Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hoarders of Foxboro

Consider the following scouting report on a quarterback: Big slow and unnimble, Howitzer arm and outstanding release. Compiled passing statistics so gaudy as to approach poor taste. Has a reputation for throwing soul- and game-destroying interceptions at the worst possible moments.

Remind you of anyone? Looked at one way, Ryan Mallett is Drew Bledsoe, only not quite as good or (reportedly) smart. Only nostalgia for past anxieties could explain why Bill Belichick made Mallett a third-round draft choice last night.

Ah, but let's throw the cherries on the Mallett sundae. He sank through the draft's first two and a half rounds faster than the anchor on the USS Nimitz because of rumors he has or has had a serious drug problem. Now Belichick's pick seems flat out nuts, doesn't it?

Maybe. But we could also add "drug rumors" to the scouting report in the first paragraph and you know which past quarterback in an NFL draft we'd have? Dan Marino, that's who.

Mallett's not going to be another Marino. He'll be lucky to become another Bledsoe (Bledsoe critics, nobody lasts over a decade as an NFL starter without being a pretty good player). But even the slightest nanopercentage of a chance Mallett might become a competent NFL QB made his selection irresistible to Belichick. The man was an economics major. He knows you can't sell high without first buying low. Having purchased the ultimate quarterback bargain in a past draft (Tom Brady in the sixth round is akin to buying a Matisse for 20 bucks at the yard sale down the street), we shouldn't be startled when Belichick uses that same investment strategy once again.

On the NFL Network before the draft, Mike Mayock cited a stat to the effect that around 10 percent of third round picks ever become starters. Say the odds on a third-round QB (BTW, the round Joe Montana was selected) are worse. Make it 20-1. The payout on having a quarterback with the ability to start is infinitely higher. You can't really put a pari-mutual figure on it, but 1000 for every one wagered will do for a round number. Phil Ivey says Mallett is a value bet. So does Warren Buffett. So do I.

Mallett could fail completely and humiliatingly with the Patriots, and it won't the cost the franchise a thing except some personal embarrassment for Belichick -- something he absolutely could not care less about. On the other hand, Mallett might not fail. Even limited success, such as rising to the level of a good backup/marginal starter, would make the Arkansas quarterback a phenomenally valuable asset for the New England franchise. Such QBs are always in demand, as there are always franchises whose starting quarterback options aren't even marginal.

If Mallett ISN'T a cementhead or has a head addled by substance abuse, he ought to recognize he's been handed about the best situation imaginable. In effect, he will get paid decent money to attend Quarterback Graduate School for three or for years. It might also do him a world of good to be, for the first time in his life, on a team that doesn't need him. Being a football hero is like being any other kind of hero. As Coach Sophocles once noted, hubris is the prime occupational hazard.

If Mallett needs an incentive to study, I suggest he make a quick trip to Kansas City and take a gander at what Matt Cassel, the last MQA of the Belichick School, is driving these days.

Draft analysis is simple, not to mention simple-minded. Whenever a team makes a selection that wasn't predicted long in advance by most commentators, that pick is called a gamble. Ha! Picking Mallett was about as much of a gamble for Belichick as it is for banks to borrow money at no interest from the Federal Reserve to speculate in petroleum futures.

Come to think of it, if Belichick had used that economics degree to be a banker, the Global Financial Crisis probably wouldn't have happened.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Money Is a Leading Cause of Voluntary Bipolar Disorder

Maybe it's just me, but I doubt it. I've been around for a few March and Aprils now, it is is my firm impression that the amount of pre-NFL draft hooey presented on ESPN's many networks and on the Internet has been close to double what it's been in previous winters and early springs. I omit the NFL Network. What the hell else is it supposed to talk about?

(Class, I am old enough to remember when the draft was on a Tuesday afternoon in January the week after the week after the Super Bowl. Despite losing three months of scouting and evaluation time, teams' records in picking good players didn't change a bit. Smart teams got more good ones than busts, dumb ones the reverse. There's a lesson there for draft "experts." Something about the paralysis of analysis.)

