Monday, June 29, 2009

On Several More Inconsequential Things...

1. Shaq: It is his world; we just reside in the shadow of his nonsensical lyrics and serve to disseminate his latest batch of truly tasteless jokes. In the past week, the Man of Multitudinous Nicknames has aroused curiosity for A.) Inveigling a fortuitous trade to Cleveland,* B.) Selling his house at a loss, C.) Soliciting "Yo Mama" jokes on Twitter, and D.) Challenging a bank teller to a game of H-O-R-S-E. He is the human embodiment of the Internet, a trash-talking new-age invention who provides amusement and demands constant attention and can induce seizures upon overexposure.
This past weekend, in an attempt to separate myself from his suffocating presence and avoid getting sucked into yet another replay of the long-form version of the "Thriller" video,**my girlfriend and I walked to a new park on the west side of Manhattan called the High Line, which is essentially an extremely narrow mile-long strand of elevated railroad track that has been converted into a park at the behest of Steve Buscemi. It was O.K., except:
--There was a line. For a park. Proving further that New Yorkers are prepared to line up for anything. Also, there were hand stamps, which meant by the time we arrived at the top of the stairs, I expected Pearl Jam would be into their second set.
--There were no live tigers mixed in among the vegetation.*** This would certainly have kept those bands of tourists moving along the path.
Anyway, while ambling along, I passed a billboard advertisement for the Boys and Girls Club. On it, in all its life-sized glory, was a photo of Shaq at age 9, no doubt revving up a "Yo Mama" joke for the photographer.

2. Brandon Jennings: I don't really know much of anything about this dude, except he managed to thumb his nose at the NCAA cabal that somehow believes sending a kid to school for a single semester during his freshman year will improve both his life and our appreciation for the college game. Anyway used to be, in the olden days of "books" and machines with "metal switches," an athlete would refute the claims in his own autobiography. At least then, he could blame the co-author. But after this YouTube exchange with a rapper named Buddens, I have a feeling Brandon Jennings might not just declaim this video--he could soon wind up becoming the first NBA player to issue a statement refuting his own Twitter feed.

3. Leave Me Alone. If this video doesn't sum up the dichotomous black hole of tabloid weirdness that Michael Jackson (and our entire culture) was on the verge of descending into, circa 1987, I don't know what else I can give you, except perhaps a copy of Kazaam on VHS. And in case you're not satiated, courtesy of GQ's Alex Pappademas, here are 23 other evocative and non-obvious MJ YouTube clips, replete with excellent commentary like this: "... it comes across, eerily, like Michael as Bubble Boy, desperate for human contact."

*Perhaps the first and only time those words have been uttered in public.
**Is it possible to trace the last time before Thursday afternoon that MTV (and I mean the mothership, not the seventeen spin-offs, not MTV Guatemala or MTV Acid Jazz) played the long-form version of "Thriller"? My guess is 1993, but I could be persuaded to take the under.
Also, before we move on to the Nancy Grace phase of this story, here is the best instantly percolated Michael Jackson eulogy I've read.
***Also, at one point along the High Line there is an elevated theatre-like structure, similar to what you'd see at, say, a contemporary art museum, which pointed at a series of plexiglass windows overlooking 10th Avenue. So there were groups of parched European tourists resting on benches, drinking four-dollar iced coffees and staring at a street, as if awaiting the appearance of a man eating a mushroom. To liven up the proceedings, I suggest an occasional flash mob. Or this dude.

Friday, June 26, 2009

On Michael

It has been said, and it will be said...

And yet I suppose the moment I realized that yesterday was much bigger than I could have imagined was when I began to remember things that I didn't even know were still contained within my hippocampus: The time Scott Holderman and I attempted to transcribe all the lyrics to Thriller,* the old Bloom County strips where (I believe) Opus accompanies the Jacksons on the Victory Tour, the innocent horror we felt when we heard about Michael's hair-related pyrotechnics (because even then, Michael seemed somehow invulnerable), the fact that every replay of the "Thriller" video became a paralyzing event upon which all the frenzy of childhood came to a standstill. It was around this time that Michael became the embodiment of '80s celebrity, and it was around this time that he probably lost himself for good. And I think it is probably around this time that we lost ourselves a little bit, as well.

This, for me, is what will last about Michael, beside the music: It is the fact that he came to represent the acceleration of media over the past three decades; it is that, even as he declined to evolve, society evolved through him, in the same way it had evolved through Elvis a generation earlier. We became a tabloid culture, with Michael as our emperor; we developed an overweening obsession with the foibles of the rich and pampered, and Michael became a cipher, and while he brought much of this upon himself, it is also true that he is a reflection of us, and of just how far we've come in the 25 years since the Victory Tour. At some point--and I would argue it might have come around 1986, the period I've spent the the past couple of years exploring for my next book--the emotional walls built up around celebrities were torn down for good, and we were deluged with a sea of new (and often false, and crude) mythologies, those of O.J. and Jacko and Tonya and Nancy. And for better or worse, the cultural landscape we inhabit became a very different place.

This is why those of us who grew up in the 1980s view him in a completely different way than those who came after: Because we might not always see it, but there is a dividing line between us. Because we view culture differently. Because we were the bridge between the age of innocence and the age of cynicism, and Michael Jackson, more than any figure, carried us over that gap.

I cannot remember the specifics of most of those Bloom County strips--the books remain stranded in my room at my parents' house in Pennsylvania**--but I remember, even as their creator, Berke Breathed, poked holes in the notion of modern celebrity through the foibles of the Jacksons, he managed to display an unmistakable sympathy for Michael, for this person who seemed entirely unprepared for the frenzy he'd unleashed, a supremely talented manchild who was about to embark on a journey into an age where he never really seemed to belong.

*This was much more difficult than we realized, given that we had to continually lift the record needle and place it back down precisely where we'd left it. It may have occupied an entire week of our summer, and even then, our translation was woeful. We were especially confounded by "This is the end of your life," from "Thriller, which we translated as, "There's something in or behind," apparently revealing my early fondness for prepositions.
**And I'm not sure how they hold up, but in the moment, they formed the sharpest satirical portrait of the era. I have no doubt there are several thousand writers, like me, who would cite Bloom County as one of the top five cultural influences of our childhood.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

On Grunting

Every so often in the past few months, while buzzing past the Tennis Channel on my way to watching Big Ten network infomercials,* I will briefly convince myself that I am going to find a way to become a passionate fan of tennis. This lasts no longer than twelve minutes, and then it passes, usually when my girlfriend walks in and asks, "Why are you watching tennis?"

The reason, of course, is that tennis is one of those sports that is far more interesting as a literary metaphor than as an actual sport. This is why I consider John McPhee's book about Arthur Ashe to be a classic, even though I have never seen Arthur Ashe play tennis (and in fact, I turned away from a Tennis Channel replay of an Ashe-Connors match after nine minutes the other night); this is why I am actually quite excited to read the talented Jon Wertheim's new book about the Federer-Nadal match. I suppose this is partly a David Foster Wallace effect; his essays about tennis, heartbreakingly brilliant as they were, made me think that perhaps by not watching tennis, I am missing something important and crucial, something that I could not see anywhere else on this earth, at any other time. And while I'm sure this is not what he meant, this is what I saw last night, in my latest cruise through the tennis tier of Time-Warner Cable**--something I could not see anywhere else.

I saw Maria Sharapova, grunting and yelping like a Shit-Tzu attacking a postal carrier. It was so loud I actually began to feel embarrassed; it was so loud I worried perhaps my neighbor would think I was watching a snuff film. A few minutes of this was enough to convince me that grunting has evolved from instinct to gamesmanship; I doubt very much that Sharapova grunts like this when she is, say, opening a jar of kosher dills.

This has to be the strangest "controversy" in modern sports, and if the general public still cared about tennis in America, I have little doubt there would be 13,000 YouTube videos synching Sharapova's grunts with Ol' Dirty Bastard songs. Wertheim espouses an excellent theory here about grunting and its relation to the diva culture of the modern game; perhaps these women are merely grunting to "mark their territory," which only makes the whole thing weirder, and makes me wonder if tennis players are far more interesting than the game they play. Perhaps all the game is lacking is a reality TV program.

*I wondered, ever since my provider, Time Warner**, finally deemed the Big Ten Network worthy of carriage, what this channel would show over the summer. I had no idea how bizarre it would become. There is a whole genre of "campus programming" that seems targeted at people who are so proud of their alma mater that they will watch an hour-long debate among architectural engineering professors. For instance, here are some examples of "campus programming" airing on the Big Ten Network--and no, I am not making these up:
A.)Purdue Campus Programming: Purdue Profiles: Orville Redenbacher B.)Northwestern Campus Programming: Solar Car Competition
C.)Penn State Campus Programming: Music Theatre Spotlight (HD) (HD!)
D.)Wisconsin Campus Programming: Office Hours #3 Darwin's 200th Anniversary (HD) – Debut (Debut! Set your VCR-plus accordingly!)
E.)Ohio State Campus Progamming: Buckeye Football--It's All We Got!***

**Worst. Provider. Ever.

***OK, I may have made this one up.

(Photo: Rick Stevens/AP)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On the Fusina Feud, Cont'd.

