. at Fenway, or a Bruins playoff game hits the second overtime, how hard would it be to alert all hands that the system would run service from the crowd's destination to all points for, oh, 30 minutes after the game's conclusion? So people get overtime. Big deal. The idea is to acquire more customers for the region's slightly dilapidated but reasonably efficient transit system.
I call this idea the Scott Procter/Rudy Seanez Public Transportation Bill. Candidates, the choice is yours. Embrace this plan and you can starting looking at drapes for the Corner Office.
Catch As Catch Can Or Can't
Jason Varitek is a most praiseworthy ballplayer. The Red Sox catcher is a testimonial to the mental and physical demands of the one position in baseball that's actually hard work all the time. He was worth the $40 million contract the Sox gave him before the 2005 season. His captain's "C" is part schoolboy foolishness (baseball teams don't need capitains, the managers argues with the umpires himself), but mostly a recognition Varitek is a de facto member of Sox' management, the club's shop steward.
All the same, no one including Varitek himself has ever mistaken him for Johnny Bench or Roy Campenella. Varitek has the classic offensive stats of his trade, mediocre average combined with decent but unexceptional power. He went on the disabled list on August 1, but his absence cannot explain why Boston's gone 6-9 since then. Jason's valuable, but not that valuable. There must be other reasons.
Varitek is justly hailed for his ability to call a game and work as a seamless unit with pitchers. Grasping at straws, some fans and even commentators have suggested Varitek call the pitches from the dugout, thus curing whatever ails the Sox' pitching staff. This idea stems from an incomplete understand of the pitcher-catcher relationship, which is far more psychological than strategic.
Pitchers are a quirky, temperamental lot, as artists often are. Catchers are skilled artisans. "Handling pitchers", an inaccurate but common term, is not unlike a film director attempting to draw the best work from a bankable superstar like Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise. Telling the star what you want is the least of the process. In the end, they can tell you what they want to do, and that's the end of the discussion.
In short, Varitek's skill rests upon his knowledge of what, say, Curt Schilling and Jonathan Papelbon are like as pitchers and people more than upon knowing what Alex Rodriguez most looks for on a 2-1 count. It cannot be transposed from behind a surrogate catcher.
Varitek's ability behind the plate, however, shouldn't alter a pitcher's performance to the extent he can't retire the Kansas City Royals' lineup. Pitchers read the same reports as catchers. They know what to do, or should. No catcher can make Josh Beckett avoid the gopher ball.
Here's some partially informed speculation as to why the Sox have struggled so in August. It's their nature. Since 2003, the Sox have been built around the same formula-the slugging of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez plus a pair of stud or supposed-to-be stud starters. The formula works overall. Boston's made the playoffs the past three seasons and won a World Series. But inside this stellar macrohorsehide performance, all these Sox squads have been capable of prolonged strings of mediocre or worse play.
Even in the glory year of 2004, the Sox spent THREE MONTHS, one half of the season, playing .500 baseball. They were about .700 whenever Schilling or Pedro Martinez started, and .400 the rest of the time. For whatever reason, the worst parts of these mediocrity skeins have centered around two periods, interleague play in June, and late July and August.
Boston damn near ran the table in interleague play this season. Perhaps that made their current skid inevitable. My own suspicion is the skids stem from a consistent feature of these team's makeup. Each and every one had or has pitchers whom the manager was loath to use under any circumstances. Sometimes they were important pitchers, too, like the closer (Keith Foulke '05) or number three starter (Derek Lowe '04), or half the bullpen and a community audition for the back end of the rotation ('06) Playing 24 or less on 25 is bound to lead
to a few rough patches along the 162-game trail.
On the bright side, the Sox' blue periods have all ended in time for September drives to the post-season. Then again, if the '06 wallow in .500 doesn't end this very weekend, September might become a moot point.
A Straight Line is the Shortest Path to a Mistake
An ESPN announcer breathlessly announced last night that the Red Sox had climbed back into the AL East race "after being declared dead" a few days earlier.
