Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pomposity Goeth Before the Pratfall

One way or another Ray Lewis figured to make a significant contribution to Super Bowl XLVII. Who knew it'd be comic relief?

Deer antler extract spray? Just try and say that without laughing. Then consider it's actually a banned substance in the NFL, NCAA and all other professional sports and try to STOP laughing.

Com' on, now, deer antler spray is what's sold by some lovable old rogue of a medicine show man in an episode of an old TV Western like "Gunsmoke" or "Bonanza" when the stars wanted to show their agents they could too play comedic roles, damn it. Jocks who spray or inject that crap onto and into their bodies aren't cheating, they're being cheated, victims of their own gullibility and failure to stay awake in those Physiology 101 courses they took as part of their Sports Marketing majors.

As it turns out, a professor at Johns Hopkins gave Lewis a dandy alibi. If he did, as was alleged, spray himself with eau de Bambi, Lewis wasn't taking a banned substance because the substance doesn't that way. It's not like DEET, you have to shoot it to get the, well, whatever one gets from it.

Lewis denied the charge of quackery without an NFL license. "It's a trick of the devil" he said of the charge. This lets us know that immediately after hanging up the pads for good Sunday night, Lewis is headed at warp factor 11 towards the 4-5 a.m. time slot on one of those evangelical preacher cable television networks. A fitting career transition, I think.

Lewis has been a superlative football player. He is also perhaps our most pretentious NFL player. Nobody in the league takes himself quite as seriously as does Lewis. Alas, this unlovely trait probably is a big reason he was one of the greats.

Everyone loves seeing the stuffed shirt or jersey slip on the banana peels of life (banana peels are probably a banned substance, too). So the discovery in short order that the other noted athletes accused of falling for the deer antler extract dodge were Vijay Singh, who is every bit Lewis' equal in the pomposity department, and University of Alabama football players. Really, the opportunity to hear Nick Saban be forced to utter the words "deer antler extract" ought to bring joy to the heart of every sports fan on earth.

As an encore, I look forward to reading and listening to commentary on how the evils of deer antler extract threaten the integrity of sports. Those will be Pretentiousness squirting itself with seltzer and committing suicide by custard pie.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Short Note on Basketball

It is impossible for any NBA team to improve itself by losing a starting All-Star point guard. This has always and will always be true. Anyone who maintains the Celtics aren't severely damaged by what Rajon Rondo's injury is either a semi-professional crank yanker, a complete moron, or both.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Diet of Mush Breeds Poor Teeth

Cherry-picking statistics from either victories or defeats is not precisely the scientific method of football analysis. Then again, when the same thing happens to the same NFL team five times in six otherwise splendid seasons, calling it a pattern is hardly an exaggeration.

In the 2007 and 2009-2012 seasons, the New England Patriots never averaged less than 26.7 points a game in the regular season (that was 2009) and averaged over 30 a game in the other four. In the five playoff losses (two of 'em Super Bowls) that ended those seasons, the Patriots never scored more than 21 points and always scored more than 10 points fewer than their season's average. Against the Ravens last week, the Pats were three touchdowns lower than that average.

I do not believe one can draw any other conclusion than to assign a majority share of responsibility for those defeats to the Pats' offense. IT underperformed dramatically in each case, and in each case, IT had been correctly regarded as the team's primary strength.

The one constant in the Pats' offense the past six years, as for the six years before that, is of course Tom Brady. It would be insane to hold the quarterback solely responsible for the offense's postseason failures. But it would be equally insane to excuse him from any responsibility. Failure's a team effort just like success.

But culprit-seeking isn't my point. For whatever reason, the New England Patriots have spent most of the last six seasons operating an historically productive offense from September to December. Then in January and February, production drops from historic to sporadic.

One tends to believe that the other teams are the reason why. When we look at those regular seasons, what are the constants in New England's schedule. That'd be six games against the AFC East.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Toughest Job in Show Business And/Or Sports

The job in the title of this post was just invented yesterday. The Washington Nationals are going to give their fans something new in between-innings entertainment in the 2013 season. Massive on-field cardiac events.

