Saturday, December 21, 2013

If You Like the Show, Have the Decency to Praise the Cast

For anyone who's ever said, "I just want to see a good game," the 2013 New England Patriots should be their all-time favorite sports team.

Good game? The Pats haven't played a game that was less than spectacular drama since Halloween week!  Since November 4, they've played five games, none decided by more than four points, four of them decided in the final minute, three on the final damn play! Now THAT's entertainment, assuming of course you meant it when you said all you want to see is a good game.

In my experience, serious fans of any team can take excitement or leave it alone. They prefer 31-3 victories, thanks. Obviously, the same goes times one million for coaches and players. Bill Belichick's post-game mumbles haven't varied much the last two months in victory or defeat because either way, he's a tad strung out.

Sportswriters prefer good games because they're easier and more fun to write about. At the Herald, where we had a sports editor who believed in the human wave approach to covering the four pro teams, especially the Patriots, a game like the Broncos' game would've been a Godsend. All of our writers would've had a fascinating angle to cover.

I can show how welcome that is by citing the opposite case. One late spring Saturday afternoon at Fenway Park, there were six Herald writers at the game. The Sox lost 1-0 -- on a balk. Try divvying up the assignments on that baby.

Fair play says that if a team is providing games which are superior entertainment, commentators and reporters should acknowledge that said team is making their lives easier and more fun. The Pats are hardly a perfect or even nearly perfect team. But they've been putting on perfect shows. Their reviews should say so.

I haven't been a sportswriter for a long time, and I'm not a real fan, either (except maybe for the Phillies, my first childhood team, and the Tottenham Hotpur soccer team, don't ask). So I really do watch almost all sports events to enjoy them for their own sake. My attitude towards the NFL is pretty much that of a golf fan for their sport. Whoever does well gets applause.

I know the season's been tough on the Patriots themselves, and my encouraging words would infuriate them if they ever read or heard them (they won't). But I couldn't stand myself if I didn't speak from the heart.

Thanks for thrills, gang. Keep up the great-but-not-too-great work!

An Honest Opinion Is the Only Kind Worth Sharing

A columnist/commentator on any topic who doesn't occasionally piss off most of his or her audience is probably not doing a good job. Challenging conventional wisdom or more usually conventional prejudice is one of the moral justifications for the gig.

 Andre Laguerre, the managing editor who turned Sports Illustrated from a coffee table magazine for 50ish Ivy League grads living in Mamaroneck and Greenwich into the national journal of sports for decades, once said "You can't get too much hate mail" and there's a lot of truth in that. Going along with the crowd equals getting lost in it.

Here comes the cosmic BUT: A columnist/commentator who consistently pisses off most of his or her audience is surely doing a lousy job. He or she is no different than the ideological apologists or homer sports guys and gals who make up, alas, the bulk of the commentariat in our fair land. He or she is deceitful, lazy and worst of all, boring as all of sociology put together.

Well, maybe that last isn't really the worst. There's also the little issue of what kind of a person sees their mission in life as making other people angry. I don't find that a very attractive lifestyle.

It's easy to make people mad, too easy. This is especially true of sports fans, who are fans in the first place because doing so puts their emotions out on the edge in an enjoyable and relatively harmless way. It is no work at all to tease and provoke people on the edge. Their buttons are in plain sight. Just lean over and push.

Of course, pushing buttons may require saying one thing today and its exact opposite a week later as events change fans' perceptions. Guess what? Fans can read and hear. They will soon perceive that the commentator doesn't believe a word of his or her own work. Anger will be replaced by disgust and then ridicule in short order. Ridicule is the last stop before they stop paying attention. The true danger for anyone in the opinion business is when the audience can guess what your opinion is before they consume it.

Being predictable was my primal fear as a sports columnist for the roughly 25 years I did it. I'm sure I was sometimes, too. But at least I had this. I don't think any reader thought I was a crank yanker. My opinions, right, wrong or dull, were what I honestly thought. It was up to the readers to take it from there as to what they thought about it. Of course I wanted them to like it, but most of all I wanted to like it. I wanted  to express myself as best I could. Audience reaction was gravy.

From my increasing distance from that part of my life, I recognize that attitude as arrogance bordering on egomania. But that's what I honestly felt, and I think that kept my work honest, too. I never tried to trick anyone. I'd have been ashamed if I ever did.

One thing about the media business on all levels in the 21st century. A sense of shame seems to be a serious career handicap.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Generosity Bowl

Last month the bartender at the Squire in Chatham allowed as how she had tickets for the Browns game at Gillette today.

Last Sunday, the nice old fellow in the emergency room at Lahey Clinic in Burlington being treated for kidney stones said his son had scored six tickets for today as well.

Thus is the Cleveland Browns franchise defined. They are the birthday present and Christmas present road team. They are the opponent for whom season ticket holders decide they can afford to be expansive and let somebody else have a day of NFL fun. That it will be fun for Patriots fans is taken as a given by ticket donors and recipients alike. If it was a competitive matchup, my bartender and fellow patient would be getting sweaters for Christmas instead.

Thus too is the Patriots franchise defined. Its most loyal (financially speaking) fans are accustomed enough to victory that they've become win snobs. The Browns bore them. It's nice that the open market for tickets gains liquidity due to their boredom, but that's the real motivation here.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, either, no Patriots fan would pass up the chance to watch a game that figured to be a comfortable win. There were many seasons were there were no such games.

What You See Depends on Where You Sit -- Or Where You Lie Flat on Your Back

You see something new every day in every game. Last week, I saw the NFL with a head injury of my own.

Freezing rain is impossible to distinguish from plain old rain until you go outside and try to walk on it. One step onto the front stoop equaled one spectacular pratfall, one large cut on the back of my head and one quick trip to the Lahey Clinic emergency ward.

