Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Heights of Mistaken Identity, Part 2

Gene DeFilippo, whom I like, was just on my TV and his explanation for why Al Skinner is no longer BC coach was far more foolish than I had ever feared.

"We want a coach who can connect to the school," the athletic director said, "to the faculty, to the students."

Translation: We want a cheerleader who'll kiss the right asses. A guy who LOOKS and SOUNDS like a coach. A pol, a schmoozer, a ticket-seller. We want a BC guy, in the worst sense of the worst stereotype the legions of BC haters in Boston have of the school and its community.

Since it was Mike Dowling, who is very polite, conducting the interview, Gene did not hear what would have been my riposte.

"Terrific! You know who's JUST like that? Rick Pitino.

The Heights of Mistaken Identity

As a rule, people and institutions get into trouble when they start thinking they aren't what they really are. Boston College sports is no different.

A quick glance at the record book shows that in his 11 years as basketball coach at Boston College, Al Skinner's teams qualified for the NCAA tournament seven times. That's the most of any coach in the school's history. Most of the rest didn't win nearly enough to threaten that mark. The ones who did win enough either fled for greener pastures (Gary Williams) or were kicked out to greener pastures (Jim O'Brien).

Making the tourney two of every three seasons is not the mark of failure for a program that has been in the Big East and ACC So why'd BC fire Skinner? Who knows?

If there was some hidden reason, well, OK. I dunno what it could be, but I accept the possibility. But if it was because BC thinks some more hyper and hypertouted new coach can improve on Skinner's overall record, then this firing stems from a serious misunderstanding of where BC basketball stands in the sport's food chain, and just what exactly ANY college coach can do to alter the fundamental status of a school's program.

Simply put, it looks from outside as if Skinner got canned because BC was unable to get over itself. If so, shame on athletic department and the entire school. Not only would be that be unjust, it'd be grandiosity mixed with stupidity.

Basketball is the number two winter sport at Boston College, with the student body and alumni both. That is a very poor position from which to begin competition with the University of North Carolina, or, back in the Big East day, Georgetown University.

BC holds its incoming athletes to a relatively rigorous set of academic qualifications compared to many, many other big-time basketball schools. BC is a fine school, and this rigor may do it credit. But it already puts its team at a significant disadvantage, by shrinking the available talent pool. A lot. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if a kid's a McDonald's All-American AND a good student AND he wants to play ACC basketball, that kid's going to go to Duke, not BC. The idea of some one-and-done NBA star-in-waiting spending his mandatory freshman season at Boston College is beyond laughable.

In its entire HISTORY, Boston College basketball hasn't landed the blue-chippers. Its best players have been those overlooked by traditional powers, from Michael Adams (too short) to Jared Dudley (too unspectacular). Whatever his coachly faults, Skinner was adept at locating such players and getting them to come to the Heights.

To recap. The new coach is evidently expected to a consistent winner in a very tough league. Make that a big winner. Take out a Duke or UNC or Maryland every year. Make the tourney four of five years, or five of six. Recruit top-flight talent who are good students, and of course do so cleanly, and do so all the while in a community that doesn't give a damn about your team and at a school for whom said team is a diversion, not a passion.

And here's the real rub of that situation. Assume that by some miracle BC finds such a paragon, a Coach K for the 21st century. He won't get paid like a savior, or treated like a savior. That's not how BC rolls. The coach won't starve, but his peers will be wealthier. He will be respected, but he won't rule the roost. He will be judged by the standards of the best of his profession, but not given the rewards those best earn elsewhere.

BC can't have it both ways. It can't maintain a reasonably sane attitude about how college sports should be run, and then demand a level of success it takes insanity to reach. That sets up any coach for failure, and the school for even worse failure.

The odds are overwhelming that BC's next coach will fall into one of three fates. 1. He won't win. 2. He'll win, but not for long. The new guy will be making goo-goo eyes at richer programs during his introductory press conference. 3. He'll win, but in ways BC won't like, and eventually, the NCAA will like even less.

Given that almost certain future, three more years of laid-back Al Skinner (who the school will still be paying) doesn't seem that bad. BC's got's a classics department. Don't they have a copy of Aesop's Fables?

Maybe Al was basketball coach King Log. His former employers should look up what happened to the University of Frogs when it hired coach King Stork.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Last Fundamental

Kentucky had, by far, the highest amount of individual basketball talent on its roster of any team in the NCAA tournament. Many of them were freshman, but next year, several of those freshmen will be rookies -- starting rookies -- in the NBA.

