Friday, October 28, 2011

11-For-11 World Series Wrap-Up.

After the high-wire pyrotechnics of Game 6, tonight's World Series denouement felt a little staid, a little anticlimactic. It seemed like their ought to have been one last act of courage and madness, one more improbable rally to cap this wild ride off. Then again, given the path the Cardinals took to reach this moment from September 5th, maybe the "improbable occurrences" quotient had been filled and then some.

When that last fly to deep left came to rest in the mitt of Allen Craig, the Cardinals clinched their 11th World Series victory in franchise history. In honor of those 11 titles, here are 11 (mostly) Cards-centric post-game thoughts and observations from an impartial observer.

1. Congrats to the Cards and their fans, who in my opinion are the most unwaveringly devout and pure anywhere. They don't carry Cubs fans' fascination with pathos, Yankees fans' sense of entitlement, or Red Sox fans' bizarre alchemy of those two elements. They simply love their team and the game with everything they have, 24/7/365. I would obviously prefer to see my beloved Braves hoisting that trophy right now, but it's always nice to see the Cards win. Classy team, classy fans. Cheers, y'all.

2. I just turned off Albert Pujols' post-game presser in utter disgust. Every other question was essentially some from of "are you going to be playing baseball in Saint Louis next season or not?" If you pulled any reporter out of that room to chide them for this idiocy, they'd respond with something like this: "Come on, it's what everyone wants to know. I have to ask! It's my job!" False. First, you could exhibit a modicum of class and decorum and recognize that the man just won a freaking World Series and probably wants to enjoy this moment with his teammates without you interjecting that into the mix. Second, if you're incapable of class and decorum, at least show a little common sense. The man has been steadfastly refusing to entertain this issue all season. Did you think you could surprise him into revealing something of his thoughts because he's currently buzzing on a cocktail of adrenaline, emotion, and champagne? Did you think he'd suddenly lift his embargo and speak freely because he said he'd deal with it when the season ended and it ended a whopping 30 minutes ago? Sheesh.

3. One more Machine-related item: Overall, this World Series was not exactly Pujols' finest hour. Granted, much of his semi-anemic (for him) production at the plate can be chalked up to the fact that Texas simply refused to pitch to the man for a goodly portion of his at-bats, but there's a better-than-outside chance that in 50 years some analyst is going to look over his 2011 World Series stat line and conclude that he "couldn't have been that great because he didn't come through in the clutch," or some such nonsense. Two things on that. 1: Pujols' staggering Game 3 explosion (5/6, 3 HR, 6 RBI, 4 R) was probably the single greatest offensive performance in postseason history, one of those pure events that transcends the circumstances such that everyone who watched it will remember exactly where they were when it happened. And 2: No, his World Series was not all that impressive, but I'll emphasize again that he got walked a bunch because the Rangers were terrified to actually pitch to him, and he'd have scored a lot more runs if St. Louis had any competence at all with runners in scoring position. Also, seven games is a very, very small sample size. Look at his summed 2011 postseason stats: .353/.463/.691, 5 HR, 16 RBI, 15 R. That's absurd. He really is a machine.

4. Even if Albert Pujols has played his final game in a Cardinals uniform (and I don't think he has), David Freese could very nearly step into those rather daunting shoes, at least where the fans are concerned. The hometown kid just banked back-to-back NLCS and World Series MVP's, and drove in more key runs over a 22-day stretch than just about anyone else in the history of the game. That walk-off in Game 6 was one of the most goosebump-inducing moments I've ever seen in a baseball game, or any sporting event for that matter. Freese won the game and simultaneously exonerated himself from his earlier pop-up catastrophe, and that dinger became the cornerstone of his budding mythology. As if to emphasize the point, after he'd knocked in two more runs in Game 7, the Rangers granted him the ultimate sign of respect by issuing the "even if we're loading the bases and putting a potentially burying run on base, there is no way we're pitching to this guy" intentional walk. As of right now, Freese is a bona fide star. I can't wait to watch his career unfold. If he can refine his defense at the hot corner, we may have something special on our hands.

5. What the hell is Chris Berman doing on a baseball telecast? Was there absolutely no one else they could have brought in for this? It's the World Series! What, Dave Winfield was busy? They couldn't have called in Terry Francona to reprise his fantastic booth debut earlier in the postseason? No disrespect meant to The Swami, but he's out of his element, Donnie!

6. It's really nice to see Lance Berkman and Arthur Rhodes, two players who have been around the league for... ev... er ... foooorrr... evvv... er ... , and have always been good guys who played their tails off, get rings. Well deserved, gents.

7. Jason Motte looks like he should be playing banjo for an indie-folk band based in Portland, Oregon. As a matter of fact, when he retires, he should take up the banjo, move to Portland, and go do that. Berkman could go with him and play glockenspiel and harmonica. (Lance Lynn could play tambourine.)

8. If ever anyone needed a handy, abridged guide to the managerial stylings of Tony La Russa, the 2011 World Series answered that need. These seven games were a perfect compression of the man whose obsessive micromanaging ranges from eccentric to utterly perplexing to occasionally brilliant. We'll probably never get the real truth behind The Case of The Bullpen Phone or The Case(s) of The Base-Running Idiocy, but the man who pioneered and perfected hyper-involved (and possibly needless) tinkering made just enough right moves that the wrong ones ultimately didn't matter. Contrary to what many baseball people would have you believe, La Russa doesn't "play chess", he plays an obscure version of solitaire. Tonight, the Cards came down just right. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

9. Everyone was worried about Chris Carpenter taking the mound in Game 7 on short rest. The rap was that he does not fair well when he's pitching out of his normal routine. Consensus had him pulled early at the first sign of trouble, especially given the aforementioned proclivities of the man calling the shots in the dugout. Carp got shaken up early, and didn't have his best stuff all night, but he settled in and managed to plow through 6 1/3 innings of 2-run ball. It wasn't pretty, but it was gritty as hell. Yeoman's job. Applause.

10. Allen Craig. Is. A. Beast.

11. I had the Cardinals in seven games. Who has two thumbs and is a prognosticating genius? This guy!!! (Points thumbs at self.)

Since it's now after midnight, this post marks Arena Apothecary's 7-Month Anniversary!!! Thanks for reading!!!

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Kids Are Alright in Arlington.

Whew, what a weekend!!! Chaotic. Seismic, even. Just a whirlwind of activity.

To whit: The landscape of college football got itself good and altered as the Badgers and Sooners departed in ignoble fashion from the ranks of the undefeated. The World Series served up whiplash-inducing pace-change oscillations between offensive firefights and lock-down pitching heroics. The NFL was its usual blend of excitement, perplexities, triumphs, and total humiliations. Hockey happened. Basketball did not.

