Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The hard is what makes it great

Last week featured a back and forth between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell, which is always thought provoking.

With regards to PEDs in sports (on which Gladwell has previously, both in this exchange and elesewhere, expressed ambivalence), writes:

So here is a second, completely different argument against PEDs. They rob the game of that kind of drama. Cyclists take EPO in the Tour de France to prevent themselves from physically breaking down in the last week of the race. But what if we want to see cyclists cope with the physical breakdown that comes in the last week of one of the world's most grueling races? From a fan's perspective, maybe there is as much pleasure from watching athletes cope with physical imperfection as there is from watching the kind of perfection that comes from medical assistance.

In essence this is why we (and ultimately the Soviet crowd) roots for Rocky Balboa over Ivan Drago.

And this is undoubtedly true.  Pick your most memorable sports moment.  Chances are it involves an athlete overcoming in the context of that competition some kind of physical or environmental roadblock rather than a simple exhibition of skill.  Kirk Gibson's home run.  "Here comes Willis!" Jimmy Connors' run in the US Open.  Jordan's flu game.  Sampras winning in spite of throwing up.  Tiger Woods winning the US Open on a torn ACL.  Kerri Strug doing that vault.  Or, as Gladwell mentions later, Tom Watson coming one hole short of winning the British Open at age 59.

This is why we only care about Olympic Sports, which frequently involve competing against the clock or for judges rather than directly against adversaries, every four years.  Even then, NBC has to import a narrative to make us care.  And absolute feats don't get our attention; it takes something like Michael Phelps trying to win 8 gold medals (overcoming the fatigue of a packed schedule) for us to take notice.

We understand that the skill we see on the field is the result of grueling mental and physical preparation.  But we don't see that, and thus don't celebrate that.

The other element, which relates to the current debates about concussions, is that they involve the athletes putting themselves at risk.  John Elway diving for a first down in the Super Bowl.

The problem, as we're finding out, is that it is impossible for athletes to overcome the threat of danger without actual danger.  And if there is actual danger, there are some athletes who will be unsuccessful in overcoming it.

So I'm ambivalent about things like eliminating home plate collisions.  I don't want to see anyone get badly hurt.  But at the same time, it does remove one of the few opportunities for physical courage from the game.  

It's probably not worth it if it means guys like Mike Matheny have to retire early, or Buster Posey misses a year from the prime of his career.  But it is something.

The problems with pajama boy

Let's break it down:

I am assuming the reader is supposed to identify with the man in the picture, given the likely demographics of President Obama's Twitter followers.  The message is that you, smart person who was able to acquire health insurance thanks to the president, should take some time during the holidays to talk about the experience with your less enlightened and skeptical family members, most likely his parents.

Now, let's look at the picture.

The text says he is drinking hot chocolate, which adults do drink on occasion but is generally a child's drink.

He is wearing pajamas.  But not just pajamas, but footie pajamas.  My nine year old daughter is currently growing out of her last sets of these.

He is also wearing a wristwatch.  An generally unnecessary accessory in the days of cell phones (which this man almost definitely owns), but particularly unnecessary in a situation that also calls for pajamas.

He is perched on his chair with a satisfied look on his face.

And why is he satisfied?  Well, the ad is encouraging us to talk about getting health insurance.  Presumably, he has either just done this or is preparing to do so.  Presumably, he was unable to get health care coverage for himself until health care reform passed.

So, is it possible to have a problem with this that's not rooted in homophobia?  Let me take a shot, going from general to specific:

  1. This is not unique to President Obama, but I have a problem with the president in his second term continuing to maintain a campaign website and campaign.  You've got the job., Do it.  
  2. I also have a problem with the president, or any politician, trying to turn us into foot soldiers to sell his policies.  Politicians are supposed to fight for us, not the other way around.  It's your job to evangelize about health care reform, not ours.
  3. I'm in particularly not a fan of the ideal of sending people to family holiday gatherings with talking points as if they're surrogates on Sunday morning talk shows.  Maybe the holidays should be a time where we enjoy each others' company rather than beat them over the head with our political views.

