Monday, June 29, 2009

Thoughts From the American Studies Department

Event subsequent to the untimely (?) death of Michael Jackson remind us that "The Day of the Locust" was a very good book, but only partially fiction.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Six Degrees of Separation From Schaefer Stadium

Count me as extremely skeptical of the chaos theory proposition that Michael Jackson is responsible for Bob Kraft, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and three Super Bowl trophies for the New England Patriots. It gives the Sullivan family either far too much or too little credit for their role in the franchise's history, although I'm not sure which.

According to the theory, if Chuck Sullivan hadn't become involved in the promotion of the Jacksons 1984 Victory Tour, and hadn't been taken to the cleaners by Don King in said deal, then the Pats wouldn't have gone bust and the Sullivans wouldn't have been forced to sell to Victor Kiam leading to the franchise's near-collapse, sale to James Orthwein, arrival of Bill Parcells, ascension of Kraft, etc. I disagree. Don't mistake the investment for the investor.

I covered the Pats' financial collapse of the late '80s. That assignment was pretty much why I was hired by the Herald. It was a story that had its moments, such as walking through the floor of the O'Neill Building devoted to U.S. bankruptcy court and seeing not one, but three rooms dedicated to proceedings involving your New England Patriots, or getting the runaround from Donald Trump's office for days on end. (That was when Trump actually was a businessman., not a reality television character businessman. Today, he'd come to my house to discuss a pro football deal).

But I'm wandering. The point of this post is to state that if the Sullivans hadn't taken a total bath on Michael Jackson, they would have done so in some other disastrous deal, a proposed corner in pork bellies, air rights over the Mass Pike. God help us, they might have bought the Herald.

I liked the Sullivans. They were not completely horrible at running a pro football team, either. But the family never had the capital to own an NFL franchise, and their need for said capital meant they were always on the lookout for an opportunity to make a score. Add to that a complete incapacity for high finance, and balance sheet catastrophe was inevitable. The only question was what would be the source of their doom.

That said source turned out to be Michael Jackson merely reflects the real ability of Billy Sullivan and his clan. They had a gift for the bizarre. Speaking as a sportswriter, I bless them for it.

David Ortiz

The great Bill Veeck wrote that he was convinced the most effective cure for a batting slump was "two pieces of cotton, one for each ear."

David Ortiz's June revival indicates the wisdom of Veeck's perception. When Ortiz, the Red Sox, and the world at large were proactive about his astonishing inability to hit during the spring, his performances at the plate went from bad to worse to I-don't-want-to watch-this. Video study, eye exams, moving down in the lineup, taking a few days off, nothing worked.

As soon as the outside world gave up on Ortiz, and he and the Sox stopped talking about the slump, it went away. It might come back (unlikely), but Ortiz is back to being a threat to pitchers instead of to rallies.

Slumps in any sport are like bad colds. You can cram all the chicken soup you want down your gullet, but in the end, there's nothing for it but to suffer until the morning you wake up and the cold has gone away. Willpower has little to do with the viral process.

It doesn't have much to do with eye-hand coordination, either. Ortiz kept swinging until the delicate balance of his batting stroke fell back into place, probably quite by chance. If a batting slump has ever been cured in another fashion, I'd like to hear about it-and so would the curators at Cooperstown.

Know how Terry Francona keeps saying "these things usually resolve themselves" when asked to speculate about decisions he might have to make, or more usually, that the questioner thinks Francona ought to make RIGHT THIS MINUTE? That statement is exhibits 1-10 as to why Francona is one smart manager. You don't build a baseball season. You grow one.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Records Are Made to Be Broken

One would have thought that Manny Ramirez's explanation of why he failed a drug test would've stood up a little longer as the leader in the clubhouse for the Weirdest, Most Preposterous Alibi of 2009 trophy. Mark Sanford, a man inspired, made sure "I tested positive for female hormones because I took them for an undisclosed sexual problem" is an also-ran by about four furlongs worth of insanity.

"I was hiking the Appalachian Trail" to explain a six-day disappearance which was really an assignation with a mistress in Buenos Aires, well, what can you do but tip your cap to the soon-to-be-former Governor of South Carolina? The creativity involved in coming up with an explanation so obviously off-base as to generate megatons of suspicion is mighty impressive idiocy. My favorite touch was Sanford packing hiking gear and supplies in the car he left at a South Carolina airport. Yeah, that'll throw 'em off the scent. If anybody finds this stuff, they'll know I went hiking-without it. It would not be too much to say that it was probably the only creative act Sanford, a generic southern Republican nice-hair pol, has ever committed.

One hopes the mistress is Martin Bormann's grand-daughter. That's about the only way this story gets better.

Actually, it just struck me what the oddest effect of Sanford's misadventure will be. Thousands of people go away and hike the Appalachian Trail each summer for recreation. It's about as wholesome a vacation as can be-at least it used to be.

