Tuesday, February 27, 2007

At 125 RBI, There Are No Rules

Stars have privileges others do not. This has been true of every organization in human history. Non-stars don't often care for this practice, and grouse in private. While building the Pyramids, some diligent slave laid twice as many stones as his peers and got a double ration of gruel each night. All the other slaves hated his guts.

Stories about Manny Ramirez getting special treatment from the Red Sox, complete with assertions this grates on his Red Sox teammates, are like reading the Atlantic Ocean is cold and wet. Tell is something we don't know, gang. As all the Sox had the honesty to admit, Ramirez earns such treatment. Their resentment is both fed and muted by how much they need him. The only thing "enabling" Ramirez to get away with un-Chip Hiltonesque behavior is his bat.

I wonder, however, if Manny's critics realize they're in the same situation. Globe and Herald columnists have privileges the gang on the agate desk do not. I oughta know. Even if you work hard not to abuse them, the privileges are there, and no one can go without occasionally using them. That's human nature. Same goes for the on-air talent at WEEI. I'm sure there are ad salesmen there who resent them bitterly for their salaries and work load. It's not anybody's fault. It's the system of life.

Commentators must call 'em as they see 'em. But those ripping a star for getting away with murder ought to at least tinge their call with some ambivalence and self-awareness.

Holiday Outt

An Open Letter to Some Homeowners in My Town (You Know Who They Are).

Dear Folks: It's been 54 days since Nancy Pelosi became the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives.

It's been 54 days since Deval Patrick was sworn in as Governor of Massachusetts.

The Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl 23 days ago.

It's been 16 days since the Grammies.

It's been two weeks more or less since Britney Spears shaved her head.

Martin Scorcese won his first Academy Award two days ago.

Manny Ramirez reported to spring training yesterday.

So for heaven's sake, will you people PLEASE turn off your @&#!* outdoor Christmas lights already? What was festive in December was icky by Valentine's Day, and is now downright creepy. You want Christmas every day, drive to New Hampshire and get a summer job at Santa's Workshop.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Spring is When You Can Watch Grass Grow

What passes for big news in spring training is what reminds me how glad I am I'm not there.

At least, not there working. Hanging out in the warm sun watching men play catch is a pleasant pastime. Coming up with articles of general interest out of that experience is not.

Manny Ramirez arrived at Red Sox camp this morning. Whoop-de-do. In the cosmic scheme of Red Sox 2007, it wouldn't matter if the slugger had arrived last week, today, March 1 as he intended, or about six hours before the start of the regular season. Ramirez's career statistics strongly suggest he needs less baseball practice than most other people.

The same goes for that infamous car show. The only way Ramirez could create REAL news with a classic car is drive it head-on into a school bus.

In pure baseball terms, spring training is for pitchers to get their arms ready for the brutal stress of the 162-game season. It serves no other practical purpose besides a certain amount of intersquad schmoozing between guys who'll be sick of each other's company by August.

In journalistic terms, spring training is for pleasant features on players old and new and their optimistic hopes for the season ahead. There are many old ex-players around, too, and they can provide the occasional nice story.

I'm not knocking those stories. I've written my share. People like them. They're a way to pretend it isn't snowing outside. But it's a little dispiriting to go back into one's papers archives and read the exact same features from 1913 spring training. They're purely ritualistic, like live shots of the mayor serving turkey to the destitute on Thanksgiving.

Spring training is NOT for breaking news, unless a player breaks a bone himself. And while I recognize shit-disturbing is now the highest and most crowded form of journalism, those who indulge in it in spring training do nothing but make asses of themselves. They're out of touch with the rhythm of the sport. In March, players are at their lightest and most mutually tolerant. It's only during the endless 162 they get on each other's nerves. I believed Curt Schilling when he said his discussion with Red Sox management was amicable last week. I also believe he might have a different take on that conversation by the All-Star break.

Any newspaper, radio station, TV station, or internet site which files the following report from Red Sox spring training deserves every award journalism has to offer.

"FORT MYERS-Nothing of note happened to the Red Sox today."

Dennis Johnson, One Last Thought

DJ deserved every word and more of the tributes he received last week. That it took his sorrowful premature death to remind the world he was a Hall of Fame caliber player is a horrible, irremediable injustice.

At this late date, there's only one observation about Johnson's career I'd like to add. His status as the Celtics' only truly superior man-up defender was crucial to their success in more ways than his ability to cope with Magic.

