Words flowing like …..

I had a glass of wine the other night that, according to the description on the bottle, was “warm and mellow like the sun embracing its branches at summer ending….” (The sun has branches?) That vintage promised to “enchant…with its peppery, chocolate and red fruit hints” and to “astonish with the strength of its structure and satisfy with the length of its taste.”

It was red wine, which may explain the purple prose.

Not that I can afford sanctimony. I have been a sportswriter for more than a half-century and, by definition, have been as guilty as any of my brethren of occasionally waxing rhapsodic over some jock’s two-out single or one-handed touchdown catch.

Say you have an athlete, hobbling on a bad leg in the game’s waning moments but, somehow, he or she produces the come-from-behind winning score. It really isn’t equivalent to Teddy Roosevelt leading the charge up San Juan Hill. Or John Kennedy rescuing a mate from the sinking PT-109. It hardly makes America safe for democracy. Still, you may be tempted to cast it in similarly vivid terms.

So I accept that the urge toward high-octane verbosity, to paint an extravagant picture with fussy words, is a mighty one—even while acknowledging the need for discipline and the Hemingway ideal of simple, declarative sentences. (Papa also advised to write with a pencil, but that isn’t happening anymore.)

Anyway, I’m not convinced that wine-label rhetoric is meant to be taken seriously. (Apart, that is, from the surgeon general warnings that “women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects” and that alcohol “impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery.”)

As a professional wordsmith, I can enjoy a soupcon of elegant gibberish. I may even be a little jealous of those back-of-the-bottle authors, turning pitches for their product into anthropomorphic characterizations of potables. Or crafting relaxing scenes of rolling hillsides, warm breezes and weathered old vintners.

Given the cavalcade of mixed metaphors and literary schmaltz, I envision a creative process in which a handful of wine company employees sit, feet up on their desks, a glass of their product in hand—possibly sailing the occasional paper airplane across the room—while they float trial balloons…

How about: “This wine, bareback, gallops on aromas of blackberries, cherries and spice toward an unforgettable gustatory sensation…”

Maybe: “Others are a poor ghost of this broad-shouldered red, wan and tired; ours will cut trouble down to size with its wood tannins and hints of mocha…”

Or this: “If this wine can’t fill the bill then, forget it, it can’t be done.”

I stumbled onto a “Reading, Writing & Wine” website in which the author, Isaac James Baker, contended that “wine is emotive, and sipping a glass of wine encourages us to analyze it, and enjoy it, through language.” He gave examples of references to “spice and pickle notes,” “red velvet,” “wild mushrooms,” “deep affection.”

My own totally unscientific survey, conducted over recent months, found that one wine purported to be “the perfect symbol of freedom” with “uninhibited spirit.” Another had a “larger than life personality…long on fruit and short on attitude.” Another was “sure to leave an impression on all.” Another was “immense and complex.” Another boasted of “dramatic style.” Another—and I’m not quite sure how to interpret this—advised that it was “best drunk when not wearing light-colored clothes.”

Enchanting. Astonishing. Something like Teddy Roosevelt leading the charge of San Juan Hill.

In the meantime, though, this might work just as well for connoisseurs of straightforwardness:

“This is pretty good wine.”

All aboard the bandwagon

About “long-suffering fans:”

At the end of the 1986 season, the New York Giants qualified for their first Super Bowl in the 21st year of that event. (Sorry: “XXIst year.”) A fairly long drought, but hardly forever. They last had been in a pre-Super Bowl NFL title game 23 seasons earlier, before bumbling through 17 of 20 non-winning campaigns between 1964 and 1983.

Anyway, there had been all this talk—not unlike the post-Super Bowl 52 (“LII”) babble referencing Philadelphia Eagles followers—about the Giants’ “long-suffering fans” finally being rewarded. And that struck at least some of the 1986 Giants’ players as a bit much.

Offensive guard Chris Godfrey, having watched Giants’ fans proclaiming on television at the time that, at long last, they “were No. 1,” noticed that “I’m on the team, but it’s kind of hard for the players to take credit for this.”

The way running back Joe Morris saw the phenomenon then was, “A lot of people were waiting for us to win so they could say, ‘I’ve been a Giants fan all these years.’”

Offensive guard Billy Ard decided, “I don’t care who jumps on the bandwagon now. But when you win, they’ll cheer. And when you lose, they’ll boo.”

