Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Vanishing Marketplace of Sports Ideas

Last month, a former sportswriting colleague, Vic Ziegel of the New York Daily News, died at the age of 74. Vic was about the best companion I can imagine, witty, kind, the sort of person who makes time fly by in the best possible way. His passing is a tremendous sorrow to those who knew him, even those like myself for whom that acquaintance was slight.

This is not an obituary for a good man. The reason I bring up Vic is that for my money, and the money of a goodly number of New Yorkers, he was a great sportswriter. At least, he was the kind of sportswriter I tried and probably mostly failed to be. Ziegel's prose was graceful, easy and a simple pleasure to read. (As is almost always the case, that grace and ease were the products of agonizingly hard mental labor). Most of all, I admired Vic's temperament as a writer. He treated the people in sports with dignity when they deserved it, since for those folks, it is the most important thing in their lives. But in Ziegel's writing, it was always obvious that the reason he liked sports was because they entertained him, and he liked sportswriting because it gave him the opportunity to entertain others in turn.

That was and is my idea about sports, too. And I admired Vic to the max because he could transmit that mindset so elegantly to his readers. I had and have to settle for intermittently as my adverb in that phrase.

Aside from personal loss, that's what's sticking with me about Vic Ziegel's passing. The essayist, for want of a better word, sports columnist is passing, too. The entire way of thinking he represented is getting harder and harder to find in sports journalism. Sports journalism is infinitely poorer for it, and I think fans (readers, listeners, etc.) know it.

There's very little new under the sun in sports commentary. The Opinionator school of thought, the tough guy who is either cynical or outraged on a daily basis, was a common feature of newspapers before World War I. Jimmy Cannon, an outstanding writer, pretty much still holds the trophy in this regard. Cannon invented the series of one sentence opinions column. Boy, he would have torn it up on Twitter.

There were also guys whose forte was humor, wisecrackers for want of a better term. These chaps (and ladies, we'll get to women commentators in a few graphs) were and are rare, for the simple reason nothing on earth is hardly to write consistently well than humor. As a kid growing up, I loved reading Jim Murray. Once I became a writer myself, I was in awe of him. Funny for 50 years on deadline. That's like Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals at eight straight Olympics.

Now we move to category three -- the Conversationalists. These were and are the commentators who are primarily storytellers, as Vic was. Here's what I saw, here's what I thought, all expressed in the best English language I can muster.

The conversationalists got a big boost when women started becoming sports columnists. Back in the day, I liked hanging out with my female colleagues because far more than my male colleagues, they liked talking about writing and about reading. That was our job after all.

The boost hasn't lasted. The Opinionators are now not only the dominant force in sports commentating, they're damn near the only force. It's where the money is, and commentators must eat, too. My former colleague Tony Massarotti was a damn fine baseball writer. Talk show hosting, let's just say it doesn't come naturally to him. However, Tony would have to be an idiot not to choose what's obviously the more lucrative occupation.

This is boring. When Columnists A and B and Talk Show Hosts C and D all have the exact same perspective on yesterday's game, we sports consumers are stuck with a choice of Coke or Pepsi. And like those two fine beverages, the sugar starts to rot our mental teeth.

I am tired of commentary that goes like this: Ain't it Great/Awful What Happened? Most of all, I am tired of the implicit assumption that any topic in sports is by definition important enough to get so freakin' emphatic about it. I'm tired of being yelled at (you can yell in print quite well, thank you) when what I want to do is kick back and enjoy myself with a form of recreation I've loved my whole life long.

With Vic Ziegel gone, there's one less place I can go for that. If I'd never met him, I'd mourn that loss.

One Nation, Under Two Kinds of Sweat

After a week spent reading college football previews in my day job, it occurs to me de Tocqueville got to America about 170 years too early. In my experience, you can forget about separating this country by red state or blue state, or by coasts and flyover country, or even by north, south, east and west.