    In particular, for many of us, the "holiday" still is Christmas, which, for Christians, is a time to remember our God becoming incarnate to save us.  This invites us to instead talk about how, thanks to President Obama, we now have health care.
  4. The implicit message of the ad is, "Be like this guy."  A guy who apparently was unable to acquire health care for himself before the ACA, in spite of being apparently somewhat affluent and able-bodied.  So, our model of adulthood, or manhood, is a guy who needs government help to get himself health insurance, then spends the holidays telling other people about it.  Is it crazy to think we ought to aim better than that? Yes, health care reform came about because there was a need, but is needing that help something you should be proud to talk about at family holiday gatherings?
The ad does present an odd model, an childish person proudly dependent on the government.  It seems one have a problem with this without considering his sexuality.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Price of Glory?

I'm listening to Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  The book was published before James Gandolfini's death, which makes its beginning all the more poignant -- a story of a time during the filming of The Sopranos when Gandolfini went missing for 24 hours, then called the production team from a beauty salon with no money asking for a ride home.

It seems that Gandolfini did not always handle the emotional burden of playing Tony Soprano all that well, finding it necessary to work himself into an emotional frenzy to play the role, and this spilled over into other aspects of his life.

It certainly seems possible that if Gandolfini was not cast as Tony Soprano, he would still be alive today.


This is interesting me in considering the concussion problem in the NFL, and other issues of player safety.

The growing consensus seems to be that the NFL is exploiting its players, putting their safety at risk; the owners and league office are hypocritical money-grubbers who don't give a damn about player safety no matter what they say and do, and we should generally be ashamed for following it.

If James Gandolfini had spent 1999-2005 playing linebacker for the Giants rather than Tony Soprano, his death would have launched some soul searching and questions about the dangers of football.  But, as far as I can tell, no similar soul searching took place regarding television, that maybe networks should tone down their characters so as not to put actors at risk.

It is certainly possible that Gandolfini is an outlier in this regard.  The book goes on to mention that Edie Falco had no problems transitioning between her life and her portrayal of Carmela Soprano.  Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston seem to be able to handle their characters well enough.  Perhaps Gandolfini was just unstable.

By the same token, I turn on my TV every weekend and see Troy Aikman, Phil Simms, Chris Collinsworth, Rodney Harrison, Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason, Michael Strahan, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Tom Jackson, Cris Carter, Keyshawn Johnson, Shannon Sharpe, Steve Young, Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, and many other former NFL players who seem to be in full possession of their mental faculties.

Or maybe it's worth it.  Maybe if you told James Gandolfini in 1999, "Look, if you take this role, you will be the face of one of the iconic characters in American culture.  But it will require so much out of you that you will pass away a few years after the show ends," he would still take it.  Just like many NFL players say they would play if they were aware of the risks.

Maybe Gandolfini isn't an anomaly, but what is not anomalous is the pattern of what happens to child stars.  We acknowledge this, but don't really insist that anything be done about it, even treating people whose lives were ruined by getting too much too soon as punch lines (e.g. Lindsay Lohan).

Could we enjoy Mad Men without having children play Don Draper's children?  We don't even seriously consider the question.  If those child actors' lives are ruined by playing a role in an adult drama and becoming famous, and having their performance ripped apart on the internet, well, that's what happens.

This doesn't mean that the NFL is blameless, or that there's nothing we can do to make the game safer, or that a game that leaves a significant number of its participants mentally damaged is suitable mass entertainment.

But it is interesting how our outrage differs according to context.

Anatomy of a Cowboys Loss

As an Eagles fan, this current run of Cowboys mediocrity has been particularly enjoyable for me, with yesterday's loss to the Packers perhaps being the most enjoyable (especially coming on the heels of the Eagles' performance in Minnesota), with the possible exception of the 2008 season-ending 44-6 blowout.

I've noticed these losses seem to follow a pattern.

