07/18/07 12:00am
by |
07/18/2007 12:00 AM |

After a month abroad, it wasn’t long before this native New Yorker was reminded, with a burst of steam and a deafening roar, that Our Fair City will always be exploding with events, or at the very least, steam today, and something much more sinister and deadly from our past.

The steam pipe explosion on 41st Street and Lexington Avenue last Wednesday was, luckily for us and Manhattan, just a “failure of the city’s infrastructure” (Mayor Mike, who apparently went Indy while I was absent!), resulting from cold rainwater seeping in during a morning shower, and coming into contact with the hot steam pipe, causing a pressurized reaction. The pipe dates from 1924 and was briefly inspected Wednesday morning after the rainstorm, but Con Ed, which owns and maintains the hundreds of miles of steam pipe-work snaking from Lower Manhattan to the Upper West and East Sides, found nothing wrong with it or the thousands of other pipes crawling just under the tarmac. As a result of the blast, one woman died of cardiac arrest, and about thirty were injured. However, things were a lot different at an explosion downtown almost a century ago . . .

Minutes before the noon lunch-rush on September 16th, 1920, a horse-drawn wagon, loaded with dynamite and heavy iron sash weights, pulled into the intersection of Wall and Broads Streets, immediately outside the New York Stock Exchange, and exploded. The sash weights acted as propelled shrapnel that tore into the House of Morgan building, leaving pockmarks and indents the size of a fist in the marble. (The pockmarks are still visible, on the Wall Street façade of the building, across from the Federal Hall National Monument.) Thirty were killed instantly and over three hundred were injured, most of them messengers and stock-boys, starting their lunch break by crossing the street to grab a bite. The death toll would rise to forty from the various maladies incurred. One piece of shrapnel was blown to the 34th floor of the nearby Equitable Building; windows a quarter-mile away shattered from the force of the explosion. The only intact parts of the horse or the wagon that the police could locate were two charred hooves, which landed in the cemetery at Trinity Church, three blocks west. Later, in an unsuccessful attempt to attach the horse to an owner, hired detectives would take the hooves to over 4,000 blacksmiths up and down the Atlantic seaboard in order to find one that could identify the horseshoes, and possibly an owner or accomplice to this heinous crime.

Terrorism tensions ran high during the 1920s, a fervent period of American Capitalism. Along with various fears of Italian Anarchists and Russian Bolshevists, the city and country had to beware of homegrown terrorists, such as the American Anarchist Fighters, who claimed responsibility for the 1920 explosion on the morning it happened, mailing out a round of circulars between 11:30 and 11:58 stating: "Remember / We will not tolerate / any longer / Free the political / prisoners or it will be / sure death for all of you / American Anarchist Fighters." What’s more, these American Anarchist Forces were probably responsible for the mail-bomb scare of 1919, in which thirty-six packages loaded with nitroglycerin and concealed in Gimbles gift-boxes were mailed to prominent Americans, intending to be opened on May Day. Sixteen of these packages were detained at the Main Branch of the Post Office on 34th Street and Ninth Avenue, and the rest were, luckily, defused before any loss of life.

How did Wall Street respond to these attacks on our very American way of life? Quoth the New York Sun on September 17th, 1920: "Like a strong man who sticks to the line after binding up his wounds and sewing on his wound stripes, Wall Street, from its lowly office boy to its most stately financier, went to work yesterday morning with head up and teeth set, determined to show the world that business will proceed as usual despite bombs."  In a city with a history of downtown acts of terrorism, an accidental midtown steam pipe doesn’t look so bad.

06/06/07 12:00am
by |
06/06/2007 12:00 AM |

For a city completely and totally surrounded by water, one would expect that the ability to drink the stuff shouldn’t cause much of a problem. We are, in fact, one of the few cities in the world with a natural deep-water harbor. Critical problem is, all that wash-up around us is salt water, and therefore not too tasty. New York City gets its drinking water from the Croton Reservoir upstate. The Reservoir gets filled by rainwater and snow melt-off that runs down the Adirondack Mountains, into strategically placed basins and upstate reservoirs, then through an intricate series of pipework, down through the Bronx and into your sink. This works fine and dandy for the modern-day metropolis region. But what about back in the day? Specifically, what about Brooklyn, pre-1898? Back then it was a whole different story.

Those of you with a modicum of knowledge regarding the various municipalities of the Greater New York City of Five Boroughs know that Brooklyn was its own city, as was the City of New York (now Manhattan Island). They were twin cities, like Minneapolis and St. Paul, or San Francisco and Oakland. New York was the burgeoning economic and financial powerhouse, and Brooklyn, although not small by any means (the fourth largest city in the country, at the end of the 19th century), was split down the middle, in parts a sleepy farming community with churches (therefore the nickname “City of Spires”), and in other parts a hectic bustling industrial and shipping powerhouse for the Northeastern seaboard. In fact, more shipping came from Brooklyn than from New York in the 1880s and 1890s.

But what comes with municipal independence is the financial necessity to keep the city up to date: paved streets, bridges, tunnels, railways, electricity, and clean water, to bathe in, to drink, to wash, to do all the lovely things necessary to run a functioning society. And with 86 square miles, Brooklyn just didn’t have enough money to maintain its city-ship, and especially didn’t have enough money to bring in water for its constituents to use. While New York had water coming down through the Croton Aqueduct, Brooklyn had to get water from a different location — namely Long Island. So the city of Brooklyn built a series of expensive and not terribly useful water-pumping stations and reservoirs out on Long Island to bring water to the city. Why were they so useless? Well, a group of intrepid bicyclists set out on Sunday to figure that out firsthand.

The ride was called Explore Brooklyn’s Water Works System, and was cohosted by the Five Borough Bicycle Club and Michael Miscione, Manhattan Borough Historian. The concept was a 35-mile leisurely bicycle ride from the easternmost reservoir, in Massapequa, vaguely tracing the line of the old Waterway Supply system back to the abandoned reservoir in Ridgewood, Queens. It was a lovely day for a bike ride, and the 25 history geeks and bicycle enthusiasts that attended were in concurrence. We met at Penn Station, jumped a 9am train out to Massapequa, and hoofed it back, stopping en route at the assorted water pumping stations and what was left of the reservoir systems between Nassau and Kings counties, from the Massapequa reservoir to the Old Brooklyn Water System Pumping Station at Milburn Pond to the Baisley Pond Park in Rosedale, Queens, all the way back to Ridgewood. We learned that the critical problem of transporting water from Long Island lies in its flatness — whereas all the water coming down from upstate is powered by gravity, not a single drop of H2O coming from Long Island moves downwards — it all has to be pumped, and running those steam-powered pumps 24/7 to bring water to the city is an expensive endeavor, and not one that solves any long term problems. That was the downfall of Brooklyn’s independence and eventual consolidation into the municipality of New York City. In a 1896 non-binding referendum, the for/or against vote for Brooklyn to join the Greater New York City of Five Boroughs had a majority for it of 277, out of 129,000 ballots cast. It was about the water back then. Clearly, there was more to it, but for that story, you’ll have to ask Mr. Miscione at his upcoming lecture. All in all, a wonderful day, a glorious bike ride, some pretty geeky and fascinating history, and exercise! What more could one ask for? How about a glass of delicious New York City tap water? Ahhh.

