Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Learning To Wait For Change

I was away for the weekend doing 30th-birthday related things, and therefore mercifully oblivious to most of the media fallout precipitated by the Ryan Braun steroid trial/acquittal/whatever the hell that was. However, it is now into the following week and we're still talking about it. Partly because I was curious as to what the sundry reactions had been and partly because I am a masochist, I went back and read/listened to a heaping passel of the coverage and op-eds that came out since the news of Braun's acquittal. After wasting most of this morning and early afternoon catching up, I feel confidently well-versed in how various parties of dubious import feel about the whole thing. Needless to say, the commentary ran the full gamut of yappy-dog sentiments and arguments. It was an exercise in opined saturation and frankly, the sanctimony and condescension from both (all?) sides was equally galling.

There was, of course, the tiresome and predictable barrage of the baseball's self-appointed keepers, fretting over a variety of matters. After all, the steroid era was supposed to be over, right? After the Mitchell Report, the waste of Congress' time, and all the subsequent harrumphing and hoopla, we were going to be past all of this, right? I truly wish it were that easy, and that there wasn't the need to revisit this ground again. I wish nobody took PEDs. They un-level the playing field and they're dangerous, ugly substances besides.

The trouble is: there is no "past this." If you're pretending otherwise, I'd love to sell you some game-worn Bill James Cannery Security Guard jerseys for $2,000 a pop. The only way the steroids "problem" in baseball goes away permanently is if a. we convince the players not to use PEDs (not happening), b. we stop caring if anyone is using PEDs (not happening anytime soon if ever), c. we find the science to test for all banned substances past, present, and future and convince the players to agree to far more rigorous and frequent tests (not happening because the testing can't possibly keep up with the drugs and the players will never agree to this anyway), or d. we make the penalty for a first-time offense a Pete Rose lifetime ban (presumably harsh and intimidating enough to prevent any future violations. Not happening because no one in the league office is stupid enough to push for so totalitarian a measure ... we hope.) So yeah, the people wringing their hands because the steroid era was supposed to be over and never be an issue for anyone ever again are understandably upset. However, they should also probably adjust their expectations of reality a little bit.

Then there are the people who are outraged that Braun "got off on a technicality." Look, I know this wasn't a criminal trial, but a man's livelihood and professional reputation were still on the line. Isn't there something to be said for preserving the chain of evidence in these matters? I've no idea of the chemical repercussions of leaving a small jar of urine in a fridge for 48 hours vis a vis testing that sample for a certain substance, if in fact there are any. (That last point depends on who you ask.) The system in place is a product of collective bargaining, and that system was not correctly adhered to in this case (again, depending on who you talk to.) MLB can and should work to fix the system not only to prevent a similar scenario from recurring, but to institute planned contingencies for other potential issues as well. When I talk about preventing this from happening again, I don't mean to imply that I am of a mind with those grousing because Braun escaped punishment on a "technicality." What I mean is that we need to amend the system to minimize the extent to which future results will be the subject of said grousing. In fact, the only part of this whole media crossfire extravaganza is the necessary discussion over how best to improve this process. That said, any changes would obviously need to be subjected to voting and ratification by both the players and the league, this may not happen until the next collective bargaining negotiations, if then. Discourse is encouraged, but complaining about it in the meanwhile will not change the situation.

And now I come to the most interesting end of the spectrum (or corner rather, since this isn't a linear scale): the folks who seem to think their intellectually detached pulpits are set a little higher and mightier than everyone else's. They look at the (admittedly irritating) baseball traditionalist crowd and they shake their heads. They fume. And then they want to give that crowd what for, and so they furiously start typing. Grow up, they say. Stop living in a world of black and white. Hang those petty nostalgias and ideals up like an old pair of cleats. This is the real world. No place for uncomplicated notions of truth here ... unless they're our uncomplicated notions of truth. And this is where I start becoming genuinely baffled.

The people who espouse such views aren't wrong, mind you. I agree with their ideas. Like them, I do think much of baseball's pervading ethos needs an overhaul, and that there are few things more idiotic and dangerous than tradition for its own sake. What I can't comprehend is why there is so much pejorative vehemence in the way the non-trad media write about these things; why they can't seem to understand the other side and be willing to cut them a little slack. The old guard comes at this from a place of deep love and a perceived duty of preservation of the game, misguided though their sentiments and methods may be. The "steroids happen, deal with it, and who gives a %$&*$ anyway?" folks strike me as out to prove their own stoic superiority while willfully ignoring the crux of the matter. Criticizing all the handwringing is fine if you understand it, but they are failing to understand, and they don't want to. They also don't want to hear counterpoints because hey, they're right, right? Maybe so. Probably, in fact, but they're still walking through a sanctimonious forest and missing the big-ass tree at the heart of this.

Here's the thing: in five years and maybe less time than that, no one is going to have more than a vague recall of this mess Ryan Braun just went through. We'll remember him as one of the key cogs on 2011's most entertaining team, or the guy who looks a bit like Adrian Brody. We'll remember him as the guy who hosed Matt Kemp in the NL MVP race. Honestly, we'll probably mostly remember him as the guy who face planted trying to score on an in-the-park homerun. But we won't remember a long-overturned steroids accusation. Unless Ryan Braun starts getting close to some MLB record or another.

The hue and cry over steroids in baseball has nothing whatsoever to do with competitive fairness. Not in the sense of which team can put together the most W's over 162 games or even who wins the World Series, anyway. As I have written before, baseball is the only "team" sport in which individual numbers are the most sacrosanct piece of the puzzle. We're going to destroy LeBron until he wins a title. We'll kill Peyton Manning for having fewer rings than his little brother. Both of them are surefire hall of famers. In baseball, no one really cares how many times you've gleefully sprayed champagne all over a locker room in victory. The truly, perhaps the only, important question is: how was your career stat line (or you single-season peak)? And this is where all the lectures from the non-traditionalists to the baseball establishment about not seeing things in black and white fall apart. Because numbers are black and white, and baseball is a game of simple math. If your career numbers include things like x > 3,000 hits, x > 400 career wins, x > 500 homers, you're good. If x > everyone else's x ever, your name will be known to baseball fans six generations from now. This is why people get so keyed up over PEDs in baseball. What's on the line isn't anything as trivial as a win column or a trophy; it's immortality. Given the stakes, maybe we could cut the handwringers a little slack, huh?

So by all means, intellectual writer types, take your shots. Make your arguments. You're probably correct, and my guess is that in another generation or three, baseball will "grow up" and steroids won't be banned or even frowned upon. If players want to use the damned things, then they will, and it's only a matter of time before MLB realizes the futility of fighting it and lets go. Just do me a favor in the meantime: have a little more empathy for the folks on the other side of the argument, and given them time to accept the paradigm shift. Oh, and maybe cut back a little on the sanctimony if it's not too much trouble.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Desymbolizing Linsanity

This whole thing started because someone played a good game of professional basketball, then another, and another, and so on. Someone was named Jeremy Lin, who incidentally holds an economics degree from Harvard and is an Asian-American. As the points and assists and victories (and yes, the turnovers too) piled up, those two facts started an avalanche. The sports media, and by extension the parts of broader media that become tangentially involved in sports whenever there's a "good story" afoot, went, in professional parlance, totally bats$%t.

