Friday, October 16, 2020

I am not a Sadist but Clayton Kershaw Getting Lit Up in the Playoffs is Baseball’s Most Endearing Recurring Bit

There is a certain way that Joe Buck says the words “and taking the mound for the Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw” joebuckishly that has become one of the most eerie sounds in baseball, a chilling declaration that is like the phone call whispering “seven days” to the people in The Ring who are normally going about their day until a nightgown ghost lady crawls from their television to tear them apart.

Kershaw is one of the best pitchers we’ve ever seen; there’s a case to be made that he is the greatest pitcher of all time. And yet when the playoffs roll around, Kershaw at some point goes onto the mound and serves up a barrage of hits or a home run at the worst time and then slinks off to the dugout where TV cameras isolate on his anguished face for the rest of the game while Joe Buck says “you just hate to see that” but obviously we don’t because there will be approximately 5-10 minutes of footage during the rest of the game of Kershaw staring off into the distance alone in a dugout strewn with discarded gatorade cups and spit up sunflower seed shells and what appears to be the broken husk of baseball’s Icarus.

The disparities between Kershaw’s playoff and regular-season statistics are glaring. In 2,330 regular-season innings, Kershaw has an astonishing 2.46 ERA. In 177.1 playoff innings, he sports a 4.31. His average of .7 home runs per nine innings in the regular season doubles to 1.4 in the postseason. And it is not that Kershaw is consistently terrible-- he has pitched absolute gems in the postseason-- but it is precisely because he is so otherworldly good that he tends to pitch in the biggest moments, and because of that burden he appears to have trapped himself in a psychological prison where his inner torment is annually on display for an audience of millions.

Kershaw’s predicament is not entirely of his own making. Baseball’s cruel scoring system has left Kershaw responsible for baserunners that his bullpen mates invariably let in. He has spent the last several years fighting off recurring back injuries to the point where it is not clear how healthy he is in the postseason (he only started Game 4 this season after missing several starts because of back pain). Kershaw has lost World Series games two years in a row to teams brazenly cheating: the 2018 Boston Red Sox, and the 2017 Houston Astros who we later learned spent the entire season beguiling pitchers by hitting garbage cans with a stick.

Last night, Kershaw got outdueled by a person named “Bryse” who looks he could be Mitch Williams’s rowdy son who travels the country with his father trashing golf course pro shops after shooting fireworks at driving range balls retrieval cart and threatening to shoot other golfers with “fart fireballs.”

There is a haunting pathos to those shots of Kershaw, but also, if I am being honest here, a strange sort of comedy. Kershaw reminds me of a straight man in a Three Stooges short who has unwittingly hired the Three Oafs Caterin’ Company for his swanky affair where he must impress the wealthy dowager on The Board, and while everyone watching knows what mayhem lurks around the corner it is the straight man’s job to pretend nothing is wrong and to be confounded and horrified when the pies invariably start flying. 

Kershaw, normally a stoic figure on the mound, has adopted a series of theatrical expressions for when things go awry. Consider his most painful collapse, when manager Dave Roberts inexplicably and I would say almost cruelly put him into the decisive Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS in the eighth inning with the Dodgers clinging to a 3-1 lead. Kershaw gave up a home run to Anthony Rendon then the game-tying shot to Juan Soto on the next pitch. He whirls around, his mouth agape. He wears an almost vaudevillian expression, the type of face you might see a professional wrestler make when they play a theme song that belongs to a rival professional wrestler. He looks like a Punch Out character who has been hit in the stomach. 

Kershaw has become a hobgoblin to the broader analytics community. Year after year they point to his ludicrous numbers and point out the weird sample size from the playoffs and fight against the Kershaw playoff narrative and every year Kershaw ends up blowing up in their face and sports radio caller maniacs who scream about how he is a choker while weaving through three lanes of traffic and bellow that he should be traded end up being convinced they are right, and while that itself is not funny the idea of spreadsheets enthusiasts who have helped mathematically prove that it is not smart baseball for delightful wiry mustache guys to drag bunt and recklessly steal bases and it is far more efficient for people with no visible neck to either walk or hit a home run or strike out or foul 75 consecutive pitches off of a bearded 6 foot 7 person named Brantley or Trantley who throws 97 with movement get frustrated every season while a doofus who has been screaming to Earl The Maniac’s Sports Zoo about how Clayton Kershaw should be sent to a maximum-security space jail while doing doughnuts in the parking lot of a protractor factory is at the very least, kind of amusing.

Baseball is innately cruel. There is so much baseball every year, and a team that dominates for  162 games only earns the right to have a bad week and get eliminated in an increasing number of playoff rounds that commissioner Rob Manfred would like to keep adding for teams that come in second in the division or win one of dozens of Wild Card berths or manage to get in by solving the beguiling Riddle of Manfred. There are few worse positions to be in as a team or a fan than an overwhelming favorite baseball team entering a crapshoot postseason where a few rough outings or a hot opponent or a manager who has ingested several hallucinogens and had visions of Tony La Russa before the game can fuck the whole thing up and invalidate months and months and months of grueling baseball. For a team with World Series expectations like the Dodgers, the baseball playoffs are not an emotional climax to the season but feel more like being hunted for sport. 

The fact that Kershaw pitches for the Dodgers also does not help. The Dodgers boast one of the very few ownership groups willing to spend money on good baseball players, a model front office, and a propensity for unearthing discarded players who either are refrigerator-shaped guys who put on a blue hat and discover effortless 30 home run power or pitchers who throw an easy hundred. This offseason, they added to the best team in the National League Mookie Betts, a former AL MVP who might be the second-best player in the entire sport because the Red Sox did not want to pay him. The fact that the Dodgers keep getting better almost every year winning absurd numbers of regular season games (a near-record 106 in 2019, a league-high 43 in this shortened season) only to continually to fall short of a World Series victory is also funny in the same way that it is funny to watch Wile E. Coyote purchase faster and more elaborate ACME equipment only to end up under the same rock in an accordion shape, but I imagine Dodgers fans find this less enjoyable.