  1. The build-up.  These days, a Cowboys meltdown is all but an inevitability, so there's typically some pregame chatter about how the Cowboys need to recover from what happened last week, or the previous years, this is an opportunity for redemption, a chance to silence the critics, etc.
  2. The fast start.  The Cowboys will typically come out an march down the field for a touchdown on their first drive.  This will usually lead Troy Aikman or Chris Collinsworth to say something like, "There were some questions about Tony Romo this week, and he's answered them!" or "You can tell Jason Garrett has his team ready to play today!"
  3. Brain Fart (minor) The Cowboys will commit some seemingly minor error in the second quarter that will come to bite them in the ass later.  Maybe they'll commit a red zone penalty that will force them to settle for a field goal.  Maybe it will be a turnover in the 2 minute drill.  Maybe they'll let the other team get a cheap half-ending field goal.    In any case, they'll head into the half ahead, but on a sour note.
  4. Halftime  Talk up the Cowboys' first half performance, question whether they can sustain it for the second half.
  5. The Deluge  A series of turnovers, poor defense, and odd coaching decisions lead to the first half lead evaporating.  Typically punctuated by an especially grievous turnover or coaching decisions, at which Aikman or Collinsworth express amazement, perhaps even leading to Al Michaels or Joe Buck joining the pile-on.  Example:

    Buck:  You have to wonder why the Cowboys would call a double-reverse pass on 1st and 5 up 14 with 2 minutes to go on their opponents' 5 yard line.
    Aikman: That's exactly right, Joe.  And this is why the questions around Jason Garrett will continue to swirl.
  6. The Sideline Shots  My personal favorites.  Receivers bitching at coaches and QBs (Terrel Owens was always good for this).  Tony Romo staring blankly at the field in his backward baseball cap.  Jerry Jones with his arms folded on the sidelines.  The Cowboys coaches looking confused (though Wade Phillips also was better at this role than Jason Garrett -- Garrett looks more like he can't believe that his carefully laid out plan collapsed like this).
  7. Dashed Final Hope In spite of blowing the lead, the Cowboys will have a final chance to win the game, only to blow it with another turnover or blown field goal or some other miscue.
  8. The Postgame Jones will express full confidence in his coaching staff and Romo, and they'll prepare for next week.
This has been one of the few joys of being an Eagles fan over the years.

The thing is, I don't know that Garrett or Romo are that bad, or if they're unlucky.  It is fun to watch, though.

Friday, November 08, 2013

At the cross roads of the culture of football...

Richie Incognito abused his position as team leader.  It may be the case that hazing and rough talk are part of the culture of the NFL locker room, particularly among linemen, and coaches may have encouraged him to toughen up Jonathan Martin.  But it seems that, reading the story, Incognito had, to borrow a term from the gridiron, a significant number of yards after the catch.   Extending a hazing period into a second year, using racial slurs, and paying for trips seem to have crossed from playing his role in the overall culture to taking advantage of it.

I don't care if Incognito is a racist.  One of the problems we have is that we only have a few things we are willing to condemn (racism, sexism, rape, marital infidelity), and when we encounter behavior we don't like, we try to cram it into one of those boxes.  Incognito's behavior doesn't fit neatly into any of those boxes, but he used a racial slur, so maybe we can nail him as a racist!

Well, no.  Incognito's use of the slur seems to be more out of a general pattern of bullying than a sense of racial superiority.  I don't know what Incognito's attitudes toward race are, and and I don't have to to condemn his behavior.  If you assign any race to both Incognito and Martin, his behavior would be no less troubling.

Having said that, I do have some sympathy for Incognito.   I heard a good bit of commentary about the Dolphins players coming to Incognito's defense, and the bottom line seems to be that, given a choice, most players would rather have Incognito as a teammate than Martin.  The culture of football has historically been one that filters out sensitive, thoughtful, intelligent people like Martin and filters in scrappy, tough, rough around the edges people like Incognito.

But that's in the midst of a change, and Incognito is caught in the middle of it.  We are starting to confront the long-term damage the game has had on people, with Tony Dorsett  being the latest example.  Both college and pro teams are being invaded by a crew of offensive wizards implementing increasingly complex systems.  Stanford has been a top 5 football program for several years now, and Northwestern and Vanderbilt have moved up in their conferences. The head coach of the Dallas Cowboys is a Harvard graduate, and another is a starting quarterback.  The biggest star in the leagues is a 38 year old quarterback who ideally never gets his uniform dirty.

