Friday, August 17, 2012

To Pitch Or Not To Pitch?

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

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

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

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

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

Winning a World Series is extraordinarily, phenomenally hard.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 10, 2012

Dwight Howard, The Lakers, and Radiohead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't hate the game.  Hate the player.   

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

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

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Scoreboard, Dude! ... But Not Really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1984, Los Angeles: Silver Medal, Heptathalon.

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

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

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

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

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

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