Johnson's legitimate man defense was the disguise allowing Larry Bird to play a zone roverback between Johnson and the back line of Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. This maximized Bird's astonishing hand-eye co-ordination and court sense while minimizing his need to move what weren't exactly quick feet.

Without DJ's defensive glue, the Celts would've set records for illegal defense calls that'd never be touched. Not only would they n-e-v-e-r have beaten the Lakers in a best of seven, they'd never have gotten out of the Eastern Conference again, leaving 1981 as their only title.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Wages of Sin, Journalism Division

The Herald: The news Tom Brady's ex-girlfriend is pregnant and says the Pats' quarterback is the father is more proof, were any needed, my former employer is in dire straits.

The fervently tabloid Herald has two gossip columnists who've written more about Brady than have some of its sports columnists. When Tom and Bridget Moynahan were an item, Gayle and Laura gave devout coverage to Ms. Moynahan's C-list Hollywood, career, too (it's been awhile since "I, Robot", dear).

And yet, when Moynahan decided to leak the news of her upcoming blessed event to a few billion of her closest and dearest friends, she went straight to the New York Post. The juiciest possible story about Boston's biggest sports star, and Moynahan didn't give a thought to the Herald, because even when it comes to local scandal, the Herald just doesn't matter enough to be worth her while.

The Globe: It's starting to look as if the Times' corporation's business plan for New England is just to drive their billion-dollar lemon out of business and start over. How else to explain the decision to put a second-day story on Brady's plight above the fold as the top story in today's paper?

It's a good thing the Globe ombudsman's job is still vacant. He or she would've had a nervous breakdown answering the phone this morning. The paper which once famously censored Doonesbury for showing a man and woman sharing the same bed is now trying to compete with the Herald on the tawdry tabloid beat? No good can come of that.

There's a tabloid side of life sure enough. When it pops up in New England, sensible readers turn to the Herald. The tabloid sensibility isn't as easy as it looks. It takes fierce discipline for Gayle and Laura to pretend our town's local wheels are actual celebrities instead of regional Babbitts.

People buy the Globe to AVOID the tabloid side of life. If you're the high-minded, boring broadsheet you've got to be true to the identity your readers have created for you. When you're not, you alienate far more of your old customers than any new ones you might create.

Was the Brady-Moynahan flap news? Oh, my yes. Was it Page One news. For the Herald, sure. For the Globe, no way. Seeing the story in the upper left front of my paper this morning was embarrassing, like seeing an old friend with a new toupee.

It's this simple, braintrust of Morrissey Blvd. If scandal and putting big pictures of sports stars on page one were the formula for selling papers, then the Herald would already be bigger than you are.

The Wages of Sin Include a Publicist

Tom Brady's previously serene existence has taken a sudden turn towards complexity. This sort of thing can happen when a famous athlete's off-season hobby is beautiful women instead of hunting and fishing.

I like Tom a great deal, and wish him well dealing with what's unquestionably a most awkward situation. I'm sure it'll work out for the best. It'll be a little tough in training camp when Bridget goes on Oprah, but things have a way of turning out for the best in Brady's life. That's one big reason he's such a great quarterback.

The above paragraphs represent the total of my small interest in what's destined to be a major howdy-do in these parts. Brady's personal misadventure has no bearing on his work as the Patriots' QB, and that's the only part of his life which concerns me in the slightest. I've got nothing against pure prurient interest in celebrities, I just don't have much of it myself.

This "scandal" will have no effect on Brady's football playing. Trust me. There is a reason why "Stable, Happy, Humdrum Family Lives of Sports Superstars" is a thinner volume than the average Marvel comic.

For Brady, as for all of his peers at the top of the jock heap, life is what they do in their spare time.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Question for Click And/Or Clack

So when the new NASCAR Hall of Fame opens in Charlotte, will Michael Waltrip be ineligible because he gave his car performance-enhancing drugs?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Infernal Wind

Through no fault of his own, a fair number of Bostonians will be sick of Daisuke Matsuzaka before the poor guy gets to pitch in Fenway Park. There's nothing so irritating as a force-fed cult of personality, especially one with a built-in tinge of patronization. The Red Sox hired a pitcher, not a combination pre-teen idol and house pet.

Flights leave leave Logan for Tokyo and arrive here from there every day. Haven't we passed the point where Japan is considered an exotic foreign land of terminal cuteness? Matsuzaka didn't defect from tyranny. He wasn't brought back alive from an unknown island by a scout armed with tranquilizer darts. The Sox spent a bazillion bucks to hire him, just the same as if they'd signed Jason Schmidt, Barry Zito, or some other mundane American hurler.

