Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Jones Case: Minor League Reaction in a Major League Town

What with all the stern editorializing in the Nashville press and electronic media about Pacman Jones’ extracurricular activities, it’s probably time for a slightly alternative view.

Jim Wyatt, recently in the Tennessean, and Liz Garrigan, today in the Nashville Scene, have both weighed in seriously about how the Tennessee Titans defensive back has harmed our city’s image. Garrigan especially seems interested in running Jones out of town on a rail. In the same March 1 issue, the Scene also published ”Pacman Unplugged,” Andy Cordan’s report about a weird, somewhat ominous April ‘06 run-in he had with the now-notorious Jones, whose off-the-field behavior seems irresponsible, capricious—maybe even verging on malevolent—yet certainly embarrassing to a certain segment of the local population.

All accusations against Jones remain subject to confirmation by a higher authority. That is, he’s innocent till proven guilty. All of which, in the end, may only prove that a court of law cannot convict a man legally of spitting in a woman’s face, going to strip clubs, loaning his garishly decorated Cadillac to a friend known as a drug dealer, hanging with gun-toting miscreants, or generally raising a ruckus whenever he’s out on the town.

Hearken back to a point in the Titans’ terrible 2005 season, when the team went 4-12. In a postgame locker-room interview after a particularly galling defeat, a television reporter asked Pacman what seemed to be the problem with the team. Pacman’s reply was actually somewhat pointed. He paused, then with typical arrogance—or was it mere thoughtlessness?—replied, “We need more thugs.”

That was well over a year ago. I don’t recall anyone taking note at the time. But maybe Pacman efficiently isolated the problem. The Titans improved to 8-8 in ‘06. It’s not precisely clear if thuggishness played a role in the four-victory spike. Maybe it was all about Vince Young’s arrival. Still, anyone who watched the Titans in ‘06 can’t deny that Jones, thuggish attitude and all, was a critical role-player. He showed vast improvement as a defensive back, and opposing quarterbacks won’t be throwing his way much in the future. Then there are Jones’ skills as a kick returner. With the possible exception of Chicago’s Devin Hester, Jones is the most dangerous return man in the NFL. He’s hugely exciting. And as long as he stays healthy, the next few years promise some interesting Sunday afternoons at LP Field.

No wonder Titans coach Jeff Fisher is probably conflicted. He was seen on the TV this past season joyfully responding to Jones’ game heroics. He affectionately called him “Pac.” As a former NFL DB and kick returner himself, Fisher is certainly smitten with Jones’ talent. Which probably makes him cringe all the more with every new report of Jones’ questionable activities.

Interestingly, while the Scene‘s Garrigan referenced Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis as a thuggish precursor to Jones, what she failed to mention was that the year following Lewis’ implication in a murder case—charges eventually dropped—he led his team to a Super Bowl victory.

Yeah, those thugs can play some ball. Which doesn’t make things easy for Titans brass, faced now with a deluge of media criticism over their handling—or non-handling—of Jones’ activities.

Clearly, Jones is a rough-hewn, undignified and immature male brain in a well-developed athlete’s body. He could be headed for serious trouble, which even his fat pay-checks can’t bail him out of. He even recently hired Lewis’ lawyer, which either scores a point for Jones’ gray matter, or means he knows there’s real trouble on the near horizon. Or both.

As we’ve stated in these pages before, Jones needs to grow up, and he needs strong mentors to help him do that. I sincerely hope that can happen for him. He’s a terrific football player, and for the time being he’s ours.

But otherwise, as a Nashvillian, I am not disgraced by Pacman Jones. He does not reflect on me. I may not approve of his actions, but neither do I take umbrage at them. I’m not interested in expending righteous energy in some kind of lynch-mob approach to his ouster.