Kentucky, however, is gone from said tournament. It lost to West Virginia yesterday in a textbook example of how "talent" in sports is a concept which takes in much more than what's visible to the naked eye or what can be quantified by a scout with a notebook computer or stat wizards with access to servers occupying entire city blocks.

As authorities I respect in several sports, Bill Belichick and John Wooden among them, have said (not in the words I will now use) in my hearing, ADAPTABILITY is a talent as real as and more valuable than physical skills. Sports contain a huge of number of variables. The athlete/team best able to assess and react to those variables is most likely to win the game.

Simply put, the real test of an athlete/team's ability is what he/she/they do when a dependable talent fails. What happens when Roger Federer's serve goes wonky, or a pitcher's stuff just isn't there one summer evening. How do they cope?

Shooting is the primal basketball talent. Putting the ball through the basket is the game's object, after all. Kentucky couldn't shoot yesterday. Not a lick. It could dunk, it could make layups, but by the time it went to three-point range, the hoop was a moving target.

There are two schools of thought about what to do when shots don't drop. One, endorsed by gunners since time immemorial, is what we might call the John Starks school. Its remedy for a cold spell is to keep on chucking 'em up there. It's easy to make fun of this theory, but it is soundly grounded in mathematical probability. I (we) am basically a good shooter, so this next shot has the same chance of going in as any other shot I've ever taken. Over the long run, this is true, and a shooter who gets gun shy is of questionable value to his team.

As a strategy in a one-and-done situation, however, the "tryin' another one" idea has obvious risks. With about 15 minutes to go in the second half, those risks should have been REALLY obvious to Kentucky. It was time for theory two -- if you're not shooting, do more of everything else.

A supremely gifted collection of athletes such as the Wildcats could have coped in an infinite number of ways. They DID pound the boards. They DID try to drive more and get to the line, but of course, they couldn't shoot there, either. But they never stopped taking the three-pointers which had become their worst enemy.

The better the team, the harder it is to react to an unexpected struggle to do what usually comes naturally. The phrase "this can't be happening to us" is probably the root cause of more so-called upsets in sports than any other possible factor. Kentucky never quite stopped thinking that, and so they never quite changed their play enough to cope. John Wall, who's going to be an NBA All-Star before very long, performed like a man in shock -- which he was.

Since they are exceptional basketball talents, I have no doubt that Kentucky's players will absorb this bitter lesson and be the better for it. As a group and as individuals, they are still learning the game, after all. Success in any discipline requires previous failures as part of the package.

Of course, the Kentucky team won't be doing its learning as the same classroom unit next season. Wall in particular will likely be doing postgraduate work in some NBA location where adaptability is a requirement for survival, not just success.

As a member of, say, the Timberwolves, developing a coping strategy for failure becomes a course where the classroom hours are 24/7.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sudden Death of Perspective

Or, as the late Curt Gowdy would say, the new NFL playoff time rules are a sudden victory for nitpicking.

The rule change mandating that it takes more than one field goal (or less, a safety would do it, too) to win a playoff overtime game on its first possession is not a profound alteration of the game's competitive balance. It's just pointless. And its really sudden adaptation by the league owners raises the question of just how well the moguls are minding their store.

On the moral and ethical side of the league's business, evidence continues to mount that the NFL's attitude towards player brain injury is about 1000 times less enlightened than that of boxing. This is a catastrophe, as in Congress writing some very restrictive law after a tragedy, waiting to happen. Don't forget, it was Teddy Roosevelt who basically mandated the creation of the forward pass.

On the more prosaic balance sheet side, the league and players continue to drift towards a labor conflict that'll cost the owners billions (players, too). You'd think the boys would spend their time together pondering that situation.

Instead, we have the "Don't Make Brett Favre Cry in Overtime" Rule. It's not a travesty of the game, but why fix problems that don't exist?

Critics of the rule have focused on the fact it makes overtime different than the overtime rules for the regular season. As criticism, this even more irrelevant than the rules themselves. Playoff overtime is ALREADY different. It goes on to the end without a time limit. Regular season OT ends after 15 minutes, come what may.

The alert reader will have spotted the word in the above paragraph most relevant to pro football overtime. It is, of course, "end." The purpose of playoff overtime is to end the damn game. Without a winner, how do the playoffs go on?