Aside from the startling number of innings Matsuzaka's already pitched in his career, there's no reason to believe he won't be successful. If he's almost as good at his job as Hideki Matsui is at his, the Sox will get their money's worth.

Matsuzaka's assimilation or lack of same into life in the United States isn't of interest to me. Attempts by Bostonians to use Japanese cultural symbols to cheer him on strike me as downright offensive. You know some dodo is making up a million signs with the Japanese scorecard sign for strikeout even now. Put yourself in Matsuzaka's shoes. Imagine your first days on a new job in Osaka. If everyone you met wore red, white and blue and whistled "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy," would it put you at ease, or freak you out?

Sadly, innocent sportswriters will find themselves cast as extras in the manufactured Dice-K fad. The large group of Japanese reporters who'll be assigned to follow Matsuzaka's tenure with the Sox will stand in for the fans they're writing and broadcasting to back home. These diligent professionals will be burlesqued as members of some odd cult by Boston media needing a cheap laugh.

Here's a tip, sports fans. Anyone who indulges in that crap is a first degree bush leaguer, a loser of monumental proportions who shouldn't be sent to Quincy on assignment, let alone Japan.

I've dealt with Japanese reporters at four Olympics, as well as the groups assigned to cover Ichiro and Matsui. They're plain old scribes like the rest of us. There's nothing exotic about what they're doing. To me anyway, their professional devotion is admirable.

Understand this. Outside the Baghdad bureau, there's no job in journalism as grindingly hard as baseball beat writer. The beat guy is never home and always on deadline, usually facing more space to fill than news to put in it. It's a gig that eats minds and destroys marriages. There's a reason why most beat men and women are under 40, and a good number under 30. Sooner or later, the beat person chooses life over baseball.

Now consider being a baseball beat person half a world away from home, dealing with a language where even the alphabet is different, writing stories when your today is your reader's tomorrow. Imagine using your second language to acquire information from ballplayers to whom you're not just a pest (you're used to that) but a strange, unsettling pest. If you have a family, you kissed them good-bye last week, and you'll see them again in November.

I miss sportswriting more than I can say. Need a job, too. But I couldn't and wouldn't do what the Japanese writers assigned to Matsuzaka must do. They have my deepest respect.

Respect. It'd be nice if that was our governing principle towards Matsuzaka's Red Sox tenure. I'm not hopeful, though. As the career of Manny Ramirez makes clear, Boston prefers the binge/purge cycle of love and hate to the simple dignity of respecting skill.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Re-Start the Presses!

If Anna Nicole Smith had died because Britney Spears ran her over while driving drunk, I could understand the fuss.

If Smith had perished in a tragic accident during O.J.'s filming of "If I did it" then Larry King would have every right to be amazed.

But neither of those things happened. Smith died in a Florida casino at age 39 without help as far as we know. It's very sad. So are a lot of things in this world, and they don't get on TV or in the paper.

Yours truly is no news prude. I was in the racket for too long, and I know every day in journalism is a balancing act between the stuff people need to know to be functioning citizens in a democracy and the stuff they actually want to know. It's tough to put on airs about the public trust when you spent two months of your life covering Nancy Kerrigan vs. Tonya Harding. A good tabloid hoo-ha can be fun, and let's not try and pretend the country didn't enjoy itself immensely during Simpson's murder trial and the Monica Lewinsky affiar.

But unless one's a charter subscriber to "Probate Court Illustrated", Smith's passing holds interest, prurient or otherwise. Well-built bimbos have been landing old coots in their second childhood since forever. Go reread the last days of King David in the old Testament. Otherwise, Smith wasn't merely a fake celebrity, she was a fake fake celebrity, without even the minimal accomplishments of other tabloid favs. Spears was at least a Mouseketeer. That poor woman in Florida was a real astronaut. She flew in outer space.

One need not be a lefty conspiracist to note American TV news would rather cover ANYTHING than the catastrophe in Iraq and its unpleasant implications for our current government of, by, and for the money. That's irrelevant to my complaint. If we're to be distracted by bread and circuses, I want a good circus, with liontamers. Smith was more like a petting zoo.

As an unemployed journalist, the Smith furor makes me worry about my former trade. Our lack of standards is clearly slipping.

Celtics Prone

The Celtics play the Nets tonight. I won't watch. I haven't watched them in months weeks. It's too painful, not because I'm a fan, but because I grew up just the opposite. No one can hate the Celts anymore, which .s the ultimate proof of how pathetic they've become.

