Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday Wishes

Christmas has, as always, hit the fan. From here until January 3, celebratory responsibilities, family related travel, eating and drinking more than the norm and hopefully a couple of rounds of golf will make my sporadic blogging even more sporadic. There may be some, there may not.

So to my readers, all of whom I love unreservedly, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! May your favorite teams win their bowl games. Or at least cover.

But A Playoff Would Take Up Too Much of the Student-Athletes' Studying Time

The Bowl Championship Series championship game (there's an event that could use a snappier moniker) will be played on Monday, January 10. That is to say that the end of the college football season will take place closer to the Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday national holiday than it will to New Year's Day.

Not only that, but the offbrand bowls no longer know their place, either, with many of them, including the Fight Hunger Bowl BC is playing in, being played well after the Christmas tree has been placed on the curb and futile New Year's diets have begun.

This is all because not enough people watch college basketball on TV. Needing more programming for its voracious maw, ESPN bought the broadcast rights to just about ALL the bowls, dribbling out the broadcasts at a rate of one per night (there's more than one on Jan. 1 and a couple of other days. Since there are, what, 35 bowl games or so, the bowl season must be extended to match the network's need to show something besides Dick Vitale and NFL studio shows in January.
ESPN's admittedly brilliantly successful business rests on two strategic thoughts. 1. Nothing succeeds like excess and 2. American sports fans will put up with anything. I expect that by 2015, the BCS title game will take place about four days before the start of the Ohio Valley Conference basketball championship tournament.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Not That I'm Superstitious, But...

Even in a wholly rational universe fit for an 18th century philosopher, I do believe that when the biggest play for an NFL team in a very, very dicey victory in December is a 70-yard kickoff return by an offensive lineman, we have been given a sign it just might be their year.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Chorus Line

That the New York Jets' 2010 season would come to a spectacularly bad and embarrassing end was one of those predictions hardly worth making. Like saying back in 2008 you thought Miley Cyrus would jump off the rails and start doing drugs (2011: Internet sex pictures, book it), what was the sport in forecasting a sure thing?

I will admit, however, that the Jets deserve credit for originality. Any old NFL team can fall apart when it loses games down the stretch, its quarterback starts struggling and the offense and defense decide each other are their bitterest rivals in the league. It takes creativity to generate a scandal in which the entire organization makes complete fools of themselves attempting to cover up an activity that was a) pointless and b) legal -- until the biggest fool of all stuck his foot in it, or rather out onto it.

Class, here's a question. How many NFL games have been determined by a punting team's gunners illegally running out of bounds to avoid being blocked and coming back to make the play? You don't know? Me either. I do know that every action by every player in every game is so minutely scrutinized that the only logical conclusion is that if we haven't heard about it, it hasn't ever happened. I have always assumed the rule forbidding a man running out of bounds to come back and make a play was part of the league's successful policy of insuring that any kicking play in which something happens is negated by a penalty.

But someone in the Jets' organization decided this tactic was an intolerable affront, and ordered sideline personnel to stand at parade rest at the extreme limit of the bench area. I hope it was a volunteer mission. Speaking for myself, the possibility of absorbing full-speed contact from a nutbar NFL special teamer in full equipment while I'm in civvies does not appeal.

This decision had only two possible consequences. A special team gunner would collide with the line of Jets causing a pile-up worth a year's bonus for a lucky NFL Films cameraman, or, as actually happened, some idiot Jet would step over the line and interfere with the game in progress. Either way, the Jets' human wall was going to attract considerable attention from the media and the league office.

Which is why it so utterly Jetlike that the franchise was so completely unprepared for that attention. A variety of Jets coaches offered conflicting explanations, beginning with strength coach Sal Alosi's confession he was the lone get-the-gunman to a week's worth of statements from head coach Rex Ryan which can be boiled down to "humina-humina-humina" a la Ralph Kramden. What could have been explained as a simple, legal effort to draw attention to an uncalled penalty that went awry now seems like some sort of major scandal, because the Jets are acting like people involved in a major scandal.

