08/03/2009 4:00 AM |

Things got a little weird at the Proven System offices last week, as they will in the heat of summer. A few internal memos were misplaced, some wires were crossed, and at least one key staffer was found unconscious on a park bench in Staten Island, wearing only a mall-purchased tee shirt with the inscription “Bye Hater!” emblazoned across the front.

It was obviously a strange situation — one which left us with our guard down — with the ultimate result that the System was briefly infiltrated by a dissident Yankee sympathizer, anxious to spread his particularly persuasive brand of propaganda. This development was followed by a rigorous “scrubbing” or debugging of the entire campus, which was closed to all but those possessing the highest possible clearance levels. Even those personnel were thoroughly frisked and interrogated. The situation is now under control, and as a corrective, equal-time oriented measure, we now provide the expert Yankees commentary of the brilliant Phil Sheridan, the long-time, highly distinguished sports columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In the interest of total fairness — always a benchmark for the Proven System ethic — I will ask him to respond to the exact same questions so adroitly massaged by Comrade Nelson last week.

Proven System: Are the Yankees, as some have suggested, emblematic of all that is sinister, bloated and excessive in American life? How do we grade the achievements of a team with their payroll and resources, against those of say, the Twins or Angels?

Phil Sheridan: I recently started a column thus: “The New York Yankees are everything that’s wrong with America.” (Or close to that). So you can guess where I come down on the first issue. I was writing in response to the enormous, market-busting contracts for Sabathia and Teixeira. I received a lot of unpleasant correspondence from fans of the Yankees. The more coherent of them argued that the Yankees had cleared a lot of salary from their payroll and weren’t adding that much in total, and/or that the Yankees had an obligation to use all their considerable resources to try to win. Both of these arguments have merits but were beside the point I was trying to make.

07/27/2009 4:00 AM |

For all of us who are excited to a vaguely disturbing extent by the misfortune of the Yankees, 2009 began with immense promise. The A-Rod scandal and injury was followed by poor play and a general malaise at the new stadium, which was gimmicky and frequently not filled to capacity. As they hemorrhaged game after game to the rival Red Sox, it appeared that the franchise was indeed in a kind of serious spiral — misjudgment after misjudgment finally catching up with them, a pending purgatory of ten years or more out of contention seemed plausible. And then… it all turned around. A-Rod came back and began pounding home runs with impunity. The annual “can’t miss” free agent bonanza consisting of pitcher CC Sabathia and slugging first basemen Mark Teixeira came around following a poor start, and suddenly it seemed they couldn’t lose.

The Yankees have, as of this writing, won nine of their last ten games and established a 2 1/2 game lead in the AL East. It would seem that they cannot be simply wished away. And so, in the burnished spirit of community and tolerance which is the very hallmark of the Proven System, we will now engage in a journey of mutual understanding. For the remainder of the season, Yankees fans will be periodically invited to explain their strange proclivities, the better that we can understand, and perhaps, eventually, accept them. First up: Michael Patrick Nelson, Managing Editor of the Long Island Press and perversely devoted Yankees obsessive. Behold, with wonderment, his unorthodox reality:

Proven System: Are the Yankees, as some have suggested, emblematic of all that is sinister, bloated and excessive in American life? How do we grade the achievements of a team with their payroll and resources, against those of say, the Twins or Angels?

Mike Nelson: You know, I’m not sure the two parts of this question are really directly related. However, rather than get tangled in semantics or intent, I’ll address both halves separately. With regard to (A), I don’t believe that’s entirely accurate; when I think of America’s bloated excess, I think of suburban sprawl, fast food, junk culture, SUVs lined up in morning traffic… in short, I think of the Dallas Cowboys. However, I do like the image of the Yankees as “sinister:” sly, dashing villains with unholy might and devilish powers of persuasion and seduction. As far as (B) goes, the only scale on which we can grade the Yankees is the same scale on which we grade every other Major League club, i.e., the standings. The common misconception is that money should buy the best players, but in today’s baseball landscape, that’s not necessarily true: Money buys the best free agents, but once players have reached free agency, they are typically either at their exact peak or past their peak, and therefore, should have nowhere to go but down. The Yankees’ money primarily allows them the following advantages: (1) it gives them freedom to take on other teams’ unwieldy contracts (think Bobby Abreu from a few years back) and eat their own bad contracts (e.g., Kei Igawa, Carl Pavano); (2) it permits them to keep their own stars and attract the top free agents, and then, (3) it gives them some leeway to eat THOSE contracts once they go bad. At best, the Yankees’ money helps to keep them competitive on a consistent basis, and should result in a greater win-loss record over multiple seasons (which it has), but it doesn’t make them prohibitive favorites in any individual season.

07/17/2009 4:00 AM |

Suddenly, sportswriting is like the funeral beat. Every time I look up, another athlete I used to love has gone and left the building. It’s a queasy feeling. Alexis Arguello, Arturo Gatti and Steve McNair — all departed under startling, sudden, noir-ish circumstances. All were performers of exceptional, almost irrational, courage. Maybe if I can get through the obituaries, an actual game will break out somewhere, and I can write about that.

