Thursday, May 31, 2012

Whistles Aren't Made of Tinfoil, But Hats Can Be

Trying to remember when it was I came up with the NBA maxim "In case of tie, call goes to the player with the higher salary." I believe it was around 1973. David Stern was still in law school. There was no ESPN.

Wailing about admittedly erratic pro basketball officiating is fine with me, as long as I don't have to listen to or read it, and as long as the wailers acknowledge the following truths of basketball history.

NBA refs have always given the home team the vast majority of breaks when making the calls, and that's been true since the first game the league played back in the 1940s. NBA refs have always given the star players the vast majority of breaks when making the calls and that too has been true since forever.

Those facts are deplorable. They are also immutable. So bitching that the officials have it in for YOUR team or are looking out for ITS opponent are foolish, especially in the playoffs. Surely your team will have some home games. If it doesn't have any stars, it has far deeper problems than the referees.

If a conspiracy deciding games in 2012 began back in 1947, then Stern shouldn't be commissioner. Dan Brown should.

PS: The best way to get a fan to stop complaining about NBA refs is to make them watch more college basketball. The officiating in the pros is often questionable. The officiating in college is not questionable at all -- it's comical.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Cultural Lap Speed Comparison

When a driver wins the Indianapolis 500, they give him a lot of money and a bottle of milk. Refreshing after spending three hours in a 180-degree race car cockpit.

When a driver wins the World 600 NASCAR Sprint Cup race, they give a lot of money and whatever beverage is a full or part sponsors of his car.

When a driver wins the Grand Prix of Monaco, they give him a lot of money, and a fancy dinner with the Prince and whatever crowned heads of Europe made the scene that weekend.

Aspiring reckless young men and women with a fondness for speed and very good reflexes, the career choice is yours. And it seems a damn clear one to me.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why Gary Bettman Frets at Night

Maybe it's a function of my age. Maybe it's a function of having lived in the Bo-wash Corridor all of my life. Maybe it's both. Whatever the motive, I don't have good news for the NHL and NBC this beautiful May morning.

The second the Devils scored to eliminate the Rangers last night, my commitment to the Stanley Cup playoffs vanished. Not that I care for the Rangers, although there's something to be said for a fan base New York City cops dislike working with more than even wrestling fans. Their loss just set off a habit I picked up long, long ago.

As soon as all the Original Six teams and all the Canadian teams are out of the playoffs, so am I. Oh, I'll watch a game or two. Make that parts of a game or two. Stay up late for overtime? Don't be absurd. I lack the emotional commitment and intellectual interest for that. A Stanley Cup final between the Kings and Devils? How can I, an outsider, get pumped for a death match between a franchise that's a small cult in its home city and a franchise that's ranked dead last in overall public interest (Jay-Z gives the Nets some pub from Page Six) in ITS home? There are alternative rock bands in SEC college towns with bigger followings than these two fine hockey clubs.

Neutral fans, front-runners to be blunt, participate in a big game or series to the extent they can feed off the emotion brought to the event by existing fans. It's psychic physics. The greater the critical mass of emotion, the more attraction it extends to us free-floating uncharged fan particles. That principle is why I, the more-than-casual soccer fan, delights in watching a match on the order of Real Madrid-Barcelona, and can't click the remote fast enough past an MLS tilt. Not fair to MLS, perhaps, but so what? A fan from Philly is supposed to be fair?

The Devils and Kings, both of which have been around for many many years, represent the NHL's continuing failed efforts to not be the fourth of four U.S. professional sports leagues. I mean, if Wayne Gretzky couldn't make Los Angeles care about hockey, and he couldn't, a don't think one measley Stanley Cup will do the trick. The contempt two-thirds of Tri-State area has for business enterprises with Jersey in their name will never end. New Yorkers are funny that way.

The way this fan particle measures the emotional attraction of a neutral event is the loss test. How badly will fans care if and when their team loses the game/series? By that standard, last year's Bruins-Canucks Stanley Cup final was perfect. Ask any Vancouver cop. Hockey is an indigenous and important part of the culture of both Boston and Vancouver. In Newark and Los Angeles, hockey is an indigenous part of the fact that the two biggest metropolitan areas of the U.S. have a niche market for any product. That's hard to warm up to, unless you're a TV exec or in the sports marketing racket, and God forbid on both counts.

The 2011 Final had the strongest ties possible to the history and culture of its sport. The 2012 Final has next to none. It has no pull on me. Like many another Final, it will probably evoke the reaction, "it's really nice outside. Why should I look at ice?"

It's possible and perhaps even likely that the above analysis was merely the cranky rambling of a sports follower whom the 21st century is passing by faster than Danica Patrick gets passed in the Nationwide series. But I suspect I have plenty of cranky, or rather, uninterested company.

