Friday, September 30, 2011

What's the Sabermetric Acronym for Cowardice?

Confronted with catastrophe, the Boston Red Sox, eager to boast of their status as a 21st century baseball franchise run on the most rigorous statistical and business school analytics, reverted to the oldest, stalest, most futile decision in the sport -- they dumped their manager.

And because this IS the Henry-Lucchino-Werner Red Sox, Terry Francona can't be let go with a "it was just time for a change after eight great years." No, there has be some professional character assassination thrown in, because otherwise, people might think that the men who assembled the team that had the worst stretch collapse in baseball history bore some responsibility for its failure.

I just turned off Channel Five, where Mike Lynch presented the following time line. Theo Epstein is alleged to have told ownership BEFORE September that Francona had lost control of the clubhouse (whatever that means, nobody's ever given me a definition) and he couldn't work with him any more. Then, again according the timeline, ownership voted to let Francona go two weeks ago.

Let me be blunt. I think that's a lie, and the person or persons who fed Lynch that story are liars. In fact, it's the exact same lie the Sox told about Francona's predecessor back in 2003. We didn't fire Grady for leaving Pedro in too long in Game Seven. We'd been unhappy with him since June. That was obvious bull, and so is this. It is revisionist history that'd make Stalin proud. Look for Tito's picture to be erased from those 2004 and 2007 championship videos that'll be hawked on the team Web site come Christmastime.

Owners and general managers outrank managers. If the manager is doing or not doing something and they're displeased, they can and should tell him what they want, not sit and stew and let a bad situation get worse.

And of course, that's just what owners and general managers DO do, at least in my experience. Multizillionaires and GMs with their jobs on the line are unwilling to suffer in silence. Except, apparently, Henry, Epstein et. al. They'd rather bitch behind a guy's back after they fire him. That's the kind of behavior that gets a person's ass kicked for them in junior high, and you know, I bet a few of the Sox management team are familiar with that very scenario.

I will believe the story on Channel Five only if Terry Francona himself confirms it. And even if it were true, the people who told it stand revealed as cowards. If you think a manager is hurting your ballclub, you have a moral duty to the franchise, its players and its fans to fire the skipper immediately and stand the gaff.

But the story's not true. At best, it's one part truth to one trillion parts spin. And leaking it reveals the Sox top brass as folks one wouldn't consider having in one's home. Firing Francona is not by itself a good or bad deed. At worst, it's just another of the lengthening list of mistakes of 2011.

But the little morality tale I was fed on TV, that has weight. The people who told it, and there couldn't be anybody but Henry & Co. who did, are despicable excuses for humans. Decent people should cross the street to avoid them.

Red Sox fans, it's not your fault the people who run your team are such sneaky shits. Go on ahead and keep on rooting for the home team. You might want to reconsider giving the sneaks so much of your money, though.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

If Wishes Were Third Starters, the Royals Would Make the Playoffs, Too

When a man is whistling past a graveyard, the identity of the tune he's chosen doesn't matter much. Still, one could have hoped for a little more originality from Theo Epstein than that uneasy listening ballad, "the playoffs are a whole new season."

No kidding. The general manager of the Boston Red Sox is hanging his hat on the fact that nine game leads are hard to blow in one month no matter how poorly you play, and that somehow, someway, the Red Sox will wake up the morning of the first game of the ALDS in possession of their former identity as baseball's best team as viewed by sportswriters and anonymous scouts in notes columns.

"No one will remember April," Epstein, "No one will remember what happened the last two weeks. What people will remember is what happens next." He went on to say just a win or two, and the Sox would again be a "dangerous team."

Well, Epstein had to say something, and "boy, we've really stunk lately" would not have been les mots juste. General managers have the same duty to spin as Presidential press secretaries. I have enough respect for Epstein to believe he didn't believe a word he said. Spin's OK, as long as the spinner doesn't think it's true. What that happens, the organization in question is doomed.

The problem with Epstein's cliche is that it's not absolutely true. Yes, what happens in the playoffs will determine how Boston fans recall 2011 come November. But the memory of the Sox' slump will stick in many minds when the playoffs are going on. Most of those minds will belong to American League ballplayers, most especially including those in Red Sox uniforms.

Videotape never forgets. Reruns of the Orioles series are almost surely the highest-rated program in the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers clubhouses. And since players are human beings, albeit unusual ones, failure tends to stick in their minds longer than success. That's how slumps get created in the first place. If Epstein thinks the Sox are going to enter the playoffs full of vim and swagger because they pick off a few wins from Triple A Yankee squads this weekend, he's delusional. At best, the Sox will enter the postseason in a mood of grim, frustrated desperation. I'm not sure that's the best frame of mind in which to pick up Justin Verlander's fastball or to try and slip one past Josh Hamilton.

