Monday, July 30, 2007

The Team of Tomorrow, or at Least the Next Hour and a Half

According to reports confusing even by Internet standards, the Celtics are no longer the NBA's youngest team building a champion of the future. They are now a collection of superstars on the back nine out to win the 2008 NBA title or else. Unless, of course, the deal for Kevin Garnett falls through (again). Then it's back to the juggernaut of 2011! Don't cancel those season tickets. Please.

I have to figure this time the deal goes down. Celtics fans are a credulous lot, but if TWO Garnett trades fail to occur in a little over a month, even they will realize they're being jerked around.

So let's assume the Celts will consist of Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and 9 guys to be named later and changed continuously. Would that be better than Celtic Youth on the March? Definitely. Would that team be favorites to win the Eastern Conference? Yes, even if Danny Ainge neglects to fill those nine vacant roster spots.

That's not to say, however, the deal WILL take place. Ainge has taught Celtics' observers to keep loose in the batter's box. The New Idea has a tendency to be replaced by a Newer Idea at a dizzying pace. The Celts should print their rosters on those Erase-A-Sketch wax pads popular when I was a kid.

So let me salute the grizzled vets who'll lead the Celtics back to glory next season, and/or the next great players of the 21st century who'll build their own legend in seasons to come. At this point, the Celtics' rallying cry is "Whatever."

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sports Scandal Agate Page, Make That Pages

Curt Schilling can be tough to take, but he's an infinitely more pleasant character than Barry Bonds. Leave it to Curt to let his fuel-injected 426 cubic inch Hemi motor mouth create a situation where he looks worse than the misanthropic sports medicine experiment gone bad.

Schilling went on Bob Costas' HBO show to denounce steroids and those players who used them. This did nothing but remind every one who cares that when under oath before a Congressional committee in 2005 and asked questions about this very issue, Curt grew vaguer than Alberto Gonzales. Maybe it's a Republican thing.

Schilling wasn't engaged in a coverup, of course. He just wimped out in a situation where he couldn't take back any words he later found inconvenient. That was prudent, but it sure makes him Schilling look smarmy when he plays the outraged maiden card and tries to be Chip Hilton on national TV.

Thought the second. The weirdest thing about the entire Bonds' brouhaha is that the defenders of baseball purity who condemn the Giants' star never once mention what is customarily thought to be the main purpose of cheating-winning.

Otherwise sensible people like Costas and Keith Olbermann wax eloquent and apoplectic at the prospect of Bonds breaking Hank Aaron's career home run record. But neither of them, or anyone else, ever considers the implications of Bonds' alleged cheating for the TEAM sport he plays. All those "tainted" home runs helped the Giants win a lot of ball games. Are those wins "tainted," too? The Giants won the 2002 National League pennant when Bonds was supposed to be in full lab rat mode. Should they give it back?

The questions are absurd on their face, of course. Trying to alter history is like pulling a thread off the sleeve of a nice sports jacket. One hard tug, and the whole thing unravels into a knotted pile of material both meaningless and useless. The rough public compromise on Bonds' forthcoming feat has already formed. He'll break the record, and most people will feel a faint but measurable sense of dissatisfaction. Sometime, not in my lifetime probably, a consensus will form on how baseball history should regard the Biochemical Bombers of the last years of the 2oth century. Spare the indignation for the sports scandals that involve cheating to LOSE rather than to win, as in the NBA, or the actual manifestation of pure evil in a big star, as in the Michael Vick situation.

My last words on Bonds, I hope. Surely there has to be a bicycle racing team desperate enough and with enough of a sense of humor to offer Barry a ride for the 2008 Tour de France. He'll show those ectomorphs how doping REALLY works.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sports Brings People Together.

The following barely edited sentence is presented without comment, since none is possible, from today's New York Times.

"Celebratory gunfire killed and wounded scores of persons (across the nation) after Iraq's national team defeated Vietnam 2-0 in soccer in Asian Cup competition."

For those of you scoring at home, and if you live in Baghdad, I'd strongly advise that's just where you do, depending on the result of a match today, Iraq's next opponent could be Iran. Celebratory car bombs are being prepared for the victory parade.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Bet Hubris and Give the Points.

NBA commissioner David Stern is big on appearances. Reality, not so much.

Just about every action Stern has taken in the past two years has been to maintain the image of professional basketball as a wholesome spectator activity for middle aged white guys with money. It was his mission to force young black men who grew up in the last 20 years to look as if they stepped out of a Chip Hilton novel. Woe to them if they ran afoul of the law. Stern had no compunction about essentially throwing the most important playoff series of the year because two players harmlessly violated his rules about going on the court during a beef. Oh, he's strict.