The ratings for the Bruins-Canucks series were excellent. Let's see what crowd the Kings and Devils draw.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Self-Fulfilling Second Guesses

The opinion of almost all observers before the series began, myself emphatically included, was that the Celtics would defeat the 76ers and do so without undue difficulty.  This prediction has taken a bit of a beating in the first four games. The series is tied, and there is as of yet no scoreboard evidence that Boston is the materially superior team, or even marginally superior.

In a dazzling display of one of sports punditry's sillier and nastier maneuvers, many of the predictors are now giving the Celtics a bit of a beating. It's their fault the prediction didn't come true. They had "no respect" for the Sixers (Charles Barkley, TNT). They were "arrogant" (Gary Washburn, Boston Globe). They "always play down to the opposition" (talk radio callers and hosts).

Here's an opinion I didn't hear or read, so remember folks, it's an exclusive. The 76ers were better than I thought. My pre-series analysis has not been supported by subsequent events, and that'll be true even if the Celts win the next two games by 20. The Sixers are low on guys who get overcovered by ESPN, but they have excellent ratings in a number of important basketball virtues -- little things like hustle and defense.

That wasn't so hard to write. Sports forecasting is a mug's game anyway. Being wrong is an inescapable part of making predictions. Write or say why you think you were wrong, and move on.

Instead, many of the folks who picked Boston in a breeze have reacted to an NBA playoff series that's been much like many past series in nature with the odd but common emotion that somehow the Celtics have their predictions down. It's the team's fault they were wrong. If it had had higher standards of professionalism, if the Celtics were better people, THEN they'd have already swept the series, and you'd see how smart the forecaster was.

You see this reaction a lot in sports punditry. For the most extreme example, check out the college football polls. It takes about three losses for a preseason top 10 team to drop out of the top 25, even though NO predictions in sports are based on less information than college football preseason guesses.

The "bad Celtics" meme is not just self-serving, it makes its adherents look like they've never seen a playoff before. It requires ignoring two known facts of NBA history.

Fact 1:  It's match play, not medal. A blowout win/loss is not evidence of the superiority/inferiority of Teams A and B (Two blowouts can be). Just to cite two examples from Celtics history. In the 1984 Finals, they lost 136-104 to the Lakers in Game Three. In the 1985 Finals, they beat LA 148-114 in Game One. And of course, in each case it was the blowout loser who won the series.

Fact 2: Momentum doesn't matter from game to game, but IN the game, it matters a great deal indeed. A big early lead can be and often is a poisoned chalice, especially on the road. It is very, very difficult for a team to maintain its best level of play for 48 straight minutes, and once that level slips, it's harder still to find it again.

And there, class, you have the stories of Games Three and Four in the 2012 Celtics-76ers series. It's a series between two teams of reasonably competitive levels of ability falling into established patterns of such series. With two home games left, it's still more likely than not the Celts will win it. But not because they were prohibitive favorites and SHOULD have done it already if they weren't so stuck on themselves.

In truth, it was the forecasters who were stuck on the Celtics. They took the fact that when Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are in top form Boston is more than a match for almost every NBA team and straight-line projected fact into fiction -- assuming that happy circumstance would be the Celtics' default mode throughout the series. Now, with the emotional balance of jilted 15-year olds, the forecasters are attacking the attitudes and character of their former love objects.

Worst of all is how temporary this lover's spat might be. Should the Celtics go on to eliminate the 76ers, the post-series analyses will all either implicitly or explicitly declare "I knew it all along."

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sympathy for the Slacker

If honesty matters, then we must give Josh Beckett more credit than his increasing number of increasingly vociferous critics. There's something appealing in Beckett's current public posture, which boils down to a frank admission of confusion along the lines of "Hey, I've always been a self-centered cementhead. Why are people upset about it now?"

Well, it's easy to make fun of ballplayers with Beckett's worldview, as Ring Lardner proved over a century ago. But there's also a truth (well) hidden in Beckett's plaintive response to the suddenly hostile world he inhabits. He IS the same -- except for his earned run average. It's his critics whose perceptions have changed -- because of his earned run average.

Let's review Beckett's career. He's been a pitcher who's ranged from All-Star level effective to significant stretches of dismal. He gets hurt a lot, which is hardly exceptional in his line of work. He has a disturbing tendency to backload his worst pitching into the final six weeks of the season. Since he's a power pitcher and, how to put this politely, not a master student of his trade, the percentage bet is that Beckett's effective stretches will get more infrequent and his dismal ones more common as the seasons roll on.

That's not the kind of paragraph plaques in Cooperstown are made of. But neither is it why Beckett has the Sox community so upset. He's being pilloried for his attitude, which is at best inconsistent and at worst hypocrisy at its hypoest. Because when Beckett was going well, that same attitude was praised as part of the cause of his success.

Don't believe me? Here's an experiment. Every time you hear or read the word "selfish" applied to Beckett, use the word "focused" instead. It's really the same personal quality, just described with adjectives that make it sound either bad or good. How Beckett's personality is portrayed depends upon how he's seen. And that, as noted above, depends on whether or not he's getting guys out, not the morals and ethics of those who're describing him.

