Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Keith Olbermann Triumphantly Returns to ESPN

F. Scott Fitzgerald once declared "There are no second acts in American lives." The well-read Keith Olbermann--who infamously "napalmed" bridges at ESPN instead of just burning them--is no doubt familiar with that quote and he is attempting to disprove it. Olbermann returned to the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader" on Monday as the host of Olbermann, a one hour nightly show featuring Olbermann's perspectives on a variety of sports-related subjects plus interviews with media members and sports figures. Intelligent sportswriting is hard to find and should always be savored; Olbermann's writing is superb and he is also excellent at delivering those words on air (which is a completely different skill).

Olbermann is smart, funny and edgy. He does not suffer fools gladly--or at all, for that matter--which is the major reason he always seems to be at war with his bosses, his colleagues and the world in general. I can do without hearing his political views--which are not nearly as smart, funny or edgy as his take on the sports world--but after watching the premiere episode of his new show I realized just how much I missed listening to Olbermann dispense wisdom and wit about both how the games are played and how the games are covered.

Olbermann's blistering but accurate take on the latter subject will not win him many friends in the media world, not that Olbermann cares about that at all; Olbermann spent the entire first segment pointing out how one incompetent New York writer manufactured out of thin air the idea that New York Jets' Coach Rex Ryan's job is at stake because of how Ryan used quarterback Mark Sanchez in a preseason game. That writer, having no source other than his own feverish Twitter rant, then published a story acting as if his groundless speculations have some basis in fact. Olbermann notes that the responsible thing for that writer--and for the other media members working the Jets' beat--to do would be to ask Ryan and/or Ryan's employer about this directly but instead Ryan's postgame press conference turned into a bizarre Kabuki theater performance during which the media members belligerently repeated insipid questions and an exasperated Ryan issued increasingly sarcastic replies. Olbermann lamented that actual, legitimate reporting is dead and that, instead of investigating and covering news, media members now create fake controversies in order to sell newspapers, increase TV ratings and/or generate website hits. Olbermann's critique was savage, hilarious and sad: he put the incompetent writer on blast, he made some very funny (and biting) jokes and he exposed the deplorable state of modern media coverage.

It will be interesting to see the blowback from Olbermann's debut. Incompetent people do not like it one bit when their incompetence is exposed to the world, so Olbermann will catch a lot of flak, but I applaud his willingness and ability to call out people who are not doing their jobs properly; the incompetent media members give all media members a bad name--and they are stealing money as surely as the PED cheaters are stealing money from the fans. The sooner that the sports world rids itself of charlatans, cheaters and fools the better off we all will be.

Of course, Olbermann's new/old employer is as guilty as anyone else of the crimes against journalism that Olbermann so eloquently cited. It is interesting that Olbermann's show is based not at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut but rather in New York City. His show is not being aired on the flagship channel but rather on ESPN2, the network that Olbermann helped launch more than two decades ago when he said, with gallows humor, "Welcome to the end of our careers." ESPN is keeping Olbermann at arm's distance from where the sausage is made, so to speak; don't look for ESPN's ubiquitous blowhard Skip Bayless as a guest on Olbermann's show anytime soon.

Catch Olbermann while you can, because I am not sure that his marriage with ESPN will last very long. Olbermann is intelligent and fearless, two characteristics that are not well appreciated in a monolithic bureaucracy. It seems inevitable that Olbermann will say the "wrong" thing and/or offend the "wrong" person but it will be fun seeing how many apple carts he can overturn before he is sent back into exile.

Two Rick Reilly Classics Culled From the Archives

If you are looking for great sportswriting today, you either have to sift through tons of chaff to find a grain or two of wheat or you have to dive into the archives. Rick Reilly used to be the featured back page columnist for Sports Illustrated, consistently producing weekly gems containing insight and wit. Now he has some kind of nebulous role at ESPN, a conglomerate that pays him a lot of money to look very awkward on camera during the postgame show on Monday Night Football. Although Reilly is criminally miscast as an on air personality, four years ago I noted that his literary fastball still hums--and I stand by that contention, based on his recent story about Dayton-based Hall of Fame baseball writer Hal McCoy.

I miss being able to just open up a new issue of SI and find Reilly's latest column. Here are two excellent Reilly pearls from 1998:

Speaking of Class to the Class of '98

Reilly offered some words of wisdom to athletes who were about to enter the professional ranks:

"Thank you, graduates. Please be seated. It's an honor to address the college athletes who are going on to the pros this year. If I may, I'd like to offer just a few pieces of advice."

"This is the career you picked. If you can't handle public scrutiny or deal with strangers graciously, become a taxidermist."

"Read everything written about you, good or bad. Then forget about it. No matter what you do, half the people will worship you and half will detest you. You can't fight it."

"One last thing. Remember when you were a kid? All you dreamed of was playing centerfield for the New York Yankees. Soon, you'll be there. Don't forget to tingle."