Stern has been stricter with the league's referees than with anyone else. They have been groomed to a standard of robotic behavior, and individualists, no matter how good at their demanding craft they might be, were ruthlessly weeded out. If a young Earl Strom walked into the sport today, he would wind up doing life at Big 12 games. Joey Crawford, a good ref with a bad temper, was essentially banned from the sport for losing his cool on national TV in a dispute with one of the NBA's marketable icons, Tim Duncan. Crawford was horribly, totally, in the wrong. Banishment, however, was the mark of Stern's increasingly petty tyranny.

And while all of this was going on, referee Tim Donaghy was, if the FBI is to be believed, shaving points on the job. Donaghy was Stern's beau ideal of a referee-nobody ever noticed him, including, it would seem, Stern himself.

However Donaghy gets sorted out by the legal system, for the NBA the damage is done. Many people have suspected pro basketball of being fixed since before I saw my first game in 1960. Anyone here old enough to remember when Earl Monroe sank the ball in his own basket as the buzzer went off to the final score on the number in the 1970s? Hell, Stern's first big moment as commish, the 1985 draft lottery that sent Patrick Ewing to the Knicks, was widely suspected of being a bag job.

It is accepted that NBA stars get the breaks in close calls. "Tie goes to the man with the higher salary" is a cliche that goes back to Wilt Chamberlain. This is, I think, because refs, like almost all human beings, tend to see what they expect to see. Now there's a fact on the table arguing for a more sinister interpretation of this ancient fact of pro hoop life.

An actual arrest is far more proof of fixing than gamblers, a paranoid lot by nature, need to convict the NBA. The media will follow close behind. This is approximately 1,000,000,000 times more damaging to the NBA as a business than the steroids mess is for baseball's bottom line. Roger Goodell is not a happy chappy this morning thinking about Michael Vick, but there isn't enough money in the world to get him to switch places with Stern.

The first job of a professional sports league commissioner is to maintain the integrity of the competition. It is the reason the post of commissioner was created. David Stern thought his job was to wring more money out of television and act to make sure the NBA LOOKED respectable. While he was doing so, the biggest scandal in U.S. pro sports of my lifetime was gathering steam under his nose.

If Stern had any shame, he'd have resigned yesterday. He didn't. Shame is a lost concept in modern American life. That's why so much of the news we make is so shameful.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Headless Hedge Fund in Topless Takeover Bid

For once, the blogger is qualified to address one of the burning issues of the day. I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. I used to work for Rupert Murdoch. Judging by commentary and reporting I see, I may be OVERqualified to comment on their shotgun marriage.

Let's begin by describing the most important part of the Murdoch experience to Journal employees. The checks clear. Always. Experience teaches anything else you get from a newspaper publisher is gravy- thin, thin, gravy.

This is the point where commentators bewail the fact Murdoch will impose his "agenda" on the Journal and ruin its integrity, and, oh, you know the drill. Forgive me for not joining in the misery chorus of the high-minded. There is not a single American newspaper that hasn't slanted its reporting to further its own interests at some point, and those held in highest repute usually were the most nefarious cases. The Globe's actions during the fight over Channel Five's license in the late '60s and early '70s were despicable. The New York Times' coverage of real estate in midtown Manhattan should be read with caution. That doesn't make them bad newspapers, or even especially corrupt ones. Institutions look out for themselves. Murdoch just doesn't bother to hide it.

The Journal staff and the journalism professors should save their anger for the Bancroft family who want to sell Murdoch the paper. Those lazy sods sat on their asses and cashed dividend checks while the management who gave them the dividends blundered their way into trashing what ought to have been a foolproof enterprise.

Will Murdoch "meddle"? Sure. I'm to Rupe's left by a good distance, but I'm enough of a capitalist to be offended at that verb. For $5 freakin' billion, a man's MORALLY entitled to run the show as he sees fit.

Unlike the inbred heirs who sold America's newspapers in the '90s, Murdoch likes the business. He enjoys newspapers. Why else would he lose $50 million a year running the New York Post? It can't be the prestige or influence, the Post has none of either. It has to the sheer fun of putting out that demented, gifted work of fiction every day.

For that matter, I am none too sure Murdoch WILL meddle, at least not as far as using the Journal to advance his personal business interests. That would be dumb, which he's not. It would also be dangerous.

Murdoch didn't do anything to the Herald sports section but let it hire more people, including yours truly, and give it more resources. Sports sell tabloids. They're also expensive to cover properly. Did he drive a hard bargain with the unions when he bought the Herald. Oh, my yes. But if it weren't for Murdoch, there wouldn't be a Herald. There wouldn't be "The Simpsons," either. There would be no yellow first down on your TV during football games. Fox News would have to suck a lot worse than it does, which would be impossible, to outweigh those positive contributions to American life.