From amidst the insanity, beauty, and wreckage, I feel the need to salute a pair of young'uns who dropped jaws and broke things (like records and their opponents' psyches) on Sunday. They had geography, both theirs and their opponents', in common (good gravy, was it ever a big day for heroics and records in Arlington, TX venues against teams from St. Louis!), but their achievements were absolutely unique. Allow me to present:

DeMarco Murray - RB, Dallas Cowboys. The 23-year old rookie out of Oklahoma pretty much did whatever he wanted with the rock on Sunday afternoon. In his 6th NFL game and only his second in which he logged double-digit carries, Murray racked up an astounding 253 yards on 25 carries for an average of 10.1 yds-per-rush. That sterling performance included a 91-yard touchdown explosion that ignited Dallas on their way to a 34-7 victory. He ran over, around, through, past, and any other descriptors you'd care to insert, would-be tacklers all game long. It wasn't just that he was unstoppable, it was the fact that after a while everybody on the field knew he was unstoppable, and everybody in a different-colored jersey pretty much gave up trying. Murray's day was good for 9th all time in the NFL's single-game rushing totals. It was also the most in Cowboys' history, passing Emmit Smith, and that 91-yard TD scamper was the second-longest in team history behind Tony Dorsett's 99-yarder in 1983. Yes, Murray perpetrated this madness against the Rams, who rank dead-last in the league in rush defense. Some people are saying that this fact takes a bit of luster off what he did yesterday. To them I say: poppycock! For a rookie to tally that kind of yardage against any defense ... actually, scratch that. Anyone at all who puts up 253 rushing yards in any one game had himself a day worthy of the Gods, or at least a really good epic ballad dedicated to the feat, circumstances be damned. Mr. Murray, hats off to you, sir.

Derek Holland - LHP, Texas Rangers. A mere hour or so after DeMarco Murray wrapped his day for the ages, Derek Holland threw the first pitch in what would become a night for the pantheon of holy-#%$&!!!!! awesomeness. The 25-year old Holland was taken by the Rangers in the 25th round of the 2006 draft, and results thus far have been mixed. He's got electric stuff, but he's not always in total control, and his young career has been an erratic jigsaw puzzle for the most part. None of it mattered last night. In a game his team had to have, Holland didn't do much other than twirl one of the great games in World Series history. Working every pitch, running from high-90's to mid-70's in velocity, and hitting almost every spot, he baffled, cajoled, hoodwinked, and firebombed a potent Saint Louis lineup into submission. Here's the ridiculous line: 8 1/3 IP, 0R, 0ER, 2H, 2BB, 7K. And the raw numbers miss these fun little tidbits: 1. Only one Cardinal even reached second base while Holland was on the mound. 2. That player was Lance Berkman, responsible for both of the hits against Holland. The rest of the Cards' lineup went 0-for-24. That's sort of the definition of complete dominance. The other pitchers in the last 40 years who have chalked up 8 1/3 scoreless while giving up two or fewer hits in a World Series game: Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, and Kenny Rogers. That's some rarefied company, my friends. This wasn't entirely unprecedented from Holland; he was tied for most shutouts thrown in the AL this year. However, he also posted an abysmal 8.59 ERA in the ALCS and his confidence had been flagging of late. Somehow, someway, he trekked into the mountains of pitching psyche, found a big ol' vein of raw Mojo Ore, mined and refined that thing into a Fort Knox-sized repository of Mojo Currency, and then spent it all on Sunday night. It's a feat we're not likely to see replicated anytime soon.

For these two young athletes, and for Arlington, TX, I suspect October 23, 2011, is going to be remembered fondly and reverently for a very, very long while. When that much history gets made in that short a time, what can you do put pick your jaw up off the floor, tip your cap, raise your glass, and say "Cheers." Naturally, in this case, with a bottle of Lone Star. Yee Haw.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Last-minute, Very Rushed World Series Preview/Prediction.

Sometimes life just gets in the way of writing a thorough, well-reasoned World Series preview. You want to dissect everything, spend some quality time with Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus, think about all the angles and narratives, and come out with an answer you can hang your hat on. The fact that this thing is a crapshoot and your finely-tuned analysis is likely going to be utterly worthless is beside the point. It's the mulling over of the various aspects that's gratifying. Sadly, I didn't have the time to go through all of it at length, so with the first pitch scheduled for one hour hence, you're getting the compressed and wildly speculative version.

As you may have heard, the axioms that usually apply to postseason baseball appear to have gone temporarily AWOL. Outsized payroll buys enough talent to win? False! Just ask the Yankees. A dominant starting rotation can mask a lot of other deficiencies? False! Give Charlie Manuel a call and see how that's going for him. No, we're here under the unlikely auspices of manic bullpen work and smokin' hot bats. I'm not just talking normal, playoff-caliber offense. I mean hot like a molten heap that used to be a car being removed from a nuclear bomb testing site. It's been a strange postseason, and it's left everyone from media to fans to the producers at FOX somewhere between baffled and lukewarm. Unless you love baseball. Then you're salivating over this baby.

Rangers. Cardinals. Let's break this thang down!

Starting Rotations: C.J. Wilson/Colby Lewis/Derek Holland/Matt Harrison vs. Chris Carpenter/Jaime Garcia/Kyle Loshe/Edwin Jackson. This is quite an interesting battle. Wilson and Lewis are fine pitchers and capable of putting up big outings for Texas, but they're not exactly models of excellence through consistency. Holland and Harrison are quality back-of-the-rotation guys; no more and no less. The Cards will have Chris Carpenter for games 1, 5, & 7 (if it comes to that), and you can't emphasize enough how much a Cy Young-quality pitcher with a great October pedigree means here. Garcia has been shaky of late, but he's a solid arm, and Loshe and Jackson are better than their likely counterpart match-ups. Edge: Cards.

Bullpen: Given the way these teams are being managed, does that rotation analysis I just went through even matter? Both teams are yanking their starters before fans at the ballpark have even finished their first overpriced beers. If this strategic anomaly continues, the fate of this World Series might well rest on the bullpens ... and they're nearly a wash. Texas relies mainly on an excellent Scott Feldman/Alexi Ogando combination to eat innings (or specific situations) en route to set-up man Mike Adams and closer Neftali Feliz, with lefty-killer Darren Oliver on hand for key match-ups. It's a formidable 'pen, and Ron Washington seems to have (slowly) figured out how exactly to utilize it. If they were playing literally any other team, the Rangers would have an edge. But they're playing the team managed by the guy who invented and perfected specialized relief, and thanks to the mid-season Colby Rasums trade, Tony La Russa has plenty of shiny toys to play with and manipulate. Either Marc Rzepczynski or Arthur Rhodes can be called upon if La Russa feels the need to put the Rangers' holy terror lefty Josh Hamilton down at the plate. Jason Motte has grown into his role as a closer, and Fernando Salas, Jake Westbrook, and co. can be used as needed. The key guy here might be Octavio Dotel, who absolutely mows down right-handed hitters. He might work exactly 1&1/3 innings a game, every game, trying to neutralize Texas' 4-7 righty lineup slots (Young, Beltre, Napoli, Cruz). If anyone can do it, it's Dotel, but no one should envy him the task. Edge: Flip a damn coin.

Hitting: This series is a treat as regards the middle of the order for both clubs. Pujols/Berkman/Holliday. Hamilton/Young/Beltre. I'm throwing out the LCS MVPs for both teams. They're unpredictable X-factor guys who are playing out of their minds right now, but show no evidence of doing it consistently. (Nelson Cruz shattered records [9HR, 15 RBI] in the ALCS but hit 1-for-15 in the ALDS. David Freese is the only person not named Lou Gerhrig to hit .545 with 3 homers and 9 RBIs in a postseason series, but that's obviously not a clip any hitter maintains for very long. Either one of these guys could cool off at any moment.) Saint Louis has the more terrifying 3-4-5 hitters, and a more versatile bench should they need extra bats. (And what La Russa deems "need" is, of course, eccentric and excessive in many cases.) Texas has a better 1-9. The big factor is that all those extra Cards bats means they won't be at the disadvantage most NL teams are during the AL-park games in a World Series. Look for Allan Craig or Ryan Theriot to admirably step into the DH spot. Slight edge: Cards.

