Friday, November 29, 2019

Watch Me Make This Hat Disappear

Even as we speak, the Hat Caravan is heading down I-57 from Big Ten Headquarters with the Hat Courier handcuffed to the Hat Trophy in a briefcase that is also shaped like a Hat.

Let's get things out of the way: Northwestern lost the Minnesota game.  It was not particularly close.  At one point it was 21-2, which is the most 2019 Northwestern score possible.  The Wildcats did find a spark with new quarterback Andrew "Kundun I Liked It" Marty and rallied to score several touchdowns, but P.J. Fleck's Backronyms of the Damned headed on their collision course for the Western Division Axe Championship.  There is no Big Ten Championship Game.  There is no bowl game.  All that stands between the Northwestern Wildcats and football oblivion is the coveted Hat.

The two points Northwestern scored in the second quarter came from a Joe Gaziano sack, which set the all-time school record.  Gaziano has been a rare bright spot for the team this year, an all-time Northwestern great and the leader of a unit that so often spent 45 minutes on the field after a Northwestern drive resembled the Grandpa Simpson entering the burlesque show gif.

Northwestern has dominated the Hat Game since the Tim Beckman apotheosis of 2014.  In that game, probably the football game I am most obsessed with, Northwestern and Illinois were both 5-6 and playing for a berth in the Heart of Dallas Bowl located in the creepy, rotting carcass of the old Cotton Bowl.  Tim Beckman, a maniac, had reached the height of his powers by winning more than one Big Ten game.  Neither team had a starting quarterback.  Beckman won, but did not make it to 2014 before being fired for egregious player abuse, which in college football is like firing Jim Varney for excessive mugging.

Now the tables have turned an ascendant Illinois team is hoping to finish off a Northwestern team in the throes of its worst season this century.  Even though this represents another storied chapter in America's Second Greatest Hat-Based Football Rivalry, I can't be too upset about Illinois's season.  Anyone who has been foolish enough to root for the Chicago Bears for the last decade has an appreciation for Lovie Smith, and Illinois fans deserve to have a team that upsets Wisconsin and goes to a Bowl Game.  

But Illinois really should have won the Hat last year.  A.J. Bush played really well, and Illinois repeatedly had opportunities to take the lead against a Northwestern team that was saving all of its ammo for the Big Ten Championship game.  Smith, though,  seemed to lose his mind and become obsessed with futile field goal attempts.  Even as Northwestern's starters left the field one by one and Pt Fitzgerald tried to kneel out the entire second half, Smith would not allow his team to go for broke to the amazement of Illinois fans in the stadium and me, who thought it would be funny for Northwestern to play in the Big Ten Championship game with seven wins and a loss to last year's Illinois team.  Maybe Fitzgerald will react in a different way by falling into a crazed Hat-based fugue state, and Northwestern will burst out some reverse flea flickers or fake punts or plays where they throw down a smoke grenade and suddenly there's two guys wearing number 7 and they're both taunting people to try to salvage at least something from an otherwise miserable season.


Everyone knows about the beginning of the Last Boy Scout, which begins with a pitch-perfect 1990s Monday Night Football opening parody called Friday Night Is For Football that the Big Ten should immediately use. Then the film begins the famous scene where a ball carrier pulls a gun out of his pants and blasts away at would-be tacklers.  This might be the least insane thing that happens in this movie, and I am incredibly disappointed that no one is pouring enormous amounts of money into profoundly stupid action movies like this anymore; the only way we would see a Last Boy Scout in 2019 is if it was called Last Boy Scout: Awakenings and part of a dreary Extended Universe where everyone needs to get emotionally invested in Bruce Willis's dumb Stock Bruce Willis Character Is Sort Of Divorced arc instead of enjoying people shooting a car once and having it explode.

The Last Boy Scout is a football movie.  There is the iconic what if football players shot each other scene, which should be immediately remade so they can tortuously add terrible cameos like Stephen A. Smith screaming "if it were me I would have DISARMED the player, I would have ROLLED TACTICALLY, SKIP" and Troy Aikman saying "uh uh uh the uh wide receiver absolutely not, you ju-- can't just cannot shoot someone with a gun in this situation, Joe." There is Damon Wayans's character, a washed-up quarterback who partners with Bruce Willis to go after the villain, who is essentially Jerry Jones.  There is a final scene in a football stadium where Wayans somehow tackles a ball carrier by riding a horse over him and then throws a football with a hand that he has just been shot through at the exact right moment to knock a sniper's bullet out of the air meant for a corrupt senator played by Eddie Harris from Major League.  

The entire film takes place in one of those universes where they can't get the rights to NFL teams so they invent a fake NFL that always ends up looking ridiculous-- the XFL really should exist only as a consistent fake football league that you can sell to movies and television shows instead of doing things like drafting Matt McGloin and blocking Josh Johnson from playing for the Detroit Lions, forcing them to activate David "That Name Again Is Mister" Blough.

