Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Notes On A Half Decade Of Found Objects and Strange Treasure.

I didn't realize it until I got home late last night, but Hardwood Paroxysm turned 5 years old yesterday.  Basketball, and particularly its NBA iteration, produces the highest across-the-board quality writing of any sport (this is technically a subjective opinion but also true), and f I were to list all the excellent basketball blogs available for your perusal on the internet, we'd be here a very, very long time.  That said, if you asked just about any hoops head to make such a list, I'd bet you all the money Antoine Walker no longer has that HP would be among the first sites mentioned.  So why am I about to dedicate a large swath of celebratory text to this anniversary, you ask?  What exactly is Hardwood Paroxysm?

In a literal sense, it's a basketball blog that was created five years and a day ago by Matt Moore and which has been home to a large number of extremely talented writers over that period, but HP's ethos has never been overly concerned with "literal."  Here you find a rare and unique confluence of detailed analysis and abstract thought.  There is wry humor if you want it, and heavy questions about life, and poetry, and nonsensical yet utterly engaging ramblings.  Here, statistics can have a quiet drink with alchemy, and the conversation will inevitably find its way to reasons why Kyle Lowry is criminally underrated.  Constructs are erected and torn down.  These people are not afraid of oblique angles.  They embrace them, in fact. 

Basketball, of course, is the nominal reason HP exists, but that seems reductive.  In the artisan hands of the writers, this game that we love so dearly becomes a prism, a means of refracting and reflecting our world and ourselves in new and interesting ways.  When I click on my bookmark to get here, I get excited in a way that I really don't about any other space on the internet.  OK, whaddaya have for me today?  I might learn about which Grizzlies lineups grab the most and least defensive rebounds, or how an undrafted backup point guard had a killer game at Summer League.  I might read about how watching a team got someone through a tough breakup.  I might stumble onto a rumination on Jarrett Jack's Twitter attacks of Ray Allen and Dwight Howard and how they remind someone of Andy Warhol's early work.  (This post hasn't actually been written, but it probably could be, and that's the beauty of the whole thing.) 

HP works in part because the people involved are scientists in that they want to figure out how and why things in basketball and life function the way they do; there is a true spirit of inquiry.  But far more importantly, it works because they aren't just colleagues, they're friends, with each other and with us, after a fashion.  They teach us, everyday, more about hoops, but in intensely personal ways.  We trade quips and observations with them on Daily Dime Live.  We come to know them through their work because it's never just about the game.  It's about us, and them, and shared adventures.  It's about joy and love and how we communicate those things to each other. 

HP has been a perpetual source of wonder and happiness for me since its inception.  It has been a sanctuary and a beacon, and just downright ineffably special.  And so I want to thank Matt Moore for this creation he birthed and the inspiration and beauty it's given us.  I want to thank everyone who has written on the site for their wit, opinions, and heart.  And I want to wish Jared and Amin the best of luck in continuing the work.  (Spoiler alert: they're going to do a phenomenal job.) 

Happy 5th birthday, Hardwood Paroxysm.   Many happy returns. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Taking My Mind Off Of Other Sports: Ten Teams To Enjoy This NBA Season.

I'll write the Chipper piece later.  Let me get some distance, chronological, emotional and otherwise, from Friday night's sad and ugly final punctuation mark on his career.  I'm depressed about the loss, pissed about that infield fly call, and embarrassed as hell by the fans.  Or rather, the portion of the fans who briefly lost their collective minds at Turner Field and started behaving like a bunch of depraved assholes.  We take a lot of guff, Atlanta fans do, for supposedly not being as passionate about our teams as other cities.  If that was a display of "passion", well f*** it, then.  I'd rather deal with a lifetime of insults from the neanderthals in Philly, New York, and Boston than be associated with the kind of hive-mind psychosis that leads to throwing batteries at players or games being literally called on account of riot.  (Cleveland Indians, 1974.  Look it up.)  I spent the entirety of that 20-minute bottle-chucking lapse of sanity standing in the stadium concourse with my best friend; both of us Atlanta sports diehards since birth.  In between long stretches of appalled silence, the one thing we kept repeating by way of conversation was some variant of: "I can't effing believe this is happening.  Atlanta fans never do this kind of stuff.  What the holy hell is going on?"  We were as outraged by that (egregious, awful, horrible) travesty of a call as anybody, but sweet jeebus, people, there is a line between normal anger and outright stupidity, and a chunk of the crowd crossed over the damn thing like it didn't exist or they didn't care or both.  Southern hospitality, my ass.

Sadly, that was only the start of of one long, slumping weekend for Georgia sports teams.  The Yellow Jackets put up a fight but were ultimately outplayed in all phases by a feisty Clemson squad in a loss that cost Tech's D-Coordinator Al Groh his job.  The Dawgs ... I don't want to talk about what happened in Columbia.  That wasn't a football game, it was a slow parade of visceral humiliation.  Or, to put it less poetically and far more accurately: Carolina kicked Georgia's asses up and down the field for four quarters.  End of story.

Two things salvaged the weekend: A phenomenal show by Grace Potter at The Tabernacle Saturday night (seriously, go see her live if you get a chance!!!), and the Falcons playing a sloppy first three quarters but ultimately pulling it together for a win over Washington to remain undefeated. 

Oh, and one other thing.  That bright burst of light flashing across the sky like a beacon of hope or the Bat Signal or some other damned explosion of heart and grace and purpose.  That's right, folks: Basketball!!!  Preseason is underway, and things tip off in earnest the day before Halloween.  For an outstanding season preview from the reigning HEAVY-WEIGHT CHAMMPPPEEEN OF THE WOOOOOOOORLLDDDDDD!!!! of basketball writers, skip on over to Grantland and soak up Zach Lowe's breakdown of all 30 teams.  I was contemplating a full-on NBA 2012-2013 preview, but frankly, Lowe dropped the mic and walked off stage with that piece (as if we expected anything less) and there's just no need for an inferior reproduction from me.  Instead, here's a list (in no particualr order) of the 10 teams I'm most excited about watching this year:

1. Miami.  For reasons that should be obvious.  A. Watching LeBron is always worthwhile.  B.  Will Wade stay on the court this season, or is his career going to be truncated by injuries?  C.  How will they function now that they've scaled Championship Mountain?  Can they maintain the drive towards sustained excellence of MJ's Bulls and Kobe's Lakers, or will the satisfaction of what they've achieved dull the gut-check propulsion necessary to repeat not one, not two, not three, not four...?
We'll see.

2.  OKC.  Did you spend a decent portion of the off-season wondering how the NBA Finals would have turned out if Eric Maynor had been healthy?   Me too.  Are you intrigued to see what kind of impact new draftee Percy Jones III has on an already exciting team?  Me too.  Are you ready to watch Russ to explosive, enigmatic Russ things?  To see if the Durantula continues to develop his game while assaulting another scoring title?  Me too!!!  Do you wonder if The Beard might, maybe, be less than the awesome force we all think he is?  Me too.  Gosh, we have a lot in common. 

3.  The Lakers.  Yeah, yeah, I hate them, you hate them, we all hate them.  And yes, I wrote a whole piece about how their acquisition of Dwight Howard made me much, much less inclined to watch them.  You know what?  Screw it.  They're running out four future Hall of Famers, including arguably the most devastating offensive backcourt of the past 15 years.  There frontcourt is downright terrifying.  Not even Mike Brown can screw this up.  As long as Father Time doesn't wrap his icy fingers around Nash's back or Kobe's knees, their floor is an almost certain trip the Western Conference Finals, with a ceiling that extends all the way to hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy.   

4.  Indiana.  The Pacers put the fear of God into Miami in last year's playoffs before LeBron went into full transcendental virtuoso mode, and they smartly retained the core responsible for that.  There's just something charming about this Indy squad.  They're a fun group of guys with complimentary styles of play and, when the key cogs are all in high gear simultaneously, capable of giving any team in the league a good battle. 

5.  My very own Atlanta Hawks.  If you think that's a shameless homer pick, hang on a second.  I'll put Horford and Smoove up against any starting frontcourt in the land, Devin Harris may be the best backup PG in the NBA (which is always a nice luxury) and, alternately, pairing him (at the two) with Jeff Teague will play havoc on opposing defenses.  We have a truckload of perimeter snipers (I see you, Lou Williams and Kyle Korver), Zaza, Anthony Tolliver (great acquisition), and everybody's favorite bench big Ivan Johnson should be sound rotation contributers.  Oh, and we're going to use this small, speedy assortment of cats to run like hell.  We're Nuggets East at this point.  Title contenders?  Not a chance, but I'm calling this team early (continuing the Denver analogy) for League Pass Darlings of the season.

6.  The Clippers.  Blake Griffin has moved from Must Watch Highlight-Making Slamma Jamma to OK, what else ya got? in near record time.  He can catch oops all day, but his shooting stroke and defense need serious refinement, and it's unclear whether he's willing to put the work in to become a more complete player.  (And he's on the short list for guys whose wallets get dinged the hardest by the NBA's new flopping policy.)  Which direction he chooses will have an immeasurable impact on L.A. not just because he's the ostensible franchise cornerstone, but because it will have a direct effect on how compelled CP3 might feel to stick around.  Also: Grant Hill!  I like Grant Hill. 

7.  The (hang on, I still have to get used to typing this ...) Brooklyn Nets.  The new Jay-Z designed uniforms, the dawning of an era, the potential clash of the Russian mob with the long-established Italian and Irish crime syndicates in New York ... uh ... Brook Lopez, I guess?  OK, there's not a lot of tangible reasons to watch this team, but it's a new team, the first professional sports franchise in Brooklyn since forever, and they have the potential, depending on how the Knicks' season unfolds, to usurp a decent enough portion of the Madison Square Garden crowd's affections to start a legitimate rivalry.  Let's all enjoy the ride. 

