Monday, May 1, 2017

The NFL Draft Was Insane Enough and Then They Added Orangutans

Every 1980s future dystopia movie that takes place roughly now reveled in showing sports that have moved in parallel with the  government's inevitable slide into shoulder-padded, neon technofascism by transforming into an increasingly perverse spectacle of violence, consumerism, and some combination of motorcycles and jetpacks.  Yet even the most hysterical Damon Killian I'd buy that for a dollar money-shaking flamethrower thunderdome wrought from the most cocaine-addled, seagull-coiffed producer has yet to match the gloriously stupid spectacle of the NFL draft.

The NFL draft was silly enough when it involved a depressing hotel conference center filled with football and television personnel who had all simultaneously purchased the worst suit on the market.  Now, the National Football League has taken over entire cities, paralyzed roads, developed filmed skits, brandished as much military hardware as a minor Soviet civic holiday, and filled public squares with thousands of boo-thirsty spectators, all whom have traveled from their homes to hear a three-day list of potential football players, most of whom will be cut before a single game is played.

The overwhelming pomposity of the draft-- Roger Goodell's masterclass in unwarranted swaggering, the conflation of the NFL with a branch of the United States government, the collision between spittle-flecked football guys who want to amend the US Constitution to give them the authority to order hamburger drills on any citizen and Ted Talk-conditioned corporate brand managers, the development of a bizarre NFL draft argot that mixes adjectives that have never been used to describe a human being before with the way that the cops talk on the television show COPS-- these are things I discussed on this blog last year and have been noted more eloquently by competent writers capable of writing normal-length sentences.

The novelty of this year's NFL draft been to take all of the normal draft bullshit and add a bunch of insanely stupid nonsense to it.  It's not enough that the draft includes punishing hours of highlights, inane draft patter, slickly-produced human interest stories, and Mel Kiper's 1980s dystopian sportscaster haircut.  They've now interspersed skits involving stiff former players bravely battling teleprompters and mascots and contest-winners from globe-spanning satellite links. When you tune into the draft only to see Mark Brunell, acting with the natural flair of a man trapped for decades in a 19th century diving apparatus rusting at the bottom of an ocean, pretend to find the name of a fourth round pick on the bottom of a golf ball, it is mind-boggling.
 
A lucky NFL fan tries to find the Texans' sixth round pick in a mockup of a 
pus-oozing Brian Cushing nose
 
Anthony Walker, who fulfilled a dream to finally hear his name called at the NFL draft, had his name picked by a disconcertingly tech-savvy orangutan.

I know that this is probably the most You Maniacs sports blog on the blogspot.com platform 
if not the entire internet, but this is literally a Planet of the Apes inflection point so please do 
not take it lightly when I caption this GIF: YOU MANIACS 

The NFL draft serves, even more than the Super Bowl, which eventually has to shoehorn in a football game, as the apotheosis of the NFL experience.  The NFL's combination of spectacle, self-seriousness, and complete inability to register absurdity even as they introduce zoo animals to interrupt an analyst grimly explaining whether or not a football player is a football player who can play football in the national football league has become more compelling as it has gotten more ridiculous.  Why not have Goodell ride into the draft on top of a tank?  Why not have former players reveal picks only after going on a global scavenger hunt for clues-- imagine Rex Grossman, sent to reveal the Bears' fifth-round pick from an Egyptian tomb before surfacing weeks later in the Luxor, the victim of a gang of international baccarat hustlers?  It is only a matter of time, because idiots like me continue to watch the draft move further into Paul Verhoeven territory every year because the Bears might trade a bunch of picks to get that quarterback from North Carolina, are you kidding me?   

BOOK REVIEW: THE CUBS WAY

It took 108 years for the Cubs to win their last two World Series titles, which is the approximate amount of time it would take to produce the effluvia of Cubs merchandise that we've seen in the past several months using 1908 techniques.  The city of Chicago has been deluged by enough hats, shirts, commemorative DVDs, and books to dam up the Chicago river and once again reverse its flow into Lake Michigan to flood the water supply with festive holiday dyes and excrement from the Dave Matthews band tour bus.

Crews dye the Chicago River blue to celebrate the Cubs' victory.  They did 
not, as far as I know, dye it for the Sox win because it would have looked  
like a Cecil B. DeMille plague  

It is perhaps unfair to lump Tom Verducci's The Cubs Way with the various picture books and other cash-in products that have devoted thousands of words to asking the discerning reader hey do you remember the Cubs won the World Series.  Verducci, a long-time baseball writer for Sports Illustrated and part of Fox's television crew in charge of reminding Joe Buck that Jon Lester does not throw to first, has a far more important mission in mind, which is to ask hey do you know how the Cubs won the World Series.

There's been a tend since Michael Lewis's Moneyball for sportswriters to zero in on teams with cutting edge strategies.  This subgenre gets away from the anecdotes and personalities of the team; the star of these books is spreadsheets and the men who program them.  Verducci struck gold on the Cubs as the ultimate Process Book-- a historically moribund team bereft of talent and laden with a mystical aura of failure is seized by a spreadsheet savant, headed by a quirky manager, and finally wins a championship for the millions of desperate fans, many of whom will be ready to purchase this book.

Verducci focuses on Cubs President Theo Epstein, and he clearly intends The Cubs Way to read as a sequel to Moneyball.  Teams had caught on to Billy Beane's stunning revelation that baseball players should get on base and his acolytes, including Epstein himself, had proliferated throughout baseball unleashing a new order via slide rule.  Epstein, like all of the other analytically-minded baseball executives had been to the baseball monolith and found that all of the other apes now had bones of their own.  Verducci couches Epstein's attempt to drag the Cubs and Cubs fans out of their peasant superstitions and eschatological playoff watching techniques into the familiar quest understood by anyone who follows baseball post-Moneyball: the Search for the New Inefficiency.