05/23/07 12:00am
05/23/2007 12:00 AM |

As an inveterate if frequently uneasy fan of professional boxing, I have been peripherally aware of the rising tide in popularity that ultimate fighting and mixed martial arts have experienced over the past three or four years. The massive growth of these combat sports has quite rightly been judged in boxing circles as a bellwether for the sport’s declining fortunes. UFC and its analogous interests have cut deeply into what remains of professional boxing’s audience by providing something like a distilled, maximum violence at a cut-rate price. The absurd pay-per-view cots and purse fees demanded by professional boxing promoters have essentially priced out most networks and many consumers, and the uneven quality of the end product, typified by one unsatisfying Mike Tyson circus followed by the next during the late nineties and early 2000s, has conferred upon the sport a justifiable reputation as an unreliable bet for one’s entertainment dollar.

I’ve also always rather enjoyed professional wrestling. Back in the mid-90s when Bob Mould decided to take a few years off of music and go to work writing storylines for the WWF, many people reacted to this development with something on the order of slack-jawed astonishment. I however felt this made complete sense, and fully anticipate a similar career move in my future, possibly as soon as tomorrow. Nowadays wrestling has become a sort of sanitized big business enterprise — rather refined in its presentation, although I still find it pretty watchable when it comes on. When I was a child though, it was about as bizarre a spectacle as any I have witnessed before or since — huge, frequently unmuscular men assuming broad characters and pretending to beat on each other in high school auditoriums and county fairs. Telecasts like Georgia Championship Wrestling or AWA Wrestling from Minnesota were invariably shot on the grainiest of low-budget film and broadcast with minimum production values but a maximum air of palpable hysteria. From my comfortable home in suburban Washington DC, I watched saucer-eyed as a wholly exotic parade of regional accents and sensibilities were paraded in front of me, carnival-style, each Saturday morning. Blackjack Mulligan, Harley Race, Bruno Sammartino: these were world class weirdos, but also gifted, magnetic entertainers — the sort of traveling performers who would be a piece with Greil Marcus’s "Old, Weird America." Reviewing some of this footage now on YouTube, I am pleased to observe that it still has the same mysterious effect on me. There are terrible, nightmarish figures like Abdullah The Butcher and ersatz heroes — invariably broken off and perverted from some aspect of the contemporary culture, such as Magnum TA and The Rock -N- Roll express — who are so creepy as to be borderline impossible to root for. The entire business is so tremendously surreal as to play upon the Freudian unconscious — suppressed fears and desires are played out by hulking archetypes — Grimm Brother’s fairy tales come to life. Take a moment to watch the footage of some random match between "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes versus "Nature Boy" Ric Flair on YouTube. Just listen to the wailing and shrieking of fans in attendance as events they KNOW are actually staged are played out in front of them. It may not be Macbeth, but it sure as hell sounds like catharsis.

Professional wrestling at its best specializes in this sort of release. The yearning for catharsis through physical exertion is a primal imperative. The deep-seated desire to experience triumph and anxiety played out on a large and metaphorical scale must account in a not insignificant way for the billion-dollar industry which is men running around, wacking balls, performing various feats, and punching and slapping each other. I must say, though, I wonder what exactly we’re getting into with the rise of the UFC.

Whatever its not inconsiderable (ok, massive) failings, professional boxing IS a sport, complete with a long-standing standardized rulebook, a modicum of order and a baseline for personal decency. For all of its inarguable marketing acumen and astounding mainstreaming, I’m not prepared to accept the recent media benediction which says the same for the UFC. It never ceases to amaze me how a patently bad idea can gain currency in our culture, no matter how prima facie terrible a notion it might appear on first blush. It is tempting to cast this observation in political terms with respect to the our country’s experiences over the past five several years — tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent of Americans, pre-emptive war without planning — but this is probably an inexact and ultimately misleading analogy to the ascendant popularity of the UFC. Tax cuts and the war were manufactured social and geo-political missteps, sold to a plurality of the American people through a concerted campaign of misleading propaganda and diversion. To me there is something even more disturbing at work in the case of ultimate fighting: it appears to be about the breaking of certain taboos, and not ones that I necessarily feel the need to see broken. Watching a UFC match, or, say, the countless ESPN replays of this past weekend’s Quinton "Rampage" Jackson versus Chuck Liddell contest, I am essentially put in mind of a resonant fantasy of my youthful preoccupation with professional wrestling: “What if this were REAL?” That is essentially what the UFC has done: placed to men in a steel octagon and actualized the fantasy world of professional wrestling. Is this good? Seriously? I get that the UFC is visceral and relatively affordable, and that some of these men are powerful athletes and skilled fighters. But since when did that in of itself justify locking them in a cage for a bare-knuckle street fight? Just because an event becomes a proven money-maker doesn’t seem to me a good reason to afford it a volitional wholesale embrace from the mainstream media. I mean, I don’t THINK it does.

Or maybe I am wrong. I could scarcely have been more startled by last week’s Sports Illustrated, with its L. Jon Wertheim-penned cover story/apologia for the UFC and its accumulating fan base. From the evergreen handmaiden of sports periodicals — perhaps slightly out of step with contemporary sensibilities, but still a reliable source for thoughtful, thorough journalism — I had expected an even-handed if seriously skeptical verdict on the phenomenon. Instead I was faced with an amazing series of assertions regarding the relative safety of ultimate fighting, certain of which struck me as almost irrepressibly comedic.

For instance, from Dr. Margaret Goodman, chairwoman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission’s Medical Advisory Board. "You’re going to see worse cuts in MMA than in boxing, especially with longer rounds, and there are more knockouts. Overall, is it safer than boxing? I think so. The guys [submit], and it’s over. You don’t have standing eight counts, you don’t have 10 rounds of guys taking shots to the head."

