Friday, April 25, 2008

In Cyberspace, No One Need Hear Chris Berman Scream

NFL draft time is one of the times of year when I miss sportswriting much less than other times. In journalistic terms, the draft is not unlike national political conventions. The reporter/columnist must generate far too many stories from an event containing far too little actual information.

Driving home from work just minutes ago, I overheard Butch Stearns and Steve DeOssie confuse themselves into tongue-tied silence in a discussion of what the Jets might or might not do with the sixth pick tomorrow. That's not their fault. Put the ghosts of George Halas and Bill Walsh on the radio to talk about the draft and after 15 minutes, they'd be spouting gibberish. It's the nature of the enterprise.

To quote Bill Belichick: "it's a VERY inexact science." You have to know how much the Pats coach hates inexact anythings to fully appreciate that observation.

At that, the draft is less of an ordeal than it used to be for journalists, at least some of them. The Internet might be killing newspapers, but it is striking a blow for the always-fragile sanity of sports department copy desks. Back in the day before the Web and before most folks had cable, when men were men and the Pats were passing on Jerry Rice to get their mitts on Trevor Matich, Draft Day was the Herald office's worst nightmare, worse than the Marathon even. Business ground to a halt and all communication with the outside world was lost as the poor devils on the desk coped with the telephone meltdown created by a bazillion calls demanding instant and comprehensive biographies of whichever Mid-American Conference linebacker had just been named the fourth round pick of the Seattle Seahawks.

Now, that information is a mouse click away, and the loons can happily IM each other with the information. Progess; it's a beautiful thing.

I can understand the draft's popularity. It combines two popular forms of American entertainment, guessing games and sports arguments. They're the very best kind of sports arguments, too, the ones in which there is no way of determining the correct answer.

But for the life me, I do not understand how the draft still survives as a television show-a long television show featuring some of the most irritating television personalities since the medium was invented. This, one would think, is a form of sports journalism/entertainment the Internet should have eradicated by now.

At bottom, the draft is a list. The Internet is great at lists. All the information the most obsessive football fan needs about the draft can be obtained within 30 seconds at an almost infinite number of different Web sites. Why not switch the channel to a real ball game, and just punch "refresh" every five minutes or so?

It will be a great day for America when that comes to pass, but I don't think it will in my lifetime. Sports fans are creatures of habit, and God help them, they have become habituated to watching hours of people hollering at each other about offensive linemen, interspersed with Roger Goodell reading names while wearing a nice suit.

I'll be involved with another draft-related event tomorrow afternoon. There's a draft horse plowing competition up in Newbury, Mass. and I've been invited. Charlie Casserly tells me there'll be a steed there I can't miss. He's got a great motor, never takes a furrow off, and his time for the back 40 is off the charts.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ethnomusicology in Action

As I have every spring since I got my driver's license, this blogger has spent a part of each warm afternoon driving around in his car with the windows rolled down listening to beat-oriented music played real loud. The genre doesn't matter, rockabilly to rap, it's all good, but it has to be sunny, and the music has to be loud.

Millions of other red-blooded American men and boys do the same thing each spring, and I had always thought of this exquisite pleasure as a male passion unique to our national culture, like the Three Stooges or professional wrestling. I almost wrote a blog post to that effect until sloth intervened. Good thing, because I would have been very wrong.

It was sunny and not real cold last Sunday morning. For some reason, I was awake early enough to be outside before the papers were delivered, but just as the two delivery guys and their well-worn sedan came down the street.

They had their car windows open, and the music was loud, real loud. It was not, however, linked to American culture in any way. My world music knowledge has eroded since college, but the tunes coming from the car's CD player definitely originated in the Eastern Hemisphere, just the paper delivery guys.

No matter. It was nice out, the music was loud, and most of all, the two men were enjoying the hell out of being alive to savor both. I saluted them as bent to pick up the Times.

The universal Brotherhood of Man remains a distant dream. The universal Brotherhood of Perpetual Adolescence? That we got.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Language is a Living Thing-Political Division.