It’s a tricky dynamic. The fans invest passion—and money—into their team, and therefore an identity. But it’s not a two-way relationship. And the players, though they are well compensated for the entertainment value they provide, are the ones doing the heavy lifting.

For comparison, there is no indication, for instance, that Broadway show audiences, concert crowds or moviegoers take credit for the high quality of performances they attend. In sports, there is what Robert Cialdini, an Arizona State University psychology and marketing professor, years ago termed BIRG—Basking in Reflected Glory.”

When the team wins, at least. A research group of C.R. Snyder, MaryAnne Lassergard and Carol Ford coined the corresponding term CORFing—Cutting Off Related Failure—to describe the inclination of fans, after a defeat, to distance themselves from their team. A “we won,” but “they lost” deal.

Such wishy-washy loyalty would appear to undercut the “long-suffering” label. In fact, “long-suffering” synonyms—uncomplaining, patient, forgiving, tolerant, stoical—suggest the opposite of CORFing.

I’ll give the Eagles’ fans this: Their emotional connection with the team likely is more permanent than that of the players, whose careers are brief and who often are traded away or leave in pursuit of a better contract. The mercenary thing. And fandom really is balled up in a sense of community.

And it had been 57 seasons since the Eagles were on top of the NFL heap. It’s just that hanging civic and personal pride on the championship success of the local team seems risky. Philadelphia would be the same metropolis today had the Eagles lost to New England in the big game. And all those “long-suffering” fans, well within their rights to celebrate and enjoy the moment—excluding the cretins responsible for public violence in Philly—should understand that they were not the ones blocking and tackling and throwing touchdown passes against the Patriots.

It’s not “we won.” It’s “our team won.” That should be plenty good enough for any fan, long-suffering or not.

See you in the funny papers

Once upon a time there were these things known as newspapers. This was long before smart phones and laptops and iPads. And in those newspapers—so-called because they consisted of pages of paper that printed news (among other things)—were sections devoted to what were known as “the comics.” Or “the funnies.”

Not all of the funnies were funny. Some were detective mysteries or futurist tales in space. But most, using cartoon images, offered gags and satire to comment on life, often more insightfully than the paper’s journalistic reports on business, politics and tragedy.

I think of the old funnies, and how central they were to my life-long attraction to newspapers, because Mort Walker died last week, at 94. Never met the man, but I have rubbed elbows with his most famous creation, Beetle Bailey.

It happens that Walker found the inspiration for Beetle, an abject goof-off and straggler among a cast of military-base misfits, during his time in the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, where I enrolled 17 years after Beetle’s 1950 debut. And, once upon a time at Mizzou, there was this tumble-down campus hangout—appropriately known as The Shack—green exterior and, inside, a dark, tangled den of low ceilings and wooden tables, all of which were furrowed with generations of carved initials and graffiti.

By the time I arrived on the scene, the 1956 hit song “Green Door” was well past its shelf life. But not on The Shack’s jukebox, because the story was that “Green Door” was inspired by The Shack. It was sung by a fellow named Jim Lowe, who had attended the University, and was popular enough that it had bumped Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” from the top of the Billboard charts.

So part of The Shack’s atmosphere, amid the hubbub of beers, burgers and not-necessarily scholastic discussions, was the regular playing of “Green Door”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUzr0AOwIhk

Anyway, Walker had returned to Mizzou in 1947 after completing his World War II Army duty, which he later said provided him “almost four years of free research” toward the Beetle Bailey strip. At the University, he dreamed up a character named Spider—Beetle’s forerunner—while while working as editor of Missouri Showme magazine.

When a dispute between the publication and the journalism department left him without an office, Walker and the magazine’s staffers regularly worked out of The Shack, where he is said to have confessed spending far more time than in J-School.

It is possible to find Walker cartoons of Beetle lounging with a foaming mug of beer and a carving knife on a Shack-like table. Also, Walker cartoons of Beetle returning to his college, with its striking resemblance to Mizzou. Since 1992, there has been a Beetle sculpture near the site of the long-gone Shack. Also in The Shack motif.

When Mizzou built a new student center in 2010, it included a section called “Mort’s Place”—a games-and-grill area with a replicated interior of The Shack (though it is far too modern and clean to fully capture the old joint.) There is a Beetle statue there, and a wall with large blowups of Beetle Bailey strips.

And that’s where I last hung out with Beetle a couple of years ago. And learned that the student giving tours of “Mort’s Place” hadn’t heard of the song “Green Door.” (He should Google it.)

