Thursday, June 30, 2011

Lineup Question

So does John Lackey play right field today? Or does Francona put him at first base instead?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Santa Claus Begs to Differ

Some guy named John Gonzalez wrote an article for "Philadelphia" magazine saying that Boston sports fans have become the most obnoxious in the U.S. How to be a click-whore, John. How to be a wildly inaccurate and incompetent click-whore.

As a former Philly resident, there was only one constant in the sports universe. We were the worst, most obnoxious and borderline sociopathic group of fans in the U.S. and all other known points of physical space. When it comes to people to avoid at a big game, it was Philly first and the rest nowhere. As a trip to the Lincoln Financial Field parking lot before an Eagles game reveals, this is as true today as it was back in my wayward youth, when Philly teams were, with the exception of teams with Wilt Chamberlain on them, always terrible (Such a trip will do more to put you off alcohol than any 12-step program, too).

Everybody's good at something, and Philadelphia excels at fan rabbledom. Always has. Always will. The idea that Boston fans are more obnoxious because they're a little smug because their teams are winning is laughable. "Smug" is not grounds for arrest, and arrests are as much a part of the Philly sports experience as the boo.

Gonzalez may not get out much. My real concern is not for him, as contrarianism is easy to sell to editors, but for the publication he wrote for, which has disgraced its very name.

Whatever happened to local boosterism as a first principle of publishing?Does "Philadelphia" magazine have no civic pride whatsoever? What's next, a "Cheesestakes Suck" piece?

Fellas, nobody's going to want to advertise in a city magazine that says its sports fans AREN'T the worst ones going.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

10 Ninths of a Team Becomes Nine Tenths

The Red Sox organization got off to a record early start for its annual bitching about interleague play in 2011. Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo spent about a half-inning talking about how they wished baseball would get rid of interleague games during an early May broadcast before such games had actually begun.

Now that the Sox are on their annual road trip to National League cities, expect that bitching to move up to gale force whining, especially since the team dropped the first two games on the trip to the Pirates. No DH! Our pitchers have stand close to other pitchers' pitches! That'll be a sackcloth sweatshirt Terry Francona is wearing this week.

The record shows that Boston has more than held its own playing by National League rules in the past decade, which is what you'd expect considered how good a team the Sox have been in that time. Won't stop the whining, though. Francona, an astonishingly reasonable man for a big league manager most days, is haunted by the notion one of his invaluable starting pitchers, or worse, his late-inning relievers, will hurt themselves attempting to perform exotic athletic feats like swinging a bat or sliding (not that they're allowed to do the latter).

And, of course, playing without a DH forces the Sox to either bench David Ortiz or put Adrian Gonzalez in the outfield where (and this is a real night sweat fear) he could get hurt somehow. It's not nice to mock the anxieties of others, so we won't point out that first baseman Albert Pujols got put on the DL for an injury he suffered fielding his position.

Boston fans, more than any other American League fans, have been conditioned by their team to hate National League rules, too. Me, I prefer them. Not for some theoretical athletic ideal, but because in the 21st century anything that makes baseball games go faster is perforce a good idea. It baffles me when fans think otherwise. Tennis fans always root for tennis matches to go longer, but in tennis, the longer the match the more dramatic it is. The same sure cannot be said for baseball games.

It's worth remembering that the DH, just like interleague play, is a gimmick adapted by the American League to sell tickets, the league's reaction to the terrible drop in attendance it suffered in the late '60s when the Yankee dynasty hit the skids. Baseball's attitude towards problems is very much akin to that of Republican congressmen. The latter feel there's no dilemma tax cuts can't solve. Baseball feels the same about home runs.

Critics of National League rules point out accurately that no other level of baseball uses them. There are good reasons for that, but they have nothing to do with the quality of the game as an artistic endeavor.

Youth and high school leagues, where pitchers often bat because they're the best athletes, use the DH to get more kids into the games, one of their self-defined missions. Colleges and the minors use the DH because of their roles as big league prep schools. Major league teams don't like the idea of young pitchers having to throw. You can imagine how they feel about them batting and base running.

No American League team has so loved or benefited from the DH as have the Sox. They were the first team to sign a pure DH, Orlando Cepeda, when the rule was instituted (BTW, there were some pretty studly 1973 DHs -- Frank Robinson and Tony Oliva, to name two). The franchise has always had a sweet tooth for big slow lugs who could hit the ball to Cambridge. The DH allowed the Sox to gorge on those types. Credit to Boston for immediately grasping that the DH allows a team to field a lineup with TWO first basemen.

