Monday, November 30, 2009

On the New Tiger

You may not even remember this, but a year ago, as Tiger Woods was on his way to winning the U.S. Open on a bum knee, a small segment of crazies came to believe that Tiger Woods may have, in fact, been faking his knee injury in the name of gamesmanship. It was a pretty daffy conspiracy theory, even as conspiracy theories go, and it was quickly debunked, but in the wake of that came this column for, in which the author marveled at Tiger's ability to camouflage whoever and whatever he was as some sort of protective mechanism. That column--not my best work, I admit--was something of a provocation, and the array of troglodytic comments underneath the story reveal that it succeeded on some level: People were both defensive of Tiger's right to privacy and reactionary toward any sort of scrutiny that delved beyond surface-level. They seemed to like Tiger Woods more because they knew nothing about him, because his entire life (outside of the practice of the most staid sport imaginable) seemed undramatic, because he was a cyborg with a 3-wood. They didn't want to know more than that. They (and I) didn't think they would ever have to.

Well, now they have no choice. Now, everything Tiger Woods carefully constructed in the past decade--and I would argue, a media strategy that has been built up in the past two decades, ever since Michael Jordan settled into a Nike-constructed cocoon*--has been torn down in a single morning. Now, we are likely to learn far more about Tiger Woods than we would ever care to know. This is the way of the modern scandal, and it always seemed as if Tiger were above such things, as if he simply existed in his own private space, free to chase Nicklaus's record of 18 major championships while every detail of his public life would forever be programmed by a roomful of MBAs. But now, suddenly, his private life is fodder for TMZ--and you can argue that Tiger doesn't owe us anything, and you can argue that this is an unwarranted intrusion into his private life, and you can argue that you preferred Tiger as a blank canvas--as a robotic manifestation of perfection***--and you may be right about all of it. But you also cannot deny that there is something undeniably fascinating--not to mention undeniably human--about watching an athlete who seemed determined to script his entire existence suddenly have to deal with an ad-lib.

*I write a little bit about the construction of athletes' public personas in Bigger Than the Game (AFPO!),** and spoke to Bo Jackson about it when I interviewed him. It's kind of amazing how the forces of sports marketing evolved from a non-entity into the Construction of Tiger. 

**Available for Pre-Order!

***In a word replete with needlessly dull information, Tiger's website is kind of a brilliant manifestation of nothingness. Did you know that Tiger's favorite movie is Caddyshack?  His blog is like one of those mass Christmas letters from the most boring uncle you could imagine--in "Tiger's" hands, a meeting with the president is boiled down to two non-committal paragraphs that appear to have been written by a public relations intern and sanitized by a Congressional committee ("I also enjoyed talking with the secret-service agents"). In "Tiger's world," choosing sides in the NBA Championship is an agonizing task. The whole site is structured like a Zen koan.

Monday, November 23, 2009

On College Football and the Bottom Line

At the risk of contradicting myself, allow me to state a simple truth: Everyone with a semblance of a cerebral cortex knows that the college football bowl system is an inept and inadequate example of American capitalism at work. Recently, some well-meaning and obviously delusional fellow from the BCS started a Twitter feed, and said feed was promptly bombarded with bon mots and screeds (well, as much as one can screed in 140 characters) about the very idiocy of the BCS system the Twitter feed had been created to defend--and this is Twitter, where idiocy is often a default position. Nobody who considers themself an actual "fan" of college football would somehow feel the game had been cheapened by the introduction of a four-team playoff, or a plus-one game at the end of the season. Nobody. The bowl system is a business, and this is the only argument in its defense, and I don't think that point has ever been made clearer to me than right now.