I must acknowledge entering the gigantic tent of Beetle Bailey enthusiasts late. As a grade-schooler, when I began drawing my own, almost daily four-panel comic strip—short-lived and unpublished; only my mother saw it—I was a Dick Tracy fan, not sophisticated enough to get the subtleties of Beetle’s Camp Swampy doings.

But the wit and perception of Walker’s work soon got through to me, even as I began to migrate from reading the funnies first, to prioritizing the sports pages, and eventually the news section. This may come as a surprise to many people, but there still are newspapers, though barely. Thank God. And though Mort Walker is gone, at least Beetle Bailey and The Shack live on.

 

Two Koreas and politics on ice

When you get right down to it, politics is what animates the Olympics. The nationalism. The unwieldy clashes of divergent cultures, language and statecraft. The bald manipulation of the world’s most visible sporting event to sell a philosophy or legitimacy. The Games are Politics 101.

And that’s why the sudden, unprecedented agreement by the North and South Koreans to field a joint women’s ice hockey team suddenly adds relevance to next month’s otherwise mostly ignored Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Just weeks before the Feb. 9 Opening Ceremonies, it was reported that roughly 65 percent of the Games’ one million tickets remained unsold. Here in the U.S., the lack of buzz over this traditional television hit series long ago raised the question of whether NBC, which paid $4.4 billion for the rights, would take a financial bath.

But now officials in North and South Korea have said their athletes will march together under one flag in the ceremonies—that has happened three times, at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Games and 2006 Winter Olympics—and will form a combined team in women’s hockey, which never has happened.

Where such powerful gestures of reconciliation lead isn’t the least bit clear, but certainly worth watching. They finally could thaw relations between the hermit North and economically mighty South, technically still at war 65 years after a signed cease-fire. They could be a long-range North tactic to draw the South into reunification as a means to expel almost 40,000 U.S. troops that have been on the Korean Peninsula since the 1950-53 war.

Either way, they are not about hockey. They are, however, Olympian on several levels. Start with the Olympic ideal of international sisterhood and peace. And, while we need not get carried away with soft violin music in a messy world, a primary message of the Olympics is: Let’s all get together and play games. Modern Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin, in fact, prioritized the “taking part” over victory.

The way Olympic scholar John MacAloon put it to me once was that the Games are “sports in service of intercultural communication and a better world.” My friend Jay Weiner, who covered a handful of Olympics for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, called the Olympics “The U.N. in sneakers.”

I buy those lofty concepts. But with the realization that a central Olympic engine—the flag-waving, medal-counting national affiliations—play right into political schemes and scams.

Furthermore, weaponized links to the homeland often are entirely inappropriate, given the Athletes-Without-Borders reality at the Games. South Korea’s women’s hockey team is a timely example: Because hockey is not a major sport in that nation, its pool of talent is shallow, yet it was guaranteed an automatic berth in the Olympic tournament as the Games’ host nation. So, in preparation for PyeongChang, the South long ago went looking for help outside the country.

The coach, Sarah Murray, is an American-born dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada and former star player at Minnesota-Duluth. (Her father, Andy, is a former NHL coach.) Two Canadians and two Americans, all with Korean roots, are on South Korea’s 23-player roster. (Not an unusual situation. Of the 3,000 athletes in the 2014 Sochi Games, 120 represented a country other than their birth nation.)

Among the tricky parts now, though, is how Murray can integrate North Korean players into the South’s playing style and line rotations. And what the International Olympic Committee will do about expanding the roster beyond the 22 allowed in uniform for games. And how much protest there might be from displaced South Korean players and opposing teams. (The Swiss, South Korea’s scheduled opponent in their first Olympic match on Feb. 10, reportedly have said it is unfair to allow the South-North team extra personnel.)

In the end, though, all of this is decidedly Olympian. In MacAloon’s words, “That’s why the Games are interesting. They’re life itself. They mirror not just a dream version of life, they also mirror the things we struggle with.”

The whole deal fits, too, into the Korean cultural principle that order and harmony are forged from opposites. Perception is both vertical and horizontal, rough and smooth, dark and light, mountain and plain.

The Olympics is peace and war. But without the bullets.

Let the Games begin.

Elusive football titles. And Slippery Rock

Here’s the loophole in Alabama’s claim to the national college football title: The University of Central Florida.

