Thursday, July 31, 2008

Poker Game At My House, Ted Thompson! Don't Worry, Someone Will Give You a Ride

According to ESPN, some news outlet in Wisconsin is reporting that the Packers offered Brett Favre $20 million to just stay retired. Boy, I'll bet that made Manny jealous!

Favre should just keep on keeping on. If simply faxing the Commissioner a letter asking to reinstated caused the Packers to offer him that kind of dough, showing up ready for work at training camp should be worth oodles more.

By the first exhibition game, Favre could be the franchise's managing general partner.

Trade Deadline Thought

Man, I sure am glad I'm not Jason Bay. If, as has been known to happen, Bay celebrates changing leagues with a 3-34 week, his August and September will be unpleasant ones.

On a less personal note, no player is untradable nor irreplaceable. Some, however, are harder to replace than others. Manny Ramirez, warts and all, falls into that category.

I'm very glad I don't sign Ramirez's checks, too. He's hardly a model employee. Being his owner, GM, manager, etc. must be very stressful.

Know what else is stressful? October baseball. Stress IS professional sports. One could go so far as to say pro sports are a laboratory experiment in human behavior under stress. If a front office can't handle stress in the pursuit of victory, perhaps its inhabitants should consider another line of work, like rock music or public relations.

No one can know whether the Ramirez trade will help or hurt the Red Sox. What I do know, from long personal observation, is that when a team starts getting picky about how it wins and who it wins with, wins come harder. Much, much harder.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Political Science Is An Oxymoron

Two polls on the presidential election were released today. In one Barack Obama led 48-40 among likely voters. In the other, John McCain led 49-45.

This happens all the time, and wouldn't be worthy of note except for one little thing. Both polls were Gallup polls. They were conducted by the same company, which then issued two contradictory findings to the public as NEWS. Also, somebody them paid them. For both polls, one of which cannot be right.

The Gallup Organization states as part of its methodology that polls until the weekend before Election Day are not predictive. They ask the question "if the election was today, who would you vote for."

I think I can answer that one. If the election was today, I'd vote that the Gallup Organization had its ass well-covered.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Is It Defending Non-Champions, or Non-Defending Champions?

In July, no one can remember February, and no one really thinks next February will ever happen. This is a universal truth of human nature. It goes for you, me, and, more relevantly, for the New England Patriots.

The opening of Patriots' training camp was accompanied by bold noises from all concerned that the painful outcome of Super Bowl LXII was forgotten, or, if not forgotten, transformed into a motivational goad for success in the 2008 season. The Pats who said this were sincere. They believe they believe it. Trouble is, they won't know if they're right until next January.

In July, when optimism comes easily even in forlorn NFL outposts like Arizona and New Orleans, it's nothing for the Pats to ignore their unique situation. They are the first Super Bowl LOSER who'll spend the summer being asked "what will you do for an encore?" Today, that's an occasion for a rueful laugh. As the season progresses, the laughs will be more forced. By Election Day, they will have disappeared.

Yours truly has since childhood been an aficionado of summer pro football preview magazines (Nowadays, alas, most of them are just fantasy tout sheets). Still looking for the first of this summer's editions which picks the Giants to repeat, and don't expect to find it. Of the approximately 12,985,342,101 Super Bowl predictions that will be made between now and the start of the regular season, my guess is over 60 percent will pick the Pats to win the NFL title. At least one talk show host/guest will make the Freudian slip that he picks New England to "repeat" as champs.

There's the rub. The Pats remained the league's royalty after the Super Bowl even though they lost it. That's not normal. Favorites who lose the Big One usually get abused until they redeem themselves or pass into history. The Pats' critics are still focused on Spygate, which had no relevance to the team's inability to block Justin Tuck on February 3. No one is overanalyzing the loss to the Giants seeking New England's hidden flaws.

