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.

No comments: