Tuesday, September 25, 2012

NFL Zebras Not the Only Animals in Owners' Sights

Hey, d'ja see the Packers-Seahawks game last night?  Cool how it ended, huh?

The NFL replacement officials are in way over their heads - so far that the integrity of the entire league is in question.  Evidence of their incompetence arises in every quarter, if not in every set of downs.  But, it's time to refocus: it's their employer, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who planned the current lockout of the regular referees, in collaboration with certain activist owners; it's Goodell who hired the replacement refs, put them on the football field, gave them a whistle, and let them loose with insufficient training and experience; and it's Goodell and this handful of owners who are the only remaining parties to insist that nothing is wrong with the status quo.

There's obviously more to the NFL owners' posture in the current lockout of the regular referees than just the cost savings at stake, a relative pittance; else the league would have ended the lockout unilaterally after Week 1.  That they haven't suggests the following motivations:

(1) PRECEDENT: Not only does a hard-line posture toward the regular referees demonstrate the owners' resolve in the instant dispute; in their minds, it likely also sets a precedent for future contract negotiations with the Players' Association, a much bigger economic opportunity.  It also signals a strategic rigidity with respect to labor unions and salaried workforces in general, both in the owners' non-NFL businesses and in American society at-large.  The message: Negotiation itself is off the table.
(2) IDEOLOGY: The current generation of NFL owners came of age when President Ronald Reagan broke the Professional Air Traffic Controllers' Organization (PATCO) by hiring and training replacements.  As Paul F. Campos wrote today at Salon.com, appropriating the contemptuous jargon of ownership-class lionizer Ayn Rand and referencing her avid adherent: "Paul Ryan's beloved Packers were robbed last night -- because the owners are putting the 'moochers' in their place."

(3) PEER PRESSURE: Rigidity in the face of common sense allows the owners to display their boss-class status to and gain the affirmative, personal approval of their fellow sports team owners and business peers, whom they run into at Board meetings, Chamber of Commerce meetings, and country clubs and are, in fact, the only constituencies who actually matter to them.

(4) COMBATIVENESS: The hardened, combative societal attitudes evidenced first in America's so-called culture wars, then in its "red state-blue state" political divide now pervade all walks of life, including the business of sports.  An entire generation has grown up with categorical attitudes that are uninformed by critical thinking.

(5) LOMBARDI-ISM: (I could get exiled from Wisconsin for this.)  Former Packers coach and NFL demigod Vince Lombardi's famous line,"Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing [that matters]!" has been inflated to the status of received wisdom throughout American society.  It is, in fact, a sophomoric locker-room slogan, not an organizing principle for the modern world.

(6) VANITY: The owners continue, stubbornly and conceitedly, to deny a gross, strategic error that they have committed in public, as doing so would be an admission of their own fallibility; thereby compounding the problem.

(7) COLLUSION: The consistent pattern of the NFL, NBA, and NHL using nearly identical, hard-line labor tactics suggests that their executives are motivated by and doing the sector-wide bidding for the money-center banks, including Bank of America and Citibank, that serve the sports, media, and entertainment industries.  These financial players are often equity investors as well as the principal lenders to ownership groups.  Their influence in the sports world is an underreported story; whether they are also instigators in the recent spate of lockouts is a matter of speculation.

What troubles me most is that this infestation of hostile tactics toward players and officials could spread further.  In particular, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig's vaunted two-decade stretch of labor peace with the Baseball Players' Association, with no strike or lockout since the World Series washout of 1994, is surely threatened unless he and his eventual successor can wrangle MLB owners into a collective posture that does not rely principally upon the threat of work stoppages to achieve economic ends.

  *  *  *

UPDATE: After a 31-hour negotiating session following the Green Bay-Seattle game, the NFL and the NFL Referees Association agreed on the terms of a new, eight-year contract.

Friday, September 21, 2012

50-50 Raffle

It had to come down to the Brewers and Cardinals, didn't it?

Last year (2011), it was a race for the NL Central Division title, won by the Milwaukee Brewers, followed by a rematch in the NL Championship Series, won by the bad guys.  I mean, excuse me, the St. Louis Cardinals.  (Sorry.  Force of habit.)

This year (2012), it's a race for the second NL Wild Card spot.  Doesn't sound quite as compelling, does it?  Sure, the Wild Card teams have made the playoffs, their possibility of a Galactic Championship still alive.  But what have they won, really?

A coin toss.  A lottery ticket.  A 50-50 raffle.

Random chance.

The Brewers sell 50-50 raffle tickets every home game at Miller Park, with 50% of the proceeds going to the raffle winner and 50% going to the Brewers Community Foundation.  That's different.  That's a win-win. That's the Law of Large Numbers, the outcome roughly predictable over a season. 

This is win-lose.  This is playing 162 major league games in order to subject yourself to a coin toss to see if you go home in shock.  Make no mistake, a single play-in game is a coin toss.  You could be eliminated on the basis of an injury, an umpiring call, a bad hop.  Even if you've won 10 more regular season games than your Wild Card opponent, as the Atlanta Braves might this season, you could go home in three hours.  Even if, as the Brewers are hoping, you tunnel your way out of a disappointing first half with a maniacal stretch drive that lasts for weeks, you could lose one ball in the lights and go home.  Even before your fans see a single home playoff game, scalp one triple-priced ticket, wave one terricloth towel for the cameras, you could be done.

