Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Pair of Hildys

WARNING: The following story was read on an Internet message board and posted by an anonymous person, so it may be a crock. I have done no reporting to verify this tale, but I prefer to believe it, so I'm posting it here.

As you may know, some guy, allegedly a University of Georgia professor, went off the tracks yesterday and shot and killed three people. A horrible story so commonplace it's barely news, unless you live in Athens, Georgia that is. Homicidial maniac on the loose is considered a pretty big story in those parts.

Big enough for this. Two women reporters in that town, one with AP, one with CNN, were members of a wedding party. They were bridesmaids. When the news broke, they left the church, and worked the story all day and night -- IN THEIR BRIDESMAID'S DRESSES! They talked to cops, neighbors, the whole crime beat bit, all the while dressed like, no doubt, Scarlett O'Hara's revenge on Melanie.

I'll never meet those women, but if I should, their bottle of Kristal is on me. That is awesome. That is what reporting is all about. Get the story. Forget your life, your dignity, just get the facts and get them out to the audience-because they need to know.

I have nothing against the so-called "new media," seeing as I'm part of it and all. But it took a tradition of more than a hundred years, bred into those two women as part of their souls, to get them to do what they did. Bloggers, no offense, don't have that shared professional instinct yet. How could they, working in a medium about a decade old?

If you're just a news consumer, maybe what those women did doesn't seem awesome. Maybe it seems just plain weird. You wouldn't be wrong, exactly. But understand this. Without that weirdness, you'd have no news to consume at all.

Final Thoughts on the Patriots' Draft

1. When you go to the track, there's no law that says you have to bet every race.
2. It'd be silly to think that when pro scouting departments study the draft class of 2009 in action, either live or on videotape, they aren't forming opinions on the class of 2010 that's playing in the same games.

Resumes Count, But So Do References

Bill Belichick give the lie to his reputation for reticence last night. He actually revealed more about the NFL draft and himself than any other participant. It was an unprompted admission, too. Nobody exactly breaks down and confesses under the relentless interrogation techniques of Chris Berman.

Belichick went on ESPN2 after the first two rounds of the draft were over to explain the Pats' draft strategy in dropping out of the first round. This was no strain on his powers of bland obfuscation. There are plenty of inoffensive and universally understood euphemisms for "you know, we didn't really think there was much difference between players 20-80 on this year's board." But then Berman asked about New England's second-round pick of offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer of Houston -- a player so little known that ESPN had no tape on him!! (Berman made this sound as if Belichick had found Vollmer playing for some team in the jungles of Sumatra).

For whatever reason, be it fatigue or his very real desire to communicate how football works, Belichick let his guard down, and answered the question not only fully, but revealingly. What follows is a paraphrase, but it's pretty close.

"Well, so-and-so is on our staff, and his dad is the trainer down there in Houston, and in fact I worked with him when I had my first job in the NFL in 1975," Belichick said.

How unscientific. How delightful. Someone Belichick knew and trusted through the endless series of personal connections football people build up in their working lives told him to check out a player. He did, and liked what he saw. One of the shrewdest evaluators of football talent extant, if not the shrewdest, made an important personnel decision in much the same way regular folks make important purchases -- on word of mouth recommendations from trusted friends and acquaintances.

I'm sure the Pats made Vollmer jump through all the hoops of modern player evaluation before they picked him. Those are basic training-their point is to see if a player can accept the 24/7 control essential to being a well-paid cog in the machine. But when it came to FINDING Vollmer, Belichick's explanation was the essence of homey mom and pop simplicity. It had a lot more in common with the drafts from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, when a Street and Smith's yearbook and Christmas cards to college coaches were a franchise's scouting department, than it did with the modern draft, overanalyzed by observers and participants alike.

Maybe it took a coach secure enough in his job and reputation to allow the world to see that seat-of-your-pants experimentation plays a larger role in the draft than the NFL would like us to believe. Or maybe, because everything old is new again in football, NFL historian Belichick made the Vollmer pick as the scouting equivalent of the Wildcat formation. It's thought to be impossible to find overlooked players in the draft these days. Belichick managed to do it.

ESPN had no videotape on Vollmer. That alone should make any football fan with a soul root hard for the guy when training camp starts.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Endless Summer Game

The NFL draft and today's Red Sox-Yankees game will both start a little after 4 p.m. The draft will close as close to 9 as the league can manage. The odds that the Sox-Yanks will still be going on at that time are 6-5. Odds they won't yet have reached the ninth are 2-1. Odds that I'll watch any of the game before 7 p.m. -- off the board.

