Saturday, February 25, 2012

It's the Only Sport With a Statistic Called "Errors"

This must be a sign of advancing age, but somehow I find the entire Ryan Braun fiasco reassuring. As sports continues its seamless integration into the global corporate state monolith, it's nice to see that baseball retains its lovable and comical institutional ineptitude.

Let's keep the National League MVP's urine sample in some clown's basement for the weekend!! That's almost as laugh-provoking as an All-Star game ending in a tie. Now that he's on a roll, we can confidently expect Bud Selig to roll out yet another of playoffs, or maybe a Cosmic Series between the World Series winner and the winner of the World Baseball Classic.

Hard as it is to believe, both Major League Baseball and the MLB Players' Association are chock-full of extremely smart lawyers. In unison, they devised a drug-testing policy which did indeed contain protections for the reputations and rights of the players being tested. Then everyone involved shook hands and forgot the whole thing, especially the part about making sure the process was carried out.

This worked fine until they got to Braun, a guy who failed a test who was and is sure he never took performance-enhancing drugs. Braun fought back under the process, which resulted in two near-fatal blows to baseball's drug policy. 1. Some malicious and very foolish jackass, who odds are is an employee of baseball, leaked the Braun story to ESPN, immediately destroying any trust or goodwill players might have for the program. 2. The arbitrator ruled in Braun's favor, meaning the embarrassing details of how the process didn't work is now public knowledge.

Braun and MLB are considering real-world legal action. That will and should soon pass. The discovery process could be most unkind to both parties. The Glorious Guardians of the Purity of Sports, such as the New York Times sports section and the dimmer members of the U.S. Congress, will cluck disapprovingly for some time. A study committee will be appointed to recommend improvements in baseball drug testing, and its report will come out around next year's Super Bowl. By the time the Red Sox play BC down in Fort Myers, the Braun case will be news as old and forgotten as the Lindbergh kidnapping case.

That's what makes baseball unique as a business enterprise. Humiliating failures of management and horrible misjudgments (let's put franchises in Florida) have little to no impact on its bottom line. The money keeps rolling in, and if the TV dough can't compare with the NFL's, there are compensations -- like maybe owning your own network, or full parking lots 80 times a year instead of 10.

The romantic seamheads taking in the sun and watching grown men play catch in Florida and Arizona will tell you that's because baseball's timeless appeal can survive any mistreatment. They're partially right. In fact, they don't go far enough. It's my belief that its mismanagement and buffoonery are an integral, no, vital part of said timeless appeal.

It's almost a century later, and the 1919 Black Sox remain a subject of endless fascination for baseball fans. The immediate aftermath of that scandal was a quantum leap in the game's attendance and financial standing. Horrible, horrible episodes of marketing gone wrong, such as the Disco Demolition Night and Dime Beer Nights riots of the 1970s, are cherished parts of baseball lore today. Come to think of it, despite some institutional tut-tutting, most fans laughed about 'em when they happened.

Look at Bud Selig for that matter. There's a case to be made, and a strong one, that Selig has been the most successful head of the four major pro sports in the 21st century. Baseball takes hit after hit on Selig's watch, and yet its profits have moved on a nicely rising line that Apple Inc. wouldn't sneeze at. Yet Selig retains and I think carefully manages a public image as a pleasant bungler. I think Bud is well aware that a certain amount of inefficiency is essential to baseball's prosperity.

You want an image of corporate efficiency? Watch the NFL. Many people do, of course, and the image is in large part a fraud, since football is chaos. You want to have fun on a warm summer night, or on a cold night in February imagining there will be warm summer nights? Watch baseball. Many of those same football fans do that, too. Baseball is spectacular counterprogramming.

Every time baseball screws up, its followers are reassured that it's not going to change. Baseball fans like that. Hell, they're still arguing about the DH, now 40 years old. A certain amount of change is necessary for a good life. So's a certain amount of stability.

The national institution the National Pastime most closely resembles is Congress. Everybody hates and laughs at Congress. Its approval rating is about 10 percent. And this November, at least seven out of eight incumbent U.S. legislators will be re-elected, just as in every election.

Deep down, Americans of all political beliefs don't particularly want an efficient government. So they create a Congress to insure they don't get one. Deep down, Americans don't particularly want sports to be efficient, either.

Baseball caters to their desire, and does well from it.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


The title of this post was an acronym created by Boston sportswriters, I forget which one originated it, to describe pitching performances by Tim Wakefield. It stands for "I did my job," a phrase of which Wakefield was inordinately fond when he described his performances.

