Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Beat Guys (And Gals)

From the well-informed folks at Boston Sports Media Watch, I learn my former colleague Jeff Horrigan is leaving the Herald. This is a loss for Boston readers. Jeff, who covered the Red Sox, was a damn fine beat man, and there is no higher tribute in sportswriting than that.

Beat guys (excuse the gender-specific term, but it's one used) and columnists do not always co-exist real well. I was both, if a columnist for longer than a beat guy, and it's easy to see why this is. For one thing, working a beat is about 1,000,000 times more work, and distasteful work at that, than being a columnist.

Writing and reporting are linked jobs, but they're not the same thing. A columnist job puts writing first, reporting second, a beat guy has it the other way around. Don't get me wrong, you have be able to do both in either job, but those are the priorities. The columnist, at bottom, must engage the reader by any means necessary. The beat guy has to show them something they don't know.

And that's way harder than writing. My beat was the Pats during the meltdown of the late '80s. One day I spent attending two separate bankruptcy hearings involving the Sullivan family in two different rooms of the O'Neill building. Try fitting bankruptcy law into a tabloid news hole sometime.

And football is the easiest beat by far. You're home nights. There are 10 road trips, each last ing about 48 hours. Baseball? My God, if I'd ever had to troll a clubhouse for early notes every day for a season, I'd have shot myself before the start of interleague play.

Stress? Let me relate an occurance in the 2004 season. One night in Seattle, the Sox bullpen blew a 2-run lead in the 11th inning. It was 2 a.m. Boston time, and an entire newspaper is waiting on Jeff's flash lede story. He said some very bad words about Keith Foulke, then sat down and rewrote an entire story in about 10 minutes. Afterwards, it was like nothing had happened. Color me impressed, and you should be too.

It's not that being a columnist is easy, not if you care. Writing well is work-to me it was joyous work, but it's work. Thinking is work. Thinking of ways to engage with a large audience is scary work. As every reader knows, the worst thing a columnist can do is start repeating and plagarizing themselves. Believe me, that's easy to do around the 500th deadline. Every person has only so much originality inside them.

But, you get your picture in the paper. If you're inclined, you can play the local big shot, get on radio and TV. Or if you're a misanthrope like me, you at least get free golf balls at the local driving range. Most importantly, you make more money.

That's just wrong. That's backwards. It's another example of the newspaper's broken business model. Maybe once upon a time, there were writers whose thinking and way with words sold more papers. Not anymore. Not to knock my former colleague, but why on earth would a consumer pay 75 cents to read Steve Buckley or any other person they can hear for free on their car radio? The thinkers, writers, and agitators at the newspaper must compete with zillions of other folks doing it for free on the Internet. The law of probabilities means some of those competitors will be offering as good or better work for free than the paper is charging for.

I always thought of the Herald sports section as a restaurant. No fancy French place, an honest he-man's steakhouse. In that restaurant, this columnist saw himself as the onion rings. Onion rings are great. I never go to a steakhouse without ordering them. They are part of the reason people spend big money to eat something that they can make at home.

But the restaurant isn't called an onion ring house. The hefty, fat-marbled, heart-clogging hunks of USDA prime are the real reason you made a reservation. The beat guys are the steaks and chops of any sports section. They find and deliver the news. News is to newspaper as steak is to steakhouse. Simple equation.

The Herald is down a T-Bone today. This former columnist is left to ponder an odd paradox. If I ran a newspaper, I wouldn't hire me, or anyone like me. In a business under economic pressure of the worst kind, the writers, thinkers, and agitators are the frills one can do without. The product papers put out with which the Internet hordes cannot compete is facts. Facts are a time-consuming, labor-intensive, horrifically expensive product, and no, you can't find them all on Google.

God help me, if I owned a newspaper, it wouldn't have columnists. It wouldn't have editorials, and it wouldn't have that supremely useless institution, the op-ed page.