What is it with these two freakin' teams, anyway? Neither is what they once used to be earlier in the decade, but they're still fine clubs, legitimate contenders. Yet when they get together, they kill their sport, turning baseball into an exercise in creative dawdling. Committing to watching from the first pitch on is akin to that summertime vow to read "War and Peace" at the beach instead of one's usual Elmore Leonard. A four-hour game in regulation is no surprise. A three-hour game means either a Boston or New York pitcher threw a no-hitter.

Last night's 5-4 Sox win had all the drama you could ask for-starting at approximately 10:40 p.m. Until then, it had the fast-paced excitement of a cricket Test Match, only with more runners left on base. Baseball affords infinite opportunities for stopping what action there is, and the Yanks and Sox know every trick, from an inability to throw first pitch strikes to the mound conferences every time an enemy baserunner reaches second (or first if it's after the fourth inning).

Mark Teixeira may be the newest Yankee, but he fits right in. A called strike is his occasion to step out of the batter's box and review the situation, the count, the score, his entire philosophy of life. Sometimes, Teixeira would conclude his reverie by looking up at the general direction of the Citgo sign. Do the Yanks have a sign stealer up there? Or did he have some popsie sitting in the Monster seats? At least I could understand that last one.

Baseball's most storied rivalry has become entirely too fraught with meaning. It's like the 2003-2004 ALCSs never ended in the minds of the Sox and Yanks, and their seasons and entire self-worth hang on every pitch. The result is sluggish and unhealthy. It's baseball's equivalent of a heart with clogged arteries.

When a manager brings in his pushing 40 Hall of Fame closer for a four-out save in April, as Joe Girardi did last night, he is a) an idiot, b) putting just a bit too much emphasis on the moment. Jason Bay's game-tying homer was horsehide karma at its finest.

Too bad it happened to Rivera. I usually cheer up when I see him or Jonathan Papelbon enter a Sox-Yanks game. That means it might have less than an hour to go.

The Yankees are an old team, and old teams play slow baseball. What's Boston's excuse? Oh, right. Working the count. Working the count to the tune of 13 men LOB. Another point for Rivera and Papelbon. Since they usually throw strikes, guys hack. Sometimes they even hit it.

As you may have heard, baseball has a little empty seat problem this spring. Most of it is economics, but when you're selling entertainment, the consumer's cost-benefit analysis has a lot to do with the show you're presenting.

Any fan in Boston or New York last night could have taken his/her significant other to dinner and a movie and returned home in time to catch all the significant action in the game, while spending far, far less than they would have to have sat in Fenway Park and watched the whole thing. May I suggest that's a dangerous equation for the two richest, most expensive franchises in the game?

I have nothing against either the Red Sox or Yankees. In theory, such as when reading their box scores, I admire both clubs. But every time they meet, supposedly the finest show their game has to offer, three little words pop into my mind, often around the second or third pitching change.

Jumped the shark.

Friday, April 24, 2009


The Internet was the perfect invention for the NFL draft. Remove the layers of hooey past from the event, and the draft is a list of names. The Internet is an unequaled means of reading a list quickly and then looking up stuff about who or what's on the list. Plus, of course, the Internet doesn't scream at you nor make you watch pictures of huge young men wearing funny-looking caps.

Best of all, the Web allows me to give the proper amount of attention to the draft as a sport fan. Thirty minutes or so a day sounds about right. I'm a speed reader.

I don't think the draft is overrated. Yes, it's an occasion that reminds me of those folks who'd rather talk about wine than drink it, but that's prejudice. I know the draft is important for the players and teams involved, and it's a pleasant parlor game for fans-as long as they remember the economics theory of asymmetric information. That is, the teams doing the drafting, even the ones who make picks that turn out horribly wrong, even Dan Snyder, have much more information about those players than you do.

And yes, the law of asymmetric information applies in spades to media members. It was one reason I hated writing about it. A columnist is supposed to take a position, but how do you take one when you're not all that sure what the hell you think? It's tough enough to try and guess along with Bill Belichick when all you can't see is his hole card. When you can't see any card in the deck, it's hopeless.

There was another reason I hated writing draft columns-a more personal one. As a football talent scout, I suck. I lack even the most basic ability - picking the college players who are stone locks to succeed in the NFL. I'm pretty sure the last college player I felt that way about was O.J. Simpson.

