Week of January 7, 2022

RIP John Madden

My kids know “Madden” the video game, but I am 99% sure they have no idea why the football game they play on my old PS3 is called Madden. So sure, the games are quite the legacy for him (while he didn’t make the game himself, he reportedly helped make the game realistic over the years). Older people remember him as a coach. And sure, he won a Super Bowl. 

But to me Madden will always be an announcer – the best announcer. When you turned on a football game in the 90s and John and his longtime broadcast partner Pat Summerall were on the call, you knew you were in for a treat. Madden’s enthusiasm shown through – he loved football and wanted to share that love. The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis relays a great anecdote:

One of the coolest things about John Madden is that he was an academic. It was a brief run, but still. In 1979, after Madden quit as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, he was hired by the University of California, Berkeley, to teach an extension course called “Man to Man Football.” Madden’s students had watched football on TV. Now, they wanted to understand how it worked.

Professor Madden stood in front of a board that was like the Telestrator he later used on TV. Madden drew X’s and O’s and carefully studied his students’ faces. “I wanted to see at what point I lost ’em,” he told me years later. Madden was trying to find the most simple way to explain a complex game. He was converting passive football fans into smart fans. For the next 30 years, Madden performed the same trick on TV every week.

When Madden died Tuesday morning at age 85, obits mentioned his three great careers: football coach, broadcaster, video game czar. In fact, these are all the same career. John Madden was the greatest teacher of football of the 20th century and probably of this one, too.

Madden’s genius was how he taught football. Those booms, that unbuttoned aura of regular guy-dom—all of that was an invitation. It made Madden’s classroom feel like a safe place, where you’d get a little smarter and the professor would never act like he was smarter than you.

He taught us the game, but always at a level we could understand. He was informative, without talking down to us. He was the best.

So I am honoring John Madden in the best way I know how: smiling and laughing at clips of him doing what he did best:

-TOB


The State of the MLB Lockout

For our 40th birthdays this year, Phil and I (and our friend Rowe) are planning a baseball trip. The current plan, three stadiums in three days (Pittsburgh, D.C., Baltimore in June). When discussing dates, I suggested we avoid April: in part because of cold and an increased incidence of rainouts. But also because of the ongoing lockout. Rowe asked, “Are we really concerned about the lockout?” As luck would have it, Jeff Passan published an article this week addressing this very topic. So, Jeff, how are things?

“The players and league don’t negotiate so much as talk past each other. For all the rhetoric about the animosity between the parties not mattering as much as the substance of the issues they’re discussing, they can’t even get to the substance of the issues because the relationship is so toxic. “We’re in such a place as an industry that it’s kind of like politics,” the man said. “Everyone is so obsessed with winning this narrow game we’ve prescribed for ourselves. There’s no practicality. No moderation.”

Hm. Seems bad.

In its last bargaining session, on December 1, “MLB had said it wanted to talk about core economics, but only on the condition that those discussions not include any changes to the six-year reserve period of free agency, the arbitration system or revenue sharing. The union would not agree to that condition. Seven minutes in, there was nothing left to discuss. MLB left the hotel and did not return.” MLB locked the players out at midnight that night.

The players, for their part, want, “earlier free agency, earlier arbitration, a rejiggered draft system, more money going to younger players, a higher minimum salary, less revenue sharing and a higher luxury tax threshold, among other things.” Rob Manfred said such changes would “threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive,” though as Passan points out, Manfred “provided no evidence to support the idea that players becoming free agents after five years or reaching arbitration after two years would ruin the sport — because no such evidence exists.” 

MLB, meanwhile, wants to expand the playoffs (which is a TV cash cow) and, per Passan, “is most interested in continuing its curtailed spending. Player salaries dipped to $4.05 billion in 2021 — a $200 million drop from the record high in 2017 and the lowest since 2015, when the league still hadn’t crossed the $4 billion mark.” Since 2011, MLB revenues have increased 70%, from $6.3 billion to $10.7 billion, while the league’s soft salary cap number has increased only 15%, from $178 million to $206 million.