There are two Americas, and we all live in one of them. You either live in a place where people care a lot more about professional sports than college sports, or vice versa. No exceptions. You tell everything else about a town, suburb or city, right down to what its residents most like to eat, from that one first principle.

Demographics don't matter. Boston is the world's biggest college town, but this is pro sports city and always will be. Even what kinds of teams are available to root for don't matter. Los Angeles is a pro town without an NFL franchise, and football is America's most popular sport. What to do? Create USC, one of the best professional franchises around, that's what.

It's not that people here don't follow college sports (we have too many colleges to create a huge fan base for any one) or that people in Birmingham, Alabama don't like baseball or the NBA. They do. It's just that one is a true love, and the other is a seasonal fling if there's nothing else good on TV. One is a person's identity. The other is, well, only sports.

(It is significant that the biggest sports event in our country contains elements of both worlds. The Super Bowl is a professional sports event. But the idea of bowl game is a college sports concept, one that predates the NFL by many years.)

And without even realizing it, life in a pro town or college sports town makes you unfit for life in whichever Americansportsland isn't yours. Austin, Texas is by all accounts one of the best places to live in the U.S. Food, music, business climate, golf opportunities, you name it, Austin has it. I could never live there. I could never imagine living there. I grew up in a pro burg, and I've spent my adult life in a pro burg, and the idea of existing in a community where Mack Brown is a big deal, no, make a respected sage, fills me with horror. I'm sure that an Austinian (is that right?) who came to Boston for a summer weekend in the middle of one of our really top-notch incidents of Red Sox mania (like the Manny trade), would feel exactly the same thing in reverse.

As social divides go, the sports divide is about as benign as it gets. It does no damage to our nation if millions of (in my opinion sad and deluded) souls want to obsess about National Signing Day. But when I'm in college sports territory, I am always and forever an outsider. How can these otherwise delightful people waste their time yakking about the Heisman Trophy when they could be scanning waiver wires or productively bitching about the nearest big league bullpen?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

MRI is Always a Losing Score

Gosh, there was a lot of frantic palaver yesterday about how awful it was the Pats lost an exhibition game to the Rams 36-35. There always is, everywhere. Football commentators and fans are so starved for data in August that even though they rationally know exhibition games aren't anything like real ones, they can't stop themselves from doing straight-line extrapolations from the performance of third-stringers in the fourth quarter into what their team of interest will look like come December.

I'm not calling a foul here. Human sports nature is immutable. I've been known to fall into that trap myself, in print, where it's harder to pretend it never happened. And to a certain extent, exhibition games do provide data worth mulling over -- just not worth rending one's garments.

Ferinstance, Rams fans SHOULD be happy about how Sam Bradford looked against the Pats. It's always nice to see a little return on investment when the home team makes one of those franchise quarterback plunges, because the alternative is so horrid to contemplate. Pats fans SHOULD be a trifle disgusted with the nonperformance of the starting defense. Those fans do have the comfort of knowing their disgust had nothing on Bill Belichick's and that the coach is in position to act out his unhappiness more effectively than by phoning to Andy Gresh.

But in the final analysis, that's all chaff. By the only preseason measurement that truly matters, the Patriots were winners Thursday night, and the Rams losers. New England won by a score of 0-1. As far as we know, it had no frontline player suffer a long-term injury, while Rams wide receiver Donnie Avery is done for 2010 with a knee explosion he suffered in the second quarter.

The best way to think of any exhibition game is this: If your team's injured reserve list is the same length after the game as it was before, your team enjoyed the best possible outcome. Let the media fret about the other stuff. My former colleagues get paid to be worrywarts.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The March, or in This Case, Crawl ot Time

I respect his tradecraft, and it's sure not his fault the Red Sox said he was going to be the Walter Johnson of the Orient.

But my life's way too short to allow me to watch a game Daisuke Matsuzaka's pitching without frequent use of the remote.

Almost Perfect Practice Makes....

When Bill Belichick says he likes something related to football, I snap to attention. He's not known for blabbing trade secrets.

