Monday, April 30, 2012

NBA Poetry Corner.

I have to be honest, I was expecting at least a modicum of normalcy to show up this weekend.  I assumed that the old axiom about everything slowing down in the playoffs would apply in a compound fashion this year, because the games would actually be scheduled at a reasonable, measured pace.  You know, as opposed to that space-time-continuum-mangling we just endured; 66 games where 50 should have been played.  The NBA and those who follow it were going to recalibrate to a tempo where we could absorb everything without getting whiplash.  Or so I thought.

Turns out the reverberations of the manically compressed 2011-2012 regular season are still clanking and jangling around the league, echoing in shudder-y and unpredictable ways off of the postseason's actions and characters.  Sticking with that conceit, I thought I'd take a swing at categorizing the salient points of the playoffs' opening weekend using an organizing principle of the four stanzas in Edgar Allen Poe's "The Bells."  (Seriously, just bear with me, this will make sense in a moment.)


Hear the sledges with the bells -
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.  

The Magic going "Ewing Theory" all over Indy.  Jameer and J-Rich had 17 apiece, Big Baby kicked in 16 (seriously?!?!  Glen Davis?!?!!?) and Orlando staved off a deeper and more talented Pacers squad.  This was a statement game.  The statement was probably "it will take slightly longer than you thought to eliminate us without Dwight", but still.  You can't count on Indy failing to get buckets in the final four minutes of every game, but the Magic served notice that they're not going gentle into that good night.  Bonus points : Chris Duhon's Travellin' Call Shuffle Dance, which might be the most inspired bit of NBA choreography since John Wall's "Dougie" intro.    

Andrew Bynum's insane 10-point, 13-board, 10-FREAKING-BLOCK Trip-Dub.  Setting his irritating petulance (and my general hatred of the Lakers) aside for a moment, it was gratifying as a basketball fan to finally see him healthy and playing up to his potential in a big moment.  Lakers fans must have been ecstatic watching a team that looked lost and discombobulated for much of the season play with such cohesion and verve.  All five starters for L.A. scored in double figures, and despite heroic efforts from Galo, The Manimal, and a feisty Nuggets bench, The Lake Show appear completely in command and primed for a deep playoff run.


Hear the mellow wedding bells -
Golden bells!
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight! -
From the molten - golden notes,
And all in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle - dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! - how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells -
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells! 

Oh good gravy, we got two absolute barn-burning gems out of our late games this weekend!  I mean, where do you even start?  (OK, chronologically sounds good.)  Mavs-Thunder was as taut and intense a fireworks display as we could have hoped and then some.  For OKC, Durant and Ibaka combined for 47 points and 9 monstrous blocks, Russ stuffed the stat sheet with 28, 4 boards, 5 dimes, and 3 steals, and The Beard showed no lingering affects from his unpleasant run-in with Metta World Peace's elbow by tossing up a similarly awesome 19, 6, 3, 1.  Dallas' players were no less ridiculous in there performances.  Dirk's 25 was pretty much expected, but The Matrix chipped in 17 and 8 boards, J-Kidd had a great 8-6-5 and absolutely pilfered the Thunder to the tune of 7 steals.  JET Terry shot a patently absurd 80% and hit 4 of 5 treys en route to 20 points, and even Vince Carter's ancient bones were good for a 13-7.  And it goes without saying that KD's absurd game-winner with 1.5 on the clock made this an instant classic.  This series is going to be phenomenal.

Now, about last night: "Don't call it a comeback!" ... no, wait ... yeah.  Yeah, call it a comeback.  WTF, people?  W.  T.  F.?  erasing a 24-point deficit in the fourth quarter on the road?!?!  With a team that young and inexperienced?  It would take a miracle.  Like having Chris Paul on your team, and having him furiously explain to Vinny Del Negro that this one wasn't over, then deliver by dropping 7 dimes in the 4th Q and orchestrating one of the greatest comebacks we've ever seen.  Nick Young went incandescent and drained three 3s in about a minute of clock.  Veteran Reggie Evans was a tenacious firebrand with 7 points and 13 boards, , earning CP3's "game ball."  Memphis checked out in the second half, but still, this was a thoroughly insane effort by a Clippers team that had every reason to be distraught over an awful game (up until that 4th quarter) and Caron Butler's broken hand.  Notable for the Griz: Marc Gasol is a high-post artist.  Scoring, passing, whatever, dude is a straight baller.  Z-Bo is not the force of nature he was last year, but with Conley, Gay, and Mayo playing out of their collective skulls, Memphis is plenty formidable.  


Hear the loud alarum bells -
Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor
Now - now to sit, or never,
By the side of the pale - faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
Of Despair!
How they clang, and clash and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear, it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows;
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells -
Of the bells -
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
In the clamor and the clanging of the bells! 

Allow me to summarize the collective thoughts of Knicks and Bulls fans: F&#$^!!!!!!!!!!

D-Rose is gone.  For, like, the foreseeable future.  ACL bad.  You could feel it even before he hit the ground.  He's always been the most skilled mid-air contortionist in the league, but there was something eerie and unnatural about the way he planted on what turned out to be his final play of the season.  Given their exemplary sans-Rose performance this season, the Bulls probably can still get by Philly, but the road to facing the Heat in the ECF now appears much more treacherous for Chicago.  (And, I might add, wide open for the rest of the conference.)  It's a shame that this had to happen, especially with so much promising hoops obliterated in an instant.  That said, Rose has been injury-plagued all year, and this was the fault of 66 devilishly compressed games, not Coach Thibs.  

The poor Knicks.  They've dealt with so many identity crises and transitions this year, and they finally looked like they could come into the playoffs with a little swagger behind them.  Instead, they lost emerging defensive stalwart Iman Shumpert (ACL bad, again) and got absolutely crushed by the Heat.  LeBron.  Effing.  James.  That was a majestic performance (that he disgraced with two utterly reprehensible flops.  Sorry, those were just awful).  It also meant nothing.  He turned in several similarly jaw-dropping efforts last year before ghosting in the finals.  We'll wait and see if he can sustain this level of play. 


Hear the tolling of the bells -
Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people - ah, the people -
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All alone,
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone -
They are neither man nor woman -
They are neither brute nor human -
They are Ghouls: -
And their king it is who tolls: -
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
A paean from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the paean of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the paean of the bells: -
Of the bells:
Keeping time, time, time
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells -
Of the bells, bells, bells: -
To the sobbing of the bells: -
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells -
Of the bells, bells, bells -
To the tolling of the bells -
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells, -
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

What can you say about Spurs-Jazz?  That was a thoroughly unsurprising result, San Antonio's well-rested veterans took apart the Jazz behind yet another killer Tony Parker night (28-8-4) and Timmy D's semi-vintage 17, 11 boards, 5 dimes, and 2 steals.  It really was a ponderous affair, the outcome was never really in doubt, and, well, we're pretty much done here.  Now on to an equally uncompelling (yet infinitely more significant) game ...

Hawks.  Celtics.  No Ray Allen + Rondo's ejection + average night from The Truth = easy victory for Atlanta, especially with Jeff Teague playing well and J-Smoove going off for a monstrous 22-18 and eviscerating the C's interior defenders.  This was an ugly, low-scoring dirge in a series that no one particularly wanted to watch, but the Hawks dropped the hammer on an unsuspecting Celtics team, and Rondo's probable game 2 suspension for chest-bumping a ref could have the Hawks up 2-0 by the time the series gets to Boston.  Atlanta is the most maddeningly inconsistent team in the NBA, but they proved last night they can hold a lead against a good team, and their defiance all season in the wake of losing all of their interior depth was on full display.  We're being set up for either a resurgent Boston masterpiece or an unexpectedly dominant Atlanta run to the Eastern Conference Finals.  Too bad we'll likely have to endure a few more games like this one first.

