A Shark’s Inability to Separate

In the world’s oceans there are diminutive, darting fish that appear picayune at first. Those fish are titled Remoras and they’re the fish that swim under sharks. Their form of symbiotic relationship, commensalism, favor the Remora as they gather leftovers from the shark’s hunting successes. In turn, the Remora picks off pesky smaller fish that would nip at the shark.

A similar exchange precipitates an athlete making it to the professional level, especially if the player involved originates from gang culture. There’s an unwritten code between the Remora and sharks, the same as gang members. You don’t turn on each other. They turn into hangers-on, people who only value the athlete as long as they’re successful.

That means when a player makes it big, he owes it to his buddies back home to help them out. Spurning them to focus on their career would mean betrayal and turning your back on the family – as most gangs see themselves. And, as the adage goes, family first.

Ask Michael Vick, who couldn’t leave Newport News, Virginia, his crime-ridden hometown, or his friends behind. He grew up in a place where avoiding drive-bys and crack dealers was knowledge as necessary to one’s elementary education as math and reading. Ultimately he ended up in jail on a dogfighting charge because he couldn’t distance himself from his old friends, bad news, and Bad Newz – his dogfighting kennel.

It appears that another athlete learned this lesson the tough way this week: New England Patriots dynamic, versatile Tight End Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez, who is 23 years old and signed a 7-year $41 million ($16 million guaranteed) pact with New England last August, has been caught up in a murder investigation near his home in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. All evidence supports that Hernandez was either the killer or cognitively aware of the homicide.

With the case seemingly a straightforward one (ending with Hernandez going straight to prison), the Patriots are left wondering how their $41 million investment could have escaped the maturation of the New England locker room.

Declaring for the NFL Draft out of the University of Florida in 2010 after winning the BCS National Championship, Hernandez was red-flagged by multiple organizations and completely taken off the draft board for another team – citing his failed drug tests and his potential as an off-the-field concern later.

Hernandez, a winner of the John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s best Tight End annually, witnessed his draft stock plummet. The New England Patriots selected him in the fourth round anyway with pick number 113.

New England thought they could transform the out-of-line Hernandez into gold between the sidelines. That sentiment holding veridical thus far, he has assimilated into the famed “Patriot Way” that owner Robert Kraft and Head Coach Bill Belichick preside over. Up until this point Hernandez had acclimated peacefully and avoided trouble with the law. The Patriots success stories are numerous with taking troubled athletes and making them successful, like Randy Moss, Corey Dillon, and most recently, Corner Back Aqib Talib.

Hernandez’s actual guilt presents an arbitrary matter in the case. The contradiction of the Patriot Way, which entails professionalism and an absence of distractions, came from a direct inability to separate from the past. As these athletes mature, they can’t seem to distinguish the dichotomy between their careers and the fun they were still having back in high school.

Hernandez was poised to take over as the primary weapon in the Patriots’ Tight End-based offense with star Rob Gronkowski sidelined with his umpteenth injury. But it appears as if he has squandered that chance.

If a judge determines that jail time isn’t prudent, surely Roger Goodell will deal more wrath upon Hernandez than former-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue did when Ray Lewis was found innocent of his murder charge in June of 2000. Tagliabue assessed that Lewis endured enough strife and didn’t impose any disciplinary action at all. Goodell however, the famed authoritarian, will certainly impose his will upon those he deems detrimental to the league. Also known as Aaron Hernandez.

It is unfortunate that Hernandez should have been involved with this atrocity at all, but he continues to further the damage through his current actions. Smashing his phone and security system, along with his uncooperative and obdurate nature during the investigation, affects everything. Say Hernandez avoids jail time and returns to NFL turf this season (a large assumption). As a budding star, the Patriots Tight End stood not only to make the $41 million he signed for, but other corporate sponsorships waited in the end zone. Now it will be nearly impossible for a camera to be on Hernandez (if he is on the field) without a mention of his legal trouble – and that would just be in a game.

When will athletes learn that telling their buddies from back home that they can’t associate with them any longer could actually keep them in that place where they worked so hard to be?

Neglect on Ice

Stuck between “Pitcher gets hit in the head by line drive” and “Spelling error in Omaha” sat a ticker entitled “Boston evens series at one” and that’s the only mention (besides the lead story, which was a paltry fraction of the hour show) of the Boston Bruins-Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup Finals matchup.

