Bird that Sings

December 29, 2011

The Autumn of the Patriarchs

Filed under: Sports,Uncategorized — admin @ 8:12 pm

“Broken treaties broken vows
Broken pipes broken tools
People bending broken rules
Hound dog howling bullfrog croaking
Everything is broken.”
Bob Dylan

As 2012 approaches, nobody needs a clock to know what time it is. It’s a good thing too, because everything is broken; politics, the economy, the climate, even sports.

The era of Spectator Sports as Big Business that began as Big Manufacturing went into decline is itself drawing to a close. Big Sports filled a void; we went from making stuff to watching stuff, but now, right on cue, some of the biggest sports are falling all around us.

Al Davis and Joe Paterno have this much in common; both are from Brooklyn and both had to be carted off the football field, feet first, in the fall of 2011.

When I was a kid, I always had the suspicion that Al Davis was a gangster who was using football as some of kind of front. Actually it was vice versa. Even though Davis—who famously drove his Thunderbird convertible to California in 1959 with a suitcase in the back and eighty bucks in his pocket—ultimately made a fortune in football, making a buck was just a means to an end for Al.

Al Davis wanted to build a football empire. He did too, parlaying his first job as a wide receivers’ coach under legendary offensive football guru, Sid Gillman of the American Football League’s San Diego Chargers, to the head-coaching job of the new league’s Oakland Raiders. At the time Gillman said of his assistant, “Al Davis thinks he’s the smartest guy in football. He’s not . . . yet.”

Davis was soon not only coach of the Raiders, but General Manager and had turned them into a winner too. Then they made Davis President of the League and within a year he had the upstart AFL drafting and signing away players from the established NFL with such abandon that Davis, at least, believed the AFL would soon be dominant.

It was partly out of fear of Pirate Al, that the owners of the NFL and AFL got together and negotiated the Pro football merger of 1966. This pissed Davis off so much he resigned as President of the Junior League and went back to his beloved “Raiduhs” where he resumed complete control of the team’s day-to-day operations.

Along the way the Raiders not only won Championships under a series of Davis’ hand picked successors; John Rauch, John Madden and Tom Flores, but developed the outlaw mystique that made them the bad boys of football. Like James Brown, the Raiders were . . . Super bad.

Davis had assumed controlling ownership of the team long before he took the Raiders to LA in 1982, only to return to Oakland twelve years later in exchange for a King’s ransom. However Al’s second coming in Oakland was not as successful as the first and the whispering began: The Old Man had lost it. Al’s particular brand of football; power running and a, speed-kills, vertical passing game to go along with a take no prisoners, mano a mano defense, was passe´ they said: other teams were out scheming the Raiders; that the game had passed Al by.

Like the Latin American dictator of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch, who had to sell the Caribbean Sea to the North Americans (they had it shipped away) in order to retain total control over his profoundly shrunken realm, Davis isolated himself in response to the criticism and became increasingly obsessed with proving himself still the smartest guy in the room. It was a sucker’s game and Al must have known, but couldn’t resist the action.

Oddly though, no one was prepared when Al Davis suddenly passed away in mid season: it was shock to everyone; his detractors, his underground admirers, even his players.

No matter how much you might have disliked Al Davis, no one thought he would ever die.

Right about now Joe Paterno must be wishing he were dead too.

Incredibly, I remember Paterno’s first years at Penn State, probably because I was not yet old enough to smoke or drink, but Joe Pa really seemed like he had something to prove back then.

Paterno let us know— through his sycophants in the media to be sure—that just being a football coach was not enough. Joe Pa was building a program that was different we were told: Paterno cared about the players, he wanted them to graduate and make something of themselves outside of sports; the implication being he wanted them to do the important things he would have liked to do if he wasn’t stuck in this stupid college football racket.

That was Paterno’s image but after a while, that’s all it was. To put the best spin on it, Joe Pa was like everyone else: we start out with big ambitions and then in middle age, maybe start talking up what we’ve already done; maybe even try to make it seem like more than it really is.

Joe Pa took his mid-life crisis one step further than most of us though; he decided to make the entire Penn State campus, and in fact much of Central Pennsylvania, a monument to his emerging cult of personality.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants and New England Patriots asked him to coach their teams, Joe turned them down. When the Pennsylvania Republican Party wanted to run Joe for governor sometime around his 1986 National Championship, he turned them down too.

