Friday, November 27, 2009

The McCarver Rule, On Ice

When it comes to making observations, baseball analyst and ex-catcher Tim McCarver has a unique gift of foresight. His prediction of Luis Gonzales's winning base hit in the classic 2001 World Series -- McCarver called not only the winning hit but how and where the ball would likely be hit, and why, based on the game situation -- should be in the broadcast archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

McCarver's observations extend beyond unique scenarios to universal laws. He proclaims with confidence that in the history of baseball, no conversation between a batter who has reached first base and the first baseman has ever meant anything. Then, there is the now-famous McCarver Rule: every time you watch a baseball game, you're likely to see something, or a combination of things, that you've never seen before. Perhaps a triple play; or a double play where an outfielder applies the final tag; or a pitch over everyone's head that the batter swings at anyway. Something.

What I didn't realize until today is that the McCarver Rule extends to realms beyond baseball. Less than a minute into tonight's Minnesota-Michigan college hockey game, Minnesota was penalized two minutes when the refs and linesmen threw two overly aggressive players in a row out of the same faceoff. I've been watching college hockey for more than four decades -- including a short stint as the World's Worst College Hockey Announcer -- and I'd never seen that rule applied before. Frankly, I didn't even know it existed.

Was this startling occurrence in fact the McCarver Rule in operation? If so, is it now to be understood as a universal law of all sports? Kenneth, what is the frequency? Crucial research questions all that now fall to Your Humble Correspondent to investigate.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Shocked, Shocked About Steroids

Retired pitcher Curt Schilling once wrote an emphatic opinion piece on his 38 Pitches blog about the steroids era in baseball. According to Schilling, it's naive to think that any major league team was completely clean during that era, which he says encompassed his entire career.

It's deflating to realize that such awesome spectacles as the McGwire vs. Sosa home run race of 1998, the tape measure home runs of Bonds and A-Rod, the clutch hitting of Manny Ramierez, and the power pitching of Roger Clemens into his greybeard years have reflected the willingness of players to cheat and owners, executives, and managers to look the other way -- perhaps even encourage the practice.

In addition to steroids, consider: growth hormones (both human and equine); blood-doping (both human and equine); surgical enhancement (Tommy John surgery, LASIK); podiatrics (athletic shoe design); textile science (swimsuit fabrics); applied aerodynamics (curveballs, spitballs, knuckleballs); and statistical evaluation ("Moneyball"). And oh, those lovely East German swimmers! Success and failure accrue not just to athletes but also the technological prowess of the society that sends them forth into the arena.

Given the importance of sports in understanding the capabilities and limits of the human body, and the importance of sports science in developing those capabilities further, is there really a clear, ethical line between physical enhancements that represent cheating and those that are legitimate technological advances? Who makes that determination?

Consider the classical origins of athletics: as a means of inspiring, motivating and testing physical fitness, coordination, teamwork, and strategy -- in preparation for military battle. Somewhere right now, some American kids on combat patrol are probably taking various performance-enhancing drugs in a belief (true or mistaken) that doing so will aid in their muscle recovery or alertness and help keep them alive. Some American captains or sergeants might be encouraging this practice.

Somehow I doubt that the public would react to such "cheating" with the same scorn that it heaps upon juiced ballplayers who, for reasons both laudable and selfish, have given their bodies over to the R&D labs.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yankees Win, Blah Blah Blah

Speaking of Philadelphia, weren't they just in a World Series? It's been only two weeks since the end of the baseball season, but the victory by the Yankees over the Phillies has already receded from front-of-brain consciousness.

For me, the iconic play of the postseason came in Game 4: Johnny Damon's alert steal of third base when nobody was covering the bag. That play showed verve and spirit. Other than that, not much comes to mind. Hideki Matsui hit a bunch of homers and doubles in the final game, and Mariano Rivera pitched more than one inning a few times. Andy Pettitte pitched with his usual Pete Sampras-like countenance. Derek Jeter got on base some, I'm pretty sure. Must have. A-Rod had a big game at some point, didn't he?

Ever the fair-weather fan, I tried to get excited about the Yankees win, which (unacceptably to some) was nine long years in coming. I'd grown up in Upstate New York during the losing Yankee seasons of the late 1960's and early 1970's, post-Mickey Mantle, pre-Thurman Munson and pre-Reggie Jackson. After pitching ace Mel Stottlemyre, graceful outfielder Roy White, and the late Bobby Murcer, the talent level on those teams fell off sharply. Recalling those lean years, I hold that a championship is never to be taken for granted -- even by a pinstriped franchise with a payroll large enough to fund NASA.