The XFL is going great

The film is a relic of 1990s football discourse-- pro football is still roiling from the scandalous cocaine-soaked Cowboys heyday.  The evil team owner explains to Bruce Willis, after emerging from a pool and having his henchman played by classic villainous character actor Taylor Negron threaten Willis with a knife because Bruce Willis (who I should mention is a disgraced former secret service agent who was repeatedly shot protecting the president) had killed another henchman by hitting him in the nose really hard which I think is supposed to drive bones into the brain according to 1990s Action Movie Physiology, that the only way forward for football is to legalize gambling because people are too scandalized by football players to root for them otherwise.  This takes place at a time where the largest football scandals involved people getting angry about football players making money instead of the NFL conspiring to cover up the fact that the sport does horrific damage to players' brains; the NFL had not yet decided to turn itself into an organization where Roger Goodell goes on television to solemnly announce another Investigation.

I watched The Last Boy Scout because it is on a streaming service that is being increasingly cannibalized by competitors to leave more and more dreck on its servers.  The streaming revolution has turned into a suite of hollowed out Content Deserts, with a few legitimately good things to watch propped up by a pile of obscure detritus.  One of the things they have been investing in recently has been largely forgettable big budget 90s action movies.  Action movies now seem to either be infinite-budget franchise tentpole movies or forgettable microbudget movies based on someone paying Nicolas Cage to spend a few weeks in Bulgaria.

It is comforting to know that  every time you watch Cage in a direct to streaming 
movie called like The Serpent's Punch, he is just doing this bullshit the entire time

The Last Boy Scout exists as a piece with Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, which came out two years later.  Both imbue their fake football leagues with the violent psychosis of 1990s football, a time when ESPN would glorify players with ham-sized neckrolls trying to turn each other's heads into rock-em-sock-em robots, and a time when the movie in pro sports and football especially had swelled into unfathomable riches.  Any Given Sunday made the point with stylized, visceral football scenes and Al Pacino bugging his eyes out and screaming at people; The Last Boy Scout mainly used it as a framing device for Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans to drive a car over a cliff pursued by a henchman whose car lands into a pool and then explodes and has Willis shoot everyone inside for good measure only for the main henchman to somehow sneak out of there and kidnap his daughter before leaving to set up a sniper's nest in stadium lights.

The obscene violence at the core of football still exists although in more hushed tones.  The money around football has only become more ridiculous.  But the NFL has gotten more buttoned up and obsessed with changing the narrative around the sport since the wild 1990s by taking itself more and more seriously.  The Last Boy Scout in 2019 would definitely provoke an NFL Investigation; it would involve a grim-looking commissioner announcing an Onfield Horse Protocol.        

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Spread

UMASS, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. U-MASS. The lips taking two steps to bleat out and hiss on the second syllable U MASS.

Imagine Orson Welles saying the word UMASS in the middle of a dyspeptic ad read for the university over the typical college commercial of eager kids staring at beakers through safety goggles, sketching things, and high-fiving the school mascot which in the case of UMASS is a guy with cartoon lockjaw in a tricorner hat who looks like Purdue Pete's cousin who drives a trans-am.
I don't know who the first person was to render a macot that 
is a person into a plush cartoon nightmare person, but they 
probably belong to an Ancient Society

Northwestern played UMASS in football and absolutely flattened them. After toggling between heartbreaking last-second field goal losses and losses where Northwestern’s broad football strategy mirrored the guy who breaks a beer bottle on a bar and tries to menace Steven Seagal with it, the Wildcats found a win against a profoundly bad football team.

The win did not come easy. For much of the first quarter, Northwestern struggled to move the ball and allowed UMASS to drive into range to kick field goals or ineptly turn the ball over in the a classic commedia dell’arte tradition. Northwestern went down 6-0 before scoring on of all things a blocked field goal return before subsequent UMASS drives ended with punts, turnovers on downs, and a broad misunderstanding involving the Barone’s precious scrolls, the underhanded machinations of the Visconte and his flunkies who mistook the young Gianni for the famed highwayman The Blue Skull of Umbria and a complicated mess involving counterfeit scrolls that required several minutes of explanation from the stock “referee” character.
Crossing route

The most compelling subplot of this game involved delving into the seedy underbelly of sports gambling. I am not by nature a gambler because I dislike losing money, because the only way to come out marginally ahead requires the mastery of tedious math or some other system that takes all of the visceral thrill of extravagantly losing money on roulette or craps or baccarat, and because the most fun thing for me to do in gambling and any other situation is do to a bunch of really stupid shtick that is a lot less fun if you are losing more than the price of a Heath bar, but the implications of gambling and people rooting for dumb things in otherwise meaningless games can occasionally transcend the game and enter the realm of the sublime. This is what happens when some bookmaker has decided to give 40 points to the 2019 Northwestern Wildcats.

In the second half, Northwestern’s offensive line had realized that even if the team is struggling this season they are still anthropomorphic trucks and could easily shove the UMASS defenders around enough for a freshman running back named Evan Hull to zip past them, and the Wildcats began approaching the Gambling Number.  At one point, late in the fourth quarter and with a commanding lead, Northwestern somehow accidentally sort of onside kicked it and recovered; at this point anyone who had bet on UMASS would begin sweating in an incredibly funny situation that they can only admit they had brought upon themselves by betting money on this obscure and wretched football game.  I know that it is 2019, that sports gambling is legal in many places, and the internet will allow you to bet on almost anything from the comfort of one's own home, but I am also sure that spiritually you should not be allowed to gamble on a Northwestern-UMASS game without going through a dungenous basement with one of those heavy doors that have a sliding peephole mechanism and speaking to a bookie with a name like "Todd the Dentist." 

