Friday, July 31, 2009

On hypocrisy: Steroids/PED, and Sports/business


I made the mistake of tuning into Mike and Mike earlier this morning and immediately heard two stupid things (I know, I know…). Anyway, one sounded like Golic’s plea to try and understand why the NFL gets a free pass on the steroids issue while the other was Greenie mocking the Pittsburgh Pirates. Since both these are fairly commonly raised issues (roids and bad teams’ spending or lack thereof) I figured I'd lay some education on the Mikes.

Let me address the Pirates issue first. Basically my stance is, “Why mock the Pirates?”. They are running a business, for profit. Baseball is not set up for small markets to compete consistently anyway, so why fault the Pirates for doing the minimum, cutting current and future payroll, and raking in the profits? I keep hearing how big-league-sports is big business and we should all accept it. Well, accept it. The Pirates are running a business with profit as the bottom line. What is your fucking problem with that? Heck, I thought that was the celebrated business strategy of the past 25 years! Corporations have been running down labor costs (to the point of shipping every job overseas that they possibly could), diluting product quality, and generally screwing its labor force to improve the bottom line for Wall St. Why is it OK to have Walmartism in all other fields of business ---people are happy to consume inferior mass-produced crap, from nuggets to gibbets, so long as it is cheap --- but not in sports? The Pirates have no obligation to win championships. If you do not like what they are doing, don’t go watch them. Ah, but our unreasoning sports addiction has created a system in which, due to TV contracts, licensing and merchandizing revenue, the Pirates can make a profit even if they don’t sell a single ticket?!! Well, tough shit. So Mike and Mike, instead of mocking the Pirates, deal with it, assholes --- ‘cos it is the same unreasoning sports addiction that makes multimillionaires out of sellout-to-the-sponsor-talking-heads ‘journalists’ like you.

Besides, many other teams have sucked for years--- are some of them better just because they spend more money to suck perennially? What kind of fucked-up logic is that? I mean, the Marlins have won 2 more championships in the past decade or so than the Cubs have in the past century. And then the Marlins have proceeded to cash in by dismantling the championship team rosters to cut salary and maximize profit. They still always keep their payroll low. Brilliant, if you ask me. I think that the Cubs are even bigger losers for spending money and losing all the fucking time. Mock them.

I love what the Pirates are doing because they are exposing exactly how stupid the business of sports has become. The Pirates had revenues of $139 million (of which only $29 million came from gate receipts) and they made a profit of $17.6 million, the current owners of the franchise bought it for $92 million in 1996 and it is now worth $292 million. How the hell is this a bad business organization? I mean, if they were bad, the system should be penalizing them, right? They have no more obligation to sign expensive players than players have to sign with them in the face of better offers. Loyalty? Fuck that. Just business, baby. My point is that the business of big league sports has little to do with the daily paying customer. You pay for it in a myriad other ways. Stuff your outrage and deal with it. Or change it if you can. Go ahead. Try.

As far as the NFL always getting a pass on the steroid/PED issue—there are many factors at play here not the least of which is that the NFL actually instituted and enforced a meaningful policy years before baseball did. But do NFLers still use PEDs in some form, like HGH maybe? I am very inclined to think so.

So why is the NFL more respected than MLB in that regard anyway? I think it is because sport is about competitive fairness and balance, and the increasing size and speed of NFLers didn’t obviously skew it in some peoples’ or teams’ favor or, more importantly, make a mockery of the history of the game itself. Baseball, on the other hand, had a handful of its players perform at freakishly historical highs at the same time that they gained at freakishly abnormal physical attributes. Baseball loves its numbers--- 56, .400, 714, 755, 2130, etc. And one of the most cherished of these, 61, got completely abused five times over a four year span by three different people none of whom had come close to doing anything like that previously in their career. At the end of this disgraceful display, the new record of 73 had bested the old one of 61 by 20%. The equivalent in football, for power and endurance, would have to be the single-season rushing record. Currently the single season (16 game) rushing record is held by Eric Dickerson, who ran for 2105 yds in 1984 (avg of 132 yds per game). It could be argued that O.J. Simpson still has some claim to that record as he rushed for 2003 yds in only 14 games (avg 143 yds/game). So to equate what happened in baseball, using ED’s metric, three talented but mid-career running backs who had never rushed for over 1800 yds would have to suddenly rush for over 2100 yds (actually close to at least 2300 yds, to equate what happened to the 61HR record) five times in a four year span and leave the new record at over 2500 yds. And oh, BTW, at the same time become freakishly bigger even by comparison to their peers.

