Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sports: The Universal Gibberish of Mankind

The biggest story in sports today was the India-Pakistan cricket match in that sport's World Cup. Those teams just plain don't like each other, Keith. And they have nuclear weapons!

Anyway, India won by those weird numbers that make up a cricket score. Due to time and distance, all I caught of the match on TV were the post-game sound bites. It's all I needed.

To a man, the Indian and Pakistani players interviewed on BBC and CNN International spoke fluent if accented ESPN. Name a cliche ever uttered by a bored, brainless or both American jock after a game and these guys reeled it off with ease. There was "focus." There was "there's always pressure when we play them." And, of course, there was "People didn't think we could do it."

Best of all, though, was when the religious Indian cricketer got to the mike. He immediately began to thank God for victory. Except, he's Hindu. He was thanking Gods, about eight or nine of them. It was like listening to an Academy Award acceptance speech.

Piety is piety whatever the religion. I'm not knocking it. But I wonder if this guy knows who Tim Tebow is. They have a lot to share.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

My Baseball Preview: Season to Go Off More or Less as Scheduled

Because, you know, the weather can be very chancy in early April. Aside from that, I refuse to make any forecasts whatsoever. We have too many of those already.

Every March, baseball fans, not to mention sportswriters, are confronted with the following paradox. Baseball is an endlessly fascinating game, but previews of baseball seasons to come are about the banal form of sport journalism extant.

The Globe, to its credit, knows this. Its baseball preview special section always contains a bunch of articles on some general baseball theme. This year, it's injuries and sports medicine. The preview stuff is hidden the back, where we find, surprise!, that everybody on the staff thinks the Sox will win the AL East this year. Everybody on every staff thinks the Red Sox will win the AL East, and over 90 percent pick them to win the World Series. In my day job, I have read a great many baseball previews lately, including the one from that august journal Sports Illustrated for Kids, and IT picked the Sox to win it all, in an article that had to have been written around Groundhog Day.

Two season ago, I wrote a post on how baseball previews were written. Since that time, the process has gotten even simpler. Now, the forecaster simply looks at whether the Yankees or Red Sox signed the most new big names in the offseason and picks accordingly. Had Mrs. Cliff Lee not decided she liked living in Philadelphia better than in New York, the Yanks would have been the choice of at least 50 percent of all baseball previewers.

Conventional wisdom earns its name by compiling better than a .500 record on a consistent basis. The Sox will win many more than they lose this year or some impossible to predict stuff will have happened. The Mets will lead the majors in billable hours by outside attorneys and nothing else. But why would people in the sports information business, even here at the absolute bottom of its barrel, assume customers do not live in the same Information Age as everybody else? Fans know all this stuff already. Previews work on the assumption the audience HASN'T heard about the Lindbergh baby.

The one and only time I ever told my audience something they really needed to know in a baseball preview happened long before I was a sportswriter, and I literally told them, as it was in conversation.

In March 1971, I had the pleasure of telling a lifelong Dodger fan that his team had acquired Dick Allen in the offseason, a fact of which said fan was completely unaware. Of course said fan was also a Cooperstown-level stoner even by the demanding standards of that time.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Jarndyce v.Jarndyce on Ice

There's no good way to lose an NCAA tournament game, but after yesterday, we know what's the worst way possible -- by other people watching television.

There won't be any highlights of the actual end of the Michigan-University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO) first round hockey game because it ended when the officials stopped looking at a previous highlight. A potential game-winning overtime goal by Michigan was first disallowed in real time, then, at the first stoppage of play, was subjected to video review as is the rule.

The electronic appellate process found for Michigan. The goal counted. Game over. The review only took ten minutes. Were they using film that had to be developed at a nearby drugstore?

Hard cases make bad law. The review took so long because the officials really, really, really didn't want to be wrong, and who can blame them? However, it must be noted that if it take so damn long to decide if a goal is a goal by watching video, then perhaps the spirit of all instant replay rules that ties go to the original real-time call should have guided the refs' decision.

That's not the point of this post. How can anyone read, see or hear about the conclusion of this game and not instantly identify with the horrible psychological ordeal the UNO team went through during that ten-minutes of nothingness. I'm sure the experience was unpleasant for the Michigan crew as well (it couldn't have been a picnic for the broadcasters, come to think of it), but their worst case scenario was a tie. UNO stood around praying for a tie. They were on tournament death row WATCHING the governor read their appeal.

For the UNO kids with eligibility remaining, there's the consolation of knowing their sport has nothing more stressful and depressing to over. For those whose hockey careers are over, I think the decent thing to do would be for the athletic department to find them places on the rosters of the spring sports teams. Elimination by replay should be nobody's last athletic memory.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

They Died With Whatever Brand Is In the Coach's Shoe Contract On

Boston University's basketball team did about as much as any 16 seed ever does in the NCAA tournament last night. They created respect.