Here's the situation: My alma mater, Penn State, has completed an utterly lackluster and strangely hollow season with 10 wins and two losses. Said losses were to Ohio State and Iowa, both at home. Neither game was particularly close. Now, Ohio State has locked up a Rose Bowl bid, and now there seems to be a legitimate question as to whether Penn State or Iowa deserves what might be the final BCS bowl slot. That is, Penn State--which lost to Iowa, 21-10, at home--may be chosen over Iowa, for reasons that relate entirely to commerce. Now, at some level, I understand this--it's a tough time in America, even for overpaid bowl executives in garish sportjackets, and since it is their game, they have some right to consider the bottom line. But as much as that may be true, this allegiance to economics over fairness is the prototypical example of why the bowl system, no matter how we contort it or rearrange it, sans playoff, will never be able to rightfully determine a national champion. I mean, this is utterly obvious, even to a Penn State sympathizer like me: There is no possible way Penn State could make the case that it deserves to be chosen for the Orange Bowl over Iowa. But this is college football, and deserve has nothing to do with it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On College Football and Ponzi Schemes

There are certain sportswriters I grew up reading, those I would observe from afar and think, "That's the job I want when/if I grow into a fully functioning adult male." Ivan Maisel is one of those people. He's been covering college football for two decades, and he's extremely good at it. That said, I was perplexed by his column the other day; it was, essentially, a mainstream confirmation of a low-level theory that's been building these past few weeks, one that declares this entire college football season a bust, based on the scattered Heisman race and the lack of marquee matchups these last few weeks of the season. In the column, Maisel likened this whole year to a Ponzi scheme, which seems like an inartful metaphor, but perhaps it is apt--Maisel, for instance, decries the fact that Penn State, ranked No. 9 in preseason, lost its only two quality games at home. Fair enough, but who actually ranked Penn State No. 6 in the preseason? Maisel did. So essentially, he's decrying the fact that this season did not live up to his own perception of reality. In other words, Maisel conducted a Ponzi scheme on himself. 

Well, at the risk of sounding sycophantic, I happen to be enjoying this season, as I have enjoyed every single college football season since 1978. I will admit that Maisel's basic point is correct--it has been an unpredictable campaign. And maybe there is a reason for this. The Oklahoman newspaper ran a story today about Big 12 defenses catching up with the complex offensive schemes of the modern game. "Defenses are working on something," declared pirate enthusiast and spread-offense fanatic Mike Leach, and within a conference like the Big 12 or the SEC, certain teams (Texas, Florida) have been able to remain one step ahead of this "something"* defenses are working on, through a combination of luck and skill and Jesus. Outside of those conferences, however, there are still teams who can dominate simply by stepping hard on the throttle. This explains the superiority of Cincinnati and Boise State and TCU. And this means, as we enter the bowl season, that there is a pretty fascinating question yet to be answered, about whether these small conference powerhouses can catch up to the big boys by utilizing complex schemes, and whether this is all a fleeting and illusory moment in college football history, and whether defense is on the verge of reintroducing itself into the discussion. There could be at least four/five different bowl games with hyper-meaningful results. And if that's what a Ponzi scheme looks like, well, I'll buy in.

*If this "something" involves pirates, that would be awesome.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On 24 Hours of Basketball

There's something about ESPN's 24-hour college basketball marathon that kind of freaks me out. As a promotional gimmick, of course, it's brilliant, an astute way to draw attention to the opening week of a sport that essentially made cable sports what it is back in the early 1980's.* But I also wonder if perhaps this is a glimpse of some bizarre and fulsome future, if teams will now regularly arise for 4 a.m. shootarounds in order to accomodate 6 a.m. start times so as to fill in a national time slot on an ESPN network devoted to 24 hours of live college basketball, seven days a week, four/five months per year. That may seem like an absurdist notion, but think about where we were twenty years ago, about how sports networks essentially defied the conventional wisdom by televising every game they could get their hands on, about the explosion of channels and time slots, about the willingness of third-tier Division I schools like St. Peter's and Monmouth to essentially contort their lives for television.

Look at the ticker sometime: There are hundreds of schools you've never heard of who have chosen to field basketball teams in the hope of gaining publicity for an otherwise anonymous institution. Until last week, I had no idea there was a university known as Northern Michigan, which completes the directional monopolization of Wolverine State colleges; until last week, I had no idea a school in Indiana had chosen to name itself after an extinct tusked mammal. Until I looked it up, I presumed USC-Upstate was actually the University of Southern California-Upstate, which sounded more like the punchline to a Steven Wright joke than an institute of higher learning. All these schools, desperate for exposure, and a sports network willing to accommodate them: This is why I imagine that, in the next decade, the 24-hour hoops marathon will no longer be an anomaly. I imagine that this will be a basic-cable offering.