That absence does the Pats no favor. It is very difficult to say, "Oh yeah, we'll show you!" if no one is saying, "so show me something" in the first place. Fans may think the Pats get too much press criticism from the outside world, but aside from Spygate (again, not relevant to this discussion), their reviews remain positive to the point of fawning. They are still treated as the game's reigning dynasty, even though they have been dynasts in exile since 2005.

How does one approach the experience of what was either the greatest lousy season or lousiest great season in football history? Beats me, and I'll bet it's a stumper for Bill Belichick, too. Being a devoted NFL historian, Belichick may have come to the academic conclusion that 2007 was SO odd, such an anomaly, that it offers no point of reference for his team, or any other team. Therefore, he'll forget it.

Academically speaking, Belichick is right. Pro football, however, ain't academic. It is played by human beings who must for professional reasons spend their working lives in an overwrought emotional state. When the mind is in turmoil, suppressed memories are more likely to bubble to the surface. What's easy to ignore in July will be less so in January.

We all know the Pats, barring an injury plague, will be back in the playoffs. If they were replaced in the AFC East by USC, the Trojans would win the division by three games. That's when the effects of 2007 will apply, if they do, not in training camp.

Why sugar coat history? In the past two seasons, the Patriots were eliminated from the post-season in games where they blew a lead in the last minute of play. That's not very dynastic. The major edges dynasties have is their self-confidence that all will be well in the end, and, just as important, their opponent's self-doubts. Once this advantage is lost, it's hard to get back. Ask the New York Yankees.

The Pats remain a marvelous team. They could be champs this year. Beaten favorites come back. The Colts lost Super Bowl III, and came back to win V.

But the Pats are made of flesh, blood, and brain. Anyone who says they won't be forced to conquer self-doubt more than once this season must think this team is composed of Marvel Comics superheroes, not humans.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Anterior Cruciate Ligament Is All In Your Mind

Resolved: That when a professional athlete, no matter how weird he may be, says his knee hurts, maybe it does.

Manny Ramirez follows the dictates of his heart, which flits through life with the straight-line logic of a bat seeking mosquitoes at dusk. That's a given. We all know it.

Ramirez called in sick Wednesday and last night with a sore knee. In another indication of why journalism is a dying profession, a number of people who get paid to comment on Boston sports jumped to the conclusion Ramirez is malingering. This allowed them to spin the childish morality tale that is so beloved in these parts. Athletes never get sick, hurt, or just plain suck. They fail for important spiritual reasons that teach the young 'uns vital life lessons. In this case, the lesson is to turn the radio dail or look for the funnies in the paper instead of the sports section.

Maybe Ramirez IS jaking it in his covert contract struggle with Sox management. This would mean, among other things, his agent should kill himself. The traditional means of gaining lavish contract extentions is to show up for work and hit the snot out of the ball, two things Manny was doing with some regularity before last Wednesday. Being weird is not the same as being stupid, and Ramirez never struck me as the sort of person too dim to grasp the law of supply and demand.

So it is more logical to assume that Ramirez's knee DOES hurt. Does it hurt enough that he should miss a game with, gasp, the Yankees? Let me answer that question with another one. How the hell do Drs. Shaughnessy and Felger know? Can an MRI be conducted by seance?

The summary version of Manny's medical history with the Red Sox as is follows. 1. He doesn't get hurt too often. 2. When he does, he's not what anyone would call a fast healer. That could be hypochondria, or it could be the way his pain neurons and synapses are wired. The human body is as mysterious as its tenant the human mind.

Not playing for selfish personal reasons is about the worst sin in the pro athlete's book. It is almost as bad as it would be for a journalist to make serious charges without the evidence to back them up.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pointless Arguments Are the Best Kind

The Red Sox lost three games in Anaheim and are involved in an increasingly dicey American League East pennant race - the 2008 pennant race. Naturally, the inane controversy business and its loyal customers in New England are hot and bothered about Manny Ramirez's contract status in 2009. These people must talk about what they want for dinner when they're ordering lunch.

