Saturday, September 15, 2018

Week 2: Pain

Football fetishes its strategic sophistication.  All coaches now need to communicate via radio to their Tactical Press Box Command Centers except for quarterbacks who need to use the last landline telephones in existence for some unexplained reason; coaches shield the mouths against the possibility of sideline lip readers; no play can be called without three assistant coaches and every backup quarterback performing vigorous, bug-eyed calisthenics to signal the play; referees constantly litigate impossible rules to the pixel and then give complex explanations to the crowd in a clunky law enforcement argot.  The needlessly complexity distracts from the fact that, at root football is about violence and mayhem.  On every play, gigantic human beings smash into each other, shove each other, drive each other into the turf, and generally clobber each other for our amusement, and every few plays the whole thing stops to someone can writhe around in pain while trainers run out to assess the damage and broadcasts pause to sell us trucks.

The brutality of the entire enterprise is part of its appeal; even the most stringent football wonks appreciating the sublime architecture of an R.P.O. also get excited to see a defensive end come in and blast the quarterback enough to drop the ball or huck it straight towards a cornerback.  And the violence is an integral part of strategy.  When announcers talk about receivers "hearing footsteps" or quarterbacks having a clock in their head, they're talking about the fear of physical violence, that no matter how much these athletes have conditioned themselves to take beatings and play through injuries gruesome enough to keep me in traction for months, at heart no person wants to get absolutely whaled upon; that threat is an integral part of the sport.  The notion of pain as an unavoidable part of tackle football the way it is currently played always exists, but becomes greatly magnified when a you are stuck on a couch watching some unfortunate lineman clutch his ankles while having to steel yourself through pain to reach the remote in order to fast forward through a commercial for extreme sports nachos.

Football players put themselves through agonizing training sessions and getting yelled at by obese goatee guys and then go out there and let some of the most well-conditioned human beings on the planet run into them as fast as possible; I woke up wrong. It is never pleasant to watch a person collapse in high-definition agony, but it is something that comes into sharper focus after an ill-advised commute through heavy traffic ends with me in a parking lot face down in the driver's seat, legs danging out of the car, back muscles attempting for some reason to wring me out like a sponge.  That was not a spectacular condition to watch Northwestern play its first home game, propped up by pain medications and orthopedic brace devices that look like discount professional wrestling championship belts and flinching as players blasted into each other with familiar football clacks and grunts and, miraculously, getting up most of the time.

I would like to say that awareness of pain and the various clobbering and clobber-adjacent injuries created by this sport trivialized the silly, moronic disappointment in watching the team I root for get once again hammered by Duke of all places, but I cannot lie: it's not good.

NORTHWESTERN'S FOOTBALL SEASON

Duke and Northwestern doesn't even sound like it should be a football game in 2018.  It sounds like some sort of nineteenth-century leather helmet spectacle that takes place only after both teams saw four men trampled death and dozens students inflicting riots upon each other in preposterous Victorian boxing stances.  It seems ludicrous o write about a Duke-Northwestern game in modern terms instead of noting that the Duke-men rousted North Western's staff of Quarter-Backs while bamboozling its Defenders with plays like the Governor's Sash and the Winsome Circus Boy.

North Western managed a hard-fought victory 
against Indiana's Train Lads and Purdued-Petes

Pat Fitzgerald managed to wrangle one positive from the Duke loss by popping up in the news referring to the run-pass option as "pure communism" in a press conference.  This insight led to some light mockery across the internet because several wags and goof-makers had to point out the minor point that there exists no historical or philosophical context in which his remark makes sense.  The comment led to two responses online: a horde of pedantic Football Bukahrins unfolded their pince-nez spectacles to confront Pat Fitzgerald, an anthropomorphic jaw, on the finer points communist ideologies; a gaggle of shirtsleeved Cubicle Guys overheated while constructing elaborate flop sweat-laden RPO/communism puns.  I am not sure to what extent Pat Fitzgerald has studied up on World Communisms before comparing them to specific football strategies, but I am positive that his understanding of communism has been influenced most by the 1984 film Red Dawn and the run-pass option is definitely something the devious Soviets would have done while invading various high schools and local drug store hangouts.
Pat Fitzgerald stands in Northwestern's new $270 million Oafish Communist 
Comparisons Building

Both games featured an array of quarterbacks.  Northwestern is no stranger to quarterback committees.  Some of the most successful years involved a rotation between a running quarterback and a throwing quarterback so slow that he was mounted to a wheelbarrow and pulled around the pocket.  This time, though, the quarterback chaos comes from an unwieldy attempt to manage Clayton Thorson as he returns from knee surgery.  The first rotation happened in the Purdue game.  Fitzgerald remained characteristically coy about Thorson's availability leading up to the game.  Thorson started, but came out after two brilliant series without explanation while the sideline reporter scrambled to figure out if Thorson was injured again, whether Fitzgerald was playing some sort of mind game, or if something more nefarious was afoot like the Thorson disappearing under mysterious circumstances or the NCAA discovering that Trevor Siemian had gotten Face/Off surgery and had taken his place and they would need to vacate the Music City Bowl victory.

Thorson's backup is T.J. Green, a junior who has tantalized broadcasters eager to induct his father, former NFL quarterback Trent Green, into Northwestern's inner circle of Celebrity Sports Parents along with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and a beet-red Doug Collins who spends of Northwestern basketball games doing an impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall when he is thrown out onto the surface of Mars. Green is also cousins with receiver Bennett Skowronek, which I only mention because it led to the Dan LaFontaine Schwarzenegger Trailer-caliber Tribune headline "Bonded by blood, Northwestern's Ben Skowronek and TJ Green hope to find home in the end zone."

The Wildcats have another inexplicable MAC night game showdown against Akron.  The quarterback situation remains unsettled.  Northwestern fans would be thrilled to see the 'Cats leap out to a quick and decisive lead and let Green gain experience against the demoralized Zips; after watching Northwestern teams, I am pretty sure that no matter how good Akron may or may not be (SBNation's preseason Numbers Rankings had them at 166th in the country), I have determined that Pat Fitzgerald is committed to giving fans good money value for their tickets and ideally would take every single game to overtime except the Illinois game because the Hat is too important to leave to chance. 