Defense: No contest. Texas is an elite defensive team. Better fielding on the dirt, speedier legs and stronger arms in the outfield. The Cards got a very nice upgrade when Furcal came in at short, but they're still middling to a-bit-above-average at best. Edge: Rangers.

Baserunning: Again, not much to talk about. Texas was tops in the league on the basepaths this year. The Cardinals, not exactly slouches at 8th in the bigs, still can't match the raw speed and aggression of the Rangers. They can neutralize it, though. Texas, meet Yadier Molina. He has a cannon for an arm, sniper-like accuracy, and is hyper-smart and hyper-fasat behind the plate. He's going to make your lives a lot harder for the next 7-10 days. Still, edge: Rangers.

Managers: Tony La Russa's proclivity for over-managing, micromanaging, and generally trying to be too clever for his own good is well-documented. Nonetheless, he's decidedly the guy you'd want in the dugout if your other option was Ron Washington. (Who, to be fair, has grown much more savvy since he took the job.) Both men have tinkered to excess this postseason, resulting in marathon games and often-grating delays. If that trend continues, well, La Russa owns that style. Washington will simply be out of his depth if significant adjustments need to be made. Edge: Cards.

No matter what, we're in for a series of moonshot homers, zany tactics, and 4,287 pitching changes, played between two near-evenly matched ball clubs. This thing ought to be a riot. Slow and meandering, but burning that ol' proverbial barn just the same. On paper, the Rangers are the better team. I know. But I think Washington will shoot himself in the foot at some point, and Carpenter will turn in long, quality outings, allowing the Cards to keep their bullpen arms fresher. Oh yes, and Albert Pujols will have something to do with it, too.

Prediction: Cardinals in Seven.

Friday, October 14, 2011

"Oh God, he thought, or other suitable entity ..."

I have decided by executive order as the sole content provider for this blog that Fridays will now be the home of a new feature. We're calling this nascent creation:

"Oh God, he thought, or other suitable entity ..."

If you don't get the reference, then you haven't read Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. In which case, stop reading this, stop everything, and go buy or download yourself a copy. Do it. Now. That book is excellent.

Anyway, the crux of this column will be a weekly earnest plea to whatever higher powers might be listening, or to the capriciousness of a random universe if that's what it takes. An obsequious and humble request that something happen which I cannot, myself, instigate.

Our inaugural entry falls to an admittedly silly idea ... but trust me, it would be awesome is this actually transpired. OK, here goes ...

Oh God, he thought, or other suitable entity:

As you are no doubt aware, "Back To The Future II" is an excellent movie. Not just because Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd are hilarious, but because so many things it fictitiously predicted in the "distant future" of 2015 have come to pass.

Video conferencing? Check. Gazillions of channels worth of TV programming? Check. Split-screen/pic-in-pic TVs? Check. Cars that run on alternative fuel sources? Check. (Well, kinda-sorta. We're getting there.) Flying cars? Semi-check. (By the way, two things about that clip: 1. That thing is not nearly as cool as a Delorean with a shiny flux capacitor in the back seat. And 2. What exactly is with that music? Seriously, listen to the lyrics. It's actually kind of a cool song, I guess. Easy to relate to. I, too, want to be in AC/DC, because that would be awesome. My rock star aspirations notwithstanding, however, why they ever came to think "this is the perfect background jam for our flying car promo!", I have absolutely no idea.)

And then there's the stuff we could definitely use that has so far failed to materialize, to my eternal chagrin. Things BTF2 speculated upon that I would like now, please:

Automatically-sizing and/or self-drying clothing. (Oh, and while we're talking apparel, self-lacing shoes.)
Dust-repelling paper.
Auto-serve gas stations.
Rejuvenation clinics.
Hoverboards. (Obviously. If Steve Jobs had lived, we'd have had iBoards within the next decade, easy. Get on this, scientists!!! Make me proud!!!)

But above all of that, I humbly implore you, make this happen.

Virtually all of the heavy has been done for you, for chrissakes. I always thought it was cool that they nailed the "baseball team in Florida" thing, but starting next season, we'll have an actual Miami Marlins franchise. Starting right now, newly-minted GM Theo Epstein is already busy scheming on ways to revitalize the Cubs. Epstein is and awfully smart guy, but that's going to take him some time. He doesn't have a Red Sox-sized payroll behind him now, and much of Chicago's Baseball Operations department needs a house-cleaning and restructuring. It's going to take a few years of work to turn things around. Just for fun, let's give him a time frame. Say ... the 2015 season? I'd say that's enough time for Epstein to work his magic and help a second beleaguered franchise conquer a mountain of history, doubt, poor decisions, bad mojo, and curses.

So all we need is the following:

A. Epstein to actually help the Cubs as much as he helped Boston.

B. Some sort of realignment to land the Marlins in the AL before 2015. (This is easy, just swap them with the Tampa Bay Rays. I'm tired of hearing them whine about being stuck in the AL East with a tiny payroll, anyway. Give the Marlins a shot at it and let Tampa Bay deal with Philly and Atlanta for awhile.)

C. The Marlins to somehow make the World Series in 2015. This is entirely plausible, especially if we grant that B. has already occurred. The Yankees are getting old and, gratuitously deep pockets or not, they're going into a rebuilding phase even if they do land C.J. Wilson and Big Papi in free agency. The Sox obviously just underwent massive upheaval and internal fracturing between those in the dugout and those in the front office. Along with some very onerous contracts they still have on the books, this will likely hamstring them for a while. Therefore, all the new hypothetical AL-East based Miami Marlins would have to do is be better than two ailing and crippled juggernauts, the Blue Jays, and the Orioles. Peace of cake, right?

And then, in the craziest-ever example of life imitating art (you're damn right I just called BTF2 art!), the Cubs can sweep Miami in the 2015 World Series and all will be right with the world. (I'm not a Cubs fan, but jeeze I feel for that poor town and the poor fans. Let's get this over with so they can move on.)

Oh God, he thought, or other suitable entity ... make it happen.

-The Arena Apothecary

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Boston Globe: World's FInest Sporting Tabloid And Muckrakers Extraordinaire!!!

I have to hand it to Bob Hohler and the Boston Globe. That was one spectacular smear job this morning. In case you missed it, or simply chose to ignore yet another media piece related to the Red Sox 2011 collapse, here's the skinny:

The intrepid reporters at the Boston Globe, after conducting interviews with "individuals familiar with the Sox operation at all levels," have "revealed" a number of supposedly contributing factors to Boston's epic September meltdown. These juicy tidbits include, but are not limited to:

*Sox starting pitchers spending their games off in the clubhouse with beer, fired chicken, and video games.

*Manager Terry Francona dealing with marital problems and a possible addiction to pain killers.

*Several members of the team who had previously been "leaders" in the clubhouse exhibiting a pronounced malaise and generally grumping through the stretch drive instead of, well, "leading."

Their are so many things wrong with the tone and content of this piece that I don't really know where to begin, except to start at the top. Before even getting to the tawdry details, the author loses any and all credibility with this gem:

"All the Sox needed was Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey to apply the skills and commitment that previously made them World Series champions. Instead, Boston’s three elite starters went soft ..."

In future, Mr. Hohler, do not refer to John Lackey as "elite" or put him in the company with guys who were/are legitimate aces if you wish to be taken seriously.

Moving on ...