So here goes:

Arguello was a rare specimen of athletic beauty and elegance — a kind of junior lightweight Clark Gable. During the 70s and 80s he was a dominant presence in boxing, a brilliant and subtle tactician who is nevertheless best known for some of the most violent brawls in the history of the sport. Arguello’s late-round knockouts over Rubén Olivares, Alfredo Esclara and Boom Boom Mancini are a part of the fight game’s poetic lore, commemorated in song by the likes of Warren Zevon. When Arguello finally bit off more than he could chew against the bigger, younger Aaron Pryor in 1982, he nevertheless fought magnificently, succumbing in the 14th round only after Pryor battered him unconscious with a terrifying fuselage of unanswered punches. Following the fight — which is widely acknowledged as one of the best in history — Arguello lay unconscious for several minutes. Doctors and cornermen worked frantically to revive him. Had Arguello never regained consciousness — the knockout was amongst the most brutal in recorded history — the final images of him would have been as an astonishingly beautiful man, laying in resolutely dignified repose. He was one of those people that could collapse like a demolished building and make it appear intentional. He was effortlessly artful.

Artful, on the other hand, is not a term anyone would ever think to ascribe to Arturo Gatti.

Gatti was a fighter of significant physical gifts, who simply could not resist a Pyrrhic bloodbath. Many times he would willfully neglect his own advantages in speed and size in order to trade the maximum number of punches with lesser athletes that he could have easily outboxed. He never appeared angry. It always seemed like he enjoyed being punched.

This fearful compulsion manifested itself most famously during Gatti’s three legendarily savage brawls with the club fighter Micky Ward in the early 2000s. The contests were maniacal acts of mutual abuse, which occurred only because Gatti allowed them to happen. By far the faster and more skilled fighter, he could have easily beaten Ward from a distance. Instead, Gatti walked right towards him time and again. What evolved over the course of the three fights was a strangely intimate pairing between two kindred warriors. In fact, something weird began to occur, a vaguely S&M vibe. As they pounded one another mercilessly, Gatti and Ward stopped to grin and hug between — and even during — rounds. The ringside crowds were understandably driven to pandemonium by the spectacle. It was exhilarating, unseemly, and almost impossible to turn away from.

Most of Gatti’s fights provided action on this scale and his reliable penchant for in-ring mayhem earned him a large and fiercely devoted cult following. For better or worse, his career can be seen as a portent of the Mixed Martial Arts phenomenon, in which any fight that does not end in a spectacular act of violence is considered a failure.

Steve McNair was not the best quarterback of his generation, but he was pretty great — a near Hall Of Famer who could beat you singlehandedly running or throwing. But what McNair was best known for was his stoicism in the face of extreme pain and even serious injury. The reaction to his death by close friends like long time fellow Tennessee Titan Derek Mason was, “What I have seen him play through on the field, and what he dealt with during the week to get ready for a game, I have never known a better teammate.” And this is what you heard constantly from his former coaches and teammates in the time following McNair’s startling demise. The stalwart way in which he would suffer through anything short of a crippling or even life-threatening injury is what defined him as a leader. McNair was praised as other things as well — polite, generous, intelligent and community-oriented. But should one ever forget that the coin of the realm for NFL greatness consists of a willingness to suffer through nearly unimaginable, lifelong physical hardships — well, you couldn’t forget it after reading about McNair.

As regards the startlingly strange and disturbing cases that put all three to rest, I haven’t much to offer. In Arguello’s case, his iconic status in his native Nicaragua led to his being elected to political office as both a right-wing apparatchik and later a socialist Sandinista. He was an apparent suicide, shot through the heart, although he was currently serving as mayor of Managua, and some have intimated rumors of political assassination or other foul play.
McNair, we now know, was the victim of a terrible murder/suicide perpetrated by his too-young mistress, who had apparently interpreted McNair’s unwillingness to leave his wife as the final straw of existence. This seems particularly sad and avoidable to me. We’ve all been 20 years old and in love, which essentially equates to psychopathy. Something should probably be said about the ability of this clearly unstable woman to attain a handgun two days after she had just been arrested for DWI, but that political argument is now over in this country. Everyone gets a gun.

Gatti’s case is, perhaps appropriately, strangest of all. Strangled apparently, by the purse strings of his tempestuous wife in a Brazilian hotel, although of course no definitive explanation has yet been found.

These gifted men could be described without insult, as individuals for whom brinksmanship was a way of life. Did the frequent recklessness they displayed in their respective sports — that recklessness for which they were cheered and compensated — somehow portend their early demise? Is it fair to even consider such an extrapolation?

Maybe it is more interesting to ask what we as fans expect. For years we have gloried in the small deaths and illusory imperviousness of these athletes who laugh in the face of the fiercest abuse. Now they are all gone. I have no answers. Maybe it is all a terrible coincidence. So, I guess, let’s get back to sports.

07/08/2009 4:00 AM |

Like many suburban American youths growing up in the 1980s, I played a great deal of league soccer. I didn’t play especially well, but I did so adamantly and for many years. During this era, the always embarrassing notion of American Exceptionalism had metastasized into something like an implacable psychosis. This was Reagan’s “Morning in America.” Real life events like the “Miracle on Ice” co-mingled with anti-Soviet Hollywood propaganda like Red Dawn and Rocky IV. Robust jingoism lurched towards incoherent madness. Soon we were all pretty well convinced that our country would never be defeated in anything again, ever. Alongside this attitude evolved a belief that the ever expanding popularity of youth soccer in America portended an imminent emergence as the sport’s major global force.