*Another element of culture covered here, in this book. Conveniently available for pre-order. (That is actually an initial version of the cover; final draft subject to change).

(Photo: )

Monday, November 16, 2009

On Belichick

What follows is utter speculation, as is every bit of angst and schadenfreude spilling from the sporting corners of these here Internets today. Nobody really knows what Bill Belichick was thinking when he made the decision to go for broke against the Colts last night, and we probably never will know. The Patriots are as sealed and secretive a franchise as we've ever seen in the modern age, having adapted the pathologically competitive nature of their coach; therefore, it is up to us to guess, and to argue, and in this way, Belichick has done us a favor: He has given us perhaps the single-most interesting regular-season NFL game of the decade, another watershed moment in what has now become the aughts equivalent of Lakers-Celtics.

For that alone, it is hard not to offer Belichick a little bit of credit, even if you hate his guts. We spend our lives calling on coaches to take chances, to defy conventional wisdom, to do something interesting, for once, rather than falling back on the somnolent principles of Tresselball. Well, Belichick did something so interesting that I still kind of can't believe it actually happened in the NFL. It essentially reinforced his own stereotype (as an arrogant jerk) while simultaneously questioning everything we think we know about football. The backlash, of course, will be unrelenting, because people outside of New England have developed an irrational hate of Belichick (for reasons both justified and idiotic), and because it's always difficult to grasp something that seemingly defies logic, but is, in fact, utterly rational. And yes, this was a rational decision, according the simple calculations made by a dude named Brian over at a blog called Advanced NFL Stats. Read it; the numbers make sense. There is a better chance of the Patriots converting on a 4th-and-2 then there is of the Patriots stopping Peyton Manning on a protracted drive with two minutes to play.

So yes, I think Belichick made the right call. In fact, if he made any mistake at all, it was A.) Stupidly (and uncharacteristically) wasting his time-outs, and B.) Not taking his counterintuitive logic far enough. For by making this decision, he was essentially admitting that his defense could not stop Peyton Manning on a 70-yard drive. How, then, could he imagine his offense might stop Manning on a 30-yard drive? At that point, once the Patriots failed to convert on that fourth down, New England had no time outs left. They had no choice. They should have let the Colts score. By that, I mean bring the house on a blitz. If you get to Manning, then fine; if you don't get to him, then Indianapolis scores quick, goes up by a point, and you still have a minute left with an offense that had already driven the length of several Northeastern states. There is no question in my mind, if the Patriots had gotten the ball back with one minute to play and one time-out remaining, they could have set up for a field goal to win the game. Hell, the way this one was going, Moss might have even scored six.

Still, it's almost better that the Patriots failed. It adds another layer to depth of this rivalry, it adds another layer of drama when these teams inevitably meet again in the playoffs,* and it means that the oft-stodgy pastime of professional football has proven that it can be even more intriguing than the college game, if only for a single play.

*And clearly, the Patriots could afford to take a chance, because they are going to win their division, they could still get a first-round bye, and they have obviously proven that they can beat Indy on the road.

Friday, November 13, 2009

On Several Decisions That Seem To Defy Logic

Because it's Friday the 13th. Because the sky is angry. Just because.

1. So just last night, LeBron James made a command decision to shed his signature number, 23, out of respect for ruthless egotist, tongue-contortionist and expert shoe salesman Michael Jordan. That's all very nice, as is LeBron's overarching desire to retire Jordan's No. 23 altogether, thereby elevating an undeniably transcendent basketball player whose greatest political stand came when he used an American flag as a sponsorial shield to the level of, say, Jackie Robinson. "There would be no LeBron James, no Kobe Bryant, no Dwyane Wade if there wasn't Michael Jordan first," LeBron said, and then he declared he would change his number to 6, which is Julius Erving's number. Of course, it is not difficult to argue that without Julius Erving, there would be no Michael Jordan. Therefore, I propose that the No. 6 be retired, as well, along with every number worn by any Hall of Fame player in the history of basketball, and that LeBron, in an overarching tribute to capitalism itself, replace his jersey number with an oversized American flag.

2. Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani, America's Failed Presidential Candidate, has named his top candidates for Time magazine's Person of the Year, since either A.) His opinion still matters to some indiscernible demographic of xenophobic hotheaded Yankee-lovers, or B.) He will do your panel discussion the cheap. Giuliani's choices were The Economy and Derek Jeter. Now, one of these things is not even a person, and the other is simply based upon the ways people use their environment to meet their material needs. Then again, this is a man who once spent several minutes on the radio berating a ferret. How he still has any career at all is one of the great mysteries of the post-9/11 world.

3. And then there is Bud Selig, who seems wholly determined to tether his legacy to a nostalgic sense of intransigence. As baseball failed to consider expanding its instant-replay policy, Selig said this: "Life is changing and I understand that. I do like the human element and I think the human element for the last 130 years has worked pretty well. There have been controversies, but there are controversies in every sport." It's a good thing you enjoy controversies, Mr. Commissioner, because that's pretty much been the default position of the game itself since you took it over and began running it slowly into the dirt. Since the 1990's baseball has become defined by series of tangential controversies and concerns--over drugs, over economics, over statistics, over umpiring, over labor disputes, over Giuliani's seat placement. On most of these, Selig is at least partly to blame; in fact, can I blame him entirely for No. 2 (above)? After all, he is the human element in baseball. He's right, though--life is changing, and this is why baseball no longer matters the way it once did.

(Photo: AP/

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Heisman Confusion

Years ago, back when I actually believed in things, I embarked on a pseudo-investigative story for my college newspaper that attempted to divine the definition of the Heisman Trophy. I'm not going to link it here, because that would be embarrassing--in fact, I'm afraid to even go back and find it, because I'm sure it's far worse than I even remember, and I believe the lead was built on the kind of ridiculously breathless descriptive prose that gives prose a bad name--but what I do recall is a somewhat contentious conversation I engaged in with the Heisman's public-relations man, who kept insisting that the trophy went to "the best college football player in America." So what does that mean, I asked him. Is it about numbers? About leadership? About winning? About alliterative surnames? About the number of circumcisions each candidate had performed on African children? And this PR dude, being a PR dude, gave me nothing. This PR dude just kept repeating the same phrase, that the Heisman is awarded to "the best college football player in America."

Back then, of course, I was too young and stupid to realize that the PR dude wasn't hiding anything; I was too naive to realize that the definition of the Heisman is deliberately oblique so as to render it more interesting. It's why people care about the Heisman more than they care about any other individual postseason award. The Heisman is not necessarily a Most Valuable Player award; the Heisman is not necessarily anything at all. The Heisman is a ghost. Its very definition is fluid, and is determined entirely by the popular consensus of that particular fall. In 1989, Andre Ware won the Heisman strictly because of elephantine numbers, even though none of his games were televised. in 1992, Gino Toretta won the Heisman as a sort of Lifetime Achievement Award, despite the fact that his numbers were nearly identical to what they were the year before (when he finished out of the Top Five, behind a defensive tackle from Washington named Steve Emtman). This is the inherent contradiction of a deliberately nebulous honor: Just when Carson Palmer wins and we think we've figured it out, along comes Jason White to confuse us once more.

Anyway, there are two things that make this perhaps the most unusual Heisman race in recent memory. One is that all the candidates who seemed like "sure things" have f---ed the chicken at some point; the other is that, because of those well-timed chokes, we now have a field in which virtually every historical Heisman archetype is represented. We have the fun-and-gun quarterback (Case Keenum, Houston); we have the oft-spectacular tailback on an elite team (Mark Ingram); we have the long-shot defender (Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska); and we have the Lifetime Achievement contenders (Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy). That they are all essentially neck-and-neck at this point in the season, along with another running back from Clemson and a thick-necked smart guy from Stanford and several others I'll never see play a single game. And so it should play out like a Rohrshach test. It is perhaps our best opportunity to define an award that refuses to accept definition.