This is not to diminish Alabama’s rollicking overtime victory over Georgia in the designated championship game. It is not a call for an expanded playoff system. Nor is it an assertion—impossible to make—that Central Florida would have beaten either Alabama or Georgia. It simply is an understanding that Central Florida, excluded from the four-team playoff by the 13-member committee of athletic directors, former coaches (and one journalist), is entitled to its national championship argument.

Central Florida, unlike Alabama and Georgia, never lost a game this season. Of the 137 schools in the NCAA’s top football division, only Central Florida was undefeated. Furthermore, among Central Florida’s 13 victims was Auburn, which previously defeated both Alabama and Georgia.

Central Florida’s situation is a far cry from the tenuous Slippery Rock Theory of No. 1-ness evoked in 1936. That year, divergent polls knighted Pitt (8-1-1) and Minnesota (7-1) co-national champs, but a Slippery Rock student had an if-then logic to his 6-3 team’s right to the title: Slippery Rock beat Westminster, which beat West Virginia Wesleyan, which beat Duquesne, which beat Pitt, which beat Notre Dame, which beat Northwestern, which beat Minnesota.

In 2008, once-beaten Florida defeated once-beaten Oklahoma in the championship game. (That was six years before the current four-team playoff format, but the title participants were just as subjectively determined.) Salon columnist King Kaufman posited that Tulane—which won two games that season—was the real national champion because Tulane beat Louisiana Monroe, which beat Troy, which beat Middle Tennessee, which beat Maryland, which beat Wake Forest, which beat Ole Miss, which not only beat Florida but also Texas Tech which, in turn, beat Oklahoma.

Such a calculus would have elevated my alma mater, the University of Missouri, to the national title in both 2006 and 2007. In ’06, Missouri was 8-5. But Ohio State lost the designated title game to Florida, and Florida lost to Auburn, which lost to Georgia, which lost to Vanderbilt, which lost to Ole Miss, which lost to Missouri. I rest my case. The next season, LSU defeated Ohio State in the championship tilt, but LSU earlier had lost to two teams, Kentucky and Arkansas, while Missouri lost to only one team that season, Oklahoma (though that happened twice). Furthermore, Missouri dominated Arkansas in its bowl game.

But, OK, fuzzy math and partisan methodology aside, it is fair to note that these championships are not settled entirely on the playing field. It can be debated that Alabama, in losing its final regular-season game to Auburn and failing to advance to its own conference championship game, never should have been admitted to the playoffs in the first place over six conference winners, including Central Florida.

Nobody is likely to contend that Central Florida’s league, the American Athletic Conference, is on a par with Alabama’s Southeastern Conference, but so what? Central Florida demonstrated its worthiness by conquering SEC-division champ Auburn in the Peach Bowl. Central Florida coach Scott Frost called the selection committee’s modest No. 12 ranking prior to conference title games a “conscious effort” to insure his team would be excluded from the playoffs.

It’s the same thing that happened to Boise State in 2006, when Boise State was unbeaten but ranked a humble 9th because it didn’t come from a so-called “power conference.” In that season’s Fiesta Bowl, Boise State upset power-conference member Oklahoma, but that was as close as it was going to get to the Florida-Ohio State championship match-up between once-beaten teams.

Frost, who has improved his chances of a playoff berth by ascending to a higher conference as Nebraska’s new head coach, had a point. There is an asymmetrical attention in these matters to the big-name schools and richer leagues, and folks in my profession—sports journalism—too often feed that narrative.

Definitive statements and established reputations rule. On the Sports On Earth website, Mike Lupica proclaimed Alabama’s Nick Saban “the best college coach of all time….there never has been a better coach in college football than he is, as far back as you want to go.” Which seems a bit over the top when one considers that there were 774 college head coaches, on various levels, in 2017. (And that doesn’t count two-year schools.) Throw in the fact that college football has been played for 148 years, and to anoint one fellow the best of all time sounds mighty presumptuous.

Here’s another school of thought, prompted by the news of Carmen Cozza’s death the week of the Alabama-Georgia buildup. Cozza, who was 87, had been Yale’s coach for 32 seasons and, if greatness is winning, Cozza certainly qualified as among the best. His Yale teams averaged fewer than four losses per year and, during one stretch in the late 1970s, Yale was Ivy League champion seven of eight years.

But, because Ivy League schools opted in 1945 not to participate in post-season play—based on the quaint egghead reasoning that colleges should prioritize education over football—Cozza’s teams never had any hope of playing for a national championship. And so what?

