Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Disgraceful Secret of the Astros' and Red Sox' Success: Cheating

The Houston Astros have been widely portrayed as a model franchise in terms of utilizing analytics to build a successful team: the Astros tanked to accumulate draft picks, and then they used analytics to decide which players to draft, which veteran players to acquire, and how to maximize the talents of those players during games.

All of that sounds great in theory--but the reality is that the secret edge that pushed the Astros over the top and enabled them to win the 2017 World Series was old fashioned cheating: the Astros stole the opposing team's signs during games and then made noise in their dugout to alert their hitters about which pitch to expect.

If Bud Selig were still the Major League Baseball Commissioner, the Astros would have probably received a slap on the wrist while Selig broke his arm patting himself on the back, which was baseball's version of crime and punisment as Selig presided over the "Steroids Era." Fortunately, Rob Manfred at least has some sense of how serious this offense is: Commissioner Manfred assessed a $5 million fine against the Astros, stripped the franchise of its first and second round picks in both 2020 and 2021, and suspended General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch for the 2020 season (the Astros subsequently fired both men, neither of whom will be permitted to work for any other MLB team next season). Many baseball insiders have publicly expressed surprise at these supposedly draconian punishments but Manfred--although he showed more sense than Selig, an admittedly low hurdle to clear--did not go far enough. The Astros still go down in history as the 2017 World Series champions, and not one player who participated in the cheating has received any punishment.

It is becoming increasingly hard to understand why Pete Rose is burdened with a lifetime ban, while cheating players such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez are embraced by Major League Baseball, and cheating teams like Houston and Boston (see below) retain their coveted (but forever tarnished) World Series crowns.

MLB has a lot to learn from other sports. In track and field, cheaters like Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and others are stripped of their Olympic and World Championship medals. In cycling, Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France titles were voided.

If MLB and its leadership had any courage or any sense, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez and every other "Steroids Era" cheater would be removed from the record book and banned from Hall of Fame consideration--and the Astros would be stripped of the 2017 World Series title, with every player who was involved in the cheating being disciplined by MLB. Manfred's excuses for not punishing the players--too many players were involved, many of the players play for other teams now, and he did not feel like he could determine the relative guilt of each player--are weak, and provide an open invitation to players to cheat in the future, with the knowledge that if they are caught then they will keep their World Series rings while their manager and GM take the fall.

The investigation into the Astros' wrongdoing revealed that Alex Cora--who played a major role in Houston's cheating as a bench coach--similarly participated in cheating perpetrated by the Boston Red Sox as he served as that team's manager during their 2018 World Series championship season. Cora should be banned for life, and the Red Sox should be stripped of their title--but it is possible that Cora will get off with no more than a one year suspension, and it is likely that the Red Sox will pay a price that does not include losing their championship.

Of course, Boston is another franchise that has been lauded for profitably utilizing analytics.

Analytics have proven their value in many fields, from science to retail to law; law is my profession, and as a Customer Success Manager for Lex Machina--the pioneer and leader in the legal analytics field--I am well aware of the tremendous value provided by analytics that are accurate, complete and relevant. However, this MLB cheating scandal renews the question of just how valuable or reliable baseball analytics are; if the analytics provide a decisive edge, then why would two teams that are deeply immersed in analytics risk getting caught stealing signs?

I have often written about the strengths and limitations of "advanced basketball statistics" and the application of real basketball analytics, but the widely held assumption for quite some time is that analytics work better in baseball than in basketball because baseball is a station to station game of discrete actions, not a free-flowing game of interconnected simultaneous actions.

The Houston and Boston cheating scandals do not "prove" that baseball analytics have no value, but these scandals do legitimately raise the question of how much of an advantage Houston and Boston gained through analytics compared to how much of an advantage they gained by breaking the rules.

Why do I criticize the Astros and Red Sox after previously expressing the opinion that the so-called "Spygate" and "Deflategate" situations involving the New England Patriots were overblown by the media? Simple. The Astros and Red Sox unambiguously and deliberately cheated, and their cheating led directly to the championships that they won. In contrast, the Patriots committed a technical rules violation in "Spygate" that may not have even conferred a significant competitive advantage, and it is not even clear that they did anything wrong in "Deflategate." While baseball pitch signals are concealed, the signals that the Patriots filmed during "Spygate" can be viewed by anyone watching an NFL game on TV; the systematic gathering and collection of those signals for later analysis is not permitted (and that is why the Patriots were punished by the NFL), but this is not the same as intercepting a catcher's signals in real time and banging a trash can in the dugout to let the batter know in real time the exact pitch that is coming. Further, the Astros and Red Sox attempted to conceal what they were doing, while the Patriots' videographers were wearing team colors, and their presence could not have been more obvious if they had been waving semaphore flags. Regarding "Deflategate," independent scientists examined the evidence and concluded that the methodology and conclusions of the infamous Wells Report were flawed.

