Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Are European Cycling Fans Anti Globalization?

When you watch cycling, notice the flags fans fly along the route. There are occasional flags of Britain, Germany, or France, but it is by far more common to see a regional flag. The flags of Brittany, Flanders, Basque country, etc. dominate.

Why is this? Is it simply a matter of cheering for the home-town cyclists, or does it do the reasons run deeper than this? Cyclists do not perform in big stadiums (where fans are obligated to go worship their heroes), they instead travel to the fans and thereby valorize them and their regions. Is this why regional flags are so prominent? Or is it because cycling fans tend to be rural and their identity is more tied to the land and less to their nation and its capital? Can cycling (and their fans) be seen as expressing resistance to globalization in the same way as soccer hooligans?


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

King of Baseball Statistics: RBI or OBP?

Last week, Corry and I had a little debate over which is the more important of baseball’s offensive stats: RBI (runs batted in) or OBP (on-base percentage)? While Corry contends that the out is baseball’s scarcest commodity and, therefore, a batter’s primary objective should be to avoid getting out, I argue that it does not matter how many players a team puts (and leaves) on base if a clutch hitter is not bringing them home. Sure, outs are a prized commodity; but, the team with the most runs scored wins the game.

As baseball fans are prone to do, I went to the record books to support my claim. To my surprise, the list of top-ten RBI men and top-ten OBP players is quite similar. The most formulaic of baseball card stats, OBP (=H+BB+HBP/ AB+BB+HBP+SF) claims the likes of Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds and Ty Cobb, all of which, with the exception of Williams (replaced by Hank Aaron in the top spot), are in the top-ten for RBIs as well. What is astonishing is that these four players (Ruth, Gehrig, Bonds and Cobb) would find themselves on both lists. We could continue to argue ad infinitum which is more important, fewest outs or most runs, but I think this comparison of greatest players says a lot for these players, who did both. (*Steroids had little to do with Bonds OBP—unless you argue that his fly balls sailed ten feet farther. Even as a Dodgers fan, I accept that Bonds was an all-time great.)

This also raises the question as to baseball’s glory stats: batting average (Williams) and home runs (Aaron). Of course, it’s impressive to see a player knock the ball 450 feet and it puts fans in the stands; however, the home run is overrated. The same is true for pitching, where a strike-out pitcher is preferred over a ground-ball pitcher. Again, the name of the game is scoring more runs than one’s opponent; thus, ERA is much more important. As fans, we like the grandeur and intimidation of larger-than-life players (remember, athletes are gods). Still, as far as efficiency is concerned, the acronym stats—RBI, OBP and ERA—are far-and-away the most important.

To answer the question posed in this post’s title, I stick with one of baseball’s most underrated superstars and most clutch players, Hank Greenberg (the Manny Ramirez of his day; above), who lived for RBI and told teammates: “Just get on base and I’ll do the rest.”

On Armstrong's Latest Kerfuffle

Thanks to Ross who sends me this link to a report about Armstrong's latest problem with anti-doping officials (http://sport.france2.fr/stade2/, then click on "Armstrong au coeur d'une nouvelle affaire").

What interests me in this report is that they note Armstrong has been tested 24 times out of competition this year. Journalists interview other professional cyclist and ask them how often they have been tested: "Three times;" "None outside of competition;" "Three or four." It is clear to me that during the EPO era, Armstrong was, well... with his time. But testing a guy on average once a week? At his home, in restaurants, at a hotel... It makes me almost hope that the guys who are on the juice will get away with it and stick it to The Man.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Armstrong and EPO: The Good News

In an interview in NY Velocity, Michael Ashenden (who studied Armstrong's positive EPO tests from the 99 Tour de France) offers compelling evidence that Amstrong's samples from the 99 Tour were clearly positive for EPO. Ashenden also takes on Edward Coyle's bogus research (that reputable journalists continue to cite) justifying how the 7-time champ improved without EPO. Ashenden's testimony is damning stuff for the man who "never tested positive."