At any rate, Northwestern won by 39 against a 40 point spread, the funniest possible outcome to this profoundly stupid game.

Well, the maniac did it.  P.J. Fleck, the psychotically energetic sloganeer who has never managed to express a thought without turning it into a tortuous backronym that requires a five minute explainer video, has broken through.  The Golden Gophers are legitimate contenders.  They upset an excellent Penn State team, managed to stay undefeated until last week, and lead a satisfyingly insane West division where Wisconsin has already lost to what appears to be a very good Illinois team.  Fleck is driving his team towards a de facto West Division Paul Bunyan Championship Game and all that stands in the way is Northwestern. As Fleck himself might say: S.H.I.T.

I've made fun of Fleck a lot at this blog because he cuts a somewhat ridiculous figure.  To be fair to him, his job requires an embrace of absurdity.  Every college football coach is some combination of huckster and rage maniac or harbors some other sort of insane anti-social behavior that comes from the fact that the job asks its practitioners to spend their time alternately huddled in tape caves mastering a bizarre strategic argot and charismatically selling themselves to recruits, boosters, and television personalities-- it's like asking someone to be a general, chessmaster, and televangelist at the same time while being allowed to do as much unhinged screaming as possible.  All college football coaches are insane because only an insane person would want to do a job where they get fired every two years and are subject to the machinations of boosters named "Bale" Cronston the Feed King of the Greater Mump Junction Area and a hail of nonstop criticism from angry fans.  It is a job completely bereft of dignity. It probably should not exist.

Fleck's goofy Harold Hill routine was funny when Minnesota was mediocre.  Fleck swept into town with his Row the Boat catchphrase that he brought over from Western Michigan only after a legal settlement, came up with a bunch of dopey catchphrases, and sort of floundered around the Big Ten West like most Big Ten West teams.  He appeared in the conference doing a bunch of flashy sword swinging techniques and the Big Ten just sort of lazily shot him.  But Fleck obviously knows what he is doing.  He loaded the Gophers with talented players and bided his time before turning them into a powerhouse.  It is genuinely enjoyable to see any Big Ten team from the fraternity of ass-kicked cellar-dwellers to rise up and challenge for an opportunity to get mowed down by Ohio State in Indianapolis.  Northwestern has a chance to see a team that, like them, does not often get a chance to shine in the conference and implode their season like the Metrodome.

This is where Northwestern is right now: their chances to play in the "Big Boy" Bob's Lasertag and Go Kart Franchises of Northwest Pensacola Bowl have evaporated, they have yet to defeat a Big Ten team, they have only recently started scoring touchdowns.  Their main goals now are to be so bad that merely hanging close to a Big Ten opponent could cause them to plummet in the rankings-- an upset over Minnesota would force the Gophers to forfeit their final games to just think about what has happened for awhile until another Big Ten West team goes to find them a few years from now for one last job.  That and the battle to keep the Hat that looks so improbable that it is too depressing to think about, Lovie raising the Hat to the heavens as his beard transfers to the trophy before engulfing the entire Chicago area in triumphant beard for an entire year in an event known as The Hattening.
As much as Illinois is the Hated Rival of Northwestern and the Hat must 
not be lost at any cost, who doesn't like Lovie Smith?  Please sign my 
petition The Illini Must Hire a Lunatic Doofus Specifically For Blogging Purposes

Meanwhile, Northwestern, despite the Wildcats' famous victory over the University of Mass, seems to be in more trouble than ever.  The injuries continue to pile up for the 'Cats, and they appear to be running out of available quarterbacks to the point where they need to start running out of obsolete formations like the Kaiser's Wedge or the Gruntback Option that require the entire team to grow mustaches.  Minnesota are heavy favorites and it seems unlikely that Northwestern will be able to score the massive upset and go out on a positive note from an otherwise wretched season on senior day. 

On the other hand, never tell me the odds-- unless Northwestern is favored by 40 points, then I absolutely need to know about those odds.     

Friday, November 15, 2019

The One Where Northwestern Scores a Touchdown

During the mid-1980s, as Northwestern football crested into its just being complete ass zenith, someone decided that a good gimmick would be to lock Willie the Wildcat up in a cage until Northwestern scored. Even for a normal football program this seems like a questionable mascot practice-- I am not sure that parading a plush Wildcat into the stadium like a captured Visigoth chieftain really works from a rallying the fans standpoint, for example Bucky Badger gets to ride around on its own custom fire truck-- but in the case of the 1980s Wildcats, this is one of the funniest things to ever happen as they got blanked time and time again. Eventually, someone decided that keeping the mascot stuck in a cage for an entire football game had become needlessly cruel and less in keeping with the spirit of pep and cheer, and Willie was freed.

This season, Northwestern went an astounding five consecutive weeks without scoring a touchdown (to be fair, one of those was a bye week) during an almost triumphantly miserable season that can best be described as a complete unraveling. During this time, Northwestern lost all of its games, sported a historically putrid offense, and saw Pat Fitzgerald succumb to madness as he boasted about practices, complained about fans roasting the team's playcalls, and ascended to a sublime level of football surliness that can be achieved only by a college football coach in the midst of an embarrassing death spiral season or a sovereign citizen challenging a traffic court to assess a moving violation even though an unincorporated municipality should fall under the jurisdiction of maritime law.