Joe Pa couldn’t leave Penn State and it wasn’t because he was too humble. Mostly, it was because he was a total control freak.

For years—especially the early ones— Penn State featured small to medium sized quarterbacks who couldn’t run and couldn’t throw; whose talents were a mystery except when you realized that they looked a lot like Joe.

Though a great recruiter and self-publicist, Paterno was probably also the worst great coach of all time.

To be fair, some of that was his innate football conservatism: a great Penn State team would rarely stomp their opponent, they would typically eek out a win, and that was mainly because the players would refuse to lose.

What Penn State fan can forget the 1969 Orange Bowl, when Paterno had All-American Charlie Pittman and two future all Pro’s, Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell in the backfield and still barely beat Kansas 15-14, and that, only because of a great Defense anchored by Mike Reid, Steve Smear, Dennis Onkotz and Jack Ham. It was Joe Paterno and Penn State football at its agonizing best.

By 1998, when the first investigation of Jerry Sandusky began, Joe Pa must have known something about his then defensive coordinator and at least he blocked Sandusky from becoming head coach of the team. Paterno could have investigated Sandusky himself but that wasn’t going to happen. For one thing Paterno probably figured that was the DA’s job. For another, he was too busy trying to protect his program. No, the big question, the one will dog Paterno to the end of his days is why couldn’t Joe let go?

Why, after he dumped Sandusky in 1999, when Paterno was already over 70, did he hang on as coach and more for another twelve years only to witness the complete destruction of everything he had built, of his life’s work?

The answer of course is that he didn’t let go because he couldn’t let go: these guys never do.

April 5, 2011

Opening Daze; East and West

Filed under: Sports,The Philadelphia Perspective,Uncategorized — admin @ 12:49 am

It was looking pretty grim for the Philadelphia Phillies going into the bottom of the 7th, opening day at a sold out Citizens Bank Park.  Their Ace of Aces, Roy Halladay had already hit the showers and the Phils were down 4-0 to the rebuilding Houston Astros. The deficit wasn’t Halladay’s fault; he’d pitched well, but Phillies fans, sitting on their hands in the forty-degree chill of an April first afternoon, could not be blamed for wondering if maybe they’d been fooled again.


The team, picked as recently as two months ago to win their division, if not the National League, in a cakewalk, was looking alarmingly like the mid summer Phillies of 2010; decimated by injuries, without a closer in the bullpen and with holes all over the line-up.


And then it happened, it took me by surprise, and I could tell that it stunned them too, by the look in their eyes . . .


The Phils scored two in the bottom of the 7th, and then, in the bottom of the 9th, strung together six singles off of Astros closer Brandon Lyon, culminating in a walk off pinch-hit single by John Mayberry Jr.


The stadium went wild, the team ran onto the field and the Phillies ended up sweeping the Astros behind Ace#2 Cliff Lee, and Ace #3, Little Roy Oswalt. Was the rumored Phillies juggernaut getting ready to roll?


Hard to say, but it sure beats losing. Predictions about this year’s Phillies have been all over the lot, though in fairness, the ones predating the ongoing and ominous knee problems of second baseman, “The Great Chase” Utley, are now moot.


In February, Philadelphia Daily News Sports Editor Emeritus, Stan Hochman compared the Phillies coming 2011 run through Major League Baseball to Moses Malone and the World Champion 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers “Fo’-five-fo'” run through the NBA playoffs that year.


A more . . . sober assessment is the game-by-game analysis of my friend, Red “Fred” Trasatti, “the Cookie Rojas of Rock n’ Roll, ” that sees 93 wins for the Phillies and a dogfight with the Atlanta Braves just to get into the playoffs. Meanwhile legendary Daily News columnist Bill Conlin is stubbornly sticking to his 100 win season prediction. Personally I tend to go along with Conlin, but it’s just a gut feeling. The only prediction I’m willing to stand behind is that if Utley doesn’t play this season, all bets are off.


Sweeter than wine, softer than a summer’s night . . .


Meanwhile out in California, the World Champion San Francisco Giants were opening up against the Dodgers in LA, and their cross Bay, American League rivals, the Oakland A’s, were at home against Seattle, on a rare, “warm San Francisco night.”


