Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Repressed Intelligence

Back in the day, a friend of mine (nicknamed "The Rooster," not because he was a big fan of cocks, like this guy, but because he loved Alice in Chains to an alarming/stalkerish extent) and I used to make prop bets on how many paragraphs it would take for the local pop music writer to mention Nirvana in his latest article. Bob Dylan profile? Check. Paragraph 11. Review of Los Lobos' latest? Yup. Paragraph Two.

I've noticed a similar trend in sportswriting lately, especially during the winter meetings, where it seems every columnist is resurrecting "Moneyball" to serve as the counter-point to whatever absurd hypothesis they're trying to put forth. There's this one jackass North of the Border (Richard Griffin, Toronto Star) who has apparently been greivously wronged by one William Lamar Beane (or one Michael Lewis), because he invokes the book at every opportunity. From his writings, it's impossible to discern if he's a quart low of reading comprehension fluid or if he never read the book at all, since he has not once portrayed its theme correctly.

His latest steaming pile* intimates a) that the A's unemotionally traded or allowed all their stars to leave because of a "Moneyball" philosophy. First off, exactly how many MLB payrolls could absorb the combined costs of the contracts of Giambi, Tejada, Hudson, Mulder, Isringhausen (or Foulke) and Big Hurt? That's better than $250 million. Second, in no universe would the departure of Jason Giambi ever be considered "unemotional." Third, "Moneyball" is, listen up Dick, ABOUT EXPLOITING MARKET INEFFICIENCY.

And ridiculous salaries is an inefficiency. Giving Alfonso Soriano or Vernon Wells that kind of money is wasting resources that could be better used elsewhere. Cost-to-benefit analysis. But I suppose you approve of the contract Gil Meche got from Kansas City. Whereas, those of us with a discerning eye, with an "unemotional" reliance on statistics think it's possibly the worst contract in history. Because where you "old-school" a-holes see his 95 mph fastball, plus curve and plus change and "project" what he can do, we see his 5+ ERA away from spacious Safeco and the fact he throws nearly 18 pitches an inning over the course of his career, which makes him a very expensive 6-inning pitcher.

DickGriff also takes a swipe at the A's attendance, a subject so impossibly played out that it's like comedians who make jokes about airplane food. I wouldn't even mention it but for the fact the A's have out-drawn Dick's hometoiwn Jays in 5 of the last 6 seasons.

The over/under in # of paragraphs it takes DickGriff to mention "Moneyball" in his next column is 8. The line that he mis-represents it is -1,200.

*Tip of the cap to Fire Joe Morgan

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Go On, Son!

I finally caught the Aresenal-Chelsea draw that I was supposed to watch at the Imperial Palace last Sunday at the end of a long bender. It was being replayed late-night on Fox Soccer Channel and even though I knew the score and even when the goals were to come, it was a cracking spectacle nonetheless (Essien's equaliser was, dare I say, Gerrard-ian). Made even better by the fact this particular replay was FSC's "fan" game where die-hards of each team do commentary.

It's hilarious to listen to. They crack on each other's players. Their views of tackles and whistles totally divergent, shouts of "Well done!" mingling with "What rubbish." It magnified my enjoyment of the game exponentially. And I want to do it. I want to sit in a booth with and Angel fan and announce an A's-Halo game. It wouldn't be much different from Anaheim's usual duo of Steve Physioc and Rex Hudler, who treat the home team like sanitary-clad dieties who have never made a single mistake in their entire careers, who treat every RBI bloop as a game-winner in the deciding game of the World Series.

Based on every interaction I've ever had with an Angel fan, I imagine it'd go something like this.

Joe Speaker: Santana is really struggling. He can't locate his fastball and the A's hitters are sitting on his off-speed stuff.
Angel Fan: Rally Monkey!
JS: There's another hard-hit ball and the A's increase their lead to 4-1.
AF: Me like baseball! Weeeeeeeee!
JS: Would you like a cookie?
AF: No, but do you have any thundersticks? Or paste? I like to eat paste.

Okay, maybe that's not gonna be exciting enough for my local FOX affiliate to implement. How about I go up in the booth with Hudler himself?

Rex Hudler: The Angels are looking to get their "frenzy" hitting shoes on.
Joe Speaker: Rex, that "frenzy" hitting thing hasn't been happening for four years. This is one of the worst offensive teams in baseball.
RH: Scioscia really likes to put pressure on the opposing defense.
JS: By having his hitters make outs?
RH: This is not a team that likes to walk.
JS: No, it's a team that likes to swing at balls, preferably early in the count, and make quick outs. That's why they're 5 games out with 20 to play.
RH: I'd rather be 5 out than 5 games ahead at this point in the season. It's better to be hunting than looking over your shoulder.*
JS: You do realize you just advocated being on the wrong end of a 10 game swing, right?
RH: Frenzy!

