Sunday, March 31, 2013

It Happens Every Spring, Also Summer, Fall and Winter

The title refers to the need for mass media sports journalism to note that one of the major sports has begun another season. This requires expanded coverage of what, after all, isn't exactly an unexpected or novel event. The need for more words (or video) to describe the same old thing causes the press to start pressing. Errors and strikeouts ensue, the same as pressing does for any player in a slump.

The country and world's journal of record is "The New York Times." For this day, the editors of that august journal decided that the most important story about mankind's stay on the planet was this: Alex Rodriguez's contract hasn't quite worked out for the New York Yankees.

Heard about the Lindbergh baby? Kindergarten children know A-Rod's sad (from the Yanks' point of view) story, and have since 2010 at least. The contract was forecast to be an albatross right about now back when the deal got done in 2007.  Why break this non-news out as the paper's harbinger of the baseball season? Was the mundane reality that A-Rod is part of the bigger, even older story that dynastic sports teams often come to unhappy endings as their great players get past their expiration dates too depressing for the Yankees fans in the "Times" hierarchy to contemplate? Or, sadder still, did the editors just figure that anti-hero A-Rod was click-bait for a very slow news day? The inclusion of a "whither Hillary Clinton" feature on page one argues strongly for the latter proposition.

Click-whoring, while deplorable, is a frequent venial media sin. This blogger, whose amateur status remains, alas, pristine enough for the Royal & Ancient, let alone the NCAA, has done it and will probably do it again. It beats what the "Globe" did today in its baseball preview section, though. Opportunism is less offensive than re-chewed public relations spin.

The Globe baseball preview always has a Big Theme. Some years it works, others it doesn't. For the 2013 preview, the paper chose Chemistry, the specious bromide beloved within baseball that good interpersonal relations and cheerful attitudes among ballplayers can be an important element of winning.

I haven't the patience to debunk that chestnut one more time, so let's just specify that the Chemistry idea gets it backwards because winning makes teams happy, losing makes them unhappy, and the kind of driven personalities who become world-class professional athletes do not take failure, frustration and unhappiness in their stride. What's interesting here is that the "Globe" devoted so much space to an idea being actively sold by the Red Sox franchise to its customers. By golly, we like each other better now, so you'll like us better, too.

One six-game losing streak will be enough to shatter that marketing ploy. For the Globe to give Chemistry the dignity of so much ink and so many pixels is a baffling exercise in intellectual rhythmic gymnastics. Nick Cafardo might be the nicest person in sportswriting I ever encountered, so it is with no pleasure that I say that to cite the World Champion San Francisco Giants as an example of Chemistry at its finest without mentioning that the team had the finest pitching staff in baseball is simply cheating the reader.

As with the Times, the "Globe" had another, more valid story it could have chosen to discuss the 2013 Sox. The team is likely to be much better than it was in 2012 not because it'll be nicer to be around, but because it almost has to be. A season full of career worst performances is as difficult to duplicate as a season full of career bests. The Sox have hired actual major leaguers to replace the players liquidated in the Trade Deadline Purge of 2012, so they probably won't go oh-for-September this time around.

"Nowhere to Go But Up" isn't a very exciting headline or story. It has only the simple virtue of not being nonsense. For season previews, which I admit are nightmares for all sports media organizations everywhere, that virtue ought to be its own reward.

Ode to Wichita State, Florida Gulf Coast, La Salle, etc.

It is an iron law that gambling pools must have winners. Otherwise, who'd play? The impossible-to-estimate large number of plungers who enter NCAA tournament bracket pools each March means that somewhere out there in this great land of ours is at least one impossibly smug guy or gal who's going to have four of their Final Four picks right at the close of business this evening. The deserved hatred he or she or them will receive from everyone they know will be their real payoff. That's just the law of probabilities.

But the law of probabilities is a wide-ranging statute. It applies even more rigorously to failure than to success. And it says there will be many many more lucky pool winners in this great land of ours whose luck will stem from the fact they took home the money with a record-low point total.

I won't be one of 'em. I made my one per lifetime win quota years ago. But there were years at the Herald pool where I'd have, oh, the winner, the runner-up, and all but one Final Four pick right and finish way up the track. In 2013, there will be pools won by participants who failed to pick the winner, and had the highest point total because they had Syracuse in the Final Four or some other minimally successful guess.

