Saturday, October 31, 2009

S%*#-Stirring: A Primer

It is one of the duties of a professional opinionizer, in whatever medium, to occasionally piss off their audience. A commentator who fails to have at least a few provocative opinions is not doing his or her job properly, just as a commentator who's never glaringly wrong is also playing it too safe to justify their paycheck.

But journalistic ethics apply to opinions as much they do to the presentation of facts. There's a right and wrong way to send the audience's blood pressure up to 220/140. Boiling it down to a song title, you gotta be sincere.

Commentators have to believe in their comments. The opinion being expressed must be an honest expression of belief. It's EASY to make people mad, especially sports fans. Making up ideas to do so is wrong on a number of levels, not least the most basic moral level. People who get a charge out of irritating others are jackasses nobody wants to be around. There are commentators who do exactly that, not just in sports, and some of them are rich and famous, too. I wouldn't be them for all their riches. It's not my idea of fun, or life.

Upon review, the two columns I wrote at the Herald that angered the most people stand up to that test. When I wrote in 1991 that the Celtics, were they to avoid a long period of failure, needed to break up their team by trading Larry Bird, I acknowledged this would never happen. That's fair. And I believed with all my heart they had to break up the '80s team or face a decade in the wilderness. Older and in some ways more aware, I have a better understanding of how impossible that was for the team's management. History, however, has partially absolved me.

Now where I was flat wrong. In the latter stages of the 2003 NFL season, I posited that the Patriots needed to end their long winning streak in the regular season, because otherwise they would do so in the playoffs, as it was impossible for any team in our time to win 15 straight games. Boy, people hated that one! I was surprised, actually.

The Pats made me eat my belief and more power to 'em (although I looked dangerously close to being right in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXVIII). But while I was wrong, I wasn't dissembling. My opinion, as stated, reflected my true beliefs and interpretation of the facts at the time. That's honest provocation. Dumb maybe, but fair to the angered audience.

Since I kicked the snot out of him last week, it gives me pleasure to come to the defense of my former colleague Tony Massarotti this morning. Tony wrote a column for that has pissed off Boston fans more than I ever did. He stated that Red Sox fans should root for the Yankees in the World Series. A New York title would shame Sox management out of complacency and spur on the franchise to new heights of free-spending genius in the offseason.

From my vantage point, Tony is about as wrong as he can be in his underlying charge against the Sox. I saw no evidence of organizational torpor in the 2009 season. The acquisition of Victor Martinez is enough evidence to find a directed verdict of "not guilty." The problems the Sox had this year were not exactly of their own making. In the regular season, the Yankees were better than they were. In the playoffs, the Angels were considerably better than the Sox. As they say at West Point, the enemy has a vote.

But I listened carefully to Tony's defense of his opinion this week during his and Michael Felger's radio show (well, I did for 15 minutes stuck in traffic on 128 one afternoon. Then I put in a Smokey Robinson CD). He meant it. His defense of his misbegotten opinion rang completely true, mainly because it got more coherent and detailed the more he was challenged. People who just throw an opinion out there haven't usually put enough thought into the idea to defend it by any means except repeating it.

Massarotti's audience should feel free to disagree with him as vigorously as they wish. I just did. But as a reforming s@#!-stirrer, I advise the audience that Mazz stirred in accordance with the standards of that odd profession.

Bye Week Self-Scouting

NFL players and coaches love the bye week, for understandable if quite different reasons (time off vs. more time to plan and fret). Writers, at least in my time, were more ambivalent. On the one hand, there's less hanging around football stadiums. On the other, just because nothing's happening with your team doesn't mean you get to stop writing about it.

Astute and compassionate readers should not complain if the Patriots' articles in their daily papers seem like pretty thin gruel today, tomorrow, and Monday. It actually is quite a literary accomplishment to make stone soup taste as good as thin gruel.

Bloggers, especially lazy ones like me, have the option of simply ignoring football during the bye week. But I guess those years of listening to Bill Belichick and other workaholic coaches made more of an impact on me than I'm sure they suspected. As dutifully as any first-year assistant to the assistant quality control coach, yours truly will use the bye to go over game tapes (past posts) and see where I stand.

Since it is me doing this, the review process will not be a lengthy one.

Before the 2009 NFL season began, I forecast its outcome in the following descending order of probability: 1. Patriots win Super Bowl. 2. Steelers win Super Bowl. 3. Some NFC team wins Super Bowl in big upset. How has roughly the first half of the season affected that prediction.

