Fehr and Loathing

The point is - at least, I think the point is that if everyone was doing it, it doesn't give an advantage and maybe doesn't count as cheating. In fact, if everyone's doing it but you, you ought to do it to if you wanna stay a big league ballplayer. At least that's the Alex Rodriguez defense. It would have been a better one for Wally Joyner or Marvin Benard, but what the hell? It's what he's running with, and some folks seem to be buying it. It's obviously not about the actual, measurable amount that players improved by using steroids that matters. I've mentioned it here before, but what I find most unsettling about the whole PED shitfest is that MLB locker rooms were made into criminal enterprises. It's like the whole of fucking baseball was the White Sox locker room in 1919. Players juicing, players injecting other players, trainers selling it and peddling it, owners and managers either looking the other way (if they're telling the truth) or encouraging it (in the much more likely event then they're lying.) The worst of the lot was the unholy tandem of Don Fehr and Gene Orza, the snarling, yelping Orthus guarding the herd of superman would-be ballplayers.

Those two half-witted bastards pulled off the neat trick of simultaneously giving the players unfair advantages when the testing was taking place, and then completely fucking them afterwards. It's much too stupid-looking for there to have been serious malice involved, but I guess that is probably worse. Both of them ought to have been strung up on the ivy at Wrigley Field while Milton Bradley and Derek Lee pelt them repeatedly with line drives. Then they should be left there for the duration of the season, subsisting on whatever dribbles of Old Style and mustard dropping from some fat and wasted Bleacher Bum they can manage to catch on their tongues. New ground rule: any ball that hits either of those horrible morons is a home run if its in flight and a double if it bounces off the field first. I recognize that this might give the Cubs an advantage, something I would be loath to do under most circumstances, but most outfield walls don't have an easy punishment available. Fuck 'em.

It's really hard to blame individual players, as I see it. I agree that Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez are a nasty lot of people, none of who you'd want to have around your children or even close friends. But, and I hate to hop on the god-awful loosy-goosy excuse of Rodriguez's, it rings true that if everyone was doing it, then what the hell, why not? Just like Willie Mays and greenies. Big bowl of 'em in the clubhouse. Fuck it, they're gonna keep me awake, they're gonna make me heal faster, they're gonna make me hit more home runs, they're gonna extend my career and by extension make me millions of dollars, fuck it. I'm doing it. It's also really, really hard to blame the Paul Byrds and Andy Pettittes who were tying to get their injuries to heal faster. For Christ's sake, who the fuck wouldn't? Basically, as long as there were no consequences from baseball (another thing Orthus foamed at the mouth to prevent) for using, why the hell not? It was in everyone's best interest, career-wise, to do it. (Aside: not in their best interest for their lives outside of their careers, of course, which Ken Caminiti could tell us all about were it not for his miserable blow-and-juice filled body giving up on the whole goddamn thing when he was 41. As it is, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds have got to consider that their life of parasailing and occasionally making a couple hundred grand at card-shows is probably completely fucked, so even though they both lived longer than that unlikely soothsayer Caminiti, their lives are on balance much worse for having taken steroids.) So the moral outrage, which I think is completely appropriate, is misdirected. 

It's those bastards making the rules that fucked this up. The best way to clean up baseball will be the immediate implication of my Ivy-plan. Donald Rumsfeld could run the fucking thing. He's not doing anything.


The Rain and the Argentine

El Clasico, it's fair to say, did not disappoint. Real Madrid are a wounded animal with a new shot of brains and they were vicious, cruel and muy peligroso. They played like savages, brutally hacking at Lionel Messi's feet and legs with no regard for fair play. Sergio Ramos, always and forever a two-bit thug masquerading as a pretty-boy, wasted no time putting the sadistic strategy on display, taking a cheap shot no more than two minutes into the game. Other than a bit of beautiful retribution from Rafa Marquez (the go-to man when it comes to demonstrating that just because we play beautiful football, cabron, doesn't mean we don't hit back!) the blaugrana didn't let it get to them.