So when Kyric McGowan burst free on a run and outraced the entire Purdue defense to the endzone, it set off massive celebrations. The touchdown, and the subsequent two (2) other scores that game freed Northwestern from its weeks-long residence as an avant-garde performance art project called N0 that intercut scenes of brutal punt actions with pictures of Pat Fitzgerald making the puffed up “ffffffff” faces favored by the Midwest’s most pissed off men. That single moment, an actual scoring play, performed by an electric player who has been one of the season's rare bright spots, taking a lead on a slightly less odious Purdue team, in front of 18 fans at a sun-drenched Ryan Field triggered an emotion other than existential dread or not being mad but laughing, an actual moment of football joy.

What happened in the rest of the game? Not interested.


UMASS is coming to town and Northwestern fans can take heart in the fact that it is one shitty football team. The Wildcats come into the game as nearly 40 point favorites despite the fact that watching them try to score a single point over the past six weeks has been like watching someone try to build a ship in a bottle wearing oven mitts. They should claim their second win. But there is something more important at stake. 

On August 30, something unthinkable happened. Rutgers absolutely whaled on a team. The Scarlet Knights beat UMASS 48-21. The talk of college football cognoscenti has been my proposal for a Rutgers-Northwestern showdown this season since BIG Big Ten will not allow them to play; I have also suggeated that they play the game in the disused ruins of the Pontiac Silverdome which was last seen when a motorcycle driver did tricks in the husk of the stadium described with the weird compulsion to add inexplicable commentary by its editors on the Silverdome Wikipedia page as "impresive." Instead this game will serve as an important proxy showdown in the neverending war between the 2019 versions of Northwestern and Rutgers for feats of football ineptitude.

Northwestern must defeat UMASS by a more impressive margin or they will have been implictly defeated by Rutgers. There should be a Rutgers Northwestern Transitive Victory Trophy at stake. I recommend a Minuteman, his musket heroically pointed forward, his shoe trailing a fetid eighteenth-century toilet paper.

Or UMASS  could pull of the upset, which would be pretty funny, good on them


Every time a baseball team gets caught cheating, baseball fans get stuck in a pattern of trying to figure out where it falls on the unclear and permeable line between the devious machinations of corrupt maniacs and a sort of charming baseball rapscallionship. Baseball in particular falls victim to whimsical gamesmanship because baseball equipment is so elaborate and weird-- there is in my mind no funnier baseball cheating scandal than the time Greg Nettles got caught using a bat laden with superballs under the insane Wile E. Coyote logic that the bouncing balls would supercharge his bat; this is how Wes Anderson would depict a baseball cheating scandal. 

The Houston Astros stand accused of using center field cameras to relay signs to batters. This is disappointingly small Bill Belichick-style bullshit that is more boring than anything else. The fact that they allegedly alerted batters by banging on dugout garbage cans does add an element of baseball oafishness makes this closer to the acceptably dumb threshold of goofy cheating but not enough. All baseball teams try to steal signs in various ways. This is why when a guy is second, the catcher launches into an elaborate stage magic routine or why mound visits involve everyone covering their mouths with mitts in a ludicrous display of tinker, tailor, solider, pitching coach.

Baseball's tech boom seems to have made this bit of skullduggery inevitable. In The MVP Machine, Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik discussed how Trevor Bauer had used high-tech cameras in center field to examine his pitch grips. In a sport where everything down to a relief pitcher's nosehair configuration is quantified and broadcast to a deranged audience, the fact that no one had been caught using cameras to steal signs probably means that no one baseballl was looking very hard for it.

The fact that the Astros sit at the heart of this story is no surprise. The Astros under Jeff Luhnow have a reputation for pursuing baseball excellence with absolute ruthlessness-- it was in the way they tore the team to the studs into a realm of almost unprecedented sustained shittiness as part of the rebuild, how they cultivated a take no prisoners attitude towards negotiations with draft picks, and the overall way the organization seems to eschew any of the niceties of playing a pajama sport for money. 

In some ways, the team's approach is refreshing. They have discarded all pretense that their baseball team is interested in anything other than baseball games and they will explore any avenue to win without any treacly niceties about the sanctity of the game.  In a sport where winning baseball games does not appear to be a priority for an alarmingly large number of teams, the Astros are conforming to baseball's tradition of outlaws, cheaters, and scofflaws in their dumb schemes.

On the other hand, this attitude manifests in a weird bunker mentality. When their assistant GM decided to celebrate a dramatic walkoff pennant win by doing some insane chest-beating about accused domestic abuser Roberto Osuna at a reporter who criticized the move, the Astors immediately issued a ludicrously venomous denial even though the only venue less conducive to a full scale denial of something that happened  than a locker room filled with reporters would be a Bentham model panopticon.

