Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Language Lessons

What's in a word?

There are a lot of phrases common to sports analysis...

They choked.

It was a lot closer than the score indicated.

It wasn't as close as the final score.

"X" didn't win the game, "Y" lost it.

They gave the game away.

This is just a small cross section of some of the statements commonly made. But how much is just the idea that people are justifying the way a game was played? Sure, there are cosmetic points scored in garbage time, but some of those "not as close" sort of statements come from someplace else.

Do we make these comments sometimes to demean a team?

People talk about the Patriots losing the Super Bowl this year as one of the biggest choke jobs in the history of professional sports. But by saying the Patriots choked, aren't we then also saying that the Giants got lucky that the Pats didn't bring their A-game? I, for one, watched what I thought was great execution by the Giants of a game-plan that was perfectly designed.

Did the Oilers choke in Buffalo those many years ago, or is that just a way of minimizing the Bills' accomplishments that year?

Language can be a powerful thing, and the statements are direct and have a specific meaning, but what can be implied by a given statement? Sure, teams will win in butt-ugly fashion from time to time, but does that actually make a win any less a win? It still counts in the win column - and as Bill Parcells used to say, "You are what your record is." It doesn't matter if the wins were ugly - it's not how you got there, it's the fact that you got there.

Choke jobs exist in professional sports.

It's a fact.

But at what point does the failure of one party to perform become their own responsibility versus the opponents' rising to the occasion?

In 1986 Calvin Schiraldi blew a lead in game six with the Red Sox up three games to two over the Mets long before Bill Buckner let an errant ground ball go through his legs in a tie ball game. Somehow Buckner became the goat when Schiraldi deserved the blame.

Watching the game, you could see it in his eyes - Schiraldi choked. He didn't have the balls to shut the door with the biggest game of his career on the line.

I don't mean to take anything away from the Mets who fought back with consecutive singles to tie the game up, but I firmly believe that if the Sox had someone on the mound like the Mets' Roger McDowell or Jesse Orosco on the mound, then the team would have won in 1986 and no one would ever have talked about the Buckner gaffe because it would never have happened.

Take the Yankees post-season fiasco of 2004. Yes, it is possibly the biggest choke job in the history of baseball. No team in the post-season had ever been up 3-0 in the ninth and failed to seal the deal. No team has ever let an opponent win four straight after being up 3-0.

Does that take away from what the Red Sox did? No. They came back against a pitcher who was widely believed to be the best closer in baseball en route to their first World Series title since Babe Ruth was on the team. Of course, the flip side of that is that the Red Sox owned Mariano Rivera that season, and for much of the time since.

In the end, the media has a job that it doesn't always do very well - and that's to balance what we write with making sure that credit is still given where it is due.

And sometimes that's as difficult a job when it comes to working language as any other job out there.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Back in the Fens

Of the 15 years I lived in Boston, three were in the shadow of Fenway Park. I could hear the crowds from my apartment.

I lived there during the team's dark days of the early 1990's. The Billy Hatcher years.

I was a solid four blocks from the stadium and could still hear the crowds in spite of the fact the Sox were fielding sub-standard teams.

Today the World Champion Red Sox started their opening homestand against the Tigers with a 3-4 record - good enough for last place and 2.5 games behind the AL East leading Blue Jays. The Tigers themselves, expected to take the Central by most pundits, have started the season off with a big, fat Oh-fer. After six games the Tigers entered the Fenway opening with a big Donut in the win column.

By the end of the game the Sox had worked their way back to .500 while Detroit remained a big Oh-fer in the win column. Considering that only two teams in the history of baseball have even made the post-season after starting the season 0-6, and none have made a dent in the World Series, Detroit fans should be gearing up for a season of disappointment.

For Sox fans the first eight games has been a mixed bag.

The first four against the Athletics were filled with promise as the team went 3-1. When they got smoked in the next three by a Blue Jays team that was significantly better than the Athletics, the hope was that the team was just jet lagged from their trip to Japan. With the Dice-man on the mound the Sox bounced back to win 5-0.

While Matsuzaka's pitching performance was encouraging as he shut down what should be a potent Detroit line-up for six and two-thirds, there were other places that were either cause for concern, or that presented questions that won't be answered for sometime.

For the first eight games Big Papi has been David Outiz. Is something wrong with the hitter who for a two season stretch was the best clutch hitter in the game? Or has he just been affected more by the travel than the other players on the team? Right now the Sox clean-up hitter is batting an anemic .103. Currently Ortiz is batting 147 points lower than Coco Crisp.

The Sox leading hitter is JD Drew, currently batting .368.

Scott Boras would have Sox fans believe that this is Drew and what we saw last season was the aberration, that the guy who knocked in 100 for the Dodgers just before joining the Sox is the real Drew.

The real Drew is what we saw last season. He batted .270, only 15 points below his career average, but was right in the wheelhouse with run production, batting in 64 (career average of 57), and scoring 84 runs against his career average of 69. Expect a drop off.

The question now becomes, which team should we expect today? The one that shut down the Tigers, or the one shut down by the Jays?

Monday, April 07, 2008

True Crime, NFL style

The NFL draft is around the corner.

That means a lot of things for NFL teams. Once it just meant identifying the best player available in the draft. Now, with free-agency, it's about the best player available at a position of need...accounting for the potential future player passing a background check - the impact of living in the information age, and one of the costs of the growth of the sport.

As the sport has grown its fan-base, and tightened its grip on the hearts of the hardcore fans, the NFL owners have found significant profits to be made with the casual fan. In order to keep those dollars flowing, the days of the outlaw football player have become numbered.

It used to be that talent trumped all.

There has been a shift.