8.  Denver.  Even though I hope the Hawks usurp their League Pass Must-Watch crown, how can you not love this team?  Manimal and JaVale fo'eva!!!  'Nuff said.

9.  The Timberwolves.  Obviously, this mostly applies once Rubio returns, but there are a bevy of fine reasons why you should be tuning in from jump.  Kevin Love being Kevin Love.  AK-47 and Derrick Williams.  Free from the Darko Curse!!!  (Oh, Boston, I'm so sorry.)  And the biggest and best incentive of all: the potential redemption of Brandon Roy.  We all remember Roy going off in epic fashion against Dallas in the playoffs two seasons ago, and how we were so glad he could muster one more stellar effort before staggering of into the sunset on his ravaged knees.  If he can mount any sort of comeback, and especially if Rubio can come back at something close to 100% by February, this becomes the most lovable team in basketball.  Here's hoping that happens.

10.  New Orleans.  Fear the brow.  Fear The Brow.  FEAR THE BROW!!!!!!  Ahem, sorry.  But, you know, fear the brow. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Night In A Car Alone: A Brief Rumination On Irrational Fandom.

Being fans is a fascinatingly irrational part of our daily lives.  Whether it's a psychopathic overreaction to Kristen Stewart cheating on Robert Pattinson (and seriously, have we come to this, people?) or going near-catatonic over a humiliating playoff loss (like I did after the Falcons' atrocious showing against the Giants last year), the idea that we would emotionally invest in people and their exploits with virtually zero reciprocity is counterintuitive to the point of foolishness.  We cede certain territories of our souls to the objects of our fandom, and ask that they keep those fiefdoms in good repair.  Sometimes they're kind enough to oblige.  More often, those little geographical soul-areas are left with the weeds choking out all other flora and covering over the dilapidated buildings.  And yet, we keep going back to the well. 

We do this because, especially in this age of internet unilateral consciousness cum digitized isolation, we badly need real-world affirmation.  The nod to the person on the street wearing the same ball cap we're wearing.  The high fives with the random people in the stadium or the sports bar after a big play.  Fandom, even the long-suffering variety, is a balm for the countless bruises we sustain on our hearts and minds because we can share it.  Perhaps especially when it's also the cause of said bruises.  This paragraph is overwrought and a dead-horse-beaten reprisal of a thousand just like it, but it's that way because it is rooted in truth.  Fandom matters because it imparts a fundamental sense of belonging to the fan.    

Of course, there are also the contradictory tendencies that come with devotion.  Most common and identifiable is the "player you hate now but would adore if they were traded to your team."  (Copyright: Bill Simmons.)  I mean, I'm fairly certain Cole Hamels is an irredeemable d-bag, but if I woke up tomorrow and he was miraculously on the Braves' playoff roster, I would go buy his jersey immediately.  (Obviously, there are exceptions for people like John Rocker.)  It really is incredible how the name on the front of the uniform can eradicate any negatives associated with the name on the back.

But this kind of thing is mostly harmless, and also falls into the shared experience category.  It's when you isolate us, when the act of rooting becomes a solitary thing, that the emotions that find release and reflection among our fellow fans turn inwards and can lead to the more illogical extremes of rooting.  When you can't vent with or express you opinions to other people about what's going on in the game, things can take a bizarre turn.  

Last night, I had possibly the most viscerally irrational moment of my sports fan life, and that, folks, is saying something.  

Here I was, alone, in a dark car at night.  After a ten-hour work day, all I wanted was to get home, crack a beer, catch the end of the Braves game, watch the second half of Bears/Cowboys, and go to bed.  Unfortunately, I was stuck in a torrential downpour of the sort that grinds traffic to a crawl because no one can see out of their windshield for the rain, creeping down 400 South at eight miles an hour.  So I was already tense and cranky.  On the radio, Don Sutton and Jim Powell were narrating as the Braves struggled to stage a late-inning rally on the Pirates.  Since the Nationals were losing to Philly, we still had a shot at the division.  We win out, they lose out, presto: NL East title. 

Now, here's where things got strange in my interior fan dialogue.  (Or, you know, sad.)  Instead of getting upset at our anemic bats for failing to get anyone across the plate, I became absolutely furious at the Pirates.  Their season, after all, is over.  These last few games are a formality as they stagger to another sub-.500 finish, when even a month ago their playoff hopes were so vividly alive.  They don't have any dignity to play for.  Sid Bream took it with him when he left the visitors' clubhouse in Three Rivers Stadium in '92, and it hasn't been back since.  There was nothing in this game for Pittsburgh ... so why didn't the bastards have the decency to roll over and lose?  Why did they insist on fucking up our season?  Why?!?!?!  I started muttering snide and petulant asides every time a Pirates batter stepped into the box.  "I bet your OPS is terrible, Josh Harrison.  I've never even heard of you.  And you're probably lousy at Scrabble, too."  I was trying to be funny for the audience in my empty passenger seat, but I swear to Craig Kimbrel, there was real vitriol behind every thought and word.  For whatever reason, I simply could not fathom why the Bucs wouldn't lay down and die, and it incensed me with rage.

Two things about this: First, it is likely better for the Braves that we lost last night.  We can rest Chipper, Mac, Prado, and anyone else who needs a breather.  We can set the postseason rotation.  We can focus on scouting the Cardinals as fully as possible.  We can take a beat, let the kids on the bench get some time without it being critical, and see where they're at.  Tactically, this is a superior position to mad-sprinting and nail-biting our way towards an almost certainly unattainable division title.  And I knew that last night.  I knew losing that game would probably be better for the Braves in terms of the postseason, yet I still desperately wanted us to win that game.     

And second, why on earth should I want or expect the Pirates to just give up?  Truthfully, I'm afflicted by far more saccharine sentimentality than a proper 21st-Century sports writer ought to have.  I confess that to a great extent, I love all the "spirit of competition" and "majesty of sport" and "triumph of human will" jazz that gets spouted in the form of tacky aphorisms by certain ESPN personalities or in the pages of SI.  The thought of striving in the face of long odds or playing out the string for the love of the game fills me with warm fuzzies.  (Yes, I am a sap.)  In any other circumstance, I'm sure I would have thought the Pirates quite noble for playing hard even in the ashes and wreckage of another lousy September, made all the worse because things looked so promising for so long this year.  

But I didn't.  I was just pissed that these clowns were actually trying.  Again: I ascribed zero blame to the Braves' hitters who kept leaving runners stranded on base; it was all on the opposition for actually, well, opposing us.  And it occurred to me that I would never have felt this way if we were playing, say, the Brewers.  Because Milwaukee has been a pretty good ball club these past few seasons.  It was the notion of a lesser team, a weaker team, having the gall to step into our path.  In a brief moment of utter madness, I had become a bourgeois fan.  I felt entitled to my team stomping all over someone else purely because they were supposed to.  God help me, I'd turned into a Yankees fan.

I have no idea what possessed me.  Normally, I'm passionate but not irrational in my fandom, and not prone to these sorts of bile-fueled funks.  For whatever reason, last night set me off.  My neural pathways were shorted out, and temporarily replaced with idiocy.  Being a fan is strange that way, sometimes. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Scattershot: Desultory Musings From Around College Football

Welcome to this week's edition of Scattershot, in which we delve into the Pac-12's logic puzzle, nonexistent defense, uber-existent offense, and the foundations of dominance showing the tiniest microfractures here and there.  As James Brown (the Godfather of Soul, not the NFL halftime personality) would say, "Let's get it on the good foot!!!"

And Speaking Of Good Feet ...

Middle Tennessee State did unspeakable things to Georgia Tech's defense, courtesy of one of the most dominant rushing performances I've ever witnessed.  Some kid name of Benny Cunningham, a senior who until yesterday had only racked up 91 yards and two scores all season, pummeled, dodged, juked, and smoked the Yellow Jackets to the tune of 217 yards and 5 touchdowns.  We tend talk about running styles like we talk about famous guitar players; usually guys have a distinctive signature in the way they operate.  Conversely, Cunningham was like a studio musician out there, adapting to whatever the situation demanded and playing the style necessary for success.  When he needed to hit the hole running north-south, he did it.  When he needed to change directions behind the line or make ankle-shattering cuts in space, he did it.  And when he needed to run to contact and pick up extra yards by lowering his shoulders and putting DB's on their asses, he did that too. 

Last week I wrote that Al Groh's position might be in danger after Tech's awful second-half defensive showing against Miami.  I brought the subject up to a die-hard Jackets fan at work and he vehemently disagreed, arguing that Groh's schemes were full of good ideas but the defensive front gets zero push and you can't expect the secondary to cover forever.  He's not wrong, but at some point you have to start scheming to fit your personnel.  Groh has seemed unwilling to change things up, and yesterday he again failed to make adjustments that might have helped.  (Like, oh I don't know, a novel concept such as stacking the box when you're getting run over like a raccoon on I-75 South.)  I can't entirely fault Tech's D for being exhausted since their offense coughed up four turnovers which swung some critical moments, but I still say the Al Groh hot seat watch is permanently in effect until further notice. 

The Parker Posey Game Of The Week

Here's everything you need to know about yesterday's West Virginia/Baylor game:

Geno Smith (WVU): 45/51, 656 yards, 8 TDs

Nick Florence (Baylor): 29/47, 581 yards, 5 TDs.

"All right you little freshmen bitches ... AIR RAID!!!" (it's at 0:53 in the clip.)

Also, last week I wrote the following about Old Dominion's Taylor Heinicke (55/79, 730 yards, 5 TDs): "I'm fairly certain no other signal caller will come close to topping that performance this year."  Whoops. 