NFL cheating incidents that should outrage fans include (1) the 2010 Saints putting "bounties" on opposing players en route to winning the Super Bowl, (2) the Denver Broncos circumventing salary cap rules to stack enough talent around John Elway to enable him to win two Super Bowls in the 1990s, (3) the San Francisco 49ers circumventing salary cap rules during the 1990s, and (4) the massive steroid use that fueled the Pittsburgh Steelers' 1970s championship teams (and may be responsible for the sad, early demises suffered by many of the players from those teams).

Of course, the media picks and chooses who to target and who to absolve in these situations. New England Coach Bill Belichick rarely provides useful soundbites to the media, so it is OK for the media to dub him "Belicheat." The Saints were a fairy tale story in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, so their intentional maiming of opposing NFL players is readily forgotten; Gregg Williams, the ringleader of the Saints' bounty scheme, is back in the NFL and is a respected coach, even though some players say that he is still coaching his players to intentionally injure opposing players. Elway's Broncos, and the 1990s 49ers are also popular, so their transgressions are forgotten. The Steelers are part of the NFL's ancient and storied history, so no one cares to examine their widespread steroid abuse.

It will be interesting to see how the media choose to depict the Astros and the Red Sox. For me as a baseball fan, Major League Baseball has not been the same since the strike canceled the 1994 World Series, and then the "Steroids Era" combined with Bud Selig's bumbling (remember the 2002 All-Star Game that ended in a tie while Selig shrugged?) permanently stained the sport and its once-hallowed record book--though, as a basketball fan, I thank MLB for having a strike that lasted so long that it helped push Michael Jordan back to the NBA. This latest scandal just confirms to me that the baseball record book before 1994 was nonfiction, while the baseball record book post-1994 is fiction, replete with fraudulent home runs, fraudulent MVPs and, now, fraudulent champions. This is not to say that other pro sports are pure or flawless, but the past 25 years or so have been brutal for MLB.

Friday, November 15, 2019

NFL Responds Quickly to Myles Garrett's Criminal Foolishness

"Is he on steroids or is he mentally ill?"

That was my first thought after I saw Myles Garrett rip off Mason Rudolph's helmet and then hit Rudolph upside the head with that helmet near the end of Cleveland's 21-7 win over Pittsburgh on Thursday Night Football. The two previous helmet-wielding offenders who immediately came to my mind fit into at least one, if not both, of those categories: Lyle Alzado (who later admitted being a steroid user) and Kyle Turley (who was subsequently diagnosed with CTE, a brain injury that either caused or exacerbated mental health issues including rage, depression and suicidal thoughts).

In a 1982 playoff game between the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets, then-Raider Lyle Alzado ripped off Chris Ward's helmet and threw it at Ward. The helmet did not strike Ward. At the time, there was not a specific rule against what Alzado did, so Alzado was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. Subsequently, the NFL enacted Article 17--informally known as the "Alzado rule"--stipulating, "A player may not use a helmet that is no longer worn by anyone as a weapon to strike, swing at, or throw at an opponent." The penalty for this offense is 15 yards and automatic disqualification, and an automatic first down if a defender commits the penalty.

In a 2001 regular season game between the New Orleans Saints and the New York Jets, then-Saint Turley ripped off Damien Robinson's helmet and threw it across the field (but not at any particular person). Robinson had committed a facemask penalty against Saints' quarterback Aaron Brooks, bending Brooks' body awkwardly in the process. Turley and Robinson received offsetting personal fouls, but Turley was ejected for the helmet toss. Saints' Coach Jim Haslett contemplated cutting Turley immediately, but after seeing what Robinson did to Brooks--who initially thought he had suffered a broken neck--the Saints instead fined Turley $25,000 and recommended that he seek anger management counseling.

Garrett, his Cleveland teammate Larry Ogunjobi, and Maurkice Pouncey of the Steelers were each ejected from yesterday's game; Ogunjobi pushed Rudolph from behind during the scuffle, while Pouncey threw punches at Garrett and then kicked Garrett while Garrett was on the ground. The NFL announced today that Garrett is suspended indefinitely without pay, meaning he will miss at least six regular season games plus the playoffs if the Browns qualify, and he will have to apply for reinstatement before he is permitted to play again. Garrett was also fined an undisclosed amount. Pouncey was fined and suspended for three games without pay and Ogunjobi was fined and suspended for one game without pay. The Browns and Steelers were each fined $250,000. It is possible that the league will issue additional fines and/or suspensions upon further review of the entire incident, including the actions of players from both teams who left their respective bench areas to join the fracas.

After the game, Cleveland Coach Freddie Kitchens insisted that he does not condone fighting or any actions that would result in penalties, but the reality is that the Browns are the most penalized team in the league. They have signed numerous players who are clowns and/or criminals, so it should surprise no one that the Browns often act like clowns and criminals. The Garrett incident on Thursday is just the dramatic low point in a season packed with Browns players committing stupid and/or dangerous penalties, and engaging in various forms of conduct on and off the field that reflect a lack of discipline. As the saying goes, "You are either coaching it, or you are allowing it to happen."