We'll begin with Terry Francona. Hohler makes him sound evasive and confrontational when discussing whether problems in his marriage might have affected his managerial performance. As if anyone is going to sound otherwise when being asked if and how something genuinely tragic and meaningful (the deterioration of a 30+ year marriage) had any negative impact on something not really tragic or meaningful (a bad month of baseball). Good to see we've all got our priorities in order, here.

As for the painkillers; if I'd had multiple knee surgeries and needed blood drained out of that knee on five occasions over the season, I'd be popping those suckers like Pez and so would you. They probably kept him from totally losing it, what with the grind of six months of near-constant travel on a bum knee.

Finally, the oft-repeated line that Francona was losing his ability to control the team. ("Oft-repeated" is a polite way of putting it; Hohler drives this mercilessly into the ground.) Bob, here's breaking news from anyone who has ever followed a sports team: this swtuff happens. Excepting the very rare cases of guys like Bobby Cox, every 5-10 years or so, organizations need a change. A new voice needs to be brought in not necessarily to fix a problem, but because the same voice/direction/philosophy grows tired and stale if it's around for too long. This is true for every large, collective enterprise. Businesses get new CEOs, teams get new coaches and GMs. It's not only unsurprising, but expected that after seven years and two titles, Francona might have found himself unable to exert the same control or command the same respect in the clubhouse. Implying that this somehow made him an inferior manager is flat-out wrong.

That cover's Tito's exoneration. You might want to grab a drink. We're just getting started.

Let's mull over the failed leadership of the Sox players next.

Bob Hohler - "In the end, only [Dustin] Pedroia and a few other players appeared to remain fully committed to winning, according to team sources. They said the veterans who no longer actively exerted their leadership included the captain, Jason Varitek, who was saddled with injuries and ineffective on the field (he batted .077 in September)."

So the team captain, a guy who never complained even as his flagging production forced him from the lineup more and more over the years, was apparently despondent and not as vocal this year? I can't imagine why a 39-year old ballplayer at the end of his career who has been marginalized by his organization would fail to exhibit plucky, leader-like qualities. Baffling, I say.

BH - "Although [David] Ortiz once gathered his teammates in September to try to rally them, his most memorable act off the field in 2011 was bursting into a Francona news conference to profanely complain about a scorer’s decision that could have cost him credit for batting in a run.Weeks later, Ortiz committed another disrespectful act by suggesting Francona was hurting the team by failing to insert reliever Alfredo Aceves in the starting rotation."

I think we all agree that Big Papi's storming that press conference over a scoring notation that cost him an RBI was ill-advised and somewhat less than classy, and that his comments about Aceves probably should have been kept in-house. But that first sentence kills me. "Although Ortiz once gathered his teammates in September to try to rally them ..." So aside from that one time when Papi tried to be a leader and inspire his team, he was a poor excuse for a leader? OK, got it.

BH - "[Kevin] Youkilis, by nearly all accounts, grew more detached and short-tempered as he tried to play through his ailments. He also factored in a divisive clubhouse issue as the only player last year who publicly criticized Jacoby Ellsbury - several others privately chided the outfielder - when Ellsbury missed all but 18 games with rib injuries."

No, no, no. Youkilis has been, "by nearly all accounts," a consummate teammate. He routinely played hurt, at whatever defensive position and in whatever spot in the lineup he was needed. He never told tales out of school or did anything other than his job. Over the grind of yet another injury-marred season, his becoming "detached and short-tempered" doesn't make him less of a leader, it makes him a human being.

By the way, the supposed clubhouse ostracism of Ellsbury, is not a new tale at all, and it certainly seemed to have no ill effects on the Red Sox center-fielder this year. .321/.376.522. and "MVP!" chants at every home game. Yup, he was clearly unhappy.

BH - "The gift of leadership also eluded Adrian Gonzalez. On the field, Gonzalez’s overall production was superb, but he provided none of the energy or passion off the field that the Sox sorely needed. ... Blaming five stressful nights over a six-month season for a tough year smacked of the self-interest that is uncommon among leaders of championship-caliber teams."

Wait, the new guy from the small-market team didn't immediately become a Fearless Leader and Important Voice? Shame on him. Doesn't he know that a .338 average and 27 homers are meaningless without leadership? Was their some sort of "Intangibles Incentives Clause" in Gonzalez's contract that we don't know about that he failed to meet? Sheesh.

I should mention that throughout this entire section, Hohler paints every player with one of the most common brushes used by media people who wish to vilify someone: the "so-and-so refused to comment" ploy. They utilize this tactic to make the subject seem standoffish, petulant, or like they have something to hide. It's probably a lost closer to reality that the players were simply tired of rehashing what must have been a humiliating and difficult experience.

Getting back to Beckett, Lester, Lackey, (and occasionally Clay Buchholz)'s clubhouse rituals. Yes, it would have been much better if they had showed more solidarity and support by remaining in the dugout during games. Yes, fried chicken and beer are not a great diet for professional athletes. Yes, it probably does indicate a certain lack of total dedication. But blaming September on this is laughably inaccurate. It says, right there in the Globe article, that they "began the practice late in 2010." So this wasn't exactly a new habit. Which begs the question HOW DID SOMETHING YOUR PITCHERS HAVE BEEN DOING FOR OVER A YEAR SUDDENLY INSTIGATE WHAT HAPPENED IN SPETMEBER?!?!?!?! All that beer and chicken didn't stop the team from going 20-6 in July, right? Again, I think it was shoddy behavior and pretty unprofessional, but implicating chicken'n'biscuits'n'brew'n'X-Box as a major culprit in this year's collapse defies logic.

While we're talking starting pitching, I feel obligated to take a moment to defend Tim Wakefield from the allegations of being selfish.

BH - "Wakefield also was part of the problem. Amid a seemingly interminable quest for his 200th career victory, he went 1-2 with a 5.25 ERA in September, taxing the bullpen as the Sox lost four of his five starts."

Hohler makes it sound like Wakefield insisted he start games so that he could make 200 wins, and his insidious gunning for that milestone cost the Sox games when he failed to perform well in his outings. Uh, Bob, I'm fairly certain Tito was starting him because the needed a starter in the rotation and Wakefield was what they had. You can blame him for pitching poorly, but not for being sent to the mound.

And then there's this : "The 45-year-old knuckleballer then appeared more interested in himself than the team when he asserted in the final days of the season that the Sox should bring him back in 2012 to pursue the franchise’s all-time record for wins (shared by Roger Clemens and Cy Young at 192)."

He's 45 for Pete's sake!!! He's looking for any reason to sustain his career. Not wanting to hang up his cleats is not synonymous with being selfish.

And now we come to the crux of this whole mess, the Red Sox owners and management, (hilariously, transparently referred to in the piece as "sources" or "anonymous team officials") who either straight-up paid the Globe to run this joke of an article or threatened to cut off all future media access if they didn't.

Throughout this mess of drivel, the owners are continually portrayed as sympathetic, well-meaning characters. We're apparently supposed to think of them as parents whose teenage kid has started breaking into the liquor cabinet and dealing drugs out of his room; concerned in general but largely ignorant of the details. "You've ... you changed. I just don't know what to do." Here's my favorite (i.e. most reprehensible) bit:

"As Hurricane Irene barreled toward Boston in late August, management proposed moving up the Sunday finale of a weekend series against Oakland so the teams could play a day-night doubleheader either Friday, Aug. 26, or Saturday, Aug. 27. The reasoning seemed sound: the teams would avoid a Sunday rainout and the dilemma of finding a mutual makeup date for teams separated by 2,700 miles.