Yes, there's still line play and toughness in the trenches, but this is considered more of a necessary evil than the soul of the game.  Sure, offensive linemen have never been stars, but at least before the skill players were, not the coaches. In today's game, even running backs are considered commodities.

One theme of the commentary is that outsiders can't understand NFL locker rooms.  On the contrary, I think most of us have a pretty good idea about the culture of NFL locker rooms, and we're pretty sure we don't like it.  It's too politically incorrect, too Southern, too white, too brash, too stereotypically male. But we put up with it as part of the price for our entertainment.

Football has emerged as our national entertainment, particularly for men, in part because it rewards the virtues society value from men.  But the culture has moved form celebrating (stereotypically speaking) the Richie Incognitos to the Jonathan Martins, and while football has been moving in that direction, it hasn't quite caught up yet.

Sports has been one refuge from the polarization of America, but perhaps that was illusory.  I'm not sure how much longer Blue America will tolerate a sport that celebrates Richie Incognitos and chases away Jonathan Martins.  Just as boxing eventually became too much to support and fell by the wayside (in favor of MMA which is even more aggressively barbaric), I wonder if football can continue to attract fans of both the physical action and the more cerebral part of the game, or if it will give way to purer pursuits.

Richie Incognito was a bully, but he may also have been a victim, doing what has always been valued, only to find out we don't value it anymore.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sabermetrics and the perspective of the fan...

In a (now not so recent BS Report, Brian Kenny makes the case for eliminating pitching W/L record from conversation about baseball, meeting some resistance from Bill Simmons.

As they note, pitching W/L records and other antiquated stats are being kept alive by ex-ballplayer color commentators, even though "smart" fans know that there are better metrics that can be used to evaluate players.

Kenny and other sabre-boosters say this is the triumph of intelligence, and data.  What I think it represents is that fans (and I think Simmons is a pretty good proxy for someone straddling both sides of this) are changing their perspective from that of a player to a coach and GM.

When I was growing up, I couldn't tell you who the General Manager of my hometown Phillies was.  Pat Williams was a bit of a celebrity running the Sixers, and Bobby Clarke came in to run the Flyers, but the stars of the team were the players and on-field coaches.

Now, things are different.  We've made a movie starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane (while the only real-life player we've made a recent movie about is Jackie Robinson, and it made Branch Rickey the hero).  We know who the GMs of all the prominent teams are.  Even Daryl Morey, whose Rockets have won one playoff series, is a minor celebrity.  Conversations are now less about plays made or missed than timeouts or challenges used or not used.  We don't rank the best players; we rank the best "assets".  We used to fantasize about being John Elway the quarterback; now we imagine ourselves as John Elway the team president.

I think the main cause of this is that we are not introduced to these games by playing them, either in organized leagues or in the neighborhood, but by playing video games.

And I don't think it's a good thing, because it is leading to anti-competitive practices like taking fouls when ahead, letting teams score (or trying not to score), undefeated teams resting players rather than trying to make history, and now teams tanking entire seasons (or multiple seasons).  From a players' perspective, these are all abominations.  To the video game player / GM, they are smart strategies.

So, if the game you're watching happens to be between two teams who deem it to be in their interest to try and win the game, you might get to see some actual competition.  But, along with the "all about the rings" sports culture, that is becoming less and less likely.

Maybe pitching wins (and RBI and batting average and fielding percentage) are bed metrics. But they do demonstrate something that matters to players.  Turning away from them may represent a turn toward rationality, but it also represents a turn away from experiencing sports as players, and to less competitive games.

Monday, September 23, 2013

One of the Main Lessons of Beaking Bad...

Spoilers ahead, if not obvious.

The conclusion of last night's Granite State episode of Breaking Bad, with Walt's former Grey Matter partners Gretchen and Elliot running him down, brings home what I think was Walt's motivation, and one of the lessons of the show.

What we know: Walt took a (relatively small) settlement and got out of Grey Matter not long before it went big enough that its two remaining partners could make a $22 million contribution as a pre-emptive publicity move. Walt eked out a modest living as a high school physics teacher, nursing a resentment at the success of his former partners, which he perceived to be on his back.