Oh,well, it's only money. Too bad we can't be like coaches. Their reward for tournament failure is apparently the UCLA job.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Word From the Assignment Desk

Dear Former Colleagues in Boston Sports Journalism: Gang, I have a little job for you, one I believe will be of some interest to your audience.

As you may know, there is a proposal floating around Major League Baseball, which might be voted on at the next owner's meeting in May, to "create more flexibility in" a business school synonym for "get rid of" the pension plans of non-uniformed personnel of all teams -- the scouts, secretaries, PR staff, etc. These folks, many of whom have been with their teams far longer than the owners themselves, are truly unsung heroes and heroines. How would you have liked to be answering the phones at Fenway Park last summer?

All that need to be said about the morality of this idea is that its leading opponent is White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. He's hardly a hippie, being a cold-blooded businessman ruthless enough to make a lifelong on Michael Jordan, but also possessing enough resemblance to a real person to know the difference between being tough in business and being a complete shit.

This proposal is on the table because a large percentage, possibly a majority of baseball team owners ARE complete shits. They belong to that ever-expanding class of the American superrich for whom conspicuous consumption, let alone philanthropy, does not provide enough of an ego rush for their money. To them, the real fun of wealth is power, specifically the power to hurt others and get away with it.

So here's the job, guys and gals. Where does Red Sox owner John Henry stand on this issue? Since fans give Henry THEIR money, I bet they'd like to know just what kind of beast they're feeding with it? Is Henry just an owner who's had a few unfortunate seasons running the show lately, or is he the sort of person decent folk cross the street to avoid?

If any of you find out, I'll be grateful, grateful enough not to point out you should've done it already.

And if one of you has, and I just didn't see or hear it, I apologize in advance, but I still want to know, so repeat yourself.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sports Geography Is Why We Can't Live Without the GPS

I have become sad, sad proof that the operant conditioning used by the Global Sports Money Conspiracy has made resistance not only futile, but unimaginable.

I am watching NCAA Tournament games played in an arena located in San Jose, California. East Regional games. And I am so numb, I don't find this odd in any way.

If they move the Red Sox to the English Premier League, I probably won't even notice.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Is It Too Late to Pick Middle Tennessee?

The best team I saw in college basketball this season was, hands-down, Miami. Of course, I didn't see them play Wake Forest. Or Florida Gulf Coast.

The President of the United States made out his NCAA tournament bracket and picked Indiana to win it all. He must not've seen the Hoosiers play Minnesota. Or Wisconsin.

The tournament selection committee made Louisville the first overall seed. Then it slotted them in the regional with the toughest two, three and four seeds. This indicates a certain lack of institutional confidence in that body.

Hard to blame them. Handicapping the 2013 NCAA tournament is a stroll through a minefield while blindfolded and drunk. The form chart is what more accurately be termed the lack of form chart. There isn't a team in the event without at least one perfectly hideous loss on its resume, and usually more than one, or some glaring weakness you just know spells bracket-demolishing doom. Worst of all, this applies most of all to the chalk choices.

Kansas? Lost to TCU. Lost by 23 to Baylor. Duke? Megapoint loss to Miami. Losses to Maryland and Virginia. Georgetown? Offensively challenged, to be kind. Louisville. Can't shoot threes. The prosecution/craven forecaster rests, except to note that when commentators say, and I've heard more than one "as many as 20 teams could win this tournament" they're really saying "I think all 68 teams might lose it."

There are two ways to deal with that situation. One is to boldly embrace uncertainty, say to hell with it, and pick a Final Four of, oh, Davidson, San Diego State, Oregon, Creighton and Ole Miss. You'll go oh for four, OK, maybe one for four, but with style.

The other is to remember than even when the percentages suck, they remain the only percentages you have. The average number of one seeds to make the Final Four is like 2.something, so pick either two or three. Picking anything under a three to get there makes the superfecta look like a prudent investment. Hunches are all right, if they're for nothing lower than a four.

As near as I can tell, Ohio State, which has lost its share, has avoided embarrassment while doing so. So give them the West regional.

Being the best team I saw has to mean SOMETHING, doesn't it? Miami for the East regional.

Have to pick at least one top seed. Make it Kansas in the mushmelon soft South.

