Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Cautionary Tale for Those of You in the 617, 781, 978, Etc.

Charlie Sheen, actor, nasty person and addict, has been engaged in some of the most self-destructive behavior in the history of Hollywood (that's worth a !) for over two decades now. He's been getting away with it, too (worth !!).

Until yesterday, that is. Appalled at Sheen's latest behavior, CBS pulled the plug on "Two and a Half Men," the phenomenally if somewhat incomprehensibly popular sitcom that gives Sheen the money and privilege to abuse himself and others with impunity.

So what did Sheen do to pull his lavish mansion of cards down upon himself? What outrage forced his enablers to stop enabling when binge drinking and drug-taking, about seven automobile accidents, more destroyed hotel rooms than the late Keith Moon and several instances of violence against women couldn't?

Sheen started calling in to sports talk radio.

Friday, February 25, 2011

This Old House of Hall of Famers

Danny Ainge doesn't do "meh" deals. Personnel moves by the Celtics' boss almost always either succeed in spectacular fashion (Kevin Garnett! Rajon Rondo!) or fail the same way (Raef LaFrentz! The return of Antoine Walker!).

So it's understandable that Celtic fans are reacting with demented passion to the trade of Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City for, essentially, Jeff Green, with various other bodies providing more fodder for the transactions agate. That's what's known as operant conditioning. Ainge is known for bold big moves. Therefore, this move MUST be big for the Celtics' championship hopes, one way or the other.

The fact that opinion as to whether this deal is a masterstroke or a blunder on the order of the Bay of Pigs appears equally divided if unanimously bitter suggests to me that Ainge's latest maneuver is neither, and that the basketball community hereabouts needs a nice prozactini or three.

This trade is what engineers term a load adjustment. The Celtics' structure rests on four pillars, three of which are players of historic accomplishment getting up there in the mileage department. Flesh and blood materials fatigue is Boston's biggest obstacle to another title. It should be noted that doesn't just mean injuries. Just a little wearing down in the playoffs would be enough to cause fundamental damage.

Look at this trade from every angle, and it reflects the same answer. Green was acquired to lift some of the offensive load from Paul Pierce. However, the loss of Perkins means that a corresponding defensive load will be added to the duties of Kevin Garnett and when and if he comes back, Shaquille O'Neal.

That's neither a shrewd game-changer by Ainge nor is it blowing up the core of a title team. It's a bet. It's a reasonable bet, too. But reasonable bets are still gambling, and I have no clue as to whether Ainge will cash this one.

It is troubling that a team whose coach will talk until your ears bleed about how it's built on defense would trade away a player who excelled in interior defense. At the same time, lightening Pierce's burden is a worthy and perhaps vital goal. And I suppose if you're shifting a load within one's roster, putting it on two future Hall of Famers instead of just one is a logical choice.

But what we are left with is this: The Celtics have changed the identity and role of the sixth or seventh-most important player on their roster. Green is better at his role than Perkins is at his, but Perkins' role is a more important one to play. Those sentences sure read like a wash. I attribute more positive or negative assessments of this deal to cabin fever.

Come to think of it, that might've been part of the motive for the deal itself.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

History Lesson 2

The very first professional basketball game I attended was as a small child -- the 1960 NBA All-Star Game at Convention Hall in Philadelphia. The East won 125-115, as it damn well should have, seeing as its two centers were Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

The game was not on a Sunday night. It was a Friday, I believe. But here's the kicker. One thing I remember for sure about that game was that it wasn't on television. Not network, not local, nothing. The All-Star Weekend Showcase was, once upon a time, the only marketing concept the league cared about or could even imagine -- a guaranteed sellout at the gate.

One wonders what professional sports would look like if gate receipts remained the difference between life and death for franchises. It's possible the only league left standing would be the NHL.

Attention Globe Sports!! The Root Word of "News" is "New"

In a series of questionable decisions, Dan Shaughnessy decided to write and the Globe decided to publish a column in which the Red Sox, media, and fans were mocked for expressing optimism in spring training. This is like making fun of water for its wetness, heavy metal music for being loud or ice cream for tasting good. Scorning the obvious is about as pointless as it gets.