Epstein has decided that one of the new inefficiencies is a player's personality and ability to mesh with his teammates.  The revelation came after the collapse of the 2011 Red Sox, which became mired in infighting and vendettas as the team swooned out of the playoffs.  Epstein, according to Verducci, vowed to move beyond the statistics to get players who would not only play well but play well together; Verducci never quite explains how that philosophy involved the eventual acquisition of Jon Lester and Jon Lackey, masterminds of the Red Sox' beer and chicken fiasco that became the emblem of the problems on that team.  

The fall of the Red Sox due to chicken, beer, and clubhouse gaming is one of the dumbest
baseball hysterias of recent vintage and I can't get over this CBS news graphic, it looks like
Lackey is about to take a Power Glove from a metal briefcase

The emphasis on player makeup did not evidently extend to Aroldis Chapman, who proved that Epstein's emphasis on character included exceptions for people who can throw 103 miles per hour. Verducci does discuss Chapman's ghoulish domestic violence arrest and suspension from baseball as well as the Cubs' bungled attempt to pretend they had soul-searching discussions with him to justify their trade. Here is how Verducci and Hoyer making up some bullshit how Chapman getting upset because he thought he had blown a World Series somehow redeemed him:
[Chapman] arrived as a flamethrowing mercenary, whose behavior in a domestic dispute compromised the buy-in for some fans of the joy teh Cubs gave them.  No longer did those fans face the potential conflict of watching Chapman secure the end to the biggest championship in sport.  By failing, and doing so to the point of physcial and emotional exhaustion, Chapman became more humanized to a fan base just getting to know him.
"When he comes back in 5, 10 years or so for some anniversary party," Hoyer said "he's viewed in a very different way-- in a very positive way.
The other star of The Cubs Way is Joe Maddon.  Maddon, the self-consciously quirky manager who took the microbudget Rays to the World Series, immediately bonded with Epstein over their desire to find new edges and invent homilies.  For example, the team adopted the slogan "that's Cub" to preach the proper way to do things throughout the organization and then decided to clumsily retrofit it into an acronym: "C stands for the courage 'to do the right thing,' even if it's scary or uncomfortable; U is for the urgency 'to do the right thing right now; and B is for the belief 'that we can do it.'"  That is a viscerally horrifying sentence.

Maddon and Epstein's new techniques include mental skills training, using software to train players in pitch recognition.  These types of things will soon travel across baseball, where the St. Louis Cardinals will subject their endless supply of 5'1" guys named Squeaks to simulated reenactments of the farming machinery accidents that have claimed all of their relatives in order to turn them into onbase machines and master cybercriminals.

Cardinals infield prospect Sport Winkelous learns how to identify forkballs and to imprison 
rival front offices in their stadiums by turning a network of smart toasters and networked 
refrigerators into a remorseless cyber-army

There's very little in The Cubs Way that will surprise anyone who has followed the Cubs or even baseball generally. The floundering Cubs, bought by a wealthy family, hire Epstein and allow him to strip the team of anyone capable of playing major league baseball while the Cubs acquire prospects by trading anyone who plays even moderately well, draft sluggers with the high draft picks that they hoard as a reward for profoundly sucking, and hire Joe Maddon to coordinate pajama-themed road trip costumes-- this is a story that has become as integral to a Cubs television broadcast as footage of the Named Cubs Playoff Catastrophes and satanic goat imagery.   

The Cubs Way will not upend anyone's thinking about the Cubs or baseball or Anthony Rizzo's nude shadowboxing rituals.  It will not likely change anyone's opinion on Joe Maddon as his Joe Maddonness, complete with an annotated lineup card featuring "proprietary numbers," spills unchecked across the pages.  The Cubs Way is a fine and straightforward process book by an experienced and plugged-in baseball writer that I will probably re-read multiple times and then watch the World Series video until the authorities find me suffocated at the bottom of a pile of Cubs merchandise.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Miserable, Awful Bulls Spitefully Refuse to Go Away

Brad Stevens must not be sleeping very well in the government-issued mind helmet that he must keep on at night to prevent his genius brain from emitting dangerous waves.  The top-seeded Boston Celtics are down 2-0 to the cantankerous old Bulls who crept into the playoffs by the thinnest of margins, who appeared to quit on the season numerous times in 2017 alone, whose members spent most of their time finding newer and more exotic social media websites on which to feud.  Brad Stevens is down 2-0 to Fred Hoiberg, who even as we speak is investing his obscene coaching salary in repeated attempts to win a stuffed gorilla in a a carnival peg toss.

Richard Nixon conducted his foreign policy under what he called the "madman theory," hoping to wring concessions out of his rivals in the in the Soviet Union, China, and other governments forced to deal with him as the keeper of a terrifying nuclear arsenal by convincing him that he was enough of a maniac to act on his darkest threats.  Henry Kissinger, according to one memorandum, told a general that "the President's strategy has been...to 'push so many chips into the pot' that the other side will think we may be 'crazy' and be willing to go much further."

Fred Hoiberg has been using a similar strategy with the Bulls.  How could Stevens or any coach gameplan for someone who spent the regular season rotating point guards at random, shuttling them from moldering on the bench to starting with the arbitrary whim of a basketball Caligula?  How can a basketball coach, even one armed with cutting edge statistical models and video replay, determine the Bulls' tactics when Bulls may mutiny upon Hoiberg at any point?  How can one discern patterns and strategies when the opponent seems to operate without them? 

