Monday, May 28, 2007

Humanity Has a Dog in This Fight

The American media industry has a vested interest in leveling sensational charges against celebrities, and none at all in finding the truth, so I am reserving all judgment as to Michael Vick's involvement or lack of same in dog-fighting purportedly staged on his property. All I can say for sure is I know what should happen if the charges are true.

If they are, Vick should be banned from the NFL for life. No appeals, no get backs, nothing. This is 1000 times worse than Pete Rose betting on baseball. This makes PacMan Jones's legal problems look like the immature punkish behavior they are. Anyone guilty of participation in organized animal fighting is a monster. Period.

Cruelty to animals is a tell in human behavior that's a real accurate forecaster of future cruelty to other human beings. It marks someone as less than human, far lower on the evolutionary chain than the animals they abuse. To participate in murder for fun, well, it's a major felony for a reason. Vick could earn serious jail time here. It wouldn't be enough punishment.

Vick's case is a clear-cut crisis for commissioner Roger Goodell. He's no nose tackle like tank Johnson, or overrated cornerback like Jones. Vick's a certified star, a name, a franchise quarterback, who stands accused of behavior that's morally far more degraded than the stupid, thoughtless, dangerous DUIs the Bengals pile up.

Goodell needs to find out what happened first. After that, let me offer the following words of advice. You do not want to go to your fan base trusting that they love football more than they love animals. You'll lose.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Next Big Thing-Until Thanksgiving At Least.

The Internet tells me that the black guy whose name I didn't catch clobbered the white guy with the weird haircut to become the UFC champion of whatever geographic entity that pastime claims. UFC (to be accurate, mixed martial arts) is the official new sport of the millenium. ESPN and Sports Illustrated both say so, and they're never wrong.

I am left to ponder the following mystery. Can a sport perish from overexposure before I ever get around to watching it? UFC/MMA/NATO/ASCAP looks like it could. It's not good for business if one's first mega pay-per-view extravaganza that's supposed to mark your breakout into polite society ends in a first round KO. Even the most blood-crazed, drunk male aged 18-34 is capable of dividing several minutes into $50 and coming up with an unhappy answer.

Those of us with itchy remote trigger fingers know UFC, etc. is a happening thing. It's happening 24/7 on the lesser cable channels and the corners of local TV programming that can't be sold to infomercial makers. This does not, to me anyway, look like firm grounds for building a new American sports empire.

Old guys like me are supposed to scoff at new things like UFC. I can't knock the sport-never seen it. But I have been around long enough to see a whole lot of Next Big Things in sports, and what happens to them is never quite what their promoters expect. Many sink without a trace. If they have some appeal, and I'll grant UFC that, they find their own level. My guess is that UFC's level will not cause Bud Selig or David Stern to miss any sleep in the next decade.

By my count, soccer has been the Next Big Thing in American sports four times in the last 40 years. When I was but a lad, Formula One racing was going to be the dominant auto racing format in the U.S. They don't even hold a race here anymore. No one under 40 will believe this, but when Jimmy Carter was president, and even for the first couple years of Reagan's tenure, TENNIS was bigger than anything but pro football.

Even sports that do become huge parts of the American sports mainstream take long, winding roads to that destination. The NBA was going to be the Sport of the 1970s. Pro basketball damn near died in that decade, only to rebound in the next. NASCAR, which I'm sure is a UFC role model, was a very, very strong regional sport for generations before going national in the '90s. And NASCAR's growth has leveled off in recent years. It's popular, but it will never be as popular in Chicago or Los Angeles as it is in Charlotte or Birmingham, Ala.

Hype is a cruel mistress. Tiger Woods spurred a boom in golf interest, but as many a developer in Chapter 11 can tell you, that didn't necessarily translate into an increase in the number of people who play golf. That sport remains hamstrung by the large amounts of money and time needed to pursue it. And now the massive PGA empire rests on Woods' shoulders. God forbid he should catch a cold during the Open.

UFC/MMA advocates point to things they feel guarantee success. It's violent, fast-paced, easy to understand. So is hockey, a sport that's apparently the first U.S. casualty of global warming. Above all, UFC is the sport of Youth-male youth, the demo most prized by advertisers.