While the Giants are “the people’s choice” in the Bay Area to win everything again, informed opinion surprisingly tends to like the A’s chances in the AL West better.


It remains to be seen. As the A’s demonstrated this weekend against the Mariners, they’re still not a good team, though it’s very early.


Even during the Money Ball playoff years of recent vintage, the A’s were notoriously slow starters; typically not gelling until the end of June at the earliest, by which time most of their fans had already given up on them.


The big thing with the A’s is that despite how good their trio of young starters, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez, none of them are true Aces yet, and the team’s best power prospect, Chris Carter is still in Triple A, waiting for somebody to get injured. Meanwhile the new three, four and five hitters, David DeJesus, Josh Willingham and Hidecki Matsui are a huge upgrade over the heart of last year’s line-up but don’t compare to 3, 4 and 5’s of the better teams in baseball.


If I was Billy Beane, and I assure you I’m not, I’d seriously think about trading Brett Anderson to Texas for the disgruntled, displaced Michael Young, and play Young at 3rd base or Shortstop in place of Kevin Kouzmanoff or Cliff Pennington. At this writing, Kouzmanoff and Pennington are the weak links of an A’s team that still lacks a big time power threat and needs all the offense it can get.


As for the Giants, only a fool would write them off, even after their embarrassing opening weekend, losing three of four to the Dodgers. While the Giants did not improve in the off-season they still have the same pitching and intangibles that won them the World Championship last year.


The Giants caught lightning in a bottle last year; you’d be crazy to think they can do it again,wouldn’t you?



December 15, 2010

Cliff Lee

Filed under: Sports,The Philadelphia Perspective,Uncategorized — admin @ 3:33 pm

Is that God moving in South Philadelphia, or is it only Ruben Amaro Jr.?

Philadelphia Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro’s coup in signing premier free agent pitcher Cliff Lee has sent shock and awe resounding through the baseball world. In fact outside my window at this very moment, the afternoon is darkening, thunder is rolling, and lightning is splitting the sky.

It’s true. I guess it really is a big deal.

For Phillies fans though, the biggest thing is that Cliff Lee turned out to love us as much we loved him in his half a season with the club in 2009. Local fans were apoplectic when Amaro traded Lee to Seattle a year ago this Friday, and only the fact that the GM had just obtained Roy Halladay from Toronto kept the furor from escalating into a full-fledged fan mutiny.

Now, rather than hold the trade against the team, Lee has given the Phillies what appears to be a fifteen to thirty million dollar discount against what he could have squeezed out of either the Rangers or the Yankees.

On paper, (see “Every Season tells a story, Don’t it, below 8/10) this signing gives the Phillies one of the best pitching staffs in baseball history and many scribes are opining that the Phillies are now in the position of the Yankees: that is, needing to win the World Series for 2011 to be considered a successful season.

In my opinion however, these writers (see George Vecsey, NY Times 12/14/10) are missing the point.

As far as Phillies’ fans were concerned, the team was supposed to win it all this year and last year too. That they didn’t, has — slightly — lessened local pressure for a guaranteed World Series win.

My sense is that Phillies fans are just reveling in the moment, and acting … well, uncharacteristically grown up about the whole thing. It’s difficult to quantify but you can’t help feeling that the Lee signing means something special to the Phillies beyond just getting a great pitcher.

The Phillies and maybe even, Philadelphia, are now a destination. This is the kind of thing that only happens once in a long while; when a team becomes truly emblematic of a city and we owe this moment to … Cliff Lee: Bottoms up.

Before we raise out glasses however, I don’t think Ruben June is done dealing yet. Jayson Werth’s signing with the Washington Nationals has not only left the Phillies without a Right Fielder, but also without an everyday, right handed power hitter to protect Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.

Everyone is talking about the Phillies trading Joe Blanton to dump salary, but right now, the trade that makes the most sense for them is something along the lines of Right-handed pitching ace Roy Oswalt to the Chicago White Sox for Right Fielder Carlos Quentin with a prospect thrown in on either side.

This trade may or may not be makeable. For one thing, Oswalt has a no trade clause in his contract and probably would demand that the White Sox, at the very least, guarantee his sixteen million dollar option for 2012. For another thing, although the White Sox could certainly use Oswalt, who along with Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy, John Danks and Gavin Floyd, would give them the best starting pitching staff — on paper — in the American League, they don’t need him.