It would however, have every Jeff Horrigan-style beat guy I could get my hands on.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Gene Upshaw

Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players' Association, member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died last night at age 63. Pancreatic cancer is about the nastiest of the ills human flesh must bear.

Upshaw's reputation as a player has been secure since he was a player. The pictures of him vaporizing fellow Hall of Famer Alan Page in Super Bowl XI should stick in the minds of any fan who cares for line play-you know, the worthy, discerning ones.

As union leader, Upshaw usually gets rated as a dud. Football players have less job security than any other team athletes, and most of their contracts are not guaranteed. The pension and health benefits for players of Upshaw's own time and before are shamefully inadequate, and he bears some of the responsibility for all those statements of fact.

But not all. In fact, not even most. People forget. A union is only as strong as its members. You can't lead people who won't follow, and in the immortal words of Marvin Miller, "football players are a bunch of management finks."

Upshaw's first test in office was the players' strike of 1987, which I had the misfortune of covering. His troops surrendered at first contact with the enemy. The strike, as a negotiating tool, was over practically before it began.

So we must judge Upshaw's subsequent tenure as NFLPA head knowing he had to bargain without the one real bargaining tool labor possesses. Given that considerable handicap, you can't give him a failing grade.

Football players have free agency, which they didn't in 1987. In real, adjusted for inflation terms, football players make way, way, way more than they did in 1987. The players have adjusted to the difference between their contracts' real money, as embodied in the signing bonus, and the make-believe figures on the back end.

The old players get the shaft, which is awful. But that, as Upshaw delicately pointed out, is the way his members want it. They are social Darwinians in a sport built on social Darwinism. A player of today looks at the old-timers, but he doesn't say, "wow, those guys deserve a lot for building the sport." No, he thinks, naturally if not commendably, "wow, that could happen to me. I better make sure all the money stays with us and not them."

Look at it this way. The current contract between the union and the league has been re-opened, with the possibility of enormous and costly chaos, by the owners, not by Upshaw. It's capital that's squealing it's getting the shaft from a deal, not labor.

When that happens, a union head has done about as well as he can.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Non-Partisan Political Thought.

Vice-Presidential nomination speculation is like watching the auditions for backup quarterback of the Patriots. Both are highly annoying uses of the public space.

Back in the day, starting in Andrew Jackson's time and lasting until, believe it or not, Ronald Reagan's choice of George H.W. Bush in 1980, vice-presidential nominations were made at the last moment during the national political conventions by a small group of men, all of whom were sleep-deprived and adrenalized, and all of whom but the presidential nominee had been drinking.

This system worked perfectly well, or as well as any part of our system does. Sometimes the Vice President became a President himself, but more often not. As for that "heartbeat away" and "most important decision of the campaign" hooey, not even the candidates pretended that was true.

Over 60 years later, Franklin Roosevelt's role in dumping Henry Wallace for Harry Truman (a rather important moment historically) remains unclear, and Roosevelt ignored Truman until his own death in office. Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson did not get along. Compared to them Obama and Hillary are Rodgers and Hammerstein. Reagan barely knew Bush's name.

So if McCain or Obama pick their vice presidential running mates by throwing darts at a board filled with snapshots of possible contenders (which sounds like great fun), it's OK by me and the Founding Fathers. Just shut up about it. Please?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Real Babe

As part of our country's ongoing attempt to forget everything that ever happened before last week, a fevered columnist for declared that Michael Phelps' week of glory means Phelps is the greatest U.S. athlete of all time. Whew. How to keep things in perspective, buddy.

Greatest swimmer ever? Hard to argue that. Greatest Olympian ever? Phelps certainly has a strong case, up there with Jesse Owens, Al Oerter, and Eric Heiden. It is noteworthy, however, that the swimmer whose record Phelps plans to beat before I go to bed tonight, Mark Spitz, is seldom if ever included in the list of all-time Olympic heroes. Yeah, Spitz was irritating. That irritating?

