Sunday, October 23, 2011

Any Given Saturdays Must Be Eliminated for The Good of the TV Contract

There were a couple of big upsets in college football yesterday. Oklahoma lost to Texas Tech and Michigan State beat Wisconsin. Both games were thrilling, Michigan State winning on a Hail Mary. Both games were on ESPN networks, too. Huzzahs all-around at Walt Disney Co.!

Or so you'd think, and you'd be incorrect. This morning, a rerun of ESPN's college wrapup show revealed that horrendous commentators Mark May and Lou Holtz were VERY disappointed in the beaten favorites. Praise for the gallant underdogs was perfunctory. Condemnation of the teams that, according to ESPN and several polls, SHOULD have won was heartfelt and lengthy.

Holtz, May and the host whose name I have no intention of catching then went on to the subject that really warmed their hearts, the upcoming game between undefeated teams LSU and Alabama on November 5. Let two weeks of hype begin, hype that seemed very odd from a business perspective as ESPN won't be showing that tilt. It'll be on CBS, directly opposite ESPN's nine game broadcasts that afternoon.

Logic, even the logic of profit and loss, is as much a stranger to college football as honesty. Holtz and May, products of a system they'll never be able to view from the outside, gave a splendid example of the mindset that has made their sport what it is -- ugly graffiti on the walls of civilized society, an insult to the ideals of sports and indeed of the United States of America.

Any sports enterprise where upsets are seen as bad for business should be regarded with the utmost suspicion. As May and Holtz demonstrated, that's just where FBS college football is right now. Despite years and years of evidence that upsets are good for sports business, here's a game where there's an institutional bias in favor of overdogs.

The phrase "should win out" is the one most often blatted by college football commentators each and every weekend. That's not-so-subconscious pulling for the chalk to win every contest. It's particularly weird when uttered, as it often is, in like the second week of the season. The cynical might think this is because many college commentators (and coaches and writers who vote in the polls) just want the season to validate their preseason opinions. They'd be right, but they also wouldn't be cynical enough.

Try as I might, I can think of only one other sports/entertainment enterprise where favorites are supposed to rule, where the top competitors are only allowed to lose to each other and where procedures are bent on a consistent basis to make sure that happens. That would be pro wrestling, which even its fans know is an enjoyable racket and nothing more.

That's all big college football is, too. It's a rigged system to allow a small minority of college athletic departments to rake off major dough from television networks. It's entertaining as can be, but sports as defined by "honest competition to determine an outcome" it isn't. If the demented scramble among schools to find the most lucrative bucket shop, er, BCS conference that'll have 'em doesn't prove that to the sports' audience, nothing will.

I can understand and sympathize with fans of individual big power schools. Rooting for Alabama, Ohio State, etc. is a natural organic fan experience. Rooting for the system in which these teams operate, however, baffles me. Many fans and commentators do. They prefer a system in which their own interests (a playoff and paying athletes openly could only benefit the sport as a fan experience) finish well below Iowa State in the standings every year.

But then, that's how rackets get rich. They convince the suckers being cheated is in their own best interests.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

History Repeats Itself, Only Taller

The most interesting, which isn't the same thing as "likely to be a good," game on the NFL card this weekend will not be broadcast here during the Patriots' bye week. So we won't get to see Tim Tebow start for the Broncos against the Dolphins. It's a fascinating plot twist when a quarterback's coach and head of the front office are more or less openly hoping he'll fail.

Then again, for New Englanders, that show is a rerun, make that remake. We saw it all over 20 years ago. Subtract about nine inches, 60 pounds, and piety, and Tebow is Doug Flutie in the NFL of the '80s.

As quarterbacks, Flutie and Tebow share eerie similarities. Each was a college megastar at the position, an all-time great. Flutie had and Tebow has flaws in their passing techniques leading to that greatest of NFL throwing sins -- inaccuracy. Before they entered the league, it was widely stated by NFL insiders that neither man would do at the position.

But Flutie had and Tebow has the ineffable knack of generating thrilling big plays, scores and victories despite their gentlemen's Cs at their position's most vital skill. Fans adore thrills and see big plays as the quarterback's most important ability. So New England fans clamored for Flutie to start over more conventional QBs. So did Denver fans. Raymond Berry resisted this call as long as he could. So did John Fox.

