Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Batting Third and Playing First Base, The Ghost of John Maynard Keynes

Memo to: Hank Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman
In Re: Recent Capital Investments

Fellas, when the President-elect talked about his economic stimulus package, he said the country needed to put big money into infrastructure, not infielders.
Oh, and inquiring minds want to know. What made your deal for Mark Teixeira sweeter than those of the other teams? Did you promise to take away the captaincy from Derek Jeter? Or was that you'd make A-Rod give him a free shot at Madonna?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Holiday Stress Relief Tip

The following advice is a practice I began following very early in my sportswriting career, and I think baseball fans will find it especially helpful.

Do not believe a word about free agency until there's a picture of a player signing a contract. Do not even read about it. Don't watch ESPN's baseball shows, and above all, ignore any and all talk radio discussions of the subject.

Every single word that's uttered before two parties sign their names to a multimillion dollar deal is bullshit. Always has been, always will be. The rules governing contract negotiations are distinctly more liberal than those for NFL pass interference. There is a reason auctioneers and used car salesmen (and a baseball free agent is, by rule, a used product) do not enjoy the same reputation as the clergy. There's a reason baseball owners are despised as a class (in person, most of them are very nice), too.

Mark Teixeira will sign with whomever he wants, eventually. Might be the Red Sox, might not be. For the right dough, Scott Boras would sign Teixeira up with Manchester United. There's no sense in having the slightest emotional response to the process by which this decision is being made. Wait until it happens, then freak out, either with happiness or anguish. This saves energy you'll need for cursing traffic on Route One on your way to the Pats game tomorrow.

The question of whether the Sox SHOULD sign Teixeira is a permissable subject of debate, one Boras would prefer nobody, not even fans, discusses. The key moment of a successful con is when the mark takes the initiative and forces his money on the con artist, an economic dialectic Boras has mastered.

My considered judgment is that the Teixeira auction has reached the point where the wise bidder waits for the next item. Look at it this way. The Red Sox have offered him an eight-year deal which is approximately the same amount of money they paid Manny Ramirez from 2001-2008. Does anyone really think Teixeira, who is an excellent hitter, will duplicate Manny's production during those years over the length of that contract?

I sure as hell don't. Hall of Famers are not growth stocks. The idea that an All-Star who's 29 will automatically progress into an immortal by age 35 is the kind of financial optimism that invented the mortgage-backed security.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Threadbare Pride of the Mets

Today, Francisco Rodriguez stands before you the luckiest man on the face of the earth, and on the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, too.

The new Mets closer signed his three-year, $37.5 million contract one week BEFORE Mets owner Fred Wilpon found out he'd been defrauded to the tune of a half-billion bucks by respected financier/swindler extraordinaire Bernard Madoff.

One has to think Omar Minaya's future dips in the 2009 free agent pool will come at the shallow end.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

How to Fail Marketing 101

The New York Times Corporation is having some tough sledding these days. A tiny line in agate at the bottom of David Brooks' baffling op-ed piece in the Friday, December 12 paper indicates one reason why.

The note read simply that regular Friday columnist "Paul Krugman is off today." A symphony, nay, a Ring Cycle of failure in one name and three words.

The Times is and always has been a product for an elite. It sells itself by telling its audience they are among the best-informed people on earth, the peer of presidents, tycoons, and assorted geniuses, because they read the world's best newspaper (which it is, warts and all). Elites, like other people, like to be reminded of their status. The need to feel one is a member of the club is a universal human sentiment.

That's marketing. In simple newspapering, one of the worst possible sins is burying the lede, taking the most important part of the story and putting it in the middle instead of at the beginning. That sentence in the Times didn't just bury its lede, it omitted it.

Unwarranted diffidence is just a passive-aggressive form of extreme arrogance. Salesmanship, sound reporting, and the simple desire for economic self-preservation should have led the Times to edit their explanation of Krugman's absence from the paper as follows below.

"OUR columnist, Paul Krugman, who you can't read anywhere else, is off today. He's over in Stockholm, picking up his NOBEL PRIZE!"

"PS: Top that Murdoch!!!"

Friday, December 12, 2008

Idle Political-Sporting Thought

Would all those southern Senators be so adamantly opposed to the bailout of General Motors if someone told their consitituents that a GM bankruptcy might lead to unemployment for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Patriots 24-Seahawks 21

One of this blogger's deepest beliefs about sports is that victory is to an extent learned behavior, particularly learned group behavior. It's a simple formula. The experience of winning creates an expectation of winning that helps create more winning. Crunch time remains stressful, but those familiar with happy endings tend to get more than their share.

