Sunday, March 31, 2019

Review/Preview


It is impossible to write anything more evocative on Northwestern's tortured, miserable, last-place basketball season than this gif of Chris Collins on all fours slapping the floor, his eyes glazed with a sheen of madness.  This might be my favorite basketball gif of all time.  Collins is no longer coaching.  He is not drawing a play.  He is not giving an inspirational speech about rebounding.  He is watching his team hang tough with the number two ranked team in the country, he has seen a foul called, and he is reacting as if he is Charlton Heston and the University of Michigan has erected a Statue of Liberty in the student section.

One of the funniest things about sports, and college sports in particular, is the dichotomy between the figure of the coach as stern disciplinarian, here to shape athletes into better people under his or her gruff tutelage and the fact that we allow them to spend games in a maniacal reverie that would be otherwise baffling and unacceptable in any other context.  Successful coaches are allowed to parlay their fame into getting paid to go into a grain silo accessories sales executive convention and talking about Leadership and Discipline and Being A Winner Who Wins Like A Winner and then getting onto a field or a court to scream at an official while their heads flash red like an airplane wing light and their faces swell and bulge into an impression of the world's least subtle mime acting out a dogbite on the groin scenario and this is apparently fine.

There's a reason to draw a thread between Chris Collins's on-court histrionics and Northwestern's rough season because Wildcat fans are searching for a reason for a slew of early departures that have ravaged the team since Collins took over.  If there is one common theme for the Chris Collins era other than the triumphant 2017 tournament berth, it has been departure.  Several of Collins's recruits have transferred to make way for other players; one player alleges in a lawsuit that he was essentially thrown off the team and encouraged to give up an athletic scholarship via methods that included being barred from practice, remanded to landscaping duties, and getting accused of shirking through time cards that look like they had been forged and doctored because the person filling them out could not successfully spell his name.

This week, three graduated players with eligibility remaining have decided to leave as graduate transfers.  Barrett Benson, a presumed starter at center, graduated in three years in order to hasten his departure.  It is, I suppose, not fair to speculate on why players are leaving the program-- they may all have their own reasons, and the timing could be a coincidence-- but I do not think it is unfair to at least ask some questions about the guy above who looks like he's taking a foul call less well than the villainous cartoon character Skeletor.

The swirling mass of transfers has created an air of crisis around Northwestern basketball beyond its usual crisis of being Northwestern basketball.  The 'Cats had already graduated two all-time great players in Vic Law and Dererk Pardon, both of whom had been instrumental in getting the Wildcats to the tournament for the first time; Pardon's last-second layup to beat Michigan and clinch the tourney berth is the greatest Northwestern basketball play that did not take place in the 1930s and did not involve someone building a catapult to launch the ball towards the basket under the rules of the time. 


Two years ago, Collins stood in front of a jubilant Welsh-Ryan crowd talking about beginnings.  Now, he will spend an offseason scrambling to find enough players to fill out a roster.  It's not all doom and gloom; there are several good young players who will have an opportunity to find their footing in the Big Ten and, like his last team, learn how to play together to get back to the tournament or the NIT or one of those weird tournaments where there are no rules and are played in torchlight and the hoops are hollowed out cattle skulls.

A REVIEW OF NORTHWESTERN'S FANCY ARENA

Of course Welsh-Ryan is far nicer now.  They have seats now instead of bleachers.  There are new videoscreens.  The whole building is slick and new and covered in purple like the an arena on an alien spaceship.  It glistens.  There are somehow luxury boxes, even though the person who wants to watch Northwestern basketball but in a luxury box is impossible for me to fathom.  The thing it does most effectively and depressingly is to finally destroy the quaint illusion of Northwestern basketball and put it right in line with the bizarre and inexplicable spectacle of big-time college sports.

Opposing fans always loved to grumble that Welsh-Ryan was a glorified high school arena.  That's not necessarily fair-- it was bigger than a high school arena and also sometimes had halftime entertainment like live The Simon Says Guy-- but it was certainly stripped down in comparison to sleek Big Ten buildings.  The first basketball game I ever saw at Welsh-Ryan was a high school game, and Welsh-Ryan seemed just like a natural extension of what you'd expect to see-- bleachers, but more of them; a dot scoreboard, but one that could display cartoon ads.  I didn't watch college sports when I was younger so the idea of a college team playing in an arena that was basically the gym except without a bunch of side baskets made sense.
 
