Sunday, June 30, 2013

Why Let Facts Ruin a Perfectly Good Opinion?

JoanVennochi's little screed in the Globe this morning on how the loss of the moral influence of the late Myra Kraft is somehow linked to both the Aaron Hernandez murder case and the team's inability to win Super Bowls might've had a tad more credibility if the acquisitions of bad apple players she cited as evidence hadn't almost all happened when Kraft was still alive.

Myra Kraft was a wonderful person. Using her in that way was shameful. As an Op-Ed columnist, Vennochi's beyond shame, of course, but persons of goodwill and good sense should ignore her work foreverafter -- if they weren't doing so already.

Gone Fishin', or at Least I'll Eat Some

In a few hours, your correspondent will be leaving for a week's sojourn in an area which is not wilderness, but where he refuses to take the Internet with him. So until next Sunday, the absence of posts here is not laziness nor the inability (which I freely admit is increasing) to find stuff in sports I feel like talking about, but an actual vacation.

Enjoy Independence Day, with fireworks if possible.

Requiem on Ice

The Bruins' 2013 season and its end deserve more comment than it got from me, but there's really never much to say about a tough loss except, "Sorry, gang." They happen, and it is one of the cruelties of sports that they happen most often to contenders, who play for high stakes and therefore have losses which are more emotionally distressing.

But since contenders are just that, their tough losses tend to even out. There wouldn't have been a Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals without Game Seven against the Maple Leafs. It took time, but the Tuck Rule neatly canceled out the roughing the passer call on Ray Hamilton. Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS, meet the 2004 ALCS. And so on.

Live by the miracle, die by the miracle. Or vice versa.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Guilt By Six Degrees of Association

Back in the 1990s at the Herald, there was a murder. An in-house murder. One of the printers or pressmen or members of one of the paper's now vanished 19th century craft unions shot and killed a co-worker.

As it turned out, the killer was an ex-con who'd served time on a federal beef and had shot the co-worker, a real nice young man from Charlestown, for complaining to a superior about the killer being a goof-off. The killer had a relative who was a wheel in whatever union it was, which explains how he came to be at the Herald in the first place.

As it further turned out, the cops cracked the case in about 36 hours, as the killer was no Napoleon of crime.  His magic plan for getting away with it involved wearing a gorilla mask when he did it. Surprisingly, this did not prevent his almost instant identification by witnesses and forensic science.

Everyone at the Herald, me included was shocked, appalled and, we must admit, fascinated (hey, it's a tabloid) by this dismal sequence of events, whether we knew the parties involved or not. Since the Herald had a great many employees at that time, almost all of us didn't. Those emotions, however, didn't include the slightest sense of personal or institutional responsibility. None of us up in sports thought the murder had anything to do with us and the product we produced. Neither did anyone else at the paper as far as I know.

The killer was duly convicted and sent to MCI-Cedar Junction, where I trust he remains today. The Herald absorbed the tragedy and went on. Months later, its only impact on life there was the new and illogical security requirement that we show our company ID when entering the building through the parking lot.

Anyone who thinks I'm drawing a parallel with recent events in New England sports is of course correct. The Herald murder came to my mind the moment the authorities arrested Aaron Hernandez for the murder of Odin Lloyd. The similarities are glaring, especially the vicious ineptitude of each crime. The similarities lead me to make a small forecast as to the impact Hernandez's alleged crime and subsequent trial will have on the Patriots organization: next door to none and rightly so.

There was no collective guilt at the Herald. There was no reason for it. Yes, it would have been infinitely better if the killer had never become an employee. But human resources, not to mention the science of psychology, has yet to develop that "identify future murderer" personality test. For internal political reasons, the paper took a chance on an at-risk employee. The risk happened. That's an error. You could even call it a big fuck-up. But it wasn't an immoral decision requiring guilt or identification with the crime itself.

For myself, I was sorry the murder happened, of course. Disgusted, even. But to say it caused me a moment's qualm, let alone lost sleep, would be a lie. Doesn't when I think of it now, either. I expect and hope the Patriots will go through the same emotional sequence. The players, coaches and entire franchise are in unsettling proximity to an awful crime. But they're not connected with it.

To say that the Patriots are somehow morally linked to the death of Lloyd because they drafted Hernandez is insane even by the very low standards of 2013 sports discourse. NFL scouts are no more adept than psychologists at forecasting murders. The Pats knew Hernandez was an at-risk employee based on his behavior at the University of Florida. Not that kind of risk, though, just the usual "this kid engaged in knucklehead behavior" risk. For the external reason of winning football games, the organization's stated purpose, they took the risk. It blew up in the most horrible and spectacular way imaginable.

Call that a blunder. Call it a fuck-up even. Just don't bring morality into it. Don't make an ethical fool of yourself by attempting to meld Randy Moss' tendency to take some plays off with a murder.

