Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sorry, Gang, Disney Still Won't Acquire You

The biggest news story of the day as measured by the Times, Globe, and God help us the BBC is this: "The Avengers" comes out on Friday.

No story in the Sunday Globe got more space, as it was the sum of their inexplicable Movies section. Cast member Samuel L. Jackson was the cover story of the Sunday Times magazine. BBC World broadcast a long feature on the flick I caught when I turned it on to get soccer scores.

I'm gonna see the picture. I've been reading Marvel comics since childhood. I'm a big Joss Whedon fan, and after all, he's a Wesleyan grad, too. But the first of the big summer tentpole movies is not news. It is a predictable harbinger of the change of seasons. People like seeing the first daffodils, too, but no paper devotes a special section to them. The only time a tentpole is news is when they die sudden awful deaths at the box office. Then, Variety gets a big story when some studio executives get fired, as happened with "John Carter."

So what's with the free publicity? It's not as if "The Avengers" doesn't have plenty of the paid variety. Stan Lee, founder of Marvel, is one of the greatest promoters in American history. Walt Disney Co., which bought Marvel Entertainment some years back, might be THE greatest. In smallish towns of Provence in France two weeks ago, I saw "Avengers" related merchandise. Why did editors of two of our country's prestigious dailies choose to highlight something everybody already knew about?

It's not for money. The stories will not alter in the slightest the large (but not large enough) ads motion picture theater chains will place in each newspaper's Friday May 4 editions and for some days after that. Movie marketing budgets are planned out to the nickel before a director gets hired.

Alas, I think wistful envy is the cause. As the sickly poor uncle of the mass media, newspapers have a subconscious desire to experience, if only vicariously, what it's like to be part of the mass media industry that MAKES money, the big money they used to have as monopoly outlets for certain forms of advertising. The grosses of "The Avengers" will be financial porn for a revenue-starved business.

Then again, the Globe's front page lead news story had the headline "Shale Gas Boom Has Benefits and Risks." Stop the presses!!! Get me rewrite!!!! Suck my thumb!!!!!

Maybe "The Avengers" was news today because most everything else wasn't.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Lack of Method Actor

People just don't get Bill Belichick and never will. Lucky him.

 Since this lack of comprehension offers the Pats' mastermind a considerable competitive advantage, I'll bet he had less than no trouble coming to terms with it. At the very least, it must be fun to live in a reality where he's constantly surprising folks -- especially since they shouldn't be surprised at all.

The Patriots' 2012 draft is being treated as a big surprise by many people who ought to know better. Belichick traded modestly up from first round choices 27 and 31 to picks 21 and 25 to snag defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower. This moderately aggressive maneuver evoked shock within the commentariat. It was, so we are told, a complete reversal of Belichick's draft "philosophy." (I admit prolonged exposure to the Chris Berman-Jon Gruden-Mel Kiper triad makes a strong case for Stoicism).

That is to say, in 2012, Belichick traded up to draft players, while in drafts in 2009, 10 and 11 he'd traded down to get more picks in lower rounds. Obviously, the coach was repudiating a failed strategy that has kept New England's winning percentage at a woefully inadequate .770.

This is nonstuff and nonsense. It is further evidence that the world will never grasp the ultimate truth about Belichick's football "philosophy" -- he ain't got one. Each decision he makes is based on the facts of the individual case before him. If that involves intellectual inconsistency, so what?

One of the most basic truths of the NFL draft gets ignored every spring. The draftees change every year. The pile of talent from which 32 teams select varies wildly in its overall talent level, talent level by position, etc. You can't have a rigid draft "philosophy" or you'll wind up picking square pegs for your round holes every year. Ask the Oakland Raiders.

It's all beyond obvious. In previous New England drafts, Belichick was less enamored of the players rated oh, 15-35 in the total talent pool, so he traded down. In 2012, that pool contained two guys he really liked, so he traded up. Next year he could trade down again, or stand pat. It depends, two words that guide most of human existence but almost never appear in sports commentary.