Old Welsh-Ryan arena just before tip-off for a Big Ten game

Northwestern basketball is big time college sports collecting the same insane checks as every other Big Ten team, but it was easy to pretend that it wasn't.  Welsh-Ryan was a creaky old barn where you could literally bump into Chainsaw Nick Smith on the way to the bathroom.  And for a long time, Northwestern was not very good at basketball.  Opposing fans would take over the arena, loudly complain about it, watch their players dunk for a couple hours and go home.  Even in the years when Northwestern was decent under Bill Carmody, they seemed to be playing a different sport filled with gangly goofballls doing slow motion backcuts and undulating zone defenses.

Of course, that is illusion: college sports are the same insane, exploitative spectacle even if the team plays in a dumpy arena that's biggest selling point was minimum distance from Gene Keady and even if the team was historically bad tournament-missers.  And yet, the spectacle of college sports, especially the NCAA Tournament which was built to allow people to get fully invested in obscure teams featuring guys named like Benton Wrench somehow beating NBA players, is absolutely incredible.  That is the dichotomy of the Tournament: a delightful show plowing along as it always, and if a few minutes' scrutiny makes it impossible that it can continue for another minute before collapsing under its own contradictions that feels like just about everything right now.

THE CHICAGO CUBS ARE AN ABSOLUTE BUMMER NOW

The Chicago Cubs have been in three of the last four National League Championship series.  They won 95 games last season.  A Cub was runner up in the MVP vote, a different player from the Cub who won MVP just two years earlier.  They are only three seasons removed from the greatest in team history, culminating in a championship that generations had been waiting for.  Also they appear to be in complete crisis and everyone is angry with them.

Part of this comes from the Cubs completely punting on the offseason.  They gleefully joined nearly the entirety of baseball in deciding that baseball players were too expensive and sitting out the Bryce Harper and Machado sweepstakes.  Beyond that, though, the Cubs did nothing else.  They fired a bunch of coaches and brought in a utility infielder and a couple of relievers as the Cardinals, Brewers, and even the basement-dwelling Reds improved.

While the Cubs could certainly bounce back into form with the return of a healthy Kris Bryant and Yu Darvish, there seems to be a sense of treading water.  The PECOTA projections picked the Cubs to finish last in the NL Central.  Hilariously, Joe Maddon is using this as bulletin board material without stopping to think that PECOTA is literally a math formula and there is no one to gloat over if the Cubs win more than its projected 79 games unless he is secretly funding a project to implant the PECOTA formula into a host body to assume corporeal form and then invite the shambling monster to the Cubs dugout to get humiliated by disco music and crotch-thrusting dance moves after the Cubs win their 80th game.  It appears the Cubs seem poised to fire Joe Maddon, their most successful manager since Frank Chance, because everyone is just sick of his shit.

But the more dispiriting Cubs stuff has been a parade of scandal and an accretion of generalized rich people mania thrust into public display.  If there's been a single thing the Cubs have committed to in the offseason it is disingenuous apologies-- those from Addison Russell, who remains on the team for some reason, those from the Ricketts family after the publication of Joe Ricketts's bigoted emails.  The Cubs will be donating money and working with groups and raising awareness this season. 

The most recent spate of Cubs e-mails published by Deadspin are less inflammatory.  In this case, they delve into the various shady accounting practices the Ricketts family used to purchase the Cubs, but they also include various embarrassing levels of vaguely Habsburg-level family intrigue where they all sent e-mails to each other instead of threatening to invade the Low Countries.  While Tom Ricketts complained that there was no money left to sign free agents, fans can rest assured that the family was all buying up local railroads to they could all try to destroy each other while sending long email chains where they are all dressed in nineteenth-century sidewhiskers.
 
"How am I supposed to tell my children that it is not 
their uncle alone who owns the Detroit, Toledo, and 
Ironton railroad, but the entire family has banded together 
to crush the operators, buy out their stock, and divert their 
cargo of precious pig iron to our own depots?" reads one email

And yet, the Cubs still have Javy Baez doing Javy Baez things, a healthy Kris Bryant, and a first game that was just a general annihilation of a tanking Rangers team featuring pitchers named "Kyle Dowdy."  It has been a long, impossibly cold, and miserable winter.  Baseball is an incredibly dumb sport that makes no sense and it one of the best wastes of time ever invented.  Let's hope the Cubs and the odious, bumbling family that owns them don't continue to find reasons to make us forget that.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Do Androids Dream of Electric Soccer Men

S.S. Milazzo have weathered heartbreak in the fourth division of Italian soccer.  Their quest to leave the mud-soaked pitches and empty bleachers in this soccer Siberia for the Holy Land of third-division soccer with slightly drier pitches, slightly larger stands, and maybe even their own van had been derailed by two heartbreaking extra-time collapses: one knocked them out of second place and automatic promotion; a second eliminated them from the playoff and doomed them to another season dodging elbows from part-time gym teachers and performance shorts salesmen.  They press on close to financial ruin.  The club is weighed down by hefty contracts paid to star players because the manager is sentimental and cannot part with those legends who have so nearly brought the team to glory. None of them exist.