Boring as it is to pick Louisville, picking either Duke or Michigan State would be even more soul-destroying. So we'll give Rick Pitino another opportunity to stir fond memories in Celtics fans.

And there you have it. A forecast bland enough for Jim Nantz. Safe, sound, sensible and doubtless screwed.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Journalism Is a Public Trust, Sort Of

I got one extra laugh out of my Phoenix career this morning. I was exchanging e-mails with a co-worker who's roughly my age and who knew I'd been a writer at the paper. When I was, he had been a student at Suffolk University who'd pick up one of the free copies the Phoenix used to distribute on college campuses.

His favorite memory of the Phoenix? The entertainment value he got from reading the classified ads for hookers while he rode the subway home.

Aside from putting food on my table for many years, the best thing about newspaper readers is they are the best cure for the pretentiousness that is far more of a curse for journalists than drink has ever been.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Boston Phoenix 1966-2013

Lost a home today. Hadn't lived there in over 25 years, but when a house goes, it always hurts.

 Haven't been in the trade I learned in that home for over five. Doesn't matter. I love the trade still, even if the love is mingled with relief we've had a permanent separation. And my, how I still love the Boston Phoenix, which died today of Internet poisoning of the balance sheet.

One thing about journalism. You get good obituaries. A newspaper gets the biggest and best of all. Considering the many talented people there who lost their jobs today, and the many many more talented people who like me are Phoenix alumni, the paper will get reams of printed and pixelized eulogies far more eloquent than what I'll have to say here. But I can't let this death in my life pass by without comment. Or more accurately, one comment and a few disjointed memories.

The Phoenix is where I fell in love with first sight with the newspaper racket, where I learned the skills so that my love could be occasionally requited and where I associated with one hell of a lot of unbelievably talented people whose professional acquaintance and/or friendship I still consider a source of unending joy -- even the more than one person there who drove me nuts. It was a considerable honor to have been on that staff.

I won't even go into the arts staff, where the list of subsequent professional successes is the paper's longest (not one but TWO film critics for the "New Yorker," not to mention the paper's Pulitzer won by then and current classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz). I'll just give the following roster. The Phoenix had four staff sportswriters in its history: George Kimball, Mike Lupica, Charles Pierce and me. I sure don't mind being the last man on that team. Point is, I made it.

Most of all, the Phoenix taught me that newspaper work -- any kind of journalism, really, can only be done well if it's fun to do. My God how much we laughed at that place. Cussed a lot, too, but that's just the flip side of laughter.

Here are some memories, just the ones that popped up as I wrote the first paragraphs.

My job interview in 1977. First question from editor Bill Miller was "Can you live on the shit we pay?" When I answered in the affirmative, there was no second question.

The day Kimball and I, playing golf at the Fresh Pond course in Cambridge, each hit horrific slices off the tee that missed whacking the same jogger upside the head by three inches or so. The jogger was music promoter Don Law, the paper's biggest advertiser.

Playing Hangman at lunch at the old Eliot Lounge, a game which gets considerably harder after more than one beer, by the way.

The Charles and Diana's wedding party held by Donna Kay Williams. I've been to more than any six human's share of parties. Still the best ever.

The time publisher Steve Mindich damn near killed himself sitting in Pierce's beloved but highly defective swivel chair. If the office windows had been open, Mindich and chair would have flown out for a crash landing on Newbury Street.

Now I'm starting to remember the people. There can't be laughter without people, after all. I can't start writing about them, as there are too many and too many memories to write unless someone dumps a Stephanie Meyer-sized book contract on the desk in the next three minutes.

So let me close this disorganized tribute like so. The people of the Phoenix taught me that H. L. Mencken was right. Newspapering IS the life of kings. They taught me enough so that I had almost 30 years of a life in my opinion far better than that of some inbred chinless wonder in a drafty palace somewhere

To all the people of the Phoenix, living or dead, the ones I'm still in touch with and the far greater number with whom I'd sadly not. To the publisher, the editors, my peers, and the anonymous ad salespeople I never got to know because they seldom lasted long enough to know.  And finally, to the ones I couldn't know and owe the most to -- the readers. Thank you. Thank you for having lived in my life for awhile.