We don't know the reasons why Walt got out of Grey Matter. One possibility that seems consistent with the events of the show is that Skyler was uncomfortable with Walt working so closely with his former love Gretchen, insisted he put some distance between them, and Walt complied. Or perhaps there was some other ethical disagreement.

So, Walt sees Gretchen and Elliot's success, and thinks that it is only his commitment to marriage and ethics that kept him from similar success. That difference between him and them isn't smarts or intelligence or hard work, but ethical "flexibility." He could be just as successful if only he was willing to bend a little bit.

Maybe he can accept this. So what if they drive nicer cars and have a bigger house? But then comes the cancer diagnosis along with Molly. Suddenly, things seem a lot less fair.

I think we can all relate to this. We scroll through Facebook and see people we don't think as much smarter or harder working than us seeming to have great success, or even complaining about problems we only dream of having (toddler is crabby on her third vacation this summer!), and our minds can go to dark places. It can't be that maybe they do work harder or are smarter than I think they are. Or that it's just plain luck or good fortune or making their own luck. They must be doing something fishy. And I could be that successful too if only I were willing to do so as well. Maybe I'll just fudge my taxes a little or hide a mistake. It's only fair...

Breaking Bad has spent the last five seasons demonstrating that this is not the case. To achieve his "success", Walt didn't just dip his toe into evil, he had to dive headfirst, crossing every ethical line, deal with despicable figures, ruin countless lives, and tear apart his family. And he still didn't get what he wanted. The Devil is greedy, and doesn't always come through on his promises.

A corollary is the notion that criminals are dumb, and if we were to play on their playing field rather than the legitimate one, we would dominate the field like the Miami Heat would dominate a CYO league. Sure in the legitimate world, Walter White is a chemistry teacher in the middle of the middle class, but in the criminal world, he'd be Heisenberg, feared kingpin.

Not quite. Walt was able to be successful in the criminal world, but not through the sheer force of his intellect. Criminals aren't just successful because they're willing to break the rules; they also take enormous risks and have to be willing to do anything. There's a reason the Nazis are the ones left standing.

We may think that only our moral scruples are keeping us from a life of luxury and riches. Breaking Bad shows us that it's not so simple.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Perfect Third Wheel?

Still, it's hard to look at those numbers without wondering, "Is Chris Bosh severely overqualified for the role that Miami gave him?" 
The answer: NO! He's actually perfect. 
If you believe Miami could replace Bosh by dealing him in a package for two or three cheaper players (and cobbling his numbers together), you're saying that he's semi-expendable. And I beg to differ.14 With the way Miami plays basketball right now, you'd want an athletic "small-ball 5" as your third wheel, preferably an intelligent, unselfish teammate who (a) doesn't need a ton of shots to thrive, and (b) doubles as an above-average shooter. Well, check out Bosh's per-game averages on shots from 16 to 23 feet: 5.0 attempts (eighth highest in the NBA), 2.6 makes (second highest), 52 percent (best of anyone who took more than 2.2 per game). Only Kevin Garnett can match the specific things that Bosh does for Miami … and KG might retire in two months.  
I  think it's safe to say that Simmons's opinion has not been vindicated by events.

To be fair, this appeared to be exactly correct during last year's playoffs.  When Bosh returned from injury, and the Heat suddenly had a big player who could do something with the ball, it seemed apparent the pieces fell together perfectly.

But this year, it's not clear.  Against Indiana, the Heat; didn't need a "small-ball 5," they needed somebody who could stand up Roy Hibbert and David West, and grab some rebounds.   That Bosh was couldn't completely fill this role meant that LeBron and Wade had to pitch in as well, which may be partly why they're struggling against the Spurs.

When Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were winning championships, their third banana was Horace Grant and then Dennis Rodman.  They were not overqualified for their roles -- they here doing what they did best -- rebounding and defending.  When you think about the best three players on championship teams, there's always one whose natural role includes rebounding -- Kareem, Robert Parish, Tim Duncan.