Passan spoke to a number of agents, players, and league and team officials, and came up with the following framework for a deal:

1. Raise minimum salaries to around $650,000 — a 14% bump

2. Add a performance bonus pool for pre-arbitration players

3. Implement the universal designated hitter

4. Expand the postseason from 10 to 14 teams

5. Remove indirect draft-pick compensation for free agents

6. Make significant changes to the draft to disincentivize tanking and reward small markets

7. Raise the CBT threshold into the $230 million-plus range and remove other restraints, including nonmonetary and recidivism penalties

This seems reasonable to me. Hopefully, the two sides come up with something soon. Afterall, pitchers and catchers should be reporting in just five weeks. -TOB

Source: Why MLB’s Labor Negotiations Have Gone Nowhere — and Baseball’s Path Back,” Jeff Passan, ESPN (01/05/2022)


The Industry-Changing Beetle 

It would be decades before anyone would know it, but the ash bat – used by almost every major leaguer for over a century – was doomed because some pallets were left outside warehouses in Westland, Michigan. 

The pallets were from far away, and they carried the emerald ash borer beetle. The beetles spread, killing ash trees across North America. 

The emerald ash borer beetle was discovered in 2002. In 2001, Barry Bonds broke the single season home run record with a maple bat ( the maple bat was thanks to Joe Carter). It wasn’t long before big leaguers were switching to maple, and thank god they wanted to change when they did. 

Per Stephen Nesbitt: 

Almost overnight, there was an explosion of interest in this small Canadian maple bat company. Hitters turned from ash to maple in droves. Sporting goods stores wanted to stock maple bats. Holman needed more space, more staff, more bats. He hired the bar manager at the Mayflower Pub to be his production manager. He bought an empty bar in Ottawa and converted it into a bat-making laboratory. It still wasn’t enough to keep up with demand.

Maple was suddenly king, and just in time.

The following year, the first ash borers were discovered in Michigan.

I never imagined I’d read a sports story about a beetle, but the best stories take us to unexpected places. This is a story about environmental anomalies, the science behind the ideal wood density, about grain spacing. It’s also about Joey Votto, the last big leaguer to use ash bats exclusively, and his ultimate trust in the feel of the ash bat…and trying to find an ash tree or two that hasn’t been visited by the emerald borer. 

Such a great read. – PAL 

Source: ‘It’s an epic saga’: An exotic beetle, Barry Bonds, Joey Votto and the end of ash baseball bats,” Stephen J. Nesbitt & C. Trent Rosecrans, The Athletic 

TOB: My favorite part:

Votto wasn’t always an ash apostle. As a high schooler in Toronto, he swung whatever wood bat was available. In the minors, he tried a variety of bats without settling on any. It was Jay Bruce who got him hooked on ash when they were at Triple A together. Votto came to love the sound of a baseball smacking the sweet spot, the way an ash bat hardens and grain grooves deepen over time, and the feedback delivered to his hands when making solid contact. An ash bat, he says, just feels like the best possible tool a hitter can have.

And so when Votto has an ace ash bat, he wants to protect it.

“This might sound crazy,” Votto says, “but there were times I was even a touch more particular about what I was going to swing at because I didn’t want to break the bat.”

It’s not that Votto never gave maple a chance. He uses it every day in batting practice — he’d rather break maple in that setting and save ash for competition. Last year, he took an ash bat for a test run in the batting cage and broke it. That really bothered him. “It’s like that scene from ‘Seinfeld’ where Elaine goes out and gets the sponges, then she’s like, ‘Are you sponge-worthy?’” Votto says, with a laugh. “I was hitting, and I was like, ‘Are you cage-worthy?’ I don’t want to burn them on batting practice.”

-LOLLLLL


The Athletic Submits to its Fate

The Athletic was an ambitious undertaking – restore the sports local sports page! And honestly, for the most part I think they did a pretty good job. At least in the Bay Area, they hired good writers to cover the local teams and they freed those writers from traditional print deadlines, to allow them to write about the team without those restrictions. But there were signs all along that it was not going to work. 

First, the Athletic was not profitable, “hemorraghing $100 million cash” in 2019 and 2020, over revenues of just $73 million. In hiring all these writers away, they had to pay them a lot of money! And in order to lure subscribers, they often offered steep discounts, but it was not enough, as subscriptions stagnated over the last two years – going from 1 million in 2020 to just 1.2 million late last year.

