Thursday, February 28, 2013

We Got A Great Big Combine

The latest drill at the NFL Combine
The notion of "news" from the NFL Scouting Combine is always a bit strange, seeing as nothing actually happens there. Guys whom NFL scouts and front office types have been watching for four years show up, do a few drills, answer a few questions, and sweat a lot. That's it. Nobody - and this is the key part - actually plays any football. They do exercises, very few of which have application on a football field, and serious men with serious stopwatches and logo-embroidered collared shirts stand around and make serious noises about how serious it all is.

You do get plenty of breathless stories about someone's stock rising or falling based on a combine workout - the guy whose 40 slipped 2 tenths of a second is suddenly a pariah, never mind that A) there's a thousand reasons someone might have a variance of two tenths of a second and B) who's to say the guys doing the timing are absolutely precise themselves.

So we get stories. We get stories about how Shamarko Thomas of Syracuse did a broad jump of 11 feet, one inch, which should be incredibly useful the next time he has to cover a receiver who's on the other side of a ten foot wide pit full of alligators. Or that B.W. Webb of William and Mary topped the 20 yard shuttle dash rankings by .01 seconds, which surely will come in handy when they change the rules of football so that you run back and forth across the field instead of, say, to the end zone.

And then there's poor, benighted Manti Te'o, whose draft status - undisputed stud until his...unique dating habits got exposed - is now suddenly wobblier than Tennessee's athletic department funding because he ran a 4.81 in the 40. This, apparently, is earthshattering news that will undoubtedly cost the kid millions of dollars as his draft stock does a full-on Louganis because he had a bad 40 time at the Combine. This, then, is the story, never mind that anyone who'd watched the years and years of game film we have on Te'o would have already had a pretty decent idea of what his strengths and weaknesses were. But in the rush to sprinkle football news into the parched earth of the offseason, to make sure to cement the NFL's grip on its fans year-round, the Combine gets blown up into the equivalent of the season finale of the Bachelor, where EVERY. DECISION. COULD. BE. VITAL., and nothing's too insignificant to analyze to death. After all, they need to keep diminutive early-period Klingon Mel Kiper Jr. off the streets somehow.

Which is why we get breathless coverage of large men in shorts standing around on a field, sweating. And breathless coverage of guys lifting weights, and not in a totally-awesome-Magnus-ver-Magnusson sort of way. (Seriously. How cool would it be if they mashed up the Combine with World's Strongest Man competitions? I want to see NFL prospects dragging a bus full of cheerleaders by their teeth, and I want to see it now.) And breathless analysis of guys standing there in sweaty shorts. And it's boring as hell, and it's bad for the game - and if you doubt me, I will beat you to death with a Mike Mamula bobble head - because the whole damn thing is now so fraught it's overwhelming.

As a football fan, I don't want to know what sort of 40 time an offensive lineman has. If you're playing major college football, you're going to be somewhere within a narrow band of results or you never would have gotten on the field in the first place. What I want to know is can he knock a defensive lineman who looks like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man on his butt, forty times a game. Show me that at the Combine and maybe there's something to get excited over. Until you do, all I'm left with is the possibility that a few seconds out of context will get weighed more heavily than years of hard work.

Me, I prefer the hard work. And the game tape, especially if the alternative is more large men standing around drinking Gatorade, and raising their draft stock exponentially by doing so.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

In Which I Am Not Bill Simmons

I went to Las Vegas this past weekend.  In an effort to prove once and for all that I am not Bill Simmons, I did none of the following:
  • Hang out with guys named "The Broom" or "Fang," although there was a "Loopy."
  • Bet on any sports at all. (I seriously don't know how I failed at this. I walked past the sports book 25 times and I WANTED to bet on the Pens over the Lightning.)
  • Smoke a cigar.
  • Run, with my bros, a 16-rack bracket comparing the physical features of the cocktail waitresses from the various establishments I attended. In fact I failed to bracketize anything.
  • Engage in a fist bump of any kind.
I'll turn in my sports blogger card at the next annual meeting.

Things I learned in Las Vegas:
  • The elevators in the Luxor pyramid are not "elevators" at all but rather "inclinators." They go up and to the left or right as they traverse the outer wall of the pyramid. This is surprising when sober. When drunk it's a Bosch painting.
  • You have to tap the table when checking a bet because the cameras can't hear you say "check."
  • The scalper on the street assured me that the way the Internet works these days, fake tickets won't even print out. So if the tickets are printed they must be valid. Even if he is selling tickets to a $90 show for  $10.
  • It is possible to run out of amazement.




Your 2013 NBA Deadline Deal Quiz

Josh Smith, I play these tiny violins for you, my friend. FOR YOU!
Ordinarily, we would take some time here to break down the NBA trading deadline - who got moved, who didn't, who made good moves and who ended up with Darko Milicic - but unfortunately, this year we're not going to be able to do that. We deeply regret the necessity, but unfortunately there's one simple reason we can't offer you our analysis, and that's because we have literally no idea who the heck any of these guys are, or why trading them makes a difference. When the biggest name moved at the deadline is J.J. Redick1 (and hush, you princes of Cameron, you kings of Durham - I don't care what he did against Clemson, he's not that great an NBA player) then this deadline was indeed both dead and anonymous. Doubt us? Then take the Sportsthodoxy 2013 Deadline Deal Quiz, and see how well you do.





Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Handy-Dandy Guide to Jeffrey Loria's Letter To (Both) Marlins Fans

This is Jeffty Loria's idea of what heaven looks like
Jeffrey Loria is probably not the worst owner in professional sports history. He lacks, for example, the heady taint of slumlording racism that lingers around Donald Sterling. He's not dumb enough to bet on his own team, like jocksniffing gambler and pilings magnate William D. Cox. He hasn't actively engaged in the sort of wholesale criminal behavior of a Harold Ballard, and he's blessedly absent Marge Schott's fetishes for on-field St. Bernards and Nazi memorabilia.

Also, he's probably never buried a dead hooker in the Everglades.

That's about all the good stuff you can say about him. On the other hand, he actively conspired to destroy baseball in Montreal, hung the cash-strapped Miami municipality on the hook for well over a billion dollars in bond payments for his art nouveau fishtank of a ballpark, shoveled revenue-sharing cash intended to make the team competitive into his pockets with both hands, and repeatedly and cynically dismantled teams after they'd served their PR purposes. He's petulant, vindictive, thin-skinned, petty, and obnoxiously smirky, and I don't care how many awards that stadium wins from People Who Just Happen To Be Friends Of Jeffty Loria, it still looks like the long-lost Jemm And The Holograms stadium playset.

Believe it or not, though, people in South Florida have noticed. They've noticed to the point where they're writing snarky blog posts and not showing up to buy tickets. And that inspired Jeffty, who acts like he is perpetually five, to write a long, chest-thumping screed defending the royal screwing he gave both the region and the fans, and pay to have it run in one of the local papers.

Here, now, is Sportsthodoxy's take on what he said:

What Loria Said:
It’s no secret that last season was not our best — actually it was one of our worst. In large part, our performance on the field stunk and something needed to be done.
What Loria Meant:
"Losing bothers me a lot less when it's cheap."

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The NL is Going To Get Better

This pitchers' mound we're standing on? It's made of money.
Over the past decade and a half or so, the consensus in baseball circles has been that the American League is much, much better than the National League. Watch the All-Star Games, tally up interleague play, and fiddle with the advanced metrics on the rosters and it's clear: more of the better talent is in the AL. Yeah, occasionally a San Francisco or a St. Louis can snaffle up a World Series win, but Billy Beane can tell you all there is to know about the sort of small sample size you get in the playoffs, and how well one's crap works therein. (Hint: it doesn't.)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

If It's Not Lehigh Valley, It's Crap

The Phillies #6 prospect, according to John Sickels
Phillies' GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said today that he thinks preseason prospect rankings are, in a word, "crap".

This is not surprising. After all, Amaro's go-to move is to dump a truckload of prospects on another team for a player he thinks will put the Phillies over the top. Even marginal pickups like Michael Young and Ben Revere - and no matter what you think those guys will or won't do this year, they're definitely bargain bin pickups compared to the Halladay/Lee/Pence glory day shopping sprees - went on the BOGO plan. That's going to be harder to do going forward if Amaro admits that what he's got now is the equivalent of a deck full of Atogs and two Llanowar Elves. So of course he's going to trash the ratings. It's good business for him to do so.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Closers Should Be Heard And Not Listened To

"I'm thinking a Van Dyke and maybe theme music by Mastodon"
The difference between closers and kickers consists largely of theme music and poorly trimmed facial hair.

Otherwise, the similarities are uncanny. They're on the field much less than their peers. They're brought in high-pressure situations when the game is on the line. They tend to flame out rather quickly. And the few with any kind of longevity acquire a sort of mythical status.

Oh, and when they shoot their mouths off, it always feels kind of weird.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Wrasslin' Olympic Style

You're going to de-list this guy?
The IOC has de-listed wrestling as an Olympic sport, surprising only those people who were still aware that Olympic wrestling was an actual thing. (The rest of the country presumably believes that Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka took home Fiji's first gold medal, while Nikolai Volkoff silvered for Russia and King Kong Bundy won Skull Island's solitary bronze.)

This is, of course, an arbitrary and strange decision, as wrestling is consistently one of the most competitive and entertaining events. The removal of baseball and softball a few years back was a bit more
understandable; a few countries consistently dominated those events, they were resource-intensive, and they didn't draw. Wrestling, however, was competitive, fast, and cheap - just find a flat surface and throw out the mats, no pitcher's mound required. But it was still cut from the list of "core" sports (to which golf, rugby, and modern pentathalon have been added. Modern pentathalon, in case you're wondering, includes Zumba, syncing your iPhone wirelessly, competitive craft beer chugging, Farmville, and the 100m instagram cat picture). Instead, it's lumped in with a bunch of other sports that can lobby for inclusion, a shameful turn of events for one of the events that we can trace back to the original, all-Greek Olympiads when competitors entered the lists naked and there was nary a McDonalds' product placement to be found.

Wrestling partisans are justifiably upset by this turn of events, and as a result are protesting. Unfortunately, the form the protest is taking is that wrestlers in Tehran for the World Cup are going to lay down on their mats. Which is all well and good, I suppose, but if they really want to attract the attention of the IOC, they'd do better to lay down on piles of currency. The IOC's level of corruption defies comprehension, from bribes in SLC and Nagano to vote-buying to nepotism to scalping tickets to match-fixing to the fact that the freaking organization used to be run by a guy who was part of Franco's cabinet. You see a headline like "IOC Meets In London to Discuss Corruption" and you assume they're going to be talking best practices and innovative new techniques.

So if the partisans of wrestling, a good and noble goal that has brought together even the US and Iran on the issue, they should stop with the laying around and start with the shoving large bags full of small unmarked bills at senior members of the IOC.

Maybe they could add corruption to the modern pentathalon. Fastest bribe, quickest denial, whatever. It certainly seems like it would fit, at least with this batch of "guardians" of sport. And hey, it's already on the docket.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Not So Much A Baseball Town

Presumably not interested in Adrian Beltre's OPS+
There is only one conceivable response to freshly minted Los Angeles Angel of Anaheim Except When The Traffic Backs Up On The 5 In Which Case You Want To Be A Los Angeles Angel Of Taking 91 Maybe As A Bypass Josh Hamilton's comment that Dallas is not a baseball city.

Duh.

Yes, Texans play a lot of baseball. Yes, Texas has produced a lot of great talent - some guy named "Ryan" springs to mind. And yes, the Rangers are currently riding high with a monstrous lineup, a strong pitching staff, and a ballpark that would not drive former Arlington beat writer Mike Shropshire to drink (more).

But.

It's Dallas. Home of the Dallas Cowboys, the most football-crazed city in the most football-crazed state in the country. Never mind that since the turn of the millennium, the Cowboys have been the worst of the four major sports teams in the DFW area - worse than the Rangers, definitely, but also worse than the Stars and the Mavericks. Maybe owner antics both positive (Mark Cuban's resurrection of the Mavs) and negative (Tom Hicks' greedhead shenanigans with the Stars and Rangers) obscured that fact, but it doesn't matter. Dallas is the Cowboys is Dallas. Maybe that would change if the 'boys Romoed their way to a couple of consecutive 0-16 seasons, but I doubt it. Denying this - or being horrified that someone said it - is shove-your-head-in-the-sand stupid, a willful denial of the obvious and the factual.