We’ll see what happens, but my guess is, something will.

November 10, 2010

Baseball in Wartime/Every Season tells a story, don’t it? #9

Filed under: Sports,The Philadelphia Perspective,Uncategorized — admin @ 3:16 pm

Every season tells a story and for now, the story of this season is the San Francisco Giants and their improbable World Series victory.

While nobody thinks of San Francisco as a baseball town, the Giants made it into a Major League City when they moved here in 1958. That was a big thing back in the American Century and the City’s never forgotten.

Last Wednesday, they had a parade for the Giants and in San Francisco, for that one moment, baseball was king again.

From where I sat across the Bay, you could almost hear the roar of the near hysterical crowds thronging the downtown — not that big a place — in the hundreds of thousands. On this side of the Bay though, the only way you’d notice was the heavy action around the local BART station.

At the grocery store, where I was earlier that day, one of the clerk/cashiers is a visible, vocal and longtime Giants fan and all the other fans were crowded around him.

One woman says she can’t believe the Giants won; she can’t even believe they got to the World Series, she was sure the Phillies were going to beat them like a drum. The other older folk hanging around the baseball register nod sagely in agreement, but on the way to store I passed about ten kids skateboarding together on a side street.

This particular neighborhood has always been a baseball hotbed and on weekend mornings, there’s a guy on a loudspeaker broadcasting the Little League games at the local middle school, waking everybody up for several miles around.

Of course this is also Oakland A’s territory and this year’s A’s were the most boring team in memory. The A’s sucked the life out of baseball around here the past couple of seasons, and a lot of people even suspect it was on purpose. They think the A’s are actually trying to hold down attendance so they can force the League to let them move to San Jose.

There’s a lot of reasons for kids around here not to follow baseball too closely. But not that many years ago, this many twelve year olds playing together on the street would have been playing some kind of ball.

Now, no one plays baseball on the street anymore. It’s organized ball or nothing.

There are many reasons for the decline of baseball in America and that’s one of the biggest: that kids don’t play it anymore, though they might pursue it in Little Leagues with some bigger purpose in mind. Of course, since the white flight of the 1960s hollowed out most of the big cities of the country — Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, etc. — there’s no street for a lot of kids to play in.

And then, too, as many have said, sports are not a pleasure in America anymore. They are big business, and we are no longer fans, we are sports consumers.

The only reason that the almost farcical attempt to turn baseball into a spectacle hasn’t killed it off completely is  there’s a part of the game that’s out of their league.

That’s the part of the game inside of us.

We know the game as a whole isn’t as good as it was thirty, forty or even fifty years ago — nor are the players.  Still, we go to games when we can.  We watch on TV, usually while we’re doing other things. We read the box scores, follow the standings, think about trade possibilities and, as we do, are occasionally transported back to other seasons, other players, other times.

This thing inside that binds us to our teams, and sometime even our towns, is what they call the limbic connection.

The limbic brain is the part that sits under the cerebral cortex and on top of the reptile brain. The cerebral cortex in turn is what allows humans and other animals who have one, to reason.

Birds have a very, very small cerebral cortex — as good as not having one — but as old Charles Darwin first observed with songbirds, their music is an expression of incredible complexity. The music of songbirds governs their social interactions: where they’re flying to and when; how they’ll mate. But it’s also a fantastic, collectively composed, yet improvised expression and it all comes from the limbic brain.

And the truth is, that’s where the music of human beings comes from as well. It’s why you often hear musicians say “I wasn’t playing; the music was playing me.”

The limbic connection to-all-being is the truth behind the metaphor of Eden in the Bible, before Eve took that big bite out of the Apple of consciousness.

And it’s why, against all reason, we follow our teams, which are mostly owned by rich, egomaniacal Philistines and composed of well paid mercenaries from other towns and countries who for this one season or two have joined your team, the one you’ve been following all your life. And so then are joined limbically to you and your tribe, your town… forever.

If you don’t follow sports, and maybe even if you do, this will all sound like a load of crap, but it’s true.

As the famous baseball fan William Faulker once wrote, “the past is not dead, it’s not even past.”