Come to think of it, Belichick does too have a philosophy. It's called Pragmatism.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Euphemism: One Industry Where America Will Always Lead the World

Drive-time radio and radio advertising have expanded this commuter's sum of knowledge. Thanks to Steve Wynn and various shoddily written news stories, I know now that in Massachusetts casinos are no longer casinos.

They are "destination resorts."

That's because, whenever some American's rich uncle dies, or they win Powerball, their dream vacation dreams always are of Foxboro. Unless they're dreaming big.

Of Taunton.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Jeu de Chemin

Two hours before game time, one is accompanied on the very short walk between the subway station and Stade de Gerland in Lyon, France by men in windbreakers in their 20s and 30s familiar to anyone who has ever attended any sports event in any big city in the world. These worthies are how I learned the French for "who's selling tickets?" and "Who needs tickets?"

 They were also a preview of things to come. For this American fan and former sports journalist, the most striking thing about attending the Olympique Lyonnais-Auxerre Ligue 1 soccer match, my very first big league European soccer match, was how similar the entire experience was to attending a ball game in Boston or Philadelphia, and I suppose like attending one in Bogota or Phnom Penh. A ball game is a ball game is a ball game wherever you go. It's the universal Brotherhood of Man Wearing Face Paint After Six Beers.

 Except for speaking a different language, the other 31,488 fans who showed up that cool April evening could've been heading for any U.S. ballpark or stadium. They were mostly guys, mostly younger guys, but there was also a significant percentage of dads with sons and a smaller but still significant percentage of younger women in groups. The latter two demographics were the ones I was looking for. They are the universal sign that fistfights, let alone riots, are not gonna happen at this game. Soccer hooliganism is a dying thing in Europe, for the very same reason hooliganism died out at Foxboro -- a combination of much higher prices and vigorous security. The cop/security staff to spectator ratio inside and outside the stadium was about 1 to 6.3.

 Not that there weren't several things that reminded one you were in France and not on Causeway Street. Take the pregame meal. There were sausage vendors, but there were also kebab vendors, an option we don't have and ought to. On the advice of an expatriate U.S. resident who is also my daughter, we chose to dine at Nimsaki, a restaurant across the street from the stadium. In one sense, Nimsaki was Boston Beer Works. It served burgers, fries, big salads and a plethora of draft beers. But this was France. Nimsaki was also about 1 billion times better than Boston Beer Works. You could get a burger with foie gras, for instance. Most especially, the beer was better. Lyon was a big brewery town several centuries before the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded, and they really have the hang of it by now.

 But in a land where eating and drinking are the real national sports, there's no tailgating. And once inside the Stade, a functional but elderly stadium that is due to be replaced when the new stadium funding controversy is resolved (I told you it was just like the States), there are no food concessions, only a tiny souvenir stand.

 Maybe that's due to the nature of soccer. Attending a game in person made it clear why many U.S. sports fans can't relate to the game. The rhythm of watching it is too different and too difficult. In this game, as in all soccer games, there were long stretches where nothing happened. But you can't take your eyes off the non-action, because you'll miss the four or five remarkable moments that DO happen, and they're all only moments long. The combination of concentration and ennui is very draining.

 Concentration was rewarded in my case. For one thing, our seats were in the very first row. At ground level, the level at which I watched many a Lexington youth soccer game in the 1990s, one could see both the incredible athletic ability of the players and the incredibly dirty nature of their play. Tugging, jostling, elbowing, etc. takes place at all times between all players at an NHL playoff game pace. If European soccer players are always bitching to the refs, and boy are they, they have cause, or would if they weren't fouling all the time, too.