But the greatest U.S. athlete of all time remains who it always has been, at least as long as I've been alive. You should have, if you claim to like sports, heard the name.

Let's define terms. By "greatest athlete" we do not mean "most influential and/or famous." The three sportsmen who meant the most to sports history in this country are, in chronological order, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammed Ali. Tiger Woods sells more consumer goods than any athlete ever. But I am using a more limited definition. "Greatest athlete" means "person who was best at playing games."

On my terms, that's about as close to a no-brainer as can be found in barroom arguments. There would be statues of this superstar in more cities than hometown Beaumont, Texas if it weren't for one thing. Babe Didriksen Zaharias was a woman. She was a woman in an age of unimaginable sexual discrimination and stereotyping, but even today, that is why Zaharias is more forgotten that revered.

Let's look at the record. Zaharias was an All-American AAU basketball player in 1930-31 who entered the AAU track championships on a lark, qualified for three Olympic events, and won two gold medals and one silver in track and field in 1932 (when there were far fewer women's events than today.) Zaharias then took up golf, won the British Amateur, U.S. Amateur, helped found what is now the LPGA, and won the 1948 U.S. Open. Off the course, Zaharias fooled around playing softball, baseball, and kicking men's butts in sports such as bowling to make some extra dough.

There is no equivalent to Zaharias' domination of so many different sports. The physiological demands of the high jump, basketball, and golf could not be more different, and she mastered them all. Had she been an athlete today instead of in the 1930s-40s, Zaharias would be the biggest star in the world.

Greatest athlete ever? If Phelps comes back from Beijing and wins the Masters, or if Woods medals in the 2012 decathlon, we can talk. Until then, it's the Babe. The Babe we don't remember, but should.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Suppose you were the President of the Republic of Georgia. Your army has been routed in a battle with Russian troops, who are now roaming around your country doing whatever they feel like. The situation is desperate. How can you rally your countrymen in this crisis?

I'm just guessing here, but going on Glenn Beck's show on CNN Headline News was probably not the first idea that popped into your head, was it? Yet that is exactly what the REAL President of Georgia, Ed Hardtospell, is doing as this is written, 9:12 p.m. EDT (I'm sure it's on tape, but still, he did it).

The citizens of Georgia must be proud of him. Beck's show is seen by very few Americans, and frankly, they're not real influential in policy-making circles. Georgia has a President too lame for Larry King.

Memo to the President: The barstools, not to mention the graveyards, are full of ex-foreign leaders who thought that because they got a lot of sympathy in the American media, that meant the American people were willing and able to help them out.

It's never a good bet.

The Flag on Top of the Scoreboard

Way back in the early 1960s, there were two track meets between national teams of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. These were very big deals in both countries. The one held in the U.S. drew a crowd of almost 100,000. You couldn't get that at a track meet today giving out free beer.

The weird thing was, each country won each of the two meets. They had separate and most unequal scoring systems, allowing both teams to win the same competition.

The U.S. men's team was stronger than their Russkie rivals, but the proletarian heroines of the people were WAY better than the U.S. women. So the U.S. separated the two scores. That way, our men "won" and, really, what else did early '60s America care about. Our women got shellacked, but losing to women wasn't considered actual losing.

The Soviets combined the scores of the men and women. That way, they won. Lucky for the red, white, and blue we were so chauvinistically retrograde. Can you imagine if a U.S. team made up of men and women tried separating the scores today, no matter how hated our rival? We'd never hear the end of it. Oprah would defect.

But of course, this is the progressive 21st century, and a sleazy stunt like that would never go over today. We are a grown-up nation, and can take our wins and losses in sports as they come. Sure. Just don't look at an Olympic scoreboard.

EVERY U.S. media outlet, without exception, runs an Olympic medals scoreboard that show the U.S. narrowly in front of China. China is kicking our ass in the number of gold medals won, that is, actual victories, but our guys and gals have more place and show finishes, which for the purposes of the medal count, are said to be just as good as finishing first.