Two things about Youth, and I'm not so old I don't remember them first hand. One, it's fickle. Today's craze is tomorrow's "you can't be serious." This fact is why people in the entertainment industry look so stressed out. Worse, Youth ages. By the time the next big UFC PPV event rolls around, many current Youth will be ex-Youths. They will have been replaced by Youths who're looking for their OWN Next Big Thing.

UFC has specific handicaps as well. Let's face it, this is a low-rent endeavor. Many of those youths aren't real fans, they're slumming. It's hard to see a sports empire being built upon the foundation of Spike TV. Then there's the fact that fighters, not the format, make fights. Without marketable personalities, any combat-based sport falls off the table. You can't force-feed the public personalities, either-not without fixing fights. That latter activity drove boxing out of the mainstream in the 1950s, never to return.

People will always pay money to watch other people beat the shit out of each other. It's an eternal, deplorable fact of human existence. So UFC will always be around. But I don't see its champions appearing on Wheaties boxes anytime soon.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

No Tommy Point for Tommy

Oh, well, Celtics, you know the old saying. Lucky at Red, unlucky at ping pong balls.

Boston's fifth place finish in the NBA draft lottery would spook me were I the superstitious sort. There's such an obvious karmic explanation. A team that chose Tom Heinsohn as its good luck charm was begging Fate to smack it with a tire iron.

Heinsohn is a wonderful person. He was a Hall of Fame player. He won two NBA titles as a coach. He's a true Old Celtic, the only brand of Celtic I care to recognize. But never in a million years should Heinsohn have attempted to play the role of Red Auerbach's cigar.

Think about it. Aside from his legitimate exploits in pro basketball, what is Heinsohn's most famous attribute? Rage. Frothing, foaming anger at the many injustices done to the Celtics by venal referees and a hostile universe. Heinsohn's been making a good living off that schtick for 30 years. Remember the Miller Lite commercial he did with Mendy Rudolph in the '70s? "Heinsohn, yer outta the bar."

As the highly intelligent Heinsohn was quick to realize, he is one of those persons afflicted with Donald Duck Syndrome. His temper tantrums strike others as top-notch comic entertainment. There are more than a few guys like in sports. Lou Piniella comes to mind.

That's what made Heinsohn such a dangerous Celtic totem. If there ARE such things as Basketball Gods, they must enjoy a good Tommy rant as much as the next fan. How could they resist the temptation to set the stage for the most historic, over the top Heinsohn fit of all time?

On a more material note, the fact the Celtics won't draft either Kevin Durant or Greg Oden is a terrible blow to their marketing department, but may not affect the team's performance as much as some fear. Danny Ainge is right. With the fifth pick, the Celtics will get a very good player, someone who'll help them win games in 2007-2008. The Florida trio of AL Horford, Joakim Noah, and Corey Brewer (my pick, kid plays defense) should all be available. They come from an experience no Celtic can claim - winning. And they are just the names off the top of my head.

People who've seen far more basketball than myself swear Oden will be the next dominant center in the NBA. Maybe so. Many of those same people said the same thing about Yao Ming. Yao's a superior player, but dominant? You couldn't prove it by Jeff Van Gundy's unemployment check. So far Yao is more Bob Lanier than Bill Russell.

Centers are often the number one pick in the NBA draft. Sometimes, they turn out to be just as dominant as was advertised (See: Duncan, Tim, and Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem). Just as if not more often, they are complete stiffs (See: Martin, LaRue, and Olawokandi, Michael). Oden doesn't look like a stiff, but he doesn't quite yet remind one of Wilt Chamberlain, either.

It'll take five years before we know if missing out on Oden was an historic catastrophe for the Celtics. I can't look that far ahead. I will make a prediction about their chances for next year.

The Celts will play in front of many empty seats. But should Paul Pierce remain healthy all season, they will rebound from one of the worst teams in the NBA to the middle of the pack, somewhere between 30-40 wins, depending on those pesky Gods and their odd sense of humor. That will be enough improvement to save Ainge's job, but not Doc Rivers'. And I think most Celtic fans will find that a satisfactory year.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Calling All Sabermetricians!

The headline is not snark. I have a question which only computer aided research can answer. It's prompted by the Red Sox' 9th inning rally over the Orioles last Sunday.