The brutal cycle of playoff futility certainly is no fun for Kershaw, who inevitably looks shocked and wrung out. It is not particularly enjoyable to watch Kershaw suffering again and again on that bench, certain that he has let down his teammates, despondent that he will once again not achieve the one thing in baseball he has not accomplished, and aware that as he sits there a million internet goofs are photoshopping his head onto unflattering objects. Who knows at what point the repeated meltdowns have snowballed psychologically, creating almost an expectation in the back of his mind that this could happen and opening the door to it in an ouroboros of baseball failure. 

And yet there is something strange and almost soothing about bizarre, recurring sports phenomena. One appeal of sports is the unexpected, some team triumphing over seemingly-impossible odds, a previously unheralded player doing something special. And yet, there is also the delight of something happening a few times, becoming a cliché or, in 2020 terms, a meme, and then actually happening. The English national soccer team does not always lose in a penalty shootout, but it is enjoyable when it happens. The Minnesota Vikings do not always lose with a painful missed field goal (sometimes they lose on an egregious Brett Favre interception) but you can bet that each time they do it factors into the Lineage of Painful Missed Viking Field Goals. And while it is not particularly fun for me to watch generations of incredible Bears defenses attempt to win games because every single quarterback they try ends up going 17/28 for 176 yards and 2 interceptions, I can admit that in a way it is kind of satisfying and hints at some sort of order to the universe. 

As of this writing, the Dodgers are down 3-1. They can still come back and win the NLCS and even the World Series. Clayton Kershaw may have a couple of heroic performances in him that he deserves, and he could finally lift that trophy and then drive over to my house and bash me over the head with it like I richly deserve. But if the Dodgers end up going out like this, another wasted postseason, another inexplicably premature loss for baseball’s best team, then I appreciate that Kershaw went out there and confoundingly coughed up a lead. In a year of upheaval, at least one thing remained dependable.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

They Finally Found a Way to Stop Northwestern From Playing Football

 One of the major issues with Big Ten football for the past several years has been the existence of Northwestern and the team's insistence on playing football. The team invades other stadiums and forces the Midwest and occasionally the Eastern Seaboard to endure its brand of trench football in their own venues or for opposing fans to trundle out to a Chicago suburb to sit in an austere stadium nearly bereft of acceptable dining options.  And what happened when the Wildcats would appear was often a grotesque series of punts and incomplete passes and players wriggling directly into the beefiest individual on the field 30 or 40 times before Pat Fitzgerald would, garbed in a schoolboy shorts outfit, Angus-stomp his way to the 50-yardline before unleashing a wailing guitar solo of remonstrances directly into the ear of the nearest official.  This was not just Northwestern on offense, but a brawny, pestering defense that often took other lumbering Big Ten West teams that embrace trends like using the spread offense but in an ungainly, lurching way that still somehow involves fullbacks, and forced their opponents' attack to degenerate into some form of harrowing grunt-football on the way to an unwatchable 17-14 game that Northwestern would occasionally have the indecency to win.  One time they did that enough to win the West Division and then they did the exact same thing two years later and won three games but one of them was a disgusting leather-helmet obscenity against Illinois that is one of my favorite football games that I've ever seen. 

There will be no Northwestern football this season, not because of their punt-related crimes, but because of that pandemic you may have heard about.  This is an unfortunate but wise decision.  A large part of the sport of football involves lining up in front of other people and aggressively breathing at them.  College football teams have close to 100 players not to mention a small army of staff and dozens of goatee guys named Chip whose entire job consists of spittle-flecked screaming.  The NFL has similar problems but will continue plowing ahead towards their doomed season because as God as his witness Roger Goodell is not going to cancel the season during Truck Month.

The Big Ten lurched towards this decision after several false steps such as staging a grand Releasing of the Schedules after canceling non-conference games and as non-Power Five leagues folded.  The decision also came after players, first in the Pac 12, then in the Big Ten, and soon across other conferences, began banding together and issuing demands for universities to, at minimum, provide basic precautions for their safety as programs practicing around the country erupted in outbreaks.  The conferences and NCAA could not do that-- it seems increasingly clear that the types of protections installed in public places that mainly include making someone continually wipe things with a damp rag are not particularly effective at stopping this virus and exist as more of a burlesque of hygiene to encourage people to patronize businesses.  

There is no way a football team at any level could not handle overtures to safety in an oafish and ludicrous way.  The Denver Broncos, for example, made players walk through a shower of what they claimed were some sort of cleansing chemicals to get to practice; this is probably the most absurd operation that we have so far seen from sports leagues trotting out square-headed coaches who now all talk like generals explaining why a Green Zone Burger King has fallen simultaneously to two or three feuding militias to explain that "we are taking every precaution possible to obey the Safety Protocols" before hastily adjusting a mask adorned with sponsor logos to bathe athletes in particles by bellowing at them to keep their KNEES UP DAMMIT.

According to Sports Illustrated, this is a "Nano-Crystalline Mist," says Broncos head medical official Paul Verhoeven 

But college football is not a functioning league but a decentralized cabal, and the conferences are free to decide what they want to do.  Usually, the sport's unorganized, balkanized feuding lends the sport its charm, an endless slate of grievances and a discourse fueled by hollering.  In this case, though, the response to the pandemic has resulted in chaos.

The SEC, ACC, and Big 12 are currently planning to start their seasons full steam ahead.  They do not appear to have any sort of plan or particular sort of insight into precautions that effectively prevent the virus from tearing through teams.  Instead, the ethos seems to involve jutting out the jaw manfully, showing a virus that they are not afraid, and possibly firing on it with automatic weapons.  This has echoed the broader American approach to dealing with the pandemic as a full throated yell of defiance at a threat absent of sentience; the United States continues to handle the pandemic by lifting its jacket to appear larger and more threatening to a pool of quicksand quickly engulfing us all.  

Some cracks in the response to a public health crisis that requires people to try not to breathe at each other are awful but predictable: people being forced to work in close quarters, people who believe that nothing should stop them from drunkenly screaming in each others' faces, people following confusing and outdated guidelines, but the defiant response of no one tells me how to breathe goddammit, and a desire to blast particles like a howling Godzilla stomping through miles of grandparents is the most disconcertingly deranged phenomenon of this experience, even in a country with a history of public health that largely involved people guzzling tonics because the top hat guy said it would help Invigorate the Ball-Sack.

Earlier this week, Nebraska demanded a return to play and threatened to leave the Big Ten altogether, traveling the land and loudly demanding other teams play them in football until the Big Ten told them they could not do that. 