There was something on the CAT scan the neurologists didn't like. I was stable, mind you, but just as a precaution, I was, in words all sports fans know by heart, "held overnight for observation."

(Next time you hear that phrase, fans, spare some thoughts for the athlete being observed. The words may seem reassuring to outsiders. To patients, they're not.)

So I watched the Patriots-Texans and Broncos-Chiefs games on a small TV screen about eight inches from my nose in my hospital bed.  And my sensations watching those games were different. I was about 100 times more acutely aware of the collisions, violence and possibility for injury on every play than I ordinarily am.

This didn't affect my interest in the games. On the contrary, they held even more fascination. But they did affect my enjoyment of them. It didn't lessen it, just alter it. Perhaps the best way to express that is to say my pleasure in a typical NFL Sunday was significantly less mindless than it sometimes is.

The primal facts of pro football are danger, pain and body breakage. That's been true since the Providence Steamrollers were champs. They are facts even players themselves would rather not dwell on. How could they, and still keep playing?

But it's better we all get a refresher course on the basics from time to time. I don't recommend the course I took to anyone. But then the Browns and Pats kick off this afternoon, try and have your empathy settings switched to maximum.

I was sent home Monday in due course. I feel fine. I wonder how much empathy I'll be able to generate this afternoon.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

An Historic Voice From the Cheap Seats

Few human beings deserve being put on an eternal pedestal, but Nelson Mandela fills that bill if anyone ever did. Before he is memorialized (and trivialized) in the category of "hero so great we can safely ignore his life's relevance to ours," however, let me put forth a memory that Mandela was as human as could be when sports was the topic.

It was the first day of competition in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Yours truly was there, covering his first Olympics, jet-lagged and clueless. Having my first sinking encounter with the Olympic fear that wherever you are, the best story is somewhere else, I heeded the advice of veteran writers I'd talked to in the States. "Go to boxing," I was told. "Something always happens there."

So I did, and for neither the first nor last time, I thus received a professional lucky break as enormous as it was undeserved. In Barcelona's delightfully decrepit old fight arena, the first South African athlete of the first integrated South African Olympic team was going to enter the ring. And up high in the balcony, seated near an exit, as bigwigs who visit the Games often are, the better to travel to other events, was Mandela.

I and many American writers who'd actually figured out Mandela might show up were told we could interview him -- after the fight. He didn't want to miss a punch.

Not that there were so many. The bout itself may have been a geopolitical milestone, but it did the sweet science no credit. Understandably undone by the significance of the occasion, the South African boxer, a white guy, by the way, was barely able to lift his arms to defend himself, let alone hit his opponent. He was shellacked.

The scribes then hustled up to Mandela's section of the arena and the interview was duly conducted. After the obligatory round of political and social questions, someone ventured to ask former boxer Mandela what he'd thought of the fight.

Mandela made a frowny face. "He should've used his right more," he said of his countryman, making that short little punching gesture that boxing spectators always have and always will use to emphasize their advice. He then changed the subject.

Nelson Mandela. Revolutionary. Statesman. Moral Hero. And for at least one minute in a gym in Spain, 100 percent disgruntled fight fan.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Hub Fans Never Get to Bid Kid Adieu

According to the Globe, the most important development in sports this week has been that Ben Bradlee, Jr. has written a biography of Ted Williams. Way to go after those younger readers, gang! Way to forget that the most important part of the word news is the first three letters.

A three-part excerpt in the sports section was one thing. A droolingly favorable column about the book in Metro by the usually not-nuts Kevin Cullen was quite another. Such overkill deserves a response -- not a nice one, either. Such logrolling (Bradlee, Jr. was a longtime Globie who became an influential editor) is as old as newspapers, not to mention mankind, but that doesn't make it right or any less tempting a target for ridicule.

The author was a very good reporter in his day, so I'm sure the book is comprehensive and well-sourced. But I haven't read the excerpts and I won't buy the book. Not because it won't be an OK read, but because of its subject matter. There's nothing more about Ted Williams I need, want to or can know.

In life, Ted Williams got the ink as few athletes or celebrities of any kind ever have, including his own autobiography, book on fishing, and book on hitting (I have all three in my library). He was the subject of journalism running the gamut from great to godawful, and I daresay there's no one over 40 who ever held a Boston sportswriting job who didn't write at least one Ted piece. I did five, and I think that's probably average.

Nor did the Williams oeuvre end with his death. Leigh Montville, just rehired by the Globe in a very good move, had his own Williams biography (again in my library) published not so long ago. Montville is Bradlee's equal as a reporter at least and his superior as a prose stylist by a good deal (not a slam, Ben, Leigh's better than almost everybody).

In short, I believe I have all the information on Williams I need. As I think is obvious, I have MORE than I need. Even if Bradlee has documentary proof poor Ted ended his days wanting his head stored in a vat of liquid nitrogen, I don't care. Williams' declining years, some of which I witnessed, not close, but close enough to see, are not inherently interesting, as they are an inevitable part of everyone's life. It's the stuff Williams did that made his life different than everybody else's that grip the imagination and that's the part of his life most fully, even ludicrously fully, documented already.

The December publishing date on Bradlee's book is the real tipoff as to its intended destiny. It's one of those books, and many of 'em sell real well, whose marketing slogan is "here's something you kids can get Granddad for Christmas." Nothing wrong with that, but nothing worthy of the front page of any section of any newspaper, not even the book review section.

The Globe thought otherwise. As a result, I think new owner John Henry has of yet had no impact on the corporate culture of his purchase. It's still the same clubby, by-and-for-the-insiders operation it's been since I first got here in 1974.

Since Boston itself isn't quite like what it was in 1974, this doesn't bode well for Henry's investment, no matter how cheap it looked to him.