Crooked Scoreboard

Selig Introduces End-of-Season Innovations

Let’s face it: this weekend of baseball will be boring. Sure, the Mariners and A’s are “technically” in a “wild card” “race” (quotation marks are for emphasis, right? Good, I thought so). But who cares about a couple of boring teams from the West Coast with weird names? I mean, seriously, Mariners? Is this 1857? And the Athletics? Really? Anyone who thinks Adam Dunn qualifies as athletic has never watched any other sport, ever.

The point is, the Giants clinched yesterday, it’ll take an act of God for the Royals to miss the playoffs, and Derek Jeter capped off his stay in New York by fulfilling every Yankee fan’s lifelong dream of seeing Jose Pirela score a game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth. So what’s left for the rest of this regular season? Not much. Awful, meaningless series between pitiful teams like the Mets and the Astros, a bunch of September call-ups looking like deer in the headlights at the plate, and debutante pitchers who walk five batters in a row and say, “Eh, I’m just happy to be here.”

Fortunately, thanks to quick thinking and questionable use of executive power by future former Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, it doesn’t have to be that way this year. The final weekend of regular-season baseball will feature a series of special rules and incentives designed to keep the game fresh, even in its lowest-stakes period.

Bunts! No swingers allowed! This weekend’s series between the Tigers and the Twins will be bunts only. Miguel Cabrera will sit out the series to maintain his .300 average.

Shorts! If you’ve ever been to Texas, you know that it’s in the South, where the sun can get quite roasty-toasty. That’s why the A’s and Rangers will wear shorts all weekend. Don’t worry; they’ll still wear their usual jerseys, tucked in and everything, so they’ll bear a resemblance to your middle-school gym teacher.

Metal! Have you ever watched college baseball and said, “Man, I wish the majors were like this!” No? Well too bad. The Cubs and Brewers will play with aluminum bats throughout the weekend. That’s right, Anthony Rizzo could get the ten home runs he needs to become the league leader! The commissioner was initially worried about the safety implications of such a move, but then he was reminded that Jose Offerman has been out of the league for several years.

Oldies! You know what’s more fun than watching players on out-of-contention teams play? Watching retired players’ protrusive bellies jiggle as they round second. That’s why the Astros and Mets will take part in a series of old-timers games. Will Mo Vaughn be able to complete his home-run trot without cramping? Maybe! Will Craig Biggio still be better than the vast majority of active second basemen? Almost undoubtedly! Will Mike Piazza airmail balls into the outfield and make us nostalgic for his 10-10-220 commercials? Yes, at least one of those things will happen!

Stuff! Bud Selig must be a fan of the Freakonomics series, because he understands that people respond to incentives. The Nationals have clinched the NL East, and the Marlins are out of it, but both teams will have something to play for this weekend. The team that wins this series will receive VHS copies of Muppet Treasure Island, AND, according to the commissioner, “that movie where Kevin Costner hits a golf ball a bunch of times.” Selig insists that these rewards were carefully chosen by the league’s competition committee, and are not at all related to the commissioner’s recent efforts to clean out his garage.

Uncommon Bonds: The Decline of the Sports Villain

It was 2006, the last of my junior-high years. Two of my homeroom classmates sat behind me, fresh off their morning “SportsCenter” viewing, going back and forth about Barry Bonds’ latest antics. I don’t remember what Bonds had done, exactly; he had plenty of antics back in those days. Whatever it was, none of the three of us had taken too kindly to it. Sensing an opportunity to have a friendly moment with a couple of guys who looked like they might try to stuff me into a locker sometime soon, I turned around in my desk-chair combo and tried to jump on their bandwagon.

“I hope Barry Bonds dies. That would be awesome!”

The kids stopped talking and looked at me as if I had just said the cruelest, most despicable thing they’d ever heard. Years later, one of them would serve jail time for a knife-related incident.

At the time, my hatred for Barry Bonds burned so brightly that my words were hardly an exaggeration. I hated his smug, whatcha-gonna-do-about-it attitude toward his blatant steroid use. I hated his knowing smirk, his whiny voice, and the cross-shaped earring that hung ironically from his left earlobe. I hated the fact that he had an absurd .609 on-base percentage in 2004, his fourth consecutive season in which that mark was above .500. Most of all, I hated the sheer number of press conferences and “Baseball Tonight” segments that resulted from all of this.

I don’t still hope for Barry Bonds’ death, though he will die eventually. What is more surprising is that I can’t even muster up any of that old hatred for him anymore. Everything I just said about him is still true, but thinking about Bonds doesn’t cause me to do much more than sigh and wistfully browse Baseball Reference. He finally left baseball after the 2007 season, as a 43-year-old whose body was starting to break down, even with all of its pharmaceutical enhancements. He could still hit better than most, but no one wanted Barry Bonds on their team, because he was the biggest villain in all of pro sports.