They aren't, any more than "Spygate" was a major scandal for the New England Patriots. Each of these incidents was the kind of blunder people make when outthinking themselves, an occupational hazard for pro football coaches. But the different reactions of the two franchises to the consequences of their blunders is revealing. Bill Belichick admitted guilt to the authorities, and maintained public silence of a sort the Mafia can only dream of these days. The Jets fell all over themselves with the doom-ridden eagerness to partially explain last seen in the Nixon White House.

The consequences of the Jets' cover-up of nothing much will be severe, not in terms of penalties from Roger Goodell, either. The first sentence, which will be in all caps, of every upcoming opponent's scouting report on the Jets this season, next season, and for the foreseeable future will read "THIS GUYS CRACK UNDER PRESSURE." Believing that about a foe is worth about 3 /2 points for any NFL squad. That's a lot of points to give away week after week after week.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Betting on the Weather Is a Sign You Have a Problem

It's going to be snowy and cold at Soldier Field this afternoon -- a first for Chicago in December, I'm sure. Someone out there in PatriotInternetland has let it be known New England is 9-0 in games played when it snowed during Bill Belichick's tenure as coach.

That statistic, while mildly interesting, has no value as a forecasting tool for today's Pats-Bears game. It is another example of how people adore confusing correlation with causation.

The Pats have won all their snow games. Does this mean that they play better when it snows? Or does it mean that snow games are a statistically insignificant subset of the meaningful fact that the Pats have been a spectacularly successful team since 2001 in all conditions, rain or shine, warm, cold or indoors? If picked the first possible answer, I hope someone else is investing your money for you.

Apply a little logic to the problem. Like almost teams no matter what their winning percentage, the Pats of the past decade have had a better record at home than on the road. Like many championship teams in all sports, the Pats under Belichick have been strong closers, becoming particularly hard to beat after Thanksgiving Day. It's pretty rare to go through a December in New England without at least one snowstorm. And as in 2010, the Pats also often have a December road trip to Buffalo, where while the weather may be frightful, the Bills have always been their special little friends.

So the Pats' perfect record on Snow Days is not a special case, it's a distillation of other trends, most particularly their home field record. It is the flip side of a stat that lasted for decades, the former fact that Tampa Bay had never won a game played outdoors when the temperature was below 35 degrees. That record existed because the Bucs didn't win many games when it was nice out, either. Once Tampa Bay became a good team in the late '90s, the record eventually went away.

The weather in Chicago will make playing the game an unpleasant experience for both clubs -- although it certainly won't be an unfamiliar experience for either one. But aside from how snow and wind might make the ball take even funnier bounces than usual, it won't affect which team has the even more unpleasant experience of losing.

No Scent of Christmas

Isn't the economy supposed to be in bad shape? If so, why is that that "buy her this present and you'll get laid like you won't believe" TV commercials for the 2010 Christmas shopping season are all diamonds and no perfumes?

You can't turn on a sport event without seeing four ads every half hour in which some schlub dangles diamond jewelry in front of a lovely model/actress, whose eyes speak of chapters which were edited out of the Kama Sutra on grounds of decency. This has happened every Christmastime since I was too young to know why the hell football fans were that interested in jewelry. It's just background noise of the season, and as easy to ignore as those TV news pieces on how not to set the house on fire with the Christmas tree.

But what about jewelry's traditional Yuletide TV running mate, perfume? One used to set your calendar by them. The broadcast of the Macy's parade would be the start of sultry models/actresses pouting at the camera while touting a fragrance which managed the difficult feat of being an extremely exclusive product which was also available at almost all U.S. retail outlets. When I was a teenager and college guy, it just wasn't Christmas or the stretch run of the NFL season without Catherine Deneuve telling me to buy Chanel No. 5. Not that I ever did, but it was just nice to think Ms. Deneuve might be interested in improving my life to some extent.

For the record, I saw my first perfume ad of the season last night. That's two weeks before Christmas in a holiday ad season that began during the baseball regular season. What has happened to either the perfume business or man-woman relationships in our great country to cause this disappearance?