Fred Hoiberg learns all about dealing with office wiretaps

There is no way to prepare for the Bulls when the exact composition of the Bulls remains a mystery.  Sure, the Bulls appear to have a set rotation now.  But it's impossible to say at what point Hoiberg will change things up-- he could decide to put in Denzel Valentine to demoralize the Celtics with geriatric post moves or Michael Carter-Williams to silence a raucous road crowd because they rightly fear that his jump shots can at any time fly into the stands to bonk unsuspecting spectators in their heads and or land in their snacks and shower them and their neighbors with nacho detritus.  Hoiberg may at any time and without warning unleash Joffrey Lauvergne, whose main basketball skill seems to be playing as if he was wearing the magnetic prison shoes from Face/Off. 

Lauvergne hopes to use this playoff run to launch his new sneaker line

The Celtics are run by a vast network of computers spitting out ideal outcomes and advanced three pointer math and icons of basketball religion that the Sloan Analytics crowd refers to as Assets, and the Bulls are bludgeoning them to death with their big, meaty forearms.  No one can stop Robin Lopez, who may be adopted into the Bulls' Society of Alphas if they can find a cloak large enough.  Rondo, who is so instinctively despised by every NBA fan that he's been non-rhotically abused every time he touches the ball in the Garden even though he's a bona fide Boston playoff hero, has been systematically dismantling the Celtics.  Dwyane Wade has gone into Playoff Mode, so if he thinks he has been fouled but did not get the call, he occasionally deigns to get back on defense instead of whipping out his half-glasses and meticulously typing a formal complaint while the opposing team goes on a fast break.  Jimmy Butler is a single-minded destroyer.


The series comes steeped in the drama of failed trade hypotheticals.  The Celtics' and Bulls' front offices spent the days before the trade deadline leaking competing rumors of a Jimmy Butler for Nets draft picks deal to the press.  The talks generated thousands of rumors as websites mobilized their content aggregators and dozens perished in the coal furnaces that power the Adrian Wojnarowski tweet factory, but the actual offers remain shrouded in mystery.  The failed trade talks disappointed some Bulls fans who see no way forward other than blowing up the team along with relief because absolutely no one trusts the authors of the stop at nothing to acquire Doug McDermott strategy and the Oklahoma City trade fiasco to make another mistake; the state of Bulls fans before the deadline could best be described as pre-swindled.  Butler remains a Bull, delightedly dunking on the interchangeable Celtics wings that Danny Ainge was allegedly reluctant to part with for him.  The Nets draft picks that the Celtics control cannot do anything in this series because they do not yet have corporeal form--  they cannot be subtly grabbed by Lopez or exchange elbows with Cristiano Felicio and they have not yet been traded to the Bulls to be used on players that some intrepid Bulls blogger will later find have sinister ties to Iowa State.  

The Bulls, an aggressively bad and aesthetically revolting team, have fueled their playoff run by spitefully forcing America to continue to watch them.  The playoff run will in the long term prove disastrous-- by qualifying they have further eroded their draft position, they have validated the witless scheming endemic to the management strategy of that coach choker John Paxson and his Igor henchman Gar Forman, and they have no chance to advance past any of the other top East seeds.  At the same time, this is the most fun Bulls playoff run since a vomiting Nate Robinson brought the Booklyn Nets to their knees.  No one, not least of all Bulls fans, wants this godforsaken team in the playoffs, but the Bulls have found their niche, refusing to go away when all the NBA world wants is a respite from their bullshit, ugly, bickering, non-basketball.

The only thing that makes sense for the Bulls is to continue their reviled rampage through the Eastern Conference before their inevitable elimination at the hands of whatever team LeBron James plays for.  But because they are the Bulls it is equally likely that they collapse at the hands of the Celtics, going out in a blaze of futility and recrimination while Fred Hoiberg spends the night on the phone with his Blockbuster Video rep to find undiscovered motivational 80s films to splice into his film sessions.  The Bulls are a boring force of basketball misery that no one wants in playoffs and they cannot be stopped.

Friday, March 31, 2017

CUBS PREVIEW 2017: NOW WHAT


Those maniacs did it.  And now, after more than a century of ineptitude, a litany of specific playoff humiliations, an angry, mustard-flecked mob that has driven a nebbishy-looking baseball fan to the underground, an intentional reduction of the team to baseball molecules where fans were invited to pay exorbitant prices to watch Junior Lake strike out hundreds of times, and a mythical World Series run that involved the Rebirth of That Beefy Lad Kyle Schwarber from a sausage chrysalis and an impossible Game Seven where the Cubs, in prime Cub position and ready to implode in front of the only other team that can live in their baseball misery zip code had the heavens themselves open up and refuse to allow the Cubs to do what I had predicted they would do for hours in a number of increasingly frenzied and embarrassing text messages.  They won. They had the parade and everything.  And then baseball had to go and continue to exist.

What happens now?  There are rapacious Baseball Alexanders and Yankees fans for whom a single title is not enough and demand them with their unrelenting bobbling the ball gestures while a large, angry man screams fuck you fuck you fuck you behind them.  Sure, the Cubs should be really good this season.  They've got as good of a shot as anyone.  But after a postseason where every single pitch carried with it the portent of doom, where the echo of death so shrouded the team that Wrigley Field itself was turned into an impromptu chalk memorial for fallen Cubs fans unable to wait out a championship drought literally decades longer than the entire existence of the Soviet Union, it's hard to be upset when John Lackey gets knocked around in the 2017 Division Series.