I'm no bandwagon Celtics' ignorer, either. My apathy predates the current 16-game losing streak, for which the club deserves a near-total pass. NBA teams are fragile things nowadays. Few if any could cope with the loss of their very best player. The Wizards are sinking fast after losing their SECOND-best player, Antwan Jamison. Let's face the facts. Even with Pierce in the lineup, the Celts aren't worth hating. They don't matter.

To grow up a Philadelphia sports fan is to grow up hating the Celtics. To grow up in the era of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell was to take the almost-always-losing side in a magnificent blood feud of epic dimensions, a psychic commitment that made winters and springs frustrating, agonizing, and fun from start to finish.

Who could hate the Celtics now? It'd be like hunting butterflies with a blowtorch, or rooting against the Pirates all summer. There's a void in the NBA where a sneering band of buccaneers spent decades reveling in the fury of their foes. And I'm damned if I'll insult my beloved enemy by feeling sorry for it. If Red ever found out, my home would be haunted by ghostly cigar reek.

The Celtics are past pity. Watching them is simply an extreme social awkwardness. Those New Englanders who hate the Raiders know what I mean. Enemies should get their comeuppance, but an enemy must always be good, or at worst respectable. Top to bottom, the Celts are just a shell. They play games, they sell tickets, and no one's heart seems to be in it. Tommy's rants at the refs are a melancholy, half-hearted trumper solo.

As a Phillies fan, I know followers of a lousy team have it easier than its former haters. In tough times, fans can look to the future. Celtic followers can pass the lost winter debating the merits of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. Haters aren't allowed the comforts of hope. They tend to see things like the Cavaliers' OK-but-hardly fabulous 28-21 record with LeBron James and wonder if either Oden or Durant could be expected to be as good as Clevleand's sort-of savior. They also tend to worry that given his choice between Oden and Durant, Danny Ainge will select Sam Bowie.

Hate and love are the two sides of the fan coin, and a team which doesn't generate much of the former will eventually come up short of the latter, too. When the Lakers were in town awhile back, commentators noted most of the "fans" in attendance cheered more for Kobe Bryant than for the home team. This is not new. Allen Iverson got more cheers than boos as a visiting 76er back when I was at the Herald two winters ago.

Bruce Allen of Boston Sports Media Watch is a big Celts' fan, and some of his readers used his site to express their horror and disgust at the cheers for Bryant. Good for them. Let me assure you folks all true Celtic-haters share that emotion to the max. A Boston crowd cheering a Laker? A 76er? The NBA's entire moral universe must be collapsing (as it is).

Hate=accomplishment. Hate=fun. Since the sports gods are into irony, they taught me these lesson by making my first professional sportswriting experience in-depth coverage of one of the NBA's most hate-worthy teams, the 1980s Celtics. I couldn't have enjoyed anything more.

We pause here for a brief explanation of sportswriting ethics. All of us began as fans, and the favored teams of our youths remain so. You just put that part of your mind in a box at work. I covered the 1981 Celts comeback over the Sixers and the "beat LA" Sixers' win over the Celts in 1982. They were both great sports stories and I did my best with each one. My emotions, while stirred, were not released on-duty. It's not that hard to do, honest. Love of sport means more than love of a particular team, or should, anyway. I wouldn't have much use for a Pats fan who couldn't muster up a grudging respect for worthy hate-object Peyton Manning this week.

Covering those Celtics taught me two lessons. Fans care more about the teams they don't like than the ones they do. Great teams receive as much or more emotional boost from the disdain and fear they generate than from the love they get at home.

Perhaps these anecdotes will prove my point. During the 1982 Eastern Conference finals, I went to a dinner party in Philly at the home of two of my oldest and dearest friends.

"Tell me, Mike," one guest inquired. "Is Kevin McHale as big a jerk as he seems on the court?"

I innocently explained McHale was a swell guy whom I personally liked a great deal, and were he at the party, all the guests would feel the same. Hearing this, the guy's face twisted into a scowl.

"Thanks a lot for spoiling things," he said.

Fast forward to the 1985 Finals. This was the first played under the 2-3-2 format, so the Celtics had a long week of time on their hands at the LA Airport Marriott. In this prehistoric era, teams not only flew commerical, many took their families with them on this road trip.