Uh, no. Winning is why they keep score and use stopwatches. By any objective measure, China leads the national rankings in the 2008 Games. Big country. Home field advantage. No surprise.

But it's one hell of a note when the state-controlled media of a ruthless dictatorship gives you a more honest count than the alleged free press of an alleged free country.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Chlorine Blues

Michael Phelps is a very fast swimmer. Having learned that fact to my own satisfaction, there is no need for yours truly to watch the rest of Phelps' efforts to win eight Olympic gold medals. Nothing personal against a phenomenal athlete. I just hate swimming.

That's not exactly true. I love to swim. I hate watching swimming. I hated covering it in three separate Olympic Games. As a spectator sport, swimming stinks. If it wasn't dominated by the USA, swimming would be shown on NBC as often as archery.

Swimmers, not just Phelps, are terrific, dedicated athletes and only a swine would begrudge them their once-every-four years week in the sunlight of fame. I'll just be the one lurking in the shadows until the track and field begins next Saturday.

My feelings on swimming were summarized by the National Lampoon some 30 years ago. Writing from the Montreal Games in 1976, the magazine's fictional sportswriter Red Ruffansore, summarized the sport with the following sentence. "Water, which never struck old Red as
much of a drink, also fails to impress as a playing surface."

Here's a tipoff when a sport has problems as mass entertainment. Swimming is much easier and more fun to watch on television than it is in person. Without those computer graphics, underwater cameras, and top-of-the-water angle shots, the live audience has no way of telling what the hell is going on. It takes about a week of practice to be absolutely certain you know which swimmer is in which lane, and which lane is which.

A close race in swimming, of which there are many, is decided in hundreds of a second. Oh, that's easy to decipher from the 50th row of the natatorium (I do like that word). As a member of the press, I had a good seat. I can't imagine what those loyal Party functionaries who are sitting in the top row of Beijing's 18,000 seat swimming venue are seeing. I assume they were picked for their loud voices and told to shout "Go China" at ten-second intervals. Kind of like the fans in the Monster seats at Fenway.

Strategy? Sure, as much as their is in Funny Car drag racing. Dive in and swim as fast as possible. This lack of stuff to argue about is a refreshing trait in modern sports, but let me assure you, it makes writing about swimming very difficult. Is it wrong for writers to evaluate sports that way? Yes. It is just as wrong, as just as unavoidable, as the way fans of all nations rate Olympic sports by how well their countrymen and women perform in them. South Korea is the big noise in a sport I mentioned earlier, archery. In Seoul right now, archery is all that's on TV.

It is not Michael Phelps' fault he's been prepackaged as the "Olympic story" of 2008 by NBC Universal's marketing department. He's your basic gifted driven athlete, and more power to him. Should he win eight golds, I shall applaud his feat.

Once it's over, and there's no danger I have to watch him do it.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

8//8/08, Part II

Great show! Give a talented film director from China $300 million and the fireworks he wants, and by golly, that's money well spent.

Despite being the most popular part of the Olympic Games (I don't get it either), however, the opening ceremony has nothing to do with how well or poorly the host organizers will operate the actual event. Atlanta's opening ceremony was very nice, the Games somewhat less so.

And if the weird old men who run China think their ability to produce a great halftime show means they have arrived as a world player, then they are farther gone than we thought. If that was the prerequisite for power, then the Grambling State marching band would have ruled the United States for the last half-century.

Speaking of the U.S., nice going Mr. President! The TV reactions shots of you during the opening ceremonies were priceless boosts to our national image abroad. Whether it was peering through your binoculars at nothing in particular to avoid talking to those around you, or actually looking at your watch during the parade of nations, your actions spoke a message that transcended language to all the peoples of the world.

"My wife dragged me here."

Thursday, August 07, 2008


The 2008 Olympic Games had next to no chance of avoiding disastrous clusterf%@&*s on a daily basis. The government of China and the International Olympic Committee were made for each other. A secretive band of sclerotic old tyrants collaborates with a secretive old band of gym teachers inexplicably given a lot of money and power. What could go wrong?