ELEPHANT RAMPAGES

Spencer Hall's Elephant article reminded me of a book I picked up earlier this year called Behemoth: The History of the Elephant in America by Ronald B. Tobias.  Tobias, a nature documentarian, traces the presence of elephants in the United States both literally, as circus and zoo attractions, but also as rhetoric, symbols, and mascots.  Tobias's book is wide-ranging and often tragic, describing the plight of circus elephants in revolting conditions and deaths that came from attempting to keep them contained.  But what really struck me reading this book was the reminder that the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a vast, wild, and lawless place, where elephants were kept in bizarre and casual situations that occasionally resulted in them rampaging all over a town.

Imagine that a circus comes to town and an elephant (usually male and in musth, a months-long hormonal phase that renders them violent and unpredictable, especially when kept in chains and assaulted by nineteenth-century mustachioed trainers) frees itself.  Few towns at the time had anything resembling an elephant-stopping infrastructure; they had several confused constables and panicking circus personnel; an elephant rampage was essentially a Godzilla-level event.
World militaries differ in strategies, values, and promotion system but 
what binds them all together is evidently the universal belief in promoting 
any officer whose Godzilla Defense Strategy involves continuing to attack it 
with conventional weapons long after they prove useless

Tobias, for example, describes the exploits of Tusko, an elephant that repeatedly ran amok in the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s and 30s.  In 1922, Tusko, held by the Al. G. Barnes 4 Ring Wild Animal Circus got loose in Sedro Woodley, a town along the Skagit River in Washington State.  Tusko, in the heat of musth, threw his keeper 30 feet in the air and then crashed through buildings and fences before smashing into a bar to gorge on sour mash as residents drunkenly followed him around.  "When it was over," Tobias writes, "Tusko had squashed or overturned twenty automobiles, collapsed the walls to three houses, knocked down a variety of oubuildings, and pushed a farmhouse off its foundation.  His swath of destruction ran for thirty miles." "The local paper dscribed the bull as 'frisky' and 'full of hijinks.'"

In 1931, the circus sold Tusko to a circus promoter named Al Painter who "used him to ballyhoo dance marathons at a 'Million-Dollar Pleasure Paradise' called Lotus Isle, near Portland Oregon."  But Painter could not contain him either.  A pilot buzzed the building where Painter kept Tusko chained and he once again became free and basically destroyed Lotus Isle.  The attraction shut down.  Painter sold Tusko to another former circus man named "Sleepy" Gray for a dollar.  The elephant nearly escaped again; as Tusko thrashed against his chains in Portland and the mayor called in the National Guard.  Gray sold Tusko again to "Colonel" H.C. Barber, according the strict law that says that any unseemly and huckster-adjacent enterprise in the United States must at some point involve a self-proclaimed Colonel.  Gray still lived with Tusko and tried to take him to Seattle, but the city would not allow him to bring Tusko within its limits.  Here, in a situation so insane that it could only happen in Depression-era America, Gray got hired by a demolition company to let Tusko smash houses, just showing up with his rampaging elephant.

Tusko, though, could not turn a profit; when the Colonel planned to have him killed and stuffed the Mayor of Seattle impounded Tusko at the Woodland Park Zoo (Tobias notes that the city complained that Tusko had been "used continually as a racket").  Seattle residents donated money for his feed.  But he only survived a year in custody and died heaving against his chains after another musth season.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

This Blog has been around for Ten Years Good Grief Also It Is College Football Season


College football has a lot of things going for it: exciting finishes, field-storming upsets, a general air of ruckus that surrounds it, but the greatest contribution that college football makes to the sporting landscape is as a source of unhinged online jeremiads.

College football offers a great backdrop for writing because it is impossible and insane.  There's the serious articles about the various ways that college football remains profoundly fucked up and morally  indefensible-- an elaborate system of inflicting brain traumas on unpaid teenagers that is somehow simultaneously a lawless free-for-all where institutions hide grievous and even unthinkable crimes and an impossibly intricate parallel justice system where players are monitored at all times for accepting a five dollar milk shake with an enforcement branch dedicated to investigating the unauthorized sale of game-worn pants.  The entire thing is something out of Kafka.

The sport breeds colorful characters at all levels because it has evolved to turn itself into a network of unquestioned fiefdoms under the two types of people who absolutely should not be in charge of anything: college football coaches and people who give shitloads of money to college football programs so they can be Football Big Shots. 

At the same time, college football remains just about the most ineptly organized sport possible.  Its sheer enormity and the sport's inherent violence means that it is nearly impossible to crown an actual champion through head-to-head play.  Instead, the NCAA has outsourced its championship crowning process to a succession of various polls, forumlae, Piggly Wiggly Championships, and, in its current version, a shady committee of bureaucrats.  The college football championship is not so much a contest of football but a contest of discourse and innuendo.  Why wouldn't college football have blogs when the only way to decide who gets whatever hideous trophy they've come up with this time is a bascially blogging writ large.

College football is America's most rhetorical sport.  It runs almost entirely on what fans like to call "tradition," a code word for a collection of ancient grievances, accusations of cheating within the NCAA's arcane rules, regional insults, and the narcissism of small difference among local rivals.  Wins and losses are determined equally on the field of play and through post-game litigation on the internet, TV shows where square-knotted Football Guys talk about Strength of Schedule and What The Playoff Committee is Looking For, and insane radio shows where callers can dismiss entire records as the product of an inferior conference by screaming at the tops of their lungs.  The whole thing is sport through a hazy Foucauldian lens.  Also everyone is drunk all of the time.
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This blog started ten years ago as part of a large and unruly network of blogs that monomaniacs created to scream into an electronic void.  Internet sports discussions in the earlier 2000s largely coalesced around message boards of various quality that produced everything from reports from dubious insiders to a network of profoundly unfunny pun names for rivals, but the vast majority of content usually involved like five people constantly complaining about various message board injustices perpetuated against them by the Mods.  The blog represented a step beyond that, where a person could write all they wanted without fear of getting censure or getting called an asshole with the tradeoff being that nearly no one would ever read your shit.