As noted, spin is spin. But spin can't be all cliche and bluster. It needs the icing of facts on top to taste good. About the only facts the Sox have on their spin now are arithmetical. The numbers say there's not enough time for them to be caught in the wild card race. The payroll says they can't be this bad for too much longer.

Of course, that last argument has a hole in it. The Sox don't have to be bad for too much longer, do they?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bend But Try Not to Break More than Three-Four Times a Game

If you have a loved one, friend, acquaintance or total stranger tell you this week that the New England Patriots' defense is in terrible shape because of all the yards it has given up the past two weeks, pay them no nevermind.

If, alas but inevitable, you read or hear a sports reporter or commentator express the same sentiment, you should consider debookmarking them and/or changing the channel.

The Patriots defense is not terrible. I'd say it's average, not in the sense of performance so much, but as being totally representative of how defense has been and will be played in the Year of Our NFL Rules Committee 2011. The best NFL defenses will be measured not in yards allowed, or even so much in points allowed, as by how well they adjust to the fact that defense essentially has become an illegal activity.

Three decades plus of annual tweaking of football's rules to bolster offense and hamper defense has borne its fruit, a bitter fruit indeed for under bettors. We have reached the point where the very essences of defensive football are the stuff 15-yard penalties are made of.

Strong techniques for man-to-man pass defense? Almost completely illegal. Hitting the quarterback? Roger Goodell will see you at the Hague for your war crimes trial. Tackling itself, fundamental number one? Getting more illegal by the moment. In a sport built on violent collisions and instantaneous decisions and reactions, one side of the ball is being told "think hard before you hit anyone." This has had a predictable effect. Defenses suck. Or rather, defenses suck when the cost of sucking isn't prohibitive.

The NFL statistics of the first two weeks of the season, not just the Pats' but every teams' shriek of a nasty cost-benefit triage analysis by defenses. Essentially, yards surrendered don't matter, because nothing that happens between the 20 yard lines matter -- except turnovers. The standard defensive game plan has become quite simplified. Try for turnovers between the 20s. Play aggressive defense in your own red zone and hope the end line plays a great free safety for you passing downs. Rush five, six, seven men frequently when the other guys are inside their own 20 in hopes of creating catastrophic turnovers.

Three-hundred yards passing is the new 200 yards passing for quarterbacks. Statistics always showed 300 yard games were not a significant indicator of who won or lost. That's more true now. Four hundred is the new 300. Tom Brady remains the only QB to win any 400 yard passing games this season. Cam Newton's 0-2.

An increase in points allowed is an inevitable byproduct of all those yards. But remember, your side, unless its the Seahawks, will be scoring more in its turn. At the pinnacle of NFL defensive dominance in the 1970s, teams averaged about 20 points a game. For the Pats in 2011 to allow 22.5 points a game is probably BETTER than average, not worse.

Against the Chargers, the Patriots got their mitts on three turnovers and had a goal-line stand that held San Diego without a point on the possession. I suggest that come December, that will be rightly seen as just about as well as an NFL defense can play this season -- since that's about as well as defenses are allowed to play.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Coach's Message Seeks Its Medium

The most surprising thing I learned from the NFL Network documentary on Bill Belichick was how much of what of what it showed us about the coach was stuff I already knew about him.

Belichick adores Ed Reed as a football player? I heard him soliloquize about Reed's excellence as a safety the week before a Pats-Ravens game way back in 2003. One of the parts of covering the Pats
I found most enjoyable was detecting when Belichick's praise for an opposing team or player moved out of boilerplate and into genuine admiration/anxiety. You had to listen, because it was all a matter of a change in vocal tone, but anyone paying attention could tell the difference.

Belichick has profound and profoundly mixed emotions about his experiences as Bill Parcells' chief henchman with the Giants, Pats and Jets? No kidding. First, who wouldn't? I'm fond of Parcells, but I'd rather work for Josef Stalin, thanks. Second, I've heard those mixed emotions in Belichick's voice every time he discussed his past coaching experiences, especially his Giants' experiences.

The slightest effort at empathy shows why. You, the dedicated, ambitious young defensive coach will have the opportunity to coach one of the two or three best defensive players ever to live. However, he's Lawrence Taylor. See why memories of that time might not all be sweet nostalgia?