Small children and free time in southern California equals a trip to Disneyland. A group of Celtics' wives and kids, accompanied by (I remember for sure) assistant coach Chris Ford and (hazier here) several players took a post-practice off day trip to the Magic Kingdom.

The Celtics' party was recognized, which was not a good thing. Inside the costume of each adorable Disney character was a Laker fan-a vocal one. Goofy, Snow White, and Donald Duck would see a Celtic, come over, and announce, "hey Ford, you suck," "Magic's gonna kick your ass tomorrow" etc.

The children were freaked. Daddy dissed by Mickey! The wives followed suit. The Celtics themselves were delighted. What could be more hilarious proof of their athletic worth than abuse from Disney cartoon characters? The next night, Boston won Game Four, and I wished the Phoenix was a daily, as "Up Yours, Goofy." would've been a perfect lede.

The only Disney theme for the current Celts is "Bambi Meets Godzilla." In my opinion, as long as the energetic, dedicated but clueless team of Wyc Grousbeck and Danny Ainge remain in charge, that's not going to change no matter how they draft this summer.

As noted before, I have too much respect for our shared history to feel sorry for the Boston Celtics' franchise one little bit. But when I see what the franchise is now, I feel profound sorrow for the entire sport of professional basketball.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Blue and Silver Hawaii

In January 1999, after his New York Jets lost the AFC championship game to the Broncos, Bill Parcells announced he'd fallen ill, and would be unable to coach the AFC team in the Pro Bowl, a duty which falls to the coaches from each losing semi-finalist.

Parcells wasn't sick, of course, merely sick of football after falling short of a Super Bowl. He was spotted out and about in his winter digs of Jupiter, Fla. In fairness, however, Parcells didn't feel well enough to travel down I-95 to Gulfstream for some big races, doubtless because so many New York sportswriters down in Miami for the Super Bowl would be there, too.

Aside from a few jokes by said writers, nobody in football held Parcell's self-written sick note against him. He wasn't fined or anything. Everyone in the NFl knows some people can't hack the Pro Bowl, including players who're voted in as an honor. A coach who got the job as a very poor consolation prize is within his rights to beg off.

Bill Belichick sure looked pretty sick in the immediate aftermath of last month's AFC championship game. Yet two weeks after the loss to the Colts, the Pats' head coach is in Hawaii conducting practices in shorts and a cut off windbreaker.

Not only that, but Belichick appears to be enjoying himself. Not wildly, of course, but he used the opportunity to mend fences with LaDainian Tomlinson and the 82 other Chargers on the AFC team, and swap stories and a few wry remarks with the rest of the AFC squad.

Does this mean Belichick's a slave to duty? He is, but I don't think that's his motivation here. The idea of being a figurehead coach in a meaningless football game offended Parcells to the point of fury. To Belichick, the idea of hanging out for a week with a bunch of terrific players in a no-pressure situation was something different-a nice busman's vacation. He might learn something from interacting with his all-stars, but just seeing good players running around with helmets on would cheer Belichick up after the most unhappy defeat of his career.

Belichick and Parcells' attitudes towards the Pro Bowl have nothing to do with their respective merits as coaches. They merely demonstrate how equally competitive men can take wholly different approaches to their trade. In this case, more people in the NFL are probably on Parcells' side of the ledger. Belichick's quarterback is.

When Philip Rivers bowed out, the vacant AFC quarterback spot went to Vince Young rather than Tom Brady. This raised some eyebrows, but a CBS promo during the Super Bowl made the situation perfectly clear.

Given his choice of sporting exhibitions, Brady opted for one with a different view of the Pacific. He'll be playing in the National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach this weekend.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Stop, Please, Just Stop

Out of loyalty to the old shop, and because he's an excellent football reporter when the spirit moves him, yours truly joined a few dozen loyalists and turned the car radio dial to ESPN 890 yesterday afternoon to listen to Michael Felger's take on the Super Bowl. I lasted thirty seconds.

Mike and some guest named "Andy, presumably one of the infinite number of ex-NFL players ESPN has on scholarship. were in an intense discussion of the following burning issue: Who's better, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?

Click. There is apparently a rule in sports talk radio. Only idiocy allowed. Leaving aside the obvious sour grapes context of a Boston show discussing Manning the day after the Colts won an NFL title, Michael knows more than enough football to realize how incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial the argument was. Deciding which of two Hall of Fame quarterbacks is the better player isn't talking sports, it's theology. Anyway, the correct answer is "both." If either man quarterbacks a team, he's going to make it a potential champion. To win the Lombardi Trophy, his teammates must help a little bit.