Whether or not the Sox should take up the option years of Manny's contract is a complex issue with points to be made for and against that merit serious consideration after Election Day. Right now, it's useless noise for its own sake. Ramirez's future plans have no bearing on the Red Sox' present dilemmas and opportunities. Considering how much Sox fans love the trade deadline, which is like Second Opening Day in these parts, I am appalled ANYONE, including the professional boob-baiters of radio and television talk shows, would spend an erg worrying about Manny. Time is short and there are so many ludricrous trade proposals and fraudulent rumors to discuss. Come on, people! Peter Gammons is counting on you!

The weirdest thing about the entire Ramirez discussion is that not only is it currently a moot point, but that if it weren't, the Sox would be totally screwed right here and now in the 2008 season. After all, the only fact which would make the front office's call on renewing Manny an easy one would be if he simply stopped hitting.

I know there are folks in this burg who don't care for Ramirez, but that's a high price to pay for spite, even for Bostonians.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Wimbledon 2008

Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, thank you. You provided the answer to a question all sportswriters get from fans, to wit: if you don't root for a side, what DO you root for?

That's not a stupid question, and sportswriters who treat it like one are not being too bright themselves. Fans are smart enough to recognize that nobody could watch sports if it didn't provide an emotional subtext. So they root. They root for home teams, or home boys and girls, or, in a contest like today's, they'll pick a side for the hell of it. Sometimes, or so I've heard, money changes hands based on those opinions.

Sportswriters can't root for a winner or loser. It's the bargain we made with Mr. Applegate. You get the best seat (or one of 'em) in the house, you get closer to what's going on than anyone else and can learn a lot about it if you're so inclined, but in return, you eat the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of the Lack of Good and Evil. The teams are all the same guys in different colored underwear. There is nothing to choose between Nadal and Federer, two great champions, superb sportsmen, and incidentally, good friends. So were Wilt and Russell. On a certain level only rivals can truly communicate.

Glenn Ordway says sportswriters root for "storylines." That's just close enough to be a dangerous distortion. "Storylines" no longer means "Good stories that'll be fun to talk about in 20 years," but has devolved into a synonym for "meaningless controversies that rile up the easily excited." To illustrate the difference, I'll just say I found the 2007 Patriots season to be endlessly fascinating, and "Spygate" to be awesomely tedious.

Good writing is showing, not telling. Federer and Nadal showed you, dear reader, what this lapsed sportswriter roots for. Greatness. Competition. The agonizing suspense and emotional release of sports. I watch to see men and women of tremendous skill, will, and poise give their best and see how the scoreboard stacks up at the end. I come to see shows that illustrate the glory of a game, any game. Take a man from Mars and show him that match today, and there will be tennis courts all over the Red Planet by Saturday.

Same goes for team sports. I am happy for the Celtics that they won the NBA Title, and sad for basketball that the Lakers gave such a disgraceful account of themselves. Die with your boots on, boys. The 2004 Red Sox world championship was astounding. The 2007 edition, well, if you aren't a Sox fan, it lacked a certain something.

I am neither fish not fowl. I'm no longer a sportswriter, and likely never will be again. Hell, there may not be any in 10 years. Yet after three years of professional exile, I can't go back to being a fan. Tried, but it can't be done. I know too much for my own good.

Today, from the start of the fourth set on, I was in the catbird seat once again. Emotionally, I had the best spot in the house. And I didn't have to write, either. Holy cow, the East Coast guys and gals there are on deadline now!

Every one of them is under as much pressure as Nadal and Federer, at least in their own heads. They want to write a story as good as the event it describes. And it's impossible. I will bet, however, that one and likely more than one of them comes close. Seeing others do their best works that way. Wish I knew why.

Here's what I do know. Sports is for memories. Memory is the closest thing humans have to immortality. The Gentleman's Singles Finals of 2008 will be a vibrant memory for longer than I'll be alive. Way, way longer.