And really, it's unnecessary. Football's number one? Sure, but that doesn't mean that the Rangers are sitting out by the Gas'n'Sip at 2 AM waiting for John Cusack to show up. They ranked 3rd in baseball in attendance last year. They pulled 3.4 million people through the turnstiles. In a town where they're not the priority, they still seem to be doing all right.

Which points us, I suppose, at the real issue here, which is to say the half-assed Manicheanism of the sorts of folks who aggressively stir up trouble in the interests of a loud - not good - narrative. Dallas is primarily a football town? Big freaking deal. Until they park life-sized statues of Leon Lett in front of every stadium entrance in Arlington to keep people from seeing Rangers games, it has precisely zero impact on whether people in Dallas can enjoy baseball, too.

On second thought, forget I said anything about those statues. I don't want to give Jerry Jones any ideas.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Go Ahead, Draft a RB

While listening to the usual insane garbage on drivetime sportstalk radio ("Manti Te'o, whose name I cannot pronounce despite hearing it on ESPN for 15 days straight, is a great prospect! And a locker room laughingstock crazycakes who got exposed as a weak linebacker by Alabama! And a delicious dessert topping!") I heard something that made me think: data. Give me data.

The line I heard was that teams needed to draft highly-regarded running backs early.  The commentator (seriously, I don't remember who, it may have been a morning-drunk caller on a local show for all I know) said that teams definitely wanted to grab quality running backs in the early rounds.

But, I thought, what about Arian Foster? What about Bill Belichick's tendency to call promising fans down from the stands, give them a mouthguard, and say "follow Logan Mankins to daylight?"

So, skeptical, I grabbed the list of the top rushers from each team for 2012, and looked up their draft rounds.

Turns out that the leading rusher for 12 teams in the league were running backs drafted in the first round.  (The Panthers' top rusher is a first-rounder, too, but he's a quarterback, and that says more about the Panthers' problems than anything else).  Of the remaining 19 teams, 11 have a top rusher drafted in the 2nd or 3rd round.  Only 8 guys were drafted in the 5th, 6th, or 7th, or were undrafted free agents.

The Super Bowl winner's top rusher was drafted in the 2nd round; the Super Bowl loser's top rusher was drafted in the 3rd.

So I guess what I'm saying is, if you're an NFL general manager reading this blog, first, what the hell is wrong with you, but second, go ahead and draft that early-round running back prospect. He may pay off.

Et Tu, Testudo?

So Coach K. is mad that Maryland is leaving the ACC. Mad that they're going to the Big 10. Mad that they're walking away from a conference they helped found in 1953 (by breaking away from the Southern Conference). Mad that they're abandoning the long-time rivalry.
He's right to be mad, of course. That's a lot of tradition for Maryland to be abandoning for the promise of a paycheck and regular exposure on the Big 10 Network. I applaud Coach K.'s stand that teams should not leave their conferences, that they should not abandon their long-time rivalries for filthy lucre, and they should not leave the conferences they helped found behind.
And I look forward to hearing Coach K. re-iterate these sentiments next year when founding Big East member Syracuse comes to Cameron Indoor Stadium as part of its initial season in the ACC.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Your Trevor Bauer Hour of Power

"We bought these hoodies at Belk"

Trevor Bauer can't rap. This, in the grand scheme of things, means absolutely nothing.

Trevor Bauer can't find the strike zone. This is considerably more important to the young man's future.
Bauer, the former Diamondbacks prospect who found himself shipped out of town in exchange for Didi Gregorius and a past-his-sell-by-date Lars Anderson, attracted some brief notoriety this spring when his former catcher, Miguel "Ghan-buri-Ghan" Montero said mean things about Bauer's ability to take instruction. Because it was early spring training and early spring training consists largely of men wearing pajamas playing catch, this briefly became a "thing".

And when intrepid reporters found evidence of Bauer's attempted dis rap directed at various unnamed "haters", it became more of a thing. Because clearly here was Bauer responding to Montero in the sort of way only a 22 year old would think was appropriate, and by the way he can't rap, and doesn't this prove everything that Montero said (apparently "is in love with his fastball" is code for "has no flow") and, well whatever.

Except, of course, that a quick check would reveal that the track in question - and make no mistake, it is terrible; Bauer-as-rapper is about as smooth on the mic as Bruce Springsteen trying to do Pagliacci with a sinus infection and one foot in a bear trap - was recorded in December, well before Montero laid down his version of the law. So it couldn't possibly have been a response to Montero's criticism unless Bauer is actually a Time Lord and hopped into his TARDIS (which, to be fair, has a sweet mixing board) to go back a couple of months and drop the track before the beef started. Then again, if he did have access to a TARDIS you'd think he'd use it to gather up some better collaborators - I can totally see David Tennant talking Tupac, Biggie and maybe Kool Moe Dee into the TARDIS, and, well, anyway, you get the idea.

At any other place, any other time, the news that a 22 year old rich kid from the suburbs had posted a crappy attempt at rapping on YouTube would have garnered precisely zero notice. The fact that this time, it was news (for certain values of "news") just reaffirms how much we need actual intel out of spring training. Bring on the phenoms, bring on the guys with visa issues, bring on the training camp battles and the "Best Shape Of His Life" stories and everything else we've come to grow and love and expect out of early baseball coverage.

But for the love of God, leave the 22 year olds rapping out of it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

To Be a Fan of a Minor League Team Is To Constantly Say Goodbye

So long, farewell, it's time to bid adieu...

To root for a minor league baseball team is to be constantly saying goodbye.


Friday, February 15, 2013

All Hail Charles Pierce

It's Charles Pierce's world. The rest of us are just living in it.

Already, the Red Sox season is off to a promising start.
Brentz, 24, accidentally shot himself in the leg while cleaning a handgun two weeks ago. The bullet entered and exited the leg, and Brentz tweeted that he anticipates "returning to full practice" Monday.
If it had been Josh Beckett, he'd have missed, killed three passersby, and pulled a hamstring, putting him on the DL for 15 days.

There is nothing in that passage I can argue with.