BTW, if you use OJ’s rushing metric as the standard the 16-game equivalent would be 2288 yds, so someone(s) would have had to rush for about 2500 yds five times over a four year span and set the new record at over 2700 yds.

No one has yet broken ED’s record. Same holds true for Marino’s single seaon passing record of 1984. Yes, some records (e.g. TDs/season) have fallen, but not egregiously like they did in baseball. Moreover it is really difficult to make a power+endurance correlation to these records the way it can be made for rushing or for home runs. When historic NFL records get thoroughly abused in an abnormal manner, people will take the same kind of notice that they do now in baseball.

I know that the job of talk radio is to fan the flames rather than provide intelligent analysis but I am not sure Mike and Mike can tell the difference anymore.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On the greatest sporting achievement that almost was…..


(This is basically an edited version of an email response to the good Scrib50 regarding Tom Watson’s astonishing run and disappointing finish at the 2009 British Open. I’m posting it because it contains some thoughts on caddying, as well as my shared perspective with Scrib50 on how incredible a sporting feat this actually was and where it would have ranked if Watson had managed to win. Thanks Scrib50, for firing up this line of thought and for the encouragement in turning it into a blog post)

I was just absolutely crushed, like most people, when Watson’s putt to win the Open championship didn’t even come close. Watson didn't just have it on Sunday, he had it in spades! He was in control on the back 9. A lot of people had trouble on 15 and virtually everyone melted on 16---Watson cruised thru there. Then he birdied 17 like he should have. Westwood bogeyed 3 of the last 4. He got incredibly lucky after his drive on 17---though he did get robbed on his eagle putt. Even Cink didn't birdie 17 like he should have---that was a long par 4 for these guys and he absolutely should have birdied it or better. But to his credit, Cink did birdie 18---though he got a very favorable bounce that Westwood or Watson didn't get.

Still, after all that, Watson had an 8-footer to win---I actually stood up from my chair with anticipation. It was very disappointing how he never gave it a chance. Short putts have been Watson’s problem for years, and it was painful to watch how the 8-foot putt barely made it past six feet.

His caddie/friend should have talked to him before lining up the putt---I know, he probably thought "Jeez he's won 8 majors, let me leave him alone" but seeing how Watson was shaky all day with the putter he should have talked to him. In his place I would have absolutely told Watson "Let it flow Tom. It’s all gravy anyway man. This improbable ride has come this far---you've gotta believe it is meant to be. Pick a spot and let the thing roll. Let's cash this one in". That's all it takes to release pressure. Instead, the caddie looked tense and funereal and just tried to avoid Tom as much as possible at a time when you could feel the tension all freaking around. The collective breaths of like 20000 people around the grandstands were being held---the short putt has been Tom's Achilles Heel for decades now, and you could feel everyone---there and around the world--- get all puckered up, if you know what I mean. I mean you could reach out and touch the stress thru the TV---you think Tom couldn't feel how anxious everyone was?!!

You HAVE to break that tension before you let your guy putt. I mean, it is not some super-caddie-juju-secret or anything, just freaking common sense. You have to loosen him up, PUT ONE REALLY GOOD THOUGHT IN HIS HEAD and then give him a moment to focus on the spot/line and then go.