My guess is that it will be McCoy or Tebow. My guess is that more people vote with sentiment than vote with numbers, and that even comparisons like this won't convince them:
Keenum vs. Miss State: 435 Yards, 4 TDs, 2 Ints
Tebow vs. Miss State: 127 Yards, 0 TD, 2 Ints (1 run for a TD)
Keenum vs. Texas Tech: 435 Yards, 1 TD, 1 Int, 1 Rush TD
McCoy vs. Texas Tech: 205 Yards, 1 TD, 1 Int
Keenum vs. Oklahoma State: 366 Yards, 3 TDs, 1 Int, 1 Rush TD
McCoy vs. Oklahoma State: 171 Yards, 1 TD, 0 Int
Keenum vs. UTEP: 536 Yards, 5 TDs, 0 Int
McCoy vs. UTEP: 286 Yards, 3 TDs, 1 Int

It seems that the Heisman's inherent subjectivity would reward sentiment. It seems that Tebow will win because he is chaste and pure and sacrificed himself for our sins, or that McCoy will win because he is the only one of the three elite quarterbacks in college football to yet win this award, and someone named Colt should win a Heisman Trophy sometime. It seems that Lifetime Achievement is the default Heisman pose. But I kind of hope I'm wrong. Because the more I think about it, the more I realize that the best thing about the Heisman Trophy is that it makes no sense at all.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me (Sour Grapes Edition)

1. Big Ten Football (Welcome to the Stone Age!)

From a seat somewhere in the exosphere, I watched Penn State lose a football game to Ohio State this weekend. It was a beautiful day and it was a terrible contest, a fitting nightcap to a weekend that again exposed the inherent weakness of the Big Ten within the rapidly shifting landscape of college football. A few months ago, I noted the critical consensus about the slow and inexorable death of Tresselball, and this was Tresselball at its worst, a slow and tedious unraveling dictated by field position and the running game and selective bomb-throwing to wide-open receivers who had outrun slow safeties into open space. Here were the conference's two best athletes at quarterback, Terrelle Pryor and Darryl Clark, each rendered entirely uninteresting, in part by the pace of the game itself. I'm not sure what the future of football might be, but I'm guessing this isn't it. But at least the view of the sunset from Row 79 of the upper deck was pastoral.

In fact, you could make a case that, at this juncture of the season, Northwestern, with its seventeen-receiver spread offense full of Ivy League-caliber geniuses with literary surnames, might be the most intimidating team in the conference. Maybe the question we should be asking ourselves isn't Why Iowa Lost; maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is how Iowa wound up undefeated in the first place.

2. Tweeting the Truth

From a column by Paul Carr of Tech Crunch, on the Tweeting of the Fort Hood tragedy:

Unsurprisingly, Moore’s coverage was quickly picked up by bloggers and mainstream media outlets alike, something that she actively encouraged by tweeting to friends that they should pass her phone number to the press so she could tell them the truth, rather than the speculative b---s--t that was hitting the wires.

There was just one problem: Moore’s information was b---s---t too.

This morning on my radio, Jeff Jarvis--unrelenting advocate of citizen journalism and all-around purveyor of futuristic journalistic brilliance--attempted to defend his cash cow in the wake of these glaring inaccuracies, while Carr proclaimed what we all know deep inside: That a great deal of "citizen journalism" is essentially the dissemination of unconfirmed rumors. And at one point, Jarvis actually said something like this: Life is messy. The Internet is life. Ergo, the Internet is messy. I may have misquoted him slightly, but given his standards, I suppose it doesn't matter. I suppose I could say that Jeff Jarvis strangled a standard poodle this morning, and as long as I corrected the record later in the day, it would be fine, because life is messy like that, and the Internet is messy, and I am merely a Luddite standing in the way of progress, and the future is based upon a world in which everything is free and lived in public and in real time and without filter and played to an online audience, and the truth itself is a secondary concern.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

On "The Men of 47"

For those of you who might care about such things, I've got a new piece in this month's Penn Stater magazine. It's a story about the 1946 and 1947 Penn State football teams, led by an African-American superstar named Wally Triplett, and to quote my editor (and sometimes friend) Ryan Jones, it "tells the story of the post-World War II football teams that helped establish Penn State nationally as both a top program and unheralded force in the nation’s slow march to racial justice." I hope it's the kind of tale that resonates beyond the Penn State community, but either way, it was an interesting piece to write and I was excited to get the chance to tell it. You can find a PDF version here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On a High-School Classmate

I wasn't much of a student in high school. I didn't apply myself to anything, really, beyond the advanced study of box scores and high-level analysis of rudimentary fantasy baseball statistics and Van Halen albums. I was in the advanced track, but just barely, and the only reason I bothered to keep up the facade is because most of my friends were in the advanced-track classes, and it was either drown in calculus or snooze through remedial algebra. I chose the former.  This explains why I have state-school education. This explains why I did not make a fortune on complex derivatives.This explains why I am a writer.

