Monday, February 23, 2009

The Beckham Question

With the trade of David Beckham from the LA Galaxy to AC Milan seemingly eminent, I wanted to raise the question as to everyone's view of Becks' two-year sojourn in the MLS. While we could argue that the multi-million dollar deal was a bust for the Galaxy (who finished worst in the league in 2008), my contention is that these two years will ultimately prove very fruitful to the MLS and US soccer in general. Beckham's fame, his presence alone, brought a new crop of fans to games, gave the league Hollywood appeal and put Major League Soccer above the fold--even in the headlines--for the first time in its oft-troubled 15 year history. Despite his infrequent scoring on the pitch, Beckham marked many off-field points. As a Galaxy fan, having seen Beckham's recent success in Italy and hearing reports of his "rediscovering" himself with AC Milan, I am prepared to say, "So long Becks... and thanks."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Take me out to the ballgame: the uniqueness of MLB ballparks

In the lengthy conversation on steroids and baseball that spanned the last fortnight, Corry made a comment that really stuck with me: “Baseball was a pastoral sport in an urban setting--a place to theoretically escape the corporate world and find relaxing, occasionally quiet entertainment. Now it's just one more loud corporate laser show.” As unfortunate as the Michael Eisner touch was to MLB and in spite of the often intolerable noise that accompanies today’s game, the green grass and open air of the Major League park is, I would argue, still a major draw for the urbanite wanting a three-hour escape from summer’s asphalt jungle.

Two things that separate baseball and make it more interesting when compared to the other big-five sports are that, first, in baseball there is no clock. No need to “milk” or “race against” time. In that sense, baseball is leisurely—a major draw to the corporate world where time is money. Secondly, the uniqueness of each Major League park is part of the spectacle. Unlike football, soccer, basketball or hockey, where the gridiron, pitch, court and rink are ALL league-standard sizes, in baseball, once you get beyond the diamond, park designers have a creative carte blanche--something they've put to good use recently.

Each stadium has distinctive features that keep the game interesting for players and fans alike. The distance from home plate to the outfield corners varies from around 305’ to 355’ and anywhere from 390’ to 435’ to the center field fence, which can be symmetrical (like Dodger Stadium) or have nooks, crannies, gaps and (sometimes raised) alleys (as is the case in Houston’s Minute Maid Park). The height of the fence is also variable; Boston’s Fenway Park is the most obvious example of this, with the iconic 37.2’ “Green Monster” at 310’ in left, which extends to 420’ but gradually tapers down in right center, until the right field wall is a 4’ straight stretch that goes from 380’ to 302’ feet. Some ballparks (like Fenway and Detroit’s massive Comerica Park) favor the hitter, whereas others are “pitchers’ parks” (Dodger Stadium, San Diego’s Petco Park and the Minneapolis Metrodome—with its Plexiglas extensions in left and “the baggie” in right). (ESPN has scientifically determined each stadiums “Park Factor.”) The “Friendly Confines” of Chicago’s Wrigley Field have the original brick walls, covered in ivy. Beyond the fences are additions spectacles: Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium has fountains, San Francisco’s AT&T Park gives into a bay. With such diversity, this pastoral sport maintains a charm no other major sport (except maybe golf) can claim.

At both an aesthetic and theoretical level, we all have our subjective favorites. Personally, I abhor domes and am not too keen on turf either. As a former pull hitter and relief pitcher, I prefer shallow left field walls and reduced gaps in the alleyways... Yet another thing we can discuss that makes baseball the great American game.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Walloons are Poop": Soccer Fans Strike Again

French daily Le Monde reports that the Belgian Soccer Federation has ruled that fans may chant "Walloons are poop!" (Les Wallons, c'est du caca). Despite the fact that Flemish fans chanted in French to further provoke the Walloon team, the chant is "playful and teasing," federation officials argue, not "hurtful or injurious."

Even though they are white, Walloons are something of a minority in Belgium where many Flemish speakers look down on them as being, well... poop. This ruling by the Belgian Federation seems to undermine UEFA's recent campaigns condemning racism and promoting respect among fans.

Just last weekend French police arrested a fan of Le Havre when he shouted racist slurs at minority players from Marseille. Granted, what the Le Havre fan did was meaner than chanting "Walloons are poop!" but the message French authorities are sending is much clearer than that being sent by the Belgian Federation.

So while I suppose it's better than throwing poop on them (or the more conventional Soccer standard: bags of warm urine), and while it pales in comparison to what is chanted when the two Glasgow teams meet, the powers that be should condemn the name calling, even if they do not hand out a penalty to the team. Chanting "Your team is poop!" is one thing (it's even better than the "F*** you, BYU!" I've heard chanted at American college football games). But demeaning a linguistically and ethnically distinct people in the name of sport should not be flippantly encouraged by soccer's administrators.