That bad putt was purely the result of very tight hands and forearms---I should know as I gag like that all the time. And even I know, over a crucial putt, to tell myself, "Dude, you get tight, nothing good will happen. You stay loose and let it ride, and chances are that you make it; even if you don’t make it at least you won't regret it like you would if you were all wound up and gagged". But the bigger the moment and the more frustrated/tired/wired/excited/anything but thinking clearly and positively/ that I am, the more apt I am to forget to remind myself to relax. That's why pros have caddies---and it is part of the caddie's job (even if it is a friend or an amateur caddie) to jockey the player home. On that incredibly huge stage, with that much emotion going thru him and the pressure of the world on his shoulders, even a seasoned pro needs a gentle nudge in the positive direction. All good caddies know and do that. Tom's caddie should really have given him a strong positive thought, and maybe even gotten him to genuinely chuckle or something, before Tom started lining up the putt.

It has been said, even by the great ones, that Tiger "willed in" putts. Sure seemed like it to me. And I am convinced it is because he saw the picture of the putt like his dad taught him, and then he convinced himself that if he hit it on that line it would definitely go in. That confidence frees up your body, and all the info your mind has processed when lining up the putt gets mobilized into action even somewhat subconsciously---and whaddaya know, you make the damn putt!

If Watson had sunk that putt I think it would have been, hands down, the greatest sporting story in modern history. People have made comparisons to the Miracle on Ice team, Buster Douglas’ upset of Tyson etc. But they are not even close, due to the crucial differences. Firstly, all the others were somewhat fairly matched contests. The USA sent its hockey team--it was a national team, however much of an underdog it was. Buster was an underdog but he was an active fighter in the same age and weight class and had some resume. Anyway, you get the idea. Watson was not remotely on the same plane as much of the field. He doesn't play on the regular Tour. He doesn't even really contend all the time on the Champions Tour. He would not have come close to qualifying by normal criteria for the Open---the only reason he played was that he was a past champ and was eligible to play till he was 60. There was nothing in his game, even remotely recently, that suggested he could even make the cut, let alone contend for the title.

But even more importantly, most of the other "greatest sports stories" (even where talent wasn't evenly matched) were single day events---one good day and you could make history. Watson had to beat all comers for four full days. If one golfer had a meltdown, there were still 70 or so more over the weekend to fend off. What it came down to was that Watson just couldn't afford even one really bad hole, on a course that would destroy you if you have a momentary lapse of concentration---Ask Ross Fisher, who led the field by 2 strokes after 4 holes on Sunday and then made an 8 on a par 4 because of one bad tee-shot.

And Watson pulled it off. All the experts kept commenting on how well he knew the course (having won there in 1977), knew to play links golf (having won 5 Open Championships) etc, but none really commented sufficiently on how difficult it is to execute nearly flawlessly for 4 days, especially at the age of 59, playing with an artificial hip! It is really great to know where you need to hit the ball, but then you have to go out and do it really well for 4 full rounds. Anyone who has ever walked 18 holes of golf, on a championship-level course, knows how much it takes out of a player. Anyone who has walked 18 holes of golf for three days straight, then tried to play the fourth day, knows how difficult it is to swing the club decently let alone to keep form and balance all the time. If your club face is off by 5 degrees on impact, a 150-yard shot will be errant by about 10-15 yards---these guys can't afford to miss by 10 feet on many of these approach shots. Imagine it, man. 3 or 4 lousy degrees open or shut, and you are in a bunker or off the green or something like that. This is not talked about enough by the 'experts' --- most people have trouble closing out tournaments on Sunday because of fatigue. Even subtle fatigue matters. Even a supremely fit athlete who tires slightly during the fourth round will have some trouble. Just because Tiger at his weakest is stronger than me at my strongest doesn't mean that if Tiger is immune to fatigue-related errors. If he is off his optimum by 3% then his club could also be off by 3% on a crucial shot and could be scrambling to save par instead of licking his chops at a birdie. And that's just the physical stuff---the mental toll over 4 rounds is just as high, if not higher. Fatigue happens all the time to golfers on Sunday. The great ones know how to manage it, and Watson did it so freaking well---till that last putt. Obviously and remarkably, a lot of it was pure adrenaline too, as you could see that he was just completely gassed in the playoff after missing the putt on the 72nd hole.