I’m sorry, Doctor — what sort of Rumsfeldian logic is this? Short of the terrible cuts and the high volume of concussion-producing knockouts, mixed martial arts is safer WHY? Because they don’t have a standing 8 count to see if an injured fighter who has not gone down can continue?! What do they have INSTEAD of the standing eight count in UFC? Well, they have the rule that says when a fighter is knocked down by a punch, his opponent may then jump on his chest and pound him with knees and fists before he can recover, or the referee can stop to see if he is in serious neurological danger. Why does this set of "rules” not strike me as safer then going to a neutral corner and allowing a man a ten count? Why do I have a feeling Dr. Goodman will be enjoying a lucrative career with testifying about the health benefits of smoking for the tobacco lobbies when her Athletic commission days are through?

Better still is Weirthem’s own following assertions: "Boxing doesn’t permit fighters to change tactics by clutching or wrestling. And one could even make a credible case that UFC and other MMA competitions are less brutal than — dare we say it? — the NFL."

Now wait a second — boxing doesn’t permit fighters to change tactics?! That is a completely deranged assertion. Witness for instance this footage offormer Heavyweight champion Larry Holmes defending his title against Earnie Shavers in 1979. You will notice a couple things around the five-minute mark, after Holmes is caught by a pulverizing right hook from Shavers, arguably the hardest puncher in the history of boxing: 1) Holmes is actually allowed to rise before he is hit again, and 2) He immediately changes tactics by clutching. That Holmes was to go on to win the fight by knockout is testimony to his greatness. That he had the opportunity to do so by rule separates this event from something you’d see in a high school parking lot.

In any event, the train is now out of the station with UFC and mixed martial arts, and none of my carping is going to cease its runaway momentum. Much is also made in the SI article about how none of the 71 UFC cards to date has ever had a fight which resulted in a fatality (what an achievement!) and in all likelihood, with its new mainstream media backing and exposure, nothing short of a truly awful occurrence will give pause to it’s dollar-besotted patrons. I’m just saying that whether it airs on ESPN or not, the personal sense of aversion I feel towards this phenomenon remains the same. Of course, all of this is highly subjective and it’s not like it couldn’t be worse. Someplace right now wealthy athletes are likely betting $30,000 on a dog fight. Are we having fun yet?

05/23/07 12:00am

Ah, the sun, the surf, the sail. The only slightly choppy waters of the East River (not a river at all in fact, but a tidal estuary) and the brilliant pre-summer sun charging down on us like so many armies of ultraviolet rays. The views of the isle of Manahatta from the middle of the river: the density and skyscrapery of the city vs. the space and enormity of Brooklyn. One doesn’t normally allow for this type of altered viewpoint, what with the constant move and shake and demands of our urban lifestyle. However, sometimes it is absolutely critical for one to get away from it all, even if “getting away” means boarding a schooner built in 1885 and sailing out into the middle of the harbor for two hours, listening to the poetry of Walt Whitman on his 188th birthday, which coincided with Memorial Day, last Monday.

Walt Whitman was an iconoclast, a true poet of Democracy and a chronicler of a newly burgeoning America, an America  shuddering and shifting with waves of immigration and radical industrial and economic changes. Born in 1819 to practically destitute parents (Mother was barely literate, Father was a carpenter and died while Walt was a child), Whitman received only six years of formal education while bouncing back and forth between Long Island and Brooklyn. At the age of thirteen he became a printer’s devil (the precedent to the intern) for the Long Island Patriot and started to fill in open passages in the paper with bits of “sentimental” material (read: sensationalist and fiercely patriotic articles); this was Walt’s first experience with the majesty of the printed word. Whitman bounced around more than a dozen papers and publications in New York and on Long Island through the 1840s, including the editorship of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle between 1846 and 1848.

Without a doubt, his most famous scripture is the poetry collection Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, but constantly revised and edited throughout the remainder of Whitman’s life. The most important edition was published abroad in 1860, where it was an enormous success — especially in France, where Whitman’s Naturalist descriptions of the human body and the celebration of life encouraged the naturalist revolution in French letters. Leaves of Grass wasn’t such a success in the States upon its publication, standing as it did as a direct rebuke to the Victorian social mores of America at the time. Charles A. Dana, the book critic for the New York Times, wrote upon its publication that Leaves of Grass contained language that was “too frequently reckless and indecent … quite out of place amid the decorum of modern society.” Charles Elliot Norton wrote in Putnam’s Monthly that the slim volume of poetry was “superficial yet profound … preposterous yet somehow fascinating … mixture of Yankee Transcendentalism and New York rowdyism.”

Although he was hardly accepted by the mainstream press and readership, Whitman was justly elevated to near mythic status (his Christ-like beard and semi-obvious homosexuality helped) by a number of international poets and writers, both during his life (Oscar Wilde, Anne Gilchrist) and well after his death (Hart Crane, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac). With the benefit of hindsight, we can see Whitman’s work as a rare, stupendous accomplishment: words and ideas liberated from the severe public construct of the era and standing for all time as a celebration of the human body, spirit and soul over politics, economics, war, and all the other day-to-day happenings of the topical and mundane. Whitman died in 1892, and his works have been in constant publication since.

So, how best to celebrate Whitman’s beauty and poetry? Why, on board an 1885 schooner, courtesy of the South Street Seaport Museum! The Museum, located on Fulton Street, a fish’s scale from the old Dutch Clipper Ships in the East River, celebrates New York’s mostly forgotten maritime culture, and proudly features a number of ships, some docked in the harbor as well as some that set sail on daily excursions. The Peking (1911), Wavertree (1885), and Ambrose (1908) are all permanently moored off of the piers at South Street and are open as museums to the public. Those that cruise out around the harbor include the Pioneer (which Dad Levy and I boarded last Monday, on one of our notorious New York City geek dates), the Lettie G. Howard (1893), and the W. O. Decker (1930); these three ships, along with making multiple public sails a day, can be rented for chartered events and training opportunities. The Seaport Museum is always looking for volunteers, so anyone interested in the ages-old science of mooring, masting, and shouting “Leeward wind off the starboard side!” can and should sign up for a sail or three. Those interested in just going for the ride, it should be noted, can do so with a bottle of wine and a picnic lunch on board the 2-hour tour. While on board, bring a copy of Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and read it to yourself or your honey (or your father). Close your eyes, listen to the gulls, and thank Walt for bringing the experience alive for the ages.