Bosh's natural role is probably something more along the lines of KG and Duncan.  But the Heat don't need that from him, and involving him in the offense to the level of those players would probably slow them down. So he's adopted this Horace Grant role he's overqualified for.

The thing is, it's not clear he's suited to be the best or second best player on a championship team.  I'm beginning to think there are certain players whose skills not suited to fitting in to championship teams, and this is not a failure on those players' part.  Players like Bernard King, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Dominique Wilkins, Allen Iverson, or Carmelo Anthony.  They may win a championship by taking a role as a "third banana" late in their career -- like Gary Payton, Ron Artest, and Ray Allen did -- but it's an odd fit.

Bosh in unique in deliberately moving to "third banana" status in the prime of his career.  He may have been smart enough to recognize that this was the best way to mold his skills into a championship team, and that championships is how we measure players.

I'm not sure I have the answer, but it's interesting to think about what are the ideal players to surround someone like LeBron with.  Someone like Jordan had an obvious position, so you could surround him with players at the other positions.  LeBron can do anything, or else it seems that way; the question is what he should do to maximize his effectiveness, and thus what kind of players it's best to surround him with.

I submit that it's best if someone other than LeBron is responsible for banging against the David Wests and Boris Diaws of the world. Which makes Bosh a less than ideal third banana.  Better to have someone like the 1992 Horace Grant.

The Coaching Carousel

Here is a list of the NBA coaches that have won championships in the past 30 years
  • K.C. Jones
  • Pat Riley
  • Chuck Daly
  • Phil Jackson
  • Rudy Tomjanovich
  • Gregg Poppovich
  • Larry Brown
  • Doc Rivers
  • Rick Carlisle
  • Eric Spoelstra
You'll notice that the length of this list is much lower than 30.  And it is guaranteed not to grow this year.  This suggests that at any given time, there are only a handful of coaches that give you a real chance at winning a championship.

Or maybe not.  Here is a list of the players who have been the best players on a championship team in the past 30 years:

  • Larry Bird
  • Magic Johnson
  • Isiah Thomas
  • Michael Jordan
  • Hakeem Olajuwan
  • Tim Duncan
  • Shaquille O'Neal
  • Chauncey Billups
  • Dwyane Wade
  • Kobe Bryant
  • Paul Pierce
  • Dirk Nowitzki
  • LeBron James
Still a short list, but longer than the list of coaches.  And can be partially explained by the fact that players occasionally get hurt and open the door for other players, whereas coaches don't.

Obviously, Step 0 of contending for a championship is assembling talent.  Preferably one of the best five players in the league, another one in the top 20, and another one in the top 50.  The '04 Pistons are the only championship team without a first team all-NBA caliber player .

But what matters from there?  I don't think it's clear.  Is it building a supporting cast of role players -- your Shane Battiers, Derek Fishers, Robert Horrys, etc.?  Or is it to have a championship-caliber coach.

It seems plausible that the next step is to ensure you have a championship caliber coach.  And if you have the talent, but you have an inkling that your guys isn't one of those guys, the prudent thing is to cut him loose and take a chance on someone else.

Now, we are talking about human beings.  It does seem cruel to "fire" someone like George Karl or Lionel Hollins who seems to have done a good job.  But if the only thing between a group of talented hard-working players and a championship is the lack of an elite coach, it would not be fair to them to decline to pursue one.

It makes it hard to be an NBA Head coach.  They can console themselves with the knowledge that they are orders of magnitude better compensated than lots of other jobs that are no more stable.  And that they can likely move into another job in coaching or broadcasting.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Go Team!

As Ross Douthat has documented, the election of Marc Sanford has belied any claim the Republican Party might make that it stands for traditional values surrounding marriage.

In pretty much every dimension, what Marc Sanford did was worse than what Bill Clinton was impeached for, or what Anthony Weiner was chased from office for.  Sanford's behavior had a direct impact on how he did his job, and broke up his marriage.  Anyone who supported Clinton's impeachment and voted for Sanford has essentially declared that party ID matter more than anything else.  He may have screwed up but he plays for our team; he's a point for our side, or at least he's not a point for the other side.

And, no, this is not merely a malady specific to Republicans or South Carolina voters, as the sudden drop in concern about foreign engagements around 2009 demonstrated.