Nowadays, when we have all somehow sewn ourselves into the internet like so many Lawnmowered-Men and scarcely express a thought that is not Online, it is hard to imagine what blogs meant even ten years ago.  A person could type out his or her thoughts, throw them on a webpage for free, and people could actually see them.  For me, the blog was not an innovation in distribution that freed me from having to pass out a hastily-xeroxed Northwestern 'zine outside of Ryan Field, but a way to write while bypassing a single person who could stop me from publishing it and also tell me that whatever I was doing was so profoundly awful and embarrassing that I should never write anything and I should bury myself in the nearest desert.  The freedom that blogs granted for me was not the freedom from rejection or ridicule but from ever having to justify anything-- there is no way that any other person with a platform would ever allow me to write about Northwestern football and also Tour de France mustaches or nineteenth-century biopiracy, or football game recaps written as P.G. Wodehouse stories for an audience of several dozen people for ten years.  They would be right; this entire enterprise is almost unbearably ridiculous, but it remains astounding to me that anyone reads this at all.

The brief flourishing of small sports blogs seems to have passed for several reasons.  One is that blogs have become consolidated and professionalized, with several fan sites morphing into full-on operations with sources and credentials.  The other is that social media allows everyone to spray their unhinged opinions all over the internet without a care in the world.  People are ready to make their grievances about various coordinators known all over facebook; should a person, for some unfathomable reason, need to call a teenager who has chosen to attend a different school a TRADER, a sufficiently deranged person can simply tweet it directly to him or the nearest convenient family member instead of blogging it to thirteen equally disturbed persons.

One of the strangest things that has happened to the internet over the past couple of decades has been how internet posting has moved from a shady, almost underground activity to ubiquity.  For me, at least, internet posting had always been a weird netherworld where you anonymously write incredibly dumb shit centered on whatever weird obsessions you kept from polite society.  That does not mean it was better; the early internet I saw was often cruel, insensitive, and concerned almost entirely with the scenario what if Mr. T ate your balls. But I don't think I've ever been able to wrap my head around the fact that everyone is online with their real names.  This blog is not anonymous because I'm under any delusion that anyone actually cares about who I am but because the entire enterprise of blogging about Northwestern sports and whatever baroque nonsense that actually makes up the vast majority of these posts is profoundly embarrassing in every context except being a giant goofball online.     

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After a decade, blogging about a single team can become repetitive and tedious.  The team wins, the team loses, the team goes to a shitty bowl game or the team goes to a shittier bowl game.  The same people fade in and out.  Northwestern will play Wisconsin every year and you could probably swap out the names of the coach and running back and get the same preview that consists of "sure looks like these big guys are gonna sit on 'em."  I've written several hundred words about P.J. Fleck and I don't know if there are any more depths to plumb from rowing the boat.

The exception is Tim Beckman, who burned in like a comet and immediately became the lodestar of this blog.  If you ever find yourself compulsively blogging about an undistinguished football team, you can only pray for a Beck Man to show up on the doorstop.  Beckman coached football as a type of performance art, a hamhanded sendup of everything a college football coach is supposed to do without any veneer of competence.  Teams have rivals, so Beckman immediately began courting one with Northwestern although anyone who had followed college football for the past century could explain that the only way to approach Northwestern football was through polite condescension.  But instead, he made the speeches and posters and paraphernalia.  He really put up a No Northwestern sign in the locker room.  He really made a Countdown Clock.  The man had props. And although it really bummed me out at the time, in retrospect I can't think of a more narratively satisfying football game than Illinois beating Northwestern for the final Big Ten bowl berth in a game where no team had a starting quarterback.

Beckman seemed to approach coaching like the proverbial resident of Plato's cave-- he saw a vague shadows of things that a football coach should do, footballcoachically.  I believe, with no real insight into Beckman Mindset beyond turning him into a cartoon character for my own amusement for several years, that this was the essence of Beckman's downfall-- a hazy understanding that coaches should be tough, and a sort of cack-handed attempt to act that way that by denying that human beings could injure their hamstrings.  Or maybe he was just a violent oaf who didn't win enough games to get away with it.  Either way, I can't stop writing about Beckman even though he has not coached football for years because the most interesting thing that Lovie Smith has done is grow a tremendous Sean Connery beard.  As recently as several months ago, this blog featured him in a long, fantastical story that involves him reluctantly attempting to fight a bear in a homemade bear fighting suit.

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Northwestern opens the season tonight inexplicably against Purdue on national television.  This is the strangest scheduling development I can think of.  Not only do they open against a Big Ten team, but Northwestern and Purdue are about to play a football game in full view of the public instead of tucked away on Big Ten Network regional coverage at 11:00 AM in Week 9 overshadowed by almost any other sporting contest including international soccer, one of those darts games where the darts guys are lowered into a raucous arena by drunken British people who have spent the afternoon seizing strangers by the lapel and screaming DARTS at them through bloodshot eyes, an instagram video of a dog on a basketball court.

Both teams are coming off successful seasons.  Purdue, steaming into a bowl game under hotshot coach Jeff Broehm, Northwestern riding an impossible overtime win streak that stretched the fabric of space-time into a ten-win season.  For Northwestern the biggest question remains whether quarterback Clayton Thorson will play.  Thorson, injured in a heroic trick play during the Music City Bowl that led to my favorite bizarre sports article where a columnist demanded to know why people didn't compare it to Nick Foles's Super Bowl catch, seems ready to return.



Pat Fitzgerald, though, remains cagey, refusing to name a starter, and torturing beat reporters with his signature riddles and rhymes.  Fitzgerald loves using vague, hockey-style injury reports; ask him about his starting quarterback and he will produce an episode of the new Twin Peaks.

Pat Fitzgerald answers a question about his starting quarterback for tonight's game

I don't fault Fitzgerald for keeping things vague.  After all, injury reports exist mainly to serve such degenerates as gamblers, talk radio hosts, and bloggers.  But the reason he does it, as part of a football coach's ludicrous fetish for military-style secrecy in the service of Literally Northwestern Football comes across as ridiculous.