The Cubs have long made hay from romanticizing their failure.  But there's no nobility in watching a profoundly wretched baseball team.  If there's anything that can be taken from the Cubs' century of failure it's that it was incredibly funny-- a wealthy team, boasting a national fanbase from early cable television, bolstered by a charming historical ballpark teeming with tourists indifferent to the often putrid play on the field manages only to perpetuate a remarkable run of baseball ineptitude where the team's rare appearances in the playoffs more often than not culminate in grandiose, impossible choke jobs and then everyone blames the whole thing on a literal goat. 

One of the dumbest legacies of the contrived billy goat curse is 
the fact that the goat was ever there in the first place. It should 
have been called the "curse of the reasonable stadium barnyard 
animal policy"

The 2017 Cubs face an impossible task of following up last season.  They face another long, grinding schedule, a host of reinforced rivals, and the unhinged lunacy of playoff bullshit that has made it rare for teams to repeat as champions.  And they do so after getting over America's greatest sports hump and in the face of inevitable backlash and overexposure that has already involved an absurd article naming Theo Epstein the world's greatest leader and David Ross dueling Mr. T on some sort of geriatric dancing program.

Mr. T is no stranger to televised competition, as 
shown by his entry in the Toughest Man In The 
World contest in the film The Toughest Man 
in the World where he plays the Toughest 
Man in the World, a bouncer who according to 
IMDB was "conned into taking over a youth 
center" also Mr. T performed the theme song 
called The Toughest Man In The World

The 2017 Cubs will not be able to break the longest championship drought in American sports, inspire a montage of crying grandmothers, or feature World Series games that start with ten minutes of Joe Buck cackling over footage of crypts and graveyards.  They will merely be an excellent baseball team, and watching them will still be the same pleasant waste of time that comes from watching any other baseball.  And from a person who wasted hundreds of hours citing Jake Fox's AAA numbers and watching Tony Campana desperately attempt to reach first base more than once a week, it's a welcome change.

THE CUBS FOR SOME REASON WILL PLAY BASEBALL THIS SEASON

The Cubs, fueled by their young bats, bring back the vast majority of last year's team.  They still have Rizzo and Bryant and Russell in their infield along with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist.  They can, at any time and without warning, deploy Javier Baez, who was scientifically designed to always do the most delightfully reckless thing possible on a baseball field. Baez will take extra bases and try insane, physics-defying slides.  He will always make that ill-advised throw or barehand play and somehow make it work a shocking number of times.  He is incredibly good at tagging, which I had no idea was something someone could be good at.  He will try to hit every ball he sees into the Upper Peninsula enough times that baseball's cold water pouring statistics brigade can toss out their well actually Javy Baez is not really that great of a baseball player articles because he strikes out so much that he might qualify for a federal wind farm tax break to which I say to this straw man have you seen him do the no-look tag.

Baseball's greatest feat of derring-do

At some point, it is possible the Baez magic will wear off.  Baez gained a cult following because of his playoff hot streak, most notably his solo, game-winning home run against a seemingly-unhittable Johnny Cueto at Wrigley, but that's not his typical hitting profile. He will likely remain frustrated by his greatest nemesis, the breaking ball so far outside that it's practically in the on-deck circle that nevertheless compels him to swing.  I'm willing to live with that.  Baez dwells in baseball chaos, and if his irrepressible desire to do the coolest thing possible turns him into an Infield Kingman, that's all well and good.

The Cubs will not have my other favorite player from the Cubs farm system, Jorge Soler. They traded Soler to the Royals for closer Wade Davis.  Soler, along with Baez, embodied the era of Shadow Cubs, where tales of their feats against hapless future insurance adjustors served as the happy counterpoint to whatever sad spectacle was happening to the actual Cubs on a daily basis.   Baez had footage of moon tower home runs; Soler came with reports of attempting to singlehandedly charge an entire opposing dugout.  Soler arrived on a tear in 2014 with a homer in his first at-bat, and the rhapsodies continued from there.  Joe Maddon referred to him as "like Vladimir [Guerrero] with plate discipline;" this came coupled with some delightful Maddon nonsense. "The fact that he doesn't really understand or speak English very well could work in his favor right now," Maddon said, Maddonically. "He's a beautiful man. I really, really enjoy the way he is."

Soler instead had trouble with plate discipline and spent a large amount of time lingering on the disabled list.  His greatest asset, to me, was his greatest drawback-- the fact that he is built like the Colossus of Rhodes and it seems stunning when he doesn't launch every single pitch back to the nearest Spaulding manufacturing plant as a warning to future baseballs. To watch Soler hulk in the batter's box, his ominous shadow lurking towards the dugout in the afternoon sun and then whiff feebly on the low and outside slider that we all knew was coming or stab ineffectively at balls in the outfield, or spend all of his free time nursing soft-tissue injuries made his struggles as a kind of OK baseball player harder to take.  Soler is still only 25 and escaped from an impossible logjam of prospect prodigies that have passed him by.  I hope he can put it together and mash some enormous moonshots out of Kaufman Field when he gets healthy.  He'll begin the season on the disabled list.

Farewell to Jorge Soler, whose throw to third after a league-wide shame campaign peer-pressured
Jon Lester into throwing to first is one of my favorite recent Cubs plays

The Cubs' most damaging departure is Dexter Fowler.  Fowler came in and did what almost no Cub did during Theo Epstein's years-long purge of competent baseball players for rebuilding purposes by getting on base a ton.  He became so integral to the Cubs' offense that he got his own catchphrase ("you go, we go"), and became one of the most likable Cubs of my lifetime.  Last year, Fowler had apparently signed with the Orioles and then dramatically popped up in Cubs' spring training to save the day. Now he is gone-- not safely ensconced in the American League, but on the hated Cardinals to torture the Cubs 19 times a season.  It's a testament to Fowler's popularity and the general, hazy euphoria that now accompanies all things Cub, that few Cubs fans harbor any hostility toward him (most of the Fowler TRADER references I could find on twitter were either sarcastic or referencing what appears to be a British soap opera), but we'll see how that progresses when he starts slapping hits all over Wrigley Field the Right Way in a pennant race.