There were many others before him. As far back as Ty Cobb, who played so long ago that historians aren’t even sure human civilization existed in his day, Seven years later, we’re still waiting for someone else to step into the Darth Vader suit. Many athletes have tried, but all have failed to bring together the right combination of personal attributes and cultural circumstances needed to pull it off.

**

Bad, But Not A Monster: It may seem strange that I’m nostalgic for sports villainy at a time when various NFL stars are in the news for their illegal and injurious acts of aggression against other human beings. But these players far exceed the line between “hate” and “love to hate.” We take an interest in the human drama behind their stories, but we mostly just want to see them put to justice and sent out of our lives for good. Bonds was a brazen cheater, but he never directly caused anyone physical harm, so we were more inclined to put up with him. He never broke any laws, save for one conviction on charges of obstruction of justice. Giving a bunch of prosecutors headaches doesn’t exactly engender the same moral outrage as violence against women.

Best of the Best: When an athlete is putting up the muscular numbers that Bonds recorded from 2001 onward, he’ll get plenty of notice no matter what fans think of him. In the NFL, Richard Sherman has some promising villainous characteristics, but as great of a cornerback as he is, he’s nowhere near Bonds’ level of notoriety. He plays defense in a fantasy-centric football culture. Most of his fantasy owners were required to draft Sherman’s Seahawks teammates Bobby Wagner and Greg Scruggs along with him. In other leagues, DeMarcus Cousins, Yasiel Puig, and Bryce Harper don’t seem to care much about what people think of them, but they each have a long way to go to establish themselves at the very top of their respective sports. If those guys do manage to grow into superstars, they’ll be under pressure to portray more benevolent versions of themselves. Their financial success depends on it, because we live in…

…The Era of “Nice”: This is the big one. The Twitter and Facebook machines mean that sports fans have far more access to the details of athletes’ personal lives than ever before. This is neither wholly good nor wholly bad. For those who want to know what Steve Weatherford has for dinner on a typical Wednesday night, it’s wonderful. But the increased access to athletes means that the major sports leagues, especially the NBA, have shifted the focus of their marketing from teams to players. And the hero is always more marketable than the heel. You can find a lot more Superman costumes than Lex Luthor costumes at those weird seasonal Halloween stores in strip malls. Post-Decision LeBron James figured this out the hard way over the past four years, and then did a complete about-face when commercials in which he ran down streets with young children did nothing to rehabilitate his reputation as the league’s bad guy.

Athletes are their own mini-corporations, and their images are meticulously manicured by agents and team officials, whose eyes are all turned toward the bottom line. Children’s hospital photo-ops are disseminated, and apologies are carefully worded to fit 140-character constraints. The surprise is that more people don’t recognize that it’s all bullshit. @RayRice27, an account that’s been dormant since February, painted a picture of a devoted family man.

rice

**

Maybe Barry Bonds just happened to play baseball at a time when he was allowed to be who he wanted to be, who he really was. But it’s hard to imagine that he would act any differently if he were still playing today. He was a real shithead, just like countless other athletes after him have revealed themselves to be. It would be nice if more of them would admit it. It goes back to that old question about whether it’s better for good things or interesting things to happen. If nothing else, at least Barry Bonds got that one right.

Five Sports Poems

1.

You sir are called out!
The play is under review.
You sir are called safe…

“Have you guys heard? ING is now Voya!”

2.

Probable or out?
So much depends on a toe
Football Fantasy

John Clayton is doubtful for ESPN's Week 3 NFL coverage (acute chopstick finger)

John Clayton is doubtful for ESPN’s Week 3 NFL coverage (acute chopstick finger)

3.

Out of “love” the lashing begins
Punishing the foolish pupils
The spanking never stops

BxdZ_hHCMAAW4iH

4.

I’ll assist you in a moment
But first, I must crossover
Don’t miss the sign

brendan_haywood_1257268185

Assist Wizard Brendan Haywood makes a pass

5.

There once was a dimple
Whose wish was so simple
Make me a bird called an eagle

photo posted on post-gazette.com

Football, Your Conscience, and Why You Might Not Care

NFL football has a vice grip on the attention span of millions of people for a significant amount of time. From the beginning of training camp, to the end of the regular season, to the end of the playoffs, to the end of the combine and draft, to the beginning of free agency, to the beginning of OTAs, to the beginning of yet another training camp, some people sit rapt, tracking the status of their team more intensely than they’ll ever track their children’s piano playing or ballet dancing. I’m usually parked in front of a couch eating junk food on an NFL Sunday, as is the tradition for men of a staggeringly wide age range, from the pubescent to the ancient.