So now the Sox spend a week down to one first baseman. This is a pretty weak excuse for an excuse if you ask me. Is the absence of David Ortiz an explanation of why other guys have been unable to get the ball out of the infield if they see a teammate standing on second base? It is a fundamental tenet of sabermetrics that it isn't.

Adaptability to circumstance is one of the marks of a superior team in any sport, or so Bill Belichick believes, anyway. Whining at circumstance is tedious to listen to from anyone, let alone the unstoppable dynamo the 2011 Sox are supposed to be and on occasion have been.

As long as sluggers make more money than utility infielders, the Players' Association will make sure the DH is with us. As long as baseball remains stubbornly infatuated with past practices, the National League won't adapt it. And as long as attendance figures show that most fans adore interleague play, it's not going away, either. I suggest we all get over it.

If I've had to deal with 3 1/2 hour ball games as a matter of course in my life, Jon Lester can swing a goddamn bat once every five days for two weeks.

But if he doesn't want to slide, that's OK. I'm no radical.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

What Have You Done for Them Lately?

Amid the bazillions of words expended on Boston sports since the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, there is one observation I have yet to read. I can't believe it's my original insight, since it's a screamingly obvious fact, so I apologize in advance to anyone who already made the statement to come in the next paragraph, and remind them that's it's not plagiarism if you didn't see it, just a lack of originality.

The New England Patriots are now the Boston professional sports franchise that has gone the longest without a championship. Those losers haven't got their hands on a trophy since February, 2005.

So by the always fraudulent but increasingly common means by which sports teams are measured by fans and media, the Patriots are Boston's sports in crisis. All they've done is win more games than any other NFL team from 2005-2010.

Is it too much to ask that if the Patriots reflect the quality of problems facing the Boston sports community, said community undertakes a minor change of tone? Common decency, not to mention common sense, would seem to require that fans and commentators put a lid on the bitching for a good long while, no matter how trying they find John Lackey.

Yours truly is not the sort to urge folks to wear a happy face all the time. But crabby faces look particularly stupid right now.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Scoop or False Start? I Dunno

On November 7, 1918, the United Press wire service had a big exclusive story -- the biggest you could imagine. The service ran a news flash that World War I had ended. They weren't QUITE right.

It was all very embarrassing to the UP, especially after the flash set off giddy celebrations in many U.S. cities that turned Vancouver when the joyous crowds learned the war was in fact not over. It didn't end for four more days.

Almost 100 years later, this incident, a huge scandal at the time, is forgotten. Close enough, we think. UP jumped the gun, but it's easy to see how. It was a known fact Germany was negotiating with the Allies for an armistice. Some trusted source said to a reporter "this is a done deal." Some editor with more zeal than prudence said, "we have the scoop" (In the competition between wire services, being first with a story by seconds was a big deal). And it wasn't as if UP was ALL wrong. The war was in the process of ending, and that process was not going to reverse itself. But "the war will end soon" isn't really much of a story, let alone a scoop.

A couple weeks ago, Bill Burt of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune wrote that he had learned the NFL lockout would end very, very soon, the implication being within a day or two at the most. As of this writing, Burt has UP'd himself. The lockout goes on. Burt's trusted source was overly impulsive and assertive. So was the Eagle-Trib.

But it would be the upset of the sports year if Burt doesn't wind up with the semi-vindication of the United Press. Every indication, including Burt's own story, is that the owners and players will reach a settlement before the league's 2011 schedule is disrupted by so much as a day. The latest tell, the reports that an owners' meeting will be devoted to convincing some owners that the deal is a good one for them, is one I regard as conclusive. When one party begins dickering with itself, then there's a deal on the table the other side is willing to sign. In regular labor negotiations, it's always the union that has to convince its members it got the most it could, but sports economics are often upside-down.

I do not want to minimize the possibility the two sides could screw this up at any moment. Arrogance and belligerence are kind of necessary traits for both moguls and players, even if they're bad for business at times. Emotion could trump arithmetic yet.