The next NCAA football game should have Nebraska Nomad Mode where you play as Scott Frost wandering about the country and attempt to cajole opponents to play you through offering lucrative prizes or by insulting and belittling them

Maybe I will be wrong and the other football leagues will be fine and everyone will be healthily tackling each other and not teeming with viruses leading to a situation like how the St. Louis Cardinals are being forced to split into three or four different teams and play in several cities simultaneously, shuttling between them and impersonating each other with a series of wigs and false mustaches before someone coughs and they have to be disbanded again.

Like many people reading this, I had been looking forward to a Northwestern football season that offered a new offensive system, the potential to ruin several homecomings, and the exciting anticipation of which modern inventions would be disparaged by Pat Fitzgerald.  Perhaps they can play in the spring, although the possibility of us ever emerging from this seems incredibly distant, if not impossible.  The shutdown will wreak havoc on college sports without the obscene revenues they provide; on the other hand, if there is a small silver lining to all of this, maybe the players' ad hoc organizations will blossom into a movement that can wrench the Rotel advertising profits from the hands of administrators into and get them to  the athletes who smash into each other for our amusement.



The news remains grim and bleak so it was a welcome ray of sunshine when new Bulls President Arturas Karnisovas emerged from hiding and fired Jim Boylen out of a cannon from the team's practice facility.  For a couple of weeks, local beat writers had been antagonizing Bulls fans by reporting that Jerry Reinsdorf's loud complaints that the onset of a pandemic that had altered the lives of people across the planet had cost him some money meant he intended to keep Boylen's bulbous head around for another year.  Instead, Karnisovas stepped in and let him go. 

There has been a shocking amount of baffling Jim Boylen shit that has come out publicly, things that he actually told reporters.  The man was proud of his fucking punch clock.  We could also see players visibly disgusted or baffled when he took one of his patented pointless timeouts at the end of blowout.  I can only imagine what has gone on behind the scenes.  On Friday, Sun-Times beat reporter Joe Crowley tweeted that Boylen had a "verbal run-in with a team chef," a enjoyably baffling nugget that has had me imagining potential Boylen food-related meltdowns; the scenario rolling around my head that I've most enjoyed is that it involves Boylen attempting to launch a TB-12-style Lifestyle Brand oriented around porridge and a belief in some sort of martial art that "defends you from the moon."

I will at this point happily believe any story I hear about Jim Boylen with no scrutiny.

 While it is clear that Boylen needed to go-- not only was he an abysmal basketball coach but very clearly an absolute nightmare for anyone around him to deal with-- as a person who occasionally writes about the Bulls, I will miss the Jim Boylen experience.  As I have written earlier, the Bulls are not currently just a bad basketball team, but they are also a collection of blandly pleasant, boring players.  Jim Boylen was fun to write about because he was a maniac and capable of nearly anything.  Any picture of Boylen is inherently funny.  He poses like a comic book villain, he eyes are bugged out, his bald head shiny, exhorting players that are nearly always disgusted with him.  


Jim Boylen is the funniest coach that has ever been in charge of a team I follow.  It is not even close.  He might be the funniest coach in the history of the National Basketball Association.  Clearly, Boylen knows more about basketball than I could learn in a lifetime of study.  He has won championships as an assistant to the most respected coach in the game.  And yet at no point was any of this apparent.  He looked, acted, and behaved like some doofus that had been pulled from the stands to coach the team.  He looked out of his depths at all times, and his basketball strategies, as he communicated them, seemed to come mainly from talk radio calls about how these guys don't try hard enough.  Boylen spent years of his life deeply enmeshed in the NBA, and yet his ideas about how to coach NBA players seemed so obviously not suited to professional adults that it is completely baffling to me where he came from, but watching him take over the Bulls, immediately become so overbearing and awful that the players mutinied within days gave him at all times the air of a Kool Aid man who, having burst through the wall, had no other plan.  I will miss him terribly.

American sports are currently inextricable from the horror inflicting the country, and it is impossible to follow them now without hearing about Safety Protocols and testing rates and insane culture war raging and the same blueprint of incompetence and disregard for anyone's health in microcosm.  On Friday, the Bulls fired their oaf coach.  It had nothing to do with the pandemic, he just sucked.  It felt fantastic.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

It's Over, We're Cyberpunk Now: A Review of Baseball's Opening Weekend

Heading into Spring Training, baseball had been afflicted by the low-grade malaise that has been seeping into the sport for the past few years: there was the lingering Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, questions about the juiced ball that baseball handled with a series of increasingly half-hearted denials and obfuscations, and an increasingly bold stance by owners that they didn’t get into the baseball business to pay baseball players that signals impending labor strife. But it is also clear that in a year that saw baseball heading into a season that was going to be defined by reporters repeatedly asking Astros players "did you bang the cans," that all of these concerns are muted by the possibility that Major League Baseball will literally kill someone.

Baseball careened into its pandemic restart plan with the panicked disorganization of a retreating army. As labor negotiations roiled into bitterness between players and owners, plans to play in Arizona and Florida fell by the wayside as Covid cases spiked in those states, and the testing regime immediately fell into delays that made it impossible to tell quickly and decisively if anyone was infected before they had the opportunity to spread disease around the stadium, I became increasingly convinced that this was all a giant ass-covering exercise; this way, MLB could claim that they tried before folding the season as the incompetent reset plans continued to lurch forward so haphazardly that it would be impossible to play without marinating the entire league in a virus stew.

But here we are. Baseball has returned, barreling through the clusterfucks and logistical nightmares with the confidence of a person drunk enough to try some amateur bear wrestling in the wild. In this week alone, the Canadian government denied permission for the Blue Jays to play in Toronto leaving them scrambling to secure a home field days before opening day, Nationals superstar Juan Soto tested positive just hours before a game but allowing teammates near him to still play; MLB is still ramming bizarre rule changes into a season that has already seen a universal DH and a mind-meltingly stupid rule to start extra innings with a runner on second-- minutes before the opening pitch, MLB announced an expanded playoff format as part of the sport and America's dominant fuck it we'll do it live ethos.