Has there ever been an inning where a team scored more than 5 runs without benefit of a walk or an opponent's error? I covered baseball for 25 years and have watched it for more than twice that long and can't remember any, but my memory is inadmissible evidence in Vladimir Putin's courts. There can't be many, that much I do know.

In fact, horsehide nerds, for extra credit, and if anyone does this, I WILL give them plenty of sincere credit, is there a computer program to test the following theory? I posit that if the worst team in baseball, call them the Kansas City Royals, went an entire season without issuing a walk, committing an error, or getting a man thrown out attempting to advance, that team would win enough games to qualify for the playoffs. Am I right?

Inquiring science-challenged minds want to know. At least one of them does.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


Time for an experiment in baseball research. Don't worry, there's no math, just a little mind expansion required.

Imagine a pair of parallel universes. They're almost exactly the same, and in each of them, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants has 745 career home runs.

In universe A, which closely resembles the one we're all stumbling around in now, Bonds goes on to break Hank Aaron's record of 755 career homers sometime in the 2007 season. But in Universe B, Bonds is simultaneously indicted for perjury, hit by the team bus, and struck by lightning this morning, and remains stuck on 745 home runs forever.

Here's where the experiment begins. Fast forward each universe 100 years into the future. Now imagine what baseball historians of THAT time have to say about Bonds and Aaron in each universe.

Time's up. Pencils down. I now posit to you that with the exception of a few paragraphs, the assessment of each slugger and their role in the game are EXACTLY IDENTICAL in each universe. Whether Bonds has the most or second-most career homers of any player in baseball history is profoundly irrelevant to how he'll be portrayed by future generations of the game's followers.

The whole 2007 brouhaha over Bonds' records, "steroids: threat or menace," "Should Bud Selig and/or Aaron be there when Barry hits it", etc., is an annoying example of one of baseball's most annoying fallacies- record worship. It's a subset of statistics worship. Like all stats, records are merely one way of examining reality, they ain't reality itself. History contains a lot more than records. July 4 matters because that's when the United States chose to celebrate its independence. It isn't even when the Declaration was written. That's July 3.

Perhaps I can make that point better with a sports analogy. Bob Beamon's long jump at the 1968 Olympics is no longer the world's record in that event. But every track and field fan and most plain old sports fans have the number 29-2 burned into their heads. Almost 40 years later, Beamon's jump remains one of the most famous moments in his sport. Without stopping to use Google, I cannot tell you who currently the long jump record or what it might be. Records and fame are different. Records and historical significance are different.

Bonds' part of baseball history is set in stone. He could hit 900 home runs, retire, and spend the rest of his life working with the Third World poor, and it wouldn't change. Babe Ruth is one of the nation's symbols of the Roaring Twenties. Bonds will stand for baseball's Shady Nineties, when everyone in the game, players, owners, media, fans, every damn one of us, did everything in our power to artificially create another Babe to wash away the sins of the Strike of '94.

Performance-enhancing drugs are a big part of that story, but only part. The less we focus on them, the more clearly we can see the recent past. It's worth remembering that talk about players breaking both Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs in a season was all the rage at the very moment the strike began. Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, and Matt Williams (of all people) were on pace to threaten it.

Bandbox ballparks. Expansion and its little brother lousy pitching. The acceptance of power hitters walking instead of swinging (Ted Williams used to get killed for that). These were things we could see. Hell, Bonds, who's smarter than most folks, saw them, too. We all accepted baseball was striving for a new era of homers, and we reveled in it.

Speaking of homers, the "Simpsons" rerun on Channel 25 last night had Mark McGwire as guest star. Baseball is spying on Springfield with a satellite. McGwire appears and asks "Do you want to hear the terrible, unimaginable truth, or do you want to see me hit some dingers?"

Springfield, of course, shouts "Dingers!" The show was written when McGwire was a national hero, long before his congressional non-testimony in 2004. Prescient satire is kind of a scary concept.

Bonds was acknowledged as the best player of his era. We are told, and it rings true, that he turned to performance-enhancers out of jealousy at the acclaim won by McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Since Bonds was way better than those two to begin with, Bonds 2.0 soared past their slugging marks with ease.

The Depression ended the Roaring Twenties. Our nations' puritanical, hypocritical, nonsensical reaction to the word "drug" ended the Shady Nineties. Since Bonds was and is an unlikeable paranoiac megalomaniac, he made an even better whipping boy than idol. Arguing about Bonds as he nears 756 homers is a convenient substitute for examining one's own role in baseball's conspiracy of ignorance back in the just the day before yesterday.

