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Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Indianapolis 500 And The Next Generation Of Auto Racing

I still enjoy watching the Indianapolis 500 (the 99th running is Sunday, May 24th, 1pm ET, ABC) but have been disappointed in recent years because the reason the 500 first came into existence- and all auto races, for that reason, has gone away. But there is a way for it to have a revival, and I have no idea why it hasn’t happened yet.

When cars were first being invented and developed, auto races drew huge crowds of enthusiastic spectators who were there because they’d never seen a car. (Same goes for early air shows.) But in addition to the regular folk, there were investors. Basically, auto races were mechanized versions of Shark Tank, except everybody showed their product at the same time. The winners got prize money as well as investors. Henry Ford, whose first auto company had failed, sunk pretty much all he had and won a prestigious Detroit auto race to create the FoMoCo that way. (The link is totally worth the 8:45 of your time.)

As cars and companies got better, the competition increased. The best way to back up a claim that your car was the sturdiest/fastest/most reliable was to win a race. The longer and the more involved, the better. At the time Indianapolis rivaled Detroit as the car capital of America. Both places were heavy manufacturing cities that made quality product and both were extensive rail hubs. It made sense that a big track would be built somewhere. Auto parts manufacturer Carl Fisher wanted the best track to be in Indianapolis, so he made it happen.

The Indianapolis Speedway was built precisely to be the best racing track in America- for anything. The first “race” at the speedway was a hot-air balloon trial. The first machine race was motorcycles. Fisher wanted it to be a proving ground for any motorized transport. The races got longer and longer. That a race eventually went 500 miles was inevitable. It proved that a car could run at speed, at high RPMs, fairly continuously for that amount of time and that many miles.

Auto races, and the 500 in particular, then became the place to test new innovations in cars. It’s well documented that the first rear-view mirror was on Ray Harroun’s Flying Wasp, the first winner of the 500 in 1911. He had it installed because he didn't have a riding mechanic like every other car in the race to see what the other cars were up to. Turbochargers, seatbelts, specialized tires, the list goes on. If it wasn’t invented for the 500, it was quite often perfected there. If it’s a mechanized part of your car, chances are it- or the manufacturer it comes from- came to prominence in Indianapolis.
See what's right above the #32 and in Harroun's sightline?
As the cars in the 500 got more and more specialized, factory-built racing gained a following as well. Take the car off the showroom floor and see what it can do. That, in addition to moonshiners, is how NASCAR got started. The phrase “Stock Car” is part of the acronym NASCAR, but that’s about the only stock part left in the circuit.

So now that races of all kinds are miles and miles removed from where they originated 100-plus years ago, why not return to the origin of races for the next generation of cars?

In other words; why is there not already a series of races exclusively involving electric cars? Why is there not already a series involving alternative-energy vehicles? If somebody wants to prove that the propane car is more feasible and better than an electric car, have them race each other in a controlled environment- you know, a racetrack- for 500 miles.

The innovation part is also due for a revival. Right now a Tesla battery can last about 250 miles. Wouldn’t a series of endurance races force the Tesla engineers to experiment in much better and more effective ways than wind tunnel tests and running a car up and down an abandoned airstrip? Google says they have an electric car, they’d like to think it’s better than a Tesla. Hell, Google wants to show that the driverless car is the way to go.
In the words of Jack Palance in Shane: Prove it. Have a regular Tesla race a Google driverless car for 500 miles. Like you wouldn’t watch that.

A series of alternative-energy vehicle races would also allow the small players to compete with the big boys. An entry fee is an entry fee. If you can pay it, you’ve got a team in the race. Like Indy 500s of years past, those races would speed up innovation and the public would again be the benefactor. Not to mention that many of those who question alternative-energy vehicles would be won over.

The next Henry Ford is right now making an alternative energy vehicle in her garage. She’s got ideas that will revolutionize the industry. But she can only afford to make a few prototypes. She needs that opportunity to get it out front of the public and find some Shark Tank-like investors. She needs a race that she can win. Which racetrack will give her- and the other inventors- the chance? Carl Fisher would be angry if it happened anywhere else but his place.

Oh, it's green because it's an electric race car. I get it now.
 photos courtesy: ims.com, vanderbiltcupraces.com, greencarreports.com

Monday, May 18, 2015

David Letterman and the End of The Late Night Talk Show

I remember the first time I saw David Letterman on television. It was the mid-1980’s, I was on vacation and my aunt and uncle had just gotten a VCR. My uncle occasionally watched Letterman, so we secretly timer-taped a show (an ordeal at the time) and put it on the next afternoon as a surprise treat.