Short answer: Hardly at all -- yet.

Both the Patriots and Steelers are 5-2, and their losses may be attributed to natural phenomena. In Pittsburgh's case, it was the loss of Troy Polamalu to an injury. He's back, and we may regard the Steelers' win over the Vikings as more indicative of their status than their losses to the Bears and Bengals.

The Pats played VERY poorly on offense in the second half of their road losses to the Jets and Broncos. This almost certainly was due to the natural and expected adjustment process Tom Brady faced returning after missing an entire season with an injury. Coming back from much less injury down time threw Peyton Manning off for about half a season in 2008. He seems to have bounced back nicely. Anyone who doesn't think Brady has is on the same path is the kind of person I like to find when gambling.

No, the only possible reasons I find to doubt my forecast have nothing to do with the teams I named in it. So far, the Colts have been a much better team than I expected. The Saints have been much, much, much better.

By a happy coincidence, the Patriots will play both teams in the near future, on the road yet. Unless New England loses both games by 17 points or so, I abide by my predictions with serene confidence.

OK, almost serene.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I Contain Multitudes -- Very Silly Multitudes

Gosh, I love America. Just this afternoon, going to a well-known retail chain to buy a leaf-blower, I saw the following Christmas ornament for sale -- an inflatable Santa doll the size of a pony. No biggie, huh? Check this. Santa had somehow bumped Jimmie Johnson and was waving maniacally from behind the wheel of the number 48 Hendricks Brothers Lowe's Chevrolet.

I'd get one, but I don't want the sudden deaths of the entire membership of the Lexington Historical Society on my conscience.

But wait, it gets better! I turn on ESPN and there's a segment on one of their features shows on Ron Artest's new life as a member of the Lakers. You'll be happy to know that since he's arrived in LA, Ron has decided to become involved in mentoring -- as a mentor.

Hanging out here and there, Ron has struck up an acquaintance with a younger celebrity in need of guidance. He's taken Lindsay Lohan under his wing, giving her the benefit of his experience in how to bounce back from the occasional life mistake.

What happens when SportsCenter meets TMZ. Probably America's Most Wanted.

Monday, October 26, 2009

We'll Fill Those $5000 seats next season on Bat Day!

The perfect gift for the Yankee fan who lives in the imagination of Yankee-haters everywhere is now available.

For the 2009 World Series, Steuben Crystal has created replica baseball bats of the finest crystal, artistically engraved with the Yankee logo. Price: A mere $9500.

Steuben has bats engraved with the Phillies logo, too, but I don't imagine they'll sell too well once Philly fans discover it is VERY hard to turn Steuben crystal into a jagged-edge weapon with which to settle sports arguments.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Human Rain Delay in a Nice Suit

If the commissioner of baseball did not exist, the Onion would have had to invent him.

After yet another blown call by an ump in Game Five of the ALCS last Thursday night, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that Bud Selig remains adamantly and unalterably opposed to the use instant replay because, and I assume this is a direct quote, "baseball is a game that can't stand interminable delays."

Bud, as nice a guy as you'd ever want to watch a game with, is not high on self-awareness. The fifth game of the ALCS took place after a day off following game four inserted in the schedule by major league baseball, that is, by commissioner Bud Selig. The World Series will start on Wednesday, October 28 and end sometime in November due to decisions made by himself as well. And lest we forget, Selig's main contribution to the 2008 playoffs was to invent the 50 hour rain delay during Game Five of the World Series.

What Selig MEANT to say, of course, was "baseball can't stand delays that television doesn't order us to make." The fact that even distinguished veteran umpires like Tim McClelland are simply melting down in a bizarre mass slump is not a problem, so it doesn't a solution, even if that solution is simple, readily available, and would create far fewer delays than the postseason custom of sending pitching coaches to the mound every time a runner reaches base.

Baseball is perfect. That is baseball's official position on itself and has been so since before Bud Selig was born. All major sports are arrogant, but give the NFL and NASCAR credit. They're willing to tinker with their rules, rightly or wrongly, in the belief that even their splendid selves are capable of self-improvement. Hell, the membership of Augusta National is more capable of looking itself in the mirror than is major league baseball -- at least so far as putting on the Masters is concerned.

All baseball commissioners get paid the big bucks to be front men for the sport's sublimely stupid faith that when it comes to sweating in funny costumes, it is the Chosen One. Bud's JOB is to make an ass of himself in public. Knowing that, I always feel somewhat ambivalent when I ridicule Selig.

