Week of December 15, 2017

Malcolm Gladwell approves.


Portrait of a Broken Down, 38-Year Old, Former NFL Star

I’ve seen, and read, profiles of aging NFL stars before. Their memory is gone, they can barely walk, their families describe them as mercurial, politely. But I’m not sure I’ve ever read one this sad. Larry Johnson was the best running back in the NFL for about a year or two. He set an NFL record for carries in a season, with over 400. His shelf life, for an elite player, was incredibly short. He only went over 1,000 yards twice (1,700+ yards rushing and over 2,000 all purpose yards in both of those years), and otherwise was a mediocre back who either split time or suffered injuries. He retired in 2011, after a combined six carries in his final two seasons.

Larry Johnson is just 38 years old. Larry Johnson is not well. He routinely has suicidal ideations, and says he has come very close to going through. His memory is so bad, he makes highlight videos of his playing career so that he can remember, and so that his 7-year old daughter will know – know he’s not a monster, know that he’s sorry when he lashes out when she can’t figure out her math homework. His memory is so bad that he doesn’t remember two full seasons from his NFL career. It’s as if they didn’t happen for him. He’s sure he has CTE, and believes he won’t know his own name by age 50. He feels a kinship with Aaron Hernandez, as frightening as that is – like Hernandez, Johnson has a history of violence, and has been arrested a number of times for domestic violence. Johnson says, “his decision to publicly describe his darkest thoughts is meant not as a way to excuse his past but rather a way to begin a conversation with other former players who Johnson suspects are experiencing many of the same symptoms.”

His daughter is his saving grace. He says she’s the only reason he hasn’t acted on his darkest, violent impulses. But it’s the scenes with his daughter that are the most heartbreaking.

They’re in the living room now, Papi and Jaylen, surrounded by walls undecorated but for the blotchy spackling compound behind them. That’s where, a few years ago, Johnson punched through the drywall.

Jaylen was there, and Johnson says he sent her upstairs before making the hole. The way he describes it, the best he can do sometimes is to shield her view.

“Did you think it was something that you did?” Johnson recalls asking Jaylen afterward, and the girl nodded. “I had to explain it: It’s never your fault.”

Or worse, the aforementioned homework scene:

Johnson has high expectations for Jaylen, and he believes the universe was making a point when it gave him a daughter. How better to punish him for shoving or choking women than to assign him a girl to shepherd through a world filled with Larry Johnsons?

“My greatest fear is my daughter falling in love with somebody who’s me,” he’ll say, and he believes if he’s honest and tough with Jaylen, she’ll never accept anyone treating her the way her father treated women.

With the sun filtering between the blinds, Johnson plays with her curly hair as she slides a finger across her sentences.

“All people,” Jaylen reads aloud, and her father interrupts.

“No,” he says. “Why would it say ‘all people?’ It . . .”

He stops, sighs and presses two fingers into his eyelids. She looks back at him, and he tells her to keep reading. He rubs his hands, massages his forehead, checks his watch. He’ll say he sometimes forgets she’s only in second grade.

They move on to her page of math problems: twenty-seven plus seven.

“How many tens?” he asks her.

“Two.”

“And how many ones?”

“Seven.”

“No,” he says, visibly frustrated until Jaylen reaches the answer. Next: fifty-seven plus seven. She stares at the page.

“So count,” he says. “Count!”

Thirteen plus eight. Again staring at the numbers. Johnson’s worst subject was math, another trait Jaylen inherited. But his empathy is sometimes drowned out by more dominant emotions.

“You start at thirteen and count eight ones,” he tells her, and in the kitchen, a watch alarm begins to beep. Jaylen counts her fingers.

“No,” her dad tells her, again rubbing his face. The beeping continues in the next room. “No!”

Abruptly, he stands and stomps out of the room without saying anything. Jaylen’s eyes follow him, eyebrows raised, and listens as her father swipes the beeping watch from a table, swings open the back door and throws it into the courtyard.

That is brutal to read (and a reminder to check my own tone when frustrated with my children). Larry Johnson is no saint. He has admittedly done some terrible things. And as the article notes, “Will she remember this, or has Johnson shielded her from something worse? Is he managing his impulses as well as he can?”  But I can’t help feel bad for him. And worse for his daughter.

In the article, Larry Johnson says, ““What would it be like for this to be the day for people to find out you’re not here?” It’s a profound thought for all of us, but coming from Johnson it is deeply sad. After reading this article I can’t help but think of him as a ticking time bomb, and this begs the question: is today the day we hear some awful story about Larry Johnson, whether it’s something he does to himself, or someone else? -TOB

Source: The Demons Are Always a Breath Away”, Kent Babb, Washington Post (12/12/2017)

PAL: As disturbing as this read is, nothing came off is shocking or new. We’ve read versions of this story quite a bit in last five years. While Johnson says sharing this story is not meant excuse his past, I can’t help but wonder if it’s an attempt to excuse what he hasn’t yet done.


Blue is Fa$ter:

When the difference between gold and no medal whatsoever can be measured in hundredths of seconds, speedskaters preparing for the 2018 Winter Games will try (or believe) anything. This year’s trend: blue is the fastest color.

It’s hard to believe – if everything else is exactly the same – that color dye could impact the time it takes to skate around a rink, but the risk in ignoring a technical advantage is greater than the risk of believing a myth. Andrew Keh examines this funny dance between faith and science playing out right now in speedskating.

“With any new piece of equipment, there is an assumption that it has been tested, tested again and tested some more. At ice rinks, laboratories and wind tunnels around the world, the top countries are engaged in a hush-hush arms race, a different sort of cold war.”