This past week, however, was a week in which very little actual on-the-field football news was at the forefront of the public consciousness, due to the catastrophically poor and out-of-touch reaction of the league and much of the general populace to the Ray Rice saga and the the case of Ray McDonald allegedly battering a pregnant woman. Someone could have joked on Wednesday, “Wow, what’s next, Adrian Peterson getting indicted on child abuse charges?!?!”

The Peterson news came at a time when a national conversation about domestic violence and sports was in full swing, which doesn’t diminish the inherent cruelty and lack of sense demonstrated by his actions, but will stand to heighten the NFL’s recent pattern of changing its disciplinary policy on the fly based on the moral outrages of the week prior, which spawned countless Twitter trends and think pieces. Peterson is getting the book thrown at him by the league for something that had everything to do with the timing of the indictment and nothing to do with the infraction itself, which would have earned him nothing but a slap on the wrist and a stern talking-to from the commissioner had it happened in 2012.

In spite of all of this, the institution of football will continue as strongly as ever this year. Attempts to make the game less violent and dangerous are met with scorn from nearly all longtime viewers, people who know that the precautions are being taken in order to limit head injuries and the resultant epidemic of ex-players who deteriorate mentally and sometimes end up harming themselves and those around them. Some have floated the idea that players in legal trouble might use their potential brain damage as an exculpatory factor.

Many people who tune into football games do so with the intention of applauding the most violent behavior, and when a favorite player gets penalized for an illegal hit, the refrain is always the same: “That isn’t football.” Some Ravens fans (women conspicuously among them) came to their first home game since the banishment of Ray Rice in their #27 jerseys, as a show of solidarity, as if to say that the public shaming Rice for his violence “isn’t football.” There are Patriots fans who STILL SUPPORT AARON HERNANDEZ EVEN THOUGH HE’S ON THE HOOK FOR THREE MURDERS.

It’s hard to imagine that a limit might exist at which a football player would be universally admonished for committing a serious crime. It’s hard to imagine a world where anyone would rally to support Ray Rice: Plumber, or Aaron Hernandez: Accountant. The only thing about these people that earns them support in the face of their despicable actions is that they play football. The game is a celebration of violence to begin with, and some won’t even cease their allegiance when the violence perpetrated by those who participate extends to harming the defenseless, or when the realities of the game itself cause grave damage to some of its well-known participants.

Why do we enjoy the violence inherent in the game to begin with? There must be a reason why I so fondly remember seeing Zach Thomas render Laveranues Coles motionless on the field during a Monday Night Football game I attended as a 13-year-old, and why everyone else who was there remembers the same thing with the same positive inflection in their retelling. And we must not care enough, as viewers, to stop watching when we realized that players are dying young and a number of them are avoiding the consequences of their actions, purely based on their fame, which is inextricable from their public displays of violence. Our consumption of the game seems to be headed to a point where it clashes with our consciences. Why this hasn’t happened yet, and what it’d take are another matter entirely.

I haven’t met anyone who has stopped watching football. I won’t stop watching football, because I feel like any moral outrage that spawns from the game does not pertain to me directly. Last year’s most publicized football PR nightmare, the Richie Incognito bullying scandal, affected my favorite team, the Miami Dolphins. My first thought was: “Jonathan Martin isn’t playing? Good. He is not a good player.” I watched every remaining game as if the scandal, which revealed disgusting behavior by several players, had never occurred. It never interested me, and still doesn’t, to know what goes on in private between the members of any team.

Fans, by and large, want to be able to entertain themselves without a discussion of social issues permeating the relaxing Sunday they looked forward to all week. It’s upsetting to many that the game is increasingly unable to exist without these accompanying debates, but it appears that as long as a pipeline of elite talent is still growing up with NFL stardom as a goal, and advertisers still see that members of the most coveted demographics are engaged, no amount of conversation about the actions of individual players or the systemic issues the league faces will matter, and we’ll all still be tuned in.

Fantasy Football Owner Just Happy to be in League

After a hard-fought 106-94 win in Week 1, Bob’s Fantasy Team sits at first place in the McDougal’s Quality Accounting Office League. But the team’s owner, Bob Lawrence, is not willing to provide bulletin-board material for his opponents.

“Really, I’m just happy to be playing,” Lawrence said in an interview from his cubicle in suite 305 of the Madison County Office Building. “I don’t really like football, but I don’t have a lot of close friends around the office, so it’s nice to be included this time.”