The purpose of regular season overtime is twofold, to try to end the game with a winner, without unduly disrupting East Coast Sunday night prime time program schedules. Regular season ties made figuring out the playoff qualification tiebreakers too hard for Cal Tech's math department, but postponing "60 Minutes" until 10? THAT'S much more unthinkable than ending a game without letting one team's offense touch the ball.

There seems to be a consensus among the kind of sports journalists who attend NFL owners' meetings (I used to be one) that the moguls will extend the new rules to regular season overtime before the 2010 season begins. That will insure that the rules will be repealed immediately following Super Bowl XLV if not sooner. This change, since it eliminates a common form of winning, will result in more ties. Coaches being what they are, 99 of 100 times, the team getting the ball AFTER a non-winning field goal will play to get a field goal of its own rather than go for six and win. There goes half of the 15 minutes, and you're right back where you started. Getting rid of ties, as noted above, is why they instituted regular season overtime in the first place.

I can't help remembering that the final score of the longest game in NFL history, the Dolphins-Chiefs playoff game in 1971 that went more than six quarters before the winning score, was 27-24.

Want your quarterback to get a chance in overtime? Tackle somebody. We should also remember the most exciting playoff game this past season. The Cardinals missed a game-winning field goal and had to kick off. So they scored a defensive touchdown. Kurt Warner was not heard complaining he didn't get a chance to get his hands on the ball.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Orange They Glad I Didn't See Them

Based on this afternoon's Syracuse performance, it is obvious that I will be the first person ever to pick a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket in 2011. All I have to do is not watch a single game of the regular season.

For Syracuse's sake, I hope the fact I did watch them dissect Gonzaga doesn't louse up their chances the rest of the way.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

He Saith Among the Trumpets "Go the $#%@! Away!!!

There's no occupation or recreation on earth that doesn't contain blowback, a nasty and unforeseen side effect of the task which robs it of much of its pleasure. For those of us who love watching the NCAA basketball tournament, especially those of us like myself who were lucky enough to sit on press row for a bunch of them, blowback has a literal meaning.

It's the bands. Those jauntily attired young people playing the old chestnuts of pep music with all their might at every time out are beloved by CBS and the NCAA, but to me, they are the equivalent of a jackhammer outside the window on a Sunday morning in June. Honestly, just writing the words "Rock & Roll, Part II," causes this former sportswriter post-traumatic stress disorder.

A band may sound great from the balcony seats. At a distance of 15-20 feet, it's like hearing a 767 coming in at Logan from a home in Winthrop -- while standing on the roof. This brain-bending wall of sound, repeated at every TV time out in the course of a 12 hour day of four basketball game, leaves one a mite twitchy. Writing on deadline to "Tijuana Taxi" at the 90 decibel level is a unique creative experience that would've led Tolstoy to become a pharmacist.

When I was at the Herald, by the time April rolled around, the sight of a trumpet was enough to give me the shakes. Well, that was a long time ago, and I watch the games on TV now, so all should be well, right? If only.

I find, to my fascinated horror, that the background sounds of the bands CBS uses whenever it either fades to or comes back from commercials has exactly the same effect. I cringe, flinch, and fumble for the remote in a desperate lunge for the mute button. This reaction is getting stronger each day the tournament continues, and by April I fully expect I'll be breaking into tears at the mere sight of a rugby shirt.

But at least I know I have a partner in pain, although I admit he's a stronger man than I. The bands have broken my spirit, but this hero is determined to fight them on their own terms.

Ever wonder why Gus Johnson broadcasts the way he does? NCAA tournament announcers sit even closer to the bands than sportswriters.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Good Walk Spoiled for TMZ.com

Three of my former professional colleagues, one a personal friend, one a co-worker for many years, one a columnist I've known and respected for a long time, all opined yesterday on Tiger Woods' decision to play the Masters next month. I disagreed with all of them, for various reasons. Each opinion reflected the underlying fact that Woods' psyche has become everyone else's psychodrama playground. That's a lot of societal heft to place upon the life of a freakin' pro golfer.

To dismiss the silliest opinion first, Michael Felger stated that Woods was going to play very poorly at Augusta National because lack of girls would sap his strength. This daft notion does have the virtue of complete originality, but it makes me wonder why Felger insists Tim Tebow will make a good football player.