Days before Cozza’s final game at Yale in 1996, against annual rival Harvard, I sat with him in his New Haven, Conn., office as he mulled What It All Meant.

“I think,” he said then, “that anyone in this business has aspirations of being in the Rose Bowl. But I know people who took jobs like that. They are friends and I’ve seen what happened to them. So I’m saying to myself, ‘Be thankful for what you have.’”

More than once, Cozza had had been contacted about taking higher-profile jobs but found himself wondering “if I’d be as happy as I was at Yale. I’d certainly have liked to have players bigger and faster sometimes. But nobody coached as many doctors and lawyers as I have, as many leaders. I always couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning.

“The game is for the young men. It’s not for fund-raising for the university. It’s not for putting schools on the map. I don’t think an institution should ever use an athlete to promote its well-being. If we’re not doing what’s in the best interest of the student, we’re not being educators.”

That same week, Harvard’s coach, Tim Murphy, told me, “If you take the two ends of the spectrum—Vince Lombardi’s ‘winning is the only thing’ and Grantland Rice’s ‘it’s how you play the game’—I think Carm is somewhere in the middle. And me, too.”

And me, too. Congratulations to Alabama. Congratulations to (sort-of) national champion Central Florida. Don’t get carried away.

International incident: The Ball sons in Lithuania

If all that matters to the Ball brothers is basketball, then packing 19-year-old LiAngelo and 16-year-old LaMelo Ball off to the small Baltic nation of Lithuania isn’t so far-fetched.

Basketball is the most popular sport in Lithuania. A country of only 2.8 million (roughly the population of Chicago), Lithuania has produced 12 NBA players, with two currently in the league. The last time the former Soviet Union won an Olympic basketball gold medal, in 1988, four of the team’s five starters were Lithuanian. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, independent Lithuania has qualified for all seven Olympic basketball tournaments, three times winning the bronze medal and twice finishing fourth.

From a distance, the paternal decision by LaVar Ball to pull his two younger sons—a high school junior and college freshman—out of school and sign them to one-year contracts in Lithuania’s professional league falls somewhere between puzzling and foolish. Especially when one considers that LiAngelo so recently demonstrated an inability to comprehend proper behavior while abroad.

It was LiAngelo’s arrest for shoplifting in China, while on an exhibition tour with the UCLA basketball team in November, that briefly landed him in jail, brought his suspension from the UCLA team and led his father to scuttle his college career before it started.

In an interview on the “Today” show shortly after the Chinese released him to return home, LiAngelo described the “horrible” incident in which he sat in a “cement jail” where the officers “don’t speak English.” Though English is widely spoken in Lithuania, there also is no evidence that the Balls speak Lithuanian. The potential of an international incident appears possible.

But, if this is strictly about basketball, and not an attempt to learn another language or another culture, the Balls and Lithuanians have plenty in common. Start with the fact that a young Lithuanian journalist was so tuned into U.S. basketball doings, and the free agency LaVar Ball had just established for his sons, that he initiated the contact to bring the Balls to his hometown team in Prienai, a burg of just 10,000.

And, if the Balls don’t already know it, perhaps they soon will learn Lithuania’s historic connection to UCLA, where the oldest Ball lad, Lonzo, played one season before he was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers last spring.

In 1936, it was UCLA grad Frank Lubin who was hired as Lithuania’s first coach of its national basketball team, based on the fact that the American-born and -raised Lubin was the son of Lithuanian immigrants and had demonstrated his hoops bona fides that year as a member of the United States’ Olympic champions. That was prior to the USSR’s annexation of Lithuania and the other two Baltic republics in the early 1940s.

(Frank Lubin)

Lubin—his name in Lithuanian was Pranas Lubinas—began by using American-born players of Lithuanian heritage to win the European championships in 1937 and ’39 (for a while, he was the team’s player-coach). For his contributions to that nation in his sport, Lubin, who died in 1999, has been called the “grandfather of Lithuanian basketball.”

Could it be that UCLA’s loss—all three Ball sons had committed to play for the school at one point, though the last two haven’t followed through—again is Lithuania’s gain? Or does LaVar Ball, with such blind ambition for his sons, consider the brief Lithuania project merely a Seeing Eye Dog for their basketball future?

