Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell, the security guard falsely suspected of being the Olynpic Park bomber at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, died at the age of 44. His case was an object lesson in the vicious pack mentality of modern American journalism and the need of law enforcement personnel to cover their asses in a high-profile case. At least, it should have been.

Jewell fit the pattern of a certain type of criminal-the cop wannabe who plays hero. There was no physical evidence or eyewitness testimony linking him to bombing. There couldn't have been. He didn't do it. Some dipshit rightwing militia nut did.

But what with the pressure from higher-ups all over the world, federal and local investigators HOPED Jewell was the perp, as he was right there in front of him. Optimism is no crime, but leaking optimism to reporters should be.

The Herald, thank God, sent newsside reporters down to cover the bombing investigation while yours truly went back to the track meet. But I recall strolling into the main press center food court and seeing my distinguished colleague Woody Paige banging out a column on the case on his laptop. I inquired as to the investigation's progress.

"My source in the FBI says he (Jewell) looks good for it," Woody said, and I'm sure Denver Post sunscribers read the next day.

"Looks good for it" is a phrase with many meanings in copworld. It's a far cry from "we got him nailed." In this case, 'looks good" meant "we got nothing else."

The investigation of Jewell petered out. He sued a number of news organizations, collected what one hopes was a large sum, and faded into the woodwork. In only a little over five years, the real bomber got caught, convicted, and sentenced. The wheels of justice grind, etc., etc.

Today Jewell died. And the headline on his passing on (one of the news organizations from which Jewell collected damages) did not read "victim of miscarriage of justice dies," or "Man dogged by false accusations and media hysteria dies," no, CNN had a snappier hed.

"One-time Olympic bombing suspect dies." Suspect. Not "mistaken suspect." CNN felt it necessary to use a pejorative to describe someone whose only sin was getting in front of the malicious stupidity of others-including themselves.

I worked in journalism for 30 years, and most of the time, I'm proud of I did. Every so often, however, there's a moment where I'm profoundly ashamed that's how I spent my life. Richard Jewell's case created one. His death created another.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

X + O = Hit Somebody in the Mouth

One aspect of Bill Belichick's coaching ability which does not receive enough credit is his willingness to act on the truth that while football has a great many moving parts, at bottom it's a simple game. Consider, if you will, last night's game plan against the Carolina Panthers.

Here were the facts as Belichick knew them going into the extreme practice of the third exhbition game.

1. It's preseason, so although the starters will play the first half, there's no profit in dragging in too many bells and whistles, concept-wise.

2. In the last preseason game, poor pass protection nearly got irreplacable Tom Brady dismembered. Brady's had kind of a distracting week since. What if he forgets to duck?

3. Carolina has Julius Peppers, a superior pass rusher.

4. The game will be played on a balmy, i.e., intolerable, August evening in Charlotte.

Belichick's solution was as close a shave as Occam's Razor ever gave. Run the damn ball up the Panthers asses the first 10 or 11 plays of the game. Let your blockers feel like aggressors. After a dozen or so violent collisions and not nearly enough oxygen, we'll see if Peppers and Co. feel like chasing Brady around all night.

They didn't. Tom could've held the baby back in the pocket on most attempts and his son wouldn't have awakened. The first string offense controlled the Panthers more or less at will.

Score one for simplicity. Score one for football's first principle. When in doubt, whack a guy in the other uniform.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Quant We Dump This Statistic?

Mike Reiss' NFL Notes are the best of all the Sunday notes columns presented to Boston newspapers-by a wide margin. Mike is squeezing useful blood out of a turnip of a genre that for the most part the Internet has made a redundant waste of precious newshole space.

However, the lead graphic for Mike's column today was a helpful reminder, in case your portfolio wasn't bringint it to your attention, of the pernicious pitfalls of quantitative analysis-or why sports needs fewer commonly used statistics, not more. One we could certainly do without is the career winning percentage for starting NFL quarterbacks.

This statistic did not exist until a few years ago. No one inside or outside pro football thought it was necessary. Most of us were still grappling with the math of the league passer ratings, wondering how in the world anyone could construct a numerical system were perfection is expressed as 158.3.

Quarterback won-lost record entered the football dislogue because for reasons that escape comprehension, someone in authority felt a need for a new way to express the revolutionary concept "That Tom Brady, he is sure is good!".

As Don Criqui spent much of last Friday night saying, Brady has the best career winning percentage of NFL quarterbacks with over, well, I forget how many starts. It's true. Not instructive, mind you, but true. All that does is get us back to the eternal chicken-egg conumdrum of which came first, the quarterback or his team, which always boils down to opinion, not facts.

Reiss' chart actually proves its own absurdity. All one has to do is remove Brady from it, and look at the win-loss records of all the other NFL quarterbacks. Take a gander, for example at the quarterback right behind Brady in the rankings, Rex Grossman of the Chicago Bears.

Grossman's career record is 17-5, which is splendid. Half the people in Chicago will tell you Grossman's 2007 record needs to be 0-0. He could very well lose his job to Brian Griese for God's sakes. Grossman's record is a reflection of playing for an excellent team. It has only a tangential relationship to his individual contribution to said team.