And so Jeff Pearlman responds to my criticism of his criticism of the great Chuck Fusina--and he does it by "playing the USFL card." This is a low blow, Jeff, as we both know it is impossible to effectively parry against nostalgia for a league where an egomaniacal caricature of a billionaire, a personally fragmented running back, and an Oompa-Loompa briefly joined forces. It is also probably a bad idea to fan the flames of a virtual feud with an accomplished journalist who has handled the real-life Kenny Powers and the "real-life Emmitt Smith,"* but I am obliged to stand up for the honor of a quarterback who represents the one thing in the world of sports I still hold sacred--and I am not speaking of the Philadelphia Stars.**

Here's the thing: I cannot defend Chuck Fusina on the merits of his professional football career. And if I am being honest, I don't care very much about Chuck Fusina's professional career; I knew of him long before then. I knew of him in the fall of 1978, the year my family uprooted from New York to Pennsylvania, to a college town located approximately four hours from everywhere, to a hamlet in the geographic center of the state that will forever be defined by the distinct profile of its professorial football coach. I knew of Chuck Fusina because he was the quarterback of the local eleven, a group of young men who played in prison-issue uniforms in a stadium on the far side of town; I knew of him because that fall, in the backyard of a house on Devonshire Drive, my friend Scott Holderman and I would regularly re-enact the Fusina-to-Fitzkee connection.***

I turned six years old that fall. In New York, I had seen a few things; I watched the Yankees, because my father watched the Yankees; I watched the New York Cosmos, because--well, I have no idea why. But that was different; in New York, and in most big cities, there are so many passions outside of sports that the local teams often feel detached from the daily reality. But it's different in central Pennsylvania. And so the rise of Chuck Fusina portended, for me, the birth of the only true sporting passion I have left, the only connection that remains between me and my childhood:

I am a Penn State fan.

It kind of shames me to admit this, as I have based my entire career upon detachment and rationality. And I would like to think that I am not immune to criticism of said program (as witnessed here and here), and I do, in fact, find the blind worship of message-board acolytes to be a truly chilling proposition, but the fact is this: When a Penn State football game comes on the television, I am engulfed by a strange and powerful feeling. My temperature rises, and my temperament fluctuates, and I chew my clothing to pieces, and I emit guttural noises that have been known to literally frighten my girlfriend out of the room (in the wake of a last-second loss to Michigan a few years back, I actually jumped so high that I slugged her ceiling fan).

At age 36, I can honestly say that there is nothing else in the world that makes me feel this way. And I have a constant worry that one of these years, it will just go away, and I will be left with nothing, and all these decades I've spent indulging in this utterly irrational behavior will suddenly seem silly and useless, and I will spend my Saturdays watching The Beltway Boys and attending operettas. And I know Jeff has written (often and eloquently) about how sports no longer arouse any kind of mysticism for him, but I happen to think we need certain constants in our lives, and I happen to think this is one reason why sports fans cling to such irrational illusions. And this particular constant, in my case, began with Charles Anthony Fusina, with a quarterback who may be a footnote to nearly everyone else--but who opened me up to some of the most angst-ridden, passionate, pleasurable and entirely inexplicable moments of my existence.****

*Though I am not sure what this phrase--"the real-life Emmitt Smith"--actually means. Also, if you are reading this and you somehow haven't read Boys Will Be Boys, let me just say this: How can you possibly go wrong with a sports book whose primary "key phrase" is proctological?
**Though their move to Baltimore was, to me, the most crushing moment of my youth, on par with the cancellation of My Two Dads.
***This was Fusina-to-Fitzkee's rawer indie work, as opposed to their watered-down, pop-laden Philadelphia Stars material.
****And just to be sure there is a requisite amount of what the youth call "smack" and/or misplaced aggression in this post: The kind of man who cites The Cable Guy as "the funniest movie ever" is the kind of man who claims "Yellow Submarine" is his favorite Beatles' song. If you start arguing for the spiritual profundity of Weird Al lyrics, Jeff, I may have to call for a virtual intervention.

Monday, June 22, 2009

On the Greatness of Chuck Fusina

Ever since I started toying with this medium, a friend of mine has been encouraging me to pick a fight with another blogger. This, I am told by certain unreliable sources in their twenties, is the essence of blogging: One person says something flippant, another person takes offense to it, lines are drawn, Mountain Dew is spilled on keyboards, bandwidth is needlessly occupied, links are no longer exchanged, 140-character insults ensue, and Facebook friends are torn apart.

So, let's do this:

Today, in blogging about the exclusion of Artis Gilmore from the Basketball Hall of Fame, the esteemed Jeff Pearlman wrote this: "nobody cares about Chuck Fusina."

Well, Jeff: I care! When I was six years old, Chuck Fusina was my hero! In fact, I am looking live at a Sports Illustrated magazine cover (date: 11/13/78), which hangs on the wall next to my computer and carries a photo of one Charles Anthony Fusina, in a Pennsylvania State University uniform, on the way to leading his team into a heartbreaking Sugar Bowl defeat at the hands of Alabama (a loss I blame entirely on Bear Bryant's hat). Anyway, the SI headline: Chuck Fusina Dazzles Maryland! Did Artis Gilmore ever dazzle a prominent Eastern state? I think...well, maybe he did, but that's not the point.