Oh, really? Who did the declaring? After losing five in a row to the Devil Rays and Royals, the Sox were all of three games behind the Yankees with over 50 games to play. In other words, they were a good weekend away from erasing their deficit, which is exactly what happened. Overemotional Sox and Yankees fans might've said such a thing in the heat of the moment, but among neutral observers, only an idiot or someone who'd never seen an entire baseball season could've made such a preposterous assertion.
There's a good living in idiocy these days. Quite a few commentators, a number of them in the ESPN stable of overemoters, were happy to write the Sox off last Thursday and welcome them back from the grave and into the World Series today. In the opinion racket, analysis is out. Peering into the future is in. Alas, second sight remains as rare as ever, so sports has fallen victim to the virulent disease afflicting political journalism-the straight-line projection.
The straight-line projection works on the following principle. Whatever happened last is what's going to happen forever more. Yesterday's score is a precise foreshadowing of all the scores to come. Were the Dodgers struggling at the All-Star break? They were dead. Have the Dodgers won 15 of their last 16? See them in the Series.
Life is change, sang Grace Slick, how it differs from the rocks. Denying that truth is why most big-time American political commentators seem dumber than a box of said rocks. Let me put it this way. If yours truly or any other sports opinionist declared who were the favorites for the 2009 Super Bowl, our nearest and dearest would seek to have us committed. Political journalists have no problem writing or saying in all seriousness who'll be the presidential candidates in 2008, based on polls taken in the summer of 2006. It must be nice knowing absolutely nothing important to American voters will take place between now and then.
Of course, these same bigdomes will cover their expensive-suited asses by announcing "a week is an eternity in politics." If so, why didn't they dismiss the 2008 issue as the nonsense it was? TV makeup must rot the frontal lobes.
ESPN sure suggests it does. It's become ISPN, the Idle Speculation Sports Network, with the bulk of its programming devoted not to live sports, but to loud arguments about what yesterday's scores mean for the future. Sometimes, they're even arguments about yesterday's practices. The network had a spirited debate on who'll win the Heisman Trophy two weeks ago.
At a conservative estimate, 99.999 percent of ESPN's on-air commentators employ the straight-line projection on a daily basis, even if it contradicts yesterday's straight-line projection. Since no one at the network is a dope, quite the contrary, we must conclude the straight-line projection may be a fallacy, but it's the most popular fallacy ever conceived by the mind of man.
Hey, I've fallen for the straight-line trap more times than I like to admit, and so has everyone else I've ever met. In the third game 2002 Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics had the greatest 4th quarter comeback in NBA history to beat the Nets and take a 2-1 lead. Yours truly wrote a post-game piece assuming Boston's victory in the series over a shattered Nets squad was now a sure thin, and believe me, I was not alone. The Celts didn't win another game. As my distinguished former colleague Bob Ryan wrote after Game Four, it'd been so long since the Celts were in a big playoff series, we'd forgotten the games have no carryover effect.
It's human nature to try and look ahead into an unknowable future. Thus, we use straight-line projection even as we know it's wholly fallible. The past may be a lousy tool for predicting what's to come, but it's the only tool we've got.
It's important to recognize the dangers of straight-line projection because here in Boston we're in for a 50-megaton blast of the fallacy this weekend. The Yankees will be in Fenway Park for a five-game series starting Thursday. Aside from knowing all five contests will last longer than three hours, the one guarantee we can make about the last chapter in the most self-important rivalry in sports is there will be an orgy of straight-line projection after each game, inning, and pitch. Try not to pay attention. It's hard, I know, but you'll feel so much better for it next Monday morning.
A Football Rules Change
To save cyberspace, dear readers, let's agree on the following ground rules for football-based posts at this site. The words "barring injury" or "except for injuries" or "given good health" will be assumed to be operative in all of them.