Rafael Nadal vs. poetic license

Once again, tennis star Rafael Nadal has been dragged into the made-up world of creative writing. This time, it was an Off Off Broadway production in which a gay playwright imagines himself in what the New York Times described as “a searing romance with Nadal.” Completely fabricated stuff.

Neither Nadal, who has had Xisca Perello as a steady girlfriend for 12 years, nor his representatives were asked for permission to use him as a character in the show, which just finished a short run. And I’m thinking of the “Seinfeld” episode in which Jerry and George decided it would be a good idea to feed an eavesdropper the false notion that they were homosexuals—until their little joke showed up in print as fact.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with it,” they kept saying. But the point was that they were not happy about a falsehood going public.

Last May, in another bit of fabrication, the novel “Trophy Son” introduced a professional tennis trainer who claimed that almost all of the top men’s tennis players use performance-enhancing drugs, and specifically named Nadal, along with Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and David Ferrer, as cheaters.

There is no evidence whatsoever that any those players have doped. Nadal, in fact, last month was awarded $11,800 in damages after suing a French minister of health and sport who had said Nadal’s seven-month injury layoff in 2012 was “probably due to a positive doping test.”

That French minister is a real person. The “Trophy Son” trainer is not. Does that make a difference?

In that book, and in “The Rafa Play” at New York City’s Flea Theater, were the story lines involving Nadal acceptable as poetic license? Of artists taking the liberty to deviate from fact to achieve a desired effect? Are such parodies of a public figure therefore protected from libel and defamation claims?

As a sports journalist for a half-century, I am not naïve about the use of illegal substances among professional jocks, having reported on steroid abuse as long ago as 1972. But only when such abuse could be substantiated. I am aware, too, of whispers in the macho sports world about some players’ sexual orientation, though I argue that that is nobody’s business unless a specific player wants to acknowledge his or her situation.

Gossip and supposition are strictly out of bounds.

These days, with the nation’s highest elected officials trafficking in so many barefaced non-facts and conspiracy theories, and so much of the public either unable—or unwilling—to separate rumor from reality, works such as “The Rafa Play” and “Trophy Son” are, in effect, guilty of putting Rafael Nadal’s personal life and reputation through the woodchipper.

If “The Rafa Play” creator really felt so taken with Nadal, why would he put Nadal into a dreamed-up scenario that could cause unthinking fans—and bottom-line-conscious endorsers—to reject him?

In “Trophy Son,” the protagonist—a tennis prodigy modeled after Andre Agassi—is fictional; the trainer who makes the doping charges and nudges the hero into doping is fictional; the top player beaten by the protagonist is fictional. Why bring real players into the fantasy and brand them as phonies?

Those are explosive narratives, bombs not easily defused. Maybe that playwright, and that author—I’ll skip the names to deny them any free publicity—are the ones to be unmasked as frauds.

 

Giants, meet the new boss

Midstream, the New York Giants are changing horses. This defies proverbial wisdom, though it certainly doesn’t go against sporting custom. When a team loses 10 of its first 12 games, as the Giants have, the coach is susceptible to the heave-ho, an incomplete season notwithstanding. But with no guarantee that things will get better before they get worse.

I have seen this movie more than once in my nearly half-century as a sports journalist. Most similar to this week’s developments, there was 1976. Then-Giants owner Wellington Mara declared that “changing coaches in midseason always has been repugnant to me, because I’ve always felt that is a cop-out by management to pin the shortcomings on one man.”

Even as he spoke, Mara nevertheless had given coach Bill Arnsparger his pink slip a week before Halloween. The team was 0-7.

The best rationale for the move, Mara admitted, was that the players might respond to “another personality.” Certainly Arnsparger’s replacement, the personable John McVey, was a breath of fresh air compared to the intense, insecure Arnsparger.

The Giants lost their next two games, anyway, finished the year with four losses in seven games under McVey and won only 11 of 30 over the next two seasons before he, too, was let go. Proving two things: 1) That the Giants needed better players as much as they needed a different coach, and 2) Years of scholarly research and psychological interpretation correctly have predicted that the time-honored mid-season coaching shakeup is a 50-50 bet, at best.

Now we have Steve Spagnuolo, who has just replaced Ben McAdoo to lead a team fairly decimated by injury and deteriorating confidence. And good luck to Spagnuolo.

As just one example, a year-old study in the Economist, with graphs and charts and a numbing collection of numbers, analyzed performance effects of in-season managerial changes over 15 years in soccer’s English Premier League. “We find,” authors of the study wrote, “that some managerial changes are successful, while others are counterproductive. On average, performance does not improve….”