But it doesn't feel like it. And it hasn't felt like it since the lockout began. Neither side has given off the vibes that they're seeking total war. It appears to have occurred to both that legal war has two elements in common with the real thing. They each cost way more than one thinks when they start, and they always always last ever so much longer than one expects.

So my guess is Burt will achieve partial vindication sometime between Bastille Day and the end of July. I know it's not much consolation, Bill, but the UP, then UPI, lasted many years past November 7, 1918.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

It Happens Every June, Except Sometines in May

Turned on the Red Sox game last night, and in the course of some Brewer's "quality at-bat," that wonderful euphemism for "sure is hitting a lot of foul balls here," a familiar seasonal emotion came over me. Part ennui, part frustration, part bewilderment, it could best be expressed by the following exclamation -- "Can't you guys DO something out there?!"

Not even Roger Angell would deny that baseball is a slow game. This in no way prevents it from being a wonderful lovable game, most of the year. But never does baseball seem quite so slow, and never does that slowness seem quite so irritating, as in the first week following the end of the NHL and NBA playoffs. And the more attention a fan paid to those playoffs, the more tedious baseball appears to be.

Here in Boston, we paid quite a lot of attention to the playoffs. Accordingly, my tolerance for relief pitchers who nibble away to 3-2 counts, never high, was somewhere below the price of Greek government bonds last night.

This isn't a permanent condition. It's an illness of the calendar like pollen allergies. It's beyond the power of the human psyche to go from the frenetic universe of the winter sports played with all the money on the table to the measured activity of not-quite midseason baseball, a world so lacking in definition that the freakin' Pirates still have hope. Nobody can shift gears from the mindset expressed by Jack Edwards to that expressed by Joe Castiglione without a certain amount of grinding in the frontal lobes.

I've committed myself to basketball and hockey and their speeds for some months now. Getting back to baseball speed requires a period of adjustment. Getting back to a sport that's not at its climactic moments requires even more adjustment.

Baseball is even slower in October than it is in June, as the high stakes of the playoffs make every player and manager very very very careful about what they're doing. But in October, six foul balls on a 3-2 count aren't an irritating bore, they're an excruciating emotional torture. Hockey and basketball are just as fast in February as they are in May, but they don't feel that way. After the Super Bowl, what's duller than regular season NHL and NBA action, when players appear as uninterested as I am? Golf is about 1000 times slower than baseball, but the US Open doesn't FEEL slow -- because it involves athletes competing for one of the biggest prizes in their game. The fan feels the commitment more than the action or lack of same.

My seasonal malady is a man-made illness, a product of the sports industrialization that began around 1965 or so. Once upon a time, in my lifetime even, there were gaps in the sports calendar. The NBA and NHL playoffs ended in March and early April. Football ended on January 1, baseball in early October. Fans were given time to adjust their spiritual body clocks. They had no choice but to follow each sport from its beginning to end.

Now, it's a rare weekend where somebody in some game is not playing for some championship or other. Even dull old late June has Wimbledon. Quite unwittingly, sports have bred consumers who are high-stakes adrenaline junkies. And the need to feed that jones has become an increasingly big part of sports business. Nobody is out there saying they WANT more teams in the baseball playoffs. But Bud Selig can't think of any way of keeping his customers happy but upping the dose on their possible elimination fix. Mark my words, the NCAA tournament will eventually give up and let EVERY team in the field, then push back the start to Valentine's Day.

High-stakes withdrawal only lasts about a week. Soon, I'll be able to listen to Don and Jerry babble about cab rides in Detroit without feeling homicidal or even considering such dialogue as a reflection of the origins of the word "pastime." But for today, I'm left with a dilemma that doesn't make me feel too good about myself.

If Rory McIlroy doesn't start blowing it, I'm going to be one bored sports consumer this weekend.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

You Can't Go Home Team Again

It wasn't needed, but last night there was another reminder that I'll never return to being a normal sports fan no matter how far away my experience in sports writing gets.

A neighbor came over to watch the Bruins game, because I have HD and he doesn't. It was a jolly occasion, especially for him when the Bruins scored those four first period goals. He couldn't tear himself away from the subsequent increasingly random action on the ice, reveling in the blowout so thoroughly he wouldn't get up to get another beer unless a commercial came on or Pierre McGuire was bellowing bromides in our ears.

Typical, natural home fan behavior. Blowouts in must-win games are rare, so they should be and are cherished and savored. My reaction, sad to report, was a little different.