The problem, however, was that America really did suck at soccer. The sport was always (at best) fourth choice for the most elite homegrown athletes, behind baseball, football and basketball. Resultantly, we found ourselves decades behind nearly every developed nation from Belarus to the Sudan. We had no tradition and no professional infrastructure. Nascent attempts at homegrown leagues like the NASL floundered and failed. Fine players emerged from US colleges and then left to compete in Europe. There was no continuity or culture to American soccer, and the hoped-for emergence as perennial world power never occurred. Instead the up-and-down, crazy-quilt performance of the US Men’s soccer team over the past two decades has been hard to read, both enigmatic and chimerical. Every time they seem close, they are far off again.

To wit, our World Cup results the past twenty years:

1990: We are blitzkrieged. Humiliated. Three matches lost by an aggregate 9-2 score. In the opening match, we lose 5-1 to Czechoslovakia, a country which will soon cease to even exist as a global entity.

1994: Matters improv” dramatically. We stun the 4th-ranked Colombian team and advance for the first time ever to the so called ‘Knockout round.” The run is ended by an eminently defensible 1-0 loss to eventual champion Brazil, but the promise of future domination is in evidence.

1998: Mortification on a nearly unparalleled scale. Cringing losses to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia reveal the team to be feckless, toothless and non-competitive. We finish 32nd out of 32 teams.

2002: Another swing towards excellence. Spectacular wins over Portugal and Mexico, and a tie with host South Korea propel the US into the quarterfinals. Although eliminated 1-0 by traditional power Germany, there is general unanimity that we have arrived.

2006: Disaster anew. Slapped down with impunity by the now Czech Republic 3-0, a white-knuckle 1-1 draw with eventual champ Italy, and then a jaw-slackening knockout loss to Ghana.

Anyway, this is not the sort of immediate gratification I have been conditioned to expect and enjoy. I can accept losing, but I don’t want to finish 32nd out of 32. I think I have one more World Cup in me, but if we are non-competitive, then I will rededicate that portion of my emotional bandwidth to various rooting interests I have developed in the sport of professional lumberjacking.

However, the results of last month’s Confederations Cup — a kind of World Cup preview — have thickened the plot once again. The US team made the finals, defeating world #1 Spain in the process, and then very nearly stunned Brazil in the final, squandering a two-goal lead in the second half. The second half collapse was disappointing, but overall the display of American prowess set the soccer establishment abuzz. Once again, it appears possible that a full scale breakthrough is imminent. On the other hand, maybe we will just immediately be stomped 11-1 by some iteration of Czechoslovakia. Is one to look forward to the 2010 World Cup with dread skepticism or inflated self-regard?

06/24/2009 4:00 AM |

It was not a golf tournament, it was a whaling expedition. For the bulk of three days we simply watched a pitiless June rain piss on 156 brave and understandably cheerless mariners as they slogged through a fascistic, endlessly recycling weather apparatus. With clockwork efficiency, the precipitation seemed to know just when to commence in order to wash away every real moment of drama and momentum from the proceedings. Memorable storylines threatened to manifest themselves right up until the very conclusion, but none ever really did. Sad to say, the much-hyped US Open 2009 at Bethpage was a literal and metaphorical washout. Some reflections on major principles, and what might have been.

Tiger Woods

Although he played, by and large, exceptionally well from tee to green, Woods never really recovered from his first-day 74, in which he played the last four holes in four over par. But he never quit, continuing to play every shot as though engaged in a one-hole playoff for the very fate of mankind. This unwavering commitment to seeing every tournament through is one of the most undersold aspects of Woods’ greatness. Golfers just don’t fight this hard when they are 13 shots off the lead.

For evidence of this fact, look no further then Woods’s playing partner for the first two rounds, the Irishman Padraig Harrington. Harrington is a near-great golfer (and by all accounts a good guy) who at one point at the end of last year had won three of six majors. However, waterlogged, frustrated, and fighting both his swing and a seemingly insurmountable deficit, Harrington did what pro golfers do: he mailed in his final nine, missed the cut by a mile and flew home to get ready for the British Open. It’s not a capital crime, and arguably it’s even the smart play. But in this context it served to cast into even more bold relief Woods’ seemingly metabolic inability to believe he’s ever actually been beaten. In the end Tiger never solved the deluged greens. Had he made even half of the makeable putts he missed, he’d have won the tournament going away. In spite of it, there remains the palpable sense that he was still the greatest force of nature at Bethpage — except, of course, for nature itself.

Lucas Glover

So there is a Lucas Glover now? I did not know that. I am an avid PGA watcher, and will be the first to tell you that up until 72 hours ago I thought that Lucas Glover was once the Deputy Secretary of Defense under Casper Weinberger. Or something. Certainly I had not prefigured him as a serious contender for the US Open title. But win it he did. To his credit, the world’s 72nd ranked player outdueled some of most storied players in the game, and also another guy who I wasn’t aware played golf.