When the New York Islanders switched coaches early in the 2010-11 hockey season, I called sports psychologist John Murray—who has worked with coaches and athletes in all professional sports—for his take on this retooling process and got the same response. “I do believe there are benefits to novelty [of a new boss’ voice],” Murray said. “But you can’t substitute [player] quality.”

As far back as 1963, a fellow named Oscar Grusky, for a Journal of Sport Behavior paper, examined managerial changes in baseball and found a “negative correlation” between replacing the team’s skipper and its won-lost record. Grusky’s interpretation was that the manager/coach replacement process for a struggling team “is also disruptive to the organization. The uncertainty associated with a new leader with a different agenda and new ideas may result in even poorer sport team performance.”

There’s another factor at play. That is, “You can control performance,” Murray said, “but you don’t control the outcome in sports.” Statistics and maximum performance by a team’s players do not necessarily translate into winning.

Neither does a coach’s past success predict the best results in a different situation. Arnsparger had come to the Giants with the reputation of being a “defensive genius” and two Super Bowl rings, but seemed completely lost as a head coach. McAdoo had gotten the Giants’ job last year based on his top-notch work as an offensive coordinator.

A couple of years ago I asked John Mara, Wellington’s son and now half-owner of the team, about the science—or is it art?—of finding a great boss. “Sports is different,” he said, “because the person has to be strong enough for being constantly in the spotlight, having every one of his decisions criticized and talked about on sports talk radio.

“You don’t have to have Albert Einstein, but it’s good to have someone with some intelligence. And not someone who thinks he knows it all.” John Mara quoted the late George Young, five times the league’s executive of the year who had turned the team around in the 1980s after John’s father signed him as general manager.

“You hire somebody with a high energy level. And something to prove.”

And hope the new horse can swim.

(John Mara)

 

Driving myself

(More old-man musings that appeared in Newsday.)

My current car, like the previous eight of my extended time in this land of the freeway and home of the paved, does not drive itself. Nor would I let it, even if experimental autonomous vehicle technology—big news these days—were already perfected.

I will not have my car be the boss of me. I’m not even comfortable with cruise control. I eschew the GPS function.

This does not make me a member of the Flat Earth Society. I accept electric window and sunroof conveniences. I believe in seat belts and—as long as I never experience their deployment—air bags. I love the computer read-out informing me of my average gas mileage. I appreciate satellite radio.

But I’m the designated driver in this human/car partnership. I’m in charge here. I pay for the gas. I foot the service bills. It is the car’s place to do as I order it, without any backtalk. (There is nothing more distracting than those robotic voice commands accidentally activated by a button lurking on the steering wheel.)

Let’s take this another step, to my aversion to automatic transmission. For more than 50 years, I have owned only do-it-yourself manuals, both for reasons of driving enjoyment and practicality. A manual transmission forces the driver to pay better attention. It requires the use of both hands and both feet, which diminishes the urge to eat, drink, shave, text or apply makeup while barreling down the parkway at what have become accepted speeds routinely 10 miles faster than the posted limit.

Also, standard transmission cars get better gas mileage. My current velocipede exceeds 40 miles per gallon on the highway, occasionally peaking at 50 mpg. (I won’t engage in free advertisement by identifying the car, but it may be a VW Jetta and may be equipped with a five-speed Turbo.)

I am aware that manual transmission, once standard in all cars, is steadily disappearing, now present in fewer than three percent of U.S. cars sold. That’s down 25 percent from just 25 years ago. In European and Asians countries, 8 in 10 cars have manual transmissions, so it is possible that my affinity for the stick shift makes me somehow un-American. (I also confess to liking soccer.) The only American car I ever owned was a 1974 Chevy Vega, with an aluminum engine that burned or leaked oil so badly that it seemed to need oil top-ups as often as gas fill-ups. I bid it goodbye after three short years.

Anyway, I’m not alone. Look what’s on the local roads, all those Hondas and Hyundais, Mercedes and Lexuses, Audis and Acuras, BMWs and Volkswagens, Subarus, Kias and Nissans.

But back to future. Isn’t the foundation of self-driving cars—artificial intelligence—artificial? Won’t self-driving cars require some sort of human default position, some need for an override function to respond to emergency vehicles forced to disobey traffic rules, or to changing weather conditions, or to critters crossing the road? Might those situations require back-up people skills more complicated, and necessitating far more training, than present-day drivers’ ed?