I haven't the faintest idea. The most benign explanation is that it's harder to sell diamonds when times are tough, so more advertising is being used. The explanation suspect is most accurate is that just like with free agent outfielders, the price of assuaging male insecurities is on the rise.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

It Happens Every Winter

The Boston Red Sox and very well-to-do outfielder Carl Crawford will participate in one of baseball's most well-established and baffling traditions this morning -- the "he's here, let's get acquainted" press conference when a ballclub lands a player with a big trade or free agent signing. As seasonal traditions go, even eggnog makes more sense.

In theory, press conferences are opportunities for an individual or organization to make news, that is, to make public information or an interpretation of information about themselves that we didn't already know. To take a sports example, when John Henry and partners bought the Liverpool soccer team, the press conference or conferences they held in England DID make news. Nobody over there knew who they were.

But what does Carl Crawford have to tell us? More importantly,what on earth do we, the public as represented by the Fourth Estate, have to ask him?

Crawford's not what you'd call a horsehide man of mystery in these parts. He's been in the big leagues for seven years, all of them with a team in the same division as the Red Sox. He's played about 60-70 games at Fenway, and darn near a season's worth of games against Boston overall. We are familiar with his work. For anyone who isn't, there's, where Crawford's statistics should make for pleasant reading for Sox fans.

As for the Crawford the person, I'm going to go out on a limb here and forecast he's going to say he's always loved playing in Boston, thinks it's a great baseball town and is very happy to be a Red Sox. These words might be sincere, but what else could Crawford say? For the kind of dough, he's getting, Crawford should be happy if the Sox were going to play home games on the surface of Neptune.

Take out those ritual obsequies, and the Crawford presser doesn't have much left. Why did you pick the Red Sox? It'd be impolitic to answer "Look at all that money" and dishonest to say anything else. So Crawford will offer meaningless platitudes.

Keith Foulke was kind of a grump, but I will always cherish his memory. When he signed with the Sox as a free agent before the 2004, he was the first and only professional athlete of my experience to say "it was the money" when asked why he'd joined the team. Sorry, my former colleagues. Don't count on Crawford offering a similar bolt of candor.

In the end, the "here he is" free agent press conference boils down to a simple photo op. Big Name Player holds up new team's uniform shirt while wearing new team's cap. I fail to see why this triumph of photojournalism requires so many people to get out of bed early of a Saturday morning, or why in fact Crawford had to leave Florida to pose.

It's Christmastime. People are busy. Luckily, we also have digital photography. Why didn't the Sox ship the uniform shirt and cap to Crawford's home, get the area AP photographer on the horn, and take the silly picture. If they'd done it yesterday, the front pages of the sports section of tomorrow's Globe and Herald would already be laid out.

It'd be a win-win-win-win situation -- for Crawford, the Sox, the media, and especially, for media customers.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Art Is Not Eternal, Especially Tabloid Cover Art

The very unfortunate Herald cover which photoshopped Theo Epstein's head on a drawing of Superman's body is a reminder of the truth of that ancient adage: If anybody in newspapers knew anything about finance, they wouldn't be in newspapers in the first place.

This is not to say Epstein is a bad general manager. He's a good one. But credit should always go where it's due, and in the case of the recent upgrades to the Red Sox roster, that credit is due the guy who signs the checks -- a Mr. J. Henry, of Boston, Liverpool, and wherever his boat docks.

When a ballclub trades for or signs a middle reliever, that's the GM's baby, and he should get the credit/blame. When a ballclub makes a $300 million commitment to two players, that's the owner's doing. There hasn't been a GM in history who'd make those deals without the final approval of the controlling financial interest in his franchise. Nor should there have ever been one.