The Astros are no strangers to cheating scandals. Trevor Bauer accused them of having their pitchers dip their hands in the glue that the guys at the end of Kickboxer used to attach glass shards to their knuckles in order to increase their spin rate. The entire dustup proceeded with the tedious churlishness one would expect from an argument between the Astros and Trevor Bauer. People were quote tweeted. The entire thing sort of fizzled out, but did leave an aura of suspicion around the team.

The Astros do not deserve to be singled out. Video sign stealing or use of blimps or blow up decoy base coaches while the real coaches tunnel under home plate and relay the sign to batters by imitating the chirps and warbles of climate and seasonally accurate birds is likely pervasive in the sport. All of the annoying, shitty things the Astros do are things other teams either do or aspire to do. The Astros stand out because they appear to be run by people clever enough to avoid the pitfalls of most baseball operations where one or a group of impossible cartoon doofuses constantly fucks up and because the Astros are committed to taking all of the marginal advantages they can leverage and push them about ten percent past where the rest of baseball seems to have drawn its own unwritten rules. 


A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed The MVP Machine by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik. I compared the book to Moneyball while noting that, through no fault of the authors, their story of inefficiencies and the brave iconoclasts who rejected baseball's reliably dunderheaded recieved wisdom had left me kind of disturbed.  The review focused on how this type of thing in Moneyball had contributed to the gross financialization of the sport and concluded that the use of biometric data and perfection of technique would probably lead to some other grotesque warping of baseball, but avoided a larger point I driving at because I did not want to get out over my skis and frankly I wanted to just post the blog and get it over with because it was already halftime of the game I was obstensibly doing the blog to preview just to give you a sense of how the sausage is made here at

But thinking about the Astros and sign stealing and Cutting Edge Baseball Strategies has made me want to revisit my sour reaction to some very cool things that are happening in baseball and it has to do with Moneyball and blogging and the overwhelming sense that behind every new technical innovation is some grasping, flop-sweat maniac.

Moneyball represented an early instance of applying Big Data-- in the book, it was used by an appealing underdog to find undervalued players and use them to compete with teams that could afford expensive stars. The appeal was obvious-- the stats were so commonsense and traditional baseball opinions that Michael Lewis described were so profoundly moronic that any sense person would want their front office to be one of the smart ones. There was empirical evidence and exciting ways to think about the game and the people opposed to it all wore extremely dumb 1940s reporters hats.

By 2019, though, Big Data has become pervasive and many things about it completely suck. It is not the fault of baseball inmovators that for the past several years every time a company has asked people for information about themselves in order to connect them with friends or buy a vacuum cleaner or play one of those weird phone games that Arnold does commercials for where he's running through an exploding castle screaming LOOK OUT FOO-AH DA CANNON and then they show you a screenshot and it looks like an offbrand Bubble Bobble they have come up with something that either sends your social security number to  the former Soviet Union or results in people wearing insane t-shirts warning everyone in the vicinity not to mess with a Federal Meat Inspector born on a Tuesday with Impressive  Penmanship.

The atmosphere of a book like Moneyball and the other contemporaneous accounts of outsiders leveraging data to do extraordinary new things has been, at least to me, soured by the dumb world where data has been leveraged almost exclusively for stupid purposes and conjured in the service of endless scams. American history is more or less a series of enterprising fake Colonels selling various snake oils, but since the contemporary grammar of fraud tends to take on the language of data and apps and Innovative Entrepreneurs, it is almost impossible for me to look at anything borrowing that Ted Talked, Power Pointed language without cock eyebrowed skepticism.

It is obviously grandiose and ham-handed to try to draw the fallout from Big Data and the encroaching fears and anxieties about a sort of sickness and unraveling at the hands of our dead-eyed tech oligarchs to into ab old baseball book that prominently features Nick Swisher. But there is a thread connecting data revolutions in sports where the benefits are self evident and the competitive environment is literal to this kind of stuff making a stilted and unwelcome appearance in life that doesn't involve mascots and bullpen cars that make me wary of any sort of pronouncements about new, data driven approaches.

Reading The MVP Machine for me brought out a sense of wonder of what people are still finding out about a goofy bat and stick game. But for me, there is also something chilling about any 2019 process where someone says we can do this better but you're going to have to stick this sensor on yourself.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

On Getting Insanely Mad

Good grief.

Northwestern has struggled to move the ball.  As of this writing, just before kickoff of the Purdue game, it has been 35 days since they have scored a touchdown, or approximately 1.5 Tours de France.  A rider can complete the entire Tour, climbing in agony, evading international drugs monitors, swerving around crashes and the cars and the weirdo fans that are allowed to essentially be steps from the road and even get into a heated dispute with another rider and square up to fight him with the awkward pigeon-toed click of the bicycle shoes and then do it all halfway again and the Wildcats are still maybe getting off a field goal.