It is clear that attempting to play organized baseball, with the travel, infrastructure and close contact required by a modern baseball operation is reckless and stupid, and in a functioning country the entire thing would be completely shut down.  Instead, they brought baseball back, crammed the telecasts with triumphant commercials about persevering over a disease that is in fact bat-flipping in triumph at the American medical establishment, and lauded by announcers as something America needs.  It is insane to witness; I do not know why-- possibly because it is bracing to watch professional sports leagues stage grandiose plans for safety theater and execute them as if you or I or your neighbor who has strong opinions about brands of weedwhacking equipment were put in charge of the D-Day invasion-- but watching professional sports leagues attempt to play under these circumstances with increasingly ludicrous fake safety measures makes me feel completely unmoored from reality.  We absolutely do not need any of this.  We don't need Bubbles.  We don't need Alternate Sites.  We do not need to drive a steamroller over people so I can watch Jason Heyward roll over a slow grounder to the second baseman.

I watched like fifteen hours of baseball this weekend.


The biggest and most notable thing is the lack of fans, of baseball played in empty stadiums.  The broadcasts tried several ways to get around this.  Teams are blaring low-level crowd noise over the sound system.  Some set up cardboard cutouts of fans as a sort of comforting simulacrum of the televised baseball experience instead of looking at row after row of cold, empty seats and thinking oh shit there's a plague what the hell are we doing.  I like the cardboard fans.  They're goofy and charming.  The Dodgers had them set up for the game I watched late Thursday night, and I was disappointed they did not set up a cardboard Larry King to emulate what I think is one of the greatest camera shots in the history of televised baseball:

On Saturday's Fox telecasts, the production crew decided to go in another direction and remind us that we are all living in a cyberpunk dystopia.  Fox digitally inserted fans into the stadium using computer graphics from an early generation of console video games and taunted viewers with disturbing pixelated blobs waving disconnected limbs around and appearing and disappearing like ghoulish specters.  There were no fans behind the plate in the Cubs game I watched, but a player would hit a foul ball and the camera would pan into a crowd of weightless cub-shirted dolls, their limbs undulating like horror movie versions of inflatable car lot dancers.  It is an abomination.

The aesthetic of pandemic-era television is the grainy, pixelated Zoom quality of video images, and it is precisely the degradation of television from high-definition to blurry glitches that gives everything a feeling of cyberpunk dystopia.  I believe this is because this is how television and communications looked in every 1980s and 1990s cyberpunk dystopia movie.  Every day on our screens we see an entertainment apparatus that will not stop for anything including a pile of bodies continue to go through the motions with the same form and content but now these programs look exactly like how grainy video calls looked in Total Recall.  There is a television on at all times outside of my office, and every morning I see the same chipper morning news people grinning through elaborate haircuts and doing their inane post-human banter no longer in a studio but in their homes, in networks of flickering rumpus rooms, and the idea of someone sitting at home staring into a computer and vacuously chuckle-talking to Keith about his Summer Movie Faves has been consistently making my blood run cold.

Sports television has hewed to this aesthetic.  Networks have added teleconferenced announcers superimposed over game action nervously tripping over each other and disembodied crowd sounds echoing through eerie shots of abandoned stadiums but they have tried to maintain the familiar grammar of a sports broadcast.  It is the psychosis of the NFL draft but now Mel Kiper looks like a 1990s CD Rom Video Game Guy who sells weapon upgrades.  In my head, I hear Joe Buck narrating the fall of the American government from various regional warlord factions in his same lilting down low it's three and two cadence while John Smoltz interrupts to add in that it's also a rough night for Giants hitters as Kershaw's looking sharp. 

The aesthetics of American Cyberpunk as depicted on sports television

And yet, despite all of the harrowing dread, baseball is still baseball.  The pitch still thumps into the catcher's glove.  The ball still cracks off of bats.  Every few minutes, a large person you have never heard of named Tanner Traegarten or Chance Hacklebourg comes in to throw 98.  The umpires still communicate in their indecipherable grunt-argots.  For some reason, everyone is still spitting and grabbing at their extremities at all times, which is comforting in baseball and would give me an anxiety attack if I saw someone do it on a sidewalk. It took about 15 minutes of me settling in to watch my first Cubs game to go from marveling at the ludicrousness and recklessness of the entire enterprise to start worrying about their ramshackle bullpen consisting entirely of fictional guys from the famous Japanese Nintendo game graphic.

In the midst of all of this, the Cubs decided to launch their own television network.  And because the Cubs are owned by the eternally grasping Ricketts family, it naturally involved an important Business Deal that threatened to leave Comcast customers, the main carrier of all Chicago area cable subscribers, unable to watch the game until they came to a last minute agreement on opening day.  The Marquee Network exists to show nothing but Cubs content, and I have occasionally been thinking about what they have been airing for the past several months as the entire reason for its existence has been swallowed up by the pandemic.  For the past few days, since the Marquee Network has loomed large in my brain, I have been unable to stop thinking about them airing a Ryan Dempster talk show that is just a 1990s talk show where Dempster wears an enormous boxy suit and painted tie, talks to Sissy Spacek and Antonio Alfonseca, and everyone involved is constantly housing and spitting sunflower seeds everywhere.  

Baseball has returned with a sense of anxious joy and horror, something that should not be happening at all but is, and since I am powerless to stop it I might as well see if Javy Baez can knock some dingers.  It exists, like the return of all entertainment and amusement parks and throngs of people hosing each other down with particles in bars, an abomination, an indictment of a government and society unwilling to protect itself from annihilation, and it is also the comfort of knowing that on a summer day you can turn on the radio and hear Ron Coomer talking about how Kris Bryant is really looking for something he drive here the same way you always can.  And if this contradictory state of affairs seems untenable, an impossible way to reconcile enjoying something that should not really exist, there is nothing I can tell you that you can't already know from watching college football in normal times.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The NBA Announces Plans to Do a Fitzcarraldo

There is a scene in the documentary Burden of Dreams where Werner Herzog is discussing with a safety expert his plan to physically drag a boat over a mountain using a series of cables in a stunt meant for the climax of his film Fitzcarraldo.  "If there are sixty people, how many could die," Herzog asks. "They could go off flying like a rocket. Psshew psshew," the safety expert replies, his eyes darting upwards and to the sides as if following the trajectory of people being flung to their doom.