That is the thing about professional golf, for better or worse: that sometimes an absolutely anonymous and pedestrian-seeming individual triumphs in a major championship. And then, in most cases, they fade directly back into obscurity. There have been countless examples in recent memory: Todd Hamilton, Michael Campbell, Rich Beem. All have all won majors and then evaporated into the ether like a confusing dream. This really doesn’t happen in other major sports. The Toronto Argonauts, or, say, a semi-pro team from Twin Falls, Idaho NEVER win the Super Bowl. A D-League or AA Team never somehow pulls off a miracle run to the NBA or World Series championships. In golf, we get this. It’s weird, but it happens.

Phil Mickelson

The week’s emotional pulse famously centered on the perennial US Open also-ran Phil Mickelson, playing in the sad wake of his wife’s diagnosis with breast cancer. If the 2009 US Open was a whaling expedition, then Mickelson was its Ahab: an aging, scattered and slightly batty stalwart seeking the chimerical title which has long eluded him, while performing in a justifiably fraught state of mind.

Always a fan favorite, Mickelson competed amidst an overwhelming tide of sentiment from his galleries as well as the cheerful hopes of NBC’s announcing crew (presumably a display of genuine sympathy in addition to the desire for a ratings-inflating human interest story). The cameras followed Lefty’s every movement meticulously, even obsessively. We watched as he patiently glad handed passers-by and was praised as the “Arnold Palmer of his generation,” a tireless and fan-friendly ambassador to the game of golf.

Given the distractions, it was difficult to know how Mickelson would perform. And perhaps it is ultimately comforting to discover that he performed like he always does: with a dazzling array of astonishing, wizardly-shot making, befuddling strategy, and ill-timed driving and putting misadventures. Mickelson’s uniquely bi-polar game may well one day interest researchers in the field of psychiatry. Why a player so imminently capable of making consistent pars elects to dot his hieroglyphic scorecard with eagles, birdies, bogies and double bogeys seems a veritable case study in the absence of impulse control. As do the brown and white pinstripe pants he wore on Monday.

He has now finished 2nd in this tournament a record five times, and in achieving this feat, has had to take some strange measures over time in order not to win. Some of the things he’s done might cause the Doctors Freud and Jung to wonder if Mickelson does not, ultimately, feel more comfortable finishing second.

Certainly, going into the last four holes, tied for the lead against relative nobodies, Mickelson seemed to have the title well in hand. Entering into the 15th hole, the acerbic and self-aggrandizing, but inarguably expert commentator Johnny Miller remarked, “I think if Mickelson somehow pars this hole, he is the US Open champion.” Miller’s calculation seemed right, but Mickelson promptly made an ill-judged bogey. Again, on 17, a bad miss on a short par save dropped him back another stroke, to the groans of his devoted cheering section. From his expression, Mickelson knew he had just handed the tournament to a far lesser player, and not for the first time.

But Mickelson was still the best thing about the week that wasn’t. He seems, at times, more Action Painter then golfer. And lonely, heartsick and sequestered on Jackson Pollock’s island, his artful failure provided a modicum of catharsis, in what was otherwise a Weather Channel program posing as sports: Golfus Interruptus.

06/19/2009 1:00 PM |

I have, over a period of many years, developed a devastatingly well honed and impeccably reasoned bias against certainly athletes. In some ways my ‘enemies list’ is equally or even more important then my passionate rooting interests. The Robespierre-like fear that is engendered in major athletes when they get on my bad side (I assume they feel this) is only too understandable.

When, for instance, I inveigh against Brett Favre or A-Rod, I detonate truth bombs of massive strategic scale and ordinance. All the casual observer can do is grab a hardhat and duck — maybe the courageous might glance cautiously out of the corner of their eye in order to catch a glimpse of the rhetorical pyrotechnics. You could say, I guess, that I am the most feared man in sports.

The only trouble occurs when I turn out to be wrong. That happens roughly 40 to 70 percent of the time depending on your reading and occasionally requires a kind of ignoble backtracking.

This was such a week. I have never cared for Kobe Bryant. The charges are many: I’ve always hated his constant scowling. I was suspicious of his role in breaking up the Lakers championship triumvirate of himself, O’Neil and Phil Jackson. After winning three titles in four years, it all seemed terribly hubristic. I didn’t like scoring 80 points in a regular season game. What, precisely, did that prove? I didn’t like the abuse of teammates in a public forum. I thought they folded in the last year‘s finals against the Celtics. I felt he was very much incapable of winning a championship without the help of a legendary player along the lines of Shaquille O’Neil at his side.

Yes, I have always pegged Kobe for a numbers hanger and megalomaniac.

Turns out that he is a megalomaniac and a prodigious winner. Many great athletes have a strain of pathological vanity — but not until this championship run has it ever been clear that Kobe’s less attractive attributes had any direct relationship to winning. Now this link has been indisputably established and I have been demonstrated to be that much dumber. Everything is as it should be and nature continues apace.

But what of the Phil Mickelson Problem?

