Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Chicken in Every Pot, and a Road Trip for Every Sports Bar Regular

There will be a lot of fans rooting for Ghana in the stadium when it plays the U.S. in the World Cup today. This is not just because Ghana is the last African team playing in a tournament held in South Africa. In this case, vuvuzela honking will be the residue of design.

According to a throwaway line by a New York Times soccer writer who buried his lede but good, there have been a lot of Ghana fans present throughout the Cup because for them, the trip was free. Seeing the event as a national priority, the government of Ghana sent them there, most or all expenses paid (Based on my limited experience of international soccer fans, if the government was rash enough to pay for the beer, national bankruptcy is imminent).

I'm sure these trips went to the well-connected within Ghana's corrupt elite, because that's how hot sports tickets get distributed everywhere, the U.S. most definitely included. But I'd like to think some of them went to contest-winners, who had to show proof of their devotion to the Black Stars' cause. Number of soccer match-related arrests in foreign countries would be a fair measuring stick.

Like the vuvuzela, this creative approach to sports and political marketing is bound to spread to the U.S. Those angry white male voters we hear so much about would be much less angry if they thought an Annie Oakley (note to readers: archaic baseball term for a free pass to the game) trip to the Final Four or Daytona was hanging on their ballots. In fact, I'm sure that in the headquarters of the Deval Patrick, Tim Cahill and Charlie Baker campaigns, meetings are going on figuring out whether it's better to buy up a block of tickets for a Patriots late October road game, or to take the chance the Sox are going all the way to the Series this fall.

It will also lead to a new tradition in American politics. On victory night, reporters will ask a pol, "you've just been elected U.S. Senator, what will you do next?"

His or her answer will be "I'm sending other people to Disney World!"

Sunday, June 20, 2010

This is How the Horror Movie Always Starts. PS: We're Doomed

Last night was Vuvuzela Night at the Marlins-Rays game at Whatever the Hell They're Calling It Now Stadium in Miami. Of course, that meant they only handed six of 'em, but the U.S. is now officially infected. I confidently predict we'll be hearing those damn things for the rest of our lives. Probably hear them at the PGA Championship.

Globalization has its downsides.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Library of Congress Calls It "Globalization In Sports"

Cambridge is not Middle America and Central Square is to Cambridge what Cambridge is to Middle America. That said, at noon, there were lines outside half the bars in the vicinity waiting to get in to watch the U.S. - England soccer match.

My son and I met a co-worker of his and his co-worker's family at Asgard, a nice Irish place with surprisingly good food. We met them at 12:15, which was a good thing, because by kickoff, fire laws were preventing anyone from being allowed in the joint, a bummer for those who went ahead to hold tables for larger parties.

Not all the patrons were there for soccer. Many were Red Sox and (surprising to me) Phillies fans looking for a place to hang before the 4 p.m start. But I couldn't help noticing that when the U.S. scored its (fluky let's face it) goal, everyone, the soccer geeks and the guys in Mike Schmidt throwback jerseys, went bonkers.

I was a sportswriter for 30 years, and I was a cynical and alienated person long before I was ever a sportswriter. But what happened in that bar when the U.S. scored was astonishingly cool. If you didn't think that, you were legally dead.

Soccer is a fine sport, but it'll never be my favorite. I'm too old. But what I DO like is seeing Americans deal with a role we've been unaccustomed to my whole life long.

Being an underdog has its satisfactions.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Is Our Athletic Directors and College Presidents Learning?

The situation is in flux, as they say at the State Department, but as of the moment this post is being written, 12 schools are members of the Big Ten Conference, and 10 schools are members of the Big 12 Conference.

Think about that for awhile, and financial crises and oil spills become easier to understand. Maybe a college degree should DISqualify people for any job involving math.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Leading Indicator

Statistics can be onerous, but this one is worth passing on. I got it from a poster on who must've been waiting a long time for a final score to put in the late edition last night.

Since the NBA Finals went to the 2-3-2 format in 1985, 10 of the 25 series have been tied 1-1 after the first two games. The team that won Game Three went on to win EVERY one of those series. Ten for ten. It may be a small sample size, but 1.000 remains a notable winning percentage.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Fans Are Fickle But Glue Is Sticky

Bumper sticker seen in the Bedford Stop and Shop parking lot this morning. It was old, and read "It Isn't Over Until Big Papi Swings!" Except that the "Isn't" had been covered over with white plastic masking tape of some kind and "Wasn't Always" handwritten on the tape.

Considering current events, I wonder if said fan is searching for a way to remove his editorial changes to that bumpersticker.

"Been With Ya All the Way, Papi!!"

If you wonder why athletes are inclined to hold fans at arm's length, studying that bumpersticker might give you a clue.

Saturday, June 05, 2010


There isn’t much left to be said about John Wooden, who died last night at age 99, that hasn’t been said over the last 30 years, let alone today. But every basketball fan alive will, or ought to, try and express something about a real legend’s life and work. Here goes.

Point the first: Wooden’s status as the greatest coach in basketball, no, sports, history is beyond dispute. The parameters of college basketball have changed, making it impossible to duplicate his ludicrous domination of the sport in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but it should be noted none of his immediate successors and peers rightly considered legends, most of whom dealt with the same system as Wooden, came close to matching his accomplishments. Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith have won a combined nine NCAA titles, one less than Wooden.