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What will the Mighty Wildcats look like this season?  I have no idea.  I'm not going to pretend to analyze them position by position or know how they stack up against the West; this is a futile task even for football experts much less for a team that lost to an FCS team and won a bowl game in the same season.  This blog has in the past been written based off of Dave Eanet radio broadcasts, boxscores, and, one season, from another continent exposing my computer to all sorts of exotic Michaelangelo Viruses in order to watch a stuttering stream of the Outback Bowl. 

This blog exists as an infinitesimal part of the great College Football Internet Yelling ecosystem.  There are now dozens of sources that will give you actual news and analysis about Northwestern football or Cubs playoff anxiety or even the incredibly popular pastime of being mad at the Bulls, online.  This thing, here, at blogspot dot com is a discomfiting anachronism.  I have no idea what I'm even doing here or why I've decided that the world needs ten years worth of half-informed 10,000 word screeds about the Schmalkaldic League or nearly 100 fake columns parodying extremely specific types of online sportswriting that makes sense to me alone.  But the season has begun, the scoreboard will soon be blasting its AC/DC, and the fist claws are coming out of a long hibernation to menace the thousands upon thousands of fans from good grief have you seen the home schedule this season.  There is only one thing a poster can do in this situation.

Friday, July 13, 2018

THE NBA DRAFT LOTTERY IS A VILE ABOMINATION

There is a certain joy in a bad basketball team.  If the Bulls only featured several young players to get unreasonably excited about, Stacey King testing out his groan-inducing catchphrases, Robin Lopez reacting to technical fouls like he has been bombarded by gamma rays, and Cameron Payne, who has styled his hair so it is always going in the opposite direction that his body was comically flailing in some parallel universe Buster Keaton film, it would have been enough for us.



Instead, the Bulls joined with a coterie of miserable chump teams and pursued the strategy that all the basketball experts who know what they're talking about because they use the word "assets" agree is the best way to build a winning basketball team by launching itself straight into the shitter.  By the end of this season, teams trying stay done for Ayton or sleep with the fishes for Luka concocted absurd fake injuries for anyone remotely capable of dribbling a basketball, rested established players, and brought up scrappers from the minor leagues to pretend to play basketball; the Bulls were admonished for ostentatiously benching Robin Lopez, a solid player who excels mainly at elbowing people, and they took on a cast-off player named Sean Kilpatrick who played exactly well enough to help win two games they were desperately trying to lose to the point where internet Bulls fans rechristened him "Sean Kill Draftpick."

There is no point in rehashing all of the NBA Tank Opinions-- anyone reading this is obviously so strung out on the sports internet that they are sniffing the embers of blogspot dot com-- but we have just seen the grotesque spectacle of intentional hideous garbage on the part of the Bulls, an odious parade of ugly losses and league reprimands and extended Cristiano Felicio minutes, result in the seventh pick in the draft.  The pick is not an unmitigated disaster.  For example, it is higher than the eighth pick.  But the Bulls, all but announcing to the fans and the Association and whatever wretched god that Gar Forman worships in his oozing antechambers that they would tank and quit and give minutes to the giant masked guy who ineffectively menaces the Harlem Globetrotters before one of  them gets in one of those subspace balloons and parachutes from the stratosphere in a pressurized suit to dunk on him, did not get the world-altering top three pick that they had promised suffering fans.


Cager the Masked IT Professional

It could have turned out better.  The Bulls won a coin flip against the Kings to secure the sixth-best lottery odds.  Instead, the Kings won the second pick; if the Bulls had lost that flip, they would have the second pick instead.  This is the second time in recent years that the Kings had flummoxed the Bulls.  The Bulls owned the Kings' first round draft pick.  The Kings, though, had wisely engineered protections on the pick.  For years, the Bulls waited for the Kings to cross the threshold from abysmal embarrassment to merely bad, but the Kings stubbornly refused, repeatedly performing disgusting and feeble basketball that kept them picking in the top ten and the pick away from Gar Forman's tentacles.  When the Kings successfully fended off an even mediocre finish for so many years that the pick turned into a second-rounder, it seemed almost spiteful.  The Bulls are the only basketball team ludicrous enough to have an NBA draft lottery rivalry.

The history of the present Kings of Sacramento is a history of repeated 
injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of 
an absolute Tyranny over these Bulls. To prove this, let Facts be submitted 
to a candid world:
THEY HAVE sucked so badly that they prevented the Conveyance of a Lottery Pick
for literally years on end.
THEY HAVE offered $80 million dollars to Zach LaVine

And yet it may turn out well anyway.  I admit that I started writing this post right after the draft lottery when it seemed like the Bulls' tanking would be in vain.  But look!  Wendell Carter has spent the last week terrorizing various scrubs and jabronis in summer league, so perhaps the time that Bobby Portis punched Niko Mirotic so hard that it exploded his face and then Niko came back and the two of them became an unstoppable Double Dragon duo that led the Bulls to eight consecutive wins at the absolute worst possible time for that to happen will turn out to be the best thing to happen to the Bulls.

MALTA

As the rest of the planet foolishly watched Spain do passing drills at each other for an hour and a half, real international sporting aficionados were tuned into Youtube to stream the exciting finale of the FIBA European Championship for Small Countries between Malta and Norway.  The tournament provided a strange mix of legitimately Small Countries like Malta, Andorra, and host San Marino as well as larger countries like Norway and Ireland where the smallest thing about them is their population's interest in or knowledge of the rules of basketball.  The final, played in what appeared to be a modest high school gym, featured interstitial dance music and a smattering of fans who alternated between honking plastic horns and taking pictures of their children who filled the elementary school dance team proved that the old truism that there are no small tournaments, only small countries.

You are reading about this tournament on a vaguely Northwestern-centered blog, of course, because Malta features the Wildcats' sweet-shooting forward Aaron Falzon.  Falzon played well-- he captured a tournament all-star honor.  But Falzon quickly became overshadowed-- almost literally, if this person was standing directly in the path of the sun-- by his enormous teammate Samuel Deguara.  Deguara is listed at seven feet six inches tall, gargantuan even by basketball standards.  Against a Norway team that featured no one listed as taller than six eight, his work on the court resembled those highlights of big men from the NBA draft who came directly out of high school and all of their highlights are late-90s public access shots of them bearing down on a terrified kid wearing a t-shirt under his jersey.