So Pat Fitzgerald got mad. He got mad because a late hit injured his quarterback, because an almost impossible series of interference penalties kept giving the Hoosiers the ball at the two yard line, because Northwestern has scored a single touchdown in the months of October and November combined and because after every game he as to go in front of a gaggle of reporters some of whom are recording him on their FUCKING CELL PHONES to explain why the defending conference champions are getting repeatedly rampaged upon and because people on the internet are threatening citizen’s arrests on the offensive coordinator and because the insane high-wire act that Northwestern has maintained season after season to keep beating teams by three points and a dozen punts that sent them to bowl after bowl and even to the Big Ten Championship has crashed horrifically and because I imagine that any person insane enough to coach a college football team finds it extremely fun to just chew the ass off of a referee.
I’ve long been fascinated by the spectacle of sports coaches losing their shit because it is a rare and incredible thing to see a person get that apocalyptically mad. If you see a person screaming at the top of his or her lungs in public, vibrating in anger, and shrieking at someone else, something horrible and disturbing is probably unfolding. If it happens at a sports game, you hoot and holler and clap because we’ve decided that there are two types of people who get to have another adult scream two inches from their face and that is professional sports officials and guests on the Jerry Springer show.

Different sports have different insane coach aesthetics. Football coaches, who tend to be box-shaped, have a sort of snorting bull feeling; they often, no matter how old and ensphered by nights of takeout while watching film they have become, still manage to have a few veins that can burst out of their neck like a grimacing 1990s comic book character.  The most aesthetically pleasing angry football coach remains South Carolina’s Will Muschamp who comes the closest a human has ever had to having a cartoon train whistle tooting at people when he screams at them. Jim Harbaugh is the most effective whole body screamer who tends to contort and shrivel with the grace and elan of one of those dancing car dealership balloons.
Victor Fleming tells the Wicked Witch that her melting scene is a "a little big"

Basketball coaches screaming at people have a little bit more grace and dignity because they are wearing suits. They look either like rumpled television detectives who need to be restrained from attacking a suspect who has taunted them by leaving a beguiling series of clues at the scene or a Business Asshole who is rampaging around an airport terminal after being denied a seat upgrade or because they accidentally bumped into someone while shrieking into a cell phone about big-time deals. I assume angry hockey coaches are the same, except instead of looking like homicide detectives they resemble police who are trying to crack a ring of muffler thieves.

Baseball managers own the most sublime and artistic displays of screaming at umpires. They are already dressed in pajamas, which means that at no point do they possess even the slightest shred of dignity. They are often elderly and potbellied, which presents a rare opportunity to for viewers to observe pissed off waddling. And they will go for idiotic theatrics. Even managers who refuse to kick dirt, spit, or throw bases around, do everything with the vaudeville flair of a skilled mime. No one yells in another person’s face the way an angry baseball manager does— their heads shake and bob in weird and unnatural ways that look like puppets. Do me a favor and go find a trusted friend or loved one and start screaming in their face that their strike zone is horseshit HORSESHIT while wagging your head around like a deranged bobblehead and see what happens.
This is a silent film

Some managers, though, go through with an entire show. One minor league manager was filmed throwing an enormous amount of bats onto the field, just a sublime lumber shower. The greatest manager tantrum I’ve ever seen is a guy named Phillip Wellman who protested a call by army crawling to the mound, grabbing a rosin bag, pretending to pull a firing pin out of it with his teeth like it’s a grenade, and then firing it onto the mound where it exploded in a shower of rosin.

I suppose there is some strategic element to this-- announcers always talk about baseball managers getting tossed to fire up their teams, and apparently nothing motivates a group of professional athletes like seeing an elderly man in a satin jacket make a deranged scene that sometimes involves props.  Coaches and managers in all sports tend to be control freak maniacs who cannot handle having that element taken out of their hands, especially if they feel calls have gone against their team or their players are left unprotected from dirty play.  I appreciate that sports coaches have no compunction about completely losing their shit in front of me and thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers and then calmly addressing the entire situation afterwards at a podium while wearing reading glasses.


Please read this incredibly well thought out and important idea about the kind of football we want to see over in a post I wrote for Banner Society.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Clobberings

It is not fun to watch Northwestern football right now.  It is not that the Wildcats are struggling at 1-6; even Northwestern fans who have come on in this opulent golden age of winning seasons and bowl berths and quarterbacks somehow getting drafted into the National Football League, the program's historical ineptitude remains baked into the program.  In every generation, every Northwestern fan is obligated to see herself as if she had thrown the goalposts into the lake after the 29th consecutive defeat.

Still from this short documentary on Northwestern just profoundly 
sucking at football

OK I'm not done with this, there's a line where they finally beat Northern Illinois after losing 34 consecutive games and they take the goal posts to the university president's house where, as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tom Philp describes, he came out on a balcony "almost like a dictator, like Mussolini, and he said 'can you cats growl'" and then they all growled exactly like this:

I appreciate the fact that Northwestern just ate shit constantly for so 
many years that there are actual short documentaries about this

Northwestern's season is not depressing only because of the losing but because of the way it is happening.  In 2013, for example, Northwestern started hot, hung tough with Ohio State during a nationally-televised night game where ESPN College Game Day came to Evanston, and then lost pretty much every other game in a series of hail marys, laterals, laterals leading to hail marys, and hail marys leading to backwards hail marys as the opposition ran back and forth across the field like the Tecmo Bowl version of Bo Jackson.  Those games broke hearts but entertained.  Instead, Northwestern is losing games because their offense has been designed by Sisyphus.