At a certain level of excellence, there are no right or wrong choices, merely personal preference. Take top-shelf restaurants. To me, Radius is the best dining experience in Boston. Clio, equally expensive, of equal technical merit, is literally not to my taste. Literally. I'm not a fan of Asian spices in western food. My opinion also rests on prejudice. A former Eliot Lounge regular is never going to be comfortable in the premises of his old haunt.

Choosing among Hall of Famers is no different. Try this scenario for proof.

You and a fellow fan are on a playground with all the players in the NFL. You and he are rival coaches and GMs, picking teams for the ultimate schoolyard football contest.

Obviously you'll pick a quarterback first. If your buddy gets first pick and chooses either Manning or Brady, are you unhappy you snap the other guy? No. In fact, you're delirious with joy you got second pick, because you get third pick, too, and can now choose LaDainian Tomlinson (you'll wind up losing), or Walter Jones (your trophy awaits).

In short, whatever difference there is between Brady and Manning is almost surely not going to be the difference between winning and losing any game. Sure, one will play better than the other, but almost surely not enough to sway the result. Nobody with a brain blames the Pats' AFC championship loss on Brady's last interception. When a team scores 34 points, its quarterback wasn't the root cause of defeat.

Sometimes I think the purpose of American media, not just sports, but all of it, is to actually regress the national dialogue to a series of dopey, point-missing arguments which trivialize both the participants and subjects. It's as if there's a long-range goal to turn us into a nation of 300 million Paris Hiltons.

On Dec. 8, 1940, in what for many years was the most famous pro football game ever played, the Bears and Redskins played for the NFL title. Each team was led by one of the two best quarterbacks in the game, future Hall of Famers Sid Luckman and Sammy Baugh.

Luckman's Bears won by the modest score of 73-0. Know what? Read the Washington papers from Dec. 9 and there isn't one story stating the debacle was all Baugh's fault.

Of course, back then people only turned on the radio to hear Jack Benny.

It Pays to Advertise

Cost of a 30-second commercial during Super Bowl XL!: $2.6 million

Cost of Turner Broadcasting's settlement with Boston and Massachusetts over the cartoon terror incident: $2 million.

So which do you think was the better marketing strategy? What, pray tell, do you think the producers of any TV show or movie would pay for a week's worth of mentions in every late-night TV comedy monologue in the country and front-page placement in every daily newspaper in the world? No matter how out of it culturally one may be, and I'm way up there in that department, you've heard about Aqua Teen Hunger Force by now. Whether you watch it is beyond advertising's power to affect. Nobody spends more on Super Bowl ads than Bud Light, and they're usually good ones. Still wouldn't drink that swill on a bet.

My favorite part of yesterday's settlement is our area's public sector poohbahs got Turner Broadcasting to say the city and state's response to little lite-brite cartoon images was totally appropriate. Never mind that sassy David Letterman, Mayor Menino. You were right to freak out. We live in dangerous times.

And we do. Know what makes them so dangerous? The incompetence of authority figures in America's public and private sectors. It's worth remembering the entire 9/11 catastrophe stemmed from one simple bat-brained reality-to save a few bucks, our nation let people carry knives and other cutting edge weapons on airplanes. Osama bin Laden didn't create that threat. He merely noticed it.

After an incident in which Boston's emergency response procedures were revealed to have some significant flaws, most notably in the media-pol collaboration to spread panic rather than contain it, the primary goal of those in charge is to stop people from laughing at them.

Makes me feel more secure, knowing the city and state are run by people who've yet to figure out no one compliments you on your wisdom quite as fervently as a con artist.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Guerrilla Marketing, Part Deux

Newspapers obsess about young people. Management spends thousands of work hours a year in meetings rueing the fact young people don't buy the paper as much as do older people, blaming this trend for the overall decline in circulation, and wondering what they can do to get young people to buy their product.

This is true of all papers except, evidently, the Boston Globe. The biggest paper in our town has opted for a different approach, as in, "hey, you punk kids, get off of our lawn."

Based on the Globe's coverage, editorializing, and above all, columnizing on the Great Cartoon Terror Attack, anyone under 30, hell, under 80, is fully justified in seeing the paper as a product exclusively designed for the old at heart, especially those with a broomstick so far up their asses straw's coming out their ears.

Now there's a marketing campaign. The Boston Globe: Paper of Record for Abe Simpson.

Who Did Pythagoras Ever Play For?