What this demonstrates is how firm a grip these political parties have on us, and they don't deserve it.  They can't offer us a better candidate than Marc Sanford, and expect us to follow along, our own principles be damned.  You don't want the other guys to win, do you?  This is the most important election ever!  Yes, it might be nice to vote for a candidate you can be proud of, but these are desperate times!  The other side people want to implement their agenda, which is slightly different from ours!  We can't let that happen!

Then, in two or four years, it's the Most Important Election Ever Again.

We've got to stop playing our role in this. We don't have to take every Mark Sanford the parties present to us.  We can sit a few dances out if we're not happy with the partners being presented to us.

Regaining our principles will have a much bigger impact on the world than, for example, a special election to finish a House term.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The stable franchises

For completeness, I'll talk the fortunes of the pro franchises that neither expanded note moved in the last 30 years.
New York Yankees
Chicago Bulls
Los Angeles Lakers
New England Patriots
San Francisco 49ers
Dallas Cowboys
Detroit Red Wings
Pittsburgh Steelers
Boston Celtics
New York Giants
San Antonio Spurs
Green Bay Packers
Edmonton Oilers
Pittsburgh Penguins
Montreal Canadiennes
St.  Louis Cardinals
Boston Red Sox
San Francisco Giants
Houston Rockets
Minnesota Twins
Washington Redskins
Oakland A's
Toronto Blue Jays
Atlanta Braves
Chicago Bears
New York Rangers
Philadelphia Phillies
Chicago Blackhawks
Boston Bruins
Los Angeles Dodgers
Los Angeles Angels
New York Mets
Dallas Mavericks
Chicago White Sox
Cincinnati Reds
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Kansas City Royals

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Ranking the Expansion Teams

Since I became a conscious sports fan in the mid-1980s, each of the four major sports leagues has added at least four expansion teams.  I thought it would be fun to rank how successful they've been in order.

  1. Miami Heat 2 championships, favored to win another.  With the best current basketball player, another top 5 player, and another top 20 player.  Run by one of the top basketball minds ever, with an up-and-coming coach. Established as a desirable free agent destination.  This is the best-case scenario.
  2. Anaheim Ducks -- One Stanley Cup, another run to the finals, currently solid, positioned for success.
  3. Arizona Diamondbacks - One championship, generally in contention since. Firmly established.
  4. Tampa Bay Lightning  -- Yes, a Stanley Cup, and currently 3 top talents, but largely anonymous otherwise.
  5. Carolina Panthers -- One Super Bowl run, now in possession of a top QB talent.
  6. Ottawa Senators -- One run to the Stanley Cup finals, firmly established
  7. San Jose Sharks -- Solid fan base, usually in contention.
  8. Houston Texans -- Seem to be in the middle of a decent run of contention, though it took a while.
  9. Colorado Rockies -- One run to the World Series; generally competitive
  10. Orlando Magic -- Develop franchise center, reach finals, lose center to Lakers, repeat.
  11. Tampa Bay Rays -- Competitive on the field; struggling at the box office.
  12. Miami  Marlins -- 2 championships, not much else in other seasons
  13. Florida Panthers -- One Stanley Cup Finals run, not much else.  Buried in a crowded scene.
  14. Nashville Predators  -- We now enter the "no specific recollection" portion of our list.
  15. Cleveland Browns  -- No QB.
  16. Minnesota Timberwolves -- KG's heyday seems long ago.
  17. Columbus Blue Jackets  -- Who?
  18. Minnesota Wild -- ?
  19. Toronto Raptors -- One playoff run with VC and T-Mac
  20. Jacksonville Jaguars -- Not a good sign when an NFL team regularly covers up seats.
  21. Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies -- Oops
  22. Atlanta Thrashers / Winnipeg Jets -- Oops again.
  23. Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets -- Oops once more, then league takeover
  24. Carolina Bobcats -- Maybe #23 wasn't an oops. Or maybe it was.


One model franchise, a few solid citizens, then it goes downhill pretty fast.  Three teams ended up moving themselves. One was taken over by the league.   The best memories most teams in the second half have offered is a first round upset.