My old pal Charles Pierce believes Tiger will tear up Augusta National and shoot rounds in the 60s because Woods has the ability to channel his anger into superior play. Leaving aside the questionable notion that anger, especially self-directed anger, can help anyone play better golf (if so, why aren't I on the Tour?), there is no evidence Woods IS angry right now. He didn't seem angry at his little confessional session last month. Weirded out, yes. Mad, no.

My soon to be former friendly acquaintance Christine Brennan of USA Today and whenever TV news does sports issues that require the, sigh, "woman's viewpoint," said that Woods' decision to play the Masters shows that his attempt to save his marriage isn't very serious, and could be "a fraud.

If Woods is faking his attempt to keep his marriage together and alter himself into a more normal person, than a month-plus in a rehab clinic in Hattiesburg, Mississippi sure is playing the long con. More seriously, Brennan is assuming facts not in evidence. How the hell does she know that Elin Woods doesn't think Woods should play the Masters, or that Woods' choice didn't come recommended by both his wife and his therapists? I don't, and I know Christine doesn't either.

This doesn't mean Brennan's opinion isn't right. But it's guessing. And it's pretty obviously guessing based on projection. That is, Brennan is thinking, "well, if I were married to Woods, I don't think I'd want him to play golf now, and I'd have told him."

Millions of people probably agree with Brennan. They're guessing, too.

My guess, based on observation of Woods, golfers, and athletes, is that outside of his sex life, Woods' psyche ain't that complex. He is a monomaniacal gifted athlete. He may WANT to save his marriage. He NEEDS to achieve in his chosen sport.

I know one person who agrees with me. A while back, Jack Nicklaus said that if Woods had the chance to play in the Masters, he would, because any golfer would. It's really just that simple.

As to how well Woods will perform in the tournament, we need not overthink that issue, either. Woods isn't recovering from surgery. His lingering wounds are between his ears, in a part of his brain he doesn't use on the golf course.

In most tournaments, when Tiger Woods shows up, he plays pretty well. It might be different at the 2010 Masters, but I'll bet the form chart, thank you.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Bracketed by Bill Murray

Writing an NCAA tournament prediction piece on the night of Selection Sunday is an act of either hubris, desperation (your editor's, not your own) or clueless habit. Make mine number three, reader, and believe me, it'll be more clueless than in any previous year.

The title of this post refers to Murray's bit as entertainment reporter on the original cast Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update. Murray would make his Oscar picks every year by dismissing half the movies with a casual "Didn't see it." That is me and college basketball in a nutshell in 2010.

Returning to fandom after being a sportswriter, I have adopted a reasonably strict one sport at a time rule. Oh, I watch all kinds of games all the time (it's why we have two HD TVs in our house), but I really, truly only pay attention to one kind of game.

It is my habit to pretty much ignore college basketball until the Super Bowl is over. December and January are for football, college and pro. Then I buckle down in February and study college basketball in the effort to amass enough knowledge to delude myself I have a handle on the tournament by St. Patrick's Day.

The Winter Olympics were in February. I got very much into them, an experience I enjoyed, but one that has left my college hoop watching a bit on the sporadic side. An attempt to cram by overwatching conference tournaments, the very worst time to figure out which teams are going to do what in the big tournament, had predictably disastrous results. Syracuse was gone from theirs before I got home from work on Thursday. As a result, they are my Bill Murray team par excellence. Big East regular season champs, a number one seed, and I haven't seen them play for a second in 2009-2010.

On the other hand, I am overbriefed on some teams. Minnesota for example. Thanks to the mysterious presence of the Big Ten network on my cable service, I think I've seen them six times. Doesn't make them any better, but them I can scout, and second round losers sounds right.

I've seen Kansas three times. Kansas State, too. I saw them play each other three times. Kansas won them all, so that's another thing I know. If they meet in the Final Four (not a ludicrous proposition), I'm betting the cable payment on the Jayhawks.

Duke bores me, so I didn't watch them except while dial switching. I know the ACC sucked a lot this year, though, so best of show in that bunch fails to impress Saw Kentucky a couple times. This is probably the most talented bunch of one-and-done freshman Calipari's ever had. Probation in 2013 will be totally worth it. By then John will be on another job anyway.

Villanova hasn't won a game in Michael Gee viewing window. So they'll either get upset in the second round or reach the title game. Wish I could guess which.