Standardized Testing

After Washington pulled off a stunner on Thursday night and upset Stanford 17-13, the PAC-12 resembles nothing so much as one of those annoying logic questions they used to ask on the SAT.

Washington beat Standford.  Stanford beat USC.  All three teams have only one loss. 

Yet the AP Rankings have USC #13, Standford #18, and Washington #23 (despite the Huskies' only loss coming at the hands of LSU.)

To reiterate: the national rankings are the exact inverse of the who-beat-who hierarchy. 

Q. So who's the best team in the conference?

A. Oregon.  Duh.   

Scrappy Is The Watchword

Speaking of the Ducks, both they and the Crimson Tide got more than they bargained for yesterday. Relatively speaking, of course.  I mean as much as teams like that can bargain for anything besides absolute obliteration of their opponents.  But they did resemble the heavyweight champ taking a few good shots in round one from his lesser challenger, and realizing that he has to respect that right hook at the very least.  Up against Ole Miss and Washington State respectively, Oregon and 'Bama weathered physical and feisty first halves from clearly inferior teams.  The Rebs and Cougars didn't flinch in the face of the two best teams in the nation, playing with fervor and abandon, hoping to make up in reckless arrogance what they lacked in talent.  Of course, inevitably, they got stomped.  Oregon did their gonzo-blitzkrieg routine in the third quarter to put the game far out of reach for Wazzu, who trailed by only 3 at the half.  Alabama had a tougher row to hoe, as the Rebels' vicious defense limited them to a mere 6 second-half points.  Luckily for the Tide, their own D came up with three picks and held Mississippi to 14 total points, enough for a comfortable victory overall, despite the bumpy ride.  It wasn't exactly a red letter day for the Rebels and Cougars, but even causing us to think "hey, they could make a serious game out of this" for a half was impressive in itself.     

DEE-FENSE!!!  DEE-FENSE!!!  Dee ... oh. 

The SEC East's two juggernauts showed some flaws yesterday on D.  Georgia gave up a ridiculous 44 points to Tennessee, including 20 unanswered that gave the Vols a 2nd-quarter lead.  To be fair, there were some mitigating circumstances involved in this ugly, ugly win.  Tennessee is actually a decent team this year, and Tyler Bray is no slouch at QB.  Also, it appeared early on that Georgia had some slight difficulty adjusting to the return of defensive standouts Alec Ogletree and Bacari Rambo.  Though it seems counterintuitive, getting those two excellent players back threw Georgia off a little from their established defensive rhythm until they settled down.  Those caveats aside, the Dawgs' crystal football aspirations won't allow for this kind of defensive showing against anybody else for the rest of the season, especially next week at South Carolina. 

Speaking of the Gamecocks, 17 points doesn't seem like a terribly egregious tally to cough up ... unless it's against Kentucky.  Yes, Steve Spurrier's team clamped down when it mattered and pitched a shutout in the second half, but they were behind 17-7 to the pathetic Wildcats at intermission which, frankly, can't happen if they want a legit shot at the Georgia Dome in a few months.  We'll see which team can most effectively recalibrate over the week when they meet next Saturday.

Your Weekly Notre Dame And FSU Are Relevant Again! Update 

The Irish moved up a spot to #9 in the rankings despite not having played a game this week, thanks to Stanford's loss to Washington.  They'll have the opportunity to justify the move when they play the Cardinal in South Bend on October 13th.  

The 'Noles swapped places with LSU to wind up at #3 after a 30-17 victory over South Florida.  It was s good win, but their uptick in the rankings probably had more to do with the fact that the Tigers gave up 22 points to something called "Towson."  Presumably this is an institution of higher learning which also fields a football team, but I honestly had never heard of them.  Oh well, they gave Les Miles a good fight.  I salute you, random CAA school.

Enjoy the NFL games.  Happy Sunday.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Out Of Hand

I think maybe I ought to call it quits on this whole writing thing.  I'm obviously wading around in the shallow end of the talent pool.  They say brevity is the soul of wit, but to adhere so closely to that axiom while simultaneously expressing the views of millions in a single tweet ... well, Brandon Spikes is clearly a superior wordsmith to this humble author.  After last night's debacle of a Patriots/Ravens game capped yet another comically horrible Sunday of scab NFL officiating, the Pats' linebacker managed to capture the feelings of players, coaches, media, and fans in just 137 eloquent characters:

"Can someone please tell these f****** zebras foot locker called and they're needed Back at work !!!! #BreakingPoint"

Breaking point, indeed.  You hear that, Roger Goodell?  The guys on the field are tired of it.  They are tired of milling around for five minutes, their muscles tightening up as their concept of flow and game pace disintegrates, while these pathetic officials parse out what exactly the hell just happened.  They are tired of obvious penalties being missed and phantom ones being called, and then walked off for arbitrary and incorrect amounts of yardage.  Mostly, they are tired of this game they play and love being warped into something uncertain, unrecognizable, and unpleasant.  Spikes wasn't the only one to violate the NFL's Gestapo "don't criticize the officials" edict, either.  Several other players, either obliquely or flat-out, voiced their increasing displeasure with the shoddy refereeing.  Which is fine so long as it remains that way.  They'll shoot off at the mouth or on their Twitter accounts and you'll fine them for it and life will go on.  But what happens when and if "breaking point" becomes something more than a Twitter hashtag? 

In 2004, I watched in horrified fascination as Ron Artest charged into the stands of The Palace at Aubrun Hills and punched a fan, the result of a game-long buildup of tension and frustration and a beer launched from the stands that showered Artest as he lay on the scorer's table.  It was one of the most appalling moments in sports history, and it did significant damage to the NBA, lending credence to every "thug" stereotype that, for whatever reason, people still bandy about today.  Now, Ron Artest is a certifiable crazy person, and it's a fair bet that most players in both the NBA and NFL would never, ever, do something legitimately violent no matter what the provocation.  But that was one bad game and a cup of beer.  Extrapolate the frustrations the players feel now, compounded game after game after game, then couple that with the mental and physical toll of an NFL season.  Is it so hard to imagine a player in week 15, his body aching and his nerves shot, fed up with too many bad calls and longer-than-necessary games, finally snapping?  If this situation doesn't get fixed, sooner or later a scab ref is going to blow a big call in a crucial game, and someone on the field is going to haul off and deck him for it.  Then where will your precious "integrity of the game" be?    

If the players are about ready to lose it, the coaches aren't far behind.  Bill Belichick was the one who actually grabbed an official at the end of the game yesterday, but it could easily have been any of the other coaches whose teams suffered under the incompetence of the scab refs.  If, for instance, the Vikings had lost yesterday, Leslie Frazier could have waylaid official Ken Roan for those two (TWO!!!) illegal challenges he went ahead and granted to Jim Harbaugh's 49ers.  Truthfully, it could have been every coach in the league, because all of them had egregiously horrible calls go against their teams at one point or another.  I'm no Belichick fan, and I even feel like yesterday was a little bit of karmic payback for every 50/50 call the Pats have gotten over the past decade.  And yeah, grabbing an official, especially when the league issued a perfectly clear warning about such behavior, was not the brightest move.  That being said, the man wanted to know whether the game deciding play was going to be reviewed, and the officials ignored him.  They were told by the league to walk away whenever they were being hassled, even if that hassle was a simple inquiry as to the process which determined the outcome of a game against a division rival.  To my way of thinking, Belichick didn't go far enough.  He should have cornered the guy and demanded an explanation.  If Roger Goodell doesn't want the refs questioned, he should bring back refs that no one (most of the time) needs to question.  Frankly, I don't care anymore about "respecting" the officials, who have done nothing to deserve it.  They have no mandate or authority whatsoever.  Understand, I don't blame them; they were simply unprepared to cope with the game at the highest level, but the league is clearly uninterested in policing them, and somebody's got to.  Bill Belichick will probably be fined and possibly be suspended, but he was entirely justified.  This isn't the last time something like this will happen, either.  If Jim Schwartz can get this worked up over a handshake, Lord only knows how furious he'll be over a bogus pass interference call. 

And then there are the fans.  Staying with the Baltimore/New England game, last night featured a full minute of this from the crowd at M & T Bank Stadium.  If you've ever been at a sporting event where the home team was the victim of a dubious officiating call, then you know there are graduated levels of fan reaction:

1. Scattered boos: A called third strike or a questionable off sides penalty, etc. in non-crucial situations.  Low-level disgruntlement and general homerism.  

2. Scattered boos + profanity and epithets aimed at the official in question: An iffy call in a more critical situation, or in a game against a traditional rival.  Your team got seriously hosed.  Mere boos aren't enough and you need to lob some invective and shockingly specific sentiments at the people responsible.

3. Coordinated chants in the spirit of the game.  Sometimes, you need to call out an official for a particularly atrocious penalty, but you do this acknowledging that these things happen to every team from time to time.  As such, you perform a spirited (yet ultimately fueled by bleak and grudging humor) group rendition of either: the rhythmic "REF YOU SUCK" chant, or the sing-song  "BUUUUULLSH****T!" chant (the latter of which is sung to the interval of a doorbell ringing, a minor third.  Just sing it out in your head like a doorbell and you'll know what I mean.)  This is designed to voice your frustration while alleviating any real anger through collective release and the understanding that everyone else in the arena is upset too. 

4. Soccer Hooliganism/Last night.  Listen to that audio again.  Those fans aren't commiserating with one another; there's no wink-wink, it's-all-part-of-the-game joyous indignation in that sound.  That's a minute-plus of "BULL-SH*T!!!!" chanted fervently and with a primal edge.  There is real malice behind it; a pathological sense of anger and indignation.  This is mob mentality, and it's scary stuff, and the league should be worried about it.  Can you imagine if last night's game had been played in, oh, say, Philly?  Yeah, that would have gone well.  This is the kind of thing that is one step away from a drunk fan rushing onto the field and assaulting a referee.