Thus concludes the first (and possibly last) Arena Apothecary NBA Playoffs Poetry Recap.  In closing, a haiku:

Many games to come
Ball don't lie and in the end
Someone's gettin' Ringzzz.

Thank you.  

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Super-Quick NBA Playoff Predictions.

We opened it like an extra present on Christmas day, and we closed it in an exhausted mess, face-down in a puddle of of tanking and chaos and nothing definitive whatsoever.  The 66-game endorphin-rush-cum-spastic-pinball-machine of this lockout-shortened atrocity is over now.  Oh, 2011-2012 NBA season, you will be missed.  Sort of.  When we look back in a few years, we'll be glancing over scatter-shot imagery too cloudy and compressed to discern anything beyond the barest snatches of memory.  Chris Paul is a Clipper.  Dwight Howard is a moron.  "World Peace" is a bad joke.  New York went Linsane for a hot minute.  We're all still in love with Kevin Durant.  Let's move on.

Actually, it's not quite that simplified, but that's how it feels as we count down the minutes to the Second Season.  Since that last sentence is literal in the sense that it is 12:10 PM EST as I type this and the playoffs tip off at 1:00, I'm going to quickly bang out some post-season prognostications before settling in for the ride.

Eastern Conference:

Chicago-Philly.  The Sixers were an endearing story this season, one of a few intriguing squads who eschewed the Alpha-dog Superstar in favor of team chemistry and hustle.  The sport what may be the league's best bench in the "Night Shift", and they can give opponents a variety of looks.  They don't have a prayer.  Even with D-Rose running at less than optimum, the Bulls are going to flatten this likeable Philly squad.  They torched opponents without their PG in the lineup, and even though he's been shaky in his return, Philly is going to be his personal tune-up as he plays back into form.

Bulls in 5.

Miami-New York.  I think the Knicks are going to put up one hell of a fight in this series.  Tyson Chandler is going to neutralize a fair bit of the Heat's penetration inside, and 'Melo is playing out of his brain of late.  STAT vs. Bosh will be interesting to watch, as will the lack of real PGs for either team.  In the end, though, I just don't see LBJ and Wade (even if he's not fully healthy) falling apart this early.

Heat in 6.

Indy-Orlando.  This Pacers team served notice last year when they gave the Bulls all they wanted in the playoffs, and they've only improved this season.  Given the fact that "Superman" will be a DNP: Clark Kent'd, this isn't close.  I honestly don't even see any close games coming in this one.

Pacers in 4.

Boston-Atlanta.  Everyone is whining about how crappy this series is going to be, but I'm actually kind of interested in this Battle Of The Out-Of-Position Bigs.  The C's have been forced to play KG at the 5 a ton, while the Hawks have survived the absence of Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia with the zombified corpses of Jason Collins and Eric Dampier.  Ray Allen is questionable health-wise, but Rondo will kill Jeff Teague.  Pierce and Joe Johnson will shoot each other into oblivion.  Atlanta is going to need huge minutes from Ivan Johnson and mistake-free awesomeness from J-Smoove and Marvin Williams to have a chance.  Doc Rivers' superior coaching, Avery Bradley's emerging prowess and KG's playoff-gear intensity are going to be the major factors for Boston.  This will be a grind and a question, pardon the cliche, of who wants it more.

Celtics in 7. 

Western Conference:

San Antonio-Utah.  The Jazz are a blast to watch.  Millsap, Jefferson, Hayward, and co. have coalesced into a very nice team, and a tip of the cap is in order for head coach Ty Corbin.  It's just that a bigger tip of a ten-gallon hat goes to Pop and the ageless-even-as-they-age-into-hoops-geezerdom Spurs.  Tony Parker just played his best season ever, Timmy and Manu are well-rested, and the S-Jax/Bonner/Leonard triumvirate of contribution goodness augmenting the Big 3 should be enough to power past a Jazz squad who, despite enjoying a huge frontcourt size advantage, aren't deep enough.

Spurs in 6.

OKC-Dallas.  Maybe this won't be the coronation ceremony Thunder fans have been waiting for, but knocking off the defending champs (who eliminated them in an epic series last year) would be a huge step for Durant, Westbrook, and friends.  James Harden has been medically cleared to play, but could be shaky in the early games.  Ibaka will be his usual block-factory self, and of course KD and Russ are going to go off huge.  For Dallas, Dirk will put up his usual insane stats, Jason Kidd will be solid, Jet will rain points off the bench, and Vince Carter and Delonte West may or may not do anything worth a damn.  The Mavs are far from that devil-may-care, momentum happy championship team of last season.  They're going to seriously miss Tyson Chandler's defensive anchorage and J.J. Barea's spark plug presence off the bench.  The torch is about to be passed, people.

Thunder in 7.

L.A.(1)-Denver.  Yet another thoroughly enjoyable team without a real star, the Nuggets have been one of my favorite viewing experiences of the season.  Sadly, they're about to run into the buzzsaw known as Kobe Bryant and Two Massive And Incredibly Talented Big Men.  Even with trade-deadline acquisition JaVale McGee, Denver simply doesn't have the size to handle Gasol and Bynum, and while they have a few guys (most notably Afflalo) who can slow The Mamba down a bit, we all know Kobe is a stone assassin and he'll win by sheer force of will if he has to.  Denver's one shot to steal a game or two is if Kenneth Faried plays out of his mind (don't rule this out) and their deeper bench can make up for the Kobe factor.  Ultimately, The Laker's experience and size will prove decisive.

Lakers in 5.

L.A.(2)-Memphis.  Toss Z-Bo, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and pretty much everyone else out the window.  This entire series hinges on one thing:  Can Tony Allen stop Chris Paul?  Allen was essentially put on earth to lock people down defensively, and he does it with a single-mindedness we've rarely, if ever, witnessed before.  If he can put the clamps on the world's best point guard, the Clippers are going down.  Conversely, if CP3 has himself a series like he did against the Lakers last year (or something close to it), the Grizz will be on their couches in about ten days.  I say Paul does his thing in spite of a ferocious effort by Allen, and the Clips find playoff success for the first time since ... well it's been a looooooong time.

Clippers in 6.

Enjoy the playoffs everyone.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Shams And Mockeries

Among my least favorite overused tropes in all of sports is the phrase "if the playoffs started today ..."  Writers, bloggers, and talking heads use this as a convenient opener all the time to emphasize whatever point they're trying to make.  As in: "The Rangers are great.  If the playoffs started today, they would have the best record in baseball."  Ostensibly, yes, this is correct, and in an extreme case could be taken as "proof" by some idiots that the Rangers are a good baseball team ... but we knew they were already.  Also, the playoffs don't start today.  They're months away and the infinite permutations of a 162-game season pretty much guarantee that the Rangers will not have the best record in baseball for the entirety of that time, and probably won't hold it when the playoffs actually do start.  In other words, making statements predicated upon incomplete data when you know things are going to shift and change before the final outcome is pure hooey.  This is different from preseason predictions or even game previews because nobody (including those who actually get paid to make them) really takes the former seriously and the latter occur in a compact enough time span that significant unforeseen factors like injuries while the event is taking place are the exception rather than the rule.  "If the playoffs started today ..." is a meaningless snapshot of a terrain everyone knows is going to get hit by a cataclysmic earthquake tomorrow and probably by a catgeroy-5 tornado next week.  It's extrapolating off the edge of a cliff.    It's infuriating and ultimately worthless.