Lawrence’s strategy of picking “guys I’ve heard of” was evident on draft day, but he remained coy about his game plan going forward. “I got Michael Vick in the last round, which is pretty good, I think,” Lawrence said. “I always liked that one guy, Kurt Warner. He was a good thrower, and a real family man. But then I found out that he retired, which is too bad. But fantasy football is pretty fun. The computer gives you little star ratings for your players every week, so that’s nice.”

Lawrence is most excited about the league’s potential impact on his social life outside of the office. “The guys have viewing parties during the games on Sundays, so maybe I’ll host one of these times. I like making pigs in a blanket, and maybe I’ll finally get some of the guys to come down cellar and see my model trains.”

Bob’s Fantasy Team is slated for a Week 2 matchup against Destruction Squad, a team owned by Human Resources Intern Sean Wade. “He’s a nice kid, and I’m glad to have something to talk with him about,” said Lawrence. “I’m hoping he’ll help me get that office bowling league started.”

Net Losses: A Play in One Act

Scene: It is late Saturday, September 6. Two CBS executives are seated next to each other at a large conference table.

Executive #1: I can’t wait for the Federer-Djokovic final!

Executive #2: Me neither! The two greatest tennis players currently playing, doing battle in the most wonderful city in America.

E1: Think of the ratings. Everyone loves Roger Federer, and everyone loves an old guy going for the win. Roger Federer is both of those things!

E2: But don’t sleep on Novak! Speed, athleticism, personality, and tennis’ most interesting nose. He’s got it all. It sure is a good day to be heads of CBS Tennis.

The executives cackle and toast their water glasses. Enter JOHN McENROE, whose dress shirt and tie are drenched in sweat.

McEnroe: I assume by now you’ve both heard the news.

E1: The news that we’re about to break records, earn huge raises, and become co-presidents of CBS? We sure have!

McEnroe: I guess you haven’t. Do you guys even watch tennis?

E1: How can I be expected to watch tennis when there’s college football on?

E2: How can I be expected to watch tennis when there’s anything else on?

McEnroe: Oh, God… well, I’m just gonna put it out there. Djokovic lost.

E1: What? I thought he was genetically immune to losing!

E2: This reminds me of what you always say, John. “You cannot be sincere!”

McEnroe: Well, I am sincere.

E2: This day will forever be mourned as one of sports broadcasting’s darkest.

E1: Relax, it might not be that bad. Who beat Djokovic? Was it Andy Roddick? Anna Kournikova? Did Nadal magically heal his knee and buy entry into the semifinals?

McEnroe: Kei Nishikori.

E1: Who?

E2: I think he’s that chef from that movie, the one who dreams of sushi.

E1: Mr. McEnroe, please tell us more about this Ryo Ishikawa.

McEnroe: He’s ranked eleventh in the world. He has a solid all-around game, but doesn’t do anything spectacular. His English skills are limited, and he’s known for his calm demeanor on court.

E1: Not spectacular? That sounds very un-Djokovician!

E2: Limited English? We don’t have money in the budget for an interpreter.

E1: Any chance this calm demeanor involves throwing water bottles at his opponent?

McEnroe: No, I tried to teach him that tactic, but he wasn’t buying into it.

E1: Well, I do believe this Koji Uehara is NOT someone we want in our US Open final, not by a long shot.

E2: It’ll be okay, though. Federer will still be there, and it might be kind of interesting to see the Greatest of All Time going up against a newcomer. Plus, Roger will win easily, and we’ll sell lots of commemorative DVDs of the match.

McEnroe: Actually, guys, there’s something else I have to talk to you about…

E1: Don’t worry, John, we have it covered. The trophy has been shipped over to the US Open engraving department, and is being fitted with Roger’s name as we speak.

McEnroe: Roger Federer lost too.

EXECUTIVE 1 falls from his chair and sobs uncontrollably.

E2: My mother always told me things like this would never happen to me if I just worked hard!

EXECUTIVE 1 picks himself up off the floor and begins using the documents in front of him to wipe his eyes.

E1: Is it too late to cancel the whole thing?

McEnroe: We must soldier on. If you guys can pull yourselves together, I’d like to tell you some things about Marin Cilic.

E2: Who is she?

McEnroe: He was Roger Federer’s opponent today. Beat him in straight sets. He’s from Croatia, he’s tall and sort of awkward, and he looks like Bert from Sesame Street.

E1: With the unibrow and everything? Oh, sweet mercy, this is all too much to bear.

McEnroe: He also served a suspension for doping last year.

E2: That’s it, I’m pulling the plug on this broadcast right now. No one in America wants to watch Shigetoshi Hasegawa versus juiced-up cheater Mary Killswitch. I don’t even think Croatia is a UN-recognized country.