Talent might keep a player on a roster in spite of criminal behavior, but with the likelihood of suspension and the loss of a significant player with no cap relief, teams have begun to weigh the merits of whether or not that talent is worth the trouble.

The Cincinnati Bengals, once thought to be a talented team on the rise, now a cautionary tale about what could happen to a team should it ignore those character issues, just parted ways with chronically troubled wide-out Chris Henry. With both Henry and former college teammate and NFL bad boy Adam "Pacman" Jones in the news recently, I decided to do some research into the criminal behavior of NFL players.

Approximately one year ago there was a fascinating article in the San Diego Union-Tribune regarding the subject, providing some telling numbers.

From 2000 to 2007 there were 308 incidents in which active NFL players had run-ins with the law, approximately 40 percent of the violations were committed by 50 players with multiple offenses and two teams stood out with as having the most multiple offenders - the Vikings (pleasure boat, anyone?), and the aforementioned Bengals.

It notes that defensive back and wide receiver accounted for 130 of the incidents while offensive line and quarterback only 41.

This jives with an anecdotal review I did of a random sampling of 64 players who have been arrested since 2000. The breakdown of what I found just based on 64 players identified in random Internet searches was that 18 defensive backs, 11 wide receivers, 10 defensive linemen, 8 linebackers, 7 offensive linemen, 5 running backs, 2 quarterbacks, and one kicker were represented in the random sampling.

Twenty-nine of 64 players were either wide-outs or defensive backs, or 45 percent of the offenders...anecdotally speaking, that is. Going by the SD-Trib's numbers based on the number of offenses rather than the number of players at the position, the numbers remain fairly even with receivers and DB's accounting for 42.2 percent of the offenses.

Interestingly, the NFL has averaged overall about one offense per 45 players per year - well below the national average for the general population. This fact is highly touted by the NFL when defending criminal activity in the league.

While it is something to be proud of considering the NBA has been unable to make the same claim, it also must be noted that the NFL population is a population sans poverty - the highest crime demographic in the United States.

One of the interviewees for the article noted that he believed that many of the offenses occur because so many athletes are held above personal accountability and thus feel they are above the law. While I believe there is some truth to this statement, I also think that it vastly simplifies a much more complex issue.

Yes, the players in the NFL make obscene salaries. Even those making the minimum for a year are still making well over six years worth of the highest salary I have ever made. That doesn't mean that poverty doesn't play a part. People like Mike Vick, Chris Henry, and Pacman Jones all come from high-crime, low-income neighborhoods. This is not an excuse for their behavior, just a search for a deeper reason why someone smart enough to remember a phone-book sized play-book would be dumb enough to repeatedly do the same stupid thing, whether illegally fighting dogs or assaulting people at strip clubs.

The question that I did not address when looking at the list I compiled was filial finances while growing up. However, it is easy to note that a number of the players who have been arrested - Vick, Jones, Henry, Rae Carruth, Ray Lewis, and Sean Taylor among them - came from among what would be considered the disenfranchised.

What the numbers do present, however, is another question. Assuming for an average of five wide receivers and eight defensive backs per 53-man NFL roster: how is it that 24.5 percent of the players in the NFL account for almost half of the league's criminal activity? What is it about those positions that is the problem? For that I have no answer.

Wrapping up the weekend...

The Red Sox finished up an absolutely brutal road trip in brutal fashion. After a solid showing, taking three of four from the Athletics, the Sox got their hats handed to them by the Blue Jays, getting swept in a three game set at the Rogers Center in Toronto.

In dropping their first three of the 2008 season to Toronto, there was little good that the Sox did. In three games the Sox had nearly half as many errors as they did runs - four errors and nine total runs. The team batted .220 north of the border with the heart of the line-up - David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and Mike Lowell - batting a combined .206 (7 for 34) with two RBI's. Pair that against the fact that the Jays scored 23 runs, with 22 earned, it becomes obvious that this was a whole team breakdown - the Sox sputtered on offense, defense, and with their pitching.

Hopefully it's just a case of jet lag from covering Japan, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Toronto in the last two weeks.

Hair today...

The NFL owners mulled over a proposition regarding penalties for hair that obscures the nameplates of player jerseys. I don't care one way or the other that a player wants to grow his hair long - he just needs to understand that if the locks are long, then they're fair game for tackling.

But beyond that, there has been rumbling from certain quarters that this idea might be racially motivated.

The irony, of course, is that the idea came from Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, an African-American.

The moral - before people begin yelling that this is just another case of the white aristocracy trying to keep the black man in his place, maybe, just maybe they should check the actual source.

I'm not saying that things don't happen for racist reasons. Things like that happen all the time, and vigilance is required. All I'm saying is that people need to make sure they know where an idea comes from before they begin claiming that it's another case of white ownership trying to control the black players.

Three down and Celtic Pride...

Celtic pride...there's a term I haven't heard in a while. But the team has earned it.

Maybe at not time more so than this weekend.

On Friday night the Celtics added to team legend by accomplishing the greatest single-season turn-around in the history of the NBA when they won their 61st game of the season. With six games still left on the schedule, the team has already won 37 more games than they did last season.

On Friday they did it without their new Big Three, without Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, or Kevin Garnett. What's more, it was never close.

The names leading the charge? A veritable "Who's that" of the NBA. With names like James Posey (19 points), Leon Powe (22 points, 9 rebounds, 2 steals), and Eddie House (16 points, 2 rebounds, 1 steal), the casual basketball fan is going to look at this line-up and wonder how this team destroyed a Charlotte team that features Emeka Okafor and Earl Boykins by 23 points.

And going into the season the weakness of this team, said analysts, would be the bench.

So much for conventional wisdom.