Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Last Full Measure of Devotion Is a Bag of Peanuts and Another Beer

A few evenings ago, right around dinner time, I was rapidly clicking the remote to escape political ads and when I paused, there was Wrigley Field. The Cubs and the Rockies were in the eighth inning of a game that the schedule crawl indicated was supposed to have ended some time ago.

Of course, neither the Cubs nor Rockies are capable of ending games in a timely manner. They're like a combined 75 games out of first place in their divisions. This was the last week of a season which was somewhere on the scale between forgettable and unforgettable nightmare for both teams. Their thoughts had to be on the sweet prospect of home.

Dinnertime in Boston is time to go home in Chicago. That's why I stopped and watched the game -- not to look at baseball, but to look at the fans. Wrigley Field, while not nearly full, wasn't empty either. People were in the seats, and not just fans who had snuck down to experience what it's like sitting behind home plate. There were fans sitting in the right and left field corners, too.

And I was awed. As a fan and once baseball journalist of many years standing, I bow in the direction of the North Side, and in the direction of all the other parks where fans went to watch their horrible home team play out the string against a nowhere visiting team since Labor Day. These are the fans supreme. Nobody, not Doris Kearns Goodwin, not Roger Angell, not Bill James, loves baseball as much as they do.

The proof of the pudding is paying at least $50 to eat it.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Athletes Are Human -- Just Barely, But It Counts

Brian Waters is 35 years old and has been a National Football League player since 2000. This means that Waters is more than old enough to have his nervous system deliver the first warning signs of the actuarial truth those 12 seasons have shortened his life expectancy by at least that many years.

In my experience, offensive linemen are the most aware, hippest if you will, of all NFL players. Quarterbacks get too many rewards. You don't want aware people on defense. So it doesn't surprise me that Waters has not returned for another season. It astonishes me that other people are surprised.

Shalise Manza Young of the Globe has reported that the Patriots offered Waters $4 million to end, well, you can't call it a holdout exactly, more like going off the football grid, during training camp. This report has been denigrated by talk show hosts who used to be reporters and therefore ought to be ashamed of themselves (talk about oxymorons!) because they used to be reporters on the grounds the Patriots leaked the story to make themselves look good.

Earth to talk radio. If the story was a lie, then Waters' agent would have been on every media outlet this side of Chinese wire service Xinhua denouncing it as such. This naivete is sad but unsurprising. Michael Felger and sidekick Tony Massarotti, my old colleagues who I probably still like but no longer respect, are proof of Damon Runyon's adage that "nobody's easier to bullshit than a bullshit artist."

Let me suggest an alternative scenario for Water's Howard Hughes impersonation. The logic part of his brain has come to the conclusion he should retire from football. The emotional part (the much bigger part, as it is for us all) is torn. Football is addictive. Why not let the Patriots, renowned as the most unsentimental of franchises in these matters, put the offer on the table to adjudicate the decision?

Waters got an offer that was flattering by any assessment. And he didn't take it. The logical conclusion is there was no offer he'd have taken. He's done. He just wanted an outside assessment of how much he had left.

We all like to be wanted, even if we don't want what likes us.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Eighty-Third Avenue Freeze Out?

One would have thought the fact yesterday's 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals is the first time in memory special teams (blocked punt, missed field goal) are the main reason a Bill Belichick Patriots team lost a game would have been what would've sent the professional teeth-gnashers among fans and commentators into joyous frenzies of anguish.  But that crowd can't even be irrational in a correct fashion.

No, the Mt. Everest of nonsense molehills this Monday is about Wes Welker's role in the Pats' offense, or lack thereof. Welker is being converted to a bit part, part-time role player, or so we're informed, for motives ranging from deep strategy to inexplicable to delightfully stupid accusations of malevolence.

For record if the Pats continue to ignore Welker the way they did yesterday, he'll finish the season with roughly 80 catches and almost 1500 yards gained.That is exactly the number of balls caught in 2011 by Falcons Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. It's also exactly the number caught last season by Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald. For that matter, Fitzgerald, whose picture is next to All-Pro in the dictionary, had one reception for four yards yesterday. Did he run over Kevin Kolb's cat at a team picnic?

No matter how much football they watch, some people have trouble understanding that the other team's defense has considerable say in how much an individual runner or receiver participates in his team's offense. That is a truth I've come to accept.

But the Welker weirdness reveals another, more sinister truth. It won't be global warming that lays this great Republic low. It'll be innumeracy.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Cardinal Puffs

Forget how New Englanders feel this morning. Pats fans wake up expecting victory on every Game Day, and why not? The record shows they're only wrong once a month.

