Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Global Warming Not Fast Enough for Baseball

Not for the first time, Bud Selig made the best of an impossible situation that was his own fault. Mandating that a possible deciding game of the World Series should go a full nine innings come what may was the sporting choice. I'm a Phillies fan, but really, the sight of a mob scene celebration on the infield tarp would have been more humiliating than any loss -- even 1964.

BUT, it need not have come to that. It's the meteorological chalk bet that weather conditions in the northeast U.S. of which Philadelphia is a part will take a decided turn for the worse around Halloween. It's a cinch it will get cold at night. Playing baseball in late October after dark risks making the game a farce. So Selig can't complain about the custard cream pie on his face.

We all know the reason why baseball does this. Television tells it to. Fox pays big bucks, and dictates terms, which have a lot more to do with the ratings for "House" than with the need to present quality competition.

Selling out is as American as apple pie and handguns. Selling out when you don't need to is, however, just sad. Network TV dough is a very small piece of MLB's financial picture, which is a very happy picture these days. The sport is awash in wealth. If the Milwaukee Brewers, Bud's old team and the definition of a small-market franchise, can bid $25 million a year for C.C. Sabathia, then the game is in a position to tell Fox to go hang, and run the World Series to suit itself. SOMEBODY will pay to televise weekend day World Series games. SOMEBODY would pay to broadcast night games that began at 8:05, not 8:37. It'd bring in less money, but not enough to crimp anyone's style, not even Scott Boras' style.

As a legit American big shot, I assume Bud has visited Augusta National Golf Club. He ought to take a tip from the club's school of sports administration. IT runs the Masters, not CBS. And when what the club wants exposes it to financial loss, as it did when advertisers boycotted the Martha Burk Masters, well, the members dig deep and take the hit. It helps that they have more collective wealth than most countries, but it's the principle of thing I admire.

More people would call baseball the National Pastime if the sport acted like one. Respect starts with self-respect, a quality baseball lost around the time Jackie Robinson retired.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Series

As a Phillies fan, I see big problems in this World Series. It looks like good sportsmanship will be mandatory.

As much as I may want the Phils to win (which is plenty, by the way), summoning up the former hometown's traditional hostility towards the opposition is just impossible. Only a natural-born churl could resent the Rays. Everything they've accomplished this season is wholly praiseworthy, especially winning the ALCS. I doubt that many Red Sox fans are mad at them. They took a knockout punch, shrugged it off, and won anyway. About all that's left to the loser in that situation is to jump the net and shake hands with the winner.

Nor can I summon up my former hometown's even-more-traditional hostility towards its own teams. Should the worst come to pass, and the Phils get swept, it will be disappointing. But it'll only be embarrassing for the team itself. I am more than pleased with their accomplishments this season. Given their flaws, the Phillies are also an admirable bunch. They're fun to root for. Pitching wins, but pulling for a team that's never out of a game because of its power is a better deal for fans. You never give up, because you never know.

So all that's left is to root, and hopefully, to watch a better Series than the dull sweeps we've seen in recent years. The Rays have better starters, the Phils the better bullpen, and it beats me who I'd pick to win if forced to choose.

All that's left is pleasure. There are times when I miss my old job desperately. Postseason baseball isn't one of them. That's a mind, body, and soul-crushing experience for sportswriters (imagine writing about Game Five of the ALCS, then heading home to catch a wakeup call for your 6:30 a.m. flight to Tampa for the offday press conferences). It is the one time when the good seat isn't worth the price and plain old fans have more fun.

I can't be a plain fan, but I'm pretty good at being an old one.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Modest and Possibly Lucrative Proposal

The guy ahead of me in the prescription pickup line at the drugstore this morning made it clear he's a big sports fan. People who discuss high school sports in Massachusetts are always hardcore fans of everything else.

The lady behind the counter naturally asked this fellow if he'd watched the Red Sox game last night.

"No," he replied, "I was at the BC game. All we could do is try and look into the luxury boxes and see if we could see anything on their TVs."

This led our man to an idea.