Fitzcarraldo is a classic Herzog film on one of his favorite themes, the hubris of man futilely fighting against a wild and untameable nature.  The titular Fitzcarraldo engages in an impossible task that is almost heroic in its stubborn refusal to bend to the laws of nature and physics (dragging a large ship over a mountain), ludicrous in its end goal (to build an opera house in the Amazon and somehow lure Enrico Caruso to perform), and insane in his complete indifference to human death and suffering to achieve his ends.  In Burden of Dreams, Herzog literally recreates the entirety of the endeavor as he tries to drag a ship up the mountain with the same admirable determination and mad indifference to human suffering in the service of a movie about doing the exact same things except he also introduces Klaus Kinski into the mix to unleash the maximum amount of chaos possible.  The entire film becomes an unfathomable quagmire that involves negotiations with numerous governments and tribal organizations.  Someone gets shot with an arrow.  Somehow it is a documentary about Werner Herzog proving his own point.

ESPN has announced that, in addition to its insane and dangerous Orlando "bubble" where NBA teams will compete in a postseason tournament to determine which team has the fewest number of key players with permanent lung damage, they are prepared to activate a Loser's Bubble based in Chicago.  This is for the eight teams that did not qualify for Orlando and whose fans probably do not want to see play another game.  The Orlando Bubble already represents the Association's Fitzcarraldo, a grandiose and clearly insane attempt by man to defy nature by pretending a virus cannot penetrate the perimeter of Disney World in an attempt to crown an NBA champion; the Chicago bubble, if it happens, would be like trying to haul a ship over a mountain in order to convince Chicago mobster Frank "Skids" Caruso to come to the opera house and violently extort the audience.

Incidentally while I was looking up some opera stuff about Caruso, I stumbled upon this astonishing google groups thread from 2008 of opera fans that, like all internet discussions, degenerates into a barrage of ludicrous insults including "You're a piece of filth - hence, not a man. Tell me, who indulges in phone contacts with psycho-dreck like yourself, Swill?  Not I!"

This is probably the part of the post when I would bemoan the pointlessness of the Chicago bubble and the obvious greed compelling teams to wring the last droplets of TV money out of the NBA sponge to offset revenue losses that will have no impact on the lifestyles of any of the people or entities wealthy enough to own NBA teams, but I can't imagine anyone reading this who is going to think oh the blogspot guy has a good point I'm now reconsidering wanting to watch whatever Rump Pistons show up flail around listlessly for a few games and also maybe get violently ill.

One of the central questions is if players are allowed to opt out, as they are in Orlando, why would any of them come here?  Chicago does not even offer the remote possibility of an NBA championship.  Why would they upend their families to go to Chicago and play several terrible preseason-style basketball games against the Atlanta Hawks to an eerie, silent arena so that the person who owns their team can fulfill contractual obligations to a regional cable network that wants to air commercials with Trae Young telling a car dealer named like Bob "Mack" Whitmanty that his deals are a "slam dunk" in a jersey designed to look as much like a Hawks jersey without infringing on trademarks.

But for Bulls fans, the bubble has an even more catastrophic feeling, not only because a potentially superspreading event may be activated in their city, but because of the possibility that the Bulls will unleash another several weeks of Jim Boylen on an already exhausted populace.

Ever since Arturas Karnisovas and new GM Mark Eversley have come in, everyone has assumed that Jim Boylen will not coach another game for the Bulls because he is an oaf.  Every single thing that Boylen has done has been embarrassing-- it is not just losing a bunch of games, which a number of normal people could have done with the inept Bulls teams assembled by the previous front office, but it is the strident, bug-eyed, arm-flailing boobshiness with which he has comported himself that has been admittedly extremely funny and enjoyable to blog about.

For several months, I have been wondering what Jim Boylen has been doing day-to-day, away from the team.  Is he calling players and exhorting them to train harder? Is he trying to break into the practice facility to polish the fucking time clock that he was making players punch into?  Writing a Treatise on the Usage of Late Game Time-Outs With Reference To My Critics Who Have Invidiously Attacked My Own Strategems?  Has he been sending e-mails to players who hear an alert on their phone and immediately roll their eyes because it is from Boylen and the subject line is "re: your spirit"?  Presumably he hasn't been doing that because he has been sitting around waiting to be fired.
Excerpt from the Boylen Treatise

No one wants to see another second of Bulls basketball this season, but the idea of Bulls basketball with Jim Boylen gallumphing around the sidelines sweatily exhorting people like a vengeful spirit of all dads returning a defective lawncare item cannot possibly be real.  The only way it could be tolerable would be if the new front office promised that Boylen would be gone after the bubble and they were only keeping him around for us to laugh at him or if he were restrained in some sort of Hannibal Lecter apparatus. 

The Chicago NBA Loser Bubble represents the nadir of all American sports restarts.  The other leagues have some pretense of chasing a championship or playing some sort of semblance of a season that disguises the lunacy and recklessness of devoting so many resources to something so superfluous and frivolous.  But an attempt to impose a "bubble" with a testing regime and entire armies of people to support whatever ramshackle versions of the NBA's shittiest teams deign to show up presents the most desperate and despicable sports gamble yet-- until the NFL decides to do anything.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The NBA "Bubble" Is Making Me Feel Genuinely Insane

Over the past several months we have all witnessed a daily barrage of surreal, maddening images of what the television commercials tell us are These Uncertain Times and in the grand scheme of things the machinations of a billion dollar professional sports league are relatively small potatoes, but I cannot help but look at reports about the NBA's plans to resume play in a half-assed quarantine bubble at a network of Disney World resorts and feel like I am listening to a bunch of guys who go on television to discuss whether or not talks between the Los Angeles Lakers and Avery Bradley are "heating up" earnestly describing to me some insane nightmare their subconscious has cobbled together while under general anesthesia for a surgical suit enlargening procedure.

As the so-called bubble plan took shape, the central NBA conversation has focused on how many teams would play, the structure of the playoffs format, where players would stay.  It ignored other questions important to me such as what has Jim Boylen been doing every day for the past three months and whether or not the idea of players literally living at Disney World but unable to go on any of the rides was a situation specifically enacted when the Lopez Brothers got their enormous hands on a monkey's paw.

