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Our Long National Nightmare Resumes
Published on September 19, 2011 by Sara Foss

The Boston Red Sox are in the midst of an epic collapse - the sort of late-season meltdown that, should the team fail to make the playoffs, will long leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

Over at Yahoo MLB, Jeff Passan assigns blame for the collapse, and though he cites manager Terry Francona and many of the players - John Lackey and Carl Crawford are among his top targets - his biggest culprit is Theo Epstein.

He writes:

"Theo Epstein is facing criticism – all of it justified – for leaving his franchise shorthanded in the throes of a playoff race.

It is very simple: No team with the ability to spend $170 million on its payroll should be starting Kyle Weiland(notes) in September. Period. Weiland is the rookie starting the first game Monday against Baltimore. He has allowed 34 baserunners in 19 innings while striking out six. He may be good someday. He may see the criticism descending on him now and throw a gem. Just like good teams can lose, bad pitchers can win.

Weiland simply represents a systematic failure in what to this point has been a peerlessly managed team. Epstein has run the Red Sox with efficiency and intelligence during his nine seasons as general manager. Which makes this all the more distressing for diehards and pink-hats alike.

It’s easy to second-guess Epstein when Kevin Millwood(notes), who left the Red Sox’s Triple-A affiliate to sign with the Colorado Rockies the day Boston’s phenomenal stretch ended, has thrown well for a non-contender. Millwood wanted to pitch in the major leagues; Epstein never afforded him that opportunity."

 (More)


Closer Music
Published on September 18, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the A.V. Club, Eric Freeman writes about the importance of music in baseball, particularly for closers. Since the only closer song I'm really familiar with is Jonathan Papelbon's use of the Dropkick Murphy's "I'm Shipping Up to Boston," which Freeman describes as pandering, I found this pretty interesting.

Here's an excerpt:

"Baseball players have a hard time expressing their personal style. Playing a sport with discrete events, prescribed paths of travel, and a set of unwritten rules that haven’t been updated in several decades, they have little room to color outside the lines. In most cases, hitches in pitching deliveries or bizarre batting approaches are drilled out of players at a young age. In contrast to sports like basketball, soccer, or football, there are few opportunities for the sort of open-field play that showcases peerless athleticism and unbridled creativity.

Because of these restrictions, players must take advantage of any opportunity afforded them to make a stylistic mark on the game. Somewhat bizarrely, one of the best ways to do this has nothing to do with the way the sport is played. Nearly every player in the majors is allowed to choose entrance music, whether it’s a short snippet before his first at-bat of the game or a longer entrance song before a pitcher comes into the game.

Closers need these songs more than anyone. Pitching just one inning to end the game, they rely on elements of intimidation that workhorse starters can’t sustain over six or seven innings. Closers are performers in the full sense of the word, and their entrance music is nearly as much a part of their personas as a filthy slider or 97-mph fastball. Yet few understand what makes a good entrance song. They have much to learn. Most of which, incidentally, can be found in the following guide."

The piece goes on to talk about AC/DC, Steel Dragon and more. Click here to read it.


NFL Picks, Week 2
Published on September 15, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I make my week 2 NFL Picks.

An excerpt:

"Oakland Raider at BUFFALO BILLS — I wouldn’t say I’m on the Bills’ bandwagon, exactly, but I think they can beat a surprisingly tough Oakland team at home.

Chicago Bears at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS — The Bears looked very good during week 1, and QB Jay Cutler appears to be playing with a big giant chip on his shoulder. (I would, too, if I tore my MCL and everyone mocked me and called me a gutless wimp.) But I think the Saints can beat them at home, where they’ve been very good these past few years.

Cleveland Browns at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS — This should be a pretty scrappy game, and the Browns are technically the better team, because they have a quarterback, but I expect the Colts to scrape together a victory.

Kansas City Chiefs at DETROIT LIONS — I expect the Lions to destroy the Chiefs on Sunday. It isn’t a question of whether they’ll win so much as a question of by how much."

Click here for more.


College Sports Need to Change
Published on September 14, 2011 by Sara Foss

I've long been of the mindset that there's something wrong with college sports, and the NCAA in particular. Stories about college athletes accepting bribes and gifts tend to cast the students as greedy villains, without stopping to ponder the widespread corruption of the system.

What I find most fascinating is the shock and dismay that inevitably greets these stories, because it's not as if they ever contain anything new; the most recent example of the genre, the scandal involving the Miami Hurricanes, shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone over the age of six.

For a while, a vocal minority has dared to defend the athletes and lambaste the NCAA, and now civil rights attorney Taylor Branch has authored a piece, titled "The Shame of College Sports," suggesting that college athletes should be paid.