Anyway, junior year, or senior year (I can't remember which anymore), I enrolled in an AP history course, because that's what everyone else did. It was a large class, with more than a hundred students, and it was held in an auditorium-sized hall. The idea was that AP History would be taught like a college course, which meant attendance was optional, which meant that we would show up once or twice a week and spend the other days at the nearby shopping plaza, devouring cheesesteaks and discussing the finer points of the girls who would never deign to speak to us. And were able to get away this because two of our classmates--two of the smartest dudes in a room full of pretty sharp people, the sons and daughters of college professors and scholars--transformed the AP History experience into an entrepreneurial boon. Every few weeks, before an exam, they would compile a study guide based entirely on their own copious note-taking, make several dozen photocopies, and sell them for a minimal amount. The study guides were, of course, a brilliant idea, and their creators became Heroes, Kings, Lords of our little corner of Nerdland. They were destined for something great, and we all knew it. I lost touch with them both after high school, and I always imagined I'd hear from them again when they won the Nobel Prize for some experiment in neuroscience or developed a new kind of particle accelerator.

Anyway, the ringleader of the crew, as far as I can recall, was a kid named Mike Weston.  And it turns out he did wind up living a pretty remarkable life, even if it was far too short:

After his third tour of duty in Iraq, Michael Edward Weston wanted to decompress. So in the summer of 2007, he decided to kayak about 2,300 miles down the Mississippi River, from Minnesota to New Orleans.

“He had planned it to take two months, which was sort of reasonable,” said his mother, Judy Zarit, of State College. “He did it in one month.”

Friends and family members say Weston, 37, of Washington, D.C., brought that same devotion, dedication and passion to every aspect of his life: as a student at Harvard Law School; as the writer of the family’s humorous Christmas letters; as the minister at his brothers’ weddings; as a Marine major leading troops in Iraq; and as a Drug Enforcement Administration agent fighting the opium trade in Afghanistan....

Weston, a 1990 graduate of State College Area High School, was killed Monday, along with nine other Americans in a military helicopter crash in Afghanistan. He was among three DEA special agents deployed with troops returning from a drug raid in the western part of the country.

On Leonard Bias

I've spent an unimaginable amount of time in the past two years studying the life and death of Len Bias, both for this story and this book, and so it's kind of hard for me to have an objective viewpoint on anything even remotely related to this story; I have so much information swimming through my head that I've essentially lost all perspective. I did know Kirk Fraser's documentary, which aired last night as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, was coming, and I did know he had gained extraordinary access to a number of people; most notably, Fraser interviewed Brian Tribble, the friend of Bias who was later accused (and acquitted) of providing him with the cocaine.

Anyway, I've just watched it, and I admire the work Fraser's done here, and I'm sure it wasn't easy to try to shoehorn every angle of the story into a 60-minute package. And of course, knowing as much as I know, having studied as much as I have, it was hard not to concentrate on the aspects of the story that I felt were overlooked--on the overwhelming complexities of this moment, on the decisions that may or may not have led to it, on the culture (both locally and nationally), on the death of Jay Bias, Len's brother (which seemed especially limited by time constraints), and on the societal changes (both good and bad) that it fostered. I hope I got at these elements in my own work, but I'm sure there are things I've missed, as well, so I'm not going to delve too deeply into criticism here, out of respect for Fraser and his medium and the considerable amount of work he did do (and I know first-hand how hard it is to delve into this story). But I will admit that there are some things that I hoped would be answered that instead raised more questions: For instance, I listened to Tribble conduct a radio interview with ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt today, and Tribble assured Van Pelt that he was, in fact, scared away from cocaine and never did it again upon Bias's death--and yet, a few years later, after Bias's death, Tribble was sent to prison for distributing cocaine*. That doesn't exactly compute with me. But then, I often think maybe that's just the nature of this story: None of it ever seems to piece together the way it should, which, given the nonsensical nature of the death itself, seems strangely fitting.