Wakefield did himself no favors with those words. After, say, a 6 inning, 7 hit, 3 run starting line in a 5-3 loss, it sounded and was self-centered. In those circumstances, baseball etiquette calls for a more team-oriented evaluation, something along the lines of "I could have done better and then maybe we could've won tonight.

But Wakefield was, let's say, inner-directed for much of his lengthy, honorable and very odd Red Sox tenure. He was alienated labor, a guy who felt with some justification that he was jerked around by his managers from role to role -- a utility pitcher rather than just the respected member of the rotation Wakefield thought he ought to be.

It's easy to see why Wakefield felt that way. He actually did at one point or another fill every assignment there was on the Red Sox staff, from ace starter to closer to mop-up man. This of course was due to the pitch that made Wakefield a major leaguer in the first place, the knuckleball. Knuckleball pitchers are not regular pitchers, and therefore don't get treated like regular pitchers. I'm sure that's grating on knuckleballers. On the other hand, not too many regular pitchers are out there twirling at age 44, as Wake was in 2011.

So Wakefield's reaction to his situation was to assume a limited professional code of ethics. What's the assignment? If I fulfill its requirements, I see my participation in this game as a success. Don't let that scoreboard fool you. It's significant to me that the one time Wakefield actively pursued heroic fame, his quest for his 200th win last year, was a disaster for all concerned, especially him.

If this sounds like criticism, keep reading, because the flip side of Wakefield's code was the interesting part. It was revealed in the midst of team catastrophe, about 10 minutes after the end of Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

Wakefield had given up the game-ending homer to Aaron Boone. Nobody then, and nobody now thought or thinks that he was in any way to blame for the agonizing defeat. Knuckleballs occasionally don't knuckle, and batters hit them very far. A homer off a knuckler is not a failure, it's a phenomenon of nature, like rainouts.

It was my assignment for the Herald to write about Wakefield. As hordes of reporters waited to bay Grady Little up a tree, Wake was the first Sox to enter the locker room. He stood and took complete responsibility for the loss. He had given up the Boone homer. It was his fault. He HADN'T done his job.

I seldom if ever liked an athlete better than I liked Wakefield that late, late night. His self-evaluations weren't just selfish defense mechanisms. They were a professional code of ethics, the code of the honest mercenary. If that code let him off the hook for past failures, he was letting it impale him horribly for this one.

That code deserves more credit than it gets in sports. I mean, does anyone think lighting technicians blame themselves when the Broadway musical that hired them folds after four show? Why should jocks feel differently?

Do your job. Isn't there some football coach who says that a lot?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Ineffable Is Hard to Find and Harder Still to Buy

As predictably as gray skies in mid-February, a commentator (it was Christopher Gasper in the Globe, but if it wasn't him, it would've been someone else, so don't take what comes next personal Chris) has urged the Patriots to throw caution and millions to the wind and do their best to make sure their 2012 roster will drip with All-Pros through the depth chart. It should be a team worthy of Tom Brady, because, horror of horrors, he might not get another chance to win a Super Bowl.

Upon reading this, I gave Gasper props for courage in the face of evidence. It took nerve advocating the Super Team personnel management strategy in 2012 after watching the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles. And Miami Heat. And Boston Red Sox.

The sad truth that it's almost impossible for the team that lost the Super Bowl to get back to it the following season and closer to impossible for that team to win it (1972 Dolphins were the last) has relatively little to do with the talent of said losing team and very much to do with the following other sad truths: 1. It's hard to get to the Super Bowl for everybody every year. 2. Recapturing the past, especially the emotional past, is even harder for human beings than winning Super Bowls.

Super Bowl XLVI was a thrilling game and all week I have realized I didn't have anything to say about it that hadn't been covered to death by former peers in paid sports media. In a melodramatic victory/horribly tough loss, by definition every player on the winner contributed in some important way, and every player on the loser had something they could have done better to alter the outcome. Why pick over those bones when others did so?

As the game also proved, the Patriots and Giants were just like all the other winning teams in the NFL last season that didn't reach the finals. They had admirable strengths, and they also had glaring weaknesses. The Giants just happened to turn in the one play more that hid their weakness -- overall inconsistency -- than the Pats did to hide theirs -- pass defense or lack thereof.

Which brings me to the Pats' admirable strength. Football has a million words for it, guts, competitiveness, fight, team spirit, etc. These guys didn't quit in the face of their own failures. This was especially true on a defense that had plenty of failures even in victories. It it notable that Bill Belichick cited the Steelers game, where the Pats pretty much stunk but made a contest of their loss anyhow, as when be began think of his team as potential champions.