Misjudgment is not the same as misconduct. The Patriots judged Hernandez, particularly when they gave him that big contract extension, by the same standards most human beings use to judge others, by what they saw. They saw a player who worked hard and did well. Pro football players spend most of their time at the office. How natural to assume Hernandez was therefore doing well in that minority of his life reserved for personal matters.

Natural and as it turns out incorrect. But since few if any of us can imagine the people we know, even slightly, as murderers, it's wrong to kick the Pats for the lack of imagination we share with them. It's a survival trait. If everybody went around thinking everyone else they met might be a killer, there could be no society at all. And I'm not sure a sports franchise which made a point of conducting 24/7 surveillance of its players would have many fans, or players for that matter.

There's a widespread misconception about the so-called Patriot Way, one that the franchise itself, in another blunder, has allowed to thrive and even fertilized rather than pulling it out like the weed it is. That Way is not the Boy Scout Oath. It's about football. It's credo is that when a player becomes a Patriot, doing what's required to win is the Prime Directive, and there are no other directives. In the view of Bill Belichick, keeping all contact with the outside world nice and quiet is part of what's required to win. It's just not as big a part as blocking, tackling or catching touchdown passes.

It would be most unfair to say that Patriot Way and "Just Win, Baby" are the same idea. But they're blood relatives, and we all ought to be adult enough to know that. Pro football is a business of risk. Players risk the near certainty of impaired health and shortened life in return for riches and the indescribable, addictive rush of victory. A business of risk is bound to have plenty of at-risk employees, however hard it tries to avoid them.

What are the morals of the Hernandez story? They're things we all know already. Human beings are capable of anything. It's hard to predict what that anything might be, since they themselves don't know beforehand. It's real easy to screw up a life beyond repair no matter how great said life looks on the outside.

What is the moral for Patriots fans? You follow a team in a morally ambiguous business -- meaning it's like every other business. And you root for a team capable of human error with the worst of consequences, even if the consequences aren't their fault.

You root for a team of human beings.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Deconstruction's Not Just For Literature Anymore

The sum of human (will, my own) sports knowledge would be much enhanced if I could learn at what point in the spring of 2013 Doc Rivers, Danny Ainge, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce all first thought of the Boston Celtics "This show's over."

It'd be even more enhanced if we knew at what point the four men confided their shared conclusion to each other. Then we'd be on our way to true understanding of the apparently-but-couldn't-possibly-be sudden upheaval of the franchise.

In sports as in many aspects of human existence,the participants in an experience are often the last to realize what's going on in it. That the Big Three With Two Imports Era of Celtics history is no more was apparent to outsiders as early as the end of the 2011 season, let alone this one. In strict basketball terms, Ainge would've been well advised to have taken the wrecking ball to the roster last summer at the latest. Despite a career marked by one of the quickest and most enthusiastic GM trigger fingers of all time, he didn't. Perhaps he was blinded by the dangerously seductive brilliance of Rajon Rondo (which had to be why Rivers re-enlisted before that).

Rondo got hurt, and after a false winter dawn, night descended on the Celtics of 2007-2013 for keeps.  Which wouldn't be a remarkable sports story at all, except for the extraordinary level of collusion in the liquidation of that team by its architect and major participants.

The level of mutual consent needed for Rivers to become coach of the Clippers and Pierce and Garnett members of the Brooklyn Nets is what fascinates me. It might've been tacit consent, but consent there had to be. The Celts dissolved themselves in a nolo plea.

Had he been bloody-minded, Ainge could've held Rivers to his contract. GMs have done that and worse for spite in pro sports many many times. He didn't. Garnett had the contractual right and Pierce the effective right to block their trade to the Nets, who've seldom been a happy destination for players through NBA history. They didn't. At some point, probably not as a group but certainly among each other, these four old pros had to have confessed that this stage of their professional lives were over, and it was time to salvage what each could from its termination.

That's how old pros in any walk of life are supposed to look at things and how they're supposed to behave, but such is human frailty that when it does happen, it's news. It's an event that speaks very well of each of the four proud, talented men who arranged their no-fault separation without benefit of
(too much) counsel. Heaven knows they have their frailties. Overcoming frailties is way harder than making the NBA playoffs. It should get as least as much applause.

In terms of salvage, Rivers will do best at first. All he has to do to win is get along with Chris Paul, which ought to be a cinch after Rondo.  The gravitational force of doom that emanates from the Nets franchise will, I fear snare Garnett and Pierce in its pull. With luck, they could be on a team moderately better than the Knicks were this season, a golf clap forecast if ever there was one.