My question, and it's a serious question, not pure snark, is if fans of any one of the 30 other NFL franchises who don't anticipate that their team will win a game against the Arizona Cardinals? Does anybody except Bill Belichick spend the week the Cards appear on the schedule genuinely worried that defeat is a live possibility?

This applies even to teams at the bottom of vicious down cycles. The Rams are horrible and have been so for several years now. They play Arizona twice a year. And yet, I'll bet a decent sum of money that conversation in the offices, taverns and fan message boards of St. Louis prior to Rams-Cardinals games consists of variations on the theme "Geez, if we can't beat THESE guys, we must really suck."

This is of course unfair, and I'm sure Belichick would say unwise. The Cardinals do win games, after all. They won just last week. They went to a Super Bowl with some, OK, a very few, of the players on the 2012 team just four seasons ago.

And yet, I can remember the NFC Championship Game the Cards won that year to get to the Super Bowl. They beat the Eagles, my team, insomuch as I have won. And my reaction was shock and indignation at the utterly unsurprising event of a home team winning a playoff game.

Such is the power of the Cardinals' image. They are the NFL symbol of feckless failure, even when they're succeeding. They are assumed to have an anti-dynastic power to defy the laws of parity. No one in the football community is  shocked the Lions went from winless to a playoff team in short order. That's how the system is supposed to work. But if the Cardinals make the playoffs in 2012, folks will react as if Phoenix had two feet of snow in June.

Images rest in fact. The Cardinals have been a lousy team for many of the more than 50 years I've followed pro football. But images are also caricatures of reality Chicago/St. Louis/Phoenix has probably just been mediocre for more years than it's fielded truly rotten squads. And for brief periods, on the handful of occasions the Cards have employed a quarterback who didn't make one avert one's eyes in embarrassed sympathy, they've even been decent.

In 2012, the Cardinals have a controversy between two quarterbacks decent folk feel badly about watching. If there's a person in the world who doesn't draw a paycheck from the team who thinks it can beat the Pats on the road today I haven't met him or her, and how I wish I could if they like to gamble. But hell, the Pats losing at home is always an upset, no matter who they're playing.

My belief, moonshine though it may be, is that the Cards' image of failure matters when they play the other mediocre/lousy teams, not the good ones. I can't help but think that Arizona has lost some of those eminently winnable contests through the years because their opponent could not accept such a humiliating blow to their own image. Desperation and anger are positive emotions in football.

NFL image is a fragile thing. Look at the Jets. A pair of 9-7 seasons in which they won tough road playoff games, and they were thought of as a Super Bowl contender. An 8-8 season in which in they missed the playoffs, and the Jets became the league's comical dysfunctional Modern Family. That's a lot of assumption off a one-game swing.

The Cardinals are exceptions to that rule. Their image has power. It's how I thought of them as a kid, and it's how I think of them now. Weirdest of all, should by some miracle the Cards beat the Pats today, fans in Philadelphia (including exile fans), whose Eagles are Arizona's opponent next Sunday, will spend all week assuring talk radio and each other that "Come on. There's no way we can lose to THOSE guys."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

It's Gonna Be the Winter of Bobby

Last winter Bobby Valentine wanted to be back in major league baseball in the worst way, and that's exactly what happened to him. Now he wants out as badly as he wanted in -- probably more.

Remember the "Seinfeld" episode where George tries to get fired from the Yankees? The one where he drove around the parking lot with a World Series trophy tied to the back of his car? That's been Bobby Valentine's M. O. since about the All-Star break.

It speaks unpleasant volumes about both the media coverage of the Red Sox and the self-alleged "most knowledgeable fans in baseball" that very few of either group has detected this obvious pattern of  employment suicide-by-unbecoming-conduct.  But after last night, when Valentine mocked his own players, dawn ought to light on a million Marblehead shores.

Of course, Valentine will just say he was being sarcastic towards Red Sox critics. He may be short on ways to communicate with players, or rationales for in-game decision but Valentine's always got an explanation for his unendearing stunts. They shouldn't fool anybody. He is desperately seeking to attain two simultaneous objectives: not managing the Red Sox next season while still getting paid the back half of his two-year contract.

Nothing wrong with that. Two point five million is money worth fighting for, worth fighting dirty for. Valentine's never been one to stand on his dignity, and he's more than sharp enough to know he will never get closer to a dugout than the broadcast booth ever again. Why not make yourself look ridiculous to make a ridiculous situation intolerable to your employers? After all, aside from being daft enough to take the job in the first place, very little of Valentine's tenure in the manager's office has been his fault. He was obviously the wrong man for the job, so blame goes to the hirers, not the hiree.

