Thursday, July 28, 2011

One Man's Trash Is Another Man's....

The explanation that makes the most sense is that some HBO executive called Bill Belichick last night and told the Patriots' coach the network was too going to make a season of "Hard Knocks" this month, but that they were only going to pick a team they KNEW would be as weirdly entertaining as the Jets had been.

Otherwise, Belichick's driving around the NFL neighborhood to pick up well-known veterans whose teams had left them out on the curb is a puzzler. It would seem to violate one of Belichick's main tenets of existence -- don't borrow trouble, even at a zero interest rate, unless the potential reward of your leveraged investment is great indeed, as in Hall of Fame-type season big.

Chad Ochocinco? OK. It's a little odd, but just quirky odd, not disturbing odd. Ochocinco is a professional character, but he's a cheerful exhibitionist, not a malicious one. Like all wide receivers, he has a tendency to take his behavior further out on the edge the less he gets the ball thrown his way, but really, silly touchdown celebrations are about the worst sin on his pro football resume. I don't think Chad has much left in the tank, but if Belichick disagrees, and he does, I'm not prepared to argue the point with him.

Albert Haynesworth? No. Sorry, I'm off that bus. There is in my opinion no good that can come out of acquiring a player who's awaiting trial on criminal charges. Haynesworth is evidently a sociopath with anger issues. That's not necessarily a handicap at his trade, more of a job description, but the 2009 and 2010 seasons indicate Haynesworth is a LAZY sociopath. What good is that to New England?

Haynesworth came cheap. That's a plus. Once upon a time he was an All-Pro. That's a plus, too. But pro ball is like fairy tales in this respect: once upon a time usually means a time that now is only imaginary. For the past two years, Haynesworth has been a useless tub of coach-killing goo. Belichick has the utmost professional regard for Mike Shanahan, the coach who couldn't wait to haul Haynesworth out of the garage for pickup. That makes this trade all the more difficult to fathom.

If either or both of these midnight discount acquisitions can play even a little bit, the Patriots' 2011 prospects, already bright, will cast an additional glow. If not, all that will glow is the top of Belichick's head.

Way back when, a magic and fantasy paraphenalia and book store in Lexington went out of business. My son was a steady customer in elementary school, so this had to be in Bill Clinton's first term. Alice and I went on the last day to say goodbye, and the proprietor pointed to a lovely, sturdy wall bookshelf unit and said it was ours for 20 bucks.

We have lots of books. We needed a bookshelf. We didn't have much money to toss around on furniture. A sale was made.

Then we tried to move the thing. It only took a half hour of inch-by-inch lifting to get in the car, and 40 minutes of sweat and strain to get it OUT of the car and into the garage. Up any stairs? Forget it. Which we did. The shelf unit is still out in the back of garage, a useless bargain that's too heavy to even get rid of. I just went out and looked at it, and I swear Albert Haynesworth's face was smiling at me.

Oh, well. I heard Belichick say once that training camp gets boring for everybody. That won't be a problem for him now.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Deal Is Never Art

It's becoming more and more clear to me that one reason I stopped prospering in sports journalism is that I lack the capacity to express shock and surprise at events which are utterly unsurprising, let alone shocking.

The frantic burst of "breaking news" accompanying the endgame of the NFL lockout makes me damn glad I lack it, however. Who would ever imagine that a $10 billion per annum business agreement involving the settlement of a number of U.S. civil actions and the finer points of antitrust and labor law might have some loose ends it's not so easy to wrap up? Is the possibility of canceling the Hall of Fame game really that traumatic to the NFL Network? I guarantee you that if the delay in signing a new CBA kills that London exhibition game, players and management for both teams that have to play it will be delighted.

Whether it takes another day, week or fortnight, the deal will be done. The regular season, which is all any sane fan cares about, will begin as scheduled, barring an outbreak of mad cow disease among the negotiators. And when the happy day arrives that the CBA IS official, fans should spare a thought for Gene Upshaw, Paul Tagliabue and the players and owners who came up with the old CBA back in 2006. There's no such thing as a perfect deal for both sides. The old CBA was the next best thing, though. It was written with structural give in it. The CBS was supple enough that it could be altered for a new deal which both sides found acceptable without turning the whole contract upside down.