On closer judgment calls, I have no judgment to speak of, as the following story should reveal. Back in 1993, when BU still had football, it also was working on an undefeated season and made the Division 1-AA playoffs. The quarterback, Robert Dougherty, was sort of a Doug Flutie clone, short, slippery, made big plays, threw the occasional big interception. At the 1-AA level, he was a hoss.

BU's first-round playoff game was against Northern Iowa at Nickerson Field. Highly entertaining. BU won in overtime by something like 45-41, and each team gained over 500 yards, most of it by passing. I wrote a column on Dougherty. I may or may not have mentioned the name of the other team's QB. At any rate, I forgot him the minute the story was filed, and never game the guy a nanosecond's thought until January, 2000.

That's when I got to Super Bowl XXXIV, and realized that the guy who I'd completely ignored back then and forever after was Kurt Warner.

Matt Millen, you should feel better now.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Blockages Can Be Fatal

The fundamental story line of last night's corker of a playoff game between the Celtics and Bulls can be found in three entries in the box score.

The Bulls, who love running and jumping more than Irish setter puppies, blocked 14 shots. That must've been fun, but it also goes a long way to explain why they lost 118-115.

Blocked shots are the mixest of blessings. Obviously, they are preferable to made shots by the opposition. Less obviously, they don't necessarily result in changes of possession. Least obviously, they actually make subsequent scoring by the opposition easier.

As a rule, blocked shots take one's interior defense out of position for rebounding, since the block involves moving away from the basket, and making a body commitment in that direction it is difficult to reverse. Should the block wind up in the hands of the shooting team, a frequent occurance, the shooters are in position to dominate your goal-a very bad thing in all team sports.

The Celtics had 21 offensive rebounds in the game. That is approximately 10 times more helpful to winning were the Bulls' rejections. Indeed, without the rejections, the number of offensive rebounds would have been far smaller.

And that, class, is why the Celtics took 96 shots to Chicago's 8o, which is why they won. If sentenced to a weird life imprisonment in which they could receive no scores, and only one common statistic from each game, basketball fans should pick Field Goals Attempted. In the NBA, the team that takes the most shots wins far more often than not. When the disparity is close to 25 percent, the team taking the most shots never loses.

The Bulls are, as they say, "athletic," that is, good at running, jumping, and reaction time. Those are admirable and desirable qualities for a basketball team. Athleticism, however, is a means to an end-not the end itself.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Overcrowding of the Long-Distance Runners

There are days and events when I miss sportswriting more than others. The NCAA Tournament, for example. During March, I grieved for my former life , an emotion I seldom feel anymore.

Then there are days like today. Patriots Day. Marathon Day. Whatever else happens to me during the next 14 hours or so, I will not have to think of anything to say about the 113th Boston Marathon, guaranteeing I go to bed with a positive life score.

Don't misunderstand. I LIKED covering the Marathon, up to a point. Indeed, it was one of my specialities as a columnist. The men and women who compete in that event deserve nothing but the utmost respect and admiration from anyone who has the slightest interest in sports. I was privileged to cover some great races and great athletes. Boston would be a far, far poorer city in spirit without the Marathon.

However, as a sportswriting experience, the Marathon suffers from the same problem as another beloved sports tradition I got sick of-spring training. Repetition. The root word of "news" is, after all, "new." Unless one is a total hack, the belief that one has nothing fresh to contribute to a reader's understand or enjoyment of an event is the most helpless, sickening sensation in sportswriting. Yet both the Marathon and spring training are popular in large part precisely because they ARE pretty much the same every year. That's why folks call them "rites."

Spring training in 2009 was the same as in 1909. Go to the BPL and look up the stories, and only the names changed over a century. So it is with the Marathon. A wise old writer once told me, way back before I hit the creative wall at the event, that "there are basically seven stories at the Marathon, and they don't change from year to year. Once you've written all seven, it's time to cover something else."

He's right. Men's winner. Women's winner. Wheelchairs. People running for charity. Runners who used to be addicts/smokers/really fat. Runners who are celebrities or celebrity spouses. The Hoyts. There's seven. Write in if you can think of any others.

I covered my first Marathon in 1978, and my last in 2004, missing no more than three or four in that time. Using my old guide's rule of thumb, I pretty much wrote every story the Marathon has to offer three times each. I don't make it a habit of going back and reading my old stuff, but I'd be willing to bet a certain freshness was lacking in the 21st century pieces. Let's just say I didn't wake up on Patriot's Day thinking they'd be pulling the Pulitzer Committee out of bed when my story was posted on the Herald Web site.