Now, while I do not consider myself to have a major rooting interest in the Stanley Cup final, to the extent I have one, it's for Boston. Many people I know well, like my children, are Bruins fans, and I'd like to see them happy. Over the years, I've developed quite a respect for the loyalty and knowledge of their sport the Bruins fan base has shown through thin and until lately thinner. Besides, the performance of the Vancouver Canucks, to put it delicately, has not been of a nature to inspire admiration among neutral observers.

Yet, once it was obvious what the game's outcome was going to be, I lost interest in watching it. I was bored and restless through the second period, let alone the third. Learned behavior triumphed over sentiment more thoroughly than the Bruins triumphed.

Sports writers are fond of blowouts. Routs allow the writer to stop watching the game and start thinking and (even better) writing about it. The longer one has to write, the theoretically better and in reality less painful said writing will be.

My brain saw the fourth Boston goal and flashed an instruction. "Time to stop watching now. Go write a blog post or something." Sick this may be, but I hadn't had company, that's what I'd have done.

But my restless boredom was more than that. I've been spoiled for rooting, because only close games stir my cerebral cortex anymore. I'm a human drama of athletic competition junkie now, and if the game in any sport doesn't wring my emotions, or at least is good enough to wring fan's emotions raw and dry, well, maybe it's time to see if there's another game on, which there always is. I have traded the Thrill of Victory for the Thrill of Thrill Itself. There's a vampirish quality to that attitude I don't much care for, but I'm stuck with it.

As noted earlier, if (and I'm very tempted to say when, based on facts currently in evidence), the Bruins win tomorrow night, I will be happy for a great many other people. That's nice. But it's not nearly the same thing as being happy just because the Bruins won. Second-hand smoke, meet second-hand fandom.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Requiem for an Instantly Forgotten Champion

Pity the Dallas Mavericks. They won an NBA title last night without ever gaining control of their own story.

Had the Mavericks defeated any of the 28 NBA teams except the one they played in the Finals, the basketball world would now be commemorating their triumph in odes to a heroic overcoming of a not-entirely undeserved reputation for post-season chokes. Prose poems to Dallas' two veteran Hall of Fame players (Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd) and one damn good veteran player Shawn Marion finally winning their first titles would be taking up entirely too much space on the Internet at this very moment.

But the Mavericks defeated the Miami Heat, the one opponent guaranteed to render Dallas as the least-discussed championship team since the Sonics and Bullets of the late '70s. The Heat failed dismally on the court, but succeeded magnificently in making basketball fans and media view the Finals, no, the entire 2010-2011 season, as THEIR story. And nobody fell harder for that idea than the many persons who were rooting against Miami all year long because they found LeBron James' methods of choosing an employer distasteful.

So for months to come, and it could be many months if there's an NBA lockout, Mark Cuban is going to be about the only person talking about the Finals in terms of Dallas accomplishing something. Everyone else who cares enough to think about it is going to be discussing the event in terms of Miami's failure -- especially James' failure. This will be done with rue or glee, but the fact that it will be done so often is very discouraging.

James DID fail. He played like a marginal All-Star reserve in a series where his team needed the superstar ESPN tells you James is and sometimes actually is. The Heat's experiment in front office by player did not deliver the title those players expected and promised. Failure. But some players infinitely greater than James, Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan to name two, can testify that winning a first title often takes longer than a superstar expects, if he gets to win one at all.

Everyone loves seeing pompous bastards step atop the old banana peel. That's human nature, and I don't begrudge belly laughs at Miami's expense. But it also should be human nature to give champions their due. Letting losers dictate our collective sports narrative is a mug's game. I fear we are in for a summer of more LeBron obsession than there was last summer, which in 2010 I would have found a simply impossible concept. In the meantime, the Mavs will get their parade and will sink from sight.

It is a tenet of sportswriting that the loser's locker room is always the best story. The older I get, the more I disagree. Anybody can lose, and most bodies do. Championships are rarer than losses, and therefore more newsworthy by the very definition of news. They also interest me more. What DID turn the Mavericks into ferocious winners after they blew a humongous lead in first round game against Portland? Beats me, and I bet them too, but it would be nice if someone tried to find the answer.