Deguara's reign of terror looks like the seven-foot Canadian twelve-year-old 
playing on eight-foot rims

It is impossible to turn on an NBA broadcast without having to hear about how teams have trouble using traditional big men because the strategy involves switching them onto a nimble guard who torreador-feints them into useless bags of limbs.  The lumbering paint dinosaurs whose primary skill involved being absolute giants and using their size and bulk to hammer people on the boards and, especially during the 1990s, elbow people, we are now told are obsolete.  The draft and its endless run-up featured nothing but questions about whether these players could fit in the Modern NBA (and also how that affects their status as Assets).  So it is refreshing to remember that at other levels of basketball it is still effective to have a player that is just an absolute load, a goliath who cannot be outrebounded or blocked or even really effectively trash-talked without a step ladder, a giant who will send any shot sent from merely tall people into the pits of hell.

Deguara is, according to his Wikipedia page, fourth-tallest player in the world.  He plays for a Thai team somehow, impossibly, called Mono Vampire.  Deguara was completely unstoppable in the championship game and was named tournament MVP as shown in this picture of him next to a FIBA official wearing an unmistakable I can't get over the size of this lad expression.
   

IN SUPPORT OF THE DUMB AND IRRATIONAL NATIONAL LEAGUE

Last month, The Ringer's Ben Lindbergh unveiled a manifesto against the National's League's archaic practice of allowing pitchers to hit.  The piece, which combines historical records of people complaining about pitchers' embarrassing incompetence at the plate dating to the nineteenth century with statistics showing that pitchers are somehow only getting worse, presents a resoundingly clear case that the practice is silly and pointless as National League pitchers ruin rallies cause lineup headaches.  To this I say: so what?

It is an objective fact that pitchers cannot hit.  But the central assumption that removing pitchers hitting from the game would make for a more enjoyable baseball experience is not.  It's an aesthetic preference.  It might not make a lot of sense to prefer to watch worse hitters hit, but my hot take is that sometimes it is ok to have frivolous and dumb opinions about sports.

Yes, the whole enterprise of pitchers attempting to hit a baseball remains a largely pointless pursuit.  It is endlessly frustrating to see rallies snuffed out by the lurking pitcher spot, especially when a cowardly manager decides to walk the hitter in front of him.  Yet, there's also no way to quantify the enjoyment I get from the mystical aura of the Pitcher Who Can Handle The Bat A Little.  Off the top of my head, I can name a bunch of them: Micah Owings, Carlos Zambrano (one of my all-time favorites), two-way phenom Brooks Kieschnick who very quickly became a no-way phenom.  One of the most satisfying Cubs subplots has been the evolution of Jon Lester from literally the worst hitter in baseball history to a guy who can bunt-- Lester's been an excellent and at times brilliant pitcher for the Cubs, but one of his greatest feats involves a pinch-hit walkoff bunt.


The debates over the designated hitter point to a larger phenomenon in sports and sportswriting that conflates forward-thinking, data-driven empirical facts with aesthetic preferences.  Baseball has moved to a true-outcomes game as the value of walks has increased and the stigma of strikeouts has not.  Teams obsessively track pitch counts and pitcher effectiveness in multiple times through the order, and starters yield more and more innings to the bullpen.  These are all trends backed by numbers, and I'd be wary of supporting a baseball executive who would complain about Joey Votto walking too much or whatever, but it's also a strikingly different type of baseball than a kind that emphasizes putting the ball in play, running around on the basepaths, and sporting a gigantic mustache.  There numbers tell us that early twenty-first-century Adam Dunn and Juan had similar worth, but it is not objectively wrong to prefer your baseball players to lumber to first only via walk or home run trot or to spray the ball around and zoom around the bases while being the only professional baseball player to still wear a hat under a helmet.

This tendency, I believe, remains a lingering effect from the great Blog Wars of the early 2000s, when sabermetrics and statistically-minded writers butted heads with the entrenched Hat Guys and Hawks Harrelson who dismissed basic statistical ideas like baseball players should try not to make outs as the rantings of tedious nerds.  Stats bloggers were besieged in their proverbial mothers' basements, defensively adopting a belligerent, incredulous pose that developed from arguing over and over that RBI and pitcher wins are kind of dumb stats against people whose entire rebuttal consists of just repeating the words Mickey Mantle over and over again.

This is the only known photo of "Mickey Mantle," which, as has been 
reported on this blog numerous times, is a fictional baseball player 
invented by Billy Crystal and Ken Burns in 1987 to fool Baby Boomers

Yes, pitchers cannot hit.  And yes, the affinity that National League fans have for pitchers hitting probably is determined entirely by the fact that the team they like plays in the National League.  It's silly and irrational.  But sports are silly and irrational.  Choosing a team to root for often comes down to something completely arbitrary like where a person is born, sports rules are bizarre and nonsensical, the price of beer at a sporting even is exorbitant; spending time watching sports is itself kind of silly and irrational.  Let no one argue that pitchers can hit more effectively than even the shittiest replacement infielders.  Let no one argue that the DH, in the American League since 1973 and a rule in just about every baseball league except for the Japanese Central League uses it, is unnatural or not a part of baseball.  The DH will certainly come to the National League sooner or later and some people will grumble and then forget about it, but until then please let me enjoy watching a pitcher awkwardly flair one into right and then stand on the basepaths in an ill-fitting satin jacket.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Moneyball, or The Modern Prometheus

The baseball season has started up and fans are thrilled by the bunting and the umpires who have spent the entire winter brushing up on their HRAAAAANNNNTTTT strike bellows and the possibilities of World Series glory for the approximately eight professional baseball teams interested in winning games.

Each ump, upon graduation from Hey Ump! The Sacred 
and Ancient Order of Umpires, must symbolically call 
him or herself out, forever killing their former self before 
becoming reborn behind the plate, and choosing their 
Strike Call that they get after taking mind-altering substances, 
going into a fevered dream state, killing a hippopotamus, 
and claiming its death bellow from YAA AIII to WRRRRRONNNK

The baseball offseason is usually marked by a flurry of free agent signings and trades, but this winter featured a horrible months-long tedium where teams remained frozen in their tracks and all-star-caliber players found themselves in the curious position of having no teams willing to pay them large sums of money.  For baseball fans hoping their team would snag a player on the open market, the entire thing played out like the ending of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly if Sergio Leone had just continued to cut to increasingly narrow pictures of Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef squinting at each other for three solid months while a mournful harmonica played an Ennio Morricone piece entitled "Boras's Lament."