As for Ainge, he's got the 2013-2014 Celtics. At this point, that's Rondo, the 2012-2013 Celtics' bench, and the 2013-2014 Nets' bench. Let's just say I don't think Phil Jackson heard about the trade and said "Wow, I better give Danny a call."

Oh, and he's got draft picks galore. Until about 1990, that would've been a cheery prospect. Today, when freshman centers rehabbing serious knee injuries are high lottery picks, draft picks are seldom the stuff dreams are made of and often the stuff  more lottery picks are made of.

Still, Ainge did the right thing. However faint, hope of a better tomorrow is infinitely better than futile CPR of yesterday, not to mention working with vital personnel you know full well would rather be elsewhere. The Celtics' boss was willing to act on his best judgment even when he must've hated said judgment. Good for him.

Maturity, which I hope to experience someday, is not among the most celebrated virtues. It's a very rare one in the odd multibillion dollar industry of staging children's games and charging people to watch them. Maturity is the story of the dissolution of the Celtics. The team blew itself up because grown-ups acted like grown-ups. Oh, and of course there was money involved. I said grown-ups, didn't I?

Rivers, Garnett and Pierce will all return to the Garden next season. Put it out there in advance. Anyone in attendance who boos them is and always will be clueless. Not just about basketball, either.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

First, Say No Harm

People don't gamble on hockey as much as they do on football. That's why the NHL's policy on medical news makes NFL coaches jealous. No mandatory reports, no probables, questionable or doubtfuls. Teams can and do lie, and it's all part of the game.

Claude Julien didn't lie today. He did, however, set a record for most amazing non-answer answer that ought to stand for a long, long time.

Asked about Patrice Bergeron's health, Julien stated, "it's a body injury."

What other kind is there, coach?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Clubs Say Calloway, But They Mean Acme

Sometime this afternoon, possibly mid-afternoon, but more likely towards evening, the world of golf what it dreads but expects. Phil Mickelson, with the U.S. Open in his grasp, will hit a drive off a hot dog stand, or perhaps four-putt from 10 feet to put up a number that makes victory seemingly impossible.

Note the adverb there. Should the inevitable disaster take place before the 18th hole, it's possible Mickelson will hit a couple of his impossibly wonderful shots to win when all looks lost. Unlikely mind you, but certainly possible. Phil's career has snatched victory and defeat out of each other's jaws so often they've both had to have oral surgery.

That magnificently erratic approach to the sport is why golf fans love Mickelson, and why he's never won a U.S. Open. The U.S. Golf Association arranges its prime tournament on the principle that to the boring belong the spoils. Put the ball in the fairway 18 times, hit 18 greens, take two putts every time for four rounds, and you're our ideal champion.

Well, what fun is that?  The first and greatest of all golf writers, Bernard Darwin, accurately observed that writing about golf played well was dull work. What is there to say about a drive, an iron and two putts, anyway?

More to the point, who plays golf that way? The pros don't. Check the stats with which they're trying to ruin broadcasting of golf these days. The best pro hits 80 percent of the fairways and greens. The best putters miss far more 15-20 footers than they make. As for the rest of us, we laugh. A round of golf for anybody with a handicap over 12, which is, oh, 99.6 percent of everyone who's ever teed it up, is four hours or so of dealing with disasters, all of which we know damn well are our own fault.

There has never been a Hall of Fame golfer more gifted at generating disasters that are his own fault than Mickelson. I cherish the memory of a drive I saw him hit on the 18th at Oakland Hills during a catastrophic week for him and the U.S. at the Ryder Cup. Imagine the rainbow slice of duffer who could hit the ball 400 yards. Mickelson's ball sailed past the out of bounds markers, left club property and possibly the state of Michigan, too. Bad for him, bad for the U.S. team, but only people who take the sport too seriously were offended and horrified. The rest of us duffers thought "My brother!"

So here's a guy who makes the same horrible errors we do. Except, he's one of the sport's historic champions, rich, happy, wonderful family, the whole bit. Naturally golf fans love Mickelson. He is them, with the minor difference that he can really play.

Perhaps Phil will tee off at 3:20 p.m. today and play the boring great golf he has wistfully admitted he'd like to try sometime. Maybe he'll hit fairways and greens, grind out a par 70 or maybe a 69, and win his first Open as his gifted competitors succumb to disasters to which they're not accustomed at all.

If so, golf fans will be thrilled for Mickelson. But I suspect they'll feel a bit of sneaky disappointment, too. They want to see the safe land on Phil's head, and THEN have him bounce up and catch the Roadrunner.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Good and Evil Need Each Other, If Only to Run the Wildcat

So much for those people who say Bill Belichick has no sense of humor! The news that the Patriots have signed Tim Tebow certainly cracked me up, and I'll bet I'm not alone.