As the Wildcats struggle to score points, my focus has gone from hoping Northwestern can qualify for the Truck Nutz Vehicular Ballsack Bowl to wanting them to score points but only in the silliest and least plausible ways.  In this Banner Society list of games between the college football's two worst teams, I was intrigued by nineteenth-century squads scoring only one point, particularly a game between Brown and the Amherst Lord Jeffs that ended with the aesthetically perfect score of 1-0.  This is impossible now.  College football during this time operated under a mix of individual house scoring rules, most of which banned touchdowns and only allowed players to score by kicking one-point goals; in addition, games were often played without a clock and only ended when the muttonchops and mustaches became so entangled that play could no longer continue and someone had to go find a team of horses to drag out the university's steam-powered Follicular Detangling Apparatus that had its own dedicated brass band.

The holy grail of Northwestern scoring a single point remains technically possible.  There is the one-point safety-- this can happen when a team attempting a PAT or two-point conversion loses possession and then the team on defense then fumbles it or gets tackled in the opposing endzone.  This has happened twice, both times when a team had a field goal blocked but then the opponent batted it back into their own endzone and fell on it.  Here's a video of this happening in 2004 between Texas and Texas A&M, when the baffled Harrumph Tandem of Brad Nessler and Bob Griese have no idea what is going on-- at one point, one of them hisses "it is 13-13 and I have no idea why."  The problem with this, as far as I can tell, is that a Northwestern would have to score a touchdown before being able to claim their one-point safety, and that is simply not done.

But, as the same wikipedia page notes, an avenue for Northwestern to score a single point exists.  In this case, a team attempting an extra point or two-point conversion would have to lose the ball and then have it go the entire length of the field before they fell on it in their own endzone.  This feat has never happened; it seems impossible to pull off without one of the members of the special teams being engaged in an active sabotage operation.  The fact that this rule has been codified into the NCAA rulebook reflects the profound absurdity of football rules, one that must have been invented either in a bacchanalia of drunken referee one-upsmanship or because there was some guy named Wes Gallumph in 1897 who notoriously ran the wrong way with the ball and this was the only way to stop him short of setting up bear traps.  There is nothing more I want out of this season than for Northwestern to somehow score a single point and then flee the opposing stadium on a series of railroad pump-carts.

So let me recap last week's game.  Iowa came in ranked and thirsting for vengeance for all of the funny and perverse ways that Northwestern has beaten them for the past several years and flattened Northwestern like a pancake.  The Wildcats never managed to get past the 30.  It was cold and it rained and the entire thing sucked and was garbage.

This week they play Indiana in Bloomington.  It is a night game for reasons known only to television executives and Satan.  The Chicago area has already gotten four inches of snow in a freak Halloween snow storm, the slush has piled up with dead leaves in a disgusting seasonal burlesque, the sight of snow heaving on trees still filled with blazing autumnal plumage has been downright unsettling, the last remnants of afternoon will be erased early Sunday morning with the unwelcome, cackling arrival of that goblin Standard Time, and there is nothing but bleak winter ahead.  Or, I don't know, maybe they'll win.


There is an argument that Moneyball is the most important sports book of the twenty-first century.  The book brought advanced baseball statistics into the mainstream, attacked received baseball wisdom in a way that irritated an enormous number of tobacco-stained Baseball Men and sports columnists who wear 1940s-style men's hats, and changed the way fans thought of how their front office evaluated players and contracts.  A lot of these changes were well on their way in the early 2000s, and probably would have swept into baseball and other professional sports if Michael Lewis hadn't written a word, but there is no doubt that Moneyball helped move advanced stats from front offices and internet bulletin boards into newspapers and sports talk radio shows and ESPN.  This shift also coincided with internet sportswriting opening opportunities for people fluent in new analytics to reach audiences beyond the reach of newspapers or magazines by unleashing a lot of technical charts or with the profane frustration of Fire Joe Morgan.  But Lewis's method of explaining new industries by focusing on the Billy Beane and the forgotten reclamation projects on the Oakland A's and wrapping the whole thing in a traditional underdog sports narrative helped coalesce all of these disparate strands into a single movement.

If Moneyball can be understood as a baseball team's search for new market inefficiencies, a whole genre of sports books have repeated this quest, searching for the next Great Inefficiency.  Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik's The MVP Machine released earlier this year fits in that mold.  While Moneyball looked at player acquisition by viewing players as static collections of skills, Lindbergh and Sawchik are interested in how players themselves can improve through unorthodox training techniques that question received wisdom.  They have a compelling case.  Baseball, even in this age of mainstream Analytics remains a game with a lot of antique received wisdom that falls apart under the slightest scrutiny-- generations of players may be attuned to their own statistical profiles but are still taught to pitch and hit by baseball lifers who pass on the knowledge of their own approaches and mechanics that they were taught in a process that probably goes back generations to some muttonchop guy whose own idea of physical education involved eschewing brussels sprouts because he claims they "corrode the kidney fibers" but it turns out that his bean growing family had a multi-generational blood feud with a nearby brussels sprout farming concern and he sought to degrade those vegetables whenever possible.