The increase in coverage is what psychologists call compensation. The pro football community, especially that part of the community with a financial interest in it, is weirding out about the draft more than usual because it's all they've got left. Technically speaking, the rest of the National Football League does not exist except in U.S. District Court, where the commissioner is not Roger Goodell, but Judge Susan Richards Nelson. When Nelson told the owners and players to resume mediation in their labor dispute rather than pester her with briefs and motions, they did it. She rules the roost.

As a football fan, this state of affairs has bothered me not at all. It's April!!!! ESPN runs that sad little graphic on Sportscenter saying this is Day Whatever of the Lockout, as if it was the Iranian hostage crisis, at a time when almost nothing happens in football anyway.

Here's a list of what football's missed so far in 2011:
1. Players have been unable to earn their offseason weightlifting bonuses and have been forced to go to gyms where actual people exercise.
2. The Redskins have been prevented from making their annual boneheaded veteran player acquisition.
3. There is no three.

For doubtless excellent legal reasons, the draft is the one NFL activity allowed to go on during the lockout. This explains the frenzy of predraft babble. It would terrify anyone of a financial bent to contemplate how much money ESPN stands to lose if by some catastrophic failure of intelligence (which in pro sports is hardly inconceivable) the 2011 season is shortened or Mammon forbid canceled altogether as a result of labor strife. And think of the bookies!! Oh, the lack of humanity!!!

So those who can't imagine life with the NFL, particularly the bill paying part of life, are clinging to the draft with desperate fingers. It is the one indication they have that pro football is indeed going to conduct business as usual this year.

Or almost as usual. When players are drafted, they are then locked out. This would seem to prevent what is the most significant part of the draft for a player -- the receiving of money for becoming a professional. What's the point of signing a contract when it automatically makes you part of a group your employer is refusing to employ?

This anomaly has not escaped the potential rookies, or at least some of them. Von Miller, the superior linebacker from Texas A&M, was invited to join the players' lawsuit against the league, and happily did so, although honesty forces me to note that Miller's reasons had more to do with ego than finance -- he was flattered to be considered a peer of the other plaintiffs.

Miller's ambivalent status leads me to dream of what would be the most and let's face it only interesting event at the draft's live TV show in its history. Some team selects Miller in the first round (this is considered a cinch). Miller comes to the podium to shake hands with Goodell. League officials hand Miller a jersey with a one on it and a cap.

Miller hands Goodell a subpoena.

Pitching Postscript

One week ago, almost to the hour, it was posited by yours truly that the Red Sox starting pitchers had sucked in the first two weeks of the 2011 season, and until they got better, the team wouldn't.

Validating this premise with the speed and efficiency of a science demonstration in the old "Mr. Wizard" kid's TV show of the '50s, the Red Sox starting pitchers got a lot better right away and continued to do the rest of the week. Lo and behold, the team got way better, too, winning six of seven games despite the fact that none of their other early troubles (hitting with men on base, a National Leaguesque bottom of the order) were mitigated in the slightest.

Baseball can be a subtle sport. But not as often as it can be a simple one.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Always Suspected I Got Into the Wrong End of the Business

Because I awoke early this morning, I learned something. The latest newspaper delivery guy for my neighborhood (it's a high-turnover position) drives a Cadillac!!!

Print lives, man! What's Arianna Huffington's ride, anyway?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Tito Tells My Statistics to Shut Up

OK, so much for the jackrabbit start angle for this season.

The following pitching line suggests we'll be throwing out a few more pennant fever angles in Boston in 2011.

12 63 70 47 30 38 1.58 6.71

As I'll bet some have guessed, that's the total pitching line for the Red Sox starting rotation. It is beyond dreadful, especially considering it includes one shutout win and one 1-0 loss. Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey have gotten most of the abuse for this catastrophic overture, but Clay Buchholz's individual stats are not just the rotation's median, they're damn close to its atrocious average, too.

If those numbers don't stop resembling the chart for petroleum futures prices, nothing else that happens to the Red Sox will matter much. Carl Crawford can hit .400 for a month instead of .150. Adrian Gonzalez can hit a home run every three games. And the score will still be something like 5-4 in the fifth, night after night.