So I'm channel-surfing the Pennsylvania primary and wondering why I can't get a fraud job as a cable network commentator. Pete Shepherd in full "Call the boys with the butterfly nets, the Bruins have finally done it to him this time" rant mode displays 1000 times the insight, wit, and common human decency the CNN-MSNBC-Fox clods do. No wonder this country is doomed.

But I digress. My point is, one Linda Chavez, unknown to me, but I.D'ed as a Republican strategist, said "Hillary needs to get this fight into the smoke-filled rooms" of the Democratic convention.

I don't know much politics, but this I do know. There will no smoke-filled rooms at either national convention in 2008-especially the Democratic party convention. There will be no smoking, period. If an Obama or Clinton supporter lights up outside the hall, the superdelegates will throw the nomination to the other candidate out of moral dudgeon.

"Smoke-filled room" will be something kids associate with bygone history, like "optimism" and "justice."

Monday, April 21, 2008

April Agate

How do you read the daily baseball data in the season's first month? I don't mean whether you read them in the paper on the subway (one area where the Herald always has been and remains superior to the Globe is box scores of all sports) or online late at night. The question is, how do you process the data?

In general, I have found fans divide into two groups on this issue. The first, much larger group, is one we'll call normal people. First, they check the 5Ws as to their favorite team, including the "what" if said team played on the West Coast, and they live on the East Coast and are gainfully employed. Then, they look to see how their fantasy team players did, then wander about the numbers seeking anomalies of interest, such as David's Ortiz's early slump or a possible clue as to how the hell the Orioles are over .500.

Then, and only then, they glance at the standings. This occupies perhaps one nanosecond, and is only a look at the top and bottom of each division's standings to see if any teams are off to a particularly hot (Diamondbacks) or wretched start (Tigers).

The second group, and we all know somebody who's in it, is a little more driven. They look at the standings first. They take their team's, or more frequently their team's biggest rival's, won-loss record and extrapolate it out for 162 games, then obsess over that figure. One hopes, for their sakes, none of this group has any emotional connection to the 2008 Marlins.

This is nuts, and the people who do it know it's nuts, but can't help themselves. Bruce Berlet, the Hartford Courant golf writer for many years, had a handy rule of thumb: don't look at the standings until August 15. How much more pleasant life would be inside the Red Sox Zone if the Berlet rule was in general use! It may interest you to know that the tippy-top levels of the team's management structure agrees with me on that point.

This post is not designed to make fun of the suffering souls who can't let go of the standings no matter how irrelevant those are. I have a tip for them. They have a big future in American political journalism. The entire field consists of reading its agate backwards, then getting really excited about the results.

Public opinion polls are the agate of politics. So far in the 2008 presidential election, they have been supremely useless as a forecaster of future events. The science of statistics and the glut of polls themselves have combined to turn them into white noise. Imagine if there were five different sets of American League East standings, with a different team in first place in each of them. That would approximate current polling data.

On the very same day well-respected poller Gallup showed Democrats were evenly split between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, well-respected "Newsweek" had a poll showing Obama was favored by a 20 percent margin among those very same Democrats. They can't both be right, but they can be and probably both are wrong.

So the data is of no probative value. Political journalists, good, bad, and indifferent, from the left, right, and center, use it anyway. Obsessively. They write reams and speak for hours on just what the useless data tells us about the future, and what voters think (oddly enough, it's often what the journalists think). And it doesn't matter how far in the future the election being polled might be-the journalists KNOW today's poll is an accurate forecast of that election.

Polls show a close race between Republican John McCain and either Democratic candidate. Could be right, could be wrong. Is meaningless, because in politics, like baseball, stuff happens. Plenty will happen between now and November 4. Nobody takes April standings seriously because who knows? Players can and will be hurt. The number of actual world events that could influence the election is almost infinite. Why take April polls seriously?