*Rex Hudler has actually said this on numerous occasions

Friday, December 15, 2006

Watch This

As someone who has not one, but two, new sports-related blogs, I am loathe to admit the following, but I did not realize I had NFL Network until halftime of the Seahawks/49ers tilt last night. And the Niners are my favorite team.

I was page-downing through the DirecTV guide looking to fill AJ's request to watch "sports." The Kings-Sharks didn't start for a bit, so I was looking for some college hoops or something to keep him busy. I pass the 11 ESPN channels and there's the NFL Network and my son shouts, "Daddy! The 49ers are playing!" I calmly tell him I don't get that channel, but his face shows he will not be swayed until I prove it. "Here. Watch," I say, hitting "enter."

Uh oh. And hooray!

I suppose I get it with the sports package, which includes all the regional networks (see?!?! I do like sports!). Glad to see that money is well-spent, even in the baseball off-season.

We settled in and were treated to the finest 30 minutes of football I've seen the Niners play in forever. Hard to believe it was the same team that got crushed last week by the Packers, that basically gave a game away in St. Louis. Last Sunday, while attending a convention of degenerates in Las Vegas, a friend and I were discussing QB Alex Smith in the sportsbook. He maintained the kid wasn't far away, that his intelligence might currently be a hinderence, but it will ultimately be what ensures his success. And that sounded right to me, because my take on him has always been that he's a split second slow, as if he's over-thinking each situation and not yet instinctually making reads and plays.

We're a spoiled lot, us Niner fans. The team has been difficult to watch in recent seasons. Been difficult to watch at times THIS season. But then they surprise you with the kind of effort, the level of ability, they showed in the second half last night. Remember, this was IN Seattle, one of the toughest places for visitors in today's NFL. The Niners have had a few of these moments this year. The question, for both Smith and the entire team, is whether these flashes are a sign of more consistent things to come, or simply aberrant teases.

One thing's for sure: They've got me watching. Even if by accident.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Thanks to all who called, wrote or text'd their thoughts on my last post. Apparently, there are many areas where exceptions must be granted for changing fandom. Allow me to address these.

1. You're a girl.

In the pre-Title IX days, many of the fairer sex did not get exposed to sports, instead spending many hours with their Barbie dolls play-acting elaborate scenarios on how to rip out men's hearts when they got older. Sports was for Fathers and Sons. So many women grew up without an affiliation. How do they pick a team?

First and foremost, you should adopt the favorite teams of your boyfriend, husband, significant other, life partner. Don't question it, just do it. At least feign a desire to learn more about the players, watch games with the hubby, ask questions. The last is a double-edged sword, however. If you causually ask for a quick explanation of the sacrifice fly rule over morning toast, your boyfriend just might leap from his chair and take you right there in the breakfast nook. If you ask him that during a game, he'll ignore you at best and tell you to "Shut It!" at worst. Gotta pick your spots.

In the event the relationship goes sour, you are welcome to abandon the team(s) as well. Clean breaks are always best. All's fair in love and war and you'll likely find yourself rooting vociferously against those teams if it was a bad break-up and consciously avoiding other men who favor those sides.

Naturally, some of you ladies did have mothers and fathers who passed to you a love of sports and in that case, you are bound to the original rules.

2. No local team.

These people end up being Yankee fans, so fuck 'em. Seriously, there's an entire generation of rural Americans who became Bomber fans because of an unhealthy Man Crush on Don Mattingly. Sure, great swing, fine ambassador for the game, but I like to think it was the John Holmes moustache that drew this particular crowd.

3. Your favorite team moves.

Being still in the throes of a divorce, the very idea of this feels like an ice pick to the kidneys. Sure, I was plenty pissed when X took off with that Douchebag, but it's not nearly as bad as if the A's moved to Puerto Rico or something.

Most of my extended family is from St. Louis and not a one of 'em followed the football Cardinals out to the desert. Totally fair. I would never advocate loyalty to a cheating spouse. Of course, those same relatives glommed onto the Rams when they hit town and that's also okay, though it feels a little dirty, because now they're the "Cheater" instead of the "Cheated." Then again, who gives a shit about Anaheim. Bitch probably deserved it.

In some instances, I'd go so far as to say it's MANDATORY that you cease your fandom for a moving franchise. Some betrayals just can't be suffered. I'm looking at you Art Modell. And you Bob Irsay.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Rules of the Game

In my view, there are only two acceptable reasons for becoming a fan of a particular team.