This is sad. I love the Olympics. On balance, despite supertankers full of spiritual baggage and bullshit, the Games are a good thing. They're just sports writ large, glories and warts magnified through the glass of near-universal attention.

Oh, I forgot. Americans aren't supposed to care about the Olympics. That's the new cynics' mantra in the sports media. Way to reveal yourselves as small-minded provincial boobs, gang. I'm sure most of my fellow citizens would prefer another good hour or so of Brett Favre coverage to watching the opening ceremonies tomorrow night.

I wasn't even opposed to awarding the Games to a nasty dictatorship like China. If moral purity is a requiring for an Olympic host city, better look for a stadium on Mars. Here on our planet, the IOC holds a more realistic standard. They basic five-ring membership on the idea a country is making progress towards decency, not necessarily achieving it. China qualifies. Barely, with a gentleman's D-plus, but it does.

The problem we will see with the Games in the next three weeks is a more fundamental one than China's foreign policy. Sports are supposed to be fun. Fun should be in short supply in Beijing. Repressive governments tend to run by repressed people. There are already reports that the organizers will attempt to discourage the rampant casual sex between Olympic athletes that has been a delightful part of the Games since Baron de Coubertin kicked the bucket. Good luck with that, functionaries!

China's approach to these Olympics has been that of anxious parents having a wealthy relative come to visit. Trouble is, the children they're scrubbing, dressing in best clothes, and ordering to be polite are adults-over a billion of 'em. This is bound to fail. The human nature, for better and worse, of the Chinese people will shine through the official screen. That's all to the good, but it will create those "incidents" Bob Costas will be clucking about.

The thing people don't realize about the Games is that they're ALWAYS held in an armed camp. That was true in Atlanta, let alone Beijing. A friendly armed camp, an armed camp full of sports fans, but an armed camp nontheless. To actually experience the country in which the Games are held, those inside must go outside. Without casting any aspersions on my former sportswriting colleagues, I don't expect that to happen often. It's easy to busily write about some 16-year old teenaged girl gymnast who's America's Daddy's Little Girl this week and ignore the fact that, hey, I'm in China!

China, government and people both, desperately want to impress the rest of the world with the Olympics. Alas, the impression the world is likely to get will be delivered by very, very uptight bureaucrats, many of them armed, who KNOW that if anything happens their bosses don't like, it's their ass. This is liable to cut down on moments of spontaneous human joy, and create an upsurge in unpleasant cultural misunderstands.

Too bad. As the most cursory research by this big-nose Westerner has demonstrated to my satisfaction, China is anything but the nation of automatons the West imagines and China's government wishes. It's a very loopy place in all regards. If people saw that, the Games would be all the success what passes for hearts in its leaders desire.

The Games will be the Games, pretty much. There will be great feats, controversies, a drug scandal or three, and way too much swimming on my TV. And that will be a missed opportunity, for China and the rest of us.

A big miss, befitting a big country.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Field GeneralCustership

The one thing about Drew Bledsoe that made Patriots fans the craziest was the quarterback's leisurely indecision in the pocket. Bledsoe would drop back to pass, pat the ball, wait, and wait some more, until the play collapsed in chaos. What was Bledsoe waiting for? Who knew? Not even him, probably.

The one thing about Brett Favre that USED to drive Packers' fans the craziest was the Hall of Fame quarterback's lack of any reflection at all in the pocket. Favre threw the ball on his first impulse, whatever might actually be happening in front of him. This instinct is why Favre is the all-time career interceptions leader.

Retirement is the most difficult decision any professional athlete faces. It's a little more important than whether to hit the slant receiver on 3rd and 6. Let us compare how these two very different quarterbacks handled that decision-making process.