 Valentine's wacky self-immolation has been unnecessary. Having been given the managers' job for purely symbolic reasons, as a gesture Sox management was going to "get tough" with the players who made all the fans so angry last September, he is destined to be fired for equally symbolic reasons, as a gesture by management to complete its Soviet-history-style erasure of the 2011-2012 Boston franchise while leaving themselves in the photograph of the troop review from the podium of Red Sox Square.  No 2013 Red Sox player, and more to the point, no potential 2013 Red Sox customer, is going to take the idea that the franchise is starting over seriously if the Bobby V clown act is still in place. Avoiding that is worth way more than $2.5 million to Fenway Sports Group.

If I'm wrong, and the Sox can't bring themselves to fire Valentine as the regular season ends, look for Bobby to fake his own death at sea on the team's winter promotional cruise.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Pedestrian Pigskin Preview

Boy, I'm glad I don't have to write New England Patriot season preview and prediction columns for a living anymore. They're pointless, because all football predictions with a longer time frame than the next game are inherently absurd. But they're also tedious to do, and I imagine to read, because it's such a repetitive experience.

Any forecaster with the slightest intellectual honesty could reach into the past and use last year's Pats forecast for this year's. Or the year before that. Or any damn year of the last decade back to 2002.

Worst case scenario: The Pats win 10 games. They are prohibitive favorites to win the AFC East, among the seven or eight teams most likely to reach the Super Bowl and among the four or five teams most likely to win it. Write, file, repeat. And repeat, and..., but you get the idea.

The endurance of this evergreen forecast is an enormous tribute to the Pats franchise in general and Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in particular. But it sure is dull to write, talk or think about.

Easy, though. You'd think commentators who churn out the stuff would display more gratitude for that break.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Who's on First Down, Anyway?

Players will get hurt in the opening week of the 2012 National Football League season because players get hurt every opening week (and all the other weeks). It's the nature of the sport.

Officials will blow calls in the opening week of the season because calls get blown in every opening week (and all the other weeks). That too is the nature of the sport.

Never before, however, has the NFL willfully put itself in position where many people will add up the truths in those two paragraphs and conclude they are related. That will most likely be a case of folks reaching 2 + 2 = 156,987.35. The danger for the league is, there's a chance the true answer could be four.

The lockout of NFL refs and their replacement by officials from the lower minor leagues of college football is an inexplicable business decision unless one assumes, as one must, that American superrich people have become so sociopathically devoted to power that they're willing to risk serious damage to the source of those riches. It's certainly not a move based on financial analysis of any kind.

All it'd take is one unthrown flag on a play where some star gets knocked out of the game and/or season and/or sport, and fans and most of all players, are going to assume the lockout was the cause. Peyton Manning leaving on a stretcher Sunday night would be the most perfect storm, but Tom Brady or Calvin Johnson or, hell, Tim Tebow would do almost as well. Doesn't matter if the injury came on a perfectly legal collision. The world is going to say the replacements can't keep the sport safe. The NFL cares more for nickels and dimes than the health of its players.

May not happen. The evidence of the preseason suggests the stand-in zebras will bollix up the game procedurally for sure, often in comical ways. That's not a market threat. Fans will laugh. Players will get mad, then laugh.

That the new refs might decide a game with a blown call is an unlikely possibility.  Few NFL games are so close as to be in reach of being determined by an official's decision. Most are comfortable wins and or routs where having Tim McClelland's umpiring crew all wearing their masks as officials wouldn't alter the outcome. And should it happen, well, it's happened before to union refs. To err is human, etc.

But an injury that could be blamed on a ref would be different. There's already a considerable if minority social movement in this country that football is too dangerous a sport to be played. The idea that a man got hurt because the league that employs him was too cheap to also employ the best possible adjudicators of the sport would be a crisis for the NFL way beyond the New Orleans Saints' bounty program. It might also be actionable as a matter of law. Bet some attorney would test that thesis.

Human nature suggests the stand-ins will throw fewer flags than their unionized brethren. One way to avoid making errors of commission is to stand still and do nothing. Football player and coach nature suggests both will be very quick to note that tendency and quicker still to take advantage of it. The outside of the envelope on the rules governing collisions will be tested by intrepid and vicious pioneers in violence. It's a formula for hurt.

The formula may come to nothing. Maybe the replacements will never come close to having their performance affect player safety in any way. That still doesn't alter the fact the NFL is exposing itself to a considerable risk in an effort to gain what is complete chump change to its business.

That's not good business. It's some very unpleasant personal characteristics masquerading as business.

Leadership Failure by Example

Red Sox management is now re-learning an old baseball lesson. When you give up on a team during the season, its response is always and inevitably to give up on itself, too.

Blowing up a team by trading or otherwise disposing of important veterans is a time-honored and more than occasionally necessary management stratagem.  Collateral damage, however, is best avoided by staging the explosion in the winter.