If Epstein convinced Henry these additions to the Sox' accounts payable were good business, then again, good for him. But in the matters of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, Epstein was purely a staff officer. Put the Superman suit on the man who made the command decisions.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Greatest Outfielder of Our Time, as Rated by "Forbes" Magazine

The most notable aspect of the Red Sox acquiring Carl Crawford as a free agent is that they didn't have to do it. Looking at the deal from either a pure baseball or financial viewpoint, it is gilding the lily -- in the latter case with about 100 million extra coats of gild.

It's not that the Sox aren't a better team with Crawford. He's an excellent player, and they are. But the improvement one of degree, not kind. Boston would still be a pennant contender, and one with more disposable income remaining, had the franchise stayed on 17 after trading for Adrian Gonzalez by simply re-signing Victor Martinez. Martinez cost the Tigers a $52 million deal over four years. Crawford is $142 million for seven. Crawford's dollar-production ratio in 2011 is going to have to be exponentially better than Martinez's to make that math come out. And it won't be. Replacing a pretty good hitter with another pretty good hitter who is also a terrific baserunner is, as noted, an upgrade, not a transformation.

As a matter of fact, there's an excellent baseball case to be made that the Sox could have stood pat with their 2010 roster, re-signing Martinez and Adrian Beltre, and still be in very strong shape as pennant contenders in 2011. They missed the playoffs last season because of injuries. Period. Full stop. The Sox can't possibly have as many injuries to vital players as they did last year, and should catastrophe strike twice, Crawford and Gonzalez won't help them survive it any better than did Beltre and Martinez.

Oh, well. Nothing makes Boston's baseball community happier than expensive new faces under the same old blue caps. I look forward to a traditional Red Sox offseason, where a World Series title is a given and a 162-0 season a live possibility. That's what the talk shows call "buzz."

Three hundred million bucks, give or take, seems like a lot to pay for the creation of a mass public delusion.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Did They Fall or Were They Pushed? The Answer is "Splat!"

Routs in the National Football League are almost always a murder-suicide pact. The winning team must perform well enough that their opponent was irrelevant to the outcome. The losing team must also harm itself to the extent it couldn't have beaten the Panthers on one of their habitual bad days.

For a true humiliation, an NFL team must humiliate itself. A score of 45-3 indicates that the depths of the loser's self-abasement were about halfway down the Marianas Trench. Down their with the invertebrate fish, we find your New York Jets.

The Jets couldn't have won last night game with New England if they'd played close to their very best as individuals and a group. The Patriots were in the perfection zone which happens only to the very best teams, and then only maybe once every three years. Had New York been on form, it would have lost by around 7-10 points. Had the Jets given an average effort for an above-average team, they would have lost by oh, 31-14 or so.

But the Jets lost by 42. That's hard to do. It takes genuine effort at lack of effort. Or else, it's just a collective choke on the grand scale.

That's my guess as to why the Jets failed to impersonate a football team. If a team's placekicker and punter both choke in the FIRST quarter of an NFL game, it seems conclusive evidence that the entire roster was overcome by the gravity of the occasion.

That's very bad news for the team in question. Lack of effort is a mortal football sin, but one that's susceptible to atonement. If nothing else, players can get fired, which usually perks up those remaining.

Choking, on the other hand, cannot be cured from outside. You can't yell at people to get them to relax. In fact, you can't even discuss it with them. "Don't think about failure" is a thought guaranteed to produce future failure. There's no cure but performance.

Performance and the Jets don't seem like they fit in the same sentence right now.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Operant Conditioned Football Forecast

The Patriots are betting favorites to win tonight's game against the Jets, and an almost unanimous pick of the football commentariat. That's standard operating procedure. In a late season game between two good teams, the home team SHOULD be the favorite. Home field advantage is a quantifiable fact, as opposed, to say, deep insights into "who needs it more."

I'm sure the Patriots will win, far surer than the facts of the case really allow. My reasons for certitude in picking New England are not scientific, except that pathological psychology is a science. I'm picking against the Jets because I can't help myself.

