Thursday, April 30, 2009

On "Parity" in Baseball

Darren Everson has an intriguing piece in the Wall Street Journal about how, in an age of quantification and statistical projection, most baseball teams rely on "sleepers" to push them over the top. He bases his theory on this:

Even franchises with a financial edge like Boston and the New York Yankees and Mets are having trouble building dominant teams. In fact, this is shaping up as potentially the greatest stretch of parity in baseball history. In the past three seasons, just one team has reached 100 wins -- last year's Los Angeles Angels. Since the 162-game schedule was universally adopted in 1962, the average is roughly one 100-win team per season.

I will admit this: I have not looked at the baseball standings all season (I try not do so until at least early June; otherwise, it feels as if I am looking at the Top 25 after Week One of the college football season, and Ohio State is ranked No. 1, based on its 73-9 defeat of Southern Toledo). However, I just looked at the standings now, and I do not see anything particularly surprising. Perhaps there are fewer dominant teams, but if this is baseball's idea of parity, I don't find it particularly compelling. Because I imagine it will shake out the same way it always does.

Like most casual (and disillusioned) modern fans of the sport, I believe baseball's reality is largely predestined before the season even begins. For instance, I do not imagine that the Pirates or Royals will be able to win their division, probably ever (and I assume their own fans don't believe it, either, no matter how good a story Zack Greinke might be). I imagine that, of the Yankees and the Mets and the Red Sox, at least two of those franchises will be among the eight to make the playoffs, despite the tabloid-fueled hand-wringing*. I imagine that those three teams will spend the most money chasing after the "sleepers" Everson is referring to in August and September, and therefore, doesn't that mean those teams still have greater odds of succeeding in finding a "sleeper" who can carry them over the top? I imagine that teams like Tampa Bay (2008) will remain statistical anomalies rather than some larger indicator that baseball is finally close achieving true parity through SABRmetrics and number-crunching, and not even a battalion of Nate Silver-esque geniuses can convince me otherwise. I believe that baseball will continue on the path toward becoming a niche sport, two steps above the NHL, until it realizes that a salary cap and revenue-sharing are the only ways to achieve true parity, and to embrace modernity. And I don't believe that one team's pickup of Mark Bellhorn will be enough to tip the balance.

*When was the last time the Yankees got off to a good start, for that matter? I'm sure this has been covered elsewhere, but in in 2008, they started 9-10 and won 89 games; in 2007, they started 9-14 and won 94 games; in 2006, they started 8-8 and won 97 games; in 2005, they started 11-19 and won 95 games. Certainly, you can argue that the Yankees are a crumbling dynasty, that they do not evoke the same fear they have in the past, but you cannot argue that, because they have started the season at 10-10, that they are no longer a relevant factor in the American League East.

(Photo: Associated Press/WSJ)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On the Writer's Life

Not long ago, I won a book award. (In fact, this award is so prestigious that the year after I won it, the award itself ceased to exist.) Upon winning, I was told that these awards would be distributed at a nationally televised ceremony hosted by a jovial morning-show personality. Now, I should say that winning an award is always an honor and a shock, especially since the books I was up against were both well-written and well-received, but we all know there is nothing more exciting in the televised universe than an awards ceremony celebrating a medium that most Americans find antiquated and obsolete.* My guess is that the broadcast finished fourth in its time slot, behind an Access Hollywood re-run, a Shamwow commercial, and something hosted by Byron Allen. My guess is that most of the celebrities who had been coerced into presenting discussed the viability of their current representation on the way home.

Anyway, here is my point: In the midst of this awards ceremony, I found myself standing backstage, with no idea of where to go. I had accepted my award from an ex-football player and an ex-model, and I had walked off, and I had assumed someone would tell me how to get back to my seat. But no one did. So I stood there and I waited, and I watched a former network news anchor schmooze with an actress from a show about New Jersey mobsters, and then a soft-spoken, white-haired man approached me and shook my hand and congratulated me and asked if he could look at my award. I gave it to him, and I thought perhaps this man looked familiar, and then I thought, "Is this man going to steal my award?" But he gave it back to me, and eventually I wandered through a back hallway, past a janitor's closet, and wound up locked outside the auditorium with the ex-model (who was actually quite lovely) and the head of a major cable network, while we waited patiently for the next commercial break to arrive.