Now, not a single one of those outdoorspeople can possibly tell a single soul about their activity. They'll be laughed out of any office or barroom in America. Hiking becomes the hobby that dare not speak its name.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

History Ain't Arithmetic

John Hollinger of ESPN, one of the pestilential tribe of analysts who are attempting to make basketball as overloaded with statistics as baseball, recently set out to rank all the NBA franchises in terms of their historical accomplishments. He had the Lakers number one, and the Celtics number two. That is erroneous, which in itself would be of no interest. It's WHY Hollinger's rankings were wrong that is of wistfully sad concern to yours truly.

All history reflects the mind of the historian who creates it. I assume that Hollinger downgraded the Celtics because of their long, horrid sojourn in the wilderness from around 1993 to last year, when the team had some seasons of memorable misery. I also assume that since Hollinger works for ESPN, which refuses to admit sports existed before it did, his rating reflects the bias, which is shared by many (including David Stern), that the NBA began in 1980.

Because Hollinger is neither stupid nor insane, he did include "intangibles" in his methodology. History, after all, is about people, not numbers. And that's where rating the Lakers over the Celtics is pathetically incorrect. The Lakers are a sports franchise with a meritorious record of success over decades. Their history is an honorable, even legendary one. But it's sports history, pure and simple. Outside of basketball, Laker accomplishments are as follows-gave Paula Abdul her start.

To the small extent sports relates to real life, the Celtics have a record of accomplishment only one other franchise (the Brooklyn-LA Dodgers) can match. Red Auerbach and Bill Russell deserve at least their own footnotes in the history of U.S. race relations.

Russell was the first African American coach in U.S. professional sports. The Celtics were the first team to put five African Americans on the court at the same time, another milestone. In a delightful bookend, the Celts were, as far as I know, the last team to put five white guys on the court at the same time during one of their playoffs series against the 76ers in the early '80s. That factoid highlights the seminal fact about how the Celtics hit all those racial milestones. The franchise made history solely through the narrow perspective of winning and losing.

Auerbach judged his fellow humans on how they could help him. He was ruthlessly honest about that, and even applied the standard to himself. As Phil Jackson acknowledged yesterday, Auerbach kicked himself upstairs to make Russell coach solely because Red felt that's how he could keep his superstar interested (Russell's restless mind often found basketball kind of silly).

Progress is rare enough that we shouldn't care how it happens. Progress achieved through the pursuit of idealism speaks well for us humans, and so gets a lot of pub. In my experience however, the Auerbach brand of progress, that which is achieved through self-interest, tends to be both far more common, and far more permanent.

Sunday, June 07, 2009


Roger Federer had been the world's number-one rated men's tennis player since 2004 until the summer of 2008. Sometime after losing a five-set final at Wimbledon to Rafael Nadal, called the greatest match in history by many folks who know more about the sport than this blogger, Federer slipped to number two.

Since becoming number two, Federer has done the following. He won two of the next three Grand Slam tournaments, and lost to Nadal in another amazing five-setter in the other one. He finally beat Nadal on clay, in Spain, no less. And today, Federer won the French Open, the one Slam he had yet to win. If that is not the definition of "competitor," what on earth is?

Federer has lost a great many matches since last Wimbledon, and his Slam victories are almost the only tourneys he's won. Like that matters. On the championship stage, he remains a champion. Not quite as dominant as two or three years ago, picking his spots, Federer isn't as good as he used to be, but he's greater. I would argue it's what has happened since the 2008 All England final that is Federer's strongest point in his very strong case as the finest tennis player of all time.

To me, at least, the defining moments for great athletes and teams is what they do after their sports get hard for them. Muhammed Ali couldn't be touched in the 1960s. The Thrilla in Manila, the bout that basically wrecked him, gave him as much nobility as a brutal game has to offer. The 1986 Celtics were way, way better than the 1987 Celts, but the latter club was far more glorious in their ultimate defeat. This will be the most interesting season of Tom Brady's career-whatever happens.

Being number two in the world in an individual sport makes you rich, famous, and otherwise sucks. Ask Phil Mickelson how much it is. Federer fell off the top spot he had reached through almost effortless dominance. His reaction speaks for itself.

Or rather, it sings.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Rodney Harrison, Part No. 2

Manny Ramirez violated baseball's drug policies, and was suspended for one-third of a season. The world went nuts. The sports pages treated the story the way the Vienna papers covered the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Manny was on magazine covers. The story made all three network news broadcasts, and ESPN simply melted down in nonstop news ecstasy. Approximately 9,762,573 commentaries were printed, broadcast or posted on how this scandal would affect Ramirez's eligibility for the Hall of Fame.

Two years earlier, Rodney Harrison violated football's drug policies, and was suspended for one-fourth of a season. The world yawned. It was reasonably big news in Boston, but west of the Connecticut River it raised barely a ripple. I don't think it was the lead item on that night's Sportscenter. When composing my earlier post on Harrison, his suspension never crossed my mind.