If Kitchens does not condone undisciplined football, then it is his job to cut, bench or coach up players who are not disciplined. Undisciplined players and teams rarely win anything of consequence.

It must be noted that the Steelers are hardly blameless, though their role in the fracas is overshadowed by Garrett's over the top foolishness; the situation began with Rudolph trying to take off Garrett's helmet, and according to some accounts, kicking Garrett in the groin. It should also be noted that after Garrett and Rudolph were separated it was Rudolph--sans helmet--who charged at Garrett before Garrett hit him. Rudolph should absolutely be fined, if not suspended for one game. Pouncey was almost as out of control as Garrett, but this is Pouncey's first offense (at least to my knowledge), and he was taking on a player his size who had just assaulted his quarterback. Pouncey earned every bit of his suspension and fine, but he is not in the same category as a serial offender like Garrett who committed an act that could have caused serious injury.

The bottom line is that nothing that happened excuses what Garrett did, which could have resulted in serious injury if he had hit Rudolph from a different angle. The difference is that what Rudolph did is essentially commit a personal foul as a play was concluding, and Pouncey retaliated after seeing his quarterback get hit upside his bare head with his own helmet, while Garrett committed the most dangerous and flagrant offense of anyone involved in the melee--and Garrett did not just fling the helmet impulsively, like Turley had done; Garrett clearly aimed directly for Rudolph's head.

This is also not Garrett's first offense. He has had multiple late hits/dirty hits, including one that caused a season-ending injury to Jets' quarterback Trevor Simien and resulted in a fine from the league. The Browns are unlikely to cut ties with Garrett; he has rare physical talent, and the Browns will be leery of getting rid of him only to then see him possibly blossom somewhere else. However, this is where the league must step in--thinking about Garrett's mental health, and the physical health of opposing players--and must not permit Garrett to take the field again until there is a definitive answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article. To do otherwise makes a mockery of the league's purported emphasis on player health and player safety.

Myles Garrett needs help--and the players who play against him need protection.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic Reconsidered--and Why Borg Still Stands Alone

Rafael Nadal's triumph in the 2019 U.S. Open is his 19th Grand Slam singles title, placing him just one behind Roger Federer on the all-time list. This is the closest Nadal has been to Federer on that list since 2004, when Federer led Nadal 1-0 in Grand Slam singles titles won. Federer had captured four Grand Slam singles titles by the time Nadal won his first, the 2005 French Open.

The thin reed upon which Federer fans prop their man over Nadal appears to be about to snap. Federer is 38 years old, while Nadal is 33 years old. Some may have assumed that Federer's much-praised finesse style would prove to be more enduring than Nadal's pounding, powerful style, but--despite Federer's five year lead in age--Nadal is now the first male to win five Grand Slam singles titles after the age of 30, and Nadal seems likely to add to that total no later than the 2020 French Open. If Nadal matches or breaks Federer's record, there will be no rational basis to rank Federer ahead of Nadal--but the reality is that a rational evaluation of these players has favored Nadal for quite some time.

The first time that I wrote about Nadal versus Federer was Federer's Fifth Wimbledon Final is One for the Ages, when I wondered if Nadal would soon surpass Federer: "Will the younger Nadal eclipse Federer on grass next year and become the sport's undisputed number one player or will Federer continue to hold him off as he marches toward Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles? I think that Nadal is closer to beating Federer on grass than Federer is to beating Nadal on clay and that 2008 could very well be Nadal's opportunity to match another Borg feat: winning the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year."

That analysis proved to be prophetic, as Nadal not only routed Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the 2008 French Open Final (tying Bjorn Borg's record by winning that Slam for the fourth straight time) but Nadal then defeated Federer in an epic five set Wimbledon Final, after which I wondered why anyone would rank Federer higher all-time than Nadal: 
Even when Federer was at the absolute peak of his powers Nadal still held the head to head advantage, a fact that some people dismissed by noting that the vast majority of Nadal's wins over Federer came on clay--but that is not relevant in a discussion about the greatest player of all-time, because the greatest player of all-time should be able to win on multiple surfaces and should not have a losing record against his main rival. Nadal is just entering his prime years but he already owns four more Grand Slam wins than Federer did at the same age. Just like I thought that it was too soon to call Federer the greatest of all-time two or three years ago, I think that it is too soon to call Nadal the greatest of all-time now--but in many ways Nadal seems to be making a more potent case to claim that title than Federer ever did. Who can say for sure that in four or five years Nadal won't own more career Grand Slam titles than Federer's 12? Nadal has more speed and hits with more power than Federer and Nadal is also in better physical condition; perhaps Federer has a more delicate touch on certain shots but that is not enough to cancel out Nadal's advantages.
Federer is a great and graceful player, but his public image and status have been boosted by the adoring fan letters disguised as analysis that many writers have penned on his behalf, as I noted in my 2013 article titled Why is Rafael Nadal Not Praised Now the Way that Roger Federer Was Praised in 2006?
When David Foster Wallace gushed over Roger Federer in an August 2006 essay, the 25 year old Federer had won eight Grand Slam singles titles in 29 appearances (.276 winning percentage) and had amassed six first round losses--yet Wallace and others openly and enthusiastically touted the notion that Federer had already established himself as the greatest tennis player of all-time. The first dubious aspect of such a wide-ranging declaration is that it is unfair--if not impossible--to compare Open Era players with players from earlier eras; the rules, conditions and overall context were just too different. If Rod Laver had been permitted to play in the Grand Slam events during his prime years then he likely would have set unbreakable records--but we cannot know for sure what he would have accomplished, so all that can be intelligently said is that Laver deserves to be prominently placed in any discussion of the greatest tennis players ever: he should not be punished for "only" winning 11 Grand Slams, nor can he be credited with all of the Grand Slams that he almost certainly would have won.