Of course everybody's optimistic in Fort Myers. For one thing, the team is loaded. It may be boring to write "hey, Sox roster full of good ballplayers" every day, but it is accurate.

On the meta-level, optimism is what spring training is FOR. I covered a lot of spring trainings, and went to the camps of a lot of ballclubs that every sentient being knew were going to be terrible in the season to come (second-year Devil Rays, anyone?) and everyone there was optimistic, too. They had to be. Spring training exists to build optimism. It's the emotional equivalent of those NFL offseason weight-training programs.

Since there's so much failure in baseball, so many losses, so many outs, optimism is the game's primary survival mechanism. Players couldn't function without it. Managers would turn to drink even faster than the historical norm without it. Most important of all, spring training optimism is an economic survival mechanism, or at least an attempt at one. If a franchise doesn't act like things look good in February, advanced ticket sales for July will look very poor indeed.

It's no secret how I feel about spring training. It's a pleasant ritual I found very hard to write about because every day is the same and every spring training is the same, now and forevermore. Once I figured this out, and also figured out that baseball fans like it way, and would be distraught if spring training ever changed in any meaningful way, I began lobbying to cover other things. It's not like other sports stop in February and March.

May I suggest that if Dan finds the most fundamental purpose of spring training to worthy of ridicule, he may have run his course with this particular news (non) event? Nothing wrong with that. Being snide about a (non) event a columnist would consider quitting if ordered to miss? Plenty wrong.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

History Lesson

Last night on the NFL Network, it reran the series on the history of the AFL, and I caught about half an hour of one episode. It was a revelation.

I know no one is going to believe this without seeing it themselves, but I swear it's true. The young Al Davis of the mid-1960s was just as creepy looking as the undead Al Davis who stalks the earth in 2011. Maybe even creepier looking. There is nothing but nothing behind Davis' eyes in every film clip of him, especially when he's speaking directly into a camera.

Or maybe I'm looking at this backwards, and it's just that in 1965, Davis was not just coach and general manager of the Oakland Raiders, he also was the world's most nattily-dressed and handsomest zombie.

Monday, February 14, 2011

An Entertaining Night At the Theater = Disquieting Thoughts on American Journalism

Last Saturday, this blogger, man about town that he is, or rather, man who bought his theater-loving wife a Christmas present, went down to New York and caught "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," the musical customarily preceded by the adjective "troubled," a newspaper word meaning "oh, so much bad stuff you wouldn't believe."

We attended the play less than one week after reviews in the U.S. media which were historic in nature. Critics stretched the boundaries of their mastery of the English tongue to tell their readers and listeners how rotten "Spider-Man" was. "This musical is irretrievably broken beyond repair," said the Times. Don't look for that in the TV ads.

There was one exception. One prominent U.S. commentator LOVED "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." That would be Glenn Beck -- weaver of conspiracy theories, seller of gold, noted American looney tuney.

The balance of the reviews did not spur optimism as I walked up 42nd street to the theater. I looked at the marks being hustled into their caricatures drawn and thought "I'm gonna feel just like those suckers in about three hours, except I'll have paid $300 to do it." But hell, what lover of American popular culture doesn't deep down, want to say he saw the WORST musical in Broadway history?

That's not what I saw. For the record, Beck was right, or at least more right than the critics, who were not merely wrong, but pathologically so. They saw a show that wasn't there. "Spider-Man" may not be to every taste, but it doesn't FAIL. It's not terrible, just odd.

Again for the record, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" struck this critic as a splendid show that was a mediocre musical, because the songs and lyrics, written by Bono and the Edge, were very weak. Most of them were as dull as the op-ed pieces Bono punches out for the Times, with that irritating droning background hum that's made U2 rich enough to dabble in other art forms.

