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November 11, 2014 / Ben

Cool and the Cubs

This does not look right at all.

This does not look right at all.

Joe Maddon is cool. The Chicago Cubs aren’t really “cool,” but that’s what makes them cool. They are cool in grungy, nostalgic, steampunk kind of way. They don’t win and that makes them likable. America loves an underdog and you won’t find an underdog more perpetual than the Cubs. “Cool” is a winning team from a winning city, aka, New York City, Boston, or Los Angeles. If you go to a non-American country and someone is wearing an American sports cap, it will most likely feature a juxtaposed N and Y or a gold basketball backdropped onto purple.

The Cubs are old school scholars of the sordid act of losing. Manager Joe Maddon is a new school cat with a California coolness. (Coming to a television near you, April 6, 2015.) Much praise has been heaped upon the Cubs for swooping in on Maddon after he surprisingly declined his option with the Tampa Rays. One problem: the Cubs already had a perfectly fine manager in Rick Renteria, the generally acknowledged good guy who replaced the tough-loving Dale Sveum who never  had a chance to win and who was chosen over Ryne Sandberg who is a Cubs legend, Hall of Famer, and another all around good guy. Most said it was tough break for Renteria with the consolation that Maddon is a truly nonpareil manager in today’s game.

On the flip side, Joe Maddon left his plummeting Rays for greener ivy-covered pastures. It is difficult to be mad at Maddon, because let’s face it, the Rays play in one of the dreariest venues in baseball. And they attract small crowds due to their horrible geographical placement. It is probably a lot easier to handle the bleak with the sunshine of winning, something the Rays have forgotten as of late. Of course, Maddon will most likely be getting more than a 100% pay raise from his previous $2 million per year. However, Maddon’s move of jumping from fading franchise to already-set-for-future-success club leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Plus, he had to have known he was going to displace Renteria.

The unfriendly confines of the Tropicana Dome.

The unfriendly confines of the Tropicana Dome.

But what makes a good manager? For me, it all comes down to interpersonal skills with a little bit of understanding of the game. Managers have minimal impact on a team’s performance over the course of a year. But all managers have a basic understanding of the game and a person with great interpersonal skills can only be marginally better than a person with great interpersonal skills.

In summary:

Cool: the Cubs, Joe Maddon, winning

Not cool: firing a successful person, taking his spot before he was fired, changing an already fine team identity, sacrificing for marginal (if any) improvement, literally showing your players that success may not be rewarded in kind and that even when things are going smoothly you’re never safe

As a member of the dissenting minority I could see this move going completely wrong. I hope it won’t. Although I kind of do… Regardless, it will be very interesting watching the narrative of the Cubs continue to unfold.

WrigleyWall

Tony Campana makes the play?

October 15, 2014 / Ben

Predicting the World Series

I usually dislike sports personalities predicting winners and losers. If it has to be done, I prefer as little time as possible spent on it. Sports prognosticating rarely offers insight and does nothing to change upcoming events. Maybe other people remember who their favorite or least favorite commentators have chosen, but I never do, because why should I? It’s boring. It is a pointless task meant to fill up idle time. All this being said, I would like to introduce my 2014 World Series predictions.

Playing for the right to get potentially humiliated

Playing for the right to get potentially humiliated.

I was going to make this article about how upstart teams never win the World Series, but then I realized the last decade in baseball has completely jaded me. I was going to say how everything goes all well and hunky-dory for upstart teams until they run into the buzz-saw that is their blue chip World Series opponent.

But, the following list changed my mind. It is a list of (in my opinion) all the likable, legitimate underdogs from the most recent World Series. These teams must have had surprisingly successful seasons, not have won the World Series in many years, and/or not have had both a dominating rotation and lineup throughout the regular season of that year.

  • 2010 Texas Rangers (lost 4-1 to San Francisco)
  • 2008 Tampa Bay Rays (lost 4-1 to Philadelphia)
  • 2007 Colorado Rockies (lost 4-0 to Boston)
  • 2006 Detroit Tigers (lost 4-1 to St. Louis)
  • 2005 Houston Astros (lost 4-0 to Chicago AL)
  • *2005 Chicago White Sox (won 4-0 vs Houston)
  • *2004 Boston Red Sox (won 4-0 vs St. Louis)
  • *2003 Florida Marlins (won 4-2 vs New York AL)
  • *2001 Arizona Diamondbacks (won 4-3 vs New York AL)
  • *1997 Florida Marlins (won 4-3 vs Cleveland)

*won the World Series

Going back further, things get hazy for me. But I’ve heard the 1969 Miracle Mets weren’t called that for nothing.