Belichick sleepwalks through the conference call with out-of-town writers? You bet. So does every other coach. I was in on maybe 200 of those things in my life. They are drudgery for both sides, and believe me, Belichick is far from the least communicative coach in that forum. Once, the Pats' beat writers actually hung up on Don Shula.

And so it went through an engrossing hour of television. NFL Network did a wonderful job of capturing Belichick's existence. But it didn't break new ground, not for me. I won't be surprised when he shows up at Randy Moss' Halloween party next week. I know, and more, have written, that Belichick works very hard at surprising his players, both professionally and personally, because the coach understands that in a sport built on endless repetition o the dullest elements of both blue and white collar labor, boredom is a more dangerous opponent than Peyton Manning.

So the question is, if I am not surprised by the Belichick portrayed in this documentary based on much less personal exposure to the man, why are others? How come everyone doesn't know this, especially since the only reason I was around Belichick was that I was getting paid, in part, to tell people what he's like?

Besides any personal professional failings (nobody bats 1.000 in columnizing, but nobody bats .000 either) there are three reasons why I believe Belichick's public image is so at odds with his actual self. The most obvious one is that we live in a shorthand age. Once a caricature of a well-known person gets wide circulation, it's almost impossible to alter the false perception. There is just enough truth in the idea of Belichick as the grim, brooding evil genius of the NFL, guarding his alchemist's secrets with his life to make that image stick. And frankly, he plays off it. The man wears a hooded sweatshirt, the better to portray himself as blocking out the world.

How did the image get circulated in the first place? That's where my former profession comes in. Most of what the world sees, reads or hears about Belichick comes from two places -- the Wednesday press conference, and the post-game press conference. For different reasons, each is about the worst possible place to learn anything from Belichick's words and/or body language.

In NFL coverage, Wednesday is TV sound bite day. It is the best-attended and therefore least informative press conference Belichick or any coach gives all week. The coach cannot develop a train of thought, thereby revealing his thought processes, because the questions jump from topic to topic based on the angles each news outlet came determined to exploit. Belichick doesn't think in bites, sound or otherwise. When he offers them, they're terse because they're stilted. They don't come naturally to Bill the way they do to a Rex Ryan.

Post-game, Belichick is even more terse. That's because, like almost every other NFL coach, he's spent. The emotional and intellectual effort of directing the three-hour chaos of a football game has wrung him out, win or lose. It's not that he's not happy when the Pats win -- he just doesn't have the energy to display it, or even feel it too deeply.

Here's a mistake I did make covering Belichick, but at least I learned from it. He was my assigned column after Super Bowl XXXVIII when the Pats beat the Panthers. To my mind, 2003 was and will always remain Belichick's best coaching season ever. He took a team that didn't have enough healthy players to practice with on October 1 and won 15 straight games with it.

There were about one-third as many reporters around Belichick's podium as there usually are for the winning Super Bowl coach. Journalists fall for images as much as fans do. I attempted to get Belichick to express some modicum of personal professional pride for his own work.

He wouldn't. He repeatedly mumbled about how happy he was for the players in a voice fit for reciting the U.S. tax code. At the time, I thought, and my column pretty said, "here's a man who won't give anything up." My bad. There was a man who couldn't give anything up, because he had nothing left to give. It was all out on the floor of Reliant Stadium.

So people see a guy on Wednesday essentially speaking a foreign language, and people see the same guy on Sunday, and he's incapable of showing emotion, and they draw the logical but incorrect assumption he has no emotion but a vague hostility to the universe.

That's not Belichick's fault. It's not really the media's fault. ESPN HAS to be a sound-bite world. Otherwise, its world wouldn't fit in its allotted time. Time is the word I think best expresses why the reality of Bill Belichick is hidden to so many people. He's in the wrong one.

Belichick is never happier or more revealing than when's he talking pure football. If he'd only coached in the leather helmet era, he'd have been as beloved as that master self-publicist Knute Rockne. Give the Pats' coach a few cross-country train trips to draw up plays on cocktail napkins in the club car to an audience of scribes in fedoras, and there'd be no Coach/Sorcerer Hoodie out there in the minds of football fans. Belichick would be seen for what he is -- a scholar of and artist at a sport where study is common, but art rare.

Why is that throwback jersies are very popular, but throwback human beings are always misunderstood?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Most Unnecessary Pep Talk in Football History

That came yesterday when Tom Brady advised Patriots fans to get a head start on their drinking before filing into Gillette Stadium to watch the Pats play the Chargers on Sunday. What came after Brady's minor pleasantry was unneccessary, deplorable, and moronic.

