Saturday, March 29, 2008

College Sports News: International Edition

In a tribute to how lousy it is in March in New England, this blogger just spent a half hour of his leisure time watching the world's oldest college sports event, the Oxford-Cambridge boat (crew) race, which was initiated in 1829.

Oxford won. It was heavily favored, because Cambridge makes a point of using English rowers, which apparently is like Jim Calhoun recruiting strictly inside the Connecticut state lines. Oxford had Yanks, Australians, and a German in its shell. Oxford' rowers were bigger, stronger, and older. WAY older.

When the TV feed gave us the lineups of the two crews, the most startling fact of the race was revealed. One guy on the Oxford crew, a Yank as it happens, was a little past the expiration date for the average U.S. college athlete. Or, for that matter, the average U.S. professional athlete. This dude was 36 years old. Let's hope he's a graduate student.

Man, just think what Jerry Tarkanian could have done with British Collegiate Athletic Association rules.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Opening Day-Night Singleheader

Much of the fuss over the Red Sox' trip to Japan escapes me. As globalization goes, it seems a pretty benign manifestation.

Jet lag is also a most overrated phenomenon. If jet leg seriously hampers athletic performance, how are we to account for the career of Roger Federer? Tennis pros have tax shelters instead of homes. Those guys and gals spend a significant part of their lives in the air, and perform in damn near all 24 time zones on Earth each year. Are ballplayers that much less hardy than Justine Henin? Don't answer that.

Yours truly traveled east on business once. After flying from San Francisco to Sydney, I put in a full day's work, then crashed. If a sedentary middle-aged sportswriter could stand the gaff, certainly young strong athletes can handle the Red Sox' schedule this March.

The idea the Japan trip could bother the Sox is due to the poor start the 2004 Yankees had after their sojourn to Tokyo. That poor start was attributable to an ancient baseball problem that has to do with climatic changes, not time changes. Older teams often struggle in April when forced to play in 40 degree temperatures up north instead of the 80-degree weather of spring training.

There's no denying, however, that the trip can disorient fans if not players. The calendar of events for 2008 is all messed up in sports and in the rest of life. Having Opening Day before the NCAA Final Four is as queasily disturbing as celebrating St. Patrick's Day and Easter in the same week.

And it's going to be weird, very weird, to hear the voice of Joe Castiglione on the car radio during tomorrow morning's commute.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

IS Knowledge Good?

Earlier this week, yours truly was reading the "Journal of Sports Sciences" (day job, don't ask). A trio of English academics, doubtless fueled by a large grant, had examined the results of every Football Association match of the last 50 years. They then used a great deal of math we won't get into here to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that teams wearing red jerseys enjoyed a notably greater margin of success than those that didn't which could not be accounted for by any other factor.

Sound stupid? Sound like the sort of thing congressmen make fun of when they're trying to pretend they're saving money? Not to me it didn't. Not to Tiger Woods, either. As everyone knows, Woods wears a red shirt on every tournament Sunday. It sure can't be shown to have done him any harm.

The thing is, psychology is a science. And the effect of colors on the human brain is a well-researched part of that science. It's real, just like on-base percentage. And that, I think, offers us a clue on how to move beyond the increasingly boring baseball debate between the sabermetricians and their abstreuse acronymns, and the (spiritual) tobacco-chewers who evaluate the game by the amount of dirt on each player's uniform. We all need to acknowledge that science is a lot bigger than we think.

Mathematics is a science, and a helpful one at that. If it helps some people to categorize baseball knowledge in numbers rather than words or spitting, great. I would point out, however, that many of the most cherished numbers of the sabermetric crowd are very easily expressed in words, words that baseball has used for over a century. What is "on-base percentage" besides a numerically expressed version of the ancient call from the dugout "a walk's as good as a hit?"

Or take the concept of the figure filberts (another phrase dating back before World War I, not much changes in baseball) that is most often and viciously ridiculed by the tobacco-chewers-VORP. VORP sounds funny, but again, it's an easy concept. All it means is "how hard would it be to replace Player X with the next bum we call up from Triple A," an issue fans have been debating during pitching changes for a very, very long time. Manny Ramirez=impossible. Julio Lugo=still hard, but doable. Your average middle reliever=very easy.

It escapes me why this idea needs a number of its own, but if it helps people understand the game on their own terms a litttle better, so be it. One advantage numbers have is that they're shorter than words. Time is of the essence in sports, even baseball, so if Terry Francona wishes to express an idea in a percentage, it serves a purpose for him.

So the tobacco-chewers are ridiculing an imaginary enemy of their own creation. Information is not defined by where it comes from, but why whether or not it's true. Baseball has been generating an excess of statistics for about 150 years. Letting them just lay there without someone putting them to use would be a sinful waste.

The sabermetric crowd, on the other hand, needs to realize that as far as being in the vanugard of science, most of their work would not be unfamiliar to the ancient Greeks. The body of knowledge about reality that applies to baseball is vast, far vaster than their own discipline. To pretend that folks who've spent their lives watching baseball haven't absorbed a large amount of knowledge because they dislike equations is arrogance and foolish.

To repeat: psychology is a science. So is the management of other humans, or else they put up a lot of buildings at Harvard Business School for no reason. When the tobacco-chewers insist that a manager's prime responsibility is the mental focus and well-being of their 25 neurotic charges over the infinitely long season instead of the hit-and-run sign, they are right. They have science on their side. The first step in any scientific process is observation, and this is something that has been observed about baseball since John McGraw.