BU gave Kansas a bad 25 minutes. Their best player, John Holland, proved he was perfectly capable of competing at the highest level of college basketball. A random sampling of post-game neutral opinion on the Internet taken by yours truly reveals that commentators and fans thought the other BU kids gave a good account of themselves as well, which they did. For those of you with a mathematical bent, let the record show BU earned the only statistic on sports respect we have -- it covered.

All for naught of course. It is possible for a basketball team to play on even terms or even be ahead of an opponent that outmatches it on physical terms (especially height and breadth). This feat, however, requires enormous amounts of energy, which is why it almost never last for the full 40 minutes of a game. The BU players, especially Holland, got too tuckered in the second half to maintain shooting form, Kansas starting running off misses, and the inevitable defeat entered its rout stage.

This had to be a terribly sad experience for everyone on the BU side. Losing is always awful, and no loss is ever awfuller than that of an elimination game. But by the time BU's plane lands at Logan after escaping the dreadful pesthole that is Tulsa, Oklahoma, I hope they're over it. Sixty-six other teams are going to lose the 2011 NCAA tournament, too. It is one event where HOW one loses is more important than the fact of losing.

Better to be BU this a.m. than Tennessee, Villanova or Georgetown, power conference powers whose first round losses were the cap to seasons in various stages of disintegration, or in Tennessee's case, a program smashed to atoms. At a program like BU, where the whole point of the entire season is to grab that one chance for 40 minutes on the big stage, knowing you didn't get stage fright or fluff your lines ought to make the memory of defeat a proud one -- eventually anyhow.

In its way, BU basketball is the exemplar of all Boston-area college basketball. It is the extreme reflection of the most important fact of about that sport in this city and why I always respect those who play it. They have to be strong and inner-directed people because, frankly, nobody else cares about what they do.

That's as true, relatively speaking for our "big power" Boston College as it is for, say, Bentley and Stonehill in D-II. Since moving to the ACC and demolishing all its natural rivalries at a single stroke, BC basketball has operated in a perfect cloud of civic indifference, and replacing Al Skinner didn't seem to change that much. BC hoops is a second-class citizen of Boston College athletics, let alone Boston sports in general. Losing an NIT home game so that the women's hockey team could practice ice time, well, let's just say that won't happen at conference rival Duke in the near future.

BU basketball, however, takes neglect to an art form. Always has, going back to when coach Rick Pitino was reducing to stuffing flyers promoting home games under the doors of Warren Towers dorm rooms over 30 years ago. Face it, if basketball wasn't essentially a pretty cheap sport to operate, John Silber would've abolished it, too.

Not even the student body cares Make that especially the student body doesn't care. Cases in point: Josh Gee (BU '07) and Hope Gee (BU '11). Total BU home games seen in their seven winters at the school (one year abroad): Three or four. And that's above average!

"Not a lot of BU fans in that crowd," Hope observed as we watched the game on TV last night. I responded that true of every game they play, let alone in Oklahoma. She agreed, and added that the one time she had gone to a home game it was because of the free Coolio concert afterwards.

There's where you stand as a BU player, or a Boston-area college player in general. You are outranked in status by third-tier over-the-hill rappers.

I don't want to come off like my old pal Ted Sarandis here. It's not the city's fault, or sports fans' fault that Boston isn't a college basketball hotbed. It's just a fact, and not necessarily a bad fact. All things considered, who'd WANT to live in a burg where college sports were the biggest, best and/or only public entertainment options?

No, my point is that Boston-area college basketball players know this score, and persevere anyhow. They accept being on their own as part of their deal as scholarship athletes. In effect, to become a BU, BC, etc. player is to accept living four years in a permanent spiritual road game. Whatever positives you draw from the experience will come from what you, your teammates and your coaches create for yourselves. I'd say that's a very grown-up state of affairs for college-age humans. Which colleges are always bleating is the way all of college is supposed to be.

There's at least 40 minutes worth of videotaped evidence that what the 2011 Boston University basketball team created for itself was pretty damn positive indeed.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chalk Player of the Free World

The Internet informed me Barack Obama had filled out an NCAA Tournament bracket. A few lunch hour clicks brought me to the "Chicago Sun-Times" Web site, where I could see the First Handicapper's picks for myself.

Obama's Final Four went as follows: Ohio State, Kansas, Duke and Pitt. Four number one seeds. Have the Marine Corps Band strike up "Hail to the Dull!" No Belmonts nor Morehead States for this Chief. Hell, no Kentuckys or UConns even. Given 10-15 minutes to engage in a little friendly sports prediction making, Obama thought it over and made the most straightforward, logical and conventionally tedious selections available on the card. He'll probably be right on two or three of them. And so what?