It also suffered from quality issues, in the eyes of this humble blog. The plan to restore the sports page relied on hiring local beat writers. And while the Bay Area writers it hired were generally good, that was not true in other locales, which we often noted after reading articles that we found wholly disappointing. 

Which brings us to this week’s news: The Athletic was sold. To the New York Times. Yes, the news publication that aimed to modernize the sports page and in the words of its co-founder, was going to, “wait out every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” and “suck them dry of their best talent at every moment,” ended up selling out. To a newspaper. Sure, it’s the New York Times. Still, it’s a newspaper. 

It remains to be seen what will become of the Athletic, or the jobs and careers of the writers it peeled off from the local rags. But the Athletic becomes, in the end, a symbol of the modern media landscape:

I suppose it was always going to be this way. It was its fate. -TOB 

Source: The Athletic To Be Swallowed By Industry It Aimed To Kill,” Ray Ratto, Defector (01/06/2021)

PAL: Great writers at The Athletic, but also, in recent years I found a lot of filler stories. A lot of lists and rankings, e.g. Top 100 prospects, Week 17 NFL rankings, fantasy projections. That’s never been my idea of a good read; in fact, these headlines would just make it harder to find something I’d want to read. I have long believed more is almost never better, and The Athletic proved to me that the kid who loved to read every word the Pioneer Press sports page doesn’t live here anymore.

I love Ratto’s take on this, and I also think The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis hit the bullseye with this bit from his story on the acquisition…which kinda read like an obit.

When hiring, Athletic editors would tell writers the site didn’t care about clicks. But the site did care about “conversions”—stories that lead people to subscribe to The Athletic. The site set annual conversion targets for writers, a number that can hang over a reporter’s head. Even happy writers who’d migrated over from newspapers told me it felt like trading one Darwinian struggle for another.


Anti-Vaxxer Suffers Consequences

Anti-vaxxers are awful, especially ones who are rich and (presumably) influential (yes, including Aaron Rodgers). So I really like it when one of them finally suffers the consequences of their willful stupidity. 

Enter: Novak Djokovich, aged 34, currently sits tied atop the career Grand Slam leaderboard, with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, with 20. Federer and Nadal both are seemingly done and Djokovich appears destined to surpass them. But with the Australian Open starting next week, it appears Djokovich will have to wait at least a few more months to do so.

You see, Djokovich is an anti-vaxxer. As this article lays out, he’s long been a proponent of fake medicine and has engaged in risky behavior that put himself and others at risk. 

Like many leagues and events, the Australian Open requires competitors to be vaccinated, or to receive a medical exemption. Djokovich applied for a medical exemption, for an undisclosed reason, and it was granted. Given his past behavior during the pandemic, this put many around him at risk. So Djokovich flew to Australia to begin preparing for his tournament. The only problem: while he got a medical exemption from the tournament, he neglected to inquire whether the Australian government would let him in.

Denied.

Australia has had very strict visa rules since the pandemic began, and Djokovich was denied a visa, on the grounds his medical exemption was not valid. He is presently awaiting an appeal hearing next week. I am really, really hoping he does not get his way, and it is doubtful he will. Reportedly his exemption “hinges on the argument that he had COVID in the last six months and is therefore immune. The feds rejected that argument once already, and he faces a possible three-year ban from the country if the courts side against him.” 

As his rival Nadal, who has long supported vaccine efforts, said: “In some way I feel sorry for him. But at the same time, he knew the conditions since a lot of months ago, so he makes his own decision.”

Indeed, he does. -TOB
Source: Novak Djokovic and Fellow Star Vaccine Skeptics Are Increasingly Scorned,” by Matthew Futterman, New York Times (01/06/2022); Detained Novak Djokovic Is Jesus And Spartacus All Rolled Into One, According To Novak Djokovic’s Father,” Patrick Redford, Defector (01/06/2022)


Video of the Week

Tweet of the Week

Song of the Week


Seems awfully mean. But sometimes the ends justify the mean.

-Michael Scott