Harrison is a longshot for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That's because he's a safety, which is a position the selection committee has never really liked much. It took Paul Krause years to get in, and he only had the career interception record. But Harrison's suspension won't matter to the committee. They made their statement on drugs when they elected Lawrence Taylor.

What explains this discrepancy? It is a certifiable fact that the use of performance-enhancing drugs by players is an infinitely bigger deal to the baseball community (fans and journalists) than it is to the equivalent football community. This is especially weird because the vast majority of the members of both communities are the SAME PEOPLE! Most fans follow both sports. Most journalists/commentators cover them both, too.

Part of the discrepancy stems from how the NFL institutionalized its drug-testing and punishment policies long before baseball did. Make a law about something, and it becomes routinized. Guys do the crime, then do the time, and the world keeps turning. Baseball waited until it was obvious even to Congressmen that something was going on before addressing PEDs. Waiting until a problem becomes a crisis is a recurring theme of baseball history.

Part of the discrepancy stems from how PEDs changed baseball in a way they didn't change football. Barry Bonds made the game look foolishly easy. He distorted it. Football players have always been much larger and stronger than the average man, decades before steroids were invented as a drug. If players used artificial means to be big and strong, it didn't change the sport in a recognizable way. If some bioengineer creates a substance that'd let Tom Brady throw 100 TD passes in a season, I daresay there'd be talk.

I'm tempted to say that part of the discrepancy is because there's something about baseball that turns its followers prematurely 75 years of age, but that would just be mean,

The main reason, I think, PEDs elict so much more of an emotional reaction in baseball than in football stems from the nature of football itself. Football is a game of extreme violence and violence's child, pain. The dullest fan knows the players are putting themselves through an ordeal for his entertainment. It would only be human nature for outsiders to be more tolerant of players using artificial means to help endure the ordeal.

Our national drug irrationality stems from the fear that Drugs Are Bad For You. They wreck minds and bodies in frightening and (more relevantly) unfamiliar ways. The medical hazards of PED use are real enough, at least for massive steroid abuse they are. But those hazards look rather tame when applied to a pro football player. There's no PED that poses a long-term health risk that approaches the danger of just playing the damn game. Pro football shortens lives. Pro football leaves men functional cripples. Pro football makes insurance companies not want to return your phone calls.

Knowing that, and as noted before, even the yahooieist fans do, if only subconsciously, football followers are less scared of PEDs than are baseball followers. The lack of fear allows the NFL to conduct its drug policies as a part of normal business rather than as some all-American moral crisis.

It is noteworthy that what DOES upset the football community is player misbehavior in the outside world. An act of first-degree chumpdom such as Plaxico Burress' self-inflicted gunshot wound propelled him to unemployment, as did the strip-joint related knuckleheadedness of Adam Jones. Football fans are upset by the possibility that men they know to have the capacity for boundless violence might use that violence in the world where THEY reside.

Which all things considered is a much more sensible worry than fretting over Bonds' hat size.

Rodney Harrison, Post No. 1

Rodney Harrison was an admirable football player, and I salute the good sense he showed in announcing his retirement. Football collisions are not zero-sum transactions, and a player who makes his living pushing the outside of the violence envelope, as Harrison did, is well-advised to hang 'em up after lost-time injury number two. The time lapse between major owies decreases logarithmically.

Harrison should do a good job as a TV commentator. As an interview, I always found Harrison not only to be candid, but informative. That is, one very often ended a conversation with Harrison knowing more about football than before entering it.

I find it unfortunate, however, for both Harrison and the TV audience that he has signed with NBC-who are sort of the Yankees of football color commentary. A "name" guy hits the market and they ink him to a pact. Tony Dungy, Keith Olbermann-it's all the same to Dick Ebersol.

Since NBC only broadcasts one game and one 1 hour, 45 minute highlight/preview show each week, Harrison isn't going to get a chance to say much. He won't be battling Cris Collinsworth for the mike, which should help a little, but really, he's never going to develop as a broadcasting talent at a one sentence per game day pace.

Besides, there are other networks whose need for accomplished commentators, or even commentators who simply don't suck, is far more pressing than NBC's. Those third- and fourth-tier broadcasting teams at Fox, which New England is sometimes exposed to when NFC teams visit Foxboro, are a trial to the soul. That's a network where Tony Siragusa is considered a big star, after all.

Of course, there's always the NFL Network. Their team of commentators is more than halfway down the highway to the Slough of Despond. Jamie Dukes is baseball's secret marketing weapon. But that network prefers its former players to be guys who TALK REALLY LOUD!!! And who laugh at each other's remarks in lieu of speaking English sentences.

So my proposal for Bob Kraft and the broadcasting committee of the NFL owners is this. The next time contract time rolls around, you guys should insist on a commentators draft for your network partners. It works for your teams, it should work for your TV shows.

Rick Eisen, you're on the clock.