The second dubious aspect about declaring Federer to be the greatest player of all-time is that he has never established the simultaneous Wimbledon/French Open dominance displayed by Bjorn Borg. When Borg made his final Grand Slam appearance in 1981--at just 25 years old--he held the modern male record for both Wimbledon titles (five) and French Open titles (six) and he had won the "Channel Slam" (capturing Wimbledon and the French Open in the same calendar year) a still-unmatched three times in a row. Sampras and then Federer dominated Wimbledon during their primes and Nadal has dominated the French Open but no one has ever mastered grass and clay at the same time the way that Borg did...

While Borg-Nadal is difficult to call, it is very hard to understand how anyone who supported Federer's greatest player of all-time candidacy circa 2006 would not be even more strongly in favor of Nadal now: Nadal has achieved more at a younger age than Federer did, Nadal has a much better Grand Slam winning percentage, Nadal has consistently dominated Federer head to head and Nadal does not have a problematic individual matchup or surface. The only advantage that Federer has ever held over Nadal is that Federer has been healthier/more durable, which will make it even more remarkable if Nadal wins four more Grand Slams to tie Federer's mark.
Mary Carillo offered a very insightful and objective take on the Federer-Nadal rivalry:
I have said and argued with John McEnroe and Ted Robinson during our French Open telecasts for many years that you cannot anoint Roger Federer the greatest of all time if he isn't the greatest of his own time. And it's not just on red clay. Nadal has the edge on hard courts as well. Like in boxing, it's all about the matchup. When Roger is playing at his luminous best he has no need to worry about the other side of the net. But if he is playing Nadal, even his best is often not enough.

People conflate [Federer's] beauty with supremacy and blur the line between high art and [Nadal's] impossible-to-ignore domination. I think Roger Federer is the most stylish, elegant and gifted tennis player I've ever seen. Roger is all that is right in this tennis world. Rafa Nadal is his perfect rival--powerful, explosive, gritty and gutsy.

While Federer's fans struggled to accept the notion that Nadal is greater than Federer, another player showed up as a worthy challenger to both champions: Novak Djokovic. Djokovic won his first Grand Slam singles title at the 2008 Australian Open and on July 4, 2011 he became the first player in seven years other than Federer or Nadal to be ranked number one in the world. Except for a 10 month run at the top enjoyed by Andy Murray from November 2016 through August 2017, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been the only players ranked number one since 2004.

Djokovic has held the top spot since November 2018, but Nadal's U.S. Open win puts him in great position to be the year-end number one ranked player for the fifth time (which would tie him with Jimmy Connors, Federer and Djokovic for second most all-time behind Pete Sampras, who accomplished this feat six times). The ranking system has typically been weighted to reward activity and other factors that do not necessarily correlate with greatness, and thus the ranking statistics should just be considered a small part of evaluating the greatest players of all-time. It is doubtful that any reputable tennis evaluator would consider Sampras and Connors to be among the top five players of all-time or to be greater than Bjorn Borg, who was the year-end ranking leader just twice even though he had a four year stretch during which he made the Finals in 11 of the 12 Grand Slams that he entered, winning seven of them (he did not play in the Australian Open in any of those years, and he skipped other tour events as well, which negatively impacted his ranking). It is worth noting that from 1946-76, the Australian Open was won by a non-Australian just four times; the Australian Open has been a Major/Grand Slam event in name since 1924/25 but for most of its history non-Australian players did not treat it as such.

Federer holds the male singles record with 20 Grand Slam titles, but he has played in 78 events. His winning percentage of .256 is not dominant compared to the other players who are in the greatest player of all-time conversation. Federer achieved his peak career Grand Slam winning percentage (.366) in 2009 after he won Wimbledon, his 15th title in 41 Grand Slam events. Federer has won six times in 20 appearances (.300) at the Australian Open--the least important of the four Grand Slam events--and he has won 14 times in 58 appearances (.241) at the other three Grand Slam events. He has one win and five Finals appearances in 18 trips to the French Open, an event that he skipped three times. Federer has lost in the first round of the French Open four times and he has lost in the first round of Wimbledon three times.

