Wednesday, April 28, 2010

There's Hope for America! Honest!!

Over at the Washington Post Web site, you can see the stories in the paper that readers have chosen to "share" with their online social network friends, that is, stories people have thought worthwhile to pass along to someone they actually know, or at a minimum, virtually know.

Of today's top five, four had three or four hundred "shares." They were what I think any nonpartisan observer would call the usual political bullshit. Washington is a company town after all, and the aforementioned substance is what the company makes. I forgot the topics as soon I as saw the headlines.

In first place, with 2578 shares, at least five times more than any other Post story, was the following earthshattering news "Family of Wandering Ducks Gets an Escort Home."

I think I read that story once. But I thought it happened in Boston. No matter. As long as cute animal stories are what interests my fellow citizens the most, the Republic endures.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Superstar's Paradox, the GM's Dilemma

If I had died last month, been reincarnated and was currently a top-shelf NBA free agent-to-be, I'd do just about anything to be on the same basketball team with Dwyane Wade next season.

About the only thing I wouldn't and couldn't do is sign up with the collection of odd socks that is Wade's current team -- the Miami Heat. Ten stiffs can drag down two mega-talents just as effectively as they do one.

I have to think Chris Bosh has given this issue some thought.


"You never know how you're playing until you know who're you're playing" -- Earl Weaver

Throughout modern baseball history, there has been no better cure for a team in a hitting drought than a few days spent with the Texas Rangers' pitching staff. Throughout all of baseball history, total domination of the really awful teams on the schedule has been a mandatory feature of post-season qualification. See, the Red Sox v. Baltimore Orioles, 2009. That "rivalry" is the only reason the Sox made the playoffs.

Baseball changes slowly when and if it changes at all. In 2010, Baltimore still stinks, and the Sox still play them 18 times.

There you have it class. Those are the reasons why a Boston club that was mired in a dreadful run of losing baseball as recently as last Monday has now won four of five games without having improved its level of play one iota.

Boston remains a team with problems, obvious problems. As the Orioles remind us, however, the Sox will play a great many games against clubs that are nothing but obvious problems.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Last Tim Tebow Post Until At Least September

It would be nice if Tebow does well as an NFL quarterback with the Broncos. It is obvious that for Tebow to succeed, his team will have to be somewhat unconventional on offense, and I root for all and any unconventional stuff in that league. And every Tebow completion will give the old razoo to the extensive draft commentary industry. Who doesn't root for that?

It would be nicer if people would stop dumping on the poor (soon to be rich) kid for something that is totally not his fault. Tebow is not responsible for the way irritating older white people tend to slobber all over him. His religious faith is his own business, and anyone who'd knock him for that is a jerk. Tebow is much less of a public proselytizer than many other jocks, yet gets 12 times the heat for it. Not fair.

For the record, I think Tebow will succeed, at least to the point of becoming a decent starter. He was, after all, one of the all-time great college QBs. Not a scout's delight, not a combine wonder, a guy who's going to be in record books and all-time lists for what he's done.

If a player can dominate the highest level of college football, I don't see why he can't at least play decently in pro football. Everybody in the NFL was once a college player. It is in the league's marketing interest to insist that it is an ineffably more difficult level of the sport to master. It is more difficult. But not that much more.

Entry-Level Quarterbacks

ESPN and the NFL Network treated Jimmy Clausen's fall into the second round of the draft as a sob story akin to the death of Old Yeller. Colt McCoy's slide into the unspeakable horrors of the third round was presented as one of the bleaker works of Aeschylus, except that Rich Eisen didn't have his tongue cut out before being sacrificed to the gods (pity).

Every time I clicked the remote back to the draft (one minute of every 15 did the trick), and the commentary was STILL about quarterbacks and their fate, I thought about Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, whom I covered, was the greatest quarterback in Harvard history, which is long. Harvard, of course, ain't Notre Dame. Fitzpatrick was a seventh-round draft choice of the Rams in 2005, earning him a paragraph or two in the Herald and Globe, and no notice from the national media at all.