"Why can't they alter the scoreboard video screens to do split screen or picture-in-picture," he asked.

Yeah, why not. Electronics industry, we're talkin' to you.

Time-Series Problem

The cruel genius of the baseball postseason is that it gives fans a small taste of the sportswriter's life-namely, the part dealing with sleep deprivation.

Fans never understand why sportswriters root for games to go quickly and covertly pull for the team that's ahead. Then comes October, and the 8 p.m. and later starting times dictated by baseball's venal surrender to the even more venal television broadcasting industry. (By the way, nice going TBS! Technical difficulties on a live broadcast? What is this, 1951?).

And then fans, those who have day jobs anyhow, discover the merits of fast games and big leads. Those equal earlier bedtimes. A game that ends before midnight equals something approximating a night's sleep and a workday spent in less of a blur. Economists estimate that every pitching change and throw over to first base in the playoffs puts this nation significantly further towards recession.

The alarm for this former reporter's day job goes off at 6:30 a.m. Since I am a neutral in the Rays-Sox series, I'm pulling for either side to put up a five-spot in their half of the first tonight. Or second, or any inning before 11 p.m. I love baseball, but pardon me, I love my health and consciousness slightly more.

Ah, but when the World Series starts Wednesday night, very late thanks to Fox's belief that this country is yearning for more exposure to Kevin Kennedy, I will not be a neutral. The Phillies are my team, and honor requires I stick through every minute. Whether they play the Sox or Rays, the Phils' lineup and pitching staff is very close to a guarantee the Series will contain at least one xx-xx final score and a time of game well past the four hour mark. I'll bet it won't be the Saturday night game, either.

The Globe had a story about the Sox fans who gave up and went to bed before the Game Five comeback. Those people were sorry they had missed it, which I understand, and embarrassed they had, which I don't. There is nothing shameful on refusing to tolerate abuse. What baseball does to postseason fans is, quite literally, physical abuse. Then baseball wonders why the ratings aren't all it wishes.

There are two rules of sportswriting, one whose provenance is lost in antiquity, the other formulating by the late, great Leonard Koppett. Rule One, of course, is "no cheering in the press box." Rule Two is a corollary to Rule One, "You're allowed to root for yourself."

The fans who gave up on the Red Sox Thursday night weren't front-runners. They were rooting for themselves. Baseball should be ashamed it puts that dilemma in front of its best customers.

But then, if baseball was capable of shame, the sport would've dissolved itself around 1911.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Attention, Sports Commentators! The Past and Future Are Different Things

The Red Sox had an historic comeback to stay alive in the American League Championship Series. This led, as one suspected it would, some sports observers, notably Dan Shaughnessy in today's Globe, to examine prior cases where a team was on the verge of a victory, blew a game it should have won, and then collapsed for the rest of the series for an abject defeat.

Dan's case study was the 1986 ALCS and the Red Sox' memorable Game 5 comeback. It happened, both the Sox comeback and the Angels' subsequent surrender. I covered it. But, one hastens to add, it wasn't exactly the only playoff series where a team took a gutbusting loss in a game it should have won to either eliminate its opponent or put its foot on their throats.

That's the trouble with sports history in general and baseball history in particular. There's a lot of it, which makes drawing historical parallels dangerous. WHATEVER situation prevails in a current playoff, it's happened before. More to the point, it's happened more than once.

It didn't take one sip of coffee for me to come up with a situation similar to what happened to the Rays Thursday night that ended rather differently than the 1986 ALCS. In the 2001 World Series, the Diamondbacks blew back-to-back ninth inning leads to lose Games 4-5 to the Yankees, and trail 3-2. They won Game 6 by about 20 runs, and came back against Mariano Rivera to win Game 7. So much for momentum.

Switching sports, we have a purely Boston example. In 1981, the Celtics came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 1982, the Sixers took a 3-1 lead, and then lost the next two, losing a big early lead AT HOME in Game Six. They came back to Boston Garden for the 7th game about as full of negative emotion and momentum as a team could be.