When Nashville decided to become a major league sports town, it had to accept what comes with major league sports. Nowadays, that means accepting the presence of filthy-rich young athletes who might have few manners, who might use drugs—both recreational and performance-enhancing—who might carry guns, who sometimes go to strip clubs, and who are too often followed around by perhaps unsavory men and women who want a piece of their action. This is the unfortunate truth.

Thankfully, most athletes know better than that. Maybe they were raised well. Maybe Pacman Jones wasn’t. But rather than getting all blue-nose about the guy, maybe we can hope that, over time—and if the Titans don’t throw their hands in the air and get rid of him altogether—he’ll start to grow up. That with some mature guidance, Pacman will start to slough off the thuggish mind-set and start to become a mensch, while realizing that he has rare, God-given talents that demand more careful nurturing on his part.

Stall the lynch-mob just a little longer. Maybe Pac'll surprise us. Everybody's got to grow up sometime.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Diamond Joins Sports Radio Show in Yet Another Example of Local Good-Ol'-Boy Networking

Excitement was high—well, not really—when we discovered today that former Tennessee Titans executive Jeff Diamond (left) will join jock DJ Bob Bell on WNFN-106.7’s “The Sports Guys” in the drive-home radio slot, 4-6 p.m., Mondays through Fridays. Jonathan Shaffer, whoever he is, will co-host from 3-4 p.m. until Diamond can show up for work.

After not having his contract renewed by the Titans in 2004—he rather quietly slinked away—Diamond, in July 2005, signed on as a senior consultant with The Ingram Group, a Nashville-based public affairs firm, which figured that Diamond’s sports background would help them keep active as players with business involving the GEC, the Predators, and the new Sounds stadium deal.

When Diamond’s move to Ingram was announced, the company released a bio that stated:

“Diamond served as team president of the Tennessee Titans from 1999 to 2004. During his tenure with the team, the Titans had an NFL-best regular season record of 56-24, reached the playoffs four times in the five years and won the AFC Championship and played in Super Bowl XXXIV in the 1999 season. Prior to joining the Titans, Diamond spent 23 years with the Minnesota Vikings, rising to serve as team senior vice president. In 1999, The Sporting News named him the NFL's Executive of the Year.”

Well, actually, Diamond did come to the Titans in 1999, but it was later in the year when he arrived, and the idea that he had anything to do with the Titans getting to the Super Bowl is laughable. In 23 years with Minnesota, working his way up the ladder, Diamond was there when the Vikings, while fielding some decent teams, never won a conference championship. They last played in the Super Bowl following the ‘76 season, the year Diamond joined them as an intern. But Diamond was in charge during the ’98 season, after which the Vikings infamously blew the conference championship to the Atlanta Falcons.

In fact, during Diamond’s time with the Titans, the team went downhill, and the Ingram press release carefully includes the ‘99 season in his resume, and excludes the ‘04 season, when the team went 5-11 and began a slide to 17-31 through the most recent three seasons. Before his hiring at Ingram, Diamond was working as a “sports-industry consultant” and “commentator” along with making "numerous" speaking appearances. He's also appeared on the radio as a hockey and football "expert."

Diamond has a nasal, fairly unpleasant, short-shelf-life radio voice, which will replace the equally unpleasant hillbilly radio voice of Boots Donnelly, the former MTSU and local high school football coach. Both of these guys heavily troll the waters of Nashville’s good-ol’-boys sports networking club. And apparently, whatever Diamond is doing for the Ingram organization, they can spare him for 10 hours a week while he has fun acting like he can colorfully communicate a lot about sports. Donnelly took an administrative job with a football league for kids, but chances are he’ll still show up on the radio. Once you’re in the good-ol’-boys club in local sports media, there’s little chance you’ll ever be replaced by new or different talents.

Today’s inaugural show with Diamond was basically a “blast Pacman Jones” fest, with Diamond and Donnelly and Bell going on and on about sports role models and what a disgrace Jones is as a human being. Strictly “old-school” commentary is what it was, with everyone bemoaning that the Titans’ gifted defensive back wasn’t a Boy Scout.

