Friday, March 30, 2012

That's Why He's Called Mr. Baseball

I really need to learn to change the radio channel in my car in the mornings. That way, this afternoon I would have avoided the mellow baritone of former colleague Tony Massarotti staking a claim to win the Dopiest Thing Said by the Media in the 2012 Baseball Award wire-to-wire.

The topic, as it often is when baseball is the subject on Felger & Mazz, was the many shortcomings of Josh Beckett.

"You what else is wrong for a guy with Beckett's stuff?," Tony asked with extreme rhetoricality, "He needs to hit more guys."

Hey, sure. A few more beanballs last September and the Sox would be hoisting up another World Series banner at Fenway this April. I can envision Bobby Valentine's heart-to-heart pep talk with Beckett down in Fort Myers right now.

"Josh, what we really want you to do this season is put more men on base and expose our lineup to a greater risk of injury. It's a tough assignment, I know, but we're counting on you, big fella."

Tony, I say this as someone who worked with you and liked you. It's for your own good, honest. Nobody on this planet makes a less convincing tough guy than you do. Angelina Jolie has a bunch of movies where she was a better tough guy than you are. Drop the act. All it does is make you seem stupid, which you're not, or least didn't used to be.

There's something in those studio headphones that drains the IQ right out.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Kickoff Pigskin Prognostication of 2012 Season

At some point this fall, Tim Tebow will win a game for the New York Jets they otherwise would have lost.

Immediately after this event, Mark Sanchez will go out and lose at least two games for the Jets they otherwise would have won.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Contrarianism Is as Stupid as All The Other Words Ending in "Ism"

As Tebow is my witness, I heard a radio talk show host issue the following rhetorical question yesterday afternoon. Try to imagine the smarmiest, most querulous tone of voice you can.

"Yeah," said the antihero of this post, "but how much better does Peyton Manning make the Broncos, really?"

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Some People Can Just Bring the Sunshine

Today was more proof that whenever life gets me down, and human existence seems a grim, gray slog to the grave, the New York Jets will come to my rescue, and paint rainbows of slapstick to brighten my soul.

Really, the Jets aren't an NFL franchise. They're the Make-a-Wish Foundation for bored sports fans and commentators.

Thanks for all you, gang.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

And the Fifteenth Shall Be First

Norfolk State University's basketball team made me look very foolish yesterday. Of course I loved it.

The first two rounds of the NCAA tournament are the only reason anyone who doesn't have the misfortune of being a fan of some school like Kentucky finds the event enjoyable. It gives dedicated, talented, utterly anonymous college kids the chance to be heroes for a day. That's more of a shot at that status than 99.999 percent of humanity ever gets, and "hero" is second only to "champion" in the sports chain of being.

The Norfolk State and Lehigh players are heroes today. Odds are prohibitive that come Sunday evening, they'll be dead, well, eliminated heroes. Who cares and so what. Whatever the price of glory is, they paid in full, and got what they paid for. All of sport's joys are fleeting. In compensation, they're awesomely joyous, and human beings have memories so that they can be recalled at will.

OK, philosophy over. Let's focus on the second of the two adjectives I used to describe the Norfolk State and Lehigh teams. Talented. They won their upsets not through malfeasance on the part of the beaten favorites, but through their own merits. Most of all, in a sport which always has and always will be dominated by the star system, they had the stars.

Kyle O'Quinn of Norfolk State and C.J. McCollum of Lehigh were the best players on the count in their games by huge margins. Now either the souls of Karl Malone and Chris Paul took over their bodies for a day, or they were always good players who happened to do their best facing their maximum challenge/opportunity, which is fancy of saying "star."

I hadn't heard of either guy until yesterday. There's entirely too much sports in the world for yours truly to follow Patriot League and MEAC basketball, and I daresay I've got company there. Yet these obscure seniors were able to kick the asses of their foes around the block for 40 minutes. Foes who were exclusively composed of the highly recruited products of the high school/AAU flesh market ESPN thinks is worthy of its own branch of programming.

This strongly suggests that a) human beings change a great deal between the ages of 18-22, and you'd think college basketball coaches would realize that, and b and more important), the world is not running a shortage of basketball talent. There are more than enough 18-year olds of ability and/or serious growth potential to go around for college basketball. Some teams are always going to run massive talent surpluses, the Kentuckys, North Carolinas, and Kansases of the world.

But Duke is one of the surplus-runners, too, and a fat lot of good that did them yesterday. Maybe the teams in the bottom halves of power conferences should spend more time looking at the high school players nobody else seems to want. That's what Al Skinner did quite well at BC for many years, and it sure worked better than whatever it is they're doing now.