Here's an excerpt:

The list of scandals goes on. With each revelation, there is much wringing of hands. Critics scold schools for breaking faith with their educational mission, and for failing to enforce the sanctity of “amateurism.” Sportswriters denounce the NCAA for both tyranny and impotence in its quest to “clean up” college sports. Observers on all sides express jumbled emotions about youth and innocence, venting against professional mores or greedy amateurs.

For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.

Don Curtis, a UNC trustee, told me that impoverished football players cannot afford movie tickets or bus fare home. Curtis is a rarity among those in higher education today, in that he dares to violate the signal taboo: 'I think we should pay these guys something.'

Fans and educators alike recoil from this proposal as though from original sin. Amateurism is the whole point, they say. Paid athletes would destroy the integrity and appeal of college sports. Many former college athletes object that money would have spoiled the sanctity of the bond they enjoyed with their teammates. I, too, once shuddered instinctively at the notion of paid college athletes.

But after an inquiry that took me into locker rooms and ivory towers across the country, I have come to believe that sentiment blinds us to what’s before our eyes. Big-time college sports are fully commercialized. Billions of dollars flow through them each year. The NCAA makes money, and enables universities and corporations to make money, from the unpaid labor of young athletes.

Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene—corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as “student-athletes” deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution—is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized. But it is, nonetheless, unjust. The NCAA, in its zealous defense of bogus principles, sometimes destroys the dreams of innocent young athletes.

The NCAA today is in many ways a classic cartel. Efforts to reform it—most notably by the three Knight Commissions over the course of 20 years—have, while making changes around the edges, been largely fruitless. The time has come for a major overhaul. And whether the powers that be like it or not, big changes are coming. Threats loom on multiple fronts: in Congress, the courts, breakaway athletic conferences, student rebellion, and public disgust. Swaddled in gauzy clichés, the NCAA presides over a vast, teetering glory."

 


Our Long National Nightmare is Over
Published on September 14, 2011 by Sara Foss

It wasn't pretty, but Tim Wakefield finally won his 200th game.


David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer
Published on September 11, 2011 by Sara Foss

The supremely talented novelist David Foster Wallace knew a lot about tennis, as anyone who's read "Infinite Jest" can attest.

Now Grantland has posted Wallace's 2006 essay on tennis great Roger Federer, which ran in the short-lived New York Times sports magazine Play. Here's an excerpt:

"Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men's tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you're O.K.

The Moments are more intense if you've played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do. We've all got our examples. Here is one. It's the finals of the 2005 U.S. Open, Federer serving to Andre Agassi early in the fourth set. There's a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes, one with the distinctive butterfly shape of today's power-baseline game, Federer and Agassi yanking each other from side to side, each trying to set up the baseline winner…until suddenly Agassi hits a hard heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (=left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which of course is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer's scrambling to reverse and get back to center, Agassi's moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does — Federer's still near the corner but running toward the centerline, and the ball's heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there's no time to turn his body around, and Agassi's following the shot in to the net at an angle from the backhand side…and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball's past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi's side, a winner — Federer's still dancing backward as it lands. And there's that familiar little second of shocked silence from the New York crowd before it erupts, and John McEnroe with his color man's headset on TV says (mostly to himself, it sounds like), "How do you hit a winner from that position?" And he's right: given Agassi's position and world-class quickness, Federer had to send that ball down a two-inch pipe of space in order to pass him, which he did, moving backwards, with no setup time and none of his weight behind the shot. It was impossible. It was like something out of "The Matrix." I don't know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs.

Anyway, that's one example of a Federer Moment, and that was merely on TV — and the truth is that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love."


NFL Picks, Week 1
Published on September 8, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I post my football picks.

Here's an excerpt:

"New Orleans Saints at GREEN BAY PACKERS — There’s some chatter about the Packers having some kind of Super Bowl hangover and losing to the Saints. I don’t buy it.

ATLANTA FALCONS at Chicago Bears — The Bears managed to do fairly well last year, although if I remember correctly they were my least favorite winning team, and Jay Cutler my least favorite winning quarterback. Meanwhile, the Falcons kept getting better ... and they should continue to get better this year.

Buffalo Bills at KANSAS CITY CHIEFS — If mighty Matt Cassel doesn’t play, I am changing this pick. But the Chiefs should be able to handle the Bills, who had a feisty stretch last year, but are unlikely, in my opinion, to be very good.

Cincinnati Bengals at CLEVELAND BROWNS — I don’t think I can pick the Bengals to win a single game this year. But I like the look of the Browns, at least right now, as they have a promising QB in Colt McCoy and a good running back in Peyton Hillis.