But the spectacle was spectacular. Nobody got killed in any of the aerial stunts, which were terrific. The sets, staging and special effects were startlingly effective, and the cast ranged from perfectly acceptable (female lead) to outstanding (second female). Nobody wanted their money back, there was lots of applause, and, yes, the theater was a complete sellout, as it has been since the very first preview performance three months ago.

So what brought on the venom from the reviewers? What made "Spider-Man" an object of loathing rather than bored dislike? Why did none of them say, "I can't recommend a musical with such poor music" which would have been fair if in my view misguided criticism?

It wasn't a traditional musical? It's no "My Fair Lady." But Stan Lee ain't George Bernard Shaw, either. "Spider-Man" had an incoherent, silly plot? No kidding. It was based on a COMIC BOOK!! So the lead villian/doomed lover was the mythical Greek spider Arachne, looking to escape the eternal curse of the goddess Athena. Let me assure the guardians of the theatrical arts that this lifelong comic book reader has encountered countless plots more insanely detached from reality than that one. For Marvel Comics, it's actually pretty middle-of-the-road.

The only reasons I can come up with to explain a reaction so shared yet so different from my own are not flattering to the critics themselves. The easiest one is to assume that theater critics are, spiritually anyway, just like they have been portrayed in plays and motion pictures -- that is, inside each one is a poorly aging, bitter, bitchy poof dying to get out in print.

My second guess, which I believe is probably closer to the truth, is even less flattering to those critics. These reviews were personal. The critics didn't care for "Spider-Man's" endless delays of a formal opening night, or the highly publicized injuries to cast members helping spur ticket sales and let their disdain for the Commerce of "Spider-Man" totally shape their view of the musical's Art.

There's nothing worse you can say about a person who gets paid to deliver their opinions in print than to charge that they're hiding their REAL motives for giving an opinion. We all have prejudices. An honest commentator admits when his or her have been touched the subject of their commentary.

But I'm feeling good about people and life today, so I'll offer my charitable interpretation. The reviews of "Spider-Man" were what they were because the critics were just clueless. They came expecting one art form, Broadway musical, got another, weird Vegas mega-act, and could not compute the difference. That's a bad professional failure, but it's a failure with integrity.

To the critics, I offer this sentence of advice. Try always to remember that Ethel Merman did not sing "There's No Business Like Art Business."

To Glenn Beck, here's another sentence of advice. Have you ever thought of changing your journalism specialty?

Short As I Can Make It on the NFL Labor Situation

Boil down why the NFL owners re-opened the collective bargaining agreement and are willing to lock the players out and it comes out to this: The owners lost the huge government subsidies they were receiving from taxpayers to build stadiums. Therefore, the players must give back lots of money because you don't expect the OWNERS to entertain any financial risks due to capitalism do you?

It's the perfect parable of our 21st century economy. The wealthy individuals who portray themselves as dynamic, fearless titans of industry and finance are in reality more often timorous weaklings (fiscally speaking) whose only business plan is for others to give them money without receiving anything in return. In other words, rip-off artists. Pompous rip-off artists, to boot.

Bob Kraft has not been a rip-off artist. He built his stadium with his own money, mostly, and has done all right under every Basic Agreement. I am using him here merely as an example, so he shouldn't take it personally. What business is it of the NFL or the players if Bob Kraft's shopping mall goes tits up? Why is that a risk for which players should compensate him?

Kraft's among the best of the owners, as a matter of fact. Many are all right, and a few are truly hideous people, but they all suffer from the blinders of their increasingly blind class, the U.S. rich. As the rich get richer, they've become more, not less aggrieved. Weird, huh? Let me assure you, if I had the money to own an NFL team, I wouldn't do it. I don't know what I'd do, but I'd be real mellow about it whatever it was.

Rationally, the owners could cut their demands in half and still make like out the bandits they are without muss, fuss or a missed mini-camp. Sports labor disputes are hardly rational economic affairs. Owners suffer a constant frustration. Success in sports isn't like Congress. You can't buy it. Beyond mere greed, they seek some sort of psychic victory over those damn players whose well-paid labor doesn't necessarily bring them, the owner, acclaim and fame.