The answer is, American political journalism, as a profession, sucks. Without polls, its practioners haven't a clue as how to proceed. The dullest sportswriter can spin 100 good stories about a baseball season without reference to the standings. Somebody like Gloria Borger or Jonathan Alter would be struck dumb (a fine thing) without polls to cite.

The French have a political equivalent of Berlet's Law. It's a real law, too. The news media are forbidden, under penalty of serious fines, from printing public opinion polls the week before national elections. Since America in its democratic wisdom now stages an election every fourth day, and polling is being done on the 2020 election even as I write, a similar law here would prevent polls from being published AT ALL.

So naturally I'm all for it. I bet polls show I'm not alone, either.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

One World, Five Rings, Six Billion Moral Quandaries

Life is easier for sports fans who don't give a rat's ass about the Olympics. They can watch the slow-motion catastrophe that will be the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing with a clear conscience. They're not inadvertently supporting the nasty piece of work that is China's government. Not so long as they don't dress themselves, have a television, or eat food, that is. Otherwise, they're as involved with China as is the International Olympic Committee-just a little less publicly.

Unfortunately for yours truly, I like the Olympics. The four Games I was lucky enough to attend and cover remain among the highest highlights of my increasingly bygone sportswriting career. I say that despite the fact I spend one of them covering Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, the reductio ad absurdum of the Olympics, sports, journalism, and possibly Western civilization, which isn't to say it wasn't fun sometimes. You can take the boy out of the tabloid, but....

The Olympics come with a lot of ethical baggage whether they're held in a sclerotic dictatorship or, say, the bustling Sun Belt city of Atlanta, where I had the unpleasure of watching my profession attempt to ruin the life of Richard Jewell, an innocent man, out of slipshod stupidity, and where the good old American profit motive was flaunted as an ideology 24/7 from torch lighting to extinguishing. The very idea that the world will give up its infinite number of self-inflicted miseries for three weeks because of a track meet is foolishness carried to a sublime level.

As any fan knows, the line between folly and glory is a thin one. The thing about the Olympics is that sometimes, usually just for a few seconds, the folly becomes glory and sports does put the world on hold, transcending money, power, hatred, etc. to display whatever it is about games that fascinates almost everyone on earth at least once in their lives.

I was there when Michael Johnson set the 200 meter record. I've seen the ski jump, and I've seen three Marathon leaders come through the tunnel into the big stadium. I saw Muhammed Ali light the torch (Atlanta, no less). At those moments, human life was a bullshit-free zone. I was part of something way bigger than myself. Billions of dollars and endless hypocrisy may seem a high price to pay for a few seconds of transcendence. I say that's a better psychic return on investment than most human enterprises deliver.

Which brings us to the Beijing Games. Many things have and will go wrong with that particular track meet, for fans, athletes, and most of all, the government of China. This need not have happened, but seeing as how China's leaders are as clueless and arrogant as the IOC, it did. Seeing as how holier-than-thou breastbeating has become the nation's default mode of political and sports commentating, this has spawned calls to a) ignore, b) boycott, c) abolish the Olympics.

I vote no on all three propositions. A) is the easiest to dismiss. I like watching the Games. I know they'll have a tough time breaking through the Red Sox boosterism that has become the default mode of Boston journalism, but I'll manage.

As for B, it's really too foolish to be considered. We've had two major Olympic boycotts in my lifetime. The US-led boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow notably failed to end the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan. It did, however, leave a lasting gap in the lives of many fine American athletes. Way to go Jimmy! The 1984 Soviet bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics did unleash Mary Lou Retton on an innocent American public, but we gritted our teeth and won
the Cold War anyway.

Two things need mentioning here. One is that Americans should be aware that as far as Olympic protesting goes, the world is asking us where do we get off. The nation of John Yoo, Abu Gharaib, and the occupation of Iraq has no moral standing to lecture China, ugly as China's government surely is. If the 2008 Games were in Atlanta, or Chicago, or any other U.S. city, there would have been just as many protestors on the streets of London and Paris as the torch went by as there were to call China names. Probably more.

