Monday, October 29, 2007

Satan's 10 Percent

Things aren't going real well for Yankees fans nowadays. Their best hope for the 2008 season is to root for the possibility an agent is lying. Worse yet, the agent in question is Scott Boras.

Boras announced last night that his client Alex Rodriguez has elected to opt out of the remaining three years of his Yankee contract to become a free agent. The sinister but effective mastermind stated that A-Rod wasn't leaving to get more money, but because he was worried the Yanks wouldn't resign free agents Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada.

"It's not the money" is a lie so routine it's always ignored. But Yankee fans can't ignore Bora's explanation. It's too dangerous.

If Boras was fibbing, and A-Rod simply wants a bigger deal than the biggest one in the history of baseball, then there's a chance, however small, that Brian Cashman can hook up the Pretender to the Boss Hank Steinbrenner's genitals to a car battery and gently explain that while the Yankees have an unlimited supply of money, they're running a little low on American League MVPs. If Rodriguez's only motivation is cash, well, nobody can outbid the Yanks if the team really wants a player.

If, however, Boras was telling the truthg about his client's thinking, then the Yanks are screwed for the foreseeable future. While A-Rod would not be my first choice as a clubhouse confidant were I Yankee, we must assume he is a better position to know what the three veterans are thinking than almost anyone else. If Pettitte, Mo, and Posada are looking for the exits, then New York is doomed with a capital D. Money or no, we're talking Oriolesland in 2008.

Ah, Boras probably is lying. But if he's just shading the truth, it still sucks for the Yankees.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dog Bites Newspaper Editor - Or Should

Did you know World Series tickets are expensive and hard to come by? Did you also know that most Series tickets wind up in the hands of the wealthy and influential?

Yeah, me too. Learned that at age six, and it's a good bet that's close to the average age when every other American found out. Except for the top editors of the Globe, that is.

The above facts were the front page, above the fold lead story in yesterday's Globe, what it felt was the most important thing Bostonians needed to know. No kidding. What a tough call that had to be for management, bumping the Lindbergh kidnapping off page one.

Piling puerility on top of a grasp of the obvious, the lead story in today's Globe was an essay by Brian McGrory on how all these victories have taken the zip out of Boston sports, and that fans didn't know how to approach the possibility of a second World Series victory in only four years.

Memo: When your team is in the World Series, that's a good thing. It never gets old. McGrory should open his mouth, remove his thumb, and insert as many frosties as needed until he's sedated. Honestly, it make you wonder how the guy approached his second sexual experience.

Ninety-nine.9 to the google percent of Sox fans are normal. They want their team to win, and when it does, they're happy. Alas, it's the small fraction of pretentious souls who give the normal ones a bad name with other fans around the U.S.

Look, having a home team in the Series is news anyway you slice. It also sells one hell of a lot of papers. I have no quarrel with the Globe putting the Sox on the front page. But why let news side present useless information or even more useless opinion on the subject. Why not take the radical step of having SPORTSWRITERS tell people about the Series?

Oh, I know, the front page is serious business. Can't trust it to those frivolous sports gadabouts. They might write something silly.

Indeed they might. But as far as the Globe's Series coverage is concerned, everyone else is fighting for Silly's bronze medal.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Blind Squirrel's End Zone Dance

Watching the Colts-Jaguars game last night, yours truly experienced a rare, very rare, emotion. I felt vindicated.

More than once at the Herald I wrote that the primary difference between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as NFL quarterbacks was a matter of circumstance and their adaptation to same. That is, if Manning played for a team with an actual defense, he could manage games and win titles as Brady had, and if Brady played with instructions to score as many points as possible, he do just that and set NFL passing records in the bargain.

Here we are in the middle of the 2007 season, and my theory has actually happened in real time. There couldn't be better proof that Brady's performance against the Dolphins and Manning's performance against the Jaguars last weekend.

It's weird to right as a sports opinionist, but it does happen. And one thing I learned many years ago is that no will point it out if you don't. If that be gloating, well, consider it a grain of ego on a beach of well-deserved abuse for being wrong.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Into His Heart It Will Creep, So Bet the Over

Every trade has an occupational health hazard. Coal miners get lung diseases. Authors and baseball managers get drinking problems. Poets get suicidal. Sportwriters get sports talk radio gigs.