When I returned to my seat, that white-haired man was standing on the stage, presenting an award. And at that moment, I realized that this was Gay Talese, the man who wrote the greatest magazine profile in the history of magazines, the man whose work I had been studying (and occasionally imitating) since college. So now I was an award-winner who also felt incredibly worthless. In fact, if I am being honest, I probably would have traded the award** to spend an evening downing stiff vodka-based drinks with Gay Talese.

I would have asked to see this man's writing bunker. I would have asked him about the overwhelming and intimate complexities of his marriage to a prominent New York book editor, and about what it's been like to live the kind of extraordinary writing life--both personally and professionally--that could never be replicated in the modern age.

Fortunately, Jonathan Van Meter did all of that here, in an astounding piece for New York magazine.

*Which is every medium, of course, except blogs.
**Though I should say it is a very nice, very heavy award.

(Photo: Mary Ellen Mark/New York Magazine)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

On the Joseph V. Paterno Cost of Living Index

Because I have agreed to bequeath both my kidney and my first-born child to the Penn State Alumni Association, I recently received an e-mail alert that Joe Paterno is giving a number of speeches in various cities in upcoming weeks. I assume this is something he has done in the past, and my assumption is that the bulk of the money goes toward the university's athletic department, and given Paterno's relatively modest* salary, I will also presume that there is a noble purpose behind these appearances. But I find this confounding:

On May 5, he will speak in Washington, D.C. And the cost, per person, is $35.

On April 30, he will speak in New York City. And the cost, per person, is $150.

Now, last month, I took my girlfriend to see Fleetwood Mac at Madison Square Garden. Our seats were not ideal--they were, in fact, located in that cheap and tawdry netherworld behind the stage,** where we were surrounded by NYU students dressed up like Stevie Nicks and several dozen overbearing and intoxicated women from Massapequa. But I suppose we went because there was a certain cache to seeing Fleetwood Mac at Madison Square Garden, even if they are 32 years past their prime, even if Chrstine McVie long ago thought better of this idea, even if Mick Fleetwood is now indistinguishable from Animal of the Muppets.

My point is this: My ticket to see Fleetwood Mac at the Garden, even after the Ticketmaster mugging, cost half of what it would cost me to go to the Plaza Hotel to see Joe Paterno tell stories about Matt Millen and Milt Plum and Virgil's Aeneid and life in colonial Williamsburg. And perhaps I am biased, because I grew up in a town where we'd see Joe Paterno at the supermarket, and while I respect his achievements and would most likely defend him against his detractors, I find this price point*** utterly absurd. For this kind of money, I could buy a ticket on the Amtrak Acela, ride down to D.C., listen to the same stories, and have money left over to buy a pair of Nationals season tickets. (In some neighborhoods, I could probably also buy a studio apartment.) For this price, I am hoping that Paterno will sing a duet of "Second-Hand News" with LaVar Arrington. In Central Park. Atop a Clydesdale.

Because that is something I would pay to see.

Not 150 dollars, of course. But perhaps 35.

*In relation to other major college coaches, that is. Not in relation to, say, a professor.
**I spare no expense.
***I am assuming I have used the term "price-point" correctly here, though I can't be sure, since I learned this term by watching The Apprentice.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

R.I.P., Landon Brownell

My book The Kings of New York tells the story of a motley group of teenagers from Brooklyn's Edward R. Murrow High School, who happen to be perennial contenders for the national high-school chess championship. And one of the subplots that develops later in the narrative is Murrow's ongoing rivalry with a school in Arizona, Catalina Foothills High School, whose best player was a lanky kid named Landon Brownell.

Well, I was horrified to read that Landon Brownell died this week in a car accident. He was 19 years old.

I didn't know Landon at all, but some people who did know him share their stories--and their memories of a match depicted in the book, in which Landon scored a pivotal victory over a highly rated Murrow player at the 2005 national championships--here.

(You can also make a donation to the Southern Arizona Chess Association (SACA), in memory of Landon Brownell, P.O. Box 42407, Tucson, AZ 85733)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Bo: "I guess I'm a product of the '80's"

From a Newsweek interview with Bo Jackson:
Was there a point during your career when the attention got out of hand?