That's why, as opposed to Super Bowl XLII, I felt sorry for New England after this loss. Anyone with any involvement in sports is taught from the youngest age that pluck, persistence and the will to win are invaluable. When an athlete or team displays those qualities in abundance and loses anyway, it just doesn't seem right. The sports moral universe has gone off its axis.

That's me, a former professional neutral. Now, imagine how that feels for the people who put in the emotional commitment, who had the will to win and poise to keep fighting after failure. Neither their faith nor their good works done through faith were rewarded. Only a stone or maybe Colin Cowherd couldn't identify with the Patriots this week. It didn't bother me that Rob Gronkowski got up stage at the post-game party. It wouldn't have bothered me if he'd gotten up on stage naked on "American Idol." I leave the Pats to work things out in their own way because right now, it sucks to be them worse than anyone else in sports.

Let's be real. Bill Belichick and Bob Kraft can't go out and build a super team, and wouldn't if they could. They have their extremely successful business plan, and they'll likely stick to it. In 2012, the Pats will need all the emotional courage and resilience they had in 2011, maybe more, just to get to the damn playoffs, let alone the title game. Without it, they'd have have been maybe 8-8 last year. Just like the Eagles.

That's why I don't share the books' jolly confidence the Patriots are favorites to win it all in 2012. The mind and soul can't be MRI'd, but they're as vulnerable to injury as any cruciate ligament. And they take ever so much longer to heal than high ankle sprains.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Those Who Forget to Let History Finish Are Condemned to Make Damn Fools of Themselves

An iron law of American politics is that the very moment a President, or as usually happens an anonymous staffer leaking to an especially credulous reporter of the "New York Times," says that the Commander in Chief is thinking about his "legacy" the President in question should be put out to pasture immediately. Once the sap starts pricing real estate on the side of Mount Rushmore, he's short-timing and has become a useless burden on the taxpayer.

When a sports journalist of any kind starts blatting about some athlete, coach or manager's "legacy," and it's not either a story on the subject's retirement or their obituary, it's the JOURNALIST who should be given a quiet leave of permanent absence. He or she has no ideas, so has chosen simply to trash the concept of history as a scholarly discipline.

Alas, every football season without fail ends with thousands of lazy commentators rushing to discuss the "legacies" of various people involved with the Super Bowl. Most of them comment on Monday, since they've nothing left to say about the actual game.

So it is that a 21-17 game between two extraordinarily even teams that turned on a few funny bounces and big plays has become an excuse to forecast what the 23rd century will think about the Patriots and Giants, especially what the Domesday Book of Pro Ball will record about Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick.

Coughlin, headed to the unemployment line in December according to the popular press in New York, is now on his way to Canton. Eli, too. (Just to show how Manhattan is the front-runners capital of the known cosmos, an ad exec was quoted in the trade rag "Adweek" published before the game as essentially saying that if the Giants won, then two Super Bowl rings would cause Madison Avenue to ignore how goofy-looking Manning is).

Well, that's New York. A loss to the Redskins next September, the back page of the Post will be firing Coughlin yet again. I am more concerned with the amazing and amazingly foolish idea that the historic status of Brady and Belichick was altered permanently for the worse by a tough loss in which Brady admittedly was not at his best.

This is so obvious I wouldn't mention it, but since it gets overlooked by former peers every year I guess I must. Brady and Belichick didn't retire. They're not history yet. There's pages in their stories, and those pages will be as or more significant than Chapter XLVI.

If the Patriots win the Super Bowl next season, which Las Vegas at least doesn't find an unreasonable assumption, will Brady and Belichick's legacies regain the luster Steve Burton feels is their due? If they get back and lose in 80 minutes of overtime, are they even lower on the "We know who's REALLY great" scale? Or as is obviously the fact, are all these arguments and assertions moronic wanking?

For guidance, let's look to the stories of some guys Brady and Belichick joined in the record books this year. Brady tied John Elway as the quarterback with the most Super Bowl starts with five. He passed for more yards than Dan Marino did in Marino's record year of 1984 (so did several other QBs, of course). And Belichick tied Tom Landry with HIS fifth appearance as a Super Bowl head coach.

John Elway got smoked in the first three of those Super Bowls by a combined score of 136-40. There was a joke about his Super Bowl failures in the early '90s on "The Simpsons." That was his "legacy." Then, thanks to Terrell Davis, the Broncos won a couple of Super Bowls, and Elway's "legacy" changed. History quite rightly calls him one of the NFL's all-time best at his job. It would call him that if he'd gone 0 for 5 on those midwinter Sundays.