The 2016 Cubs hit and pitched well, but they also owed their success to a historically great defense. They will certainly not be that good again partly because that sort of blip is unsustainable, but also because they will start a lumbering moose in left field.  Kyle Schwarber may be the most popular Cub because of his world series heroics, his propensity for mashing enormous home runs, and because he is a beefy, genial man in a city of genial, beefy people.  The question is not whether Schwarber can acquit himself well in left, but it's how much his prodigious bat can offset his oafish outfield stumbling and occasional inevitably-disastrous catching cameos.  As long as he is a Cub, loud, nasal calls will echo across sports radio for him to be traded to the American League, where he can whack moonshots in peace without having to ineffectually flail at baseballs in front of the entire country on a nightly basis.  That is unfathomable to me. 

Jason Heyward remains a mystery.  Heyward, last year's prized free agent signing, spent last season futilely gesturing with his bat in the general direction of a pitch and hit something like 15,000 soft grounders directly at the second baseman.  Still, he remained a valuable fielder and baserunner, and evidently a master of locker room rain delay oratory as evidenced by his World Series rain delay speech the Cleveland Urinal Address. Heyward's batting woes remain a fascinating look at how, even for an athlete as gifted as Heyward, his mind can be at war with his body.  His every plate appearance featured a series of ticks and timing gestures of a guy who floundered and kept adding mechanisms and hitches to the point that his swing resembled a Rube Goldberg machine of limbs and tendonsThis offseason, he has gone on a baseball vision quest to try to find a new swing, tinkering for months until he came up with something that has been roughly as terrible in spring training than whatever he was doing last year. 
 
Heyward's swing enters its Mark IV prototype phase using top baseball science  

The Cubs have an old, creaking pitching staff.  They have inexplicable ERA leader Kyle Hendricks, who somehow dominated Major League players with an 88 mile per hour fastball and a mound presence that can best be described as impending visit with the vice principal.  Every one of Hendricks's pitches last season felt like watching an increasingly elaborate con, waiting for someone somewhere to figure out that he was not throwing hard and exposing the ruse with a series of blistering line drives.  Baseball analysts don't know what to do with a guy like him. especially when he looks like a social media intern.  They give them nicknames like "The Professor" or "Dr. Brainzo" or "Chest Concave, Doctor of Baseball Flim-Flammery" while he beguiles people by winning the pennant and the World Series.  I have no idea if Hendricks will continue to contend for a Cy Young this season, but his mere existence in a baseball system that demands nothing but musclebound giants who break radar guns is a minor miracle.

Kyle Hendricks's theme music is "Sweet Emotion" 

There are few things in baseball less fun than rooting for a team with John Lackey.  Lackey, a grizzled, anthropomorphic swear word, has managed to gnaw his leg off from whatever bear trap that's ensnared him for the offseason and crawled into another spring training.  Lackey started off as a fat young guy who bellowed the word FUCK and has evolved his game to become a skinny old guy who yells FUUUCCCCKKK while hitting himself in the head with a baseball.  He's a mean ol' cuss who not only throws at guys who have the temerity to smile after hitting one his ineffective fastballs to Tucumcari, but stalks them in the offseason while doing pullups with the words "BAT FLIP" tattooed on his knuckles. Lackey was a good pitcher last year during the regular season and a not insubstantial part of their success, but he's also the least enjoyable Cub whose starts promise hours of peevish irascibility seethed through clenched, enormous teeth.

Jon Lester was great last season.  He does not throw to first.

Leaked footage of Joe Buck's intro to the Cubs-Cardinals game

SPORTS AFTER THE IMPOSSIBLE

I didn't think I'd ever see the Cubs win the World Series or Northwestern play in the NCAA Tournament, and they both happened within months.  I would say that this will change how I view sports, but then again the vast majority of teams don't carry with them impossibly long, mythical droughts that make it impossible to watch them on television without a graphic showing the price of bread and at least one old-timey vehicle.  

Here's an Old-Timey Base Ball Image to remind you of the many years that the Cubs 
afflicted their Fans with Substandard Base Ball-manship

The end of these absurd droughts has taken away single dominant narrative that surrounds everything they do.  It has also liberated them to exist as sports and not, in the case of the Cubs, a vaguely baseball-related doomsday cult.  The Cubs' 2017 season has no end other than baseball itself.  There will be questions about Jason Heyward's revamped swing whether Baez should be starting and whether Willson Contreras can catch Jon Lester.  These are normal baseball concerns, not a haunting Joe Buckmanship or invocation of the occult. 

No one wants to hear about long-suffering Cubs fans anymoreThe television networks and newspapers and, hell, even the Cubs themselves hauled it out to make their dollar and bludgeon every other baseball fan into oblivion with it every time the Cubs so much as threatened to finish over .500 for as long as anyone has been alive.  The baseball world has had enough of them and the inevitable Red Sox-like descent into sports villainy will begin on Opening Day.  That is when the World Champion Cubs will open on Sunday to defend their World Championship that they won in the World Series. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

NCAA Tournament Review: Five Stars, Would Dance Again


The lingering image of Northwestern's second NCAA Tournament game will forever be a hand reaching up from below the basket in a swashbuckling act of goaltending, Chris Collins's berserker rage and then series of press conference De Niro faces. 