The point is: Have you seen Chuck Fusina's moustache? I think Chuck Fusina's moustache, in its prime, could murder Artis Gilmore's afro with its bare whiskers!

Also, Chuck Fusina has a sandwich named after him at a most excellent deli that I frequented in high school! And this sandwich contains roast beef and capicola! That's double the meat, my friend!

In conclusion, Chuck Fusina: Awesome. About this, there is no dispute.

On Moneyball and the Death of the Sports Movie

It's true: The film adaptation of Moneyball, the book that spurred an ongoing Civil War between cranky sportswriters and brilliant nerds who are much more interesting when dissecting politics, appears to be dead. This saddens me for several reasons, not the least of which is that, like every other semi-rational human who read this book (incuding the author, Michael Lewis), I cannot even begin to imagine how this movie's narrative would have progressed without inducing somnambulance in theatres, and I cannot imagine how Brad Pitt would have gone about embracing his inner SABRmetrician, and I cannot imagine what the marketing campaign would entail (A Beautiful Mind meets Little Big League!). That, in itself, would have been kind of awesome to see (as would anything involving Demetri Martin).

But it's more than that. It's that there are certain filmmakers you trust, just as there are certain writers you trust, and certain musical artists you trust, and you are prepared to follow them wherever they go. This is why, if Radiohead decides to re-record the soundtrack to Les Miserables using kitchen utensils that once belonged to Roman Polanski, I will purchase said album. This is why, if Philip Roth writes a novel about an alternate universe where Dolph Schayes became the commissioner of the NBA, I will purchase said book.*

And this is why, if Steven Soderbergh somehow does con a studio into allowing him to make a movie about baseball statistics and the geeks who love them, I will be there. Because there is no cinematic category quite as moribund as the modern sports film. In fact, given this list from a 2003 issue of Sports Illustrated, I can easily make a case that the only truly great sports films since the release of 1988's Bull Durham** are documentaries: When We Were Kings, Hoop Dreams, much of HBO Sports' recent catalogue, ESPN's SportsCentury***, Murderball, certain unboring segments of Ken Burns' Baseball, Dogtown and Z-Boys, etc.

This is due, obviously, to the increasing commodification of Hollywood, and to the notion that the only sports-related feature films that appeal to mass audiences are the ones that adhere to blatant stereotypes and facile storylines. But I think it's also happened because we are so overexposed to sports these days--to that which seems real and unreal, to the ugly storylines and the bizarre twists and sick reveals of the modern age (see: Vick, Michael)--that the real thing can generally be presented in far more vivid form than anything that might have been filtered through the visions of seven Hollywood producers, including at least two who believe Oddibe McDowell was a member of Hootie and the Blowfish.****

I think Soderbergh, who works in verite, whose low-budget films (including The Girlfriend Experience, which was stolen away by my friend Glenn Kenny's freakishly creepy performance) are so "real" as to arouse a certain amount of discomfort, might be the one person in Hollywood who could actually break through this incredibly low ceiling. And even if Moneyball kind of sucked--even if it were the incoherent mess we all suspect it might be--well, at least we've tried something different.***** Because the only way a sports movie can succeed with actual sports fans in an age where sports have essentially become reality television is to make it so unbearably real that it somehow seems truer than real life.

*Note to self: This is an idea to develop.
**Which has also gotten a little hokier with age.
***Which remains the greatest thing that network has ever done.
****I have heard that this movie, Sugar, about a young Dominican pitcher, is excellent. But I have yet to see it.
*****And there is no possible way it could be any worse than Benjamin Button.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Things I Am Just Not Buying Today

Like everyone else who is engaged with these here Internets, I find myself besieged by a flurry of contrarian analysis. I often wonder if contrarian opinion is in fact the primary reason the Internet--well, at least Slate--was invented.* And if someone endeavors to convince me that, in fact, Paul Shirley is a more effective post player than Shaq, or that Kevin Faulk is the primary reason for the Patriots' success, or that we should think without thinking, or that we should not decide anything, ever, or that pineapple is the root cause of most cancers, I wish them well. I will still eat pineapple; I will still feel indifferent toward the Faulk family; I will still struggle to decide what to eat for dinner. But today, I stumbled across a pair of well-crafted contrarian opinions that simply ceased to convince me.