The other is a simple fact. The world's, and especially the U.S.'s, relationship with China is a complex one where morality was checked at the door a good many years ago. China is our national loan shark for God's sake. Snooting them over the Olympics is profoundly futile. When the Games are done, we'll still be buying their crap-because we need it. Until we're willing to change that, self-respect requires we try not to get too pious about China's many awful actitivities.

C) strikes me as the silliest option of all. It comes from that uniquely American viewpoint that if something isn't perfect, it's worthless and should be abolished so that we can feel more like we're perfect. Improving the imperfect is messy, difficult, and time-consuming, so fuck it.

This "why do" spirit, of course, is why life in these here United States is going so wonderfully in 2008. See how happy everybody is?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

An Inspirational Morning Quote for David Ortiz's Desk Calendar

"The surest cure for a batting slump is two pieces of cotton-one for each ear." -- Bill Veeck.

P.S. Fond as I am of my old colleague Steve Buckley, anyone who'd actually be upset a ballplayer tried to make some extracurricular dough on his OFF day is in need of an emergency EEG.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Don't Drink the Pink Kool-Aid!

The Red Sox are starting to get on my nerves. Not the team, but the idea of the team. Or more accurately, the idea of the team that its marketers and every media outlet in this increasingly hick town keeps trying to cram down my throat.

Look, people, root, root, rooting for the home team does not make a person special. It makes them normal. Being a Red Sox fan is an accident of birth and/or geography. It is not membership in some sort of horsehide mystery cult no matter what Ken Burns thinks. It is no better or worse than being a Padres fan, except that many night games are far colder.

Red Sox Nation. Nathan Cobb owes society a lot for coming up with that bull. Jerry Remy is a fine announcer when he's not the Rem-Dawg. Awarding/Selling World Series rings to fans is a violation of the natural order of sports. The fans didn't get a single Colorado Rockie out. They were just happy when it happened. It's like buying a man a present because his wife gave birth.

As a capitalist, I have no problem with Sox management wringing every nickel they can from the customers. As long as the customers don't mind, what's the beef? But there are limits. Baseball is great entertainment. Rooting for a team is a life long rewarding emotional experience, even for Phillies fans like me.

Separating customers from their dough by telling them they're special because their Red Sox fans, and that the Red Sox themselves are only worth noting because, you, the fan, has graced them with your support is just sickening. It also leads to the following hilarious incongruity.

After many years of telling fans they were special because they rooted hard for a team that hadn't won a World Series in 86 years, the Sox are now marketing themselves to those same people by telling them "You're special. You root for a dynasty. It's won 2 World Series in 90 years."

Historical Revisionism at the Old Ballyard

The most illuminating comment this blogger ever heard about the 1986 World Series came from an unlikely source in an unlikely place.

One August night in 1990, Mike Greenwell, Red Sox left fielder, Joe Giuliotti, Sox beat writer for the Herald, and yours truly were sharing a post-game beer and post-game philosophy in a hotel bar in Cleveland. The conversation moved to the topic of the Sox' relationship with their adoring and suffocating fan base.

Greenwell was and I assume still is not known for introspection. But the subject matter caused him to pause for long thought before speaking.

"You know," Greenie said. "I know 1986 was tough for the fans, very tough. But I wish they realized that it was pretty tough for us, too."

Just so. The idea that fans care more than players about games won or lost is a monstrous fallacy. Professional athletes like money, but those who aren't tormented by the psychic need to win don't make it to the top. It takes some irrational dark force to get an individual to put the work in. It's ambition and competitiveness on HGH, with a hat size twice that of Barry Bonds'.

In the final analysis, when the 1986 Series ended, fans mourned, but they eventually went on to something else. They rooted for the Patriots, Celtics and/or Bruins. Hell, maybe some of them spent time with their families or read books. Nothing's impossible in sports.

When the Sox lost the Series, they were stuck with it. Losses don't go away no matter how often you win. I assure you Tiger Woods could bore you senseless describing every putt he ever missed. It's the price paid for having the need to succeed.