Predictions are onerous. Still, there are three occasions when the self-respecting sports commentator must take a position. You must have a horse in the Kentucky Derby, fill out an NCAA men's basketball tournament bracket, and above all, pick a team in the Super Bowl. So here goes.

The hype for Super Bowl XLI has followed a pattern most familiar to those of us who covered Super Bowls in the '80s and '90s during the long years of NFC dominance. At the end of the two conference title games, the representative of the stronger grouping was installed as a significant (in this case 7-point) favorite. For the next two weeks, analysts searched diligently for reasons why the morning line might be wrong. By game time, many of them had convinced themselves they'd found the whys and wherefores of triumph for the underdog.

Then the NFC favorite would take the field and massacre the AFC rep one more time. This formula held true until Terrell Davis ran it out of the ballpark in Super Bowl XXXII.

The AFC is the dominant conference today, but the formula holds. There's neither fun nor credit in forecasting a routine win by a favorite, so we've all spent a week reading and listening to explanations as to why Chicago will beat Indianapolis. For obvious reasons, New England audiences are very susceptible to this train of thought.

I'm sure Boston area readers are thrilled by Allen St. John's Super forecast in today's Wall Street Journal. St. John not only says the Bears should win, he says a Colt victory would be a major upset. This contrarian case rests on one of sports' most fallible tools-the Pythagorean theorem.

Pythagoras ain't the same in games as he is in math. In sports, the theorem boils down to this-the more points a team scores and the fewer it allows, the more games it will win. Speaking on behalf of Abner Doubleday, Walter Camp, and James Naismith, I can only respond "no shit." A glaring cliche is no less banal because it's expressed in numbers instead of words.

Anyway, St. John notes the Bears beat the snot out of more opponents in their 15 wins than did the Colts in their 15, primarily because the Chicago defense allowed far fewer points than did Indy's. All true, all largely irrelevant. Throughout history, St. John declares, Pythagoras has correctly forecast the Super champion, except for the three or four times it didn't.

That last clause is why Vegas welcomes anyone with a "system." Exceptions bankrupt the rule. The Colts have the worst "P-score" of any Super Bowl contender since 1970. It's far worse than the P-scores of the Ravens and Patriots. You know, the two teams Indianapolis just beat to get to the Super Bowl.

The Ravens and the Bears resemble each other closely. Disruptive defense, run-first offense. The Colts went to Baltimore, were held without a touchdown, had Peyton Manning play a poor game, and won anyway. Won and covered, by the way.

Now we move to the AFC title game. The Colts spotted the historic dynastic champion of our time-their own special hoodoo-a 21-3 lead off an interception return for a touchdown and came back to beat the Patriots 38-34. The notion of the Bears pulling off a similiar feat is laughable on its face, at Soldier Field or anywhere else. Oh, yeah, the Colts covered against the Pats, too.

Just imagine if New England had won the AFC crown. The Pats would be a double-digit favorite, and nobody on earth would be picking Chicago. Shouldn't the team that eliminated New England enjoy similiar public favor, P-scores be damned?

Could the Bears win? Sure. Polls don't select the Super Bowl teams. Nobody goes 15-3 on smoke and mirrors. In the 40 previous bowls, I can think of only four (the Packers in I and II, the Bears vs. the Pats in XX, and the 49ers over the Broncos in XXIV) where it was impossible to imagine how the underdog could win. If the Colts' run defense reverts to its disgraceful form of November and December, and/or the Bears defense forces a turnover differential of plus three, AND Devin Hester creates a touchdown on returns, Chicago not only could win, but win by double-digits itself.

That, however, is the only realistic scenario for a Bears' triumph I can create. The Colts have already won three playoff games by means I felt beyond them, stopping an All-Pro running back, winning a game on defense and running themselves, and taking their demon's best shot, getting off the canvas, and knocking it out. If there's one lesson to be learned from New England's dynasty, it's the desirability of versatility in the pursuit of victory.

At bottom, the Pythagorean theorem of sports is just the old golf cliche "it's not how, it's how many." There's truth to that in all games. But football ain't golf. In Super Bowl XLI, I'm picking the team whose motto was "it IS how, not how many."

Colts 23-Bears 13

Who Did Pythagoras Ever Play For?

Ted Johnson

An NFL player contract is a contract in more than one sense of the term. Its status as a binding legal document is be the less important definition, too.