Back in the late '80s when I was living in Kansas City, I stopped answering my door. People would send their kids to come ask for an autograph. I started telling them that Mr. Jackson had moved to China.

I think what struck me about Bo, during the brief period I spent with him, and in the months I've spent studying him since then (as you may have guessed, he figures prominently in the book I'm working on), is just how self-possessed he is--even when engaged in the mundanity of daily life. Bo did/does what Bo wanted to do, for better or worse. In that way, he really did represent the new breed of athlete that emerged in the '80's. And not just in Tecmo Bowl.

(Photo: Ross Dettman,

On Yankee Excess

I have not been to the "new" Yankee Stadium yet, and I do not plan on going to the new Yankee Stadium unless I am somehow kidnapped at the Bowling Green subway stop by ruffians from Morgan Stanley who need someone to help fill their luxury box. In fact, on television, it would appear the new Yankee Stadium looks exactly like the old Yankee Stadium, except it costs three times as much. It's like they've upgraded from a generic pharmaceutical to a brand-name pharmaceutical (which apparently Yankee fans have something of a need for anyway). And as with pharmaceuticals, the only people who can tell the difference between the two are the people making the profits.

However, it's been interesting to witness the backlash against the new Yankee Stadium. In a way, much of this is to be expected--it is the Yankees, after all. But given their bumbling ways, it seems that they've become a cipher for the populist rage that has become so trendy at both extremes of the political spectrum. It is not a good time to be a bloated and unnecessarily gilded American institution, as Matt Taibbi, an undeniably talented writer and reporter who is sort of like the Dave Kingman of the populist screed, proved with this recent evisceration of Yankee GM Brian Cashman.*

I suppose the larger question, at least for me, is: Will it last? It seems we're asking this question of a number of American institutions--whether this trend toward populism is simply a product of the flatlining economy, and if/when the economy turns around, these same major American institutions will once again become bloated with money and self-importance, and if, in another 10-15 years, these same institutions will once again become victims of their own hubris. And in sports, I suppose we can ask the same question. I do think sports truly blew up--in a monetary sense--in the '80's, which is why I chose to write a book about that era; and I don't think there's ever really been a "correction," so to speak. And I'm not saying that salaries will ever trickle back down to a level where Dustin Pedroia will be forced to take a job at a BP Station in the offseason*, but I wonder if the new Yankee Stadium, with its overpriced steakhouses (where, as Paul Lukas informs us, a New York strip will set you back five sawbucks) and its $12.50 beers and its $2500 seats, will become a paean to aughts-decade excess, a monument to a time when the games finally outgrew themselves.

*Though as long as it is not in his hometown, I'll bet could do this job quite well.

(Photo: Julie Jacobson, AP/NYT)

Monday, April 20, 2009

On "Bias"

It is a miserable day in New York City; if ever they were going to shoot a sequel to Seven,* today would have been the optimal time. Therefore, I am going to engage in that time-honored Internet tradition of complaining about something that someone else is complaining about.

Headline: San Diego Padres' Heath Bell complains about "East Coast Bias" in sports coverage. "I'm really turned off by ESPN and 'Baseball Tonight.'," he says. "When Jake Peavy threw 8 1/3 innings on Saturday, they showed one pitch in the third inning and that was it. It's all about the Red Sox, Yankees and Mets.”

Addled Bloggers' Response:
I've never understood why people seem so preoccupied with pointing out "bias" when that "bias," in the grand scheme of things, means absolutely nothing at all. I remember watching Penn State football games as a child and hearing people complain about the Southern "bias" of Frank Broyles, who used to do color commentary with Keith Jackson back in the days when the game clock we saw on our television screens was actually an encapsulated version of the stadium's digital scoreboard clock. And you know what? They were probably right about it, since Broyles wound up becoming the longtime athletic director at Arkansas. And yet I cannot remember this "bias" affecting my enjoyment of any Penn State game, ever. Nor did it affect the outcome, as far as I know.