Not enough to stop doing it, though.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Hey, You Kids! Get Off of the Queen's Lawn!!!

All three of my former colleagues who inspired this post are younger than I am. Two of them are much younger. That makes it especially distressing to note that the Patriots' game in London has turned Tony Massarotti, Michael Felger, and Dan Shaughnessy into narrow, crabby, provincial old farts.

Tony and Michael spent a considerable amount of time this week fretting that the Pats' road trip to London was somehow a "distraction" and that deviation from the sacred "routine" would affect the team's chances of beating the mighty Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This idea was so absurd I listened more carefully than is my wont, hoping to detect the telltale signs of talk show shtick. But no, my old teammates appeared to be sincere, Felger especially so. To hear him tell it, the Pats were sailing to the game across the Atlantic in a replica of the Mayflower crewed by themselves. Sadly, this leaves me no choice but to mock them.

Leave aside for the moment the fact that the only way the Pats could lose against the Bucs would be if they HAD flown to Tampa for the game by mistake. Let's focus on the differences between playing an NFL road game in that city or playing one in London.

Difference the first: Travel. Pats plane left Thursday night and arrived Friday am London time rather than leaving Saturday afternoon to allow time to adjust for jet lag. Plane flight was four hours longer.

Difference the second: Pats practiced at a British cricket grounds Friday and had a press conference that was well-attended by British media. Ordinarily, they would have practiced at Gillette yesterday, and the fewest reporters of the week would have been there. That's why Friday is the very best day to talk to an NFL player or coach if you're a journalist. Real difference: nil, as the Brits say.

Difference the third: Scenery is different looking out the windows of the buses that transport the team from airport to commercial chain American hotel to practices and the stadium.

That's it. To worry that the Pats' preparations were hampered this week is to ignore just how regimented and overmanaged any NFL road trip is, be it to Buffalo or Bangalore. It is a seamless web of meetings in windowless rooms and carefully preordered meals in other windowless rooms. It is, except for the thrilling chaos of the game itself, a cosmically boring experience. NFL players are instructed to cherish routine. But they'd be less than human if a little change of pace in their work schedule didn't seem at least a little refreshing.

Not to be outdone in the "time has passed them by" sweepstakes, Dan Shaughnessy's column in this morning's Globe was a straightforward attack on the very idea of playing a pro football game outside the boundaries of the U.S.A. The whole experience struck Dan as, well, wrong somehow, cheating American football fans of some ineffable part of the television watching experience. British sports teams would never play games in the U.S.

(Of course, they do. British big-time soccer teams like Manchester United play sellout exhibition tours in the U.S. almost every summer. The World Cup sold out Foxboro Stadium. Doesn't Dan remember? 1994 isn't so long ago.)

Shaughnessy did not find any British sports fans or media on whom to test his hypothesis. The quotes in his story were from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, taken from a press conference Goodell gave at his (doubtless more expensive) hotel. Given one of the world's great cities to explore, he stuck to routine with the zealous devotion of a special teams coach.

Back home in my family room, the sports roundup broadcast of British cable network Sky Sports, a rough equivalent to ESPN, was being shown on Fox Soccer Channel. It gave a slightly different perspective. First, while the Liverpool-Man U game Sunday was Topic A, the Pats-Bucs game was a strong Topic B. In the professional news judgment of that organization, there is considerable British public interest in the NFL. Maybe it's just novelty interest, but over centuries of show business history, novelty acts have made a great deal of money -- a point Goodell failed to drive home to Shaughnessy.

More interestingly, there were extensive sound bites from Patriots players. A number of them had said they thought the trip was a chore -- before they left home. On the grounds of the Oval, guys like Tom Brady and Jarod Mayo were cheerfully making the most of the experience. Mayo even went so far as to discuss the Liverpool-ManU game with a reporter.

In other words, if ordered to have a unique career experience, here were Patriots' players sensibly concluding that they might as well experience it for all it's worth. That is how grown-ups, as opposed to old farts, deal with life's vicissitudes.

I should also point out that Shaughnessy's attitude is box-office poison for his employer, an organization that's not in the best of health. Many Globe readers have never been and maybe never will get to London. To them, there is an element of vicarious adventure in the Pats' road trip that a business-minded journalists, make that any journalist with a lick of sense, ought to have run with.