As far as ideological interests go, Murdoch doesn't have to touch the Journal. It ain't exactly Mother Jones. The paper is aimed at well-to-do conservative business people. The scrupulously reported facts in the paper are presented in that worldview. It's not ideology, it's identity. Reporters tend to absorb what they cover. One veteran baseball writer of my acquaintance used to dip snuff. Same deal.

As far as business interests go, I will concede the point Murdoch would slant the news to make a buck or billion. I just don't see how he could without people noticing. Financial news is more like sports than it resembles political news. It has a scoreboard whose facts are hard to cover up.

In addition, the Journal's audience reads more carefully than, say, buyers of USA Today. For every one subscriber, like me, who enjoys its writing and reporting for their own sake, there are 1000 who get the Journal because reading it may help them make money that very day. Should those customers get the idea what they read is designed to help MURDOCH make money, they'll become ex-customers before their first morning meeting.

Oh, one more thing. People who put stories in the newspaper that aren't strictly true for personal financial gain can go to prison. Back in the '80s, that's what happened to the Journal's financial community gossip writer. Would New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer like to nail Murdoch's ass? I'm guessing yes.

In conclusion, the purchase of the Wall Street Journal by Rupert Murdoch shouldn't have too much effect on that paper's existence unless my former employer has gone soft, which I wouldn't bet on.

Cheer up, Journal newsroom. Publishers are all the same. Murdoch's outside their little club because he makes that fact too obvious.

Monday, July 16, 2007

See You in September

Iraq's Parliament is taking off the month of August. This has many Americans upset. A very vocal subgroup of the upset are members of the U.S. Congress. They'll make angry speeches about the Iraqis dereliction of duty-when they're home visiting their districts during THEIR August vacation.

Iraq's Parliament is a bad joke in the worst possible taste, and no one knows that better than the Iraqi citizenry. Its work habits, however, are not the issue. American criticism of Iraqi government goes past mere hypocrisy to some glorious spot where a just God would strike the complainers dead on the spot.

For the record, our Congress has taken August off since, well, forever. And please, spare me any sanctimony about Iraq's pols goofing off in the middle of their country's civil war while American soldiers fight and die. The Congress took off every August during OUR civil war, when American soldiers were fighting a short commute from the Capitol. And to show it really was a war between brothers, so did the Confederate Congress.

Iraq's Parliament has also failed to enact some vague "political reconcilation" legislation. Once again, that's rich, coming from us. Our Congress couldn't pass a budget last year, and probably won't this year. Where do we get off blasting run of the mill venal Third World pols for not figuring out how to stop a war where all sides would cheerfully slit their throats if they went for a walk outside the Green Zone?

If American soldiers are dying in Iraq, and they are, that is the United States' problem, not the Iraqi government's. WE are the idiots who started the war and turned Iraq into hell on earth, not them. We should certainly have the simple humility to accept our situation as our own, not blame it on others. Of course we won't. Being an American means you're perfect. Just ask us.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


Somebody's got to finish first, even if its the first to be last. This post may be premature, but it not tonight (and they trail 3-0), then sometime in the near future, the Philadelphia Phillies will become the first major league team to lose 10,000 games.

This means, most of all, that the Phillies are an old team, founded in 1883. Play that long, the losses will pile up. In point of fact, divide 10,000 by 123 1/2 seasons, and the Phils have averaged 81 losses a season, which is drab mediocrity, no more, no less. The Devil Rays may get to 10,000 losses in my lifetime at their current clip.

But of course, for many years the Phils were less, much less, than drably mediocre. They WERE a symbol of wretched baseball, and if the Senators and St. Louis Browns hadn't been equally awful from oh, 1920-1950, they could have been THE symbol. Nowadays, the Phils are a frustrating .500 bunch, leading the majors in runs scored and bullpen catastrophes. In other words, normal.

Yours truly is a Phillies fan since forever, which in my case means I saw my first game in 1956. I got to see their only World Series win in 1980, which was more than many of the fans I knew growing up got to do. But the experiences of childhood are what shape fans, and I did live through some very creative horrible baseball from my Phils.

Where to start? Could it be when my boyhood hero Ed Bouchee got popped for exposing himself? That'll leave a scar on an impressionable child.

On Opening Day 1960, the Phillies got pounded by the Reds something like 8-2, and manager Eddie Sawyer began his post-game press conference by resigning. His stated reason was "I'm 49 now, and I'd like to live to be 50." Opening Day! One month later, the Phillies were swept in a three-game series 1-0, 1-0, 1-0. Sawyer knew his team.