The game tape of New England's win yesterday will henceforth be issued in evidence by yours truly whenever the subject comes up. That was a game decided by the collective memory of the victors. Indeed, the entire Pats season can be seen as a reflection of the fact that sports teams on top usually decline more slowly than one expects, just as teams on the rise usually take a little longer to get to the top than an analysis of their raw ability might indicate. For every 2008 Celtics or 2001 Patriots, there's a 1998-2004 Red Sox or 2003-2006 Colts or, the ultimate example, the Michael Jordan Bulls.

I will admit, however, that this subconscious factor in the Pats' win may not have carried the same weight as the facts Randy Moss and Wes Welker remain very good players, and that the Seahawks' pass defense is a symphony of fail.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Greg Maddux

In 1999, you may recall, the All-Star Game was at Fenway Park. The Red Sox' last series before the break was in Atlanta. I was on the trip as second Herald guy to back up beat reporter Tony Massarotti for one reason. I was, and am, a fast writer.

If there's one thing the Herald was good at in my day, it was going ape over big sports events. We had a special section planned for the paper that came out the day of the All-Star Game about the size of one of Tolstoy's deeper novels. I believe my three stories were Nomar, Jeter, and A-Rod, and I was only one of I think 11 Herald writers for the game.

But the pre-game access to the All-Stars would be in a hotel ballroom in Boston Monday. At noon. Tony and I had the last Sunday evening flight from Atlanta home, a 7 p.m. job. First pitch in Turner Field was 1:08 p.m. We HAD to make the plane, but then again, we couldn't leave in the eighth inning after filing partial-score stories. Making matters jollier, afternoon thunderstorms were forecast. We were, in a word, screwed.

Except we weren't. Greg Maddux was the Braves' starting pitcher. Against a DH-less Sox lineup, Maddux worked with his usual bland precision. Strike one, strike two, grounder to the infield. Toss ball around infield. Repeat. When the cumulus clouds started to build up in the seventh, Maddux bore down and got guys out on TWO pitches. He had a plane to Boston, too.

Braves won, I forget the final score, but I'll never forget the time of game. 2:06. I hustled down to the Atlanta clubhouse to write about my new hero, Maddux. He had saved my professional bacon. So how'd he do it? How in the peak of the steroid-addled homer-addicted baseball of the '90s had he thrown a complete game lifted out of the 1907 season?

Maddux, a trim but hardly buff athlete, looked at me with surprise. Had I SEEN a baseball game before, he thought but was too polite to say.

"It all starts with location of my fastball," Maddux DID say. "When that works, everything works."

Just so. Maddux's fastball was never compared to that of Bob Feller, or that of his contemporaries Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens. It clocked in at a respectable but hardly frightening 90 mph, give or take an mph. But no pitcher of his time, or maybe of any time, could equal Maddux's ability at one simple, magical feat -- making the ball cross home plate at the exact spot he wanted it to.

Control (I refuse to use its bastard stepchild synonym "command") IS pitching. At the most basic level, if you can't throw strikes, you can't pitch. At the major league level, if you can't throw the right kind of strikes, you won't last past the fourth inning. Nobody threw more of the right kind of strikes than Maddux.

This brings up a corollary to Maddux's ability. A pitcher has to know what the right kind of strikes are, because that varies from hitter to hitter and from pitch to pitch with each hitter. Maddux's career was also a tribute to my prime belief about pitching-the most important muscle in a pitcher's body is the one between his ears.

Yes, I know these are baseball fundamentals every fan learns as a kid. That's my point. Fundamentals are HARD. They are the essential mysteries of their sports, the grails jocks spend a lifetime seeking. Blocking and tackling. Skating fast. Put the ball in the fairway off the tee. Easy to write. Doing them, not so much. Fundamentals seem boring because they can't be argued about in bars or on the radio. But they're what matters. They're all that matters, really. Final scores are merely a reflection of who came closer to the sport's essentials more often on that particular occasion. The rest, and God knows I wrote about the rest as much or more than anyone, is just filigree.

No pitcher ever spent more time expressing the fundamentals of his trade than Greg Maddux. It is my intention to live long enough to cast my vote (like he'll need it) to help make him an almost-unanimous (some ass will maintain that inane tradition) first ballot Hall of Famer. Maddux didn't only excel. He did so in a meaningful way.

Besides, I owe him. We did make that flight.