Thursday, January 31, 2008

Stop the parade...

In searching for news of today's festivities of National Gorilla Suit Day, I discovered the following item:

The past few years, this weblog has celebrated the work of a brilliant cartoonist named Don Martin by noting his very funny holiday, National Gorilla Suit Day. I've encouraged you to remember the late Mr. Martin and his work and now I'm in the odd position of...well, not discouraging you but just announcing that Don's widow has asked me not to mention him or his holiday and to delete all past mentions of both. I don't fully understand why but I still have (and will always have) the greatest respect for the I've done as she asks. I don't think I would do this for anyone else so Mrs. George W. Bush and Mrs. Dick Cheney, don't bother asking.

So keep your gorilla suit in the closet. There's always Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A different view of "wide right"

It's time for some revisionist history.

Scott Norwood has been associated with his missed field goal in Super Bowl XXV in 1991 since his famous kick went wide to the right. He's also been associated with the word "goat" since that time.

Not fair.

Let's review what happened.

The Bills moved down the field in the last two minutes to try to get into position, in a series that included a scramble and a draw play. Jim Kelly got Buffalo to about the 30-yard line of the Giants in the final seconds. That meant Norwood would have to kick a 47-yarder for Buffalo to turn a loss into a win.

I was watching that game with a reporter who had covered the Bills that season. While I was working for the Sabres at that point in my life, I had helped with coverage of the Bills for the Associated Press. The two of us had the same exact reaction:

"It's too far. He's not going to make it."

The kick was on natural grass, and Norwood hadn't made a kick of that length on grass all season. On turf, maybe he has a chance. He had an extrememly accurate leg, but not a strong one by NFL standards.

Norwood was asked to do something he had not been able to do all season long -- with the NFL championship on the line. If Kelly moves the ball 10 yards farther down the field, I have little doubt that Norwood makes the kick. Norwood gave it a ride, but it was just a little right of the target.

I still have a tape of that game. In hindsight, the Bills' tackling was poor throughout the game and they probably were outcoached, although that's a little difficult for anyone but a coach to determine. Buffalo also was probably overconfident, based on the stories the players have told about their activities at night in the week leading up to that game.

None of that was Norwood's fault. He was put in a position where failure was likely, and couldn't overcome it. That's not a choke, and it's not the definition of a goat.

Not fair.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

One odd life

Who says American lives only have one act?

The life of Bobby Fischer is proof that they can have two. And in Fischer's case, the second act deserved to close before opening night.

Fischer, who recently died, was a bigger mixture of genius and evil than anyone you know. He served as the poster boy for the concept of child prodigy, winning the U.S. junior championship at 13 and the U.S. championship at 14. He seemed destined to win the world's championship, and in the "match of the century" in Iceland in 1972, he did. Fischer knocked off Boris Spassky, downing the Russians in their own game.

In hindsight, it's tough to believe the commotion Fischer caused with that win. When the match was on the verge of not taking place, Henry Kissinger personally called Fischer to ask him to make it all work. Fischer was on the cover of news magazines. The matches, analyzed move by move, were recreated on some public television stations. That's right -- chess ... on television. Fischer's bizarre antics, such as clearing the hall of spectators at one point, somehow only served to create more interest.

Once victorious, Fischer was supposed to lead a chess boom in America, but his behavior got in the way. He made outrageous financial demands for a title defense, was stripped of the championship, and was essentially rarely heard in chess circles again. There was another match against Spassky in Yugoslavia, which earned Fischer some money and outlaw status due to U.S. sanctions against the host country.

Fischer disappeared again until a memorable article appeared in The Atlantic a few years ago. It repeated Fischer's remarks made on radio that the Sept. 11 attacks on America were great news ("It is time to finish off the U.S. once and for all), and a devastating blow to the Jewish conspiracy. Odd stuff for someone who grew up in New York with a Jewish mother. The story appeared in a collection of the best sports articles of the year, and deservedly so.

After a time without a country, Fischer was admitted to Iceland. He was still raging at everything during his news conference there, our last public sighting of him.

He leaves as maybe the shining example for unrealized potential. He probably was the best chess player ever -- at least in the top few -- and had a chance to single-handedly create a chess boom in the Free World. Instead, he turned inwards, let his demons consume him, and spent the last 35 years raging at unknown and unseen enemies.

There always a little sadness in "what might have been" stories. But there's no way to generate any sympathy for this tormented genius.

Rest in peace? Yeah, sure.

Friday, January 11, 2008

What happened here?

A couple of decades or so ago, my five-year-old nephew was going from the porch to the living room, and didn't see the screen door. So he bounced off it, hit the floor, and paused for a moment. You could just see his mind working.

"What happened here?"

Then he burst into tears.

I didn't do any crying while watching the New Hampshire primary returns the other night, but I knew the feeling. What happened up there?

Oh, I know the way the returns went, as Hillary Clinton and John McCain were winners. (Food for thought that Clinton didn't get much credit for being the first woman to win a primary -- as compared to the reaction to Obama's equally history-making win in Iowa.) But the analysis afterwards was interesting too.

All of the polls said before the election that Barack Obama was headed toward a convincing win, perhaps by double digits. The candidates' polls even said that. But it was Clinton by three points or so when the counting was done. The polls were right on McCain's margin. So what happened to Clinton/Obama?

The spinmasters gave their usual explanations about the race, how women over 40 turned out for Clinton, how her display of emotion in a debate had warmed her up to some voters, etc. etc. etc. But that didn't explain what went wrong with the polls.

I had three thoughts. One, the independents messed things up. In New Hampshire, they can pick a primary and vote in it. The opportunity for mischief certainly is there. Could voters think Obama was headed toward a big win, and decide to help out McCain with a vote? Could someone leaning toward the Republicans think Obama would be the tougher candidate to beat and vote for Clinton? Hard to judge that. These open primaries sure can be complicated.