Which brings me to a very simple question I would like to pose that, for some reason, only occurred to me today: why in the hell do we even have NFL mock drafts?

I'm not talking about the "Big Board" concept, mind you.  I love that thing.  It's concise and wonderfully informative.  I consider myself pretty savvy where college football is concerned, but I don't have time to watch and re-watch the innumerable hours of film necessary to create a comprehensive draft ranking for some random Fresno State left tackle, much less a hierarchy encompassing every single eligible player.  Therefore, I am grateful to those who synthesize all the game film, Scouting Combine results and Wonderlic scores (futile though they may be), theoretical comps to other NFL players, and various intangibles (whatever the hell that word means) into actualized rankings of the probable value of these guys at the NFL level.  Probable, of course, being the key word there.  The transition from college to the pros is treacherous and unpredictable, and even the most dedicated and knowledgeable of analysts can and will occasionally look like fools in hindsight.  On the whole, though, their evaluations are relatively sound jumping points.  It's a relatively quick way to inform oneself of where good value might, MIGHT be found outside of the ten or so big names every year.

No, the Big Board is fine.  It's the actual mock drafts that drive me nuts.  Why would you even create such a thing?  Why do we pay people to do this?  Any mock draft's ostensible mission is to thoroughly and accurately plot out what each team will do with their picks all the way down the line.  Outside of the usually-obvious top 6-8 picks, the degree of difficulty here is exponentially greater than that of, say, correctly predicting every game of a March Madness bracket.  Even if everything about the draft stayed perfectly static starting right after the season ended, it'd still be patently impossible to really say who Jacksonville is taking with their 5th-round pick.  And, of course, virtually nothing stays static.  Free Agency and trades can completely alter a team's most pressing needs.  Maybe said team brought in a new head coach or coordinator who has a very different conception of the type of personnel they want to best execute their vision.  Maybe players get in off-season trouble of one variety or another that prevents them from returning to the team.  Maybe they retire.  And this is just the current-roster/coaching staff side of things.  You know, normal football stuff.  The real mock-killer eschatologies usually come from those who do not occupy the huddle or the sidelines on Sundays. 

There is no period in the sports year filled with more obfuscation, misdirection, and outright lying than the two weeks leading up to the NFL draft.  Agents, front office mouthpieces, media; everyone has an agenda to raise, lower, or disregard entirely the stock of various members of the incoming draft class.  A million trades and swaps involving picks are rumored, dismissed, revived, consummated, un-consummated, and finally either completed or not.  Just yesterday the Falcons tossed the Eagles a seventh-round draft pick for Asante Samuel.  Just that one transaction (MAYBE) altered four things for mock drafters: the Falcons (POSSIBLY) are no longer looking to draft a corner, the Falcons now have one less pick in the draft, Philly now has one more pick in the draft, and they will (PERHAPS) look to use a pick on a lesser corner to cover slot receivers and augment or add depth to the Rodgers-Cromartie/Asomugha tandem.  You see where I'm going here, right?  That one transaction just shuffled everyone's expectations of how the Falcons and Eagles will approach their drafts.  By extension, this will also have tertiary impacts on lord knows how many other teams' selections.  It's a recursive formula, only the recursion equation keeps tweaking itself mid-calculation.  Totally inane.

Mel Kiper's "final" Mock Draft 5.0 is up on as of 11:01 AM ET.  Guess what he says right there in the introductory paragraph?
I'm breaking my own rules for this one. Here's the deal: After talking with a lot of teams, my sense is the board is going to be shaken up a good deal by trades. I'm not talking about four or five major deals in the first round, but for these purposes, even one that falls inside the top 10 picks will alter the board. That's how it happened last year, even when it was no surprise that Atlanta moved up to get Julio Jones. So while I've always waited for the deals to be completed before putting them in a mock, I'm going to go ahead and put one in. I'll throw the first salvo this year before trades inevitably make a mess of any projection.
So, then.  Ol' Mel, god bless his obnoxious, overly-coiffed mane of semi-mullet, makes no bones of the fact that his "finalized" mock is essentially going to turn into a train wreck sometime between now and when they lock the doors and shut off the lights at Radio City Music Hall tonight.  In war rooms around the league right now, a good many very stressed-out people are plotting ways to scam their fellow curators-of-the-team's-future out of something and better their own stake in the talent pool.  Those decisions and how others react to them will take all of Kiper's (and McShay's and everyone else's) dedicated and careful hours of study and thought and turn them into, well, a mockery.

Which brings me back to my original query: what exactly is the point of having mock drafts?  Look, we're going to need all of the mock creators in a few hours.  They have, after all, dedicated the past 360-some-odd days to knowing everything they possibly can about tonight.  Once the names start coming of the board and that intricate chain of dominoes starts falling in earnest, the draft gurus will be more well-equipped than anyone else to say how X can/will (MIGHT) affect Y.  Irritating as they can be, this is the milieu in which they are the most informative and useful.  That's a pretty miniscule  portion of time given how many hours they actually put into this.

Stick to the Big Boards, people.  Why you go to the trouble of creating and re-creating a hypothetical scenario that, even in its most "final" format has virtually zero chance of becoming reality, is beyond me.  It must be incredibly frustrating.  It certainly is to read it.  No more mocks.  Please.  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hawks/Clippers: A Disjointed Retrospective

I just returned home from the Hawks/Clippers game at Philips Arena.  (I am a diehard Hawks fan, but I refuse to call our venue "The Highlight Factory" until we can at least make the Eastern Conference Finals.)  Since I'm still recovering from a truly ridiculous weekend (Thanks Kev!), I'm not going to get into my usual protracted jaunt.  Instead, please allow me a few scattered thoughts on the evening:

1. Philips really is a great place to watch a basketball game.  It's just the right size; there's not really a bad seat in the house.  There are bathrooms located directly off of every entrance to the seating area, so you never have to wander around the concourse looking for a place to ... uh ... go.  The layout of merchandise, food, and drink vendors also renders it unnecessary to travel more than 20 feet to get what you need.  Really just a well-designed joint all around.

2.  I had never seen Blake Griffin live and in person before tonight.  If you're a (non-broke) NBA junkie who goes to a ton of games, you're probably aware of what I'm about to say already.  If, like me, you're a (broke) NBA junkie who can't afford to attend games very often, or just don't quite care enough about hoops to go to the games, let me say this: Blake Griffin is MASSIVE in person.  I mean, ridiculously, Incredible-Hulk-like imposing.  Even in the layup line, casually messing around, he's a jaw-dropping sight.  When he's barreling into the paint with a rivet-busting head of steam, you preemptively recoil at the Richter-scale chaos that's about to be unleashed.

3.  I hate, hate, hate that Atlanta sports fans take all the crap we do from the rest of the world.  I hate that there's a basis for it more.  (I haven't checked attendance figures, but the arena tonight could not have been more than 65-70% capacity.  For a game against a marquee opponent.  Sheesh.)  I hate this.  Except when I'm getting tickets, that is.  I paid $160 total for two seats tonight.  Our seats were about fifteen rows up from the floor and midway between halfcourt and the stage-left basket.  I bought these on Friday.  Killer, killer location to watch the game.  Ashamed of my city's lack of full, unconditional love and support for our team and overall not liking the NBA all that much?  You bet.  Enjoying paying a relative pittance for phenomenally good seats to a game because my city won't fully, unconditionally love and support our team and doesn't like the NBA all that much?  Hell yes.