All of which doesn't even mention the gamblers.  A pissed-off fan is nothing compared to a guy who bets a few grand on Dallas covering the spread and then must watch that money evaporate into the ether via a bad officiating call that negates a touchdown.  Mark my words, there is at least one person out there who routinely lays heavy timber on the outcomes of NFL games who might become unhinged after a few weeks of this abject nonsense screwing with his cash flow.  Will this push them to do something drastic?  I'd like to think otherwise, but I wouldn't bet on it.

#BreakingPoint.  It's not just the tag line to an isolated tweet, it's a brief and accurate summation of how everyone involved with the NFL who isn't an owner or league official feels today.  As Jackie MacMullan wrote earlier today: "Enough.  Enough, enough, enough."

Just as I was finishing this post up, the Monday night Packers/Seahawks game was also decided on a horrific call.  Seattle's Golden Tate just "caught" a last-second touchdown heave to give the Seahwaks the win.  Problem: Packers' safety M.D. Jennings clearly came down with the ball.  The review, which the officials saw from multiple angles, somehow failed to overturn the obviously erroneous call.  (Not only did Green Bay make the interception, but Tate clearly commited offensive pass interference on the replay.)  Everything is in disarray.  Tirico and Gruden are sitting here killing the refs, who for some reason are still trying to figure out if an extra point needs to be kicked.  The Packers, rightfully disgusted by this whole travesty, have left the field, as have most of the officials who now seem disinterested in the whole affair.  Oh, wait, here come the Packers, putting eleven men on the field for the extra point, dutifully playing out the end of this farce.  This is horrible.  I feel dirty even watching it, but it's a morbidly appropriate end to this pathetic weekend.  

The difficulty is that, like millions of Americans, I'm still watching.  Steve Young told us last week, in no uncertain terms, what we instinctively knew but didn't really want to hear or believe: that so long as our eyes are on the TV and our wallets are emptying for RG3 jerseys, the NFL could care less about any of this.  Sadly, he was not wrong.  They don't care.  At all.  

One final incident worth noting.  We have heard for the better part of two seasons about how player safety is paramount.  If you make illegal hits, if you endanger your fellow players, the consequences will be steep and swift.  The players' health matters; the integrity of the game is oh so very, very important.  This is what we've been told.  And yet.  Yesterday Oakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey ran a crossing route through the end zone and got absolutely, illegally speared by Steelers safety Ryan Mundy as he attempted to haul in a pass.  On the replay, Heyward-Bey was clearly unconscious before he even hit the turf.  He was immobilized and rushed to the hospital, from whence he was released today with a concussion and a strained neck. 

No flag was thrown on the play, nor have we heard anything from the league about fining or suspending Mundy.

To reprise that Baltimore crowd last night: BULLSH*T!!!!          

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Scattershot: Desultory Musings From Around College Football

After careful consideration, I realized that only a crazy person would attempt to replicate last week's Scattershot feature for both college and pro football (plus busy nights in other sports) every week, as evidenced by my work schedule preventing me from writing anything else between then and now, much less multiple features.  I hereby declare Scattershot to be college football only from here on out so I don't feel guilty when I can't keep up with more than that.  Now let's get to yesterday, a chaotic yet declarative affair wherein the national championship picture began, with alarming suddenness, to take on its first real vestiges of clarity.

Forgetting Bobby Petrino

I have to think the 2012 Razorbacks are the first team in history to deeply lament the absence of that scumbag-weasel-boy excuse for a coach.  He's a terrible human being entirely devoid of concepts like "morality" and "accountability", but the man knows how to run a college football program at a level that new coach John L. Smith simply can't fathom.  (Honestly, it must be tough to concentrate on little things like running practices and assembling game plans when you're broke.)  That guy's chair must be feeling pretty toasty 'round the hindquarters by now.  Last season, the Hogs were darkhorse SEC contenders.  This year has been a cavalcade of ever-escalating humiliations, the latest of which was yesterday's 35-26 loss to Rutgers.  Rutgers!!!  Sheesh.  And it's not like Arkansas played all that poorly.  Tyler Wilson threw for 419 yards and 3 TDs, though the two picks probably didn't help.  Really, 26 points ought to be enough for any SEC team (except the Wildcats) to dispatch a Big East opponent, but the Razorbacks were simply too disorganized defensively to hold it together.  Rutgers' offensive line for the day: 397 passing yards, 128 rushing yards, 5 TD, 0 turnovers, 39:02 time of possession.  Dear ACC, we'll trade you Arkansas and Kentucky for FSU and Virginia Tech.  Whaddaya say?  - SEC fans.  

Al Groh's Days Are Probably Numbered

Speaking of humiliating losses, defensive collapses, and hot seats, Georgia Tech's DC did himself no favors yesterday.  At home against Miami (FLA), the Jackets' defense played as pathetic and sloppy a game as Bobby Dodd Stadium has seen in quite some time.  In the interest of fairness, I'll exonerate Groh from one of the first-half touchdowns Tech allowed, the result of an extra 'Canes possession via Orwin Smith's inexcusable self-induced safety on a kickoff return.  It's tough for any defense to get a stop when they literally just left the field and have to go back out with zero rest.  However, the second-half disintegration perpetrated by the Jackets' D yesterday (not the first time such a thing has happened under Groh) was positively atrocious.  Tech had stormed back from a 19-0 deficit, scoring 36 unanswered points behind a stellar effort from Tevin Washington.  When your offense gives you that kind of performance, you have to stand up and reciprocate.  Instead, the Jackets coughed away the lead in the 4th quarter, allowing the tying score with a mere 0:27 left on the game clock.  Then Tech stalled out in OT and allowed The U to kick a field goal for the win.  Somebody has to be 42nd in the country in points allowed, but with their offense, Georgia Tech should be better.  Al Groh might want to spruce up his resume sometime soon.  I'm just saying.   

Breakout Player Of The Week

We learned last year that TCU quarterback Casey Pachall can sling it with the best of them.  Yesterday solidified the emergence of Pachall's most electrifying target, sophomore wideout Brandon Carter.  Carter had 5 catches for 128 yards and a touchdown against Virginia, lifting his season numbers to 20.7 yards per reception and 4 scores.  At 5'11" and 161 lbs, the young receiver probably needs to bulk up a little to play with more physical corners, but his sure hands and zippy athleticism portend good things in the future.    

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright ...

And by "burning bright" I mean "crystal football aspirations going down Hindenburg-style in a disastrous ball of flames."  Yesterday's iteration of the Big Stripey Cats Bowl pretty much obliterated LSU as a serious 2012 contender in my mind.  I know they're still undefeated, and they're still 3rd in the AP rankings, and they get 'Bama at home this year, but Les Miles' team showed zero evidence of being a top-flight program yesterday.  In fact, they looked downright pedestrian; possibly even below-average.  While they did indeed put another "W" up in the win-loss column, they had to eke out a "never should have been necessary" nail-biter fourth quarter to do it.  This against Auburn, whose sole victory this season came when they toppled that fearsome opponent known as Louisiana-Monroe.  By a field goal.  In overtime.  Yes, I wrote last week about how LA-Monroe has a sneaky-tough team this year, but to reiterate LSU's dubious position: The #2 team in the country barely beat a team that barely beat a team from the Sunbelt Conference.  Also, LSU put up a profoundly dismal 12 points against the 61st-ranked defense in the country.  It's early days yet, but I'm declaring the boys from the bayou D.O.A.  They are, dare I say it ... paper tigers.  (Sorry.  /hangs head in shame.  /stands in corner.)

Wait ... What?

I don't care what Aaron Murray, Denard Robinson, Matt Barkley, or anyone else does for the rest of the year, the Quarterback Single-Game Performance of 2012 Award belongs to Old Dominion's Taylor Heinicke.  The Division I record-setting outing for the sophomore QB was as follows: 55 of 79 (69.6 comp %) for 730 yards and 5 touchdowns.  I'm fairly certain no other signal caller will come close to topping that performance this year. 

Afwac.  AFWAC!!!!!

For the first half of yesterday's late game, it looked like Arizona might be poised to pull off a mammoth upset.  'Zona held Oregon's patented speed-freak option offense to just thirteen points through the initial 30 minutes of play, and appeared to be one big offensive possession from making a game of it.  Then the Ducks came out in the second half and did what they do best, sowing chaos and entropy among the opposing defense and generally exploding any normal sense of pace or context.  It was a prototypical Chip Kelly whiz-bang display, all stutter and flash and bright propulsion, and the Wildcats simply had no answer.  Hanging up 36 2nd-half points is something not many team can do, regardless of how weak the opponent.  When Oregon finds that extra, ludicrous gear, I'm not sure any team in the Pac 12 can stop them, including USC.  Early indicators point to an Oregon-Alabama title game.  Which reminds me ...

4-0.  Outscoring opponents 168-21.  Un.  Freaking.  Stoppable.  'Nuff said. 

Welcome Wagon

Missouri and Texas A&M migrated to the SEC this past off-season because they wanted more prestigious conference affiliations.  Thus far, both teams remain unranked and are 0-3 collectively against the conference.  This just how you pictured it, fellas?

Your Weekly Notre Dame and FSU Are Relevant Again! Update

The #10 Irish completed a sweep of Great Lakes State teams, knocking off the Wolverines 13-6 in a defensive-minded tilt in South Bend. 

The #4 'Noles, meanwhile, survived an early 14-0 deficit to prevail in an offensive shootout with Clemson, 49-37. 