Football Manager exists on a bizarre halfway realm between reality and fantasy.  There is an S.S. Milazzo in real life; the game features hundreds of real soccer teams across the planet from the flea-bitten amateur ranks of Britain's seventh division all the way to the juggernaut glamor teams where you can actually attempt to purchase a Digital Ronaldo or get angry at some unholy rendering of Chris Wondolowski.  But for me, the most satisfying way to play is with a tiny regional team and have the program invent all of the players, not only because the algorithm was designed by a genius to spit out names like Paolo Pasta, but because it creates bizarre parallel universe where the world's best player is an Austrian named Dolph Tobaggen. 
 
The legend

And it is always fun that, with gameplay that remains pretty much the same whether you're playing as AFC Headbuttston or Real Madrid, you can now find out that the titanic promotion battle that you are fighting in the sixth division while fending off the barbs of a rival manager and other teams trying to grab your top players is all taking place for teams whose real life setup resembles a storage shed with a meat pie concession.

The home ground of Redditch United, a team that I took over after it 
was promoted from league so low that that you are not allowed to play 
into the seventh tier and got it to the the second-tier Championship.  
Because I play an old version of the game, the league that S.S. Milazzo 
is in literally no longer exists  

The genius of Football Manager is that it somehow balances a diabolically complex system of controls where anyone monomaniacal enough can assign unique training schedules to all of hundreds of players in a youth system or futz with dozens of obscure sliders that spell out each players' specific role with randomness and utter chaos.  Other sports games allow a human to control at least one player in the field and therefore take over the game; a skilled player or one at least savvy enough to figure out that the NCAA video games have no idea how to stop a cornerback under center who can run very fast can ride those exploits to victory.  Football Manager leaves the game results up to a program that leaves the player to the whimsical vagaries of chance.  The most determined player who has studied hundreds of pages of the various guides that players have put on the internet to form a sort of Football Manager folklore can still watch a Ballon D'Or-caliber superstar make an idiotic glory-tackle in the box in a crucial Champions League tie or players commit errors so egregious that they are either the result of a computer glitch or an uncannily perfect simulation of an oafish bartender stumbling around in the fifth division.

It is in fact that inability to directly control the players that makes it so gratifying or infuriating.  When a person, for example, takes a team to a championship in an NBA game, it is because he or she has taken control of them directly and run the same pick and roll that the game has no idea how to stop over and over again; these digital Darkos and Luthers Head have no apparent agency in this process.  When a Football Manger player named Antonio Crescendo hits a crucial away goal to advance to the next preliminary round of a cup, or someone named Walter Poplar-Stodge flails ineffective to stop a breakaway, it happens passively onscreen in a way almost directly parallel to how we already watch sports.

And Football Manager also puts in shadowy forces above the player as well.  Each team is controlled by a board that operates according to its own whims.  The manager can do nothing without the board-- it sets budgets, must be appealed to in order to improve facilities or even prevent the pitch from gradually turning into a treacherous dirt pit, it can unilaterally cancel player transactions or sell top players out from under you with no warning.  And in the end the board can fire you.  There is no game over as far as I can tell in Football Manager.  Once you get fired from a team, you can try to take over other teams by sending out job applications; I once got fired from two bottom-division teams in close succession (I am not good at this game) and started simulating to see who would hire me next.  I kept fruitlessly applying to be the manager in any league that would take me while years flew by because I was curious whether at some point the game would force me to retire or go into real estate or die.

---------------------------

Football Manager's baroque interface, intimidating options, and repetitive gameplay would make an impossible and awful game if it did not manage to tap into the insane and frightening ability for human beings to inject pathos and emotional stakes into anything that can be vaguely related to human endeavor.  The lack of control in the Football Manager universe turns players into goal-blasting heroes or disappointing losers that are randomly-generated parts of some code.  I spent several seasons in the game in legitimate fear of a computer-generated player named "Ian Sidebottom" who regularly tortured my team in the dregs of the semi-pro Conference National.

Football Manager brilliantly abets this by encouraging users to emotionally engage.  A crucial part of the game involves finding which types of pep talks certain players respond to.  The game also simulates player disgruntlement-- players argue about playing time, demand transfers to larger clubs, and generally irritate you.  It encourages you to argue with other managers through the fictional media.  These interactions on my old version (2012) get boring and rote quickly, but I'm floored that there's an option to add your own text to interactions-- this does absolutely nothing in the game other than give you the satisfaction of calling a string of code that presents as Liam Tradgough, Manager of Brundleswain-Upon-Pants a bloviating pig fucker to absolutely no one.