McEnroe: Listen, guys, I know this is tough. But if you bail on this US Open, know that CBS will never get the rights to broadcast this great tournament ever again. I’ll personally make sure of it. The great sport of tennis shall not be marginalized!

E1: We should listen to him; he’s pretty much the king of the sport.

E2: No more US Open would mean no more Roger, no more Serena, and no more Will Ferrell reaction shots!

E1: Fine, John, you can have your stupid match. But there must be some way to make it better. Why didn’t you guys take our suggestion of training bikini models to call the lines?

McEnroe: I lobbied hard for that one, believe me.

E2: What if we got Pitbull to do musical performances between sets? I don’t think he’s doing anything on Monday.

E1: Those weasels at the World Croquet Championships got to him first.

E2: Hey, John, what if you played in place of the one who looks like Bert? You’re American, everyone loves your commentary, and I don’t think the phrase “calm on-court demeanor” is even in your vocabulary.

McEnroe: I’ll go get my racquets.

End scene.

Watch the 2014 US Open men’s final tonight at 5 PM Eastern, as Kei Nishikori takes on American hero John McEnroe. Only on CBS.    

A Bittersweet Fantasy

I knew it as soon as they told me he’d been “missing from the Air Force base for a few days.” It turns out that was just a lie they invented to keep me from having an emotional breakdown in a car full of my friends, but almost no one who’s been “missing for a few days” turns up alive. That was on Sunday, and on Monday, when I was in the solitude of my own apartment, they told me he had been found dead.

That was almost four months ago, and ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out how to properly eulogize him in the context of a sports blog. It’s not as much of a stretch as it might seem; without sports, we wouldn’t have been friends. He was the kid in my third-grade class who had a Denver Broncos hat to go with his Kansas City Chiefs winter coat, and who always got into a little more mischief than our teacher would’ve liked. The very first thing he ever said to me was, “Do you want some blueberry ice cream?” Of course I did, so he fished around in his backpack, pulled out a toy dump truck, and said “HONK HONK!” As upset as I was at the lack of ice cream, blueberry or otherwise, this was an comically unconventional introduction, the only one from elementary school that has stuck with me for all these years.

We stormed to victory as running mates in the 2000 Tioga Elementary School mock presidential election (our opponents’ slogan was “There Should Be More Taxes,” so we had it in the bag). We found an unopened container of Mexican candy on the playground, and devised to give it to a classmate of Puerto Rican heritage, “because she sounds Mexican.” But it was our mutual appreciation for sports, especially football, that cemented the friendship. Having inherited his dad’s favorite team, he was a Broncos fan. The family home had one of those fake blue-and-orange street signs that read “John Elway Avenue” hanging on the wall above the pool table. But unlike most kids in our demographic, he didn’t just have a passing knowledge of the superstars. He stayed faithful to his team through the lean Brian Griese years, and then the slightly more palatable Jake Plummer era. His verbal indictments of Tatum Bell and Ashley Lelie were spirited and always on point.

When my parents’ fantasy football league, which had existed since the 1980s infancy of fantasy sports, made the transition from scour-the-newspaper offline scoring to an automated online system, my parents gave me permission to welcome some new blood into our yearly competition. He was the clear choice, and his entrance into the league marked the beginning of a dynasty so unchecked in its supremacy that it would make even Bill Belichick show some emotion for a second or two. When he started high school, enrolled in college, and joined the Air Force as an air traffic controller in training, the fantasy football league was our best excuse to stay in contact.

The dynasty ended with what the Air Force special investigator told me was “a single gunshot wound to the head,” one that was later confirmed to be self-inflicted, and that no one I’ve talked to has said they saw coming.

**

I had seen him just over a month before it happened. He came down from Dover for the weekend, and on Saturday night we took the Red Line to the Verizon Center for a Washington Wizards game. He was quiet for most of the night, and said he hated having to deal with the crowded city streets, but this wasn’t out of the ordinary for him. He was at his best when we kept things low-key, staying in to play video games, just as we did most weekends when we were in high school. Neither of us really cared to party, and we were both socially reserved without being socially awkward. A couple underage raids of the liquor cabinet notwithstanding, whenever he came over, we had a job to do. We’d fire up the Xbox, throw in whatever sports title happened to catch our eye, and spend hours GMing our teams through years of play. Most of our friends would’ve fallen asleep after about half an hour of proposing trades, combing through stat lines, and adjusting depth charts, but it never got old for us. That particular weekend, we took over the lowly 2012-13 Orlando Magic and guided them to a few championship seasons. I had no reason to think those would be our last titles together.