The only story that comes close is Francis Ouimet’s stunning win at the US Open in 1913---he was a 20-yr old amateur who beat a couple of legends. But even there, Ouimet was clearly a talented enough amateur to qualify for the tournament. He went on to win the US Amateur title the next year and went on to have a distinguished golf career. His win at the 1913 US Open, in retrospect, was an announcement of a talented golfer’s arrival—remarkable, but it happens every now and then. Tiger Woods’ three consecutive US Amateur titles, his record win at his first professional Masters---I think that these were just as remarkable and stunning as Ouimet’s win.

But Watson’s performance last week was just unparalleled in major sport in recent history. I think that if he had won, it would clearly have been the greatest sports achievement of modern times.

What a bummer, the way it turned out. Nevertheless, I think it will prove to be one of the most inspiring events to many people, especially senior citizens. I do not think anyone seriously thought that a 59-yr old man could contend, and indeed beat, a whole field of young thoroughbreds for virtually an entire tournament. I think it will have opened up a new avenue of hope and rejuvenation for a lot of older people struggling to come to grips with their failing faculties. It reinforces, in an exhilaratingly tangible way, the hope that incredible things can happen if one can stay fit. Anyway, that's how, I've decided, I will always think of the 2009 Open Championship.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Fight the urge


I just took a glance at the main page for only to find a big splashy spread on some MMA (mixed martial art) fight that was held last night. Out of curiosity I checked out the ESPN main page and, sure enough, big splashy MMA coverage up front. This is what we have come to as a society---back to cage fighting. In the year 2009, human beings cannot find a better way to entertain themselves than to put two roided freaks into a cage and let them beat each other into submission? Seriously? And the “hey, it’s what the people want and we’ll cater to the lowest common denominator if it will make us a buck” media cannot find anything better to put on the front page or on the TV screen? I have mixed emotions about this last part---on the one hand, I have a philosophical problem with publicizing and encouraging fighting but, on the other, I find it incredibly funny that two days before the MLB All Star Game the nation’s foremost sports reporting agencies relegated baseball to a distant third behind cage fighting and NASCAR. This should give you an indication of how far baseball has (deservingly) fallen---the stewards of the game must be proud.

Anyway, I have contemplated this for years now as I watched, somewhat gladly, boxing die a slow death in the public arena. I used to follow boxing, you know. I remember growing up fascinated with the sport (or the sweet science as it used to be called). I was an unabashed fan (who wasn’t?) of Muhammad Ali. I remember speculating, idly and somewhat foolishly, if Teofilo Stevenson would have a chance against Ali if he ever turned pro. I remember prancing around in the living room on summer afternoons, when it was too hot to go play outside, punching the shadows and chanting “I float like a butterfly, I sting like a bee……”. I remember reading about how Larry Holmes would never get the credit for how good a fighter he was, as none of the bigwigs would fight him in his prime. I remember being at once thrilled and nauseated by the sheer savagery of Mike Tyson when he burst upon the scene --- watching the highlights of his KOs were like watching a bad wreck; it turned your stomach but somehow, perversely, you couldn’t not watch it.

Then I grew up. At some point, and I cannot pinpoint exactly when, it occurred to me that we should be better than this. Sure, a lot of sports are physical and some, like football, are even occasionally violent. But boxing (and now the MMA-type crap) differed from other physical sports in a crucial way --- violence is not incidental to the sport--- rather, the object of a fighting sport is to subjugate the opponent by inflicting pain and physical harm. At some point in my maturation this became philosophically unacceptable to me. I think that if we condone this concept (that it is somehow not just OK but even glorious to beat another human being into submission) in even a controlled arena, we end up, to some degree, condoning all physical abuse --- the kind that occurs in domestic violence, for instance, as in all these cases it is the twisted mind of the abuser using physical force to dominate his or her arena.

I think it is time to stop catering to our bloodlust. The only fighting we should be doing is against the urge to fight.