Injuries are the one thing we know will happen to every pro, college, high school and Pop Warner team this season. However, we don't know what injuries will happen to whom, so we must assume any given individual who's playing now will stay healthy, even though some of them won't.
For example, Tom Brady MIGHT trip over the 30-yard line tonight, tear up his knee, and ruin the Pats season and the post here that follows this one. But probably not. To spare our mutual sanity and to avoid excessive use of the conditional clause, yours truly will deal with injuries only after they happen and then, just like Bill Belichick, as tersely as possible.
How to Watch the First Exhibition Game of the Season.
Idly. Paying only occasional attention. With one hand on the remote clicking back and forth from the Red Sox game. No matter how much one loves the Patriots or any other NFL franchise, more intense concentration on the proceedings will be a waste of energy.
This advice can best be illustrated by listing the exceptions to the rule.
In August 1995, Curtis Martin ran for a touchdown in New England's opening drive of the opening exhibition game at Foxboro Stadium. Two Herald columnists (neither me, I'd 'fess up if guilty) desperate for any angle, spent the rest of the game in a ferocious argument over who'd get to write about Martin's debut. From that day forth, "I'm doing Curtis Martin" has been a stock punchline whenever Herald sportswriters divvy up assignments at a live event.
In August 1999, Michael Bishop (remember him?) was leading the Patriots' 4th stringers in a gallant but ultimately futile comeback against the Redskins' 4th stringers, passing for two late touchdowns and starting another drive as time ran out.
As was the custom at the old dump, especially for night games, reporters were clustered on the end zone runway outside the visitor's locker room, craning over the parked ambulance to keep an eye on the action.
My eyes were focused on a man standing just outside the writer's scrum. He was short, not quite middle-aged, and expensively dressed. Each time Bishop and the Pats got another first down, he'd bounce on the toes of his $500 shoes, sputtering in incoherent rage.
"Who's that lunatic?" I asked a Washington writer.
"The new owner," he answered.
Curtis Martin was the goods all right. And Daniel Snyder's tenure as Redsklns' owner has been just as turbulent and unhappy as I guessed it might be that August night. That's it. No other opening preseason games I've experienced (which is going on for 50 of 'em) have offered the slightest hint of foreshadowing about the season to come.
We might have had the third last night. The Colts began their opening preseason tilt with an onsides kick by Adam Vinatieri. That bodes very, very very ill for them. A sense of urgency is a useful, at times essential thing for a pro football team to have. A sense of frantic desperation is not.
Tony Dungy's decision, then, would seem to have used up all the significance the first week of August can possess. Taking a gamble, I will predict that when the contest against the Falcons is blessedly over tonight, Bill Belichick will say "I saw some good things and some bad things out there." He'll say that because that's all there is to be said.
Belichick's dispassionate follow-the-evidence approach to building a team makes him the Gil Grissom of the NFL. In the first exhibition game, the CSI in a hoodie is searching for clues, not solutions. He's just looking for things he might want to look at some more as the preseason progresses.
That's after looking at game films. Watching on TV, odds are a fan, no matter how studious, won't learn a damn thing. It's OK to be glad pro football's back. Just remember that in August it's only sort of back.
Evil Even Dumber Than Good, Thank Goodness
WARNING! NON-SPORTS POST
Ask any cop. Most criminals are so stupid they more or less catch themselves. The latest terror arrests in London re-inforce that observation.
The plot centered on a plan to blow up American airliners traveling from the United Kingdom to the US. Too bad for the homicidal idiots, terror has been there and done that. Since 9/11 sickos have spread death and mayhem around the world with high explosives. Not one such attack against "Western" interests has happened on an airplane. Trying to do so is to terror what hiring a hit man to kill one's significant other is to murder-a surefire means to get busted by authorities working undercover. It's going back to rob the barn after the horse has left and the door's been locked.