Sorrow at loss is a powerful thing. But so are laughter and gratitude. And a business whose former employees still love it long after the young adulthood they spent in it is gone is a business that earned its keep.

Theory Is Always a Six-Point Underdog to Dollars

The theory, as expressed by Greg Bedard of the Globe and others, is that the departure of Wes Welker from the Patriots wasn't about money, but about New England's desire to reorganize its offense so that other guys caught more passes, therefore enabling the franchise to win the Super Bowl that has eluded it since the start of the Pats' Offensive Boom of 2007-2012.

It's a plausible theory. After all, why pay more money for a player you're planning to use less? However, in this plausible is a least two bus stops short of convincing. Some untoward facts remain between the theory and its scheduled destination of reassurance for Patriots fans.

The primary fact, of course, is the offensive boom itself. When a team has set or come close to setting NFL scoring records over a six year span, it's hard to argue that the offense needs rebooting to carry it to a championship.

The Patriots' playoff losses in that span have been caused by, in order, being overwhelmed by the opponent's defensive line and one miracle play by the enemy offense (Super Bowl XVLII),  a total team effort 45-man suck job (Ravens 2009), another total team anti-effort (Jets 2010), a second failure to prevent the same Super Bowl opponent from scoring a touchdown in the last minute (Super Bowl XLVII) and a complete second-half ass-kicking (Ravens 2012). One searches in vain to find Welker's fingerprints at the scene of these crimes or to locate a change in "philosophy" that would've helped either.

Then comes the fact that less than two hours after losing Welker, the Pats signed Danny Amendola, a cheaper more-or-less reasonable facsimile of Welker, at a not all that much lower price, after making  an offer to Welker at a not much lower price than he obtained from the Broncos. That's not a franchise looking to move in a different direction, that's one seeking the method of getting there.

Thirdly, there's the issue of who's going to catch the 110 or so passes Welker caught on an annual basis? Who will move the chains on 3rd and 6? The logical assumption is that it'll be Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Both have been signed to much larger contracts than Welker wanted. Gronk has earned his so far, Hernandez hasn't. Both had injuries last year.  Neither was a particular standout in any of those playoff losses in which they participated.

I have to believe those contracts have as much to do with any changes in New England's passing game as do tactical concerns. It's what I'd believe about any of the other 31 NFL franchises. And that's trouble. The real danger to businesses isn't the investments they make, it's the actions they take to justify those investments.

I see no other way to describe what's happened yesterday than this. For reasons known only to themselves, the Patriots replaced an All Pro player with someone not as good for not quite as much money. And the justifications offered by others fail to make sense to me.

There is such a thing as addition by subtraction. Unfortunately, it's ever so much rarer than subtraction by subtraction.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Price of Everything, the Value of a Wide Receiver

Start by defining fair comment on the NFL future. If Wes Welker gets concussed in the first exhibition game for the Denver Broncos and misses 18 of the 32 games he's being paid $12 million for, which could surely happen, that wouldn't mean the Patriots were right to let him go. There are other factors to consider.

Nor if Welker catches his average 112 balls and the Broncos win the Super Bowl would it mean the Patriots were wrong to be outbid for the relatively trifling sum of $2 million. Again, there are other factors, mostly the factor that there's a statute of limitations on second-guessing. It's OK tonight to say whether or not the Pats should've ponied up to keep Welker. Next December, it'd be ridiculous.

ALL NFL personnel decisions are made with the knowledge injury could render them foolish. Otherwise, nobody could make any personnel decisions at all. EVERY time a team lets a productive player go it's aware the choice could bite them in the ass. Otherwise, no players would ever leave (or join) an NFL roster.

What's left is the parameter of fair comment. We assume Welker will be roughly as productive in 2013 as he was in 2012. It sure won't be the quarterback's fault if he isn't. (What a QB snob Welker is! First Tom Brady, now Peyton Manning). We also assume that the New England Patriots, a franchise with an almost unparalleled record of success, had a reason, likely a good reason, to lose the low intensity bidding war for Welker's services.

Within those parameters, I just can't find a reason the Pats might've had that makes sense to me. There's no rationale for them saying "Wes, you're done to the tune that we think you're worth $1 million less a year than Denver does." Done is done. Why bother to bid in an auction you want to lose?

