Monday, April 30, 2012

Good News, Everyone: The NFL Wants to Help Fix Fan Interactions

Next season, a fan who gets kicked out of an NFL stadium will have to take a class on proper stadium behavior- and generally pass a test- before they're allowed back in. The class and test is going to include things like this:

"One true-or-false question: “Every fan has a right to like any team they wish. Using abusive language towards fans who support teams you don’t like will not be tolerated.”

When we're getting into things like that- vague language like "abusive language" and policing, in a very general way, the way fans interact with each, the inside of my skull starts to itch. Obviously, I have no problem with the NFL trying to rein in violent patrons. I think the league OWES that to us. But questions like that aren't just preventing violence, they're trying to define the "right way" to be a football fan. And that's not the league's place. The NFL should handle running the best games possible, and trust its fans to understand their role.

(And yes, this blog often talks about the proper role of the fan, but that's my point- I'm just a fan, too. We can police our own as far as etiquette. Just send someone with arrest powers for the violent stuff.)

My concerns may be much ado about nothing; it may be that only violent folks have to go to these things. But I'm still not satisfied. The security guards who are supposed to spot the offenders are going to have needles-in-haystacks problems out the wazoo- assuming the offenders even ever intended to see another game in the first place. So good luck enforcing this rule in any meaningful way.

More importantly, I doubt that the violence stems from fan ignorance. Even the violent ones, in the cold light of day- or, say, the harsh florescent light of a classroom- know not to pick a fight. But the stadium is a heightened emotional environment- thousands of fans, yelling and screaming, booze is flowing like water, etc. That has a tendency to make you lose perspective, and it's going to do that even if you've sat through a lecture and pop quiz.

Unless the NFL is willing to change that environment, little classes aren't going to have any appreciable effect. And the NFL has no interest in changing that environment, just as I have no interest in telling it to do so; the heightened emotions are why we go to the stadiums in the first place. If we wanted to be cold and rational about it, we'd just crunch the stats on Monday morning.

The NFL needs to focus more on security in the stands, on actually having people who can recognize bad situations early and stepping in before they turn outright ugly. And I'm sure toning down on the culture of violence around the game can only help, too. but it needs to get out of the business of lecturing fans on their behavior right away. Let the fans decide how to be fans.

Brandon McCarthy vs. The Kiss Cam: WHO YA GOT?

Bravo to Brandon McCarthy. it's not just that he's attacking homophobia, it's that he's doing it in such a nonchalant way- as if his opinion is so self-evidently right, it doesn't really need explanation. Of course, his opinion IS that right, but it's not like that matters to sports media culture. Indeed, I figure that in a Major League Baseball locker room, it still takes a little courage to voice that point of view.

On a similar note, I've always kinda figured that the culture wars will be over, with the good guys on top when the Kiss Cam can feature same sex couples without any real comment. I, for one, can't wait.

PS- As a former practitioner of the dark art of comedy, the thing that offends me most about this is the laziness of the GAY PANIC! joke. Yup, just like on Seinfeld- "I'm offended as a comedian!"

Derrick Rose and the Limits of Player Protection

Big, sad news out of the first round of the NBA Playoffs: The Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose has torn his ACL and will miss the rest of the playoffs. That happened in the last two minutes of the game, when the Bulls' victory was all but assured. Thus, the Bulls are already facing questions about whether or not Rose really should have been in the game at all at that point. That's good; questions are always good. Welcomed, even. But what's interesting to me is the fact that very few people are asking if Rose himself wanted to be in the game at that point.

In the very important discussion of injury prevention, it's easy to forget that athletes have agency, they're not just at the mercy of uncaring leagues and ignorant coaches. You can probably find examples of forgetting that on this very blog. In fact, you probably already have, because you're just so clever. But, it's nonetheless true; in a sense, athletes are the final veto point over their own health and playing time.

Of course, we probably already know how athletes in general- and Rose in particular- make these decisions. Absent evidence to the contrary, I will always assume that an athlete wants to play. Absent evidence to the contrary, I will always assume that superstar athletes who base their prowess on an aggressive offense will not just always want to play, but always be the deciding factor in the game. So, yeah, Rose wanted in. My guess is, unless Rose knew for a fact that playing in those final minutes would end his career early, he'd want to play. And even if he did know that, he'd need to think about it.

This, of course, makes preventing career-ending injuries a lot harder. But I'm not sure what we can do about it. I'm not sure what we even want to do about it. We all love it when athletes play through pain. We love it when they throw caution to the wind and leave it all on the floor and a couple other cliches, too. It's just in the DNA of sports culture; athletes play through pain, and we the fans feel inspired.

Which is not to say that we should give up on the issue; in fact, if we can't expect athletes to choose not to play through injuries- if, indeed, we want them to play through injuries- that's actually a pretty good reason for beefing up the rest of the system. Leagues need to have better rules for monitoring and disciplining. Coaches need to be more sensitive to injuries. Medical staff needs to be better trained. And yes, players need to be better informed about their injuries, if only so when they inevitably elect to play through them, it's at least an informed decision.

If athletes didn't always want to play, they'd be something else. That's an important limitation to recognize as we talk about preventing injuries. But not because it informs what we can't do about the issue; it's important because it helps define what we can- and should- do.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Joel Ward, Tim Thomas, and the Magic of Twitter

Man, thank god for Twitter.