Well, Pacman definitely has his problems, but as radio the jock-speak was pretty moldy. Proving that the more things change in local sports media, the more they stay the same.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Mickey Mantle, the Drunken Poonhound: New Golenbock Work of “Faction” Further Sullies the Mick’s Already Tarnished Image

Title: 7: The Mickey Mantle Novel
Author: Peter Golenbock
Publisher: Regan Books
Price: $24.95
ISBN: 9780061238598

When I was young, I had a neighborhood friend who idolized Mickey Mantle. Idolized Mickey Mantle. For example, my friend's dog was named Mickey. When that dog died, he named his next one Mickey II. When we played Wiffle ball, my friend was always Mickey Mantle. He modeled his swing after the Mick, and would even lay down bunts like the Mick, even though in Wiffle ball there really is no situation that exists where a bunt is called for. But multi-dimensional Mick did that sometimes for the New York Yankees, so it happened on the Wiffle ball field too. A natural righthanded hitter, my friend would strive to hit lefthanded as well, because, as everyone knows, Mantle was a switch-hitter. My friend even batted lefthanded (a la Mantle) against me, even though I was a lefthanded pitcher!

Later we got into playing Strat-O-Matic, the baseball board game that uses dice and player cards based on the most recent season statistics. By then we were in the late ‘60s, and Mickey Mantle wasn’t so good. His 1968 Strat-O-Matic card boasted a .237 average and 18 home runs. My friend rejoiced at the occasional homer the Mick would hit, but anyone who knows Strat-O-Matic knows that a .237 average is death. The game is based on numerical odds, and there’s very little chance that a .237 average will somehow translate into something very much higher, no matter how hard you roll the dice.

Mickey Mantle was finished, I knew, because the Strat-O-Matic cards told me so. He retired for good in early 1969. Frankly, I didn’t really care much, ‘cause I was never a Mantle fan and was hardly alive when he was having his greatest years. But I did know the Mantle legend, of course, and my friend had never let me forget it.

A couple of years later, Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four was published, and the world learned that the Mick loved to drink and carouse and spy on women through hotel windows. My friend didn’t like that. As for me, I didn’t care about the Mick’s legacy or image so much as I absolutely loved Ball Four—because it made me laugh so darn much. It remains a classic, and you can still pick it up, and place your finger into any page, and find marvelous tales about bygone ballplayers, with all their eccentricities and adolescent behavior, not to mention the fun they had playing major league baseball in a tumultuous era of social change that didn’t seem to impinge on their own little insular world.

Then Mantle pretty much vanished from public view. My friend and I grew apart and went our separate ways, eventually falling completely out of touch.

It wasn’t till Mantle died in 1995 that he became news to me again. We had heard that he had gotten a liver transplant some time before that, but the general public conclusion was that Mick was a drunk, responsible for his own condition. Nobody was surprised that he didn’t last long after the surgery. The new liver couldn’t make up for all the other internal damage he’d already done to himself.

So Mick became a figure of pathos in the end. The 536 career homers, the three MVP awards, and his 12 World Series accomplishments looked slightly dimmer, though they still loom pretty large when you stroll through the record books.

Now comes veteran sportswriter Peter Golenbock with 7: The Mickey Mantle Novel, a bizarre attempt to channel the Mick from beyond the grave. Golenbock spotlights Mantle in heaven, then has him sit down with the late Leonard Shecter—ironically, the coauthor with Bouton on Ball Four—and spill his guts about his entire life. Shecter, a tough old bird when a beat writer covering the Yankees—and considered anathema to players like Mantle at the time—has been dead himself more than 30 years, but in heaven (to where, apparently, Jewish sportswriters can advance) he hasn’t changed one whit.

Golenbock’s Mantle is desperate to explain himself, and practically pleads with Shecter to help him relate his personal tale. Finally, Shecter agrees and gets out his tape recorder. Whereupon we then learn probably more than anyone should ever know about any sports figure, in fact or fiction.