The proper attitude of a reporter on a free trip to a foreign locale ought to be, "Hey, readers (viewers, listeners), let me do my best to make you feel you're sharing this experience with me." People follow the news, in part, to get a feel for the parts of the world they may never see first-hand. It is a privilege and a responsibility to be their vicarious representative. Griping about the duty is unseemly. Griping in public is abhorrent.

I could go on, but why bother? I mean, really, what is there to say about people who appear to prefer a trip to Tampa than one to London? That's just hopeless.

Dr. Samuel Johnson said more than three centuries ago that "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." We've got some very, very tired sports commentators in this town. They were tired of London before they got there. Some were tired of London without even going.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Company You Keep

One consolation of being a Philadelphia sports fan is its lack of trendiness. Nobody roots for my teams except people who grew up doing so and none of 'em are ever going to write long books or make PBS documentaries about the experience.

Or so I thought. Much to my dismay, I forgot other people, some of whom went on to fame and fortune in the wide world outside the Delaware Valley, grew up there too.

So on behalf of Phillies fans everywhere, I apologize for Chris Matthews. He's from Philly. Anfd, of course, he has ADD and cable news personality brain damage, so ordinarily I wouldn't mention anything he said.

But Matthews was badgering poor (probably not poor) Charles Blow of the New York Times, who in a fire-your-agent moment in time has become a "Hardball" semi-regular, about how "you New Yorkers!" had better get ready for our Phils. Blow, who was probably appearing in a studio in someplace like Greensboro, North Carolina, was at a loss for words.

I am not. Anyone who SAYS they are a Philadelphia sports fan who assumes success is a liar. A REAL Philly fan knows that triumph is the mask disaster wears before you get kicked in the junk.

That Chris Matthews is a fraud is hardly stop-press news. Hey, he's got issues. But for him to intrude into a serious matter like the National League Championship Series will cost me sleep. The Powers That Be measure bandwagons by the least among the persons they carry.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Thought on the Language of Baseball

When announcers describe a team as "patient" I tend to translate that adjective into the phrase "I don't watch to watch these guys." The Yankees are a splendid team. Watching them in postseason is like watching someone smother the sport to death with a pillow.

It Ends in the Fall -- If Only

Yours truly attended one of the first of baseball's "I can't believe they played today" playoff games as a fan in October, 1977. It was the fourth game of the 1977 National League championship series between the Phillies and Dodgers at the old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. It was an elimination game, since in those dear dead days, the first of TWO postseason series was best three-of-five.

It was 45 and raining at game time that Saturday night. It was 45 and pouring by the game's end. The Phils lost a snoozer as mercilessly dull as all games were Tommy John (the LA pitcher) was on his game. I remember two things about the tilt. My brother, who got us the tickets through the law firm for which he then a young associate, gave our back row sheltered tickets to two of the firm's senior partners and shoved us ten rows down into the rain, and by the third inning, I didn't care who won. I only wanted it to be over, even if the Phils, for whom I cared much more than I do now, were beaten.

In 2009, all of America feels the same way about playoff baseball. As a nation, we don't care who is champion of our national pastime as long as it stops passing the damn time before Thanksgiving. Did I watch last night's Yankees-Angels game to the bitter end? Hell, no! Would I have accepted a free ticket to sit in the cold and rain to watch it person. Hell no times one trillion!!!

The forecast for tonight's Phils-Dodgers game is for more cold, more rain, and more sleep deprivation. I'm hoping with all my might the score is something like 7-2 in the fourth inning -- whoever's got the seven.

As noted, baseball's insistence on dragging its postseason into conditions not fit for competition is an old, old story. It's insistence on dragging the postseason into the holiday season is newer, but stems from the same root principle -- people at home watching TV are warm and dry, so who cares about anybody else?

Funny thing though. Every year the ratings for the World Series seem to go down. Ratings for the first round of the playoffs, on the other hand, went up this year. Maybe we're a land of Mr. and Mrs. EARLY Octobers. Or, far more likely, people start off interested, and the time commitment required to watch a month's worth of late night baseball causes more and more of them to look outside at the turning leaves and decide it's football season.

If your team isn't in it, watching postseason baseball makes no sense. It's a decision stay to near or past midnight on work/school nights to watch pitching changes and stale and stupid crowd reaction shots from TV directors utterly lacking in creativity. TBS cameras can't follow fly balls, but they can sure catch pretty girls and cute children looking tense. Why bother? Mr. Nielsen says many don't.