Brad Johnson has a higher career percentage (and a Super Bowl win) than Carson Palmer. Wanna trade them? Dallas sure would. Palmer's 25-20 record is an indication not of his merit, but of what usually happens to quarterbacks who are number one draft picks, a gruesome rookie season of trial by fire with a lousy team. Take away Peyton Manning's 3-13 rookie year, and his 92-52 record gets much gaudier. On the other side of the QB bell curve of life, Brett Favre's winning percentage, while still good, has been on a steady decline as have his skills and the Packers in general.

The winning percentage statistic for quarterbacks is an example of the "we more graphics in this broadcast" statistic. It's useless. Any baseball numbers nut knows winning percentage isn't close to the best metric for evaluating starting pitchers. Why should football, a more complex and fluid game with infinitely more variables, rush to embrace an incorrect way of examining itself.

Anyone wishing to call Brady pro football's best quarterback doesn't NEED new stats to make the case. He excels by all the conventional measurements of quarterback greatness. He completes a high percentages of his passes for a great many yards, throws far more touchdown passes than interceptions, and has won championships. He's excelled in the clutch. Brady is the most important player on one of history's top teams. He's an all-time great. We don't need another statistic to clutter up that fact.

P.S. Here's the really weird thing about quarterback winning percentages. The all-time leader, and he'll never be touched is Otto Graham of the Cleveland Browns. In the six years Graham was in the NFL, his record was 58-13-1, a percentage of .812. Throw in the four years the Browns were in the All-American Football Conference, and Graham's record soars to an even .850. Yet when asked to name the top 10 NFL quarterbacks ever, Graham's is the name most people forget.

When Graham played, and in the years immediately his retirement, his beyond comprehension winning percentage was used not to praise his individual accomplishments, but to denigrate them. To wit: So what? Anyone could win with that team!

If a statistic can be used to rip the person who leads it, that's a pretty good indication said stat doesn't mean too much.

Quant We Dump This Statistic?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Can End With a Single Step, Too.

A fact that never ceases to drive baseball snobs around the bend is how TV ratings for meaningless and chaotic NFL exhibition games are consistently higher than those for real August baseball games, even those involving teams in pennant races. The ratings aren't not out yet, but I'll bet the Pats game last night on Channel Five did better than the Red Sox game on NESN, and I don't expect the comments department to be overloaded with takers.

Does this mean sports fans like football better than baseball? I don't think so. In my not-small range of sports experience, there are maybe 5 percent of fans who like football and don't care for baseball. There are maybe double that number who adore baseball and frankly, think all other sports are unworthy of a serious person's attention. A substantial percentage of this group lives east of Worcester, Mass. That leaves 85 percent of normal fans who like both wonderful sports just fine, thank you, and switch their attention from one to the other as the spirit moves them.

How to tell you're a normal fan. You don't care about mini-camp, never pay attention to the major league draft, and attend minor league baseball games to have a good time, not to pretend you're a superscout.

And while I'm not a normal fan, having spent 25 years watching the sausage get made, I'll bet most normal New England fans did what I did last night. I watched the Pats game (Incidentally, Channel Five, brutal technical effort. Just brutal.) until Tom Brady and the other starters were out of the game, then switched over to baseball-related programming on ESPN and NESN.

On one level, that's the backwards way to watch exhibition football. For the starters, the second preseason game is just practice, extreme practice, but we won't learn anything about them we don't already know. Brady's had a rather eventful offseason, but he hasn't forgotten anything. The guys in there for the third and fourth quarters are playing for their careers. They have an emotional intensity that reaches Super Bowl levels. If the level of the stakes is the measure of a sports event, it doesn't get much higher than watching people try to make one of five or six NFL roster spots.

Trouble is, you have to know as much about football as Bill Belichick to figure out what's happening in the confused, close quarter combat of scrub exhibition football. And the coaches make their evaluations after leisurely scrutiny of videotape. In real time, the last half of exhbition football is an indecipherable mess. Anyone who claims otherwise has delusions of expertise.

So we watch the game while the starters are in it. And we do so for one logical, sensible, important reason. We want to make sure they don't get hurt, especially the quarterback. I'm sure Eagles fans' hearts were in their mouths watching Donovan McNabb last night. It would be instructive to check the Water and Sewer Commission records to see how many Boston-area residents visited the bathroom right after the all-too-numerous time Brady got crunched by the Titans.

A football team's season is on the line every time its best players are on the field. NFL history is littered with clubs whose promising seasons ended before they began with a devastating loss of a vital player IN TRAINING CAMP, let alone during the mayhem of the preseason.

Fans are anxious by nature. Given the possibility of disaster, they'll watch in torment until it goes away. Besides, it's not like people in Boston missed anything. Having seen Brady avoid calamity, there was plenty of time to change the channel and see Eric Gagne fail to do the same.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Scooter Story

None of the obituaries I read today had the following tale of Phil Rizzuto. I recount it here because I think it's a good yarn, and to show one of the best things about sports-every so often, one of its legends is absolutely true. Rizzuto was a delightful man who free-associated his way through reality with blissful unconcern for the results. Small wonder he was so loved. I don't see any of the "Baseball Tonight" gang getting their obits on page 1 of the Times.