Let's take another flash point between the sabers and the spitters-Derek Jeter's fielding. Some professors made their graduate assistants do too much work this winter and came up with some chart proving that Jeter is the worst fielding shortstop in the American League. This made many sabers and Yankee-haters very happy, as they have been arguing the same for some time. It did not, however, prompt Brian Cashman to trade Jeter.

Numericizing fielding is the Holy Grail of sabermetrics, and just about as likely to be found. No accepted formula exists, and probably never will. This is not ignorant prejudice, but a better understanding of some mathematical principles than the number-crunchers have, specifically, the concept of proportionality.

As a words guy, I'll put it this way. The difference between the worst and best fielding shortstop is very, very, very small compared to the difference between the best hitting and worst shortstop. Nobody makes the big leagues in the infield without the ability to make the routine plays over 95 percent of the time. There are shortstops who hit .240. and there's Jeter, who's good for 100 runs a year and hits over .300.

Because most fielders are competent at worst, hitting is more important than fielding. Jeter would have to play shortstop blindfolded and drunk to neutralize the VORP (gee, that was fun) he has over other shortstops.

The one sabermetrician who knows all this and has said so, is, ironically, the prime hate figure of the tobacco-chewers-Bill James. This is unfair on so many levels I hardly know where to start. For one thing, James is a brilliant sportswriter. I started reading his Baseball Abstracts in the early 1980s, and believe me, it was for the words, not the numbers.

For another, more important thing, James is a true scientist at heart. He knows there is much he doesn't know, and that careful observation and trial and error are the heart of the process, not certitude. James knows psychology is a science, which is why he acknowledged Jason Varitek had value for the Red Sox which could not be demonstrated through his statistical methods.

That's what's known as intellectual honesty. It is the core of science. It is also supposed to be the core of journalism. The 2008 baseball season will be far more pleasant for all concerned, especially me, if both the sabers and the spitters would take that truth to heart before resuming their endless war.

Monday, March 17, 2008

NCAA Tournament Preview-Reader's Digest/ADD Version

Used to make a big deal out of this annual exercise in being wrong in public, which I continued even after separation from the Herald. But the cares and stress of modern life have worn my insights down to a nub, and I wish to preserve much of the nub for the human drama of financial competition.

Final Four: Louisville, Kansas, Texas, UCLA
Teams most likely to turn above prediction into humiliation: Tennessee, Georgetown, Pitt.
I'll be rooting for: Drake
First round game of morbid interest. Michigan State vs. Temple. This baby needs an officiating trio of Ed Hochuli, Andy Van Hellemond, and Mills Lane. Also Kofi Annan as alternate.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Vaunted Clinton Political Machine: A True Story

Attention, sports fans! I wrote about this the very day it happened. It's not plagarism to steal from yourself, but if anyone remembers the original column, I'm flattered.

On a March Tuesday in 1992, I was attending a spring training game between the Red Sox and Astros in Kissimmee, Florida. So was Bill Clinton, not yet President of the United States.

Clinton was campaigning up a storm before the game. He did everything but climb the screen behind home plate to shake hands. In his brief remarks (well, brief for him) before the first pitch, Clinton confessed to the crowd that as a boy in Arkansas, he'd always rooted for the Astros.

My ears perked. Clinton was 16 the year the then-Colt .45s had played their first game. I gently hacked my way through the throng of useless national political reporters and sought out a campaign aide.

"Excuse me," I asked the genial chap, whose name was Paul Begala (I mispelled it in the column, shame on me). "But I always thought Arkansas folks were Cardinals fans."

Don't what I expected to hear in response. Maybe something along the lines of a Democrat having a natural fondness for newborn underdogs. But it sure wasn't what I did hear.

With an unattractive smile, Begala said, "you know, there are a lot more voters in Texas than in Missouri."

It's a wicked world, and I had been a reporter for over a decade, but, frankly, my jaw dropped, not from admiration, either. Bad enough that any candidate for president was deranged enough to lie about what baseball team he had rooted for as a kid. Worse, by far, was the idea that his campaign was so fucking stupid as to brag about doing so TO A SPORTSWRITER.

I voted for Clinton in two general elections, and for a psychopath, I don't think he was a bad President. But I never believed a word he said, and I can't believe his wife, who had a more awful exposure to the downside of his techniques than anyone else, still thinks they're smart politics. I have the same grudging respect for Sen. Clinton as I did for her husband, and if I was in the market for a compromising, cautious leader (there are worse things), I'd support her.

Trust her? Never.

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Internet: Home of Sissies

Involved in a contest for a reasonably large prize, to wit, the presidency of the United States, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been a bit rough on each other. Nothing untowards by the standards of the National Hockey League playoffs or Chicago and Arkansas politics, but rough play nonetheless.

BFD. Nobody cares. Welcome to the real world. Anonymous Internet friends I don't know and respect are swearing deep vows they'd rather see John McCain in the White House than lose this battle of Good vs. Evil. Look Out! Mark Penn is behind the ref with a folding chair!!

I voted for Obama. My daughter is a Clinton supporter. She came back from BU, one month after the Massachusetts primary, and said people are starting to hassle her for her position. Senator Clinton, who doesn't have youth for an excuse, has said only the ability to wake up in the middle of the night and order innocent people to die makes one fit to lead the USA.

Obamaphiles, shut up and hit her back. Sen. Clinton: Don't say anything that can't be used against you in a court of October debate.

Both campaigns: I have no money. Stop e-mailing me. Stop calling me. Stop. Flip a frickin' coin and be done with it.