He was scheduled to come visit the weekend after I got the call. We had three tickets to a Nationals game, and he was finally going to meet a college friend of mine whom I’d been telling him about for a long time. I was hoping the Nats game would help him get interested in one of the only sports he never warmed up to. When I sat at the game with another friend, an empty seat beside me, I wondered how he would’ve reacted to certain moments in the game. Would he have been impressed by Ian Desmond’s game-tying home run, or would he have said that the whole afternoon was slow and overpriced, and that Screech was the worst mascot in the MLB? But I learned in the following months that I didn’t always have to wonder what he would think. When you grow up with someone, your shared experiences shape your developing brains, values, and perceptions in similar ways. I’m still carrying his sense of humor around in me, and I intend to pick up where he left off in his heckling “Old-Ass Al” Harrington the next time I’m able to attend a Fujian Sturgeons game.

One area where our brains did not develop similarly was our acumen for fantasy sports. I was the cellar-dweller to his dynasty; my middling finish last year was a moral victory, a momentary departure from my usual failures. I doubted whether we would continue the league without its heart and soul, without the one person who kept us all on our toes with his forward-thinking waiver claims. But we continued, defiantly looking into the camera and saying something about the show must go on. We filled his spot with the ten-year-old son of another participant, who may (but let’s be honest, almost certainly won’t) grow into the same type of sleeper-picking wunderkind as his predecessor.

The draft was a lonely affair. I didn’t have anyone to snicker with when the guy who ALWAYS encounters technical difficulties encountered them yet again, and delayed the draft by 15 minutes. I didn’t throw anyone a furtive glance when the guy who can’t keep track of anything asked if Matt Forte was still available in the fifth round. But just as it was almost as though I had formed an owner-player relationship with Toby Gerhart by drafting him as my second starting running back (don’t laugh, this is a serious part), it was almost as though my friend was there to share those moments. I knew him too well not to see him shaking his head.

**

Suicide is a funny thing. Just when you think you have someone figured out, it gets all up in your business and says, “Hey, maybe there was more going on with this person than you thought.” Maybe all of those times in our naive teenage years, when we laughed at NFL “troublemakers” for their drug addictions or violent outbursts, were masking similar struggles. Maybe if I had taken a break from sarcastic jokes to look him in the eye and ask, “Hey, man, how have you been feeling?”, he would still be here, working as Crooked Scoreboard’s resident golf expert, as he intended to do one day. Any counselor worth his salt will tell you that nothing good comes of asking those questions, dwelling on hypotheticals, but it’s impossible not to do so from time to time. Especially when I still see him so clearly, scrolling through the lists of players, laughing at the guy before him who just drafted yet another underperforming player from his favorite team. At some point this season, I’m sure I’ll feel compelled to send him a boastful text about my big win. But I’ll have to remind myself that that urge, like the whole game of pretend that is fantasy football, is just an attempt to grasp something I can never really reach.

Josh Gordon, Drugs, and the Modern Athlete

Josh-Gordon-12-1024x733

As even the casual NFL fan knows, Josh Gordon has a bit of a checkered past. In it, the following things have all occurred:

-In 2010, Gordon was found asleep at a Texas Taco Bell with his Baylor teammate, and they were both caught in possession of marijuana. Normally, this would qualify as the least dignified day of someone’s life, but after a subsequent positive test for marijuana, he was kicked off the team and declared for the 2012 NFL Supplemental Draft, where…

-…he was selected with a second-round pick. “Yay,” he probably thought, “I’m a high NFL draft pick!” He was then informed that he would have to play for the Cleveland Browns in a year when Brandon Weeden ended up making 15 starts, and that day ended up even worse than the day he fell asleep in the Taco Bell.

-After putting together a nice 50-reception, 800-yard rookie season, Gordon yet again failed a drug test and was assessed a two-game suspension at the beginning of the 2013 season. After serving this suspension, he did what few people considered possible and led the NFL in receiving yards despite catching passes from Brandon Weeden and playing fewer games than everyone else, and recording the only two back-to-back 200-yard receiving games in league history. Instead of receiving a plaque for doing all of those ridiculous things, he was suspended for the entire upcoming season (a suspension which was then upheld on appeal), after he, you guessed it, was found to have marijuana in his system during a drug test.

Possessing weed is still illegal most places in the US, although the general trend seems to be toward acceptance of its use among the public. It is, at worst, a venial sin. The Gordon suspension is a remnant of a bygone time (the 1980s) when much of the public perception of professional athletes in the three major American sports was tied to their use of certain drugs (as the record indicates, lots and lots and lots of coke). In order to win back public esteem and the resultant sponsorship dollars, leagues incorporated stringent penalties for positive drug tests. These efforts were largely successful, and images of recreational drug use are now far from the current view of the athlete.