But numerous Sox players angrily protested. They returned early that Friday from Texas after a demanding stretch in which they had played 14 of 17 games on the road, with additional stops in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Kansas City. The players accused management of caring more about making money than winning, which marked the first time the team’s top executives sensed serious trouble brewing in the clubhouse.

As it turned out, the Sox swept the Saturday doubleheader, but that stormy day marked the beginning of the end for the 2011 team. It was the last time the team would win two games in a row. After getting two days off, the Sox spent the rest of the season playing uninspired, subpar baseball, losing 21 of their final 29 games.

Sox owners soon suspected the team’s poor play was related to lingering resentment over the scheduling dispute, sources said. The owners responded by giving all the players $300 headphones and inviting them to enjoy a players-only night on principal owner John W. Henry’s yacht after they returned from a road trip Sept. 11.

But the gestures made no difference. The hapless Sox became the laughingstocks of baseball as they went from holding a two-game divisional lead over the Yankees after the Aug. 27 doubleheader - and a nine-game advantage in the wild-card race over the Rays - to finishing a humiliating third in the AL East."

Wow. I agree that trying to sneak in a game to avoid future scheduling problems from a hurricane was a prudent idea, but that's the only sane thing in these paragraphs. Of course players were upset that after "they had played 14 of 17 games on the road, with additional stops in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Kansas City," they were being preemptively made to play a doubleheader because the weather might require a game cancellation. Had they been forced to make up the game later on due to a hurricane, they would have been unhappy about that, but it would have unavoidable. Being forced into playing a doubleheader on the heels of a brutal road trip because of a "maybe" understandably ticked them off.

A note to Hohler: accusing management of being more concerned with revenue than with its players is practically a time-honored tradition of team bonding (pardon the alliteration). It does not constitute a reason why "the team's top executives sensed serious trouble was brewing in the clubhouse." In your rush to detail all the dissent and fractured loyalty of the team, you accidentally included one of the few displays of unity and solidarity. Whoops.

Except I can't blame you for including this particular incident or even the spin you put on it, because as I noted, like everything else you wrote, it's at the behest of the Sox management.

The management whose solution to the players' anger over that scheduling gaffe (so wait, now that's the reason they fell apart? I'm confused.) was to give them some pricey headphones and a pricey night on a pricey boat? You do know those are professional athletes, right? The minimum salary for a Major League Baseball player in 2011 was $414,000. That means even the lowliest man on your roster could afford several pairs of expensive cans and several nights on a fancy yacht. (I meant "lowliest" in an explicitly fiscal sense, obviously. The Sox actual lowliest player was probably Jed Lowrie.)

"But the gestures made no difference." Well, you did all you could. Jerks.

Look, I'm not a Red Sox fan. I had no vested interest in writing this rant other than how furious the original article made me as someone who writes about sports and tries to do so well. This blog is a hobby, but I'd love to make it a career. If all it takes is regurgitating what a front office tells me while completely failing to contribute meaningfully to the game, then I'm clearly trying too hard. Just answer me this: will I be unfairly chastised for eating fried chicken and drinking beer when I'm writing for the Boston Globe in a few years? Because I'm a southerner, and I couldn't live like that.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Favre Rules

Dear Brett,
Seriously? Well, at least we've got you pegged now. We can stop debating what exactly your reasons were for the waffling, for playing well past the point of peak performance or sanity or your own safety. It's all so clear now.

Even when you were a fresh-faced kid, you weren't who we thought you were. (Apologies to Dennis Green).

It wasn't about the game, was it? Not really. Not the way you'd like us to believe. All the gun-slinging, grin-on-your-face, Wrangler-wearin', supposedly-unbridled joy was a facade. Oh, I've no doubt the game was fun for you. If it wasn't, you'd have been doing something else for a living. But it'd wager your favorite part was winning when you were the cause of victory. "I'm just happy we got a 'W'" was BS if that win was off a last-second field goal, or a punt return TD, or any other play in which you weren't involved, wasn't it? You wanted to be the dominant gladiator, the guy with all the media coverage, the guy whose skills got the acknowledgement and praise they deserved. Throwing a touchdown was just a way of telling the world "Eff You!", wasn't it, Brett?

Without hacking into your home, which would be highly illegal and I wouldn't know how to do it anyway because I'm pretty bad with technology, I have no way of knowing the contents of your DVR. But I'd like to take a guess at one thing you've probably got preserved on there: Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame induction speech.

In fact, I bet you watch it once a week. And I bet you take notes. "Ooh, he totally slammed a kid who laughed at him once in the third grade!!!! Nice. I hope Timmy Parker is watching when I get inducted, I can't wait to let him know I haven't forgotten that one time be beat me in a game of H.O.R.S.E. Eff you, Timmy. See where I am now?!?!?! DO YOU SEE?!?!?!?"

It turns out you're a lot more like MJ than we could possibly have imagined, Brett. You kept coming back not because you couldn't let the game go, but because you weren't ready to cede the attention, the love, and most importantly, the opportunity to keep sticking it to people. You only walked away for good (God we hope!) when you were sure you couldn't kick anymore ass or take anymore names. Like Jordan, you're just smart enough to know you couldn't play a full season again. But I bet you still think you could go out for one game and hang 400 yards and 3 TDs on anybody.

Those comments you made about Aaron Rodgers were just plain idiotic. You didn't want the Packers fans to forget about you just yet, did you? Denigrate the new kid so that your reputation as some sort of mythic figure can be preserved. "Hey, hey!!!! He's not that great! Remember me? Remember how awesome I was?!?! Rodgers ain't that great!!! He just got lucky!"

Two things, Brett:

1. Aaron Rodgers could win 3 more Super Bowls in a row and it wouldn't diminish any of your achievements. You own every bloody passing record in the books. You own a consecutive starts streak that no one is ever going to break. You will be in the discussion pretty much every time anyone brings up all-time legends of the game. Please quit acting like a petulant child.

2. You said Rodgers was lucky to have such a great team around him; the implication being that you didn't have the benefit of such great teammates, and that you could have won many, many championships if you had. Donald Driver and Reggie White would like me to tell you that you're a jerk.

In the most MJ-like part of all this, I actually do have to applaud your timing. Jordan was famous for messing with people any chance he got and being an incredible manipulator, and you pulled off a two-fer of malign subtlety here. Not only did you throw some hard digs at your replacement, but you knew he'd be listening. Rodgers' response was to demure away from your comments, but you know they put a chip on his shoulder. You alley-ooped the man some stellar bulletin-board material for this week's game. Against the Falcons. The team that traded you away. The team that didn't know your worth. And you did it on an Atlanta radio station, no less! You sly dog, you. That was some positively Jordan-esque "eff-you" manipulation right there. (That's complete conjecture, obviously, but the timing was ... strange, to say the least.) But you know what? You didn't do yourself any favors with this. At all.

So Brett, let it go. Have the grace and decency to stop this nonsense. When Jordan made that HOF speech, we didn't stop thinking of him as the greatest of all time, but we did think "man, he really is a pathologically-competitive A-hole! Seriously, he's messed up a little bit in the brain!!!" It's not too late for you. Just fade quietly into the background. Don't say anything else to the media, don't text anymore illicit cellphone pictures. Play some golf, dirty up some Wranglers in pick-up games, enjoy yourself.

And when you get your first-ballot induction in Canton, please, don't be like Mike.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Athletes, Rock Stars, and the Art of the Tear-Down.