These are silent film-caliber facial expressions

The controversy, though, followed a spirited second-half comeback after the Wildcats had been completely outclassed to begin the game. The first half started as all analysts had predicted: Northwestern couldn't stop Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss, and the Gonzaga defense stifled Northwestern as the Bulldogs brought all of their KenPoms to bear against an overmatched Northwestern team.  Northwestern had managed to keep Gonzaga's enormous center Przmek Karnowski from rampaging against them, although he seemed primed to take over at any time with an array of nineteenth-century weightlifting maneuvers.

Karnowski's landmark case against the NCAA to allow him to wear a 
single-strap basketball jersey enters its fifth year

Northwestern's run had appeared to come to an end. The parade of ridiculous finishes and good feelings that began with Dererk Pardon's game-winning layup, continued through the NCAA selection show broadcast and the twitter feeds of approximately 75% of ESPN's Department of Sports Yelling, and climaxed with an insane and emotional win over Vanderbilt that hinged on an avant-garde dance piece subverting our hidebound, bourgeois notions of late-game fouling situations, finally ran into a top-tier opponent, effortlessly clobbering the Wildcats en route to the Sweet Sixteen. 
But then, as the game deepened into the second half, Gonzaga's lead began to shrink. The threes that bounced off the rim in the first half began going down, Gonzaga possessions ended on bricks and turnovers, Vic Law threw down a putback dunk, and all of a sudden the Wildcats found themselves in striking distance. 
I don't know enough about Gonzaga to know if its fans have developed insane curses and instinctive senses warning of impending catastrophe, but Northwestern's comeback began to take on that feeling. For all of Gonzaga's basketball heroics in the twenty-first century, they could never manage to break through and make a Final Four, and this team, touted as their best yet, and in a seemingly insurmountable position against a team that had spent the past week telling every single media outlet on the face of the Earth that they were happy to be there began to feel pressure. The contorted, grief-ridden face of Adam Morrison began hovering over Spokane. 
You all know what happened next. 
Dererk Pardon rebounded a Bryant McIntosh floater and a Gonzaga player reached through the basket like a reanimated hand bursting forth from a grave. Chris Collins lost his mind and assailed the referees with a series of misguided vertical karate chops, got a technical foul, and saw the Gonzaga lead balloon to seven.

Collins busts out his signature move, the Muppet Ruiner, where he terrorizes toddlers with
the terrible truth about Elmo

The NCAA Tournament is designed for this: for a team to desperately survive a seemingly endless regular season, endure various bracket-related prediction sorceries, play in a conference tournament for which I have yet to determine a point, and then play in a series of high-stakes win or go home games that all end in errant fouls and missed calls and everyone yelling about them for two weeks until one of the four teams that everyone assumed would win the national championship in October wins the championship. How did we live for so many years without this?

WOW, NICE TOURNAMENT DROUGHT, RUTGERS

For decades, the single distinguishing fact about Northwestern's basketball team was that it had not made the NCAA Tournament. Every single announcer at every game mentioned it.  Every year, the newspapers printed the same article about how they hadn't made it, to the point where I speculated that the same article got republished over and over again and years after the original author's death.  Every time the Wildcats gained some momentum, the single overarching question about whether it was The Year seemed to hang in the arena, just short of the Athletic Department hanging an "Is This The Year?" banner after a strong round of non-conference games. 

For Northwestern, One More Year (That's [obscene number] Straight) Without a Bid
By [Change to Guy Who's Alive]

The pressure on the team must have been enormous.  Collins and the Athletic Department leaned into it by adopting the slogan "it's time", a message that for normal people signaled the goal of reaching the Tournament, but to my mind, poisoned by unfathomable wasted hours caring about college sports on the internet, will forever be linked to a video entitled "BigVOLdaddy pisses on kiffin shirt." Collins also adopted the hashtaggable homily "pound the rock" about Northwestern's slow and steady attempt to make the Tournament in contrast to its previous slogan "push the rock up the hill for dozens and dozens of years only to have Jared Sullinger grab it and roll it right down upon you and your loved ones."

The qualification procedure for the NCAA Tournament in the Big Ten remains an arduous and impossible slog.  There are top-tier teams waiting to clobber all opposition, and the seemingly easier games against weaker opponents only provide opportunities for devastating, bracket-killing losses, and it seems like there are fifteen of these games a week. Every time Northwestern stepped up with a big win over a top opponent, the University of Illinois would crawl up from the bottom of the standings to drag Northwestern back to the NIT in a grotesque, carnivalesque parody of the relationship between the Northwestern and Illinois basketball programs. It makes sense that it took an absurd miracle play to finally convince me that they would make it; it wasn't until the Wildcats were in the middle of their 31-0 rampage against Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament that I had fully convinced myself that they were safe, that a tough Rutgers team wouldn't bludgeon them in the tournament and then hack their own computers to add in fictional losses to dental colleges and New York-area improv comedy schools to destroy their own RPI ratings and keep Northwestern out of the tournament, thus preventing the Scarlet Knights from owning the longest power conference tourney drought.

Rutgers AD Patrick Hobbs chugs a beer and announces that Rutgers is 
forfeiting all of its wins out of spite and then puts an incredulous Jim Delany 
in a series of wrestling holds

Northwestern's basketball season came wrapped in novelty.  The quest for the first tournament bid brought out a rare, raucous atmosphere at Welsh-Ryan-- the arena sold out and the team played primarily for home fans.  No one knows whether they'll be able to carry that energy over to the Allstate Arena next season which, as Wikipedia notes "was featured in many music videos, including the 1985 music video 'Big City Nights' by Scorpions" but "has yet to host a Royal Rumble."

