Monday, December 24, 2007

Holiday Notice

It's Christmas Eve. Posting on this site will be nearly non-existent until 2008. I apologize for the significant dropoff in posting in 2007, but working full-time has depleted the energy I have for writing for free. Wallace Stevens, I'm not.

Perfection is a Concept, Not a Record

It became obvious during the second half of the Patriots' 28-7 win over the Dolphins yesterday that all Bill Belichick's blather about not thinking about his team's chance for an undefeated season has been a different sort of fib than the Pats' coach usually tells. Belichick stonewalls, obfuscates, or puts a question in a frame of his own design, but he strives to avoid outright falsehoods. I attribute this to a long apprenticeship will Bill Parcells, who'd lie about the weather if he felt it to his advantage.

The way the Pats took a collective walkabout in the second half of an already won game confirmed my prior suspicions. The undefeated record has become New England's emotional generator, at least for the regular season. It is keeping their wheels on. If the Pats weren't 15-0, they'd be 13-2, or maybe worse.

If New England had lost to the Colts in November, I am certain they would have lost at least one of their three games against the Eagles, Ravens, and Jets. The quest for perfection provided the incentive to persevere at 100 percent commitment amidst tremendous frustrations. It doesn't take more than the loss of edge you need an electron microscope to find to turn an NFL team from machine to disassembled parts. See: Colts-Chargers the week after Indy lost to the Pats. See the Pats in the second half against Miami, for that matter.

Until Halloween, the Patriots were perfect, their offense an inhuman android built of touchdowns. In December, they have merely been good enough to win, mixing excellence with chunks of average. Good enough to win, oddly enough, is not a level of play that always does win. Occasionally, the other team reaches its theoretical level of perfection, and good enough isn't.

The Ravens did that, but the Pats mixed perfect resilience (always their best quality) with champion's luck to escape. If it hadn't been for the honor of a perfect record, they wouldn't have. Of course, if it weren't for the honor of trying to end the streak, the Ravens would likely have been their usual sucky selves, too, creating a chicken-egg situation too deep for philosophers.

Belichick's a historian, not a philosopher. That's why I'm sure he's using a 19-0 season as the goad to get his club through some pretty mundane games 12-16 on the schedule. The honor of being named the greatest team in NFL history (which, I believe, they'd deserve) has become the Pats' emotional generator, at least until the playoffs start. Belichick would never permit his team to have an emotional center outside his control. He has to be fueling this fire. I would not be at all surprised if the Pats saw as many films of the 1972 Dolphins last week as of the 2007 Dolphins.

Belichick probably ran Garo Yepremian's pass in the Super Bowl over and over and over again. It's hard to get a team to hate an opponent that doesn't exist anymore, but if any coach could, it'd be him.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Stupidity-Always Baseball's Drug of Choice

George Mitchell has done for anabolic steroids what Ken Starr did for blow jobs-he's given prudes in a chance to wallow in the delicious horror of it all while telling themselves it's all for the greater good of society. Each man created a shabby document to tell a shabby story.

No doubt about it, the Mitchell report is good reading. So was the Starr report. The American people decided the latter was not exactly a basis for making any important decisions about governance. That's what's going to happen to the Mitchell report, too. Thank goodness.

If the purpose of the report created by the former distinguished ineffectual Democratic Senate leader (sorry, redundancy) was to set baseball on the "look forward not back" path, then he need not have mentioned any player's names at all. It would have been quite sufficient to say the following.

1. Lots of players, some stars, most not, did steroids.
2. Everyone in baseball looked the other way because they were making money.
3. Steroids won't be the only performance-enhancing drug ever created, so the sport needs to agree on an overall policy that will prevent this from happening again.

That's pretty much what the report does say. Except for the names and the sordid details, that is, which is of course is all anybody read, or cares about. Starr didn't have to write about the blow jobs and the cigar and all that to say "Bill Clinton lied," either. Both he and Mitchell knew that the prurient details WERE the report. They were creating political documents with a purpose. The first purpose of any document is to get people to read it.

Without the names, the Mitchell report would have been an entry in baseball Sunday notes columns rather than leading all the network news broadcasts (including PBS, Mitchell might be the ultimate PBS news kind of guy) and the front page of every U.S. paper. It's gossip, impure and simple, and we live in a society where gossip rules.

Let's be blunt. The purpose of the Mitchell report was to give Bud Selig the political leverage he needs to impose drug rules without the co-operation of the Players' Association. That's why the report names players, but no specific instances of franchises ignoring, condoning, or collaborating in steroid use. If you don't think Mitchell found those, perhaps you'd like to buy some of my mortgage-backed securities. If you don't think Mitchell has evidence against some players that was swept under the rug in the interests of revenue enhancement, your trust in human nature is why three-card monte was invented.