The compromise on revenue that fueled the 2011 negotiations was profoundly simple. The players agreed to a smaller slice of the revenue pie in return for the owners tossing an off-the-top skim back into the pie. Given the facts there's STILL nothing good on TV (or at least, nothing else people like as much) and that one TV network will always be last in the ratings, looking for help, the pie should grow briskly enough to erase the players' concession and then some.

I'm sure both players and owners were irresponsible and pigheaded during the 2011 lockout. Who wouldn't be with that much money on the table? But at least both sides had the common sense to recognize they were divvying up the take from a growing concern. Profit breeds compromise, or should.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Dick Williams

Only met Dick Williams once, at a party thrown by Major League Baseball in the 1990s. It was an oft-told tale among baseball writers that Williams was murder to deal with when he was a manager, but on this evening, he was charming, gracious, and told swell baseball stories of yesteryear. Of course, we'd been drinking, and he wasn't a manager any more.

But anyone remotely familiar with the sport ranks Williams among the best at the peculiar and man-killing trade of managing there ever was. There are two incidents, one very famous, one much less so, that illustrate how he earned that rating.

The members of Williams' baseball generation usually say he was the best pure in-game manager they'd ever seen. Exhibit A is Game Three of the 1972 World Series. Oakland A's down to the Cincinnati Reds 1-0 in the late innings. Reds have men on second and third, two out, and a three-two count on the batter, who happened to be Johnny Bench.

Williams strode to the mound for a prolonged conference, which ended with a pantomime argument with the reliever in which Williams vigorously and repeatedly gestured at first base, them stomped back to the dugout in obvious dudgeon at having to employ such an insubordinate dolt of a twirler.

The catcher stood up and moved to the first base side of home plate. The insubordinate dolt in question, who happened to be Rollie Fingers, wound up and threw one right down the middle as the catcher leapt to grab it. Bench just stood there, as who wouldn't? Strike three, inning over.

Contemplate for one second the enormous ego and even more enormous courage it'd take for a skipper to pull that stunt in May, let alone in the Series. Williams didn't just fool a Hall of Fame hitter with his move, he fooled the whole country.

OK, that's a very famous Williams story, probably the most famous. Here's one that's less celebrated. I heard Ken Harrelson tell it many years ago, and I hope he and you will excuse me for paraphrasing in quotation marks.

"People forget," Hawk said, discussing the 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox, "how many bad, bad losses we had coming down the stretch in September. One night, against Kansas City I think, we blew a lead, made some errors, I struck out three times, and the clubhouse was just awful. Guys were crying by their lockers."

"Now, before I get to the next part," Hawk went on, "You have to remember just how mean and sarcastic and demanding Dick Williams was. He came out of his office and into the clubhouse before the reporters got there and just said 'Fellas, forget it. It's just another fuckin' ballgame."

"We looked at each other and thought, here's a rookie manager with a team in a pennant race, and he can do that after we lose. We're going to be all right."

And so they were.

Williams always said he couldn't manage modern day players. Is it wrong in eulogy to violently disagree with the one you're eulogizing? I have to.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

An Embarrassment of Giving Somebody Else Riches

When a ballplayer is in a vicious slump, his team's management has two options. Plan A is to keep putting the slumper out there and hope he works his way out of it ASAP. Plan B is to set the slumper on the bench and hope a few days off regroove the guy somehow.

When said ballplayer is a starting pitcher, like, oh, John Lackey, management's options, not good to begin with, become more onerous. Plan A tends to result in lost games until the slump fever breaks. Plan B requires that the team find another starting pitcher somewhere in the organization. That is, some pitcher will receive a promotion from the bullpen or minors which they may or may not be able to justify.

Another nasty difference. By and large, batting slumps DO end. Hitters tend to hit what they usually hit until age or injury erodes their skills for keeps. The Sox kept David Ortiz plugging away during two frightful slumps in 2009 and 2010, and were right to do so.

