Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Marvin Miller

Marvin Miller, who died today at the age of 95, was one of the three most significant men in the history of baseball, following Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson in chronological order.

Don't feel you have to take my word for that declarative statement. Red Barber, who saw more baseball than any man who ever lived, said the very same thing back in 1992. More backup authority than him I don't need and doesn't exist in any case.

Different as those three men and their accomplishments were, they all had an unusual common link in their baseball lives. Each made everybody else in baseball a lot more money than they were making before. Ruth was the greatest gate attraction in sports history (Ali's in second). It is no denigration of Robinson's real historic accomplishment to note he was the biggest individual draw of HIS time, too.

And Miller, of course, changed the economics of the sport beyond comprehension. To be sure, he made the players wealthy. Even accounting for inflation, ballplayers in the early '60s were getting about what an SEC linebacker draws in salary today. Now they're multi-millionaires, which while it might not be what it used to be, still ain't hay, or even filet mignon.

What is less noticed, is that the free agent revolution Miller and the MLB Players' Association created in the mid-1970s made Miller's sworn enemies, the owners, even wealthier than it did the players. Baseball, widely viewed as a stagnating sport in the midst of a terminal business slump prior to the Andy Messersmith case, has since enjoyed robust to explosive growth in total revenue broken only by a few idiotic labor wars instigated by the owners.

George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees for about $12 million. What are they worth today? Two billion? Three? YES Network might be worth that alone. That owes as much to Miller as A-Rod's contract does.

I don't think Miller foresaw that, because I don't think anyone did. He was just fighting for every edge he could get his union members. But the possibility of sudden team improvement created by free agency and the ineffable respect/worship Americans have for wealth created a geyser of horsehide income. Players had always been marketed as heroes. When they became celebrities instead, somehow more people paid attention.

You'd think the owners would have been the ones to demand Miller was inducted into the Hall of Fame. This is to misunderstand the fundamental sociopathy of the American superrich. First, many of 'em would rather eat a whole cupcake than have to share a wedding cake with somebody else. Second, even more of 'em aren't nearly as interested in money as they are in having power over others as a byproduct of wealth. Miller broke their control over the players. He was never forgiven, and I'm sure most owners thought and think the capital appreciation of their franchises was due to their innate business acumen.

No matter. In the end, the Hall of Fame is a museum, not an achievement. Miller's baseball records will live forever. No asterisks allowed.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Gilding the Over Bet Lily

The defense and special teams of the New England Patriots have scored a combined five touchdowns in the past two games. A team which does that cannot lose. It cannot fail to cover whatever spread Vegas hands it.

It is unlikely the Pats will again encounter a team as hell-bent on suicide as the Jets were last night (game should have been played on the Sagamore Bridge, not at MetLife Stadium). But to create a flurry of unexpected touchdowns in two consecutive games, while not quite a trend, is not quite just a coincidence, either.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Rob Gronkowski broke a forearm in the course of his normal duties yesterday, blighting what had otherwise been a delightful evening for the New England Patriots yesterday.

Getting injured while blocking for an extra point (to reiterate, an unexceptional part of Gronkowski's job) is a freak accident. Except there aren't really many freak accidents in football. Most, including this one, stem from how the player in hurt plays his sport in the first place.

Gronkowski's playing style has always generated two emotional responses for me. One of course, is that it's a gas to watch him. The other, a corollary, is the unhappy thought that I'd better get my jollies watching maximum Gronk as long as I can, because it won't be around as long as I would like.

One doesn't need Bill Belichick to explain Gronkowski's technique. Due to his exceptional size, strength, speed and general fondness for mayhem, he's an offensive player who chooses to hit first even though he does chores (pass catching, blocking on extra points) where almost all players get hit first instead. This makes Gronkowski a thrilling sight on the field. This also makes him one of the NFL's largest targets.

Defenders have only one means of getting even when a bigger, faster offensive player starts knocking them on their asses. More of them enter the fray, at higher speeds. Gang tackling closely resembles gang warfare. And although it shouldn't come as a surprise, most people, players included, don't immediately grasp that dishing it out wears a body out just about as quickly as taking it.

Players in the Gronkowski mode tend to get injured doing things like extra point blocking. It's in their natures to make the most of whatever collisions are offered them.

You know who Gronk most reminds me of? Earl Campbell, that's who. Nobody was more of a thrill to watch than the Tyler Rose, and for the same reason Gronkowski's such a treat, too.