(Thanks to Scott for sending me the link to Le Monde.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sports and the State: Sarkozy Sounds Off

Scott sends me news that French president Nicolas Sarkozy, during an appearance at the World Championships of downhill skiing in Val d'Isère, France, told reporters: "France needs to get back in the habit of organizing large-scale sporting events. It's good for morale, it's good for the economy, and it's good for sports."

In a way it is good to hear a politician be so blatantly open about the role sports play in society and in politics. In the U.S., while politicians take advantage of sports and use them to advance themselves or their agendas, they rarely speak so openly about it. Of course, had Sarkozy rephrased his comments and said, "Big sporting events are good because they distract people from the economic hell-hole we're in and divert attention away from my inability to improve things," that would have been even better.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

MLB: Are baseball heroes still possible?

Back on November 5th, I wrote a long missive in response to Corry’s post “Baseball’s Demise II,” where I defended the game –with all its many scandals—as a true game of heroes. Ironically enough, in that same piece (which I call my “Love letter to baseball”), I defended none other than Alex Rodriguez as a “clean” ballplayer. In light of recent revelations and in response to Corry’s last post, I really wonder if Major League Baseball can, in our era (the “Steroid Era”), still have heroes. Can we really trust any player enough to get behind him? I’ll admit that, at certain times in my life, I cheered for Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, even Barry Bonds—only to be disappointed when word of the dreaded “juice” leaked to the presses. Who do we dare support these days?

Currently, my favorite player is probably Manny Ramírez—who I, personally, think is clean. (He’s been as big as a house since I first saw him with the Indians in the mid-90s.) As a loyal Dodgers fan, I pray he and Ned Colletti work something out to have Manny back in blue come April. (Maybe we shouldn’t pray for something as inconsequential as baseball contracts; but, since God is a Dodgers fan, I’m sure he appreciates the sentiment all the same—give him 5 years for $120 mil already!) For a while, the three teams in the running to score Manny were the Dodgers and their two arch rivals: the San Francisco Giants and Anaheim Angels (I refuse to associate them with L.A.). So, it’s not just ‘roids but also Free Agency that makes playing the hero game all the more difficult (but that’s an entirely other can of worms).

As a young boy, my first hero—baseball or otherwise—was George Brett. He is now one of the most outspoken opponents of PEDs in baseball. In fact, he’s mentioned that should Barry Bonds be elected into Cooperstown, he’d personally look Barry in the eyes and say “We’re both here, but I did it cleanly.” Maybe excessive pine tar is not in the same ballpark with steroids, but George—and we also—might do well not to be so short-sighted. History has forgiven his baseball trespasses, just as it will forgive our modern-day trespassers.

My point is this: just like in politics, baseball history forgives those whose legacy outlives their playing years. Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR were all polemical figures in their day, but their legacies have surpassed their supposed misdeeds. Ten years ago, Bill Clinton was synonymous with unrepentant womanizer; today he is a great ambassador to the U.S. Shoeless Joe took a bribe—he is still considered one of the greatest all-around players to ever take the field. Babe Ruth was a walking scandal—do we lessen his achievements? Slowly but surely, Pete Rose’s exile is drawing to a much-deserved close. Just the same, I think Barry, Jose, the Rocket and A-Rod will receive their due pardon. Will Bud Selig be remembered as baseball's Joe McCarthy?

Can we have heroes in baseball when we do not know what new information tomorrow’s papers may bring? My answer is YES, but only if we stop to recognize that in an epoch when more than an estimated third of players were “on the juice,” these men were still the best at what they did. Do I condone PEDs? No. Do I recognize the colossal talents of great players who happened to use? Yes.

So, as we welcome in Spring Training and prepare for the Boys of Summer to take to the diamond, I hold firm that baseball is and remains America’s Game. And, a more cautious version of myself still—albeit less brazenly—proclaims that baseball is a game of heroes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rodriguez, Bonds and the Steroids Issue

I'm going to take a pass on this issue (for now) but want to refer you to some great work done by Jeffrey Standen (a.k.a. The Sports Law Professor). In recent posts he goes into many of the problems (legal and cultural) surrounding both Bonds and Rodriguez and their (alleged in the case of Bonds) steroid use.

Click here to access his blog.

Update: Here is another take on A-Rod from Timothy Egan (sent to me by both Daryl and Scott). Egan argues that A-Rod is trying to wriggle off the hook by simply dismissing his drug use as a youthful indiscretion when he was, well..., too old and too wealthy to use his naïveté as an excuse.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Breaking Away

Last week I rewatched the 1979 cycling film Breaking Away for the first time since I was in high school. It's a great film and perfectly captures the socio-economic problems of the late 70s.

