Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Boys of Summer Meet the Crabby Moralists of February

When adoring fans give a ballplayer the nickname "Panda," the guy's not going to be built like circa 1985 Marvin Hagler. But to go by the reporting from Fort Myers, the hopes and dreams of the 2016 Red Sox are already crushed under the mass surrounding Pablo Sandoval's waistline.

This morning, Chris Gasper of the Globe sensibly reminded fans that it doesn't matter if Sandoval is a butterball, only that he hit the ball much better than he did in 2015. Still, Gasper wrote it would be nice if Sandoval showed some "penitence" when talking to the media.

Penitence? Did Pablo rob the poor box over the winter? Has a .246 average become a sin worthy of the confessional?

Hanley Ramirez took his first public drills at first base two days ago. He looked like all players do the first day of spring training, as if he was enjoying himself just fooling around at the game, which he was. Reporting on 98.5 FM, Dan Roche of WBZ, one of the nicest men extant, sternly noted that he'd give Hanley a pass on that, but he had better start seeing Ramirez taking hours of remedial first base instruction from coaches from here on in.

Roche is maybe the most unabashed Sox fan in the media, so honest in his homerism it can't be held against him. He was obviously reflecting a widespread public attitude that Ramirez must prove himself worthy of Soxdom by displays of suffering, or at least sweating.

Let me remind Roche and all others interested of the Sox of a few points. First base has traditionally been (and in the National League still is) where teams have placed players who swung a mean bat needed in the lineup but were indifferent or worse fielders. It is the least demanding defensive position except pitcher. It's nice if a pitcher is a Gold Glover, but if he can't get guys out, it's meaningless. Same goes for first basemen. If they can consistently hit for power, their glove work is a frill. They can get by with mediocrity. Forty-homer guys can get by as butchers.

Fifty years ago, manager Gene Mauch of the Phillies explained his decision to move slugger Dick Allen from third to first by saying, "if you can play catch, you can play first." No offensive to all first basemen everywhere (I was one!), but the truth of that statement has never been successfully challenged.

In Ramirez's case, his critics are missing the essentials of his Sox situation. What Ramirez needs isn't a better work ethic afield, it's not to get hurt the way he did in 2015 (and '14 and '13 for that matter), so that he can play in enough games to hit the 25-plus homers and 90-plus RBI that make him of any value to Boston. If that requires taking a lackadaisical attitude towards digging errant throws out of the dirt, well, that's part of the price of having two DHs on one roster.

I don't expect any of the above to sink in around here. Not after I read Dan Shaughnessy in the Globe this morning. He ended a routine "veteran returns to spring training" column on Dustin Pedroia with the peculiar phrase, "It feels somebody needs to yell at these guys."

What for, Dan? Aren't they putting their sanitary socks on correctly? Shaughnessy is fond of saying that writers say good things about players and teams when they win and bad things when they lose, which is true, but here's he's ripping a team when nothing is happening at all, when covering first base drills have barely begun.

2015, like 2014, was a lousy season for the Sox. All plans went wrong and many key players, Sandoval and Ramirez leading the pack, contributed little or flat out sucked. That's unfortunate, but it's not a crime to be punished. It's just a horseshit year to be forgotten as quickly as possible when pitchers and catchers report and the new season begins.

Let me add, the new, long, long season. Baseball at the major league level is a hybrid creature, an incredibly demanding sport which is also a stone blast to play. It can't be played well without self-discipline, but it also can't be played well without appreciating its pleasure principle, the fun which makes it possible to stay sane during the endless trek towards October and hopefully November. When players fool around in simple enjoyment of their silly game in spring training, it's just as important to their performance come Opening Day as all those first base drills.

At the second spring training I ever covered in 1981, Sox manager Ralph Houk was informed Tigers skipper Sparky Anderson was conducting three hour plus two-a-day workouts at his camp. Houk laughed and responded, "tell Sparky I don't know enough baseball to do that." He didn't add, "neither does anyone else," because we already got his drift. Houk's spring trainings featured hours of many players standing stock still. In that strike-interrupted season, Detroit and Boston had identical records.

Baseball ain't football. Grim resolve is NOT the attitude needed. If any team were to enter spring training with the suppressed rage and humiliation the above media members and so many of their audience wish, it'd be the most miserable group of humans imaginable by late July. It'd also be about 15 games out of first.

Luckily for Sox fans, baseball is too much fun for players not to have any, no matter what outsiders think. What I'm reading and hearing out of Fort Myers so far makes me worry more about sports journalism in general than about the home team.

Baseball, like all sports, is serious and fun all at once. If you don't capture the fun, you're not doing a good job of reporting. If you're not HAVING some fun, find another racket offering more money and security. God knows, there are a lot of those.

I'm just another old fart and I know standing in front of time and change is a fool's endeavor. But I can't help thinking "somebody needs to yell at these guys" has become my former profession's motto.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Sound Floor Game

This post's title was supplied by one Larry Joe Bird, whom I overheard on the Celtics' team bus one road trip while reading the box score of the last night's game.