For the rest, well, readers, I bet you didn't see Cornell or Utah State play this season, either. Make your own damn guesses if you want upsets. If I was taking this year's choices seriously, I'd probably pick Kansas, Kentucky, Baylor and, yes Kansas State. But I'm not.

I'm going with Syracuse to win it all. It just feels right, somehow.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Devils We Know Always Seem Like Angels

The Patriots have thus far approached free agency with a relatively free spending approach -- so long as the players they have signed were already on the roster. New England re-signed Vince Wilfork, Leigh Bodden, Stephen Neal, Kevin Faulk, etc. rather than (so far) get out there and win bidding wars for the likes of Anquan Boldin and Julius Peppers.

This is a consistent and highly defensible approach to football free agency. The late George Young, whose Giants teams had a fair amount of success, once said that the free agents a franchise signed never helped as much as the free agents it lost hurt it, and there is much evidence to support his theory. There's also a lot of evidence to refute it, which is always the problem with football theories, but whether or not the Pats have made the right choices with their 2010 personnel budget is not the point of this post. I am more interested in public opinion.

Based on a highly informal survey of hotspots of Patriot fandom in my life, such as the car wash, the packy, and selected fellow employees at my workplace, the Pats' approach is a popular one. Fans who understandably were somewhat distraught by the stink bomb their team let off in the playoffs have expressed relief, reassurance, and a modest degree of optimism. If all is not well with their team, neither is all lost.

(The one exception to this policy, the loss of Ben Watson to the Browns, has generated more comment in the media than from my sources among the fan proletariat. In this, I side with the fans. A great tight end is always welcome. A merely OK tight end can be replaced without undue stress or expense. Bluntly put, nobody wins or loses a Super Bowl because of their tight end.)

This reaction is not surprising. In my experience, fans everywhere, but especially in Boston, have a common set of reactions to free agent transactions. When a team signs a big one, they're happy. But they're nowhere near as happy as they are upset when one of their OWN players leaves to be a free agent somewhere else. They might be mad at the player for deserting them, they might be mad at management for letting their hero get away, but they're always mad.

Sometimes it's easy to see why this is. Fans of downtrodden franchises with cheapskate owners see the annual strip-mining of their roster via free agency or financially-forced trades as the ultimate expression of the hopelessness of their emotional commitment, and despair. But it's even true for fans of winners.

A Yankee fan of my acquaintance is sadder that Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon are no longer in New York than he is happy that Curtis Granderson has become a Yank, even though he KNOWS this is illogical, and New York theoretically has improved itself. He can't help it.

Familiarity, it seems, does not breed contempt. It breeds, well, familiarity. A player good enough to be a desirable free agent is a player good enough for a fan to count on, to factor in as something close to a constant in the chaotic, fickle pursuit of victory. This sentiment, I would argue, is a root element of the human condition. People hate change. They bitch about Daylight Savings Time, let alone losing a nose tackle to the Jets.

No team in any sport in the past decade has been more willing to ignore that sentiment than the New England Patriots, who have been more than moderately ruthless in allowing valued contributors to championship seasons to go elsewhere for the financial rewards of their performances. Deion Branch, Asante Samuel, well, we all know the list. And the Pats got away with it, too. The team's performance has not suffered -- unless you count failing to win Super Bowls as suffering. I don't, although I know many people do.

So I would never in a million years suggest that the Pats' decision to re-up most of their free agent eligible veterans was anything other than their customary cold, fact-based assessment of their situation as a football team, their best guess at their best chance for improving on a 10-6, first round playoff loss season.

I will say, however, that as a general rule, the amount of attention a sports team pays to the opinions of its fans varies in inverse proportion to its won-loss record.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Weird and Bad are Different Words

Nomar Garciaparra was an odd duck when he was a Red Sox. Nor was the the cheeriest of companions. I was on a 2004 road trip with the Sox in July, the last one before the one where Garciaparra got traded, and he didn't speak. I don't mean to me, or to the media in general. To anyone.

This did not, however, keep Nomar from hitting over .300 on the trip. Even in the midst of some personal nadir, he could perk up in the batter's box.

As far back as 1999, Garciaparra told the Herald (told Tony Massarotti, to be precise) that the trappings of public celebrity that went with being a Red Sox star made him very uncomfortable. Media relations being a very large trapping of celebrity, I never really was surprised or bothered that he wasn't very good at it, and didn't try to be. Inside his obsessive-compulsive heart, Garciaparra was a baseball idealist. He thought the star should show up, play well, sign autographs for the kids, and then sort of fade into the woodwork. Nomar would've been much happier playing in 1924.