This brings us to Bill Buckner and his return to Fenway to throw out the first pitch last Tuesday. This was a genuinely moving moment, at least for me, but not for the reasons commonly supposed. It wasn't about the fans. They were bystanders, as they should be.

Count on a Herald front page headline to misfire. The standing ovation Buckner received was not "forgiveness." As astute Sox fans have mentioned since, the fans forgave Buckner for his error in Game Six long ago. He was probably the first goat of that traumatic inning to be absolved by Sox followers, long before 1990, let alone Tuesday.

Don't believe it? Try and imagine what the reaction would have been if the overwrought marketers in the front office had brought back Calvin Schiraldi or John McNamara to throw out the first pitch of the 2008 season. The boos would've blown back either guy west of the Connecticut River.

Besides which, 22 years is a long time. The number of Sox fans who were around in 1986 is diminishing daily, and their replacements have a different take on 1986. It's history, and history is trauma once-removed-not traumatic at all. My daughter Hope is a Sox fan. She's 18. Bill Buckner has the same relevance to her experience of her team as does Harry Frazee.

No, the interesting part of Tuesday's ceremony, the interesting part of Buckner's role in 1986, has been HIS reaction to that catastrophe, not the fans. Through those 21 1/2 years, Buckner has tried so many different means of coping with the memory it was easy to see he couldn't cope at all.

First, Buckner retired to Idaho. That didn't work. He tried taking it as baseball nostalgia, making memorabilia appearances with Mookie Wilson. He tried cozying up to Boston fans, he tried cutting his ties to the franchise. Evidently, nothing worked.

When Buckner wept on the mound Tuesday, he wasn't acknowledging the ovation, or being moved by his memories of his Sox career. He certainly wasn't weeping because the fans were forgiving him.

Bill Buckner was forgiving himself. Finally.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Help Wanted! Celtics Fans Please Apply

This blogger needs input from people who've watched the 2007-2008 NBA regular season more diligently than himself.

Over in another corner of the Internet a week or so back, there was a raging debate going on over who should be this year's NBA MVP. It went on for pages of posts between the adherents of Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, and LeBron James. Throwing caution and good sense to the wind, I meekly suggested that Kevin Garnett's name deserved a mention, in that joining a team whose win total promptly goes from 24 to over 60 seems a fair working definition of the term "value."

Scorn came from all sides. One guy, a Bryant partisan who never mentioned Pau Gasol, told me that Garnett could not be considered, because after all, Ray Allen came to the Celts, too, and bore a degree of responsibility for the team's historic turnaround.

Oh, really? You mean people starting playoff party plans around here when Allen came to Boston before the draft? I don't think so, but frankly I need more data.

I put it to you, Celtics faithful. What is you best estimate of the number of regular season wins Boston would have had Allen come to the team, but Garnett either remained a Timberwolf or played elsewhere. My guess is that Boston would be in a ferocious struggle to reach the 35-37 win mark and edge out the Hawks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but that is truly just a guess. I'd like to hear guesses from others to either refute or confirm my thesis.

My main point, that Garnett has just as good a case for MVP as Paul or Bryant (we can dismiss the James gang as the wayward children of ESPN), I stand behind no matter what. But support for my argument would be helpful.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Journalism Business, A One-Sentence Primer.

The following quote is all you need.

"What people don't need more of is information" -- Richard Stengel.

Here's some information people reading this blog do need. Richard Stengel is not some layabout Internet philosopher. He is the managing editor of "Time" magazine, in short, about as big a wheel as the news business possesses. And he thinks people already know too much. He's in the information business, but believes his own product is superfluous.

Any wonder no U.S. citizen outside an airplane or a medical office has read "Time" since 1989? Any wonder that myself and thousands of other working stiffs in the news racket have left the game, some voluntarily, more not? Stengel is one of journalism's bigdomes. By his own words, he's revealed as a champion among idiots.

Shareholders of Time Warner Inc., you have my undiluted sympathy. Former colleagues still employed in the free press that is the bulwark of democracy, you have my prayers.