One difference was the bankrupt Sullivan family was eager to have Flutie starting as a revenue stream, while John Elway, calling the shots in Denver, would pretty much like to ship Tebow out of his franchise and consciousness. I pity all Bronco QBs as long as Elway is in charge of player assessment. How can they not come up short of HIS vision of what a quarterback should be?

Eventually, Berry let Flutie start in the hopes the flaws he saw would cause Flutie to cure the fans' fever and Flutie would basically play himself out of the lineup. Unfortunately for the coach, Flutie's negatives took over a season to gain a narrow victory over his positives, and by the time the final gun went off, Berry's bosses were looking to replace HIM.

Tebow is luckier. The Broncos aren't a playoff contender as Flutie's Pats were in 1988. Any big play positives he creates are liable to be the only ones Denver turns in, given Sunday after given Sunday. Fox may shudder at the interceptions and three-and-outs that Tebow will also create, but promoting Tebow does allow him to ignore the quarterback position for a time to focus on the approximately 52 other problems on the Broncos' roster that need fixing.

There's also this. Flutie was a pro football quarterback for 20 years. Yes, much of that was in Canada, but the checks cleared in that country, too. Given a chance, Tebow might do just as well, better even. It would be nice to see the NFL chattering classes and "insiders" take one of their conventional wisdoms in the shorts.

Coaches aren't wrong to value consistency over big plays and "intangibles." The whole point of coaching is to try and make football as predictable as possible.

Fans aren't wrong to prefer the Fluties and Tebows over the Grossmans and Ortons either. Big plays win games. And the maximum possible amount of predictably in football isn't very much at all.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Baseball Conundrum

Jon Lester, John Lackey and Josh Beckett have been pilloried by the entire known baseball universe for the crime of goofing off in the clubhouse during games when they weren't scheduled to pitch.

And yet, it is common baseball practice for teams to send the starting pitcher of the first game of a road trip the last day of the previous home stand, so the pitcher can better prepare himself psychologically and be free of the distractions of well, watching a game in which he's not going to pitch.

Or do teams do that so the pitcher's teammates don't SEE him drinking beer, eating chicken and playing video games?

(Very) Brief Thought on Patriots 20-Cowboys 16

When a defensive line plays well, the rest of the defense almost always has a good game, too.

When a defensive line doesn't play well, the rest of the defense cannot.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Easy to Be Hard -- Too Easy

No doubt about it, I was a trifle harsh on my old colleagues Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti yesterday. Too harsh perhaps on two people who are merely responding to the financial and prestige incentives of their new trade. Probably if I didn't know them, I wouldn't take their participation in a medium built for fraud so personally.

The idiocy of talk radio in Jacksonville, Florida (where the hosts make Felger and Mazz seem like Edward R. Murrow and Charlie Rose) only amuses me. But that's because I don't know what they're talking about, not being too up on Florida State recruiting, and can appreciate the absurdity of the genre as an especially twisted form of performance art.

In Boston, it's different. I know everybody, and I know what they're talking about. And when two people who I really did admire as co-workers indulge in the things about sports journalism and journalism in general I most dislike, including pointless speculation, a glory in rumor for its own sake and above all personal meanness, it offends and saddens me. Going after Heidi Watney crossed a line for me, in the original meaning of the word "deadline." (Look it up). That's why I got so angry. Women sports journalists have to put up with endless crap in their lives, and contributing to that crap makes one a compete jerk.

It was not, BTW, spiteful or pointless of Bob Hohler to write about Terry Francona and pain pills. He got information, checked it out with the subject, and got the subject on the record. That's Hohler's job. That's journalism. Journalism is not always a job that makes you feel good about yourself, because it often involves dealing with stuff that doesn't make you feel good about your fellow humans. If you can't deal with that, it's not the business for you.

I am increasingly of the opinion that sports talk radio is not the business for anyone who was ever involved in sports journalism. It is, as John Henry accurately observed, part of the entertainment industry, not journalism at all. The entertainment industry is a fine business, most of it. But I don't really think talking about sports should qualify as one of the performing arts. It's bad for the performers.

Michael and Tony were excellent beat writers, the most demanding position in a sports section. Glenn Ordway was an outstanding basketball announcer. Gerry Callahan was and occasionally still is a superb columnist. All four now work in a field where one is richly rewarded for trafficking in innuendo, insult, and all around unpleasant behavior. That's what makes me angry and sad, and it's why I prefer neither to listen to nor think about sports talk radio in this burg.