Sergio Leone got this shot by having his actors read an opthamological 
chart that said in tiny type in the bottom "ok shoot now"

The central question that haunted baseball's frozen stove involved collusion, whether the team owners had all gotten together to purposefully refuse to sign free agents and drive down their prices-- after a brief flurry of hefty contracts to stars like Yu Darvish and Eric Hosmer, increasingly desperate players signed for far less than they anticipated from ad hoc free agent spring training bivouacs.  The more likely explanation involves a soft collusion that comes from a combination of free-spending teams saving their money for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, who are such transcendent talents that they will likely command the treasury of a small country to lure them to those organizations and the fact that all baseball teams are owned by unimaginably wealthy people whose interests include:

1. Acquiring as much money as humanly possible
2. Having all of their wealth converted to coins and bills and sacks of doubloons
3. Forcing a man-servant to photograph each piece of money individually
4. Staring intently at a picture of each of their individual monies all day every day
5. Occasionally suing people

And yet, even as the baseball diehards outside of internet comment sections where the prevailing ethos seems to be that baseball players should play for free or at the very least haul some sacks of coal around on off days and also why don't they have guys named "Pinwheel" and "Squeaks" anymore complained at the endless days of constipated transaction lines, this offseason provided the most grim and depressing result of analytically-inclined writers attacking free agency as a sucker's game and the triumph of teams that have tanked their way to October glory.

Over the past two decades, we've seen sophisticated statistical analysis break through to the mainstream, to emerge from the Proverbial Mother's Basement fully formed, suited, and hair-slicked, to the Sloan Conferences of the world to expound on Assets.  We can all agree that this is for the best, that the fact that sports analysis is no longer primarily done via amateur phrenology by columnists who guard against retaliation by wearing hats.  The fact, though, is that the type of salary inefficiency championed in Moneyball and in fantasy sports all results in finding ways for organizations to figure out how to spend less money.  In baseball, this means taking advantage of a bizarre inverted salary structure where teams' competition for top free agents often means paying them into their graying years.  This year, teams have found that they could stop paying for players' descent into overpaid chumps by not competing for their services at all.  They also figured out that they could avoid paying competent major leaguers in favor of young and unproven players because they can either convince fans it's part of a long-term tank and rebuilding plan or, in the case of the Marlins, get rid of all of their good players and pay only to emblazon their taxpayer-funded ballpark with their new team motto Who's Going to Stop Me?

One of  the most fascinating subplots of the Marlins is Derek Jeter's transition 
from universally beloved baseball icon to the face of a despised, penny-pinching 
ownership group as shown from his new office's decorative scheme "Volcano Overlord"

The salary efficiency mindset has spread well beyond baseball.  NBA players might as well have their salary on the backs of their jersey because the league's insane salary cap and labyrinthine trade rules make their paychecks vital aspects of player movement.  These rules are impenetrable to all but a select number of professional Salary Cap Knowers and podcasters that pretty much spend hours listing how much money everyone makes.  The prevailing wisdom in the NBA is that teams should either be one of the three or four championship contenders in a full-on free-fall for draft lottery ping pong balls; therefore a full third of the NBA has been actively trying to lose games for months.  Regardless of anyone's thoughts on The Process or the dozen Counterfeit Processes currently ongoing in professional basketball, the owners have finally found a way to fill their arenas with low-paid basketball excrement while being celebrated for being forward-looking because they are starting four heretofore unknown centers named Phil Lumberman and Miroslav Oaf so they will have a two percent greater chance to pick a nineteen year-old. 

The Bulls's tanking efforts became so extravagant that the NBA threatened 
disciplinary action against them unless they started to play functional 
NBA player Robin Lopez; Lopez has rewarded Bulls fans with entertaining 
bug-eyed flip outs

The NFL also has a salary cap, but it is aided by players signing inscrutable contracts that allow them to be cut or restructured so often that it is impossible to tell whether the cap exists; I have never seen the national football league enforce the salary cap, and I suspect that if they tried to do it to the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones would threaten to shoot them with a pearl-handled revolver.

CUBS PREVIEW

The Cubs remain in the enviable position of baseball's teams trying to win.  They brought back nearly every key player from last year's NLCS team except for Jake Arrieta, who has now joined the Phillies after a long offseason in limbo.  Instead, the Cubs shelled out for Yu Darvish, fresh from a disastrous World Series and a career of being what highly technical baseball analysis would describe as insanely cool.  Darvish has been one of baseball's best pitchers and slots in with Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Tyler "Spin Rate" Chatwood whom the Cubs hope can salvage his career away from Coors Field, and Kyle Hendricks, who continues to dorkishly bamboozle major league hitters to form a fearsome rotation.

Every year brings a new update on Jon Lester's various attempts to conquer his fear of throwing to first, which has previously included underhanding, running the ball over, throwing his whole dang glove, attempting to hire a courier, and finally standing at the mound saying "I prefer not to."  Lester is now divebombing his throws into the ground like a cricket bowler.  This has already worked against Ryan Braun's stealing technique of sort of walking around, and I look forward to seeing how Lester plans to throw to bases next including building a miniature bullpen car for shuttling the ball or constructing an elaborate rube goldberg machine that draws the ire of the ump after he calls time for 25 minutes to figure out why the dowel connected to the boot that kicks over the row of dominoes and activates the third conveyor belt has malfunctioned.

This is my all-time favorite Jon Lester pickoff moment

The other major change for the Cubs this season involves Chicago's Beefy Boy Kyle Schwarber reporting to spring training svelte, muscular, and having a patchy beard instead of a hideous chin goatee that looks like he is trying to make do with a child's Civil War General Facial Hair Kit.  This may or may not help Schwarber's hitting or prevent him from lumbering about the outfield like an anthropomorphic thumb.  Aesthetically, it is a complete disaster.  The robust lefty-slugger who waddles over to home plate to blast enormous dingers and make cartoon coconut noises while stomping around the basepaths is a proven baseball archetype.  The best exemplar is Matt Stairs, a man who spent years summoned to the batter's box once a game from flipping burgers on a grill to launch a baseball into low earth orbit.  The only other perfect baseball shape is the relief pitcher who is just a load, his undulating belly straining against his baseball pajamas or satin pitcher's jacket.