The Nationals, like many teams, have a costumed mascot race at some point in each game. Since it IS Washington's team, the mascots are giant puppet-like costumes of the U.S. Presidents on Mt. Rushmore, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. This season, there will be a fifth, and if you haven't heard about this already, you won't guess who they picked.

FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan? Naah (I salute the Washington wiseguy journalist on Twitter who expressed disappointment it wasn't Nixon). The fifth giant mascot head will be that of William Howard Taft, President from 1909-1913, one of those blessed and all-too-rate periods where pretty much nothing happened in American history.

The Nationals' tribute to this forgotten leader is in one sense very appropriate. Taft was the first President to be a stone baseball fan. He invented the tradition of the President throwing out the first ball on Opening Day, a fact for which I'll bet he's been roundly cursed by more than one of his successors in the White House.

The trouble for some unlucky Nats employee comes from Taft's only other claim to fame. He was our fattest President. Enormously fat. Taft was well over 300 pounds and his body was next door to spherical. If the Nationals use the slightest amount of historical accuracy when designed the Taft costume, the person inside it is going to be at some disadvantage trying to scamper around the basepaths on one of those delightful D. C. 90-plus degree and 90 percent plus humidity July evenings. How will he keep up with skinny Lincoln or robust T. R.?

Of course, the fix is in in all mascot races, and I daresay giant Taft will win his share. But victory will come at a heavy price, one paid by the I hope healthy, rugged physique inside the fat man -- screaming to get out.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Non-Compete Clause In the Contract

The 2012 NFL season isn't over yet, but the safest prediction about the 2013 season is that the New England Patriots will make the playoffs again. Maybe that was part of their problems yesterday.

As awful as the Pats looked against the Ravens, and they declined from looking inconsistent to ghastly as their asskicking of a 28-13 loss progressed, no one of sound mind is going to do anything but predict that New England will win the AFC East again next season. Who's gonna beat 'em? The Dolphins, in the midst of a reconstruction project taking longer than the Big Dig? The Bills, starting over for about the 12th consecutive season? The Jets (insert hysterical laughter here to finish sentence)?

No, in all likelihood the Pats will go 6-0 against the feeble divisional foes, or 5-1 at worst, and qualify for the playoffs shortly after Thanksgiving, just like in 2012 and the two preceding seasons. Those wins will give 'em a big leg up on home field advantage for more than one game in the playoffs, too. That's all to the good. Or is it?

In the most ferociously competitive sport man has yet devised, the Pats are missing competition at the most basic regular season level. Every August at every NFL training camp, the same mantra is incessantly repeated. Our first goal is to win the division. New England has a de facto bye for its first goal. I don't think it's superstitious or practicing psychoanalysis without a license to suspect that having it too easy to reach one important goal may make it more difficult for the team to meet its other more important postseason goals.

 If there's been one mark of the Belichick-Brady Pats, it's been winning the games they were supposed to win in the regular season. You can count their upset losses (like the loss to the Cardinals this season) since 2001 without using up all your fingers. This is an admirable quality. But has it sapped New England's ability to rise to challengers who demand more from their opponents?

I don't want to make too much of this. The Ravens are demonstrably the toughest AFC matchup for the Pats, just as the Pats' are intrinsically a nightmare for the Texans. But I can't help comparing the regular season challenge Baltimore faces each September with New England's planned stroll through the dysfunctional AFC East.

The Ravens have two games with the Steelers each year, games which are mandatory viewing for the International Criminal Court's war crimes division. And two games with the Bengals, who've made the playoffs for two straight years now. Even their patsy in-house foe, the Browns, plays in a city that has a uniquely passionate hatred for the Ravens.

Baltimore, in short, starts the season knowing it wouldn't take much of a slip in commitment and performance to wreck their season by midseason. New England starts by looking forward to divisional showdowns in December against teams that're better than even money to have the coaching staffs spending hours at the copy machine with their resumes at that time.

Maybe that's why Tom Brady is so obsessional about saying "it's hard to win in the NFL." He may just be reminding himself of a lesson he knows isn't always applicable to him.

The only thing economists agree on is that competition is good for all concerned. That goes for football, too. The line between confidence and complacency is both narrow and blurry, but New England sure looked like a team undergoing a serious psychic shock last night. They missed their opportunities and folded at every adversity and seemed stunned at every setback. Their unspoken message was "this can't be happening to us."