The Stanley Cup becomes the most coveted piece of cannikin in June. But for some reason, the network whose motto reads “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” just doesn’t care about the greatest sport on ice.

ESPN’s coverage of hockey classifies as neglectful. The malnutrition of ESPN’s hockey diet comes to prominence on its flagship morning show, SportsCenter. Notwithstanding Barry Melrose, the local puck expert, hockey doesn’t just take the backseat to every other sport – it’s thrown in the trunk blindfolded and totally abandoned with quotidian repetition.

Sunday’s edition of SportsCenter’s “Top 10 Plays” presented no contradictory evidence. The night previous the Boston Bruins had overcome sloppy play and stagnant offense to garner a late, overtime-winning goal from Forward Daniel Paille. That’s how the intense, gritty Game 2 ended – similar to Game 1, which also went into overtime, but Bruins failed to capitalize and lost in triple-OT. But the Top 10 Plays – which hand out the top position with as much ease as Sean Avery delivering career-ending hits – didn’t acknowledge that the Boston-Chicago game even happened. Tuukka Rask’s incredible performance apparently warranted no merit from ESPN. Even Corey Crawford’s athletic glove save, in which his arm moved quicker than John Tortorella when he left New York, got no recognition.

The NHL was foregone to have correspondent Colleen Dominguez talk while a sparse graphic appeared over her. The graphic simply read: Tony Parker hopes to be 100% for Game 5. Really? I always thought athletes hoped to be ailing when big games were on the line. The story lasted one minute and a half.

The two Stanley Cup games, with determined and gallant fervor, failed to capture national headlines. Instead, ESPN and most other news outlets focused on the unceasing pendulum that is the NBA Finals. The favored Miami Heat are taking on the consummate professional winners in the San Antonio Spurs, who embody the name ‘Old Faithful’ even more than the geyser in Yellowstone with their repeated Finals appearances and their equally repeated wins (four titles in four tries).

 But 2013 has presented the Spurs with anything but faith. In four games, there have been three victories by 16 or more points. 16 points actually undersells how the games have been played out, it hasn’t even been that close. All of this including a 36-point pummeling of the Heat by the Spurs that was over even before halftime began. These anticlimactic Finals against the best teams from each conference haven’t been the grind-it-out, best-versus-best matchups that excite like the NHL.

In my distraught nature of wanting to see the highlights from Game 1 to find out the victor (I had Finals of my own at school the next day and after the first overtime, at midnight, I had to call it a day) I was forced to resort to a YouTube video from a drunken Boston man recording off of his low-definition television with his iPhone to see Bruins goals.

So what’s the deal (or the absence of a TV deal) between ESPN and hockey?

Hockey, which has been previously exiled from National TV more shamefully than Napolean from France, took a big step forward this year. The signing of a 10-year pact between NBC and the NHL brought an end of terror in which hockey was broadcast on Versus, a channel which many people didn’t own, and the Outdoor Life Network, which fewer people knew existed. The OLN resembled a precursor to Versus. Djfhsdkafh…as I gather my jaw from my keyboard, I’m just astonished that such a network, only available through DirecTV during its infancy, could hold the rights to a major sport such as hockey.

In an interview ESPN Senior Vice-President Vince Doria talked about how there has never been a better in-house sport. He said during his time at the Boston Globe, he attended far more Bruins games than Celtics. But ESPN has expressed multiple times that they don’t believe hockey brings a telegenic appeal to the room and that on-ice scrambles and intensity don’t translate to the viewer.

Hockey and television also don’t cooperate because it holds a geographical hold, a sort of civic clamp on only certain regions. The sectionalism in hockey is not an isolated occurrence. In the lowest TV-rated series ever, the Los Angeles Kings played the New Jersey Devils to the tune of 2.98 million viewers per game. However, in Los Angeles the series received a 25, which means one in every four males ages 18-49 watching TV was rooting for the Kings. They were eventually rewarded as the Kings took to Cup home, but that shows an alarming trend for hockey. If the two host cities contribute the majority of the viewers, then no other fans are watching. Which in turn means it is regional and partnering with the NHL for every other game they have besides the Finals rewards you with nothing. It also means that the popularity of hockey is still down.

So the chicken and the egg contradiction comes into play here: is hockey not popular enough to be on ESPN? Or is it that ESPN’s refusal to show hockey hamstrings its progress?