I remember his reaction distinctly. He had been talking Letterman up. When we put it on, he said “Oh, I don’t really like him, he’s just the best thing on when I can’t sleep.”

Oh well.

I was a huge Johnny Carson fan at the time because I was getting into comedy, and Carson was the best place to watch new stand-up consistently at the time (remember: virtually no cable). After watching Carson be a genius, Dave was kind of hard to understand for 12-year-old me, even though his comedy in theory was more appealing to my generation. Well, the rest of my generation probably wasn’t listening to a lot of Smothers Brothers or Bob Newhart. But I was. Eventually I found more modern comedy- George Carlin had a lot to do with that- and slowly I began watching the NBC 11:30 to 1:30 block, aka Johnny and Dave, pretty regularly. I didn’t go to many parties as a teenager, why do you ask?

When Carson announced his retirement in 1991, NBC didn’t believe that Letterman could change his show to make it palatable for 11:30 and went with Jay Leno. I saw Leno do stand-up when I was 12, and he was phenomenal. (You’re going to have to trust me here. Leno’s standup in the mid-80’s was out of sight.) He was Carson’s permanent guest host so the decision was not wholly unexpected. I thought Dave deserved the show because he was clearly Johnny’s choice to replace him, but Leno was not as goofy as Dave was at the time. Dave promised he could do a proper 11:30 show and NBC didn’t believe him.

There is a lot of irony to David Letterman retiring now that the internet is a force. Dave’s early late-night run began when you could really only see his stuff if you stayed up and watched it when it aired, unless you knew somebody with a VCR- and they wanted to play the tape for you. His late-night stunts- jumping onto walls in a Velcro jumpsuit and wearing a suit made of Alka-Seltzer and getting dunked into water (Rice Krispies suit and milk, same idea as well) and elevator races- would have been perfect for today’s viral world.

You're gonna have to trust me, this was huuuuuge.
More of the stunts had to do with Carson than you might think. When Carson got the rights to produce- and therefore choose- the program that followed The Tonight Show- (a deal negotiated by his lawyer extraordinaire Henry Bushkin- read Henry’s book if you’ve ever been even remotely interested in Carson) he gave the show to Letterman with plenty of caveats in the deal to ensure that Letterman wouldn’t copy Carson’s show and water down both shows as a result. This is incredibly funny in retrospect because at the time NBC had the only sustainable late-night franchises, cable basically didn’t exist, the internet was “the future” and very few people had a VCR to time-shift anything (or even invent the word time-shift). Anyway, the three biggest stipulations were: 

One, no extended monologue. Johnny essentially demanded the rights to the seven-minute late-night monologue! This forced Dave to just do a few “remarks” and I believe helped in the creation of the “Top Ten,” a way to do lots of jokes on a topic but not in a monologue setting.

Two, a long-forgotten clause regarding guests called “21 and 8.” To preserve an idea of “exclusivity,” a guest that appeared on Carson couldn’t appear on Letterman for the next 21 days, and a guest on Letterman couldn’t appear on Carson for the next 8 days. Carson also had this clause for the early days of Saturday Night Live. Can you imagine if “21 and 8” still existed? A guest in New York often does Letterman, Fallon, Seth Myers and hosts SNL that week!

Three, Johnny forbid Dave to have a big band like Doc Severinsen and company. NBC didn’t give “Late Night” much of a budget anyway, so Letterman decided on a four-piece rock combo. In another budget move, they combined the role of sidekick and band leader with Paul Shaffer handling both roles.

Those clauses- and others- forced Letterman and his staff to get creative with his comedy and his guests. Lots of the people Letterman and his producers wanted as guests in the early days weren’t guys that Carson wanted anyway, so it wasn’t a huge deal. Chris Elliott wasn’t exactly on Carson’s wish list, you dig? (Paul and the World's Most Dangerous Band never played any Glen Miller, either.)

After Carson retired and Dave went to CBS, he extended the monologue, the band added a brass section and the stunt comedy slowly went away. The Late Show was the spiritual successor to Carson’s Tonight Show, never mind what NBC wants you to believe. Now that Dave is retiring, it’s obvious that he is the true last link to Carson. The Tonight Show used to be the only show you could see celebrities in a casual interview format. It therefore required Carson- and Jack Paar before him- to make conversation.

Thus the name: Talk. Show.

Kings of Late Night
After Dave, that doesn’t exist. (Maybe Stephen Colbert will be more of a traditionalist than I am expecting he will be.)

A Talk Show emphasizes what? Talk. It does not emphasize lip synching or celebrity Pictionary or hula hoop contests.