Nadal has won 19 Grand Slam singles titles in 58 appearances (.328). His peak career Grand Slam winning percentage was .368, achieved after he won the 2014 French Open, his 14th Grand Slam singles title in 38 appearances. While Federer padded his career numbers by winning the Australian Open six times, Nadal is 1/14 in his Australian Open appearances (with five total Finals appearances) but 18/44 (.409) in the three most important Grand Slam events. He has lost in the first round of a Grand Slam event just twice, once at Wimbledon and once at the Australian Open.

Nadal has a 24-16 career head to head record versus Federer, including a 10-4 record in Grand Slam matches. Nadal is the only player who has beaten Federer in a Grand Slam Final on grass, clay and hard court; if you believe that Nadal is a one surface wonder then you have been reading too much propaganda and not enough objective analysis.

Djokovic has a 16/59 record in Grand Slam singles events (.271) and this is essentially his peak career winning percentage (he stood at 16/58 prior to the 2019 U.S. Open, .275). Even more than Federer, Djokovic's Grand Slam singles record is boosted by his performance in the Australian Open, where Djokovic has won seven titles in 15 appearances. He is 9/44 (.205) in the other three Grand Slam events, including just 1/15 (with four total Finals appearances) in the French Open. Djokovic has lost in the first round of a Grand Slam event twice, both times in the Australian Open.

Djokovic owns the advantage in his career head to head matchups with both Federer and Nadal. Djokovic leads Federer 26-22, including 10-6 in Grand Slam events and 4-1 in Grand Slam event Finals. Djokovic leads Nadal 28-26 overall, though Nadal is up 9-6 in Grand Slam events and they are tied 4-4 in Grand Slam event Finals.

The mainstream media narrative is apparently etched in stone that everyone is chasing Federer, but when you look at the numbers and the percentages without considering subjective propaganda, it is difficult to see how anyone would rank Federer first among these three players, let alone as the greatest player of all-time across eras that operated under vastly different conditions and circumstances. Nadal is the all-time career leader with 18 victories in Wimbledon/the French Open/the U.S. Open, ahead of Federer (14), Sampras (12), Borg (11) and Bill Tilden (10). Nadal has a decisive head to head advantage over Federer, has played Djokovic essentially to a standstill overall (and with an edge in the Grand Slam events) and Nadal has a significant edge in overall Grand Slam event winning percentage. While Djokovic enjoys the head to head advantage over both of his rivals, his overall accomplishments do not quite measure up: fewer Grand Slam titles, a worse Grand Slam event winning percentage than Nadal, and nearly half of his Grand Slam event wins coming in the Australian Open. Djokovic is perhaps the greatest Australian Open player of all-time, though!

Anyone who sees the larger historical perspective is amused by all of the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic talk, because none of those guys measure up to Bjorn Borg, who I described as the "Sandy Koufax of tennis." Borg outdistanced his contemporaries by a greater margin than any player in the Open Era. Consider these statistics:

* Borg was the youngest player to win the Italian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon. Borg's records for the French Open and Wimbledon have been broken but he is the only player who was simultaneously the youngest ever champion of all three events.

* Until the age of 21, Borg never lost to a player younger than he was.

* Borg achieved the French Open/Wimbledon double each year from 1978-80. No player before or since has accomplished this feat in three straight years, or even two straight years.

* Borg tied the all-time record by winning three Grand Slam titles without losing a set (1976 Wimbledon, 1978 French Open and 1980 French Open).

* Borg simultaneously held the record for most career French Open singles titles (six) and most career Wimbledon titles (five). While both records have since been broken, no other player in the Open Era has simultaneously held both marks. For half a decade, Borg was the best grass court player in the world and the best clay court player in the world. In other words, he was Nadal and Federer rolled into one, while competing against at least two players who should still be listed among the 10 greatest of all-time (Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe).

* Borg won five straight Wimbledon titles from 1976-80, a feat that had not been accomplished since the 1880s, when the defending champion was automatically seeded into the next year's Finals.

* When Borg retired from Grand Slam competition at the age of 25 he ranked second all-time with 11 Grand Slam singles titles, trailing only Roy Emerson. Emerson won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, but six of his were in his native Australian Open; until the 1980s, non-Australian players regularly skipped the Australian Open, and Borg only played the event once, as a teenager.

* Borg remains the youngest player to ever win 11 Grand Slam singles titles (25 years old).

* Borg still holds the highest career Grand Slam tournament winning percentage (.407; 11/27).

* Borg still holds the highest career Grand Slam match winning percentage (.898; 141-16).