But let's say it is true. In fact, let's say every announcer is, in fact, "bias" (and yes, I know "biased" is the proper usage, but this is the Internet, and grammar is optional) against somebody for reasons we cannot even begin to comprehend, usually because of a grand and improvable conspiracies involving the National Security Agency, Jimmy Hoffa and the plot of a Warren Beatty film. Let's say Al Michaels hates the Cleveland Browns because he once got food poisoning from the cafe at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.** Let's say Dick Vitale is actually receiving graft for a wildly experimental hair treatment from Mike Krzyzewski.*** Let's say Brent Musburger holds a grudge against the Montana State Bobcats, since the University of Montana once gave him an honorary doctorate.**** Let us say all this is true, and then let me ask you this:

Who cares? How does this affect you? How does this affect anything?

We are both blessed and cursed to live in an age where most of us have access to infinite sources of information, all the time; therefore, "bias" should be less relevant than ever before, and yet it has somehow become an excuse for everyone everywhere to blame their problems on the purveyors of the information.

And so I would just like to remind Heath Bell, who complained about ESPN's apparent East Coast Bias, that the information he is seeking about his own team and others located three hours to the west of Bristol Mean Time--including more highlights of Jake Peavy, his teammate, who, I'm assuming, he gets to see in person every so often--is readily available in approximately 13 million other places, outside of ESPN, including the MLB Network, which Bell mentioned, which, of course, has no "bias" at all*****. The larger point is this: Have you ever been to San Diego? Why, if you live in San Diego, are you ever inside, watching television? In fact, why anyone out there gets worked up about anything besides Dr. Zog's sex wax and fish tacos is beyond me.

Among these additional sources of information, of course, are your local newspaper. However, I also understand that this local newspaper is no doubt "bias" because it employs a columnist/editorial writer who is "bias" against whichever political persuasion you happen to ascribe to, and is therefore thoroughly infected with "bias," and could not possibly report objectively on anything, ever. It is a vicious cycle, and there is no real answer except to boycott television, the Internet, and newspapers, move to the Mojave desert (West Coast desert "bias" alert!), and live among the wolves (despite their vehement anti-sheep views).

Then again, I live in New York. So I have no idea who Heath Bell actually is.

*Now with extra gluttony!
***Unlikely, but not impossible.
****This is actually true. The honorary doctorate part, that is. I do not know if Brent is anti-Bobcat, but it would be a hell of a lot cooler if he was.
*****Except perhaps against the NFL Network.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

On Madden

Why most of us have such affection for Big John Madden is his relentless romanticism, of which I doubt he's aware. One day there was a tropical downpour but due to the artificial turf the play on the field wasn't that bad. Big John said, ''You know, this ought to be played on grass. I like it when the guys are all muddy and gooey and slipping and sliding around. That's football.''
--Frederick Exley

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that John Madden's exit from the broadcast booth has been met, largely, by indifference and relief. Madden has been overexposed for so long that even his celebrity impersonator has seen his career come and go. He has forever been the punchline to his own jokes, and even as he mellowed in recent years, he often seemed hopelessly suspended in his own ether. Madden was a romantic, and either you found it endearing (like I did) or you found it nauseating. In the midst of researching my book on sports in the 1980's, I found this quote in a 1986 article from Advertising Age, regarding Madden's spots for Ramada Inn:*

I know beauty is only skin deep, and I know Mr. Madden is a clever football commentator, but, for Pete's sake, the man is gross. He has a big head. He has a big mouth. He has big features and big hands on a big body. His hair and voice come at you with a big bang.
...Mr. Madden doesn't talk. He raves. You can feel his spit through the tv screen.

I'm guessing that's probably the nastiest review Ad Age has run since Jared started downing six-inch cold-cut combos twice a day. But subtletly was never Madden's thing. He is polarizing because he embraced the absurdity of the very medium in which he worked, not to mention the absurdity of modern sports. You can fault him for many things: He was awkward and excessive and had a knack for uttering things that were patently obvious, and he used the telestrator as a comedic prop, but his utter imperfection, his Homer Simpson bent, was his shtick. He believed in throwbacks, and in the primal nature of football, but he embraced modernity at the same time. He was the anti-John Facenda; he was the voice of the football as an irreverent entertainment, which was something we had not seen until the 1980's, when the games began melding with pop culture in unprecedented ways--and was also, not coincidentally, the beginning of the era of reality-based video games. Through this transition, Madden was our oft-befuddled guide**.