Set aside the Asian-American community, who are justifiably ecstatic and proud to have a representative and role model in an arena where they formerly had none. Their reaction is rooted in something tangible and beautiful, and they should continue to be as Linsane as the want to be. It's the rest of the world that turned this into a conflagration. Everyone else involved was suddenly in a race to find ways to talk about Jeremy Lin. A lot of the early coverage was of the relatively innocuous "hey isn't this cool?!" variety, and that's fine, because yes, yes it is cool. And since it's New York and the Knicks are the Knicks and The Garden is The Garden, there was the attendant hype that goes along with all of that, raised to whatever factorial you use when you're calculating the odds of someone being a potential Savior Of The Franchise. Which is how New York rolls, so we can dig it. The rest of us? We've become completely unhinged in the most incorrigible fashion. First, the ridiculous Tim Tebow comparisons started, but that was a strong probability from jump, and a given the very first time Lin openly thanked God in an interview. It's a grating and sophomoric angle since the apt comparisons between them pretty much begin and end with that shared faith, but at some point you just have to grimace and bear it. Not a lot of real harm to be done aside from weapons-grade annoyance.

The problem is that the crazies came out of the woodwork with a vengeance and turned this from a great basketball story or even just a great underdog story into a story that is supposed to have some sort of larger meaning. Jeremy Lin and what he's accomplishing on that famed parquet floor has been transfigured in something that apparently resonates with profundity for someone, somewhere. Several different profundities for a myriad of someones and somewheres, in fact, if you read every available scrap of opinion on the subject. He has been draped in symbols and iconography like a Christmas tree, tinseled and bedecked with a truckload of highhanded nonsense. I imagine even Jesus tired of people following him around because he had all the answers and stood for something, and he was about as serene as they come and felt he had an obligation to be those things for his people. For a 23 year-old kid who's been blindsided by the whole world elevating him way beyond the realm of mere athletic fame and accomplishment and into the world of diaphanous significations, this must be a hell of a ride, but also just plain hell.

I'm not the first person to point out the absurdity of all this, obviously; I'm a little late to the party, truth be told. The point is, we're seeing a reaction to the reaction to Jeremy Lin now, and those with something more than codified, gussied up drivel between the ears are a little offended at all this overwrought symbolism. Multiple writers have used the word "hijacked" to describe what has happened to Jeremy Lin's life, and it is saddening to note how raw and accurate that term is. The problem is, this is one of those machines that isn't going to stop until it's good and ready. Eventually, as the next whoever/whatever eruption of hyperbole dethrones Linsanity, Jeremy Lin will be considered just another good NBA basketball player. If the mantles being thrust upon his shoulders don't crush him in the interim, of course. Unfortunately for him, there's no opt-out clause for this situation, but it occurred to me last night that in a perfect world, there would be an easy remedy, one which I took a heavy dose of as I watched Jeremy Lin play.

The Knicks were facing my beloved Atlanta Hawks last night, and so for the first time I tuned in to a game in which Jeremy Lin was playing and did not root for him. For the first time, Linsanity was not something I wanted any part of. (I'd like to think I've been less guilty than most and that my interest and feelings have mostly been confined to basketball fandom and wishing Lin well, but I'm sure I've strayed into needless overreaction once or twice.) Last night, for me, Jeremy Lin wasn't a symbol or a metaphor or a great story or an underdog or anything besides the opposing team's starting point guard. He was the enemy, and I wanted badly for the Hawks to shut his ass down. Which, of course, did not happen. Along with his New York cohorts, Lin shredded and humiliated Atlanta all game long. He finished up with 17 points, 9 dimes, 2 steals, and kept his turnovers down to a manageable 4. The damage probably would have been greater had Mike D'Antoni not pulled him early in the 4th quarter as the Knicks ran away with the game. All of which is to say, there is nothing to sour you on a player like watching him beat the crap out of your team. I will continue to wish Jeremy Lin well, both in the NBA and in dealing with this chaos he's surrounded with, but the fervor and jubilation have pretty much evaporated. Defeat does that.

As I said earlier, there is no way out for Lin beyond weathering the storm, but if I could bend reality a little, the exit strategy would look like this: round up the fools responsible for all these purportedly important thoughts on the deep significance of Jeremy Lin and inculcate them into rabid, unequivocally devoted fandom of any NBA team not named the New York Knicks. Then, ensure that the Knicks play those teams in rapid succession. You can bet that no journalists in Utah or LA were eager to make Jeremy Lin a godhead/symbol/myth after their ignoble dust-ups. These people would disembark their personal little crazy trains right quick if Lin was lighting their beloved teams up on the regular. So if I could, that's how I would put an end to Linsanity, or at least the elements of it that seek to turn Jeremy Lin into some grand, hollow stand-in for Other Important Things. I promise you, he's a much less appealing signifier of anything at all after he's ripped through your entire defense on the way to the rack.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Manny Being ... Something

The cat has long been out of the bag on the sort of baseball front office thinking that turned a semi-forgotten sports book into an Oscar-nominated film this summer. These days the principles espoused in "Moneyball" go under the heading of "business as usual." OPS and WHIP and the like are now the tools, not the tricks, of the trade of assembling a major league roster. Sabermetrics, though still in common usage, is an outmoded term, eclipsed and outstripped by what advanced analysis has now become. We need a new vernacular beyond "moneyball" and "saber-whatever" to accurately capture the dense complexity and indispensablity of what stats are to the fabric of today's game. I know it's a question of aesthetics, but "advanced metrics" just seems kind of lame. We can do better than that, can't we? That being said, since this is about the Oakland A's and they are the ostensible (heavily disputed depending on who you talk to) progenitors of this whole metrics thing, we can stick with "Moneyball" just for the moment. Because Billy Beane may have just made the ultimate Moneyball signing. The Oakland A's reached into the nebulous free-agency ether, and pulled Manny Ramirez back from oblivion.

According to ESPN, the deal is for roughly $500,000 and contains one pertinent stipulation: Ramirez needs to make the big league roster to get paid (he'd start his tenure in the minors). There is also the fact that Ramirez is obligated to serve a 50-game suspension due to that rather bizarre violation of MLB's drug policy possibly involving fertility drugs or other odd substances. Barring rain delays, the first game Manny could potentially play would coincide with his 40th birthday on May 30 against the Twins.

It's a given that 40-year-old power hitters generally retain very little of that power or even much in the way of hitting at all. No matter how diligently one maintains a training regimen and keeps in shape, reflexes and bat speed just don't survive that many years. And of course, Manny has never been known for his stalwart dedication to training. History would typically suggest that this will be a futile exercise. But then, Manny's never been a typical player. If anyone could somehow pull a few more dingers out of the shabby and faded hat of his latter-day career, it's him. He's one of the greatest pure hitters of all time by any measure, and he seems genuinely determined to give the game one more shot. At least, as determined as a guy with Manny's very finite attention span can be.

This may very well turn out to be a waste of Oakland's time and dime, but what if there's a smidgeon of a drop left in Manny's tank; just a faint glimmer of what made him a holy terror to pitchers around the league for so many years? Half a million bucks is pocket change in baseball, even for a fiscally beleaguered franchise like the A's. Put it like this: if Manny were in the NBA, he'd essentially be signing for the veteran's minimum, and Oakland would be taking the same sort of low-risk flyer that the Hawks took on T-Mac or the Mavs took on Vince Carter this season. If he doesn't pan out, that's that and no harm done, but if he can put together some at bats, and launch a few baseballs into the seats, this could be great for the A's.