I know all the cool kids aren't supposed to like Twitter, and that as someone who can waste 140 characters on nicknames I should find it particularly galling, but really, once you grok what it's doing, it's a useful form of communication.

I mention this in the wake of the last night's Game 7 showdown between the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins. Joel Ward, an African American player for the Caps, scored the game winning goal, and some morons took to Twitter to complain about him in racially charged language.

And y'know what? I'm glad they did. Because their bullshit was exposed and they were isolated and condemned, swiftly and in no uncertain terms (often on twitter itself!). The Bruins themselves even implicitly disowned them.

Now, this is a small thing. This is just a few racist assholes on Twitter. They aren't representative of anything about sports fans, or people from Boston, or Bruins fans, or anything. It's not like this is going to change anyone's mind. "Hey, that racist hockey fan on Twitter has a point!" No. That's not going to happen.

Still, I like it when even the little racist shit is knocked down fast and hard. That's the only way I can be confident that the big racist stuff won't come back.

Yes, the NFL Draft is Useless, But...

There's no way you haven't heard this: the NFL draft starts tonight, and will go on for three days of prime time coverage. The Indianapolis Colts pick first, and will take Andrew Luck. The Washington Redskins have the second pick, and will take Robert Griffin III. You know all this already. In fact, you probably know quite a bit more than this about the draft, and probably more than me.

Which just kinda illustrates why I won't be watching the draft- we already know most of what's going to happen, at least to the extent that we care. The top 10 or so are mapped out; the next 10-20 are sketchier, but we all have a fair idea of what our favorite teams are going to do thanks to blogs, local media, leaks, etc. If they surprise us, we can find that out via Twitter pretty quickly without having to sit through 31 other teams.

Plus, it's not really good television; it's old guys in suits calling out names, then young guys in suits putting on hats. Then the New Jersey delegation boos and we all have to wait 9 months to a year before we know if any of the players selected will have any impact at all.

So, I won't be tuning in- but I understand how it's become such an event. See, we, as sports fans, fucking love the NFL. We want to watch as much of it as we can, or at least more of it than the season and playoffs provide. We want to talk about it and think about it and analyze it some more. In short, we want more NFL content.

And as far as that goes, the draft is better than a lot of the alternatives. It's not as insipid and useless as the soon-to-be-cancelled Pro Bowl. It's not as dangerous and exploitative as an expanded season or playoffs structure. It's not as fluffy and baseless as ESPN chatter.

So, as a substitute for what we really like about the NFL- the athletics, the excitement, the strategy- it's a poor substitute. But as an excuse to talk football for a few days in April, the NFL draft will do just fine.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Jackie Robinson Day Isn't The End

Last Sunday was Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball; every player on every team donned Robinson's iconic "42". It's a decent memorial, but I'm sure I'm not the only blogger to note that this year, it occurred just as African American participation in baseball has dropped to 8.5%, from a high of 28% in the 70s (for comparison, African Americans make up 12.5% of the population).

What gives? African American participation in the NBA increased to 82%. In the NFL, it stayed steady at 67%. Why's baseball falling behind?

Marlon Byrd, the only African American playing pro ball in Chicago (and even he's going to be traded to the Red Sox) said:

"If you want to take polls, then take polls asking how many black lawyers do we have now, or how many black judges or black doctors there are now,"Byrd said. "Just because we're black doesn't mean we have to play sports. You can go through other avenues. If the decrease (in baseball) is because they're going into academic fields, so be it. More power to them."

This is kind of hard to argue with; African Americans certainly have more choices now than they did in Jackie Robinson's era, and the assumption that they should gravitate towards sports is actually kind of insulting. But, if that were the only thing at play here, I think the NBA and NFL would be seeing drops, too. So what's making baseball different here?

Well, for one thing, in Major League Baseball's quest to lock up Latino talent, they've kinda ignored African American athletes. Y'know, you've got the Miami Marlins selling themselves as a Latino team, the Tampa Bay Rays moving huge chunks of their scouting apparatus south of the border, and just about every team in Baseball opening an "academy" in the Dominican Republic.

On the other hand, you've got the Chicago White Sox running inner city clinics, and the Philadelphia Phillies trumpeting Ryan Howard's roots...and that's about it. Baseball just isn't selling itself to African American athletes. And why would anyone buy a product that isn't being sold to them?

I want to be careful to point out that this isn't racism, it's just a cold, calculating business move. I also want to be careful to point out that that doesn't necessarily make it more morally defensible.

But, the fact is, it's easier to attract Latino athletes- especially those from Latin American countries- than it is African American players right now. Look again at those NBA and NFL numbers. African American athletes have options. But Latino athletes don't have as big of footholds in the NBA and NFL. So it's an easier labor market for Baseball. No wonder the teams devote more resources to it.

Now, I'm not saying this is right; benign neglect is still neglect. And while the African American community doesn't need Baseball, I think baseball needs as many different kinds of people as it can get. Every institution is stronger with greater diversity; every team is better with a variety of backgrounds. And most importantly, baseball can and should do more.

Like I said, some teams get this- and if the White Sox and Phillies are successful, other teams will quickly follow suit. If they aren't, it'll take more time, but eventually, teams will figure it out. The nature of market imbalances is that they don't last forever.