Commercial airliners are a sealed system. As noted by the brilliant thriller writer Thomas Perry, the planes are narrow tubes that are part of a bigger tube that begins and ends at each airport. Law enforcement has total control over what it lets into and out of said tube. Yes, airports are busy places, and tens of thousands of folks fly each day, but many more tens of millions take subways, trains, and buses, and hundreds of millions drive cars.
Law enforcement didn't do well at that job one fine September day, and ever since, it's been on the alert. Innocent (or guilty) people with Arab surnames who make flight reservations on the internet or over the telephone have company. Wary eyes abound at every terminal. Speaking as someone who once traveled for a living, that's all good.
The bigger the crime, the more people needed to carry it out, which also means the more chances it'll never happen. Conspiracies prosper in inverse proportion to the number of participants. Eighteen persons have been arrested so far in the London plot. The odds are good one of them was either a stoolie, a blowhard, or a plain old fuckup- maybe all of the above.
Osama bin Laden envy one of the best weapons in the war against terror. These lunatics were seized by the desire to top 9/11. This murderous aim led them to attack the strong point of Western security rather than its vulnerabilities.
Those vulnerabilities are innumerable, and any American who walls around with their eyes open sees some every day. Terror exists in the mind, not in a body count. The DC snipers, two homicidal drifters with one rifle, did a far more effective job of paralyzing our nation's capital with fear than the hijackers who rammed a plane into the Pentagon.
Could terrorists pull off a spectacular mass murder using commerical aircraft. Sure. No security is ever perfect. Airport and airplane security, however, is easier to get close to perfect than almost any other kind. It makes flying an even more enormous pain in the ass, but it can be done. I'd rather have Osama wannabes spend their evil time and energy trying to solve that very difficult problem than have them notice all the easy ones lying around.
Why Bill Belichick's Aunt is Not His Uncle
"If" is the dirtiest word in sports, not to mention the most useless. Above all "if" is a word that separates those who participate in big-time athletics from those of us who merely observe them.
Celebrated jocks are different from thee and me in more ways than can be listed, but if forced to pick one dividing line between us, it'd be the following. Fans and commentators try to maximize the number of ifs in sports. Players and coaches try their damnedest to eliminate the word, or at least to ignore it altogether.
The insiders have wisdom on their side. Reflection on the past and speculation on the future are part and parcel of fandom and mediadom, but are almost always overdone to the point of absurdity. As a rule, the more "ifs" are contained in a statement on sports, the more pointless and silly it is.
Sports talk radio, of course, is the capital of Ifistan. On one local station, a host recently made the observation that IF the Red Sox continued to fade and IF the Yankees won the AL East by a considerable margin THEN the baseball writers would vote Derek Jeter MVP ahead of David Ortiz.
Stack all the explicit and implicit ifs in that statement atop each other and the pile would reach to Jupiter. And its foolishness can be seen from other galaxies. Glenn Ordway, here's a proposition for you with only one if. If both Jeter and Ortiz remain healthy for the rest of the year, I got $100, a sum you can afford but I cannot, that says Papi finishes ahead of Jeter in the MVP voting come what may.
The above paragraph shouldn't be seen as ripping Ordway. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, and without speculation and silly arguments, WEEI's on-air talent would be spinning polka platters for a living. Talk radio represents the extreme point of the if-love spectrum, but let me assure you that daily columnist runs a close second. Readers demand guesses, if only to ridicule them.
As the absolute zero of if-denial, we present the head ooach of the New England Patriots. Jerry Garcia never lived in the now as much as Bill Belichick tries to. The Bible verse that describes his approach to football goes "sufficient to the day is the evil thereof."
Training camp brings out Belichick's hatred of ifs like no other part of the football season. The coach views each day as a blank slate to be filled, analyzed, filed, and forgotten by the next dawn. Each moment is an end in itself, each detail, no matter how mundane, absorbs Belichick's complete attention.