1. The franchise is the "hometown" team in the area where you spent your formative years.

2. The team is the favorite of your parents, passed down like a birthright.

That's it. We here at WMD allow no exceptions. Do I quiz people about their fanaticism? No. My standards are my own and I've adhered to them exclusively throughout my sporting life. I'm not here to judge, though you bandwagoners out there know who you are and are surely ashamed of your very existence.

I grew up in a Bay Area suburb east of San Francisco. Both my parents are huge sports fans and I inherited that trait. I officially adopted the Oakland A's as my team at age 12 after a few years of following both them and the Giants, my Dad's preferred side. It was the arrival of Billy Martin that sealed it along with equally excited peers on the playground as the franchise rose from a long Dark Age, replete with abyssmal attendance (at least one game in the later 70s was attended by less than a thousand people) and rumors of sales and moves (to Denver, usually). By 1981, I was full-fledged Kelly Green and Fort Knox Gold, when the A's and Their Amazing Aces (the headline of an SI cover story, which meant a lot more then than it does now) reeled off 11 straight wins to begin the season.

My Dad, having grown up in The City, was mostly responsible for my backing the 49ers. He'd tell stories of old Kezar Stadium, John Brodie and Hugh McIlhenny, the "Alley Oop," Y.A. Title to R.C. Owens. The Niners, during this time, were often horrid, a long hangover from those "almost" teams of Brodie who could never get past the Cowboys. Until Bill Walsh came along. And that's the other reason. Why, I could not possibly tell you, but before I embraced a pro team, I had latched on to Stanford. I'm going to guess it was because of their entertaining offensive style. It surely wasn't because of any repeated success. But my first favorite gridders were Guy Benjamin and Kenny Margerum. The first football game I ever attended was a Stanford-UCLA tilt I begged my Dad to take me to (and he was just as pleased as I was when John Naber gave the home side a last-second win with a field goal), so when Walsh jumped to the pros, I happily went with him. And then there was Joe Montana. No going back after that. I mentioned earlier how I watched The Catch by myself. I couldn't stand to be around anyone else. I was so tense. Not simply for myself, but for my Dad, long-suffering--especially at the hands of the Cowboys--and on the verge of irreversable cynicism where the Niners were concerned. He was working that day, so I never did get to see his face when they pulled it out. But I know I wept from sheer happiness. For Dad.

So, pretty simple. Nice organic melding with the local clubs, one that has held firm for 25 years or so. I also follow the Golden State Warriors, though professional basketball lost its allure for me right around '94 when every team ran isolation plays and pretty much destroyed the beauty of the game. I have been watching more NBA lately, due to an opening up of the game thanks to rule changes, the Suns and once-in-a-generation talents like LeBron, Wade and Melo. And also because AJ wants to watch the Lakers all the time.

Ah, AJ. He's a bit young still for ardent fandom, but his first question when I pick him up from school is, "Are there any sports on?" In our hundreds of channels universe there always are so we often watch 3 or 4 games a night, sometimes simultaneously. And his favorite teams? Pretty much whomever is leading at that point, which can cause a lot of flip-flopping during NBA games. He does favor the A's because of my social conditioning since his birth, but it's a tenuous connection, especially after he learned the Hard Lesson of Baseball Economics when his favorite player--Big Hurt--jumped ship this off-season to the Blue Jays. He literally cried when I told him, but hours later was asking if we were supposed to root for Toronto now. I suggested instead we cheer for a torn ACL, but I don't think he got my meaning. He has adopted the Bears as his NFL team, after they demolished Seattle on Sunday night earlier on this year. I may have contributed to that with my endless repetition of the SNL-accented "'Da Bears," which he found quite humorous, but their unbeaten run to start the year was likely just as much to blame. He even delighted in their crushage of the Niners.

So yeah, he's highly impressionable at this age, which is not at all surprising. My childhood friend Kool Breeze provides an example of how kids are drawn to success. His favorite teams are the Reds, Vikings, 76ers and Dallas (nee Minesota North) Stars. He grew up in the same town I did, but those of you with knowledge of sports history will notice all those teams were highly competitive in the mid-70s, when he first found the sports fan within. To his credit, they remain his teams today, 30 years later. And it's probably instructive to remember what the televised sports landscape was in those days. I found my teams mostly by listening to the radio. We got one baseball game a week on TV, Monday nights with Curt Gowdy and simple linescore graphics, and just like today, the "good" teams were featured more often, so a far-flung kid in Livermore saw as much of the Big Red Machine as he did of John "The Count" Montefusco.