05/09/07 12:00am
by |
05/09/2007 12:00 AM |

Yes indeed, what does make a healthy downtown? A pertinent question for New Yorkers, now more so than ever. Everywhere you look is construction, renovation, building, rebuilding, and burly union men in hardhats and orange flak jackets. There are 16 acres at the World Trade Center site that are slowly, stodgily, infinitesimally progressing towards something resembling a functioning commercial hub; the city is tearing the shit out of Fulton Street and lower Broadway to create a transit hub; a secondary transit hub is happening down in Battery Park, merging three different lines and stations. And don’t get me started on the lux condo-ification of Manhattan, specifically in the financial district. But, is there a precedent to all this construction? How have other cities redeveloped their downtowns? We set out to glean some answers at a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council-sponsored roundtable discussion, held last night on the 60th floor of One Chase Manhattan Plaza.

The roundtable brought together five established city planners slash urban designers from Boston, Vancouver, Toronto, London and Singapore, and each had their own take, understandably, on how to redevelop a downtown. The difficulties, descriptions, conversations and conclusions were pretty fascinating, as each urban designer was adamant that their city, and their model for redevelopment was the de facto answer for cities that are, on the whole, organic and permutable creatures. David Emil, president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, moderated, and kept things from veering out of control, especially considering the presence of wild card Peter Rees, City Planning Officer for London since 1985, who started his description of London’s downtown with the memorable line “London has the best free sex in the world!” Rees then went on to explain that within London’s one square mile of commercial Downtown, you have 8,000 people living, 350,000 working, and a newly restored cultural and financial world that is mostly driven by testosterone and the allure of sex. On his watch, London’s downtown went from a 9-5 district to existing as a 24-hour commercial and cultural destination. “It’s not the same type of work in the morning as the evening, well, not yet at least.” Another notable quotable from the feisty Brit: “Families kill cities.” Rees then went on to detail how London’s downtown is not the place for children and strollers — it’s hardworking by day and hardpartying by night. Families belong in the residential parts of London, most certainly not downtown.

Kairos Shen, the Director of Planning at Boston’s Redevelopment Authority, pushed the idea of rediscovering land downtown, through enormous public works projects that shift space and reintegrate previously disparate communities. Most notably through Boston’s Big Dig, an ongoing 20+ year project that has been tearing up Beantown’s downtown to bury the confluence of highways underground. Notoriously behind schedule, massively over budget, and dangerously faulty (a steel panel from the ceiling of the Big Dig crushed a Bostonian two years back), the completed project will, in essence, bring forth rediscovered land above ground as all those expressway go subterranean. Rediscovered land for parks and playgrounds (and condos) is all great, but at what price? Billions and billions, apparently.

Other speakers included Brent Toderian, Director of Planning for downtown Vancouver, who asserted that embedded property rights, “the whole life, liberty and pursuit of happiness shtick” has no place in Vancouver, where all city planned space is discussed by a very vocal public. Vancouver is one of the world’s few major cities that have zero freeways running through downtown. This bucolic cultural capital puts the pedestrian first and foremost when discussing street use. Following the pedestrian, cyclists, bladers, joggers, and recreational users have control of the road, then light-rail public transit systems, commercial vehicles like delivery trucks, and, a distant fifth, the passenger car. In stark opposition to London, Toderian asserted that “Downtown and cities that work for kids (and families) work for everybody else.” A true city by public design, as opposed to private corporate interest. And with a 4% vacancy rate, not to mention the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver seems to have figured something out. Robert Freedman, the Director of Urban Design from Toronto, was on hand, discussing cheap residential land availability up north ($375 Canadian a square foot! That’s cheap! Even with their dollar kicking our dollar’s ass!), as well as one of the world’s most liberal immigration policies. This makes Toronto one of the world’s most ethnically diverse cities for families to raise their kids, with a strong and colorful public school system, vibrant culture, exciting public art, etc. Rounding out the panel was Cheong Koon Hean, from Singapore, who talked about her blue and green city — blue because Singapore is a city-state island in a tropical weather zone, which makes for pleasant living, and green because of the three enormous botanical gardens and parks located right downtown, which makes for healthy recreation. She didn’t mention that you can get arrested for chewing gum or spitting on the sidewalk.

The general conclusion from all this downtown talk was, in essence, different strokes for different folks. Because of all the various uses a city and its downtown carry – residential, commercial, industrial, recreational — each city has to develop its downtown accordingly. There’s no master plan for Downtown. Although we liked London’s agenda a whole lot. And as we sipped scotch and gingers from the open bar and gazed out at our magnificent city through the floor to ceiling windows, 60 stories up, we considered the future of NY. We don’t know what it’ll be, but we’ll be here to enjoy it.

05/09/07 12:00am

I had to more or less check out of my sports watching routine this past couple weeks, owing to an urgent need to "take care of a few things." The process was onerous and the details of these tasks are fairly traumatizing — too traumatizing to relay in any detailed way here in this cheerful venue. I did my best to handle it all, but truth be told mistakes were made and this time ‘the Barr ate me.’

The lesson I’ve taken away from this past couple week is that no matter how bad things get at work, home or within your family, it is imperative to never stop watching sports. Vigilance is the eternal province of fandom. The need to carefully oversee and manage all events as they unfold it is the greatest and most solemn duty any of us can adhere to. There is real life yes, but then there is SPORTS, and sometimes in the midst of dealing with a tax fraud trial or divorce, we lose sight of what is really important (the antics of highly paid athletes).

Man, what a wake up call I received! I just had no concept of how bad things would get and how quickly. During my brief respite all the major figures of serious menace in the constellation of modern sports slithered from the woodwork like groping pestilence. It is apparent now that all of my least favorite athletes have been conspiring, plotting, waiting for me to demonstrate a moment of vulnerability and weakness, and then spring into action. How does one properly refer to this amalgam of bad actors? A cabal? A cell? Or shall we simply cut to the chase and refer to them as the Mad Horsemen of my personal sports apocalypse? In any case, consider if you will the chilling developments of the past two weeks:

Favre Throws A Tantrum

Why do people love this man?! A nonpareil prima donna and numbers-hanger who cannot stand being out of the spotlight for an entire offseason, he has been unable to interest anyone in his normal infuriating game of "Will I or Won’t I retire?!" this year, and so has taken to sulking about the failure of the Packers to trade for Randy Moss? This strikes me as an important moment of reconciliation in the narrative arc of Favre’s unaccountably lauded career. A singular iteration of "me first" selfishness, a reckless player who is also prone to essentially giving up in the middle of games by dint of throwing balls up for grab — it is only natural that he would identify with Randy Moss. Why exactly would the Packers, building for the future with a young nucleus, want to bring in the NFL’s worst lollygagging malcontent in order to derange the team as he did for two years in Oakland? As a team captain on his last stop Moss helped turn the Raiders into perhaps the worst NFL offense I have ever seen. It’s one thing for a veteran contending team with a welter of stars to take a flyer on a player like Moss, and quite another for middling group of ostensible up-and-comers like Green Bay to throw another character like this in the mix.