Pitching slumps can be permanent. History is full of hurlers who all of a sudden couldn't get out of the fourth inning without a police escort. It usually has something to do with fastball velocity. In the most lethal cases, the pitcher's self-confidence/arrogance that is essential to his success is shot. It is very difficult not to conclude Lackey is in the midst of just such an existential crisis, one for which American League hitters are very grateful.

Long-distance psychoanalysis is specious. Analyzing the psyches of ballplayers is hard for real doctors. Athletes are doers, not ponderers. They aren't used to thinking in terms of thinking about themselves.

But circumstantial evidence shrieks that Lackey's issues on the mound are somehow related to the fact that this once-competent major league starter is getting paid by the Red Sox as if he was and is a perennial All-Star. This led to some problems last year. As Lackey, who, face it, is not a sympathetic personality, noted several times, he has pretty much the same pitcher in 2010 as he'd always been. He didn't understand why all of a sudden fans and media felt that wasn't good enough. Perhaps he has direct deposit, and doesn't see the numbers on his paycheck.

Should the 2010 Lackey return this season, he'd be a hero, at least compared to his 2011 self. And there, I think, we may find his problem. As has been known since the barnstorming days fo the Cincinnati Red Stockings, trying too hard is almost always what turns a bad patch into a classic slump. By trying to be a megasalaried hero instead of the acceptable number three starter that used to be his destiny, Lackey has transformed himself into a bum.

That's a sad story, no matter how unsympathetic a protagonist Lackey is. It's also worth contrasting Lackey's decline with another Red Sox who signed an overvalued contract, J. D. Drew.

Drew got five years at $14 million a year. That was way too much money for a player with Drew's resume, which was "very good when healthy, never healthy." As a member of the Red Sox, Drew, much to frustration of many fans, lived up to that billing exactly. Now that he's getting old, Drew's injuries are more frequent, and his bat less potent.

But Drew didn't fall off the table when he got overpaid. He was the same guy. The Sox didn't get what they paid for, but they got what they should have paid for. Anyone unhappy with what Drew has contributed to the Sox during his stay in Boston should address their complaints to the front office, not Drew's clubhouse locker.

I don't know either Drew or Lackey at all. This could be pure moonshine. They might hate each other. But I can't help thinking that if I were Terry Francona, I might encourage them to have a nice long chat.

Monday, July 04, 2011

A Ray of Hope for the Republic on Independence Day

Maybe it's just me. It often is, after all. But watching both the selection show on TBS and the Baseball Tonight crowd on ESPN, as well as sampling print media and the Internet night this morning, leaves the distinct impression that our national pastime, and hence nation, may have given up on that most pointless, irritating and stupid of artificial arguments, the "All-Star team selection controversy."

Not even C. C. Sabathia is too upset he didn't make the American League All-Star roster. I have yet to see anyone point out that according to the votes of baseball fans, the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers are fielding one of the greatest lineups in history. Fading immortal Derek Jeter elected to start almost by acclamation while fading immortal Ichiro Suzuki (for years the leading vote-getter) doesn't make the team? Illogical and who cares?

Could it be that the baseball world has come to see the Midsummer Classic for what it is, a classic publicity gimmick? The All-Star game was invented, by a sportswriter no less, as a marketing ploy for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair and for a sport which was on the verge of financial collapse due to the Depression. It worked brilliantly for many years, less brilliantly for many more years after than, and as all human inventions must, has become what Madison Avenue and television call a "mature" event, "mature" meaning "maybe your grandfather still cares."

The tell that the All-Star Game had run its course as a sports event that held meaning for its audience was of course when Bud Selig gave the game a reward -- World Series home field advantage to the winning team. This reward is too nebulous to have meaning for the All-Stars themselves ($250,000 a man winner-take-all, on the other hand, then you'd see some double plays broken up). Therefore, it has no meaning to the audience. Fans take their cue on how to feel about a game from the people in it.

Not that the All-Star Game isn't fun, at least for three innings or so, until one loses track of who's playing. Publicity gimmicks are supposed to be fun, and as noted, the Game in its day was the best publicity gimmick baseball had besides Babe Ruth, the ultimate human brand in sports. The idea of an exhibition game of the sport's best players retains just enough of its inherent appeal to keep the event viable.