Jackie Robinson's career in Major League Baseball was a huge victory for the Civil Rights Movement. But watershed moments like that aren't the end of the story, and shouldn't be confused for such. Integration is never over. It's a constant struggle for everyone to live together, and every so often, we're going to have to reevaluate where we are and change our tactics accordingly.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Breaking News: Someone named "Phil Humber" Throws a Perfect Game

I didn't turn on today's White Sox/Mariners game until the 9th inning (indeed, I didn't know the Mariners were allowed to play teams besides the As anymore), but it turns out that was all I needed to see: Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Phillip Humber has thrown the 21st perfect game in major league history.

It really can't be said often enough that a perfect game is a remarkable achievement. That's 27 batters retired in a row, starting with the lead off man, going through the order only 3 times, and ending with the nine slot. No walks. No errors. No dropped third strikes. No base runners, period. Nothing.

So much has to go absolutely right to pull that off. The pitcher doesn't just have to be on the top of his game, everything else in the ballpark has to fall his way, too. Mark Buhrle needed an amazing play in the outfield to get his perfect game. Armando Galarrraga's was blown by a bad call at first. And here, Humber needed a very generous call from the home plate umpire (who clearly just didn't want to get in the way of history. I don't blame him).

As such, it's also kind of a random achievement, and that's borne out by the people who've pulled them off. As a recent commercial noted, Justin Verlander hasn't yet. Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux, and Bob Gibson never did. But Len Barker and Dallas Braden did. You just can't tell who can put it all together for one day.

And that's exactly why we tune into the games- because you don't know what to expect, and you hope, every day, that it's going to be something amazing. Today, White Sox fans- and anyone in the stands at Safeco Field got that.

Torres Gets 25 Games; What Do We Get?

After last Tuesday's flat out attack, Raffi Torres has been suspended 25 games by Brenden Shanahan. You should watch Shanahan's video; I think he makes the case, particularly in laying out Torres' prior headhunting this season. Indeed, I think it's clear that Torres just doesn't get it (and I'm not sure if 25 games off will change that).

So, Shanahan probably made the right call here. That, of course, doesn't mitigate all of the other missteps this post season. Nor does it mitigate the failure of the on-ice officials from Tuesday night's game. If anything, Shanahan's discipline and video makes it clear just how much the four officials fucked up.

Shanahan points out that Torres actually violated three different rules; apparently, all four officials missed all three of those violations. That boggles the mind; I saw Hossa get blown up, and I was watching from a treadmill at a gym, reliant on NBC's "follow the puck" camera work. I couldn't tell if there'd been a foul, but I wasn't on ice, and I'm not trained to spot those things. There's no excuse for the refs and linesmen.

One would think that those officials deserve some discipline, too. The NHL should make it clear that a failure to protect the players won't be tolerated from anyone. Indeed, I'd argue that it's more important for the refs, given their positions of authority and prestige in the NHL hierarchy.

This is the broader problem with Shanahan's "supplemental discipline" regime- it's taking responsibility and accountability away from the officials who are actually on the ice. Shanahan's videos are really all about defining which hits are acceptable and which aren't. That's actually great, but at some point, shouldn't that definition just be in the rule book? And shouldn't the on-ice officials be empowered to enforce those rules- or be held responsible if they don't?

Otherwise, I think you're creating some fucked up incentives for the players. If I'm some 4th line goon who only sees a few minutes of ice anyway, and my team has a decent PK, I might just take someone's head off in hopes of winning the game in front of me and getting lucky in front of the Shanhammer.

(Well, not ME, really, as I'm a pussy. But you know what I mean.)

That all being said, I am pleased with Torres' suspension, and I think it's important to say so. But I'm pretty sure my pleasure is cold comfort to Marian Hossa (And the if the 'Yotes are the ones dancing at the end of the night, for the Blackhawks, too). And I just can't get over the fact that it shouldn't have taken four days for Torres to see any discipline for an unquestionably dirty hit.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Raffi Torres: Professional Doucherocket

Raffi Torres' hit on Marian Hossa last night was simply unacceptable, and no words I could write here will fully convey the extent to which that is the case. It was a horrific hit, and it should trip all of Brenden Shanahan's wires- injury, leaving the feet, targeting the head, repeat offender. Topping all of that, Torres was not disciplined on the ice (indeed, the next penalty was ON the Blackhawks because they responded in kind) and all four officials claim they didn't see the hit (which, I have no reason to think they'd lie, but I was watching the game from a tradmill at my gym, and I saw the hit, even as the camera followed the puck. So maybe these four officials need new jobs).

Torres has been suspended indefinitely pending a hearing on Friday, and all of the chatter in the NHL culture is how many games he'll be suspended. The least ambitious pundits say 5; the most ambitious say he should be out for the rest of the playoffs. After the Weber, Carkner, and Shaw decisions, there's a palpable lack of confidence in Shanahan to make the right decision.

And I would argue that Shanahan's already made the wrong one.

Yesterday's suspension of Andrew Shaw was sold, at least in part, as "sending a message", about doing something that gets everyone's attention and makes them all understand in no uncertain terms that even questionable conduct will not be tolerated. Indeed, Shanahan has said before that his job is to mold behavior going forward, and if his office is about player safety, he's absolutely right. Now, we talked yesterday about how he's muddling his own message, but at pretty much the first opportunity after Shaw's suspension, Torres pulled this shit. The message has not been received. 