* Borg still holds the highest career Grand Slam five set match winning percentage (.889; 24-3).

* Borg remains the only player who posted five straight years with a Grand Slam match winning percentage above .900 (1977-81).

* Borg still holds the highest career Wimbledon match winning percentage (.927; 51-4).

* Borg still holds the record for consecutive Wimbledon matches won (41).

The main knocks against Borg are his lack of longevity and the fact that he never won the U.S. Open. The funny thing about Borg's longevity is that he won at least one Grand Slam title in eight straight years (1974-81), a record that stood alone until Sampras matched it in 2000. Federer achieved the feat from 2003-10, and Nadal now holds the record with 10 (2005-14). In terms of Grand Slam dominance--as opposed to mere Grand Slam participation--Borg enjoyed enviable and nearly unmatched longevity. Regarding the U.S. Open, Borg reached the Finals four times in nine appearances, and his Finals losses all came at the hands of Connors or McEnroe, two of the most decorated U.S. Open champions ever. The lack of at least one U.S. Open title is the only legitimate mark against Borg, and in terms of ranking the greatest players of all-time that one negative mark does not outweigh all of the positive marks listed above.

Borg remained solidly in second place with 11 Grand Slam singles titles from 1981 until 1998, when Sampras tied him. Sampras passed him in 1999 and retired in 2002 as the all-time leader with 14 Grand Slam singles titles. Sampras won 14 of the 52 Grand Slam singles events that he entered (.269). He never made it to the French Open Finals, and he only made it to the French Open semifinals once in 13 tries. Sampras was not nearly as dominant as Borg. While Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have each subsequently passed both Borg and Sampras in terms of total Grand Slam event wins, no one has approached Borg's .407 Grand Slam event winning percentage or his astonishing 16 Finals trips in 27 appearances (.593). Borg on his best day could beat anyone from any era on grass or clay. That is clearly not true of Sampras, Federer or Djokovic, particularly regarding clay. Borg versus Nadal on clay would be an incredible spectacle but Nadal at his best is not beating Borg at his best on grass.

It will be interesting to see if Nadal surpasses Federer in term of total Grand Slam events won. I suspect that if this happens, the Federer acolytes in the media will shift the goalposts (apologies for mixing sports metaphors) and find some other reason/excuse to still rank Federer ahead of Nadal--and no one will seriously talk about why Borg should still be listed ahead of both. Borg is the victim of a phenomenon brilliantly described by William Goldman in the wonderful book that Goldman co-authored with Mike Lupica, Wait Till Next Year. Goldman wrote, "The greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories. It's gradual. It begins before you're aware it's begun and it ends with a terrible fall from grace. Stripped of medals, sent to Siberia...It really is a battle to the death." He noted that Wilt Chamberlain's accomplishments were so outlandish that he is the exception to this rule, but that most athletes are downgraded--if not forgotten--as time passes.

Think about how even Michael Jordan has seen his status decline in the less than 20 years since his final retirement. Many commentators say, with a straight face, that LeBron James is greater than Jordan--never mind that James has won fewer championships, fewer regular season MVPs, fewer Finals MVPs, fewer scoring titles and fewer of just about anything else that matters. Another aspect of this that was true when Goldman wrote those words over 30 years ago and is even truer now is that the sports/entertainment business makes its money by promoting today's games and today's players. If ESPN states that LeBron James is not as great as Michael Jordan or--gasp--Julius Erving then ESPN is essentially devaluing the product that it paid billions of dollars to broadcast. The same is true to a lesser but still significant extent for other media outlets. You are not going to make much of a living as a writer, commentator or analyst talking about how great Bjorn Borg, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan were; maybe you can write a retrospective about them to commemorate the 20th or 30th anniversary of one of their accomplishments, but on a day to day basis your bread is buttered and your paycheck is signed based on praising Federer and LeBron James. How/why the media picks favorites among athletes who are/were contemporaries--why Federer over Nadal, or James over Kobe Bryant when they were both active and Bryant was winning championships--is an entirely different discussion that extends beyond the scope of this article.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

When Did Sports Journalism Lose its Way?

In an ideal world, reporters would report facts/news, commentators would offer their opinions about the facts/news and entertainers would not pretend to be reporters or commentators. That ideal world never existed in reality, but there were times and places where it came closer to existing than it does in our current time and place.

The issue is much broader than sports, but here we will focus on the decline of sports journalism. Anyone under 45 years old probably does not remember that there was a time when Tony Kornheiser, Mike Wilbon and other television personalities were first-rate sportswriters/commentators.

Here is an example of an excellent Wilbon column: Lacy Leaves Towering Legacy.

Here is an example of an excellent Kornheiser column: Astros' Ryan Going Out In Glory, if Not a Blaze.