Many fans hate that players get paid at all. Players are young, strong, talented and well-off. Most fans are none of those things, and envy is the plutocrat's best weapon. But if anybody tells you they're for free markets as a matter of principle, they can't be for NFL owners, not if they have any principles.

Since nobody's at risk of losing anything until May at the earliest, expect the dispute to drag on a bit, enlivened by futile but expensive legal maneuvers by both sides. In the meantime, remember the first rule of negotiations about money in sports. Everything you hear before the deal is bullshit.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Pulse of a Nation That Apparently Lacks One

The Fox Broadcasting publicity department was all aglow earlier this week with the news that a great many people watched the Super Bowl on television last Sunday. Oddly, they missed an even more noteworthy chance to blow Mr. Murdoch's horn.

(We pause here to explain why this blog had no post-Super Bowl post. That's because there was nothing to say. Although entertaining, the game's truths were so self-evident as to render comment superfluous unless you getting paid for it. When NFL Team A has no turnovers, and Team B has three, Team A wins the game. Doesn't matter if it's the Super Bowl or the first exhibition game. Newton doesn't have laws as immutable as that one.)

In my day job, it is my pleasure to scan "Variety" each week. The February 7, 2011 issue of that illustrious periodical, like all other issues, had a chart of the latest weekly Nielsen ratings for prime time TV programs.

For the week of January 24-30, the third highest-rated program, broadcast or cable, was also a Fox Sports presentation. It was the Pro Bowl.

The Pro Bowl!?!?! The lamest excuse for a game in all of professional sports? And that was all that was good on TV on a Sunday night. And this Pro Bowl wasn't even good by its own horrible standards. If I recollect correctly, the NFC had something like 28-0 lead in the first quarter.

That's what our nation chose as its primary entertainment option on January 30. America, you've got to start hitting the bars at night.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

What Day Is the Super Bowl Being Played This Season?

The title of this post is what was by far the most frequently asked question by people who called the Herald sports desk looking for information prior to the mass popularity of the Internet. I used it to reflect the fact that when it comes to Super Bowl XLV, I have no clue, hunch, or vague presentiment about what might happen.

Any conceivable outcome within about a 60-point margin error makes sense to me. A Packer blowout win? I can see that, easily. A Steeler blowout win? Certainly possible. And of course, anything in between is far more easily envisioned than either of those two outcomes.

I kind of believe (but could change my mind) that the quality of these two teams' defenses is such that the game ought to be a low-scoring one, where turnovers and big special teams plays (special teams, a Steeler bane since 1980) will be disproportionately influential. In short, a game decided by the football's funny bounces, which is a chickenshit pregame opinion even it turns out to be right.

I suppose handicapping this one comes down to how one feels about Aaron Rodgers as a quarterback. He's obviously a good player. A champion? Beats me.

In lieu of certitude or guesswork, I offer trends. The Super Bowl has been a trend-dominated event throughout its history, in that the games have fallen into distinct patterns for years, sometimes a decade or more, at a time. For the first VIII-IX Bowls, the games pretty much stunk in aesthetic terms, with snoozers and blowouts the rule. Then in the '70s, the AFC dominated, This was followed by the event's Dark Ages, the 13 straight NFC wins from Bowls XIX-XXXI, in which the average margin of victory was 20.8 points.

Since the 2000 season and Super Bowl XXXV, there have been three separate trends in action. 1. The AFC has won 7 of 10, for which you may mostly thank your New England Patriots. 2. Interestingly, the past decade saw the most sustained stretch of Super Bowls which were close, and entertaining games. Aside from the Ravens beatdown of the Giants and the Bucs-Raiders fiasco, the Bowls have been dull at worst, and three of them (Pats-Rams, Pats-Giants and Steelers-Cardinals) might well be labeled "historic" for their entertainment value.