Northwestern's success also brought out scandal and backlash.  The entire season played out over a lawsuit by a former player alleging he was forced off the team.  Northwestern's large and loud network of media alums, particularly in sports, took to the airwaves and began going door-to-door yelling at people about the tournament.  CBS's cameras focused so much on Doug Collins and Julia Louis-Dreyfus that I'm not sure that Louis-Dreyfus didn't start closing out Vanderbilt shooters in the second half.  The Wildcats learned that if they want to do the the hire the Duke coach and Duke up the program dance they are going to have to pay the piper.

NORTHWESTERN PLAYED IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT FOR REAL

The excitement and relief of Northwestern's actual qualification for the tournament took the terror out of most of the games.  The team played in actual NCAA tournament games with the patches on the uniforms and everything.  So it didn't bother me much when Vanderbilt fought back from a large deficit and Northwestern needed a complete breakdown of communication between the Vanderbilt coach and player and an unprecedented bonehead foul to win their first game.
When I tap my belt not once, not twice, but thrice, I mean do not foul him under any 
circumstances 

Similarly, the Gonzaga game registers much less rancor than I'd normally attach to an atrocious referee debacle in the biggest game in the history of Northwestern basketball.  It would have been great to see them in the Sweet 16 or even to lose a game that didn't hinge on a terrible call and the coach sealing their fate by going completely berserk and then making hilarious mime faces after the game.  But it's also hard to get upset that the greatest Northwestern team we've ever seen that did the one thing we all wanted them to do while in the midst of a cacophony of news reporters and TV and alumni and ridiculous blogspot.com bloggers that chronicled their every move for months didn't become slightly greater.    

Northwestern sports are in their golden age.  It is a silly golden age, a pinnacle of winning two mid-tier bowl games and qualifying for a 68-team tournament like literally every single major-conference team in the entirety of college sports, but it is also a golden age of throwing off the last vestiges of Northwestern's sports history of unfathomable acts of futility.  It comes with a price-- the vast and obscene monies that Northwestern will spend on athletic facilities in the coming years to compete in the Big Ten that are large enough to quantify by using the word monies, the questions about how Collins runs the program, and the queasy expectations that come with any sort of success.  For now, though, whenever some announcer wants to dig out some grim statistic about some gruesome Northwestern streak, the answer is probably one year. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

UNDFEATED ALL TIME IN NCAA TOURNAMENT GAMES

Every other year, that ludicrous 35-foot Vanderbilt three would have gone in.  Or that last second halfcourt heave would have banked high off the backboard and through in a grotesque parody of Northwestern's tournament-saving pass, and the Wildcats' first-ever NCAA Tournament game would go into the giant pile of gut-wrenching blown leads, buzzer-beaters, complete bamboozlement in the face of a press, or times when the games seemed to end with the court itself snaring Northwestern players and dragging them into underground service areas and zamboni antechambers.  Instead, the Wildcats held on, took advantage of the most delightfully ill-conceived foul in the history of college basketball, and booked themselves into a clash with top-seeded Gonzaga because it is 2017 and Northwestern basketball has become immune to even the most obvious and inopportune Northwesterning situations.

There was no panic in this one.  Even as Vanderbilt rained threes upon the Wildcats and the NBA Jam announcer guy elbowed his way through dozens of security guards to try to seize the mic and scream HE'S ON FIRE at America, the comeback didn't hit the impending Northwestern sports catastrophe area of my brain because they had already made the tournament.  The never-ending and at times impossible attempt for them just to get there had already wrung everything out-- a blown tournament game lead has nothing on sweating out a home win against Rutgers under the ever-watchful eye of the Selection Committee. 

The Wildcats welcomed a national audience of people who had never been subjected to Northwestern sports with a traditional game where nothing makes sense and the play-by-play can be just as easily replaced with maniacal cackling; Northwestern games are not watched much as they happen to people.  In the last minute and a half, the two teams swapped leads half a dozen times.  Dererk Pardon iced clutch free throw after clutch free throw.  Then, just as the Commodores managed to grab another lead and Northwestern prepared to set up the inevitable Bryant McIntosh isolation play, Vanderbilt's Matthew Fisher-Davis, possibly subliminally programmed by years of Northwestern alums screaming at him about sports through his television and then activated by seeing Doug Collins's face turn a particular strain of magenta, inexplicably lunged at McIntosh and sent him to the line.

This is the most Dorothea Lange sports photo since the miserable woman clutching her child 
bravely in the face of Browns football

What an absolute bummer for Fisher-Davis, who had heroically shot Vanderbilt back into contention and picked the absolute worst time to blunder-- on the first day of the Tournament, in front of a national TV audience, against a school whose alumni are allowed to crash like an army of Kool-Aid men and women through the walls of ESPN studio shows and bloviate about the Wildcats, and in a situation that features the largest percentage of dudes watching the game who are alarmingly eager to explain to a neophyte why actually it is a bad strategy to foul there.

Northwestern fans showed up at the tournament.  A school that has played the vast majority of its home games in front of jeering visiting fans in their variegated Big Ten hoodies managed to take over Salt Lake City's arena with a raucous purple mob.

I can't see the Salt Lake City arena without immediately humming the bridge for Roundball 
Rock and waiting for Marv Albert to futilely ask whether or not Karl Malone would be able to 
come through in the clutch

The Wildcats' reward for their first win in the NCAA tournament is a dragon from the end of the map.  Tournament mainstay Gonzaga has its own tournament burden because the team has repeatedly fallen victim to disappointing tournament exits.  This year, expectations are at their loftiest.  They've only lost a single game the entire season and they've spent time as the top-ranked team in the nation.  Northwestern managed its top rank of 25 for one week where a panicking Associated Press graphics department was unable to locate a Wildcat logo for their poll.  Gonzaga will be heavily favored and motivated to break their own, much more ambitious barrier and qualify for their first Final Four. 