We’ll skip the humble, small-town Oklahoma beginnings stuff. If Bouton’s book told tales on the Mick, apparently they were only the tip of a very large iceberg. It’s hard to know what Mick liked better: booze or broads. Suffice to say they were twin pursuits of equal gigantic appetite. Page after page, we get stories of Mick and his best buddy, Billy Martin, chasing, as Mick refers to it—endlessly—“puss.” Together, Mantle and Martin successfully exploited women in every balltown across America. They plotted their conquests as a duo—even watched each other have sex— from Boston to St. Petersburg to Los Angeles and back. They screwed pretty, sophisticated Uptown girls and fat, pimply small-town girls. They had a pair of sisters and another pair of twin sisters. They drank relentlessly and cheated unmercifully on their wives, caring not a bit for the havoc they were wreaking on their bodies or their personal lives.

The details of the tawdry sexual pursuits actually get wearying in this volume—almost embarrassing—but at some level, I suppose, they make up a dream scenario worthy of any sex-crazed male. Golenbock’s Mick seems to have a good memory for the especially salacious, too.

Then there’s Martin, who comes off as a complete loon, a pathetic creep who won Mickey’s admiration with his unabashedly successful skills at luring women into hotel rooms, his endless thirst for alcohol, and his knack for picking fights with crumb bums and, usually, winning them.

At some point, it crosses the reader’s mind that perhaps Mick and Billy in fact were embroiled in a twisted kind of homosexual relationship, so devoted were they to each other. Intrepid reporter Schecter never broaches this subject, however.

Mick tells all, and after we get through the long passages of sometimes grotesque sexual behavior, we finally settle into the details of his baseball career and later his abject inability to do anything productive with his life after that, save for making money at baseball shows signing autographs—more irony, Mantle hated doing that during his playing days and used to tell people to “fuck off”—or as a greeter in Atlantic City. Meanwhile, the hurt he placed on his devoted and long-suffering—but clearly dysfunctional—wife, Merlyn, continued even into his fifties and sixties.

Mick took his sons—he had four of them—to strip clubs. (Good move, Mick.) And they all apparently inherited his alcoholic tendencies. Now there’s a legacy.

Golenbock’s Mick gets an A+ for consistency, however. Even after his playing days were over, he still chased women, still dissed his family, and still followed Martin around, commiserating with his pal about his mistreatment at the hands of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner when Martin eventually became manager of the storied franchise. Mick even gets misty-eyed thinking about Martin’s trials with his late-in-life psycho-bitch wife, Jill, and his death in 1989 when he drove his car off the road and into a ditch in Johnson City, N.Y.

While the semi-angelic figure of Shecter not always so gently prods and scolds Mantle along, Mick regales us with all the baseball stories—about Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio, erstwhile father-figure Casey Stengel, hated Yankee executive George Weiss, etc. Which then leads to Mick’s mea culpa, where he somehow suddenly finds self-awareness and guilt and regret and remorse and apologizes to all who came into contact with him during his unaware, guiltless, regretless and remorseless life.

The fictional Shecter also elicits from Mick the de rigueur psychological coup de grace: Mantle was sexually abused when he was a child, suffering at the hands of an older half-sister. Maybe this explains the poonhounding and, relatedly, the boozing. Maybe.

But Mantle’s cri de coeur ends up sounding pretty hollow. Not because, in reality, he maybe didn’t feel that he was one screwed-up guy. No, it’s because the real Mantle was probably such a one-dimensional and thick-headed rube that he would never have been able to express his feelings the way Golenbock has him apologetically do in the book’s conclusion. It’s a kind of nice way for Golenbock to throw Mantle a bone, maybe to assuage all the disappointment that Mick’s fans will feel after reading the first three-quarters of this book. But it’s doubtful it could ever happen. Even in heaven.