When you are specifically barred from Space Mountain

But of course the central issue with the the bubble plan itself despite the safety protocols and testing regimens for the players and coaches and staff and reporters and family members and assorted hundreds of other people in the general NBA Bubble retinue is that the central thing they are gathering to do is to have a bunch of enormous sweaty guys lever forearms into each other for two and a half hours at a time in front of empty crowds during a pandemic that is rampaging through Florida so that cable television networks can air commercials where a guy pretending to be Chris Paul accidentally drives a combine harvester through the library wing of the Paul family manse.

The NBA's drive to return fits in as one of the most ludicrous and hare-brained schemes that fit into the larger and equally insane schemes to "open up" the United States while doing essentially nothing to address the fact that waves of plague are sickening and killing thousands of people every single day.  They keep repeating that phrase "opening up" and it is reverberating around my skull in the deranged register of some Lynchian black lodge character or in the way that phrases get chopped up, distorted, and crushed up against each other in every single FM radio promo that inexplicably became the industry standard because the only way to lead into another solid block of Zeppelin Friday is with a sound collage taken from the climax of a direct-to-video clown murder film.

There are numerous reasons for the race to Open Up that you can read from people who do not write blogspot websites about mediocre football teams, but the consequence of having a patchwork of local restrictions, contradictory and confusing messaging, the pandemic getting sucked into a brain-warping culture war over hypothetical constitutional guarantees to eat at Fuddrucker's whenever the fuck we want, or the president going on television to tell people that he is going to have our brave generals shrink themselves down into microscopic submarines and shoot at the virus with very strong lasers, they tell me they can do incredible things with these beautiful lasers has resulted in a matter of grave public health turning into an individualized ritual of self-expression.  There is the juxtaposition of people hurrying out of grocery stores in masks and gloves pirouetting around snaking lines of people waiting to get onto patios so they can order beers and blast spittle into each other's faces in conversations that largely involve yelling did you see what Kyle did on his instagram.

One entity that is decidedly not open for business is Major League Baseball.  Baseball's plans to return have been derailed by a protracted labor fight.  For whatever reasons, baseball teams have come to be owned by a group of people who seem to despise baseball, baseball players, and baseball fans.  Their sole interest appears to be paying baseball players as little money as possible-- front offices actually passed around a championship belt for the teams that best screwed over players in arbitration and this is what these guys do for fun at their decadent spreadsheet jamborees.

For the past several weeks there has been a cycle of Major League Baseball throwing out a proposal to players and players largely scoffing at it and demanding more money and then Major League Baseball offering them more or less the same amount.  The role of commissioner Rob Manfred remains unclear.  Manfred, a dead-eyed functionary who resurfaces from time to time to either explain how much people despise baseball or to come up with a plan to shave three more seconds from games by catapulting players from the dugout to the on-deck circle and who generally has the bearing of a guy who spends a lot of time setting up and filming elaborate model train accidents, has been largely absent.  Baseball's collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of next season, and judging by the antipathy between players and owners we might not have baseball for quite some time.

In this case the owners' nauseating avarice may come to some good because lost in all of the labor strife is the fact that it is probably a profoundly bad idea to attempt to play baseball.  Other leagues that have returned in Taiwan and South Korea and Japan are doing so in countries that quickly quelled the virus and maintain robust testing and tracing procedures to manage further outbreaks whereas in the United States we remain unable to fathom a way of solving a problem without shooting it either with a gun or shooting it with another gun; getting a bunch of baseball players whose entire routines involve constantly emitting spittle and jamming on their crotches etc. seems like it would spell disaster.  The independent American Association, my emails from the Chicago Dogs that continue unceasingly because I once bought tickets on their website tell me, plans on starting play July 3 in three midwestern "pods" hosting several teams.

I cannot imagine an apocalyptic disease scenario that will stop the NFL from trying to play, even if alien spores infect Jerry Jones and turn him into an unstoppable carnivorous plant.

Even as sports leagues sputter to life in fits and starts, the central question on my mind is whether I even miss them.  At the beginning of the quarantine lockdown, amidst chilly weather, confined at home, and in the middle of spring training and the dying moans of terrible local basketball seasons, I found myself starved to just turn on The Game.  I spent a lot of time in March and April watching youtube videos of entire old baseball games just to settle into the comforting rhythms of the game and to psychologically torture myself by listening to Tim McCarver say "actually not a lot of people know this, Joe, but the curve seems to the batter to 'curve' in the air making it harder to hit with those bats."
But virtually everything, including the raging, uncontrolled pandemic, faded into the background during the eruption of protests against police brutality and racism that ignited with the video of a Minneapolis police officer murdering George Floyd.

There are two types of videos that I have seen over the past weeks involving police: in one they stand in futuristic armor gleefully truncheoning people or blasting them in face with chemical weapons and in the other they stand with folded hands behind a union president who is excoriating the big-city mayor who has spent the past month humiliating him or herself by saying "I agree with the truncheoning" for not being obsequious enough while rivulets of foam run down his mustache.  In Chicago, the mayor imposed a curfew, walled off the downtown like a medieval fortress to the point that I expected them to explore the possibility of bringing the alligator back to patrol the Chicago River in case protesters decided to launch a flotilla against the sacred ruins of the River North ESPNZone, and a constant din of helicopters besieging large groups of people most of whom have been walking and holding signs. 

For awhile, in a genuinely unhinged scene, weird unmarked paramilitary units flooded Washington D.C. that appeared be recruited overwhelmingly from car avatar guys who indignantly reply to verified sports personalities tweeting about Colin Kaepernick. 

Some NBA players have questioned whether a return to play makes sense not only in the context of the absurd Stately Virus-Dome boondoggle but during a time of a massive popular surge for civil rights.  Kyrie Irving reportedly argued on a conference call with more than 80 players that the NBA's return could serve as a distraction from the movement.  

The virus's surge through Florida may soon render these discussions moot.  Even the NBA's byzantine and farcical Rules and Regulations in the quarantine zone such as telling players they must discard decks of cards after use or having families spread out masked in the theaters where they may be treated to Disney exclusive sneak preview movies as part of their families' commitment to being biosphpered do not quite fit with players being encouraged to absolutely mash their  crotches into the nearest Plumlee when throwing a violent dunk on him because that is an integral part of the game.