A true talk show host can make any guest look good, and even mostly pretend to be interested in a terrible movie or sitcom. The most succinct and accurate thing I’ve ever heard about Carson as an interviewer is from Dave Barry’s new book, “Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster).”

As Barry explains, his first book, in 1982, had gotten some national recognition and he was invited to be on Carson. He writes, “I was on for seven minutes at the end of the show, and it went pretty well, because I was being interviewed by Johnny Carson, who could make any guest appear spontaneously funny, including Hitler.”

At a book signing/lunch with Barry not long ago, he explained that he had never been interviewed on a talk show before that Tonight Show appearance, and it went so easily he thought that all talk show interviews were like that. But after doing a few more interview appearances on similar shows, it became very obvious to Barry that it was a great interview because Carson was the one doing the interviewing.

He could not be more spot on. Carson didn’t need pre-arranged skits to make the guest look good. He just did that in seven minutes of sitting there talking. That’s what will go missing with the absence of David Letterman from late-night TV. In the beginning he just made people he liked look good. Now he makes everybody look good, but he’s the only one who still has that skill to that extent (and even then he’s a notch below Carson).

If you don’t believe me that late-night talk has changed forever, check the category description for Kimmel or Fallon or Meyers or Letterman or Conan O’Brien or anybody you like to watch who does a show like this. It’s not labeled as “talk” any more. It’s “comedy.”

Carson was funny, but it was about the conversation. Letterman believed the same thing. And that’s going to be the biggest black hole in late night.

And all of late-night “comedy” will become shows that are only worth watching when I can’t sleep. My uncle had it right, he was just 30 years too early. 

Hail and Farewell

Monday, May 11, 2015

12 Cities You Never Knew Had Major League Baseball Teams

The Baltimore Orioles-Chicago White Sox "no fans allowed game" reminded more than a few people about the previous MLB record-low attendance record of six, set by the Troy Trojans and Worcester Worcesters in the second-to-last game of 1882. Officially the O's/Sox game broke that mark, but fans actually wanted to go to that game. In 1882, not so much. Anyway, that got me wondering if Troy and Worcester are the most obscure MLB cities of all time. As it turns out, they're on the list, but they're not number one.  All of these teams played (and folded) by 1900 in one of the following major leagues- Bill James and Rob Neyer notwithstanding- the National Association (1871-1875), National League (1876-present), American Association (1882-1891), and Union Association (1884). (The one-season 1890 wonder known as The Players League had teams in "Major League" cities.)

12.    Providence, Rhode Island
Team: Providence Grays
League: National League
Years: 1878-1885
Record: 438-278

The least obscure team on this list.The Providence Grays were a powerhouse in the early National League, winning two pennants. Old Hoss Radbourn won a record 59 games in 1884, and the Grays defeated the New York Metropolitans of the American Association in the first-ever league post-season tournament, or “World’s Championship.” The Grays also have some claim to being the first MLB team with an African-American player, William Edward White, who played one game in 1879. John Montgomery Ward also pitched the second perfect game in history for the Grays in 1880. But a year after winning the “World’s Series,” the Grays folded due to financial problems.

11.    Richmond, Virginia
Team: Richmond Virginians
League: American Association
Years: 1884
Record: 12-30 (partial season)

The southernmost team in MLB history until the Houston Colt .45’s of 1962, the Virginians were a late season call-up in 1884. The American Association expanded to 12 teams that season and Richmond applied to join but was not accepted. When another expansion team, the Washington Statesmen, folded in early August, Richmond’s Eastern League team was asked to take their place. The Virginians accepted (to the dismay of other Eastern League teams). The Virginians campaign was not very successful. After the season, the AA contracted back to eight teams and Richmond was not allowed to remain in the league. The Virginians went back to the Eastern League and folded after the 1885 season.

10.    Troy, New York
Team: Troy Haymakers, Trojans
League: National Association (Haymakers), NL (Trojans)
Years: 1871-1872 (NA), 1879-1882 (NL)
Record: 28-25 (NA), 134-191 (NL)

Troy is the former home of not one, but two former MLB franchises. The Haymakers were descendants of the very first organized baseball team in the area and were considered “competitive” in the very first “pennant race” (a loosely-organized competition of various teams) in 1869, just four years after the American Civil War ended. The Haymakers finished 6th in the first-ever league, the 1871 American Association, and dropped out partway through 1872.
In 1879 MLB returned to Troy when a club not associated with the first one was accepted into the National League. This franchise was not as successful as the NA version, never finishing over .500 or higher than 5th place. Worcester happened to be their biggest rival, a story I'll get into later in the list.