Yes, Oakland desperately needs a bat in the middle of their lineup and even a fraction of Manny's heyday production would be a welcome addition. That's the baseball side of things, but let's be honest here, the A's aint winning the AL West. Not with the defending AL Champion Rangers and the suddenly stacked Angels to contend with. If Manny's bat pulls a Rip Van Winkle from its long slumber, his impact on the A's slender playoff chances won't be where his value lies.

First, if Manny starts hitting again, the A's can flip him for assets at some point before the trade deadline. Maybe modest acquisitions, but Billy Beane is still a shrewd, masterful negotiator, and it's not inconceivable to picture him talking some playoff-contending team who needs one more hitter for the stretch drive into giving up something worthwhile and possibly something worth somewhat more than Manny's bat.

Second, and a far more enticing thought from a certain perspective: if Manny starts hitting again, that instantly becomes one of the biggest stories in baseball. Picture the last chapter of a spectacular and at times spectacularly baffling career being rewritten as a tale of redemption and dignity somehow found amongst the ruins. Especially for a figure as grandly entertaining and thoroughly polarizing as Ramirez, this would be an arresting and wonderful thing to witness. That kind of story might not be enough to stir the A's notoriously disinterested fanbase into a frenzy single-handed, but it would definitely draw national attention and put some more butts in the stands. Frankly, the A's could use any positive press or attendance boost they can get. It would also make Oakland appointment viewing for every baseball fan, regardless of their sentiments regarding Ramirez. They'll tune in to root him on or root for him to fail or just out of interest and love of the game, but if Manny gets hot with the lumber, you can bet TV ratings for A's games are rising like the blasts he used to send into orbit. And don't think for a second that Ramirez A's jerseys won't be flying off the shelves. If this happens, it won't rock the world, but it will be something compelling; a sort of Tebowmania or Linsanity writ small. However, unlike those phenomena, it will come with the added emotional potency and subtext of seeing this crazy, harried figure we've known for 20 years somehow make good in the end.

And that will be worth it, no matter how the A's do this season.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Steve Nash Is Already Free

As the NBA season unspools in a denser-than-usual hail of characters, story arcs, and speculations, it's difficult to maintain a clear focus on the periphery. The subtleties in the background of this painting still in progress, however obvious they might be to the astute eye, blur into formlessness behind the center stage glare of Jeremy Lin or the latest Dwight Howard trade rumor or whatever. The warp speed nature of the season distorts all but the most immediate headlines, and they vanish faster than they come. In an age where memes can be created, live full lives and die meaningless deaths in the space of a few hours on Twitter, transience is the new norm. This renders consistency an almost undesirable attribute; it's a negative quantity if you want to be noticed and appreciated. We fail to notice sustained, high-level performance if it transpires without the requisite hype and fanfare. Enter Steve Nash.

At age 38, the Suns point guard is somehow improbably still in his prime and having himself a hell of a fine season. This is going almost completely unnoticed because of a plethora of flashier, more interesting talking points around the league and the fact that Phoenix is a terrible team, but Nash is doing some phenomenal work out there in the Arizona desert. He's started 29 of a possible 32 games, played 32.1 minutes a night, is averaging 14.6 points and 11 assists per game. To give you an idea of where those numbers stack up, he's just a point per game shy of the totals that earned Nash his first MVP. That 11 APG mark also has him leading the league in dimes, 39 ahead of his closest competition. For a point guard with Nash's experience and passing acumen, being the assists leader might not strike anyone as particularly surprising. After all, he's been dishing the rock at a remarkable level for a long time. Consider, however, that atrocity of a team he's playing on, and those numbers become a near miracle. To give you an idea of how impressive Nash has been: the Suns are 5th in the league in assists but 18th in points scored, meaning he's been extraordinarily deft in his execution and getting the best possible results from his vastly inferior teammates. Leading the league in assists when Marcin Gortat is your best offensive option is a Herculean feat indeed. And oh yeah, that 14.6 PPG makes him the Suns' second leading scorer to boot.

Nash could also very well crack the vaunted 50/40/90 club (50% FG, 40% 3FG, 90% FT) again this season. There have obviously been far better and more complete offensive weapons in the history of the game, but very few (five players total since the implementation of the three point line in the 1979-80 season) are ever that consistently accurate over the course of an entire season. In fact, Nash has had the most 50/40/90 years of anybody in history (4) and is a single percentage point in his lifetime FG% away from averaging 50/40/90 for his career. You know who else has done that? No one. Ever. Yet here he is, a few nights of streaky hot-handedness away. Ray Allen may have the purest shooting stroke in the history of the game, but if you want to talk accuracy and efficacy, no one knocks 'em down like Nash.

Just to be clear, we're talking about a back-to-back MVP (however dubious those awards may appear in retrospect) who is in a shooting percentage classification all by his lonesome; a man who, in an era stacked with talented point guards, is still one of the best in the game at an advanced basketball age that suggests he has no business being so.

You may have heard something about the "Free Steve Nash" movement that's been making the rounds on various social media platforms, but for the uninitiated, here's a quick rundown:
Steve Nash has never won an NBA Championship. This has not happened for a variety of reasons; the leaving-the-bench playoff suspensions, a maddeningly unfair litany of injuries and bad breaks. Mostly, the galling fact that the Suns' ownership has been shamelessly, inexcusably penny pinching in a manner that has failed to ever forge a truly competitive squad. Since Nash is a nice guy who is fun to watch and most importantly is a great basketball player, most basketball fans would love to see Nash traded posthaste from Phoenix to a contending team so that he can chase a championship ring before his body eventually breaks down. Of course, that would mean leaving the Suns' famous "Warlock" training staff which might accelerate that breakdown, but you get the idea.

More so than in any other sport (unless you're an NFL quarterback), we demand hardware of our elite NBA players before we consider them to have achieved their outermost limits of greatness. Just ask Charles Barkley how much crap he's taken over the years about it. We absolutely kill the guys who, in our perception, ought to have hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy but didn't or haven't for some reason or another. We did it to Dirk for an eon before he finally put that incessant humbugging to rest last year. We're still doing to LeBron, and we will in perpetuity until he wins the last game of the season. It's a pathological reflex. To be reductive for a moment, it goes like this: No ring? Dude can't ball. Ring? Dude can ball, and ball don't lie.

Steve Nash has always been an exemplar of two things: Newton's First Law*, and a fierce, absolute sense of loyalty. Which is why he's still stuck in Phoenix playing for a lackluster team with an even dimmer future. He's had multiple opportunities to extricate himself for greener pastures, and he has passed up those chances at every turn. He can't bear to turn his back on the fans, or the organization, or his teammates, however inept they may be on the court. He'd certainly never demand an out. J.A. Adande already detailed the Nash's sentiments vis a vis a trade and the reasons why it won't happen, but the upshot is: Nash isn't going anywhere this season. The sad thing is that next year, when he's free to pick a destination, it's difficult to look at the NBA landscape and see a place where Nash might land that would enable him to mount a legitimate championship campaign. (Unless he winds up in Dallas, which would make a sort of poetic, cyclical sense, but the chatter seems to indicate the Mavs will be in hot pursuit of Deron Williams to man the point next year.)