 Could be that the reason it did is that the Pats played too many games where it couldn't.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

When the Going Gets Weird, the Weird Turn Pro -- Maybe as a Lower Round Pick Though

As it turns out, Brent Musberger was babbling about the wrong player's girlfriend during the BCS Championship Game. Of course, it would've been very difficult for the director to get a liveshot of the really newsworthy one.

No apologies for frivolity. Anyone who hasn't been avidly following the story of Manti Te'o's imaginary dead girlfriend has no tabloid in their soul. Anyone who hasn't laughed about the story at least once has no soul, period.

Te'o's relationship with a person who didn't exist is in fact the perfect tabloid story and makes me very sad I'm not working at the Herald this week (a sentiment I seldom hold anymore). It's strange as can be, most of its interest is of the prurient variety, and best of all, nobody got seriously hurt, so wisecracking and cynicism are not just acceptable, they're mandatory. How fitting that Deadspin, which boasts of its lack of redeeming social value, broke the story in the first place.

Oh, yes, Te'o got humiliated. He'll get over it, probably when he signs that first NFL contract. The sports journalists I have seen opining that teams will avoid Te'o in the draft because he's weirded them out are as delusional as he was.

Other than that, who took a fall here? ESPN? Sports Illustrated? Notre Dame? I daresay those three worthy institutions can stand the gaff. Sports fans laugh at or bitch about all three of 'em on a regular basis anyhow. Te'o hurt no one but himself.

Te'o's tale is infinitely more fascinating than the week's other big tabloid sports brouhaha. At bottom, Lance Armstrong's life is not news in the sense of "new." Ruthless megalomaniac does anything to get ahead is a familiar story in American sports, not to mention life.

But here we have a "scandal" (that's what they're calling it on Late Edition, TMZ, etc.) which is a victimless crime except that the victim helped perpetrate it. This doesn't happen every day, let alone in the regimented world of football. Who isn't ready to devour news of an All-American (literally) boy hero who turns out to be either a twisted charlatan or a twisted sad and lonely guy.

As late returns trickle in, evidence is mounting that Twisted Sad and Lonely Guy is closer to Te'o's true identity. As far as can be told, which is not very far at all, Te'o was scammed, fell hard for the scam, and in the process picked up the scam like a loose ball and ran down the sidelines of reality with it. Like the people who defended Armstrong for a decade, he believed in his imaginary dying, then dead love because he wanted to. Pathos appealed to some part of his personality so much he'd go to any lengths to wallow in it.

That's really sad, and one hopes that through some means, either his faith, intense therapy, or both, Te'o gets a grip on human relationships with actual humans. The NFL team that drafts him had better be prepared to cope with a linebacker with Issues, and issues other than the absence of anger management that's an occupational hazard of the position.

But since no one was hurt by Te'o's fantasy besides himself, if he can play pro ball, forgiving and forgetting will be his future lot. Well, maybe just forgiving.

I hate to think what song the veterans will make Te'o sing when rookie hazing time rolls around at training camp. Dream, Dream, Dream by the Everly Brothers comes to mind.

Triumph of the Mundane

Athletes enjoy thinking the world doesn't respect them. Many fans enjoy thinking the world doesn't respect their team even more than athletes do.

This pleasant sense of aggrieved pride has been denied to the New England Patriots and their followers this week. As near as I can tell, nobody in the sports world with one exception has picked the Ravens to beat the Pats in the AFC Championship Game tomorrow.

The one exception is Michael Felger, who is merely proving the rule. His forecast puts Felger in a win-win catbird seat as far as conducting his increasingly intolerable talk show goes. If Baltimore wins, he can spend all Monday afternoon in "woe-is-the-Pats" mode, a favorite topic. If the Pats win, he will happily switch to "Joe Flacco is a bum," another favorite bit of malicious nonsense.

Back on Planet Trying to Take Football Seriously, I have yet to see Baltimore picked by any of the hordes of former players and coaches employed by ESPN and the NFL Network. Some have implied the Ravens will cover the nine-point spread, but that's as far as it goes. Frankly, I haven't had the interest to scour the Web for print journalists' picks, but if any of 'em picked Baltimore, I'm confident Channel 4 would've called 'em out by now.