So for this bit of entirely sensible inaction on behalf of the front office, "Mr. Packer" Brett Favre decides that he wants to be traded? I’m so tired of his act. I can’t abide Favre. I wouldn’t trade a Billy Joel outtake for him. And certainly he should never have been allowed to run riot while I carelessly look into "serious health concerns."

Clemens Performs Mussolini Imitation At Yankee Stadium 

I recognized, and I think that most of us reasonably assumed, that sooner or later the Yankees were going to offer up something on the order of $8,888 a pitch to Clemens in order to try to bail them out of another embarrassment of a failed season. And Clemens, the most mercenary athlete I have ever seen in my lifetime (a not insignificant achievement), was always going to take the Steinbrenner/Cashman money and throw his customary four months of 2.50 ERA ball, when he felt like he wanted to stop pretending that he might retire. (What is WITH these guys?! How hard is out to just say: "I will be playing until an EMT unit carries me off the field and brings me to an assisted living facility"?)

But what I did NOT see coming was this Leni Riefenstahl, cult of personality gig, with the Rocket standing up in the owner’s box at Yankee stadium and announcing his return with all the mild, self-effacing grace of Napoleon back from Elba.  

Clemens’s greatness is beyond argument. He would certainly have a privileged place on any staff collected from the greatest pitchers in Major League history. That said, I have always found him to possess a somewhat less a compelling personality than full blossom poison oak. How it is that he can be received by baseball fans with Papal fanfare while Barry Bonds is verging on persona non grata seems highly inequitable to me. That Clemens has not been painted with the same thick brush of steroid suspicion that has long dogged Bonds feels to me at best like a willful suspension of disbelief and at worst a significant miscarriage of justice. I have no idea if Clemens has used steroids or other performance-enhancing substances to prolong his career, but I will say that his career seems to mirror Bonds’s in more ways than seems appropriate to dismiss. Both men essentially started their careers at the level of a legendary performers and then continued to get better into their 40s, with a mild dip someplace in the middle. Bonds is essentially reviled in the court of public opinion and the commissioner won’t even come watch him break Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record. His steroid use is exhaustively and inarguably documented in endless reportage, whereas any suggestions of use by Clemens is far less well established: He was implicated, in interviews with investigators, by former teammate Jason Grimsley as a player who used performance-enhancing substances, but this news was essentially shrugged off by the public and media alike. Who knows what would have come to light had Clemens been subjected to the sort of endless digging into the facts that has characterized Bonds’s experience with the media? Bonds is often said to be his own worst enemy in terms of the manner in which his vaulting arrogance prejudices fans and the media against him, and I suppose that’s true, but then what sort of magnetism and gregariousness is there in Clemens that the same people can forgive him absolutely anything? Is it the endless faux retirements, the zillion dollar offseason beauty contests, the head-hunting, bat-throwing, hackneyed,  ‘aw shucks, I’m so great’ Texas-intimidator routine that has permanently inured him from scrutiny? I don’t get it.

And let me repeat, as I have said in this space before, lest anyone think I’m backsliding: Not only do I not CARE if these men used steroids or HGH, I HOPE they used steroids and HGH. Whatever gets you through the night. I am so tired of this alleged "controversy" that I just want to drowse into a thirty year Rip Van Winkle sleep and wake up in the future, when everyone is admittedly on this stuff and ballooned out to the size of a PT Cruiser. In the meantime this steroid talk is just the kind of boring stuff that is going to take my mind off the sports world, and send it reeling into the realm of something I can actually impact, which must be avoided at all costs.

Real world problems are difficult to solve: so difficult in fact that I can see next to no point in trying. Sports world problems are also difficult to solve, but much more appropriate to spend time on, given the imminent demise of all human existence. As a matter of principal, with the water levels rising and the great flood approaching, I see no further reason to tackle any of my actual interpersonal difficulties "head on." Friends, family, health, personal and spiritual matters all have their place, but let us never forget what truly matters when it’s all said and done: the NFL salary cap.

04/25/07 12:00am
04/25/2007 12:00 AM |

On Saturday night, Oscar De La Hoya will fight professionally for what is probably the final time. He very likely will not win, and it may not even be competitive. That’s because in his accustomed fashion, De La Hoya has not elected for the traditional victory lap send-off, but instead will step into the ring with the consensus choice for the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Floyd Mayweather Jr. Mayweather is an almost ludicrously talented fighter, unbeaten in 37 previous bouts and rarely even challenged. He is fast and brash and violent and generally drubs everything in sight, often with the sort of studied carelessness that always felt more like labored theatrics in the hands of Roy Jones Jr. During his run as the world’s best fighter, Jones often competed against lesser competition and seemed burdened by the need to enhance the entertainment value of these events by employing reckless tactics: clowning, holding his hands low, and playing to the crowd. Dominant as he was during his prime, it always seemed like sooner or later someone was going to make Jones pay for all the bad habits he was developing and take his head off. That eventually happened of course — Antonio Tarver knocked him unconscious with a single left hook so vicious that it sent chills up the spine of even those who had waited years to see it happen.

Mayweather does some of the same things as Jones used to do, but I have never had the impression for one second that anyone is going to end up making him pay for it. There is a certain malevolence in the underpinnings of "Pretty Boy" Floyd’s imperious disdain that was never really in evidence with Jones. I always felt, at the end of the day, that Jones was somehow trying too hard, wanted too badly to be a crossover star, and was in some ways even fundamentally torn about the visceral violence of his chosen occupation. Not so with Mayweather: he just seems to like beating people up. Mayweather started his professional career as a 130-pound Super Featherweight and will be campaigning for the first time as a 154-pound Junior Middleweight against De La Hoya. This represents a quantum leap with respect to an escalation in weight classes, and as Mayweather has gone up in divisions has punching power has somewhat diminished, but his whirlwind hand and foot speed has not. In boxing, the combination of a relatively light-hitting speed demon with a mean streak can make for some of the most terrible beatings imaginable: 12-rounds of slow demolition with no merciful ending to be had. Ali dished out a couple of these in his prime — angry, brutal, one-sided paint jobs against Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson, both of whom had made the terrible mistake of refusing to cease calling him Cassius Clay. Such affairs are by far more cruel and devastating than a one-punch knockout, or even a three-round cake walk. These are the kind of bouts that get men permanently hurt or worse — and these are just the sort of assault Floyd Mayweather specializes in.