Football coaches get paranoid. It can't be helped. Coaches get paid to worry about every tiny detail of a chaotic activity every waking moment of their lives. Naturally, almost all of them start finding imaginary worries to complement their real ones.

Stands to reason that being a better football coach than most anyone else, when Bill Belichick went paranoid, he didn't stop with a mild case.

The Patriots coach attracted a little attention to New England's otherwise utterly mundane 49-28 rout of the winless-on-merit Dolphins by putting Tom Brady back in the game after removing him when a 42-7 lead shrank to a skintight 42-21 margin. Some critics said Belichick was running up the score. The coach's explanation, that no lead is safe in the NFL, did not strike most folks as a rational motive for the decision.

Well, it wasn't. That irrationality, however, doesn't mean it wasn't Belichick's real reason for revoking Brady's half-day off. The paranoid flee where no team but Miami approaches.

Like most paranoid fears, Belichick's concern for a measley 21-point lead has its roots in an actual trauma, namely, the Pats' blowing a 21-3 lead in their 38-34 AFC championship game loss to the Colts back in January. Even back when New England had Peyton Manning's number, and the reason the team was invincible was Belichick's defensive genius, Indianapolis was the opponent the coach respected/feared the most. In the aftermath of a startling defeat, that fear/respect seems to guide every action Belichick takes.

The Colts have an unstoppable offense and a record-setting quarterback? OK, we'll get those, too. We lost an 18-point lead by relaxing perhaps an erg in a big game. I, Bill Belichick, will never relax during a game again, and to hell with the score.

(We pause here to point out the obvious. Belichick wasn't running up the score on the Dolphins, because you CAN'T run up the score in the NFL. It doesn't have a Division 1-AA. Everybody's getting big money, and if the other team can't stop you from scoring, that's their problem. For God's sake, the biggest rout in pro football history, Bears 73-Redskins 0, was in a CHAMPIONSHIP GAME.)

Belichick's concern with the frailty of leads led him to ignore certain obvious facts, such as that Cleo Lemon ain't even Eli Manning, let alone Peyton. The most dangerous fact he ignored, of course, was the frailty to the human body, to wit, Brady's body.

"I've said this before," Brady said afterwards, "our objective isn't to be 7-0." Forgive me for thinking the quarterback was aiming his remarks at his coach, not the media.

Brady is a very durable player, and his ability to take a hit would make him a stellar Hollywood stuntman. But telling a player he's done for the day, then reneging, can rob the player of the tiny fraction of mental alertness he needs to keep catastrophe at bay. Or so Pedro Martinez and Grady Little told me once.

Belichick didn't just expose Brady to needless risk, he increased the amount of danger in the bargain. That's a mighty big bet to make on the payoff of a 28-point lead against the Dolphins. As risk-reward ratios go, it's about like waking up tomorrow and buying every subprime mortgage in sight. Hey, they're cheap now, right?

In cold fact, the kind Belichick specializes in, a healthy Brady is worth losing almost any individual game. The Dolphins weren't going to come back, but had they, the loss, while galling, would have meant exactly diddley-squat to New England's pursuit of the 2007 NFL championship. Calculating odds like those with as little regard for human emotion-his own included-has made Belichick a Hall of Famer. It was disconcerting to see the coach take counsel of his fears. He knows better.

And that, I suspect, was why Belichick was so tight-lipped on the subject afterwards, acting angry at the question. He was angry at himself. He does know better, and in retrospect, his fears looked foolish and he felt foolish.

Irrational fears always look foolish in retrospect, when it's too late.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The War of the Pinstriped Succession

Hans and Fritz, or whatever George Steinbrenner's kids names are, evidently went to the George W. Bush Business School. There is no worse form of management/government structure than a weak tyrant. When they dumped Joe Torre as Yankee manager, that's just what these two masterminds were.

Art is not eternal, let alone baseball managers. Despite Torre's sterling record, unsurpassed by any Yankee manager save Casey Stengel, if management felt the team's transition to a club built around its younger pitchers and players needed a skipper with a different skill set, then letting Torre go was its duty. And had the elusive "Tampa people" who play Sauron in the New York tabloids said just that, they would have received grudging respect from their terminally spoiled fan base.

There's no real good way to dispose of a beloved icon who's outlived his usefulness. The simplest method is the most brutal, and requires taking the resulting heat. Fire the guy's ass, and say why you did it. This was what Jerry Jones did when he canned Tom Landry. It is what the younger, healthier George Steinbrenner did so often it became a national joke.