On Wall Street, such unanimity of sentiment is a contrary indicator. When everybody else is a bull, it's time to sell ASAP, and vice versa. In the NFL, it doesn't work that way. Conventional wisdom can be wrong, is often wrong, but it's not wrong more often than it's right.

Conventional wisdom can be overly influenced by what it saw last, which is why the 49ers are the conventional pick to beat the Falcons, and why you have to give nine to bet New England. But all in all, forecasting that the Pats will advance to the Super Bowl rests on the simplest analysis method of all. I call it the 1000 Mile Test.

If you're a New Englander, detach yourself from the region and imagine if you lived at least 1000 miles away and the AFC Championship involved two teams for which you had not the slightest emotional interest, either like or dislike. Of course, this week that would mean you weren't reading or thinking about the game at all, and were making up jokes on Twitter about Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o. But try the mind experiment anyway.

What would you see? It's pretty straightforward. This would be a playoff game between two very good teams who've played each other frequently in the recent past, including the regular season, and have a history of playing very close games, too.

Knowing just that and that alone, who'd you pick? Given those facts, 99 out of a 100 football people would predict a home team victory. And far often than not, those 99 people would turn out to be right.

They'll be right tomorrow evening, too.

PS: Conventional wisdom loves the 49ers, about as wisely as Te'o loved. The chance to get points with a home team in a conference championship is rare. The Falcons strike me as worth a little flutter.

PPS: Nine points is an overlay. But no lower than number three in the Big Book of NFL Betting Rules is "don't bet the spread, bet the game." Unless you truly believe the Ravens will win, take the AFC off the board. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Defense Wins Championships? Don't Even Ask About Special Teams

In the divisional round of the NFL playoffs this weekend, the LOSING teams averaged 30.5 points a game.

Once upon a time not so long ago, the 1980s to be specific, teams that returned an interception for a touchdown won 87 percent of the time. Last weekend, it was 50 percent.

Win the turnover battle? Again, 50 percent.

A team that had two kick returns for touchdowns by the same player lost.

About the only NFL this-stat-equals-a-win cliche that didn't die a swift death in those four games is that the team which ran for the most yardage went four for four. Of course, in three of 'em, the winner also passed for more yardage, so perhaps that cliche is moot, too.

But enough of all these dry statistics. To best describe playoff football 2013, let's try a phrase from the Associated Press. "Aaron Rodgers... never got in synch as he finished by completing 26 of 59 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns."

Poor guy just never got untracked. Five Super Bowl MVPs, including Tom Brady in Super Bowl XXXVI, didn't pass for 257 yards, but now, it's quarterbacking for the Paloookaville franchise (probably the Jags'll move there).

What to make of this I do not know. But I am willing to make a prediction for the rest of the playoffs. You'll see one of the remaining four teams run the Wing-T formation before you'll see an under bet.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Empty Halls of Closed Minds

Paul Hagen had better have one hell of a speech ready for the last Sunday in July. It had better be a long one, too.

Hagen is the winner of the 2013 J. G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball print reporting given by the Baseball Writers Association of America, an award which will be presented at the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Cooperstown, New York (It's not being elected to the Hall, a mistake many sportswriters make each summer). Hagen will also be the only living person presented an award at the 2013 ceremony. The baseball players and owners being inducted into the actual Hall are long, long dead.

And as a result of that, the BBWAA, an organization of which Hagen and yours truly are longstanding members, even if I'm emeritus, is closer to death than ever before -- at least as far as the Hall of Fame is concerned.

As you may have heard, no living players eligible for the Hall in 2013 received the required 75 percent of votes cast by BBWAA members of the required seniority to be elected for what is endearingly if foolishly regarded as the sport's ultimate honor. Not anymore it isn't. What honor is there in receiving one from an organization without it?