Both teams are undefeated and in the Top 10.  

Tattoo U 

Ohio State is 4-0 and nobody cares.  

Upset Of The Week

Kansas Sate pulled a "Trading Places" routine by taking out Oklahoma, moving from #15 to #7 in the AP Poll, while the Sooners tumble from #6 to #16 as a result of the loss.  Oklahoma looked poised to sneak into the national title mix with a few breaks, but they'll be lucky now if they can sniff the Big 12 Championship game.  Meanwhile, K-State have set themselves up to build on last year's superb showing.  If the 'Cats can take care of business against the surprising number of ranked teams left on their schedule, they can start building a mini-dynasty within their conference, and mayyybbbbee on a grander stage if some improbable things fall in their favor.    

OK, I'm wrapping this up to devote my full attention to the Falcons game.  Happy Sunday!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Scattershot, Sunday Edition: Desultory Musings From Around College Football

I'm uncorking a new feature here at Arena Apothecary called "Scattershot."  As often as possible, I'll present a varied, wide-ranging list of thoughts and opinions whenever a big day happens in a given sport.  (No promises, but I'll try to get one up every Sunday for college ball, every Tuesday for the NFL, and any morning after a big night of MLB or NBA action.)  This is the inaugural edition.  Enjoy.  

Well, No One Saw THAT Coming ... Except All Of Us.  

There were a lot of whuppin's put on inferior competition by the big boys this weekend, but one in particular stands out.  Alabama's 52-0 deconstruction of Arkansas wasn't exactly unexpected, it was just a grim spectacle and a letdown.  Before the season, everyone had this circled as a pivotal game, Arkansas being the only team in the SEC West remotely capable of upending the 'Bama/LSU power dyad.  The Hogs were ranked #8 in the polls heading into last week's ostensible gimme game against Louisiana-Monroe, setting up what should have been a top-10 match-up yesterday.  Then Tyler Wilson suffered a serious concussion, the Razorbacks faltered, and the Warhawks pulled off a stunner victory in OT that sent Arkansas tumbling all the way out of the AP Top 25.  (By the way, anybody with LA-Monroe on their schedule for the remainder of the year probably shouldn't sleep on them, as they nearly replicated last week's upset yesterday against Auburn.)  With Wilson still not medically cleared to play and Arkansas still reeling from Bobby Petrino's sudden and ignominious departure, the Hogs went from the role of darkhorse SEC contender to potential spoiler to chaff for Nick Saban's grist mill in record time.  Barring something truly outlandish, the Tide will roll unchecked right into November 3rd's showdown with LSU, where once again the SEC West Champion will be crowned. 


A hearty and heartfelt "welcome back!" to FSU and Notre Dame.  As someone who grew up in an era when the 'Noles were a dominant force and the annual Florida-FSU battle often carried National Championship implications, I am of the opinion that football is more enjoyable when FSU is good.  And so it warms my heart to see the team from Tallahassee prominently ranked in the polls again.  Granted, their schedule has been front-loaded with the squishiest baking tray full of cupcakes imaginable (Murray State, Savannah State, and Wake Forest), but they've done exactly what a dominant team is supposed to do, outscoring their opponents 176 to 3.

As for the Irish, it looks like this may finally be the year when all the predictably grating "is Notre Dame back this season?" chatter is answered in the affirmative.  Brian Kelly's team strolled into East Lansing and put a 20-3 beatdown on #10 Michigan State yesterday to stay undefeated on the year.  The Irish do have some formidable challenges left on their schedule, but they appear up to the task, playing with a poise and balance heretofore absent in recent memory.  If Notre Dame is still going strong when they meet the fifth-ranked Sooners on October 27 (quite possible), I'll be ready to buy in.  As with FSU, college football is better when the Irish are legitimately in the discussion.

Let's Talk About USC.     

In case you're utterly oblivious, Standford pulled off the upset of the week, defeating the vaunted USC Trojans 21-14.  Here in Atlanta, one of the personalities on AM 680's "Rude Awakening" morning sports show is a fellow named Perry Laurentino.  Perry is a Steelers fan from Scarsdale, NY (read: band-wagoning douche with no sense of geographical loyalty) and a proud USC alum (read: insufferable douche with no sense of reality.)  He is also among the most sanctimonious and enervating people ever to blemish the airwaves, and as far as I can tell he knows nothing whatsoever about sports.  Basically, he's Colin Cowherd with a Bronx accent but (mercifully) without the national exposure.  Anyway, since right around July, which is when we start discussing the upcoming college football season in Georgia, Perry has trumpeted two semi-related proclamations at every available opportunity: that USC will end the SEC's run of consecutive crystal footballs this season, and that pretty much everyone in the rest of the country will be overjoyed by this development.  As to the former, the Trojans spent last night getting manhandled in the trenches on both sides of the ball by freaking Stanford.  (They are now ranked #13 nationally and sit at the bottom of the Pac-12 South.)  Care to hazard a guess how they'd fare against LSU or even Georgia?  Regarding the latter, it's been my experience that much of the rest of the country doesn't care all that much about the SEC dominating college football.  Oh, I'm sorry, does "rest of the country" translate into "the Pac-12 plus Boise State" in your vocabulary?  In that case, and only that case, you're correct.  But you don't hear Texas or Ohio State bitching about SEC bias.  They know the way to assert themselves is to go out and win games, and they don't sit around whining about the rankings otherwise.

(Programming note for David Dickey and the 680 brass: I deeply enjoy listening to Rude, Sandra, Leo, and B-Finn.  Please stop ruining my morning commute and get this a-hole off the air.  Thanks.)

California Love.

Don't look now, but there's another team in Los Angeles, and they're playing damned good football so far.  UCLA is 3-0, including a win over (#16 at the time) Nebraska in week 2 that vaulted them into the AP Top 25.  They're fifth in the country in rushing, and they've outscored opponents by an average of 20 points per game this year.  No, I don't think the Bruins are serious contenders, maybe not even in the Pac-12, but they look a far cry from the 6-8 doormat we watched last season.  Keep an eye on Jim Mora's squad, your best bet for a conference darkhorse/spoiler out west. 

Coming To A Conference Near You.

Like Nuke LaLoosh, Pitt apparently wanted to announce their presence with authority.  (Albeit more successfully than ol' Nuke.)  In a preview of their move to the ACC in 2013, the Panthers lowered the boom on perennial conference power Virgina Tech, bludgeoning the Hokies 35-17.  Frank Beamer's traditional calling card of tight defensive execution was simply not in evidence, as Pitt QB Tino Sunseri threw for 283 yards and 3 TDs, and the ground game added 254 yards and 2 more scores for good measure.  Pitt's defense, too, looked fairly stifling, chalked full of energy and aggression.  Paul Chryst's stint as the Panthers' head coach was off to an abysmal 0-2 start, but if yesterday's display was any indication, the ACC will have a serious new contender in the Coastal Division next year.   

Peach State Problems.

Though both Georgia and Georgia Tech won their games yesterday, they have to be just a tad worried on the defensive side of the ball going forward.  The 'Dawgs and 'Jackets coughed up 20 apiece to Florida Atlantic and Virginia, respectively.  Allowing clearly inferior teams such a generous helping of points may not have posed any real danger this week, but it could potentially be disastrous when they run into real competition.  On October 6, UGA will clash with South Carolina and Tech will meet Clemson, both on the road.  If they don't get their defensive houses in order, it will make those already-heavy games very difficult to win indeed.  (Yes, I know Georgia was missing several key defensive starters that they should have back by then, but even the second stringers shouldn't have let the lowly Owls hang twenty on 'em.)

It Didn't Matter, But ...

For a game with absolutely no implications for anyone outside of the schools involved, one of the most compelling and entertaining contests of the weekend came via a shootout twixt a pair of basketball powerhouses.  Just watch these highlights from UNC vs. Louisville, it's good stuff:

Bring It On Home To Me.

West Virginia is 2nd in the nation is passing yards per game (386) and fourth in points (55.5).  Sure, the defense is suspect, but with their relatively navigable schedule and a few (monstrously lucky) breaks, they could be right in the mix come December.  Just something to keep in mind.  P.S. - scheduling people, can we get these guys to play Oregon sometime soon?  Just think of the joy inherent in watching those two offenses trade punches.  Get back to me.

Enjoy the NFL games, and I'll hopefully see you Tuesday.  Thanks for reading. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Asleep At The Switch

On June 9th, I got to Turner Field very, very early.  This wasn't just some random day game, after all.  You can meander down to The Ted any home-game afternoon and have a fine time marinating in Budweiser and peanut shells and scorching Georgia sunshine.  This day was different, special.  This was Sid Bream Bobblehead Giveaway Day, and I'd be damned if I wasn't one of the first 20,000 through the gates fortunate enough to claim one.  Just look at that majestic representation of one of the most iconic moments in Atlanta sports history.  It's a thing of beauty.

"The Slide" took place 20 years ago this October, when the National League's power structure looked an awful lot like it does now.  By record, the five best NL Teams in 1992 were the Braves, Pirates, Reds, Cardinals, and Expos.  If you take the Nationals to be a metaphysical continuation of the 'Spos,which to a degree they are, then things haven't changed much.  (Or rather, they've changed a great deal and then changed back.)  Granted, it's not a perfect analogy.  The following things are different than they were in 1992: the Dodgers and Giants are also formidable contenders this season, which was not at all the case back then.  The advent of the Central Division and subsequent team realignment has resolved the cartographic farce of the Braves somehow belonging to the NL West.  Oh, and none of the '92 players are still active.  (I checked, Jamie Moyer didn't pitch a single game in the majors during the '92 season.) 