For reporters and fans, the whole point of camp is how it helps them peer into the regular season future. These cross-purposes make Belichick's August press conferences delightful exercies in absurdist dialogue Samuel Beckett would've been proud to write. The smartest coach in the business spends hours seatching for different ways to say, "how the hell would I know yet?"
Belichick, like all sports insiders, hates ifs because he knows they rule his life. In a racket where everything begins at 0-0, consideration of life's possibilities would lead to total paralysis. There are too many of 'em. Spend one second daydreaming about the Pats' October roster, and he might not see the discarded wad of tape in locker room Tom Brady might trip over on the way to the shower. Coaches all go nuts anyway. Ignoring ifs at least slows the process.
For Patriots fans who'd like a revealing glimpse of their coach's work habits, I recommend an article in today's New York Times. Look in the food pages, not the sports section. There's a portrait of Joel Robuchon, France's most celebrated three-star chef, preparing to open a new restaurant in New York as the latest addition to his worldwide culinary empire.
The reporter tried to draw Robuchon out on his plans, past, and deep thoughts on cuisine. The chef's responses were the polite non-answers any Pats' reporter knows by heart. Robuchon was totally absorbed in the present, his mind and all five senses occupied by details ranging from the waiters' uniforms to making sure the ice cream was soft enough to suit a dessert.
As far as I know, Robuchon and Belichick have never met, 0r even heard of the other's existence. They do, however, share a common principle, the guiding idea of both pro sports and haute cuisine. Each starts anew each day. The table is bare, the score is 0-0, and that's all that matters.
To oversimplify, success in banishing ifs is why Belichick's Pats remain favorites to make the playoffs this season, and why dinner for two at Robuchon's new joint will cost a minimum of $300.
Crimestoppers Notebook, Item Two
Then again, some sports are just sinks of iniquity, and we might as well recognize the awful truth. Figure skating is a menace to society.
In Vienna yesterday, Wolfgang Schwartz, men's Olympic gold medalist in 1968 (Peggy Fleming's year), pled guilty to kidnapping charges arising from a plot to snatch the daughter of a Romanian businessman.
Kidnapping! Tonya Harding's problem was a failure to think big.
Sports Builds Character 2.0.
It stood to reason that competitors seeking unfair advantage would go from using illegal enhancements to simply replacing themselves. The sport where this breakthrough took place, however, may surprise some.
The game in question is chess. The New York Times reported today a pair of players were bounced from a recent tournament on suspicion of using wireless communications to let computer programs dictate their moves instead of employing their own brains. Note to any chess hustlers out there: NEVER, EVER play against a rival with a hearing aid.
Now that's cheating on the grand scale. Whatever drugs Floyd Landis and Barry Bonds used to enhance their muscles, at least their muscles were part of the process. The chess scam is the equiivalent of Bonds' sending a cyborg wearing number 25 to the plate, a ruse that would doubtless be detected by at least 45 percent of current major league umpires.
The culprit, of course, is filthy lucre, as the tournament in question offered a prize of $45,000, not bad for a board game. Then again, since this was chess, odds are some player would've done it for nothing.
In a fit of naivete, the Times said the miscreants had shocked the "gentlemanly" world of chess. Whoa, is that exactly wrong! The greatest grandmasters of history have been as viciously sociopathic a set of sickos as any sport has ever produced, or does the name Bobby Fischer not ring a bell?
The chess scandal re-inforces the truth about artificially enhanced athletic performance. It has always been with us and always will. Where there's a prize, there's a will to win it by any means necessary. Competition being the mother and father of innovation, the cheaters will always be one and a half steps ahead of those trying to catch them.
Watch for brisk sales of jamming devices at the next chess tourney in your town, however.
Maybe this futile duel between Wile E. Tester and the Road Running User should simply be abandoned. As the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, back at the turn of the 21st century, the use of artificial performance enhancers was seen as a sign of mankind's scientific prowess, not our moral degeneracy.