I did know these men. I liked them. And I'm terribly afraid they are messengers who have become their medium.

DVDS of the 1993 Season Are On Sale in the Lobby After the Concert, Uh, Game

The Dallas Cowboys will play the Patriots at Foxboro today. The sight of the Cowboys on my TV will evoke the same sentiment it has since about 2002. What's the word for anti-nostalgia, anyway?

The Cowboys create the same sort of vague depression about entertainment and life itself I feel when I hear the frequent advertisements for former big rock acts that are on extremely ill-advised tours, usually with one or at most two of the original band members still performing, the rest being too bored, alienated, or dead to participate. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend's kid touring with a performance of "Tommy" is the particular act that comes to mind this morning. Rest assured, when casinos are built here, there will be many of these acts performing. What could be worse than having been a megastar, and now you're not big enough for Vegas?

In essence, formerly superior performers who just don't have anything new to contribute (and why should they? What's Daltrey got left to prove) are reduced to being their own cover bands. Work is work.

Isn't that exactly what the 21st century Cowboys are, a cover band of the first team Jerry Jones assembled in the early 1990s? And just like any cover band, the more diligently they try to resemble the original, the more spectacularly they make clear the gap in ability between themselves and said original. While the Patriots have quite successfully reinvented themselves between 2003 and 2011 (keeping Tom Brady helps there), the Cowboys are a succession of looks like but not quite -- Tony Romo-Troy Aikman, Dez Bryant-Michael Irvin, etc. Jones, a shrewd man, can't see any way to achieve success except to try and repeat what used to work for him. Whole industries go bust that way.

Readers tend to skim on Sunday morning, so I'll close with the following important reminder. When I wrote that the Cowboys resemble a cover band, it did NOT, repeat NOT mean I think they're going to cover this afternoon.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Long Time, First Time Too Many

John Henry is very rich. Doesn't he own an iPod?

The principal owner of the Boston Red Sox would have been better served had be been listening to music yesterday instead of sports talk radio. The soothing tones of Metallica would have kept his blood pressure down (to the extent it ever gets above 50 systolic, I mean look at the guy). Far more importantly, he wouldn't have acted on understandable wrath and popped into the studio to confront Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti.

As a financial whiz, Henry is supposed to understand the concept of the risk-reward ratio. By going on the air, Henry took all the risks while his two tormentors reaped all the rewards. The talk show hosts are the toasts of their organization. What did Henry get for his pains? More trouble, that's all.

I admire Henry's nerve and instincts for confronting Felger and Mazz. I question his judgment. The reason most athletes and other sports personnel curse their media critics in private and almost never call them out in public is that bitter experience teaches there's no percentage in that transaction -- especially in the wake of failure.

I didn't catch Henry's appearance on the air. For one thing, I have a tape deck in my car, and the choice between Miles Davis and Felger is a pretty easy one. For another, I can't listen to Felger and Mazz for the same reason Henry sought them out. The show operated by two of my former co-workers, who were good sportswriters in their day and were good teammates, is despicable swill aimed at whatever denominator is below the lowest common. That's why it's also the hottest show in town. In radio, shit gives off the sweet smell of success.

(Felger at least had the good grace to express regrets, but trafficking in rumors about the sex life of Heidi Watney was the act of a cad. Maybe cousin Nick will challenge Mike to a duel, five irons at 10 paces.)

By all second-hand accounts, Henry didn't come off TOO badly in the impromptu interview. All that went wrong was that he said he'd been against signing Carl Crawford, with whom he's still stuck for six seasons, to whom he still owes $120 million and whose revival is kind of essential to future Red Sox success. That's "all." I wonder if Henry ever talked about any of the securities in his portfolios that way. I also wonder if he ever let subordinates in his financial business talk him into a $140 million deal that didn't feel right to him. If so, how'd he get so rich?

Henry also denied that he or any of the other Red Sox owners were sources for the leaks about Terry Francona in Bob Hohler's story in the Globe. People in the grip of deep emotion are seldom good liars. I am willing to believe that Henry is telling the truth as he understands it. I am not so willing to believe what he understands IS the truth. Even if I were, Henry's denial begs the question "If not you guys, then who?" Who's the snake in the asphalt of Yawkey Way? It is not reassuring to be told that Red Sox ownership has lost control of its franchise to the extent that it's every rat for himself over there.