There is a peculiar division in fate, pre-2005 and post-2005. It is almost as if two completely different authors were writing the script: one adhering to traditional story archetypal development and one dedicated to cynical fatalism. Recently, upstart teams haven’t just lost; they’ve lost badly. 2005 was a special case. One of them had to win and the White Sox broke their neat little 88 year old skid while it was also the first instance of  the Astros even playing in the World Series. 2004 everyone saw coming after the Red Sox came back from 3-0 down in the epic ALCS. Nothing was going to stop them on their own quest to break their own 86 year old “curse.”

Both teams in the 2014 ALCS are likable underdogs without much recent success. As of now, Kansas City is already up 3 games to none over Baltimore and, thus, much more likely to advance to the Series. Either way, the American League pennant winner will be seen as an extreme underdog compared to the established and venerable baseball institutions that are San Francisco and St. Louis. Based on recent history, I am cynical toward any chance of either AL side making an impact in the World Series. But, upon writing this post, I am reminded of the magic of the early 2000s and late 1990s. I am even more hopeful than before that is is possible for the Orioles or Royals to be crowned as Champions. However, I won’t be the least surprised when either team loses the World Series to the Giants or Cardinals in 4 or 5 games.

The last swing of 2001.

The last swing of 2001- a beauty.

October 13, 2014 / Ben

My Backlogged World Cup Blog: Bonus Ball: Revisiting Klinsmann’s Decision

Captain America

In late May of this year manager Jurgen Klinsmann infamously dropped American soccer hero Landon Donovan off the United States Men’s National Team roster. Cuts had to be made… but Landon Donovan? Critics were split on the decision. Those agreeing placed their trust in Klinsmann, who claimed Donovan just wasn’t as good as he once was and others had surpassed him. Those in disagreement were not about to let themselves be swayed from the recency bias of Donovan’s 2010 heroics. Thus began a war of words and sentiment between Klinsmann, Donovan, and, unlikely enough, Kobe Bryant.

Jurgen Klinsmann, Landon Donovan

Clearly in sync

After the initial statements from Donovan and Klinsmann reflected calm disappointment and acknowledgement of the difficulty of the choice, respectively, many were quick to declare this harsh cut the result of friction between the two, originating from philosophical differences. Donovan has been portrayed as sometimes not giving 100%, something his sabbatical in 2013 did not help, and Klinsmann has been portrayed as disdainful toward any apparent lack of heart. Feeling the backlash from his decision, Klinsmann hit back with an interesting analogy:

This always happens in America. Kobe Bryant, for example — why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?[1]

A short while later, Bryant responded:

“I thought it was pretty funny,” Bryant said in Brazil, where he’s taking in three World Cup matches. “I thought it was pretty comical, actually. I see his perspective. But the one perspective that he’s missing from an ownership point of view is that you want to be part of an ownership group that is rewarding its players for what they’ve done, while balancing the team going forward. If you’re another player in the future and you’re looking at the Lakers organization, you want to be a part of an organization that takes care of its players while at the same time, planning for the future.”[2]

Enter Kobe

Frankly, both comments miss the mark. Klinsmann’s comments betray his bitterness and Bryant’s comments betray his naiveté (while also throwing his fellow LA-based superstar athlete under the bus, missing a great PR opportunity to back up his homeboy). How can Klinsmann say that past performance is not an indicator of future success? How can Bryant possibly believe a reason that players sign for a given team is that they see how they treat their legends? The latter sound incredibly silly, although I could imagine the Lakers’ front office telling him that and, evidently, convincing him. I am fairly certain Bryant was overpaid because his team’s ownership recognizes the fact that past success brings future success and thought he would still be great/good (also I’m sure they didn’t want to lose him for sake of the brand). Suddenly, the ideas connecting Klinsmann, Donovan, and Bryant reemerge as two sides of the same coin, but not in the way Klinsmann was thinking.

Given how many soccer players in Europe fail to make an impression, despite impressive levels of talent, it is shocking to me for Klinsmann to completely dismiss past accomplishments as meaningless. Is it not possible that Donovan becomes a better player in situations of elevated importance? Is it not possible that this motivation manifests itself in knowing where to be, more so than any other player (see his 2010 goal against Algeria)? Landon Donovan not only deserved to play in the 2014 World Cup solely because he carried the US on his back in 2010, but because he has already proven his capability on the world stage. If companies disregarded past accomplishments in favor of raw talent, this world would be a strange place and I would probably have a job right out of college. Past success is a clear indicator of future success. No, it’s not a guarantor, but it is something. This principle seems to me out of a Leadership 101 class.