Garciaparra was less curt to me than some other folks. I think it's because he saw me watching soccer on the clubhouse TV one day. But we weren't friendly, and his silences extended to me, too. So what? I didn't need Garciaparra's thoughts on the matter to get to the truth of his existence, to wit: he sure could play baseball.

Since I knew (but couldn't prove), Garciaparra was clinically obsessive-compulsive, and because it made me sad that such a gifted talented was wrapped so tight, I always wished him well. While I do not understand what made it important to him to make his peace with the Red Sox, obviously yesterday's odd little ceremony DID matter to him, so God bless. Garciaparra seemed a lot more comfy with himself retiring from baseball than he did winning American League batting titles. Good. People should be happy if they're not hurting anyone else.

Garciaparra never did, not as a Red Sox, anyway. So he was strange and distant. Those are not sins. They are personality traits.

Spiteful grudge-bearing, which I am amazed and saddened to see some of my former media colleagues wallowing in when they discuss Nomar, is a sin. Several sins. Pride and envy, to name just two.

And it's one hell of a lot more unpleasant to be around a spiteful person than a withdrawn one.

Merlin Olsen -- 1940-2010

Because he was a TV actor, the obituaries for Merlin Olsen, who died of cancer at age 69 are going to unintentionally slight his football career. As an actor, Olsen was a pleasant TV second banana. As a football player, he was Olivier.

All that needs to be said about Olsen as a player is this. Back in the '60s, Olsen's contemporaries, players, fans, etc., rated him as the best individual defensive lineman in the Rams' Fearsome Foursome. That was a line that had Deacon Jones on it, history's best pass rusher, on it, too.

There are no social classes in Halls of Fame. But if for some unforeseen reason they had to cut down in Canton, Ohio, lay off 9o percent of the immortals and remove their plaques, Olsen makes the cut with ease.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

In Other News, Newspapers Still Trailing As We Head to the Bottom of the Eighth

Memo To: Boston Globe sports department.
From: A Real Live Subscriber. You Remember Those, Right?
CC: Dan Shaughnessy

Yours truly once coined the phrase that a columnist should never be afraid to grasp the obvious. I stand by that theorem, too. There is, however, such a thing as overdoing it.

May I suggest that having a columnist who's covered over 30 years' worth of spring trainings write a piece that says "nothing much happening at spring training" falls into that category. Such an essay has all sorts of unspoken messages, none of which reflect well on the writer or his employer.

1. Heard about the Lindbergh baby? OF COURSE nothing much is happening at Red Sox spring training in 2010. Nothing much happened at Red Sox spring training in 1910 and almost all the spring trainings in between. Aside from players getting hurt or involved in bar fights, nothing much has EVER happened at any spring training.

2. Your readers are well aware of this fact. It is, weird but true, one of the biggest reasons why they like spring training in the first place. It took me a long time to figure that out. When I did, I started to get other assignments. Sports is a big place, and there's no requirement that either a commentator or a consumer need care about all of it.

3. If, however, said commentator makes a huge deal about baseball in general and the Sox in particular approximately 9 of 10 working days, even when writing about other sports, complaining that the object of his affection is boring him is, at best, unseemly.

4. Here's the real danger. It relates to bullet point two. Readers who know damn well spring training is a pleasant ritual of little import will read today's column by Dan and say. "Spring training dull? You've been to how many of them and NOW you're figuring this out? What the &%@! have you been looking at when you've watched baseball all these years?

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Golden Forebearance

Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer of his time and maybe of all time, is this blog's sports hero of the week. A little background, however, is required before we describe the feat for which Nicklaus won this prestigious award.

Nicklaus is a chatterbox. In his playing days, he was not only willing to speak with the media, he did so until their pens ran out of ink and their tape recorders' batteries went dead. Not that Jack needed the publicity, of course, he's just garrulous by nature. It's a part of his open, sunny Midwestern personality (the stone killer competitive athlete part only makes itself known every so often when Nicklaus speaks).

When the U.S. Senior Open was played at Salem Country Club a few years back, Nicklaus shot a round on Saturday that put him a stroke or so off the third round lead. As he came into the press tent for a mass interview, a line of violent thunderstorms struck the area, and in fact, pretty much all of Greater Boston.