9.     Rockford, Illinois
Team: Rockford Forest Citys
League: National Association
Years: 1871
Record: 4-21

The Forest Citys were one of the first teams to actually pay players, albeit illegally, getting Albert Spalding (co-founder of Spalding Sporting Goods), among others to wear their uniform while still claiming amateur status. When the first professional league, the National Association, formed in 1871, Rockford was an easy choice for inclusion, but Spalding and other top players left the club before the season began. Future Hall of Famer Cap Anson was on the team as a 19-year-old and played well, but the Forest Citys couldn’t compete otherwise and had money troubles throughout the season, mostly involving travel costs. When Anson decided to play for Philadelphia in 1872, Rockford’s fate as a major league city was sealed.

New Haven's Howard Avenue Grounds

8.    New Haven, Connecticut
Team: New Haven Elm Citys
League: National Association
Years: 1875
Record: 7-40

By 1875, the first pro league, the National Association, was on its last legs. The Elm Citys are notable for winning just seven games and still finishing 8th in a 13 team league. That’s what the NA was by 1875 (pennant winning Boston went 71-8, the best season in history, and only three teams finished over .500). Two of New Haven’s starting outfielders batted under .160 and their “best” starting pitcher went 4-29. Second baseman Fred Goldsmith would eventually become a pitcher and win 20 games four times for Chicago. Of the three Connecticut-based National Association Teams, only Hartford would ever get an NL team and they would be gone after 1877. The other team is still to come on this list.
(If you want to read about every single Elm City game, this is the place to go.)

7.     Elizabeth, New Jersey
Team: Elizabeth Resolutes
League: National Association
Years: 1873
Record: 2-21

In the National Association, a $10 entrance fee got you into the league and a chance to compete for the pennant, and many outmanned teams tried their luck at it. The Elizabeth amateur baseball team was one of them. The Resolutes hired a few players, turned pro, paid their entrance fee and began competing for the 1873 league title before realizing it was a bad idea. The Resolutes second and final win was against the pennant-winning Boston Red Stockings in the first game of a double-header on July 4th. Boston then won the second game 32-3. Elizabeth quit the Association about one month- and seven losses- later. Although New Jersey has had minor league baseball almost continuously since, Elizabeth and the Newark Peppers of the Federal League in 1915 are the only MLB teams in state history.

6.     Middletown, Connecticut
Team: Middletown Mansfields
League: National Association
Years: 1872
Record: 5-19

Middletown was the first ballclub to realize how silly the National Association was- or maybe they were just severely deluded. By paying a few players in order to become “professional” and giving the Association their $10, the Mansfields (named after a Union Civil War General) were allowed to compete- by rule- against Boston, Philadelphia, New York and the other “pro towns.” The Mansfields had been a decent amateur town-ball team, but competing against the Albert Spaldings and Boston Red Stockings of the world was a different story entirely. Seen as interlopers and not taken seriously, the team was not treated fairly wherever they went, and travel costs skyrocketed as attendance worsened (a direct cause and effect). The Mansfields folded up in early August after losing ten straight, but hold the distinction as Connecticut’s first MLB franchise.

5.    Worcester, Massachusetts
Team: Worcester Worcesters
League: National League
Years: 1880-1882
Record: 90-159
The biggest NL rival of the Troy Trojans (see entry #10) and the other team involved in the MLB game with just six fans watching in the second-to-last game of 1882, a record that stood for more than 130 years. The reason for the record-low attendance was because the teams already knew they would not be in the league the next year. A new league, the American Association, had begun in 1882 and specifically gone after big cities, a move that worked and forced the NL to respond. Troy and Worcester were dropped and for 1883 the NL added teams in Philadelphia and New York, both teams that survive today (as the Phillies and the San Francisco Giants). Worcester was already in trouble because it was so close to Boston, the class of the league at the time, and never came close to competing for the NL title. In its first season Worcester pitcher Lee Richmond threw the first-ever perfect game in MLB history, but that was the franchise’s peak.

4.    Wilmington, Delaware
Team: Wilmington Quicksteps
League: Union Association
Years: 1884
Record: 2-16 (partial season)

Like Richmond (see #11), the Quicksteps were a late-season team call-up from the Eastern League in 1884, but instead of the American Association, Wilmington joined the Union Association, a one-year league plagued with troubles from the beginning. (Many historians question as to whether it should be considered a major league at all.) The Quicksteps had won the Eastern League easily- as well as their first UA game- but many of their players then jumped to other UA teams and the Quicksteps were in quicksand. Their .111 winning percentage is the lowest for any Major League franchise ever (the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, widely considered the worst team in history, had a .130 percentage, but at least they played an entire season). Wilmington was a “filler” franchise and fans weren’t interested in the slightest. They remain the only major league franchise in any sport in Delaware history, even if it was only for a month.