The next year was Philadelphia's famed 23-game losing streak. It began before I went to summer camp and was still going on when I came back.

These indignities were a mere warmup for 1964. Six and a half games up with 12 to play. A ten-game losing streak started by a 1-0 loss on a steal of home with Frank Robinson batting. I'm pretty much over it now. Haven't broken anything when Gene Mauch's name is mentioned in years.

After that actually, things got better. There was the amazing detour of 1972, when Steve Carlton went 27-10 for a 59-103 team, singlehandedly preventing those Phillies from edging the '62 Mets as the worst bunch in history, but by and large, the Phillies reached the plateau shared with most clubs. Yes, there were tough times. Right, Mitch Williams? But Philadelphia baseball has not been a disgrace for a long, long time. Losing still happens. But it's not the franchise's DNA imprint anymore.

The great thing about Phillies baseball is this - no camp followers. It ain't trendy, and nobody roots for my team who doesn't do so for the same reason I do-they grew up around there. Jimmy Fallon's never going to star in a movie about Phillies fans, thank God. We haven't got John Updike. Hell, we haven't got George Costanza. Most merciful of all, nobody's tried to patronize the Phillies with the deadly adjective "lovable" artsy-fartsy baseball fanciers drop on the Cubs. When the Phils lose, it's 'cause they sucked. May it be always thus.

So 10,000 is the Phillies' only historic record. OK. Lots of teams don't even have one. A lot of good fans living and dead went through an unbelievable amount of aggravation to bring that record home. In 1883, the Phils wemt a solid 17-81. To the long-gone optimists who paid good money to watch that horseshit, and to all Phillies fans everywhere, I'd like to offer up our traditional prayer of comfort.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Science?? of Hitting

The New York Mets have named Rickey Henderson to their coaching staff. He will work with their batters, although he may not be formally named the hitting coach. It's probably a bad idea to think of Henderson being "formally" anything.

What kind of hitting instructor will history's greatest leadoff man be? Well, it's safe to say he won't resemble Walt Hriniak. Nor will the videotape room be where Henderson does his work. He'll tend to the Mets' metaphysical needs in the batter's box.

For once, I can speak with authority. I've seen Henderson the hitting mentor in action/

It was the summer of 2002, right after the All-Star break, in fact, and the Red Sox were in Toronto. Henderson, you may recall, spend that forgettable season on the Boston roster. As I came up the tunnel off the Skydome field before the game, headed for the press box, two players popped in front of me, on their way to the Sox clubhouse from the indoor batting cage. One was Rickey, the other Manny Ramirez, who'd been slumping. They were chatting hitting.

Naturally, I eavesdropped with all my might, trying to pretend I hadn't seen them two feet in front of me. Two surefire Hall of Famers discussing their craft! This was going to be great. And it was.

In the fifty feat or so we walked together, here's what I heard. Imagine it spoken as Manny nods seriously, the very picture of a dutiful apprentice.

"Look," Henderson said firmly, "when you're going bad, that's when everybody wants to get thinking up there. And when you start thinking, that's when you're REALLY fucked up."

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

China -- Can't Wait to Visit

There's one set of people more scared of China than Lou Dobbs. That'd be the gang running the place.

The popular Western image of the Chinese government is that's a repressive authoritarian regime in total control of society. It's true, too, except for the last five words of that sentence. They're nonsense.

Consider what the government did to ITS Michael Brown, the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration. In response to the scandals involving poisoned food and other products, they shot the poor schlub. Brutal? Sure. But it doesn't speak of a government in control of anything. Firing mid-level bureaucrats is a PR move whether you shoot them or just make sure they retire to write memoirs.

Here's a little anecdote about China I found in the informative pages of "Asian Textile Journal." Chinese citizens aren't rebelling by forming a political opposition. They've gone right to creating their own money.

Tencent is China's leading e-mail and instant message service. It has about a quarter-billion subscribers. As a promotional gimmick, the company began offering what it called QQ coins, virtual currency one could purchase at a fixed exchange rate. Then you could purchase the company's goods and services at a discount with QQ coins. Sort of a 21st century Green Stamps concept.

So far, so good. QQ coins became very popular. Then the trouble started. The Chinese aren't just using QQ coins to buy stuff from Tencent. They're buying and selling anything they can think of with them. QQ coins have become a medium of exchange in such volume that the value of the yuan, the government's currency, is under threat. There will be new laws, officials say, proving that locking the barn door after the horse has won the Belmont is a trait all government share-ideology be damned.