When applied to starting pitchers, the word "stopper" works both ways.

Unless this changes, nothing else much

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Manny, Modest to the End, Shuns Sappy Farewell Tour

As it turned out, Manny Ramirez became exactly the kind of ballplayer I always figured would be the sort caught by baseball's testing for performance-enhancing drugs -- a veteran near or at the end of the line, struggling to hang on for another season.

That's very sad. And something Ramirez was never able to avoid even in his prime, his sudden retirement has more than a touch of the ridiculous about it as well. The price to be paid for always marching to one's own drummer is that more than occasionally one marches straight into brick walls or over open manholes.

Foolishness and stupidity are not, however, villainy. I see no need to condemn Ramirez for being dumb as a telephone pole to risk testing positive again. It's self-evident. Nor do I feel required to offer up empty words like "tainted" to describe Ramirez's almost two decades in baseball, or go on about how PEDs have blighted our revered National Pastime. I don't work for the New York Times Corporation, which regards drug use in baseball as the second-most horrible development in American history, trailing only the Huffington Post.

Personally, I was fond of Ramirez. He's an odd duck, but not a hostile, malicious, or worst of all, boring duck. Also, I enjoy watching people hit baseballs very hard, and Ramirez provided me with a great deal of that form of entertainment. Thanks, Manny.

I only want to make the following points. One is also pretty self-evident. Any Red Sox fan who condemns Ramirez is a hypocrite and scoundrel. No Manny, no World Series titles. It's really that simple. Can't have the wins without the baggage, gang.

And I hasten to add that goes for the Boston sports commentariat, too. Don't be revising history to suit your self-perception as righteous, impartial judges of jock morality. It's OK to say what Ramirez did in 2011 was wrong. He broke a rule and got caught. Just don't head back into time and declare you always knew something was suspicious about Manny's bat. You didn't, or if you did, you didn't say so, which is a lot worse in terms of the ethics of your own trade.

My second thought is about history. The sportswriters who tell you this means Ramirez will never be elected to the Hall of Fame may be right. But I believe they are wrong. Call me a cockeyed optimist, but my feeling is the more time passes, the closer baseball will get to looking at its PED era with a bit of perspective and common sense.

Looking five years into the future about anything involving human beings is a fool's errand. But one thing we DO know about Cooperstown. Barry Bonds comes up for a vote before Ramirez will. Conventional horsehide wisdom is that despite his steroid sins, Bonds will be elected, since he was a Hall of Fame level player when he was skinny and wore a smaller cap, before, as far as it is known (and the U.S. Department of Justice has done some digging here), he began using PEDs.

If Bonds gets in, especially if he's in a federal pen at the time, it is my contention that the hypocrisy of keeping other known PED users with Hall-worthy resumes out will be too much for even baseball and baseball writers to swallow. Like I said, I'm an optimist.

And since I have a Hall vote myself, if I'm still around in five years, I'll be in position to put my optimism to work. It's work I'd be happy to do for Ramirez.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

You Starting Pitchers Get Off My Lawn!!

Pat Jordan is approximately 100-1000 times the sportswriter I ever was, so it pained me to read his latest effort in today's Sunday Times Magazine. Jordan's treatment of the Philadelphia Phillies four top starters, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee is a well-written example of the most well-trodden topic path in baseball writing there is -- the contention that today's game is infinitely inferior to that of yesteryear.

This literary genre was undoubtedly invented by some writer covering the SECOND game in baseball history, whenever that was. It's an evergreen aimed at readers seeking reassurance they will remain evergreen, or at least that when they drift into memories of better days, the days really were better.

Maybe they were, maybe they weren't. That's an unanswerable question as far as baseball goes. What I can say is that Jordan's piece is eminently unfair to four excellent pitchers whom he uses as whipping twirlers to voice his dislike for what's happened to pitching, and by extension pitchers, in the past 40 or 50 years.