And while the argument can be made that a rights holder to a program increases its popularity, take a look some strange sports they’ve had on. Bowling, the Scrabble Championship and Cup Stacking have all presided over air-time on ESPN, mostly on ESPN2, but still there. With the exception of the sweet PBA commercial with Busta Rhymes audio, those three sports make ESPN 8 “The Ocho” from “Dodgeball” look like a good way to couch-surf and waste the afternoon.

That’s the power of other sports. In the NFL, especially with the prevalence of Fantasy Football, nearly every game attracts the maximum amount of viewers because there are so few. In baseball, the likes of Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera with their all-around prowess on the diamond warrant a viewing on occasion. The NBA can be explained with the allegory of “The Decision.” LeBron James infamous “TV Special” in which LeBron picked which team he would play for drew 9.95 million viewers. That’s more than ANY Stanley Cup Final game since the Blackhawks played the Canadiens in 1973.

So while everyone – myself included – are tired of SportsCenter covering Tim Tebow, Jets Camp, and the Miami Heat, as a TV company they stand to make money, and they can’t seem to do that with hockey.

Understandably, they won’t enter an agreement for TV rights with the NHL, but would it kill them to put some highlights on for more than thirty seconds? 

Playoffs: A Comparison Between the NBA and NHL

This time of year marks a wonderful one for sports fans. Baseball’s getting into its swing, football minicamp begins, but most importantly: the NBA and NHL playoffs are on. Every single night there’s sports action – I don’t think I need to express how great that is.

While Game 2 of the Pittsburgh Penguins-Boston Bruins game was being played out on Pennsylvanian ice, my eyes became affixed to TNT where the less-than-dynamite Game 7 between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers. If TNT knows drama, it certainly forgot it that night as Miami set the pace and blew by Indiana by 23 points.

Not to say that the Bruins game provided a double-overtime tense watching atmosphere like Game 3 as they chased Tomas Vokoun from the net in the first period, pouring four goals past the sieve.

I chose basketball over hockey, but why?

As NHL fans saw in the first round, games can flip as easily as a light switch. Three goals in ten and a half minutes to tie Game 7 against the Maple Leafs exhibited hockey’s ability to be unpredictable. However, as soon as the Heat won the second quarter by a 33-16 margin and momentum favored South Beach, you could feel the Pacers defeated nature – it was palpable.

So I don’t understand myself on why I continue to watch the NBA over the NHL.

Could it be marketing? Advertisements on TV like Kevin Durant helping that Asian mother clean her gutter, or Dwyane Wade and Durant going back and forth in their dreams are much better than Nicklas Bäckstrom’s 15 shots in 15 seconds or his “splinter” – which is a hockey stick running through his arm.

While the ad may not be that good, its accuracy is indisputable.
It may not be a hockey stick through the arm, but hockey players have sustained serious injures and – in accordance with their reputation – played on. Teeth are optional, like in Game 3 of the Montreal Canadiens versus Ottawa Senators when Ottawa’s rookie Center, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, put one into the back of the net for the go ahead goal. Simultaneously, he received a vicious slap from Montreal Defensemen P.K. Subban with his stick. After scoring, Pageau celebrated by retrieving his tooth off of the ice and bringing it to the bench.

That’s not even the most amazing story. In Game 3 of the Pittsburgh-Boston series – an eventual double-OT Bruins win – fourth line (or Merlot Line as they call it) was facing a tough penalty kill. Then Center Gregory Campbell broke his leg. Not his foot, not his ankle, his right fibula. He stayed on the ice. For one minute. On one leg. He killed the penalty, avoided the 5-on-3 and played the most heroic hockey Boston needed.

That sentiment of playing through injury and winning an Oscar for acting as if you were fine and nothing pained you is the exact antonym for flopping. It’s anti-flopping. It’s the opposite of whatever Dwyane Wade did in the 2nd Quarter of Game 6 when, holding the ball and beginning to teeter off balance and out of bounds, he pretended that Pacers’ Lance Stephenson, standing nearby, pushed him and lunged out of bounds. With wonderful slow-mo replay, every viewer in America saw Wade’s acting as Stephenson wasn’t even touched.

An effect of that tough, gritty play, the NHL contains tough interior defense. The defensive effort and pressure exacerbates the excitement of one-man breakaways, the showdown between goaltender and player heightens. It also magnifies goals because on any given evening, a goalie may turn in an unreal performance and shut-out a team, such as Tuukka Rask did twice in Boston’s Eastern Conference Finals when he kept an elite Penguins offense off the board.

