Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Infantilism Is the Real National Pastime

Last night's Red Sox-Yankees game proved beyond a doubt that there's a major error in the recording of baseball history. Let's set the record straight.

The late Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella was brutally misquoted when he made his most famous comment on the sport.

What Campy REALLY said was "It's a man's game, but you have to have a lot of spoiled rotten little boy with serious emotional control issues to play it."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Plot of "A Chorus Line" With Added Knee Injuries

Preseason NFL football is when Vince Lombardi is wrong. Winning isn't everything. It isn't even in second place behind nobody on your team getting hurt. Among the less imaginative fans and media types, this leads to terrible confusion. They can't cope with moving out of football's usual zero-sum universe.

This leads to one of two false reactions to August football. A big win or bad loss, as the Patriots-Bucs game was last Thursday night depending on your point of view, is seen in one of two ways. The most unsophisticated observers declare it an inevitable foreshadowing of triumph or disaster in the regular season. The guys just wise enough to be really foolish deride all preseason games as meaningless.

Exhibition games are NOT meaningless. Their scores are, but they're not. They are the four most important practices any pro team has all season long. For players ranked from 30-90 on the preseason roster, they are the most crucial nights of their careers, many of which just started in late July. Screw up in front of Don Criqui and Randy Cross, and said career might well be over. Some careers will be over even if the player in question doesn't screw up, as the cruel arithmetic of the roster rules kicks in.

For those guys, preseason games mean more than the Super Bowl. They're playing for big paychecks, not some hideous ring. In terms of technical virtuosity and tradecraft, the fourth quarters of most August games resemble the First Battle of Bull Run. The confusion shouldn't hide the desperation of the participants. If one likes to see athletes compete for high stakes, and I do, then it's when the scrubs come in that exhibition games become most fascinating. The part when the starters play is the dull predictable section. I mean, it's nice to see that Tom Brady can still play football, but I didn't really fear he'd forgotten how since January.

Practice, however desperate, however important, is still just practice. It is has limited to no predictive value. If the Bucs' offensive line continues to play as if on an Oxy binge the way it did against New England, Tampa Bay not only will go 0-16, it'll go through 23 quarterbacks doing so. That's not gonna happen. Chalk it up to a bad, bad practice.

On the other hand, the Patriots have been magnificent in their two preseason wins. Anyone would say they appear to be a team that must be considered one of the favorites to reach the Super Bowl.

No kidding. That's also what anyone would have said before training camp began. That's what the Patriots ARE. They were 14-2 last year, and that team's only real problem was that the Jets played magnificently against them in their playoff game. That's not an issue practice can remedy. The dilemma confronting the Pats is that they've got to wait until January before they can. Having "something to prove in the playoffs" incrementally hampers the focus needed to win regular season road games in outposts of the damned like Buffalo and Washington. Pro football is a game of increments, a/k/a inches.

In August, the above two sentences are nothing more than a passing cloud on the sunny, warm, no humidity summer which the Pats are enjoying (by December, they could become a nasty front, but maybe not, too). Success, even successful practices, is hard to achieve in pro football. It should be enjoyed for what it is -- in New England's case, it's the absence of any horrible surprises. Pats fans should feel as this Phillies fan did in April, 2010. "Oh, so that Halliday is going to keep on being a good pitcher." Fandom and paranoia are inseparable. It's always a welcome moment when facts rout fear.

So for the next Patriots' exhibition game, as it's on a Saturday night, and all of us can stay can up late to watch, let me propose the following TV schedule. First, watch for as long as the starters play, hoping with all one's heart they all leave the field by coach's decision and under their own power. Then turn off the set or switch to the Red Sox or some other game and grab a beer and a snack.

Return to the broadcast for the fourth quarter. That's when the true drama will be in full swing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

No Honor Among Pretentious Thieves With Advanced Degrees

Nevin Shapiro was a wealthy real estate developer, or so the University of Miami chose to believe. Shapiro, for reasons related to the fact he was deeply pathetic person, gave oodles of money to the Miami athletic department. He got a plaque with his name on it outside a meeting room and a picture with Miami President Donna Shalala looking mighty pleased to make Shapiro's acquaintance.

As it turns out, Shapiro was actually a crook, a swindler running a Ponzi scheme. When the scheme collapsed as they always do thanks to arithmetic, Shapiro got caught and is currently serving a lengthy federal prison term.

As it further turns out, Shapiro, being even more deeply pathetic than can be imagined from the information in the first two paragraphs of this post, decided to cut out the middle man and start giving money directly to Miami football and basketball players, as well as treating them to Kristal nights at fancy night spots, hookers, Escalades, and yacht rides (You got tattoos! Hang your heads in shame, Ohio State Buckeyes!). Shocked to find out Miami and its jocks don't love him anymore now that's he broke and in the sneezer, Shapiro has blown the whistle on his hobby to Yahoo! Sports.