Point the second: Why and how did that happen? Of all the statements about Wooden’s coaching, the ones that have always stuck in my mind were the testimony by his players, both during and after their UCLA careers, that practices were both more physically and mentally exacting and, most important, more interesting and enjoyable, than were the mere games on the schedule.

John Wooden’s practices were more fulfilling for his teams than competition itself. I cannot think of a higher tribute to any coach in any sport.

(This post was finished at 9:18 a.m. June 5, 2010. It was posted later because we were offline at my house due to a router failure).

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Time Series Analysis: NBA Version

Due to the wisdom of David Stern, the NBA Finals won't start for another five hours, and I'm sick of hearing about the event already. Fortunately, by the end of Sunday night, I won't have to think about the Finals if I don't want to.

The Finals, thanks to the early Stern brainstorm of the 2-3-2 home court format, is a very front-loaded event. Simply put, if the Lakers are up 2-0 after Game Two, they'll have about an 80 percent chance of winning the series. If the Celtics are tied or, of course, up 2-0 themselves, I'd make their chances of victory at over 80 percent -- maybe a lot over.

The 2-3-2 was initiated in 1985 as a cost-control measure. Since the Lakers got the first three game home stand, there were no complaints. I well remember sitting by a pool in LA between Games Three and Four of that series when USA Today sportswriter Steve Hershey proposed that whenever the Lakers were in the Finals, the format should be 1-5-1 for them.

But in truth, as 25 years of history has revealed, the 2-3-2 both puts more pressure on and offers a much bigger reward for the home team in those first two games. It's simple. Go up 2-0 and no matter what else happens, you CANNOT face an elimination road game. The other guys now have essentially three must-win games in a row. Home court advantage or no, that's an almost impossible feat. In fact, no team in Finals history has ever held serve in those three home games. The only Finals which have ended in five games (there have only been three), ended with a road victory by the champs. Two of them were road sweeps.

While plenty of teams have won Finals without having home court advantage, they did so by earning at least a split of games One and Two. Only one team, the 2006 Mavericks, has ever won the opening two at home and gone on to lose a Finals. One out of 25 is four percent. Those are not good odds.

The 2-3-2 format is a very minor systemic advantage. But it is indeed home-court advantage plus. In a series between evenly matched opponents (which most Finals are) both playing at roughly the same level (which most Finals are not), it offers the team with the better regular season record a chance to put their opponent down early. Being behind for an entire week is mentally fatiguing. The 2006 Heat are to be commended for their poise and discipline.

Now that I've said that, let me add that I don't think the 2-3-2 will effect the 2010 Finals in the slightest. The Celtics and Lakers are changed teams than when they last met in 2008. But they haven't changed that much. The 2008 series was a relatively easy and uncompetitive Boston win. Basically, the Celts never trailed.

No matter how many games it lasts, it would surprise me if this Finals were much different.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Sportswriters and Finance: Worst Parlay Ever.

Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports has written a piece saying, in effect, that Tom Brady is unhappy the Patriots haven't begun negotiating a new contract for him yet, since he's on the last year of his current deal. By contrast, the piece notes, Colts owner Jim Irsay has already stated Peyton Manning will get a new deal, probably this summer, that'll be the richest ever for an NFL player.

Silver's work has never struck a chord deep in my soul, or even on its surface. But without impugning his credentials in any way, I must point out that SOMEBODY associated with that story is being very dumb about money, either the author or its subject. Based on my prior experiences with Brady, he'd have to have changed a lot in the last five years for it to be him.

This situation is as simple as finance gets. It is overwhelmingly in Brady's interest not to even begin to negotiate a deal with the Pats until Manning signs his contract. Why be the contract floor when you can be the next ceiling? If negotiating and poker are similar, and they are in some ways, we should remember that sitting in the big blind is considered to offer a player an advantage.

Set fun fan arguments aside. From the perspective of paying them, Brady and Manning are quarterbacks of equal and nearly incalculable value. Ergo, when they get their new deals, the numbers should be and surely will be roughly the same.

So who should set the market for the two QBs? Assuming both of them have brain one, and they do, it's clearly Manning. He's already heard his owner promise the deal will be a record-breaker. Why should Brady twitch until he sees what the new record is? In effect, the longer Brady waits, the more he gets to negotiate with Jim Irsay and not Bob Kraft. The second Manning signs his name to the Colts' contract, THEN Brady can, should and will begin dickering with New England, based on the following premise. "Of course, I'm better than Peyton. I should have the bigger deal."

He'll likely get it, too, although not by very much. Kraft and the Pats have their pride, and looking cheaper than the Colts would hurt said pride. After Manning signs, the pressure on the franchise to re-up Brady will become significantly more intense -- far too intense to resist. And in fairness, they don't want to resist. Kraft and Bill Belichick are cost-conscious, but they're not fools. If you can't pay Tom Brady the going rate, why the hell do you own and run a pro football team in the first place?

My guess is, Silver heard baffled grumbling from the Pats about the lack of contact with Brady's agents, and much less baffled, not to mention less sincere, grumbling from Brady on the subject. A hint of unhappiness is all it takes for Brady to gently remind the Pats who has the nut hand in this particular round of deals. God, my old pal Mike Felger will be at ShriekCon-Five for a week about this tale.

Among his other talents, Tom's always had a nifty touch with a ball fake.