4.  Unrelated: Chipper Jones just crushed a homer.  He turned 40 today.  Happy birthday Chipper!!!!  I'm gonna miss ya, man!!!

5.  Watching Chris Paul in person, when you can really follow him without the TV producer's choice of shot focus and camera angles getting in the way, is watching quiet genius functioning at all times.  I know CP3 occasionally gets chippy and plays to prove a point, but mostly he just goes about the business of eviscerating people in a workmanlike fashion.   You recall a few choice moments, some nice dimes, some great drives to the rack, a few beautiful jumpers, but you almost never get the cumulative, incapacitating "whoah" effect that comes from watching a Kobe or LeBron.  Then you check the final stat line you go: HUH?  He did what?  When?  I knew he could and probably would.  I know he's the best pure point in the league, but HOW?  WHEN DID THAT HAPPEN?!??!  Tonight, Paul put up a 34/8/5 with 2 steals and shot the lights out.  In a completely unobtrusive manner, he devastated the Hawks.  (Though my boys still won the game, thankfully.)  Good grief it is a joy to watch that man play basketball.

6.  Is their some sort of ethical taboo prohibiting athletes in completely unrelated sports from having the same nickname?  Because, if there is no such bylaw in the sports world, we need to give Ivan Johnson the "Honey Badger" sobriquet.  No offense to Tyrann Mathieu, but Ivan really is more deserving of this.  I watched tonight as Johnson (um, Honey Badger) gave Blake Griffin all he wanted on the defensive end.  His final line (6 points, 7 boards, 2 blocks) may not look like much, but trust me, he was in # 32's grill all night.  He shoved, he scrapped, he took Blake off his spots, out of his rhythm, and generally didn't give a damn about getting down and dirty and accruing a few fouls as long as he was bulldogging Griffin's every move.  When the playoffs start, Larry Drew needs to have the good sense to unleash him on KG for 20 minutes a game.  God, I love Ivan Johnson.  

7.  It's amazing how old T-Mac looks up close and personal.  Sad, really.  I know he's loathed around The Association for his (admittedly horrible and indefensible) quitting/choking on multiple occasions, but it's unnerving and depressing to see one of the greatest pure scorers of his generation reduced to what McGrady is now.

8.  Seeing it live really brought it home: We have zero, or possibly even a negative quantity, of depth in the paint.  Injuries have ravaged this team to near ineffectualness against certain opponents.  Ugh!!! 

9.  There are plenty of less-than-complimentary things I could say about Larry Drew, but credit the man for holding a fractured and injury-riddled team together these last few months.  Despite being decimated by various ailments to pretty much every key player at some point or another, we're still locked into the 5th seed.  Tip of the cap to you, Larry.

10.  Jeff Teague briefly transmogrified himself into Dwight Howard tonight, delivering two thundering blocks that absolutely set the joint off in fits of euphoria.  Also, he finished with 21 points.  Despite a paltry 2 assists, I'm still calling this a wonderfully fiery performance.

11.  Joe Johnson's final, ludicrous banker trey was beautiful.

12.  Dear Smoove: I love you dearly, and if we ever trade you I'll be royally upset, but seriously, knock it off with the outside jumpers.  That's not your shot, buddy.  Mostly because you just can't hit it consistently, but also because it pulls you out of position to grab rebounds.  With Al and Zaza gone, deep down in places we don't like to talk about at parties, we WANT you on that glass, we NEED you on that glass.  Please stop taking those shots.  Wreak havoc in the paint; it's where you belong, my friend.  (That said, kudos on throwing up an 18/5/10.  You are a golden god.)

13.  Please let Al Horford be at least semi-functional for the playoffs.

14.  Ditto for Zaza.

15.  I am deeply exhausted and really need to go to sleep.  Goodnight, moon.  Goodnight, room.  Goodnight, readers everywhere.  Peace.    

Monday, April 16, 2012

Twenty, Twenty , Twenty-Four Hours To Go ... I Wanna Be Designated

It used to be merely a question of aesthetics, a fun barroom argument and one that could be had repeatedly without wearing the topic out. You pick your side, usually contingent upon which league your team is in, and you go after the opposition tooth and nail, convinced of your inherent correctness and their indisputable folly. That great, unresolved debate for the ages: Should baseball have a Designated Hitter?

Personally, I come down on the same side of the coin as Crash Davis on this one. (The relevant bit is at 0:39 if you're in a hurry, but really, who ever gets tired of listening to this whole monologue?) I believe that baseball players should be able to, well, play baseball. This most definitely includes standing in the batter's box and taking their cuts, outcome be damned. The American League, and the AL East in particular, fancy themselves superior to the NL, in no small part because their DH-fortified offenses tend to put up better overall numbers. Well and good, but to my way of thinking, the AL is a bunch of sissies whose pitchers wouldn't know which end of a Louisville Slugger to hold. The DH is the NFL Kicker of baseball. Sure, he's important and will probably win you some games, but it's awfully difficult to take him seriously.

The counter argument (and it's not without merit) goes: what fun is it to watch inferior talent at the plate? Wouldn't you rather have a born raker swinging the bat every game than the pitcher always up ninth and lucky to hit .230 for the year? I counter that the strategy of opposing pitching and defensive alignments based on where the pitcher-as-batter falls in a given inning adds nuance to the game. I further argue that when a pitcher does something big with the lumber, like Chris Carpenter's grand-slam-led 6-RBI game a few seasons ago, it's far more impressive and memorable than a dinger into the upper deck from a guy whose only job is to hit dingers into the upper deck. If you're going to call yourself a professional baseball player, then that should apply to all facets of the game. It's not like there's no precedent for hurlers who can perform at the plate (ahem, cough, Babe Ruth, cough-cough). Hell, my beloved Braves used to (very) occasionally have John Smoltz pinch-hit from time to time when he wasn't starting. (Smoltzy's 1999 numbers were perfectly acceptable for a 6th or 7th guy in a lineup. He hit .274 with a .725 OPS; not too shabby for the 29th-greatest pitcher of all time, according to Baseball Reference.)

Anyway, I say we abolish the DH and make everybody actually play baseball. Maybe you say we make the DH universal so we're spared the horror of, say, Josh Beckett trying to bat during interleague play. Here's the thing: this isn't a fun little argument or a question of preferences anymore.

When Chipper Jones announced that this would be his final season with the Braves, we were, of course, saddened in the way that fans always are when an icon decides to hang 'em up. The thought of #10 no longer occupying a spot on the roster of the only team he's ever had was almost beyond comprehension, the final nail in the coffin of the only enjoyable era Atlanta sports fans have ever known. And yet, amidst the heartache-ridden scramble to imbibe, viscerally and with great passion, every last towering homerun and barehanded field-ball-snap-gundown-the-runner of our third baseman's swansong, the pragmatic among us breathed just the tiniest sigh of relief. Because we'd payed him $28 million over the last two seasons and we're giving him $13 million more this year. Had Chipper played an additional season, we would have owed him $ 7 million in 2013 at minimum, and possibly more depending on how many games he manages to play this year. That's a hypothetical average of $12+ mil. per year for what amounts to roughly .270/.355/.810. While it's an accepted baseball caveat that nostalgia carries an outsized price tag for players who have meant as much as Chipper has to their longtime franchises, those numbers, even viewed through the rose-tinted lens of sentimentality, ain't worth twelve million dollars a year. To compound the problem, that "thanks for the memories" payout prohibits investment in better, more long-term assets. You pay a guy commensurate with his peak, and when that peak is gone, you have a distinct problem if the contract is still in effect.