And won’t self-driving cars be a lot less fun? When I got my first car—I don’t want this to turn into a free ad, but it might have been a green British-made MGB convertible and it might have had a fake-wood steering wheel and wire spokes; very sporty—I spent the first day of ownership behind the wheel, aimlessly wandering around Columbia, Mo. Probably went through a half tank of gas. (At 25 cents a gallon.)

That was in 1966 and, even then, I suspect that someone out there already was envisioning a car with its own mind and will. Brilliant folks, after all, were only three years from landing people on the moon.

Science is good. Human existence gets better all the time. I’m all for progress. But some fantasies, like one I remember from childhood that a single pill someday might replace a perfectly prepared meal, literally would take the flavor out of life.

So. I am not interested in a car that will drive my car. I’ve got a driver. Me.

Jana Novotna wept. Wouldn’t you?

A single extraordinary thing happens to a prominent person—something weird or appalling or gut-wrenching—and, almost instantly, those of us in the business of chronicling public events think: This will be in her obituary.

Sure enough, former Czech tennis star Jana Novotna was remembered this week for having cried on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder after Novotna’s calamitous collapse in the 1993 Wimbledon final.

Novotna, who died of cancer at 49, won Wimbledon five years after that squirmy ’93 moment and wound up in the tennis Hall of Fame. Beyond the one Grand Slam singles title, she was a 16-time major-tournament champion in doubles and mixed doubles and earned more than $11 million in prize money over a 15-year professional career with far more highs than lows.

She played a bold but risky serve-and-volley game, with an exceptionally high work rate, amid masses of often dull baseliners. Hers was an entertaining and comprehensive fare of net play, lobs, precise returns and footwork, footwork, footwork. She was only 24 in 1993, seeded 8th at Wimbledon, when she surprised—the Czech word is ‘prekvapeni’—former U.S. Open champ Gabriela Sabatini and 18-time Slam winner Martina Navratilova in successive rounds, then found herself seemingly within an inch of shocking top seed Steffi Graf, who already had won 11 major tournaments at the time, in the title match.

Novotna led, 4-1, 40-30 in the decisive third set when her masterly control suddenly and completely deserted her. A double fault, misplayed volley, netted overhead and it was 4-2. A squandered break point and it was 4-3. Three Novotna double faults and it was 4-4. Then 4-5, Graf ahead, and Novotna’s botched volley, bollixed backhand and cupcake backhand set up Graf’s conclusive overhead.

In sports, spectators (and, yes, reporters) who never have dealt with the truth and consequences of sustaining physical and mental perfection under the glare of capacity crowds and international TV audiences—against the world’s best player—can be quick to label such as Novotna’s meltdown a “choke.” As if the presence of an elite opponent weren’t a factor.

It’s a harsh indictment. Bloodless, really. But what came next for Novotna not only gained her sympathy but a large measure of humane treatment. Wimbledon’s formal routine, following the championship final, is a drawn-out, stilted affair with Royals appearing on Centre Court to greet ballpersons, officials and, finally, the runner-up and champion. There is a tedious wait while private conversations are held in full public view—fans have no idea what is being said—until, at long last, trophies are presented.

And that was when Novotna, having snatched defeat from the jaws of sure victory, had her grim tete a tete with the Duchess of Kent, who was there to present the runner-up prize.

“Well, you see,” Novotna said to us traditionally cynical reporters shortly after her demoralizing experience, “I’ve won doubles here twice and I won mixed once here, and I was twice in the final of doubles for the last two years, so we [she and the duchess] kind of know each other, you know. When she came to me and she started to smile and said, ‘Jana, I know that you will do it; don’t worry,’ I just, you know, I just let go. It was very emotional.”

Bursting into tears, Novotna hung her head on the duchess’ shoulder and, after Graf received her winner’s trophy and stood next to Novotna for photographs, Novotna briefly buried her head into Graf’s shoulder. “Are you all right?” Graf asked her.

She was all right, Novotna assured in her press conference. Having upset both Sabatini and Navratilova in earlier rounds, Novotna said, “I have proved that I have the nerves to play and that I have confidence to win on the big occasions, and I don’t see [nerve] has anything to do with this loss.”

Being human did. And, though her many tennis accomplishments might have gotten short shrift in her obituary, compared to that royal shoulder to cry on, it is good to remember Novotna for choking up. Not choking.