Asking baseball not to be greedy is like asking water not to be wet. All I ask is that greed not be stupid. A sport where fewer and fewer people bother to watch its championship competition is a sport with long-term problems relating to growth. This is particularly true if the reason they're not watching are all the compromises to the competitive integrity and viability of your game as a live spectator sport you made to attract larger TV audiences in the first place.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Perhaps a Past Life Should Stay Where It Was

Made a pretty good ass of myself watching the Phillies-Rockies game last night. Yelling at a television set for the transgressions of ballplayers thousands of miles away is not healthy behavior. It is fan behavior, a form of watching sports I once thought I couldn't revisit.

Nor should I revisit it. The Phillies were the first team I ever rooted for as a small child, and yours truly became a loudly, proudly, belligerently twisted, bitter Philadelphia fan. It's not a good way to live.

But then, watching the 2009 Phillies is not life-extending behavior, either -- not if you care about the outcome of their games. That goes for the other team's fans, too. During the agonizing eighth and ninth innings, when TBS showed the inevitable crowd between-pitch suffering close-ups, my reaction was pure empathy. Those poor devils were as strung out as myself, and they were freezing outdoors while at least I was warm.

It is one of baseball's singularities that it is the sport that produces both the most dismally tedious and excruciatingly exciting games. The Phillies are designed for torture. No wonder they have an old-school, no-pulse manager like Charlie Manuel. A dynamic leader of men like Tony LaRussa would've been straitjacket material by Mother's Day with this team.

My wife, Alice, is a casual sports fan who doesn't much care for baseball. Too slow, she says. You can imagine her reactions to playoff baseball, where pace of play would earn a two-stroke penalty on the PGA Tour. She came to sit on the sofa with me during last night's game to watch my antics and laugh at them. By the ninth, she was watching every pitch, or rather, listening and not watching every pitch. She had a blanket over her head, unable to bear the suspense.

Statistics tell part of the story. The Phillies lead baseball in come-from behind victories. The unspoken subset of that stat is that they are often behind. The Phillies also lead baseball in blown ninth-inning leads. That stat doesn't need a subset, except maybe that Brad Lidge, who closed out the Phils' two wins in Denver, lost the closer's job in September for blowing all those leads and possessing an ERA near 8. He got the job back through a Manuel hunch -- namely, "I got nobody else."

The Phillies have a set of hitters who perform with tremendous poise under maximum stress and a set of relief pitchers who have no poise and nearly no ability under maximum stress. Their games are never over until the last man is out, and he almost never is.

Everything I know about baseball and my sportswriting self tell me that such a club is doomed and deserves that doom. And yet, I feel a depth of affection for the team of my childhood that I didn't during their world championship run last season. Don't get me wrong. That was a great experience. But it all happened a little too quickly to achieve full emotional impact. One day, I was hoping they'd beat the Mets in the NL East, the next they were World Champs.

Nothing happens quickly to the 2009 Phils, or nothing has yet, anyway. I find their struggles more engrossing and endearing than the relatively easy path the 2008 bunch took to its title. It may be that in the final analysis, it is the pain teams inflict on their fans that provides the cement in their emotional bonds. You'd think a Philadelphian who lived through 1964 wouldn't be very tolerant of a ballclub possessing an uncanny gift for blowing leads, but here we are.

I will admit, however, that when Lidge got the final strikeout last night, my first reaction was "There might be two more rounds of this. Should I REALLY be happy?"

I will also admit that for one of the very few times in my life, I'm damn glad there's no games on TV tonight.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Short Series = Short Epitaph

Probably well over 90 percent of baseball observers, if asked to provide the main reasons the Red Sox might emerge as world champions before the playoffs started, would have provided the some form of the following list:

1. Jon Lester
2. Josh Beckett
3. Jonathan Papelbon

The losing pitchers in the Angels' sweep of their division series with the Sox were:

1. Jon Lester
2. Josh Beckett
3. Jonathan Papelbon

That's not to blame those three pitchers. Anything but. Papelbon failed in spectacular fashion, but closing is a zero-sum activity. Mariano Rivera, the best ever at the job, owns of some its most historic failures. Lester and Beckett pitched, as the old saying goes, just well enough to lose. They couldn't compensate for their teammates' inability to reach base.