Then there's the theory that people lied to the pollsters. That one went unsaid until 1:45 a.m., when NBC's Chuck Todd (he's good, by the way) pointed out that often when elections go in bizarre directions, an African-American candidate is involved. (See Tom Bradley's run for Governor in California a quarter-century ago.) In other words, people told pollsters they would vote for an African-American, but it was a different story when the curtain closed in the voting booth.

Obama seemed to overcome a lot the week before in Iowa, but that was at a very public caucus. This was a different sort of electoral test. You'd hope we've moved beyond that sort of thinking, but it's at least possible.

Then there's the belief that a good-sized percentage of voters didn't make up their minds until very, very late in the process (18 percent on the day of the election alone), and they broke to Clinton in a disproportionate way.

Was there truth in any of these theories? All of these? Tough to say. It's impossible to know where the truth is. But we have learned a lesson before jumping to conclusions: count the votes.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Which way to Cooperstown?

There are three issues I try not to bring up in polite company because of the potential for arguments: politics, religion, and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

January 8 is announcement day for this year's class, and it could be an interesting one. There are no great new candidates for induction, such as Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken last year. So that means, at least in theory, that the old candidates may be able to move up. The rules are pretty familiar: a candidate needs 75 percent to be elected, and a voter gets to pick up to 10 players.

People are starting to realize that Rich Gossage was overwhelming as a relief pitcher in his prime. There's no one you'd rather see on the mound with a one-run lead in the ninth inning in the late 1970's. He threw a bunch of innings ... and threw them hard. It looks like it his time.

Will anyone join Gossage? That's where the fun beings, mostly about the candidacy of Jim Rice.

There's no doubt that Rice was a feared power hitter from 1975 to 1986 or so. There's also no doubt that his career ran out of gas before he could pile up any memorable career statistics. He only had 382 career homers. So he's not a clear winner.

That's the problem. Does he get credit for those 10+ great years? Is that enough? Is longevity important enough to overlook some, but not a lot, years of brilliance? Is Rice another Ralph Kiner, another great hitter who retired early before piling up career stats?

I'm a Red Sox fan, and I never thought Rice had the numbers to get in. Part of that may be the way he finished. His skills disappeared in a hurry, and I have a lasting memory of Rice rounding third against the Mets in the 1986 Series and lumbering home.

If you don't like the "dominating hitter for a while" theory of putting Rice in, there's the "least common denominator" theory. It goes something like this. Tony Perez wasn't as good a player as Jim Rice, and Perez is in the Hall, so Rice should be in the Hall. We'll forget for the moment that Perez was never a clearcut choice to go to Cooperstown, and many still believe he doesn't deserve the honor. Heck, people will be compared to Bill Mazeroski for years.

The basic problem, of course, is that there's no clear line for in/out. So a few hundred writers have to guess. Tomorrow, they'll guess on Rice.

This leads to all sorts of other discussions. Bert Blyleven is the opposite of Rice, having pitched for a long, long time and piled up some impressive career numbers. But he didn't have many great single seasons (he won 20 games once), and I never really thought of him as a Hall of Famer. Tim Raines was a mighty good player for an Expos team that played in the relative dark of Montreal, but suffered a bit when he left Canada for the second half of his career.

Then there are players like Andre Dawson, Jack Morris and Alan Trammell. All fine players, but as Bill Parcells said, it's the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Pretty Good. And for Mark McGwire, well, I'm not prepared to get into that discussion.

I don't think Gossage will have company in this year's voting, but I'll be watching closely. Just don't aske me about it -- an argument could follow.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The body politics

A few notes from watching a few hours of coverage of the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3:

* Anyone who wondered why Barack Obama was doing so well only needed to watch his victory speech. He captured the moment beautifully. All of a sudden Hillary Clinton's inevitability seems far less ordained.

* Speaking of Mrs. Clinton, my wife thought it was interesting that she was constantly called "Hillary" by TV commentators while the others were called by their last names. Sexism? Or is it simply recognizing that "Hillary" is all over her signs and other campaign material, no doubt to stop people from thinking her husband is running again?

* Mike Huckabee's victory speech supported my impression of him from one of the debates. This is a friendly, approachable person who knows how to stick to the point. Besides, as Bill Clinton said, he's the only Republican candidate who knows how to tell a joke. I don't know how well he can hold up nationally, but it was nice to see him get a moment in the sun.

* Quick story about Huckabee -- I once wrote the press secretary asking for an interview with the Governor about running. We didn't connect on a time, and then Huckabee started moving up in the polls. Oops -- no time for an interview with a New York State reporter. Can't say I blame them for that decision. Maybe Joe Biden has time for such an interview now.

* If John McCain were a stock, I'd put a "buy" on his chances of winning the Republican nomination ... particularly if he wins in New Hampshire. Mitt Romney's chances seem to be shrinking by the hour. If Fred Thompson isn't too interested in winning, why should anyone else be? And Rudy Giuliani seems to be hitting the wall that we all knew a relatively liberal Republican might hit in the primary process.

* Keith Olbermann was quite restrained and professional during his time on the anchor desk for MSNBC. He gets credit for a William McKinley reference too. Chris Matthews seemed a little obsessed with what the headlines overseas might look like, and he took a few too many sides at times -- acting like he was still on "Hardball." Meanwhile, it's always good to have Tim Russert around.

* CNN certainly misses Jeff Greenfield (now back at CBS), the sharpest commentator in the business in my book, although it is smart to have David Gergen on as often as possible. Meanwhile, Suzanne Malveaux looks like she is being groomed for big things at the outlet, with good reason.