But... like so many sports films, the ending suggests that winning makes all of life's problems go away. When the local Cutters team beats the rich, university teams, not only is the main character reconciled with his parents, he also earns the respect of the rival teams and eventually gets up enough confidence to go to the university himself. One of his Cutter teammates (played by Dennis Quaid) earns the respect of his police officer brother, and still another is embraced by his fiancée who now has an increased amount of love for him.

I really like Bernard Malmud's novel, The Natural. Unlike Redford's film, however, the protagonist strikes out in his final at-bat, forcing a serious reevaluation of the preceding pages.

In the greatest sports films, the protagonists lose, testing the tolerance and love of those around them while forcing them to reevaluate their priorities. Rocky! Rocky!

Do these general rules hold true? What is your favorite sports film and is it a film about underdogs winning, or about losing?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Video Games and the Young Employee

In several articles, The Jan. 3 edition of The Economist looks at the so-called Internet Generation (those born in the 1980s and 90s) and their work expectations. Surprisingly, they tie attitudes of these Net Geners to the amount of time they spend playing video games.

"Net Geners demand far more frequent feedback and an over-precise set of objectives on the path to promotion (rather like the missions that must be completed in a video game)."

"Just as they are used to checking their progress on leader boards when playing video games, so Net Geners want to keep close tabs on their performance at work, too."

Of course there are positives to this, too. Net Geners tend to work well in teams toward a common objective... as long as this objective is clearly spelled out.

My sense is that a similar phenomenon is happening among college students.

For the last several years I have tried to be more transparent in my grading, putting grades online in "Blackboard" so students know immediately how they performed. I have also moved away from course objectives to "Student Learning Outcomes" making the course "student centered," and focusing not on what I hope to accomplish but on what the student will be able to do by the end of class.

Unfortunately, this may not be serving the students who are entering the workplace. Given the economic downturn, employers will not be asking "What can I do for you? How can I make this job a good, open, fun experience for you?" but "What can you do for the company? How hard can you work to accomplish the company's objectives?"

Sure, students like a course that focuses on them, that makes them the center of the learning universe. But the current job market may be a rude awakening for them.

If you are a faculty member, have you noticed some of this video game mentality (as The Economist calls it) among students? If you're a student, is this a fair assessment of your generation?

Update: This article confirms what the Economist suggests... but maybe it's a British thing?

More about it here in the Wall Street Journal. Facebook, one researcher notes, "reduces attention spans" and "infantilizes the brain."

Of course, reading this blog may have the same effect.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Playing At Monarchy on the Air Thursday

I did an interview today with Marcus Smith for KBYU's program "Thinking Aloud." It will be broadcast tomorrow (Thurs.) at 11 AM. It can be heard on Classical 89 (FM) or online at

Update: the program has been archived and can be heard online here:

Monday, February 2, 2009

Queering Quidditch

Joel Felcher sends me this story of somewhat strange intramural sports that are gaining traction on college campuses. The one that caught my attention was Quidditch. Felcher describes the game:

Borrowed from the Harry Potter book series, Quidditch at Middlebury College is played high above the ground as players fly on magical broomsticks and try and score points as they chase the speedy and mysterious golden snitch. Sounds cool, right? Wrong. Instead of figuring out how to manufacture flying brooms, players took the easy way out and simply run with the broom between their legs. The Golden Snitch, unfortunately, doesn’t flutter and hide as in the film. As a replacement, teams pick a fast kid, dress him yellow and make him run for hours until someone can catch him.

While the game itself reminds me of the Levitra commercial featuring a man who can throw his football through a tire swing only once he has taken a pill for erectile disfunction, the fact that players run with brooms between their legs suggests they are, well... compensating for something. College students who still obsess over Harry Potter are geeky enough. But to run around with a broom stick between one's legs, grapple with other men wielding broomsticks between their legs, chase after a stickless man clad in yellow, and attempt to throw a ball through a ring... I take it as a cry for help.

One "Snitch" explained: "Since we can't really simulate [the flying Snitch in the book], instead you have a big goofy guy like me dressed in yellow and I have a sock in my butt and once you catch the sock, the game's over" (see the video below--this is an unaltered quote). To prevent "Seekers" from getting "in [his] butt," the Snitch frequently grabs their broomsticks to keep them in front of him or throw them to the ground.

It all just screams out for psychoanalysis. But I'll leave the complete analysis up to a student trying to complete an assignment for a literary theory course.

I know, I know... Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar or a broomstick is just a broomstick. But sometimes (and this may be one of those times) certain fantasies are better off staying repressed.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Some Universities Tackle Sweatshop Sports Apparel

Inside Higher Ed reports that several universities have decided to have their school's apparel made in a plant in the Dominican Republic where workers are receiving a verifiable living wage.

Perhaps other schools with a sense of social responsibility will follow.