Sportsthodoxy Guide to Ray Lewis and the Chelyabinsk Meteor

They're more similar than you thought
Chelyabinsk MeteorRay Lewis
Act of GodPawn of God. Really.
flattens the countrysideflattens quarterbacks
explosion audible for milesself-aggrandizement audible for miles
caught on dozens of camerasno witnesses
blows upblows up defensive schemes
breaks apart in the lower atmospherefalls apart when asked to cover tight ends
sets off car alarms in Chelyabinsksets off police scanners in Miami
cracks during descentexposes crack in postgame

Redemption, or Not

(inspired by a Twitter conversation with Hal Mangold (@AtomicOvermind) who has been threatening to write for us for years in much the same way Vermont keeps threatening to secede)

Hockey's an unusual sport in a lot of ways. It's played on a sheet of ice; the players wear razor-sharp blades and collide with one another all the time; it's so exhausting that a one-minute shift is considered long. And it's the only sport that Québécois parents allow their children to play*.

Violence isn't unique to hockey, certainly. Longtime readers** know that I dwell overmuch on the long-term effects of injury in the NFL. Hockey suffers similarly.

But really, only in hockey do you have the guy with the designated role "enforcer," or "thug."  The guy whose job it is to try to injure other players, or to retaliate against those that have injured your players.  The guy whose job it is to pick fights with the guys in the other shirts.

Matt Cooke isn't exactly the Pittsburgh Penguins' enforcer.  But he has a reputation as an instigator, and as a dirty player, based on hits like this one:


Penguins management didn't protest the suspensions that Cooke received from this hit and another, near the end of the 2010-2011 season. Cooke was known for committing these kinds of fouls, but the Pens front office was getting tired of it.  Especially after a couple of deliberate head-shots that ended up damaging superstar Sidney Crosby's brain.  Crosby ended up losing over a year of playing time, and the Penguins joined the chorus calling for greater penalties for headshots.

Penguins GM Ray Shero said, essentially, that he wasn't going to try to protect Matt Cooke anymore; he didn't want Cooke committing these kinds of hits, and that Cooke didn't have much of a future as a Penguin if he didn't shape up.

And then something amazing happened: Cooke shaped up.

In the 2010-2011 season, Cooke played 67 games. He had 129 penalty minutes, roughly one 2-minute minor per game. He scored 30 points***.  That's less than half a point per game.  He only played 67 games, in part because of 14+ games worth of suspension.

In the 2011-2012 season, Cooke played all 82 games.  He had 44 penalty minutes -- that's around one minor penalty every 4 games, and the lowest total of his career.  He also scored 38 points, the second-highest total of his NHL career.  Cooke became a Penguins attacker worth taking seriously.

He spent a lot of time watching film, reviewing his hits, and figuring out ways to play effectively without always going for the biggest his possible.  He also received counseling and therapy in light of his suspension and his wife's life-threatening kidney illness.

The 2013 season has been a weird one, of course, thanks to the lockout. It's hard to extrapolate players' statistics for the season based on just the 14 games the NHL has had so far this season.

Before last night, Cooke's penalty minutes per game remained low (8 minutes in 13 games); his scoring is below his average from last year.  But then last night Cooke went somewhat recklessly into Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, and Cooke's skate blade went 3/4 of the way through Karlsson's achilles tendon.  Karlsson's out for at least the next 3 months. He may have lost his season.

Hockey fans -- particularly including Ottawa fans -- went nuts. Same old Cooke. Last year must have just been an aberration. He's a dirty player, he should be thrown out of the league, he did it on purpose, etc.

The NHL said there was no sign of intent.  Cooke was penalized, but he won't be suspended.

I don't know.  The Matt Cooke we've seen over the last hundred games isn't the same guy we had on our hands before. Which guy committed the hit last night?

Once somebody turns around, how many screwups are they allowed?

* I kid. The Québécois and me go way back. I believe they're also permitted to play badminton.
** Both of them!
*** For those unfamiliar with hockey, players are credited with one point for a goal or an assist.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

In the Cauldron of Cameron

Mason Plumlee, practicing telekinesis

So.

Duke-Carolina tickets.

I did not attend Duke. I did not attend North Carolina. My rooting interest in the ACC, such as it is, lies with Boston College, a school whose unseemly departure from the Big East I still find annoying and who, despite being closer to the actual Atlantic Coast than any other school in the conference, still gets crap for not belonging. (Dear Georgia Tech: It's a long drive from Atlanta to the beach. Trust me on this one.)

I won the tickets in a charity raffle. "You gonna sell them?" my coworkers asked. "They're going for six hundred a piece on StubHub."

I thought about it. I may be a writer, but I can do math, and that's a lot of money.

But it was Duke-Carolina. I've been living in the Triangle for thirteen and a half years. During that entire time, the sports conversation has almost entirely been dominated by Duke-Carolina. Carolina-Duke. Zellers and Montrosses and Duhons and Stricklands and Hensons and, God help us all, the occasional Zoubek. State, yeah, sure, it was there, but really only so people could chant "Herb Must Go" ironically or otherwise. No, it was the War of the Blues, something that seemed transcendent.

I'm never getting to a Super Bowl. I have no interest in the BCS championship game, or the Masters'. The AAA Championship Game I'd taken my nephew to was a rain-soaked flogging. The World Series seems an impossible dream, and the Olympics, well, I'd been in Atlanta in 1996 and they were largely a traffic nightmare.

But Duke-Carolina. To go, to take my father - who had never been to a college basketball game. That would be something.

Dad was feeling up to it. That decided me. We'd go.

***

Walk into Cameron Indoor Stadium for the Carolina game as a stranger, and you will be lost. This is a place of ritual, of carefully prepared chants and behaviors, of fluttering championship banners like shrouds for hapless opponents, of ritual call and response. Everyone who belongs there knows the proper answers. Everyone who belongs there knows the times and the places and the words to say. And you realize after a while, that this is not a basketball game. It is a sacrifice, with Coach K as high priest and a liturgy of thunderous catcalls, and Carolina is on the altar.

Right about then is when, if you don't have a dog in the fight, you start rooting for Carolina. Because it's always nice to see the underdog survive.