The powers-that-be are always going to run that surplus. Like all other humans, high school kids are frontrunners. But the powers that aren't have one thing going for them. It may take a bunch of stars to win a championship. But it only takes one star to win one game against a team with a bunch.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bracket Creep, Part Last

At this time in 2011, only a few players' moms had picked UConn to meet Butler in the NCAA championship game and for Virginia Commonwealth to make the Final Four. And the other moms laughed at them for their demented optimism.

The unfortunate nature of unexpected events, especially enjoyable ones, is that they almost never repeat themselves. The most judicious course of action as far as handicapping the 2012 tournament seems to be to predict a reversion to the mean.

What is the mean? It is somewhere between two and three of the number one seeds making the Final Four, and no team lower than a third seed doing so. Dull as it may be, I foresee a tournament where the craven chalk player who's President of the U.S. sees his bracket last past the opening weekend's action.

Specifics follow, but it saddens me to report that by the time I finished looking at the field of 68, I was pretty much a cowardly chalk player myself.

South Regional: Kentucky is like every other John Calipari Kentucky team. If you're starting an NBA expansion franchise, they're by far the best team in the country. They're the best team in the country by just about every other metric, too. And as we saw last Sunday, at some point in single-elimination tournaments, Kentucky will forget how to shoot from outside, shoot free throws, or both.

The kindhearted selection committee has done its best to insure that doesn't happen until the Final Four. There's nobody else in this region I can see upsetting them (Indiana already did it once, that's way over quota). For those of you mistakenly convinced early round picks are the keys to bracket success, UNLV can upset a few apple carts before meeting its doom. If you MUST play a longshot, try New Mexico State.

West Regional: To Missouri or not to Missouri. That's my question. Whether
'tis nobler to pick a team that plays an entertaining game or weasel out with Michigan State because of their tournament track record?

Oh, it's only money and what little reputation I have left. Actually, there are several little stink bombs on Michigan State's path to the Elite Eight. Memphis and Louisville are getting surprisingly little love among the cognoscenti considering their records.

I will be interested to see how Murray State fares. Otherwise, I'll pick Missouri and forget this region.

East Regional: Syracuse has already used up about four seasons worth of close wins and comebacks during the regular season. That's no way for a champion to live. One of the other top three seeds, Ohio State, Florida State or Wisconsin, will beat them. Wait, what, I'm supposed to say which one?

Here's a prediction I will make. Florida State will blow up more brackets, one way or the other, than any other team in the field. They could be champions. They beat both Duke and North Carolina twice. They could lost their first game (they lost to BC!). I choose not to touch them with a barge pole.

Ohio State is your basic boring Big Ten power. It's amazing how often boring play and NCAA tournament success go hand in hand.

Midwest Regional: Call this the region of Teams That Play After Mike's Bedtime. I'd to opine on St. Mary's or Creighton, but I never saw 'em. I saw enough of Michigan and Georgetown to say, no way. I think Kansas is getting underrated by the masses, and if you're in a pool, that's an important consideration, but here's where cowardly chalk really takes over. North Carolina is the second-best NBA expansion franchise in the tournament, and it's problem, an occasional disastrous lack of focus, tends to be cured by the emotional maelstrom of the tournament itself.

Once a man shows the handicapping white feather, he might as well totally abase himself. Shooting the ball is a pretty important skill, and in the championship game, I see North Carolina remembering it and Kentucky not so quite so well.

Picking North Carolina as champs. God, I feel so soiled.

Bracket Creep, Part 1

Yours truly may not get to his own misbegotten selections until later, so here's a friendly suggestion to those of you handicapping the NCAA tournament for fun and (especially) money.

You've probably noticed, or at least I hope you have, that three of the four number one seeds in the tournament are coming off losses in their conference tournaments, and the fourth flirted with that possibility for 40 minutes. Those number one seeds indicate just what the tournament selection committee thinks of conference tourneys as a means of evaluating basketball teams -- namely nothing.

The committee, like all human institutions, is fallible. But it is unanimously composed of individuals whose college basketball knowledge surpasses yours by a margin about the same length as the distance between your home and the next galaxy.

If I were you, I'd take their handiwork as a hint.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hitting on 18 Is Seldom Sound Strategy

Peyton Manning was in Denver yesterday. He's supposed to be in Phoenix today. Then, well, who knows? Miami? Seattle? Cleveland? No, not Cleveland. But wherever an NFL franchise lacks a quarterback and good sense, and it's amazing how often those two needs go together, Manning will be a welcome visitor, especially by local TV news directors.