Mitchell did call out Selig in the report. That's fine by Selig. Bud's peculiar genius as commissioner is to understand that absorbing constant abuse is his job description, and that a shrewd commish can turn that abuse to his own advantage.

But I digress. The fact is, the Mitchell report is a tainted document, (that's PBS for bullshit). It's treated with respect only because there's something about baseball that brings out the little kid in adults. The little learning-challenged kid.

Imagine if you will that Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke commissioned a report to see what went wrong in the financial services industry in the mortgage crisis, and named a distinguished partner in oh, let's say Goldman, Sachs, to lead the investigation. Then, in the two years of the investigation, said worthy remained a partner in Goldman, Sachs. The report finds no one currently employed at that firm had anything to do with the problem.

The report would evoke rage, howls of laughter, or both. No one would give it the slightest credibility. Yet substitute Boston Red Sox for Goldman Sachs in the above paragraph, and you have the exact relationship of George Mitchell to major league baseball. It stinks. Mitchell would never touch a proposal like that in his real world life, because of the obvious appearance of conflict. Baseball? Ahh, who cares? It's not like there's any money at stake there.

For students of the human tragicomedy, the Mitchell Report and its aftermath have provided more than their fair share of belly laughs. One hardly where to start. For those who believe in baseball's eternal, changeless rhythms, perhaps the most amazing fact is this: Ballplayers paid for illegal drugs with credit cards and personal checks.

Never did that. Never met anybody who ever did that. The most toothless, brain-shot tweaker squatting in an abandoned subdivision in the Inland Empire knows better. Ballplayers don't. I'm not surprised. Neither is Ring Lardner.

For those who believe that America's political system works best in bipartisan co-operation, well, the immediate reaction in Washington to Mitchell's work had to be intensely satisfying. On the one hand, George W. Bush expressed vast disappointment in baseball at the White House.

Let's leave aside the moral issue of a man whose government is blockinng investigations into his own personal approval of torture commenting on somebody else's conduct. Narrow the focus. George Bush was president of the Texas Rangers in the early '90s, when steroid use began to take off in baseball, and the Rangers' clubhouse was one of its prime launching pads. Bush did not realize the report was a condemnation of his own conduct. But then, ask who covered the Rangers back then, or worked for them. Bush had no idea what was going on. Surprised?

On the Democratic side of the aisle, Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, announced he would hold hearings on Mitchell's report, calling Selig and Players' Association head Don Fehr in for grilling. Cable news live coverage, here he comes!

I respect Waxman, so I hope he'll take this question in that spirit. Tell me, Congressman. Exactly what part of the U.S. government will you be reforming and overseeing by examining the question of what Roger Clemens injected into his ass?

Like any drug, be it heroin, penicillin, or baseball statistics, steroids can be very bad for you. Sports depend on a level playing field, so performance enhancing substances are unfair practice, and should be sanctioned. Baseball is neither any better nor worse than society at large, so we shouldn't be surprised if greed, arrogance, and dopiness often pose problems for the game.

As the line between performance enhancing drugs (hit more homers) and actual medicine (stay healthy) shrinks, the "drugs in sports" issue is going to get grayer, not sharper. The whoop-de-do over the Mitchell Report indicates baseball will screw up the future as diligently as it screwed up its past.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Guarantees, Part the Second

In fairness to Anthony Smith, it's fairly obvious he never would have guaranteed the Steelers would beat the Patriots if he'd thought for a second he was going to have play in the game himself.

Waving the Bloody Sock

John McCain's latest TV commercial ois an endorsement by Curt Schilling. Funny. I always made Curt for a Duncan Hunter guy.

No one can say Schilling is a front-runner after this. McCain's candidacy is not exactly lighting up New Hampshire or anyplace else except Don Imus's new show. Schilling's political views are not mine, but he is to be congratulated for speaking his mind in an age when most athletes see fans as customers rather than fellow citizens.

Celebrity endorsement in politics are about as meaningful as celebrity picks of Super Bowl winners. The last one that influenced a presidential election was when Frank Sinatra went for JFK. Frank brought the mob along with him, which never hurts in Chicago. The Schilling endorsement is another example of the dogged cluelessness that has marked the McCain campaign.

McCain is a sports fan. But his favorite game is boxing, not baseball. And lack of local knowledge may be responsible for an ad which may not have the effect McCain thinks it will. Yes, Schilling is a hero to Red Sox fans, of which New Hampshire has many. He is, however, not the "statue in the town green" sort of hero.

Red Sox fans (and me, who isn't one), admire and respect Curt Schilling as a superb pitcher and clutch performance, and fond of him personally in an odd sort of way. Their affection is tempered by one attitude of which McCain must be unaware.