And so it seems likely that Steve Nash will end his NBA career sans championship. "Free Steve Nash" is falling on deaf ears, even Nash's own. But I think the perception of his legacy is going to play out differently from that of Chuck Wagon, John Stockton, and the other greats who never summited the NBA's Everest. If he winds up ringless, it won't be because he didn't have the killer instinct, or he wasn't clutch enough, or he didn't care enough about winning, or he was too selfish, or any of the other tiredly angry tropes we heap on players whose career arcs disappoint us. Nash's only fault (besides being lousy at defense) lies in being a consummate teammate, as unselfish with his best years and contract negotiations and even his own aspirations as he ever is with a basketball. His unwavering loyalty is his tragic flaw, and you don't deride Achilles simply because his heel was never dipped in the waters of, in this case, impervious self interest.

Every time someone brings up the shaky and questionable nature of Nash's MVPs, it's a discussion you can have. Every time they bring up his massive defensive liability, that point has to be conceded. But if anyone ever tries to argue that Nash couldn't have been that great because he never won a title, the rejoinder is easy to make: a ring was less important to the man than giving himself over completely to loyalty, even when his team failed spectacularly to reciprocate that level of devotion. That's unimpeachable; and that's why I suspect Nash will be largely exempt from the historical beatings endured by the other members of the Tragically Ringless Society. We want to free him, but Steve Nash has already freed himself.

* "A body in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an outside force." Nash is living, breathing evidence of this. The guy dribbles and dribbles and swoops and drives and resets and dribbles and dribbles and probes and prods and dribbles and dribbles until either a pass or a shot presents itself. Steve Nash = physics.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Notes From Sick Bay.

You'll pardon the lack of coherent prose, but I'm suffering from a bout of insomnia and a vicious cold, so we're just going with random thoughts regarding a loose array of junk today. I have some fun posts in the mental pipeline as soon as my brain is un-stuffed-up again to function properly, but it's just going to have to wait, because right now I feel like a late-game Joe Johnson possession; isolated, motionless, clogged, and fairly ineffective. Let's get this sorry mess over with so I can eat a big ol' bowl of soup, down some Nyquil, and hopefully get some sleep.

The Falcons are on a staff turnover roll.

Did we have it better than we thought? That's the only reasonable explanation I can think of. Somewhere, somehow, we must have misread, glossed over, or just been plain ignorant of some football-related elements in the ATL. Because nothing else makes any real sense. If you haven't been paying close attention to the Atlanta Falcons since that debacle of a playoff exit, let me bring you up to speed on the major non-player-related offseason developments thusfar:

1. Former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is now the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

2. Former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is now the DC at Auburn.

3. The Falcons recently had to deny the Jags' requests to pilfer receivers coach Terry Robiskie.

4. Former director of player personnel Les Snead has been hired as the St. Louis Rams' GM.

Now, can anyone out there explain why a team that has yet to win a single playoff game in its most recent iteration is having its the vast majority staff lured away by other organizations? What the heck, NFL? What is your major malfunction? Here's hoping Dirk Cutter and Mike Nolan can do better.

One more Jeremy Lin pun.

Jeremy Lin and his whole story is fantastic, but I'm sure you're all pretty tired of the endless parade of puns involving his name. That being said, I have yet to see anyone bring this one up in the cavalcade of Lin-based cleverness: The Lindustrial Revolution. Right? ... never mind.

Tiger Woods is done.

At least in terms if winning the most majors ever or ever again provoking abject terror in his opponents. Lefty played the round of his life on Sunday, but it was Tiger's for the taking and he just came apart down the stretch. Again. I'm not saying he'll never win again at Augusta or Saint Andrews, but I think as a "best in the world" guy, he's not in that class anymore. (Please feel free to bring this paragraph up in two years when he's draining 25-footers on the back nine in the Sunday round of a major and everything I just wrote seems completely foolish.)

Speaking of humble pie ...

Remember The Alamo.

After the Spurs got eliminated from the playoffs last year by a Memphis team running on young legs and sheer exuberance and missing their best player, almost everyone (including me) figured that the days of Duncan/Parker/Ginobli/Pop as the nucleus of a serious contender in a suddenly young, loaded Western Conference were essentially finished. Somehow, despite a lot of ancient bodies being forced to grind through the season from hell, San Antonio has the 2nd best record in the West and the 4th best in the league. They've won 9 straight and have a .700 winning percentage. WHAT IS GOING ON?!?!?!?


Pitchers and catchers report to Braves spring training on the 19th. Word on the street is Jason Heyward got himself into superb shape and fixed that bizarre hitch that snuck into his swing last year. Also very excited for shortstop phenom Tyler Pastornicky's debut. He's basically all we have at the position on the roster, so kid better stay healthy. Apprehensive about the damage that may have been done to our young bullpen's arms last year, but hopefully those absurd innings counts didn't have too detrimental an effect. Woohoo, Baseball!!!

OK, seriosly. Soup and bed for me. That is all. Be well, people.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The USS Linsanity Pulls A Crazy Ivan.

Linsanity has, I think, reached critical mass. No matter how Jeremy Lin's career unfolds from here on out, the heady rush of watching improbable (and possibly fleeting) greatness unfurl before our eyes this past week is not going to remain at this frenzied pitch. Lin might prove to be a very good NBA point guard if he's capable of fixing some of the holes in his game. Or just a solid, competent starter. He might wind up in the lower echelon of an eight-man rotation once defenses figure him out a little, or even (and heaven forbid, because he's been an absolute joy to watch) back in the D-League if he can't adapt to those defenses. Whatever the ultimate outcome for Jeremy Lin, America will never be more wholeheartedly invested and more gleefully rooting for the Harvard alumnus than it is right now.

There has been so much worthwhile Lin-oriented output by so many writers that there is almost no angle left un-bisected. Zach Lowe warned us to temper our expectations. Emma Carmichael waxed smart and lyrical about witnessing Lin's play. Scott Carefoot compared his cultural impact to Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters. Danny Chau discussed the Lin phenomenon through the prism of Asian-American NBA fandom. So, to an extent, did Jay Caspian Kang. On and on and on. And of course many, many people have made the Tim Tebow comparison, which makes sense in terms of Lin's Sports Center-dominating scale of hype and not much else. Some of the tripe being trotted out in the great Tebow/Lin analogypocalypse:

Wow they're both Christian!!! (They have something in common with like a gazillion other people.)

They're both underdogs!!! (Tim Tebow was the QB for a college football powerhouse. He won a Heisman, two SEC Championships, two BCS National Titles, and was a first round NFL draft pick. Jeremy Lin played hoops for an Ivy League school, went undrafted, and pinballed around 2 NBA organizations and various D-League teams before a slew of injuries and other issues forced him into a prominent role for the Knicks. Also, Jeremy Lin can complete a pass.)

They're both feel-good stories!!! (To paraphrase a current guilty-pleasure TV show: "If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop the story." Time will tell if these stories are legitimately feel-good or merely flash-in-the-pan ratings boosters with unpleasant comedowns.)