Furthermore, Klinsmann’s dig at America comes off completely ignorant and extremely defensive. Rewards such as extended contracts are usually based on projected performance which just happens to be based on previous performance. Seems smart and logical to me. If that phenomenon is only specific to America, well then I am proud to be an American! Of course, it isn’t. I am fairly certain (at least I hope) all important economic decisions made today factor in historical performances and trends. Yes, players often get horribly expensive contracts based on track record, but those usually are a result of overestimating projections, rather than overestimating past accomplishments. He may be a tactical genius (which I didn’t particularly see in the Cup), but I’m not sure how much one can trust in Klinsmann with this team going forward.

 

 


 

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/early-lead/wp/2014/06/04/world-cup-coach-jurgen-klinsmann-knocks-kobe-bryant-to-explain-why-he-left-landon-donovan-off-the-team/

[2] http://espn.go.com/los-angeles/nba/story/_/id/11096347/kobe-bryant-agree-jurgen-klinsmann-comments-us-sports-teams

October 12, 2014 / Ben

My Backlogged World Cup Blog: Day 32: All Okay Things

Day 32: Germany vs. Argentina

All good things must come to an end, at least I’ve heard. Which means all World Cups, mediocre final games, and excellent belated blog series must come to an end too. In the aftermath of host Brazil crashing out in utterly unexpected and calamitous fashion, Argentina and Germany squared off in the deciding match under the lingering cloud of apprehension and fear of embarrassment. Both sides appeared willing to play evenly matched and timidly conservative football, perhaps placing all hope on the One Goal. In the end, in extra time Germany was found to be the One Possessor. Germany won the 2014 World Cup. Germany are Champions.

 

Germany summoning the Götze for game winning goal.

Germany summoning the Götze for game winning goal.

The 2014 World Cup continued FIFA’s grand legacy of spectacle, extravagance, and questionable dealings. The group stage matches were generally brilliant while tedium began to preside in the later rounds, with multiple low scoring games including 0-0 and 1-1 games going to penalty kicks. Lesser known players and teams showcased themselves to the masses. I learned about Diego Costa’s world wandering escapades, remembered Luis Suarez’s contemptible deviousness, saw a nation crumble to rubbish, witnessed countries play World Cup football that I had never seen play World Cup football, and found Golden Boot-winner James Rodriguez’s dazzling abilities. Ultimately, I disagree that all good things must come to an end. The Beauty of the game will never die. Almost a quarter year after its completion, I finally bid the 2014 World Cup adieu. Until 2018, Até logo.

 

A ball is a globe.

A ball is a globe.

October 12, 2014 / Ben

My Backlogged World Cup Blog: Day 27: Ghost of a Footballing Nation

Day 27: Germany vs. Brazil

Going into this match, most expected these two past and present powerhouses to square off on somewhat even ground, even if some experts tipped Germany for the win. Most people were wrong. Die Mannschaft utterly thrashed the Seleção, even before the 30th minute of the game. With an early 11th minute goal and flurry of four German goals from 23’ to 29’, I felt a bit fevered as a rush of vicarious embarrassment spread through me. I silently plead for no more. The pitiful display led to this kind of hilarious conversation with me my unknowing mother:

JogaBonito

Yes, I’m totally confused if proper grammar is “jogo” or “joga.”

While waiting out the end of the game (and goals), I wondered what happened to the Brazil of yore. Whenever I saw them play the US in the 90s, they would always glide so effortlessly over the grass and through the opposition. I never understood how the US or other teams let them do that. Maybe it was all a part of that magical mysterious jogo bonito style of play. Many have said that Jogo Bonito has been dead for a while now. But if She was dead before, then this Brazil squad dug up its body, stabbed it numerous times, and trampled all over it,unaware it would become imbued with a wrathful and vengeful undeadedness. Today Zombie Jogo Bonito cast a hideous rapture upon the Seleção, mocking those who had abandoned her. Is it difficult to believe in the Karma of reward and punishment? After all, I have heard Rio de Janeiro is a pretty religious place…

Jebus

Tears of concrete and soapstone rained down on this day.

September 14, 2014 / Ben

My Backlogged World Cup Blog: Day 20: Chasing Narratives

Day 20: USA vs. Belgium

Filled with foreboding from the previous bore of a game, the US played to general expectations. I.e., they played uninspired football that hardly looked to create any chances at all against a widely favored Belgian side. Yes, it appeared that the US was happy with its place in the story. For their part, Belgium were quite happy to bring their role of favorite to life. For the majority of the match the USA were seemingly limp and ineffectual despite the seemingly heroic toiling of American goalkeeper Tim Howard.