Many people do what Obama did. Depending on the rules of their office pools, it's the safe and sane way to stay in contention for a victory. But it doesn't usually win, because sports seldom reward cautious logical analysis. They're too messy, unpredictable and irrational. They're kind of like politics that way.

I submit that Obama's bracket tells us a great deal about his tenure as President of the United States, for good (his predecessor was a notorious hunch player, and that didn't work out as hoped) and for ill. Odds-on favorites are not often options Presidents get to choose.

Too bad Obama is a basketball fan and not a horse player. Then he'd know that chalk bettors go broke, too, just a little more slowly than other bettors.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Game Delayed Theory

The irrational logic of nuclear war strategy guided the hand of NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith yesterday. "Use 'em or lose em," as they I hoped just used to say at the Pentagon. Fearful that the owners would launch a surprise assault of their lockout missile, Smith struck first with megatons of litigation by having the union decertify. Federal courthouses will be collateral damage, buried under a lethal fallout of briefs and bloviation.

Was Smith's move necessary? That's his call. I sure wouldn't trust the NFL owners as a group if my money was at stake. Was it somehow morally wrong? Don't be silly. We have here two groups of people fighting over nearly $10 billion. According to the written and unwritten rules of our society, they have every right to use all legal means at their disposal to advance their causes.

Was Smith's move wise? We shall see. Maybe not. The trouble with ultimate weapons is you can only shoot them off once. When the dust clears, Smith may find the same old stalemate transferred from a meeting room to a court room -- a questionable improvement.

But boys will be boys. That's the trouble with sports business. It isn't quite business so much as its the inner child of supremely competitive and willful people taking control of their brains. To be blunt, Smith has commenced the penis-measuring period of the player-owner dispute. Sad but true, it may be essential for the boys of both sides to get that over with before they can return to arguing about plain old money.

Return they will. Ten billion bucks is too much dough for any human's rational side to ignore. Sooner or later, probably sooner, both players and owners will realize that any money lost to this fight is money they will never see again.

The NFL cable TV beat reporters responded with visible anguish, and today's headlines deliberately raise the possibility there will be no pro football in 2011. I realize the news business has devolved to the point where all information must be designed to scare the hell out of the customers, and anything IS possible in this world. Some things, however, are less possible than others, and a football-less 2011 strikes me as a comet-strikes-Earth or Pirates-win-pennant level of probability occurrence.

Let's start with the obvious. Today is March 12. Football starts in September. Even if we assume training camps must start in late July to allow the NFL season to go on as usual, that leaves about 130 days for the players and owners to reach a settlement. That's an enormous amount of time, given that the two sides have already reached agreement on nearly all outstanding differences (in with rookie wage scale, out with 18-game schedule) except the biggest one, divvying up the swag. In short, the owners and union have gotten down to arithmetic. When they want to compromise, it will be relatively easy to do so.

Move on to history. There have been two NFL seasons interrupted by work stoppages. In 1982, a strike lasted seven weeks. In 1987, one lasted three. The players went back to work and the seasons went on. There were Super Bowls. Hardly anyone remembers the strikes. The sport was richer in 1987 than it was in 1982, so the stoppage was shorter. The sport is many many times richer today than it was in 1987. Draw your own conclusion.

The final and most obvious reason why I believe Smith's ploy is a really nonfatal setback to NFL labor peace is that the lawsuits it has spawned are in neither side's interest to win. The players don't want unfettered football capitalism and unlimited free agency. That would result in Tom Brady getting very much richer and the guys on the coverage teams getting very much poorer. There are of them than are of Tom.

The owners, once they think about, don't want to crush the union, either. They need it. The CBAs in hockey, basketball and the NFL are all that allow the leagues to get away with obvious violations of antitrust law, things like player drafts. Besides, the owners' legal argument against decertification, that it is a fraud because the union still exists in fact if not on paper, has a hidden flaw that has nothing to do with the law. It's already lost that argument back in 1989. Only the Supreme Court can overturn such precedents. Getting there and winning would take a great deal of time. We're talking June of 2012 at the earliest, more likely sometime in 2013. And they still might lose.

It is manifestly in both sides interest to settle. The truth is, there was no need for this dispute at all. Anyone who believes that NFL owners have been suffering financially from 2006-2010 is either an NFL owner themselves or a fool. Anyone who believes that the players couldn't give back some dough today and rake it all back in and then some after a few seasons as gross revenue keeps sailing upwards is similarly deluded. Now that Charlie Sheen is out, pro football is about the only program on television the networks know people will watch. As long as that's true, there will never be an NFL recession.