They're America's darlings!!! (An awful lot of people, and I don't agree with this viewpoint but it is fairly prevalent, really want Tim Tebow to fail/go away/fall, figuratively or literally, from grace. Everyone except maybe Kobe seems genuinely excited and happy for Lin, and fervently hopes he can build on, if not maintain the pace of, his initial success.)

The point is, Jeremy Lin is getting all the burn he can handle and then some, both on and off the court. But I'm going to add to it because there's one thing I haven't seen discussed yet that I find a little intriguing: other than a marketing windfall and the salvation of Kicks fans' collective hopes, what does Jeremy Lin represent for basketball in the context of a compressed and lockout-shortened 2012 NBA season? Because, of all the comparisons that have been made, the guy Jeremy Lin reminds me most closely of is Ivan Johnson, and together they represent the first two salvos of a trend that we may see a good deal more of before this season is over.

Like Lin, Ivan Johnson is an undrafted player who spent time careening around various lesser iterations of professional basketball before ultimately catching on with an actual NBA team this season. (Granted, Johnson's path has been a little more ... exotic. See: Banned for life from Korean Basketball League.) And like Lin, Johnson was initially supposed to be the ultimate contingency; a backup to a backup, signed just in case the worst should happen to a few someone elses. He put in a few scattershot appearances, but only started getting significant minutes when injuries compelled the team to play him in the absence of any other options. And he made the most of those opportunities, endearing himself almost instantly to the home crowd because he played with an obvious hustle and love of the game. Unlike Lin, Johnson has not had any breakout "holy %$^#!!!" performances, and he probably will never start a game in the NBA, but they're both "names" in the league now. Characters. We are emotionally invested in their career arcs. Six weeks ago we had no idea who they were.

And they might not be the last to end up in that incredible position this year.

As we expected, the unique nature of this season is causing a lot of injuries. Is Ivan Johnson as much of a story if the Hawks have a healthy Al Horford and Jason Collins? Not likely. Does Jeremy Lin put up the gaudy numbers that have fueled Linsanity with STAT and 'Melo on the floor and getting their touches? Of course not. They are products of circumstance that have captivated fans in a way they never could have in a normal season. The opportunities simply would not have been there in the first place. We were worried about injuries causing a degradation of the quality of play; we never stopped to consider how many people with resumes similar to those of Lin and Johnson might suddenly have the opportunity to become relevant in the NBA, and how enjoyable and entertaining the infusion of those new personalities and stories might be.

I don't know where or even if the next breakout, singed-in-desperation former D-Leaguer is going to make an indelible mark on the 2012 season. But because the players are being forced to soldier through a truly insane schedule, the odds are good that we'll see a few more. And that's a good thing, because the more players like Ivan Johnson and Jeremy Lin we can usher into the league, the more fun we'll all have. And as Johnson and Lin continue to remind us, having fun is kind of the point.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Inventing The Cooperstown Metrics Committee.

This is going to surprise you (no it isn't), but Bill James wrote an impassioned, intelligent article about baseball on Friday. I'll wait for you to pick your jaw back up off the floor. Anyway, James was making a statistical case for Dwight Evans' induction into the Hall of Fame based around win shares. As usual, I'm pretty sure he's right. And as usual, James got me thinking.

It took almost three decades after James (and some lesser-known but no less important like-minded people) started self-publishing their now-famous ideas before advanced statistical analysis gained any real traction in baseball. Sabermetrics (if we can still call it that) was first an outsiders' niche, then the province of a few forward-thinking franchises, and finally it wove its way into the broader fabric of the game. But not completely.

The metrics movement in baseball has reached a bit of a crossroads moment. Most people who care deeply about the game understand that VORP and OPS are superior measures of a player's efficacy and impact compared with more traditional stats. We evaluate and assess using far more of those tools than even five years ago. I can check the WHIP of every MLB pitcher on ESPN.com. But Bill James still has to write pieces like this, because saber stats have stalled when it comes to fording two crucial rubicons: Hall-of-Fame consideration, and casual fans. Though their numbers are dwindling, there are still plenty of respected baseball thinkers who prefer the eye-test, gut-feeling method of player evaluation, and some of them think advanced stats are pure hooey. Many of those same people also vote on who gets enshrined in Cooperstown every year, and mostly they don't want to hear about a .268 career hitter with decent but unremarkable power who drew a ton of walks and played good defense as an HOF candidate. Baseball collectively applauded itself when Felix Hernandez was awarded the Cy Young, but when it comes to admission within the supposedly sacred walls in upstate New York, that's apparently different.

I think it's safe to say that within the next 50 or so years, this will cease to be the case, and advanced metrics will get their due in the HOF consideration process. As a fresh generation of BBWAA members emerge who are much more acclimated to and comfortable with things like FIP and Win Shares, Cooperstown's arbiters will automatically factor metrics into their equation. However, given the temporal limits on eligibility, a lot of good ballplayers are going to get the shaft in the meantime. Which is why I'd like to suggest a Metrics Committee.

If the Veteran's Committee (it's not really called that officially anymore but never mind) can amend the errors of snubbed players and other people ineligible for election by the BBWAA mostly based on hazy "I played with/against that guy and he deserves to be in the HOF" nostalgia, why can't we create a group whose purpose is to find the statistically productive and relevant but underrated players of the past and make sure they get their due? It will be like Jim Caple's "CSI Box Score" gimmick, only, you know, with a purpose and on a grand scale. It's not like this stuff is difficult to calculate. I just checked to see how far back they've already gone with the application of modern metrics to historical players, and I can go get Ted Williams' WAR and BABIP from his rookie year in 1939 on FANGRAPHS. The raw data is all right there, we just need a committee of stat-savvy baseball heads to figure out what constituted an HOF-caliber statistical performance in each era of the game and then nominate and elect those who meet the criteria. If we're going to be snobby to the point of building a separate Cooperstown wing or outright exclusion for the steroid-era players, why can't we make positive acknowledgement of those who performed well but went unnoticed because we just weren't there yet from an analysis standpoint? Heck, I'll volunteer to go crunch all the numbers. Let's make this happen.

I mentioned earlier that the other area in which advanced metrics are not being readily assimilated into baseball's culture is in the realm from whence the bulk of MLB's income derives: the casual/old-school fan. This is partially because things like batting average and homers are easier to understand than the formula that tracks, say, UZR, and partially because those basic stats have been around forever and fit into the average baseball mind like a ball into an old, broken-in mitt. People just aren't comfortable with something that dares them to alter their perceptions about a game they've been watching and enjoying their entire lives. It's strange and new and ... math-y. But there is a relatively easy way to grease the wheels on bringing metrics to fans, if only the TV and radio networks will play along.