It's late, and I know I'm rambling, but all I'm trying to say is that this is a hell of a complicated story--it's never taken me longer to write a single piece than it did with this one, largely because I needed to somehow reconcile all these disparate pieces. Fraser did his best with the hour he had (I believe his original cut was somewhat longer), but there are so many layers here. And I hope my book--which focuses on several major characters and storylines in that time period, and not just Bias--can complement and expand upon the work that Fraser's done, not to mention the labor of reporters like C. Fraser Smith and Sally Jenkins and all the others who spent months (even years) chasing details and staking out courthouses and holding authority figures accountable and desperately searching for the truth. This is, after all, the kind of story that goes on and on, and builds upon itself, and I've always felt kind of humbled by the hugeness of it. That feeling was reinforced tonight.

*Tribble also declined to say whether he provided the cocaine to Bias that night, and seemed to imply that he never would say, out of respect for the fact that Bias could not speak for himself. And I have to say, I'm not sure what that means.

Monday, November 2, 2009

On Cable Companies and Centaurs at Third Base

This morning, I waited two hours for the cable guy to show up, only to be told at the end of those two hours that my appointment was actually scheduled for next week. I was not particularly surprised, despite the fact that the friendly Time-Warner Cable customer service representative I spoke to on Saturday assured me that the technician would be here "on Monday." I was not particularly surprised because I know what I am getting into whenever I contact Time-Warner Cable: I know that things will never work out as originally planned. I know that appointments will go awry, that technicians with an utter lack of technical knowledge will puzzle over the location of my cable box, that the customer-service representative I speak to when my picture fizzles out again will assure me that the problem is with my line, and the technician will assure me that the problem is with my box, and neither will be correct about anything, and both will wind up scheduling an appointment with a supervisor, who will never show up. It continually amazes me that a major utility provider--one that provides both for my livelihood (modem) and my nightly entertainment (Mad Men, football, Jeff Dunham*) can hold its customer base in such low esteem and continue to raise its rates at the same time, but this is the Faustian bargain of being addicted to television, not to mention the Faustian bargain of human existence: You will always have to wait for the cable guy, be it in literal or metaphorical fashion.

I've been dealing with Time-Warner's ineptitude for a long enough period of time that my opinion of them is intractable. They've wasted so many afternoons that my immediate reaction to anything they do is couched in an irrational hostility; the quality of the actual product doesn't even matter anymore. On occasion, I find myself screaming at old ladies on the phone. I don't like myself for this, but I don't feel particularly bad about it, either, because in some way I feel like I am raging against the absurdities of modern existence when I do this.

Anyway, I was sitting and sitting and waiting and waiting and then for some reason I started thinking about Alex Rodriguez. And I'm thinking about A-Rod because this postseason seems couched as his moment of "redemption," as the year A-Rod finally lives up to his considerable potential, as the moment A-Rod transforms from an inveterate social misfit into an American hero, by dint of victory. Last night, A-Rod provided the Yankees with their most important hit of the season, and perhaps he will perform some sort of heroic act again this evening, and perhaps this will shift our entire societal perspective of a man who has essentially made a fool of himself time and again in recent years. That's what Harvey Araton seems to be fleshing out in this New York Times piece: That somehow, A-Rod can save baseball.

But I sort of doubt it.

I think most people's opinions of A-Rod, at this point, are pretty intractable, and have little to do with the game itself, or even with the steroid issue. People don't like A-Rod because A-Rod does not come across like an actual human being. And I don't think even winning can repair that rift at this point; perhaps it will soothe a few overzealous Yankee fans for a short period, but there is absolutely no doubt that A-Rod will eventually do something so utterly alien that he will again set himself apart from the vast majority of humanity. He is too far gone to come back now; his actions have aroused an irrational passion against him. He's been too weird for too long. And if you don't believe me, ask yourself: When this whole thing about A-Rod's dalliances with mythical creatures came out, did I ever, even for a moment, think, "This might not actually be true?"

Winning cannot cure A-Rod, in the same way an extreme makeover cannot cure the cable industry. Some brands are just too far gone to ever be redeemed.

*OK, not Jeff Dunham, though after reading these reviews, I am intrigued, as I always am by potentially racist ventriloquism.