Never the Groom, Ever the Best Man

After shooting a 75 in the final round of the U.S. Open and tying for fifth place, Tom Lehman declared that there are things that are much more important than winning a golf tournament: "I think life would suck if you had to be an a------ to be the Open champion. I mean, if I die and all they write on my tombstone is TOM LEHMAN: A GREAT PROFESSIONAL GOLFER, then I'll have missed the whole point of life."

The best sportswriting is elevated by the spirit that animates one of the four quotes that serves as epigraphs for my websites; Tom Callahan--who wrote two of my favorite articles (The Best the Game Offers and Dr. J is Flying Away) about Julius Erving--provided a great credo for those who love to watch sports, for those who love to write about sports and for those who love to read great sportswriting: "It's not nuclear physics. You always remember that. But if you write about sports long enough, you're constantly coming back to the point that something buoys people; something makes you feel better for having been there. Something of value is at work there...Something is hallowed here. I think that something is excellence." As Reilly's story about Lehman demonstrates, "excellence" is not only about attaining victory on the field of play but also about attaining balance in one's life.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Frank Deford's Indelible Portrait of the Beautiful Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Howard Bingham

"Only love matters to friends. If you have a friend you truly love, whether you're Howard or Muhammad, well, then you can be a friend to the world."--Frank Deford, writing about Muhammad Ali and Howard Bingham

Frank Deford and Gary Smith are two of the greatest craftsmen in sportswriting history. They are more than "just" sportswriters; they are artists who specialize in painting the big canvas, telling in-depth stories that transcend who won and who lost a game or a match. I cannot recall reading a poorly written story by either of them but some stories stand out--and one of them is The Best Of Friends, Deford's July 13, 1998 Sports Illustrated tribute to the loving friendship shared by Muhammad Ali and Howard Bingham. Aristotle called such a friendship "philia," characterized by mutual altruistic love--not a romantic love but a love shared by kindred spirits, a deep friendship in which each person can tell the other not what he wants to hear but what he needs to hear.

Ali may be the most famous man on Earth. Bingham made a name for himself as a first-rate, award-winning photographer. The two friends affectionately call each other "Bill." Deford explains by quoting Bernie Yuman, a mutual friend of Ali's and Bingham's: "You see, that's the sign of the most unqualified faith and love and trust. Bill. Simply calling each other Bill. It means, maybe you're a big-deal Muhammad Ali to the world, but that doesn't mean anything to me. To me, you're just Bill. And Howard became Bill too, because that was Muhammad saying, O.K., we're on even ground, so you're Bill too. And names don't mean anything, do they?"

Scroll back up, click on the link and read Deford's story. You won't regret it--and if you have a friend like that in your life, be very grateful.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Nadal is Dominant Again

Rafael Nadal is unlikely to ever match Roger Federer's durability and grace but the frailties of Nadal's body and the brute force nature of his playing style do not diminish his greatness. Nadal defeated Federer 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 in the Western & Southern Open quarterfinals last weekend en route to claiming his ninth title in 12 ATP Tour events this year. This was Nadal's 26th ATP World Tour Masters title, extending his all-time record. Federer has won 21 such titles and Novak Djokovic, who currently is the top ranked player in the world, is third on the all-time list with 14. Nadal won the Rogers Cup event in Canada two weeks ago, so he has now captured consecutive hard court titles in back to back weeks for the first time in his career.

Federer rarely misses an event due to injury and his record of 23 straight Grand Slam semifinals appearances--more than doubling the standard previously set by Rod Laver and Ivan Lendl (10)--may never be broken. Federer's game is very aesthetically pleasing; when he is at his best, he seems to glide all over the court, flicking winners without breaking a sweat.

Nadal sometimes misses months at a time due to injuries and he prowls the court like a hungry predator hunting for food, not a ballet dancer, but Nadal has already surpassed Federer in several important categories. Nadal is the second youngest player to win 10 Grand Slam singles titles (trailing only Bjorn Borg). Nadal owns 12 Grand Slam singles titles in 35 appearances, a .343 winning percentage that is much better than Federer's .298 winning percentage. Nadal has won at least one Grand Slam title in nine straight years, eclipsing Borg's previous record of eight, so if he can string together four or five healthy years while maintaining that winning percentage then he could match Federer's record 17 Grand Slam singles titles.

Federer's durability, consistency and aesthetically pleasing game have inspired many commentators to crown him as the greatest player of all-time but such a designation unfairly ignores the accomplishments of Laver and Borg. Federer's supporters also have to disregard (or attempt to rationalize) Nadal's 21-10 head to head advantage over Federer. While the matchups Laver-Federer and Borg-Federer will only take place in the theater of imagination, there is irrefutable video evidence that Nadal bludgeoned Federer into submission nearly two dozen times; no such footage taints the greatest ever titles that have been unofficially awarded in other sports. It is erroneous to suggest that Nadal only started beating Federer after Federer's overall dominance waned. Nadal is younger than Federer but Nadal defeated Federer five of the first six times that they met, meaning that he took down Federer at the peak of Federer's game (and before Nadal had reached his prime). Federer fans may prefer to view Nadal's most recent triumph over Federer as a sign that Federer has declined but the reality is that Nadal's win is just a reaffirmation of a superiority that has been repeatedly and conclusively demonstrated for several years. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Alex Rodriguez Should Have Received a Lifetime Ban a Long Time Ago