As noted, Bonds' place in baseball history is secure. He will share a room (and it's pleasant to think they'd have to put up with each other for eternity) with Ty Cobb. Like Cobb, Bonds will be acknowledged as a genius of the game, one of the top five to ten players ever. Like Cobb, Bonds will be a subject polite baseball people prefer not to discuss. Books about Ruth are published every other day. Go tell a literary agent you want to write a new biography of Cobb. I dare you.

Aaron's place in history won't change when Bonds' passes him. On pure baseball grounds, leaving drugs out of it, Aaron's career homer mark stands for a much more impressive feat than does Bonds' mark. Aaron hit his home runs in the era where pitchers dominated the game more than they had at any time since 1920. Bonds hit his homers in an era where homers were more commonplace than at any time in baseball history. It's really that simple.

In the larger sense, Aaron's historic significance cannot be altered. Young people may be surprised to learn that when Aaron played, right up until he got to about home run number 680, he was baseball's second banana immortal to Willie Mays. I was there, gang. Mays remains the best player I ever saw.

But when Aaron got closer to Ruth's 714, he quite unwillingly became a racial symbol. The hate mail and death threats Aaron received were a chilling reminder of the white racism that lurks under the rock of our national consciousness. Happily for Aaron, there was an upside. When he hit homer 715 in April 1974, it wasn't just a number. Aaron was seen as having finished what Jackie Robinson started. And for that, justly, he's now MORE famous than Mays.

We note one final irony. There is no fiercer defender and advocate of Mays' status in baseball history than his godson Barry Bonds. This, of course, is like having Alberto Gonzales as your defense attorney. If Mays hadn't been almost as miserable a prick as Bonds during his playing days, it'd be sad.

Time to publish our research conclusions. We find the following. Sometime in the summer of 2007, Barry Bonds will hit his 756th career home run. Big bleepin' deal.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Space Tourism Is Expensive

Things have come to a pretty pass when I find myself agreeing with Curt Schilling. Nevertheless, the Red Sox pitcher and spokesman-without-portfolio is correct-the Sox DON'T need Roger Clemens, not now anyway. And baseball teams, like the rest of us, have to function in the present tense.

"Need" is a relative term. All teams need more pitching in the sense quality pitching is both rare and fragile. That is to say, "need" is a synonym for "can use" in the preceding sentence. The Yankees, however "need" Clemens in the word's most exigent defintion, as in the sentence "human beings need oxygen." The fact New York signed Clemens is nothing more than the logic of the law of supply and demand at work. The Yanks had a miniscule supply of pitchers able to get batters out, therefore their demand for Clemens' services was "hang the expense as only we can." Clemens probably made a million bucks each time the Mariners scored in their 8-run inning against New York last Friday night.

Economics was one half of this transaction. The other was psychology-Clemens' psychology. Roger has never, ever, signed a new contract without demanding and getting the last possible dollar. That's not criticism. Why the hell should a professional athlete do anything else? By shrewdly creating his unique unretirement free agent market the last two Mays, Clemens has insured he'll be met by eager buyers whose pitching staffs have gone south in April. There's always at least one, usually more.

In 2006, the Astros were off to a bad start, and Clemens wounnd up re-enlisting in Houston. This April, the Yankees had the worst pitching New York has seen since the '62 Mets. Presto, Roger's a Yankee! This should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever met Clemens or read a "Wall Street Journal."

Most Bostonians know this. Those who don't should realize the following. Clemens COULD have been a Red Sox today. All it would've taken is for Schilling, Josh Beckett, and Tim Wakefield to be on disabled list. Then the Sox would've made the pre-emptive bid the Yanks turned in for Clemens. Would it be worth it?

P.S. Boston news media, get a grip! "Ballplayer DOESN'T sign with home team" is not lead broadcast item or front page news unless your market is a pathetic hick town, which we aren't. Playing upon the New York neurosis of the more thought-challenged natives of our fair city is unseemly. Also tedious.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

ESPN Defines Itself

Not two minutes ago on the telecast of the Nets-Cavaliers' opening game of their playoff series, Mike Tirico made the following statement, "LeBron James is the biggest star remaining in the NBA playoffs."