Trend three gets its own paragraph, although it is not unrelated to trend two. In a stunning reversal of the oldest Super Bowl trend of all, the 2000s were the decade to bet the underdog. From Super Bowls XXXV-XLIV, the 'dog either covered or won outright eight of 10 times, again thanks to your New England Patriots where the underdog when 4-0 in their Bowl appearances.

These trends point to the underdog AFC Steelers, don't they? Before betting the snowblower on Pittsburgh, however, the plunger should note that this is the first Super Bowl of the NEXT decade in NFL history.

No bet this year. Enjoy the funny bounces fans.

Your Side First, Bob

One understands what Bob Kraft meant, or at least, what he would he would tell you he meant. When Kraft said the NFL and the Players' Association should "get the lawyers out of the room" to make a deal, he was expressing the belief that the disputes between the two sides in their negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement were susceptible to compromise if labor and management starting thinking macro and not haggling over details.

This may or may not be true, but I accept that Kraft believes it to be true. HOWEVER, I also know Kraft is an outstanding businessman. And I'll bet this skill has led him to never, ever, make a formal contract agreement or even get close to negotiating one without a whole passel of lawyers in the room.

Even yours truly way down here in the crashing middle of the U.S. economic food chain knows better. If somebody tells me "we don't need lawyers on this deal" my first reaction is to go out and try and hire six of them.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Location, Location, Location

For once, I feel sorry for Jerry Jones. The owner of the Dallas Cowboys must have his innards turning to molten stone in humiliation that the Super Bowl he brought to Texas has turned into an unmitigated flop as a social event, which is about 50 percent of the event's reason for being (35 percent is unleashing new TV commercials on the country's largest mass audience, with the remainder being the relatively trifling matter of determining the champion of the National Football League).

Ice and snow have paralyzed the Dallas metropolitan area, making tourism and partying a life-threatening affair. Worse yet, the weather has crippled service at DFW airport, meaning fans and rich people can't even get to Dallas to try and party. Worst of all, Cowboys Stadium, Jones' monument to himself, has starting trying to kill people, injuring five soon to be litigious people yesterday when ice slid off the roof.

All this has led to Super Bowl XLV having the least amount of Super hype of any Bowl I can remember, and I remember them all. When sportswriters can't find anything more interesting to cover than the commissioner, that's a boring Super Week. When the Superest scandal is one team's quarterback being caught singing Billy Joel songs at a piano bar, well, that's just pathetic, and the ghosts of Max McGee and John Matuszak are either mocking the NFL or weeping for it.

Too bad for Jones. Too bad for the NFL. Really too bad for the Packers and Steelers. Super Week is a football team's moment in the sun, and they didn't get any. But realistically, Dallas' flop on the Super Bowl stage was as predictable as stupid questions on Media Day. If it hadn't been the bad weather, it would have been some other cause of failure. Dallas didn't pass what in all modesty I call the Michael Gee Test For Neutral Sites

The Gee Test is simplicity itself. Is the city (or country, counting the World Cup) where a neutral site sports event to be held one where a person of sound mind would consider spending their own money to visit on a vacation? If the answer is yes, the event is more than halfway to success. If it's no, the event will fail, and the people in charge are chuckleheads for selecting that burg/pesthole failed state.

So for Super Bowls, it's yes to Miami, New Orleans and San Diego, no to Dallas, Detroit and Indianapolis. For Olympics, it's yes to London, Barcelona and even Beijing, and a big WTF to Atlanta. For the World Cup, it's "let's go!" to Brazil and "let's go see if we can get all of FIFA mental health help" for Qatar.

Let the record show that I have been to every city that's held a Super Bowl on business trips, and for business trips, they're all fine destinations. People who live there like them fine, and they should know. But business and pleasure are not the same thing, and the misbegotten selections of Dallas, Indianapolis, and, oddest of all, suburban north Jersey as Super Bowl sites shows that the NFL owners, most of whom are very smart, and all of whom regard themselves as excellent businessmen, are in the grip of a serious memory malady, one that could blow their enterprise up as surely as the notion housing prices always go up blew up the world's banks.

These men have forgotten that their business is providing other people's pleasure.