Think about it: broadcasts of baseball games contain some of the most useless information on planet earth. "Gonzalez is batting .308 lifetime against right-handed relievers with runners in scoring position after the All-Star Break on nights when there's a full moon ...", that sort of thing. It's maddening that the producers and announcers think a) we care and b) such arcane statistical blips would have any relevant bearing on the outcome of a given at-bat because, well, we don't and they don't. That stuff slides right off the consciousness of the average viewer/listener, who just wants to know whether or not that last pitch on the outside corner was really a strike. But they keep beating us over the head with this rubbish instead of telling us things that would be genuinely informative. Instead of these hyper-specific and totally irrelevant tidbits, how about you tell me what a guy's OPS is? Or mention that his abnormally low BABIP suggests that he'll hopefully be out of his hitting slump sometime soon. I know it seems like this might confuse people and turn them off, but bear with me. For the first, I don't know, 3-5 years you incorporate advanced stats into a broadcast, give the league average along with the player in question. This way you give the fans a sense of context, and through repetition, they will eventually know that an OPS over .900 is good as intuitively as they know that batting .325 is good. Sure, it'll be a process, but it will ultimately lead to better-informed fans and a deeper enjoyment of the game, and anything would be an improvement over So-and-so's strikeout rate in the 2nd inning against
batters under 6'1" over the past 7 starts.

It is the nature of baseball's peculiar ethos that change, like Red Sox-Yankees games, is excruciatingly slow. Embrace of the new and different by the game's cognoscenti and fans occurs at a speed more akin to continental drift than to the fiercely propulsive world of 21st-century human entertainment. Attacks upon the status quo are met with set jaws, and different viewpoints with pitchforks and torches. Every square nostalgic foot of tradition's battleground is defended to the last. Only if an innovation becomes blatantly obvious or necessary will it be grudgingly embraced. And even then, not always. The curmudgeons in the press box, the dugout, the commissioner's office, and the stands continue to mistake the sport for a Van Gogh painting that needs to remain untouched behind velvet ropes when it's actually a mobile, and ought to be allowed to twist and shift with the wind. That's their business, of course, but eventually advanced metrics are going to become a universal part of the game. Is it so much to ask that we speed that process up a little? It sure would be nice for Dwight Evans, and a whole lot of other deserving folks, if they could maybe get into Cooperstown while they're still alive.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Happy Thoughts: Ricky Rubio In Neverland

"All children, except one, grow up."

Peter Pan - J.M. Barrie

There is nothing quite like watching a supremely gifted passer playing NBA basketball. Of all the breathtaking feats of artistry and athleticism we witness in sports, the perfect pass is, to me at least, the most beautiful to behold while simultaneously being the most difficult to comprehend. At its most exquisite and subtle, it requires not only "court vision" but a kind of second sight, and that prescience must in turn be wedded to deft execution. "How did he possibly see that angle?!?!?", we ask. And the fact that we can't answer that question, the inexplicable-ness, is what makes a truly great pass such a joy to see.

Personally, I've always believed that your Pistol/Bird/Magic/CP3/Nash types see every possession in a phase space. For them, the court has somewhere between 3 and 78 extra dimensions. A terrain of limitless possibility is registered and analyzed not in but ahead of real time. Every crease and angle can be exploited, and physics and geometry can go fly a kite. To watch them when they really have it cooking is to see the transcendence of sport into something else entirely. It is the visual equivalent of listening to Coltrane's Live At The Village Vanguard rendition of "Greensleeves" and wondering how in the hell he rains those increasingly dizzying cascades of notes down over that chord progression and still makes it all so perfectly balanced and beautiful. It is, in a word, magic.

Ricky Rubio obviously has the acumen for these plays; the "passing gene" as Bill Simmons is fond of calling it. But what sets him apart from all other great passers past, present, and quite possibly future, is that Rubio filters that genome through a mentality that I can only equate with the fictional character of Peter Pan.*

See, the most important thing that Peter Pan ever taught Wendy and the lost boys wasn't how to fly or how to fight pirates. The trick, the real magic of the Neverland ethos, is all about imagination. And I don't mean that in some bedraggled, cliche'd sense. The most singular thing about Peter Pan is that to him, imagining is a game, but it's also a gauntlet. It's a challenge to constantly imagine something so completely that the idea comes true. Especially when you're imagining the patently impossible, which Peter does pretty much all the time. He's so good at imagining that he gets bored easily and quickly, so there's a constant propulsion to conceive of the newest and most inventive scenario, the next game, the next adventure. He revels in this; he loves it. He thrives on meeting that challenge. His entire existence, and all of Neverland, really, is predicated on the fearless and absolute triumph of imagination over mundane reality. And a big part of what makes Ricky Rubio so fun to watch is that this is exactly what he's like when he's making a pass.

From a professional basketball standpoint this is a shortcoming that I know many people are hoping he will overcome. More than once, I've heard the (totally legitimate) criticism that Rubio will eschew a perfectly good, safe pass in favor of attempting some ludicrous, 20-foot-bouncer-through-traffic dime. He tries these plays because for him, the complicated and artistic pass is a pure delight. Where Chirs Paul is a cold-blooded surgeon and Steve Nash is a dynamo with a MENSA-level hoops IQ, Rubio is, and pardon the Farve-ism, "like a kid out there." He's all goofy grins and floppy-haired whimsy, flying up and down the court and thinking happy thoughts. He's having so much fun imagining the impossible that the safe, sensible, "grown-up" play just doesn't seem worthwhile. He'd much rather send that pass second to the right and straight on 'til morning.

(In this analogy, Kevin Love is John, Michael Beasely is, well, Michael, and everyone who loves basketball is collectively Wendy Moira Angela Darling.)

Ricky Rubio may ultimately mature in a passing-the-rock sense. He may stop using his imagination with the same gleeful fearlessness he displays now, or at least temper it to fit within the frame of "responsible" play. If he does, it will undoubtedly be to the benefit of his team. It will make him a better basketball player. But I'll be sad. It's wonderfully enjoyable to watch someone who attempts impossible passes partly to cut up a defense but mostly because they're fun. Ricky Rubio looks for the next great adventure on every possession. He'd rather be dueling Captain Hook on the deck of the Jolly Roger than playing some boring-ass game like tag, and that's what makes him special. Don't ever change, Ricky. Don't ever grow up.

*If you've never read J.M. Barrie's classic, I suggest you take some time and do so. Yeah, yeah, it's a "children's book", but it's also bloody brilliant. The novel is significantly darker and more nuanced than the Disney-ized iterations most of the world is familiar with, and it deals with the conceptions of childhood and adulthood through a blend of true wonderment and incisive satire that ultimately ... look, just read the damn book sometime, OK? You'll thank me later.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Breaking News: The Pats Are Still Good.

Yesterday I attempted to give some context to Eli Manning's quarterbacking status in the wake of his second Super Bowl win and SB MVP award. Today, I was planning on delving into Tom Coughlin's legacy and coaching acumen, but David Roth at The Classical and Will Leitch in New York already beat me to the metaphorical punch with a pair of well-crafted and insightful studies of the man and his place in the coaching hierarchy. So, not much of a point in going into that.