Wilbon, Kornheiser and other talented reporters and columnists traded in their newspaper bylines for the fame and riches they could acquire by screaming at each other on television. Maybe most people who were offered fame and riches would have made the same Faustian bargain, but the deal comes with a price--for them, and for us. I discussed this with Woody Paige more than a decade ago and he readily acknowledged that he did not derive the same satisfaction or meaning from appearing on television that he did from writing a great article or column.

T.J. Simers, a long-time co-panelist with Paige on ESPN's "Around the Horn," once said that he hated the show but "I hear a cash register going off in my head when I do it. TV makes us do this. They want us to be stupid, to try to top ourselves. On 'Around the Horn,' if you're low-key and sensible, you aren't going to be on the show anymore. You have to be over the top. ESPN will hire you for your credibility, but after a minute they've had enough of that...The producer is yelling 'Conflict! Conflict!' in your ear. TV wants conflict. TV wants outrageous opinions."

It does not have to be that way, though I do not have much hope that things will substantially change any time in the near future. ESPN and its imitators have dumbed down sports discourse, and there is no clear path out of the murky swamp back to dry, sane land. Many of the top sportswriters traded in their credibility for TV's cash, and as a result we are now cursed with both low quality TV and with a large amount of low quality sportswriting. There are very few great all-around sports writers now, as the few who know sports often lack writing chops and the few who have writing chops often do not know sports. Someone who has a deep understanding of sports--the strategy, the personalities, the psychology of competition--and the capacity to tell a coherent and compelling story is rare indeed. That combination has always been uncommon, but if you look at an old copy of Sport--particularly when it was edited by Dick Schaap--or Sports Illustrated you will find many articles and columns that are thoughtful and thought-provoking. Sadly, there is no publication or online site that has that cachet now, or that deserves it.

Speaking of Schaap, he was perhaps the first great sportswriter to transition successfully to television, but Schaap found a way to conform to the limitations of that medium while also retaining his intelligence and wit. When he hosted the Sports Reporters there was more light than heat--more substance than hot air, more intelligent debating as opposed to mindless screaming and bickering.

It is too much to expect anyone to be another Dick Schaap, but it should not be too much to expect writers to get their facts straight, commentators to provide intelligent opinions about those facts and TV personalities to scream less and think more. I hope that the general public is not as dumb as ESPN and its imitators think but I fear otherwise.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Tiger Woods Experiences the Full Career Arc of A Champion

Tiger Woods, who just became the second oldest winner of The Masters, is experiencing the full career arc of a champion. That arc begins with the wonder years, when the prodigy becomes the youngest to accomplish certain feats or win specific events. It would be wrong to say that at this stage championships are inevitable--nothing about competition involving skill is inevitable--but there is an expectation that the prodigy will achieve and sustain greatness. Because of that expectation, the first championships may come more with a feeling of relief than of joy, and there may be an accompanying feeling of pressure to maintain a high standard of play.

After those first titles, the champion goes through his prime, when winning titles appears to be effortless. That perception is incorrect, of course; championships are only achieved after much hard work is put in, and the margin between winning and losing is rarely large, even if the final score suggests otherwise.

Father Time is undefeated, so at some point the champion ages and new contenders enter their own wonder years. Each title won by the champion at this point may be his last, and thus these latter titles may feel more meaningful or precious; the hard work that must be put in to win these titles is apparent to everyone: Tiger Woods has to get up in the middle of the night to loosen up his back before playing the final round at Augusta.

Winning a first title is great but winning a title in your 40s--when there is much doubt (including, perhaps, even at least a little self-doubt--is very satisfying.

The images of Tiger embracing his children--who are too young to remember prodigy Tiger or dominant Tiger--are priceless, and it is an added blessing that his mother was able to witness Tiger's triumph as well; Tiger's father is no longer with us but he is surely smiling down on his son.

Watching Tiger win a major as an older player who is no longer consistently dominant brings to mind Bill Russell's last title run with the Boston Celtics and Pete Sampras' final U.S.Open title. The difference, though, is that Russell had already announced his pending retirement and Sampras never played again on Tour (though he did not formally announce his retirement until shortly before the next year's U.S. Open), but Tiger iso regaining his mental and physical strength; it is doubtful that he will ever dominate to the extent that he did during his prime, but he could conceivably be a credible contender in majors for the next several years, and--with his 15th major win under his belt--possibly even renew his quest to break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 wins in majors.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Patriots' Sustained Greatness Demands Respect

In a defensive struggle during which the teams set the record for the fewest points scored in a Super Bowl, the New England Patriots prevailed 13-3 over the Los Angeles Rams. The tandem of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady has advanced to nine Super Bowls and won six of them. Brady has won more Super Bowls than any other quarterback has played in and he has won more Super Bowls than any other player has won, breaking Charles Haley's more than two decades old record of five. Brady has won a record four Super Bowl MVPs (breaking Joe Montana's record of three) but this year Brady's trusted slot receiver Julian Edelman won the Super Bowl MVP after compiling 10 catches for 141 yards.