For "violent," read "terrifying." In the supposedly safe confines of the permanent clubhouse, sparks six inches long were coming out of electrical outlets. In the press tent, power went out immediately, and we were left in the dark, contemplating that structure's composition of plastic draped over metal tubing.

The interview room, which had no windows, was the darkest spot in our oh-so-temporary shelter. Without missing a beat, Nicklaus changed the topic of his remarks from his day's play and delivered about a 10 minute monologue on Memorable Thunderstorms in the Career of Jack Nicklaus. I think people got killed in only a couple of them. He was as cheery as when he described his birdie putt on 14.

So that is the context for the rest of this essay and Jack's award. The PGA Tour's stop this week, the Honda Classic, is being played in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., which happens to be where Nicklaus lives. Naturally, he showed up to offer blessings to the event. Even more naturally, the media sought Jack out. One guess, and only one, is required for what they wanted to ask him about.

This being the golf press, the subject was put delicately. Did Jack think Tiger Woods would play the Masters next month.

Nicklaus said he didn't know, but that if a golfer had a chance to compete at Augusta, he usually did. And then, Nicklaus became a hero.

"I've tried to stay kind of noncommittal about this," Nicklaus said. "Because, you know, it's really none of my business."

Now if there's one person on earth other than Woods' family for whom Woods' business IS his business to, it's Jack Nicklaus. It's his record and legend Tiger's is chasing after all. Yet Nicklaus' sense of propriety overruled his deep-seated need to express himself. Bravo!

If every day one more person hears the name "Tiger Woods" and responds "that's none of my business," that's a day that ends with all of us living in a better world.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Wrong Guy With the Celtics Got the Nickname "The Truth"

Mike Gorman is a treasure. The Celtics' play by play announcer had Diogenes hanging up his lantern and scouting condos in Sarasota last night.

Idly, and I do mean idly, clicking the remote last night to discover yet again how short my attention span is, I stopped to watch a few moments of the Celtics-Pistons game.

After about a minute of exceedingly scattered action, I remarked to Alice that this was a classic late regular season NBA game, in that the only people involved more with it than myself were the players.

Not ten seconds later, Gorman said "not a lot of energy in tonight's game."

For that nice and understated man, that sentence was a shriek to his viewers to change the channel if they were seeking entertainment with a pulse.

So I did. But not before thanking higher powers for living in a town with an announcer with the respect for his game not to make just another night at the gym into the End of History As We Know It.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Lost That Glovin' Feeling

Fielding is the hip thing in baseball in 2010 (I refuse to use the degenerate term "defense" or its even more evil spawn "run prevention"). Theo Epstein says so. A long article in last week's "Sports Illustrated said so, too. It was all about how the Seattle Mariners overcame the fact they can't hit a lick to defy the oddsmakers by not completely sucking in 2009 and are likely to win the AL West in 2010 because of their uncanny group fielding ability.

See, fielding is the new undervalued commodity in baseball, so hip general managers save money and win games by signing players who can sling the leather, rather than those stodgy 40 homer, 110 RBI sluggers. It was all very impressive, and loaded down with new stat acronyms. It wasn't until the middle of the article that the piece noted one other reason the Mariners might not give up too many runs this season -- the team's trade to get Cliff Lee, the starting pitcher who was the reason the Phillies repeated as National League champions last season. Lee is not undervalued. At least, he's pretty determined he won't be when it's time for new contract.

Actually, fielding is the OLDEST undervalued commodity in baseball. Or rather, it's been valued about the same in the sport's flesh market for well over a century. It's not that fielding isn't valuable or doesn't help teams win games. It is and it does. It's just not AS valuable as those pedestrian and expensive commodities, hitting and pitching.

Some like numbers to explain the game. I prefer baseball cliches. The phrase "good field, no hit," is not applied to budding stars. It is a pejorative meaning the player in question is, if he's lucky, a fringe benchwarmer in constant danger of a sudden bus ride to a Triple A affiliate.

The formula hasn't changed much over the years. Pitching is 50 percent of winning, hitting about 40 percent (actually, make that 38 percent hitting and 2 percent baserunning) and fielding about 10 percent. In a game where pennants are determined frequently determined by winning percentages well less than 3 percent (that's about a five-game spread in the 162-game standings), that's not an inconsiderable factor. Not as considerable as those other two, however.