It's not the Marathon's fault I got tired of writing about it. This is a problem endemic to all sportswriting, to all journalism, really. At some point, expertise on a topic is undercut by one's weariness with said topic. You know more, but the ability to make that knowledge engrossing to others fades because you're less interested than you were when engaged in your own learning curve. It takes the attitude of a true scholar to thrive as a beat writer. Thank God I got paid to be a generalist.

Every journalist should wake up each morning and assess his or her reaction to the following ancient baseball cliche. You see something new every day in this game.

If the reporter's gut instinct is "the hell you do," it's time to find another game to cover.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Blind Leading the Ratings Period

What is it about Chicago and its sports announcers? One of the world's great cities, big league in every respect, employs the worst, most egregious homers as its broadcasters in all the U.S. and quite possibly in our quadrant of the galaxy. Let's just say that Hawk Harrelson is NOT the worst of them. Takes the breath away, doesn't it?

Idly remoting around the cable universe once the Bruins game was a done deal, I happened across superstation WGN's local news broadcast, which was winding down to the sports segment. The broadcaster (weak voice, strong hair) lead, naturally, with the Bulls' win over the Celtics. No problem there.

But said babblehead had a bee in his bonnet. Rather than focus on, oh, I don't know, Derrick Rose's record-tying 36 point effort (to tie a Kareem scoring record is, to me anyway, a newsworthy feat), he wanted to draw his viewers' indignant attention to the foul called on Joakim Noah at the end of regulation, which MIGHT have cost the Bulls the game, but didn't.

Noah's collision with Paul Pierce was rerun in slow motion, and our antihero declaimed, "There's no way that's a foul!!!"

The replay, of course, showed that Noah should have drawn two minutes for cross-checking. Not one Bull, not even Noah himself, made a significant protest to the refs. Rather than tout his home team's stirring and unexpected victory, the broadcaster, whose name I made a point of forgetting, chose to gin up an imaginary outrage, one which only he saw.

All local TV newscasters are blatant homers. TV news operates on the assumption that people who watch television are first-magnitude rubes. The happy talk anchorbanter of all Boston stations about the local sports teams would be infuriating if it weren't so pathetic.

But there's homerism and then there's homerism. Bitching at the refs AFTER A WIN is the sort of behavior that gets a mere fan shut off for the night at the corner saloon. This idiot was making a national fool of himself.

God only knows what he'll be like if Chicago does get the 2016 Olympics.

We Are Back!!!

Hi, there! After a week's forced hiatus due to technical issues that blogger had and which I do not understand, this blog has returned. Hopefully, so will its audience.

I will dutifully try to be more prolific.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Great Moments in Rock and Roll and Lede-Burying

This blogger was fortunate enough to see the Grateful Dead, oh, maybe 10 times between 1970-1975. They weren't my favorite band of that period, but I was friends with many folks who were your classic Deadheads, and of course, the Dead were always on tour, meaning there were more opportunities to see them than their peers in the rock pantheon. They were also a damn fine show.

I now consider the time spent listening to the Dead to be validated completely by an unintentionally hilarious article in the Arts & Leisure section of today's Sunday Times. It's a looong piece on people who collect, listen to, and rate sound recordings formerly known as "bootleg tapes" of Grateful Dead concerts. These people spend quite bit of their precious time on earth arguing over "what was the BEST Grateful Dead concert ever?"

How to take the fun out of life, guys. Might as well argue about the best sunrise of your life. Rock and roll shows are instrinsically subjective experiences, and aside from certain fundamental levels of musicianship, there's nothing to argue about. I suppose it's only a matter of time before one of these obsessed fools invents saberDeadmetrics.

I almost gave up on this article in disgust, which would have been a big mistake. At the very end, on the second jump page, the author, a nitwit, got around to asking former members of the Dead how they rated their concerts. Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh each gave essentially the same answer.

Concerts? Who remembers?

Way to be, fellas! Roll one and smoke it if you got it.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Bobby Jones Was Stranger Than You Might Think

The day before the Masters began, ESPN Classic was, for a change, doing its job, and running highlight films of Masters past. Way past. I tuned in just in time for the start of the 1963 Masters highlights, a work done so long ago, it was before the late Chris Schenkel starting narrating those things.

Glad I did, kind of. The highlight film of Jack Nicklaus' first Masters title began with an introduction from four Augusta National caddies, all African American, of course, although that's not the term club members used back then. They were singing, and, well, there is no other word here, shuffling.