Nothing wrong with houseguests. It's the franchise that pays rent to Manning for the use of its spare bedroom that's in trouble.

Nobody wants to see the career of one of the NFL's greatest players ever end in sad confusion such as that awful press conference in Indianapolis last week. But rooting for a happier ending is not the same thing as paying big money and turning your football team upside down in the hope of creating one. Sentimentality is nice. Sentimental decision making is delusional.

Forget football metrics. Occam's Razor is the only analytical tool we need to assess Manning's playing status as of this morning, to wit, as of this morning, he's still not physically capable of being an NFL quarterbacks.

Hypothesis 1: People in sports are not skilled professional actors, least of all Jim Irsay. Irsay's tongue-tied anguish at releasing Manning was genuine. He hated the decision thrust upon him. Ergo, it WAS thrust upon him. Irsay saw no alternative to releasing Manning. Irsay has a number of twit-like qualities, but he is the one person outside Manning himself with the most information on the hero's medical condition. And he did not believe Manning can play ball in 2012.

Hypothesis 2: It being very much in Manning's interest for others to believe he can play football, he ought to say he can. Such a statement did not come forth at Manning's Indianapolis farewell. "Wanting to" and "very close" are not the same as "round up a few wide receivers and I'll go out in the parking lot and throw for you."

Sentimental as I am, that's still the evidence I need to even consider the possibility Manning will play again. Close-up, own eyes viewing of practices or miles of video tape of Manning scrutinized by the most skeptical assistant coaches in Christendom. Put it this way. If Bill Belichick told me Manning could play, I'd believe it. Jon Gruden, I wouldn't. Some Zapruder film of a fuzzy high school football field drill session doesn't cut it at all.

As far as I can tell, any team which signs Manning will pay for the privilege of allowing the immortal to continue his rehab on their dime (make that many dollars) in the HOPE said rehab concludes successfully and Manning will be able at some point in 2012 to begin real practices and enter real games and the even fonder hope he'll resemble the Manning of the 2000s when he does. That's not strategy. That's a lottery ticket bet. No, it's worse. It's buying a lottery ticket, then buying a cabin cruiser before the drawing is held.

It's a cinch bet that some team will make the 1000-1 bet on Manning. Teams without quarterbacks look at the odds much differently than outsiders. Check the Redskins, who cheerfully surrendered their 2013 and 2014 first round picks to move up a mere four spots in the 2012 draft to get their mitts on Robert Griffin III. Griffin had better turn out to be about as Manning was for Washington not to have swindled itself.

Once that happens, this football fan will pull with all his heart for Manning to come through and get out on the field again. He's an admirable athlete whose performances bring me pleasure. He deserves a happy ending, or at least the right to end his career on the field rather than some doctor's office.

The sportswriter part of my soul will hold its tongue. If there's one thing that's changed in my outlook on games since leaving the little world of sports, it's that I'm less interested in failure and losing than I used to be. They're inevitable. Contrary to conventional sports journalism wisdom, winners, being much rarer than losers, I find to be more interesting stories.

But rooting is free. Running an NFL franchise most emphatically is not. Betting on dreams is a most expensive way to do business.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Wanted: Torn ACL or Alive

The New Orleans Saints will be punished severely by the NFL for having run a bonus system in which payers were paid bounties for collisions which injured opposing players That's as it should be. It's a dangerous practice in an already dangerous sport.

It's also bad for business. By and large, football fans would prefer not to confront the sport's ultimate truth -- that it's based on hurting people. The Saints are guilty of rubbing America's nose in the truth. Can't have that.

But there's also an inherent logical contradiction in the league's praiseworthy attempts to control the violence it generates. The sanctions to be levied on the Saints seem eerily similar to the sanctions NASCAR levied on driver Jimmie Johnson and pit chief Chad Knaus for the serious crime of altering their stock car to make it go faster. Isn't that the basic point of automobile racing in the first place?

The contradiction at the root of football's attitude towards itself was best expressed back in the 1980s by Hall of Fame Seahawks wide receiver Steve Largent. An opposing defense back had injured Largent with an illegal hit that wasn't flagged. After returning to action, in the first game Largent played against that opponent, he leveled the offender with a perfectly legal crackback block that knocked the other guy out of the contest.

Largent, a devout Christian, said afterwards "I wasn't trying to hurt him, just to hit him as hard as I could."

How are those two concepts different? I didn't know then and 25 years later I still don't. Neither does the NFL. Neither does any philosopher who ever lived.