Worst of all from Henry's perspective, confronting his critics will not accomplish his goal of lowering their volume. That's how talk radio or any other media works. Having seen that they've drawn blood, Felger and Mazz will redouble their efforts at lurid speculation and borderline libelous claims, something Felger in particular is very good at and which will eventually blow up his own career for him.

When I was a member of the media, all I asked was that the subjects of my stories were themselves in all their human glory and futility. Spin is part of the business, but underneath it, I hoped the people I wrote about revealed a bit of the man or woman within. Henry did that in spades yesterday, and the part of me that's still sportswriter (a pretty big part), applauds him for it.

But the part of me that's just a bystander now, neither fan nor media member (a part that grows bigger every day), feels nothing but regret for Henry. I see where the story of the collapse of 2011 is going for him, and it's not a good place at all. Too bad. He's an odd duck, as most accomplished persons are, but I always kind of liked Henry. Trust? No. I can like people without trusting them. I'm not in talk radio, so I don't need to function in a two-dimensional universe.

Sympathy tells me to hope Henry feels better after getting it all off his chest yesterday. Rationality tells me he shouldn't.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

America's Snitches' Team

Bob Hohler of the Globe is a good reporter, more than good enough to have mastered reporting's primary skill -- knowing just which persons involved in a story are eager to explain why what happened wasn't really their fault. When it came to the Boston Red Sox organization, that was evidently a long list.

Given the poltroon's privilege of anonymity (it's essential in journalism, but that doesn't make it any nicer), lots of folks were happy to discuss the Sox collapse of September 2011 in vivid and excruciating detail, some of which might even be true. Hohler's also a real straight shooter, so I'll bet that somewhere in his heart, he wished his story could have the following headline and by line.

"Why you should keep buying things from us in 2012," by John Henry and Friends.

Strike that. It's obvious from the story that nobody on the Red Sox has any friends, at least not any others on the team or in the organization. Nobody who told those tales has much if any decency either. And if, as I'd be willing to bet significant money, the sources for Hohler's story were senior members of management and those with equity in the franchise, they don't have too many smarts.

Let's deal with the despicable first. Accusing Terry Francona of prescription drug abuse and saying his marriage was affecting his work is beneath comment, beyond my poor capacity to sufficiently abuse and just plain stupid. When it comes to baseball, there are basically two kinds of marriages. Ones where the wife can take being alone an awful lot of the time, and marriages with problems. That's just a sad fact of the business, and it applies to baseball writers as much as anyone.

As for substance abuse causing a manager to make poor decision and "lose control of the team," well, I don't know. Maybe Billy Martin, Earl Weaver and I will get together for a beer tonight and discuss the issue. The Raging Alcoholic wing of the Hall of Fame, should it ever get built, will be a large annex.

Here's even more stupid. Francona is well liked, not just by fans, but in the tiny inbred world of his sport, too. His version of events, delivered in private, will carry more weight than Hohler's story, even if every word of it was gospel truth. The Sox ownership/management team will now be doing business with peers who have reason to believe they're dealing with deceitful and nasty people. There will be a surcharge for that suspicion.

Penultimate stupidity. The villians of Hohler's piece, John Lackey, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, are also multimillion dollar long term investments of the sources who dissed them. They can only be replaced at a cost of hundreds of million of dollars and several lost seasons. Tim Wakefield for Opening Day pitcher, anyone?

The Sox are stuck with Lester and Beckett, and probably Lackey, too. I don't think many teams would trade for him if the Sox assumed his whole salary and threw in Adrian Gonzalez. They can't win without Lester and Beckett pitching well, as September proved. Why then in the name of Abner Doubleday and Peter Drucker did management go out of its way to paint them as twirling cancers? Rest assured, both pitchers have agents, and those agents were quick to assure them that they are valuable commodities whose paychecks will keep flowing come what may. In short, Lester and Beckett have the whip hand in their relationships with their employer. What point did blackening their reputations prove? How did it increase the value of the Red Sox as an investment?

Ultimate stupidity. Through their own anonymous words, the Red Sox as an organization stand revealed as a place where there's no one you can trust, or should trust. Since the franchise is now searching for both a manager and general manager, this could impede recruiting -- at least recruiting of anyone worth a damn.