So you can argue (as Harvey Araton did in The New York Times) that Madden glorified violence and you can argue that Madden should have been more socially aware and you can argue that Madden didn't really know much about football in the first place, but you cannot say that John Madden didn't matter. He made football seem both romantic and silly, at a time when football--after suffering through several P.R. nightmares in the early '80s--needed to take itself less seriously.

And I am hesitant to believe that any generation has a definitive voice, but if you look back at the changes in sports and in media over the past two decades, no one is more emblematic of that new reality than the gooey man with the big head and the big mouth, raving on about the mud.

*Which I must say I do not remember at all.
**And he happened to make a cajillion dollars in the process.

Friday, April 17, 2009

On Something Completely Different

Here's my latest piece, about a basketball team from the 1930s and a forgotten boycott. I worry sometimes that the Internet is going to subsume anything that isn't urgent and immediate, and so it's always a relief when I'm able to get away with telling a story that goes in a completely different direction.

Also, those uniforms are outstanding.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

On the Best News of the Day

So HBO has announced that it is renewing Eastbound and Down, the absurd and crude and bracing television mini-series about a John Rocker facsimile attempting to cope with his own failure. It's odd, because the star, Danny McBride, cannot even throw a baseball without looking like he might sprain several muscles he does not even have--he is the worst cinematic hurler since Wiley Wiggins in Dazed and Confused--and the humor is broad and occasionally ridiculous (the climax of the first season centered around one character literally getting his eye knocked out of his head by a fastball), and yet I would venture to say that this might be the most realistic portrayal of major-league baseball since Jim Bouton's Ball Four. In fact, I could (and will, I guess) make an argument that Kenny Powers, the main character, is the embodiment of the steroids era*, for he is angry and spiteful and disturbingly convinced of his own self-worth (his book-on-tape autobiography is the greatest exercise in egotism since Trump: The Art of the Deal). Here, in the form of a foul-mouthed washed-up relief pitcher, is the greatest representation yet of what baseball has done to itself in the past 15-20 years, and of how the game, in embracing its coarse and insular nature and refusing to address its problems, seems to have completely lost sight of its audience.

Then again, it's also just a damn funny program, and it feels like nothing I've ever seen before. Any show that can introduce with an entirely unsympathetic character and turn him into a cult hero in six episodes must be doing something right.

And with that, I'm f-ing out.

*And he does have a brief dalliance with steroids during Season 1.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

On Opening Day, and Why It No Longer Matters (To Me)

When I was 12 years old, I developed an abiding love for a game called Statis-Pro Baseball. This is what is known as a "strategic baseball simulation board game"--in other words, it was a sort of haven for uber-geeks like me in the days before video games came into existence*. In fact, I played Statis-Pro Baseball virtually every day for several summers ; I played it alone, in my parents' basement, while listening to Def Leppard's "Hysteria" or catching a daytime baseball game** or watching David Letterman or tuning into the grainy late-night signal of WFAN, beamed from three hundred miles to the east, from the metropolis of New York City. It was actually quite fun. I enjoyed my solitude. I enjoyed immersing myself in the numbers. I was a weird little dude.

Statis-Pro Baseball was played with cards, and I had a set of cards from the 1983 season, and I had a misguided notion that I would eventually play an entire season of games with these cards, based on an actual major-league schedule. I did not seem to realize that in order to do this, I would have to spend my entire life in my parents' basement.***To this day, I can still inform you about the minutiae embedded in those Statis-Pro cards. I still associate certain players with certain numbers (for instance, I can tell you that Bob Knepper had a PB of 2-7, though I can no longer remember what that means. Every man, I suppose, is required to maintain a certain amount of useless information in his memory. This is mine.)