Accordingly, when Belichick pretty much gushed about how much he loved the joint practices the Patriots were holding with the Saints last week before their exhibition game (the same joint practices held with the Falcons this week before Thursday's game), I immediately assumed the following: Belichick had figured out a way to get more out of those sessions than other people. The Pats' coach WANTS to be tight-lipped, but when it comes to football theory, he can't help himself. The love of the subject takes command.

And without getting into specifics, because I only scanned parts of the first half of both games, it was obvious, even to a scanner, that the Pats, Falcons and Saints were far more organized than is customary for early exhibition games, which traditionally resemble the First Battle of Bull Run, and that the Pats were way more organized than their opponents. Given the chance to have practices which more closely resembled actual football combat, Belichick, as might be expected, made the most of it.

If there is a 2011 NFL season, I predict the Patriots will have a much harder time finding training camp dance partners.

All Publicity Is Not Good Publicity

Writing about obituaries reminds me of one of my favorite Herald anecdotes.

It is common obituary practice for every paper to keep things current. That is, when a noted public figure reaches a certain age (kind of close to my age), a reporter familiar with him sets up an interview to be used as the basis of the obit. The whole enchilada, from college days to names of grandchildren and great-grandchilden, are put down on the record, and the reporter goes back and writes the obit, which is then filed for the awful possibility that the noted person dies on deadline.

Sometime in the late '90s, the Herald sports section was ordered to produce an obit update. It fell to my former colleague Jack O'Leary to do the interview with former (and now, sadly, late) Red Sox announcer Ned Martin, one of the most wonderful people it was my pleasure to meet in my previous life.

Martin, as ever, was cooperative, talkative and charming. Jack had more material than could have been used for the obit of a Nobel Prize-winner or President. And then Ned asked a question.

"Gosh, I think you're going to write a good story. Could you send me a copy after it comes out?"

Hal Connolly: The Local Angle.

Hal Connolly, the gold medal winner for the U.S. in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, died yesterday at age 79.

Connolly is famous for having met his first wife at the Games. She was a Czech track athlete (discus) and they fell in love. During the height of the Cold War, this was big. The Czech authorities made sure she couldn't defect. Connolly went to the then-Czechoslovakia in 1957 and basically made such a stink the government couldn't refuse him permission to marry her, in a small ceremony attended by 50,000 Czechs, who one suspects were making a small political gesture.

Connolly and bride went back to the States, raised children, got divorced, and Connolly got remarried. An American tale. I knew about Hal Connolly, because I'm old. But here's what I didn't know.

Connolly was born and raised in Somerville! And he went to BC. I think he was a BC student when he was an Olympian.

I learned that from reading Connolly's obituary in the Globe. Which was a reprint of an obit written by Frank Litsky, who was the track writer for the New York Times since about the time Phiddippides ran from Marathon to Athens.

When a newspaper can't summon up the collective memory to write the obit of a local hero, its social utility is plunging dangerously close to nil.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hey, They're Due!

Many people in both politics and journalism like to compare sports to politics. In my experience, this is an excellent means of misunderstanding both endeavors in the deepest and most fundamental way possible.

But I must admit that when I clicked on my search home page and saw the headline "Israel and Palestinians Agree to New Peace Talks" my mind was immediately captured by the vision of a sports headline, one with which we're all familiar.

Cubs Report to Spring Training.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Fugitive: The Final? Remake

Three members of the Minnesota Vikings flew South yesterday to meet with Brett Favre in person to beg the quarterback to come out of his third or fourth retirement and play quarterback for the team in the 2010 season. Or so it was reported. I have my doubts. Not about the players' trip, but about their alleged motivation.

The Viking players got a thorough razzing for undignified conduct deemed an unmanly violation of the football code of really stupid ethics (If you needed a quarterback, wouldn't asking one to join your team be a GOOD idea?). This looks like a bum rap to me -- at the very least it is not supported by the evidence, which strongly suggests the players had an entirely different motivation.