I understand the idea that Torres is an imperfect example; he's got no history as a hockey player, it's all just as a shitheel. Maybe he's unreachable, and the Shaw suspension was really supposed to tell rookies what was expected of them. But I'd argue that you can tell the Ryan Nugent-Hopkinses of the league to play the right well all you want; if the Torreses of the league are giving them concussions, you're still not cleaning up the game. In other words, any "message"- hell, any disciplinary system- that doesn't get through to guys Torres' is just not going to get the job done. And clearly, right now, no one's gotten through to them.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Ridiculous Andrew Shaw Suspension

The NHL has suspended the Chicago Blackhawks' Andrew Shaw for three games for this...action? I hesitate to even call it a hit, even though the Phoenix Coyotes' Mike Smith did his best to make it look like the Kennedy Assassination. In complaining about this decision, I worry that I'm going to sound like a homer; lucky for me, it's already clear that Brenden Shanahan and the Office of Player Safety have been all over the place this playoff season.

In the Weber hit (as previously discussed), the absence of injury was a major factor. In this case, it's not. In the Carkner fight, Carkner's history of discipline was important; in the Weber hit, it wasn't. The Hagelin hit was worse than the Bitz hit because an elbow is worse than a shoulder, but Shaw shouldered Smith and got an equal fine. When goalies are involved, all the rules seem different, and in general, even though some of these things are explicitly covered by the NHL rule book with prescribed punishments, that apparently isn't enough.

Now, Shanahan himself has said that his job is about changing future behavior, and that necessarily requires making a few "statements" to get everyone's attention. I understand that. But the problems is, all of these statements, taken together, aren't giving anyone any guidance for their future behavior. Based on the above, it might actually be HARDER to know what a "clean" hit is than it was before. That's going to make it harder to protect the players, which is the whole point of Shanahan's office.

The worst part is that Shanahan was actually making really clear statements earlier this season. His "video press conferences" were incredibly useful; they explained what rule was implicated, what other factors were considered, what the player should have done differently, and why the punishment was what it was, all with helpful video breakdowns. It was a lot better than the NFL's whole "IT IS DECIDED" routine.

But now, there's no consistency, so there's no way of knowing ahead of time what behavior will and won't get punished. How is a player going to sort out all of the above in an action that lasts seconds at the most? Hell, at this point what's to stop him from hitting as viciously as he can in the hopes that he'll get Weber'ed after the fact? I don't know. Inconsistent punishment might as well be random punishment. And random punishment is not going to clean up the game or protect the players.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

About that Shea Weber Thing...

The NHL Playoffs have already been overshadowed by the controversy over this hit: the Nashville Preadators' Shea Weber smashed the Detroit Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg into the boards. Well, maybe not all of Zetterberg, but certainly his head. Go ahead and watch the whole video; it's a pretty vicious little move.

Given the NHL's admirable focus on player safety and trying to take the viciousness out of the game, a lot of us were expecting Weber to be suspended for a few games.Yes, this is the playoffs, when a suspension might swing a series, but hey, if you really want to make the game safer, you've got to make the consequences felt by the whole team, not just single players. That's the only way to make such behavior truly unacceptable to the players themselves.

Those of us who were thinking along these lines were obviously surprised and outraged to learn that Weber is only getting fined, not suspended.

The NHL's rationale- tellingly, articulated in a press release, not one of Shanahan's videos (which are seriously a great way to convey the information on these things)- was that as Zetterberg was not really hurt, so a fine, along with the two-minute minor that Weber (with only second left in the game) was punishment enough.

I think this is an extremely flawed line of thinking. And Shanahan has been considering "actual injury" all year in doling out suspensions, so it's not just about Weber and Zetterberg (indeed, as a Hawks fan, if it were just about this incident, I'd be okay with trying to take a 'Wing's head off). But the fact is, that consideration gives us no guidance going forward, so the deterrent effect of these punishment- or lack thereof- is seriously compromised.

Look at the Weber/Zetterberg hit. There's no real indication of why Zetterberg escaped injury there. There's a dozen factors at play there, and frankly, they all had to fall perfectly in place to protect Zetterberg. However that happened, there's no indication that Weber was aware of it and factoring it in when he acted. Thus, there's no way for future players in Weber's position to understand why his actions were (relatively) acceptable, and what they may do that wouldn't be.

The problem goes the other way, too; if some weird thing develops so that a player is MORE injured on a play than he should have been (to borrow some Don Cherry speak, "if the player don't protect himself!"), there's still no indication of what the hitter did that was worse than other hits; it just ended up with worse consequences. It ends up just looking like luck, and that's a lousy way to run a discipline system.

The sine qua non of the NHL's beefed up player discipline program and it's increased transparency is player safety- the NHL is going to protect players by making it clear exactly what hits endanger them and harshly punishing those hits. But the injury criteria is only hurting that clarity- and it may lead to more hurt players.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Local Heroes

Besides Opening Day, the biggest stories in baseball last week were the monster contracts handed out to Cincinnati's Joey Votto and San Francisco's Matt Cain. Votto got 10 years and $225 million; Cain got 5 years and $112 million. Presumably, these deals lock up the players until the end of their careers (Cain may have some more left in him after 2017, I guess).

There was a lot of talk about Votto going into free agency and finding a big payday with another team (you can name the usual suspects). There wasn't as much talk of that with Cain, but it was a possibility. I'm absolutely stoked that neither guy is moving.