Of course, to be successful, this method requires that the tyrant lopping off the adored head have a good idea of who's going to replace the icon, if for no other reason that once that guy's hired, people stop talking about you, and start talking about him. Jones had Jimmy Johnson, and all was well. It probably wouldn't have been if 17 other teams hadn't passed on Emmitt Smith in the draft, but that's another story.

Reports from New York made it perfectly clear the Yankee rulers, whoever they are, have no immediate successor for Torre. That's why management chose plan B for icon-dumping, trying to make it look as if it was all Joe's idea.

That plan can and has worked countless sports history, even Yankee history, even Yankee history under Hans and Fritz's Dad. Remember Old-Timers Day 1978, the not-quite return of Billy Martin? It could've worked with Torre, too. All the Yanks had to do was say, "Joe, we want to make a change, but we're not quite ready. How about we give a one-year deal, and you help us pick and groom your successor. Here's more money than you can imagine. We all on the same page now?"

The Yankees tried to middle the situation, and as middlers usually do, failed utterly. Offering Torre a pay cut instead of a raise, they got him out the door all right, to the accompaniment of publicity that made management look like guys who'd been caught molesting the Easter Bunny. Worse, far, far worse, the bungled Torre departure was a telegram sent to every other franchise in the majors, reading "Under new management. Stop. Don't what we're doing. Stop." The e-mail and voice mail in-boxes of the Steinbrenner Kidz will be full to bursting all winter long with messages Yankee fans better hope they don't answer.

To understand what's happening to the Yankees, and what will happen to the Yankees, we need to step outside the little world of baseball, and view the team from a different perspective than its All-Star roster and overbearing image. What the Yankees REALLY are is a family-owned business worth considerably more than a billion bucks where the family patriarch is in failing physical and perhaps mental health, was known for erratic behavior when hale and hearty, and who has given no indication of whom he will choose as his successor.

THAT'S why Torre is no longer manager. When George popped off during the Indians series about firing Torre, he couldn't be ignored. If an heir to the Yankees was already in place, said heir could have firmly told the Boss, "ya know, Dad (or George), it probably isn't fair to blame Joe for Chien-Ming Wang's 20.36 ERA in this series" and rustled up some boilerplate reconsideration for Steinbrenner's signature. But there is no heir, so the two POSSIBLE heirs pushed for incompetent action to save Dad's face and hopefully curry his favor.

Good luck, my dear friends who are Yankee fans. If "the Tampa people" could totally screw up firing a manager, which is the first day's lecture in Mogul 101, then the imagination reels at how it's going to handle contract negotiations with touchy and invaluable Hall of Famers like A-Rod, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada. No mistake about it. The odds are against the Yankees next year, and for all the years until a new Boss emerges.

Shakespeare wrote a play about the current Yankees once. The only difference is, this time the action will end in a Florida probate court instead of on a blasted heath.

And there's not a Cordelia in sight.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Not Worth a Plugger Nickel

Once upon a time, I threatened to write a journalism textbook titled "The Art of the Plugger." Had I done so, today's dead-tree Globe (and Herald, and Cleveland Plain Dealer) would have been heavily involved in my footnotes.

A "plugger" has nothing to do with the lame comic strip of the same name. It is the term for a story in a newspaper's sports section that is designed to fill the space needed to report on an event that'll end after that section's deadline. In other words, for some atrocity like an extra-innings playoff game that starts at 8:30 EDT on a Saturday night. (Sunday editions, which are the largest sellers of every paper in the U.S. except the Herald, have the earliest deadlines).

Nobody likes pluggers. Editors hate them, because they are a lot of work that will need to be completely done over in about nine seconds time once the game in question ends. Reporters have them for two reasons. One, no one wants to write something that is DESIGNED to be forgotten, and more importantly, pluggers are inherently difficult to do, much more than post-game stories. Trying to think of a topic about a sports event that is possible to do, somewhat relevant, and above all, not subject to contradiction by the event itself, strains creativity to the breaking point.

Ever wonder why baseball managers give pre-game press conferences in the playoffs, and why the next day's starting pitchers do the same? Pluggers. Those non-events are a merciful crumb thrown to America's baseball writers, and let me assure you, we're grateful.