Mick was, for sure, a sad case on many levels. And it is definitely too bad that he never got to therapy or met someone who might have had a positive influence on his obviously unbalanced and unenlightened life.

That said, his place is secure in baseball history. The statistical numbers don’t lie, even though that’s all that Mick did to his stupid self for 63 years.

In 18 major league seasons, the real Mick scored 1,677 runs. Golenbock’s fictional Mick tallies twice that in puss. Eat your hearts out, fellas.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Baseball 2007: An Open Letter to Manny Acta

Dear Manny:

As a fan of the Washington Nationals, I welcome you to the home of my birth. I live elsewhere now, but I have re-adopted the Nationals as the team closest to my heart, even after suffering as a youngster with the lousy Senators teams of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Believe me, I know what sucking as a baseball team is all about, because the Senators taught me that in spades. After that, the Cubs taught me that hard lesson yet again after I moved to Chicago.

I have to admit that until I learned of your appointment as Nats manager, I had never heard of you. But maybe that’s okay, because after looking over the Nats’ 40-man roster, I have to admit that I have never heard of any of your pitchers, either. What a dismal group you’ve been saddled with. I love how John Patterson has been dubbed the “ace” of your staff. After all, what does it say when your leading starter is a guy with a career record of 17-20—who is already 29 years old, an age at which he would’ve already established himself as a solid big-leaguer, if indeed that’s what he was to become? Anyway, I wish you luck in finding pitchers.

Maybe you could do something revolutionary: Use three pitchers each game, giving each three innings to work, no matter how well or poorly they acquit themselves. You could just continue to use this method, and every guy gets three innings of work every third or fourth day. It would be like a glorified middle relief corps, and why not, since all you seem to have on the roster are untested nobodies? Of course, you could then bring legit closer Chad Cordero in to save the games as necessary. I think this is an amazing plan, and under the circumstances you face, it could vault the Nats into the pennant race, which otherwise they can’t even dream about.

Let’s look at your other positions.

C—I guess you’ll be going with Brian Schneider. Brian’s not a bad ballplayer. He’s only 30 and still has some game in him. Of course, a career .256 average with 41 home runs in six seasons isn’t exactly tearing it up. I’ve heard that the front office is high on Jesus Flores as the catcher of the future. Of course, he’s never faced major league pitching even once in his life. So he’d have to be the second coming of Johnny Bench to really make an impact. So if Flores proves a cipher, I’m thinking that you should think about giving Robert Fick the job. Sure, he’ll be 33 by the time the season is under way, but have you ever looked at Fick’s career stats? In a three-year period (2001-2003) with the Tigers and Braves, he hit 47 homers and drove in 204 runs. He’s got some power and hits for a decent average, and given the Nats’ pitching woes, you’d best maximize your opportunities to get some runs across.

1BNick Johnson won’t be back for a while. That’s a bummer, but there ya go. Broken legs can do that to a guy. Which brings us to Larry Broadway, a guy whose name screams success but who is still unproven. Why am I skeptical about guys who are already 26 and haven’t yet had a first at-bat in the majors? You know, if he was going to be Albert Pujols, he’d have already shown us that. Plus, he’s a little injury-prone. Yeah, Broadway is built like a first-baseman; he’s even left-handed. But I dunno. Maybe non-roster invitee Travis Lee is the answer, then. His stats have kinda sunk the past three-four years, and he’s almost 32, so it’s not like his star is in the ascent. So what I’m thinking you should do is utilize another non-roster invitee to the max: turn Tony Batista into a first-baseman. He’s got 219 career homers and 702 career RBIs. The guy has hit more than 25 homers in five different seasons, and has batted in more than 100 runs twice. He’s 33, but putting him at first will save wear and tear. He’s already played every other infield position in his career, so he can learn first, I’m sure. Again, he provides the best chance to generate an offense. And you’re gonna need that at every position given the state of your pitching.