None of this would be an issue if the National League had the DH.

If we could just gently transition Chipper out of everyday defensive duties and let him crush baseballs with minimal risk of injury, shelling out that kind of dough would be completely acceptable. Encouraged, even. But we can't. Because of the rules governing the National League, we cannot maximize the value of dollars on a long-term contract for an aging player.

And here's where the real crux of the matter comes into play: American League front offices know this about the NL. AL organizations are well aware that, because they can transition good hitters to an additional lineup slot at DH after their presence in the field becomes an injury risk/defensive liability, it's far less risky for them to offer excessive long-term contracts to players in free agency. This past offseason, the Angels lured Albert Pujols away from the Cardinals for precisely this reason. The Cards were understandably reluctant to shell out max money over a long time frame to their 32-year-old first baseman (though they probably should have), and Anaheim used that hesitation in conjunction with their ability to use The Machine at DH well past his days at first to offer him exorbitant amounts of cash. This was not the first occurrence of such strategy, but it was probably the most notable thusfar, and it damn sure won't be the last.

To get back to the Braves for a moment: what happens if they allow Brian McCann to become a free agent in 2013? He'll be 29 by then, and while he's proven more durable than most, catchers have a significantly shorter shelf life than other players. As much of an offensive force as he is, Atlanta's brass isn't going to feel grand about a contract that extends out to McCann's 34th or 35th birthday. Meanwhile some AL team will, I'm sure, be more than happy to offer McCann a more lucrative deal, knowing full well that when his knees go he can still step into the batter's box and wreak havoc on opposing pitching.

Lather, rinse, repeat. So long as only one league has the DH, NL talent is going to migrate as soon as the returns become sufficiently diminishing for NL franchises and their pocketbooks, because said talent can still get paid in the AL.

If Major League Baseball allows it to perpetuate and metastasize, the current situation will become untenable. In a nutshell: we've either got to scrap or universalize the DH posthaste. It's going to become a serious problem vis a vis competitive balance otherwise, the scales tilting precipitously in favor of the AL, or at least those AL teams with deep pockets. In my ideal world, the DH would cease to exist, but that strikes me as unlikely enough that even hoping is foolish. So we're left with only one realistic conclusion. Unsavory though it may be to myself and like-minded people, it's all we can do to fix the situation.

The NL needs to adopt the designated hitter. The sooner the better, too. Otherwise we're going to wake up in a few years and every power hitter over age 30 is going to be in the American League. And that's not a future I particularly care to experience. Because I like Brian McCann with a Braves "A" on his hat and tomahawk on his chest. Even if it's only in the batter's box, I hope we can make that a permanent arrangement.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Phased Tension Hypnotique: Rajon Rondo and Steve Reich

Like the vast majority of NBA players, Rajon Rondo is on record as a Hip Hop and R'n'B aficionado. This is the soundtrack of basketball, the underpinning of identity and atmosphere that serves as a sort of secondary unifier, outside of the game itself, for those who ball. Even when the league attempts to dampen or subjugate the more overtly "thug" (and that term should be taken with a whole silo full of salt) elements of its persona, there's no divorcing basketball from its musical/cultural conjoined twin.* Rondo's top five list in the link above is as good an example as any of inextricable symbiosis. Undoubtedly, if NBA players could select entrance music the way batters and relief pitchers do, he would pick the hottest, most slammin' Jay-Z or Drake track possible, and feel like a total badass as he strutted onto the court while it thumped over The Garden's PA system.

But I submit to you that Rajon Rondo's personal backing tracks, if one were to compose a score to accompany his game and on-court demeanor, would not consist of beats and MCs. In fact, the perfect auditory representations of Rondo-as-unique-basketball-entity were first performed and recorded several years before he was even born. The man who wrote the music of Rondo's essence? The grand poobah big daddy of the 20th-century Minimalist movement, pioneer of phase music and looping, and America's finest living composer, Steve Reich.

If you're unfamiliar with Reich's work, I urge you to take the time to listen to this and this. (I know the second selection cuts off early, but you get the idea. Ignore the videos, by the way, they're irrelevant.)

I know, I know. This music is about as far removed from Hip Hop swagger and the dynamism of Rondo's play as is possible, but just bear with me for a moment here. To my way of thinking, two things are the hallmarks of Reich's particular compositional voice: the incredible variety and constant permutations he derives from the barest of musical elements, and a brutally unrelenting sense of permanent tension. Those two elements also happen to be the defining characteristics of Rajon Rondo's game.

No one in the NBA does more with less than Rondo. For a perimeter player to lack any semblance of a jumper (he's averaging 30% FG on shots more than 3 feet from the rim this season) is limiting. For that same player to also struggle mightily at the stripe (59% this season), especially when he's as gifted at getting to the rack as Rondo and should be using that ability to draw contact, would paint the picture of an ineffectual offensive component. Yet the man is a threat to notch a triple-double every time he sets foot on the court. Defensively, he's an unpredictable but potentially lethal quantity. And he does all this with only a trio elements at his disposal: an intuitive, unique interpretation of the court, world-class athleticism, and the sort of length (not just his arms but the freakishly huge hands** attached to them) that makes bloggers and commentators overuse the word "wingspan" 36 times a sentence.

In "Violin Phase" (the first piece linked above), Steve Reich takes a single, disconcertingly serpentine two-bar loop and, instead of traditional compositional development, he evolves the piece based upon the temporal relationship of that loop to an accelerated version of itself. Variations emerge as the elements of the loop come in and out of phase with each other, and each acceleration reveals a newly juxtaposed counterpoint. It's creating something complex and whole out of a handful of rudimentary tools: a single musical phrase, its repetition, and what transpires when that repetition is shifted in time. Rondo achieves an equally complicated and enthralling outcome via the creative application of a similarly limited range of assets. Devoid of some important, more conventional skills (the aforementioned shooting difficulties, a certain eccentricity of style that occasionally hampers his play), he has parlayed this combination, flawed though it may be in some respects, into a customized weapon on both ends of the floor. His game, like that violin riff, is lacking in diversified aspects yet can still produce myriad variations of beauty when properly utilized, and nobody utilizes his gifts quite like Rondo.

"Six Pianos", the other Reich composition linked above, exhibits many of the characteristics just discussed. It uses iota-sized fragments of musical thought; short patterns in a propulsive, rhythmic drive. Ideas emerge and recede, evolve and devolve, shifting around and into each other. We experience this as a series of subtle changes. Moments flash lucid only to be deconstructed, the whole work slowly migrating through a few tonal centers, but the piece never once leaves the pitch classes of the D major scale. And that last sentence is the key to the other regard in which Steve Reich is Rajon Rondo's musical patron saint. The piece starts furious and hypnotic, and it stays that way. The tonality shifts according to the bass emphasis and voicings, but we never leave that D Ionian scale. Harmonic motion of any kind is nonexistent. We start with a tension that is never increased, lessened, or resolved. It is altered yet undiluted throughout the progress of the composition, and persists until the sudden, and still unresolved ending. Watch Rajon Rondo's face, attitude, and demeanor sometime over the course of a whole game: he is the physical embodiment of this trait of Reich's music.