History is important, especially in regard to baseball. It's a thread I can access whenever conversations with my father wane. I can ask him what it was like watching Roberto Clemente. If he remembered Don Larsen's perfect game. It's the same with my friends. Donny is the most nostalgic person I know and that trait led him to his greatest betryal.

Like me, his summers were filled with the A's. We obsessed over them, trading snail mail and phone calls when we went off to college. When we both landed in LA, we constantly trooped over the Sepulveda Pass to watch games together. He once called me at 2 in the a.m. to scream about LaRussa asking McGwire to bunt. It was a bond. Which he broke at some black point in the '90s when he threw over the A's in favor of the (now) hometown Dodgers.

I said he was nostalgic and among the dozens of (crappy) reasons he has given me over the years, only one really rings with truth. He's a student of history and who ammong us hasn't read "Boys of Summer" and wanted to run out and buy a Brooklyn Dodgers cap? He would pour over the Baseball Encyclopedia, Snider and Koufax, Reese and Drysdale. Legends. So he came at it from a serious place. Lots of little nicks and cuts over the years (his favorite player--Jose Canseco--being traded literally from the on-deck circle, the budgetary down-sizing after the Haas family sold the team, Mt. Davis) rendered the A's second-tier, dwarfed by the weight of Dodger Blue and Chavez Ravine, a short drive away.

He was pretty fucked up when I told him about Drysdale, how he'd died of a heart attack, and bawled his head off, one of only 3 times I've seen im cry in 30 years of knowing him (another was when BJ Lohsen beat him out to join me as Little League co-MVP when we were 11 and he had every right 'cause BJ Lohsen was shit). Sports can do that to ya. Even if it's a newly-embraced and long-desired mistress instead of your faithful wife of over 20 years. And even through that, we reconciled. I even joined him for a time in rooting for the Blue, annoyed to distraction by certain un-named columnists and their campaign against Billy Beane disciple and short-term Dodger GM Paul DePodesta. The thread, the constant, was frayed and stretched, but it ultimately held, even as I continue to bust his adulterous balls, which is easier when the A's are perpetual contenders and the Dodgers still search for an identity.

My role as a father is to prevent this sort of behavior in AJ. He has to follow the two rules at the top of this post. And while that would make him well wiithin his rights to root for the Angels, he'll be lookiing for a new place to live if that happens. But mostly, when he's a teen-ager, sullen, embarassed by his Dad's mere presence, we'll still be able to talk about last night's game or maybe he'll ask me about Reggie Jackson and what it was like to see him play. I'll hope he eventually remembers it fondly and passes the thread on.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Get To Know Me

Sports in many ways shapes a person. Fortunes, good and bad, on the fields of play teach us valuable lessons: dealing with adversity, standing up to pressure, eliminating distractions to focus on the matter, the game situation at hand.

The first sport I ever played was soccer. At the time, age 7, I didn't know what soccer was. I had grown up in a sports fanatical household. My parents schlepped me to Candlestick Park on many occasions to watch their beloved Giants in arctic temperatures. I learned simple math from baseball box scores, dripping milk and Cheerios on the sports page while adding the linescores to see if the numbers were correct. But I never played an organized game until I suited up in the all-red kit of the Minnows and took the pitch against the barber-pole striped X-Rays.

We won 2-0. There was running and kicking. I had lucked into a good team, an established team, where all the kids had played together before, earning a championship the previous season. And if most of the experience is lost to memory, I do remember most of the other teams' names (Angels, Guppies) and I do remember my first goal, poking it in during a goalmouth scramble (is there any other kind at age 7?) during a Thanksgiving tournament in Pleasanton, the next town over. I remember jumping into Tim McFadden's (you can call him "Lead Foot," everyone else did) arms and slobbering with glee on his jersey.

The only other event I recall is a totally random one. My barber, during a haircut, was asking me about playing and I told him I was a "wing" (these were the days of 3-3-4 alignments), to which he replied, "Oh, you must be fast then." I had never thought about it, never wondered whether I was fast or whether that was a prerequisite for the position. But that stuck with me, because I don't like not knowing things. And over the course of my athletic history, the primary focus I had was to learn. I was never the best player on a team. But, very often, I was the smartest.

That's not simply the product of my prodigious brainpower, though I have a certain aptitude. No, most of the credit has to go to my coaches beginning the year after that first one. Jack, Steve and Mike were father-figures to me, like favored uncles, alternately stern and playful. I, and a dozen others, were with them for four years, a period during which we won two California State titles, traveled to--and won--tournaments in Calgary and Toronto, played--and beat--teams from Mexico, Sweden and the Netherlands. We were talented, to be sure, but far more than that, we understood the game, strategy and instinct drilled into us ten months a year, four nights a week. Twenty years later, I would take a coaching job at a local high school. I applied the same drills I'd learned back then and was tilted into fury when my kids could not adequately perform them. Even more, they had no clue how they applied to actual play.

