Sunday, November 19, 2017

Don't Root for Injuries, Embarrassing Depositions Are Much More Fun

The most entertaining part of the football season is not only outside the lines, it's outside the stadiums. Jerry Jones and the NFL are on the outs. Dire threats are being issued by both sides, threats that will almost certainly never materialize, but oh, boy how all right thinking sports fans wish they would.

The Cowboys owner has said he'll sue the league if his fellow owners give commissioner Roger Goodell a contract extension. Through the league, the other 31 owners have said they'll retaliate with stern if somewhat vague sanctions against Jones, even though they agree with him about Goodell, who has been the very worst type of leader known to political science -- a weak tyrant.

A burst of Jones v. NFL litigation in state and federal courthouses across the land would provide the first real spark of suspense and fun in what's been a pretty dismal pro football season to date, marked only by the weekly devastating injury to one or more of the league's increasingly few celebrity superstars. (Are there any folks out there who think that barring a similar injury to Tom Brady, the Patriots won't be the AFC team in the Super Bowl? I know a fair of number of Steelers' fans, and they don't even think so.).

Indeed, legal trench warfare might help the NFL with its increasingly troubling decline in TV ratings. Just get the various judges in a Jones-Goodell tussle to schedule all hearings, motions, etc. for Thursday nights, replacing the loathed Thursday night games. Trust me, high priced attorneys arguing over impenetrable statues of commercial law can be tremendous entertainment.

The Sullivan family's legal travails in the late '80s were way more absorbing than the Pats' actual play in that time. As Mark Blaudschun, then of the Globe, said, "the only day you can turn your back on this team is Sunday!"

As a capper, I propose that in such proceedings, the lawyers for both sides be required to wear Color Rush three-piece suits. Move over, "Big Bang Theory." There's a new ratings champ in town!

Fantasies are great, but my vision of NFL civil war is just a daydream. Twenty five years of covering the league lets me know better.  It is beyond unlikely that Jones, Goodell and the 31 other NFL owners will devolve into one of the weirder McMahon family WWE plot lines. That would require each side to but pride above the profit motive. That WOULD be a violation of NFL ownership's Prime Directive.

All NFL owners are billionaires. Nobody gets a billion bucks without enormous drive, enormous greed and/or enormous inheritance. Just because the other owners are quieter than Jones doesn't mean that at bottom they're not just like him. The 32 owners are often referred to as a club. This is a poor metaphor. A better one would be the analogy that's increasingly appropriate too all the top levels of sports, pro and amateur: organized crime.

In the league's case, the OC in question is the Mob in its 1930-1960 heyday, It is a partnership of 32 men not used to having partners, each in control of a territory (franchise) where they are despots, but forced to cooperate to keep all 32 territories cranking out money at the pace to which they've become accustomed.

In this metaphor, Pete Rozelle was the Lucky Luciano, the business genius who showed his prideful board of directors that getting along was far more profitable than fighting. Few if any of today's owners are old enough to remember, but had the NFL-AFL war not ended, more than one franchise in both leagues would've gone belly up.

Few mobsters were as bright as Lucky, of course, so in the Goodell era, the commissioner has become that staple of good mob movies, the front man. He's the fans' whipping boy, the players' object of hatred, and most of all, has to take the blame when a boss, excuse me owner, steps out of line and must be disciplined for the common good. The majority of capos support Goodell not because he's any good at leadership, but because somebody's got to be front man and it might as well be him.

Another common feature of good mob movies and the actual history of organized crime is the star gangster who makes waves through his aggressive tactics. That'd be Jerry, natch. He is tolerated by his fellow owners, even grudgingly respected, because to not coin a phrase, he has always made money for his partners.

Lawsuits make money for nobody but lawyers. Jones and his fellow owners know that perfectly well, which is why I don't believe their mutual threats for one second. The most probable outcome of their squabble is that it'll be resolved more or less amicably at a mob peace conference, I mean owners' meeting. In this case, I recommend a pool party, a refreshing soothing mutual dip in the Scrooge McDuck money swimming pool in the basement of NFL headquarters at 345 Park Ave. They do have one, don't they?