Consider the timeline: Players arrive at Favre's bucolic retreat in Long Way From the Mall, Mississippi. Hours later, Favre gets on chartered plane and returns to Minnesota. That's salesmanship of an uncannily high order. Instead of the mundane duties of blocking, tackling and kicking, these three guys should be running the Vikes' marketing department.

So I don't think that's what happened at all. Favre's decision reeks of a bag job. The Vikings, management, owners and players knew damn well their wandering eternal boy was coming home. Or rather, they knew that's what Favre said he was going to do.

Isn't it obvious why the Vikings' players made that trip. They weren't in Mississippi to cajole Favre into returning, they were there to ESCORT THE PRISONER. Their duty was to make sure Favre got on that plane and didn't try and convince the pilot to detour to Bristol, Connecticut for an emergency landing on the set of "SportsCenter."

Favre's in camp this morning. Mission accomplished. U.S. Marshal Tommie Lee Jones is very proud.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mr. Lucky

Dustin Johnson had a three-shot lead going into the last round of the U.S. Open. He had a triple-bogey on the second hole, shot 80, and finished way up the track.

Dustin Johnson had a one-shot lead going into the 72nd hole of the PGA Championship. First he made bogey to fall into a tie. Then he made triple bogey, because Johnson was assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker which was full of spectators at the time (A rule is a rule, but a stupid, irrational rule is just that, too).

So Johnson may be forgiven if he's starting to feel like fate has taken a strong dislike to his face. And U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin may be forgiven for wondering if fate thinks he's been stepping out with fate's wife lately.

By finishing tied for fifth at the PGA, Johnson has earned an automatic berth on the U.S. team. Every skipper loves having a player working on a historic jinx on his side. What's more, Johnson's big event problems are getting worse. Fold down the stretch? Happens to everybody? Lose the PGA the way he did? Doesn't happen often. Once in fact (Roberto de Vicenzo in the '68 Masters, penalized for signing an incorrect scorecard, an even stupider rule).

Which leads me to believe that when Pavin makes out the lineup for twosomes, there may not be too many volunteers with their hands up eager to be paired with the human Wreck of the Hesperus. And while I'm not superstitious, were I paired with Johnson in the Cup, I'd kind of make a point of standing on the opposite side of the fairway. Lightning is uncommon in Wales in October, but why find out if fate hates me, too?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Things I Don't Understand About Sports, Part the Billionth at Least

As my tax accountant knows, I have no head for business, but sometimes I wonder about the people whose business IS business.

Which is to say, If I were an agent representing a football player engaged in a holdout in increasingly bitter contract negotiations I would never, ever, say that matters had passed the point of no return, even if they had. For the life of me, I can't see what the percentage is in that move.

First, the history of sports negotiations teaches us that matters almost never reach the point of no return. Players and franchises have climbed down from far higher horses than the ones Logan Mankins and the Patriots are riding in some impressively fast times.

Second, if divorce is in the cards, why be the one to tell the kiddies -- that is, the fans? Let the franchise carry the burden of splitsville by its words and deeds, then act surprised and hurt. That's the way to win the amazingly marginal advantage offered by the court of public opinion.

Look at Darelle Revis. He had the wit to be miles away from the training camp where the Jets management all went on TV to make pretty good asses of themselves. And lo and behold, negotiations have returned to ongoing.

Quiet confidence, it seems to me, is the only sane negotiating posture for either a player or his employers. Or it would be, if money didn't make people so insane in the first place.

Outs 24-27: Not as Easy As They Look

Jonathan Papelbon has not been a very good closer this season. Truth be told, he wasn't all that hot last season, either. Since when closers fail, their teams lose, there has been a movement afoot to replace Papelbon with Daniel Bard. Right now, with the Sox desperately attempting to keep their playoff chances deteriorating from "odds against" to purely theoretical.