The quarterback was subjected to a wave of criticism, much of it, alas, from members of my former profession, for talking about the drinking of alcoholic beverages in an approving way. How dare he! What of the children? Doesn't Brady know he's a role model?

Kids, if you're reading this, Brady SHOULD be your role model. You become a rich football hero and marry a supermodel and your folks will be proud, guaranteed.

All Brady did was acknowledge the universal truth (outside of Brigham Young home games) that football fans like to, and have always liked to, bend the elbow a bit out in the parking lots prior to kickoff. Also after the game, and if the lines too long in the stadium, during the game. In short, football and drinking have been partners since Princeton-Rutgers in 1869, for which the National Football League is very grateful. Many countries don't have GDP equal to the sum Anheuser-Busch InBev laid on the NFL to be its official beer sponsor.

What Brady did to make folks mad was fail to be a hypocrite. He implied it was humorous that football fans drink, rather than indicating his extreme disapproval of their bad habit. You wouldn't catch a TV news anchor making the same mistake, no sir. Hypocrisy has become the H following the five Ws of journalism. Facts and reality bother people. Then they get too upset to buy stuff from your advertisers.

In my career, I dealt with my share of drunk fans at venues of all sports. It's not pleasant. People shouldn't get drunk at ballgames. But in my experience, relatively few do. Most drink a mite, but only as a spur to their real drug of choice talking/arguing with other fans. Again in my experience, the vast majority of fans drink way, way more watching games on television at home or in public places than if they paid for a ticket.

So it was perfectly okay for Brady to josh Pats fans about having a few belts. It was perfectly idiotic for anyone in sports media to bash him for doing so. Do you guys/gals WANT to spend a working life without any good quotes? Then keep up the hypocritical moralizing.

Here's the Michael Gee course on Jock Media Relations, offered free to any athletes who wander upon my corner of the Internet. It's a very short course. There are only two lessons, one on each recommended method of handling yourself.

1. The Full Steve Carlton. Say nothing. Clam up and stay clammed your whole career. For extra credit, fail to show up for your own retirement ceremony.

2. Be a robot. Speak nothing but the blandest, most banal cliches about your sport, your life, and life in general. Never show wit, anger, or any other of the qualities that make human existence worthwhile. And for God's sake, never, ever say anything that implies what you do offers anyone on earth any pleasure or fun, especially to yourself.

Tom Brady really enjoys being a football hero. That was his real sin yesterday.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

NFL Statistical Anomaly of the Week Nominee #3

Of the 32 teams who played in the 2011 season's opening week, one and only one had an offense with both a quarterback who passed for 300 or more yards and a running back who rushed for 100 or more yards.

That was the Atlanta Falcons, who lost to the Bears 30-12.

NFL Statistical Anomaly of the Week Nominee #2

Four NFL quarterbacks had over 400 yards passing in their first game of the 2011 season. All but one of them was on the losing team (Chad Henne, Drew Brees, Cam Newton). And Tom Brady had to throw for over 500 yards to get the the win!

NFL Statistical Anomaly of the Week Nominee #1

The Patriots and Dolphins had a combined 1137 yards from scrimmage in last night's 38-24 New England victory.

There were also 10 punts in the game. One hopes the two defenses enjoyed their double-digit moral victories, but I bet they didn't.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Teamwork in Action

Daniel Bard has made more money for Jonathan Papelbon since July 4 than an army of Scott Boras clones could have.

Nostalgia for Horror? No, Thanks

If the ceremonies and 40 (!) or so TV programs today commemorating the 10th anniversary terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon do anything at all to bring a measure of comfort to the survivors of those crimes and the loved ones of those who died, then they will have justified themselves. But count me out.

I see no need to set aside time to remember something I'm in no danger of forgetting. And I see no chance at all that the commemorations will deal with the real truths of that day and what's happened since. Deep down, all Americans know these truths. Our inability to confront them is what will be on display today. Since the Puritans, fraudulent piety has been one of our primary national coping mechanisms.

It's a short story. September 11, 2001 happened because we, the American people as a society, dropped the ball. And we've been kicking the ball around the right field corner ever since. From blithe unconcern with a remote but real chance of catastrophe (we let people carry knives on airplanes?!?! I didn't believe that was true when I first heard it.) we seamlessly morphed into a mindset where fear hit for the cycle on a daily basis. Fear might be the only basis for decision-making that's worse than blind happy ignorance.

The consequences of letting fear and its partner anger make our choices for us are too well-known to recount here. We changed for the worse in just about every way you care to name. To me anyway, nothing indicates the difference between the U.S. in September, 2001 and September, 2011 than the group identity of two sets of civil servants who'll be lauded to the heavens today, and rightly so.