***

Duke's tactics are simple: wear you down. Make you run through pick after pick after pick. Play hard, physical defense (and offense), and push up to the line of what the refs will call. If that line budges an inch, push that inch further. Of the five guys on the floor for Duke in the last minute tonight, four had four fouls.

That's what happened to UNC tonight. They got tired. They got worn down. The jumpers that they were popping free for in the first half started falling a little bit short. Enough Mason Plumlee elbows in the solar plexus and it starts affecting your shooting stroke. And when those jumpers stopped going in, then Duke picked up the game and ran away with it.

The final differential was 5. It really wasn't that close, not in the end.

***

Mason Plumlee is Shaq moves in a Brad Miller body. His best play is to get the ball down low, then repeatedly drop his shoulder and square his elbow into the gut of the man guarding him. Watch carefully and you'll see him practicing his "I've been fouled!" face even when no one's within five feet of him. You can't blame the kid; it works, especially when he's up against a pipe cleaner like James Michael McAdoo.

When he gets to the NBA and tries that move, though, Dwight Howard is going to turn him into a pretzel.

***

The hardest working people at the Duke-Carolina game are the Duke cheerleaders. They are out there every time out, handspringing their way up and down the court with fearless and reckless abandon. One young lady managed thirteen consecutive during a television time out; I can only assume that if she hadn't had her way blocked by one of the baskets, she would have just kept on going.

***

Sound is a physical thing at Cameron. It comes at you in waves, roaring around the building again and again. It starts in the Crazies, wells up in the student section and whips around and around until it rises to the upper deck, populated by middle-aged men in tan slacks and their sons and wives. It hits the walls hard enough to bruise, bounces off the ceiling and comes crashing down on itself. The chants get muddied until it's all one wild roar, hammering your eardrums and making your sternum throb in time.

I know there's words in the chanting. They hand out carefully prepared cheat sheets to the Cameron Crazies. But by the time the sound has finish boiling itself into a maelstrom, it all sounds like "WAAAUUURRRRGGHGHHH". It's a unified "WAAAAUUURRRGGHGGG", but it's a "WAAAAUUURRRGGHGGG".

***

Attending a game at Cameron Indoor forces you to become a jerk. At every Duke basket, the crowd surges to its feet, and stays standing until the resolution of the next Carolina possession. If you do not stand, your view of the game looks suspiciously like the back of someone's knockoff Seth Curry jersey. If you do stand, congratulations, you've become a jerk by blocking the view of the people behind you. Who will now stand in order to see, which will block the view of the people behind them. And so on and so forth, up until you get to the very last row, and you bang your head on the rafters.

I saw the game with my father, who is not necessarily built for standing for a couple of hours on end. Nor is he set up for a synagogue-style up, down, up, down. So he sat. So I sat with him. As a result, large portions of Duke's decisive run early in the second half looked a lot like the back of someone's shirt.


***

Duke won by 5. They made a run about ten minutes into the second half, and when it was over they were up by 6 and Carolina's jumpers were clanging off the rim. The Heels shot two airballs in the second half, clear signs that these guys were just exhausted, but this year Coach Roy doesn't have the horses, and the big guns had to stay out there. Duke pushed the lead to 8, and that's pretty much where it stayed down the stretch. The game ended (after a little debate over a particular basket counted), and the fans streamed forth into the night, cheerful and exhilarated. Downstairs, the student section erupted out towards a rumored bonfire; the Cameron staff was friendly and polite and their shuttle service down to the handicapped lot where we'd parked was ridiculously efficient. As we rode down, a chopper flew overhead. "Probably looking for the bonfire", the driver cracked. Everybody laughed.

***

Love is blind.

The guy sitting in front of me is one of those fans who believes the next foul his team commits will be its first. Every Duke possession, he's up and shouting "Aww, come on!" at the refs while making the universal symbol for "hack" - right hand chopping down just above left wrist - so often I start wondering if he's actually David Byrne.

But that's fandom, which is love. The object of your affection is beautiful and perfect. All those who strive against it are twisted and corrupt.

And love, like the refs, is blind.






Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Duke-Carolina

Yes, they're real
For once, I will not be rooting for a meteor to hit the stadium.

Unless it's a very, very small meteor and it's going to buzz Dick Vitale.

"Nothing" Is the Hardest Thing To Say

NOW COACHING THIRD....BOBBY....VALENTINE....
One of the best parts of Spring Training is what happens when guys who have largely been ignored to go hunting/fishing/truck washing/whatever for four months suddenly get an Edible Arrangements-sized bouquet of microphones stuck in their faces by reporters who haven't anything to talk about except salary arbitration (which is math and which many of them therefore do not actually understand). The players, understandably, are not in mid-season cliche-spouting form, and as such there's a greater-than-average chance of getting something pants-on-head quotable.

Like, say some passive-aggressive stream-of-consciousness sandbagging of former teammates and managers. Take, for example, Red Sox DH David Ortiz taking the opportunity to throw long-gone and discredited former manager Bobby Valentine under the bus. Now, the odds are that the next team Valentine manages consists entirely of nine year olds and has the words "SPONSORED BY CONKLIN LIQUORS" on the backs of their jerseys. It is also entirely likely that by the end of that season, the kids will have grown tired of Valentine's erratic distribution of orange slices, his calling out of the team's third baseman for spending too much time on math homework, and his refusal to accept the fact that one of the pitchers actually did get a boo-boo on his elbow when he ran into the catcher by accident chasing a pop-up. But you know what? It doesn't matter. Valentine's gone, Ortiz is still there for another year or two, and everyone moves on...except someone's got to get in last licks.

Then there's the fun in Arizona, where catcher Miguel Montero (the quintessential $9 NL-only roto league catcher) made a point of ripping former Diamondbacks pitching prospect Trevor Bauer for his poor work ethic and inability to take instruction. Bauer, who ended up in Cleveland this offseason as part of Arizona's plan to field a team of nine cloned, stubbly Kirk Gibsons, has his own unique throwing and workout regimen, and regardless of results, this didn't sit well with DBacks management, coaches...or players. And so Montero unleashed a rant that, translated from the original Khazad, can be boiled down to "I totally dumped him first." (Bauer, for his part, responded from Cleveland with a bit of verbal jujitsu that can be summarized as "He crazy. God bless the troops!")