Of course, several established teams -- I'm looking at you, Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Islanders -- haven't given their fans much to cheer about, either. But it does appear these teams are doing worse than a random sampling of 24 teams, even though many of these franchises have been in place for 20 years.

As a contrast, let's take a look at the established franchises that changed locations in that same rough amount of time.

  1. Cleveland Browns -> Baltimore Ravens
  2. Baltimore -> Indianapolis Colts
  3. Colorado Rockies -> New Jersey Devils
  4. Quebec Nordiques -> Colorado Avalanche
  5. Minnesota -> Dallas Stars
  6. Oakland -> LA -> Oakland Raiders
  7. LA -> St. Louis Rams
  8. Houston Oilers -> Tennessee Titans
  9. Seattle SuperSonics -> Oklahoma City Thunder 
  10. Montreal Expos -> Washington Nationals
  11. Hartford Whalers -> Carolina Hurricanes
  12. St. Louis -> Arizona Cardinals
  13. San Diego -> LA Clippers
  14. Kansas City -> Sacramento Kings -> Seattle SuperSonics?
  15. Winnipeg Jets -> Phoenix Coyotes
Now we're talking

For all the talk about "franchise free agency," it's interesting that there's been about half as many franchise relocations as expansions in the past 30 years (though this list does exclude expansion teams that moved).  Even more interesting when you consider that some of these (Devils,Clippers, Kings, the Raiders northward move) were before the first of the expansions.   Expanding the scope includes the success of the Devils and Raiders' LA run, but also brings in the Clippers and Kings.

The first group includes 23 teams, the defending NBA champions, and seven total champions.  The second list includes 13 teams, the current Super Bowl champions, 11 total champions, and a couple teams poised for runs.

The lesson is if you're a city with no team hoping for a champion, better to lure someone else's team than to go for expansion.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Mad Men -- In history not consumed by it

As Mad Men begins its sixth season, moving deeper into the part of the Sixties that made them famous, there has been some excitement about it perhaps confronting the issues of the day, like race.

I hope they ignore this advice, and judging by the first five seasons and Mattew Weiner's sensibilities, they probably will be.

What makes Mad Men interesting is that it offers a window into how certain people confronted the same type of issues that confront us -- how do we approach family life, professional life? How do we deal with upstart competitors?  What shortcuts are we willing to take for business success?  How do we respond when these things begin to shift?

The historical setting offers a couple advantages.  For one, we know how the choices the characters made worked out generally.  For another, it offers some historical context to fill in the background.  Show set in the  near-present like almost every other show generally have their characters operating in a vacuum, since it's difficult to import a current news event that would be plausible.  In Mad Men, the historical events actually happened, and we know this (or can look it up).

What's interesting about the show isn't that the partners have a big Conversation about Race, but the micro-adjustments they make as the landscape changes.  Which mirrors the way macro events tend to impact our lives.  Proponents of same sex marriage like to write that allowing it will have no impact on heterosexual marriages, which is at least superficially true.  While this is likely a historic event, in particular for same sex couples, it does not really impact what my day-to-day concerns are.  One could tell the story of John McG without touching on the same sex marriage debate.

I think the way Mad Men handled the Kennedy assassination -- weaving it into a wedding -- was brilliant in this regard.  Historical events happen, even big ones like the assassination of a president or the 9/11 attacks -- and people still get married, have kids, make mortgage payments, and have to deal with backstabbing co-workers.  They change us, but in subtle ways that are not best captured in a Special 9/11 Episode.

Some critics complain that the only people of color in the show are essentially window dressing to bring out some quality in the main characters.  But, though this also seems true to life.  Mad Men has a rich cast of characters that viewers care about.  I think it would be misstep to introduce another central character in order to explore another aspect of the events of the time.  The show is about what it's about.  If someone wants to make another show about the 1960's from the perspective of a black elevator operator, they are welcome to do so.

So, as I tune in tonight, I'll be interested to see how the characters respond to the turmoil of the late 1960's.  I am not terribly interested in having the show tell me that Racism is Bad, and War Is Wrong, and other Big Messages.