Of course, this is a risk to the teams; Cincinnati is a small market, the Giants have a lot of other major parts to lock up, and anytime you give a player a long term deal, you're probably buying a few shitty years. So I understand if fans have some mixed feelings. But I'm not a fan, so I think this is awesome.

Look, baseball is boring when the Yankees, Red Sox, etc. can just swoop in and buy out every major free agent. Baseball is more boring when fans in San Diego or Cleveland have to look to L.A. and New York for great players. Baseball is boring when those fans have to reconcile themselves to the fact that their best players are only going to be around until a "bigger" team makes them a better offer. Baseball is boring when the same 10 teams can print their playoffs tickets in July every year.

So, I'm pleased that the Reds have locked up their Big Damn Star. He gives the local fans something to root for, and with Votto, you're always just a few pieces away from a serious playoff run. I'm happy that the Giants have held on to part of the talent core that won them a World Series just two years ago. He gives the folks in the bay area something to root for while the A's are looking distinctly mediocre.

But mostly, I'm happy that serious, interesting baseball is going to be played outside of the eastern seaboard and L.A. for another few years.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Red Scare

Last night, I was all set to respond to Ozzie Guillens statement of "respect" for Castro. While I've voiced support for athletes wading into contentious geopolitical issues before- and actually do support Ozzie doing so here, too- his comments were particularly superficial and nonsensical, as if all of global politics can be reduced to the third act of "Scarface". That sucks, and I wanted to say as much. It's not that Ozzie shouldn't have spoken out- I want more sports figures to be as fearless as him! I just also want them to say more interesting, useful things, and will feel the freedom to call them on it when they don't.

Seriously, that was going to be my whole post on the matter last night.

Then, I read today's headlines, and saw that the whole damn world has gone on a jihad about Ozzie.

The Marlins had already apologized, and Ozzie had already walked back his statements. He also spoke to the team's Spanish language broadcasters (both Cubans) to apologize, and will apparently fly back to Miami in the middle of a road trip to apologize (which might be his second or third apology, depending on how you feel about "if anyone was hurt" apologies). I don't really mind any of that; Ozzie, like the rest of us, has to be held to account for what he says.

But now, one columnist has appointed himself the voice of all Cuban Americans and said Ozzie's apologies weren't enough. He may have a point, as a Cuban group is planning to march on Marlins Park and threatening a boycott of the team until Ozzie steps down. And Ken Rosenthal is calling for a one-month suspension.

This is getting ridiculous. Ozzie's statement was stupid and I fully encourage all of the people noted above to criticize him for it, even harshly. But it's not Ozzie's job to say intelligent things about international politics, so why should he lose his job for his failure to do so? I'm not comfortable with firing someone for performing not-their-job poorly. I understand that this creates a PR issue for the Marlins, but I'm even less comfortable with firing someone just because some people are offended by a dumb and irrelevant statement.

Moreover, ruining someone's career because they're not bellicose enough against Communism? Haven't we seen this movie before?

The worst part is, for 90% of baseball fans, this is a non-issue. Did you know Guillen has said superficially nice things about Hugo Chavez, too? No, you didn't, 'cause who cares? He's a baseball manager, not an Assistant Secretary of State. The only reason THIS one is a controversy is because some loudmouths who insist that they speak for every Cuban in Miami demand that every public figure in southern Florida publicly bray for Castro's blood.

But if the loudmouths want to fire a baseball manager because he said something stupid about a topic that has nothing to do with baseball, it pretty well illustrates why they should just be ignored.

UPDATE 4/10/12: Ozzie has been suspended for five games, effective immediately. Team decision, not league, so no appeal. Also, check the bottom of the link- this isn't the first time Ozzie's said nice things about Castro (though I wonder if Castro would agree that you can separate him from his philosophy quite so easily). Not sure how much of a fan I am of any punishment beyond reputation damage here, but I can live with this (and since Jeff Loria definitely thinks about my opinion, that's good). Of course, if your line-up is pretty set and you platoons are fairly well-defined, a manager doesn't need to do much on a day-to-day basis anyway, so we can argue if this is even that much of a punishment.

Friday, April 6, 2012


In honor of Baseball's Opening...Um, Week?...we're doing an All-Baseball Wind Sprints today. DEAL WITH IT.

1) Michael Kazin tells us that baseball is pretty much the most progressive major sport in America right now. I think he's got a point, but it's kind of a "tallest midget" contest.

2) Of course, the counterpoint is the minor leagues. Lily Rothman tells us about it.

3) Is the "retro" ballpark movement over? Mark Byrnes makes the case. I hope it's not "over", but I sure do hope every team no longer feels the need to build such a park. Architectural variety, FTW.

4) In my opinion, MLB has done the best job of adapting to new technology. Here's how they did it, by Chuck Salter. The more ways there are to watch the games, the better for fans.

5) Last year's series of commercials with Alec Baldwin and John Krasinski were big hits in the LFL Global Headquarters. If anything, spots with Ron Swanson and Chicago can only be better.

What's on deck for you guys?

The Masters and Gender

Here's the situation: Augusta National Golf Club doesn't allow women members. But the chief executives of sponsors of the Masters- which is held at Augusta- is automatically made a member of the club. IBM is a sponsor, and all four of it's previous male CEOs got to put on those little green jackets.

IBM's current CEO is Virginia Rometty.