You don't get this stuff during the season, except maybe at the end when the ship's going down and everyone's fighting for a job. But for now, baseball is fresh and so are the opinions, and all I can say is "pass the popcorn".

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Rights of Spring

"Wave your hands in the air like you're going to be assigned to Pawtucket shortly!"
There are people who are very good at writing about the magic of spring training - Thomas Boswell, for one. They can conjure the magic and the pastoral grace of the scene of grown men trotting out to a green, green field to play catch in garments that look suspiciously like pajamas.

I'm not one of those guys. Don't get me wrong, mind you - I love baseball. I can't wait for the season to start. I look forward to reading about positional battles and spring phenoms and guys who, for the space of an afternoon split-squad game in Bradenton, are big leaguers because they dropped a dying quail in off a Cy Young winner who's just there to get his innings in. They may be gone with the first round of cuts, but they'll have that single forever.

See? I just don't have that Boswell poesy, that Posnanski everyman shuffle (complete with Springsteen soundtrack). What I do have, though are a few things. A dog-eared Brooklyn Dodgers yearbook my parents gave me. Baseballs autographed by guys like Ryan Madson and Miguel Batista and the 2011 Syracuse SkyChiefs. A kid-sized Montreal Expos baseball cap, purchased at Olympic Stadium during that last fateful summer when 5000 fans made themselves sound like 50,000 by hammering the metal stadium seats with tiny souvenir baseball bats. Publicity photos signed by guys like Dickie Noles and Jeff Stone. One of those guys actually screwed up his own signature; I won't tell you which one. A signed and dusty caricature of Bob Feller. Carolina Mudcats baseball cards from 2009. You get the idea.

These are not the items of a memorabilia collector. There is no rhyme or reason to them, no special effort being made to keep them pristine to ensure their resale price and no organization to them save "this would be cool" and being in the right place at the right time. They're a fan's collection of talismans, acquired over the years in fits and starts and "hey wait, what's that down there" explorations.

And they are the items of a guy who is made happy every year when spring training starts, not because of the overwrought poetry of watching David Ortiz seismically try to shake off the rust, but because it means he'll get to watch baseball games again soon. A simple pleasure, but a real enough one.

Pitchers and catchers have reported.

Play ball.

Monday, February 11, 2013

What Is The Law?

One of the most enjoyable bits of winter for a baseball fan is the annual release of Keith Law's Top 100 Prospects list (and all the various parlay columns that come with it). The list is detailed, thorough, well-thought out and entertaining to read. It's also vastly informative to the 99% of us baseball fans who don't keep obsessive watch on who's doing what against LHPs at Kane County, but who like to know who to watch for (as well as draft for the farm systems of our fantasy baseball keeper leagues). Throw in those side columns - ten who just missed, each team's breakout candidate prospects, rundowns on each team's system (if what the Phillies have can be described in any way as being "systemic") and it's a giant pile of interesting-to-read information.
And at the heart of it, a list.
It is not a definitive list, nor does it claim to be. Law goes into some detail about his process for creating and ordering the list - the criteria he uses, the weights he gives them, and so on - but noplace have I read a declaration from him that this list is infallible, that it's the be-all and end-all of prospect lists, or that it is anything more than a snapshot of potential, taken at a particular moment in time.
It is not a surefire guide to predicting success. Nor is it a competition; the prospects don't fight to the death to get on the list, nor do teams get awarded extra wins or cash or valuable prizes and Rice-a-Roni boxes for having more prospects on the list. Nothing is won by the list. Nothing is lost by it. It has precisely zero bearing to what happens on the field.
Yet people still go absolutely ballistic about it. Not rank their favorite team's prospects high enough, and Law's clearly in the bag for another team (usually the Yankees and/or the Red Sox). By where he places the various prospects, he is clearly biased against all 30 teams and at least a dozen of the more prominent minor league affiliates. There's geshrying about not having enough players from one's favorite team on the list. Or about them not being ranked high enough. Or about a team that a guy doesn't like having too many. Or about other guys being ranked ahead of a prospect a particular guy likes. The combinations are infinite. So's the screeching.
And what is it over?  A list. A list that wins no games, nor loses any. A list that does not change the prospects of the young men listed on it; they can't Highlander their way up to single digits by chopping off the heads of higher rated prospects and absorbing both their powers and their pitch selection. Soon enough, the actual games will begin, and the list won't matter as anything more than a rough guide for guys looking to fill that last bench slot in a dynasty league, but it doesn't matter. The angry ones, they need to have won everything or the universe (and Keith Law) has been biased against them.
But you know something? Games will be played. Players will get promoted, or will fall off the edge of the world. Some of the guys on the list will become stars. Some will work themselves out of the game. In twelve months, based on new data, Law will do it all over again.
And so will the guys doing all the screaming.

Friday, February 08, 2013

A Curt Assessment

Not Actually Curt Schilling
So Curt Schilling is now claiming that an unnamed Red Sox staffer suggested he start taking PEDs.
And that he refused to name the staffer.
And that certain people were aware of this.
And that it was dealt with in 2008.
And the person involved was fired by the Red Sox.
And that he wasn't bringing it up now to get attention.
And that the person responsible for bringing him the suggestion may in fact have been Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee.
And that the Red Sox staffer may have instead suggested that Schilling's Tauren shaman take virtual PEDs, also known as "buffing", rather than suggesting that Schilling take them.
And that the PEDs in question were actually magical beans which, when Schilling threw them out the window, grew into a giant beanstalk.