I am hoping like hell he doesn’t do this to Oscar De La Hoya, but I am concerned. In an era when the sheer
low-brow, double-dealing crookery of what passes for boxing’s infrastructure has veritably brought the
sport to its knees, De La Hoya has been a boon. A brave, gifted and congenitally underappreciated fighter, De La Hoya has remained one of boxing’s few likeable quasi-mainstream faces, and has gone way out of his way to engage with every good and great fighter he could get in the ring with him along the way, often having to jump through the torturous logistical tangle of competing promotional and sanctioning body interests in order to make this happen. His astonishing resume bridges eras and weight classes and includes a staggering array of great and near-great opponents. Future Hall Of Famers Pernell Whitaker, Julio Cesar Chavez, Felix Trinidad, Shane Mosley and Bernard Hopkins are just the cream of the crop. He didn’t beat all of these fighters, but he acquitted himself courageously and competitively against each, and won as much as he lost. Factor in tune-ups and stop-gap wins over Genaro Hernandez, Miguel Gonzalez, Ike Quartey, Arturo Gatti, Fernando Vargas and Ricardo Mayorga and you begin to get a sense for the fighter’s yearning for  fraught challenges. There was not much reason for him to take a lot of these fights: the ones against second tier names, many of whom possessed frightening skill and power. He didn’t need the money, and a loss to any one of these men would have significantly damaged his own earning power and reputation. That he has repeatedly chosen the more difficult path over the easy cash-in accrues infinitely to his credit. De La Hoya is not the greatest fighter of his generation, but a very strong case could be made that he is its greatest warrior.

This is a somewhat ironic outcome, given De La Hoya’s longstanding difficulty in shaking his reputation as a
pampered pretty boy, which dogged him all the way through his celebrated amateur career, through his
gold medal-winning effort at the Barcelona Olympic games in 1992, and the early years of his professional
career when he immediately earned huge paydays where others were forced to struggle. In particular he was
resented by many hard-core Mexican fight fans, amongst whom boxing remains an attraction on par with other
major sport. Many Mexican fans found De La Hoya’s matinee idol appearance and polished boxer/puncher technique to be an affront. In some ways — with his home-spun good-naturedness and ridiculous, Seacrest-like handsomeness — De La Hoya emerged like a ready-made marketing ploy gone wrong. There was no way that a plurality of Mexican fight fans were ever going to embrace this polished, bilingual, game show host-looking guy as there own. Their hero was Julio Cesar Chavez, the legendary body-punching destroyer of American fighters who emerged from the barrios of Caulican and worked his way through the tough clubs and small arenas of Mexico and Los Angeles while building a legendary career and following. De La Hoya was proud of his Mexican heritage and openly courted the fan base, although endorsement deals and HBO contracts meant that from a professional perspective it wasn’t really necessary for him to do so. When he was not embraced he seemed deeply wounded by the slight and an early in his career twice beat up and punished an aging Chavez — fighting both bouts in an uncharacteristically aggressive style, anxious to make a point of displaying his own toughness. Sadly, but perhaps predictably, this largely had the opposite effect on his popularity from the one he was hoping to achieve.

No rational fight fan would think to doubt De La Hoya’s toughness anymore, although his tactical decision to dance away the final two rounds against Felix Trinidad cost him an (unjust) decision defeat in 1999, and he never has become the kind of hero to Latin boxing fans that would seem to be his deserved mantle. Now with nothing left to prove as a professional, he has nevertheless elected to take one last, probably fruitless stab at it: fighting on Cinco De Mayo against the finest American fighter of his generation.

In a recent interview for the website Doghouse Boxing, De La Hoya’s confusion over the dual nature of his
national identity and desire to be loved by all involved sounds poignantly unresolved: "I just – it just feels – I feel proud, you know, of fighting on such important Mexican holidays, you know, especially here in the United States of America. I mean obviously, I’m a proud American and always will be. But fighting on those days which is Cinco De Mayo which is the War of Pueblo and the Mexican Independence Day on September 16, you know, those are special days for the Mexican National and obviously we know that a lot of Mexicans here in the United States and to me, it’s just – it’s a representation of me supporting and being there for my family who are obviously Mexican and for families that are here in the States."

De La Hoya is bright and enterprising, and with his Golden Boy Promotions has already made significant
headway in his stated goal of helping to clean up boxing and reimagine it as a business which does not so savagely exploit and cannibalize the very fighters which are its life’s blood. He has a special charisma and at 34 might well do some important things with his post-boxing life — a statement made only too rarely about fighters, from the great to the anonymous. I hope he knows what he’s doing by getting in the ring with Mayweather, but I kind of doubt he does. One thing that you learn watching boxing is that for some reason — almost without exception — no matter how smart these guys are, they have to get beat up a bunch of times before they realize it’s over. I mean, not just once. Like they have to talk three or four severe beatings: Evander Holyfield, Ray Leonard, Ali. (God damn Ali. God damn his handlers. The major arc of the great man’s career was essentially over after Zaire — certainly it was over after Manila. How were they putting this commodity in the ring any longer?! How was he subjecting himself to this? And not just against scrubs: Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers, Larry Holmes?! Killers! Now look at the man. Christ, and we need him now.)

De La Hoya has already subjected himself to one such beating, biting off more than he could chew against
the bigger, stronger, all-time great Middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, who knocked him out in nine
three years ago. But now De La Hoya is three years older, and will not doubt demonstrate the slower reflexes which always accompany the encroaching years and accumulation of rounds. He is still a good, if diminished fighter, and would be a fair bet to take out most of the major contenders between 140 and 160 pounds. If he wanted to fight just to fight, he could make any number of matches which would in no way harm his legacy or short-change his fan base. Instead he decided he wanted Mayweather, right in the thick of his prime. Evidently De La Hoya is totally fearless. The thing you like about the guy is the thing that scares you for him as well.

It is not theoretically implausible that De La Hoya could find a way to win on Saturday. Maybe the one additional step up in weight class finally slows Mayweather down from an unhittable blur to a manageable target (this will be his first contest at 154), or maybe Pretty Boy breaks his hands — fragile fists being his one consistent vulnerability. I don’t think that’s very likely, but I wouldn’t rule it out completely. What is more apt to occur, I think, is that Mayweather scores largely at will, wins 9 rounds to 3 and exalts in his typically arrogant way while De La Hoya ponders retirement. I won’t be rooting for that, but I think it’s must likely and I’d certainly
accept the outcome. By far, it’s not the worse thing that could happen.