Five seasons later, Ryan Fitzpatrick is still an obscure figure in the football universe. The point is, he's still in that universe. Fitzpatrick has been a backup for the Rams, Bills and Bengals. He's been a marginal guy who's never known if he'll make a roster from one summer to the next. But he's made them. He may do so again in 2010. Fitzpatrick will now draw an NFL pension. That's more than the majority of draft picks, low or high, ever do.

Fitzpatrick can play quarterback in the NFL. Not well enough to be a star, but well enough to get a team through the loss of the guy it's paying to be a star. So he's earned considerably more in his career than he ever got signing that seventh-round rookie contract.

The point of Fitzpatrick's NFL life for other rookie quarterbacks, even the causes celebres like Tim Tebow, is this: If you can play the position at the NFL level, even a little bit, you will be signing more than one contract. Your economic and social status as a rookie is of little to no importance. The idea is to get that foot in the door and show coaches and executives you CAN play.

As of this morning, the four quarterbacks of renown in the 2010 draft are equals in every respect except to their accountants. Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Clausen and McCoy were all drafted by teams that, let's face it, need new quarterbacks. If these kids can't beat out the likes of Matt Moore, Kyle Orton and the ghost of Jake Delhomme for jobs, then they shouldn't have been drafted at all. The rookies all have the same chance to succeed. And if they do, they will all wind up rich and famous. No one will remember where they were drafted, or the supposedly heartwrenching dramas of how long they waited by the phone with a bunch of ever-more-uncomfortable family and friends.

The deal for Qbs is, if Draft Day remains you of the biggest moments of your football life by the time you're 30, hell, make it 26, then you are not Peyton Manning, you are Ryan Leaf.

The Long Hello

By extending the draft from two to three days, the NFL only made the event more mysterious, at least to me. The primary mystery being, people get EXCITED about this?

"Excited" is about the most understated way to put it. The draft makes people furious, gleeful, despondent, gleefully despondent (that would be Michael Felger) and in Jon Gruden's case, it provided 40 consecutive hours of religious ecstasy. That's a lot of fuss over a list of college football players.

The draft is a matter of vital importance to NFL teams and they're entitled to get completely twisted about their choices and the process of making them. Football fans and commentators are inevitably going to have opinions about those choices, too. But given that the opinions of us outsiders are speculations about the teams' speculations on the future, the vehemence of draft debate is odd. No, make that psychotic.

I am sure that the volume of sound emanating from Philadelphia over the Eagles' draft equalled that which resulted from the trade of Donovan McNabb. (My listening posts in my old home town a/k/a family and friends confirm this). That's just nuts. How can anyone be more into an argument about players who might or might not help the team win this fall than by a trade which will make or break the Eagles for the next five seasons? I know all sports fans are creatures of habit, but come on.

By extending the draft, the NFL allowed for more hours of vehemence backed by even less facts upon which to argue. This led to a total breakdown of law and order on the ESPN set, which became the world's highest-paid cable access show Thursday night, perhaps the first time Chris Berman has entertained anyone since 1989. This led many fans and commentators to say things on Thursday they must wish to forget today.

To take a non-random example, there was an uproar when the Patriots drafted Devin McCourty in the first round after several of Bill Belichick's compulsive trades down. For whatever reason, and many were offered, this kid just wouldn't do. The pick became a Rorschach test in which the critic saw whatever his soul told him was the reason the Pats haven't won any Super Bowls lately. It was why they couldn't do a thing against the Ravens in January.

Fast forward to Saturday morning, and it is impossible to imagine anyone except maybe Belichick having their blood pressure rise above 120/80 when discussing New England's draft. It was as nice, normal, and dull a first three rounds as could be -- a football breakfast of white toast with unsalted butter. The Pats picked a cornerback, tight end, defensive end and wide receiver. Those were four positions where they could stand some improvement. They picked players in each round who figured to be picked about where they were. The team did nothing to earn outsized praise, and certainly nothing to earn any condemnation -- yet. On to mini-camp!! Better yet, back to the hockey and basketball playoffs!!!

People love to argue about sports. That fact put bread on my table for many years. The draft, however, always makes me think the "about sports" phrase in the first sentence of this paragraph is superfluous.