Phil Mickelson has always represented to me the apex of everything I loathe — a privileged country club kid who grows up to be a massive but underachieving talent in the sport of golf. A man who, despite the relatively mediocre return on his staggering physical ability, has accrued a ridiculously loyal fan base of similarly entitled rich, white people. During the rise of George W. Bush and its attendant global debacle, Mickelson’s very presence on a television screen was enough to move me to apoplexy. He seemed the perfect sporting analog to the president who had been born into a position of power, and failed upwards ever since. The faux ‘every man’ populism with which Mickelson cloaked his occasional successes and more frequent failures felt veritably interchangeable with that of Bush.

There was a period, as recent as the last eight or ten years, when more than a whiff of “Great White Hope”-style sentiment emanated from the huge and boisterous galleries which routinely mobbed Mickelson. In many corners of the golf establishment, a near desperate hope emerged that Mickelson could somehow seriously challenge Tiger Woods’ preeminence. In too many instances, this was tinged with an unpleasant subtext, suggesting that Mickelson and not Woods best represented golf’s true constituencies and traditions.

But Bush is gone now and Mickelson somehow seems different too. There is no longer any serious comparison between the two players. As Woods raced to an astonishing fourteen career majors by age 33, his legend grew from titanic to world historic. His professional genius and impeccable public demeanor became harbingers of the multi-cultural wave about to sweep the country.

Mickelson, in the meantime, evolved into a sort of amusing and feckless foil. And that is something he is really good at! He is really feckless and really funny. Poor decision making in big spots has become a kind of personal trademark. Mickelson’s penchant for high pressure melt downs reached a cringe-worthy apotheosis at the 2006 US Open, when an incomprehensible double bogey on the final hole cost him a sure victory. For whatever reason, he wears this sort of screw up extremely well.

“I still am in shock that I did that. I just can’t believe that I did that. I am such an idiot,” Mickelson mused candidly at the press conference following the Winged Foot catastrophe. The quote was strangely charming — it struck an appealing balance between understandable disappointment and genuine wonderment at his lack of mental acuity. He has in subsequent circumstances taken to shortening his explanations to “I am dumb.” Soon he will begin every press conference by breaking into “If I Only Had A Brain”. During the last day of the Masters, Mickelson’s standard array of comically avoidable mental errors — which cost him the tournament amidst the round of his life on Sunday — struck me as downright endearing. This sympathy was perhaps a pre-cognition of the terrible news of his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, which is something that no man would ever wish on another.

Now, as Mickelson competes at the US Open this weekend, he is, for once, a justified sentimental favorite. I am given to thoughts of how much fundamental diversion he has brought into my life in both of his incarnations, and how happy I am that he will be out there making jaw droppingly insane decisions at all the perfectly ill-timed moments. It seems wrong to root against him with anything like my customary vigor, and I wouldn‘t even be that sad if he won. In 2003, Mickelson winning the US Open would have driven me to a Nietzsche-ian despair.

In a sense, they are oppositional stories. Kobe remade his legacy by winning big, while Mickelson has never seemed more appealing in the role of a dopey, loopy loser.

06/10/2009 4:00 AM |

Randall David Johnson. The great, dominant left hander who just became what might be the last 300 game winner in Major League Baseball for decades to come. A genuine wonder of weird nature, physically and temperamentally. How to put a fine point on his uniqueness? He is the Hall Of Fame ace on a pitching staff curated by David Lynch. A 6’10” living, breathing Tom Waits song. At age 45 it is hard to know how much more we will ever see of this incredibly strange force, and so we should all take a moment to consider just what we’ve beheld.

A man does not enter causally into a willful and accepting relationship with the nickname ‘The Big Unit’. It’s an odd thing to call yourself. Vaguely threatening, slightly lascivious. To quote the classic film: “That’s a name no man would self-apply where I come from.” Should you assume this nickname, you should be a big man, and a tough one. You should have a mustache and a mullet and throw a hundred miles an hour. The Big Unit has done all that, and more.

But consider the layers! ‘Randy Johnson’ ITSELF is a strong name. Let’s not kid ourselves: it’s a porn name. If you are born Randall Johnson, you can go a couple of different ways. You can STAY Randall Johnson, which sounds like a Promise Keeper. Or you can take it up a notch and become Randy Johnson, filed in the Book of Life someplace between Harry Reams and Haywood Jablomi. The Big Unit made the correct decision, and we can all be grateful for it.

My first happy memories of the Big Unit date to his early days in the league when he couldn’t find home plate with a GPS and a Predator Drone. His wildness was both comedic and frightening. Power pitchers like Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan have long wielded menace and intimidation as tools of the trade, but none has ever conferred quite the sense of full-scale Russian Roulette as the early Unit. In those days, a penchant for walks and wild pitches meant he was not especially effective in the sense of winning games. He would do things like give up four runs on one hit with ten walks. But the spectacle was already dazzling. In any context other than baseball, a man hurling a hard projectile so carelessly at lethal speed in the direction of another would be charged with felony assault. In baseball this made him a most an intriguing project.