From opening tip to final buzzer, Rondo is a coiled spring that stays coiled. 30-point blowout or nail-biter affair, he is permanently tensile. No play great or terrible, no momentum shift or foul or occurrence of any kind alters this quality. He has the perpetual look of sprinter in the starting blocks, the tiger just before the pounce and kill. The invisible wire within him is always taut, always one instant from either snapping or going slack, yet it never does either. Every second of game clock, Rondo conducts himself with the same hypnotic intensity, actual circumstances be damned. The effect of listening to "Six Pianos" and that of watching Rajon Rondo play a basketball game is differentiated only by the sensory medium through which we process it. The perpetual, unresolved tension is identical in either case.

Hip Hop is the medium and voice of the NBA, and the preferred choice of Rajon Rondo. Nothing could make more intuitive sense. But in terms of compositional ethos and auditory representation, Steve Reich pretty much hit the unintentional nail on the head in mirroring Rondo's identity on the court. Even if they have nothing else in common, both understand the value of tension and creative use of limited thematic material. This makes them wonderfully unique in their respective fields, and wonderful uniqueness is a damned fine thing to witness.

* The most obvious example: when David Stern implemented the league dress code in an effort to curtail Hip Hop's aesthetic impact on the presentation of his product. Instead of merely accepting it, fashion-oriented players like Dwyane Wade immediately seized upon the moment, subverting the NBA's new sartorial rules and using them as a platform to redefine "swag."

** One of my all time favorite Rondo moments involved him standing perfectly motionless on the right of the floor, roughly parallel with the top of the key. Paul Pierce tried an iso possession that got shut down by the arrival of a help defender, and he fired a bullet of an overhead cross-court pass back to Rondo. The pass sailed on him, elevating well above Rondo's head and traveling at or close to the highest velocity ever achieved by a basketball. Without moving any other muscle, Rondo extended his right arm straight up and, with one incredibly huge hand simply snatched the ball out of the air and held it raised above his head. I repeat: THE BALL WAS GOING A ZILLION MILES AN HOUR WAY OVER HIS HEAD AND THE DUDE ABSOLUTELY SPIDERMAN'ED THAT SHIT ONE-HANDED! It was ridiculous. Most NBA players can palm a basketball, but Rondo's got to be the only one who could do THAT without batting an eyelash. Sheesh.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Almost Famous: Why The Falcons Should Be On "Hard Knocks."

The phones were barely staying in their cradles today at Atlanta's sports talk radio station: 680 The Fan. For roughly three hours, callers were flooding the lines, clamoring to opine for a fleeting moment in a public forum, to voice their enthusiasm and concerns to the hosts and the untold masses slogging their way through another typically horrible day of Atlanta traffic. About half of the calls were Falcons fans glorying in the hilariously precipitous (precipitously hilarious?) fall of one Bobby Petrino; former Falcons head coach and very recently former coach at the University of Arkansas. (Here in the ATL, the coach who abandoned us mid-season, in the dead of night, to slink back to college ball because things weren't going well and waaaaahh is not highly regarded.) The other, and more interesting, half of the calls comprised a protracted pro/con debate on another Falcons-centric topic: Our beloved Dirty Birds are apparently among the leaders (among the willing, anyway) for the 2012 season of HBO's phenomenal "Hard Knocks" documentary series.

Many of the callers were expressing concerns that the cameras will manufacture unnecessary drama in the locker room and generally be a distraction during an all-important training camp in which the team will be adjusting to both a new offensive and a new defensive coordinator. Those concerns are not unfounded, certainly. It is entirely possible that interviews and footage could sow discord within an organization, or that the mere presence of the film crews would disrupt the focus of the the players and coaches to a detrimental extent. Possible, but highly unlikely. Mike Smith? Level-headed and unflappable. Matty Ice? Ditto. T-Gonz and John Abraham? Seen everything, been-there-done-that, wouldn't bat an eye. Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Michael Turner might preen a bit for the cameras, but it's good to have a few guys with ego and swagger in the bunch. Keeps everyone else loose. Quizz? Ovie? I honestly don't know how they'd handle it, and truthfully, I don't care. This is a great idea and the team needs to secure its purchase with HBO if and when it can, ASAP. Because, honestly, the Falcons need this. Atlanta needs this. And we, the fans, need this. Badly.

Any diehard Falcons fan will tell you that, despite our devotion and careful attention to all the minutiae of the Birds, we don't know actually enjoy a lot of familiarity with our NFL team. The Smith/Dimitroff regime has been under an almost Belichickian standing order of opaqueness. Everything stays in house. There is no deviation from the mean, no colorful dynamic or remarkable story. We root for these guys, live and die on every snap, yet we have no real connection to them because their public image is essentially a veneer. Polished, shiny-squeaky-clean, and unknowable.

As a microcosm of this problem, consider the man who is cast in the venerable role of Franchise Quarterback. Matt Ryan is a cliche machine, the T-1000 of banality. Nice guy, great player, utterly devoid of charisma. Our quarterback is hyper-self conscious of his public presentation; hell-bent on being the perfect, uncontroversial face of the franchise. Every comment is measured and parsed to answer questions or make statements without the slightest possibility of raising a single eyebrow among the press or the fans, let alone actually ruffle anyone's feathers. By all accounts, he's an excellent leader in the huddle, but none of that command and fire makes its way out into the wider world for us to see. He lacks Brady's "I was drafted absurdly late and I'm still ticked off about it" arrogance, Rodgers' Discount-Doublecheck strut, and Brees' heart-of-gold redemption back story. The guy he's compared most frequently to, draft classmate Joe Flacco, is unburdened by the job of being his team's most recognizable and charismatic persona, because the Ravens are defined by defense and Ray Lewis has that Larger Than Life Icon role pretty well covered.

We want and semi-need Matty Ice to be that guy, and the Falcons signing on with "Hard Knocks" would very likely facilitate or accelerate that process. Ryan isn't the only one with potential for growth in terms of public identification and empathy, either. When you expand the radius of personalities that the documentary program would allow us to glimpse to include the rest of the team and coaches, I suspect this would do no end of good for our relationship with our team.

Now factor in the national impact. Atlanta fans have an almost unrivaled inferiority complex vis-a-vis the rest of the country, and there's a reason for that. Aside from the Braves, no one ever takes our teams seriously, or even acknowledges their existence, for that matter. We have zero saturation outside of the Georgia border. Whatever else it might portend of the team, "Had Knocks" would undoubtedly endow us with more respect and recognition among football fans, and make us a more relavent quantity in terms of national marketing campaigns and other relevant avenues of exposure. While none is this is strictly necessary to the franchise's survival or growth, it certainly wouldn't hurt, and might be highly beneficial.

While I respect the Falcons' unified, keep-it-in-the-family approach, I want "Hard Knocks" with us when training camp boots up. I want to get to know Matt Ryan and Mike Smith on a visceral and immediate level. I want to figure out who, besides a tiny dynamo of power, Jacquizz Rodgers is. I want to watch 'Spoon and Roddy being candid and entertaining as hell. I want the sagacity of Tony Gonzalez and John Abraham. I want to watch Julio Jones watching Roddy White and learning in the moment. I want to watch everyone evolve and adapt to our new schemes on both sides of the ball. I want to know my team better, and I want the rest of the world to know them, too. And I'm not the only one.

And that's why, if the Falcons' brass have any sense at all, they'll sign on without blinking. Letting your fans, and the rest of the football-loving populace, see more of your team entails benefits that far outweigh any theoretical consequences. Let's get on this, Dimitroff and company. Your signature on the dotted line will be repaid in a myriad of riches.

If nothing else, let me appeal to your sense of altruistic mercy. Reportedly, the other frontrunner option for "Hard Knocks 2012" is Jacksonville. You wouldn't really visit that horrible fate upon NFL fans, would you? Bring HBO to the ATL. You won't regret it. I promise.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie. Oy, Oy, Oy (Vey).