Friday, July 04, 2008

A Tennis Conundrum

The following statements are indisputable facts about tennis which do not add up.

1. Most tennis fans are also recreational tennis players

2. Well over 90 percent of all recreational tennis is doubles, and always has been.

3. Every major tennis tournament has doubles in it, men's, women's, and mixed-the three forms of tennis played by recreational players.

4. Nobody pays any attention to doubles. Quick, who won the doubles Grand Slams last year. I dunno. Neither do tennis fans. Doubles is what television shows when the singles competition turns into a rout or there's a rain delay and they have to go to yesterday's videotape.

5. This is an opinion. Doubles is more fun to watch. More kinetic. Rallies are what make tennis fun, and there are of them in doubles.

6. Back to fact. Despite 5. I myself seldom watch or care about doubles when I watch tennis. How come? What is the pathology of this discrepancy. Again, I dunno. Anybody have a guess?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Dr. Richard Kimble is Ashamed of Him

Americans hate crime, yet have a sneaking admiration for fugitives from justice. Butch and Sundance, D.B. Cooper, even Robert Vesco-the list of persons, real or fictional, who became celebrated for going on the lam from the law is longer than the law's mythical arm.

So on June 9, when big-time financial swindler Samuel Israel disappeared after leaving his car on a bridge over the Hudson River in one of the most transparently fraudulent suicides ever staged, I think I speak for my fellow citizens when I say my reaction was, "Go for it, man! See you in Rio!!"

Israel was not exactly a war criminal. He defrauded clients of his hedge fund, meaning if they were widows and orphans, they were really rich ones. It was pleasant to spend off moments in June imagining where Israel might be, whether it was sunning on Copacabana, playing baccarat in Monte Carlo, or alternatively, furtively pulling down the shades in a cheap hotel room by the tracks with a neon light blinking outside the window.

Israel surrended to the authorities yesterday (boo!). He had been living in a RV park in Granville, Massachusetts. Is there such a thing as negative style points? Give Israel's runaway all of them.

The Internet doesn't have enough space to list Israel's failures here. Start with the obvious-geography. When fleeing the New York area by motor vehicle, there is much more space to get lost in headed west instead of east. Leaving the Hudson River valley to hide in the Connecticut River valley bespeaks a certain lack of imagination, especially for a crook whose gig was fraud.

Then there's the little matter of Israel's accomplice. He used his girlfriend, and then, to cap the blunder, left her behind. Israel must be the only person on earth never to have seen an episode of "Law and Order." The girlfriend, left to her own devices, ALWAYS gets busted and rolls over on her criminal significant other.

On the surface, an RV is a good choice for a hideout. Americans associate those vehicles with a) bumpkins, and b) old people, two demographics they do not find threatening. A "Let Me Tell You About My Grandchilden" bumper sticker would have been a nifty disguise accessory. Israel probably could have driven his Winnebago of crime on a leisurely trip across the country to someplace like North Dakota to cross the border into Canada. Let me assure you, they wouldn't have been looking for him there.

The problem, of course, is that at current gasoline prices and mileages, Israel would have spent every penny of the $20 million he stole by the time he reached Indiana.

The U.S. marshals service, which did not apprehend Israel (score that one for the officer on duty at the Southwick, Mass police station), made the expected noises to the effect that this caper shows that going on the lam is a fruitless endeavor and they always get their man. That, to be polite, is self-serving bullshit. Any number of 1960s radicals spent decades on the FBIs 10 Most Wanted list while living in plain sight in suburban USA, until turning themselves in out of guilt and/or boredom. None of them had $20 million to help them hide, either.

No, as crooks and fugitives go, Samuel Israel was a flop, a bitter disappointment to an ignoble but entertaining American tradition. Which begs one obvious question.

Just how @*^&#! stupid WERE his victims, anyway?