But care about it? Not even your grandfather. And that's a good thing. The All-Star Game is no longer news as we define sports news. I'd argue, however, that a game which offers the spectators pleasure without requiring anyone provide ancillary hysteria IS news.

In the doesn't-happen-every-day department "Man Bites Dog" has nothing on "Hype Strikes Out."

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Life Without Math Only SOUNDS Like a Good Idea

Were I a sports editor at a major newspaper, Web site or periodical (and God forbid all three, I haven't sinned that much) I would require each and every reporter covering a professional sport to take an introductory finance and economics course at the nearest business school. This would limit, if not eliminate, the utter bushwah that gets published, posted, tweeted, etc. every time there's an argument about money in sports, which is of course every day.

Case in point, the NFL lockout. The breathless reporting on negotiations and litigation in this dispute has mostly been a fevered scrutinizing of the bark on the trees as the reporters remain lost in the forest. We don't need economics or even arithmetic to get a handle on this story. A little empathy and common sense will do.

First, the empathy. Dear reader, how hard would YOU fight for a share of the divvy of 10 billion bucks per annum? It's easy to say that such a sum can be sensibly and fairly divided without any fuss. It often is said. And if human beings weren't involved, it might be true.

We have here a business dispute over a huge sum of money between two partners who have excellent reasons to distrust each other. One partner is an entity of 32 incredibly willful and arrogant individuals. The other is an entity of about 1600 just as willful and arrogant individuals. Do we begin to see why the two sides might find it difficult to reach agreement?

Always envious of the NFL, the NBA had embarked on its own lockout. I have no intention of thinking about it for quite some time after this post is done. I usually lock the NBA out of my brain from the solstice until about Columbus Day, and see no reason to change that policy. But I will say this. Anyone credulous enough to repeat the NBA owners claims that they're losing money hand over fist is the dream date of all three-card monte entrepreneurs.

As a rule, when businesses lose money consistently, their owners get rid of them. They either sell out or shut the puppy down. If pro basketball franchises were doing as poorly as they say they are, the evidence would be a significantly high number of franchises being sold at (and this is the key) lower and lower prices.

Nothing of the sort has taken place. Franchises have relocated to get more and better public subsidies, but none have folded, and none have changed hands at bargain prices. It is thus safe to develop the working hypothesis that the "losses" claimed by the owners are just more evidence that accounting has evolved into a branch of the creative arts, with the spreadsheet being to the accountant what the canvas was for Jackson Pollock.

NBA players are gifted, driven men who unfortunately appear to be pretty much helpless in life when they're not wearing shorts. Otherwise, they'd react to the lockout by finding a few tame multimillionaires desiring publicity, a few underutilized arenas around major U.S. population centers (there are at least five within 90 minutes of Boston) and start their own damn league. They won't, of course, because to them as to most of us, money means security, and new sports leagues are about the only area of sports business where owners DO take on the risks of capitalism.

I covered my share of sports work stoppages. I understand why reporters hate them. If there's no NFL, just exactly what is John Clayton supposed to do? And why exactly is ESPN supposed to pay him for it? But that's no excuse for being so damn frenzied about each twist in the story. NFL fans love the sport as much as do NFL reporters. They also, however, know that it is July. A football-less September would find them frenzied. Now, not really. No matter how hard a reporter tries, he or she will never convince fans that a canceled exhibition game is of any importance to anyone on earth.

I understand why NBA reporters jumped to the worst-case "there will be no season" scenario on Day One of their lockout, too. Otherwise, no one would pay the slightest attention to their reporting. People intuitively grasp that a labor conflict is a phony war indeed until it starts to cost both sides money, a state which the NBA won't reach for months yet.

But it's REALLY in the interests of NBA owners and players to put the doomsday scenario out there. Customer anxiety is one of the big weapons in sports labor negotiations. It's a weapon that tends to blow up both sides, but hey, you go to war with you have.

Remember how dire the statements were back in February from Roger Goodell and DeMarques Smith, when NFL lockout was getting started? Now that the bargaining is down to real numbers, they're BFF.

NBA reporters ought to remember. It might help them to realize they're getting played.