Were I Goodell, I'd be eagerly ordering the snacks and drinks for such a powwow. Rozelle drove NFL profits. Goodell is merely a symbol of a profitable status quo. He's easier to keep than to remove, for now. But this veteran fan of mob movies can't help remembering he's seen a lot of front men get rubbed out in the next-to-last reel.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Surely a New Face in the Dugout Will Help Our Guys Hit Justin Verlander And/Or Clayton Kershaw

Sports seems so quiet the first few days after the end of the baseball playoffs. Of course, the same thing goes for the first few days after the Super Bowl and the NBA and NHL playoffs. Where's all the noise, all the tension, all the splendid drama? We know sports seasons have to have beginnings, middles and ends, but to return to sports in their middles and beginnings creates the classic post-holiday letdown.

Maybe that's what's affecting the Dodgers' front office. It's been five days since they lost the seventh game of the World Series, and they still haven't fired manager Dave Roberts.

Come on guys. Don't you want to be trendy? That's been the hot new thing in the national pastime in 2017. A team has a swell year where they make the playoffs, then as soon as they're eliminated, they can the skipper who helped get them there.

John Farrell of the Red Sox. Gone. Dusty Baker of the Nationals. Gone. Weirdest of all, Joe Girardi of the Yankees. Gone. That's three out of the nine teams which made the postseason but didn't win it all. That's three teams whose decision-making doesn't breed confidence for their chances in 2018.

Baker's is the easiest firing to understand, which is hardly the same as to justify. The Nationals have won four NL East titles in the last six seasons, including the last two, and have never, ever, gotten out of the divisional round. The natural insane levels of frustration this generates in everyone from fans to ownership is the sort of thing that gets managers fired, whether or not they deserve it. Since baseball is not devoid of cosmic cruelty, the same level of frustration, which believe it or not is felt by Nationals players more than anyone, also inhibits their performance in winner-take-all situations. Trying harder while fear of failure sits in one's head breeds two out, two on popups and gopher balls.

The Nationals might win it all next season. They're plenty good enough. But that will only come when the players enter the post-season with a healthy "fuck it, it's just another ballgame" attitude. There have been about five managers in my lifetime who've been able to install that mindset in their players through force of will, and the chances the Nats' next skipper will make it six are low.

The most inexplicable firing is clearly Girardi. Nobody in New York from GM Brian Cashman to the many ferocious and knowledgeable baseball beat writers there, have been able to state a coherent, let alone convincing, rationale for his departure. Was it the Steinbrenner's sons homage to dear old Dad? That makes as much sense as any other suggestion.

So a team that wasn't supposed to make the playoffs sees a number of young players blossom into stars, gets within one game of the Series and immediately decides the manager is superfluous to requirements? Makes no sense. I and I suspect many others have worked for organizations where employees felt management had lost the plot. It did not generate the serenity now associated with phrases like "28th World Championship." A bright Yankee future is now hazy, industrial pollution haze at that.

John Farrell's case falls between those two extremes. Yes, Red Sox ownership, fans, etc. were frustrated with two straight divisional losses. But only the most deluded among them could possibly have associated those losses with anything any manager could do.

The Sox lost to the Indians in 2016 and the Astros in 2017 because their highly vaunted and even more highly paid starting pitchers got their jocks knocked off.  Put John McGraw, Casey Stengel and Earl Weaver in the dugout and they couldn't come up with a solution to that dilemma. There isn't one.

And if that's all there was to Farrell's situation, I doubt he'd have been fired at all. Truth is, a significant portion of the Red Sox community was after the guy even during the regular seasons when the team was winning its division. Every show on the Sports Hub was after Farrell's hide during any three-game losing streak. It is a mistake to think talk radio sets the agenda. It reflects the sentiments of its audience in order to attract and hold it.

Truth be told, my opinion was that Farrell was an average major league manager. He was no McGraw, but he was no Bobby Valentine or Grady Little either. And in 2017, he was well above average.

The 2017 Red Sox had the very same 93-69 record as the 2016 Sox. The 2017 Sox did not have David Ortiz in the lineup. They were without the 2016 AL leader in doubles, RBI, slugging percentage and OPS. To win the same number of games minus that Hall of Fame level production from the middle of the lineup is a major accomplishment. Among less paranoid, defensive and entitled fan bases, it might've been seen as such.

It wasn't. And I doubt new skipper Alex Cora will be given any slack in his managerial debut. Already one hears the question, "does he have what it takes to make it in this market," a commentators' phrase meaning "can Cora put up with assholes like me."

Why should he? Maybe what Alex Cora needs isn't a veteran bench coach (a particularly silly demand coming from fans and media who've been second-guessing managers all their lives), but the ghost of Billy Martin to inspire him as he faces the world.

Maybe what Red Sox Nation needs is a manager it's afraid of for a change.