Were it not for the weight of public opinion, would the NFL have ever thought to incorporate harsh drug penalties, especially for marijuana? The answer to this question may lie in the current debacle surrounding Ray Rice, who received only a two-game suspension for being captured on video battering his wife at a casino. Only after much public upheaval did the NFL, in a move that can easily be equated to appeasement, incorporate standardized punishment for players implicated in domestic violence.

Of course, even if Josh Gordon played for the Denver Broncos and was partaking in only the most legal of homemade marijuana cigarettes in his spare time, and only on his days off from running free football camps for orphans, the NFL could still have come down just as hard on him. Sure, he probably shouldn’t have failed so many drug tests if he knew what the rules were, and if he really, really can’t stop, that’s cause for him to go and get help. It’s obvious, though, that his proclivities don’t at all prevent him from performing well, since his play matches up with the best receivers in history (small sample size, because he’s always suspended). The suspensions sprout from the NFL’s desire to be on the right side of public discourse when their players commit crimes. Except we wouldn’t know that Josh Gordon was smoking so much if the NFL wasn’t keeping such close tabs on him.

All told, Gordon will be suspended just as long as Donte Stallworth was in 2009 for drunkenly killing someone with his car. If these sound like offenses of disparate severity, it’s because they are. It could be that there was a time where the NFL’s heavy hand in punishing the victimless crimes of its players was warranted, as a deterrent to impressionable youth who idolized athletes. Plausible, because children are idiots. Still, these regulations should be tempered for today’s realities, before a PR mishap forces the NFL to act.

Soler Power: A Letter to the Newest Chicago Cub

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Dear Mr. Jorge Soler,

Congratulations! You made it to the big leagues. Sure, that’s no surprise. The Cubs loved you enough to pay you $30 million over nine years before you even hit a single ball for them, and you batted .338 in the minors this year, which is better than most of your Chicago teammates could have done. Your ascension to the majors was basically a given, but I’ve lived long enough to know that freak baserunning injuries and goat-herding accidents can and do happen, so this is a time for celebration. The next five seconds are a time for celebration, at least. You can celebrate until you’ve reached the end of this sentence. Okay, stop now. The MLB is a cold, ruthless place, and those who are happy just to be there will find themselves shagging fly balls for the Batavia Muckdogs or Jamestown Jammers.

When you get to The Show, all kinds of people will be angling to join your inner circle. Don’t listen to them, especially if they come to you asking you to invest in a really great Detroit real-estate deal they found on an interleague road trip. Some people will be willing to help you, though, and as someone who is one year older than you and has played in exactly zero professional baseball games, I am up to the challenge. You may say that I lack an insider’s perspective, but I like to think that I have a healthy distance from the game, combined with a knowledge of what makes players great. Perhaps most importantly, I have never once chewed tobacco, and I trust that my smart decision-making and healthy salivary glands will be assets to you in the future.

Get a gimmick: As I’m sure you are aware, the team that you have just become a part of is not very good. Your arrival is an indication that people in the Cubs organization are serious about winning, but nothing you could do in the next month is going to help the Cubs overcome the 13.5-game division deficit they currently face. That’s perfect for you, though! Instead of worrying about pesky details like on-field performance, you can devote this time to building your brand, and showing Chicago fans why you’re going to be the next Cubs superstar. It’s been a long time since a legend made his home at Wrigley Field,  so the fans are looking for someone they can embrace. Or someone they can embrace, shun, and then mock for his questionable skin-care choices. The big deal these days is the 12-34 demographic. The Cubs pinstripe jerseys are nice, but have you considered adding a cape? Or what about holding the bat upside-down once in a while? No one has tried it, but I’m sure making solid contact off the handle would create some crazy spins.

Embrace the Cuban: When you made the decision to defect in 2011, you joined a growing cadre of Cubans who have brought their baseball talents to America. Comparisons to Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, and Yoenis Cespedes will be everywhere, but remember that you’re a better player than all of them. You can out-Puig Puig, out-Abreu Abreu, and out-grass Cespedes, all without trying very hard. But don’t stop with statistical dominance; let everyone know that you, and you alone, are your country’s premier export. Keep a Cuban flag in your back pocket for your home run trot. Make sure you’re photographed with cigars, ham sandwiches, whatever it takes. Never mind the fact that you may not even like your country that much (you did risk your life not to live there); Americans baseball fans love displays of patriotism, even if the country being bolstered isn’t their own.