I've been thinking about those Statis-Pro cards now that Opening Day has arrived, and I've been thinking about how deeply I cared for baseball, and how caught up I became in the culture of baseball: In Statis-Pro, in the Bill James Baseball Abstract, in that very thorough and nerd-ridden Elias book, in Rotisserie League Baseball,**** in all the numerical deep-sea diving that has produced a generation of general managers and Baseball Prospectus writers. Here's the difference between me and them: At some point, I began to care less and less about these things. And here I am in 2009, twenty-six years after Bob Knepper and his PB, and I find that I hardly care about baseball at all. In fact, baseball generally seems like nothing more than a protracted impediment keeping me from football season. And it's hard to know exactly why this happened, but I have some theories.

I think it begins with my schizophrenic rooting interests: My father was a Yankee fan (he grew up in New York), and yet I grew up in central Pennsylvania, rooting (briefly) for the Pirates in the wake of We Are Family, and then for the Phillies, after Tug McGraw hurled his glove toward Skylab upon clinching the World Series. For a time, I supported both the Phillies and the Yankees, and then I got to high school and began wondering why I should support anything my father supported, and then came the Mitch Williams meltdown of '93, and the strike of '94, and I started to wonder why I should support any of these teams at all. I will admit it: I had a hard time with that strike. It was, I think, the stupidest thing I've ever seen in pro sports in my lifetime. It made me wonder why any of these people deserved my allegiance. It made me think that baseball***** presumed that it could do whatever it wanted and get away with it merely because Ken Burns was on their side.

(Since then, I've become a Red Sox fan. This happened involuntarily, after I moved there to Boston graduate school in 2000, and I presumed that I had latched on for 86 more years of heartbreak and angst, and not to a franchise that would become the Gap of baseball clubs, a team that would sell thousands of pink hats, a team that would be represented on celluloid by the worst late-night talk-show host since Magic Johnson.)

Anyway, I don't think baseball's sense of its own cultural superiority has changed, given what's happened since then. I've been in baseball clubhouses, and I've never felt comfortable inside them. It always seems like you're eavesdropping on a table of ornery jocks in the high-school cafeteria. It is, by far, the most insular sport I've ever been around, and the ongoing steroids fiasco has only reinforced that fact. And while it's true that baseball also has the richest intellectual history of any game, I still imagine that most baseball players in most baseball clubhouses would cheer if one of their teammates gave George Will a swirlie. This is why the argument between baseball "purists" and SABR-metric geeks has essentially degenerated into Revenge of the Nerds, Part V; it's because there is something inherently crude about baseball, about men scratching and spitting and hurling spheroids at each other, something that transcends the overt violence of football and the pituitary lottery of basketball, something that the purists are afraid is being taken away from them. (In this way, baseball is far more conservative than football could ever be.)

Of course, it's not just them. It's me. I've changed. I grew up in a college town, among college sports, and so I have an inherent bias against the mercenary world of professional sports. I grew up worshiping at the altar of college football, and I find now that football has every element of a game that a man could possibly wish for: It is fast, and it is violent, and it is steeped in strategy. And baseball--well, baseball just seems so slow.

I know: That's the point. Baseball is a background sport. But even when I keep it on in the background, and try to read a book, I find myself wondering: Has Manny Ramirez been at-bat for three-and-a-half hours, or is it just me?

This does concern me a little, because I often worry that the Internet and all its attendant speed is warping my brain, but it is part of a much larger picture. Baseball is the only game I watch that somehow seems childish to me, and I suppose the steroids saga--even though I am generally indifferent toward the morality of it--was the last straw. I understand that the game remains incredibly popular in certain pockets of the country (including the Northeast), and yet it has never seemed less culturally relevant. And I wonder if I've just outgrown it, or if somehow, America is outgrowing it, too.

*True story.
**For some reason, my cable system in central Pennsylvania did not include Chicago's WGN, yet WGN was included in our newspaper's cable guide. This was an unecessary tease. It also caused me to miss several thousand hours of Harry Caray marveling at children in sombreros; I suppose it also forced me to play outside, rather than waste away a fine July afternoon watching Leon "Bull" Durham and Warren Brusstar.
In the end, it is a wash.
***Which I suppose would make me a prototypical blogger.
****I started my first Fantasy League in 1987, with four teams. I think I was the only person who understood what we were doing, and even I wasn't sure. The statistics were transcribed from USA Today and added up with the same Texas Instruments graphing calculator that landed me a D+ in trigonometry. My friend Ben's team was known as the Craighead Commie Killers, and at one point I mistakenly began abbreviating his franchise as the CCC's in the stat sheets, and then I refused to change course merely because I liked the alliteration. This is why Ben is now a doctor, and I am not.
*****And I speak not of the actual game here, but of the Powers That Be.
******An outstanding blog about baseball cards, and I find I love baseball cards much more than baseball itself.