Anyway, here goes. It was September of 1990, a Saturday afternoon with the Sox supposed to play the Yankees at the Stadium. Supposed to, that is, whenever it stopped raining. September rain delays are loathed by all. You just KNOW you're stuck in that ballpark forever. They'll play at 3 a.m. if that's when the rain stops.

WPIX had switched to whatever comedy reruns they aired during delays, and Rizzuto wanfered into the press box to barber. He noted a message on the scoreboard telling fans to vote for one of major league baseball's endless string of "all-time" teams.

"I've always hated those things," Rizzuto said.

Rizzuto hated nothing. Naturally, he was asked for an explanation.

"One time a few years back, there was a rain delay like this one," Rizzuto said. "And White and I were running out of things to say on the radio. So he asked me to pick my all-time Yankee team. Well, you know, it was off the top of my head, and there have so many great Yankees, it's hard to remember them all in order. So I wound up forgetting Babe Ruth."

After the laughter, Rizzuto said in complete wonderful, "You know, for some reason, that made a lot of listeners upset."

Blessings, Scooter. Hope there's no traffic on the bridge tonight where you are.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

My Enemy, My Socks

Via the ever reliable "Textile Research" magazine comes word of a sinister development in modern science. The European Union government or whatever the hell they it is funding a research project that reeks of evil-unless it was properly washed.

The BIOTEK project aims to create clothing containing biochemical sensors which will automatically monitor the wearer's bodily fluids for vital signs and/or illegal drug use. When George Orwell wrote "1984" he never dreamed that Big Brother could be tastefully accessorized.

The EU SAYS the covert fabric is to serve mankind. It will be used for protective clothing and athlete's uniforms. Ha. One need not be as paranoid as Mike Gravel to see what's up here. Those faceless bureaucrats in Brussels are looking to make a rat stool pigeon out of your underwear.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Things I Don't Get, A Very Long Ongoing Series

This past week, the two leading opposition party candidates for leader of this nation, each of whom says our current war in a faraway Muslim country is a catastrophe, spent a great deal of time arguing whether or not they'd use nuclear weapons when invading another, even bigger and better armed faraway Muslim nation.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, that very same opposition party was capitulating to a demand they pass legislation legalizing spying on all Americans to protect them from scary Muslims. These two acts were part of a trend so commonplace most Americans didn't notice either, despite the fact it's a blatant insult to them all.

The default position of the Democratic party is the one Republicans have the integrity to openly state. Americans suck. We are a nation of bloodthirsty warmongers who are also pathetic cowards who'd rather live under tyranny than experience the 1 in 1 trillion chance some murderous moron from parts unknown will blow us up.

Those are all obvious facts. Here's the part I don't get. I don't think this opinion of my fellow citizens is accurate. But whether it is or not, how come Democrats act like it is?

If the opinion is false, then acting as if it's true is hardly good politics. If it's true, then why do Democrats want to run such a country? It's not like they're gonna try to change that mindset.
Is public office such a boost to the ego it's worth currying the favor of those you secretly despise? There's a lot more money to be made in the private sector, and just as many sycophants to kiss your ass. More, if anything.


There are more areas of broad agreement in American life than we think. Most of them involve a creative synthesis of opposing ideas. Example: Capital punishment. Most American support it, but only if, as is the case, it's used very rarely. There about 1000 murders for every execution.

Last night in San Diego, there was another example of consensus in action. It was also an example of the wisdom of crowds.

As they have for the last decade, Padres fans booed mightily when Barry Bonds came to bat. But when Bonds hit his 755th career homer to tie Hank Aaron, they both booed and cheered, with the cheers outnumbering the boos by a significant margin.

Consensus. We don't like you Barry. We think you're a cheat. But damn! Hitting 755 homers is pretty amazing even if you're cheating! So congratulations, you miserable SOB.

May I suggest we all adopt the wisdom of consensus. It is to be hoped baseball's steroid era is in its last days. There's no point in picking this scab any longer. Keith Olbermann, move on. Bob Costas, got back to hyping the absolutely moral conflict-free National Football League. George Mitchell, tell Bub Selig you quit and get back home before blueberry is over.

Records weren't meant to be worshipped. They are representations of history. Bonds, ironically, has insured that steroids will have a far bigger chapter in baseball history than if he'd quit at 754 homers. So be it. Who's pitching today?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Baseball History in the Making Question.

Which do you think is going to happen first?

A) Bud Selig goes to Barry Bonds and says, "No offense, Barry, but I've been out here a week now, and my wife says the chores are piling up back home."

B) Barry Bonds goes to Bud Selig and says, "No offense, Mr. Commissioner, but as far as this record and myself are concerned, it's pretty obvious you're a #*&^@ jinx. Isn't there something else you need to do?"

You've got to love a sport that can turn one of its all-time moments (for better or worse) into an occasion so socially awkward for all concerned it'd drive Miss Manners to watch the X-Games instead.