Ozzie Guillen's mouth has finally exceeded the boundaries of ... something. By now you've heard the skinny: Guillen recently made remarks in an interview expressing respect, admiration, and even "love" for Fidel Castro. These comments, understandably, have not been taken well by many. This isn't the first time he's faced steep consequences after a verbal misstep; a hefty fine and MLB-mandated sensitivity training accompanied some homophobic invective he leveled at a Chicago reporter in 2006. Not to minimize the awfulness of that incident, (as I've written before, we as a society really need to collectively clean that sort of thing out of our lexicon), but this is different. Because of the geography and ethnicity of where he hangs his hat these days, the ramifications cannot be lessened or removed with an apology, or fines, or the five-game suspension handed down by the Marlins brass to their newly-minted skipper earlier today. The damage is done, and it's going to have a shelf life way beyond Guillen's return to the dugout. Whether or not he was "taken out of context" is immaterial. Because, well. Because.

Because Ozzie Guillen manages a professional baseball team in Miami.

And he expressed complimentary sentiments about Fidel Castro.

And you simply can't engage in the latter if the former is true. Not without bringing the heavy hammers down, at any rate. And that, really, is the only issue here.

Let's be clear: the Marlins knew exactly what they were getting when they brought Guillen on to manage this rebooted, re-branded franchise. The man has pretty much made his bones on two things: his considerable baseball acumen, and his unceasing font of entertaining and often controversial sound bytes. They had to know about his combustible nature and his tendency to bypass even the most obvious and rudimentary internal filters while speaking publicly. Most of the time, his unflinching honesty and humorously abrasive demeanor are in his favor. They give him a unique charisma that serves well with the press and public, and probably helps him to be an effective manager in the clubhouse as well.

However, in those rare instances where his lack of judgement ceases to be a source of entertainment and becomes a vehicle of offensiveness, you have to question the sanity of bringing such an unpredictable factor into an organization. And never more so than now.

Cuba is ninety miles south of the Florida coast. And since Castro has been such an unrelenting force of terror and oppression for better than a half-century, Cubans over the years have felt compelled to escape his regime by fleeing to their northern neighbor by any means necessary. For many, this has meant sneaking away in the dead of night, terrified that they might be caught outright or betrayed by those helping them. Sometimes, when they're forced by circumstance to leave loved ones behind, swearing to the sister or brother, mother or father, son or daughter, friend or lover that they will return to get them out. One day. If they can. The extremely lucky ones somehow get out by plane. The rest, in boats or floating on makeshift rafts for days and sometimes weeks with little or no food. They pray to survive the ocean passage. They pray they'll make landfall somewhere safe. They pray that those loved ones will remain unharmed until they can somehow go back to extricate them. Or, if they left nothing and no one behind, they pray they never have to set eyes on that island again.

Miami is the epicenter, the natural endpoint of that painfully arduous journey. It has been a hub of Cuban and Cuban-American culture for decades, a nexus for the expats of Castro's dictatorial hell. They came here to escape that life, that world, and now here's the manager of their baseball team, extolling the man who forced them to such desperate measures. The people whose ears burn at the mention of Castro's name are in no mood to dismiss or forgive what was said.

It's a safe bet that none of this crossed Ozzie's mind before he made those comments. It's an even safer one that, once the reaction and its reasons were brought into focus, he felt every bit as lousy as he claimed. He may be an outspoken firebrand, but I'm fairly certain the man does not condone firing squads, oppression, and torture, nor would he enjoy the thought of evoking those memories and emotions in the Cuban-American population. Making this a commentary on his geopolitical beliefs is missing the point. He said something that affected a certain audience in a certain powerful way, and now he and his organization will have to deal.

That's the full extent of this. No more, no less.

To use the phrase "irreconcilable differences" doesn't quiet cover the messy divorce currently underway between the Marlins and their Cuban and Cuban-American fan base in the wake of all this. More than one official public group has already stated that, until Guillen's firing or resignation, the team has permanently forfeited that portion of their fans. This is likely neither an idle threat, nor a sentiment that will fade over time.

For the large part of Miami's population who have been affected by Castro, any act if contrition is going to fall on deaf ears. Even those of Cuban descent who were born and raised in America, who never witnessed or felt the awfulness of his machinations firsthand, will still have been told the stories by their parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and neighbors. The emotional and geographical distance may make them slightly more inclined than their elders to forgive Guillen's remarks, but the pull of history and the bonds of heritage will make that hard, if not impossible.

Also, Miami is not the University of Arkansas. You may have heard about Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino's motorcycle accident, and the subsequent revelations of an illicit affair Petrino was carrying on with Jessica Dorrell, an employee he himself hired who ... well, it's a complicated mess, but the upshot is this: students, boosters, and alums held a rally asking that Petrino NOT be fired in the wake of the incident. Moreover, they didn't seem to care at all that Petrino is a gutless, dastardly snake who deceived his wife, his employers, the cops, and the press. (And it wasn't the first time for at least two parties on that list.)* The fact is, the Razorbacks have been a very good football team under Petrino, and next to the win column, all else is sadly irrelevant to the school's fans.** My point is that Miami harbors no such blind fondness and loyalty for the Marlins. Despite two World Series titles in a scant 20 years of existence, the city has largely failed to embrace the team, just as they didn't fully embrace the Heat until LeBron and Bosh showed up, and even then only on a superficial level. In Miami, there are the Dolphins (beloved despite their protracted and ongoing stretch of impotence), and The U (ditto). Everything else sports-related is a secondary concern at best and a tertiary point of interest as a rule. Suffice it to say that winning, even on the magnitude of a third title this year, is not going to make this go away.

Which is a significant problem from Guillen and the Marlins' perspective. The point of this whole exercise of rechristening the team with the new colors and the new (more geographically specific) name and the new stadium was to pique maximum interest and stir an ambivalent fan base into a more active participation. Read: spending more cash at the ballpark. Guillen, too, was part of this calculated revival, the charismatic face of the "New Marlins." And he's blown his goodwill allotment to hell less than a week into the season.

This is a baseball, financial, and public image problem for the Marlins, and for Guillen as long as he's in Miami, but there's not much else there. As has happened before, his mouth eclipsed the speed of the editorial synapses in his brain. A middle-class Venezuelan who spent most of his professional career in Chicago, he simply failed to equate his stadium's location in the "Little Havana" neighborhood with what the residents of that neighborhood might feel about Castro.

I believe that his apology today was utterly sincere, if also self-serving. But that ultimately doesn't matter. The fact is that the Marlins were trying to make a fresh start, and because he mentioned in a positive light the one name you cannot in a positive light in southern Florida, Ozzie Guillen has quite possibly damaged that aim beyond immediate repair. As I said earlier, this is a baseball problem. Nothing more.

"Guilty", "Sad", and "Embarrassed", were a few of the terms Guillen applied to himself at the apologetic press conference today. He also said he would learn from "the worst mistake [he] ever made in his life." All of those are another way of saying that, in the future, he might think a little more circumspectly before he speaks. The Marlins are going to lose some fans and some money. Maybe Guillen can gain a little equilibrium, and restrict his future diatribes to the hilarious and innocuous. He'll be better off, and so will baseball. He may well be displaying his reformed sensibilities in a different city, but still. Small victories, right?

* As a lifelong Falcons fan, I may be just a tad biased on the subject of Bobby Petrino. Also, while I was typing this, Petrino was fired. HAHAHAAH!!!!