3.     Fort Wayne, Indiana
Team: Fort Wayne Kekiongas
League: National Association
Year: 1871
Record: 7-12

If you want to win a trivia question any day of the week, ask who won the first-ever MLB game. The answer is the National Association’s Fort Wayne Kekiongas, who beat the Forest Cities of Cleveland on May 4, 1871. That Fort Wayne played, much less won the game, is remarkable in itself. As an amateur team the club had been butchered by the first ever pro team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, by scores of 86-8, 41-7, and 70-1. But they paid their ten bucks and the Association had to accept them. The first scheduled game was to be the day before between Cincinnati and Washington, who had many former Red Stocking players, but that game was rained out, leaving Fort Wayne and Cleveland the distinction of playing the first-ever league game. That game was probably Fort Wayne’s highlight as a franchise, as they only lasted 18 more games.

2.     Keokuk, Iowa
Team: Keokuk Westerns
League: National Association
Year: 1875
Record: 1-12 (folded mid-season)

The Keokuk Westerns paid their $20 (the price got raised) and got to join the NA for the league’s final season. Part of the reason several NA clubs reorganized as the National League for 1876 was to prevent tiny towns like Keokuk- population about 15,000 at the time- from starting the season, failing, running out of money, and quitting. Which is exactly what the Westerns did, folding after their June 14th game against the New York Mutuals.

The location was about the best thing it had going.

1.    Altoona, Pennsylvania
Team: Altoona Mountain Citys
League: Union Association
Year: 1884
Record: 6-19 (folded after 25 games)

It’s close to a toss-up as to whether Keokuk or Altoona should be the most obscure team in MLB history, but Altoona has the better story. The Mountain Citys were a last-minute addition to the UA, which only had seven teams less than two months before Opening Day and was desperate for an 8th- Detroit, Pittsburgh and Hartford had turned them down. Altoona was a baseball-mad town, so it was hoped that plus its prime railroad location in the middle of the other UA teams would help the small town- just 20,000 at the time- play with the big boys. But the franchise started by getting mauled by eventual pennant-winner St. Louis and fans soon realized it was a hopeless cause. A great Yogi Berra quote is “If people don't want to come to the ballpark how are you going to stop them?”  and that was Altoona’s undoing. The most obscure MLB team in history played their last-ever game on the final day of May 1884, 46 days after the franchise began. By the end of the season, their nickname was the "Altoona Unfortunates."

Big thanks to the information-gatherers at BaseballChronicles.com, Baseball-Reference.com and SABR.org for doing the legwork.

photos courtesy: BaltimoreSun.com, theartspaper.com, forumotion.com, city-data.com

Sunday, May 10, 2015

NBA Playoff Broadcasting Needs A Serious Overhaul

The three-network system just provides no continuity for the NBA Playoffs. I know that ESPN/ABC is very protective about "their guys" and TNT knows that the league is a serious moneymaker (plus Ernie/Kenny/Barkley and now even Shaq are really on a roll), but there's no continuity for somebody trying to watch the games and follow one team. Are they on Saturday or Tuesday? ESPN or TNT? 12:30 or 8:30? It's super ridiculous.

The Golden State Warriors had the best record in the regular season, going 67-15. They have not had the same broadcast team two times in a row. They've only had one stretch of two straight games on the same network. That's insane. Here's their list, thanks to the506.com:

Round One vs New Orleans:

Saturday, April 18 on ABC, 3:30 PM ET: Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson 
Monday, April 20 on TNT, 10:30: Kevin Harlan and Reggie Miller
Thursday, April 23 on TNT, 9:30: Brian Anderson and Steve Smith
Saturday, April 25 on ESPN, 8:00: Dave Pasch and Jon Barry

Round Two vs Memphis:

Sunday, May 3 on ABC, 3:30: Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson
Tuesday, May 5 on TNT, 10:30: Brian Anderson and Steve Smith
Saturday, May 9 on ABC, 8:00: Mike Tirico and Jon Barry

Jackson, Breen and Van Gundy: Mama, there's that game again
That's psychotic. What's worse is that these announcers literally have no time to study up during the most important time of the season, the time the audience triples. That the broadcasters aren't confusing Marc Gasol and Pau Gasol every time they touch the ball is incredible. Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson did game one of Golden State/New Orleans in Oakland then flew to Cleveland for game one of Cavs/Celtics the next day. How is that anybody's idea of a smart thing to do?

Here are the broadcasters who have had back-to-backs so far (remember, we're midway through round two).

Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson, 4/18 and 4/19, (in Oakland and Cleveland)

Kevin Harlan and Reggie Miller, 4/19 and 4/20 (LA Clippers and Oakland)

Brian Anderson and Steve Smith, 4/20 and 4/21 (Chicago and Houston)

If it feels like Harlan and Miller have been broadcasting every other game, you're not far off. FYI, I don't mind this because Harlan is awesome.

4/19: Spurs at Clippers
4/20: Pelicans at Warriors
4/22: Spurs at Clippers
4/26: Houston at Dallas
4/28: Spurs at Clippers
4/30: Clips at Spurs
5/2: Spurs at Clips
5/4: Clips at Rockets
5/6: Clips at Rockets

That's nine games in three weeks, three different series, and six different teams. Just one Warriors game? Just one Houston game? Who's genius scheduling was this?

Smith and Anderson. Solid.
Look, I understand that the networks want their own guys. But as a fan, I want to know that the announcing team I saw in game one will be back for game seven- and all the others in-between. Because I'm watching all those games and I want the broadcast team to have seen at least as much of the series as I have. Harlan and Miller did five of the seven-game Clips/Spurs series, but that's the most anybody's done of any series by far. Mostly it seems like a coin flip as to who does what game.

 Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson are ESPN/ABC's number one team. That's a fact. Here's their schedule so far:

4/18: Pelicans at Warriors
4/19: Celtics at Cavaliers
4/24: Clippers at Spurs
4/26: Clippers at Spurs
5/1: Hawks at Nets
5/3: Grizzlies at Warriors

Six games, five different series, nine different teams. With the exception of the two Clips/Spurs games that Harlan/Miller didn't do, a different place every time.

Anderson and Smith from TNT are decent but nobody's idea of a top squad. Here's their schedule:

4/20: Bucks at Bulls
4/21: Mavs at Rockets
4/23: Warriors at Pelicans
4/25: Bulls at Bucks
4/27: Bucks at Bulls
4/30: Bulls at Bucks
5/5: Grizzlies at Warriors

Fratello and Dedes. They're gamers.
Seven games, four different series, seven different teams. You could make an argument that they had a better and more consistent schedule than ESPN's number one squad by virtue of doing more of the Bucks/Bulls series.

Here's the point (and I know you've been waiting for it). Why not just have an agreement that it's the same broadcast team for an entire series, no matter the network? I know there might be a problem with graphics and sponsors and stuff like that, but as soon as I turn on the tube and see that the game that had Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson two days ago has Spero Dedes and Mike Fratello tonight, I know that I have chosen to watch the dog game of the night. Apologies to Dedes and Fratello, but even they know that they're on the dog game that night.

(Their schedule: 4/22, NBA TV, Nets at Hawks. 4/27, NBA TV, Hawks at Nets. 4/29, TNT, Nets at Hawks.)
The current set-up is terrible. This is a billion-dollar league with a worldwide reach and they're letting their broadcast partners dictate mass viewer confusion? What the hell? One game is on ABC or ESPN and the next three that day are on TNT? I know they have promos saying game four of this series is on TNT and game three of the other one is on ESPN and game five of another is on ABC, but let's be real, nobody pays attention to those. I am a stickler for knowing what game is on when and even I get lost. When I get lost trying to find the right channel, trust me that something is off.

Fix it. Fix it soon. It's just getting worse now that NBA TV is in the mix. I didn't even want to go there. Based on the ratings, nobody else does either. With the world going more and more to an internet-based viewing system, networks mean less and less every day. The NBA has been on top of most technology changes for the past 20 years (the Blazers were the first-ever team with a website, but that's mostly due to Paul Allen than anything else- I swear this is true but I can't find a reference point). The quicker the league realizes that broadcast team continuity is better than network continuity, the better off we'll all be.

Then there will be plenty of regard for human life. Remote down, man down. 

photos courtesy: houston.cbslocal.com, blogs.orlandosentinel.com, toovia.com, twitter.com/sperodedes

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Mayweather/Pacquiao Wasn’t Boring, It Was Boxing

There are lots of complaints out there about how the Floyd Mayweather/Manny Pacquiao Fight of the Century of the Week was “boring.”

It wasn’t boring boxing, it was regular boxing. I don’t know what people were expecting going into the fight, because regular boxing is not what you see from Rocky or Jake LaMotta or Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out or Bugs Bunny.

Boxing is known as the “Sweet Science” because it is much more strategic than most people give it credit for. Yes, the way you win is by hitting another human being repeatedly, which is generally frowned upon in polite society. But there are different ways to play the game. Mayweather’s way, which is defensively-focused, is a winning way even if it’s not sometimes the most exciting way to victory.