2B—Don’t fool around trying to find a young player. Give this job to another non-roster invitee: Ronnie Belliard. He’s got a .272 lifetime average, and he hits with occasional power. He’s played second base everywhere he’s been, including 2005, when he had 17 homers and 78 RBIs while batting .284 for the Indians. Ronnie’ll be 32 on April 7. Plenty of life left in him. In a pinch, you’ve got another oldster in Tony Womack trying to make the team. Even at 37, ol’ Tony might be better than your youngsters.

SSFelipe Lopez is your man. If Cristian Guzman comes back from his arm injury, fine. Then you’ll have a decent backup. But even if Guzman comes back strong of arm, let’s not forget his amazingly lame 2005 season, when he hit .219. Lopez is your guy, for sure, and what a blessing to have a 26-year-old at shortstop who's already got parts of seven MLB seasons under his belt. Did you check his stats closely? In 2005 for the Reds, he hit .291 with 23 homers and 85 RBIs. It’s worth playing him every day to see if he can get close to those numbers.

3B—Two words: Ryan Zimmerman. Only 22 and already a fixture. Heaven be thanked. You can spell him with Batista if you have to, ‘cause you have depth at first base anyway.

OF—From what I’ve read, this looks pretty set, with Austin Kearns, Nook Logan and Ryan Church, from left to right. They’re all young enough to still have something to show, and maybe they’ll come together as a unit. But I also think it’s great that you’ve got non-roster invitee Dmitri Young looking to get into your lineup. With a career batting average of .289 and 154 homers, Young is a real hitter, and a plus so long as he keeps his nose clean. If Church continues to disappoint, Young, still only 33, could produce some numbers in his place.

Platoon Thoughts—Young has also played 1B and 3B during his career. So if your outfield pans out as planned, maybe put Dmitri at first and let Lee and Broadway fight it out for second-string, leaving Batista as your general infield fill-in. Even better, you could platoon Young and Batista at first, thus guaranteeing a power bat at that position every day.

Here’s your Opening Day lineup, Manny. And don’t worry, I don’t have a copyright on this. Feel free to avail yourself of its brilliance.

1. Nook Logan, CF
2. Felipe Lopez, SS
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
4. Austin Kearns, LF
5. Dmitri Young, 1B
6. Ronnie Belliard, 2B
7. Ryan Church, RF
8. Robert Fick, C
9. John Patterson, P

If you insist on playing Schneider at catcher, okay. If you face a lefty Opening Day, you might want to put Batista at first, but don’t forget that Young is a switch-hitter. Batista will still be good off the bench.

I hope I’ve put your mind at ease, Manny. Just remember: You have no pitching—NO PITCHING—and the youngsters trying to fill everyday positions are often utter nobodies. (If Flores works out, great; that’s a bonus.) Go with the geezers and the decent youngish players you’ve got, and maybe you’ll surprise some people.

And please give that pitching platoon idea strong consideration. You’d be making history for one thing, but you’d also give yourself a chance at a decent season while you try to figure out where legit starters are coming from for the future.

Have a great season, Manny. Go Nats!


Martin Brady

Friday, February 16, 2007

Blast from the Past: Dave Kingman

[Ed. note: Sports Media America begins a new occasional baseball feature, "Blast from the Past," which aims to focus on some of the lesser and/or maybe slightly forgotten major leaguers from the game's rich history. Readers' suggestions are welcome.]

They called him “Kong.”

When he arrived at Wrigley Field in 1978, Dave Kingman was thought by some to be washed up. He was 29 years old and, having played for five teams to that point, had boomed 176 home runs. But Kingman had never batted higher than .238 in a full season, and his propensity for striking out was, well, prodigious, if on a par with the monster clouts that had made his fame. In 1977, Kingman had unceremoniously shuttled between no less than four teams—Mets, Padres, Angels and Yankees—peddled around like a bad-luck penny, each successive front office determining that his drawbacks far outweighed his occasional ability to hit the tape-measure round-tripper.