Sports video games that have no outside plot other than winning the game count on players to instinctively engage with them the same way they do with sports.  I've put my team in financial jeopardy by having a hard time selling old players because they've become club legends.  I've worried briefly about what recruiting a superior point guard on a college basketball team will do to the old stalwart on the roster even though the game has no mechanism to simulate this and a player will start, sit on the bench, or get cut and sent to a digital afterlife of swirling ones and zeroes presided over by the whims of a game genies with no effect whatsoever.  This phenomenon even spills over to games with real-life players; who has not had some sort of lingering affection for some otherwise obscure player that had somehow starred for you in a video game and otherwise has been consigned to the dustbin of Remembered Guys?

On the one hand, it is a little strange and even disturbing how easy it is to reproduce the feeling of rooting for a sports team that has real buildings and people and eleven dollar beers with a digital edifice that, no matter how complicated, is essentially face painted on a volleyball.  On the other hand, it's also gratifying that sports games allow anyone inclined to graft all of the emotions and ludicrous habits of watching sports onto what is essentially a nest of interlocking spreadsheets.  There is a way of playing Football Manager bloodlessly, of accepting the fundamental fact that its soccer universe is a cardboard diorama and it's just a matter of figuring out what buttons to press to make the numbers go up, but to put hours into the game doing that without becoming attached to players or angrily and short-shortsightedly selling a player that has done something annoying or even, with full control of one's faculties, writing to a rival manager that he should live as long as it takes for humans to master cloning and shrinking so that he can finally climb up his own ass even though this insult is going to an entity that does not exist, is more insane.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Holiday

It is not supposed to be chilly and rainy in San Diego.  Football teams are supposed to win games that they lead 20-3.  Northwestern is not supposed to score 28 points in a quarter, and Utah players are supposed to have played a football game in wet weather before instead of performing as if the game had been relocated to a functioning hog rendering plant.  The Wildcats are supposed to melt down in bowl games at the hands of a superior opponent or a ludicrous hail of onside kick return touchdowns that I didn't even know were legal.

For an entire season, Northwestern was supposed to finally lose and conform with conventional wisdom, the advanced numbers, and the aura of losing that pervades the team even though it's been nearly a quarter century since the Wildcats were in the throes of their notorious streak of football abominations and have since been more or less ok.  Instead, they continued winning after a heinous loss to Akron came to define their season as they became Northwestern-Which-Lost-To-Akron, a name that became funnier and more absurd as their feats became more impressive-- Northwestern-Which-Lost-To-Arkon Hangs Tough With Michigan was one level; Northwestern-Which-Lost-To-Akron Advances to Big Ten Championship Game was most bizarre football sentence that could be constructed.

My favorite part of this wild season was the Wildcats' emergence as the numbers-noids of the Big Ten, racking up victory after victory even as advanced metrics kept spitting out spreadsheets saying that they were terrible.  Northwestern, a 9-5 team with a division championship and bowl victory finished the season as the S&P+ metric's 79th best team in the country (the Associated Press ranked them 22; the coach's poll, which is filled out from what I understand, by a coach wadding it up and throwing it out of a truck window while crossing state lines to buy illegally caffeinated Monster Energy drinks and then sending a graduate assistant to spend several hours looking for it by crawling through storm drains in the hope that someone had filled it out had them at 19).
 
The Wildcats finish the season the traditional Treble: 
The Big Ten Western Division, Holiday Bowl, and Hat

The numbers seemed to catch up to Northwestern when Utah (S&P+ rank 16) came out and obliterated them in the first half.  The Wildcat defense, depleted by injury, and configured in the generous zone defense designed to smother the run and dare some truck suspension Big Ten West quarterback to throw a pass directly at Montre Hartage, got sliced up by Utah's passing game.  The Utes flummoxed Northwestern's run game and swarmed Thorson.  Top receivers Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek left the game injured.

And then whatever unholy force it was that propelled Northwestern all season kicked in and set off the greatest single quarter of football I have ever watched.  An interception thrown directly to Blake Gallagher.  A couple of monster blocks springing Chiaokhiao-Bowman to set up a touchdown.  A Gaziano strip has Jared McGee flying down the sideline.  An offensive lineman catches a pass and somehow trips for 12 yards before belly-flopping into the endzone.  A confused Utah team that keeps falling down and flinging the ball at Northwestern players.  In the end, Northwestern put up 28 points in one quarter and that was it for the day save for a couple more hideous Utah turnovers and Pat Fitzgerald's decision to kneel out the clock so much that they literally turned the ball over because Pat Fitzgerald would like nothing more than to score a touchdown and then kneel so hard that he burrows into the core of the Earth.