Be picky with endorsements: After you knock your first few home runs, companies will come running for you. But be careful of these folks, especially the ones who aren’t even willing to give you a copy of the contract in Spanish. It may be tempting to jump at every offer, but do Oreck vacuum cleaners really need to be part of the Jorge Soler brand? Laffy Taffy? No. That stuff is made out of discarded pool covers. When people see their favorite rightfielder onscreen between segments of “Baseball Tonight”, they need to know that he’s there in support of the best deodorant, the tastiest iced tea, and the most sublime of hair-replacement therapies. If there’s one thing you don’t want to become, it’s the Ty Burrell of baseball players. When Jorge Soler endorses a product, his fans need to know that he really uses it, or at least would use it, if he were a post-menopausal woman suffering from plaque psoriasis.

All the best to you as you prepare to make your debut. I hope I have given you sufficient reason to bring me on as an advisor during your MLB career. If not, consider this advice my free gift to you. But if you opt for some Scott Boras clone with “experience” and “qualifications,” just know that it will be yet another big mistake, and one of Cuba’s other top prospects will be coming for you in a few years, barrel of the bat in hand.

 

Williamsport Confidential: My Potential Path to Athletic Glory

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I’ve done some good things and some bad things in my life, but suspiciously few of the good things have involved my participation in a sport. Sure, sometimes I’ll make a couple of threes in a pickup basketball game or accidentally throw one of those Wiffle ball pitches that rises on its way to the plate, but things like that are small potatoes next to my real ambition: nationwide exposure in sports media. How can I go about attaining this? At 22, my window of opportunity for being a professional athlete has likely shut (if we’re going to pretend this didn’t happen at birth). Jose Fernandez and Bryce Harper are both several months younger than me. This is to say that I’m not a very good at baseball for a 22-year-old. What I am, probably, is a phenomenal Little Leaguer, with skills perfectly suited for the 10-12 age group. Each August, ESPN and its camera crews swarm down upon the pint-sized baseball field that plays host to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA. This would be the perfect place to test my hypothesis. Here’s a list of reasons why it wouldn’t be an awful idea for me to have tried this year:

The Precedent: Danny Almonte, who captivated audiences across the country with his string of dominant Little League World Series pitching performances in 2001, turned out to be significantly older (by two years, or 16.666666 percent) than he was believed to be, and his team had to vacate all of its victories. Do you know what would have prevented this problem for poor Danny? Better falsification.

The Undeniable Inspirational Story (or, the Falsification): The most important component of my plan to enter the LLWS would be to pass myself off as a 12-year-old who recently immigrated from a Caribbean isle so far-flung and hostile to human life that children have the ability to grow beards. There, armed with only a dream and a tattered steroid-era MLB coloring book, my love for the game grew. I learned to throw with coconuts on the beach, in the absence of common American sporting goods. This training made it incredibly easy for me to throw a much lighter baseball upon my arrival to the United States, after cricket players burned down my house.

Wheaties Money: It is rumored that this year’s breakout LLWS star, Mo’Ne Davis, received a six-figure offer to appear on boxes of Wheaties, a cereal that I have never known anyone in real life to eat, ever. I’ve never met anyone who knows what they taste like. They’re probably in stores, but they’re so unappealing next to the Count Chocula and Honey Bunches of Oats that nobody I can trust would ever notice them, much less make them part of their complete breakfast. That being said, I would be a shining ambassador for all things Wheaties if they gave me multiple times my current salary to be on their packaging. I’d burn the Corn Flakes rooster mascot in effigy if that’s what it took. The concern for Davis is that accepting the endorsement would ruin her chance at NCAA athletic eligibility. I have no such concerns, considering that, despite my convincing middle-schooler exterior, I have already graduated college.

It Would Get Kids Used To People Misrepresenting Their True Ages In Media: The guy who played Miley Cyrus’s brother on Hannah Montana is now 37 years old. I repeat, the guy who played a 16-year-old on a kids show that I was far too old to watch when it came out, is now 37 years old. He was 30 when the show started airing. Nobody cared. Nobody stopped this from happening. That’s a 14-year gap between portrayed age and actual age. Why not apply this reasoning to the Little League World Series? I’m sure that weirdo old guy from Hannah Montana got the job because of his professionalism and poise on set. Have you ever seen an interview with one of those Little Leaguers? The interviews are awful. The kids only talk about wanting to meet Ariana Grande and how much they like to race go-karts. NO SUBSTANCE. If I hurl a perfect game, and then I go on Jimmy Fallon or whatever to bask in the viral success I wrought, I’d wow the audiences with my loquaciousness, and the whole baseball-industrial complex would benefit.

IF YOU ARE A SHADY YOUTH BASEBALL COACH WHO READ THIS AND THINKS IT’S A GOOD IDEA CONTACT BLOG MANAGEMENT THANKS.

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