Brady is now the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl and Belichick is now the oldest coach to win a Super Bowl. Belichick tied George Halas and Curly Lambeau for most NFL titles won by a coach. The unprecedented run for Belichick and Brady has lasted for nearly two decades, a dynasty of unparalleled length and success in NFL history; other NFL dynasties include the 1990s Dallas Cowboys (three Super Bowl wins), the 1980s San Francisco 49ers (four Super Bowl wins), the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers (four Super Bowl wins) and the 1960s Green Bay Packers (five NFL titles, plus two Super Bowl wins against the AFL champions). The only football dynasty that compares with New England's is the 1940s/1950s Cleveland Browns, who won four All-American Football Conference titles in four seasons and then captured three NFL titles in the first six seasons after that league merged with the NFL. The Browns are the only North American professional sports team that has appeared in the championship game or championship series in each of its first 10 seasons of existence.

The 2018 NFL regular season was marked by a record setting scoring explosion, and two of the highest scoring teams were the Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots not only defeated both teams but they shut out both teams in the first halves of their respective playoff encounters. Belichick has an uncanny ability to dissect game film and devise a strategy that enables his players to maximize their strengths, minimize their weaknesses and take away whatever the other team does best.

Casual fans may have found Super Bowl LIII to be boring but football purists understand that they witnessed a strategic masterpiece, a theme that ESPN's Steve Young expounded upon right after the game. Young called this game Bill Belichick's "Sistine Chapel," a masterpiece capping Belichick's tremendous career (or at least capping it thus far, as Belichick and his Patriots show no signs of slowing down and could very well win more championships). Young added that there are many "haters" in this era of social media and hot takes but that we "are fools" if we don't step back and appreciate the greatness being displayed by the Patriots in general and Belichick in particular. Belichick modestly insists that it is all about the players but Young said to Belichick that he is going to "push back" a bit against that notion because Belichick is doing things with his players that no other coach could do.

Think about it. While Brady is arguably the greatest quarterback ever, this Patriots team is not brimming with Pro Bowl or Hall of Fame level talent. The Rams almost certainly have a more talented roster from top to bottom--but Belichick has an unparalleled ability to put his players in position to succeed while also making the other team's best players look and feel confused. The Rams' young quarterback Jared Goff appears to have a bright future but against the Patriots he looked hesitant, uncertain and largely ineffective.

When Young and the NFL Primetime crew interviewed Patriots' owner Robert Kraft, Kraft noted that the league's structure is designed ensure parity: teams that don't do well get higher draft picks and an easier schedule than teams that do well, in order to maximize the chances that in a given season one of several teams could emerge as the champion. The Patriots have defied that structural obstacle to be perennial contenders and multiple-time champions.

You don't have to like the Patriots or root for them, but if you love football and/or if you love competitive greatness then you have to respect what they have accomplished and how they have accomplished it. Young said that the Patriots have perfected turning football into an "intellectual, academic" exercise.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

William Nack's Kentucky Derby Memories

William Nack, who passed away earlier this year, is considered one of the greatest horse racing writers of all-time. I am not a huge fan of the sport, nor am I particularly knowledgeable about it, but I respect greatness in any endeavor, so I read with interest an article by Nack in the December 31, 2018 issue of Sports Illustrated. The article is an excerpt from a memoir that Nack was working on before he died and it tells the story of the race that, as the article's subtitle puts it, "inspired his lifelong love of the sport--the 1958 Kentucky Derby."

Nack recalls his uncle Ed Feeney, then a sports photographer for the Chicago Tribune, inviting him to go to the 1958 Kentucky Derby. Nack was just 17 at the time, a horse racing fanatic who had not yet attended the race of his dreams. Nack soaked up every minute of the experience.

A few years earlier, he had memorized the names of every Kentucky Derby winner since the initial 1875 race. In 1971, as Nack describes it, his journalism career was "plodding along as a political writer at Newsday" when that memorized list helped change his life forever. At the newspaper's Christmas party, Nack recited the list and the newspaper's editor, David Laventhol, asked Nack, "Why do you know that?" Nack told him about his love for the Kentucky Derby and his trip to the 1958 event, and within minutes Laventhol tapped Nack to be the newspaper's new thoroughbread racing writer.

The rest is history.

In 2008, Nack returned to the Kentucky Derby and posed for a picture right by the spot where he had stood 50 years earlier to watch Tim Tam beat Lincoln Road by half a length.

Nack's article concludes on a note that could bring a wistful tear even to the most cynical eye:
Alas, all of them from those good old days are turned to fading shadows now and gone--Ed and Dave, Mom and Dad, Ben and Jimmy, Tim Tim and Gen. Duke, Charlie and the Shoe, Lincoln Road and Silky Sullivan, all those pretty horses.

Long gone, so long.

All these years later, I can still see them all. And I cannot shake, not in my dreams, not in my sleepless hammock reveries, that haunting line from William Faulkner set to the poignant rhythms of his poetry: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."