Bard has what fans always want in a closer. He throws really hard and he's never done it before. So naturally, there is an assumption that Bard will be invincible if promoted from the important task of setup man to the bullpen CEO job of closing.

Perhaps this is true. That's how Mariano Rivera got started, and he's done reasonably well. But the idea of giving a player an entirely new role for the final quarter of the season is inherently risky -- especially when it's a role both as important and unusual as closer.

Closing LOOKS easy. If one goes by the percentages, it IS easy. After all, even in his time of trouble, Papelbon has converted over 80 percent of his save chances. What other individual statistic in baseball comes close to that success/failure ratio?

Percentages are not all of baseball, thank heavens. The thing about closing is, it's the only job in baseball where you work without a net. There are no teammates to pick you up. You screw up, everybody goes home a loser. Every other pitcher's three-ball count is working the corners. Yours is a catastrophe in the making.

That's a lot of stress-stress not every pitcher can handle, no matter how hard they throw. And so, even when they are in the midst of a terrible run, experienced closers seem to be hard to replace.

Let's take a nonrandom example named Brad Lidge. In 2008, Lidge was perfect, saving every game in which he appeared for the Phillies in their world championship season. In 2009, Lidge was wretched. He blew 11 saves, had an ERA around 8 and Phillies manager Charlie Manuel actually did bench Lidge for mental health reasons, right around this point of the season, as a matter of fact.

By the playoffs, Lidge had the closer's job back. He's had only a slightly less terrible 2010 than 2009, but as of this morning, Lidge remains Philadelphia's closer. Given over a full season to attempt to find/create a replacement, the Phils couldn't do it -- even though Lidge didn't get much better during that time.

Papelbon hasn't been as awful as the 2009 Lidge, merely mediocre. Therefore, he's likely to be even harder to replace. And of all the sorts of pitchers possible to replace him with, a flamethrowing young one given a battlefield promotion seems likelier to fail than most.

The future of such an experiment goes something like this: Eight strikeouts in three perfect saves, followed by the game-losing tape measure homer in the one you absolutely have to win to have a chance.

A Thought on Red Sox History

Doesn't it seem as if an inordinate number of real Red Sox skullcrushing bad stuff happens when they're in Arlington, Texas playing the Rangers. Humiliating sweeps, losses like last night's, etc.? Kansas City used to be a trip to the abandoned amusement park inhabited by the masked slasher, too, but then the Royals got too horrible for even fate to help them.

I am using memory alone here, rather than the research wonders of the Internet. But my recollection is strong that from the days of Reggie Cleveland to the here and now, Texas is where Red Sox pitchers go to suffer their worst professional breakdowns.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

It's Lonely at the Top, Eh

At my day job, it fell upon to read Maclean's, Canada's weekly national news magazine. Talk about the ultimate dying format of journalism.

But I digress. Why I'm mentioning this is that one of the articles was a peppy profile of teen idol Justin Bieber, who's a Canadian-born teen idol.

Bieber came off as a nice kid in the article -- as aware as a 16-year old can be that there's something fundamentally absurd about his situation in life. There's always been a bubblegum boy or boys stirring preteen girls to frenzy in U.S. popular culture, ever since Frank Sinatra was knocking them dead at the Paramount, and Bieber, bless him, did not once attempt to portray himself as an artiste, just as a guy with a good voice and an even better gig.

But life's not perfect, and despite fame, fortune, being friends with the First Family, and like that, Bieber IS a Canadian, and he was speaking to a Canadian magazine, so he let his hair down to confess to the bitter disruption popular stardom has wrought on his existence.

Bieber can't play hockey anymore!!!! He's too busy. Actually of course, way too many people have way too much money tied up in Bieber's teeth to allow him to see the inside of a rink for anything more dangerous than a "Disney on Ice Christmas Special." But it's clear Bieber would trade at least one sold-out concert for a shift in a rec league somewhere.