Oh, dear. Hope T. Woods doesn't like old sports films as much as I do. Funny thing about stereotypes though. They often contain blowback. The racial misconcepts contained in that film are long gone. But the segment did a bang-up job of reinforcing the stereotype of Augusta National Golf Club held by every sports fan.

Augusta National. One of the world's great golf courses, and a club run by a secretive, snotty collection of wealthy, hidebound big shots who embody every retrograde trait in American life. Racism, sexism, classism, you name the bad attitude, they have it and flaunt it.

That's the stereotype. It is supported every spring by the obnoxious, syrupy, pompous commentary on the event which fans know damn well is required of the broadcasters by the club. Those little prose poems inserted into ESPN's broadcast yesterday did more to encourage class warfare than AIG ever could.

The Augusta National stereotype is not made up from whole cloth. Ask Martha Burk. But enough of it IS false to make attending the Masters a much more interesting experience than one might think.

Start with the basics. Augusta National is indeed a club full of wealthy, powerful men, many of whom are from the South, the state of Georgia to be precise. Don't look for any descendants of William Tecumseh Sherman to be wearing green jackets. The members are used to running things, and they are an imperious lot.

Yet they knock themselves out each year to put on the Masters. It is what sets their club apart. There are several other private golf clubs in this country just as exclusive and that contain courses as good as Augusta, Pine Valley and Seminole to name two. They don't hold tournaments. They are true hideaways for the members.

An anecdote might help explain what I mean. My last Masters as a columnist was in 2002, by far the dullest of Tiger's major tournament triumphs. In the press building, a club officials introduced several reporters to a bespectacled man in a green jacket, a member who had decided there was more he could do to help the beloved event.

"Sam will be here to help you fellows with any questions," we were told.

Sam was Sam Nunn. Former U.S. Senator. World expert on nuclear arms control. Counselor to Presidents. And for one afternoon, sports PR intern.

My point being, the actual in-person Masters is a much more pleasant and relaxed affair than one would ever guess from watching the stick-up-the-ass Masters you see on CBS. The actual clubhouse and its facilities, while perfectly nice, are hardly lavish. The members' locker room is, if not bare bones, hardly full of the luxury its regular customers experience in their daily lives. And that famous drive to the club entrance? It's a hard right turn off a 4-lane highway that is the very vision of Sun Belt strip mall hell. Know where Augusta National is? Third stop light past Hooters.

The members, those who aren't actually working as part of the event, fade into the background, and look benevolently at the unseen part of the tournament-the social get-together of the world of golf after its winter hiatus. Legendary course architects, the captain of the Royal & Ancient, and similar poobahs chat cheerily with the parents of the unknown amateurs out there on the course shooting 81.

Since the bulk of the patrons (spectators) or their forebearers have been attending the event on an annual basis since Ben Hogan's last triumph there, they are as collegial as the insiders. And the patrons also provide the most striking sociological fact about the Masters, one no TV viewer is likely to ever guess.

The Masters' galleries contain a higher percentage of African American fans than do the crowds for almost any other major U.S. sports event I have ever attended. Far more than any regular season game at Fenway, for example. These fans are, by and large, residents of Augusta. They are the black power structure of that small, dumpy city. At some point in the past, the club made the conscious decision to distribute a percentage of the most cherished ducats in sports to that community. It makes sense, because good relations with the locals is important for any club, but then, admitting a woman member would make sense, too, and the club famously won't do that.

Augusta National is, in a word, schizophrenic. It's half snooty private club (but one with style, discussing business on the course is grounds for immediate forced resignation), and half a group of wealthy, powerful men dedicated to putting on the world's best golf tournament (it's second to the Open Championship, but second's not bad). And ON THE PREMISES, these men make sure that golf's first principle is observed-have fun out there.

These same men think Jim Nantz is a great announcer, and exercise their considerable influence to make sure television presents a very different Masters from the real one. Go figure.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Baseball Previews

The headline of this post is not a typo. There is no force on earth except money that could get me to write another baseball season preview article, or indeed, a season preview of any sport. Making predictions for one game or series is pointless and futile. Doing so for six months worth of athletic activity is the sort of hubris that leads to a very bad final 15 minutes for the protagonists of many classic Greek dramas.

But I will teach my loyal readers how to READ baseball (and other sports) previews. In fact, I'll teach you how to write your own.

The first rule of predictions and previews is, don't put in too much effort. It's a matter of return on investment. Your chances of being humiliatingly wrong or, worse, boring and conventionally correct remain the same whether you employ diligent study of 30 major league rosters and abstruse mathematical formulas for forecasting or a brief stroll through the Web site. This is because of rule 2.