Don't believe me? A decade and a half after his retirement, history doesn't seem to dwell on Dan Marino's inability to even get to more than one Super Bowl. It didn't keep the Hall of Fame voters from whisking him to a plaque and a yellow blazer as soon as Marino was eligible. Odd as this may seem to lazy commentators, history seems to understand that football is a team sport, and that, as in Landry's case, coaches can't do much without players.

Belichick knows football history as few men do, and Brady has all the professional pride to which he's entitled. I hope and expect their reaction to being tied with Elway and Landry in the record book is wonder and happiness they're on the same line of agate as a couple of immortals.

Winning the Super Bowl is a rush like none other in sports. Losing it is the worst experience possible. But neither changes what you did to get there in the first place.
And that, always, is just one hell of a lot. Enough to make history.

But unless you do retire, it's just a chapter. Book has a ways to go.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Missed Target Marketing

The display stand by the entrance of the Bedford Super Stop & Shop this afternoon had a sign shouting that the new product was "Special" and "Limited." But not as limited as interest was. No shoppers paused to examine the merchandise. Most wouldn't even glance at the display, turning away when they got close enough to see what it was.

Who would have imagined Super Bowl game programs would be such a tough sell?

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Curtis Martin

"Don't go putting him in Canton just yet," -- Bill Parcells on Curtis Martin, New England Patriots preseason, 1995

Now be OK with you, Coach?

Canton was always where Martin was running, and yesterday he got there. A wholly deserved honor was given to a wholly honorable and admirable football player. The oldest man ever to lead the NFL in rushing is a truly singular record, and it's his.

The announcement, however, got me wondering. How much different would the history of the New England Patriots be if Bob Kraft and Bobby Grier HAD matched the offer the Jets made for Martin back in the '90s? It was Martin's departure, more than any other factor, that sent the young team that'd made the Super Bowl in the 1996 season into a slow but sure slide to mediocrity.

If Martin had remained a Pat, maybe Pete Carroll would've lasted a few more years. Maybe Bill Belichick would've been the HC of the NYJ for more than a day. Maybe the franchise wouldn't have drafted a quarterback in the sixth round in 2000.

Maybes and ifs are the most truly idle of thoughts, so I'll drop them now. We can say that what did happen worked all for all concerned, especially Martin. He was going to be a Hall of Famer no matter what team he was on, so it's good he got to be an especially well-paid one in the process.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

A Line of Non-Thought About the Line

There are two ways of handicapping football games. You can use intense analysis of data, delving into third-derivative statistics, studying film with Ron Jaworski, talking with Mass General's ankle specialist about Rob Gronkowski and like that. Or you can play a hunch.

Since neither method works, they're equally valid, and no football bettor in history hasn't used both -- no matter what they tell you.

For Super Bowl XLVI, the two methods are fighting a bitter battle across my frontal lobes. And since the final play of the NFC Championship Game, the hunch has been capturing more and more of that battered territory.

Every use of human reason applied to the Patriots-Giants matchup comes up with the same answer. This Super Bowl should be just like the two conference championships which preceded it, an extremely close game decided by an improbable big play, even bigger break, or totally absurd funny bounce of the ball. Conventional wisdom is the only wisdom. Nothing is a purer expression of NFL conventional wisdom than the Super Bowl point spread, and New England minus 2 1/2 is as small as Super spreads get.

(BTW, I want to hand out a Super razzberry to lackluster NFL color man Rich Gannon and self-serving talk show hosts Felger & Mazz for their pregame analysis yesterday. All three made a huge point about their courage in picking the Pats to win because "everybody else" is picking the Giants. It is, of course, mathematically impossible for the Super Bowl favorite not to have been picked to win by somebody. Millions of somebodies. Trying to make picking the favorite an act of bold contrarianism is fraud impure and simple).

Using what I pass off as wisdom, I see the same thing. The metrics I have employed to forecast Super Bowls for decades split right down the middle when applied to the Giants and Pats. Just to cite one for instance, the considerable weight I give to Tom Brady's presence at quarterback is matched by the equal weight I give to the Giants' having won not one but two playoff games on the road, particularly their relatively easy win against the Packers, whom the Patriots closely resemble.

My hunch scoffs at reason and logic. It's not a hunch about who will win the game exactly, it's a hunch about what kind of game the Super Bowl will be. It's not a happy hunch for either the NFL or the NBC Television Network.

My hunch has moved from saying to screaming that the football world is due for a classic 1980s throwback Super Boring Blowout Bowl. There really hasn't been one since the Bucs routed the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, and that was nine long seasons past. If I remember correctly, that too was a game conventional wisdom felt would be very close. Whenever I close my eyes and try to envision tomorrow's contest, the exciting evening predicted by analysis is crowded out by a view of being in a group of fans who spend the third quarter arguing about Madonna's halftime show rather than pay attention to a foregone conclusion on the field.