There are hundreds of proverbial good baseball men for every job in baseball, let alone the glamorous big-paying ones. The line of applicants for both Sox positions will doubtless metaphorically stretch around Fenway Park and all the back to Charlestown. But the list of applicants who might make a difference in the job is apt to be shorter.

If I'm a potential manager or general manager with the slightest confidence in my own abilities, here's how I see the Red Sox. It's a place where you can't turn your back on your employees or your employers, where you're expected to stay in the background in success and stand front and center in failure, and oh, yes, when failure comes, as is inevitable, the franchise will do its best to make you unemployable anywhere else, out of the spiteful cruelty at which true cowards excel.

I'm thinking, you know, maybe I'll just wait for that cushy Astros job to open up.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

J?-E?-T?-S? Jets? Jets? Jets?

Of all the many things in sports I do not understand and have given up trying, the New York Jets rank first in degree of difficulty.

I look at the Jets and see nothing I like except their record. By every rational means of evaluating a football team I have been taught, Rex Ryan's bunch looks, sounds, and feels like a perpetual 5-11 squad, a noisier version of the Seahawks. They're a running team that often can't run and a blitzing team that seldom gets meaningful quarterback pressure. Approximately one out of every three games, their quarterback looks like that poor Florida freshman did against LSU yesterday, simply unprepared for and incapable of competing.

When the Jets lose, they often get massacred in "please stop this mismatch" style. Every loss is followed by what most NFL franchises would regard as deplorable discord. Egotism appears to be encouraged as a lifestyle choice.

The Jets always look as if disaster is their manifest destiny. It SHOULD be their manifest destiny. So how come destiny has yet to make their scene?

This team that damn well should be a dismal failure has excelled for the past two years at what are two of the most difficult feats in the NFL, winning road playoff games and beating the New England Patriots. They've gone 4-2 at the former, and 3-2 at the latter. Everything I know about pro football tells me this is impossible. And yet, there it is on the record.

I have drawn two possible conclusions about this conundrum. Underneath the bluster and all-around weirdness, Ryan might be one hell of a good coach. The other more logical conclusion is that destiny is merely taking its own sweet time, the better to REALLY cast the Jets into the outer darkness of the NFL when it finally shows up.

Logic also says the Pats beat the Jets by 17 or more this afternoon. Logic, however, has also been a stranger as far as the Jets are concerned. If New York wins again, I won't know whether or not to be surprised.

Al Davis 1929-2011

Al Davis was seldom what most would call a good man, and almost never what anyone would call a nice one. That's probably why within the narrow confines of the National Football League, Davis was one of the greatest men in its history.

Davis was pro football without the mask on. He stripped whatever was left of the "building character" Victorian moralistic nonsense the game took from its college origins and left its essence out for all to see. He was ruthless, exploitative and untrustworthy. But he was no hypocrite. Davis and the Oakland/Los Angeles/Oakland/and maybe Los Angeles again Raiders he essentially founded and built in his own image were a constant statement that football is a cruel, ruthless, exploitative game and ergo people with those character traits have a two-step start on the field.

Football is violence inadequately controlled by rules. Davis sought out football players with a take 'em or leave 'em approach to all rules. Some were free spirits. Some had demons. Some were flat out sociopaths. In the glory days, which lasted a very long time, pretty much 40 years, all were good at beating other people up.

All NFL teams are like that now, of course. Have been for a long time, too, which is one reason the Raiders sank back into the mire in last decade. Astonishing as it may be to contemplate for those under 40, when Davis began his career in evil genuisry, they weren't. Teams still looked for players who'd make a favorable impression on pledges down at the frat house. They wanted good citizens, i.e, malleable order-takers, if possible white order-takers.

I should note that I actually had brief social contacts with some of the Raiders of the early '70s and they weren't that much different than anyone else, just bigger. Davis was good at finding players who wanted to live inside society's white lines, too. But he deliberately chose to push his outcasts to the center of the team's image. This is football, it's kind of bent, the Raiders said. Get over it.

Davis made the NFL throw a false image into the dustbin of history. He sued the NFL to move to L.A., won, and threw Pete Rozelle's idea that the league was a cooperative venture among like-minded businessmen into the dustbin, too. The tombstones of the St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams and Houston Oilers are his monuments, just like the Raiders three Lombardi Trophies.