Monday, April 19, 2010


The Bruins are a hockey team which while quite sound in many phases of the game, had a terrible time scoring goals this season. As a rule, although not always, scoring goes down for all teams in the NHL playoffs.

The Celtics are an older basketball team that needs a superior defensive effort to win consistently. As a rule, although not always, the NBA playoffs are a little easier on older teams than the regular season, and there aren't too many 121-116 track meet games, either.

Therefore, without doing anything rash like predicting even a first round playoff victory for either club (lack of goal scoring and lack of consistency are rather dire problems), it seems reasonable to forecast that Boston's two winter sports teams could be more competitive in the postseason than during the endless slog of their regular seasons.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Icing the Buck

The National Hockey League has a perennial marketing dilemma, one it faced twice in 2010. Tournament hockey, be it the Stanley Cup playoffs or Winter Olympics, is tremendously exciting and has the capability to engage the casual sports fan (a group best defined as "people who watch games on TV"). Regular season hockey, while not always dull, does not.

Unfortunately, regular season games comprise the bulk of the league's inventory. It's most of what it sells. Therefore, the NHL spends most of its time pushing its least attractive product. Then it wonders why it can't get a big U.S. national TV contract.

Hockey isn't known as a sports business full of forward thinkers, or even thinkers (Florida, hotbed of the winter game?). But it occurs to me that another sport, equally as hidebound, has a possible solution for the NHL's annual "February and March, who cares?" problem. That would be European soccer.

European soccer leagues have a regular season and tournaments that go on at the same time. A top club can play in three forms of competition simultaneously, its league, the Champions League (a tournament for teams that did well last season) and, usually, its national tournament, in which major and minor league teams play a tournament that goes on all season parallel to the league schedule. A team that is doing poorly in its league may still do well in tournament competition. Portsmouth, the bottom team in the English Premier League, will play for the FA Cup (national tournament) championship. That has allowed the club, which is bankrupt, to sell more tickets and cut a slice of more TV revenue.

Soccer, in short, has a higher percentage of tournament inventory compared to regular season inventory. Why couldn't hockey do the same. Why not a reduced regular season and an extra parallel tournament besides the Stanley Cup? A world club championship, say. If the best team in Russia came to the Garden of a Saturday in January, it might attract more interest than a visit from the Columbus Blue Jackets, and it'd make just as money for the Bruins. Or a combined AHL-NHL tournament? The Red Wings come to Lowell. I'd watch that instead of another goddamn Big East basketball game.

This proposal will never be considered, let alone adopted. I am convinced the NHL doesn't WANT to expand its popularity. It is content to exist as the fourth/fifth (depends on strength of NASCAR in franchise market) U.S. professional sport. Which is too bad for them, and for us. There's so much more to do in April and May than in January and February. That's when we need winter sports at their best, not at their most drab routine.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hoist on My Own Petard -- Twice

This has been a difficult week of sports observing. Writing the phrase "Joe West is right" causes an almost physical pain. To find myself in spiritual agreement with the patrons (spectators in normal English) of the Masters tournament is an even deeper wound. Yet here I am, suffering both experiences.

West, on most people's short list of worst umpires in the big leagues, called the Yankees and Red Sox an embarrassment to baseball for the endless dawdling that makes their games a cinch to blow past 3 1/2 hours in length even if they're engaged in a pitcher's duel. The usual suspects harrumphed in rebuttal. Players I admire, such as Mariano Rivera (the one guy on both teams who does work fas) did so, and so did, almost in unison, the commentators employed by ESPN, who, needless to say, have a vested interest in the ratings cow that is baseball's most overexposed rivalry.

(Why do people watch the Yanks-Sox who don't live in New York or Boston? Why do they still watch any prime time show past its prime? Familiarity plus there's nothing else good on.)

But West WAS right. The pace of a Yankee-Sox game is a caricature of baseball. The game is supposed to build drama through its pauses, not consist of said pauses. At my day job, the baseball fans in the office, who have never been sportswriters, and therefore do not have a learned hated of anything that creates deadline pressure, all complained about the length of the games in the Yanks-Sox series. They all watched the games, but not the last two innings.