04/25/07 12:00am

Fat-bottomed girl or not, that’s exactly what you should be doing now as the weather gets gorgeous-ier, the budding flowers and blooming trees freshen up our stale city air, the skirts get shorter, the legs get longer(did we mention that last week?), and all around the vibe turns to frivolity and excitement that it is outstandingly, exhilaratingly, finally springtime. New York doesn’t have any definitive harbingers of spring, even less so this year as we didn’t really have any textbook examples of winter. It’s more a social change, a group exhalation into the sparkling atmosphere that announces that we’re all ready, goddamnit. One of the most obvious social cues that we are in the full-fledged glory of May and springtime is the Five Boro Bike Tour, which just rampaged across the city yesterday.

In its thirtieth year, the Five Boro Bike Tour is a citywide ride that covers forty-two miles across Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, in that order. People ride in costumes, on track bikes (we hear those fixed gears are all the rage nowadays), with boom boxes strapped to their backs. We’ve seen tandems, tall bikes, tall tandems! We even once saw a wedding party, bridge, groom, maids and guests of honor, all on tuxedos, all on bicycles. It was badass. People really get into the Five Boro.

It starts at Battery Park and carves its way up through the canyons of Midtown, into Central Park, up through Harlem, then over the 145th Street Bridge into SoBro (the South Bronx, of course). With less than a mile clocked in the only borough attached to the mainland of America, the ride continues back to Manhattan over the Third Avenue Bridge, and down the FDR Drive towards the Queensboro. One of the greatest thrills of the Five Boro is that it allows you to ride over bridges and highways where bikes aren’t allowed — even on those unruly Critical Mass rides.

Over the QB and up through industrial Long Island City and past the Socrates Sculpture Park into bucolic Astoria, filled to the brim with families, elevated trains and hipsters wishing they were a) living in Williamsburg; b) fit and un-ironic enough to bike forty-two miles in one day. Back down through Queens and over the Pulaski Bridge to Brooklyn, where the route zigs through Williamsburgs of the Hipster, Hispanic and Hasidic variety. Up there with the glory of biking down the FDR is the stretch of the ride through Hasid-land on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, where it seems as if every Hasidic family is out on the sidewalks, cheering and waving and shouting at the phalanx of bicyclists zooming through their normally staid neighborhood.

Once the cyclists have conquered Hasid-land, it’s down through the Navy Yard and DUMBO, and then over the Gowanus Expressway and the BQE — as thrilling as the ride along the FDR. The BQE takes the group up to and over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world when completed in 1964 — so long that the tops of the towers are a few feet farther apart than the bottom, because the curvature of the earth had to be taken into account when the bridge was built. This part of the ride is always a bitch, because the bridge is so long, and the incline so infinitesimally incremental, that it feels as if one is biking across the bridge in perpetuity, forever. The crowds of over 30,000 people on bikes can both help, as psychic reassurance, as well as hurt: so many bikes! So easy to crash and cause a pileup! However, once your tired little legs have pushed you over the crest of the Verrazano, you’ve never been happier to see Staten Island, and the finish line. Forty-two miles, five boroughs, 30,000-plus bicycles, all getting home on the Staten Island Ferry. But not us. We didn’t ride this year — had too many tours to give and we were just too damn tired. Ce la vie!

04/25/07 12:00am

In case you’ve been living wrapped up in a web for the last few months, there’s been a bit of Spidermania going on around town, as we brace for the arrival of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. Vinyl banners hung from lampposts declare this to be “Spider-Man Week” for New York City. A preposterous collection of retail shops are all clamoring for a chance to cash in on the endless cross-marketing blitz of Spider-Man Week. Any redheads out there? Stop by Supercuts to take advantage of their “special surprises” to the genetic sisters of Mary Jane Watson. Feel like exploring the gorgeous gardens of the Bronx at the New York Botanical? Learn how to pot a baby spider plant and what webs are built out of. At least they’ve got the right kind of equipment at the Chelsea Piers Rock Climbing Wall so one doesn’t have to depend upon homemade web slingers, which aren’t always that reliable. All this for a hometown hero that was an average kid, growing up in Queens . . .

Everyone knows the basic gist of the spider-saga. When we meet teenage geek Peter Parker, we know that his parents are mysteriously deceased and that Peter lives with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben in a quaint clapboard house in Forest Hills, Queens. One day while on a school trip, Pete gets bitten by a radioactive spider and the rest is web-slinging history.

One of the truly remarkable facts regarding Spider-Man is that, from his creation by Stan Lee, in August of 1962, Spidey was always intended to be a product of New York City. No other major comic book hero was grounded in such a geographical definitive. Superman’s Metropolis was intended as a New York City mixed in with Chicago and stuck in the Deco 1920s. Batman’s badass Gotham City was drawn the nadir of New York in the deep, dark 1970s, but amplified, exacerbated, overwhelmed with awfulness (or at least it was after Frank Miller and Tim Burton got their hands on it). But Peter Parker and his supporting cast live, work, breathe and fight crime right in our own city. So when Sam Raimi (of Evil Dead genius) started filming the Spider-Man trilogy, it only made perfect sense to shoot on location. In case you were wondering . . .

  •  The Daily Bugle is located in the world-famous Flatiron Building, Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street.
  • Harry Osborne, son of the Green Goblin (and future Goblin himself) lives in Beekman Towers, a magnificent Art Deco complex at First Avenue and 49th Street.
  •  While Peter and Harry are still students at NYU, they live in a preposterously magnificent loft on Broadway at Waverly Place, across the street from the Tisch school of the arts.
  • Uncle Ben gets shot right in front of the Main Branch of the New York City Public Library at 42nd Street.

Now, to attempt some basic intellectualizing for this week’s column, instead of just glossing over the basic filmed-in-New-York claptrap, we visited the American Museum of Natural History to see some real live spiders and inquire about Peter Parker’s superhuman abilities: for instance, do spiders have a real live Spidey-sense? Not in any capacity, no. But the Pinkfoot Birdeater Tarantulas from Venezuela were covered in tiny fibrous hairs that acted as ultra-sensory nodes to help the arachnid find its way around a darkened rainforest. Not unlike trying to make your way through a darkened movie theater without stepping on toes, really. Enjoy the opening weekend, everyone!

04/25/07 12:00am

According to certain anonymous, high-ranking league sources, the NFL draft is actually just a bunch of middle-aged men talking on the telephone. League insiders whisper that there are other, better things to do with an early spring Saturday than wait around for seven excruciating hours for the first two rounds of this thing to unfold.

A spate of late-breaking rumors suggests that I actually have no idea who most of the major draft prospects are! This despite having watched something on the balance of eighteen total hours of ESPN draft specials over the course of the previous three weeks.