Some of these things are false. At this point, I'm not sure Curt Schilling knows which ones.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Buzz on the Latest Steroid News

There's something comical about the sort of indignation shown by baseball writers whenever the topic of performance enhancing drugs comes up. At once determined to root out even the faintest whiff of steroidiana while being overcome with the vapors should they indeed discover it, they resemble nothing so much as a bunch of teenagers who've gone rooting through their parents' drawers hoping to find Dad's Playboys, and being traumatized when they find Mom's vibrator instead. They are shocked, shocked to discover gambling in this establishment, even as they howl that they're determined to find out that gambling's going on here.
Football writers, by comparison, have a much more relaxed approach to things. When a football player is accused of steroid use, they generally roll their eyes and say "Duh", or, in rare cases, break into pretzel-factory-having-sex-with-a-taffy-puller-in-a-tornado levels of illogic to try to deny that any football players have taken steroids, ever. (See, for example, the case of Brian Cushing, whose defenders think "cycling" is something you do with two wheels and a discounted Lance Armstrong spandex jersey).
But right now it's the baseball guys' turn again, as the Biogenesis investigation - which any sane individual would view as proof that baseball's ongoing vigilance about PEDs is actually working - has the Danny Knoblers of the world ready for the fainting couch. Look, kids, it's simple: the odds of BALCO being the only shop cooking up steroids for pro athletes, particularly in this day and age when HGH gets advertised next to lawn sasquatches in  in-flight magazines, were roughly zero. The chances that there would still be baseball players foolish or greedy enough to risk getting caught and suspended - as well as other athletes willing to take those same risks - for fame and fortune - were basically 100%. The fact that many of the high-profile names on the Biogenesis lists had already been dinged demonstrates that baseball's testing process is working. And the odds that not every individual who made contact with the place was immediately taking SCUD missiles' worth of deca durabolin right where  Mrs. Clemens reputedly got McNameedled are actually pretty good, if the actual lists being quoted are to be believed.
So to all the writers in a tizzy over this, I offer some advice: Close the drawer. Calm the hell down. Cease demanding we throw out the entire American system of jurisprudence in order to satisfy your lust for column inch filler. And go cover football for a while. You might find it relaxing.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Be In Whatnow


The US Men's National Soccer Team is playing Honduras this afternoon in the first real qualifying match for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. We refer to this round as the "hexagonal" round because there are six teams competing for three spots, and because calling it the "polyhedral" round sounds like we're D&D nerds*, and calling it the "sexagonal" round sounds dirty**.  These matches will be going on throughout 2013.

It's actually a pretty big deal. 25 American journalists have traveled to Honduras for the match, which is nice. The Honduran government has declared the afternoon a holiday. Kids are going home from school early to watch the match. Parents are leaving work. It should be a rollicking day in San Pedro Sula, not to mention Tegucigalpa. 

You'd think this game would be broadcast in the USA on one of the channels of ESPN, right? No. Fox Soccer Channel? I mean, 'Soccer' is right there in the name. No. NBC Sports got the US rights to the MLS and the Premiership, didn't it, maybe they got some World Cup qualifiying matches...? No. 

The match is being broadcast on beIN SPORT, a new sports network. For comparison, about 100 million households receive ESPN. Less than 10 million households receive beIN SPORT. It's not carried by Verizon or Time Warner Cable.

I have a hard time imagining what prompted US Soccer to accept this carriage deal. After the success the US had in the 2010 World Cup and the enormous success of the US Women's National Team, why step down to this tiny network? US Soccer must know that the demand is out there.

(The answer to "why," is, of course, money.  beIN SPORT is a subsidiary of Al Jazeera, which is bankrolled by the oil barons of Qatar; they paid for the privilege of broadcasting this match. I still think it's a bad decision for US Soccer - do they need money so much more than they need quality exposure?)

* which we are
** again, guilty as charged

Monday, February 04, 2013

Important Things We Learned During The Super Bowl

  1. Deer antler extract's main benefit is causing the guys on the other team to drop the ball.
  2. The best plays that were called were the ones that planned on the other guys missing tackles. The last time I saw that many flubbed attempts to wrap something up, it was on the set of a mummy-themed porn flick.
  3. If your play-calling is questionable, you don't deserve to get penalties called.
  4. The 49ers definitely needed to pull Colin Kaepernick and replace him with Alex Smith. Except when Kaepernick was en fuego, a time that oddly enough coincided with the 49ers' brain trust abandoning their love of "running Frank Gore up the middle to set up 2nd and 9".
  5. When my wife, the brilliant and talented and not-at-all-interested-in-football Melinda Thielbar, watches a play and says "That's holding, right?", it's probably holding.
  6. The lights went off in the Mercedes Benz Superdome (and boy howdy, is that ever weird to type) because of an "external power surge". Which only makes sense, as the stadium does not have either a small nuclear power plant or a chained Pikachu in the basement to provide for its electrical needs.
  7. Pass interference is no longer a thing. 
  8. Steve Tasker and Solomon Wilcots cannot do math. To be fair, they should not be asked to do improvisational math on live television. Even if it is just subtraction.
  9. Not sure whose idea it was to have someone under 60 do the halftime show, but as concepts go, it might be a keeper.
  10. The momentum shifted in the 49ers' favor when the power went out. And thus, with the momentum swinging their way, they took the field after the partial blackout and gave away the ball on downs.
  11. The refs may want their face time when the cameras are on them before the game (I'm talking to you, Crew Chief Boger), but none of them want to be the ones making a call when it's a big moment. 
  12. According to the booth crew, it's a good thing they stop enforcing the rules toward the end of the game. Because inconsistency in enforcement just adds to the excitement
  13. For the record, the Puppy Bowl had power thoughout the whole game.
  14. At any given moment, the number of Harbaughs freaking out was = 1. This may be a new mathematical constant.
  15. The appropriate response to a blackout at the Super Bowl is to make a Bane joke. The second appropriate response is to realize that Ray Lewis actually is Bane.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Sportsthodoxy's Official Super Bowl Prediction

The 49ers will win tonight because they have a more explosive offense.
But the Ravens will win tonight because they're on an emotional high, ready to have Ray Lewis go out a winner.
But the 49ers will win tonight because the Ravens haven't seen a quarterback like Colin Kaepernick.
But the Ravens will win tonight because Kaepernick is just a rookie and Joe Flacco has taken the step to elite status
But the 49ers will win because of their more balanced attack.
But the Ravens will win because once you convert a 4th and 29 on your way to the Super Bowl, you have unstoppable momentum.
But the 49ers....

All of these unassailable facts and more have been offered up as irrefutable evidence of who's going to win the Super Bowl tonight. In the end, we only know a few things for sure:

Roughly half the pundits currently making predictions will be wrong.
The guys who were wrong will never mention their incorrect predictions and the strongly held beliefs and expert analyses that led to them ever again.
The guys who were right will crow about it until next year, when they have a 50-50 chance of being wrong all over again.
Nobody actually knows nuthin'
And a guy named J. Harbaugh is going to be the winning coach.