In the year when there were more eligible candidates than any in my over 15 years of voting, nobody made it. Not the game's all-time home run hitter. Not the best-hitting catcher ever. Not a 300-game winning pitcher. Not maybe the best postseason pitcher who ever lived. Not the second-most dynamic offensive player of the 1980s. Nobody. A plurality to a majority of BBWAA voters had a point to make. We think steroids are bad. We think steroids are so bad, we're willing to be worse to prove our point.

Jeff Bagwell got fewer votes in 2013 than he did in 2012. Why? Because the bitter old washerwomen who comprise a significant minority of the voters wanted to vent their spleen. Murray Chass, a sad parody of an angry old man these days, saw acne on Bagwell's back one time in his playing days. Proof enough for us!!

Mike Piazza didn't make the cut. Never formally accused of steroid use, but rumored to have said in an off-the-record conversation to a baseball writer that he'd done so. Second source? Violating source confidentiality? Who cares about our profession's ethics! We're judging HIS profession's ethics.

Roger Clemens was accused of perjury for testifying he never used steroids. A federal jury acquitted him. Perjury's not a crime where an alibi or reasonable doubt come into play. The jury either believes you or the prosecution. Twelve good citizens and true believed Clemens. How dare they insult the integrity of the game!! We'll show 'em.

Barry Bonds never had a chance. In addition to being a smart sociopath, Bonds blew up baseball's beloved records and statistics -- the highest crime against the sport its Purity Police can conceive. Also, and this really probably irks the guys and gals who didn't vote for Bonds, at some level Barry doesn't care they didn't. That's one advantage of being a sociopath in the first place.

Here's an oddity for you. At the end of the 2004 season, baseball's steroid controversy was in full swing and Barry Bonds was at its center. "The Daily Show" had run a sketch on Bonds and steroids during the season. He'd been on the cover of the New York Times Sunday magazine, and the story had indeed mentioned performance-enhancing drugs.

At the end of the 2004 season, Bonds was elected National League MVP. The award is voted on by members of the BBWAA. Wonder how they voted in the 2013 Hall election.

What really rankles is that so many voters were cowards as well as pompous moralizers after the fact. If some player from the pre-steroid era, or a player of that period generally regarded as clean, Curt Schilling, Craig Biggio, Tim Raines, anybody, had been elected, well, that would be a statement by the BBWAA. A mistaken statement in my opinion, but it would have made a point. But too many voters couldn't go that far. They wanted not to deliver justice, even hanging justice, but to vent their indignation that baseball wasn't any less corrupt and fallible than all other human institutions, and by extension, they were not to be regarded as any less corrupt and fallible than their fellow humans.

Put it this way. When you hear Bob Costas moralize about the PED users in baseball, do you hear a sincere advocate for a position, or a man angry that his youth gets further away each moment and that the baseball hero of his youth drank himself to death?

Many of the "no" voters of 2013 wrote or stated anguished declarations about how hard it was. Bull. They loved every second. They love being the Gods of Cooperstown. That's why they (and me, never forget I voted and am in this deep, too) are Gods who must be and will be destroyed.

Major League Baseball isn't the most forward-looking organization in the world, but even it must recognize the contradiction of running a museum which is intent on erasing decades from the the sport's history. More saliently, MLB surely recognizes the commercial dangers of supporting a highly publicized trashing of said history. The Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce must surely be delighted with today's results. Where do they get banners with Paul Hagen's likeness on 'em?

The National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame selects the nominees for election. They selected all the players of the steroid era based on on-field accomplishment. Since MLB runs the committee that runs the Hall, we must conclude that baseball itself decided that these candidates passed whatever morality tests the sport has. Pete Rose wasn't on the ballot, after all.

The voters thought otherwise. As a matter of practical politics, it's very unwise for an organization to claim more power than a more powerful one has granted it. MLB has wanted to alter the Hall voting format for years, and has been right. As I always say, I have a vote and Tony Gwynn  doesn't? Something wrong there. The missing Class of 2013 just gives MLB a better excuse to strip the BBWAA of the only authority it has left in the sport.

It's also an excuse for MLB to make more money. Stand by for the TV ads urging you fans to cast your votes for the 2015 Class of the Cialis National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame.