The point is, the Angels took on the Red Sox' acknowledged strengths, the top of the starting rotation and the bullpen, and neutralized them. They trumped every ace the Sox had. That is not an individual accomplishment. That is one team turning in a dominant performance over another.

In the second week of October, 2009, the Angels were a far superior team than the Red Sox in three consecutive games. There's nothing to second-guess or argue about the result. Getting whupped' is a profoundly simple experience.

People who care about the Red Sox have every right to feel disappointed and sorrowful today. But they can't complain. They shouldn't, at least.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Today's Cause of Death of the Newspaper Industry

The lead story in the Boston Sunday Globe, which is the closest thing that organization has to a money-making entity is that jaywalking is a common practice among the city's pedestrians. Honest.

We look forward to next week's knock-your-socks-off expose "Winter in New England Expected to Long, Unpleasant!"

There is no business model that can save a company which creates a product for which there is no use. Here we have a NEWSpaper which ignores that the root word of "news" is "new." The Globe presented as the most important fact affecting the lives of its customers something which they already knew, and which they have known for as long as they lived in the Boston area.

Not only wouldn't I pay to read such a story on the Internet, I wouldn't, and didn't read it for free. My time isn't worth much, but it's worth something.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

You Are Listening Live! to People You Wish Were Dead

Here's a sentence I'm sure is an original thought. Listening, or rather, being driven to infuriated distraction by Chip Caray last night reminded me of a girl I used to know.

I say "girl" because my memory is from when I was just out of college, back in the exciting term of Richard Nixon's presidency. She was my neighbor in a small town a long, long way from Boston. I had a tremendous, moon calf crush on this young woman, who was beautiful and kindly. Nothing significant came of this attraction, and that was my own fault. I was paralyzed with ambivalence and guilt that had nothing to do with either of us.

The girl's father was a famous national television sportscaster. And even as I yearned for her, I couldn't get one thought out of the back of my head.

"What am I doing? I've called this girl's dad every dirty name in the book on an almost weekly basis for years. What if we watch a game together?"

So I failed to pledge my troth. My diffidence was more proof that perhaps the strongest emotion shared by all sports fans, more powerful than the love of the home team, is a visceral hatred of national TV announcers. Some of them deserve it, some don't, but they all draw our scorn and rage. I am sure that when Graham McNamee broadcast the 1924 World Series on the radio, the first national broadcast ever, Americans did not pause to ponder the miracle of 20th century communication technology creating a shared cultural experience. They cussed McNamee for getting a ball and strike count wrong.

Broadcasts of games the woman's father called are shown on ESPN Classic and other cable sports networks, and, as you'd expect, he comes off like a combination of Edward R. Murrow and Grantland Rice compared to the broadcasters of our time. But boy did I hate him back in the '60s. So did every other fan in Wilmington, Delaware. And when I went away to Wesleyan University, sports fans hated him there, too.

How pathological is this sentiment? Very. After I became a sportswriter, I met and spent time with many of the national broadcasters who do the most games and therefore are the most reviled by their fellow citizens. They were also, to a man, the nicest guys you'd want to meet. To cite just a few examples, there couldn't be better company to share before and after a game than Joe Buck, Tim McCarver, Brent Musberger, Dick Vitale and Paul Maguire. Jim Nantz and I were not meant to run in the same social circles, but he is a pleasant and gracious man.

So now I'm a TV fan again. You'd think my experience of knowing these men, and of knowing that theirs is a demanding craft, harder than daily journalism (there's no copy desk in the broadcast booth), would have taught me to see their work in a new light. You'd be wrong. They still drive me crazy when they're on the air. Obviously, this has nothing to do with their abilities or lack of same. What I (and all other fans) bring to the experience of watching and listening to national games is the root factor.

The hatred for national TV and radio guys becomes harder to understand when it is contrasted to the way in which fans treat local play by play and color guys. Those chaps, if they survive the treacherous world of broadcasting business for more than a season or two, become icons-beloved civic figures more revered in their communities than any athlete. Ernie Harwell in Detroit, Gil and Gino right here in Boston, the list includes at least one announcer in every city with major sports franchises.

And that love has as little to do with the broadcasters' actual abilities as does the hatred for the national guys. Vin Scully is an institution in Los Angeles on a par with the Hollywood sign, hamburgers, and the beach. On his infrequent (these days) appearances on national games, there's a growing groundswell of complaints Scully talks too much. This is like saying Matisse painted too much. It's not a rational aesthetic judgment, but a knee-jerk expression of the primal dislike of any national telecast.