So, now there's a question over whether or not she'll be made a member. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have both weighed in in favor of doing so, which is hilarious, because I'm sure a black guy and a Mormon have a lot of pull in a discriminatory golf club. Of course, Obama and Romney are right; there's no good reason to keep Rometty out, since everyone else who's had her job got in, and the only difference is gender. I don't see how this could possibly be controversial. In fact, it's kind of disheartening we have to even talk about it.

I do worry that Augusta will take the easy way out; let Rometty in because she's a wealthy sponsor and there's a public controversy now, but hold back on letting in other deserving women until another controversy bubbles up. That's the problem when the issue revolves around wealthy, powerful people; it kind of delays when the equality trickles down to everyone. But, we have to start somewhere, and as near as I can tell, Rometty is as deserving as anyone. And anyway, I'd rather wait to condemn Augusta until they actually do that, rather that complaining based on my own predictions. There's nothing wrong with a slower, more deliberate pace. We'll get there eventually.

UPDATE 4/10/12- After some conversations, it occurred to me that the text didn't exactly convey my thoughts, and might have been dismissing the issue too much.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The 7 Layer Dip of Justice

So tonight the Blackhawks played the Minnesota Wild in NHL action, and it just so happened to include the first major penalty I've ever seen called in an NHL game.  Nate Prosser of the Minnesota Wild headbutted Jamal Mayers of the Chicago Blackhawks, for which he received a 5 minute major penalty and an ejection.  There isn't yet video up so I can't give you a link, nor do we have word yet on whether the NHL will take additional disciplinary action.  It's that uncertainty though that inspired this post.

First, let me say I am a Blackhawks fan, so there will undoubtedly be some homerism in my analysis.  That being said, I think Prosser should receive a suspension.

If you watched the hit, it came during a post whistle scrum around the goal.  Prosser deliberately headbutted Mayers in the face with his helmet.  This wasn't an on the fly, mid-game collision.  This wasn't an intersection of body parts.  This was a deliberate assault using a piece of equipment, an action that implies a desire to seriously hurt if not injure an opposing player.  The icing on the cake is it was delivered to the head, and we know how seriously concussions are being taken these days.

For some recent context, Duncan Keith of the Blackhawks got suspended 5 games in March for delivering an elbow to the head of Daniel Sedin.  Now, Sedin got a concussion from that hit, and Mayers did not receive a concussion from this hit.  Furthermore, Keith's hit was in retaliation for a hit on him earlier in the game.  I am sure both the severity of injury as well as the retaliation aspect played into the severity of the penalty, but I hope they aren't the whole story.

I am uncomfortable making the presence of injury the determining factor in whether a suspension is handed down at all.  If suspensions are designed to prevent injury by discouraging the type of action that leads to injury, then they should be applied to actions that are either intended to injure or create a recklessly high risk of injury (regardless of actual injury).

So that being said, headbutting another player in the face with a helmet on seems like the kind of willful action that is designed to injure, or at least creates such a high risk of injury as to be intolerable.  No one was actually injured, and it wasn't in retaliation, so I wouldn't call for a five game suspension like Keith received.  But I think a suspension of some sort is merited.

But what interests me about this is that having the league hand down suspensions after the game seems to be a tacit admission on the part of the league that their in game controls, their in game punishments, aren't sufficient.  It's one thing to, say, hand down fines and suspension for off field/ice/court activities, like the Saints management scheming with players to pay bounties for injuries.  That took place off the field, it should be punished off the field.  But we're talking about in game activities.  Football has 15 yards for unnecessary roughness, basketball has flagrant fouls, hockey has major penalties.  All have ejections.  But they aren't always enough.  And this isn't just limited to situations where a player snaps on the field and exceeds the bounds of decency, like taking a charging high stick slash to the throat.  Suspension can be handed down for plays that only get minor penalties if the head is involved.  Something that wasn't ejection worthy at the time can end up costing you games down the road.  That is only a function of our over correcting for the fact that we haven't yet figured out how to properly police players mid-game.

The 2012 Left Field Line Opening Day Post

A funny thing happened when I was watching "Opening Night" between The Beloved St. Louis Cardinals and the All New, All Different Miami Marlins: I started to forget. I forgot about all of Miami's shiny new baubles. I forgot about the publicly funded stadium and Jeff Lori's shameful exploitation of Muhammad Ali. I even forgot about ESPN's blatant toadying during their interview with Bud Selig.

I just enjoyed the game. By the time Kyle Loshe (of all people!) took his no hitter into the 7th inning (where it would end) I couldn't even remember that I HAD recent issues with baseball.

That continued through today; I was more interested in Strasburg (and Dempster's surprisingly great performance) than in Chicago footing the bill to rehab Wrigley. I was more interested in Prince Fielder than in the Red Sox' scapegoating at the end of last season. I want to hear Vin Sculley call a game more than I want to hear about the Dodgers' new ownership.

Opening Day is just one of those events that cuts through the bullshit and gets you right back to the sport. I don't mean that it "lives up to the hype" or "makes the bullshit worth it"; I mean that once that first pitch leaves the pitcher's hand, the hype is irrelevant, the bullshit is set aside, at least for nine innings. Few other events in sports have that power, even though they all reach for it.

In principal, I don't think it's a bad thing. It really is okay to enjoy a sport in spite of whatever moral compromises the people running the sport may have made. If it's not, then you pretty much have to give up the sport, because there's ALWAYS going to be ways that the people making it happen fail us. And I just don't think that sports fans have to choose between having a social conscience and enjoying a game. Indeed, this blog is, in a lot of ways, about keeping both of those ideas in your head at once (it helps that a lot- I might even say most- of the reactionary bullshit around sports actually DETRACTS from the games themselves).