In essence, when a pro football player signs on the dotted line, he takes on a contract as Tony Soprano might use the word. By accepting money to participate in the NFL, the player becomes a highly-paid participant in a conspiracy to ruin his own long-term health and shorten his own life. That is, said player takes out a hit on himself, taking but a small share of the bounty in return.

That's the fundamental dilemma of America's most popular sport. It eats people. That those people make millions to get eaten doesn't change the moral dilemma for those of us who enjoy watching the meal. It only means whatever lawsuit Johnson winds up filing against his former employer the Patriots will be nastily damaging to both parties and that Johnson won't win. I feel terrible for Ted, who's always seemed like a decent chap to me, but that's the reality. The law wasn't built to deal with this type of conspiracy.

What is there to do about this infinitely sad situation? I have no idea. I do know, however, the persons making the most money off the conspiracy don't seem to be spending too much energy thinking about possible solutions. Shame on them.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Super Bowl Media Note

All players and coaches of both Super Bowl teams are available to the media for three days of Super Bowl week, Tuesday through Thursday.

Tuesday is the famed "Media Day" when both teams are interviewed at the stadium. Players are in uniform because Media Day began as Picture Day. Official team photos for the program are still taken after interviews. Wednesday's and Thursday's interview sessions take place at the respective team hotels in the morning before practice. Players are in civvies.

At least, they used to be. Dial-flipping this morning, I paused with horror at the NFL Network to see the Colts' players were in uniform for their final interview session of the week.

Somehow I don't think this was the Colts' own idea. Ever alert to visuals, the TV-centric NFL undoubtedly mandated uniform wear so the networks and local stations broadcasting Super hype can rezt assured the audience knows the subject is football. Otherwise, some folks might see Peyton Manning in casual wear and think it's really Gen. Casey testifying to the Senate about Iraq.

Super Bowl interviews were already the most awkward, embarrassing means of human communication ever devised by man, a cross to bear for both sides of the dialogue. It's the genius of the NFL to invent a means of making them even more stilted and awkward, a task I would've thought impossible. That, as they say, can't be coached.

For Super Bowl XLII next year, they'll probably make the players wear pads, too.

BREAKING NEWS: Hick Town Flips Lid!

There is no crime more vigorously prosecuted by the state than making public officials look like moronic horses' asses. Ergo, the two chaps who put up electronic billboards the city of Boston mistook for terrorist bombs are in a heap of trouble this morning.

Their bad. Had the two simply committed another of the city's ever-increasing homicides, relatively few people would've given a damn. But give Tom Menino a chance to show off his cement head, by God, you're going to pay.

We will stipulate for the record Turner Broadcasting's (the TV division of AOL-Time Warner) campaign of little Lite Brite portraits of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" characters hung in various public places was stupid and thoughtless, for the simple reason not enough people are familiar with the show to make the pitch effective. And, as we've seen, if someone was prone to panic and wasn't looking too carefully, they MIGHT think the billboard was a terrorist device.

So we'll spot the city and commonwealth's their reaction to the discovery of the first device as commendable prudence. By the time we get to number 17 or so, however, stupidity is clearly the driving force. The most noteworthy fact about our area goverment's reaction to the devices was this: they continued to treat each one as a potential bomb even after they knew it was a hoax.

That's not prudence, it's ass-covering. Public officials tried to make the hoax the largest possible disruption of normal civic life in the hope local citizens would get angry at the hoaxers instead of noticing how dumb they'd been. They were aided in this effort by local TV news and national cable news, institutions enthralled by the idea of another deadly attack on American soil, as long as it's done by evil furriners. American on American killing? That's not news.

The following facts should be remembered about the Aqua Teen panic.

1. The little billboards had been up for awhile, and noted without reaction by citizens.

2. According to Turner Broadcasting, the devices are spread around in at least 10 other American cities. Only in Boston did they create a replay of "War of the Worlds."

3. All parents know if one of you tells your children something, the other must back it up, even if you disagree. Public officials are no different. In public, governor Patrick and attorney general Coakley HAD to stand by Menino and local law enforcement. I'd love to know what they think in private.

4. As a rule, large corporations keep large numbers of attornies on retainer.

Fact four is what interests me. If the promotional scheme, which Turner now says was subcontracted out to a third party, wasn't vetted by the legal staff, well, idiocy is every bit as common in the private as the public sector. Turner should pay the costs, and the rest of us should sell our AOL stock ASAP.

But if somewhere in their files Turner has the copy of a note informing someone, anyone, in state or local government about the campaign and the little billboards, well, Governor Patrick would be proven wrong. The hoax WOULD be funny.