On, Scott Howard-Cooper makes a valiant and well thought-out attempt to persuade me that it is not necessary--and, in fact, may be a waste--to choose a point guard with a top-10 pick in the NBA draft. "Two starting point guards among the last 12 champions have been All-Stars," Howard-Cooper wrote. "No Hall of Famer was in the role since Isiah Thomas with the Pistons in 1990." And these are fair points, but then Cooper lists the past twelve point guards to win a championship, and while it is true that none of these men were the best player in their starting five, certainly none of them were the worst player in their starting five, either. In fact, nearly every one of them--from Derek Fisher to Chauncey Billups (who might wind up in the Hall of Fame) to Tony Parker (ditto) to Rajon Rondo (who appears on track to be a perennial All-Star)--is actually quite good (even Jason Williams did not detract from Miami's title run).

At the moment, Ricky Rubio, the Spanish phenom, is projected to go with the third pick to Oklahoma City, and my question to Cooper is this: If Rubio has as good a career as any of the four players listed above**, wouldn't he be a pretty solid pick, even at No. 3?

In fact, here are the No. 3 picks in the draft since 1998, grouped by results:
That Worked Out All Right--Deron Williams, Ben Gordon, Carmelo Anthony, Pau Gasol, Baron Davis
Eh/Oops--Mike Dunleavy, Adam Morrison, Darius Miles, Raef LaFrentz
Undetermined--O.J. Mayo, Al Horford

So: Of the five No. 3 picks that have worked out in the past 11 years, 2 1/2*** were point guards in college. And if Mayo pans out, it will be 3 1/2 out of six.

And none of the busts were guards.

To quote Isaac Mizrahi, who appears on the pale imitation of Project Runway that my girlfriend insists upon watching, despite the notable absence of Tim Gunn: "I'm just not buying your design, Scott."
And then there is Deadspin's resident contrarian, Tommy Craggs, whose indignant screed centers around journalist Steve Wilstein, who broke the McGwire-androstenedione story in 1998 and has now been nominated for the Baseball Hall of Fame's J.G. Taylor Spink award, given for "meritorious contributions to baseball writing." Somehow, Craggs (an undeniably talented writer/reporter, who seems gifted with the ability to see the hypocrisy in everything, a skill I sometimes wish I had), argues that Wilstein's story was the kickoff of a decade-long witch hunt which has "helped create a phony atmosphere of crisis." At one point, even Nancy Reagan gets swept up in this whole argument.

Having spent the past two years of my life writing about the mythology of the drug war in the 1980s, I certainly sympathize with Craggs' point: There is reason for cynicism on all sides in baseball these days, and there is certainly a case to be made that the steroid argument is itself based on a phony/flimsy/questionable premise, and that exposing the results of tests that were never supposed to be revealed is in fact a violation of privacy, a travesty, the end of civilized humanity, etc. But all Wilstein did was expose an issue that probably should have been opened up for public discussion five to 10 years earlier; if it had been, maybe these issues could have been handled in a more rational and sensible manner, without the ensuing witch-hunt (though given that this is baseball we are talking about, probably not).

I mean: Would it have been best to act as if the issue did not exist? It is true that andro was legal at the time but raising the question of whether it should be legal--or if perhaps this was only the exposed tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg--was not unreasonable, and this is all Wilstein did. It doesn't matter whether we care or not; given that we are subsidizing this sport with our season-ticket purchases, we at least deserved to know what was happening so we could judge for ourselves, didn't we? This is not about the moralizing that followed in Wilstein's wake; this is about exposure of information and examination of the issues, which, last I checked, was still our job. And I happen to think Wilstein did just that.

Then again, I probably would have dropped out of baseball either way.

*If I were forced to summarize the overarching impact of the Internet on the past two decades of American culture in just two words, it would be these: You're Wrong.
**Presuming Rondo does not devolve into Harold Miner.
***Gordon played both guard positions in college.

(Photo: Associated Press)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On Tweets I'd Twitter Regarding Cable News, If I Tweeted

Tonight, I watched a ten-minute "debate," on CNN, about whether Fox News is truly "fair and balanced."
It was so Jabberwockian that somehow, Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker magazine, a generally sensible human (and the author of this most excellent book), wound up concurring with Sean Hannity.
Even Bay Buchanan was unable to conjure a single Xenophobic rant.
Then again, this is the first CNN segment I've watched in several months that did not directly involve Rick Sanchez encouraging me to express my opinion on the abortion debate in 140 characters.
Though all of this made me realize: I now turn to MSNBC for the screeds of Keef O. and the Tao of Tweety, and I turn to Fox to hear Glenn Beck bray about the Obamaclypse, and I turn to CNN for centrist technological pandering to young people who would only watch Campbell Brown if there were video of her water breaking on YouTube.
Except: Where do I turn for news? Like, when an Islamic revolution breaks out?
Oh, bless you, Huffington Post!
Arianna Huffington: "Everything on the internet is accelerated; we need to accelerate. ... You have to think of a company like Huffington Post more in dog years, than human years."
I concur: It is always best to handle the news like a McRib.