The First Responders. The heroes of 9/11. New York City cops and firefighters. You still see plenty of people wearing NYPD and NYFD commemorative clothing, baseball caps, T-shirts, etc.

In just about every U.S. political jurisdiction, city, town or state, there's a political opinion today, often that of the majority, that yesteryear's First Responders have a new identity. They are part of the Greedy Public Employee Unions sucking the blood from the self-reliant taxpayers. The inconvenience of taxation to pay for public services generates as much or more anger than the memory of a horrible atrocity and its perpetrators. Anger has that way of taking over, doesn't it? Anger and fear breed selfishness, which breeds further fear, and so on down, and I do mean down, the line.

A society that tells people it pays to be heroes if necessary that they cost too much is not on the march to further peace and prosperity. Neither is a society that knows full well its leadership, public and private, has screwed the pooch six ways from Sunday for ten years yet lacks the willpower to find really new leaders. It's hard to escape the conclusion that the "healing" in the preceding decade has been nothing more than Blind Happy Ignorance getting some share of the national psyche back from Fear and Anger. I'd say it's about 50-50 now.

The United States of America sits at an unhappy medium most uncool.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

My Lock of the Year -- It'll Get Dark Earlier Later in the Season

Preseason predictions of any sport are best understood as cult rituals rather than as actual forecasts. Fans and editors expect them and would miss them if they weren't around although groups are at least dimly aware that they represent wild guesswork even if offered by the most knowledgeable observers.

Jon Gruden knows much more about football than I do. However, his assertion that the Houston Texans are a team to be reckoned with in the 2011 NFL season has no more validity than my thought that the Texans, as they used to say about Brazil, are the team of the future and always will be. At least I have history on my side.

My old pal Peter King knows much more about the NFL than I do. His predecessor as Sports Illustrated main man on pro football, Paul Zimmerman, knew more than Peter does. Knowledge is no guarantee of wisdom. In my ignorance, I knew enough as a sportswriter NEVER to publish those insanely detailed NFL preseason predictions King and Zimmerman have combined to crank out for decades. The won-loss record of 32 teams? Scores of every playoff game? Why give readers looking for reasons to think you're a dope (and there always a good number of those) so many opportunities to have their suspicions confirmed?

Anyone who has seen one football game knows injuries or the lack of same, has the most influence on any NFL team's performance. Who gets hurt when and how badly is what Las Vegas wants to know when it thinks football. But injuries cannot be forecast. We know people will be killed by lightning each summer. But we don't go around telling neighbors they're going to draw the black spot.

So football predictions are an exercise in futility. That's why Vegas likes to see people come to town and make them. I think that's why fans like reading them. Even if a forecaster disses their team, they can take comfort in the fact said forecaster is bound to have made a few horrendous calls about the upcoming season, and their team might be one of 'em. For many fans, like those in Denver say, that's about all the grounds for optimism they've got.

The prudent (oh, all right, cowardly, I admit it) prognosticator makes damage control their top priority. Broad strokes are always the best strokes when painting the future. When you have a hunch, tell people. Don't depend on exhibition game film or personnel changes. Remember that inertia is every bit as powerful in physics as is momentum. And try to keep it short, which I already forgot. But here are my best guesses anyway. Yeah, they're obvious. What's it to ya?

Teams that were really good last year and will be this year, too: Patriots, Packers, Steelers, Falcons, Ravens.

Teams that were really good last year and could go either way, but most likely down a bit: Jets, Bears.

Team most likely to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated with a headline starting "What's Wrong" by Halloween: Eagles.

Team that I cannot understand why other people are picking as a Super Bowl contender: Chargers

Weakest team that'll make the playoffs: Colts (have you seen the other three AFC South squads? That division is like one of those soccer World Cup European qualifying groups that has Andorra and San Marino in it).

Teams most likely to win five games fewer than they did in 2010: Seahawks, Chiefs.

Teams most likely to win two or more games MORE than they did in 2010: Rams, Saints.

The Andrew Luck Derby: Broncos, Browns, and I'd say Panthers if they hadn't already drafted Cam Newton.

Since you must know, teams in the Super Bowl next February: Patriots and Saints. Bet the over.

My favorite preseason pick by somebody else: The September issue of "Sports Illustrated for Kids" chose the Arizona Cardinals to win the NFC West. Either Kevin Kolb's mom is an editor there, or it's BY kids, too -- kids from Scottsdale.