And what a finished product he became! When the behemoth finally found his control, it was as though a mythic terror had shook the very foundations of the cosmos. He was a Grendel-like figure, especially notable for his meanness. He threw over John Kruk’s head in the 1993 All-Star Game. Kruk responded by offering meagerly at three additional fastballs and then running away. He evolved a cruel and malevolent manner on the mound — seeming at times nearly bi-polar crazy in his rage-tinged celebrations. He inadvertently (apparently inadvertently) murdered a bird which flew regrettably into the pathway of an oncoming fastball, emphatically answering the seeming imponderable, “I wonder what would happen if a bird flew into Randy Johnson’s fastball?”

As he awed follow competitors and scared little children into screaming night terrors, he also won at a tremendous rate. Along with Ken Griffey Jr., Johnson elevated the tragic Seattle Mariners to contender status. He was awarded five Cy Youngs and pitched a perfect game. His four-year run with the Arizona Diamondbacks, including a World Series title, deserve clear consideration alongside the best of Sandy Koufax.

When, inevitably, he was brought in as the latest ransomed savior of the New York Yankees, the Big Unit seemed to have no conception of the media hellscape to which he was consigning himself. New York is not Phoenix or Seattle, but somehow he seemed to be caught unaware and emphasized his ignorance on by roughing up a particularly officious Daily News cameraman photographer as he ambled down Madison Avenue. The incident cast a dour pall over his year in New York, and though he pitched well, both sides were happy to part company by season’s end. Always there was the sense that maybe it wasn’t quite safe to loose the man on the metropolis.

It is, I suppose, inevitable in the case of a pitcher who won more games in his forties then in his twenties to raise the question of performance enhancing drugs. I have no idea if Johnson ever did steroids. In a recent Sports Illustrated profile, he was amusingly coy: “I dabbled in all kinds of powders and tried to put weight on” and “I’m not denying that I went to GNC and all that stuff. I took a lot of different things that, you know, maybe at that time, maybe early enough, if I would have been tested, who knows?” Not what one would call an iron-clad denial, but anyway it makes no difference to me.

In the 80s and 90s, baseball was overrun with pharmaceutically enhanced circus freaks. In his preposterously inflated heyday, Mark McGwire looked like a grotesque Macy’s Day balloon. But it was all an illusion — just smoke and mirrors, special effects. Before McGwire got batshit on chemicals, he was just another power hitter breaking down professionally at the same rate as Gorman Thomas — a bad back and failing bat speed. Randy Johnson was never a character like that. He was always a genuine marvel even when he didn‘t have any idea what he was doing.

I don’t know if Johnson is a good guy or a great villain. I don’t know if he’s the kind of person you’d want to have over for dinner — he seems like he might snort ants and bite your dog. All I know is that he has been more fun to watch then nearly every one of his contemporaries and I will miss him when he’s gone. The entire thing has been creepy and awesome, and we won’t see the like of it again.

06/06/2009 4:00 AM |

Sports have a way of creating and then destroying the veneer of infallibility. It’s peculiar how the cycle repeats itself.

To begin with, very few great athletes ever walk away in their prime. Jim Brown did. Barry Sanders did, if you consider him truly great. A few others — Marciano, Clemente — died tragically before the picture of their decline was allowed to come fully into view.

But in the main — almost to a one — our athletic icons linger before us and wilt. Witnessing them in the full bloom of their talent, they appear fixed forever in a state of animated wonder. And no matter how many times we see our greatest champions dissipate with age, there is always a tendency to react with surprise. Maybe it isn’t really surprise, but a sort of human vanity in masquerade. Watching the beauty of youth devolve into something coarse and vulnerable represents an affront to our deepest desires for ourselves. Maybe it is even a manifestation of sheer mortal anxiety. Whether we root for the individual in question or not, witnessing an exemplar of physical greatness erode into something far more commonplace tends to be disturbing.

In the past eighteen months, Roger Federer has become a textbook instance of this phenomenon.

As recently as 2007, Federer was regarded by tennis intelligentsia and the general public alike as perhaps the finest player ever to have lived. So fabled were his skills, so elegant and seemingly effortless was his manner on the court that he seemed at times to have metabolically altered the entire sport. He overpowered and out-thought opponents. He curved and shaped unreturnable ground strokes in an illusory manner, like magic tricks. No less an admirer than David Foster Wallace remarked in an insightful appreciation published in the New York Times: “he appears to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws.”

The sheer physical beauty of Federer’s peak game provided, for a time, the impression of unassailable perfection. He was ranked #1 in the world for 237 consecutive weeks and his procession to the top of every meaningful standard of tennis greatness was considered a mere formality. But, inevitably, Federer’s long run of greatness took a turn.

When the then teenaged Rafael Nadal began routinely defeating Federer in the mid 2000’s, it was regarded at first as a sort of curiosity. So thorough was Federer’s dominance over his various other rivals that his persistent struggles with the powerful and resourceful young Spaniard felt like little more than an intriguing sidelight. It seemed that maybe there was some tic or gimmick that Nadal was using to get over on Federer, and that the great champion would figure it out soon enough and proceed to restore order. Over time, however, it was apparent that something far more significant was happening. Nadal was exposing real vulnerabilities in Federer’s game and placing real doubts in his mind. Nothing of Federer’s peculiar wizardry seemed to intimidate or even impress Nadal. He bulldozed Federer on clay and hard courts, and came closer and closer to beating him on grass.