Oddly after I wrote the previous line, I Googled it and found it had been used before. It’s the first line of the introduction to the ESPN Encyclopedia of Baseball, which I’ve never read or even heard of before this moment. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Anyway … back in Philadelphia the reality has set in, along with the first nasty weather, that having the best team in baseball on paper doesn’t really matter.

And while there’s bound to be muttering among the baseball cognoscenti that the Giants are not worthy champions, I’d disagree. The Giants are not the worst World Series winner I’ve ever seen — that would have to be the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals — but as a wise man said, the best team paper almost never wins.

And then too, pitching is 75% of baseball. On those two criteria alone, the Giants — like ’em or not — are worthy and representative World Series Champions.

For the rest of us, there’s always next year.

October 27, 2010

The Series

Filed under: Sports,The Philadelphia Perspective,Uncategorized — admin @ 2:14 pm

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve noticed that once your home team get knocked out, baseball becomes less subjective.

One of these teams, Texas or San Francisco, will lose the World Series and, depending on the manner of their defeat, go back to being the bums we knew they were in August: Literally in the case of both these teams.

Now they both stand to represent something more than their parts, and bigger than themselves.

As I wrote about San Francisco previously, (see below, A tale of two cities revisited) not a great team but good enough to win.

Texas though, might be the story of this Series. Unlike the Giants, the Rangers did not play in a competitive division this year. The California Angels had injuries and basically threw in the towel sometime after the All Star break. The Oakland A’s might have been the most offensively challenged team in baseball since the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies, albeit with good young pitching that could see them contend in the near future.

Seattle had a horrible start and was finished by June. When they traded Cliff Lee to the Rangers around the trading deadline their last place finish was already a fait accomplis.

So Texas was not competing against the division this year, but basically against itself. This, in an often dead Stadium, in football country, in a city that long ago gave up on them, with a owner who went bankrupt after purchasing the team at a discount from George W. Bush who made out like a bandit himself on the deal.

It’s a pretty unsavory story but its’ effect on the team seems to have been at the margins. With power and dangerous hitters up and down the line-up, good team speed, and good defense the Rangers feel like a throw back to the Cleveland Indians team of the late 90’s, and not completely by accident. Those Indian teams, which at various times featured Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga, Dave Justice, Brian Giles and Sandy Alomar Jr, were put together by John Hart, former General Manager and current “senior advisor” to the Rangers. Hart’s protégé, 33-year-old Jon Daniels, is the current Texas GM.

The Indians, so dominant during the season back in their prime, never managed to win a World Series and for that reason are a bittersweet memory to their fans.

The big thing the Indians lacked was a great starting pitcher, which is also what the Rangers lacked at the beginning of this season.

The Rangers, however, don’t lack a great starting pitcher anymore.

When Cliff Lee gets hit, he can look pretty bad. His fastball never gets past the low 90s and he needs to keep hitters off balance with a variety of speeds and cutters. But when Lee’s on, he practically unhittable and he’s been nothing but these past two post-seasons.

The Rangers other two main starters, CJ Wilson and Colby Lewis have both pitched well enough this season, but without Lee, Texas would not be here.

The Rangers line-up featuring All-Stars and former All-Stars like 3rd baseman Michael Young, DH Vladimir Guerrero, 2nd baseman Ian Kinsler, and outfielder Nelson Cruz is impressive, but the team revolves around outfielder Josh Hamilton, or as he’s called at my house, The Natural.

The first time I saw Josh Hamilton was in 2008 and, despite his big numbers, I wasn’t that impressed. Boy, was I blind. Josh Hamilton is what Shoeless Joe Jackson would have been if he had played in the live ball era. Think a left handed Matt Holliday with the power of Pujols, the speed of Johnny Damon — and of course, a dark side.

Cliff Lee’s performance in the 2009 World Series not only made him a folk hero in Philadelphia, but a bona fide superstar. The 2010 World Series might do the same for Josh Hamilton. Catch Josh Hamilton while you can, this guy was born to play baseball.

Between Lee and Hamilton, not to mention the serendipity of having ex-Giant Bengie Molina at catcher — who not only knows the book on the Giant pitching staff, but wrote it — I think you’ve got to pick Texas to win this Series… in five, six or seven.

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