Forty years of football history have left a mark. I NEVER believe the Jets can win a big game. I still don't even though the Jets won several bigger games than this one in 2209, including two playoff games, and already proved me wrong in 2010 the last time they played New England, when I predicted a Pats win on the same grounds that it is and forevermore will be the destiny of the Jets to blow their every opportunity. I'll pick the Bears over the Jets when they play later this month even if New York proves me wrong again and wins tonight. No measly regular season road game can shake a prejudice based on sheer irrationality and memories of games played before the current Jets were preschool children.

What could? Well, I used to believe the very same thing about the Patriots. So four Super Bowl appearances in a decade, and maybe I'll look at the Jets in a new light.

But probably not.

Baseball Math Ain't THAT New Yet -- A Lesson in Subtraction & Addition

The following tables should be considered when discussing the Red Sox' acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez.

Batting stats in 2010 for Adrian Beltre
Hits Doubles Homers RBI
189 49 28 102

Batting statsin 2010 for Victor Martinez
Hits Doubles Homers RBI
149 32 20 79

Batting stats in 2010 for Gonzalez
Hits Doubles Homers RBI
176 33 31 101

Add Tables 1 and 2 and subtract table 3 and we see that the Sox have not quite replaced the power hitting represented by free agents Martinez and Beltre by trading for Gonzalez. That doesn't make it a bad trade, practically nothing could. But it does indicate that one hitter, no matter how talented, seldom equals the production of two pretty good ones.

Doesn't save much money, either, if we can believe the numbers Gonzalez is said to be getting from the Sox.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Defense Wins Championships?

The Patriots have the NFL's best record at 9-2. They are allowing an average of over 24 points a game on defense in the process.

There are 10 other NFL teams which are surrendering more points a game than are the Pats. Their combined won-loss record is 32-79. One of them, the Jaguars, has a winning record at 6-5, and there probably aren't many bettors eager to invest in the idea they'll finish with one.

There are probably even fewer betters willing to take a plunge on the idea New England's defense will drag its record down towards the norm indicated by the above paragraph. It is obvious even to the NFL Network panel discussions that the defense need only give the offense an extra possession or so through turnovers for the Pats to win.

Moral: Defense wins HALF of every championship. Offense wins the other half. Score 30 points or more in an NFL game, you're very unlikely to lose it -- even if it's the Super Bowl. Make that especially if it's the Super Bowl. They've played 44 of those suckers now, and a team has scored 30 points or more and lost exactly once -- the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIV.

If the Pats make Super Bowl LXV, we could see another one.

Forget the Wind, We Want the Sun at Our Back in the Fourth Quarter

On the second night of Woodstock, the Jefferson Airplane were given the honor and burden of being the last act on the bill. Unfortunately, rock and roll shows being what they are, it was the third morning of Woodstock when the band actually got to take the stage.

Six-thirty a.m. is not a good time for rock and roll in general. It was REALLY not a good time of day for Grace Slick. The Airplane pretty much bombed. That's show biz.

I hadn't thought about that moment for many years until I read that in today's Division 3A Eastern Mass. Super Bowl (note to the MIAA: If your event has more words in its title than the average government agency, it's not that Super), the Cardinal Spellman and Holliston high school teams will be kicking off a little earlier than accustomed. Nine a.m. to be precise. The kids are already in uniform. Some of them must be wandering the turf at Gillette Stadium acclimating themselves. Their loyal fans are making today a gala financial event for all Dunkin' Donuts located on Route One south of 128.

The players for these two teams, who are, let's not forget, preparing for the most important games of their lives as players, woke up in the dark this morning. They got taped in the dark, and I wonder what the pregame meal was. They probably got on the buses to the stadium as dawn broke.

I hope these kids all play well, but I don't see how. Ever try to wake a teenager up? The adolescent body clock doesn't care for early morning. It's a physiological reality that ought to count for a little more in staging a sort of championship event than the thrill of playing at the local NFL stadium in a game which will have more stadium employees than fans in attendance.

Speaking for myself and the Jefferson Airplane, we hope Spellman and Holliston go about 12 overtimes this morning. Why should they be the only teams whose Super Bowl schedules suck?