Then, in the finals of last year’s French Open, Nadal annihilated Federer. The 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 savaging belongs on a short list with the most humiliating defeats ever issued to an elite athlete near his prime.

It was deeply unpleasant to watch — even Nadal seemed uncomfortable.

When Nadal’s victory in the Wimbledon finals the following month brought an end to Federer’s streak as #1, the sense of final, exhausted acquiescence was palpable.

Much sooner than anyone ever expected, something of Roger Federer is dying.

05/27/2009 4:00 AM |

All major sports tread a thin line between earnest competition and a crass marketing exercise, but it is becoming ever more difficult to shake the feeling that the NBA is content to exist principally as a shoe commercial. No professional sports league so forcefully promotes individual personalities over the game itself, and none seems to take the architecture of their season less seriously.

To begin with, there is something inherently grotesque about the NBA regular season itself, which is insanely long and borders on meaningless. At 82 games, the entire slog is more than two and a half times the length of the college season and exponentially less satisfying. Unlike Major League Baseball, whose marathon season tends in large part to separate the weak teams from the deserving contenders, no such consequence occurs from the NBA glut. An astonishing 16 of 30 NBA teams qualify for the postseason. Middling teams frequently take measures to lose so that they can miss the playoffs and qualify for a better draft position. Something is very wrong when it’s harder to miss the postseason then to make it. If there is a credible case for this structure above and beyond a revenue grab, it is entirely elusive to me. Essentially the regular season is five months of glorified exhibitions — pump it up when you really don’t need it.

For all intents and purposes, meaningful competition in the NBA commences with the postseason, which is also tiresomely elongated. As the playoffs wind endlessly through best of seven series that could easily be best of five (or, in the fashion of the NCAA tournament, best of one) a few heavily promoted superstars are baldly cheered on by advertisers, broadcast partners, and arguably the league itself. It is at this point the marketing takes on a fevered, hard sell edge verging on the pernicious.

The three-headed marketing hydra bet its wad forcefully this year on a Lebron James-Kobe Bryant head-to-head tilt in the finals. Nike launched a series of not particularly clever commercials touting the supposed ‘dream matchup’ as essentially inevitable, while ESPN hired out Spike Lee to direct a lengthy Bryant hagiography which has aired frequently in the last week. It is an article of faith that NBA commissioner David Stern and his fellow league brass are all but praying for the Cleveland-Los Angeles finale, and ESPN/ABC color analyst Jeff Van Gundy was recently moved to declare during a broadcast that Kobe is the ’greatest Laker ever’. For Van Gundy, who has forgotten more basketball then I’ll ever know, it’s a flagrantly silly remark, almost indefensible. It’s the statement of a hired shill. The Kobe versus LeBron hype carries on at such high volume that one can easily be forgiven for mistaking the conference finals for mere preliminaries — a formality useful mainly for further building out a cult of personality revolving around the two stars.

Happily it appears that all of this may have constituted a major fuck up. Pitted against a physical, talented and resourceful Denver Nuggets team, the “greatest Laker ever” and his supporting cast look no better then even money to advance to the finals. In the meantime, the Orlando Magic are, for the most part, running James’ Cavaliers off the court, establishing a 3-2 lead going home for game six. Whatever one’s individual feelings for Bryant and James — I find Lebron genuinely likeable and Kobe utterly insufferable — the derailing of the league and Nike’s best laid plans should feel gratifying to anyone with a tendency to feel oppressed by the ceaseless marketing apparatus.

My personal “dream matchup” of Denver versus Orlando in the finals likely won’t materialize. Two upsets of this magnitude are probably a little much to hope for. But why exactly would such an outcome be so bad for the league? There are plenty of great stories and lots of spectacle with both the Nuggets and the Magic — Dwight Howard’s emergence as a dominant and charismatic big man, Chauncey Billups prodigal return to Colorado, the maturing of Carmelo Anthony under the tutelage of George Karl. But none of this will be treated with anything more then grudging interest if one of these teams deprives the league and their advertisers of the two teams they obviously want to see play in the finals.

This is the curious provincialism that infects the NBA and leads to speculation that James will soon be pressured by his sponsors to move from Cleveland to a larger market. It is all weird and unseemly. Can you imagine the NFL evincing something like outward disappointment that last year’s Super Bowl was comprised of mid-market teams and something less than Brady- and Manning-like superstars? When the small-market Steelers rampaged through the 1970s, the NFL made a virtue of what might have been a liability by promoting their unique collection of intimidating and eccentric personalities. Now you can scarcely visit a sports bar in this hemisphere on any football Sunday without being assaulted by a teeming throng of passionate and full-throated Steelers fans, all ginned up on black-clad testosterone, just looking for someone to scream at. Actually this is very upsetting when it happens. But you get the point — there is no inherent reason why small-market franchises cannot accrue a global following.