Hard on the heels of the recently-released Walter Payton biography, an awful lot of kicking and screaming has been going on among football's more nostaglia-driven constituents. There has been, in the words of one of my favorite authors, "a right smart racket." The issue at hand is the book's detailed chronicling of Sweetness' many problems and flaws off the field and later in life. The outrage is flowing hot and quick over the denigration of a legend, the forced erosion of his mythology. This strikes me as unfortunate. And odd.

It's not that the sentiments being expressed are strange in and of themselves. It's understandable that discomfort or even anguish might be caused when a hero's foibles are exposed in stark relief. What I find sad and confusing is the disconnect between how we react to sports heroes in circumstances such as these, and how we react to other cultural icons when the curtain is drawn back.

Of course, our sporting heroes aren't real heroes at all. Not in the manner that, say, the person who runs back into a burning building to save a child is a hero. But we do endow them with similar attributes. Greater ones, even, in that their associations tend to last longer. The burning-building savior will be forgotten by tomorrow's news cycle. The transcendent athlete will be remembered by many long after their last act on the field.

It's in the desire for those memories to be pure as driven snow that our perception of sports is completely out of line with the rest of our societal ethos. Our lionization of athletes carries the bizarre and wholly unrealistic caveat that they be paragons of virtue, and God help them if they fall short. Michael Vick ran a dog-fighting ring? Tiger Woods is an inveterate philanderer? Break out the pitchforks and torches! I'm not defending them or anyone else who does terrible things to their fellow human beings. (Or to animals, in Vick's case.) I'm merely saying that our violent reactions when these things happen are largely the product of absurd expectations. We wouldn't want such people babysitting our kids or teaching in elementary schools, but that's not their function in society. They're entertainers. That's the sum total of their purpose. That we project heroic qualities upon them is our own fault.

As fans, we reserve and are entitled to the right to root for or against whomever we choose, for whatever reasons seem justified within the framework of our individual thinking. We make our own personal heroes, and our own personal villains. Everything is fair game. "I just hate the friggin' Yankees" is the same in upshot, if not moral intent, as "that is a reprehensible person, and I refuse to support them." The interesting thing is that, as heroes go, only athletes are subjected to the latter statement. Save politicians, no other figures who might grace a magazine cover or trend on Twitter are held in this type of black-and-white judgement.

As a basis for comparison, consider popular music. Like sports, it's a form of entertainment. Setting aside the lack of a competitive element in the former, we deify the participants in both for the same reason: they do things that we, on our best days and in our wildest dreams, could never do. I've been playing guitar and shooting hoops for most of my life, and I can tell you with certainty that I will never approach the artistry of either Jimi Hendrix or Michael Jordan. Actors, writers, poets, painters, musicians, and athletes, are all akin in the reasons why we glorify them. So what is it about the particular context in which athletes exist that sets them apart?

Example: 50 Cent's time in jail gave him "street cred." So, for that matter, did Johnny Cash's. If Derek Jeter ever winds up in the big house, many people will say it "tarnishes his legacy."

Another example: if Tiger Woods were the guitarist in a multi-platinum selling band instead of a professional golfer, would we have batted an eye at that Thanksgiving night and everything that followed? Of course not. More than likely, we would have reacted like this: "His old lady found out he'd been screwing around, and he wrecked his car while on drugs and she bashed in the rear window with a nine iron? Awesome! What a f*$% rock star!!!"

In every non-sports arena that produces celebrity, these kinds of failings are seen as contributory to personal mythologies, not detracting from them. Hunter S. Thompson? Did every drug known to man and had all kinds of crazy misadventures ... and we revere him for it. Van Gogh? So messed up over a girl that he cut off his own ear ... he suffered for his art! Hugh Grant? Apparently enjoys illicit interactions with practitioners of the world's oldest profession ... but hey, that's Hollywood for you. And going back to the music analogy, the list of debauched legends is as long as The Illiad. From Mozart to Coltrane to Dylan, pretty much every relevant figure over music's entire documented history has had their demons and mistakes and unsavory characteristics well-publicized. In no case that I know of has it lessened their status among the media, scholars, and fans. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Somehow, athletes don't get the benefit of that particular brand of thinking. Their failings, when exposed, trigger a witch-hunt mentality among the populace. Fans grumble, pundits lament the lack of moral fiber, and people in the game attempt to distance themselves from the parties involved. Unless those fans, media, or insiders happen to have a connection to that specific athlete or the team they play for. Then you'll get no end of denial, justification, and defensive posturing, which is just as bad as the often irrational criticism they're trying to counter.

I suppose the fundamental question here is why? Why, when every other type of culturally-appointed icon/hero/mythic figure is not only tacitly allowed to have flaws, but excused or even encouraged in doing so, are athletes alone subjected to this rigorous scrutiny? Why does wearing a jersey make a person more culpable than someone who straps on a guitar or sits in front of a typewriter or a canvas? Are athletes' imperfections somehow more glaring, more damaging to society? In all likelihood, the answer resides in a time long before any of us were born. Musicians and artists, actors and authors have a centuries-long and storied history of eccentricity, misanthropy, and morally questionable behavior. "The artistic temperament," they call it. Over time, it's become a given that creative people will not necessarily be aligned with the social mores of the day. In fact, it's widely believed that the best artistic endeavors are driven by those who defy traditional moral conventions. While this is not true in many cases, the self-fulfilling nature of the myth has rendered it "common knowledge," and thus acceptable.

Athletes aren't granted the same clemency because their victories are perceived as fundamentally different from those of artists. While creative improvisation is an inherent part of most sports in varying degrees, the primary avenue through which success is achieved remains one of physical dominance, not mental brilliance. At least, those who have never appreciated in full the complexity of a football playbook or the subtlety of a point guard's intuition see it that way. And because sports stars are perceived as not needing an "artistic temperament" to perform at a high level, we don't allow the same leeway for their eccentricities and shortcomings. Never mind that the pressures of being a public figure are no different for athletes than they are for rock stars, or that unfortunate discoveries are going to be made about pretty much anyone under such a microscope over time. If a surgeon cheats on his or her spouse, the patient isn't likely to find out, and will therefore maintain complete faith in their ability to perform a triple bypass. If an athlete commits adultery, some odd synaptic connection compels us to subtly downgrade our evaluations of their performance. We tie what occurs in the game to what we know about the person, and it negatively shifts our perception.

Those shifts have been amplified in the past 20 years or so. Technological advances have given us real-time access to our heroes that was previously unimaginable. That access reveals in painstaking detail the best angels and worst demons of people in whose worth we are inordinately invested, but it's the demons we choose to focus on. Every imperfection and tawdry tidbit is available for immediate consumption and commentary, which translates into a pronounced tendency to tear down the gladiators. In different times, this wasn't the case.

Just look at Ty Cobb. By all accounts, he was a less-than-shining example of humanity. A racist and a mean S.O.B. A man other people found easy to dislike. Even within the confines of the game that made him famous, he was considered "unsportsmanlike." (Cobb had a reputation of trying to spike opponents with his sharpened cleats every time he slid into a base.) We know these things to be true. Yet because Ty Cobb could flat-out play baseball, and because the documentation of his less virtuous aspects was so limited in his time, our first thought when his name is mentioned is his brilliance on the diamond. Athletes in Cobb's day were essentially unknowable to the public at large. Their flaws were easily concealed because mass media the way we think of it hadn't been invented yet. There was no CNN, no ESPN, no TMZ. The all-pervasive apparatus of scandal-revealing denigration that we currently call "journalism" wasn't even a hazy pipe dream. If Cobb were playing today, we'd crucify him the same way we did John Rocker.