I really don't give a shit whether Bonds, Clemens, or anybody else gets elected to the Hall or not. It's a museum for a fun, silly game, not Westminster Abbey.  But the BBWAA voters were my former professional peers. Many I considered friends, and I know many of those business friends were "no" voters. With a few nasty exceptions, they're not malicious folks. They know and love the sport and want to do what's right for it.

That's why I'm sad. The voters confused, as humans often do, what's right with what makes me feel like I'm right. Baseball writers are prone to seeing the sport as one of the world's major religions, with them as clergy. It can make them a pain to be around. The Bagwell no vote is based on the malicious gossip that is the bane of all press boxes.

But the point of being a baseball writer is in the second word of the phrase. All the principles of journalism these voters violated out of a warped sense of priorities do far more damage to their own battered trade than they did to baseball by making the Hall of Fame look foolish. Baseball always looks foolish one way or another. It's one reason I love it.

I love journalism more. Watching my former profession hurt itself through misguided arrogance hurts a great deal, and that it was done by people I know makes the hurt almost insupportable. The substitution of suspicion for proven fact is one of reporting's cardinal sins, almost THE cardinal sin.

The BBWAA got the Hall vote because baseball felt it could find no other dispassionate, unbiased jurors within the sport. That's out the window now. And since news customers are looking for the same thing when they purchase information, the damage the BBWAA did to itself today goes far beyond losing that vote.

My Hall vote is about my last tie to my former trade. I'll keep it as long as baseball lets me. I suspect that won't be that much longer.

Today, it's hard not to think "just as well."

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Bye to All That

Acute Boston sports fans have noted, then complained about, the dearth of news and/or insightful, witty or at least diverting commentary from sports journalism on the New England Patriots this week. Leaving aside the merits or demerits of individual journalists and commentators, let me gently tell said fans the following: Lighten upon my former peers. It's the bye week of the playoffs. There IS no news. There ISN'T anything much worth saying. What you're reading, hearing and watching is first degree filler, created out of duty, not to mention desperation. You'd have done the journalists you're ripping a major favor if you ignored their work during a bye week. I assure you they're not polishing it up for awards season.

The playoff bye, while a welcome and significant reward for the teams that get it, is hell on the news business. Original angles on the home team are scarce, considering it's been covered every day for five months now. There aren't any angles on the visiting team at all, because its identity has yet to be determined. And efforts to create the Big Picture angle are doomed, since everybody knows what it is anyway.

Here's the Big Picture painted by your 2012 New England Patriots. They're a very good team. The only thing standing between them and the Super Bowl title is the fact the other 11 playoff teams range from pretty good to very good themselves. We'll just have to wait and see what happens, which is the ultimate truth of all pregame, pretournament, preanyevent stories in sports, and one which gets you fired if you write or broadcast it too often.

Hell, the Patriots themselves don't have any insights on bye week. The playoffs are when NFL teams, as they should, become more inner-directed and insular than ever. "I love this time of year," Tom Brady said once, "because all there is in it is football." Consider the rest of Brady's life and go back to that statement. Logic and the slightest degree of empathy tell us that zealously competitive men entering the peak experience their profession offers are not going to be too interested in sharing that experience with outsiders. Given the insane emotional demands of that profession, they probably couldn't even if they wanted to.

So what readers, viewers and listeners got this week was boilerplate news -- evergreens on the order of rental truck gets stuck on Storrow Drive on Labor Day weekend, marathoners eating spaghetti the Sunday before Patriots' Day or the damn truck leaving Fenway for spring training. It is one of the eternal mysteries of the news racket that while no customer ever says they LIKE evergreens, many of them bitch like hell if they don't get them as scheduled. I think it's a rhythm of life thing.

No journalist likes doing evergreens. The root word of news is "new." Evergreens are "olds." But work is work. In sports, the danger of doing them is pressing. Making up angles is very dangerous work. The risk-reward ratio between creating an insight and creating something ridiculous is about that of going for it on fourth and seven from one's own 11 yard line.

So cut my former colleagues some slack. If they rang their usual bells, well, that's all they had. I covered four Pats' playoff bye weeks in my career, and I was sure glad when all of them were over. And you can bet that if I were still in the business, I'd be rooting like hell for the Texans this evening. If they win, there's an extra day of pregame angles in play.