Well, if it's any consolation to the Mavs, Cuban is not a man who suffers anonymity lightly. His Finals code of silence is definitely over, as witnessed by his statement that giving players championship rings was too "old school" and that Cuban felt it was "time to take up a notch" when it came to commemorative title keepsakes.

Does Neiman-Marcus make jewel-encrusted grandfather clocks? If not, it might now.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Scoreboard Has No Memory -- And Neither Do Fans

The only comment I find relevant to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final was uttered 50 years ago about an entirely different event.

"Lucky for you guys it was match play and not medal" -- Bob Hope to Bill Mazeroski several months after the 1960 World Series.

The Vancouver Canucks lost two games to the Bruins in which, let's face it, they picked up their ball and put in their collective pocket sometime in the middle of the second period. No matter. By the eyeball test, Boston has appeared to be the superior team in the series by a significant margin. The Bruins, for instance, had the only road lead either team has managed to acquire back in Game Two. REALLY no matter.

Boston's one down with two to play. Hardly an insuperable margin in either golf or hockey, but a sticky situation all the same. And anyone who tells you the Bruins have really been, as opposed to looking like, the better team in this series is full of it. They don't even know how to keep score.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Cold Slows The Thought Process -- Thankfully

One of hockey's great charms is that there's so little to say about it when it's over. The insane speed of the sport means that participants and observers can have only the most vague impressions of what happened on the ice. It's not unusual for the individual who scored a winning goal to be unaware of the fact until informed by some teammate. Beyond "good game" or "bad game" post-game analysis is essentially pure speculation, or to use the technical term, hooey.

Of course, if you're a working sportswriter, that's not exactly a charm. I felt more than a twinge of pity for my former colleagues out in Vancouver yesterday as I imagined them working on second-day follow-up stories to a 1-0 game. That's the THIRD set of analyses, second-guesses, individual stories on players who increasingly can't remember what the hell they were thinking when X, Y and Z happened, etc. Hockey just isn't built for the traditional patterns of U.S. sportswriting. It's too mysterious.

Way back in 1990, when I first became a Herald columnist and realized I was going to at least have to be able to fake some expertise about the sport, I undertook a course of study. I confessed my ignorance to Bruins players, coaches, and executives and begged to be enlightened. Every time something came up I didn't understand, I asked a question. I'm sure most of them were very stupid.

Or perhaps not. The Bruins and all the other NHL folks I questioned could not have been more gracious instructors. (Here's a journalism tip I've always found useful. People are much more eager to answer questions and do so truthfully when the questioner admits they know less than the person they're questioning). But it was striking how often my little seminars went as follows.

Me: "I've noticed X while I'm watching the games."

Bruin: "Yes, that's a known fact about hockey."

Me: "How come X happens?"

Bruin: "Nobody knows."

This dialogue is probably the main reason I came to love hockey. A big-time professional sport whose big-money, cutthroat competitive personnel accepted that the heart of said sport was unknowable? How delightful. What I wouldn't give for all the other sports to adopt the same attitude.

I mean, about the oldest cliche in football is that the ball takes funny bounces. When's the last time you heard anyone in the NFL say, or even hint, at that truth? Random chance is a loathed and feared enemy, whose name must not be uttered aloud. Baseball has gone so far down this path there's a large and growing subset of fans who don't feel the need to even watch it. Just give them a printout page of numbers and they know more about the game than John McGraw ever did.

It's not that hockey eschews the scientific method. The Bruins and Canucks watched videotape until their eyes bled the last two days. Practices were conducted on the principle each team can control its own performance. Which is true, up to a point. What separates hockey from the other games is that the people in it accept the idea there's a point in their game where rationality stops and instinct and happenstance take over. More importantly, they accept that beyond that point is usually where games get won and lost.

In other, less highfalutin' words, hockey is the sport where the idea of "go out there, do your best, and let's see what happens" is most honored. As anyone knows who's ever attended a game, hockey is chaotic. So's football, but football's built on attempting to control chaos. Hockey's built on accepting and living with it.

This makes, or should make, hockey playoff commentary simple. Odds are, what happened in the last game, or the last period, will have little influence on what's happening now. Odds are, tonight's Game Two will bear no resemblance to Game One, no matter who wins it. So why speculate now? Why indeed even commentate today? The game'll start soon enough, and we'll have a new set of mysteries to ponder.

For the same of my former colleagues, however, I do hope that whichever player scores the winning goal tonight will know how the hell he did it.