Mix all the parts together, even the inedible ones, and serve it up hot and slathered in a sweet Rob Thomas sauce.
Also, does this mean it's time to spay and neuter Alec Baldwin?

On Indecision

I live in New York City, a steaming cauldron of hope and change and overpriced corner stores. Here, we call them bodegas, which is a Spanish word meaning, "You honestly expect me to pay that price?" Our bodegas are our anchors in a sea of uncertainty and constant motion. They are vast foundries of Coca-Cola and Pringles, providing sustenance and relief and connection with our Midwestern roots. A good bodega, in fact, always comes through in the clutch: If you need Scotch tape at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday, your bodega provides. It may cost $14.99, but it is there for you, man, on the same rack behind the counter where it's been hanging since 1968.

Of course, I live in Brooklyn now, which means many bodegas do the unthinkable: They actually close at night. (Brooklyn: The City That Used to Never Sleep, But Is Now Well Into Its Thirties, and Therefore Requires Brief Cat-Naps.) For the first few months I lived here, this seemed very strange and suburban; it was an affront to my freedom. What if I require a bunch of green grapes and some pickle relish in the middle of the night, I asked my girlfriend? (She did not answer.) But there is one bodega in my neighborhood that seems somehow trapped in the netherworld between the city that never sleeps and the city that steals forty winks when its sane residents are swimming in an Ambien haze: This place, ____ Green, specializes in fresh fruit, all of which is posted outside, in stands on the sidewalk. Therefore, according to my repeated observations, ____ Green apparently requires one of its employees to stand outside, on the sidewalk, all night long, every day of the year, so as to keep watch over the fruit.

This seems like a torturous avocation: Every time I walk by the man on fruit duty, I lapse into Costanza-esque guilt. Should I bring him a rocking chair? Should I offer to keep watch while he takes a bathroom break, or is he waiting for a man named Godot? And what if I asked to buy something? Could he lift the tarp off the slumbering masses of Driscoll's strawberries and pass them along at a discount? Is he armed? What kind of gun does a man commissioned to protect fruit need to carry?

Obviously, this whole thing seems crazy to me. It seems as if this bodega, this clutch player on the New York scene--and it is a very good bodega, a Hall of Fame bodega, the kind of place where they only gouge you slightly and actually seem to check the shelves for fossilized Oreos every so often--cannot decide whether it prefers to go all-out or pull back. Why not just stay open all night if you require labor, anyway? Or why not build an impenetrable structure for your fruit and just close for real, and leave the situation in peace? It is this kind of indecision that drives us all insane. It is this kind of indecision that ruins the legacy of a good bodega.

Anyway, I passed by the man on fruit duty last night, and I thought: This is exactly how I feel about Brett Favre.

Monday, June 15, 2009

On Several More Inconsequential Things That Matter to Me

1. Kobe Bryant
He wins, and yet he still can't win. I suspect he will spend his offseason sequestered in a hyperbaric chamber on Mount Kilimanjaro so as to combat the aging process and facilitate his quest for three more championship rings. This, I presume, is the only thing that Kobe truly believes will make him happy. And I do believe that at the age of 55, Kobe will have seven championship rings, and he will also live on a gated compound in Malibu with a fleet of housekeepers and several dozen reptiles as his sole company, and he will blog often about the the crossover dribble and Shaq's checkered tenure as the president of Pixar Studios and the rise of the lizard people.

2. Bryce Harper
First off, it's baseball, so it's only marginally relevant.* But the same frenzy erupts whenever a prodigy chooses to somehow defy our expectations for him, as if he will immediately end up marooned in the Vast Marinovich Cavern of wasted potential. But is this always true? Or is this an example of what Leonard Mlodinow writes about: That our natural human prejudices simply lead us to remember the bleakest scenarios, and therefore color our perceptions?

For example: Here are the fates of the other nine high-school athletes to have appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, courtesy of the Wichita Eagle's Bob Lutz. The success rate is actually much higher than I imagined, if we define "success rate" in terms of "becoming a productive member of society" rather than "LeBron James":

Indiana high school basketball standout Rick Mount, in 1966, was the first. He still has the No. 7 career scoring average in NCAA history (32.3 points). He played four seasons in the American Basketball Association before retiring.

Tom McMillen, another high school hoops standout, was a cover boy in 1970 and played 11 OK seasons in the NBA before serving three terms as a U.S. Representative.

Kansan Mike Peterson appeared in 1971, billed as a four-sport star. He was a good athlete at Emporia State. (Appears fine, according to the link above, though seems like he may relate, more than anyone else on this list, to Springsteen's "Glory Days."--MW)

Bruce Hardy, from Utah, was billed as the country's top prep football player when he appeared on a 1974 cover and played 12 years in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins.