** Verbatim transcript from an afternoon sports radio show in Atlanta, after the host asked Arkansas fans to call in with their views on the situation:

Host: "Is Bobby Petrino trustworthy?"

Caller/Razorbacks Fan: "Oh, hell no."

Host: "Does he have integrity?"

Caller/Razorbacks Fan: "Zero percent."

Host: "Do you want him coaching your football team?"

Caller/Razorbacks Fan: "Absolutely! He's gonna get us a national title next year!"

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Bubba's Shiny New Green Jacket

It doesn't happen often, but there are occasional years where The Masters doesn't quite live up to its slogan. Sometimes, "a tradition unlike any other" can seem an overly dramatic turn of phrase. As with every major sporting event, when the final round is never really in doubt, when the memorable is absent and the banal is pervasive, the significance of the victory is dampened by its overt blah-ness. Thankfully, this was not the case today. Today the tradition really was, well, unlike any other.

I don't ever remember a Sunday at Augusta like this. Thanks to an oddball meteorological "winter", the famous azaleas and various other flora were nowhere in evidence. The course was all subdued green, the grass and Georgia pines interspersed with the brown of pine straw and the brilliant white of the bunkers, but devoid of any other color. The altered aesthetic was of a piece with the play this Sunday round, as surreally taut and compressed as has ever graced that hallowed ground. And all of the theater came from, if not exactly unlikely quarters, at least not from the projected favorites. Rory McIlroy finished an abysmal +5, as did Tiger Woods, whose traditional Sunday red attire was a mere perfunctory blip on the radar.

Instead, we were treated to Bo Van Pelt acing the 16th on the way to a tournament-best 64, and to Adam Jones doing the same en route to a 68. As dynamic as those moments were, they too were just footnotes.

In the end, the day hinged on three improbable shots. First, there was Louis Oosthuizen's touched-by-a-golf-angel albatross on the second. How a shot that seemed so ordinary when it initially touched down somehow traversed the length of the green and found the cup is purely the business of Augusta's inscrutable whims. The double eagle catapulted him from 7 to 10 under and a lead, and though Oosthuizen slightly lessened the sheer badassery of the moment with a phenomenally awkward double-hive-five with his caddy, that shot changed the entire trajectory of the afternoon.

Of course, the capriciousness of Augusta giveth, and it taketh away. Phil Mickelson started the day in the final pairing looking to add a fourth green jacket to his collection. Unfortunately, he got just a shade overly ambitious on the fourth tee. The shot was intended to be aggressive, a grip-and-rip assault on the pin. But it carried, and carried, and carried, and clanged off the railing of the observation bleachers into the worst lie imaginable. The hole wound up a disastrous triple bogey, and essentially derailed Lefty's momentum.

The third meaningful shot ... we'll table that for the time being.

The rest of regulation play was a cavalcade of small but immensely important moments. I can't recollect a Sunday with so many players still in striking distance as the sun descended. Oosthuizen, Lefty, Lee Westwood, Matt Kuchar, Peter Hanson, and Ian Poulter were all in contention heading down the back nine. The ebb and flow of their collective efforts, the flashes of brilliance and instants of agony, were breathtaking. And oh yeah, there was also Bubba Watson, who played his college golf just a chip shot down I-20 at the University of Georgia. All day long, the gallery chants of "Go Dawgs!" and "woofoofooffooff!" were audible through the television as the beloved UGA alum vied for the game's ultimate honor in front of what was, in many respects, a home crowd.

Bubba is something of a maverick force (both in game and personality) in the PGA. To wit: he's worn bib overalls and rapped in a music video, and he bought the General Lee from "The Dukes Of Hazzard" last year. He's an eccentric with a gonzo emotional barometer and a penchant for recklessness and neon pink drivers. He's never had a single formal lesson, and his technique is, to put it politely, erratic. His feet shift every which way when he swings, he never takes the same angle twice with the club head, and you might show video of him to aspiring ball strikers as an example of what not to do. Unless you're talking about results. The man seems to bend the ball to his will, executing shots that most wouldn't even be brazen enough to attempt. In fact, most wouldn't even conceive of the possibility of said shots. The word that gets used over and over again by multiple, knowledgeable parties is "creative." And he demonstrated the aptness of that superlative repeatedly today.

While Watson was mounting his unconventional charge up the leader board, the rest of the field was refusing to go down quietly. Playing stubbornly gutsy golf, Lefty, Westwood, Kuchar, and Hanson all finished 8 under. That mark would have been enough if Bubba hadn't played a dizzyingly sublime back nine including four consecutive birdies, and if Oosthuizen hadn't flat-out refused to make a mistake.

When the dust and smoke cleared, Watson and Oosthuizen were left standing at 10 under apiece, and teeing off for a playoff hole on eighteen. The hole played out in almost a carbon copy of what they'd just finished doing in regulation. Both began with unfathomably long drives. Both hit perfectly decent approach shots. Both missed their birdie putts by excruciating inches and settled for par. And so it was on to the tee at 10 for a second playoff.

As they had on 17, both golfers made utter messes of their tee shots, though Watson appeared to come out the worse for wear, buried in the tree line far right of the fairway. Oosthuizen made a decent salvage job of his lie, leaving a massive second shot just shy of the green and in good shape for an up-and-down par. Bubba was in bad shape. Now, about that third pivotal shot:

I have watched The Masters every year since I was old enough for my eyes to properly focus on a TV screen. I was even fortunate enough to attend it in person once, for the Saturday round in 1997, which you may recall was the year Tiger conducted a scorched-earth campaign on Augusta National, finishing a monstrous 18 under par and 12 strokes ahead of his nearest competition. I have a distinct recollection of standing in the gallery on the eleventh fairway with my dad, watching drive after drive come to rest more or less parallel with our vantage point. Then: Tiger. Necks craned in unison as we tracked his shot; a behemoth drive that described a parabola well beyond anything previous, impossibly long and perfectly on line. A sort of breathless, nondescript sound escaped our collective throats, equal parts incredulity and admiration. It was otherworldly to behold, a signifier that the man was simply playing the game differently than everyone else. That shot was a masterpiece of power and transcendent skill.

Frankly, it didn't have jack on Bubba Watson's second shot on 10 in today's playoff. He was so far off the fairway and so ensconced in the Georgia pines that he couldn't even see the green. It seemed, for all intents and purposes, over. Hitting a blind shot off pine straw through a damn forest and getting it anywhere close would be a fool's errand. And then he went ahead and did it anyway. That shot, THE shot, exploded off the club head, careened through the trees, exited, somehow bent its mid-flight trajectory sixty or seventy degrees on what had to be an ungodly amount of spin, and looped onto the green as the fabled roars of Augusta rent the impending dusk like tornado sirens.

From there, it was all denouement. After chipping on, Oosthuizen's par putt looked perfect all the way to the hole, but just skimmed the lip and rolled past. Watson, left with an easy two-putt for the victory, got it six inches from the hole in his first attempt. As the crowd started to cheer his win, he held out a hand as if to say: "Hush, people. this isn't over yet and I wanna get it right." He took his time, walking around, studying it. On air, Jim Nantz quipped about lining up a six-inch tap-in putt, but when those six inches are the only thing between you and a green jacket, I imagine you feel compelled to make sure that last stroke goes off without a hitch.

It did. As Bubba tearfully embraced his caddie, then his mother, and then his closest peers who hung around after their own eliminations to see this day played out, the enormity of the moment clearly got the better of him. We can excuse him, though, since he got the better of the enormous moments all day long. The tradition unlike any other has a very nontraditional champion. Cue the piano music.