But the other thing at stake is an enormous and unfathomable pile of money for team owners and the corporate consortia that profit from the NBA, the loss or gain of which will make no material difference in any of their lives other than making a number go up and down, and it is almost impossible find any force whether from a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes or the streets bursting with calls for social justice that can stop that.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Basketball player DESTROYS the New York Knicks for Ten Hours

There is no universe where a Michael Jordan documentary can provide a searching, searing take on the Legend of Michael Jordan that involves the participation of Jordan and his various representatives and phalanxes of brand protectors; without them and their own ability to shape the narrative Jordan does not agree to allow the use of archival footage and appear on camera with fuchsia eyeballs to say fuck and cackle derisively at his vanquished foes presented to him on iPads like platters bearing the heads of slain enemy generals. 

While I understand frustration with The Last Dance for anyone looking for anything beyond a glossy advertorial for the master Michael Jordan narrative, I enjoyed it because I am a Bulls fan who grew up watching Michael Jordan, imbibed all of the swirling Jordanian lore, and reveled in him destroying his-- and by extension my-- basketball enemies, and did not mind reliving this for ten hours during a sports-ending pandemic.  Perhaps those who don't have Proustian sense memories of the very Baker's Square where B.J. Armstrong tried to get Jordan to come back from his baseball hiatus or the traffic-stopping Rodman billboard on the Kennedy or the McDonald's Beef Wennington or the soothing existence of the phrase "The JCC Presents Jud Buechler's Basketball Camp" can look at the documentary and demand that corporate behemoth ESPN put together a thoughtful critique on the greatest meal ticket in sports history with intricate financial ties to the network, but for Jordan delighting in the various times he made Pat Riley angry with a few fucks and sometimes shits thrown in was entertaining enough.

The Jordan story that they tell is the one everyone already knows: Michael Jordan is an insane, competitive monomaniac who blazed a trail of destruction through the National Basketball Association off of a deranged obsession with real and imagined slights who wins and wins until stopped by an avaricious owner and his chief henchman who would get rid of him and finally get to shape their vision of the Bulls as cheap and shitty and run exclusively by people with oddly-shaped heads. 

If a filmmaker is going to involve Michael Jordan in a Michael Jordan documentary, then Jordan will get to tell the story he wants, and the way he likes to tell it is as a vanquishing of enemies and redressing of grievances.  And while it is exhausting for a person who won all of the time to constantly harp on the people whom he has already stomped upon-- his deranged Basketball Hall of Fame Speech remains the purest strain of Jordan ever released into the wild-- Jordan had the benefit of collecting hideous enemies.  Consider his nemeses: the revolting Bad Boy Pistons, Pat Riley's blackjack and knuckle-duster Knicks, Utah's vile penis-punching operation led by the odious Karl Malone.  One of the funniest things to come from this documentary was a week of sputtering Isiah Thomas television appearances to defend his honor after Jordan and a legion of former Bulls had an unprecedented national spotlight that they all used to shit on him.  To be fair to Isiah Thomas, the admittedly funny walkout after the '91 Eastern Conference Finals is probably the least disgusting Isiah Thomas scandal.

The vaunted behind-the-scenes footage amplifies what most viewers already knew about Jordan.  Anyone who wanted to see footage of a legendary Jordan roasting session has minutes of new insults inveighed against Jerry Krause for being unkempt and roly-poly and Scott Burrell for being worse at basketball than Michael Jordan.  There's Jordan the gambler matching up with the unexpected breakout star of The Last Dance, a mustachioed perm-mullet security guard who took a twenty off Jordan in a game where they threw coins at a wall in the bowels of the United Center.  The new footage largely shows Jordan swaggering into a locker room, exchanging some mildly amusing and vaguely hostile banter at teammates and staffers forced to sort of chuckle through it, and then going into the arena to humiliate Patrick Ewing.

The central question I have for anyone looking for something more from Jordan in The Last Dance is what if there's nothing else there?  What if the way that Jordan presents himself as a relentless, berzerk competitor righting an unending number of imagined wrongs by beating someone at basketball at a time where he had the muscle of bazillion-dollar corporations to make him transcendently famous and sell him to the entire world is in fact how he sees himself and there exists the sum total of what Michael Jordan is able to tell us about being Michael Jordan? 

I'm not sure what additional depths of Michael Jordan still exist to plumb.  Jordan was incredible at basketball through a combination of athleticism, skill, and ludicrous obsession.  He is also petty, vindictive, obsessed with gambling, and an asshole.  There are, I am sure, more horrid examples of his bullying that Jordan or the dozens of producers involved with this kept out of the documentary-- insults that would result in his immediate cancellation, sordid gambling anecdotes, an admission that he was actually part of the infamous "cocaine circus"-- that would not tell us anything more than the internet's various Codices of Michael Jordan Insults that have been floating around for 30 years.  How much more vicious do we need to see Jordan in rare footage to get the point that we get from a Jud Buechler talking head where he tells us that he was terrified of him?

I was not expecting Buechler to transform into Artie, the Strongest Man in the World

The only time Jordan shows emotion other than suppressed rage, delight at having vanquished someone, or derision while staring at an iPad interview is when he gets choked up at the thought that everyone thought he was an asshole.  But even here, Jordan doesn't seem to show remorse for ceaselessly calling his teammates "twenty-one feet of shit," but frustration that no one seems to understand that he only insulted people because he wanted to win.  Jordan cannot fathom anyone not getting that the Bulls could not win a title unless he mentally broke Will Perdue.

There still remain compelling Jordan mysteries.  There is the question of Jordan's sudden retirement and attempted baseball career that, even throwing aside conspiracy theories about a secret suspension, still keep me wondering why even the potent cocktail of grief at his father's sudden, senseless murder, a growing gambling scandal, and the ever-present pressure of being the most famous athlete in the world that could understandably get him to retire nevertheless manifested in him joining another sporting concern that would lead to unending scrutiny, failure, and ridicule.  There is the question of whatever was gnawing at him from the insides to get him to invent insults from LaBradford Smith.  The documentary does not even touch on latter-day Jordan from his Wizards career to a comically disastrous run as an executive and team owner who keeps drafting various versions of Frank Kaminsky.