2. What happened last time is very, very often what's going to happen this time. This is especially true of individual baseball players. Albert Pujols, barring injury, is not going to hit .240 this season. Daisuke Matsuzaka will not compile a 5-12 record. Teams, being comprised of individuals, tend to follow this trend. The Washington Nationals stunk last year and will do so again. The Red Sox were contenders, and will be so again. So the forecasters should look at last year's standings and plug in 90 percent of the teams in the same position they finished in 2008.

3. Players move around. The changes baseball previews DO predict for the new season are invariably based on the imagined effects of free agent acquisitions. Forecasters ignore the very real holes in the lineup and starting rotation of the New York Mets because the Mets have acquired relievers Francisco Rodriguez and J. J. Putz. This gives the preview a reason to choose the Mets to finish ahead of the Phillies in the NL East. Got to have reasons. Fortunately, reasons need not be good ones.

4. Mediocre teams are the hardest to analyze. Therefore, don't. The "best" teams in American League Central and National League West are as full of negatives as they are of positives. Just guess. If you like/hate Manny Ramirez your sentiments are as good a means of predicting what will happen to the Dodgers as any other. Blindfolded dart-throwing is sufficient for the AL Central, because that's what many games played in the division will resemble.

5. Allow for home team windage. A brief survey of the Boston and New York papers shows that most forecasters in Boston like the Sox to win the AL East, while most in New York pick the Yanks. (My old pal Tony Massarotti picked the Rays, a fine example of sticking to rule 2 of this guide). Despite what you might think, this is not sleazy homerism for marketing purposes. The reporters are suffering from spring training syndrome a/k/a optimism osmosis.

Baseball teams are more psychologically isolated in spring training than at any other time, which is saying something. They are also legendarily optimistic about the upcoming season. This is a mental survival mechanism. Since most teams don't contend, if an individual isn't feeling good about himself in March, August is going to be a grimmer experience than postmodernist fiction.

Baseball reporters cover spring training. They are surrounded by and absorb the atmosphere of good cheer. It lingers. And come April, when preview time rolls around, sober, cynical scribes of longstanding wind up ignoring possible problems for the teams they cover, such as C. C. Sabathia weighing more than a nose tackle by Memorial Day, or Jason Varitek's very real chance of obtaining no hits with men on base in 2009. I guarantee that SOMEONE in the Kansas City Star's baseball preview has told readers the Royals could be the Rays of this summer. I suspect the employees of the gambling industry firms who set the season-win over-under totals out in Vegas are not permitted to watch March baseball, read about it, or watch ESPN until Opening Day.

6. The hardest part. Baseball previews are written because fans like to read them. Nothing cheers up a fan like thinking a sportswriter is wrong, and being able to say so in a loud voice. In order to provide fair value, the previewer must have some opinion that is designed to make his conventional wisdom stick out from everybody else's conventional wisdom. Some contrarianism is essential.

Alas, baseball writing is as subject to groupthink as any other human endeavor. So it was with a sinking feeling of sympathetic dread that I read my former professional peers this morning. The overwhelming consensus favorite choice of previewers as the eventual 2009 World Champions is the Chicago Cubs.

Gang, you all forgot Rule 2!!!!

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Genetics of Failure

Class, here's a little business math for the recession. If a company states it is losing $85 million a year, and says it must close in 30 days unless it gets $20 million in wage and benefit concessions from its unions, exactly how much time will said unions buy for their members if they accept the demand?

Let's see. Thirty days + however many days is 365 times a little less than one-fourth. Or, working without benefit of calculator here, approximately four months and change. So my former professional peers at the Globe, many of whom are my dear friends, can reasonably expect to see the New York Times Co. back with more demands by Labor Day, even if they give the company everything it's asking for today.

It's the familiar newspaper waltz of death First, it's benefit cuts and wage freezes. Then come the layoffs. Then, surprisingly enough, more customers, advertisers and readers alike, note they're getting less for their money, and leave, setting the band to playing once more.

Grow the business? Turnaround plan? Please. Don't you know the Internet makes that impossible? Having squandered the opportunity to plan for the future when times were good, newspaper owners have no strategy for bad times except destroying their enterprises in order to save them, or rather, in this case, to save the Class A stock on which their PERSONAL fortunes rest.