This is an aesthetically perfect baseball image

There is little to say about the Cubs, a very good baseball team who should be very good.  They have made the NLCS three consecutive years, they won a World Series and ended the greatest championship drought in American professional sports, they play in an outdoor mini-mall that turns into a terrifying festival of drunken maniacs like what happens at night in Castlevania II, and they compete in a division that is competitive because it features three teams that took advantage of baseball's free agent market and the Great Marlins Exile.  After years of futility and heartbreak, the best extended stretch of Cubs baseball since the Theodore Roosevelt presidency is also its least compelling.  It would take an unforeseen baseball calamity to bring back the fear of inevitability back to Wrigley Field, one that would probably require at least two players to duel, to vanish into thin air, or to get attacked by a wild animal in the course of a playoff game for me to even flinch.

CHICAGO'S NINETEENTH-CENTURY UNDERWORLD

You would have done well as a resident of Chicago in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to make it through a month without getting bonked about the head and relieved of your possessions.  At least, that is the impression I got from Herbert Asbury's Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld.  Asbury, most famous for his study of New York's stabbiest criminal organizations in Gangs of New York, published Gem of the Prairie in 1940, just after Al Capone's reign of terror, and each page is filled with people with insane nicknames involved in ingenious and horrifying schemes of crime and violence in some corner of Chicago that used to be known as Little Hell or Bedbug Row or some other beguiling combination of words like Satan's Bloodnest.  Asbury at all times seemed appalled and angry at the municipal corruption that allowed crime to flourish while scarcely being able to hide his delight in prurient details and swashbuckling thievery.  Here's an example of the type of thing you'll see from Gem of the Prairie:


Asbury started at Chicago's transformation from a wilderness trading post to a growing town, one, as he described, built so ineffectively on a gigantic plain of mud that sidewalks varied in height threatening to force pedestrians to have to climb or plummet like they were navigating an M.C. Escher painting.  He followed gamblers, strongmen, prostitution rings, gangsters, and even the notorious murder house serial killer H.H. Holmes whose skin-crawling exploits regained widespread infamy in Erik Larson's Devil in the White City.  He also discusses the exploits of corrupt aldermen "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and Mike "Hinky Dink" Kenna that have already appeared on this blog.  Asbury's episodic anecdotes follow a format where a person with an impossible nickname did something terrible and then either got away with it in a mansion, got brutally murdered, or had something else equally improbable happen such as:
One of the famous hoboes who made Duncan's place [that's Bob Duncan, King of the Pickpockets] their Chicago headquarters was Wyoming Slivers, who left the road about 1896 and married a widow in Minnesota.  She died after a few years and left him ten thousand dollars, and Slivers and a score of his cronies went on a six months' spree in which ten of them died of delirium tremens and Slivers himself lost an ear and three fingers in fights.
One might think that a book on the Chicago underworld would spend a great deal if time on the city's most famous gangster Al Capone, but Asbury only turns his attention to him, his boss Johnny Torrio, and a host of "such notorious gunmen and bandits as Handsome Dan McCarthy, Bugs Moran, Maxie Eisen, Frank Gusenburg; Vincent Drucci, better known as the Schemer; Two-Gun Louis Alterie, also called the Cowboy Gunman because he owned a ranch in Colorado; Hymie Weiss, who was O'Bannion's alter ego and second in command of the gang; and Samuel J. Morton, called Nails..." towards the end of the book.

(Asbury notes that Morton died "as the result of what his fellow gangsters regarded as despicable treachery; he was thrown and kicked to death while riding a horse in Lincoln Park" before explaining that his fellow gang members "determined to exact vengeance, kidnapped the horse a few days later, led it to the spot where Morton's body had been found, and solemnly 'bumped it off,' each gangster firing a shot into the animal's head.")

Gem of the Prairie is nearly 400 pages of that.  Asbury seems to have done extensive research in newspapers, government documents, journals, and books such as Vice in Chicago written by a person improbably named "Walter C. Reckless."  But this is not a stolid, scholarly document.  Asbury provides statistics and analysis, but what he's most interested in is the anecdote, the improbable characters, and the over-the-top criminals, politicians, and law enforcement figures that populate the book.  It's also written in 1940, which passages and assumptions that will probably at times jar a reader in 2018.  The most fascinating thing about Gem of the Prairie is its evocation of a city with all of the dirt and grime and swirling possibility of shockingly casual violence and exploitation he seeks to paint a horrifying picture for his readers but he can't help but also romanticize.   

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The First Disappointing Northwestern Basketball Season

Northwestern has had basketball disappointments-- heartbreakingly close losses to miss the NCAA tournament, falling victim to NIT bracketology, having Big Ten championship celebrations derailed by grim tidings from the League of Nations-- but the Wildcats have never had a disappointing season because most Northwestern seasons were considered successful if they played a regulation game without the opposing team bulldozing the arena into a pile of rubble.

The Wildcats entered the season with all the swagger and confidence of a Defending NCAA Tournament Participant.  The Associated Press, which was so bamboozled by Northwestern's improvement last year that they could not find a Northwestern logo for their website, ranked Northwestern to start the season.  With all but one returning starter, the Wildcats seemed like a decent bet to make the Tournament again, to rack up RPIs and Ken Poms, to continue collecting the ire of college basketball fans who were sick of Michael Wilbon's face.  This marked the first season where the NCAA Tournament did not seem like a distant hope or a ludicrous dream, but something to prepare for, that fans could get one of those giant maps and tiny tanks and the tank-pushing sticks and use it to figure out which games they could win and lose before triumphantly arriving in some regional.