It is perfectly understandable that the NBA and Nike are anxious to mint another marketing icon along the lines of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. But individuals like Woods and Jordan are incredibly rare: prodigious winners with transcendent charisma who can very plausibly called the greatest ever in their sports. In their desperate anxiety to shoehorn Bryant or James into that level of heroic prestige, the NBA and its cudgel-like hype machine leaves the experience of the game feeling diminished. There is just something deeply unpleasant about being hectored into acknowledging a greatness that isn’t truly manifest. Like Johnny Rotten said before the final show at Winterland: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

05/22/2009 4:00 AM |

Several weeks ago, when legendary head coach and broadcaster John Madden announced his intention to walk away from the NFL following a four-decade run of nearly unprecedented success and popularity, he did so with scarcely a sound. Appearing on his on his own local radio show, he made the announcement succinctly, gracefully and without ceremony. “You know at some point you have to do this — I got to that point,” Madden said. “The thing that made it hard is that I enjoyed it so damn much.”

I wonder what, if anything, went through the mind of Brett Favre when he heard this. Did his jaw audibly crack open from incredulity? For Madden and Favre clearly have a different conception of what the term “retirement” means. Popular definition holds that the act of retiring is to “withdraw from office, business, or active life, usually because of age”. This feels like an adequate description of what Madden has done, but it does no justice to the absolute miasma of a clusterfuck that Favre has staged in last several years — a veritable Verdi opera of waffling, public crying, backroom intrigue, farewell tours, commitments and double-crosses and general weirdness on a scale typically reserved for the very most mentally unstable.

I have been hard on Favre for a long time, and I maintain that he is the most overrated major professional athlete I have ever witnessed in my time watching sports. But up until this off-season’s current iteration, I had always shrugged of his multi-year “will he or he won’t he?!” retirement narrative as garden-variety attention-seeking narcissism along the lines of Roger Clemens or Terrell Owens. No longer — I don’t know what Favre is doing anymore. This is no longer a retirement, it’s an art project. A Dadaist public freakout so strange I have been forced to go back and reconsider whether or not he might have genuinely gone Colonel Kurtz crazy. Consider the evidence:

1) He Keeps Lying

There was a time, as late as last summer, when it seemed plausible (if not entirely credible) that Favre simply didn’t know if he wanted to play or not. His remarkably histrionic retirement press conference following the end of the 2008 season certainly suggested a man fraught and torn, and the mortifying spectacle of his weeping and wailing made it difficult to imagine how he would manage the nerve to backtrack and play ever again. Well, the peculiar joke was on us, of course, and five months later he was suited up for the New York Jets. A year on, having blown his wad vis a vis an emotional farewell, Favre appears to now be resolved to toy maddeningly and senselessly with the media concerning his intentions. He gives long and earnest interviews to ESPN discussing how he has shut the door completely on a possible comeback, while simultaneous reports surface of him holding workouts in public. He texts his “friend” Trent Dilfer from NFL Live to emphatically deny any interest in playing and proceeds immediately to meet with Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress about their starting job. On and on it goes in an endless cycle of meaningless behavior. Most curious about the entire pathology is that it does Favre absolutely zero good in the short term and conceivably a fair amount of harm in the long. Always a media darling and (for whatever reason) a symbol of “authenticity”, Favre seems almost driven to recast himself as weasely, calculating and disingenuous — a dream villain for the reality show he has made of his life.

2) He Hangs Around High Schools

Brett Favre is a 39-year-old man who is not to my knowledge employed by Mississippi’s public school system. Yet every year, he pretends to retire, then he goes down to a high school in Hattiesburg and starts knocking around with the junior varsity. Depending upon one’s perspective this behavior ranges anywhere from mildly worrisome to utterly depraved. It certainly makes very little sense from a football perspective: if it his intention to lead the Vikings deep into the NFL playoffs this coming season, why is he training with children born years after he was drafted? More importantly, why does he elect to hold his media circus directly after a 6th period bell, alongside the Drill Team and Coach Hambone from Phys Ed? Whether this represents a yearning for Wooderson style L-I-V-I-N or just a general regression into what appears to be an ever more childlike state, the business is emphatically creepy. “This is Rachel Nichols reporting live from Oak Grove High,” is not a phrase we need to hear uttered on ESPN even one more time.

3) He Has A Vendetta Against The Packers

Why on Earth would Favre be so angry at his former team? The team for which he was the iconic symbol and flagship for fifteen years, who offered him an enormously lucrative personal services contract after he retired (the last time) and only refused to take him back after years of his ambivalence threatened the future of the entire franchise. Let us accept as a proposition that Favre nurses a barely defensible grudge against Packers GM Ted Thompson for not allowing him to hold the team at bay for another period of months last season. Why is he so intent on exercising his wrath by signing with the archrival Vikings, an insult so flagrantly cruel and malevolent to his former fans that it can barely be articulated?

In this matter, I defer Stephen Thompson, Wisconsin native, passionate Packers fan and current NPR staffer: “I liken the idea of Favre as a Viking to being 13 years old, having your parents split up, and finding out that your mom has decided to get back at your dad by appearing in pornos with his worst enemy – and hammering the point home by mailing the footage to each of your eighth-grade classmates,” Thompson muses. “The only people who maintain any reason to like Favre are the Packer fans who lived and died by him for a decade and a half. If he plays for the Vikings — the sole point of which, clearly, is to ‘stick it to the Packers’ — then what’s left for him? Who’s left for him? It’s one of the saddest things I’ve seen in sports.”

And one of the weirdest.