Appreciation for defense is not hard to come by as it’s the basis of any sport and the ancient cliché that defense wins championships.
With the Indiana Pacers elimination last week, the NBA’s second-best defense fell to the Associations best offense. It’s not too hard to imagine why when you see any box score. For example, Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers fell 103-102, but it was 103-102!

There’s no defense there! You can’t even say there was defense because Chris “Birdman” Andersen made 18 shots in a row, and 41 of 51 this postseason. Eighteen. Chris “Out of a job until he signed a series of 10-day contracts earlier this season” Andersen. That nickname probably won’t catch on, but his streak shooting certainly has. He did even make five jumpers in that number of converted field goals.

Another point in favor of the NHL is the urgency. Since the average shift in a hockey game approximates at about 45 seconds to one minute, skaters push themselves and go hard. This leads to fresh legs, battles and increased effort. The intensity amplifies when all hockey players know a re-direct in front of an errant skate or stick, or a bad hop on choppy ice could lead to a goal. And goals are precious, more than even Smegal realized.

The tension does not dissipate for players on the ice, fans in the seats or even fans at home as they know the importance of each shift. Also, unlike basketball with breaks in action, there are limited TV timeouts. Since line shifts are common, there’s no timeout or dead-ball needed for lineup shifts whereas that’s the norm in basketball. The absence of TV timeouts also allows drama to build on its own in hockey.

After the drama rises and falls – TV timeout free of course – there’s possibly the greatest tradition in all of sports. As a commensurately graceful gesture, after each and every playoff series, the two teams form no longer opposing lines and skate by, offering congratulations.

In a consummation of sportsmanship, the two teams who had just fought arduously for multiple games exhibit enough class to acknowledge the other side. It’s perfect in theory and execution; it also casts shame on basketball, who doesn’t participate in any handshake of any sort. As an aside, however, it makes baseball’s post-game handshake tradition look atrocious. After victories, each MLB club goes through and high-fives each other. Congratulating yourself just makes you look bad. It’s like actually patting your own back after accomplishing something.

After all these points, I find myself writing this on Sunday night while the Spurs from San Antonio play the Miami Heat.

So to put it bluntly: I don’t know why I watch the NBA over the NHL. It’s unexplainable, but I do it anyway.

But when the Boston Bruins finally take on the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday (the first between two Original Six teams since 1980), I absolutely will be watching.

Who’s Coming Out of the Bullpen?

How weird was it to see Jonathan Papelbon pitching last week?

Not specifically pitching, but doing his head-down, crane-esque bow towards the plate before slowly, dramatically raising his eyes to see the catcher’s signal. His big frame, intimidating on the mound, looked just odd as it was draped in the maroon pinstripes of the Philadelphia Phillies. Last week’s two game series in Boston between the Sox and Phillies meant Papelbon’s return to Fenway.

Papelbon, or “Pap” to most Red Sox fans, is best remembered for his closing prowess as well as his dancing of an Irish jig, clad only in underwear, to “Shipping up to Boston” after the Red Sox clinched the division in 2007.

It cannot be contested that Papelbon did great work while with Boston – including closing out the 2007 World Series. He was very good then and he continues to be good. But how good?

Seeing him pitch in Boston and the reaction (of mostly boos) by the crowd brought back a memory from a year previous. An argument I got into with a teacher at my high school presented a dichotomy of the closer role and pitchers with two different styles.

Who was better, the question proposed, than Papebon at closing out games in the last 20 years? The gauntlet cast, I could choose any closer from the past two decades who I thought pitched better than Papelbon. All of this with the exception of Mariano Rivera, of course, who undisputedly holds the placard of “Greatest.”

The two decade cap meant that some all-time greats such as Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage, and Rollie Fingers had to be excluded. (Not to fear for Rollie though, as he still had the best mustache sports have ever seen.)

I chose Trevor Hoffman, whose 18-year career spanned 1993 to 2010 and maintains his spot at second on the list of All-time save leaders. Hoffman spent most of his playing days in San Diego, pitching for the Padres.

While it’s unfair to compare the two’s careers – Hoffman owns 300 more saves and nine more years of experience – a juxtaposition of their best five-year spans in MLB suffices as a quality correlation. Plus, Hoffman’s prime of his career occurred between the ages of 27 and 31, the same age period that Papelbon concluded at the end of last season.