From 1972 to 1977, Kingman struck out 818 times, hitting his up-to-then high-water mark with 153 K’s in 1975. The Cubs, coming off a typically frustrating .500 season in 1977, were hoping that Kingman’s flair for the long ball might find renewed vigor in the Friendly Confines. If only the 6’6”, 210-lb. giant could cut down on the strikeouts and maybe pad that average in the process.

Injuries curtailed Kingman’s 1978 season a bit. Still, he raised his average to a respectable .266 and belted 28 homers (including three in one game at Dodger Stadium) with 79 RBIs in 119 games. His slugging average was an impressive .542. Yes, he still struck out—111 times—but Chicago fans embraced his handsome looks, his somewhat outlaw personal style and his God-given ability to potentially transform Wrigley into his own personal launching pad.

It all came together for Kingman in 1979. The team only finished 80-82, a one-game improvement from ‘78, and pretty standard for the snake-bitten franchise, which, to this day, has not won a pennant since 1945. But Kong was enough for the faithful.

With a career-topping batting average of .288, Kingman was on a power rampage from April through September. He belted his season-best 48 home runs, many of them with great dramatic flair, and he drove in 115 runs, with a personal-high slugging average of .613. Kingman, it seemed, had finally fulfilled his promise, earning a spot on the National League All-Star team, leading the league in homers, and finishing 11th in MVP voting.

Injuries hampered him in 1980. The Cubs finished a dismal 64-98, and the bloom was off the rose. Prior to the 1981 season, Kingman was peddled yet again, this time back to the Mets. Three more years in New York were followed by three others in Oakland, where Kingman, never much of a fielder no matter where they tried to play him, came to benefit from the designated hitter rule. He continued to bang out homers, 100 in his last three years, giving him 442 for his career, 34th on the all-time list as we head into 2007. Kong continued to “K,” too, of course—a fairly brutal 156 times in 1982—and he’s 10th all-time in that department.

His lapses at the plate never gave Kingman a chance at the Hall of Fame, but for one shining season in Chicago all his abilities colaesced. He delivered the Windy City’s North Side fans one thrill after another, in the process embodying the epitome of a true power hitter.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

One Week Too Long: The Wait for the Super Bowl Always Dulls the Mind and Usually Throws the Players Off-Kilter

Huh? There’s a Super Bowl? Gosh, I’d almost forgotten.

Sorry, but I’m not one of those guys trolling websites for warm and fuzzy stories about second-string linebackers who are having their lifelong dream fulfilled by playing in this Sunday’s Super Bowl. I gave up on that stuff long ago. What I have time for is watching the game and drawing my own conclusions about what happened. The sidebars that the media trumps up for the interim two weeks between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl...well, I just don’t have time for that. And so, about midway into the first week after the Bears and Colts punched their golden tickets to Miami, I relaxed, knowing that the big game was way into the future. At least that’s what it seemed like.

ESPN Radio’s Dan Patrick keeps trying to make a big deal about Bears defensive lineman Tank Johnson’s propensity for firearms. That’s known as a Super Bowl Week Media Story. According to Dan, Johnson shouldn’t even be playing ‘cause he’s kind of a thug. Ho-hum. If you banned thugs from the Super Bowl you might not be able to field a defense.

Then there is Colts linebacker Gary Brackett’s hard-luck story about losing his devoted parents and his brother in short order several years ago; those facts are piggybacked onto Brackett’s own saga of making it in the league as an undersized and undrafted free agent. Brackett’s an orphan at age 26, and that’s tough. But a lot of people have woes that Brackett doesn’t have—for example, they’re starving and can’t pay their rent, or they have a terminal disease with about a month to live, or maybe their parents beat them when they were young.

I wish Brackett well in the game—not because he’s been through some stuff, but because I’m predicting the Colts to win it. But with a two-week layoff, anything could happen.