Major League Baseball has suspended Alex Rodriguez for over 200 games--the remainder of the 2013 regular season, the 2013 postseason, the entire 2014 regular season and the 2014 postseason--not only for using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) but for actively obstructing MLB's investigation of his illegal conduct. Here is part of MLB's official statement regarding Rodriguez:

Rodriguez's discipline under the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program is based on his use and possession of numerous forms of prohibited performance-enhancing substances, including Testosterone and human Growth Hormone, over the course of multiple years. Rodriguez's discipline under the Basic Agreement is for attempting to cover-up his violations of the Program by engaging in a course of conduct intended to obstruct and frustrate the Office of the Commissioner's investigation. The suspension, which will become effective on Thursday, August 8th, will cover 211 Championship Season games and any 2013 Postseason games in which Rodriguez otherwise would have been eligible to play.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig broke his arm patting himself on the back: "Despite the challenges this situation has created during a great season on the field, we pursued this matter because it was not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do." Feel free to print out that statement, shred the paper and spread it over your yard, because it will serve as excellent fertilizer; those words would have sounded great if they had been backed up by action more than a decade ago but this is a case of partially closing the barn door after the PED-using foxes stole hundreds of millions of dollars and rewrote the MLB record book. Rodriguez should have been banned for life at least four years ago, after he admitted that he used steroids from 2001-03. Rodriguez posted the three highest single season home run totals of his career during those seasons--52, 57, 47--after not hitting more than 42 home runs in any of his five previous full seasons. He subsequently hit 48 home runs in 2005 and 54 home runs in 2007. Rodriguez won the AL MVP award in 2003, 2005 and 2007. All of those accomplishments are permanently tainted by his repeated use of illegal PEDs. Even if he had "only" used PEDs from 2001-03, Rodriguez' post-2003 numbers and awards would still be fraudulent because there is good reason to believe that PED usage confers advantages that last long after such usage is discontinued. He and all other PED users should be banned for life not just to provide the strongest possible deterrent to potential future PED users but also because anyone who has used PEDs has a long term advantage over clean players.

Instead, not only did MLB decline to suspend Rodriguez for life but his suspension will not start immediately, nor will he likely serve the full 211 game duration; he intends to appeal the punishment and he will be permitted to play until a ruling is made about that appeal. If Rodriguez hits 13 more home runs to tie Willie Mays' career total of 660 then Rodriguez will receive a $6 million bonus on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars that he already has been paid under false/illegal pretenses. Selig and MLB are doing the "right thing" only if you believe that criminals who defiled the sport's record book should be permitted to keep their ill gotten financial gains and their fraudulently obtained awards. Selig and MLB ignored the PED scourge until a Congressional investigation prompted them to take belated, tentative steps to clean up the game. Rodriguez is near the end of his career; he has already safely banked his money and placed his MVP trophies on his mantle. The sport's Hall of Fame voters will be dealing with the aftermath of Selig's Steroid Era for several decades. Selig trumpeting his own virtues for doing "the right thing" should surpass the old definition of chutzpah--the child who kills both of his parents and then asks the court for mercy because he is an orphan. MLB only knew about the Biogenesis PED users because a disgruntled Biogenesis employee released documentation to a small Miami newspaper; Selig is acting like he is Sherlock Holmes on the PED case but his investigative and policing acumen much more resembles that of Rosco P. Coltrane or Barney Fife.

As part of the same MLB investigation of Biogenesis that belatedly caught Rodriguez, 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun--who had repeatedly and aggressively denied being a PED user--accepted a 65 game suspension. Braun's suspension began immediately because he reached an agreement with MLB and thus will not file an appeal. Rodriguez and Braun are just the tip of MLB's most recent PED iceberg; most of the media attention will be focused on them because they are big names but today MLB also issued 50 game suspensions to the following players: Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta, Jesus Montero, Everth Cabrera, Francisco Cervelli, Antonio Bastardo, Jordany Valdespin, Fernando Martinez, Jordan Norberto, Fautino de los Santos, Cesar Puello and Sergio Escalona. The latter five players are minor leaguers but Cruz and Peralta are each two-time All-Stars and Cabrera joined them on the 2013 All-Star team. Cruz was on pace to set career-highs in home runs and RBI this season. MLB statistics and records have about as much meaning and credibility as the statistics and records posted by the steroid-fueled East German Olympic swimming teams during the height of the Cold War.

Further Reading

MLB Should Ban Disgraced Braun for Life

Biogenesis Scandal Demonstrates that Bud Selig and Major League Baseball Still Have not Contained the PED Problem

Cabrera's Website is as Fake as His Artificially Enhanced Body 

Cabrera Suspension Yet Another Sign that MLB's "Steroid Era" is not Over

Two Sports Ilustrated Cover Stories Detail the Sordid Legacy of Baseball's "Steroid Era" 

The Baseball Hall of Fame Should Not Honor the Tainted Career of Ivan Rodriguez

The Ryan Braun MVP Fiasco Delivers Yet Another Black Eye to MLB