And yet 24 hours from now, there I will be, sprawled in mock Roman splendor on Pete Hoffman’s sofa for the fifteenth consecutive year, watching the NFL Commissioner read young men’s names off of large index cards. Thus we return again to one of the sports world’s most peculiar modern rituals.  

This is all part and parcel of the waxing and waning, the enhancement and diminishment which characterizes the way our fandom acts upon us. Sometimes we are led to witness spectacles of surprising courage, talent and bravery — say Muhammed Ali defeating George Foreman in Zaire. Other times our compulsion makes us watch things like this draft, which is essentially a telethon minus entertainment and pledges.

The elevation of the draft into a privileged place in the consciousness of such a large number of sports fans is perhaps the single greatest representational display of the NFL’s awesomely formidable marketing arm. To say that the scouting process for this draft is something of a pseudo-science is to gravely insult the many honorable practitioners of astrology, dowsing and general witchcraft. 

I have said it before in this column, and I will reiterate it now: the vast majority of highly respected NFL "personnel experts" are in point of fact nothing more than unusually well-paid gym teachers. Consensus positions on the potential for players to succeed as professionals are reached gradually and by dint of a strange cabal of General Mangers, journalists, and "Draft Experts" with no apparent secondary connection to sports at all. These opinions are teased and tortured out at massive expense and are completely and utterly wrong an astonishing amount of the time.

Take, for instance, the 2000 draft, a cursory glance at which reveals that three of the top four players chosen are no longer playing in the league. Meanwhile, Tom Brady, the 199th pick overall that year, is as we all know on a very short list of anyone’s greatest players of his generation. Consider: this was not one team making this mistake one time — like the Portland Trailblazers selecting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan — this was 32 teams experiencing this ridiculous oversight repeatedly.  Were it an isolated occurrence, it might merely make for an amusing anecdote. But basically this happens every single year. Given their track record for jaw-slackening incompetence, it is startling that none of the major decision makers in NFL draft circles have yet been given a war planning position in the Bush administration.

Bearing in mind the essential silliness of the entire occasion, what then makes this event actually watchable? As I reflect on this matter, I recognize that there was a time in my life where I actually did not think it was something you actually looked at on television. What possible reason could there have been to do that? It seemed like the Major League Baseball draft — I didn’t really know any of the players anyway, so best to let my team of choice pick who they were going to pick anyway, and then catch up with it in the papers the following day. Around the early 90s, something crucial happened to alter this phenomenon. I do not know exactly what confluence of canny marketing and fevered desire to experience at least some flavor of the NFL 365 days a year combined to suddenly cause me to purchase draft guides and lie awake at night pondering trade scenarios and potential late-round steals, but by 1995 I had manifested many of the obsessive ticks that one commonly associates with the most delinquent hobbyists.

This worrying trend culminated in 2001, when the failure of my preferred pro franchise to capitalize on the opportunity to steal a potential sixth round bargain from West Texas State sent me into a beleagured and sleepless two-week depression. Following the intervention I recognized that I had grown too attached to the draft process altogether — but was it really necessary to hit rock bottom in the first place?

I am not the only one who has been sucked into this treacherous web either. Just check the countless 200 page "Draft Guides" that begin clustering newsstands and supermarket magazine racks as early as January. ESPN’s first day draft coverage routinely draws huge ratings each year, outdrawing the NBA playoffs by 5 to 1 in terms of viewership. Over the past several months, I have found myself in coffee shops and corner bars discussing the possibility of the Raiders trading out of the #1 slot or whether Cleveland will draft a quarterback at #3 — and I don’t even LIKE these teams. I don’t care. I wouldn’t want to have to watch them play. Many if not most of these draft prospects will never appear on my radar screen again! So what exactly is going on here?!

 No telling with any certainty, but if the emergence of this phenomenon has a patron saint it is certainly the surpassingly strange, helmet-headed oddball Mel Kiper, Jr. As the Coen Brothers famously observed in The Big Lebowski: Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. Kiper’s emergence in the mid-1980s as a self-appointed “Draft Guru” with no experience as a player or an official scout so flabbergasted the cloistered community of league insiders that they have often be moved to rage against his insolence. The oddly brash and even indignant tone with which he defends his “player projections” on ESPN’s draft day coverage has frequently grated on the nerves of tense GMs, who never can quite figure out what the man is doing there in the first place. This has periodically led to some delightfully tense television, as in 1994 when former Colts GM Bill Tobin famously lashed out against him:
"We got a guy up here … and who in the hell is Mel Kiper, anyway? I mean, here’s a guy who criticizes everybody, whoever they take. He’s got the answers to who you should take, to who you shouldn’t take. He tells us about your team. He tells us about the Rams. He tells us about Tampa and everything else. In my knowledge of him, he’s never even put on a jockstrap, he’s never been a player, he’s never been a coach, he’s never been a scout, he’s never been an administrator, and all of a sudden, he’s an expert. He’s in our paper two days ago, telling us who we have to take. We don’t have to take anybody that Mel Kiper says we have to take. Mel Kiper has no more credentials to do what he’s doing than my neighbor, and my neighbor’s a postman and he doesn’t even have season tickets to the NFL."

Inadvertently, during his tirade, it would seem that Tobin has gotten to the essence of the NFL draft as popular phenomenon. There is nothing factually inaccurate about his remarks — Kiper is utterly unqualified by any traditional standard — but the fact remains that he is correct roughly as often as the teams he criticizes, and arguably has a better track record than most. In the wake of the cottage industry he created, other strange and unaccountable types emerged to make a living second-guessing the appointed experts.
These men stand as a kind of proxy for fans themselves, co-mingling with ex-players on endless draft preview shows, conjecturing wildly about things they could never ever know, abetted by the recognition that they are likely to be as correct as anybody else.

On draft day itself the entire carnival atmosphere comes together completely. The panelists and gurus co-mingle with the more outgoing, publicity-minded front-office types like Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who is filmed busily engaged in who knows what in his “War Room.” The picks are read by the commissioner with such ceremonial gravity that one cannot help but feel they are witnessing history on a grand scale. The surprise moves up and down the draft board and other machinations (which are rarely actually very surprising) are received by the assembled audience and panelists with wide-eyed shock and amazement. Chris Berman sounds like a man very much on the brink of losing control when inevitable he intones: “I think we have our first trade of the day!” Hours pass. It’s suddenly dark outside. ESPN and the NFL have created a wholly synthetic enterprise of negligible consequence and turned it into a mainstream amusement and powerful revenue generator. Talk about your witchery! What will they do this with next: jury duty?