Hockey player Bobby Carpenter went on to become the first American to score 50 goals in a season after appearing on a 1981 cover. (Played nearly two decades in the NHL.-MW)

Kristie Phillips was hailed as "The New Mary Lou Retton" in 1986 but instead went to LSU and became a cheerleader. (Phillips has accomplished a great deal since then, if we are to measure one's worth through Wikipedia.-MW)

Texas high school pitcher Jon Peters was on the cover in 1989 because of his 51-0 record. But he tore a rotator cuff and was out of baseball by the age of 21. (Peters appears to have turned out fine.--MW)

Kevin Garnett appeared in 1985 and has become an NBA star.

James, of course, is a superstar of the highest magnitude. (Charley Rosen finds this statement reprehensible.--MW)

3. Hydrogen peroxide
I find it kind of miraculous that merely by adding a molecule to water, we can create a product that disinfects my wounds, washes out my mouth, scrubs my contact lenses, bleaches hair, removes skunk odor, propels rockets, and induces vomiting in dogs.

*It's strange: Now that I've essentially become a baseball dropout, my only updates come through Facebook. So my complete knowledge of the game in the past month is this: Someone dropped a fly ball; therefore, the Mets are cursed. Also, the Royals are predictably terrible, and the Indians can only win when waterfowl become actively involved in the game, and the Phillies must be all right because no one seems to be complaining much. I suppose if I can find friends in 25 more cities, I will never need to watch a single inning ever again.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On The Future of Kobe

I still believe that the Lakers will win this series, and I still believe that Kobe will probably pour in 50 in one of these last few games, and I still believe that Kobe will be named MVP of these finals, and I still believe that his puckered gameface is the most frightening manifestation of an athlete's subconscious since the Tyson Era. But the today's essay question centers on Kobe's fatigue, on the fact that he has played nearly 1,200 games in his career (regular season and playoffs), and on whether perhaps this is the last of the best of Kobe Bryant we will ever see. It is a legitimate query when you examine the numbers: 82 games each of the past two seasons,* top five in minutes played four times since 2002. It would be the most shocking moment in the strange history of Kobe** if he were to suddenly hit a wall in the second half of a single game and find himself unable to ever again recapture his shot, and I don't expect that to happen--I expect Kobe will most likely defy the historical numbers and be able to play at a peak level for at least two or three more years.

But what last night did, at least for me, was lead me to wonder, for the first time, about what will happen when Kobe's career does begin its inevitable unraveling. How will it end? Ala Barry Bonds? Ala Woody Hayes? Considering that Kobe in full competitive fervor often tends to make Jordan appear magnanimous by comparison, and considering that Jordan's career essentially ended in Peter "James" Bond fashion, and considering that even now, at the height of his powers, Kobe appears one Luke Walton misstep away from rolling back prices to 1965, what will be his denoument? For that matter, does he have any hobbies? Golf? Model airplanes? Genesis concerts?

I don't know if Kobe has the power to reinvent himself, or if he will be able to actually find a purpose once basketball deserts him. In fact, I wonder sometimes if he's ever even thought about it, or if he is so singularly focused that he may actually become the first player in modern basketball history*** to spontaneously combust on the hardwood.

*Which raises another question: Why would Phil Jackson not insist to Kobe that he sit for at least one to two games each month during the first half of the season? Isn't that why Memphis is on the schedule?
**Well, OK, second most shocking.
***At least since Red "Red" Rosenbaum of the Rochester Royals in 1946.

(Photo: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

On Randomness

I'm in the midst of reading Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules of Our Lives, a nifty little tome whose purpose is to ensure us that our instinctual assumptions about probability are almost always completely wrong. It is, in a way, the contrarian counterpart to Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. (Perhaps, with enough public pressure, we can arrange a cage match between the two, involving whiteboards, graphing calculators and a curling iron.)

Anyway, Mlodinow writes a great deal about sports (since it often provides the most literal example of his thesis, as uber-baseball geek and Bill James fanatic Joe Posnanski has ably noted here and here), and at one point, he reveals a simple statistical truth about a seven-game playoff series, which is, essentially, that even seven games cannot truly minimize randomness: Even if we can somehow statistically determine that, say, the Lakers would win 55 percent of their games against the Magic, the Magic would still win the series four out of every 10 times. And even if the Lakers could be expected 66.6 percent of their games against the Magic, Orlando would still win 20 percent of the time (let us call it "The Pietrus Effect.") In the former case, it would take 23 games to achieve "statistical significance," meaning the underdog would win less than 5 percent of the time; in the latter, it would take 269 games, or roughly the temporal equivalent of watching the director's cut of Kobe: Doin' Work.