Try as it might, and it's trying harder than ever before, the league is not going to eliminate the nasty fact that players who are good at hurting people tend to become successful and wealthy out of it. Look at Ndamukong Suh. He's the best-known defensive lineman in the league. Why? Oh, I don't know. Does it have something to do with his stepping on an opponent's head?

Imagine if you will some new defensive terror in the NFL, a Super Deacon Jones or Lawrence Taylor, who knocked a quarterback out of a game once a month with perfectly legal hits and caused one running back limpoff a game. The NFL would react in two ways. The league office would change the rules to make the legal hits on quarterbacks illegal. But it'd be too late, as the violent player would already have become as famous and on his way to being as rich as Tom Brady.

That's why bounty systems should be sanctioned. They're carrying very nasty coals to Newcastle. Nobody had to pay Rodney Harrison a bounty to hit people. The defenders who're best at violence don't need chump change reward systems to encourage them. It comes naturally. It's significant that the defenses of Greg Williams, the coach at the heart of the bounty scandal, have always been mediocre at best. Those that can't teach, bribe, I guess.

And of course, there are so many ways around the NFL rules outlawing the bounty system, the Saints should be punished for being stupid enough to run theirs, too. Discreet minor contract extensions for defensive players who hurt opponents given out after a season would do it. Who's to prove that's why they were rewarded?

The NFL's position on bounties that "it's rough enough out there without this shit" is wholly justified. Futile, but justified. Outlawing the bounty system is much like a guy ordering three pieces of chocolate cream pie in a diner, then putting Sweet 'n Low in his coffee. Rules can't alter the reality that there must be rewards for violence in a violent sport men play for money.

There's not a franchise out there that wouldn't load up semis full of $100 bills to send to the house of the next Deacon Jones or Lawrence Taylor. Or even the next Ndamukong Suh.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Playoffs? Playoffs? Sure, Why Not?

By common consent among the seamerati, the final day of the 2011 baseball regular season was one of the most thrilling events in the sport's history. Four teams competing for two playoff spots were in four different games with their fates on the line, and three of games went to extra innings. The last hour or so of the season became instant lore.

Baseball's immediate reaction was to make sure nothing like that happens again. Teams suffered heartbreaking losses and missed the playoffs? Why, we'll make the playoffs bigger. We're selling happiness here.

So in 2012, instead of eight teams making the playoffs, there will be 10. Each league will have two wild card teams, who will play a one-game playoff to advance to the divisional series round. Opinion within baseball is all for it. Opinion among mere fans ranges the gamut from apathy to more apathy. Television ratings indicate fans do a great job ignoring the divisional series. I'm sure they'll do even better avoiding the one-game duel to the death that baseball should but won't call the Runner-Up Bowl.

The theory that's presented as this idea's cover story is that it will generate more regular season pennant races (obsolete term, I know, but nobody's come up with a better one yet). Instead of four teams fighting for two spots, there could be six fighting for four. Nothing is more common than an unprecedented event such as the 2011 season happening over and over again.

The problem with the cover story is obvious if one extends its logic. If 10 teams in the playoffs makes for more regular season excitement than eight, than obviously 12 create more September thrills than 10, and so on. This is why sports fans are never more emotionally involved than when following the last month of the NBA and NHL regular seasons.

Even baseball is better at marketing than to create products for which there is no demand and expect it to work. Like our nation's campaign finance laws, the extra wild-card team is an internal matter. The fans/voters have nothing to do with it. The feathering of incumbent nests is the driving force.

As a rule, I avoid conspiracy theories when it comes to baseball. It's kind of like applying conspiracy theories to the Three Stooges. Incompetence is always the best explanation of why things happen in a sport whose executive talent believes Machiavelli played third base for the 1943 St. Louis Browns.

But television IS a business where conspiracy theories are appropriate, indeed, mandatory. And the baseball playoffs are a television show, the only reason the sport has national TV contracts in the first place (although playoff ratings perennially disappoint, and regular season ratings continue to grow).

To be blunt, does anyone really believe that if the Red Sox hadn't missed the playoffs last year, there'd be an extra wild-card team today? Either the Sox or Yankees have failed to make the playoffs for the past three seasons. That's intolerable for broadcasting executives, who know the iron law of ratings is that people like to see what they've always seen on TV. Originality equals a sad career transition to independent production.

It'd be just a bit too raw for MLB to create what its TV partners really want -- a playoff system where the Yankees and Red Sox play a best-of-nine series to advance to the World Series against the winner of all the other playoff series. But if neither the Sox nor Yanks make it to the postseason this year (could happen, New York's an old, old team, and those tend to fall apart quite suddenly. The Sox aren't exactly a sure thing, not after last September), look for a 12 team playoff in 2013.