Fielding is the most aesthetically pleasing part of any ballgame. A nifty play is a far more memorable fan experience than yet another home run into the Monster seats. But the home run almost always does more to determine the game's outcome than the spectacular grab of a liner or a throw dug out of the dirt. As is well known, many teams turn spectacular plays as their pitcher is being battered from a barrage of hard-hit balls, as much from self-defense as from the will to win.

The real reason fielding is trendy this season is that a number of teams (Red Sox, cough, cough) were unable to bolster their lineups as much as they might have wished in the offseason and fell back on fielding as Plan B. There are ALWAYS glove guys out there. It's a steady living because it is a desirable major league skill. Desirable and absolutely necessary however, are not the same concepts.

Look, the difference between the best and worst fielding teams in the game each season is about 3 balls in play out of every 1000. It's the difference between a club that makes 98 percent of the plays and one that makes 95. Oh, range and throwing arms and such can make that difference larger. But there's never been a defense that equals the value of adding one OPS over .900 to your lineup, or a 200 inning pitcher with an ERA under 3.

Willie Mays was perhaps the best center fielder that ever lived. The only one I saw I rate as his equal was Garry Maddox. Maddox is remembered as a solid player. Mays is an all-time immortal. He'd be an all-time immortal even if he'd been a butcher out there.

Here's a hypothetical. Shortstop is the second-most important position for a fielder in the game. It, along with catcher, is actually a job where a superior fielder who's a mediocre or worse hitter can have a long career, can make All-Star teams and earn widespread acclaim just for his glovework.

Suppose for an instant that tomorrow morning a shortstop becomes a free agent. His name is Derek Jeter. Jeter, according to his critics, is the worst fielding shortstop in the game. I believe adequate would be a better description, but no matter. The point is, Jeter's fielding is no great shakes. Doesn't matter. As a shortstop, Jeter is also a first ballot Hall of Fame batter.

I'd bet every team in baseball would be racing a moving van full of $100 bills to Jeter's residence before he went out to pick up his mail. And God help the traffic cops, crippled newsboys and distracted grannies crossing the street who got in the way of the van driven by the general manager of the Seattle Mariners.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Soul Can't See the Color of the Medal Around Its Neck

A little after 3 p.m. Pacific Standard Time yesterday, Ryan Miller was the most miserable man in North America. He was the latest victim of the iron law of hockey overtime -- that while anybody can be the hero, only the two goalies have a chance to be goats.

Not that Miller was a goat of the Olympics. He was the MVP of the hockey tournament, after all. But the Sidney Crosby goal that gave Canada a 3-2 win over the U.S. in the gold-medal game was, if not exactly a soft goal, certainly a save that Miller makes more often than not. In the immediate aftermath of sudden defeat, Miller was disconsolate, his face and posture a study in sorrow.

Sometime around 5:30 p.m. PST, Miller entered the stadium for the closing ceremonies of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games with the rest of his U.S. Olympic teammates who had chosen to participate in what is consciously supposed to be a celebration of the Games, the athletes, and life in general.

Miller wasn't exactly celebrating. But he wasn't a wet blanket either He was a man willing to observe (and photograph), the celebration staged by his peers.

And for that, I have about a billion times more respect and admiration for Miller as an athlete than he earned with any of his superb performance in the U.S. goal. Nobody would have blamed or even noticed Miller if he'd left the hockey venue post haste for Vancouver's airport and the first flight back to Buffalo (where's playing tomorrow night). That, happily, wasn't the way Miller chose to end his Olympic experience.

This highly paid professional athlete signed on to be a member not just of the U.S. hockey team, but the country's whole Olympic team. And by golly, Miller was going to be part of the team all the way, from start to finish. If he couldn't be happy with the other U.S Olympians, Miller felt it important to be with them while they were happy. Hockey players, pro or otherwise, have a rigorous if idiosyncratic code of honor, but Miller's appearance at the festival of over-the-hill Canadian rock acts was something better than a duty. It was a choice.

Walking into that arena, here's what Miller said about himself. "Here I am, in my last moments as a 2010 U.S. Olympian. We won some, we lost some. But being a member of that team means more to me than my personal loss."

Sports is not life. I have no idea what Miller is like as a person. All I know is that it would be a fine thing, a privilege really, to be his teammate.