Which, in his specific case, would be the correct course of action.

There's a difference between being flawed in the way that many people are flawed, and a genuinely aberrant or dangerous attitude. When an athlete is revealed in the former context, we should be as understanding and reasonable as we would be with anyone else. If it's the latter, we should be as unmerciful in judgement as we would be under any other circumstance. The star player who cheats on his wife or becomes addicted to drugs or booze or painkillers or what have you is certainly flawed and tragic and, possibly, immoral. (Cheating on your spouse is immoral. Addiction to substances that alleviate the pain of a physically destructive career is not.) They absolutely should not be emulated, but they're also a far cry from real bigotry or other extremely hateful, violent behavior. Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the leg was stupid and unfortunate, but I hope he can still have a meaningful NFL career. On the other hand, if the alleged events in Milledgeville, GA actually occurred, Ben Roethlisberger ought to have gone to jail for a very long time instead of being allowed to settle out of court. When faced with serious, legitimate evil, we should abhor the athlete who does the deed just as much as the random murderer on the six o'clock news. But when our outrage stems from transgressions that anyone whose moral compass doesn't point true north 24/7 might commit simply because they're human beings, that's on us. They didn't ask for this scrutiny. As Charles Barkley apprised all of us years ago, athletes aren't role models. Why we ever thought they were, and why that idea has been perpetuated, is a mystery.

Which brings us back to Walter Payton. The people who are so offended by that new biography see it as an unnecessary exercise in muckraking, as speaking ill of the dead. They're angry because of the effect it might have on their (and our) memories of the man, and thus on his legacy as a football player and a person. The depressing thing is, they're probably right. People are going to use what's revealed in those pages as a reason to tear Payton down. As Jeff MacGregor so astutely pointed out, that's a sorry state of affairs, and not what we should be taking away from reading it. In revealing Payton's imperfections, the book encourages us to celebrate his achievements all the more.

MacGregor: "His flaws should make him more dear to us rather than less so. More inspiring. More heroic. Look what he was able to do. To be that fast and strong and focused while carrying the weight of all those secret burdens? Isn't that the lesson? Isn't that what we should teach?"

Exactly. Which is why we need to alter the way we perceive athletes. Walter Payton was as much of a rock star as is possible within his chosen profession. If we can baptize Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin and Elvis and a million others in the waters of idolized acceptance, if we can acknowledge their flaws as people without detracting from their artistry, why can't we do the same for our sports heroes?

Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm in a car wreck because he was provoked into a road-rage-fueled street race, which caused him to accelerate while failing to see a sudden turn in the road ahead. In addition to the loss of a limb, that crash could easily have ended his girlfriend's life as she sat in the passenger seat. (She came out of the incident more-or-less without a scratch.) In short, he made a human error, and it cost him far more than anything costs anyone in normal circumstances, but still not nearly as much as it might have. Eventually, through perseverance and innovative thinking and a refusal to be destroyed by his circumstances, he was able to play drums again short-handed (no pun intended), and resume his life as a rock'n'roll god. Retroactively, we've awarded him caps-locked LEGEND status for this. If Allen's poor decisions can be forgiven and forgotten in the face of his overcoming the consequences, we ought to do the same for Walter Payton, even if he ultimately failed to outrun his personal demons.

Athletes. Rock stars. They strive for impossibly transcendent accomplishments, for victories, for the win, however that's defined. And we worship them because of it. Or not. Maybe we choose to destroy them. Maybe we think they're jerks or fakes, maybe we think they're just here for the money. And maybe they are. Maybe they don't give a damn what we think they're here for, or what our grandchildren will think of them in fifty years. Either way, we ought to judge them a little more carefully. Because maybe it's damned tough to stand in their shoes. Maybe we couldn't do any better.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ain't Too Proud To Beg

I love this time of year. The crispness in the air, the leaves slowly turning into fireworks displays, hot cider, getting to wear sweaters again, Octoberfest beers on tap. Autumn is a wonderful season. And among the many fine reasons to enjoy it, near the top of the list has to be what happens to sports as the summer fades out. There's the drama of MLB playoffs unfolding, football is in full, rollicking swing, and the promise of what I call "Golden Week." This refers to that brief, glorious stretch of time in which all four major sports are in play simultaneously. Hinging on the World Series, that frozen moment encompasses the inceptions of the NHL and NBA, and the stretch of the NFL and NCAA football seasons right when the picture of their arcs and personalities begins to crystallize. It's beautiful and chaotic; ping-ponging around a zillion channels, all of which are airing sweet, sweet games to enjoy. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet of athletics. Just thinking about it makes me "shiver with antici ... PA-tion."

Unfortunately, "Golden Week" is going to be lacking more than a little bit of luster this year. It's going to be more akin to "Rust Week", in point of fact, because my favorite component is only going to exist in absentia. Barring a miracle, NBA basketball isn't going to happen for a long while, if it happens at all before we champagne-and-countdown our way into 2012.

An awful lot of people I know, even people who love sports, are not too concerned about this fact. For a vast institution that spans America and a portion of Canada, that enjoys major-network TV coverage and a handful of instantly-identifiable superstars, the NBA is relatively marginalized in terms of social currency. The reasons for this are understandable, if regrettable. Professional basketball entails neither the iconography and rosy nostalgia attendant to baseball, nor the all-pervasive cultural saturation of the NFL. As much as some of us love this game, a (comparatively) small but intensely loyal fan base is not a substitute for mass appeal.

In this regard, the culture of the sport works against it. In the public mind, and they're not really wrong, basketball is hip-hop and tattoos and bling. It's an urban game in a country where rural idealism still rules much of our collective assessments on what is "good" and what has "value." I'm not implying that racism is at the heart of this by any means, though it no doubt plays a part within some segments of the population. If race were the issue, hockey would be far more popular, and football far less so. It's the fact that basketball games are introduced on broadcasts with drum loops and MC's, while the NFL's pitch-people are Hank Williams Jr. and Faith Hill. Because the trappings and atmosphere of the game are rooted in a subculture that many people find it difficult to identify with, they choose to write it off, and therefore miss the inherent beauty
of what happens on the court. Which is a damn shame.

But what's an even greater shame, what really galls, is that we are going to be deprived of experiencing that beauty for at least part of the coming NBA season, if indeed we have a season at all. It's a shame because last season, and particularly the playoffs, gifted the NBA with its best opportunity since Jordan retired to reach those people. The stories were compelling, the play breathtaking, and the ratings reflective of those things. Even the most casual of observers were not just along for the ride, they were invested. The primary motor that drove the interest was, of course, the Miami Heat, but once people started paying attention, they were exposed to the most incredible stretch of basketball I've ever seen in such a condensed time frame. And if those people happened to catch transcendent moments like Brandon Roy or Chris Paul's forget-the-injuries-I-still-got-something-in-the-tank gems, or the triple-OT Thunder/Grizzlies slugfest, or Dirk being Dirk in (insert game here), some of them probably discovered that they could very much enjoy this game. Some of them might have been tuning in a little more often this season, in hopes of seeing more incredible nights. Some of them might even have had road-to-Damascus moments and become real, diehard converts. And the NBA is throwing all of that away.

They'll always have us, of course. When you love something deeply and unconditionally, you're willing to forgive most any transgression, and the minute they get this lockout sorted out and it's time for the first game to tip, we'll be there. Perhaps because it's something of a niche obsession, the NBA has the best fans, and certainly the best online/blogging community* of any sport. That's a subjective opinion, obviously, but it's also been born out in my personal experience to a large extent. There are few enough of us, comparatively speaking, that we gravitate towards each other in a uniquely passionate manner. It's like being in a club.