The MVP Machine centers pitcher Trevor Bauer.  Bauer, perhaps best known as the guy who sliced off part of his finger in a drone repair accident during the 2016 ALCS and then tried to pitch as his wound discharged a stomach-churning ooze, has always used unorthodox training techniques. He claims that his methods taken him from a schlub with below average athleticism to the upper echelon of major leaguers by eschewing outdated practices, doing his own research, and embracing technology.  When the book opens, Bauer is attempting to teach himself a slider using a high-speed digital image system and videos from other pitchers; he is basically youtubing a slider and then attempting to use it to throw out major leaguers.
"Flying devices?" said Skunko Trevor-Bauer waving a 
bandaged hand. "I have half a mind to send those Wright 
chaps over a very steep cliff without any apparatus at all." 
You see, old Skunko had found himself at the mercy of one of 
those machines just last week after the lads had borrowed several 
of them to go have a friendly knockabout of some hats during the 
Vicar's convention around the corner from the club.  Skunko had 
been a bit light in the wallet after Excelsior came up lame in the 
fifth turn and Mr Trembley at the polo stables had threatened to 
practice his malleting techniques on his kneecaps, so Trevor-Bauer 
had just taken one from his beloved Miss Spandlen's father.  
Unfortunately, the device fell victim to an umbrella belonging to a surprisingly 
agile vicar, and Skunko's repair technique involved shouting at the apparatus 
and whacking it with a hammer.  Somehow, his foul-mouthed Frankenstein 
techniques provoked the machine back to life. But once alive, the creature 
grabbed old Skunko and gave him a good thrashing about the knuckles.
It was all he could do to prevent himself from bashing it into a metallic stew 
before restraining himself because any damage to this machine would surely 
send Mr Spandler into one of his purple-faced reveries and provoke him to 
preform a similar procedure on Skunko himself and put a quietus on the lad's 
marriage plans.

Bauer finds a kindred spirit in Kyle Boddy, a fellow iconoclast who founded a sort of rogue pitching academy to try to find a way to reengineer pitching mechanics from the ground up.  Lindbergh and Sawchik explore a similar revolution in hitting, focusing on a hitting guru named Doug Latta who helped turn Justin Turner from a marginal utility guy to one of the best hitters in the game.  Latta focuses on launch angle, encouraging hitters to hit it in the air for power, an early exponent of the launch angle revolution.  Like Boddy and all of the other development wonks on their own or within major league organizations, Latta takes advantage of new technology that allows players and analysts to know far more about their movements and biomechanics than ever and spur almost unheard-of improvements.  Conventional wisdom from sabermetric thinkers had downplayed mechanical changes, tending to see players as more or less fully formed.  Joe Sheehan, the founder of Baseball Prospectus who had pooh-poohed J.D. Martinez's new power stroke as a small sample fluke, later admitted the extent to which players could use data to remake themselves on the fly had escaped him.

The MVP Machine is a fascinating and compelling book about a revolution in baseball training that is changing how the game is played and approached.  Lindbergh and Sawchik did a wonderful job outlining the history of player development, explaining cutting edge techniques and how they translate, and even explaining these training ideas by trying them out.  But there is something a little disquieting about baseball's newest information revelation.  To their credit, Lindbergh and Sawchik point out these concerns: privacy worries for players whose biometric data can be weaponized against them in contract talks, especially with minor leaguers who have no leverage; reliance on expensive technology and expert training sessions that push baseball away from families who cannot keep up with the financial commitments; an information advantage that moves the game further into a strikeouts, walks, and homers configuration that increasingly marginalizes aesthetically pleasing but poor strategies that put the ball in play.  Lindbergh and Sawchik, though, remain optimists, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of cool stuff that technology can generate and the innovative minds that put it to work.

There is also something about this book that does not sit quite right with me, and it has nothing to do with Lindbergh and Sawchik.  It has a lot to do with the legacy of Moneyball and the ecosystem of Business Innovation where the MVP Machine lives, of the continuous celebration of Innovators and Disruptors and Mindset People and Gladwellians who Ted Talk their way around conferences and National Public Radio to take a threshing machine to received wisdom and trumpet new ways of doing things.  This makes sense in baseball, where the results are granular and measurable, the stakes are confined to a goofy game played by people in pajamas, and the hidebound orthodoxy often reflects the empirical method of squinting.  

But where Moneyball also represented a revolution against the Oafigentsia, the sea change in thinking about sports that it helped popularize led to a large number of unpleasant changes: the broad financialization of the sport, the obsession with efficiency and Assets, the ability to sell fans on the concept that tanking entire seasons and trading useful players and refusing to sign costly free agents who are good at baseball for months at a time are not only smart strategies but that actually attempting to win games without that sort of framework is a chump's game-- it is a way of thinking about the game that elevates and lionizes ownership and front offices who manage to eschew payroll for its own sake.  The Moneyball A's were indeed winning by investing in cheap, marginal players, but in another way the book put a gloss on an ownership group so disrespectful of their fans through their continued parsimony that they had no business owning a professional sports team.  That is the unfair game.

These feelings have little to do with what Lindbergh and Sawchik have accomplished with their excellent baseball book.  It is indeed possible that these innovations driven by outsiders and marginal players may in fact turn the tide against the owner's overwhelming urge to use data primarily to underpay its labor force.  But given the quick way that teams have bought out and adopted these methods to place them within proprietary control of their own baseball organizations, I can only fear that in another decade we will see some unexpected way that Big Data has warped the structure of professional baseball in some perplexing and grotesque way.