Instead, let's talk about the team that lost. I don't see a lot of upside in parsing Brady and Hoodie's legacies or what have you but, unfortunately, a great deal of media types disagree. Apparently we're now free to gleefully deride what has been the most successful QB/coach pairing since Montana/Walsh. On my local (and presumably neutral since I live in Atlanta) sports talk station this morning, they were absolutely killing the Pats. The general sentiment was that this most recent Super Bowl defeat somehow tarnished the past decade's version of the 90's Cowboys; that a patina of failure or inadequacy or plain human error had settled upon the formerly flawless, metallic gleam of uniform excellence. Disclaimer: I really, really dislike the Pats from a "no one likes smug, pretty winners unless they're your smug, pretty winners" standpoint. I was, in fact, rooting very hard for the Giants. But denying or belittling New England's feats based on the very recent past is just plain silly. Because, Spygate and Bridget Moynahan jokes aside, they're still Tom Brady and Bill Belichick at their core, and that's a helluva a thing. The former is one of the greatest surgeons ever to play the quarterback position, and is an on-field extension of the latter, who must be counted as one of the most sublime tacticians in NFL history. They have been the twin constants of a dynasty always in flux. And the crazy thing is, that flux has not dimmed their brilliance. Except against the Giants, of course, but every mythic-quality heavyweight needs an Achilles Heel, right? (Philosophical consolation for Patriots fans: One team having your number does not render five Super Bowl appearances and three Lombardi Trophies any less awe-inspiring, just as the Yankees being Pedro Martinez's "Daddy" did not diminish the heights of artistry and dominance he achieved on the mound.)

My point is: it's unfair, myopic, and downright stupid to take a consistently great team to the cleaners because they apparently have a hoodoo on them as regards a certain opponent. Saying they "haven't won since Sypgate" is speaking only of championships and willfully ignoring a passel of 10-to-13 win seasons. I fully realize that hoisting the hardware is the reason the game is played, but the Pats are not an organizational failure because they have failed in that endeavor these past few seasons. Saying Tom Brady can't beat Eli Manning discounts everyone else Brady has assassinated over the years. Saying Bill Belichick is not quite the impervious, Machiavellian figure we thought does not make his resume less impressive. It may in fact make him a tad more likeable, or at least slightly more human.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that we tend to be reactionary in the sports world, and that leads us to hop on the bandwagons of success and flee those we perceive to be stalled with undue haste. This is not news, but it comes into stark relief when our impulses propel us towards evaluations that, were cooler heads prevailing, we would know were bunk. The Giants won their second Super Bowl in four years on Sunday. The Pats lost their second straight to the same team. No one should confuse either of those facts with immortality or a lack thereof.

That's why I can hate the Pats and resent the Giants, and still stay glued to a television.

We should always recognize greatness. At its apex and in its wax and wane. Right now(ish), the Giants and Patriots are (maybe) flip-sides of that coin (kinda-sorta.) That's what made Sunday so compelling, and that's why we keep watching. We want to see if the current can measure up to the canonized past. Or why it fails if it doesn't. Our personal proclivities aside, our rooting interests on the back burner, we can invest in that.

And those unanswerable (for now) questions, they make the whole thing tick. That's what we should be enjoying. Football is gone until next August. The interval is ours. Do with it what you will, but let's not eviscerate great teams based on truncated analysis. That just cheapens the awesomness that is the NFL. Love the Players, hate the Media-Driven Game.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Difference Between Clutch and Elite.

The runaway train really started getting up a head of steam two weeks ago at Candlestick Park, and before we become too inured to its self-perpetuating momentum, I need to throw the breaks on. Ever since the New York Giants secured a trip to Indianapolis, one of the "narratives" that we apparently "need to discuss" is whether or not Eli Manning is "elite." After last night, many people are considering that question as settled in the affirmative. I respectfully disagree.

Let's start with this: the term "elite" is defined in a relatively nebulous manner when discussing NFL quarterbacks. Like its distant cousin "clutch", it relies on a sense of perception that can loosely be described as "you know it when you see it and maybe you have some relevant stats to back it up I guess but really it's a subjective thing so you know ... whatever."

Speaking of "clutch", I'm sure we can all agree that Eli Manning fits that particular bill to a T. Most 4th-quarter TDs ever, most playoff road wins ever ... kinda tough to argue. He always seems to stick the landing when it counts. But this is why we spell "clutch" and "elite" differently.

(Attention fans of Big Blue: before you break out the pitchforks and torches, just hear me out. I am not saying that Eli Manning is not a damned good quarterback. He clearly is, and I fully realize that this whole article is somewhat akin to snubbing someone in a Lexus because there happen to be a few Ferraris on the road at the same time. To paraphrase Stephen King, it's a sweet ride, but it ain't, you know, BOSS. I just have to question anybody who places him in a category with Brady, Brees, and his older brother.)

I acknowledge that the evidence supporting Eli's case for ascension to "eilte" status, as determined by a bunch of talking heads but never mind, is substantial in many respects. Seven postseason road wins punctuating 2 superb playoff runs which led to 2 Super Bowl appearances which contained 2 4th-quarter touchdown drives which resulted in 2 Super Bowl Rings and 2 Super Bowl MVPs. Good show, Eli. Pretty stacked resume, there.

Here's my question: Do those rings and awards inherently confer "elite-ness"? Elite, to me, is descriptive of consistent excellence. It implies a flawless command and near-flawless execution at all times. Eli? He's more of a brilliant-flash-of-light-at-the-perfect-moment kind of guy.

In 2008, the Giants got hot at the right time, dismantled a slew of lackluster NFC opponents in the playoffs, and shocked a superior Patriots team on the strength of one of the finest defensive performances in Super Bowl history, and a truckload of luck. That 4th-quarter drive is the first thing everyone points to when making the case for Eli being a top-tier QB, but if you break it down, how responsible for the success of that drive was Manning? Keep in mind, on the play before the Tyree helmet catch, he essentially threw the game-losing interception, except Asante Samuel couldn't hang on to the ball. Then the Tyree play itself: the Giants held the bejeebus out of the Patriots' defensive line, but no flags were thrown. Eli made an ill-advised decision that only worked out because the safety was a second late and Tyree made one of the most improbable plays ever. The ensuing TD throw to Plaxico Burress was admittedly very pretty, but Burress simply smoked the coverage and it's not all that difficult to hit a 6'5", wide-open target if you're an NFL QB, right? (Alex Smith is shaking his head.)

Before we get into this postseason's accomplishments and their eerie resemblance to that '08 run, let me make a few points. First: what might be my most compelling argument against Eli's elite-itude: he lost to the Redskins this season. Twice. By a combined 27 points. Show me an "Elite QB" who would suffer two such ignoble defeats to such a lowly opponent. I'll wait. ... And, moving on.

Second: this is supposedly the year that Eli made "the leap", so let's take a look at his 2011 numbers. According to Football Outsiders, Manning ranked 6th in DYAR and 8th in DVOA. His 61.o regular-season completion percentage ties him for 13th in the league with Matt Schaub. He threw the 6th most touchdowns (29), but also tied with Carson Palmer and Matthew Stafford for the 7th most picks (16). This made for a decent but unremarkable 1.81 TD/INT ratio. Manning was 4th in total yards, 5th in yards-per-attempt, and his QB Rating of 92.9 was good for 7th in the NFL. All of which cumulatively says that Manning is a really, really good quarterback. None of it screams "elite."

Now, about the Giants' playoff run this year: they thrashed a disorganized, crumbling Jets squad and a Cowboys team that oscillated between decent and terrible all year to get in. Fine. Solid wins, in which Eli came up big. Then, he could basically sit back and yawn as the G-Men completely humiliated the Falcons. I hate to break this to you, but 277 yds and 3 TDs is not very impressive against the Falcons' pathetic excuse for a secondary.

It must be said that beating the Packers, at Lambeau, was fairly spectacular. Eli put together a masterpiece of a game, and crushed the defending champs in a complete and terrifying manner. It was a virtuoso performance, and quite possibly the high-water mark of his career in terms of pure execution.