We remember Rocky and Apollo Creed (or Clubber Lang, or Drago) knocking each other on the chin for hour after hour in slow motion. In real life those fights would last thirty seconds, not thirty minutes of movie time. That’s not how it works in real boxing. Boxing is really a defensive sport. It’s about not getting hit as much as it is about hitting the other guy.

The amount of people talking about how boring the fight was reminds me of the soccer analysis during the World Cup. I can’t remember how many instant-experts demanded that Michael Bradley get benched because it was “his fault” that Portugal scored the last-second tying goal in the final group stage match. Simple analysis of the play shows that all Bradley did was lose the ball 10 other guys failed in that horrible sequence that allowed Portugal to move the ball across the entire pitch without any resistance in about 15 seconds.

Those people clearly hadn’t watched enough soccer to make the proper call, just like the thousands who are now calling the Fight of the Century of the Week “boring.”

Obviously with a knockout there would be much more after-fight excitement than there is now. But that’s America nowadays. If it’s not instant gratification, it’s boring. That’s why the fight is being criticized so much. But it’s also a clear indicator of how many people have taken some time to understand boxing and how many haven’t.

Defense wins championships. It’s true in boxing as well as other sports. It was true for Mayweather/Pacquiao, even if it was allegedly boring. Boxing fans know better.

"What's boring, Doc?"
photos courtesy: usatoday.com, drgrobsanimationreview.com

Thursday, April 30, 2015

It’s A Throwback Saturday, Where Boxing and Horse Racing Take Center Stage

Secretariat at the Kentucky Derby, 1973
On Saturday, May 2nd, two once-kings of American sports will have a day when they are once more the biggest sports in the country. Since it’s the first Saturday in May, that means the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby, and Saturday night Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao will duke it out in Las Vegas for several crown.

There was a time when boxing and horse racing were the top spectator sports in America and it wasn’t even close. In the 1930’s the NBA didn’t exist and the NFL and NHL were a fledgling regional leagues with no teams west of Green Bay. Baseball was big but fragmented, with plenty of fans more interested in their town ball teams- people took the minor leagues very seriously because the rosters were generally filled with hometown boys- than the major leagues. Golf was for the rich.

I don’t know why horse racing and boxing were the top draws for the first half of the 20th century and I am certainly no authoritarian on these things- I’d nominate Laura Hillenbrand or the late great authors David Halberstam or Studs Terkel- but I can take an educated guess. Like baseball, boxing matches and horse racing were common occurrences in every town in the days before television. They were popular to compete in even when it wasn’t a professional event- baseball and boxing in particular. In the days before everybody had a car, most everybody had a horse or knew how to ride one. Like drag racing or bike riding, horse racing was something people did pretty much anyway. And boxing rings are easy to set up- every town had some sort of auditorium or arena- and it seems like there were more fist fights then, so more guys knew how to fight.

The popularity of those sports declined for various reasons, most of them in some way related to television. Boxing was at first very popular on the teevee because it required very little camera movement to show everything. It’s the same reason wrestling and bowling were very successful on early TV- because people would watch pretty much anything. But neither boxing nor horse racing had cohesive marketing units like the NFL or the NBA or MLB, and that led to their declines.

Health concerns coming to light were probably the biggest factors in the decline of horse racing and boxing as popular sports. Both sports had weight limits, and boxers and jockeys would do horrible things to get or keep weight (Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit” has a harrowing account of the many ways jockeys tried to lose pounds in the hours leading up to weigh-in). Horses were (and many allege still are) treated horribly in attempts to gain more speed, from pills to injections to just straight-up intimidation tactics. As the public became aware of these things- read a Dick Francis novel or two to get some ideas- people turned away. In addition, a “punch drunk” ex-boxer was a common sight, and we now know that was an after-effect of too many concussions (the NFL should be taking copious notes on all of this).

Outside the ring, in a problem that continues to this day, there are as many different boxing regulatory committees as there are weight classes. You and I could form a boxing committee and have a championship belt and guys would want to win it because it’s another way they can call themselves “champ.” Because so many people can call themselves “champ,” it gets watered down. Occasionally somebody can break through, like Ali or Tyson or Sugar Ray Leonard, but just because everybody knows their name doesn’t mean everybody wants to watch them do their thing. My parents know who Justin Bieber is but couldn’t tell you any of his songs. Neither could I, and I’m proud of that.