I happened to catch Merlin Olsen being interviewed on Tim McCarver's TV show this past Sunday. It turned out to be quite interesting. Olsen had that great Hall of Fame career as a Rams defensive lineman, then had a good solid run as a TV color guy, then did that acting thing with Michael Landon, then retired to a quiet life. He's almost 67, still brawny and bearded, and very articulate about his career decisions and his knack for knowing when to get the hell out of each new thing he'd pursued. He talked about how fortunate he'd been and about how he strived to do his best at everything that came his way and about how he then beat a measured retreat to peace and family. Then he talked about the Super Bowl, and how it was dumb to have two weeks off, because football players are like racehorses: if you upset their routine they lose focus and often aren't in the groove they should be in when called upon to perform. He said football players "need to run," and the two-week formula was a recipe for unevenness.

Merlin Olsen always seemed pretty corny to me, but I have a ton of respect for him. And he’s right: the two-week layoff turns the importance of peak competition into an excuse for a media circus. Which means maybe the “best” team won’t win. Or the “best” players will be totally off their game. Or what should be a fairly close match will turn into a rout.

It’s gotten to the point where we simply hope the game will be relatively competitive. At least for a while. Meanwhile, expensive, hi-tech TV commercials and a lot of good food and drink will be counted on to sustain us through the proceedings.

In case you ‘ve been living under a rock, here are the particulars:

What: Super Bowl XLI (41, for the Roman-numeral-challenged)
Where: Miami
When: Sunday, Feb. 4, 6:25 p.m. ET
How: TV coverage on CBS, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms reporting; radio coverage on Westwood One affiliates, Marv Albert and Boomer Esiason reporting
Who: Indianapolis Colts (15-4) vs. Chicago Bears (15-3)

The potential is there for a very exciting game. Each team’s strength is the other team’s weakness. Which could mean that the defense-rich Bears better mount some kind of offense, while the offense-minded Colts better bring their D. Super Bowls don’t necessarily turn on the performances of the stars. This one’s got notables like Colts Peyton Manning, Dwight Freeney and Marvin Harrison and Bears Brian Urlacher, Rex Grossman and Thomas Jones. has provided our spreads all season long. They make the Colts a 7-point favorite in the Super Bowl. That seems nuts to me. It presumes the Colts defense is going to clamp down but good on the Bears. It also indicates a belief that the Colts will move the ball fairly easily against the Bears defense. These assumptions can be argued for fairly, but it seems foolhardy to underestimate these Bears. Yes, their offense is erratic and Grossman can be listless. Yes, their defense hasn’t been dominant in the latter portion of the season. The other side of the argument holds a few other truths: The Bears play smash-mouth football on both sides of the ball. If their blue-collar offensive line shows up with Lombardi-like toughness, they can grind down any opponent for certain, with Jones and Cedric Benson picking up consistently punishing if unspectacular yardage. The D plays the same way, with physical, war-of-attrition style that punishes runners and receivers and will make life tough for Manning if they can get near him. Even if they don’t force turnovers as they did against the Saints in the NFC title game, the Bears defense is a youthful bunch that plays with abandon, with the speed to swarm to the ball play after play. The Bears also have return man Devin Hester, who’s been relatively quiet in the playoffs. Look out for him. He’s due, and Super Bowls are where surprises can happen.

I happen to believe the Colts have enough of everything to outplay the Bears. And Grossman could help matters by making errors against a Colts secondary that’s been playing hard-nosed football of late, including a critical late stop against Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC title game. Yet the Bears have magic, methinks, and if they don’t pull it off, they will at least keep it close.

The SMA swami split on the conference championship games, bringing the postseason record ATS to 4-6. It’s been a wild and gratifying year. Let’s hope the ultimate game is second-to-none in excitement.

Prediction: Colts 21, Bears 20
ATS: Bears (+7)