Not only did I get that sweet bobblehead on that Saturday back in June, I got the rosy feeling that comes from watching your team play excellent baseball.  That was back when Atlanta was only a game back of the Nats in the NL East; when Michael Bourn was raking; when Brandon Beachy and Jair Jurrjens were in the rotation; when the Braves looked great.  Things look a little less rosy today.  After muddling through a mini-swoon through the second half of August, the Braves came out smoking like a Craig Kimbrel fastball in September ... or so the record said.  The team took 9 of its first 11 games this month including five straight, and everyone in the ATL breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Maybe we wouldn't catch Washington in the divisional race, but we were going to the postseason without a hitch.  There would be no repeat of the long, precipitous decline that capped last year's campaign in agonizing fashion.  Not this year, not this team.  This team had an identity.  This team had a deep and healthy bullpen.  This team had a shot at a lengthy October run.  The problem is that the swoon never really ended.

Atlanta's offense can also be added to the list of things that are different than they were in 1992.

 From the 1st to the 13th of September that season, the Braves scored 76 runs and allowed 48.  In that same date span this year, they've scored 37 runs and allowed 41.  This month, Atlanta has been collectively outscored by a pair of teams struggling to remain relevant in the wild card race (Phils, Brewers) and a pair of teams who barely qualify as big-league clubs at all (Rockies, Mets).  Aside from an 11-run outburst against New York on the 8th, the Braves have failed to put up more than three runs in a game for ten days, and that against some of the lowliest pitching in baseball, no less.  On the year, the team OPS has been a very respectable .718.  This month it's .643.  And I don't even want to contemplate our Stranded RISP rate, which has been truly atrocious since the proverbial calender page turned. Calling the recent offensive production anemic is doing a disservice to anemia.  The Braves don't lack red blood cells, they lack blood period.  They lack life.  This team is sleepwalking through the deep stretch drive, and the situation will become untenable if they don't wake up soon.

It's not that we're headed for another closing-day loss meltdown.  I hope.  It would be almost impossible to drop out of both wild card spots with so few games left.  I hope.  (Although we said much the same last year at the beginning of the month.)  It goes back to the well-worn concept of being hot at the right time.  Two weeks ago, the Braves were scorching and looked ready to roll into the playoffs firing on all cylinders.  Now, the bats are doing a convincing rendition of John Cage's "4:33" and the pitching is coughing up five-run innings every other game.  Staggering into the postseason in a collective torpor is rarely the recipe for success.

For that reason, tonight feels big.  Back in the Ted after a discouraging road trip.  Against the upstart Nationals, a team we'll likely have to battle again in the postseason.  Against Ross Detwiler, who has semi-owned some of Atlanta's premier players this season, to the extent that Fredi Gonzalez is sitting Michael Bourn and Brian McCann tonight because they just can't seem to hit the guy.  And against the tide of inertia and entropy that has enveloped the team of late.  If we can't swim (or at least doggy paddle with gusto) in this game and the ensuing series, it's going to be sink, undertow, and out to harsher waters right quick.

This is it, boys.  Time to flip the switch.  Play ball.  


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Fantasy Etiquette: 5 Barroom Rules.

It's that time of year.  Football, and its fantasy counterpart, are officially underway, and thus begins another season of mostly reasonable people turning into obsessive sociopaths because Roddy White didn't get as many targets as they hoped last week.  There are a myriad of podcasts and message boards and the KSK mailbag just churning out an endless slew of fantasy advice.  Matthew Berry is ubiquitous, God help us all. 

This is all more or less fine by me.  Personally, I've never felt any urge whatsoever to engage in fantasy sports.  I'm perfectly content watching and analyzing the games on their intrinsic merits, and I don't want or need any additional context to clutter that experience.  Also, and I often wonder how people live with themselves in these cases, I don't ever want to be in the position of rooting for a player I hate simply because he was the best guy on the board when my pick came around in a fantasy draft.  Drew Brees is one of the three best QB's in football, but he also plays for the Saints, the Falcons' most bitter rivals and divisional foes.  If he's on the board while I'm drafting, I'm a certified idiot not to take him, right?  But here's the thing: I don't want Drew Brees to have a successful season.  Ever.  I want him and the Saints to falter and flail and be ultimately lousy, every year, forever, amen.  Fantasy poses the risk of conflicting with my sacred duty as a fan to despise all those opposed to my team; of diluting my inalienable hatred.  And lord knows we can't have that.  So yeah, no fantasy for me.  But I do understand and appreciate the appeal.  You get to play GM and muck around with rosters and, if everything goes right, pick up a heap of bragging rights and some cash to boot.  And it probably does lend a little gravitas to the random Vikings-Bucs game that no one outside of Minneapolis or Tampa Bay cares even an iota about if you have someone from either team on your roster.  I'm all for people enjoying anything having to do with football.  But.


Fantasy owners of America, we need to have a little chat.  We need to establish some ground rules so that I can be around you, on gameday, in public, and not want to beat you senseless.  (Ed. Note: if you are someone who plays fantasy without going full-bore psycho about it, feel free to stop reading and go tinker with your starting roster for today.) 

Because every Sunday, Monday, and Thursday of the season, there are those among you who ruin sports bars across the land by insinuating a grating and wholly unnecessary dosage of fantasy into the proceedings.  Frankly, when your fake team's considerations become more meaningful and enjoyable than the actual games themselves, your priorities are way the hell out of whack.  Shady McCoy fumbles or the Colts' D gives up 4 touchdowns and it's a freaking zombie apocalypse for that drunk guy in the corner who is actually a Steelers fan.  People who have no connection whatsoever to the Ravens other than getting stuck with Joe Flacco as a fantasy quarterback suddenly become blithering, outraged idiots when Torrey Smith drops a pass.  The bar turns into a cacophony of cheers, profanities, and outright pandemonium as MJD saves one person's fantasy week, ruins someone else's, and the one Jags fan in the joint stares sullenly into his drink, contemplating the futility of existence.  I can't take it anymore.  Here are some fantasy-related behaviors that should be outlawed, in perpetuity, from occurring in bars. 

1. Laptop usage.  If you want to whip out your iPhone and check your stats for the day while a play is under review, or because you need to make a last-minute roster alteration, fine.  If, however, you spend more time glaring at your laptop and frantically refreshing the results of your nine leagues than you do watching actual, real, glorious football, you should be evicted from the premises immediately.  We are here to get gregariously drunk with friends and scream at 56" TV screens, not get antisocially drunk alone and stare at a 12" Dell Powerbook. It's a bar, not a f***** coffee shop.  Put the computers away.

2.  Appropriate Reactions and Decibel Levels.  Histrionics, be they celebratory or agonizing, are reserved for fans and their teams, not your handcuff fantasy back.  You know the axiom that nobody wants to hear about your fantasy team?  That's not just a gentle reminder not to bring it up in regular conversation; it applies to the barroom as well.  If your real, actual team blows a fourth-quarter lead in week 12 against a divisional opponent, you may pound your fist on the bar, scream obscenities, flip tables, smash glasses, immediately knock back five shots of vodka, or indulge in any other acceptable expression of grief and anger that occurs to you.  Likewise if they just broke off a 70-yard TD run, only, you know, you'll be much more gleeful while you break things.  Good on you.  HOWEVA, if you're wearing a Mark Sanchez jersey and a Jets cap, do not yell at the TV if Jay Cutler takes a sack.  Glower into your beer, mumble a silent curse to the gods, whatever, but keep your fantasy whining to yourself.  NO ONE CARES.

3.  Discussion of stats shall be limited to real stats.  If you want to talk about how many rushing yards the Broncos' defense allowed last year or the Tom Brady's red zone completion percentage, by all means, let's nerd it out.  However, I don't care if a receiver's value is diminished because you are or are not in a PPR league.  Any fantasy statistic that has no relation (or only an oblique relation) to what actually transpires on the field is not fit for discussion.

4.  These players don't owe you jack.  Nor, for that matter, do their coaches.  If the Texans give Ben Tate a goal-line carry instead of Arian Foster, thereby costing you precious fantasy points, guess what?  THEY'RE PLAYING TO WIN THE GAME.  They are making what they think are the best tactical decisions for their teams.  (Note: questionable if Andy Reed or Norv Turner is involved.)  When MJD sat down on the goal line a few seasons ago to keep the clock running a seal a win for the Jags, he apologized to his fantasy owners.  This was endearing and funny and totally unnecessary.  He made a heads-up play and put his team in the best position to win.  That cost you fantasy points?  Boo freaking hoo.  They're trying to put real points on a real scoreboard and make sure they have more than the other team at the end of the day.  It's bad enough how pathologically attached and entitled we are over our hometown teams, I have to draw the line at pathological entitlement in fantasy.  It's ridiculous.

5.  When in doubt, shut up.  Self-explanatory, right?  Good.

Happy football!!!

Friday, August 17, 2012

To Pitch Or Not To Pitch?

Sometime in mid- or late September, the Washington Nationals are going to shut Stephen Strasburg down for the remainder of the season.  At that point, the team that currently holds baseball's best record will voluntarily shelve its best starting pitcher while standing on the brink of the playoffs (barring a 2011-Red-Sox-ian collapse, of course).  Since no team has ever done anything like this before in sports history, and since D.C. baseball fans have been among the most consistently abused people in sports history*, the question of whether the "right decision" is being made has become much more incendiary and vitriolic than a normal hot-button sports argument.  The Nats' fans (and some players) are furious, the Nats' brass are standing pat, and the rest of us are either vehemently arguing one side or the other or simply scratching our heads at the whole thing. 

