Monday, May 1, 2017

The NFL Draft Was Insane Enough and Then They Added Orangutans

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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