I suppose it's an inherent trait of mine, a thirst for knowledge. It's what I do professionally after all. I'm expected to know everything and if I don't know the answer, I need to find it on deadline. It attends my personal life, as well. I'm rarely unprepared. If I'm traveling to a new city, or even a just-opened local restaurant, I'll know everything I need to know before stepping foot inside. As an example, I was across The Pond this summer and missed my flight from Scotland to Ireland (through no fault of my own). I did not panic. In fact, five minutes later, I had mapped out a route to get to my destination, one that required much more travel time and trains, buses and cabs, but one that was navigable because I had all the information with me. Just in case.

Which brings me to AJ, my 5-year-old son. He just completed his first season of soccer. They did not win a single game, which is not a big deal. Even he, who is constantly focused on winning (future post forshadowing there), didn't seem to mind. While I wanted them to win, for his sake, the play is the thing at his age. And learning. Regretably, that didn't happen and it was this fact which had me on a peculiar edge at most of his games. Yes, thank you Coach Debbie for volunteering your time and kudos for your patience with eight 5-year-olds, but goddamnit, read a book or something. Even at that age, there are some simple and easily applicable skills which can be taught. It's all repitition, all ball familiarity. And these kids got none of that. They got no taste of knowledge, nothing to stimulate them further about the game or its intricacies.

To me, the joy of sports, playing, watching, being a fan, is being able to recognize the whole picture, how a single at-bat can alter a game's complexion, how a 1-1 fastball dictates pitch selection, defensive positioning, managerial gear-turning. The other day, I remarked on a heady play by a Notre Dame defensive back. "Daddy!" AJ shouted. "We're rooting for USC!" I told him that was true, but that being a sports fan means appreciating both greatness and nuance, regardless of the team or player in question.

One thing I always told my players when I coached was that whey were going to make mistakes, physical errors, have days where the touch just wasn't there. We all have. But, on the other hand, I stressed that every game, every practice, they could play hard and they could play smart. Neither of those characteristics should ever wane, from T-Ball to the Majors, from AYSO to the Premiership.

In the unlikely event you return here, the above encompasses my philosophy, and the guiding principles of what will appear in this space. Learn as much as you can. Play hard. Play smart. I'll try to help.

Batter Up

Sports provides us with many indelible images. The Catch. Kirk Gibson. The Jeter Flip Throw. Everyone remembers these; some even recall where they were when the events occurred (My parents' bedroom, an apartment in Reseda, my living room in Torrance) and who they were with (nobody, my parents and first ex-wife, my second ex-wife, son and Donny) at the time. But these events did not occur in a vacuum. Like every good story, there is a beginning and a middle before we get to the denouement. And often, there is a postscript to be written as well.

Take "The Catch." Dwight Clark's gravity-defying reception from Joe Montana's seemingly desperate fling tied the NFC championship game, the extra point giving the Niners the slimmest of leads. But a minute remained in the game and Danny White quickly drove the Cowboys to near midfield. Where he (Danny White, not Drew Pearson; thanks Todd) fumbled.

Take the "Jeter Flip Throw." The A's trailed by a run and long before Terrence Long ripped the ball down the right field line, long before Shane Spencer's egregious miss of 8 (I think it was 8) cutoff men, I was jumping up and down in my apartment screaming at A's manager Art Howe to pinch run (with speedy Eric Byrnes) for the fat and lumbering (and fat) Jeremy Giambi, a move so obvious (Jeremy was the DH, so there were no positional aspects) I could not believe it was not happening. Howe's bumbling allowed baseball history to be made and for sportscasters the universe over to reverentially tug at Jeter's nether regions with even more frequency.

Which brings us to Kirk Gibson, safely ensconced on the Dodger bench with the home team down to their last strike in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Uber-closer Dennis Eckersley had journeyman Mike Davis down 1-2, the same Dennis Eckersley who had issued all of 11 free passes in over 70 innings during the season, the same Dennis Eckersley who threw Davis three straight fastballs off the outside corner, putting the tying run on first and bringing Gibson limping to the plate.

So that's what you can expect to find here, the clicks and tumbles behind the clockface, a celebration of the sometimes seemingly insignificant action that leads up to the dunk or the dong you get from your national sports highlight networks. Less MTV quick cuts than a languid afternoon at the beach with a novel. And yeah, I'm also gonna make fun of Joe Morgan at every opportunity.