It's been said that the line between genius and insanity is often gossamer thin.  There have certainly been notable past instances of courageous innovation and full-blown lunacy being two sides of a singular coin, as Picasso or Mozart would attest if they weren't, you know, centuries dead.  In fact, unorthodox thought is often perceived as madness until hindsight shows us otherwise.  So, what will history show us about Washington deactivating one of the game's elite pitchers on the doorstep of the city's first postseason appearance since 1933?

As Jayson Stark's cover-all-the-angles article noted last week, medically, we simply can't know.  There is no predicting the effects of a season-ending shutdown versus skipping a start here and there verses 15 or 30 days of rest now and reactivation when things get serious next month versus letting Strasburg continue to pitch as he has all year.  Each body reacts differently to Tommy John surgery and recovery therefrom, and past outcomes have been varied enough that a definitively correct medical course of action cannot be identified.  The Nats are apparently erring, in the most dramatic way possible, on the side of caution.  That a team would be so bold and far-sighted as to place the long-term health of a player above more pressing and immediate concerns, even in the face of so much averse reaction from fans, is its own form of courage.  And in a weird way, it is commendable.

This is no little thing the Nationals are doing, or at least have assured us that they will do.  It flies in the face of conventional wisdom, of putting your best possible team on the field, and some might even say the spirit of baseball or sports in general.  In the name of protecting the future, the team is voluntarily rendering itself less competitive, less likely to win in the present, in a season where they have a legitimate shot at a World Series title.  That's some Big Picture Thinking accompanied by a pair of Big Brass Ones.  It's certainly breaking new ground.

But here's the thing, and somebody probably ought to have told Mike Rizzo this at some point:

Winning a World Series is extraordinarily, phenomenally hard.

Ask any fan, sports journalist, broadcaster, player, or coach.  The sheer amount of factors that have to align for a specific team to plaster a locker room in champagne in October is staggering.  Team health, luck, fate, coaching decisions, umpiring calls, and usually at least one purely miraculous act have to not only be involved, but be involved in the correct sequence.  Trust a Braves fan here: my team had the best rotation in baseball for a solid decade and 14 straight division titles, and they captured exactly one World Series title.  They could have, and probably should have, had more.  But there are just too many things at play over 162 games and the playoffs.  Too much can go wrong; fate is too capricious. A Kent Hrbek/Ron Gant call here, a faulty Bobby Cox pitching change there, or a plain old "it just wasn't our year" moment, like running into that buzz saw of a Yankees team in '99.  There are literally infinite variables, some so minute that you only notice them in retrospect, that can derail a team's road to a championship.  In other words, people are asking the wrong question.

The question is not: is this a wise decision for the future of Stephen Strasburg's career, and by extension, the Nationals organization?  The question is: when staring at lightning in a bottle, when everything is clicking for your team, when you have momentum and chemistry and all those other intangibles on your side, and they are in evidence on a daily basis in the Win column, how can you resign yourself to anything less than a full-on assault at the trophy?  The Nats are in the middle of a charmed season, and they are prepared to throw it away because they believe there are many more in store.  [Ed. note: as a Braves fan, I am absolutely not complaining about this.]  Problem is, baseball almost never works like that. 

Stephen Strasburg may never miss another start for the rest of his career.  Fine, but what happens if Bryce Harper goes down with a broken tibia next July and the heart of your order can't get along against elite pitching without him?  Or if Gio Gonzalez never comes close to replicating his stellar 2012 season again.  Or if the bullpen falls apart?  If, if, if.  That two-letter word isn't worth much in Scrabble, but it's everything in baseball, and Washington is banking on several ifs, for years to come, coming out in their favor.

The odds of that happening are stacked heavily against them.  That's why you don't look gift horses in the mouth.  That's why you don't ignore lightning in a bottle.  That's why you let transcendent talent keep taking the mound.  You just never know. 

*It's true.  We think that, say, Sonics fans have it bad, but Washington has had its baseball team taken away TWICE.  The original Senators franchise had a proud history including Hall Of Famers like Walter Johnson and Goose Goslin, and were the 1924 World Series champs.  They mostly faired poorly in the '30s and '40s, but following the 1954 signing of Harmon Killebrew, their fortunes looked to be improving.  Killebrew led the league with 42 homers and made his first of 11 consecutive All-Star teams in 1959 ... and then the team was shipped to Minnesota to become the Twins in 1961.  The expansion/replacement "new" Senators were objectively terrible, averaging 90 losses a season from 1961 to 1971 ... and then they moved to Texas to become the Rangers.  Lacking a baseball team from 1971-2005, D.C. fans were forced by default to root for the Baltimore Orioles.  Aside from the '83 World Series and the privilege of watching Cal Ripken Jr.'s incredible career unfold, this was a pretty miserable proposition for most of those years.  And of course, when the city did get the Nats in '05, they were awful and have been right up until pretty much this year.  That's a lot of losing, both in the W/L column and in the ignominy of having your team taken away two times in a decade. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Dwight Howard, The Lakers, and Radiohead.

There's been a bit of a gap between posts here at Arena Apothecary.  I should be resuming business as usual with something enjoyable and inspirational about the Olympics.  I should be writing about Gabby Douglas or Usain Bolt or Andy Murray.  I should be showering the page with an account of watching on adjacent TVs yesterday while the women's water polo and soccer teams played sublime gold medal games for the USA.  But ... that's not going to happen.  Instead, I need to talk about Dwight Howard and the trade that gifted the Lakers with an ungodly windfall yesterday.  I won't waste time excoriating the Magic for muddling their way to an infuriatingly lopsided deal; plenty of other people will take care of that, and it's so glaringly obvious that it hardly bears stating, much less repeating.*  No, what I want to address is how this makes me feel about the Lakers' 2012-13 season.  And to do that, I need to talk about Radiohead.  I know, I know, but it will all make sense in a few paragraphs, just hang on a moment.

I don't like Radiohead.  I've said as much a million times, and it's always greeted with the same combination of perplexity and disgust from fellow musicians and music fans.  How is it, they wonder, that one of the most daring, intelligent, and groundbreaking groups of the past 20 years has earned the unadulterated scorn of someone who loves music this much?  It's not an easy question to answer.  Certainly, there is much to admire in the band's oeuvre.  Jonny Greenwood is a sonic architect and compositional genius nonpareil.  His brother Colin is a wonderful bassist, and Ed O'Brien is a pretty good guitar player.  Phil Selway, like Ringo Starr before him, goes largely unappreciated for his restrained genius and perfect craftsmanship behind the drums.  When I listen to the band, I digest all of these elements with a great deal of interest, taking in the extraordinary subtlety and detail of their musical interplay.  It's complex, fascinating stuff that I appreciate academically but from which I glean almost no actual enjoyment.  (And this is coming from a guy who digs serialism, abstract soundscapes, and free jazz.)  The sad thing is that, based on what I just wrote, I should adore Radiohead.  But I really, really don't.  And what wrecks the whole thing for me is Thom Yorke.

You can call him anything you want; genius, visionary, whatever.  To me, he's a grating, self-absorbed, pretentious megalomaniac whose considerable talents I would probably appreciate if he weren't such a monumental dick about the whole business.  That falsetto-singing, eyes-closed-swaying doofus is not some shamanic icon making transcendent art.  He's just annoying as f***.  Again, this is just my opinion, but Thom Yorke ruins Radiohead.

Which is why I'm going to hate this Lakers team, even more than I usually hate the Lakers.** 

After I got over the initial cringe-shock of the Steve Nash signing, I was actually incredibly excited to watch them.  There was the fascinating question of how Nash and Kobe Bryant would function as a backcourt.  There was the prospect of that pairing collectively saving enough of what each has left in the tank to make a last sustained run, possibly leading to a title or two.  The upshot of that, of course, would be renewed intrigue and debate over Kobe's place in the pantheon and (finally!!!) well-deserved rings for Nash, which should make you exuberant regardless of what uniform he's wearing when it happens.  And if your brain wasn't reverberant with giddiness at the thought of Nash and Pao Gasol wreaking absolute havoc on opposing defenses, then you just plain don't like basketball.  On the whole, there was a lot of joy to be mined here.

Then the Lakers went out and brokered a deal that divested them of a talented-headcase big man in Andrew Bynum for a much more talented headcase who happens to fit their needs perfectly.  That they miraculously retained Gasol in the bargain means that their starting five next season will include, barring something catastrophic happening, four future Hall Of Famers.  On paper, this is automatically the most fascinating and exciting team of 2012; just an absolute joy to watch.

The problem, of course, is that Dwight Howard just spent the last year and change doing his best Thom Yorke impersonation.  He has been, without a hint of shame or remorse, the most insufferably petulant and clueless sham of a human being in sports.  The unblinking ego and delusion were staggering.  The comparison was inevitably made, but Howard's actions were so far removed from The Decision that conflating the two makes zero sense.  When LeBron took his talents to South Beach, it was poorly executed, but at least it was honest.  This, on the other hand, was a deliberate series of head-fake shenanigans designed to, what?  Get Dwight out of Orlando while somehow blaming the whole thing on Otis Smith and Stan Van Gundy?  Maintain his heretofore unblemished image as a likeable guy in a bad situation?  Quick, look over there!  Pay no attention to the duplicitous idiot behind the curtain!  Good lord what a dope.

And now he's playing on the most loaded team in the western conference; a team perfectly calibrated to his strengths in a city that won't care a jot about his innate douchery because, you know, it's L.A. and they're used to embracing that sort of person.  The situation rankles in the rich-getting-richer way that these things do, but Mitch Kupchak played this one smart and you'd want your GM to do the same.  That the Lakers are the beneficiaries of a nearly exact case of historical repetition doesn't matter.  That Howard should benefit in any way from his behavior is downright abhorrent. 