Then, a not-so-shining day against the 49ers led to one of the uglier victories I've ever seen. "Lucky" doesn't even begin to cover it. A back-up kick returner botched 2 critical plays, a forward progress whistle negated what would have been a crucial fumble, and Lawrence Tynes yet again sent the Giants to the big game on an OT field goal that they should never have been in the position to kick.

Yesterday, of course, Manning played a very good game, and was a shade more crisp and accurate than his counterpart on the other sideline, which doesn't happen too often when you're talking about Tom Brady, so credit where it's due. However, I counted exactly one truly spectacular play: that incredible needle-threading to Mario Manningham that went for 38 yards and all the momentum. That was a spectacular pass, but an even better toe-tap catch. Everything else was dink'n'dunk at its most dinky, though I suppose you do in fact play to win game, so the Giants were just doing what was necessary, if not terribly compelling to watch. Even the "game-winning drive" was, aside from that aforementioned bit of pure excellence, essentially conceded by the Patriots. Twice Manning burned what could have been crucial timeouts because he didn't have it together at the line of scrimmage, and he should be sufficiently grateful to whatever football deity didn't ultimately torch him for it. Hoodie made an uncharacteristically foolish mistake in burning a timeout and then allowing Ahmad Bradshaw to waltz/topple-while-trying-to-stop-himself into the endzone untouched. In the end, the Giants were the fortunate beneficiaries of that fluky 12-men penalty, some awful clock management by New England, and Wes Welker dropping a pass he almost never, ever drops as much as anything Eli did.

Be honest with me here: 296 yards and 1 TD is not exactly the kind of performance that you associate with a Super Bowl MVP, but yesterday Eli was the de facto choice in the absence of any other standout efforts. In fact, you could say the exact same thing about Eli's other Super Bowl MVP (255 yds, 2 TD, Int. One huge play and lots of middling-but-effective stuff for the rest of the game.)

Now, let's talk legacy, insofar as it can reflect "eliteness." 2 rings? Can't really argue that. Eli is also now one of 5 multiple-winning Super Bowl MVPs. Dubiously awarded or not, that's still awfully impressive. Again, those are some STRONG bona fides. But Eli has never won a regular-season MVP or Offensive Player of The Year award, of which Peyton, Brady, and Brees have a combined 11. Manning's two Pro Bowl nods were certainly well-deserved, but two isn't exactly an eyebrow raiser, is it?

One final thought: this is the first time a 9-7 team has ever won the Superbowl. (At one point, the Giants were 7-7 and looked all but out of playoff contention.) Teams with elite QBs don't post those kinds of records, because elite QBs never need to pull off late-season voodoo to make the playoffs. They simply dominate from opening day until they're either eliminated or win it all. (Sorry, Phillip Rivers.) The Giants should have owned the NFC East this year instead of clawing their way into the playoffs at the last minute. An elite QB would have seen to that.

Again, Eli Manning is a great NFL Quarterback. He is also obviously, exceedingly clutch. But "elite?" Not yet. Maybe he'll get there someday. Right now, he's still driving a Lexus. It's up to him to earn the keys to that Ferrari.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Super Bowl Chili Recipe.

It's been a tradition with me for about 15 years now to make a fairly mammoth pot of chili on Super Bowl Sunday. The recipe has evolved over time, but over the past six years or so it's remained fairly consistent as I have refined the formula into a finished state of pure deliciousness. Now, since I'm not some smug culinary snotty-pants who would not deign to reveal my innermost kitchen secrets to the rest of you, I hereby present the recipe. (Note: This sum'a'gun takes a LONG time to do right, so make sure you get an early jump on the day. Since a bunch of people like making Super Bowl chili, I also recommend doing your shopping a day or two beforehand, just to be sure you get good ingredients before they get picked over.)

Anyway, dig it:

To make this glorious concoction, you will need the following ...

1 huge pot/saucepan. I mean, like, cauldron-sized, to the point that the witches from Macbeth would hypothetically be totally fine using it to screw up the lives of Thanes and Kings and other Scottish noblefolk.

1 equally-massive-in-scale skillet/frying pan/wok.

1/4 cup olive oil.
2.5-3 lbs ground beef. (not too lean, you need a little fat to aid the cooking process.)
2 green bell peppers, diced.
1 yellow bell pepper, diced.
1 red bell pepper, diced.
8 jalapeno peppers, chopped.
1 habanero pepper, finely diced.
4 medium cans tomato paste (unseasoned).
2 large cans fire-roasted tomatoes (drained).
3 cans black beans (drained).
1 can chickpeas (drained).
6 cloves finely-chopped garlic.
1 Vidalia onion, diced.
3 good-sized bundles green onions, chopped.
1 good-sized bundle cilantro, chopped.
1 bottle Cholula Original Hot Sauce. (The stuff with the round wooden cap. If you can't find this, Texas Pete's is a suitable replacement.)
3 tablespoons chili powder.
1 tablespoon cumin.
1 bottle of honey.
2 shots Jim Beam.
1 bottle of Corona.
1 sixpack beer of your choice (to be consumed while cooking.)

Empty tomato paste into the saucepan.
Add one can of water for each can of paste.
Add beans and chickpeas.
Add chili powder, cumin, a healthy glut of Cholula, and 1/2 the bottle of Corona.
Stir it up, and let simmer on low.

Coat the skillet with olive oil. Add beef, vidalia onion, tomatoes, garlic, peppers, cilantro, and 2/3 of the chopped green onions (save the other 3rd for use as garnish). Add the 2 shots of Beam and the other 1/2 of the Corona. Dash on a semi-generous helping of the Cholula. Fry it up, stirring constantly, until the beef is nicely browned.

Add the contents of the skillet into the saucepan. Stir vigorously. Simmer on medium for 10 minutes. Add 1/3 to 1/2 of the bottle of honey. Stir in. Reduce heat to low and let simmer for 5-6 hours. Taste every 10 minutes, adding additional Cholula, chili powder, and honey to achieve an ideal blend of face-melting spicy awesomeness and sweet, full flavor on the back end.

As mentioned, the remaining 1/3 of the green onions.
Shredded cheddar cheese.
Sour Cream.

Optional (but freaking delicious): Corn Bread.

3 eggs.
1 can creamed corn.
1 cup sugar.
1 cup butter.
1 cup cornmeal.
1 cup flour.
1 cup buttermilk.
1.5 tsp salt.
8-10 strips of bacon.

Preheat oven to 375.

Melt butter, pour into mixing bowl. Stir in sugar, salt, and eggs first. Add buttermilk and stir in.
Add everything else EXCEPT the bacon. Stir until an even consistency is achieved.

Grease a decent-sized baking pan, and pour mixture in, making sure it's evenly distributed.

Place the bacon strips on top of the mixture so that they cover it like a pie crust.

Stick that bad boy in the oven for 45 minutes (give or take depending on how your oven distributes heat. NOTE: make sure the mixture doesn't wobble like jello when you take it out! IF it does, back in the oven for 5-minute intervals until it's done.) Once it seems to hold solidly, let cool for 3-5 minutes, cut into squares, and serve.

Happy Super Bowl, folks. Enjoy!