Detroit Lions at TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS — This is supposed to be the Detroit Lions’ year. (Whoever thought we’d be saying that?) QB Matt Stafford isn’t injured, and everyone seems to think they’ll finally be able to capitalize on their potential. However, I am skeptical about their ability to beat a decent Buccaneers team playing at home."

Click here for more.

I also enjoyed these football haikus at The Awl, and this ongoing football discussion at Slate.


Oh my god, those waves are amazing
Published on September 1, 2011 by Sara Foss

I am a body surfer, but not a surfer. Nevertheless, I find this footage of the massive waves off the coast of Tahiti, and the professional surfers who "participated in what some observers described as the most incredible and intense big-wave session ever recorded," according to GrindTV.com, pretty amazing. Here's a link to an article and video of this awesome surf.


Philip's Bike Commute
Published on August 22, 2011 by Sara Foss

My friend Philip Schwartz at the Albany Business Review has been blogging about bike commuting. In his most recent post, he writes about biking to Saratoga Race Course for an office outing.


Yes, Dennis Rodman is in the Hall of Fame
Published on August 15, 2011 by Sara Foss

Somewhat amazingly, Dennis Rodman has been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

I liked Rodman better when he played for the Pistons, rebounded like mad, and was such a force on defense that his limited offensive skill set didn't much matter. Of course, then he went to the Bulls and transformed himself into an larger-than-life athlete-entertainer. My friend Geoff always defended this version of Rodman, saying that he brought an element of unpredictability and creative expression to the somewhat bland world of professional sports. Now that I'm older, I've come to agree with Geoff. Rodman was something special, something we'll never see again. And in an era when athletes do little more than utter cautious sound bites, we miss him more than ever.

This piece, by sportswriter Michael Silver, who co-wrote a book with Rodman titled "Walk On the Wild Side," paints a vibrant portrait of the man known as the Worm. Here's an excerpt:

"I consider Worm a special friend in the way that you have blind and guttural love for your best buddies in elementary school, feelings stemming not solely from the fact that he twice stuck up for me to David Letterman on national TV, when I was a young Sports Illustrated writer and we’d just emerged from a four-day, three-state bender that would change both of our lives for the crazier.

When Rodman, in the midst of that jaunt, talked about gay sex fantasies, his ex-girlfriend Madonna’s ability to make him 'feel like King Tut' and his desire to play his final NBA game au naturale – and posed for an iconic SI cover in a zip-up tank top, tight metallic hot pants, a rhinestone dog collar, with an exotic bird on his shoulder – the mainstream sports world wasn’t ready for the fallout."

Silver adds: "He wasn’t always the life of the party. Rodman didn’t have a drink until he was 30. (Certainly, he has made up for it in the two decades since.) He also, until the mid-’90s, lived a repressed, stultified existence that kept his inner freak in a secret cage. He was scared to show the world the real him, or to even explore it, because he assumed the reaction from his peers, and from the public, would be overwhelmingly negative and reproachful.

Eventually, Rodman relented and began to reveal strands of strangeness, and when I met him in the spring of 1995, he was in the process of letting the dragon out of the dungeon. What he’d discovered, to his utter surprise, was that for all the straitlaced folks who scoffed at his deviant tendencies, there were hordes of others – many not even basketball fans – who embraced him for his unabashed honesty and willingness to take the risk."


Jokes Vs. Pukes
Published on August 6, 2011 by Sara Foss

Speaking of jerks ... At my high schools, and most high schools, jerks are often associated with athletics. (And I say this as someone who loves sports, and played sports in high school.) They might not play sports themselves, but they tend to orbit the athletes and use this connection as a way to assert and define themselves. I'll never forget the time some drunk student spectators decided to throw things at the marching band. Ostensibly, we were all rooting for the same team. Schools are, of course, complicit in this behavior, as they celebrate and deify student athletes at the expense of everyone else. And only certain athletes ... you'll never see a school-wide pep rally to support championship cross country runners, or cross country skiers.

Anyway, there's a good piece in The Nation's sports issue that looks at what the writer, Robert Lipsyte describes as jock culture. He suggests that the influence of jock culture is vast and far reaching, and I think he's right. In fact, I wish the piece was longer, with more examples. But it's a good start. Click here to read it.


Philip's Bike Commute
Published on August 4, 2011 by Sara Foss

My friend Philip Schwartz at the Albany Business Review has been blogging about bike commuting. This week, he tried to quantify the money he's saved and the gallons of gas he hasn't used. Click here for more.


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