 Olympique Lyonnais (OL to the tabloids) is one of the big-market powers of French soccer, a franchise which expects to finish in or near the top of Ligue One and to compete in the Champions League on an annual basis. Auxurre was the cellar-dweller of the Ligue, headed for relegation to the minors. (I'll bet soccer team owner John Henry is happy U.S. sports don't have that particular rule). As can happen in all sports, the basement denizen succeeded in dragging the power down to its own level of play. OL ground its way to a less than artistically satisfying 2-1 win, and got booed off the pitch at halftime when it was 1-1. Since I had no skin in the game whatsoever, it was all enjoyable sports anthropology to me, particularly when Lyon got the winning goal on a penalty kick, and Auxerre was consistently screwed by the laughably incompetent or perhaps just bored referee in the final minutes of yet another loss. That's something I've been watching at ballgames since attending old Eastern League basketball games as a child.

 The trip back to the hotel, which I will note the Lyon Metro does a much quicker and less uncomfortable post-game job of than does the MBTA gave me one final insight into how sports brings human beings together. Two of the straphangers in our car were middle-aged guys who'd clearly been OL fans for most if not all their lives. They were engaged in the inevitable post-game analysis. I understand written French OK, and spoken French rather less well. But I speak fluent sports. From the few words I did pick up, from body language and from a tone I've heard outside a hundred ballparks, I'm willing to bet cash money my translation of the topic of their conversation was accurate.

 They were discussing if the OL coach/manager needed to be fired.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Another New York Sweep

The 100th anniversary celebration for Fenway Park, which wasn't nearly as hokey as I thought it might be, received something beyond saturation coverage in Boston media. That was to be expected, right down to the TV stations hawking those commemorative caps with no identifying marks on the outside -- one of most puzzling merchandising moves I have ever seen.

 What I didn't expect was the coverage of the event in today's New York Times. Every one of its stories on the event except for a buried game story was a horrible triumph of the baseball as mystic spiritual heart of America and baseball writing as poesy school. One was by some Sox fan named David Margolick, who's probably some Pulitzer winner for covering nuclear physics or the European Central Bank, and he was every pretentious Sox bigdome fan real Sox fans have made fun of for decades. Reading it was like listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin on her eighth glass of chardonnay. And it was in notable contrast to the Times' much less sentimental coverage of the final days of the old Yankee Stadium and opening of the new one.

 The Globe, by contrast, was reasonably straightforward, almost covering the ceremony as a news event. It was all backwards. It made me wonder if the Times was getting even with the residents of the city that cost the Times corporation about $800 million bucks on its ill-advised purchase of the Globe.
Was the thought process something like this?

 "We can't make money off those people, so at least let's show the rest of the world what twits they can be."

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Schedule Note, Also Proof I'm a Sick Fan Note

This will be will be my last post until at least April 16th, as I and the rest of my family leave tomorrow night for Lyon, France, where my daughter teaches English to little kids.

Her European grad student roommates are having a toga party Friday night. On the one hand, people that age don't ever want to meet people my age in social situations. On the other hand, the honor of my generation and the Red, White and Blue is an issue here.

The next night, we're going to see Olympique Lyonnais play Auxurre in France's Ligue 1 soccer league. I've been given to understand it's a very critical game. But I can't say how amazing it is to look forward to an entirely new sports experience at my age and background.

Full report to follow. Well, maybe not entirely full.

If You Can't Feel Good on Opening Day, You'll Be One Miserable SOB by the All-Star Break

The entrail-readers have peered into Florida and spoken. Boy, have they spoken. The signs for the Red Sox look very bad.

Which is of course very good, probably the best news from spring training there could be.

This is my 39th baseball season as a Boston area-resident. Before that I was in college elsewhere in New England. And ever since the Impossible Dream, there's been an almost immutable law I've used to predict how the Sox will fare each season.

The Sox have and I expect will almost always perform in an almost exactly inverse proportion to the general expectations of how they will. When natural normal optimism is replaced with giddy arrogance, the Sox are headed for failure. When all seems lost, take that bus to Vegas and bet the rent money on 'em.