Pluggers are tough to do before game 1 or 2 of a playoff series. Before a Super Bowl or a Game 7, they become exercises in post-modern neo-structuralism, i.e., total bullshit. Writing about a decisive game before it happens for an audience who won't read the story until they know what happened, well, let's just say I'd like to see Doris Lessing or any other Nobel literature prizewinner try it. Talk about fiction from the depths of the human soul.

For an added twist, every so often, one writes a plugger one likes. In the 1999 ALCS, the widow of Catfish Hunter threw out the first pitch of a game at Yankee Stadium. What other team could honor the widow of a Hall of Famer who died of a disease named after another one its Hall of Famers. The Yankees have a creepy fascination with mortality (when was the last season they didn't black armbands). I wrote about it. I know nobody bothered to read it. Ugh.

Those are justt the problems columnists face with the plug. At least we (I still use that, sorry) can make things up. Reporters facing pluggers are screwed. The following paragraph will give their point of view. It presents my former colleague Richie's Thompson side of a telephone conversation between himself and the Herald sports desk before a game I no longer remember.

"Hi. Richie here. I'm gonna do (insert benchwarmer's name here) for my pregame story. Why? Because he talked to me, that's why."

Fast-forward to the morning of October 14. The Globe in my driveway at 8 a.m. had a front-page story on the Indians 13-6 win over the Sox by Dan Shaughnessy that was clearly a lead written over many previous versions slammed into different editions of the Globe. As a side note to those Sox fans who hate Dan, I will point out that those stories are also not easy to write, and Dan is very, very good at them. The special ALCS sports section, all of it, was pluggers. Big art, lot of charts, and above all, no news.

The grand plug prize goes to Kevin Paul Dupont, who wrote a story on Jim Lonborg, who threw out the first pitch. In terms of the requirements of the form, Dupont hit every note. Lonborg is related to the Red Sox, and nothing he did could be shown up by later events. Relief pitchers are never plugger subjects, for obvious reasons.

And of course, Lonborg talked to Dupont, for which I assure you Kevin is most grateful. The only problem with this perfect plugger is the genre's inherent one-there's no earthly reason to read it unless one is directly related to Lonborg or Dupont.

On the list of people who hate pluggers, newspaper sports section readers must come first. They have paid good money for a product that is devoid of the product itself. The root of "news" is "new." Pluggers are "olds."

The demands of television and the insensate need for more money of all sports mean that pluggers are now inescapable. As newspapers push their deadlines ever earlier to save money, pluggers are more widely disseminated than ever before. No problem. Readers can get the real story on the Web site-for free-instead of in the product for which they paid $ 2.50. One must marvel at an industry so eager to advertise its uselessness.

One must marvel even more at this fundamental truth of the newspaper game. The higher the level of management, the more importance is attached to the plugger. The more, in fact, it is loved.

UPDATE & CORRECTION: The front page of the Globe's ALCS section has a game story with the score written by Gordon Edes, a veteran baseball writer who knows how to write on deadline as well. I should also mention that another reason Shaughnessy got the front page story is that the paper's management believes he has the most appeal to the casual fan or non-sports fan reader.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Best Interview of 2007

Red Sox fans should feel a sense of quiet pride this morning, not because their team trounced Cleveland 10-3 in Game One of the ALCS, but due to the actions of one of their own. The universally despised sports television genre of "celebrity interview in the stands" was given a swift kick in the groin last night by Stephen King.

There are celebrities who make a big deal out of being sports fans, and then there are celebrities who were fans long before anybody knew who they were. King falls squarely in the latter category. The Maine native is a Sox fan, has the wherewithal to go to many games, and makes no show about it. King has been around Fenway since I started covering the team in 1980. There were some lackluster seasons in that time span. He's no front-runner.

Last night, King did what every red-blooded American sports fans dreams about at night. He made Fox Sports look as stupid as it is.

The Sox put the game away early, which inevitably means Fox inserts more bullshit bells and whistles into the broadcast to keep the audience from switching-not that there's anything to switch to on Friday nights. Chris Myers, not a dope, was told to interview King.

King had a book he was reading between innings and during pitching changes. Myers asked him if it was one of King's own works.

"No," replied the author (this is a paraphrase), "I know how those come out."

Down four runs in the top of the first, Myers rallied by asking King if he read during most games, and got an affirmative answer. Then King sealed the interview's doom.

"I usually can read about x pages between innings," King said (again paraphrase), "but when Fox does a game, I can read much more."