The most compelling Jordan question, though, is the overarching riddle of what it is like to be Michael Jordan, to achieve a level of success and fame that most people will never approach, to attract massive crowds and people for whom a single glimpse of Jordan could provoke a religious reaction.  To Jordan, it appeared to be a crushing burden, the price of his desire to dominate his rivals on the basketball court and then sell more shoes than them, one where a step outside of a controlled zone meant crowds of people who all wanted something from him and recorded his every move.  It seems strange and awful.  Does this interest Jordan?  Is there a human being alive who can wring insight into this bizarre life out of him?  Because what seems to interest him more than anything in the world where he has reached a zenith of fame achieved by few people in the history of human civilization is discovering whether Antonio Davis said something to him that he could use to work himself into a frenzy.

Maybe The Last Dance is the most interesting portrait of Michael Jordan that he is ever willing or able to tell.  And in that case, maybe the only way to understand him is like Magic Johnson telling a Jordan anecdote. One time someone told Jordan he could beat him at basketball. And Jordan said uh uh I'm gonna beat you at basketball.  And then he did.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The NFL Draft Reaches Its Deranged Apotheosis in Roger Goodell's Rumpus Room

The NFL Draft is already the most absurd spectacle on television, a slurry of brands and military hardware and grim self-serious analysts solemnly intoning that a player has tremendous instincts and sideline-to-sideline speed but might not have the SIZE and LENGTH to contribute right away in the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE, but the fact that we are all sealed in our homes during a terrifying pandemic meant that NFL was going to reach operatic heights of absurdity.

For weeks leading up to the draft, we had heard about the technical challenges.  There have been stories about how GMs are converting their houses into Draft War Rooms, installing nuclear submarine defense infrastructure to their suburban mansions and complaining about the possibility of rogue cells waging Cyberwar against their zoom conference calls even though, as far as I can tell, the entire infrastructure of drafting involves being able to pick a name off a list and make a few phone calls.

The WNBA had done its draft with few hiccups a few weeks earlier, and everything had more or less worked out.  The show cut between commissioner Cathy Engelbert, a small ESPN crew of analysts, draft picks in their homes, and reporter Holly Rowe interviewing them.  There were a few glitches-- several draft picks had not been told to mute their televisions or use headphones so we got the classic sports radio situation of needing someone to scream "you gotta turn down your radio" at a person although these are professional athletes and not a mustache guy in the middle of proposing a baroque series of trades to reacquire Robby Gould, but watching the players at home celebrating with their families was very charming.  The NFL saw this and decided to brand its version a Virtual Draft; the GM of the Detroit Lions made his IT guy live in a Winnebago outside his house in case some villainous hackers decided to break into the Lions' mainframe and gain the incredible draft intelligence that the Lions were targeting shitty football players.

The NFL draft included a solemn introduction from Roger Goodell who wanted to talk about These Uncertain Times.  Goodell lives for this.  He seems to see the NFL as the nexus of brands and a nebulous form of American patriotism involving tanks, and the solution to every crisis is a sluice of ads showing concern over triumphant piano music.  Goodell's ideal response to a global catastrophe would be to fuse members of the military into exoskeletons made from the Official Pickup Truck of the NFL to shoot at the virus with laser guns while Domino's Pizza solemnly remembers the fallen.  They started the draft with a performance of the National Anthem and then cut to a TV monitor full of people who had painted their faces to look like footballs.

Goodell, standing in a rumpus room decorated with carefully curated knickknacks, was not up to the task of whatever he was trying to accomplish. His wooden bearing reminded me of the famously cadaverous Chicago-area lawyer Peter Francis Geraci who has been haunting UHF airwaves since the mid-1980s or a hapless Vice President of Ketchups thanking the Sun Belt Conference for participating in the Amalgamated Condiments Bowl.  His face was red as a sockeye salmon. He later changed into a sweater and then, on day two, managed to slip into a focus-grouped easy chair.  The whole setup reminded me of one of those Sally Struthers correspondence school infomercials. 

The business of the draft itself remained hilariously mundane.  This is because the essence of the draft remains a televised list reading.  In many ways, the virtual draft served as a more normal televised event than usual because most of the insane spectacle of the draft involved packing thousands of people into a Bud Light Draft Zone where they can stand in line to do the drill where you have to run through tires with your KNEES UP DAMMIT or to don jerseys and scream at picks that they have absolutely never heard of before Goodell would come out flanked by another group of military personnel.  

Some of the weirdest parts of the draft involved attempts to awkwardly recreate the live experience.  Goodell invited fans to boo him via zoom.  Before every pick, Goodell would bring up a small smorgasbord of teleconferenced fans in full team regalia to cheer the picks while he goaded them in a  manner that can best be described as executively.  The fans were barely visible and audible; even though ESPN has rebranded as the network that lets Michael Jordan say "fuck" or even Scottie Pippen, it is not going to let some guy in an elaborate, homemade Los Angeles Rams headpiece bellow one out on national television in front of you, the Commissioner of the National Football League, and God.

The other change from the draft is that it brought us inside the homes of NFL coaches and general managers and dozens of draft picks. This provided us with several shots of goatee guys in team-branded apparel doing some action packed texting in carefully-prepared draft areas where they could ostentatiously display as-told-to books by football players on Leadership or revel in Kliff Kingsbury's palatial opulence, or even cut to Mike Vrabel allowing his rowdy, mulleted sons to operate a carnival of the bizarre in the background.  ESPN's analysts also set up at home except for Mel Kiper, who appeared to have transported himself into a 1990s CD-ROM game.

The draft's attempt to straddle the line between bone-crunchin' football action and solemn discussions of the global pandemic and concurrent economic crash was handled in the same ridiculous and ham-handed way that the NFL's constant forays into doing anything but talking about football and the same ludicrous ways that corporations are maneuvering to continue selling things.  Every few minutes, the draft would give way to a series of identical commercials about These Uncertain Times; the eerie repetition of that refrain and the attempts by Taco Bell to show resilient heroes grasping their taco boxes has put us all into a George Saunders short story.

And yet, in its own moronic way, the NFL draft did provide a useful service this weekend.  Along with ESPN's Bulls documentary, the draft served as a vaguely sports adjacent thing to put onto television that millions of people would be watching and you could follow along and make dumb jokes with all of the other people who like to do the same thing on the internet, and if that meant having to endure a quavering Goodell invoking The Power of America and Specifically Football In These Uncertain Times and to watch as the Bears picked a Notre Dame Guy and no one took anyone from Northwestern then so be it.