Baseball vs. Football, Part Umpty Zillion

In baseball, the debate over the American League MVP raged for months. It spawned hundreds of thousands of words of impassioned debate, incorporating mathematics, high dudgeon, low comedy, accusations both wild and astonishing, and a genuine sense that the debate was representative of a larger discussion on the merits of traditional versus advanced statistics and the changing of the guard in the hallowed dugout press box*. In the end, the award went to Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, sparking a whole new round of discussion afterwards.
In football, they handed the MVP award out yesterday. I think.

_________________________________________
*I know the press box isn't in the dugout. Work with me here, people.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Night Before The Super Bowl

Not Pictured: Jase, Willie or Uncle Si (Special Teams)
The first Super Bowl I really paid attention to was after the 1980 season. (You want the Roman Numerals, you can get them yourself). It was the Eagles and Raiders, and I was living in suburban Philly, and all of us were entranced with our wacky Iggles. We had a 6'8" wide receiver named Harold. We had a quarterback nicknamed "The Polish Rifle". We had a star defensive end named Claude and a star running back named Wilbert and a middle linebacker named Bill Bergey who, thirty three years on, would have fit in just fine on Duck Dynasty. And we'd beaten the hated, the loathed, the screw-Santa-lets-throw-snowballs-at-these-guys Dallas Cowboys to get to the Super Bowl.

Eagles coach Dick Vermeil was really the prototype for the modern football coach, in that he ate, slept, breathed and dreamed work. He'd retire a couple of years later citing burnout, the result of too many years catching a few hours' sleep on a couch in his office at the Vet after yet another late night studying film. By all accounts he wasn't a Sabanesque tyrant or a Belichickian commissar, demanding complete autonomy over the team and infusing his job of coaching large men in tight stretchy pants with militaristic fervor, but he did up the bar on intensity and the sort of effort expected from coaches. The coaching landscape of today is thus an unfortunate part of his legacy.

But back in January 1981, that sort of intensity manifested the night before the Super Bowl in a fairly straightforward way: curfew for the Eagles. Rather than risk having his team get sideswiped by the temptations of the French Quarter - all they needed was for Louie Giammona to show up at gametime wearing beads - Vermeil sent Woody Peoples, Keith Krepfle and the rest of the boys to bed early. Their opponents, the Oakland Raiders faced no such restrictions. Led by Ringo Starr movie bit player John Matuszak, a guy nicknamed "the Mad Stork" and the finest football player ever to come out of Colgate (Mark van Eeghen), the Raiders stayed out all night, guzzled whatever the hell they felt like guzzling, and presumably dragged themselves back to their hotel fifteen minutes before gametime.

And then once the game started, they proceeded to beat the clean-living Eagles like they were Keith Moon's crash cymbal. It was over, for all intents and purposes, by halftime. There's a lesson in there somewhere, I suppose, but I don't think anyone ever learned it.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Super Bowl Prop Bets, Sportsthodoxy Edition

Every Super Bowl has a Vegas line. It also has innumerable side bets available, ranging from "who scores first" to "which team's cheerleaders have the first wardrobe malfunction" to "how many souls will wither and die during an uninspiring halftime show". With that in mind, here's your Sportsthodoxy Guide to some of the more intriguing prop bets you'll see leading into Sunday.


5:4 - Ray Lewis will mention God in post-game interviews if the Ravens win
20:1 - Ray Lewis will mention God in post-game interviews if the Ravens lose
60:1 - Ray Lewis will stalk and mount Bambi on the sidelines of the game, rubbing the deer's antlers all over his face while shouting about how the Devil made quadrupeds
5:2 - Ray Lewis's helmet knocked off, revealing stubby antlers beneath
5:1 - There will be multiple shots of Alex Smith looking pensive and holding a clipboard on the sideline
4:1 - Someone will mention how Colin Kaepernick has only 10 starts as a QB
12:1 - Joe Flacco will actually prove he is an "elite QB"
8:1 - Someone will mock Joe Flacco with an "elite QB" reference after a bad pass
20:1 - Ed Reed lands a shot on a 49ers wideout that temporarily turns the poor guy into Enos from The Dukes of Hazzard
2:1 - There will be a lengthy discussion of how that's just good hard-nosed football after he does
7:1 - Kaepernick slides cleats-up into Ed Reed
6:5 - If Kaepernick slides cleats-up into Reed, Reed kills him right then and there
8:1 - Someone will realize Ray Rice is short
10:1 - There will be a shot of someone's wife or girlfriend looking horrified on the sideline after Ray Lewis takes the guy's head off, possibly with a hacksaw
9:1 - This play will be called "good, hard-nosed football"
5:1 - Someone will do a lengthy comparison-contrast of the brothers Harbaugh, not realizing we've already done one
3:1 - 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh will have a sideline meltdown because of a bad call
5:1 - Ravens coach John Harbaugh will make fun of his kid brother for doing so.
7:1 - 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh will yell at Ravens coach John Harbaugh that he's not being fair
9:1 - Ravens coach John Harbaugh will give 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh an atomic wedgie
11:1 - 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh will yell for his mom cause his big brother's being mean to him again
6:5 - Randy Moss will get alligator arms on a pass over the middle
10:1 - People will suddenly remember that Randy Moss is playing in this Super Bowl
3:1 - Someone at ESPN will start talking about how Tim Tebow would be a great fit with one of these teams.
20.5 - the over-under on "number of lingering shots of Jack Harbaugh"
1:3 - the person who knows least about football at your Super Bowl party wins your family-room betting pool

A Quick Thank-You


If we knew you were clicking, we would have baked a cake
Google has all these wacky metrics built into the Blogger platform that let you see crazy things like "how many people have visited your blog" and "how many people have ever visited your blog" and "what were they searching for that got them there" (Hint: with us it's largely about the phrase "world's dumbest bird", followed by "LOLPats" and "Ryan Braun Jew Conspiracy"). And what those metrics have told us is that January 2013 has been our best month in terms of readers, by far, in the history of the blog.
So, before we return to our usual diet of snark and banter, we wanted to take a second to say thank you to everyone who's started reading us. Hopefully, we will continue to amuse.
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