(Photos:, Cardboard gods******)

Friday, April 3, 2009

On a Respite From Years of Futility

This is why every parent should teach their child to develop an allegiance to at least one (1) team that would seem to have no actual hope of winning anything at all, ever*--because there is something to be said, at least in the realm of fandom, for the soft bigotry of low expectations, for enduring years of futility**. Because then, when your chosen team wins a tournament that hasn't technically been relevant since the 1950s, against a school best-known for murder and Branch Davidians, it still feels a little like VJ Day.

*Otherwise, there is a severe risk they'll end up a Yankee fan.
**One thing I neglected to mention here, in that long and angst-ridden exploration of my own personal history of Penn State basketball: If I have this story correct, a Penn State player, in the midst of one of several eras of hopelessness and futility, threw an extremely accurate chest pass to the Nittany Lion mascot. During a game. To be fair, I believe this was unintentional, and the Lion does wear a basketball uniform (though this predated Teen Wolf, so he could not evoke the "I thought our power forward had become a hirsute werewolf" excuse).

(Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

On JoePa

So I went to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night to watch the Penn State basketball team continue its epic and folkloric run through the National Invitation Tournament* (as I've stated previously, this is Penn State basketball--we take whatever miracles we can get, especially in mid-to-late winter, when central Pennsylvania is frigid and dark and overrun by stray deer). And it appeared that most of the denizens of my hometown of State College, Pa., had bused up to New York for the occasion**, along with one Joseph Vincent Paterno, age 82, once of Brooklyn, NY. And during the first half, Paterno appeared on the ESPN broadcast and fell into an Abe Simpsonian dialogue about blacks and Jews and the history of basketball. It was awkward, it was not exactly politically correct, and it threw a few members of the blogosophere into a minor tizzy, as old men rambling on national television tend to do (See: McCain, John).

As I've stated before (in this column), I have mixed feelings about Paterno's very public descent into octogenarianism (?), about his rampant stubbornness to reveal his future plans (Or, to quote Joe: "Ehhhh..."), and about his questionable decision-making in terms of discipline (or to quote Joe: "Eyeeeedon'tknow."). And one could certainly make an argument that his comments last night, at the very least, make him appear "out of touch"--though one could also argue that Paterno grew up in a very different New York City, one often defined by ethnicity, and therefore was simply reflecting that reality.*** (Though one could then counter that reality has changed, and Paterno should reflect such changes...and then one could challenge the blogosphere to an arm-wrestling match.)

Regardless, here is what I know: An 82-year-old football coach drove (or was driven) 300 miles to attend a sporting event that began at 9 p.m. and ended sometime after 11, simply because his school was being represented in a sport where it's never had much success in the first place. And you could feel that kind of (semi-irrational) devotion at the Garden last night--overwhelmed as it was by hordes of Penn State students, by alums like me who refuse to let go of our connection to college, and by Paterno himself. Bill Simmons touched on this today in discussing his own alma mater and its athletic futility, and it is true--for many of us, sports keep us connected with our own past, and with our college experience, which is probably why they raise so much sturm und drang within the wilds of the Internet. This is their inherent value; this is why they matter, and this is why they touch on more emotions than professional sports ever could (at least for me).

This is also why I am conflicted about Joe Paterno: I am capable of constant worry about an aging man frittering away his legacy (See: Hayes, Woody), and yet I still feel obligated to defend him. We need nostalgia, and we need these connections, even if they sometimes say inexplicable things on national television.

*If it shattered the hell out of your NIT bracket, I apologize.
**State College, Pa., to New York City, should be a prime candidate for the least interesting five-hour car ride in America, right up there with Dayton to Cleveland and Akron to Anywhere. On a bus, State College to New York City is both interminable and vaguely nauseating.
***Also, he once wore an onion on his belt, because that was the style at the time.