A bit of back story for those who don't know. Jordan WAS a pitcher, a high school phenom turned promising farmhand turned sore-armed looker for another career. He's written eloquently about that, and a whole bunch of other things, too. Baseball's loss was journalism's gain and then some. That's why I found Jordan's pitching screed so disturbing. One doesn't like to see admired professional role models fall victim to old fart's syndrome.

Here are, in order, Jordan's main complaints with the Phillies' four aces.

1. They're not as good as Warren Spahn was. No kidding. As Jordan is doubtless aware, there weren't any pitchers as good as Spahn when Spahn was pitching. Spahn is one of the three or four best lefties ever to pitch, and certainly one of the most underrrated superstars of baseball history. Comparing any pitcher, even Halladay, to Spahn is as pointless and unjust as if I were to criticize Jordan for not being as good at his trade as was Charles Dickens.

2. They don't pitch complete games or have the finishers' mindset of guys like Tom Seaver or Jim Palmer. Pitchers, like the rest of us, are products of their time. The Phillies' corps has been brought up and lived their whole baseball lives in the reality of the La Russa-Duncan Pitching Staff Theory. Starters aren't used to finishing games because managers don't let them. It's the way the game works anymore. Again, this would be like me ripped Jordan for not using a manual Underwood to write with.

3., except this is sort of a sidebar. Nolan Ryan is not impressed with Cliff Lee's fastball. Gosh, that's not exactly what the President of the Texas Rangers was saying about Lee last September and October. Sour grapes much, Nolan?

4. As the article's closing argument, Jordan quotes Mike Schmidt, acknowledged as history's greatest third baseman and the greatest player in Phillies' history, all 129 years of it, to the effect that while the current Philadelphia pitchers are excellent, he wouldn't lose sleep or fear them as he feared Ryan.

If there's one thing I know, it's that the memories of old ballplayers, even and maybe especially the ones who were heroes of my youth, need to be checked against the cold agate of historical fact. A quick trip to offered some illumination on the Schmidt-Ryan matchup.

Schmidt had 56 at bats against Ryan, struck out 16 times, and had a .179 batting average. Those numbers would give any hitter agita.

But Schmidt had five homers in those 56 ABs, more than any other Hall of Fame slugger managed to get off Ryan, and 15 RBI. Assume a 450-500 at bat season of Schmidt v. Ryan, and that projects to 30-40 homers and 100-110 RBI -- almost an actual average Schmidt season.

Schmidt also had an All-Star OPS of .887 against Ryan. That's because his .179 batting average gets hidden in a .405 OBP. Mike Schmidt, you see, FACED Nolan Ryan many more than 56 times. He had 21 walks off of the terror-inspiring Von Ryan's Express.

So roughly once out of every four times Ryan saw Schmidt step in the batter's box, he walked him. Schmidt drew many walks, and Ryan's wildness was as legendary as his fastball. Still, this suggests that in their baseball relationship fear was a two-way street.

Speaking as a Phillies fan, I have no interest in whether or not their starters measure up to Warren Spahn. I'm concerned about how they measure up to 2011. Speaking as a former sportswriter, reading articles that say today wasn't as good as yesterday or that yesterday wasn't as good as today makes me sad. Nobody can beat the ineffable mystery of time. Why try?

Saturday, April 02, 2011

You Can't Cheat An Honest Man, or an Honest Organization, Either

Any major sports event is improved by the presence of a proper villain, so the Final Four is infinitely better off having John Calipari and Kentucky in it today.

Kentucky doesn't need Calipari to play the heel. Its fans can and have performed that role like so many blue-clad Barrymores for generations. Ashley Judd's presence can't redeem them. Entitled doesn't go quite far enough to cover the attitude of this group. In fairness, EVERY school sends the worst of its fans to the Final Four, as they are the only ones rich and/or demented enough to pay the freight. But the Kentucky traveling spectator squad was without question the most irritating group of overmonied rubes I met in the process of covering nine of them. Even the Dukies have the self-awareness to poke a little fun at their own image sometimes.