But as Caspar Gutman said in "The Maltese Falcon," "in the heat of battle, Mr. Spade, men often forget where their best interests lie." Smith's action yesterday turned up the NFL heat considerably. It probably will take several months of willfulness, arrogance and dick-comparisons before the temperature cools (Readers are advised to avoid all journalism on this dispute in the meantime. The ESPN NFL reporters were on the verge of weeping last night. By May, they could be reporting from window ledges).

Irrational emotion is about the most powerful force in human affairs. Ten-digit sums of money, however, are its equal and then some. In the end, the lure of loot will trump ego. God help us all when that ever changes.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Blame the Playoffs on Rio

The news that Tom Brady went to Brazil for Carnival makes me like him even more. It has been one of my life's ambitions to make that particular scene since puberty, and it pleases me no end that a former acquaintance, albeit an incredibly, incredibly slight acquaintance, did so. Vicarious living is a poor second to the real thing, but second place beats out of the money.

Besides, if one is drafting surrogate partiers, you don't need Mel Kiper to know Tom's a shrewd first-round pick.

I can't imagine any football fans feeling any other way about Brady's holiday. I know some do, because X percentage of all humans are spiteful, bitter, twisted and stupid, but I can't just can't imagine the mindset that would come up with a reason for thinking somebody else's vacation is any of their business.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe no Patriots are so demented as to believe their team's players are just exceptionally realistic action figures placed on this earth for their enjoyment. (Considering the complaints one hears about Brady's hair and wife, make that homoerotic fantasy enjoyment). After all, I haven't anyone complaining about Brady's trip but some folks at Barstool Sports, and they're not fans -- they're wannabe media.

Thus, we see the future of sports commentary. The current crop of commentators who make a living appealing to the lowest common denominator will be driven out of the market by those who see their job as creating that denominator.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Who Wants a Study Hall Proctered by Jim Nantz and Digger Phelps?

After putting off the responsibility as long I as decently could, and then a little longer, I took the plunge yesterday and devoted most of my waking hours to college basketball.

As there is every Saturday between Thanksgiving and the NCAA tournament, there was more of to watch on TV than any one person could absorb. But I gave it the old bets-on-college try. Had to change the batteries in the remote this morning, but on the plus side, I feel I amortized the March bill this household will receive from Verizon.

I watched teams which expect to get number one seeds in the tournament and/or compete for the national title (Pitt, Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Purdue, Syracuse). I got deep into the weeds of the lowest mid-major conference tournaments (Big South finals! Horizon League semi-finals!!!). I saw some excellent basketball games, and a few stinkers. I am as up to speed on the 2010-2011 season as I'll ever be. It was all pretty enjoyable, too, until that point when I found my brain actually considering whether Alabama, a team I have not seen and don't intend to, will get an NCAA berth.

That thought process was implanted in my frontal lobes by all the commentators I'd half-listened to during this festival of gyms named after big donors to the home school. They, as they do during every game of the season, hell, as they do when they blather about Midnight Madness preseason practices, spent most of their time opining on who's in or out of the tourney, and how they'll do if they get in.

Realizing I was a victim of immersion learning brought on insight, depressing insight. Over the years, my relationship with college basketball has become a horrible replay of my least favorite courses when I was IN college, with the tournament being the final exam/term paper. As a fan, I cut as many classes as I can before the Super Bowl, then pay a little more attention and the week before the final I cram. It's the same approach I had to my brief and loathed exposure to sociology as a sophomore.

What a stupid way to follow a sport! And for what? I'm not even in any more NCAA tournament pools. I don't need my half-formed opinions and false expertise on why Villanova suddenly sucks (right answer: You see who they're playing?). There's no reason I couldn't do what most sane fans do and just watch the tournament when it starts, and go with its flow as entertainment, rooting for teams and players who catch my fancy during games.

I can't be a sane fan, or even a normal insane one. I spent too many years as a sportswriter and picked up habits I can't break. College basketball used to be part of my professional duties. As a result, part of my psyche finds it imperative to know something or more accurately, to delude itself it knows something, before watching the only event in the sport anybody gives a damn about. I don't want to fail the course, even though there's no one grading me. I am told that many people have nightmares about school well into their golden years. I have one while wide awake, or sort of awake by the time TV gets to the Big Sky conference.

Dr. Freud and Dr. Naismith might find it significant that this winter I have found my interest in college hockey growing -- a healthy fan's interest, not my basketball jones. I even attended a game in person!!!

Most of this is due to the fact my children are a BU alum and student, so college hockey is hard to escape. But does that explain why on Friday night I watch Ohio State play Lake Superior State? I don't think so.

Both college hockey and basketball are beautiful and exciting sports to follow. But deep down, I believe I may finally have found an easier course to fill out my winter semester.