First, the most logical place to begin would be with saves. Saves are the essence of a closers job, coming in with the pressure at its highest and shutting down games. There Hoffman has the edge – 215 saves in 295 games finished as opposed to Papelbon’s 185 saves in nearly as many games finished (292).

Papelbon’s teams (Sox ’08-’11, Phillies ’12) even won more games per year (90) than the San Diego Padres (83) during Hoffman’s tenure, therefore save chances weren’t skewed by a losing team.

As far as accolades count, in those five years Hoffman made the All-Star team three times, and finished in the top-five for Cy Young voting three times. Papelbon was also a three-time All-Star.

Another aspect of pitching certainly includes the hitter at the plate. A pitcher could look dominating against a batter such as Pedro Martinez, who batted in the 2004 World Series, took zero cuts and sat down after a 3-pitch strikeout. In fact, Martinez had more career hits on Don Zimmer, Yankees Bench Coach, than at the plate. A pitcher could also look as helpless as the softball pitcher at the Home Run Derby during the All-Star break if they faced batters like Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto.

A possible source of Hoffman’s skill may have been that he was pitching in the National League, which without the Designated Hitter rule is often regarded as the weaker hitting league. That may have led to his superiority over Papelbon.

Thanks to the thoroughness of baseball statistics, you can find a stat for nearly every situation.

Throughout the five-year average of Hoffman’s prime, the National League hit an average of .264 while their American League counterparts hit for ten points higher at .274, which in baseball, represents a pretty large difference. During Papelbon’s five-year stretch, both leagues cooled as the NL fell to .258 and the AL plummeted to .262.

So was the decrease in power at the plate due to power pitching and therefore Papelbon would be better?

From 1996 to 2000 – Hoffman’s time – began the Era that baseball would rather forget. The summer of 1998 shone the exhibition of “The Homerun Chase” which featured Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa trading moonshots on their way to shattering Roger Maris’ single-season homerun record of 61. Hoffman played in the juiced era where names such as Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, McGwire, and Sosa were entering their groove and grooving balls out of the park.  He also pitched in the NL with McGwire and Sosa that summer.

Papelbon pitched during a period of reformation in MLB, after the Mitchell Report exposed the cheaters, Barry Bonds became synonymous with the likes of BALCO and McGwire went before Congress. During the age of Papelbon, hitters were decreasing because the amounts of steroids were decreasing and power pitching was catching up. Wouldn’t that make it easier for Pap?

In addition, the cognitive power of baseball stats also possesses a ‘sortable’ option. Each league presented how hitters did…in the seventh inning on…from the number nine slot in the batting order. There is a stat for everything. And, as it figures, they were nearly facsimiles of one another. At .249 for the NL and .250 for the AL from 2008 to 2012, pinch hitters for pitchers did much to sway the hitting charts and even the caliber of hitter being faced by Hoffman and Papelbon.

That same “seventh-inning on” statistic was unavailable for Hoffman’s time, but it must be believed that it would follow the same trend.

After presenting these facts to my teacher, he still wasn’t convinced. I decided to call in a third-party whose knowledge of baseball was on a sage level. I sent an email to long-time Boston Globe writer, Outstanding Journalist award-winner in 2006, and the Associated Press’ National Sportswriter of the Year in 2000.

I asked him to just pick between the two and his response came, “Pap because he has a better chance of a K” which he later went on to explain was the tie-breaker between the two.

Better chance of a strikeout? Hoffman averaged 10.94 punch-outs per nine innings as Papelbon garnered 10.86 during those five years. He even had to be craftier with his pitches as a succession of injuries involving Nerf football and volleyball left Hoffman with a fastball velocity hovering around 91 mph – also known as a hitter’s favorite pitch in the Majors: not too fast, straight, and in the strike-zone. Meanwhile, Papelbon torched hitters with, according to Fangraphs, a 95 mph fastball with action.

The palpability of Hoffman’s dominance is evident.

Just a recap: Hoffman struck out more batters without “power” stuff from the mound, he converted more saves in the same chances, faced quality hitters in the National League in the ninth inning. All while facing juiced hitters.

Sorry Bob Ryan and my teacher, but if I have a one-run lead in the ninth, I’m signaling for Hoffman every time.