But, at the same time, the major leagues and organizations certainly count on events like Opening Day to make you forget about their lingering issues. Major League Baseball would certainly appreciate it if you focused solely on Clayton Kershaw's flu and didn't think about the growing problem with alcoholism. Fortunately, history shows that this doesn't work all that well; at best, the major sports actors buy themselves a week's distraction from bad behavior. But still, it complicates our role as fans.

That being said, there's nothing wrong with enjoying a good game, so long as we remember the bullshit when it's over. So enjoy Opening Day. We'll get back to work tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Countdown to John Calipari's Next Vacated Appearance Begins NOW!

We're a day late on this one (blame the American judicial system), but here's a round up of 10 thoughts from Monday night's NCAA Men's Basketball Title Game...

1) We said earlier that the NCAA's problems with the "student-athletes" label were not going to go away through the Tourney, and OH LOOK, JOHN CALIPARI WON HIS FIRST CHAMPIONSHIP. Calipari has figured out how best to ignore the "student-athlete" mantra and treat college basketball like a business, and college basketball media spent the week leading up to the game trying to reconcile itself to that fact. It will spend the weeks after trying to justify rewarding Calipari with a trophy, especially as we watch the major player on his team head out to the NBA. Not helping matters? Cal himself saying in his post-game statements that he'll be back on the recruitment circuit by Friday. The beast must be fed.

2) In their effort to reconcile with Calipari's success, some people in college sports media offered some qualified defenses of Calipari. Most of them boiled down to "at least he's honest about it". But he's not, not really; sure, he's ignoring the NCAA's edict that there are no "players", only "student-athletes", and sure, he lives peacefully alongside the "one and done" rule. But he still talks about how he's doing it all for the players, how they come first, how even the "one and done" rule is really for them. If you believe that Cal is really the guy who best understands that college basketball is a business- and I think that's a very convincing statement- then all of those statements are necessarily distortions.

3) Moreover, Calipari is the guy who understands the system the best, but he's still just working through the system. If he weren't around, it'd just be someone else. It's not like Pitino or Williams or Self are encouraging their players to go for a Master's Degree in Chemical Engineering.

4) Nonetheless, this win is some vindication for Calipari. Note that Kentucky's biggest star, Anthony Davis, only had one field goal, and the team still scored 67 points. That means this wasn't just the triumph of a couple talented players, this was the triumph of an entire system of running a college basketball team. That all starts with Calipari. So you can't separate this from his moral...compromises. Or the NCAA's, for that matter.

5) Speaking of Davis. The guy only had 1 field goal, but 16 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 blocks, and 3 steals. That's domination. I'm not saying Davis shouldn't finish his education. I'm just saying that if he says he's ready for the NBA, I'm not sure I'm in a position to second guess him. And I rather doubt that David Stern or the NCAA (who have vested interests in the decision) are, either.

6) Still, this game helps you to understand why the NCAA gets to ignore these controversies so often. I mean, this wasn't even a good game, and I was hoping for controversy (it makes for easier blog posts) and I still got sucked into it for minutes at a time. There is just a sheer joy in watching skilled athletes putting it all on the line for the top honor in their sport. It's almost hypnotic. It's entirely wonderful.

7) A few notes on the presentation: first, I kinda liked The Frey, or at least give them credit for trying something different. We shouldn't be afraid to experiment with the Star Spangled Banner a little.

8) Is it just me, or are the student sections at these things shrinking? Looks like each school got a little area roped off just off of the floor, while the closest seats were reserved for...well, I don't know who those people were, but they didn't look like students. Similarly, would you have known this game took place in New Orleans at all if it weren't for the logos on the floor? Looks like all the Cajuns were pushed up to the 300 level.

9) CBS interviewed Obama at half time, and he spent most of it talking about women in sports. He's also recently talked up Title IX, so this is clearly something he's spent some time thinking about. I'm going to do the same thing, and hopefully have a post later.

10) There was a lot of talk last week about whether or not the Wildcats could beat the NBA's Washington Wizards. I can't really do a talent breakdown or go position by position, but I'll tell you this: the Wildcats get 11 more second each possession to find the rim, and get to take 3 point shots from 3 feet closer. That is a tremendous change in rules, and it probably makes any direct comparison very tenuous (it's also the reason the NBA game seems more "selfish"- you can set up more elaborate passing plays when you have more than half a minute to get a shot off).

And since I'm feeling generous, here's an eleventh thought- so, we're just going to invite Charles Barkley to every sporting event from now on, right?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Winners Are Written By History

We haven't had a chance to talk about advanced stats very much lately, what with so many people being racist and trying to kill each other. But right now I'm reading "Wicked Curve: The Life and Troubled Times of Grover Cleveland Alexander" by John C. Skipper, and it's making me think about advanced stats on every page- precisely because it avoids them so much.

Now, I love advanced statistics. I think objective data is always superior to subjective narratives, no matter how good the narratives make us feel. And if our current understanding of the numbers is limited, well, that's okay; the quest for more complete knowledge is kind of necessarily never-ending, and the quest for more information is kind of necessarily noble. And hey, there's something oddly liberating about being to look up a player yourself, check out the numbers, and get a good sense of what he does, rather than relying on what some grizzled old scout or blow-dried pundit tells you.