My theory as to what drives the hatred is simple. Tip O'Neill was wrong. It's not all politics that's local-it's all sports. Local announcers are perceived as fellow humans sharing the same experience of following the home team. This breeds affection, particularly if the home team has stunk on ice for a decade or four. Patriots' fans are prepared to cut Gil and Gino a great deal of slack because they respect the way those two (really wonderful) men slogged to Foxboro Stadium all those years to broadcast games for a team whose most celebrated moments and involved lawyers and accountants instead of blocking and tackling.

National broadcasters, by contrast, are seen as interlopers. They are giving a fresh perspective to our sports-watching experience, and we don't want one. Because they have to do the best they can to make both teams in a game equally important in the broadcast, the national announcers present a hint of a truth fans don't and shouldn't want to recognize. Every team is somebody's home team. They're all the same guys out on the field/court/ice, just wearing different colored underwear.

That insight is what I call the Tree of the Knowledge of the Lack of Good and Evil. Once it hits you, you're never the same fan again. Sportswriters all began life as fans, but their jobs force to accept the value-neutral nature of games. That, at bottom, is why fans and sportswriters often don't understand each other. They exist in different realities.

That goes triple for national broadcasters. They don't even have the comfort of communicating with a local audience. They are trapped in the TV assumption, which isn't inaccurate, that the larger one's audience, the lower its collective level of information on the subject at hand. Some director or producer tells McCarver that research indicates that x percent of the Fox audience doesn't know that Derek Jeter is a good player. That may not excuse McCarver's babble about the Yankee shortstop, which makes my crush from yesteryear look like nothing, but it should make it more understandable, and hence forgivable.

As a follower of sports I'm a spiritual hybrid. Part of my soul is fan, part is sportswriter, and I move between their two realities -- belonging to both, belonging to neither. You'd think that'd make me a better TV watcher, much more tolerant of the foibles of the talented, extremely well-paid, even more extremely unloved individuals who broadcast what I watch. It should, but it doesn't. The pathologies we learn early stay with us forever.

Then again, not everything in life is just in your head. A jury of the saints in heaven would tell me Chip Caray sucks.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Equal Justice Under Arthroscopy

Ravens offensive tackle Jared Gaither left the second quarter of yesterday's game with the Patriots on a stretcher. For all anyone knew, he'd been crippled for keeps (fortunately, he was not seriously injured). Gaither was the victim of an accidental collision with his quarterback Joe Flacco, the kind of coincidental mayhem that in my experience creates the overwhelming majority of football's mos frightening and catastrophic injuries -- an unavoidable accident. The refs stopped the clock until Gaither was carted off.

Somewhat later in the quarter, Ravens linebacker Tyrell Suggs stumbled into Tom Brady in a sidelong brush of Brady's knee. In a supermarket aisle, the contact would have drawn an "excuse me" from both parties. Here, it drew a yellow flag from the officials and a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty, one of three such calls in the game (two on the Ravens, one on the Pats' Mike Wright) that appeared to pose no threat to the signal caller's health whatsoever, being close to the common man's definition of "incidental contact" as can be imagined.

Those two paragraphs are why all football players past and present who aren't quarterbacks detest the NFL rules relating to the passer's personal safety. In both the narrowest sense of football legality and on a more cosmic moral level, those rules are unjust. They may be necessary, but they stick in the craw. They are a violation of football's essence.

Sports have rules for two purposes. One is to insure fair competition, the other to protect the participant's safety. As far as purpose one goes, the quarterback protection rules are part of a 40 year trend in which football's laws have been consistently altered to PREVENT fair competition. They are designed to give the offense a competitive advantage over the defense whenever possible. That's contemptible. It shades America's leading sport over towards the WWE corner of the sports-entertainment-celebrity industrial complex.

As a group, defensive players tend to be aggressive by temperament. People who hit other people first for a living aren't always big on authority. They hate the rules, and who can blame them?

More seriously, narrowing the areas of a quarterback's body which can be hit by a defender down to the space of Angel Hernandez's strike zone is an offense against football's moral contract. It's a dangerous game, and accepting and coping with the risk of grievous bodily harm is part of the toll men pay to play the sport. It's one of the most important ways they measure each other as teammates-as men. Risk is the emotional glue that bonds football players long after they've retired with their permanent limps, post-concussion syndromes, and incipient heart conditions that are risk's residue.