Instead, Northwestern struggled all season and floundered their way out of the NCAA tournament, the NIT, and possibly even one of those disreputable fly-by-nite tournaments that are constantly derailed by disputes about whether there're any rules what say a dog can't play basketball.  The purple 'Cats were stomped into wine by Texas Tech, buzzer-beaten by Georgia Tech, and NBA Jammed by Trae Young.  They barely survived overtime against their two crappy in-state rivals DePaul and Illinois.  The Michigan State game involved them racing to a 27 point lead against the conference champions and then slowly sinking into quicksand for the entire second half, a loss so painful and needlessly cruel that Chris Collins turned into a cartoon character.

Collins gets so upset that he reverts to his original toon form

People following this team have spent all season trying to figure out how the Wildcats fell from an NCAA Tournament team to sweating out losses against the likes of Rutgers and Iowa.  They did lose two players, most notably Sanjay Lumpkin, the anchor of their defense, who allowed the team to ride his chest like a burly chariot through Big Ten frontcourts and into and endless conga line of charges.

The go-to explanation has involved the team's temporary relocation to the All State Arena located far from campus at the end of an O'Hare runway.  This is a satisfying reason because the All State Arena is the sports equivalent of a floating garbage island that should be torn down brick by brick during a brawl between fans of what I imagine as a version of Warrant formed by the drummer and the Warrant formed by the guitarist who in this scenario are suing each other and have formed armies of bellicose supporters that have been tearing up arenas and county fairs for the better part of a decade.  Certain uninformed cretins have maligned the pre-renovation Welsh-Ryan Arena as "an arena where you probably could bet on fighting lizards" or "the lunchroom" but those people are missing the charm of melding into the person next to you in tightly-packed bleachers while sitting close enough to spray pretzel crumbs onto Gene Keady's combover, and I will never like a sports venue more.

Every single time I lose my keys or leave the 
house without some vital item, it is because 
the space it should occupy has been taken over 
by the knowledge from this article that Gene 
Keady spent $600 a week to have Gary Oldman 
Fifth Element Future Hair, and I frankly I deserve it

Or maybe the most reasonable explanation is this:

It would be impossible for Northwestern to recapture the giddy ecstasy from last year's run as the tournament became a possibility and then clinched by an impossible sports movie play at the last possible second.  It is no easy task to continue to make the tournament in the Big Ten, and harder still without being able to ambush opponents who instinctively view Northwestern jerseys as dunk runways.  If Northwestern has fallen from its zenith this season, this same group of players can be celebrated for creating a zenith to fall from.

AN AESTHETIC REVIEW OF THE MATCHUP ZONE DEFENSE

There is a notion that the zone defense is for cowards, a gimmick for overmatched teams that will be instantly vaporized on the dribble, posted up into the stanchion, and relentlessly bullied.  This is ridiculous; teams at every level run zone defenses..  But when a team switches, like Northwestern did, from a brutal man-to-man scheme that got them to the tournament to a match-up zone, the move reeks of desperation.  For Northwestern fans, though, the zone did not just represent a change in basketball strategy but the aesthetic embrace of Northwestern basketball.

Northwestern basketball under Bill Carmody did not involve strategy but an entire ethos.  Carmody's teams sought to bamboozle opponents with unorthodox basketball: a ponderous Princeton offense that involved doing backcuts at opponents until they just let them have a layup under then-glacial 35-second shot clock; a bizarre 1-3-1 zone defense that looked like a basketball jellyfish as players lunged and undulated in patterns that opponents had not seen before that forced them to pause before rising up and dunking through them.  Carmody basketball hoped to confuse opponents for long enough for Northwestern's less heralded players to get a lead.  "Vince played him as well as he could," Tim Doyle said about his center Vince Scott's matchup against Ohio State's Greg Oden in an article with the astonishing title "Cats can't climb Mount Oden." "But Greg is going to the NBA after this season and Vince is going to be an investment banker" is the unofficial motto of Northwestern basketball.

"Minnesotan Gets So Frustrated He Appears to Punt" (2013)
(original image from Insidenu)

The matchup zone used this season is not as aesthetically pleasing as the 1-3-1 zone, with a destroyer like the National Basketball Association's Reggie Hearn terrorizing unwitting guards at the top, and a masked Luka Mirkovic hovering around the free throw line like the Phantom of the Paint.  That particular combination represents the platonic ideal of Northwestern basketball, as long as it is run in front of an enormous number of screaming Indiana fans in Welsh-Ryan Arena, under a malfunctioning dot scoreboard.  But Collins's zone occasionally produces sublime moments: players dashing around the wing to deny entry passes and stay just in front of players rendered into jabronis foolish enough to drive, frustrated perimeter passing, and the most enjoyable sports sight of all, aggressive pointing.

NORTHWESTERN HEADING INTO THE BIG TEN TOURNAMENT

The Wildcats have limped into the Big Ten tournament without Vic Law or Jordan Ash and without a win since February 6.  They've already said goodbye to the All-State Arena, which is only weeks away from giving itself over to Grave Digger, SkullHammer, Car-Nivore, and the other monster trucks to jam it beyond recognition.

Although I post incessant references to Grave Digger constantly, I have no idea how the scoring system for monster jam actually works and I plan to never find out

The team faced an impossible task of topping one of the most joyful sports experiences I've ever witnessed.  Time did not stop when Pardon hit the layup, the Wildcats did not freeze forever in mid-air when CBS announced they were officially in the Tournament, and the world continued to spin even after Pat Fitzgerald burst into the locker room and baptized the basketball team into his cult of the vigorous first pump

It is strange and almost surreal for a Northwestern basketball season to be disappointing because they did not live up to their preseason top-25 ranking.  The Carmody teams that came close enough to knock on the Tournament door or at least make enough noises for the Committee to check and see if it was the wind provided disappointment and heartbreak, but the expectations were never this high.  Most of the time, it was impossible to be disappointed by a Northwestern basketball team, provided that they did not break any federal laws

Sure, Northwestern did not storm back through the Big Ten and shatter records on the way to the NCAA Tournament.  But this team, with Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, and Gavin Skelly who may be playing their final game tonight in the Big Ten Tournament, has already done something I didn't think I'd ever see and changed the entire notion of what is possible for the men's basketball team. 


Until of course, they run the table in the Big Ten Tournament and find their way back to the Dance.  As last year's team proved, anything is possible.