Of course, a lot of people in the broad swath of sports culture disagree with me, and this book illustrates why. The fact of the matter is, a lot of people did not have advanced stats when they learned the game, and most of the history of the game is written to reflect that. Thus, the legends of the game- the Ruths, WIlliamses, DiMaggios- are not understood in those terms, even if the terms are more accurate.

For example: "Wicked Curve" spends a lot of time counting up Alexander's Wins. And that's kind of important, as his claim to fame is that he held the record for Wins in the NL (and is third all time overall). But, as we now know, Wins are a useless stat, predicated as much on the offense's performance as the pitchers, and defined as much by the timing of runs as the total.

Alexander certainly had other claims to fame. A 1.121 career WHIP. Over 2,000 strikeouts. A famous performance in the 1926 World Series to lead The Beloved St. Louis Cardinals to their first World Series title. And while all of these are things are more accurate, objective measurements of Alexander's actual performance, they're kind of glossed over in the book (with the exception of the obviously dramatic World Series heroics).

Understand, I don't exactly blame Skipper; his focus was as much on Alexander's troubled personal life, so a discussion of advanced statistics- which would have had to include some explanations- would have been quite the digression. But still, if we're really interested in predicting performance, understanding how wins are generated, or assigning value to players, it doesn't help anyone that legendary players from previous eras are measured by stats that do none of that.

The solution, I think, is to start getting some baseball history books that put legendary players in the context of advanced statistics. There's going to be some limitations on this- there was no PitchFX in Alexander's day, so we're never really going to know if his control was as impressive as Skipper says- but a lot of the building blocks of modern stats were recorded, so if someone has just the right mental illness, they can figure it out. Some books may be doing that; I don't know of any, but I'm always willing to learn (hint hint, dear readers). Along the way, we may find out that some of our legends weren't as great as we thought (although, going by Baseball Reference's career leader boards, maybe not). But that would be a small price to pay for better understanding of the game.

Sports Spectacle!

In anticipation of my beloved St. Louis Cardinals' opening game, I've been reading up on the brand new Marlins Park (because clearly, the Cardinals will do better if I know the exact dimensions of the right field wall). Well I'd like to tell you I've definitively determined how the park will play, the fact is, I'm getting awfully distracted by stuff like this.

And this.

And hell, the new uniforms, too.

All of these things are coming in for their fair share of abuse right now. And I won't deny that they're gimmicks. I won't deny that they're silly, gaudy distractions.

Nor will I deny that I absolutely love them.

Okay, first caveat: I'm setting aside the uniforms. Those are just a mess, but it IS the exact kind of mess that seems perfect for Miami, so....partial credit? Anyway, Ozzie Guillen in neon orange is worth the price of admission.

As for the rest of it, well, what's wrong with silly, gaudy distractions? Clearly, the world of sports has decided "nothing", or else we wouldn't have mascots, cheerleaders, in stadium music, concessions, and on and on and on. Is the Marlins' outfield monstrosity really appreciably worse than Bernie Brewer sliding into a pool of beer? Is it any sillier than the Sausage races? Is it anymore ostentatious than this?

(Wait a minute, what the fuck is wrong in Milwaukee?)

There might be other reasons the Marlins' new gimmicks are bad. For one thing, it sure would've been nice if they would have thought about those aquariums ahead of time, rather than just testing them after the fact by having Gaby Sanchez wing a few balls at them. But if it all works okay, I don't see why it can't be colorful little diversion between plays.

In general, we need to spend a lot less time telling sports teams to be serious and to present themselves just like everyone else. More teams need things that are uniquely their own, and to find those things, the teams can't be afraid to look silly. 'Cause if you can't have fun running a baseball team, you need to find a new line of work.

Everybody Hates Craig James

Did you know that college football broadcaster Craig James is running for U.S. Senate in Texas? If you follow Texas political news, maybe not. He's rather flailing, trumpeting his own endorsement of Rick Santorum, revealing painful personal details, and digging up his old feud with former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach.

However, if you follow sports blogs, you know all about James' campaign, as most of them are gleefully flogging every misstep.

At first, that was fine. James was the very model of the type of sports pundit that bloggers- and really, the rest of us fans, too- hate. He was pretentious without any real insight, he confused interest in the sport with interest in him, and was more interested in raising his own Q rating than in informing or entertaining viewers. Moreover, he's running as a Rick Santorum Republican, and fuck that noise. So, don't get me wrong: I want him to lose, too.

But the fact is, he is going to lose. He's going to lose in an embarrassing way, and he's going to drag all of his family problems into the media while doing it. I don't exactly have sympathy for him; no one made him run, so we're kind of in "This is the business we've chosen" territory here. And I have nothing but support for sports bloggers who want to use their platform to push back against reactionary douche-sewers like James (After all, James is using his platform to push his agenda, isn't he?). But still, I think there's better uses of bloggers' time and effort than Craig James at this point. Piling on serves no purpose. And anyway, wouldn't the best punishment for James just be to ignore him?

Put it this way: Craig James' problem as a sportscaster, a problem that was shared by enough sportscasters that the blogs arose, in part, as a corrective to them (or at least an alternative; let's not pretend bloggers have fixed sports media), was that he tried to make the game all about him. It'd be a pity if sports bloggers fall into the same trap.