A Feature AND A Bug
There are some handy rules of thumb in baseball, and one of them has proved itself in the past two weeks. Whatever happens to the Yankees will eventually happen to the Red Sox and vice versa, because they're essentially the same team. As with Israel and Hezbollah, incessant enmity has led the two rivals to become each other's double.
There's a bit of concern hereabouts because the Yankees have a putative two-game lead over the Sox in the AL East standings today. This of course means the two clubs are actually tied. August leads are only significant if the margin is more than both the number of weeks remaining in the season (in this case seven) and the number of games remaining between the leader and runner-up (nine). Still, it's a fact the Yanks have played well since the All-Star break while the Sox have not. In addition, New York has added talent to its roster (Bobby Abreu, Cory Lidle) while Boston has lost regulars Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek to injury.
Jason, Trot, shake hands with Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield. David Wells say hi to Randy Johnson. Matt Clement, let me introduce you to Carl Pavano. That might be difficult, since no one's seen him alive since 2004. Pavano's either serving life without parole in maximum-security extended spring training in Tampa, or he's the Judge Crater of our national pastime.
But I digress. Point is, the medical woes afflicting the Sox this month are carbon copies of what happened to the Yanks earlier this season. They're an inevitable by-product of the way these franchises are constructed. High-priced baseball teams are by definition older teams. Older players tend to get hurt more and stay hurt longer than younger ones. For either Boston or New York to expect to go through 162 games without more than one serious lost-time injury to important players is to place blind faith ahead of the actuarial tables.
Both teams know this. The extra $80 million per year the Yanks spend on payroll is how they act on it. Brian Cashman has built more redundancy into New York's roster than Theo Epstein is willing or able to put into Boston's. This has allowed the Yankees to survive serious swoons by two of their remaining healthy stars.
To be blunt, Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez are almost as responsible for the AL East remaining close as are Jonathan Papelbon and David Ortiz. Take this simple quiz. Instert Curt Schilling's 14-4 record into Johnson's 11-9 mark as New York's supposed ace. Now replace cleanup hitter A-Rod's production (.278, 23 homers, 78 RBI) with Boston cleanup hitter Manny Ramirerz's .318, 31, 89 figures. Presto, the Yanks have a minimum 7-game lead over the Sox.
Any number of Yanks or Sox could get hurt, struggle, or come out of slumps in the next 50 games. But when two teams have been essentially tied for 3 2/3 seasons, odds are that's how they'll finish up the final third of this one, too. (Were I a Sox fan, my main worry would be the fact that despite Ortiz's heroics and Manny's steady slugging, Boston has hit only eight more homers than it's allowed 144-136).
Since baseball, like diplomacy, exists in a multi-polar universe, odds are that just in Lebanon, the Boston-New York war of attrition will be of most benefit to other interested powers who've kept aloof from the shooting.
In this case, Tehran equals Comerica Park
Floyd Landis has convinced me. If the Mennonites are on drugs, then so is everyone else in cycling, a fact also made clear by any halfway honest history of the sport.
So the best move the Tour de France could make is to just give up. Tennis did.
Tennis didn't have a performance-enhacing drug scandal. Eons ago, before 1968, it had a money problem. The biggest events in the sport were for "amateurs" only. Pros toured in basketball arenas during the winter. Wimbledon was for gentlemen and ladies who didn't have to work.
Naturally, this setup was a total fraud. Amateurs took more money under the table than any Oklahoma football in history. The hypocrisy got so flagrant the stench penetrated the noses of the inbred blue bloods who ran the game. Wimbledon and the other Grand Slam events became Opens, offering honest prize money to all comers. The sport took off.
The same happens in golf. There are Open championships and Amateur championships, and the amateurs are welcome to try their luck against the pros. Indeed, low amateur at the US Open is an honor second only to the title.
The Tour should institute the same division each summer. Cyclists could enter the Open part of the field and ingest any miracle of 21st century pharmacology they wished without penalty. Or they could enter the Clean division and remain subject to rigorous testing. If the Tour wanted to discourage drug use, they could offer more prize money in the Clean division than its Open counterpart.