I can't even find a reason why the Pats might think Welker is bound to deteriorate dramatically in 2013-2014 except the calendar. There's no indication in past performance it'll happen. Yeah, it'll happen someday. We all die, and athletes all deteriorate. But there's usually more evidence before the latter happens than Welker has provided.

I will also accord the Patriots the minimal respect of believing they don't actually think Danny Amendola will be a better player than Welker next season. One thing about Plan Bs. The letter grade is usually quite accurate.

(PS: I stand corrected.)

No, try as I might, what I come up with as rationales for New England's failure to re-sign Welker (and failure it is) are irrationales. This non-choice only makes sense if it reflects the blind belief of accomplished men in their own system, a self-confidence in methodology that's the antithesis of the scientific method. We're the Patriots. We can replace anybody. Always get younger, faster. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. In fact, the way we play it, past performance is all you've got to give before we have to pay you.

All football players get replaced. Some replacements don't measure up. The better the player, the fewer do. It's going to be difficult indeed for New England to replace Welker, not without paying just as much as it would've taken to keep him.

Deep down, I think Bob Kraft, as shrewd a judge of money and people as has ever run an NFL franchise, has succumbed to that franchise's own legend. He honestly believes Bill Belichick and Brady are magic. The rest of the team is straw they spin into gold. You shouldn't have to pay straw very much.

The Pats have won gold aplenty with this strategy. They've had wins aplenty, too. But they haven't quite been as successful as they've wished or expected.

The record for which the franchise used to mock the Colts is now its identity.

Guess We're a Baseball Town After All

Wes Welker signed with the Broncos late this afternoon. Despite this, the six o'clock news shows on Channels 4, 5, 7 and 25 all led with a story about an honor given some cleric from Buenos Aires.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Last Summer of 42

On the last Sunday of 2019, a new plaque will be revealed at the National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame. Deciding how to summarize the career of Mariano Rivera will be difficult.

What words best describe the career of the greatest relief pitcher in history, of the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball's most successful franchise? How do we define Rivera's magnificence without bringing Metallica into it?

My suggestion will not be adopted, but it seems to me that one sentence is all that's required.

"The one Yankee nobody ever hated."

Sports Statistics Might Be Getting Out of Hand

The graphic on the crawl on ESPNews last night ran as follows.

 Championship Week: March 6th-17th.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Attention Sports Media! Finance Is Not a Sport!!!

According to published reports, Tom Brady will be paid $57 million by the New England Patriots through the 2013-2017 seasons, every last penny of it in guaranteed money.

According to other published reports, some by the same reporters, Joe Flacco signed a contract for $120.6 million to be employed by the Baltimore Ravens from 2013 through 2018. $52 million of that sum is guaranteed. The rest of that impressive sum is NFL monopoly money, the imaginary totals used to make contracts sound more impressive than they are.

Published reports also suggest that both Brady and Flacco's contracts will be renegotiated in the near future, Brady's to give him more money, Flacco's to reduce the imaginary sums he signed for yesterday.

So far, so good if so irrational. However, we now come to the the published reports stating that Brady's deal with the Patriots was act of self-abnegation on behalf of a greater good on a par with Gautama Buddha's renunciation of his worldly goods and the ones stating that Flacco's contract makes him the Highest-Paid Player in NFL History, a title treated with both reverence and contempt.

Even in NFL finance, 57 is more than 52. Flacco's likely to wind up earning more than Brady over the next six years. But not that much more. His title should be "Maybe But Probably Not Highest-Paid Player in NFL History." Paid is a past tense word, and Flacco's salary gets hazier the future one peers into the future.

Nor is Brady all altruist. Could he have bargained for more from New England? Sure, if he wanted some of it to be in NFL money designed to be the stuff of press releases rather than legal tender.

Brady, whose portfolio must be conservative enough to gladden the heart of the stuffiest banker in Zurich, chose the prudent path of guaranteed sums. That's a financial judgment on his part, not a moral one.

At a press conference yesterday, Flacco said his new deal was about the respect he'd earned from the Ravens organization. I heard that and sighed. If that's so, Joe, then what will the inevitable restructuring of the deal represent?

One of the several reasons I would choose Brady as my quarterback over Flacco is that quarterbacks are management. When it comes to executives, I don't want one for whom money is about respect or anything psychological. I want one for whom money is just money.