Here's the point Mlodinow did not make (at least, not yet): In sports, increased randomness is almost always a good thing. This is why the two most exciting times of year in sports are the college football season (where top teams are constantly falling victim to unexpected upsets) and the NCAA tournament (where upsets have become the tournament's entire commodity, and where the application of mathematical processes like the RPI have , in recent years, actually threatened the tournament's wonderful spontanaiety.) And this is why I think football has become an inherently better (and more popular) game than either baseball or basketball, especially on the professional level: Because it is physically impossible for football to play its games in series.

And, yes, I will freely acknowledge that this will never, ever happen, if only for financial reasons: But can you imagine if, for one experimental year, the NBA playoffs (or the baseball playoffs, for that matter) were staged like the NCAA tournament, with the championship perhaps as a three-game series? After all, why should we pretend that a seven-game series will produce a more "authentic" victor when all it does it minimize The Pietrus Effect by a small amount, without rendering it statistically insignificant? Why not allow your best players to throw everything they have into a single game in order to preserve their season (or in baseball, to utilize your entire pitching staff on a single evening)? Maybe it would throw the entire process into chaos. Maybe we'd wind up with a Bulls-Jazz final. But if the Lakers sweep the next three games, who's to say the random result wouldn't be the more interesting one?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

On Several Inconsequential Things Affecting My Life This Week

1. Chris Matthews
Ha! I'll admit it...I watch Tweety's show on the elliptical machine at the YMCA; I watch at home, when I am attempting to prepare something that resembles a dinner. I thought the resolution of the 2008 election would force me to stop gawking, but the mundanity of the post-election news cycle has rendered Matthews an altogether fascinating figure, a man who seems to think he has Washington figured out, all while Washington regards him as a special-needs child. Sometimes it feels like watching a version of The Truman Show, where everyone is acting except Matthews himself.

When I read this almost unbelievable New York Times magazine profile of Matthews a year ago (Favorite line: I imagined a little superego hamster racing against a speeding treadmill inside Matthews’s skull, until the superego hamster was overrun and the pause ended), I didn't think it could possibly be an accurate portrayal; now, after spending two years with Tweety in my living room, I'm certain that it is. Today, for instance, Matthews and his wildly spinning Republican guests discussed the frontrunners for the 2012 presidential nomination. The whole thing felt vaguely pornographic; to Matthews, who really is the most excitable political creature on television, I have no doubt this has been breakfast-table conversation since November 12. I have no doubt he dreams of Mitt Romney, but only in the context of electoral strategy. He even has a segment on his show called The Politics Fix, which would be like adding a segment to Around the Horn called The Arguing Sportswriters Moment.

Of course, I'm not sure who else could be watching this show, except the editors of Talking Points Memo and a few depressed auto-industry lobbyists drinking Manhattans at a happy hour in Georgetown. But trust me when I say it is the most fascinating hour on an otherwise bleak summer television landscape. It is worth it for those moments of pure Matthews, interrupting his guests with questions that make Charlie Rose seem like a master of brevity, and advancing theories based solely on politicians' sartorial choices and purposefully contrarian Politico articles, and wrestling with his superego (not to mention the force of nature that is Pat Buchanan), and I am just waiting for the moment when he says something so incomprehensibly advanced that he can finally begin fundraising for his own presidential campaign.

2. So You Think You Can Dance
My girlfriend finds this to be the greatest invention of the Fox television channel since Life on a Stick. I find it a fitting punishment for months of subjecting her to Tuesday night football games between Ball State and Akron--most notably, I am speaking of the scrambled judge who serves as a Paula Abdul doppelganger. I assure you, her shriek is the embodiment of existential despair.

3. Baseball season
And so, in a matter of days, we enter the netherworld between the end of the NBA season and the beginning of HBO's Hard Knocks, that dark time when we are forced to either abandon the television during prime time and re-engage with our lives, or actually watch baseball. I'm trying, baseball, but I look at you and all I see is a king-sized syringe and a framed portrait of Bill James.
Also, the Tigers are in first place. That is irrational.

Monday, June 1, 2009

On Postgame Handshakes

Since LeBron's snub has suddenly become the argument of the moment, here is a snippet from a 2002 Newark Star-Ledger story, a reminder of what the league once was, and an indication, perhaps, that the venom toward player fraternization has changed completely*, given the LeBron backlash:

Knicks coach Herb Williams remembers a time in the NBA when coaches banned their players from helping an opponent off the floor.

"Pat Riley was the strictest," he said. "He didn't want you to talk. Period. And you better not help the other guy up. I know that rule went back to his days at L.A. The first time I saw it was Kareem helping up Danny Ainge, he pulled his hand away at the last minute because he remembered Riles' rule, and Ainge fell down."

*And not necessarily for the worse. But it would seem this is at the center of the argument about NBA officiating, as well: The notion that the game has somehow lost its edge.