"It says here," Bird told some unfortunate teammate I forget but who may have been Rick Robey, the most frequent butt of Larry's sarcasm except for Danny Ainge,  "you played a sound floor game. That means you didn't do shit."

Just so. As it turns out, this post is about football, not basketball. While researching my previous post on Super Bowl quarterbacks, I came upon a statistic I find mindbending now, even though it didn't seem so strange when I watched it happen.

In Super Bowl VII, the Miami Dolphins beat Washington 14-7. In Super Bowl VIII, they beat the Vikings 24-7. Neither game was close nor interesting at all, which is why those Dolphins have to celebrate themselves so hard today. Even at the time they were underappreciated.

In those two games, Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese threw a total of 18 (!!!!) passes, 11 in VII, a mere VII in VIII. To put that into perspective, Peyton Manning, who only put it up 23 times, threw his seventh pass of Super Bowl 50 in the first quarter.

Clearly, Hall of Fame voters of long ago placed a higher value on the art of the handoff than their 21st century peers. And Bob Griese has two rings that ought to have diamonds spelling out "sound floor game."

Super Aerial Circuses Sometimes Crash

Peyton Manning didn't have a very good day passing the football in Super Bowl 50. Some have claimed it was the worst performance by a winning quarterback in the championship game's history. Not so. It's not even runner-up.

Cam Newton had a terrible, no-good very bad day at quarterback for the losing Panthers. But as far as stinkeroos by losing Super Bowl QBs go, Newton's performance wouldn't crack the top (bottom?) 15.

Manning completed 13 of 23 passes for 141 yards and one interception, also losing a forced fumble. Not so hot. But it was a Montanaesque effort compared to the winning quarterback in Super Bowl XL. Ben Roethlisberger completed 9 of 21 passes for 123 yards and threw two picks. Somehow the Steelers beat the Seahawks 21-10 anyway.

For that matter, Manning's passing was superior to that of the following stat line turned in by a  Super Bowl winning field general: 12 completions in 22 attempts for 123 yards and one interception. Can you guess whodunit?

It was Manning's perhaps soon-to-be-former boss John Elway in Super Bowl XXXII, the "this one's for John" Bowl. The dramatic nature of Denver's upset of the Packers, and Elway's helicopter leap for a first down have obscured how poorly he threw in his most cherished victory.

As for losers, Newton can't even be Superman in that department. He completed 18 of 41 passes for 265 yards, running for 45 more. He had an interception and two disastrous strip sack fumbles. All in all, however, that's only a slightly below average horrorshow for a quarterback whose team loses the Bowl.

There were some real doozies in the 49 prior Super Bowls, games of surpassing futility apparently taken from the book "Cleveland Browns' Quarterbacks: 1999-2015."  Take 1988 NFL MVP Boomer Esiason in Super Bowl XXIII. He went 11 for 25 for 144 yards and one pick. Or Billy Kilmer for the Redskins in Super Bowl VII. He completed 14 of 28 passes for 104 yards and three interceptions. Amazingly, they are not the worst games turned in by losing starters in Super Bowls.

Which stinker leads the list is a matter of perspective. Tony Eason threw six consecutive incompletions at the start of Super Bowl XX for the Pats against the Bears, and was benched for Steve Grogan. Losing your job before the end of the first quarter sets a high standard in low, not that Sammy Baugh, John Unitas or Tom Brady could've done much against the Bears in that game.

But for 60 minutes of futility, we must consider David Woodley of the Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII against Washington. Woodley completed 4 of 14 passes for 97 yards, throwing one TD pass and one interception. That's weak enough, but dig into the play by play chart, and the poor guy's nightmare moves into LSD-tinged technicolor.

Woodley's TD pass came in the first quarter on his second attempt of the game. It was a 76-yard bomb to Jimmy Cefalo, and it had to have Woodley and all the Dolphins thinking "here we go, this is gonna be our day." For the rest of the 27-17 defeat, Woodley completed 3 of 12 passes for 21 yards. And you thought Peyton fizzled out in the second half!

The most salient bad Super Bowl for a losing quarterback, however, wasn't the worst of them. It also belongs to Manning's boss. In Super Bowl XXIV, in which the Broncos were edged out by the 49ers 55-10, Elway completed 11 of 29 passes for 136 yards and was picked twice. He did have a short TD run in the second half. The score was 41-3 at the time.

Note how similar Elway's passing stats are in what was the most memorable victory of his Hall of Fame career and in his most humiliating defeat. Why, it's almost as if the 44 other guys on his team and the 45 guys on the other team had something to do with each outcome. It's almost as if quarterbacks aren't always the most important players on their teams.

Super Bowl 50 was far from the best of 'em. But if it winds up convincing a few more people of the truth of my previous two sentences, it's a contender for a Super Bowl MVP award of its own.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

True If Not Necessarily Important Story of the Super Bowl

Super Bowl XXV was supposed to have all the NFL-generated hoopla of Super Bowl 50, but the Persian Gulf War got in the way. In retrospect, what this meant in practice was fewer free parties for media and sponsors and a big career boost for Whitney Houston. But at the time, people were genuinely puzzled. How could they reconcile a national mood of sober patriotism with the Bowl's need to be Super in all respects?