If YOU or a teammate can go to the hospital due to a collision with a quarterback and there's no foul involved, but YOU or a teammate can draw a major penalty for accidental, incidental contact with a quarterback's body, then the message is clear. Your sport values that quarterback's life more than your own. He draws the most rewards from the sport while running the fewest risks, and every time an unforeseen risk takes place, and a QB goes down, there's a new rule making the risk illegal. It's business. It stinks. And you'd have to be a pretty saintly individual not to develop a resentment of the rules, the rulemakers, and quarterbacks, even your own.

Then again, without the rules, or some rules anyway quarterbacks would run unacceptable risks. A passer is unable to fulfill the boxing instruction to protect himself at all times. The defenseless are those who most need the law's protection under any system of rules -- from sports to international fisheries law.

A middle way suggests itself. Extend the rules governing roughing the kicker to roughing the passer, and mandate lesser five yard with no automatic first down to collisions judged accidental and of minor import. Yeah, it'd make the refs have to exercise more good judgment, leading to more controversies. Too bad. It'd also give every working stiff of a down lineman something approaching an even break.

An even break. Isn't that the first principle of sports? Of law?

Sunday, October 04, 2009

It's Possible I Watched a Little Too Much Football Yesterday Afternoon

Football player's faces look very different when they're wearing their helmets. That's about the only reasonable interpretation of what will follow in this post that does not involve its author having seriously hallucinated -- and without pharmaceutical assistance, either.

Midway through the Notre Dame-Washington game on NBC, which naturally included many close-ups of Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, I began to get a deja vu flash, Clausen's face, square jaw, large eyes, and determined visage, reminded me of something. I'd seen that face, somewhere.

Four or five close-ups later, it struck me. Clausen looked like 1940s actor Pat O'Brien. Or rather, he looked like a young guy delivering a creditable impression of O'Brien, whose most famous role, of course, was the title role in "The Knute Rockne Story," the hokey, ridiculous, delightful film on the life of Notre Dame's legendary coach of the 1920s.

Football coma induced by access to HD broadcasting and the remote control may have been responsible for this impression. Or maybe I was right, and Clausen did look a little like O'Brien. I'll have to tune in to Notre Dame's next game and check.

But if I see another Irish player in the huddle who looks like Ronald Reagan, I may have to start getting outside more this season.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


The first thing to understand about the International Olympic Committee is that it regards itself as, and in many ways is, a sovereign political entity, a country with no permanent address that borrows a part of some other nation's land mass once every two years. Whether it's the President of the U.S. or the President of Mali pitching their country as an Olympic host site cuts no ice with the IOC. In their heads, the committee outranks them all.

It's beyond arrogance. It's a kind of blissful insularity, quite similar to the attitude most Americans have towards the world outside our borders. So we shouldn't be too shocked if we're hoisted on that particular petard every so often. The IOC has calendars. By the time of the 2016 Olympics, every single elected leader who lobbied for a city to be the site of those games (Japan, the U.S, and Brazil sent pols, Spain sent its King, which is much more the IOC's speed) will either be out of office or, in the best case for Barack Obama, a lame duck. Why care what they think?

The second thing to understand about the IOC is that its members are really, really, really into sports. They may be pompous, clueless, and more of a few of them may be corrupt, but bigger sports fans you won't meet -- anywhere ever. That's why the best way to understand why Rio de Janeiro will host the 2016 Games and not Chicago is to consider the question from the point of view of the average fan, which I assume anyone reading this is.

OK, fan, make the following mind experiment. Imagine that you are being asked to select a location for attending a three-week festival of more sports than it's possible to watch located in one of the world's great cities. You will live in luxury and convenience Queen Elizabeth might envy during the festival, all at someone else's expense. All you have to do is choose between Chicago and Rio.

I daresay a wide majority of American fans would pick Rio. Nothing against Chicago, anybody who's visited there loves the place, me included, but you know, there are a lot more opportunities in life to visit Chicago than there are to get to Rio. I can testify from personal (incredibly lucky) experience that being in a great place you'd never get to see otherwise is about the best part of the Olympics. A track meet is just a track meet, after all.

I'm willing to bet a considerable sum that the above reasoning is what swung the IOC vote to Rio away from its more developed (i.e. organized and safe) rivals for the 2016 Games. Rio sounded like more fun, so it got the event.

As a sports fan, I have difficulty arguing with a sports organization that chooses fun as its top priority.