Like all athletes, Bledsoe stayed a season or so too long at the fair. When he realized this, Bledsoe didn't hesitate. He retired, quietly but quickly, and as far as is known, is living reasonably happily ever after up in the Northwest with his family and the grizzley bears.

Favre has stayed too long at the fair for more than one season. He has gone back and forth on retirement approximately 1000 times, and that's just this week. Favre's indecision has made him look foolish, the Packers' management look ridiculous, and is, fundamentally, embarrassing all football fans.

So the guy who couldn't make up his mind in the pocket handled the ultimate career choice with alacrity, and the fearless all-in gambler stands revealed as a ditherer. What does this tell us?

About Bledsoe and Favre, not so much. About how we view athletes, quite a lot. What it says is that when we watch games, we place entirely too much emphasis on what's going on in the minds of the people playing them. Performance in sports is learned behavior, not some expression of the soul. It doesn't tell us anything about what the athlete is really like as a person. Pro athletes leave their personalities in the care of the locker room attendant the minute they put uniforms on.

The weirdest thing is, athletes themselves are more likely to attribute their own and other athletes' performances to the "intangible" elements of mind and spirit than anyone else. You'd think they, of all people, would know better. But it's not generally a trade that attracts introspective types.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Long, Slow Death of English Prose Style, Continued

The adverb "arguably" is inarguably one of the most horseshit words in journalism. It means "a sweeping generalization is needed here, but I'm too lazy to google the supporting facts, so arguably will cover my butt."

This evening on NBC's Nightly News, we heard an "arguably" for the ages. In a segment on the legal problems of Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the reporter intoned "the indictment is arguably the low point of his 40-year political career."

Arguably? What the hell are the other contenders? Did Stevens once throw up on a Cabinet secretary?

Trade Association

Jason Bay had a home run last night. So did Manny Ramirez. Hitters hit. Injuries and age can slow them down, steroids can bulk up power numbers, but by and large, once a guy's been swinging a bat at big league pitching for a couple seasons, what he has done is what he will do. It's one of the very few predictabilities in the sport.

Good thing, too. Otherwise, fantasy baseball would be impossible. Try and imagine participating in a money league for pitchers only!

Yes, it's a Red Sox-centric universe here in Boston. Yes, this city has been making itself stupid over star sluggers since Ted Williams arrived (Just you wait, Big Papi! Your turn is coming). But that's no excuse for overlooking the most obvious feature of the big deal that Manny out of town, to wit, the Dodgers pulled off a short-term swindle that'd be the envy of any offshore hedge fund extant.

Jason Bay is not chopped liver. He is, roughly, 90 percent the hitter Ramirez is. And that's fine for Boston's purposes. It's really all they need to keep their lineup functioning efficiently minus Manny. As fire sale trade returns go, Bay is as good as it gets.

Now let's walk a mile in Joe Torre's Gucci spikes. The Dodgers are locked in one of those "this division sucks" pennant races with the Diamondbacks. In such a race, trade deadline personnel upgrades are even more important than for a team that needs to win 95 games to make the playoffs, because the mediocre teams, by definition, have bigger holes to fill.

The Dodgers' hole was runs. They hardly score any, because they have no power. The ghost of Nomar, until he got injured again, was one of their main longball threats. Honest.

The Dodgers got Manny Ramirez, 500 plus homers, for Adam LaRoche. And he's free! The Red Sox are paying Manny's salary!!! Nice of Theo and John Henry to cut a break for a struggling small market franchise like that.

Minus Manny but with Jason, Boston's chances of another title are about what they were with Manny-dependent on other factors such as the bullpen, a center fielder hitting more than .132, and Josh Beckett. Call the trade a wash. That's not criticism. A wash is damn good work. Nothing is harder for a front office than dumping a superstar without dumping the season in the process.

Minus Manny, the Dodgers had no shot at the playoffs. Now they do. And they're gettintg paid for the upgrade. The only way they could have done better was to find oil underneath the Chavez Ravine parking lots. Which, come to think of it, they also could do.