The Lakers are going to play a lot of great basketball next season.  Steve Nash has just been handed an entire Christmas tree's worth of new toys, and he's going to use that team like Miles Davis used the Seven Steps to Heaven quintet.  Kobe will have an easier time on both ends of the floor, able to take  offensive possessions off while Nash does his thing and relax on defense knowing he has the Frontline of Doom backing him up.  Even Ron Artest, a pale shadow of himself, is going to get ample opportunities to use his one remaining viable NBA skill: standing wide open in the corner and knocking down threes.  Even if their bench is paper thin, they're one fluky Oklahoma City injury away from a legitimate shot at cracking 70 wins.  And Dwight Howard will be there, enjoying the ride, tossing up 23-15's, basking in the L.A. sunshine in the day and the Staples Center limelight at night.  It's enough to make a grown man weep with disgust.

Don't hate the game.  Hate the player.   

*As a Hawks fan, I was ecstatic when Danny Ferry waltzed into Atlanta and immediately performed the jaw-dropping voodoo of jettisoning Joe Johnson's contract.  We were glad to see him go for many reasons: he was openly derisive of fans and media, he had a penchant for way too much iso-ball, and there was no way we were getting out of the second round of the playoffs with him as our best player.  But you know what?  All the griping and invective leveled at him over that contract was horribly misplaced.  Say you're a car mechanic.  You excel at your job, but you're not quite qualified to work on Maybachs or act as a NASCAR crew chief.  Inexplicably, someone offers you $5,000,000 a year to keep servicing Fords and Hondas like you've always done.  You're not turning that down just because you're not actually actually worth the money.  Atlanta was dumb enough to give him the offer, and he took it.  You can't fault a man for that.  In the same way, no matter how unfair the Dwight-Lakers trade seems, you can't really be upset that they took the deal when it was offered.  The way I see it, this is Karma smacking David Stern in the mouth for "basketball reasons."

**I use "hate" loosely, obviously.  Non-L.A.-dwelling hoops fans hate the Lakers the same way baseball fans who don't live in New York hate the Yankees.  We resent their dominance and abhor their obnoxious fans, but generally we can objectively appreciate their performance on the field/court.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Scoreboard, Dude! ... But Not Really.

Among the many elements that make following sports such a joy is the potential of seemingly winnable barroom arguments.  Sure, there are plenty of other milieus rife with debatable questions; "who's the greatest band/actress/writer/painter/U.S. President ever?"  "Is The Godfather or Goodfellas a better movie?"  And so forth.  You can argue about anything as long as you have a contradictory position to argue against.  The thing that sets sports apart is the illusion that an argument can actually be definitively resolved.  (Hence my carefully applied "seemingly winnable" above.)  We think we can "win" sports arguments for the simple reason that success in sports is quantifiable in a manner that it simply is not elsewhere.  An obvious and admittedly dumb example: Tom Clancy has outsold, by vast orders of magnitude, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and probably (though there's no real way to verify this) Shakespeare.  This is great for his bank account, but it certainly does not make him a better writer than those people.  More importantly, nobody would ever argue that it did.  You don't judge artistic achievement on gross earnings or units sold.  Because of the vastness of scope and complexity of process involved in creation, artistic talent cannot be graphed, calculated, or linear regression'd.  Athletic talent, though?  We have numbers out the yang for that stuff.   The problem and great trap of arguing sports is when we give those numbers undue weight.  Numbers can be spun.  Numbers can be ripped from their initial context and retrofitted to an entirely different one.  Numbers can talk at cross purposes from each other.   Numbers never, ever tell the whole story.  Which is to say: No.  No, Bob Costas, Ryan Seacrest, Meredith Vieira, Hoda whateverthehellyourlastnameis, and other assorted NBC broadcast "personalities."  Michael Phelps is not the greatest Olympian of all time. 

Mind you, I am absolutely not trying to belittle Phelps' accomplishments.  After last night, the man owns more medals than anyone else in Olympic history, and also to the most gold medals (15) and individual medals (9) of all time.  The acme he reached in Beijing was nothing short of incredible.  Certainly, he is in the GOOAT discussion ... but I don't believe for a second he deserves that moniker. 

First, it's not a given that he's even the greatest Olympic swimmer ever.  Everyone knows that Phelps broke Mark Spitz's record for gold medals in a single Olympics when he won eight in Beijing.  Well and good, but Spitz racked up seven golds in Munich in 1972 while simultaneously shattering the world record for every single one of those events in the process.  Read that sentence again.  I would argue that Spitz's defining Olympic Games were actually the more impressive feat.  Of course, here's where people shout that Phelps has more than doubled the medal count of his predecessor.  It's a point that must be taken into consideration, but apply it to other sports for a moment.  Can you tell me definitively that Joe Montana was a better quarterback than John Elway because he won more rings?  No, you can't.  Hell, Bill Russell has eleven NBA Championships and Michael Jordan has six, but go find me one person other than Tommy Heinsohn who honestly thinks Russell was actually better at basketball.  When you factor in all the medical, dietary, and training advances since Spitz's time that might have allowed him to extend his career and accrue more trips to the podium had he been privy to them, you simply cannot make an immutable statement of fact that Phelps is better than Spitz.

But let's assume that he is.  Greatest Olympic Swimmer of All Time status: hypothetically granted.  Now we enter the broader field of competition.  Jesse Owens.  Carl Lewis.  Jim Thorpe.  Jackie Joyner-Kersee.  Flo-Jo.  Mary Lou Retton.  Domonique Dawes.  You get the idea, and you'll note that I haven't even touched the Winter Olympics, as that would just muddy the waters beyond recovery.  The question is how one defines "greatest" when discussing an athletic gathering that spans every conceivable skill and facet of sport.  Can you, in any meaningful sense, compare swimming to track-and-field, gymnastics, or any other sport?  How?  Aside from medal tallies, there's no real systematic way, right?  If medals are all we have to go by, then Phelps is the de facto big dawg.  But here's the thing: you also must consider context, and here's where Phelps' case starts to tarnish.

Swimming offers the most opportunities of any sport to earn medals.  There are more events in which players can compete, and thus more chances to stand on the podium, so it's not entirely fair to use the "most medals" argument, since other spots don't afford the same number of shots to their athletes.  Also, because of the low-impact nature on muscles and joints relative to sprinting or a floor exercise, the athletes can perform at an elite level far longer than in other Olympic sports.  When you only get a chance to compete once every four years, the importance of career longevity becomes even more pronounced. 

(Gymnasts, as a rule, experience only one Olympics at their physical peak, maaaayyyybbeeee two if their bodies cooperate and the young guns coming up don't bump them out of one of the precious few spots on the team.  While track-and-field athletes can do well in certain events like the long jump over many years, their ability to viably compete in, say, the 100 m dissipates after two Summer Games tops, limiting their opportunities to win more medals in a way that swimmers don't have to deal with.)   
That's the logistical argument for at least attenuating the "OMG MEDALZZZZ" concept to account for the swimming's unique advantages.  Here, and this really is the crux for me, is where we discuss that favorite bell cow of Mel Kiper and Chad Ford: intangibles.  Aren't the Olympics supposed to be about more than just the end result?  I'm not talking about the pap and "great story lines" that NBC crams down our throats every four years, that stuff is just grating, but there is a higher ideal here, right?  Even in the cynicism-drenched modern era where sports are engineering vehicles for endorsement deals and future reality show careers, the Olympics still give us something compelling; not just because of what these athletes do but the circumstances in which they do it.  Call me a sap if you must, but the what they represent matters, if only because we still harbor a deep emotional attachment to that notion, even if it's long gone in reality.  That's where Michael Phelps falls short.  He doesn't feel Olympian, in the true and ancient sense of the word.  

Can you tell me that Phelps is a better Olympian than Jesse Owens was?  Owens walked into a Hitler-governed Berlin in 1936 as an African American competing in an Olympics that was specifically engineered by the host nation's media to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race.  He walked out with four gold medals after administering a clinical beat down to the competition, in the face of immense racism and psychological warfare not only from the German hosts but from many of his own countrymen and teammates. 

How does he stack up against Jackie Joyner-Kersee, whose Olympic career looks like this:

1984, Los Angeles: Silver Medal, Heptathalon.

1988, Seoul: Gold Medal, Heptathlon.  (Set the still-standing world record with 7,291 points.) 
Gold Medal, Long Jump.

1992, Barcelona: Gold Medal, Heptathlon.  Bronze Medal, Long Jump.

1996, Atlanta: Bronze Medal, Long Jump.  On a bum hamstring.  At the age of 34.

Note: the Heptathlon consists of the 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200m sprint, long jump, javelin throw, and 800m race over two days.  Basically, speed, endurance, strength, hand-eye coordination, and general badassery and fortitude are required.

Note II: She won a medal in an event that involves jumping, on a busted hammy, at an age when most track athletes are retired.  I just though it bore repeating.  
In summary, here's Phelps immediately after winning that pivotal 19th medal: "All my life I wanted to do something no one has ever done before, and I did it.  I'm the first Michael Phelps."  Oh my god, what a charlatan.  He just third-person trumpeted his own awesomeness when said awesomeness was blatantly obvious to everyone on the planet and really, REALLY did not need a smug reiteration.  Yes, if anyone can say "Scoreboard, dude.  Unimpeachable bragging rights are mine," it's him, but seriously?  "The first Michale Phelps."  What a dope.  Which is kind of my point. 

Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time, and he submitted one of the great displays of athletic dominance in history in 2008.  But is he the Greatest Olympian ever?  Nuh uh.  Not to me.  You have to have the medals to be considered great, but you also have to be the kind of person who would never utter that quote in public.  Medals can be melted down.  Records can be broken.  Greatness endures.  Make no mistake, Michael Phelps is really, really great.  He'll just never be the greatest.