Baseball has rules about speed of play. They are enforced rather less often than regulations governing Wall Street. As we saw last week, attempts to enforce those rules didn't anger the Red Sox and Yankees, they mystified them. Derek Jeter couldn't have been more surprised not to have been granted a time out than if he'd been called out on strike two.

If, as West charged, the Yanks and Sox are the only clubs who are ignoring major league guidelines on pace of play, then a little meeting with Bud Selig before the teams' next series in May is in order. Or, maybe Selig could just meet with West himself. Here was a case of an indictment delivered by an unindicted co-conspirator.

West overlooked the one element of Yankee-Red Sox games he COULD influence for the better. Both clubs are notorious for taking a lot of pitches at the plate. West is equally notorious for having one of baseball's smallest strike zones. It is within his power to start calling a few pitches below the belt for strikes, since technically, that's what they are. A few more called strike threes with men on base would do more to goad the Yanks and Sox into a quicker tempo than any amount of prodding from the commissioner.

Meanwhile, in another development that has stirred the commentariat, the galleries at Augusta National Golf Club have given Tiger Woods a warm verging on adoring welcome upon his return to competition. The fans, almost all of whom have been attending the Masters since before Woods ever played in it, have chosen to ignore the hilarious and sordid scandal Woods has made of his non-golf life. They have chosen to ignore the obvious fact Woods remains the same pretentious, monomaniacal, bizarre soul he was before the scandal came to light (just like Ben Hogan, huh? Sure, sex addiction equals near-fatal auto accident). For those who plumb sports seeking The Meaning Of It All, this blinkered behavior by the patrons is an outrage.

To me, it's simple common sense. People attend a golf tournament to see golf played well. This Woods can still do. Ergo, the Masters spectators are happy to see him back, because he is providing more bang for their buck. At bottom, they really don't care about Tiger Woods the person. It is difficult to see why they should.

Woods has spent his entire adult life using people. It's made him rich (celebrity product endorser and consumer is a straight-up exploitative relationship). It has left the rest of his life in tatters, tatters that may never be mended. Woods SAYS he's working on mending them. We'll see.

In the meantime, golf fans are using Tiger Woods right back. They are taking their sporting pleasure from him, offering the applause that is the artist's due. What do they think of Woods the person. That's a secret, or rather many secrets, known only to them.

I find a rough justice in that relationship. And it'll get a lot rougher the first time Woods shoots a 76.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Eternal Mysteries of the National Pastime, Chapter Two

In the first two games of the 2010 season, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, two-thirds of the three starting pitchers who are supposed to be the primary reason the Red Sox will be strong contenders for a world championship, did not dazzle. Not to sugarcoat it, but they both pretty much stunk, and neither got past the fifth inning.

No one among the sports commentariat or the community of semi-professional Red Sox fans (we all know who they are) has expressed the slightest worry about Beckett and Lester, and of course, they shouldn't. Based on his April career, C. C. Sabathia has been in another line of work besides pitching for some time now.

David Ortiz went 0-for-9 in those same two games, and it's a crisis. The commentariat and the hysteric section of fandom are going ape. Ortiz may never get another hit.

Well, maybe he won't. And maybe Beckett and Lester won't see the sixth inning all year, either. The evidence supporting those two forecasts is exactly the same, yet one of them is not even considered while the other is the first official Stupid Big Deal of the Sox season. How come?

My guess is, it's the self-fulfilling prophecy concept. Many commentators and fans invested much of the offseason and spring training speculating on how horrible it would be if Ortiz struggled at the plate. Now the regular season is here, and every Ortiz out becomes an indicator of his complete collapse as a hitter, not because it's true, but because it validates the preseason speculation.

My personal hope is that Ortiz goes three-for-four in his next game. Whenever he does, I really hope his post-game remarks have a lot of "fuck yous" in them.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Eternal Mysteries of the National Pastime, Chapter 1

Year in and year out, the Yankee bullpen reminds me, painfully, of the raccoon screen on top of the chimney at our house.