Belgium v USA: Round of 16 - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Kick save and a beaut!

Now just hold on a minute. *Record scratch*

I’ve often pondered on the concept of the narrative. People love narratives. I love narratives. But how often do narratives correspond with actual bona fide truth? Perhaps the most common example of sports narratives: a typical complaint among fans of a seemingly underperforming team is that their team or players therein are playing without confidence (of which, as an Atlanta sports fan, I’ve heard way too much ). But, could it be that they are just playing badly? No one plays 100% perfectly 100% of the time. Or maybe they are actually just bad? Then again, if an athlete is not playing very well, why would they have confidence? What is confidence anyway?? While this rabbit hole of thought may seem a bit chicken-and-eggy, it is important to separate narrative from fact because if we don’t look at one thing through a clear prism, then that carries over into possibly more important areas of life.

The two unfolding narratives of this particular game:

1) The USA played a dull game of football.

2) Tim Howard put in a legendary performance.

But couldn’t it be argued that the USA only appeared to play poorly relative to their competition because they were actually worse than their competition? Eh, it really seemed like the US didn’t try that hard to do anything out of the boring ordinary. But I’m certainly not a soccer expert. Maybe Belgium was good at shutting down potentially creative movements from the US before they could fully develop?

And couldn’t it be argued that Tim Howard only appeared to stop Belgium’s shots so well because they were actually easily stoppable? Tim Howard, in spite of our defense, did make a lot of saves, earning the nickname the Secretary of Defense. And that’s just fun. I am not saying I will not call him that, because I will. Narratives are fun.

But that is precisely one reason why you should be weary about falling in the narrative trap. People love seeing patterns or familiarities in everyday life. It’s very similar to the happy condition of pareidolia and why we anthropomorphize animals. While there’s nothing wrong with those things, I find it troubling that people do not generally acknowledge the power of the narrative to take over the real story.  Narrative can obfuscate truth and that is never a good thing.

NotInTheFace

Not in the face!

Narrative or not, the US put in a decent performance at the 2014 World Cup and our future is looking brighter than ever. Unfortunately, with the next couple World Cups set to take place in horribly sketchy geopolitical locales, I don’t know if I will be able to get excited over them. This problem may very well work itself out in the end because I believe between now and 2026 (my goodness, I will be old by then) the US Men’s National Team will be very, very good.

August 12, 2014 / Ben

My Backlogged World Cup Blog: Day 15: A Loss that Felt like a Win that Felt like a Loss

Day 15: USA vs. Germany

The USA’s previous last second draw to Portugal meant that going into the final Group G game the USA was in Weird Purgatory. The US did not control their own destiny (safely assuming the US was never going to beat Germany); rather, their destiny depended on the results of the concurrent Ghana vs. Portugal game as well. However, the scales did tip in the USA’s favor, as they could proceed to the knockout round even with a loss. For Portugal or Ghana to advance over the US, they needed not only to win, but to win by a certain amount of goals determined by however many goals the US lost by. But even then, in the case of equal goal differentials there were further tiebreakers. I thought Ghana and Portugal were always going to be on the same level and the game would always have goals due the necessity for attacking football from both teams. Thusly, in my zeal for overthinking, I cheered outright when Portugal, who would need more goals than Ghana would need, captured the first (own) goal of their game.  Everyone else at the bar carried on indifferently, focusing on the USA game, as if I were taking crazy pills.

GhanaPortugal

One was never going to outdo the other.

As for the US-Germany game, while my compatriots were just hoping for the US to advance, I was hoping the US would come out and at least try to play a little sneaky creative/aggressive soccer. My thinking was, for the US did to move on later in the knockout round, they should at least try to set the stage and give themselves (and their fans) something to believe in: swagger, as it were. But the US and Germany were content to play boringly conservative (am I being redundant?) football to the tune of a 1-0 win for Germany (later events would show just how conservative 1 goal is for Germany). The singular defining moment for me was defender DaMarcus Beasley going for a run with the ball out wide with seemingly a chance to beat the German defense. Yet he pulled up, I imagine, for fear of allowing Germany to counterattack an exposed American defense. Regardless, the result was enough to see us through to the knockout round. While many US soccer fans were delighted with the result, the lackluster performance stirred feelings of foreboding unease for our chances against upper tier teams such as Belgium.

USA v Germany: Group G - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

A dull, boring, and wet affair.

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