The Sixers won that Game 7 120-106, and it was never in doubt, an ass-kicking from start to finish. That's why the Garden crowd chanted "Beat LA." They were impressed and wanted to pay tribute to an honored foe.

Momentum exists. But it comes from what happens in a game, not the games before it. Let me put it this way. If the Rays' bullpen continues to implode, then they will continue to collapse. If, on the other hand, the Rays score 7 or more runs tonight, as they have in the last four games, Game Five's momentum will be considerably decreased.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Sound of Philadelphia

Things could have gone worse. The advance team that's out looking for work this morning could have arranged for Sarah Palin to appear at the coin flip of an Eagles game. Flyers fans come in a well-beaten second (as do the followers of all other U.S. professional teams) to the Iggle faithful in the anarchic rabble sweepstakes.

But the Flyers are a Philly team, and Philly will be Philly. When the Republican vice-presidential nominee came on the ice for a ceremonial puck drop last night, the crowd booed as only a Philly crowd can. For bonus points, they booed Palin's 7-year old daughter. Good luck explaining that incident to your analyst of the future, kid.

Here's the weird part. Given the demographics of sports crowds in general and hockey crowds in particular (whiter, richer, and more male than the norm), I'll bet good money the McCain-Palin ticket draws a higher percentage of votes from those in the crowd last night than it draws from the Philadelphia area in general on November 4. I'll bet some of the loudest booers go Republican. Booing is a bipartisan activity. It may be the last one left in America.

Two factors conspired to create Palin's razzing. One was as local an issue as Tip O'Neill ever wished. Philadelphians had a reputation to uphold. They are, well, a lot of them are, PROUD of their sports history of abuse. They LOVE the Santa Claus story. They came ready, willing, and able to boo Palin off the ice without regard for her political positions. A celebrity sticking his or her nose into the important matter of generating blood lust against the New York Rangers was an interloper to be shown that Philly doesn't tolerate diluting its pure and decent sports hatreds. The crowd would have booed Joe Biden just as loudly, or, for that matter, the Dalai Lama.

The second is a generic truth about pols and sports crowds I have observed at dozens of events in dozens of different places. Fans will occasionally tolerate an elected official at a pregame ceremony. But said pol will usually draw some boos. And a candidate for office will ALWAYS get booed. I have seen Republicans and Democrats booed, and I suppose if we had more parties, that would be a longer list.

They should always get booed. This just in: People follow sports to escape troublesome bullshit like financial crises and election campaigns to focus on the finer things in life -- like seeing some Ranger get his head driven through the glass. The pols are interlopers, and are resented as such.

Actually, I think fans see the electioneering as something worse than an interruption. It's poaching. Pols like crowds, but when a pol shows up at a sports event, he or she is hitting on the crowd under false pretenses. It is notable that as divided as our society is, heckling a pol at their own campaign event is still considered unacceptable bad manners by almost everyone. The pol earned that crowd fair and square. Waving from the mound, center court, ice, etc. is viewed as cheating, and treated accordingly.

Pols always get booed, and always pretend not to notice. Ha! Pols are more sensitive than opera divas or Big 12 football coaches. They hear, and they hate it, and against all sanity, they keep right on showing up at sports events to get booed some more. It really makes one fear for the future of the Republic.

Sports is for everyone, or should be. The smartest thing Michael Jordan ever said was "Republicans buy shoes, too," when explaining why he wouldn't run for office as a Democrat. Arnold Palmer, a Republican, was begged to run for Governor of Pennsylvania many times by the party, and always declined on similar grounds. Palmer was too smart to subject his status as the universally beloved Arnie to the automatic dislike of 40 percent of the public every politician gets just by being of one party or the other.

When pols campaign at sports events, they are breaking that truce. That's stupid, and frankly, stupid pols should get booed just as loudly as cleanup hitters who pop up with the bases loaded in a playoff game. In Philadelphia, they are, and I honor the city of my childhood for its actions.

No electioneering inside the lines.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Baseball, Theory & Practice

Playoff defeat breeds overanalysis at the same rate swamps breed mosquitoes, so it's no surprise the Los Angeles Angels of the Delta Quadrant are being microscrutinized in the wake of their loss to the Red Sox.