As some of you know, the waltz spun me off in 2005. The Herald, then and now, was a different case. Two newspaper cities were almost extinct when I went to work there in 1987. Everybody at the Herald, from publisher Pat Purcell on down, knew they were in an odds-against venture (and still are). If the odds get you, it hurts, but on a very basic level, it's no shock, and complaining seems, well, bush.

The Herald and Globe are no longer really competitors. The Herald does the best it can with a skeleton crew of news producers, but let's face it. Every Friday night in West Roxbury, the funeral homes are full of wakes, and almost every one of them is for a Herald reader. Urban tabloids aimed at the sensibilities of older white Catholics haven't got a chance, because the target audience doesn't live there anymore.

The Globe's situation is much different. Its workers are being asked to make sacrifices, no, make that extorted to make sacrifices, because the New York Times Co. is one of the most mismanaged businesses in this great land of ours. It isn't a criminal enterprise like AIG, but misjudgment has bankrupted 100,000 times more people than fraud ever will.

The Times bought the Globe for over a billion bucks in the early 1990s. Less than 20 years later, the company is willing to take a total loss on the investment? Labor's role in that disaster is that of innocent bystander. Homer Simpson at work couldn't demolish market value that thoroughly.

No, as its editorial pages are forever lecturing us, accountability starts at the top of any organization. The Times needs Globe employees to eat less because Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., a/k/a "Pinch", publisher and CEO, is a bungler.

On Sulzberger's watch, the Times had one reporter, Jayson Blair, make stories up for some time without caught, stories that got printed on the front page. It had another reporter, Judy Miller, pass on fraudulent information about Iraq's weapons program, and stamped it with the newspaper of record's seal of approval. The damage to the paper's brand identity is incalculable. People cannot expect everything in a newspaper to be correct. They damn well have the right to expect the newspaper did its utmost to make it so.

And compared to Sulzberger the CEO, Sulzberger the publisher is a titan of newspaper history. Thanks in large part to decisions like buying the Globe, and passing up the chance to get into a little Internet venture called Google, Times stock has cratered, and it making its debt service on the kindness and loans of Carlos Slim, Mexican zillionaire. Best not to ask how one accumulates a zillion in Mexico.

In a REAL public corporation, stockholders would have shoved Pinch over the side about a decade ago. But the Times isn't real. It has only one class of voting stock, and that class is firmly controlled by the Sulzberger family. Managerially speaking, this gives the company the worst of both worlds. It has the financial pressures of a large corporation AND the internal pressures of a family business. Families grow, and sooner or later, there are more members depending on the business for income than there are willing and/or able to work in it.

The macroeconomic crisis of the newspaper industry is very real. The same crisis affects ALL mass media. Radio has it even worse. Long story short, the Internet hasn't destroyed newspapers, it's destroyed the advertising-supported business model of all media, even Internet media. They're not making money at Facebook or Twitter, either, and aren't quite sure how they will.

But newspapers have another problem. Their expansion into chains was built on a mountain of debt and an assumption each paper had a monopoly. Monopoly is never a business plan that lasts very long. Using it is a textbook definition of mismanagement.

Because of its brand name, the Times Co. is in a position to attempt to break the death waltz. It, perhaps alone among newspapers, could tell its customers, "pay up, you cheap fucks," and start charging real money for access to its superb Web site. It could bundle access to the Times with telecom carriers. What with wireless, land line and cellphone service, and FiOS, my household has its own page in Verizon's annual report. Another few bucks a month would hardly be noticed.

But the Times Co. isn't trying. Its demands to the Globe unions are part of a strategy to strip its outlying assets to preserve the operations of the New York Times newspaper. Ownership is tearing off its roof to use as firewood to keep the living room warm. That'll work.

That, I think, is what saddens and angers me most about the newspaper business today. Management isn't trying. I accept my departure from the industry in somewhat better grace because I believe Purcell DID try. He made many mistakes, but lack of effort isn't one of them.

When an automobile company lays people off, it makes fewer cars. When a newspaper lays people off, it makes an inferior product, because its employees ARE the product. Information is the most labor-intensive business around (that's why good public schools equal high property taxes). It's as if GM's response to disaster was to make cars without back axles.

I never give people advice about their livelihoods. My personal financial story is hardly one of unbroken success. But it would appeal to me, Boston Globe reader, if the unions' counterproposal to the Time Co. was "we'll accept all your demands in return for Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger's immediate resignation. And management better that story above the fold on page one, too."

I know what's going to happen to the Globe employees, my peers, my friends. It makes me sick. They can't win. So they might as well humiliate the morons who are ruining their lives.