But we're not Skull And Bones. There's no password or secret handshake, and we don't espouse the hipster mentality of "this was much cooler before it got big." If you want into the tree house, then enter and be welcome, friends! We want the NBA to be as universally adored as other sports. We want you to love this game as much as we do, to share in the joy and heartbreak and the sheer, jaw-dropping awesomeness of watching teams and players doing the extraordinary.

Right now, the players and the owners are destroying the chance to bring a lot more people into that tree house. They seem to be missing the fact that if revenue is the problem, the best solution is to play the games and let all the people whose interest was piqued by last year get hooked. I understand the myriad of issues that need to be resolved; BRI splits and contract lengths and the salary cap and all the rest of it. I get it. But failing to put the requisite time and effort into resolving those problems, as they have so far, is killing the closest thing basketball has had in a while to a golden goose. If you can pardon an insanely tired cliche: it takes two to tango, and right now both sides are acting like boys and girls at a middle school social; on opposite sides of the gym, stubbornly, stupidly refusing find a partner and hit the dance floor.

So figure it out, people. Please. We want to watch John Wall and Russell Westbrook evolve. We want to watch Jimmer and Kyrie Irving play at the next level. We want to see if the Griz can build on what they did last season. We want Kobe and Steve Nash and KG and Duncan to be able to milk every last drop out of their basketball twilights. We want more Blake Griffin dunks. We want to see if the Heat can make good on "not one, not two, not three ..." We want more Kevin Love, more Durrant, more J-Smoove, more 'Melo, more HOOPS, damnit! And we want more fans to share it all with. Fans which your petulance is inexorably driving away.

For your loyal fans, and for everyone who might become your loyal fans in the future, please, please, get this done.

*I know it's odd to proclaim the superiority of a sport's online presence, declare myself a fan of that sport, yet run a general sports blog instead of one dedicated solely to the NBA. Frankly, the people already involved do a better job than I ever could, and I enjoy writing about football and baseball too much to focus on hoops alone.

The Widening Gyre

The Falcons are in trouble. Maybe it's not quite time to mash the panic button in Atlanta yet, but they might want to hire an intern to permanently stand in the room where it's located, just in case.

Before the season started, Atlanta made a heady leap in terms of perception around the league. Last year's 13-3 season, coupled with the additions of Julio Jones and Ray Edwards via the draft and free agency, had most analysts projecting them as strong Super Bowl contenders. The Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era has been promising from the outset, but the critical difference this year is that they were no longer just another good team with the potential for success, they were now considered "elite." Even accounting for that embarrassing meltdown against the Packers in last year's playoffs, the consensus was that they were ready to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league in 2011. It seemed obvious. Of course they were going to wreck inferior teams. Of course they were going to make the playoffs. Of course. Then the actual games started, and all that certainty was transfigured into what is currently a miasma of doubt.

Yesterday's cardiac-inducing near-collapse against the lowly Seahawks was just the latest in a series of red flags that have grown progressively more alarming with every week. After a dominant first half, the Falcons appeared to have the game well in hand, but they left the ability to execute, and their swagger, in the locker room at halftime. Seattle's vaunted home-field advantage notwithstanding, putting up a total of two field goals in the last 30 minutes against the Seahawks' terrible defense is inexcusable for a team with the caliber and variety of weapons Atlanta has. And the anemic offense wasn't nearly the most disturbing part. That would be the pathetic inability to contain, let alone stop, one of the league's worst offenses.

Well, that's not entirely fair. Atlanta was actually downright stingy with run defense, holding the Seahawks to a total of just 53 rushing yards so, you know, put that in the "positives" column from yesterday ... HOWEVER: Tavaris Jackson hung 319 passing yards and 3 touchdowns on the Falcons. Yeah, Tavaris Jackson. A washed-up, never-was QB exercised his will on Atlanta all day, and this team was supposed to compete with Green Bay and Philly?

In the end, thanks to Matt Bryant's 42-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, the Falcons got out of CenturyLink Field with a 30-28 win. At least, the record books will show it as such. In actuality, it was a sign of impending disaster.

The thing is, this is about much more than just one bad performance, or even the general lackluster atmosphere of the early season. It's deeper than the oft-bandied sentiment that Atlanta is lacking in true offensive identity. The outside factors that used to be crutches for the Falcons have been drastically reduced this season.

In the recent past, playing in the NFC South has given Atlanta the benefit of playing the Bucs and Panthers twice a year, games that you could mostly pencil in as automatic victories. It was almost like having a free pass to a decent divisional record. Split the games with the Saints and play decent ball the rest of the season, and the Falcons were going to be OK. That's not the case anymore. In Tampa Bay, Josh Freeman is more than making good on the promise he showed last season, and his poise and leadership have guided the Bucs to a 2-1 record. Then there's the "no one saw this coming!" phenomenon that is Cam Newton. Yes, Carolina still has many problems, and they're still a vastly inferior team to Atlanta, but if the Falcons' pass D plays the Panthers like they played Seattle, Newton is going throw for 6 billion yards and 11 TDs. That's hyperbolic, obviously, but you take my point.

In this suddenly competitive division, the Falcons have their work cut out for them. In my opinion, they need to win at least two of their three remaining games before the bye week to stay relevant, and that's a difficult proposition at best. The schedule leading into the bye: vs. Green Bay, vs. Carolina, @ Detroit. Yikes.

When last they met in the 2010 playoffs, Green Bay destroyed Atlanta in the Georgia Dome. The Packers are playing inspired football so far this year, kicking off their title defense with a 4-0 record. Given their dominance, and Atlanta's relative listlessness, nothing indicates that next week's game will end differently from their previous encounter.

Then there's the aforementioned Cam Newton and Carolina. At 1-3, the Panthers represent the most winnable of those three contests, but Newton's proclivity for putting up monster passing numbers poses a serious threat, especially since no one in the Falcons' secondary is equipped to cover a suddenly-rejuvenated Steve Smith all game long. The Falcons will have to pray that Newton's 1-for-1 TD/INT ratio is on full display, and that Matt Ryan, Michale Turner, and co. can perform as expected against Carolina's abysmal defense. They should still win this game, but at this point, should is looking somewhat elusive.

Detroit used to be another gimme game, but as you're no doubt aware, that too is different this year. Matthew Stafford is finally realizing the potential that has largely been derailed by injuries since he entered the league, Calvin Johnson is doing Calvin Johnson things, and that fearsome defensive line is no joke. Ndamukong Suh in particular is making no bones about his intent to deliver punishment to opposing QBs, league regulations be damned. Given how terrible Atlanta's offensive line has been so far this season, Matt Ryan might want to get himself one of those kevlar vests that Tony Romo's been wearing to protect his busted ribs. Oh yes, and the Lions are also 4-0.

To sum up: two of Atlanta's next three games are against the only two undefeated teams left in the NFL, and the third is against an otherwise mediocre team whose only strength happens to be perfectly aligned to exploit the Falcons' biggest weakness.

At the quarter-mark of the season, Atlatna is 2-2 in a divison where .500 is not going to get it done. If they can't make some major adjustments, quickly, the promise of this team runs the risk of not just going unrealized, but of coming off as downright false in hindsight.

They were supposed to be a rough beast, but right now the only thing the Falcons are slouching towards is a season that ends far earlier than expected.