It's Only Sports

In just a month, you can certainly put things in perspective. Actually, you can adjust your perspective in one day, but I think you know what I mean.

March 2009 was a really bad month for the US. The stock markets were bottoming out. The Tea Party was ‘founded,’ just weeks prior. And President Obama failed to learn that he had to be a much bolder, offensive leader in order to be successful.

He was going to get fair criticism from most beltway pundits, but he was never going to be fairly treated by the Right-wing media. Every business trip has been labeled a vacation. Every speech has been called either an exercise in ego, an abuse of power, or both. And even taking time during a weekday lunch break to fill out NCAA tournament brackets has been criticized as an abuse of government time.

Obama had to be educated enough to know that when you are a Democratic president, and therefore portrayed by the right wing media as illegitimate, you are not going to be granted the same leniency given to a Republican predecessor. George W. Bush took 977 leisure days (I won’t call them vacation days) while in office, while Barack Obama is being flamed for playing 60 rounds of golf in 26 months. A high number, yes. But keep in mind that Bush went to Camp David every weekend during the chaotic autumn of 2001, partly so he could watch college football games and chomp on pretzels with NSA Secretary Condoleezza Rice. No one accused national security being “off duty” on weekends.

But I meant this post to be about sports. The state of the world can go up as a separate post. And, well, this brings me back to where I started. March.

Yes, March 2009 was really bad. Our economy was on the edge of an abyss (and isn’t far from the edge still today). But here we are, two years later, and this March has been so eventful, I really am hard pressed to find another month so significant in world history since August 1991 – nearly 20 years. Or if not significant, then at least a period more eventful since that amazing summer of 1991.

More on that in the next post.

I was trying to get this post up in March. Working seven days a week, it was more difficult than I assumed. So while it is late, here is my random, eccentric summary of some of the sports happenings I witnessed in March.

New York Mets: Season of Doom

Need I say more? It’s going to be awful. I see a team with a weak offense, an almost non-existent bullpen, and in dire need of a complete financial takeover. New ownership and a new GM are sorely needed. And yet, I am scheduled to go to three games and counting this season.

The Mets are my local MLB team. I like them and their windy, trashy, pinball machine of a ballpark called Citi Field. They are a big market team. They will eventually mount another playoff run…if Atlanta and Philadelphia ever relinquish their dominance over the NL East. Oh, and that new ballpark in Miami is just 12 months away from opening. And the Marlins already have as many MLB championships as the Mets. Sigh.

Boston Red Sox: Impossible expectations

Tired of the Red Sox being called the best team in baseball? I am. They have incredible depth. They have so much depth, they had to send young players who are almost ready for the majors back to Pawtucket. They don’t just have a veteran situational lefty reliever, they have a new lefty, Andrew Miller, who could be an all star in waiting.

But Red Sox Nation needs to get back to its logical roots. Andrew Miller is not yet available, as much as he might be needed later this season. David Ortiz is having a great start, but he needs everyone else in the order to catch up. And the starting pitching, so far, has been far short of expectations. It has been 15 years since the Red Sox started the season 0-4, but that is what has happened as this long delayed blog post went up.

Newcastle United: Stuck in neutral

Discipline problems. Only one point in ten games. A predictable, yet worse than expected loss to Stoke City. The only thing holding Newcastle United together in March was positive team chemistry, consistent fan support, and faith that the team would notch the 1 or 2 wins needed to secure safety in the Prem. More on that in a future post.

ICC Cricket World Cup: Snapshot of the One Day International game

The ICC Cricket World Cup was a cracker this time around. News of the death of the 50 over game are premature, if not exaggerated. I love 50 overs per side. Cricket is a pastime. The ideal one day match should be eight hours, like a work shift, except it isn't work.

We saw England beat the West Indies by a narrow margin, with the hope of going all the way, only to be beaten down by semi finalists Sri Lanka. And in that West Indies match, the Windies had to use a batsman out of order because another batsman was in the “washroom” when his turn to bat came up. It’s a silly sport. I love it.

Dallas Mavericks: One player short of a championship?