While South Korea skaters have historically worn blue, competitors from Germany (combo of black, orange and red) and Norway (red, always red) are joining the party this year, tossing aside their typical colors. The trend has competitors, coaches, and researchers talking.

  • Dai Dai Ntab, a sprint specialist for the Netherlands: “It’s been proven that blue is faster than other colors. Every Olympic season, everybody is trying to find the hidden gem. This year it’s the blue suits.”
  • Renzo Shamey, professor of color science and technology: “I have come to a point in my life that I have sufficient confidence in what I’ve done and what I know, but at the same time I’m not so arrogant to dismiss claims people make. Having said that, based on my knowledge of dye chemistry, I cannot possibly imagine how dyeing the same fabric with two dyes that have the same properties to different hues would generate differing aerodynamic responses.”
  • Mike Crowe, the coach of the Canadian team: “I look at that as the oldest trick in the book. It’s just gamesmanship, really (on the part of Norway). Make them doubt. Make them wonder.”

Likely, the reason for the blue suit is far more obvious. Give this article a read to find out. I mean – come on – when are you going to read a speed skating story if not now?- PAL

TOB: Blue is the fastest color? Someone tell that to the Cal football team.


Why the Giants Might Need to Stand Pat on a 98-Loss Team, or a Lesson in the MLB CBA

Don’t tell my wife, but I signed up for The Athletic last week, when I was devouring every detail of a possible Giants trade for Giancarlo Stanton or signing of Shohei Ohtani, or both, that I possibly could. Don’t worry. I’m sure it’s some sort of tax write-off, boo. Well, spoiler alert: the Giants whiffed on both Stanton and Ohtani. After reaching a deal with the Marlins for Stanton contingent on Stanton waiving his No Trade Clause to go to SF, Stanton refused. The kicker here is that Stanton reportedly told the Marlins before any trade talks began that he would only accept a deal to a small number of teams (rumored to be the Yankees and Dodgers), but the Marlins engaged the Giants and Cardinals, anyways, and reached agreements with both. The Marlins then went to Stanton and told him to choose the Giants or Cardinals or he’d be a Marlin for life. Stanton, knowing the new ownership group was desperate to shed his $295 million in future payroll, gave them a big f-u and said no. The Marlins predictably caved and sent him to New York for peanuts. Ohtani then shocked everyone and chose the Angels. But I digress.

Once the dust settled on that, the question for the Giants became: What now? Do they go after free agent JD Martinez? Try to trade for an available, expensive, aging star like Andrew McCutcheon or Jacoby Ellsbury? Or trade for a young star like Marcell Ozuna?

This is the part where I finally get back around to shelling out for the Athletic, which recently announced they had hired longtime Giants beat writer Andrew Baggarly. Baggarly is very smart (two-time Jeopardy champion, y’all!) and a good writer. In this article, Baggarly makes a very strong argument that the 98-loss Giants very well may, and probably should, stand pat because of the Competitive Balance Tax, or CBT. The CBT is a progressive tax for teams who go over a designated payroll threshold. The tax progresses the higher a team goes over the threshold, and also progresses for teams over the threshold in successive seasons. This year, the threshold is $197 million. Baggarly makes it simple:

A first-time payor gets taxed at a rate of 20 percent. A three-time payor gets levied at a rate of 50 percent…. On top of the base tax on the overage, you pay an additional 12 percent on every dollar that exceeds the CBT by more than $20 million. Then the league levies an additional 45 percent on every dollar that exceeds the CBT by more than $40 million….The penalties for teams that exceed the CBT include stingier draft pick compensation, too. Teams that lose a qualified free agent receive a compensation pick after the first round — unless they were into the CBT, in which case they get a pick after the fourth round. Teams that sign a qualified free agent from another club must forfeit their third-round pick as compensation — unless they were into the CBT, in which case they lose their second- and fifth-round picks, as well as $1 million from their international signing bonus pool.

The Giants have been over the CBT threshold three years running now, and so their penalties are high, but the team can reset those penalties if they get under $197 million threshold next year, heading into a monster free agent class after 2018 headlined by Manny Machado and Bryce Harper (hey, let me dream, ok?). The problem for the Giants is they are going to have a devil of a time getting under the threshold at this point. As Baggarly points out:

Well, you might not like this. They already have 11 players under guaranteed contracts that add up to just more than $150 million toward the total payroll for CBT accounting purposes. Their five arbitration-eligible players project to cost an additional $15 million. It would be another $6 million or so if they were to fill out the roster with players who have fewer than three years of service time.

That’s $171 million. More than a bit of wiggle room before you get to $197 million, right? Except payroll calculations also include a raft of expenditures not limited to but including: contributions to benefits plans, player medical costs, workers compensation premiums, spring training allowances, All-Star Game expenses, contributions to the postseason players’ pool, meal and tip allowances and even moving and travel expenses.

Baggarly estimates the total, then, to be $185 million, leaving them $12 million to work with. In other words, look forward to a lot more bad baseball at AT&T Park in 2018. Then, uh, good luck luring a marquee free agent next Winter. -TOB

Source: Why the Giants Are Motivated to Slip Under the Tax Threshold — And What That Would Leave Them to Spend”, Andrew Baggarly, The Athletic (12/12/2017)

PAL: And if you want to understand it from the Marlins front office, check this out from Michael Baumann. “This is not a baseball trade. This is a liquidation of assets.” The investment group that bought the team this year is immediately in debt, to the tune of $400MM.


Video of the Week


PAL Song of the Week: Buffalo Springfield – “Burned”




Tweets of the Week:


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In the end, the greatest snowball isn’t a snowball at all. It’s fear. Merry Christmas. 

-D. Schrute

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