Some of the more aggressive statistically-obsessed observers out there have laid the defeat to the Angels' style of play. In contrast to current dogma, Mike Sciosia lets his team swing away and run aggressively. The Red Sox could hardly be more different. Their victory has been in some quarters touted as the triumph of the Sabermetric Way.

The Sabermetric Way could be the percentage means to winning baseball over the long haul of all teams playing all games. The Angels' defeat however, has nothing to do with their baseball IDEAS. It can be laid to a more prosaic but fatal cause. They played poorly. Style had nothing to do with it.

In this world, it never hurts to restate the obvious. A team that wins 100 games in a season isn't going to change its approach in the playoffs, nor should it. The Angels did not provide a valid test of the merits of their approach because they failed to give their approach any merits. Bad baseball sinks any team, whether it takes more pitches than Jason Giambi times nine, or if its a lineup of Manny Sanguillen clones.

The most notable stat in the Angels' regular season was their success in close games. That is not random chance, at least not all random chance. A gaudy record in close games means that one thing a team consistently did was not fuck up. It played tight (in the poker sense) baseball.

It didn't get thrown by 80 feet on the basepaths, or let pop flies drop for three-run singles. And it didn't grab itself by the essentials and squeeze hard in a clutch game.

In their elimination game, the Angels messed up two cinch double play balls and whiffed on a suicide squeeze. That's not due to incorrect baseball theory. That's just horseshit baseball, period. If the Red Sox had turned in similar rocks, they'd have lost, no matter how high their team OBP.

It's a beautiful sport, maybe the most beautiful. And of all baseball's beauties, simplicity is the one that gives the rest their meaning.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Obsession, A Fragrance By Entercom

If there is such as organization as People for the Ethical Treatment of Dead Horses, its paramilitary wing is currently en route to the WEEI studios, bombs at the ready.

In a foolish quest for information about tonight's Red Sox game, I turned the car radio to WEEI on my drive home from work. The topic was baseball, all right, but not game two of the playoff series with the Angels, or even game one of that series. No, the loud voices of callers, guests and host Glen Ordway were up in arms about Manny Ramirez. A diligent search for scapegoats and targets of righteous wrath was underway as the events leading up to Manny's trade to the Dodgers were rehashed, or rather, rererererehashed.

Give it up, gang! Make Jason Wolfe break down and buy a calendar for the studio, since one is so obviously needed. As a public service (not that anyone at WEEI is sensitive enough to read this blog just because it's about them), here's the only Manny chronology anyone needs.

In late July, Theo Epstein feared Manny was wigging out for good. Epstein acted on his fears, and with considerable resourcefulness, threw together a three-way trade that sent Ramirez to the Dodgers and brought Jason Bay to Sox in return.

In Pittsburgh, Bay was a very nice player. In Boston, that's just what he's been, too. The Red Sox played very well in the final two months of the season (the Yankee implosion helped), made the playoffs, and won their first game. Bay hit a homer. Yaay!

Since arriving in LA, Ramirez has hit like he's Roy Hobbs' big brother. The Dodgers, who had no shot otherwise, made the playoffs and won their first two games, Manny hitting homers in each one. Yaaay!! Ramirez is the toast of Tinsel Town, which, let's face it, is a far better town to be toast of than this one.

In short, everyone got what they wanted. Everybody's happy. The Sox and their fans are happy, and so are the Dodgers and their fans. Epstein and Bay are happy. Manny's happy, and his agent Scott Boras is happier still. Contentment reigns supreme, as if this story were the last page of a P.G. Wodehouse novel.

And WEEI is still in scream mode. Something sinister must have happened back in July. If only they could figure out what, they could rouse the rabble in their time-dishonored style.

It's not just WEEI. The Manny-fest I heard this afternoon was the distilled perfect essence of the horrible, life-denying ethos of sports talk radio. They were trying to bake a blame pie when the only ingredient to be found in the kitchen was bliss.