The Wild Card round needs to be a Best of Three elimination series.  Even the College World Series, with far fewer regular season games determining the participants, has a loser's bracket.

I hear your objections. "There's no time on the television calendar!" say football-besotten television sports executives, and those who carry their water.  To which I reply: Really?  Two days, not possible?  Two fewer split-squad games in the spring?  You can't drive your Jag back from Florida two days earlier?

"The excitement of a single, sudden-death game trumps all!"  These are the people who think a penalty shoot-out in hockey or penalty kicks to decide a soccer contest make for superior television to a clutch goal with time expiring in overtime.

"Teams play crucial elimination games in every round!"  Yes, but not in Game 1.  Baseball is an ebb and flow, the build-up of a season -- or a playoff series -- to a climax.  It's seeing if a slumping player can pull out of a slump just once in October.  It's needing several members of a starting rotation to succeed, not just a single ace.  It's planning relievers over a multiple-game series in order not to overextend and overuse them.  It's enjoying prolonged excellence and series-long narratives.  The two-team battle leading to a deciding Game 5 or Game 7 enhances the week-long drama.  Those elimination games mean something more, at least to the discerning sports fan, than simply deciding who advances.

Moreover, imagine the lower season-long investment in player payroll that many baseball owners will likely commit to if the most positive result they can foresee from competing is a 50-50 coin toss.  In MBA-speak, that's like slashing the expected value of having a good team by one-half.  Owners like Pittsburgh's Bob Nutting might never invest in an A.J. Burnett on the free agent market again.

Make a deal with you, Major League Baseball executives: if MLB agrees to expand the Wild Card round to Best of Three, I'll agree that you can cut the MLB League Championship Series back to a Best of Five.  Fair enough?  Just keep your hands off the Best of Seven World Series, alright?

We're all reasonable people here.  We all want what's best for the game.  Like everyone else in the game, from the Commissioner's Office to the Player's Association to the networks, we can all choose to honor Major League Baseball's time-honored motto, courtesy of Red Green:

I'm a man, but I can change.  If I have to.  I guess.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How High Can These Orioles Fly?

This morning, as most mornings, I sipped coffee from a garish orange and black coffee mug.  What's different this morning is that it's September, and the cartoon bird logo on the mug is that of a first place ballclub.

Last night, the Baltimore Orioles, plagued by years of terrible ownership, poor attendance, and the presumption of being the doormat in the AL East, the most difficult division in Major League Baseball, delivered a 12-0, 18-hit pounding on Toronto and moved into a first place tie with the New York Yankees at 76-59.

My Beloved Spousal Unit and I were frequent denizens at the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore during our East Coast incarnation in the 1980's and early 1990's.  We'd drive up I-95 from Suburban D.C. through the streets of Baltimore, up Charles Street and down St. Paul, and perch in our seats like Shoe and The Perfessor from the Treetops Tattler-Tribune.  Whether alone or road-tripping with friends, we'd usually get lost in the city trying to make our way home -- especially at 1:00 a.m. on a Sunday night after a 12-inning game!

I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Frank Robinson, the Orioles manager from 1988 through 1991.  His Hall of Famer's self-confident bearing and shrewd managerial tactics taught my perceptive wife the intricacies of the game and turned her into a baseball fan for life.  (Thank you, Frank!)

After the high ceremony of the home plate relocation at the end of 1991, the grounds crew dressed in tux and tails, a new era for the Birds began near Baltimore's Inner Harbor in the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards.  We attended just a couple of games in April 1992; the beautiful, new ballpark with the throwback architecture was jam-packed both times.  But, as it happens, we moved away from the Free State of Maryland that season, just as the craze began.  The Orioles mug, a parting gift from our road-tripping friends, became a reminder of our good times. We followed the denouement of Cal Ripken's consecutive games streak and cheered Eddie Murray's 500th home run from afar.

A long, dark age for the Orioles followed, with fan frustration growing, contending teams rare, and the economics of Major League Baseball working against Eastern Division teams not in the Yankees-Red Sox and Mets-Phillies axes.  During those years, I thought Washington Post baseball writer Tom Boswell would suffer a stroke fuming over whatever was the latest cheapskate move by Baltimore owner Peter Angelos, before D.C. gained its franchise and diverted him.

But this year, somehow, some way, through draft choices and propitious signings, aided and abetted by a Yankees swoon and a Red Sox collapse, this flock of crazy birds has overcome its franchise-specific disadvantages and competed its way into a contending season.  Led by the team's three All-Stars, outfielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters, and 41-save closer Jim Johnson, and bolstered by a supporting cast of -- oh, who am I kidding!  I don't know who these guys are, and neither do most fans.  Faced with low television ratings and disappointing attendance, upstaged recently by the Washington Nationals to the south, it's been far too long since the national spotlight has shined on the O's, the cameras trained on the Baltimore skyline, the announcers eager to call B&O Warehouse home run shots.

I don't know much about these Birds, but I'm learning.  So is the rest of the baseball world.  I'm yearning once again to hear the fans yell "O's!" during the National Anthem.  I'd like to see how high this flock can fly.  It's time to sit back, enjoy a tasty beverage, and watch them earn their wings -- or try.


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