Catching himself, Tirico quickly added, "I say that with all due respect to two-time defending MVP Steve Nash, who'll finish first or second in the voting this year."

The jaw drops. The mind boggles. How, exactly, does one become a bigger star in a professional sport than a league's Most Valuable Player? James has never had a sniff of that award, although in time he will. And Tirico's airy dismissal of Nash wasn't even the most amazing part of his statement. That would be the name he omitted completely-Tim Duncan.

You must remember him Mike. He would be the past MVP who's a three-time NBA champion with a damn fine chance to make it four. Obviously, in Tirico's mind, "star" means something entirely different than its accepted definition of "really outstanding player."

James is an outstanding player. He is not as good as Nash or Duncan, and I doubt many people outside ESPN's cherished 12-year olds- of-all-ages demographic would try to argue the point.

And that, of course, IS the point of Tirico's comment. He wasn't shading the truth. Tirico honestly believes an athlete's ability to help sell useless crap to the American public is what defines a real star. After all, that ability is at the heart of the phenomenally successful organization that employs him. We hype, therefore we are. On the ESPN hype scale, James is fourth, trailing only the NFL, Tiger Woods, and things Yankee and Red Sox.

The sad thing is, David Stern probably agrees with Tirico's definition of basketball stardom.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Her Majesty's a Pretty Nice Girl, and I'm Sure She's Got a Horse for Me

Two appealing images come to mind while contemplating Queen Elizabeth II's attendance at today's Kentucky Derby.

How special would it be to see Great Britain's sovereign working on the beginnings of a cosmic sugar/bourbon hangover laying face down on a blanket in the infield while a dozen of her Big Ten sorority sisters play frisbee across her prone form? That's a Derby ritual as invariable and inevitable as the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home."

Or, perhaps even better, we would see the Queen in her full go-to-racing finery standing at the $20 window placing bets of Hank Goldbergian complexity. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of standing behind the ESPN commentator at a window, his wagers are too abstruse for Alan Greenspan to follow, and take at least 20 minutes to transact.

The latter fantasy is far more to become reality. Elizabeth II loves horses, loves racing, and has been to race meets in her life than Edgar Prado. So she MUST bet. The question is, how?

Royalty doesn't carry money. Elizabeth may not be aware her face is on her country's money. Therefore, in the grand tradition of the British court, there must be some minor noble who assists her in the task of selecting and betting upon the Royal Superfecta.

This court post was probably established by that all-around sportsman Charles II back in the 17th century. So if you're at Churchill Downs this afternoon, and you wander across a distinguished looking gentleman in a checked suit out of the Victorian era and a bowler hat to match, don't make fun of him. That, we'll have you know, is Sir Willington Barrington-Forsythe-Smythe, Keeper of the Ticket, Master of the Daily Double, Tout by appointment to Her Majesty Elizabeth II.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Best Possible View of What They Can't See

It's not like the National Football League to be bashful about its progress, but maybe commissioner Roger Goodell is the shy type. Starting news about professional football was found buried in the technology section of the April 23rd issue of "Broadcasting and Cable" magazine.

Electronics giant Harris Corp. proudly announced it had signed a contract with the NFL to provide the hardware, software, and services for the league's newest broadcasting project-converting the instant replay system for the officials in all 31 of its stadium to high definition presentation. Welcome to the 21st century, Ed Hochuli!

Harris Corp. stockholder should all name their next child Roger even it's a girl. The size of this transaction is staggering. The expense of converting ONE television studio to high def is enough to gave entire networks the jimjams. The NFL is building 31 of 'em, complete with high definition tapeless camcorders which were only developed around last Thanksgiving. If you ever wondered what happens to all the money the league makes off the Super Bowl, now you know.

There is one aspect of its wonderful new toy that I'm not sure the NFL thought through. The entire point of high def is to give the viewer a picture that's as close to actual reality as possible. In the case of instant replay, it was the officials' view of actual reality that caused the problem necessitating its use in the first place.

Fans are cautioned to expect even longer replay delays thanks to high def. "Wow, this is great!. Come here, Frank, Jimmy, take a look at this picture! Call up to the booth and ask them to run those pictures of whales from the Discovery Channel!"