A raccoon screen is not costly, as home improvements go. But it's not something a homeowner tends to worry about upon purchasing a house without one. It is deferrable maintenance. Deferrable, that is, until the low but not that low percentage risk inevitably takes place, and raccoons set up housekeeping in the chimney. Then it's at least a thousand bucks to get rid of them, plus much agita. Raccoons are not an enemy anyone wants hanging around the neighborhood.

So it is with the Yankee relief corps. A baseball team built on the principle that no expense should be spared in its construction perennially fields a middle relief corps which indicates the club's management does not believe that baseball games contain a sixth inning. Damaso Marte? Chan Ho Park? He couldn't get guys out in the NATIONAL League.

Middle relievers are not, as a class, highly valued players, nor should they be. But there's a notable difference between honest journeymen long relievers and the table scraps New York sent to the mound last night. At all other positions on their roster, the Yankee's personnel management theory is that All-Star is the minimum credential for the job. At a job where simple competence would be a step forward, the Yanks just can't seem to find skilled tradesman, and have a dangerous preference for damaged pitchers once thought to be All-Stars of the future.

It's as if New York has lost the ability to recognize median-level major league ability. Since that's as close to stardom as middle relievers ever get, Yankee managers are left watching games wondering if the ninth inning will ever come.

Which is what the entire world thinks when it watches the Yankees play the Sox, but that's an eternal mystery for another day.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Prediction 2

Let's cut this short, as I have mosquito eradication duties to perform. The 2010 baseball season is almost certainly going to closely resemble the 2009 season. In the American League East, the likeness will be uncanny.

The Red Sox, who were a very good team that won a lot of games last season, will do the same this year. Ditto for the Yankees. As to which will win a few more games, who knows? By Labor Day we may not know.

Which is to say, it's a long season. Therefore, despite the ritual importance of Opening Day/Night to baseball fans, no follower of the Red Sox should feel the least bit guilty about turning off tomorrow night's game and going to bed in time to get some sleep before going back to work. You won't miss a thing.

Predictions 1 and 1a

In the last NCAA tournament I'll likely ever care about, chalk would seem to be the way to go. Michigan State, which lest we forget was ranked in the top five in the country back when the Jets were a big deal, should advance to play Duke in the final. Look for humorous reaction shots of Bob Huggins when the refs start sending his West Virginia kids to the bench for crimes such as breathing hard under the boards. I also like Michigan State to win the whole cheese Monday night.

There's a crumpled bracket somewhere under my desk that tells us no one should put much stock in the preceding paragraph. Here's a call in which I have much more faith. When (and it sure seems like a done deal), the NCAA expands the tournament field to 96 teams next year, it will be a fiasco, not just artistically, as everyone already knows, but eventually financially.

It's a simple matter of supply and demand. There is, outside of ESPN, coaches, and university presidents, no demand for more tournament games in March. Expanding the supply of such games, therefore, isn't going to work.

Greed makes people stupid, and they don't come much greedier than the well-dressed, pretentious panhandlers who lead America's institutions of higher learning. These bigdomes will have their comeuppance, however, in the short amount of time it takes for America to learn how hard it is to run an office pool about a 96-team tournament. I know the NCAA isn't allowed to admit that gambling is why the tournament is so popular (college basketball regular season TV ratings are microscopic, another example of supply outstripping demand), but it is. Remove the brackets, and you remove much, maybe most, of your audience.

One more thing. Expanding the tourney requires the NCAA to screw long-time broadcasting partner CBS. Anybody here think CBS won't try to get even? Besides gambling, the other astonishing marketing advantage the tournament has is that it has the month of March pretty much to itself as a big-time sports events. The NHL and NBA are in the part of the regular season where the players are as bored as the rest of us. Spring training, is, well, practice. NASCAR is once a week.

Schedules are not immutable. If the tournament goes to ESPN, I know what I'd do if I were CBS. The NFL has already moved the draft to prime time. For extra dough, I'm sure the league would move it up a month and schedule it for prime time opposite the Final Four.