Beckett is an extreme proponent of the High Seriousness School of pitching. That is, pitching is a draining professional commitment akin to neurosurgery, and whatever a pitcher does to cope with the unendurable stresses and responsibilities of his life-saving art is OK. This attitude is hooey, and always has been, but it rules an increasingly pretentious sport. The most cheerful and outgoing of starters will adhere to the solemn rule of not talking to teammates, let alone the media, in the hours before a start. NASCAR drivers, in a racket where lack of focus can kill you, conduct schmoozefests with sponsors and their children three hours before the race goes green.

If Beckett was 5-1 with a 2.21 ERA this morning, you'd be told that attitude is part of the reason why. You'd be told it was a big part. Moreover, it'd be presented to you as a virtue, a valuable life skill worth copying. It'd be the same hooey, but the Iron Laws of the Frontrunners' Universe and Scoreboard Morality would say otherwise.

 We've known the tragic truth about Mickey Mantle for about 30 years now, and he's STILL a hero. Willie Mays doubtless remains a misanthropic prick, which he was for his entire historic career. His 81st birthday this week was mentioned as a minor national holiday on network news. And I guarantee that if Beckett goes out and tosses a six-hit shutout in his next start, fools will rush to say his attitude has changed for the better.

As noted before, there have been ballplayers exactly Beckett since long before there was an American League. They've always been kind of a pain in the ass to have around. But not nearly as big a pain as the millions of baseball followers and commentators, who've been around for exactly the same long long time, who rush to say they're looking at a bad person when what they're watching is bad baseball.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Death of a Linebacker

Junior Seau's death by his own hand at age 43 is immeasurably sad. Let's not forget that remains true whether or not football was an unindicted co-conspirator in his demise.

The evidence that football brings a high risk of brain disease or injury, a risk that gets higher the longer one plays the sport, is strong and getting stronger now that there's much more research being done on the issue.  Seau played football at its highest and most violent level for 20 years. Suicide is an act of anguish and despair, and mental depression is a known result of some of the brain disorders the repetitive collisions of the head football generates. It's natural that Seau's death would immediately be linked to a moral dilemma our society doesn't want to face, but is having thrown in its face. Our most popular sport shortens the lives and ruins the health of many of those who play it.

Natural, but wrong. Millions of people whose most violent physical activity is opening cans suffer from depression, and a number of them commit suicide every year. Seau's desperate act may have stemmed from issues within himself that had nothing to do with the toll of his risky trade. Probably not, but why don't we wait and see? The pain of those he left behind is hard enough to witness.

Football's dangers would still be with us this morning if Seau was. In a sharp little irony, Seau's suicide drove the news of Roger Goodell's showboating suspensions of New Orleans Saints players for the "bounty" program right off the front of the sports pages. Goodell's Canutian decision was the NFL's way of insisting "we can make our sport safer" when medical research is suggesting "no, you can't." The research indicates that while the big hits are dangerous for players, the ongoing lesser hits that place on every play are just as if not more dangerous for the fragile packing of brain inside skull.

As of now, and likely as of some time to come, football and science have no answers for that one. Maybe there will be one. Auto racing has dropped its fatality rate astonishingly due to the creation of practical fireproofing for clothing and other improvements in fire safety technology. Boxing, on the other hand, remains about as dangerous as ever. The revenues of the two sports in 2012 demonstrate that safety is good business.

Seau's family has allowed the researchers at BU to examine his brain. If a link between brain degeneration and his awful death gives them some measure of comfort, then that's what I hope they find. But it won't change either of the two facts we're dealing with here. Junior Seau's death at 43 is an unspeakable waste. And football is bad for the human body, bad in ways we're just beginning to know.

I love football. I love watching it, loved writing about it, and most of all, I loved playing it. Being on the field offers an addictive adrenaline rush like few others I have ever felt. That's why I am grateful beyond words to the Powers That Be that I was not much good as a football player. If I had been good enough to play until I was 40, or even 20, I would have. And as much as I love the game, I'm fonder of the me that currently exists, the one football got cold-cocked only once.

It is my belief, a disquieting one, that football's dangers cannot be reduced to any significant extent, only mitigated and accounted for. That is, injuries like concussions will have to become NFL career alterers (seasons lost, careers ended) by rule, and that our richest sport will be forced to spend very large sums on the medical and psychological monitoring of its former players as part of the cost of doing business.

No game whose fans suspect has the capacity to cause its Hall of Famers to become suicides is likely to thrive. Guilt is every bit as powerful an emotion as despair.

I expect most football fans felt at least a twinge of guilt when they heard what happened to Seau. They should have, anyway. Even if football had nothing to do with his despair, we know too much about the sport he was great at to follow it with clueless delight.