Perhaps it's a bad thing that NFL fans now know that if their team's owner has to choose between them and more money, they're going to lose. The fact Davis was able to move the Raiders BACK to Oakland indicates that fans are too far gone to care that they know.

Perhaps it's a bad thing that Davis pushed the cruel reality of the sport of football into people's faces, too. I don't think so. To truly love a person or thing, one has to acknowledge what he/she/it is really like. Otherwise, it's not love, just a preteen crush.

Al Davis was not an admirable man. But within the world he chose for himself, he sure was an important one.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Congratulations, You %#$@!*

I'm still enough of a Philadelphia fan to feel that the very worst sort of defeat is one where the only possible response is good sportsmanship. The Phillies loss to the Cardinals in the divisional series last night falls squarely into that revolting category.

A 1-0 loss doesn't leave much in the way of second-guessing or bitching. It's pretty obvious why your team lost. The 2011 Phillies won an inordinately large number of the enormous number (77) of regular season games where they scored three runs or less. In the playoffs, where pitchers like Chris Carpenter lurk at every turn, this is not a formula for success. Ryan Howard's apparent Achilles injury on the season's last at-bat was a horrible but apt summary of how the Phils contributed to their own defeat.

But the point is, they didn't contribute that much. The Cardinals won fair, square and impressively. They beat Cliff Lee, they beat Roy Oswalt and they beat Roy Halladay with all the money on the table. Whatever honors Carpenter has or will win in his distinguished pitching career, he'll never get a better tribute than he got last night. Tony La Russa, whose plaque in Cooperstown should show him waving to the bullpen, let him pitch a complete game in an elimination game.

Losing hurts. One would think just getting beat would hurt less, but that's not the case. I mock fans, especially Boston ones, for believing every game is determined by what the home team does or doesn't do, but I understand where they're coming from. It's a defense mechanism. Blaming a loss on your side's flaws carries the implicit assumption that if your side just corrects those flaws, it will win next time out. It's less discouraging to say "our pitchers shouldn't drink beer in the clubhouse" than "you know, those Yanks are tough."

This privilege is denied any rational Phillies fan (hey, there are at least six I know of). My team ran into a difficult opponent on a hot streak and got whupped. I'm enough of a fan to hate it, and still enough of a sportswriter to admire the Cards for their accomplishment. Presto, the worst of both worlds.

It's a curse sometimes, not being able to curse at fate.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

My Life As Told By Bill Belichick

Had a knee.

The doctors took a look at it.

Had a procedure.

Was not present at the part of work available to the media yesterday and today.

Listed as questionable, but then I always was.

We're just focusing on the Jets right now.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Nobody Spent Much Time Thinking About Pete Sampras' Return of Serve

A football team that scores more than 30 points in every game has perforce reduced the role of its defense from that of a 50-50 partner to one of those unknown (but well-rewarded) guys who went into the Yankees with George Steinbrenner. A turnover here and there, forcing a punt every couple of quarters, and its work is done, thank you. Hell, that defense only only has to do half its own job. It can give up eight yards a carry, and sooner or later, the other team will stop running as surely as if they had held them to negative yardage

Of course, very few football teams DO score 30 or more in every game. Eventually, therefore, it's likely the defense of the 2011 New England Patriots actually will become a horrid liability. But today wasn't eventually. So I'm content to let the coaches yell at the defense. They get paid to do it.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Wonder if Shoeless Joe Ran Out Every Pop-Up

An idle thought just struck me by way of P.S. to my last post. In my lifetime, the baseball player who best exemplified everything Boston fans say they want in a sports hero -- the original unparalleled dirt dog, the guy who said the stat he most cared about was all the wins he'd been in -- was Pete Rose.

Which goes to show there's many more than one kind of motivation.

There Is No I in "Team" But There Are Several in "Idiotic"

As we sat in traffic Thursday evening contemplating the baseball universe, my son Josh had a question.

"You've been to them Dad. Are the other big pro sports town as obsessed and hung up on the idea of team as people are here in Boston?"

I was proud. Unlike me, Josh is a lifelong Boston resident. It takes insight for such a person to put their finger on a universal civic psychosis.