Let's walk a mile in the nifty Hong Kong suits of China's rulers. They don't think they're enjoying Stalinesque control of the zombie masses. They've got to figure they're surfing 50-foot waves in a sea of battery acid. Here they turn their back on the public for a minute to try and stage a nice antiseptic Olympic Games, and the public goes and invents its own money! Americans bitch a lot, but that sort of creative civil disobedience is beyond us.

Unless there's a sudden turn of fortune, I won't be in Beijing for the Olympics. Too bad. Somehow, I don't think they'll be antiseptic at all.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The 2007 American League schedule

For a baseball team, games with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are sort of like a trust fund. They can erase the effects of many poor life, or in this case, sports, decisions.

When that team already has a ten-game lead and it's July, and it has 18 games left to play against Tampa, which was the Red Sox situation this week, well, it's sort of like having Paris Hilton's trust fund with no Paris Hilton attached to it. Half the team could return from the All-Star break about a week late without affecting Boston's playoff chances one bit.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Herm Edwards Isn't the Only One With Clock Management Issues

Perhaps because of the socioeconomic status of its leaders, the Republican party seems well out of touch with the internal calendar of the United States of America.

The ancient Washington cliche says that one is supposed to release bad news when people are least likely to be paying attention, this is, late on Friday afternoon, or, as in the case of commuting Scooter Libby's sentence, in the middle of the main holiday of the summer.

This strikes me as exactly backwards. The WORST way to bury news is to put it in a place where there isn't any other news to hide it. The newspaper industry has done thousands of surveys to find out why people don't read the paper, and the lead answer in all of them is "we're too busy." The exigencies of normal life take up too much time.

Holidays equal free time. Not much is going on in public or private life. Ergo, any news you make will receive more attention than it would otherwise. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but not nearly as much as the producers at cable news networks do. As an added bonus to those poor folks, the Libby decision costs nothing to cover. Round up the usual talking heads!

In addition, Americans prize their free time. Politicians who use it up by creating news are resented, and rightly so. People have their faults, but by and large, they're not stupid. They know when someone is counting on their sloth and apathy. Pisses 'em off.

I have evidence to support this theory. No Republican decision of recent times was as roundly unpopular as the move to impeach Bill Clinton. I firmly believe the timing of this move was as much responsible for that as its dubious merits as policy. One of the strongest unwritten rules of US public life is not to make any news from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day. That's when people are busiest. They have no time to consider their responsibilities as citizens, and no patience for any news except shoppers at the mall and the occasional house fire caused by defective Christmas lights. The GOP thought Americans would be too distracted to care. They were wrong.

The Republicans ignored that rule, and suffered accordingly. The Libby commutation would have been controversial at any time. It will be MORE discussed, and hence more controversial, because of when it was issued. People will be at parades, picnics, and fireworks shows in the next two days, not at their desks or factories. And a great many members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, will be at the very same events.

I almost feel sorry for the poor bastards.

Credit Where It's Due Dept.

The article in the feature section of today's Globe on poker players Howard Lederer and Annie Duke and their family is very, very good reading, even if you know and/or care nothing about poker.

That is all.

Credit Where It's Due Dept.

The article in the feature section of today's Globe on poker players Howard Lederer and Annie Duke and their family is very, very good reading, even if you know and/or care nothing about poker.

That is all.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Holiday Inn

Life never ceases to surprise. Who'd have ever thought I'd wake up one perfect New England morning feeling sorry for Vladimir Putin?

The president/dictator of Russia is a nasty piece of work. This has been true of most Russian leaders for over a millenium, so apparently Russians like it that way. Despite the blood on his hands, no one could wish on Putin what he voluntarily has taken on himself.

Putin arrived in Kennebunkport, Maine today for a 4th of July weekend at the Bush family compound. Just him, George H.W., Babs, George W., and Laura. What fun! A little boating, a few lobster dinners, a little policy talk-and a great deal of family awkwardness.

The Bush family dynamic has not resembled that of the Cleaver family in the best of times. These are not the best of times. The crosscurrents of WASP dysfunction and geopolitical catastrophe will make Putin feel like an unwilling participants to the grimmest scenes of a novel co-written by James Cheever and Stephen King.

One understands why Putin accepted the current President Bush's invitation. Business is business. If Bush had expressed a wish to play poker this weekend, Daniel Negreanu would've been on his doorstep. This could be Putin's last crack at the chump.

But what a price to pay! KGB men aren't much for embarrassment, but there are going to be plenty of moments Putin will wish the floor of the Bush cigarette boat could swallow him up for a clean getaway.

Putin is a no-good bastard. But I hope the Russian people appreciate he's a conscientous no-good bastard.