Calipari's presence as the coach of any team, however, drives many college basketball fans mad with rage. My old pal Charles Pierce is one of 'em. Coach Cal is the symbol of sleaze, the well-dressed living monument to the "corruption" of big-time collegiate sports. The haters point to the fact that both of Calipari's previous Final Four teams, 1996 UMass and 2008 Memphis, had their presence struck from the NCAA record book for rulebook misdeeds. It galls these folks no end that the wages of Calipari's sins have always been to fall upwards into better jobs paying him many millions of dollars.

It would be foolish to deny that the critics are on to something. When I covered Calipari at UMass, I always felt he was on verge of asking me "What will it take for me to put you in this car today?" He is undeniably a relentless hustler, Sammy Glick with a whistle. The reason Calipari walked away without a scratch from the investigations of his last two college programs is that he is a master of the Sgt. Schultz/Mafia don/CIA director school of management. That is, Calipari has few peers at not knowing things he knows damn well it's not in his interest to know.

Marcus Camby's walking around Amherst wearing fancy jewelry? I don't see it when he's at practice. How'd Derrick Rose meet Memphis' entrance requirements? Do I look like the admissions department?'

This is not a very uplifting way of operating. Which is why I have a sneaking kind (the only appropriate kind) of fondness for Coach Cal. In the world of college basketball, Calipari's an honest crook. He makes it all so clear that the NCAA, its rules, its pretensions, the "student-athlete" jive, etc., are all bullshit. College basketball and football are about winning and money, not necessarily in that order. The rest is just a dodge to let college presidents maintain their pretentious self-images.

And the "rules" Calipari broke or allowed to be broken on his behalf that make him a "cheater" are not elements of an ethical code recognized by any religion or philosophy. They are the elements of the NCAA's business operation which violates any standard of fair play and quite a few clauses of the commercial law sections of the U.S. Code. The NCAA and its co-conspirators the NBA and NFL are at endless pains to conceal this fact behind the false front of college sports having anything to do with education.

Let's review Calipari's sins. A kid from Hartford without a pot to piss in accepted money and gifts from a shady fellow hoping to cash in on the long and lucrative pro career Camby did in fact go on to have. In a sane world, why is that anyone's business but Marcus Camby's? If somebody who's an economics major at UMass gets a summer job at Goldman Sachs, everyone's happy for the kid. Nobody says he's eligible for graduate school.

Derrick Rose wanted to play in the NBA, but a patent violation of antitrust law said he had to wait a year. In order to maintain his earning potential, and (here's what many miss) to LEARN more about his chosen trade, Rose felt it was in his best interests to play college ball for a year, despite having no academic qualifications or interests to speak of. So somebody took Rose's SATs for him, he would up at Memphis, and this year he's probably going to be NBA MVP.

Once again we ask, what's the crime? Who got hurt here? Derrick Rose? The University of Memphis? Hard to see how. Confronted with an outrageous violation of his rights as a commercial entity in a free market, Rose did what was best for him. So did Calipari, by carefully looking the other way. I can't and won't blame either one.

Kentucky and Calipari are a perfect fit, which is why they are a perfect villain. The University of Kentucky as an institution and the state of Kentucky as a community have the same attitude towards basketball as their coach. Winning comes first, second and last. Try not to break the rules so carelessly you get caught and it hurts our chances of winning more next year. Above all, don't tell us about what you're doing.

Kentucky's had major, major scandals under every coach it's ever had (except Tubby Smith, and they ran him off, possibly for just that). The program ignored rules when Adolph Rupp was coach and it's doing it today. Kentucky hired a champion ignorer who's good at winning games. Everybody's happy there. I'm happy Kentucky will be on the court today demonstrating the farcically unjust setup of the collegiate section of U.S. minor league sports. There's something to be said for honest crooks in our hypocritical world.

Let me put it this way. If I had a son who was a good enough basketball player to be on a Div-I squad as a scholarship player for four years, I wouldn't want him to play for Calipari. He'd have many better options.

But if I had a kid who was good enough to be a one-and-done, a kid who was bound and determined to try the NBA as soon as possible, and whom I knew would get drafted if he was ready or not, I wouldn't want him to play for any coach BUT Calipari.

Last time I checked, the idea of going to college was to learn stuff to prepare you for your life as an adult.