And then, praise God, we wouldn't have to listen to sorehead French scientists ever again.
Theo Epstein didn't play the game, and now all of New England and every baseball writer in America are upset with him.
The general manager of the Red Sox decided there weren't any deals that met his price and stood pat at the July 31 trade deadline. This prompted many folks who should know better to declare Boston's 2006 playoff chances irrevocably damaged. When the Yankees essentially purchased Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle from the Phillies in a salary dump, the tut-tutting in this community sounded like a plague of locusts.
It's not as if Epstein has shown an innate reluctance to pull the deadline trigger. In 2004, he swapped Nomar Garciaparra for Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Dave Roberts, a hair-raising risk that turned out well. In 2003, he acquired reliever Scott Sauerbeck, a less successful decision. If the market didn't suit the Sox this time around, one might think their front office would get the benefit of the doubt, especially given the team's record.
It's easy to understand why sportswriters and ESPN commentators place such a distortedly high value on deadline trades and trade rumors. News and speculation about potential news are their stock in trade. They have a built-in prejudice in favor of clubs that make deals as opposed to those who don't.
What baffles me, and has for all the decades I've lived in Boston, is why the citizenry feels the same way. For Red Sox fans, July 31 is a regional holiday on the order of Patriots' Day, a civic festival preceded by days, weeks, and even months of ever-more frenzied discussion and delicious debate.
Months? Yes, months. Outsiders may find this hard to believe, but I swear on the grave of Ol" Hoss Radbourn that I once heard an entire WEEI talk show devoted to potential trades so far before the deadline it was also before Easter. The Sox record at the time was 2-1.
At this time, the Sox are going through their rash of inevitable old team injuries as the Yanks did in the spring, so the local panic level is high. There's no doubt Epstein had to be tempted by some of the potential deals offered him. My guess, however, is the prospects the Sox sent to the Marlins for Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett, a trade that's worked spectacularly well for both sides, was Epstein's 2006 pot limit for removing under-30 talent from the organization. Using Wily Mo Pena as Trot Nixon's replacement is also about $10 million cheaper than employing Abreu, a point worth considering if it's your boss' 10 mil.
Standing pat is hard on the nerves, which is why all casinos have blackjack tables. It took just as much guts for Epstein to sit tight last Sunday as it did to send Nomar away, which remains the chanciest deal I've ever seen a contender make. The GM deserves credit for taking a position, whether it works out or not.
Epstein, however, was well aware he went against the natural grain of his constituency. He couldn't make up by sending candy and flowers to all 5-10 million Red Sox fans, so last night the Sox made a waiver deal and picked up Javy Lopez from the Orioles.
A backup catcher isn't likely to sway the AL East race. But it's nice to know the Sox are run by a true gentleman.
Reflections on A Long Road Trip
1. America is big, too big if you're not in an airplane.
2. South Carolina has outlet stores for everything-even pornography. A billboard the size of the Queen Mary 2 touted an "Adult Superstore" stuck in the mddle of nowhere. It has to be its county's largest tacpayer and probably employer.
3. North Carolina has many strange museums. My favorite? The Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield. Not that I stopped for it, mind you, I just spent 50 pleasant miles speculating about The Frank Sinarta Room, the Robert Mitchum Room, and so on.
4. The current state of American country music is appalling beyond belief. The most insipid of country's traits have merged with the most insipid of rock's traits. Then a generous dose of American Idol got poured over the whole mess.
5. The megalopolis has extended its reach from DC all the way to south of Richmond.
6. Sorry, proud and provincial residents of New York, Boston, and LA. Washington and Miami have passed you by wide margins to stand alone atop the Most Fucked Traffic standings.
7. I will never drive more than 150 miles in a car without satellite radio, a CD player, or both ever again. Nor should you.