Among the puzzled were two 30ish guys in suits this reporter encountered one weekday before the game in the bar of Tampa's then brand-new Wyndham hotel (quite the nicest of the 14 Super Bowl media hotels in which I resided, BTW). A shared cocktail or two with these nice fellows and they confided their background. They were Walt Disney Co. middle managers, among the company execs responsible for putting on the Super Bowl halftime show. And in the manner of corporate go-getters everywhere, the two of 'em were bemoaning what they saw as a missed opportunity.

"If only they (by which he meant the White House), had given us some advance notice (of the war's start date), we REALLY could have put on a patriotic show," one of them said sadly.

After I picked my jaw off the bar, I assured them they'd do just fine in that regard, which of course they did. But let this be a lesson to all future Presidents of the United States. In case of war, make sure to notify Disney CEO Bob Iger before you phone Congress.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The End Is Only Part of A Story

The worldwide rumor that Peyton Manning will retire after the Super Bowl has now been reported as fact by Ian Rapoport of NFL Media. I believe him. A good rule of thumb is that pre-Super Bowl retirement or job change rumors usually come true. Vince Lombardi did retire after the game. Bill Parcells did leave the Patriots for the Jets. And of course, Manning's boss John Elway did retire after Super Bowl XXXIII.

I was lucky enough to cover that game for the Herald. As befitted his Hall of Fame career, Elway finished with a fairy tale flourish. He passed for 336 yards, the Broncos won the championship, and Elway got named Super Bowl MVP. A whole bunch of hearts and flowers ledes were written that evening -- mine included.

Fifty weeks later, on January 25, 2000, I was again lucky, covering the final game of another all-time quarterback, one of the three greatest passers of the last quarter of the 20th century. The last time Dan Marino put on a helmet was also the stuff of fantasy fiction -- as written by H. P. Lovecraft. Marino passed for only 91 yards, threw two interceptions and was benched for Damon Huard as his Dolphins lost a divisional playoff game to Jacksonville 62-7. I don't remember what I wrote, but it had to be sad. Even the Jaguars fans were a little sad.

Manning's final game, should this be it, is likely to fall somewhere between the poles established  by Elway and Marino. The betting line says most folks think he'll land closer to Dan than John on the storybook scale, perhaps very close indeed. The Panthers defense made Russell Wilson and Carson Palmer, two quarterbacks who had way better years than Manning, look either ordinary or awful in the playoffs. It's reasonable to assume they can make Peyton look even worse than that.

Having witnessed the ultimate extremes of how great ones bow out has led me to the following conclusion. What happens in Super Bowl 50 will not affect my memories and evaluation of Peyton Manning's career in the slightest. It'll be swell for him if Denver pulls off the upset victory, and depressing for all if he is humiliated as he was in the Super Bowl two years ago, but in the end, it won't matter.

Throughout all history in every sport, for every one historic star who goes out on top, 10,000 stay too long at the fair and end their playing days in failure. It's always sad to see, but here's the thing about greatness. Time passes, and it's the athlete's greatness endures in memory, not his succumbing
to the inevitable weaknesses of the flesh.

I remember Marino's dead swan song, but I doubt others do. If I hadn't seen it, I probably wouldn't. (For that matter, I'll bet most fans think Elway's last game was his first Super Bowl win against Green Bay). Most importantly, it's a memory swept away by others on those occasions I remember Marino at all. I recall the ridiculously quick release, or the fake spike against the Jets, or the resigned and unhappy tones of a succession of Patriots defensive coaches describing how they game planned for the guy.

That's as it should be, too. I remember watching Muhammed Ali fail to land a punch on Larry Holmes, and Willie Mays stumbling around the outfield for the 1973 Mets. I know those things happened. But that's not what I think about, or what anyone thinks about, when considering those two immortals. I mostly think about how blessed I was to see them at their best for as long as I did.

Win, lose or humiliation next Sunday, Peyton Manning will still be a first ballot Hall of Famer, one of the 10 best quarterbacks in pro football history, the pioneer of the all-passing all the time offenses of the 21st century to date. That can't change. Anybody who babbles about his "resume" or "legacy" this week is someone who's missing the point of sports altogether.

I don't need to know the ending of Peyton Manning's story. In my mind, I've already finished it.

Monday, February 01, 2016

And You Think John Farrell Has It Tough

The Manchester City soccer team in England is in second place in the Premier League, the country's major league, only three points (one win) behind the leaders. Manchester City has reached the single elimination phase of the Champions League, Europe's most prestigious tournament. The team is also still contending for the FA Cup, England's second-most prestigious trophy after the Premier League title. All in all, with less than two thirds of the season gone, it's been a good year for City.

This morning, Manchester City announced that manager Manuel Pellegrini would be replaced at the end of the season in May by Pep Guardiola, former manager of Barcelona and current manager of Bayern Munich, both legendary European teams,

I think it is fair to say City's board of directors may watch the rest of the 2015-2016 season with mixed emotions. How will they look if Pellegrini leads the club to a trophy, or two or three?

Of course, their emotions won't be as mixed as his.