Wait, Bieber's agony gets worse. In a comment both unintentionally hilarious and sad, with which the author had the wit to close the article, Bieber stated that to compensate for the lack of hockey on tour, he spends his free time playing the EA NHL All-Star video game.

"But," says the hero of a billion 11-year olds, "there's nobody else in the tour who knows how, so I have to play it by myself."

So if you read in the trades that Justin Bieber will tour with Nickelback in 2011, now you know the rest of the story.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Deciding to Stay After Landing at Plymouth Rock Was Kind of a Gamble

Let me get this straight, Gov. Patrick. Three casinos and one slot machine parlor is just the right number of gambling hells for Massachusetts, but three casinos and TWO slot machine parlors are way too many?

We pause here for the first of the many WTFs our fine state's treatment of gambling always evokes from this blogger. The whole dance (it's an amazing feat when the parochial and venal folk dance that is the Legislature is only about the fifth stupidest part of a social and political issue) reminds one that the worst part of living here isn't the weather, or the traffic, but the enormous stick crammed up the small intestine of the body politic.

Legal gambling is no economic panacea. It makes a certain amount of money for the state and is labor-intensive, but it comes with costs. Connecticut, which has had casinos for a good while now, is seldom seen as paradise found.

On the other hand, neither has Connecticut declined into dystopia. Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun have left the Nutmeg State pretty much what it's always been -- a real boring place.

Then there's the notion that some forms of gambling are more socially harmful than others. This is a particularly rich notion coming from a government that operates about a dozen different lotteries -- the ultimate suckers' bet. Patrick, who's often sensible, seems in this case to harbor a delusionary classist vision of gambling, to wit: Casinos = James Bond and other rich guys in tuxedos playing baccarat. Slot machines = poverty-stricken old grannies frittering away the Social Security check.

Has Patrick ever been in a casino? They are all -- including the allegedly ritziest one in Monte Carlo -- dominated by the electronic bloops and wheeps of the one-armed bandits, which have become none-armed bandits.

Then there is the position of the Globe, which in its editorials, its columns and, sad to say, its reporting, has taken the basic position that gambling is icky. That's bold talk from a newspaper that runs the lottery numbers and sports betting lines in each freakin' edition it prints. In today's "news" story about the gambling bill, it was written that Patrick could alienate "supporters" by signing it. What supporters were those? The story didn't say, or quote any, so you may take it as given that "supporters" meant "The Boston Globe." Even in the extreme financial distress of an industry in chaos, the Globe can't shed its most irritating quality, pompous busybodydom.

My personal prejudice on legal gambling is this. Casinos bore me. You can't beat arithmetic, so why try? I like to go to the track, so I'm in favor of the slot parlors. My home state, Delaware, installed slots at Delaware Park, the state's only track, and converted it from a dying enterprise much like Suffolk Downs into a going concern. The fabric of Delaware life remains pleasant and sleepy, too, except for the traffic on I-95 near the track.

But as a philosophical matter, my position on legal gambling is "why the *&$! not?" Gambling is one of the human activities that can become addictive behavior. It can and does ruin lives. Howsomever, so are drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco, and society has long ago concluded that since activities can't be prevented, they must be regulated through law and social norms.

Such regulations work. There are way fewer smokers and drunk drivers than there were 20 years ago. There is no reason why gambling can't work the same way. Why gambling must be regulated MORE strictly than alcohol, tobacco (or firearms) escapes me. That idea can only be chalked up to the large stick discussed earlier in this post. Any minor quality of life issue that can be turned into some horrible "vice vs. virtue" debate always is.

Logic, not truth, is the first casualty of the gambling war. If people can play keno to their heart's content at every other packy and variety store in the Commonwealth, why the hell can't they play the slots at two places instead of one? Sign the damn bill, Governor. You have more important things to worry about.

Update: The Governor did not see fit to take my excellent advice. Congratulations, sir! You have moved that stick a few inches further up the Commonwealth's digestive tract. If you look closely up the state's nose, you can see it.