Or two. It's a shame that the team with the best coach and defense in the NBA seems to be too broken to advance in the upcoming playoffs. I hope I am incorrect.

March Madness: What’s that?

Seriously, who manufactured this spectacle? Oh right, the NCAA and CBS, with CBS paying the NCAA billions of dollars to televise the tournament for decades, and fans paying billions of dollars into an underground betting economy. Somehow you are not a real man unless you have something called a bracket. Meanwhile, the NCAA, which apparently is a non profit organization, issues death penalties to teams (see U Mass, 1996) if one player accepts gifts from any source. No disputing the punishment. But what exactly does the NCAA do with the partially-disclosed billions it receives, besides not paying the athletes who draw television audiences? Is it silly to ask?

Of course, Europe has its own equivalent of the NCAA tournament. It is called the Football Association and the English Premier League. But since I am able to separate gambling in the UK from the beautiful game, I can appreciate the sport. What I can’t appreciate is a street game, played by college students, elevated to something it never deserved. The only people who truly care about college teams are college students. I can attest. That 1991 U Mass squad that made it to the NIT Final Four was brilliant. But would anyone seriously outside U Mass in the early 1990s remember that? Would Boston, a pro sports town, really care about college sports, aside from the occasional BC football game or the Beanpot? No.

While I am not one to put any faith into professional sports as a wholesome, socially necessary institution, I am never going to care about the cash flush NCAA, or it’s hypocrisy on gambling and gifts, while it receives billions in cash from the media, big universities, and who knows who else.

David Stern About To Make Things Worse For His League

NBA Commissioner, David Stern, plans to hold a press conference today before Game 5 of the NBA finals in Los Angeles. He's the fourth man to hold that title in the history of the NBA, and has held that title for 24 years, back when there was a long-running Celtics-Lakers rivalry. It's his league. He built it so that at one point. let by the fame of Michael Jordan, it was the second most-watched sport on US television. Since the late 90s, the NBA has faded in both spectatorship and in terms of game quality. A game of forwards and guards has become a simple game of 'give the ball to the big guy.' A game of colorful, but friendly rivalries has given way to physical brawls and some of the ugliest moments in American prfessional sport.

It is a sport in which a young man with enormous talent, but an over-inflated ego and total lack of respect for his teammates and coach was, at one point, compared to Michael Jordan. Fortunately, his teams collapse in Game 4 of the 2008 Finals ensures that he will never be compared to Jordan again.

But back to David Stern, the man who has been at the helm for both the rise and fall of the NBA (1979-2004, as I see it). He has been battling a crisis involving betting by one or more referees, and possible game fixing, which is still under investigation. When the so-called NBA Betting Scandal broke last July 20th, it was bad news. So far, only one referee, Jim Donaghy has been convicted in the scandal. But I think that today's expected blanket denial that the scandal involved more than one referee, and possibly included game-fixing, is the wrong move.

Obviously, I am not alone in that opinion. The editors of USA Today spoke-up about this blanket denial on Saturday:

A more appropriate response would have been to say that the league would go to extraordinary lengths to remove suspicions. An independent expert, along the lines of former U.S. senator George Mitchell, who looked into the steroids issue in baseball, could evaluate NBA officiating, examine whether some refs are too cozy with individual players (some of whom provide marketable autographs and other gifts), and determine whether Donaghy was indeed a lone bad apple.

And Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says it more clearly:

Stern used to know how to deal with things like this. The undisputed "best commissioner in American sports" could handle every crisis that came his way, and he did it without a hiccup. But he's wrong if he thinks he can solve this stain that Donaghy is putting on his league by telling everyone that the admitted game fixer is merely some desperate rogue trying to rat out anyone and everyone to get the feds to reduce his prison time.

What he should be saying -- actually shouting it in front of as many television cameras as he can -- is that he is going to get to the bottom of this with the mother of all independent investigations. Someone other than the NBA needs to get to the bottom of every creepy, sleazy and suspicious circumstance and wild allegation.

Continued blanket denials and brush-offs are not going to make these latest allegations -even from a convicted felon- go away. Stern is showing that he no longer has the magic touch in managing his once-great league.