NUMBERS

To anyone who somehow managed to follow this blog website for the entire season, Northwestern's success this season in the face of some advanced metrics became a running theme.  I appreciate the epistemological project to bring some scientific order to college football rankings, which are now based on branding, recency bias, shadowy cabals of bureaucrats, and ineffectual screaming at the radio.  On the other hand, football, and college football in particular, is subject to many bizarre vagaries and bounces that it remains nearly impossible to predict, and to have the team I like continuing to frustrate math was funny and also weirdly inspiring.

Fifteen years ago, anyone attempting to follow sports on the internet subjected him or herself to a profoundly moronic culture war between the statheads and the rumpled newspaper columnists and flinty-eyed coaches on television wearing the absolute largest sports coats that could be fashioned by human hands.  This phenomenon, in its original baseball origins, weighed so heavily for the argument that fairly basic stats like on-base percentage were better than weird nineteenth-century stats in the face of counterarguments that consisted of "shut up" and "you live in a basement" that the statheads became sympathetic protagonists. 

More than a decade later, the statheads have easily triumphed.  The empirical case became nearly impossible to argue against in sports as teams that leaned heavily on numbers won.  As front offices began to adopt analytics wholesale, the media shifted to hire people who could write about them; the annihilation of the newspaper sports columnist as a job in the face of buyouts, layoffs, and ill-fated pivots to video took out most of the holdouts.

And yet, as a person who enjoys reading about sports on the internet, it is difficult to see the triumph of the advanced analytics movement as an altogether positive thing.  The grouchy, cigar-chomping columnist performatively photographed with a typewriter in 2004 has given way to the lanyard-clad Sloan Analytics Guy who is here to talk about Assets.  Advances in stats and use of new kinds of data from player tracking cameras has unveiled a lot of novel and interesting wrinkles in sports.  And yet, while knowing how fucking hard Javy Baez drilled a home run or how many miles Jimmy Butler runs during a basketball game is enjoyable, advanced analytics are not really for the fans, but for the front offices, and now more than ever the discourse in sportswriting revolves almost entirely around value and efficiency.

Here are some of the things that have happened as a direct result of broad analytics movements in sports and sportswriting: convincing fans that watching a complete and utter garbage shit team do Wile E. Coyote plans for years at a time is not only the smart way to enjoy sports but any other way is for neanderthal dimbulbs who call into sports radio shows with names like Headbutt Stan; looking at the same trades where shitty basketball players move around because the NBA's salary cap is a miserable rube goldberg contraption as genius moves because now players and draft picks are called "assets"; podcasts where people basically list how much money everyone makes for hours each week.

The broad revolution in sports information that comes from analytics and the internet has had two deleterious effects on following sports.  One is to frame everything in terms of what front offices value, which is money.  Yes, it is important for a writer covering a sport to understand the ins and outs of salary caps and taxes in order to understand what front offices are likely to do but it is exhausting to constantly read about how players fit in and out of these dumb and artificial caps in leagues where the only penalty to signing whoever they want is for some third-generation yacht guy to spend slightly more money.

Second, the analytics movement identifies more efficient ways to build teams and play that quickly become correct.  This is true in baseball, where the three true outcomes have triumphed and in the NBA, where teams increasingly gravitate towards the threes-and-layups offenses.  In many cases, these strategies proliferate because they are effective-- the extra point available on three pointers has made it an unassailable strategy not to jack them as often as possible-- but they flatten and homogenize the game in a way that can be less pleasing, aesthetically.  These strategies have also emerged in team building, where the owners' overwhelming concern with maintaining low salaries have made it all but impossible to consider building a winner that doesn't rely on underpaid young players in every sport. 

It was absolutely good that the stat nerds won their culture war because the people on the other side were ridiculous oafs.  At the same time, the analytics movement has loosed a torrent of irritating spreadsheet-mongers and payroll calculators on sports that have warped the discourse in other bizarre ways.  There will probably never be ways to analyze sports that aren't inherently stupid because the amounts of money and attention paid to these games remain unfathomable and ludicrous.  Sports have become too lucrative to risk on weirdos and suboptimal strategies.  

And while I welcome any attempt to bring some sort of empirical debate to college sports, I also can enjoy a hitch in the system when the team I personally root for flummoxes the ratings and continues to win under an undulating crew cut maniac fist pumping the numbers straight into a garbage can.