It's a megascandal among the innocents (and there are a great of them, especially among glorious guardians of good like NPR and the New York Times sports section) who think that breaking the rules in college sports is a) profoundly shocking behavior by our nation's institutions of higher learning and b) news. The fact that "scandals" such as this one have been taking place with the regularity of the tides in college football since approximately the first Rose Bowl (1902) and in college basketball since the invention of the jump shot always fails to register with the innocents. The fact that athletics is merely the most blatantly corrupt part of higher education in its relentless season for more money, different in kind but not degree from, say, the engineering school, REALLY fails to register. When you're part of a system, individuals are the only things that can fail. The system must be perfect.

As always, my reaction to another college sports disgrace is pretty much hilarity, along with a sneaking admiration for the Miami jocks for not selling themselves cheap. College football is currently engaged in a frantic free-for-all where schools are speed-dating conferences in an orgiastic pursuit of more television revenue. Why should their athletes' motivations be any different?

Beyond the low comedy and the Escalades, the Miami "scandal" reminds me that big money college sports has evolved way past simple corruption. Its morals and economics have become so nonsensical as to have moved to pure absurdity.

Consider this: Suppose Shapiro hadn't been a swindler, just an honest rich chump. If he had merely given those oodles of dough to Miami athletics, he'd still be a pillar of the community. But give money to Miami ATHLETES, and he'd be a lowlife slimeball no matter how he made his fortune. Is there really that much different between those two nouns as to make one activity philanthropy and the other an antisocial act?

I know this though. College football and basketball have some business plan. Imagine running an operation were not only do other people pay your employees, but they'll give you even more money just for the chance to do it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

All Statistics Are Important Except the One Used to Keep Score

Sean Forman, creator of the invaluable Web site, has an unfortunate article in "The New York Times" this morning arguing that Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies is really not that good of a hitter even though he leads the National League in RBI. By an unhappy coincidence for the author, another story in the same sports section is about how Howard had a homer and four RBI in a Phillies win last night.

Forman's article isn't really about Howard per se. It's the sluggers' statistics he's mad at, not the slugger himself. Forman is at war with the RBI, a venerable measurement of batting success that baseball quants just can't stand -- especially the fact that hitters who get lots of RBI become very famous and even more very well-paid. Like all ideologues, Forman has become a slave to his theories. In this case, it's the theory that new statistics which DO serve to advance the cause of baseball knowledge actually prove that nobody in baseball has known what the hell they're doing for the past 150 years.

Forman successfully makes the case that Howard makes a great many outs as a hitter, especially strikeouts. This comes as no news to Phillies fans, or to anyone who can read another old-fashioned stat, Howard's batting average. He glosses over Howard's impressive home run totals for the past five and two-thirds seasons, as homers ARE valued by the new stat crowd (one is tempted to say almost as valued as walks, but that'd be unfair). Then we get to the crux of Forman's complaint.

"Howard is very good at what he does. But the trouble with RBI is that they give too much credit to the player, and not enough to the players being driven in."

OK. That's a position. There is, however, a statistic that does give credit to the players being driven in. It's been around for awhile, too, and is called Runs Scored. And while Forman doesn't say this in his piece, it is a prime tenet of the new statistical faith that Runs Scored is also an obsolete and inaccurate measurement of player worth, as it fails to account for the role played by the batter who drove in the scorer.

Catch-22, or considering the people making the argument, Catch-22.437251. Entranced by the metrics they have created to more accurately measure a batter's ability to hit for power and avoid outs (which I note generally involve tweaking old stats), the quants have denigrated the most important stat of all -- runs. Runs, and nothing but runs, determine who wins or loses. There is nothing a batter can do that's more important than being involved in the creation of a run.

Forman states, again accurately, that one reason Howard the cleanup hitter has so many RBI is that the Phillies' one-three hitters in the lineup don't hit for the same power and create as many RBI as the Red Sox one-three hitters, especially Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia (the quant beau ideal, and he is a hell of a player), do. This fact, however, would seem to make Howard's ability MORE valuable to the Phillies, not less. If he doesn't drive those guys in, then the offense is dependent on Raul Ibanez enjoying one of his triennial hot streaks.

Judging by the contract the Phils gave Howard, the club's management agrees with me.

Truth be told, Howard is merely an extreme example of the flaws and virtues of a type of player who's been around since the creation of the lively ball. He's a low-average, high-production slugger with a penchant for striking out. Such players, if they've been able to string as many years together as Howard has, have ALWAYS been paid large sums for their skills. Or to quote a classic of the genre, Ralph Kiner: "Singles hitters drive Chevys, and home run hitters drive Cadillacs."

To assume that the RBI is overrated as a means of evaluating talent is to assume that everyone making financial decisions in baseball for close to a century has been an idiot. I'm sorry. Markets don't work that way. Everybody making investments makes an idiotic decision at least once, but idiocy is not consistent and universal. Somebody has to be right once in awhile. The National League standings currently indicate that Philadelphia's management has handled its portfolio quite nicely, thank you.