Actually, when it comes to hiring football players, Belichick DOESN'T have a sense of humor. The Tebow hiring has to have some purpose besides throwing a custard pie in the face of all the "experts" who have opined that Tebow has no possible future in the NFL. While discomfiting Trent Dilfer is truly the Lord's work, Belichick will leave that line of work to his new temporary employee. The coach has to have some idea of how he might use Tebow to the Pats' best advantage. Damned if I can figure out what it is, but that's of no consequence. The point is, that idea exists.

Belichick usually ignores football journalism finds inaccurate or foolish. It is telling that he issued a strong and angry denial of a Yahoo! story by Mike "I was really hip in 1998" Silver saying he hated Tebow as a player. Belichick doesn't expect sportswriters to be football experts. But the Tebow story was personal, an affront to Belichick's very being, his approach to player assessment. It is Belichick's particular skill that he never assesses a player by what that player can't do, but by what he might be able to do.

Speculation on what Belichick's Tebow scheme might be is as wide-ranging as it is futile. Tight end? H-Back? Third-string QB to light a fire under Ryan Mallet? Cornerstone of a new offensive formation based on Belichick's old films of the flying wing? Having come to the assumption that Tebow was useless in NFL terms, the football commentariat has no conception of what use Belichick is at least willing to consider for the guy.

It's tempting to think that Belichick gave Tebow a no-risk, almost no-pay contract in the interests of pigskin science. In the NFL, Tebow is a product for which no viable commercial application has yet been discovered. Since it's far easier to go get a new player than think hard about one who doesn't seem to fit, Tebow has gone from national phenom to allegedly unemployable in about 18 months.

But when one looks at Tebow's record, especially the part under W-L, it's hard not to suspect that he has something to contribute to a winning NFL team. At least Belichick thinks so, and happily for science, is in a position where he can afford to test his hypothesis with an experiment. If it fails, well, back to the drawing board, and back to Christian broadcasting talk shows for you, Timmy. If it succeeds, well, more honor for the coach, and more laughter for me.

Given the Patriots approach to information disclosure, which is rather more stringent than that of, say, Booz Allen Hamilton, much of the experiment will be conducted in the privacy of the Foxboro laboratory. No franchise in the NFL can better turn a media circus into a media preschool picnic. Belichick will dismiss questions with his usual mixture of blandness and brevity. Tebow will answer questions with his supply of sincere and uninformative cliches. He's no Chad Johnson in the quote department. Hell, he's no Tom Brady.

In science, most experiments fail. Odds are Tebow will be released, not quietly, sometime prior to the third preseason game. But maybe not. The Tebow experiment doesn't have to succeed to be a part of the Patriots' game plan. Standing on the sidelines, Tebow will be a mind game all by himself. Other teams will look at his study visage and say "What's he there for? What's Belichick up to?"

An opponent with an undiagnosed worry has already spotted you a point and a half. If the worry's wholly imaginary, so much the better.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

A Los Angeles True Story

Grand Park is the newest park in downtown Los Angeles. It stretches five or six blocks west from City Hall, all uphill I might add. One of the blocks contains a very large fountain with an area in front which serves as a kiddie wading pool.

The pool was crowded on a late May Saturday. It was mainly crowded with parents taking pictures of their kids in the fountain, but there were a fair number of families who were using the pool in the way its architect intended -- giving Mom and Dad a chance to sit down and take a load off.

One such family had three kids splashing merrily in the pool, and one, a real little kid, maybe five at the outside, hanging back. He was in his bathing suit and as some little boys are, was very shy and embarrassed by the fact others could see his underpants beneath the suit.

His mom wasn't having any of that. Using her sternest mom voice, she said "Those are Calvin Kleins! Wear them with pride!! Now get in there!"

Scandinavians Are Supposed to Have Low Blood Pressure, Right?

When a hockey team gives up only two goals in a four-game playoff, the goalie must've done a pretty good job. The stats say few goalies ever have done a better playoff job than Tuukka Rask has this year.

And yet, thinking back on the Bruins' sweep of the Penguins, I am hard pressed to remember occasions where Rask appeared to be hard pressed. He made superior saves, of course, but by and large they were one-offs. A Penguin would, very occasionally, get by the Bruins defense and thwack away at Rask, usually from a fair distance. He'd make the stop, glove it, and that would be that.

Pressure off of faceoffs near Rask? Not much. Coordinated danger from the power play? Might've been some, as I didn't get to see every minute of the series, but it's not coming to mind. Every time I saw the Penguins' offense, it reminded of John Calipari's Kentucky offense on a bad night. Three-point shots and nothing else -- and you don't get extra for shots like that in hockey.

This is not to take anything away from Rask. He's an excellent goalie who's playing at his best and with obvious self-confidence, the most vital ingredient of his profession. I merely wish to suggest that the team in front of him gave him every reason to be confident against the Penguins.