Top that, Ben Affleck!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Notes for a Fan

While not personally a Red Sox follower, the blogger is not unfamiliar with them. He fathered two. From the perspective of a Boston rooter, the upcoming American League Championship Series offers a conflict of interests-the eternal battle between emotion and good sense.

On the one hand, any analysis grounded in anything approaching reality must acknowledge that the Indians with a rested C. C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona will be a far more daunting challenge for the Sox than the Yankees with whomever they would've had left to start had they beaten the Tribe in five games. If Carmona pitches as well as he did against New York, chalk two wins up for Cleveland as an opening bid.

So a Sox fan should be sad the Yanks were sent home? Not exactly. There's a huge other hand to consider here.

The Yankees' elimination removes baseball's pokiest team from the post-season equation, leaving Boston, the second-pokiest team. The breaking of the lethal Yanks-Sox-Fox Triangle of Torpor means there's a halfway decent chance several of the ALCS games will not last four hours after their 8:08 p.m or later first pitches. Sox fans with jobs may actually get more than two hours sleep on game nights, a much-needed boost for the New England economy.

Take it from an old sportswriter, gang. Forget matchups. Revel in your date with the Indians. To quote the legendary Leonard Koppett, "you're allowed to root for yourself."

Besides, with the Yankees gone, Tim McCarver won't mention Derek Jeter more than once an inning.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Upset at Upsets

There have been a great many unexpected results in college football this season, which is cool. Or at least, it used to be cool, before college football became College Football Inc., a joint venture of Viacom, News Corp. and Disney.

Stanford beat USC last night 24-23. The winning touchdown came on 4th and goal with under a minute to play. It came after Stanford converted on 4th and 20 to keep the final drive alive. Awesome. Put this game in the books of a rivalry that began when Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House. Give a hoorah for the legendary program of Ernie Nevers, Frankie Albert, Jim Plunkett, Bill Walsh, and John Elway.

The employees of College Football Inc. didn't see it that way. And since once is forced to listen to these nitwit shills while watching college football on television, there was no escaping their consternation. Stanford had disrupted the top 10. They had WRECKED the story line. Shame on them. Thank goodness LSU rallied. Kirk Herbstreit would've died on the air otherwise.

College Football Inc. believes its economic well-being depends on the fortunes of about a dozen schools who form their Premier League. Interlopers are not welcome. It is significant that the very best college game of last season, Boise State's win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, is still portrayed as a fluke. When Lou Holtz talks about Appalachian State beating Michigan, he sounds like he's discussing the Crash of '29. What was a glorious triumph once again proving that in sports all things are possible was also a direct threat to CF Inc.

Boston isn't a big-time college football town, which speaks well of us, so I follow the game at a distance. What is most striking is the entire game is presented from the point of view of the overdogs. If some Florida State linebacker goes on a shooting spree in the library, it's seen as almost as much of a tragedy for Bobby Bowden as if he'd lost to Wake Forest.

In terms of unpredictability and drama, the revamped Big East is by far the most interesting conference in college football. CF Inc. HATES the Big East. It can't be marketed, except as offering entertaining football, and who cares about that. The only topics that matter are who'll be in the BCS (not really a) Championship Bowl game, and which overrated running back will win the Heisman.

I had a stirring conclusion prepared for this post, but on further review from the booth, it will be abandoned for a comment made on ABC last night by some commentator, not Brent Musberger, whose name I can't remember, lucky for him. As you may know, the Disney empire has conducted a poll of the usual experts to determine the 25 greatest college football players of all time, and is revealing their names once or twice a week building up to whichever incorrect decision they make as to who was number one. Don't bet on a guard.

Yours truly is following the poll for the trainwreck fascination of what the hell the network decided to do with O.J. Simpson, the greatest college running back of my lifetime. But I digress. The issue in question here is that one George Gipp of Notre Dame was ranked 22nd or so. And the commentator was flabbergasted.

"Sure, I know about George Gipp," he said. "But he played A LONG TIME AGO!"

There you have the ethos of College Football Inc. Win one for the men aged 18-34 demographic.

RIP, 2007 Phillies

No bitching here. Surviving one near-death experience is more than any ballclub can expect. When a team built around hitters hits the playoffs, it usually winds up in trouble. See Yankees, New York.

But Pat Gillick and the rest of the powers that be, please, pretty please, go out and some reliable pitchers. Starters, bullpen, it doesn't matter.