If Forman's essay had simply taken on the RBI as a statistic, I wouldn't have bothered to respond. But he didn't, preferring what I regard as the most unpleasant and specious means of argument used by the sabermetric crowd, attacks on individual players, and they're always big stars, which carry the message "This guy's not nearly as good as you think he is" to justify wading into a dense fog of acronyms and numbers nobody would read if the player's name weren't attached to the story. It's remarkable how many players who I'll bet Forman my house are first ballot Hall of Famers someday just don't measure up according to the statistics created by people who say they love baseball. Derek Jeter, Ichiro, oh, it's a long list.

You'd think that anomaly might cause the quants to ask if numbers are the only means of evaluating what happens in baseball. You'd be wrong, but it'd be nice if the saber crowd give itself the same rigorous analysis it gives box scores.

Ryan Howard is a big star because home runs and RBI win ballgames. It's as simple as that. No ratio, acronym or numerical concept ever invented will alter the fact runs are what count.

Do you know how expensive it would be to alter scoreboards so they could display digits after the decimal point?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sell the Sizzle, Not the Steak, or Hamburg as the Case May Be

Every August, when NFL exhibition games begin, there is a flurry of negative commentary, some of it actually from the victims of the crime, that season ticket-holders get ripped off by being forced to pay full regular season prices for two exhibition games that all fans know are merely extra-intense practice sessions.

There are some fans, just as there are some sportswriters, who pay close attention to the performances of the bottom fourth of the roster guys in the fourth quarters of these blindfolded skirmishes, but in each case, these are people operating under the delusion they have what it takes to be assistant coaches. But most ticket holders resent what they're forced to pay for exhibition games. They don't see it as a crime, since it isn't, but as an onerous surcharge, much like the baggage fees charged by airlines. It is accepted as a necessity for getting into the real games, but nobody likes paying more for something than it's worth.

I wonder why teams don't try the exact opposite marketing approach. Say a season ticket package at Gillette Stadium costs $100 per game for 10 games, eight real and two exhibitions. (We use this imaginary figure because I am not good at math). That's $1000. What if long ago the Pats had marketed the very same package this way: We sell you eight regular season game tickets for $125 each AND we throw in two exhibition game tickets to the same seats absolutely free! A surcharge would instead be seen as a form of rebate! There's nothing more consumer-friendly than the word "free."

It is surely too late for any settled NFL franchise to try this gimmick now. People get used to things, and human nature being what it is, the change would be criticized as a big ticket price increase even though the cost to the customer would be exactly the same. But when some team finally pulls up stakes and heads for Los Angeles, they really ought to give this idea a shot, in the interest of marketing science.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Subliminal Truth in Advertising

Spent last week in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, where early August is when the second-most popular sport in the region, talking about the next football season, reaches the intense screech of crickets the night before the first frost. Football is to Florida in August is what baseball is to New England in February. Talking about it offers a faint hope that the godawful heat and humidity/cold and snow will end in the speaker's lifetime.

Capitalizing on the post-lockout moment, the Jacksonville Jaguars are trying to horn their way into the buzz with a massive TV advertising buy in which the same commercial is repeated dozens of times each day. And my but it's a strange one.

Members of the Jaguar organization, starting with owner Wayne Weaver and continuing through coaches, players and random office personnel, stare gravely into the the camera and state in their most serious/threatening tone of voice, "It's go time." This goes on for 30 seconds. No music, no video of Jaguar touchdowns, not even the faintest attempt at conveying a pep rally atmosphere. Just the slogan, treated by the speakers as somewhat more intense a message than "Remember the Alamo!"

What is sadly obvious about the ad, of course, is that it's not about the Jaguars themselves. Floridians have their quirks, but they sure know football, and therefore know that the likelihood of the Jags going anywhere on the playing field is about the same as that of the Bills, 49ers or Texans. The slogan is for the audience, a veiled way of saying "go to our games, damn it!" in a more macho fashion than mere pleading. The good people of Jacksonville are being urged to spend their money (the recession has been brutal there, and since the two biggest employers are the military and health care, it's sure to get worse) on their lackluster NFL franchise as a matter of personal and civic pride. "Show 'em, Jacksonville. We're a real team in a real NFL city!"

Tough love as a marketing message falls way short of "Super Bowl, here we come!" The Jaguars are to be commended for their honesty in eschewing the latter pitch. But the history of sports since about 1950 indicates that when a franchise with box office problems hits the civic pride button, the end is nigh. I predict that Jacksonville will soon enter Stage Two, lengthy futile negotiations with city officials who will offer ever more implausible "rescue plans" calling for money nobody has.

And sometime after that, maybe next season, maybe a few seasons away, the slogan of the Jacksonville Jaguars will become "It's Go Away Time!"