Let's face it. Most people think Schilling is full of shit. His constant attention-seeking and melodramatic attitude result in Schilling coming off as a comical, preposterous figure on many occasions. As might be expected, this is usually when Schilling is trying to be as sincere and serious as he knows how. Like, say, when he's talking politics.

There's nothing wrong with Schilling taking an operatic approach to life. It's probably allowing him to get more fulfillment from his time on earth than most of us. But it does mean that most people take what Curt says about anything with a mine's worth of salt, and enjoy making fun of him, even as they admire his professional abilities and makeup.

That's how teammates and fans in three different cities, two of which I know well, have coped with the phenonomen that is Schilling. I suspect New Hampshirites would be more likely to take stock picking advice from Curt than be influenced by his Presidential endorsement, and they wouldn't do the former in the first place.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Suggestion for the Sports Media Industry

Dear Men, Women, Ruthless, Heartless Conglomerates, and Former Colleagues:

When covering the NFL, a midweek angle in December is a cosmic bank error in your favor. Believe me, I know, and sympathize.

BUT. In the interests of the audience of which I am now a part, and in the spirit of the season, can we make the following non-aggression pact with sanity?

When some player gets up and guarantees a victory in a big game, can the amount of repetitive, stupid, pointless discussion of this boast of limited utility be determined by the ability of said player to affect that game's outcome?

An outright news blackout on such remarks would be preferable. They are meaningless. The assumption that claim will provoke the other team into a destructive ball of rage is no longer operative. In our brave new 21st century, feeling disrespected has become the default state of mind of every professional athlete, no matter what their actual circumstances. Tom Brady, otherwise a sensible chap, doubtless burns with inner outrage that Peyton Manning got better reviews on "Saturday Night Live" than he did. You can't fan flames that have already burnt down the house.

As noted, however, stories must be written and radio and television filled. So I'm willing to compromise.

When Joe Namath guaranteed a win in Super Bowl III, he was in a fine position to do something about his boast. Same with Mark Messier in the NHL playoffs in 1994. When stars shoot off their mouths, they are putting pressure on themselves, not their teammates.

Let's be blunt. Safety Anthony Smith will have a minimal impact on the outcome of tomorrow's Patriots-Steelers game. Safeties are important, but not that important. It would be perfectly possible for Smith to play one of the finest games turned in by a safety in league history and have New England win by three touchdowns. Or he could suck, and the Steelers could still pull off the win.

So we shouldn't listen to him. Or, to be more accurate, I shouldn't have to listen to you talking about him, or reading you writing about him. Go back to speculating about the Santana trade.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Football Theory = Medical Reality

A few weeks ago, at one of his Friday press conferences (the best day for learning anything from a pro football coach), Bill Belichick indulged in his passion for x's and o's and offered some opinions on the spread offense so popular in college football. Belichick noted the offense's resemblance to the old-fashioned single wing formation, and spoke at some length as to its advantages, which boil down to adding an extra blocker or receiver to every play.

That's a pretty significant advantage, but Belichick didn't go on to address the obvious follow-up question, to wit, how come you never the spread in the NFL? He figured the answer was even more obvious, so shiningly evident that EVEN SPORTSWRITERS didn't have to be told. As is often the case when football's under discussion, Belichick was right. Nobody asked. Didn't have to. The facts of the college football season give the answer.

November: Oregon is the hottest team in college football thanks to its spread offense run by gifted quarterback and Heisman Trophy contender Dennis Dixon. In a game against lowly Arizona, Dixon gets hurt. No BCS bowl, no Heisman, no wins the rest of the year.

December 1: West Virginia is favored to go to the BCS championshp thanks to its spread offense run by quarterback and Heisman Trophy contender Pat White. All it has to do is beat lowly Pittsburgh. White gets hurt. Pitt wins. No BCS Bowl, no Heisman.

Tim Tebow of Florida, who runs its spread offense, is now the Heisman favorite. He hasn't been injured yet, but he's only a sophomore.

This in college, where the spread quarterbacks are faster than linebackers and bigger than defensive backs. In the pros, that's usually the case. No NFL team will ever run the spread unless it gets a roster-rule dispensation allowing it to keep 45 extra quarterbacks on the practice squad.

Tom Brady hates to run. That's not the least of reasons why he's renowned as a smart player.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Campaign '08-Over Any Day Now, Part Whatever

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has written a diet book. He has been endorsed by pro wrestling legend Ric Flair. Huckabee's biggest endorsement came from Chuck Norris (with whom he made a hilarious commercial).

It's no surprise Mike Huckabee is soaring in the Republican race. Look at the first paragraph. Isn't it obvious? Huckabee IS UHF television brought to life in a blue suit. He speaks for all Americans too rural/old/cheap to get cable. That is a significant percentage of the Republican electorate.