It’s also difficult to distill horse racing down to one big championship race. The “Triple Crown” is the closest thing to a Horse Racing Finals as there will be, but that’s just for two year old horses. Horses can race for several years. The many different kinds of championship horse races depends on the age of the horse and the style of racing. The Triple Crown has endured because the tracks in Louisville, Baltimore and Saratoga banded together to promote themselves. Like how the Masters promoted itself as a different kind of golf tournament. There are plenty of other important historical tracks around the country, from Los Angeles to Miami, but the average person doesn’t know about those.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, there are many fewer people who know how to ride horses and who get into fights than there were in the early days of the 20th century. The ability for the public to have some sort of familiarity and underlying knowledge of what a jockey is doing in a race or a boxer is doing in a ring has dropped precipitously. Nearly everybody has played a baseball or softball game or flag football or shot hoops. We understand those sports more intuitively than we do boxing or horse racing. Because I actually played roller hockey, I like watching hockey. It could very well be as simple as that. 

But for one day, boxing and horse racing will again be the top draws in America. And that conjures up for me a sportswriting life that I would love to have, if only for a day. I want to wear a fedora, a wide short polka-dot tie and a flower in my lapel- which would mean I’d have to wear a coat with lapels. I want to be an old-time member of the press (because “journalist” was too high-falutin’ for those guys) with that button on the label of my fedora. I want to be clacking away at my Royal typewriter slapping down prose that would make Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, WC Heinz and Ernest Hemingway proud.

By Monday morning (or more likely, Saturday at midnight), we’ll be back to discussing playoff basketball and the NFL draft and early season baseball trends. On Saturday, though, boxing and horse racing will be the talk of the land once more. It’ll be interesting to see how many people really dig in to the romanticized nostalgia. If you need to find me on Saturday, I’ll be wearing my fedora.
"I'll have it for you in 20 minutes, Chief!"
photos courtesy: totalprosports.com, biography.com, theboxingtribune.com, and the great photo of me is by mandysloan.com

Monday, April 27, 2015

Justin Maxwell, San Francisco Giants MVP of the Week

Max effort
There’s no doubt that San Francisco Giants Justin Maxwell was the team MVP last week. In five games he had three homers, six RBI- including the walk-off extra-inning winner on Thursday- and went 6-for-20 (.300) while making some outstanding defensive plays in the field as the G-men swept the Dodgers thanks in large part to Maxwell. He continued it in an abbreviated Rockies series.

Here's the best play he made all week.

That offensive production, by the way, equaled or bettered his entire 2014 season, when he was a little-used sub for the American League Champion Kansas City Royals. He did receive a pennant ring along with fellow former Royal Nori Aoki, but he contributed to the champs about as much as I did. That’s not a knock on the guy, that’s the truth.

By making such big contributions with so little expected, Maxwell becomes the latest in a line of recent Giants who have done the same thing, albeit the others did their stuff during pennant races or the playoffs- Cody Ross in 2010, Barry Zito in 2012, and Joe Panik last season come to mind.

Because Maxwell has done his stuff in the first weeks of 2015, the glove he wore while making that great catch against the Dodgers won’t go into the museum next to the Rally Thong… at least not yet.

Maxwell fits the Giants’ mold because he’s only gotten this chance because Hunter Pence has been hurt. But because this has happened a lot to the Giants, it’s got to be another credit to Bruce Bochy for making little-used guys feel like they’re part of something bigger.

A quick glance at Maxwell’s career shows that he’s not had achance to play regularly. He’s only played more than 75 games in a season once, when he played 124 for the 2012 Houston Astros. That team lost 107 games in their final National League season and was part of one of the statistically worst series in baseball history- their final three games against the Cubs became one of the few times that two teams with 100 losses played each other.

What happened next shows how lightly Maxwell has been regarded: the next season, the Astros traded him for a minor league pitcher. The worst team in the majors got rid of a guy who played 125 games for them.

Two years later, he’s at least a one-week wonder for the defending World Champions. Bochy has made Maxwell- and many other players- believe in themselves after not getting perhaps the best treatment. Bochy’s managerial style has gotten a guy like Maxwell, whose enthusiasm might be flagging after years bouncing around the leagues, excited about putting himself and his body on the line, if only temporarily.

Even if Maxwell gets relegated to bench duty and spot starts after Pence comes back, Bochy will have a measure of trust in the guy, and Maxwell will know that he’s getting a fair shake.

If all he does the rest of the season is play well against the Dodgers, Giants fans will be satisfied, that’s for sure. Then Maxwell’s play will be part of the stories that people tell about the best rivalry in baseball, no matter what the Easterners say. That won’t be a bad major league legacy for a guy who didn’t have much of one heading into 2015.

"Glad you're on my team. Uh, what was your name?"
photos courtesy: sfgate.com, usatoday.com