In that spirit, I caught some of the 2009 post-parade ceremony at City Hall. Honestly, I've never seen a more subdued, workmanlike celebration. With few exceptions, the players sauntered out when their names were called, most looking for all the world like they'd rather be somewhere else, or wanted a fee for their appearance. (In fairness, serious hangovers could have been involved.) Keys to the city were presented by Mayor Bloomberg to each Yankee player, including minor-league call-ups, as well as every last team employee down to the shoeshine kid. A few short speeches were made; a few onlookers cheered.

Most of the speakers credited Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, now in failing health, and his sons for their massive spending on star players that has driven and disrupted the economics of baseball for three decades. To finance astronomical salaries, ticket prices have risen over the years, and have now reached the level of the absurd in the new Yankee Stadium. It's no longer New York's barbers and cabdrivers who can afford to attend the games, especially in the seats closest to home plate, but bankers, lawyers and celebrity politicians. Perhaps this explains the curiously underwhelming response when the final out of Game 5 was recorded. "The-e-e Yankees win!" said the team's broadcaster. The fans cheered; the players put on special caps and t-shirts; the loudspeakers played We Are The Champions. All according to plan.

(Is noone aware that Queen's vainglorious winner's anthem was meant to be ironic?)

Excellence through expectation and execution is admirable in business and sports alike, but only in the corporate world is it enough. Sports requires passion as well as achievement to hold fan interest and build loyalty. As the Yankees report to spring training in 2010 and prepare to defend their 27th championship -- will Manager Joe Girardi change his number from 27 to 28? -- the best they can hope for if they succeed is not ecstasy but relief at meeting the annual plan.

Meanwhile, baseball enthusiasts everywhere else will hope that their team can stoke up, catch lightning, and take down the mighty Yanks. Explosive exuberance awaits the franchise and its fans whose players can, just once, overachieve wildly, steal a pennant and a championship, and reach the very pinnacle of their professional existence.

          Irrational, yes; impossible, no --
          We're in first place! Go, Brewers, Go!

"The Hammer"

The Philadelphia Flyers retired Dave "The Hammer" Schultz's No. 8 last night at The Spectrum. This tribute to the NHL's Super Goon of the 1970's portends either (a) the fall of Western Civilization or (b) the resurrection of Philadelphia hockey. Or both. Quick litmus test, for those on the fence: Do you like gladiator movies?

Schultz was a fighter and a game changer, the defining member of Philly's Broad Street Bullies championship teams of 1973-74 and 1974-75. Bobby Clarke scored the goals and Bernie Parent stood on his head in goal, but it was Schultz's clownish, brawling fisticuffs that set other teams off-balance. His antics not only inspired his own team but set the tone for a generation of brutality-as-comedy vehicles in the popular culture, from Paul Newman's minor league hockey movie Slapshot to Warren Zevon's hockey anthem, Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song):

          Brains over brawn -- that might work for you,
          But what's a Canadian farm boy to do?

The Hammer's 472 penalty minutes in 1974-75 -- only hockey celebrates its most flagrant lawbreakers -- are still an NHL single-season record. So iconic were Schultz's hockey fights that several exemplary, brutal specimens of his art are posted on his own web site.

Philadelphia built a statue to Rocky, Sylvester Stallone's fictional prizefighter, but it was a real fighter that clutched and punched his way into the city's heart and reaffirmed its combative, working class soul. If the Flyers of Broad Street contend for this year's Stanley Cup, as seems likely, they will do so with two championship banners from four decades ago and Dave Schultz's No. 8 as their visible inspirations from above.

          Hit somebody!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

One. Tera. Byte.

Always the futurist, I bought a Leading Edge Model D Personal Computer in 1986 for $1,500. With its amber-colored monochrome monitor, proprietary word processing and database software, and choice of either two floppy drives or one floppy and one hard drive, this Korean-made entry into the nascent, IBM-compatible personal computer market was considered at the time to be a value-oriented bargain.

I opted for the hardware version with two 360-kilobyte floppy drives. Why would a home user, even a writer wannabe, ever need a hard drive, a $100 option? Who could possibly fill even a fraction of ten megabytes -- that's more than a million English words! Twenty novels! Whereas my likely storage requirement was for a half-dozen unpublished articles, a dozen letters home, and a couple of text adventure games.

With word processing software disk in one floppy drive and data disk in the other, I was good to go. No more tiptoeing around allowable-use policies on the mainframes and time-sharing systems at school and work. No more jostling for access to shared PC equipment and dedicated word processors. No more flipping sign-up sheets. More disk space than I thought I would ever need, totally at my disposal, totally my own. So modern; so ahead of the curve. You bet!

I just looked at the electronics ads in this morning's Sunday edition of the New York Times. For a mere $200 -- discounted online to about $100 -- you can now buy an external hard drive from a computer accessories vendor that has one terabyte of data storage space.

One terabyte for $100. With apologies to binary computing purists, that's 1000 gigabytes, each of which is 1000 megabytes, each of which is 1000 kilobytes, each of which is 1000 bytes. 100 billion English words. Two million novels.

I'd better start writing!


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