Friday, April 03, 2009


Since I successfully predicted (no great accomplishment) that some NFL team would go mad for desire for Jay Cutler and make a trade for the rebellious-yet-somehow-strangely-vulnerable quarterback, which happened less than 24 hours later, I am started to find that this is the first sports transaction which has seriously affected my own life and behavior.

I now carry a deck of playing cards on my person at all times, on the offchance I'll run into Bears general manager Jerry Angelo.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Market Survey

This afternoon was pleasant and about 60 degrees, so I went for a walk in my pleasant suburban neighborhood when I got home from work.

I saw 22 automobiles on my stroll, either cars that drove by or were parked in driveways. They were, by make.

8 Toyotas
6 Hondas
2 VWs
1 Mercedes-Benz
1 Lexus
1 Audi
1 Subaru


1 Chevy and 1 Ford. Signage on the back of the Ford indicated it is owned by a retired firefighter.

So, as the automobile industry heads to the bottom of the ninth, the score is World 20- U.S. 2. And frankly, there's some doubt as to how long half our team can continue to put runs up on the board.

Good luck with the bailout, Mr. President!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Quarterback as Chick Flick

Were I an NFL general manager, which perish forfend, I'd never trade a first or any other round draft choice for estranged Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler. Who wants someone around you always worry about hurting their feelings with a cross word, or look?

Cutler is simply too sensitive a soul for his chosen profession. Upon hearing that his old coach Mike Shanahan was fired, Cutler wanted to leave the Broncos. Upon hearing that his new coach Josh McDaniels was considering trading for another quarterback, Cutler demanded to leave the Broncos. He won't answer owner Pat Bowlen's phone calls. He is presumably holding his breath till his face is the same shade as his helmet.

Cutler says the Broncos lied to him about their interest in another QB. Your boss lied to you? Welcome to the human race, Jay.

Pouting is unappealing behavior in a child. In a quarterback getting paid millions to lead, it's disgusting. It will also lead many franchises to conclude they'd just as soon let someone else pay those millions.

Someone will. Optimism and desperation blend seamlessly into poor front office decisions. One insufficiently recognized element of the Patriots' success is that while the franchise has made its share of choices that didn't work out, it has avoided unforced errors. Trading a first round draft pick for a quarterback who's an injustice collector is a double foot-fault of an unforced error.

It's not that Cutler is without ability. He's played 37 games in three seasons and has 54 touchdown passes. That's good. But it hardly justifies the widespread opinion that the Broncos are throwing away a Super Bowl ticket if they dump him.

Contrary to accepted wisdom, truly great NFL quarterbacks do NOT necessarily develop slowly, sitting on the bench for a few seasons while they marinate in the game's mysteries. Three years in, many of history's keepers had already demonstrated why they would be kept.

After three seasons as a pro, Tom Brady had won a Super Bowl. So had Joe Montana. Johnny Unitas had won an NFL title. Terry Bradshaw had led the Steelers to their first playoff berth in history. Dan Marino had been to a Super Bowl and had his own page in the passing record book. Peyton Manning had been to the playoffs and thrown 85 touchdown passes.

Against that, Cutler can offer his 54 TDs and a Pro Bowl berth. Whoopee! Kerry Collins has been to several Pro Bowls.

Accuracy requires the note that there have been relatively late bloomers among the NFL's top quarterbacks, Brett Favre and Steve Young being names that spring to mind. Oddly enough, one other Hall of Famer who didn't do much his first three seasons (although he came on in his fourth) was John Elway. You know, the guy to whom Cutler compared himself favorably.

Elway is near the root of Cutler's issues. Mike Shanahan spent three seasons telling Cutler that he was going to be as great as Elway. Shanahan said the same thing about Jake Plummer, but apparently Cutler doesn't know that, because he believes it. At least, he's acting like he believes it. It's quite an accomplishment when Terrell Owens takes actually being released unexpectedly in a more mature fashion than your reaction to the suggestion you could be replaced.

Perhaps Cutler is one of the late bloomers, and like Favre, a change of scene is all he needs to get a grip and start justifying his high opinion of himself. Perhaps. But the old cliche for quarterback is "field general." When I think of Cutler, the word "shavetail" comes to mind.

McDaniels may have misjudged Cutler completely. If so, he'll be fired, disgraced, and earn a life sentence in assistantville in due course. The coach surely would have been more prudent if he'd actually acquired a replacement before alienating the delicate flower of Invesco Field.

The longer this story goes on, however, the more it seems to me that McDaniels had his reasons.