JAY CUTLER AND THE FACES OF SPORTS

There's that scene in Moneyball where all the crusty old scouts are sitting around chewing tobacco and they start evaluating talent based on whether a baseball player is handsome.  This is held up as the acme of Old Scout luddism, old leathery men whose decades spent squatting behind radar guns in the sun and shriveling up in budget hotel rooms can be obliterated at once by knowledge of onbase percentage.  Their methods are primitive, outmoded, and absurd and we're supposed to laugh at them and their inability to number-munch. Who thinks like that anymore?  Every day, as I sit around descending into the muck of sports takes on the internet and occasionally get dumb enough to listen to the angry, nasal men of Chicago sports radio it becomes clearer and clearer that the majority of NFL fans judge quarterback play almost exclusively by their face.

Football fans demand square-jawed quarterbacks.  The steely-eyed guy who can look at the huddle and tell his team they are winning the game and also do the same to issue non-answers about getting caught texting pictures of their penis to people.  Sure there are exceptions, but some-- like the Manning Brothers with their grotesque interception faces and Andrew Luck who looks like a spittle-flecked forest troll-- carried such a high pedigree that they were able to blunt criticism immediately. Otherwise, the freak shows like a bloated, waddling JaMarcus Russell or the Super Mario Koopa Troopa lookalike Jimmy Clausen always lead to fans despising them.

Jimmy Clausen takes questions at Halas Hall 

That is, I think, the central problem with Jay Cutler.  Cutler will go down as the Bears' best quarterback they will likely ever have, which honestly says more about the Bears and their moribund quarterback death-spiral than anything about him.  I don't know if I will ever see a more locally despised athlete and it all comes down to his face. Cutler has a leering, scoffing, face, a mug that is so openly contemptuous of everyone and everything around it that he doesn't even seem to have the energy to bother bullying people.  The most popular and possibly apocryphal story about Cutler is that he dealt with a fawning fan in a bathroom by leaning his head back and braying DOOOOOOOOOOOON'T CARE to the ceiling and for most Bears fans, that is how he spent his time in Chicago, leaning his head back in indifference and urinating more or less continuously for eight years.

Bears fans would have been able to forgive Cutler, or at the least watch him while suppressing the apparently universal human urge to strangle him, if he had managed to lead them to a championship. And there were glimmers!  His greatest run to the 2010 NFC Championship Game ended with an injury.  He spend most of his time dealing with incompetent offensive lines and eventually desiccated defenses.  At the same time, Cutler was never good enough to rise beyond the Bears' general, inbred incompetence enabled by a swarm of coaches, coordinators, and nincompoop front office personnel. He threw a ton of interceptions so profoundly dumb that they seemed spiteful.  It didn't help that the Cutler era paired with the rise of Aaron Rodgers, his opposite in every way, who is so infuriatingly good at playing quarterback that he demands only ten functioning human beings to score a zillion touchdowns.

There have been a ton of really shitty Bears quarterbacks, all of whom were way worse than Cutler but are far more fondly remembered because they were scrappy try-hards.  The irony of Cutler is that he was that way on the field, a guy who threw linebackers around with his throwing shoulder, a guy whose greatest weakness came from trying desperately to squeeze a throw into vanishingly tight windows, a guy who got pummeled more or less continuously to the point where the phrase "nine sacks in the fist half" became a reliable Chicago accent shibboleth, yet remains despised because 99 percent of humans who see a picture of his face immediately want to see him karate kicked in the scrotum.

Cutler was also, beyond his face, probably not a pleasant dude.  He constantly feuded with teammates and coaches (my favorite story was an assistant coach under Trestman anonymously shit all over him in the media and then tearfully apologized-- imagine tearfully apologizing to Jay Cutler).  Maybe if he won enough, all that would be forgiven, the way NFL explains away Tom Brady's infantile flag-begging tantrums or the way the Colts allowed Peyton Manning to summon the energy of the sun and blast it into his teammates' skulls through his gigantic, ray-gathering forehead.

The Bears have a new GM and a new coach and the only reason why they didn't build a catapult and fire Cutler into the lake is because of his onerous contract.  Now, they can finally be rid of him and hop back on the never-ending Treadmill of Bears Quarterback Mediocrity.  At his age, and with the completely barren team around him, there was no point in keeping him around.  But I hope, for the Bears' sake, that my theory of quarterback faces isn't true because look what just rolled into town.


The pre-Moneyball face scouting extends beyond quarterbacks.  Cutler's coach for several seasons was Marc Trestman, a guy who looked at all times like he was desperately sprinting after a bus.  In college sports, there's no better example than Tom Crean, who I am convinced could have wathered another down year at Indiana except that fans could not handle his uncanny valley face and weird and unsettling body postures that make him look like an incompetently programmed video game character.

ZAGGING 

Northwestern is in its golden age of sports.  In a single calendar year, they've won a bowl game and qualified for the NCAA Tournament; these are incredible feats for a school with sports teams unknown except for their prodigious and unfathomable losing streaks.  The Wildcats have even begun to attract a backlash built because sports media alumni have now begun breaking into people's homes and screaming about Northwestern basketball at them in the middle of the night, and the inability of a middle-aged sports reporters to refrain from dropping Seinfeld references.  

Gonzaga will be Northwestern's toughest opponent this season.  They're favored by double-digits and all of the analysts have KenPommed the Wildcats out of the tournament by Saturday night.  But in a year when the Wildcats have already shattered every expectation in the history of the program, why not add in an insane and improbable upset run to the Sweet Sixteen?  After a game when an opponent brutally northwesterned itself in front of a sea of purple, the laws of the universe no longer apply.