My answer came quickly. "No, not really. They're meaner in Philly, lots meaner, but don't look for motives when teams fail. They just boo. And they take it out on individual players more than the group."

I call (and have done so for decades) the local reaction to both sports failure and success the Chip Hilton Syndrome, after the sports books for boys series of my youth. In Boston, professional sports teams are held to a standard of sports behavior that was a myth in the 1930s, let alone today. It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you look like you're playing the game. Present a cheerful, brave and especially reverent image about your sport and Boston fans think victory is the inevitable result. Doing so kept Trot Nixon popular through several very unproductive seasons.

Losing, like say a historic September gag job, MUST be the result of violations of the sports code of morals. Athletes and teams fail because they're bad, not because they played badly.

The most extreme case of this fallacy is the oldest. When Ted Williams was on good Red Sox teams that couldn't quite beat better Yankees teams, and blew a World Series, he was the problem. Williams was "selfish" because he walked too much. This was a minority view, but that even existed at all doesn't speak well of our fair city's sports history.

The truth that it's hard to win in professional sports, and that's why most teams don't escapes this burg. So does the truth that professional sports are hard to play well. Above all, Boston won't acknowledge that the first two truths make pro teams collections of gifted men with an odd bipolar syndrome in which total self-confidence and neurotic insecurity wage a constant war for control of their psyches. This leads to less than ideal group dynamics in adversity.

Look, it's simple. There is "bad" behavior as defined by Boston fans and oh boy especially media in every locker room and clubhouse of every team every day. When the team is winning, it ignores it. When it loses, it doesn't. Defeat makes everybody unhappy and crabby. Since defeat makes fans unhappy and crabby, you'd think they'd get that.

Pitchers drinking beer in the clubhouse on their off days? Somewhere Mickey Mantle and Grover Cleveland Alexander are shocked. I can top what is allegedly the player behavior that got Terry Francona separated from the Red Sox. How about a player drinking beer in the clubhouse during a game in which he pitched?

In the summer of 2004 in Anaheim, Derek Lowe got knocked out of a game in short order. Things hadn't been going well for Derek, or the team for that matter. When reporters came into the clubhouse after the game, Lowe was at his locker. He was glassy-eyed full-on shattered, so much so several coaches suggested he not talk to us.

Three months later, Derek Lowe was among the heroes of the greatest playoff comeback in baseball history and a member of the first Red Sox world championship team in 86 years. I submit that if drinking in the clubhouse didn't affect that team, it didn't affect the 2011 squad much either.

Was there griping in this summer's Sox clubhouse? I say yes because there's been griping in every clubhouse since there have been clubhouses. I'll bet the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings bitched about their travel schedule. Bitching is one of those things ballplayers do to pass all that daily downtime. It's white noise.

Was some of that griping about John Lackey and Carl Crawford. It'd be weird if it wasn't. Use empathy here, reader. Imagine if at your place of employment a couple of new workers at the very job you have were brought in and paid three times what you make and then they began screwing up all the time. Would you be friends with them? Would you complain behind their backs? Be honest, now.

The prosaic facts of the Great Choke of 2011 are only slightly psychological. They start with performance, with known weaknesses of good players getting the best of them at the worst possible time. When Jon Lester fails, he struggles with control. Josh Beckett tends to wear down as a season goes on. David Ortiz had proven he can go a month with an extra base hit in the last two seasons. And so on.

Slumps are contagious. Locked together in small spaces (dugouts, clubhouses, buses, airplanes) nearly every waking hour, the Sox, like all slumping teams, saw their collective neurotic insecurities rout their collective self-confidence by a score of about 17-2. And then the losing began in earnest. It may satisfy fans, media, and ass-covering front office types to say Boston's lost September was because the team didn't care enough or try enough, but when good teams slump/choke, it's almost always because they cared too much and tried too hard. Baseball is not a game that surrenders to simple willpower.

The moronic morality play concept of sports does a disservice to the more interesting reality of how games are won or lost. It's also fraudulent as morality. Many a nice guy has indeed finished last. They were still nice, they just didn't play very well. A guy's ERA is not shorthand for the state of his soul.

Games are played by human beings, complex, difficult, unusual human beings. Demanding that athletes show no flaws is to demand they deny their humanity. And as Abraham Lincoln once noted, people with damned few vices tend to have damned few virtues.