But the good news is that of all the samples tested from the '99 Tour (a time when an EPO test did not yet exist), only 8% were positive, meaning that the use of EPO in the peloton was relatively limited (some of those 8% positives could have been from the same rider). EPO is expensive, to be sure, limiting access to it, but this number still suggests that many riders make a choice to stay off the juice.

But cyclists remain guilty until proven innocent....

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Joe Parkin: A Dog in a Hat

Without doing a full review, I want to recommend Joe Parkin's 2008 memoir A Dog in a Hat: An American Bike Racer's Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood, Betrayal, and Beauty in Belgium.

It is an honest description by Parkin of his life as a domestique in the professional peloton in Europe in the 80s and 90s. It mentions everything from the deathly serious (one of his teammates died suddenly in his sleep) to the utterly ridiculous (a teammate, seeking drugs to help him in a race was given valium by another rider--after struggling through the race, the rider still came up and asked for more of the special drug before the next race). Parkin traces his own struggles to make a place for himself, his love of the Belgian culture, his hatred for certain directeurs sportifs, his admiration for certain riders, etc., etc.

Simply put, it is a fun read that I highly recommend.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Apprentices as Hooligans

A few months ago I read Graham Robb's The Discovery of France, a geographic history of France as it changed into a modern state with special attention given to the many practices that made up popular culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

One such practice Robb describes is the "Tour de France," a pilgrimage of four or five years made by young apprentices (bakers, tinkers, stonemasons, etc.), who set out across the country to learn their trade and offer their services in some 150 towns. Robb notes that "Members of the different orders would try to beat each other senseless when they met on the road" (159). He continues:

The long walk . . . was an apprenticeship in itself: learning to walk on wet and blistered feet and to keep up with the older migrants, learning to stomach mouldy food when the body was exhausted and above all to defend the honor of the pays. As they set off from villages at daybreak, the migrants sang and yelped as though they were at a barn dance. It was their way of keeping their spirits up and warning off the natives. (160-61)
The actions of these apprentices are very much like the practices of modern soccer fans who travel, sing, and fight to uphold the honor of their home region (their pays). In the nineteenth century, the yelling and violence was a means to defend regional identity against the French state's efforts to create a common French identity. Today, violence and hooliganism serve to reinforce regional identity in defiance of globalization's sameness.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

World Baseball Classic: Go World!

Since the conclusion of the World Baseball Classic, I have read articles lamenting the poor performance of the U.S. team (eliminated in the semis) and suggesting ways America can take its proper place in upcoming WBC editions.

Oh the shame!

These authors are writing as if baseball were still America's game. It's not. It was. It's not anymore. Football, for better or for worse, is now America's pastime. Baseball, in America, is now a sport that primarily generates enthusiasm among nostalgia seekers and the not-from-here crowd. I like baseball, largely, because I like history; and baseball, more than perhaps any other American sport is dominated by history (the debates over "sacred" records is proof of this). I suspect that people who have grown up on X-boxes and Red Bull find the game tedious, atavistic, and far too rural for modern consumers. In fact, baseball was popularized as a means for urban laborers to remember an idealized rural life. It was a vector for nostalgic longing from the beginning. But over a century later, the nostalgia card is losing appeal.

In Asia and Latin America, however, baseball is seen as a modern game that allows the colonized (colonized either by the military, or by American corporations) to compete with the hegemonic power (the U.S.) on equal footing. It is, for these countries, a forward looking sport that speaks to their potential.

So I for one am not at all concerned that the U.S. has not won the WBC. It makes the WBC more suspenseful and gives it the cachet of being a true world series.

Friday, April 3, 2009

On Schilling and Shane McConkey

A couple of interesting stories were passed along to me in the past week or so. First, this column in TNR comparing Curt Schilling to Ron Burgundy (Anchorman) is pretty amusing.

Next, the sad news that Shane McConkey died while filming ski-base-jumping. We have done some blogging about extremely extreme sports like this one, and it is worth passing the news of McConkey's death on.

Personally, I enjoy some sports because they make me confront my mortality and the limits of what my physical body can do. These guys take it right up to the limit... and beyond.