Want evidence? Try the 2011 Red Sox for an example of how failure followeth pride down Yawkey. It isn't hard to remember a recent example of the ratio working in reverse, either. Do any Sox fan readers remember how they felt about the team after Game Three of the 2004 American League Championship Series?

And so on back through time, from the '86 ALCS and World Series, to the almost wholly unpredicted pennant of 1975 and the subsequent can't-miss '76 bunch that went out and lost 10 straight games in May. The only exception to the rule I can remember is the 2007 team. People thought they'd be really good and they really were.

So Sox followers should be happy to note that optimism among their peers and especially within the media is muted to where it can only be heard with electronic equipment. Pick a program on the Sports Hub, any program, and it sounds as if some trick of the airwaves has picked up Pittsburgh or Houston talk radio assessing their local nines. One of the clerks at my local packy, a good and ordinarily rational Boston sports fan was expressing dire anxieties about the team on St. Patrick's Day.

The official seal of preseason pessimism was set by the Globe's Kim Jong-Il, excuse me, I meant Bobby Valentine Personality Cult baseball preview special section last week. Another one of baseball's inverse ratios is that the amount of attention the media devote to a manager customarily reflects just how little they think of said manager's team. To go into a season regarding the skipper as the sole topic capable of holding the readers' attention is hand-wringing of truly heroic (or should it be cowardly?) dimensions.

Boring reality indicates the Sox have issues. A team worried about its bullpen is a team worried for a very sound cause. Then again, the Sox did lead the majors in runs scored last year, despite having the worst start and worst finish to a season in franchise history, and all of the hitters responsible have returned. That suggests Boston is at least halfway to being a consistent winner.

But you can get baseball analysis anywhere. In fact, there's no place you can get away from it. I'll stick with my ratio, thank you.

I'll be surprised if the Sox aren't right up near or on the top of the AL East this season. That's because of all the people I know who will be surprised when they are.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Brevity Is the Soul of Competition or Should Be

Naivete is not a very attractive personality trait at my age, so let's admit up front that the main reason the NCAA Basketball Tournament is a popular sports event is how uniquely suited it is for low-investment but possibly high reward gambling competitions. It's as if the Sunday Times crossword offered cash prizes for winners.

However, for me, the singular appeal of the tournament is not a pool or pools. No, what makes me able to grit my teeth and endure Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg is the happy knowledge it's just a date, not a relationship. The key word in the phrase March Madness is the first one. Of all the annual big U.S. events, the tournament requires the least amount of time and emotional commitment. In our era of sports overload, that's of inestimable value to any fan.

From Selection Sunday to One Shining Moment is 22 days. Throw in conference championship week, and we should, that's 29 days. That's an entire season of high-stakes thrills conducted in far less time than it takes baseball to have spring freakin' training, its mystical ritual of nothingness.

And unless one has some emotional identification with one of the six or seven schools where basketball is a socio-religious imperative (two of 'em will play for the title tomorrow), there's no pain involved, only entertainment. I was highly entertained when Lehigh beat Duke, but there was no corresponding sorrow when Xavier thumped Lehigh. What's Lehigh basketball to me, or for that matter, to Lehigh? For the players and coaches, March is life and death. For fans, except maybe for immediate families of players and coaches, it's just fun. This is how sports is supposed to work and would be how sports worked if the human race enjoyed better emotional health.

Basketball is a wondrous game, beautiful to look at, full of operatic passion. To delve deep into the skills, dreams, joys and anguish of thousands of its participants is an abiding pleasure. So is the knowledge that you're coming right back up to the surface and getting out of the pool to move on with life. The tournament arrives and then, poof! it's gone, with only one of those fraud Sports Illustrated commemorative issues to mark its passing.

Come May, when the baseball season and the NBA and NHL playoffs already seem longer than the Thirty Year's War, the transitory nature of March Madness comes off as sports' Brigadoon.