If my hunch is right, then the game's winner is also a foregone conclusion. The Giants are not a team built to win games 40-17 and the Patriots surely are. New England can and has scored points in bunches all year. New York would need to snag about five takeaways to win a blowout, and the Pats just don't it turn it over that often.

Sometimes my hunches work. Denver 31-Green Bay 24 in Super Bowl XXXII and you can look it up. Sometimes they don't. Cardinals over the Sox in six in the 2004 World Series and you can that up, too. But if a hunch gets strong enough, I always play it. Nothing makes you feel worse in the forecasting/gambling world than ignoring a hunch that proves to be right. It's losing a bet to yourself.

I'm playing this hunch for tomorrow. Besides, it's probably the closest I'll ever get to taking a position on Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and getting points to boot.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Super Moment in Sports Journalism

To the best of my recollection, the score was San Francisco 13-Denver 3 early in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXIV when I found it advisable to hit the men's room of the Superdome press box. There was a TV timeout following yet another 49er first down.

As there is no escaping NFL Big Brother at the Super Bowl, the men's room (and I assume the ladies' room) was not silent, but had the piped-in national radio broadcast feed at a volume far louder than anything Madonna will hit Sunday night.

The immortal Jack Buck, Hall of Fame broadcaster, and I as can testify from personal experience once of the nicest gentleman anyone could ever meet, had apparently had enough of this particular ultimate game.

"Broncos coach Dan Reeves can't like the way this game is unfolding," Buck declared, his voice echoing among the tiles.

Then he added, "Or should I just say folding."

LX Second Super Bowl Memories

The week of Super Bowl XXXII, the one John Elway finally won, was the week the Monica Lewinsky story broke. Yeah, she's a trivia question now, but at the time, people got excited. The next day, every newspaper in the U.S. ran a front page headline that essentially read "OMG!OMG!OMG!" until it ran up against the edge of the page.

Except one.

The Green Bay "Press-Gazette" had more important matters on its mind than the President's sex life. The copies of that esteemed journal delivered to the Super Bowl working media room that afternoon showed that its editors knew what their readers wanted and needed to know.

The story across the top of the fold of page one was the tragic tale of how several of the charter jets carrying Packers fans to the game in San Diego had run out of beer somewhere over the Rocky Mountains. Clinton and Lewinsky were page three. Green Bay should have an NFL franchise until the sun goes supernova.

A further Lewinsky Super anecdote. The Sunday morning of the game, one East Coast sportswriter went down to the lobby early in the morning, early enough to watch television production crews do some light housekeeping.Out went the potted palms. Down came the windowshades. In one instance, up went a fake bookcase.

The crews were doing set redecoration for the Sunday morning DC talk shows. Every Senator and Congressman in the country of course wanted face time to blatt about Lewinsky. But the ones who were at the Super Bowl on some lobbyist's dime didn't want their constituents to know that's where they were.

Since of course the networks identified the location of their live remote as San Diego, I doubt the disguise fooled many voters. At least I hope not.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

A Really Short History of Pro Football Offense in the XXIst Century

The last running back to be named Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl was Terrell Davis of the Broncos. That was in 1998, or XIV Super Bowls ago.

In football age, that many seasons is about three and one-half generations. Most of the Patriots and Giants were either children or teenagers when Davis won the award.

Nobody, not even themselves, can envision a scenario where a Giants or Patriots runner will keep that streak from reaching XV.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Because When Has the Real Estate Market Ever Steered You Wrong?

The headline in the "Orange County Register" caught my eye. It rade "Real Estate Conditions Forecast Pats Win."

The article said that the commercial real estate brokerage of Jones Lang LaSalle has developed one of those foolproof has-nothing-to-do-with-football means of predicting the Super Bowl. According to the company, since Boston has a higher vacancy rate of commercial office space than does New York City, the Pats will beat the Giants. The firm said it had forecast last year's Super Bowl using this metric, and lo and behold the Packers had indeed defeated the Steelers.

I would have completely ignored this hooey except for one detail in the article. The Executive Chairman of Jones Lang LaSalle, the one member of the firm quoted, is none other than Roger Staubach, Hall of Fame quarterback. He went so far as to say that since the vacancy rate of offices in Boston was 10 percent higher than in New York, the Patriots would win the Super Bowl by 10 points.

So you be the judge. On the one hand, Staubach has a high level of football expertise. On the other, systems bettors die broke more quickly than other bettors no matter how much they know.