Earl's NFL story didn't have a particularly happy ending. Nor many pages. He was a victim of what made him great.

It'd suck if that happens to Gronkowski. It may have started happening yesterday.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What's Passed Is Prologue

There appear to be two schools of thought about the defense of the 2012 New England Patriots. It would be a mistake to enroll in either.

One school we may name OMG! OMG! OMG! A&M. Its faculty and students are in thrall to the theory that the Pats' defense, especially its pass defense, is the worst extant, and possibly the worst in known history. The defense will keep the Patriots from winning or reaching the Super Bowl (nobody on Earth is far gone enough to come up with a reason the Pats won't win the AFC East). The defense is proof Bill Belichick has been a complete failure as a player personnel director since about Hurricane Katrina, and is rapidly losing his grip as a coach, too. In short, doom, quite effectively disguised as Andrew Luck, is nigh.

The other school is They're All Right Jack State U., a/k/a the Fightin' Zolaks. This institute of medium-height learning is dedicated to the proposition that the fact New England's pass defense is prone like no other to allowing the type of long bomb plays thought to have become extinct when Norm Van Brocklin retired is a mere trifle, a data error in the otherwise serene physics of the Pats' universe. Look at all those game-saving turnovers, they cry. Who cares what yardage a team gives up between the 20 yard lines? If pressed, they go to their universal theory: We'll just outscore 'em.

Football commentary is the second-most inane of the four major sports (nothing can top the NBA in that regard) precisely because it always falls into the all bad/all good dichotomy we see here. I am sure Belichick spends a considerable amount of time and energy worrying about his team's pass defense and scheming with all his might to improve it. It is fair to regard the acquisition of Aqib Talib and his amazingly well-documented issues with authority as the action of a man addressing what he believes is a real problem.

Then again, it is also safe to assume that Belichick shows up for work each Sunday reasonably confident his team will win the game, and with good reason, too. On balance, the Patriots still create more problems than they possess.

That might not last. Unsolved problems have a way of eating at a team's strengths. The more an offense thinks it needs 31 points or more, the harder it can become to do so when in fact it had better do so. Turnovers are the best defensive play of them all. They are also the most fickle play of them all.

It would be no surprise if the Patriots continued to surrender 30-yard passes more or less at will, and kept right on adding to the long list of journeyman or worse quarterbacks they've turned into Dan Marino in 2011-2012, then finished with a 12-4 record and went on and won the Super Bowl anyway. Damn near happened last year, after all.

Damn near wasn't much fun, was it, Pats fans? A chronic weakness is never a cause for panic. Always one for worry, though.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Play Clock? Don't You Mean Shot Clock?

For the first time in a long time, six years to be precise, I went to a football game yesterday. Wasn't much of a game, really. Harvard squeaked one out over Columbia by 69-0. I assume they covered.

And like every rout in football I've ever seen, this was a murder-suicide pact. Harvard scored four touchdowns in five minutes of the second quarter when the Columbia offense was on the field for two plays. Both were interceptions. One was run back for a touchdown, the other to the Columbia one-yard line.

We fast forward to last night. I'm watching football on TV. And Oregon and USC, two nationally ranked powerhouses who play at a level of the sport that is allegedly light years above the Ivy League, had a game where the winner scored 62 points -- and the losers had 51. That's 113 points in 60 minutes. That's more than a touchdown in every four minutes of elapsed time. That's a score that if somebody says they got it in Madden 2013 you're pretty sure they're lying.

I am older, and fuddy-duddier than I used to be, I guess. But to me, that Oregon-USCgame was many things, and I'll be honest enough to admit entertaining was one of them. But it wasn't football, not as I understand the sport anyway. Irresistible Force vs. Immovable Object is always a great story. Irresistible Force vs. Even More Irresistible Force somehow isn't quite as appealing.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

YOOURRR Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are 0-2. This is a major shock to those in basketball who're history and common sense impaired.

National Basketball Association "Superteams", or teams with stars who they acquired from some other team during the offseason almost always get off to a slow start to the regular season. This dates back to when the Lakers traded for Wilt Chamberlain. The only exception I can think of is the 2007-2008 Celtics, who not coincidentally were probably the least preseason-hyped Superteam ever.

And every time this happens, fans are outraged, and the media rushes delightedly to file "What's Wrong With...." stories. It's like no one knows, and no one will learn no matter how many times its proven, that small unit cohesion, as its called in the military, is an important element of the sport.