The rain set the pace for most of the match and came down ever harder. There is something about an achievement happening in the rain that, for no obvious reason outside the aesthetic, makes it so much more glorious. You don't have to think back far (I'd say the 2006 Champions League final) to see how much added character and attractiveness there is to a win in the rain. It is the great equalizer. Yes, everyone is freezing and trudging around in wet socks, kicking a slippery ball and sprinting delicately across a soggy pitch. Both clubs, both benches, both sets of fans are committed to the same misery and the one that wins is the one that has enough huevos to keep fighting, at one point fighting against the rain as though they were up against two opponents and then mercilessly teaming up with the rain against their foes when the time is right. Sorry, Royston Drenthe, but it got to you and it didn't get to Victor Valdes and that may be the only reason you lost. But what a glorious reason.

Iker Casillas is an indecent rogue but in spite of this, it is very hard to hate him, the charming bastard, and I couldn't do it even after he shoved away the penalty from Samuel Eto'o with the type of skill and precision that is at once terrifying and deeply intriguing. Hats off, Iker. I'm not too proud for that. I might have been, had it not been for the eventual showdown of wills that was won by Carlos Puyol (who, in a just world, would be credited with at least 80% of the first goal.) Lionel Messi, of course, finished everything off in a rare display of Total Justice. Hack at his feet and knees all match, send him crashing onto the cold, wet earth time and again. And the most brutal collision of the entire match was Fabio Cannavaro smashing into the post in a vain attempt to stop Leo's pitch-perfect chip in extra time. Yes, sometimes life can be so fair.


On El Clasico, Mixed Feelings and An Era of Cautious Optimism

Barcelona are three-minutes from kick-off in their last group game in the Champions League this year, a technically meaningless match against Nery Castillo's employers. All you need to know about them is that they've never had any use for Nery Castillo, the bastards, and they think the win Barcelona grabbed from them in Ukraine was unfair. It's nonsense, of course, but they seem serious about it. 

Of course, the blaugrana have been the best club in Europe this year and that's something that only the most starry-eyed optimists could have imagined before it all started. Even those comparatively dark days of losing at Numancia and drawing Racing in the first two weeks of the season are distant. I, like Pep, have never come to expect victory, though, because that's what assholes like Real Madrid do and it is beneath everybody. Juande Ramos is going to lead his boys into action at the Nou Camp with the clinical ferocity that makes him such a perfect match for, and he'll have a point to make in this Saturday's dreaded/anxiously awaited El Clasico. They may be racked with injuries, and languishing in fifth place in La Liga and unable to make a dent in Juventus either home or away but they're still Real Madrid, and it's still El Clasico. Get your game faces on, my friends, because there is sure to be a good deal of bloodshed.

One thing that's been a little bit unsettling for me is just how thoroughly Barca have been demolishing their opposition. 4-0, 5-0, 6-1. 0-3 at Sevilla and 4-0 at home against Valencia. Those aren't bad teams, man, and there's nothing to do but step aside and admire the refusal for Pep and the boys to give them any extra leverage simply because they're Top 4. The thing is, well, it's entertaining soccer I suppose, but I've long thought that people who don't like soccer because there aren't enough goals are the same sorts of people who must think the best part of sex is the orgasm, and that's a dreary way to go about life and a sure sign that someone has values that I will never relate to. So, I love the technical brilliance of a well-fought 1-0 draw where the goal comes from a late Xavi freekick (speaking of Xavi, as I am, I said some nasty things about him in this space last year and, while pride dictates I not take any of them back, I will say he's done what I always doubted he would and I would be sadly remiss not to salute him for it) or even a match where the team is down 2-0 at the half and comes back for a 2-2 draw. There's something greatly satisfying about precision and winning a fair fight. So, I relish the uncharacteristic lack of tension from watching matches this season, but at the same time hold out hope that I'll spend some amount of El Clasico thinking Barca are doomed to lose.

Well, it seems a little too good to be true that Barcelona are putting together this magic on the heels of Barack Obama's election. Yes, sure, the governor or Illinois is being strung up on corruption charges and the Rapids and Rockies continue to prove that the worst teams to support are the ones you're tied to geographically because they can count on you and so they don't have anything to prove. Sure, nothing is overwhelmingly rosy and there's, as ever, plenty of evil and corruption to contend with (Madrid, Juve and Chelsea are all through to the knockout stages, though even here we have the constantly thrilling reminder that AC Milan didn't even qualify this year) but it just seems like the good guys are winning more often than usual. I highly suggest tempering your enthusiasm, though, friends, because when things get ugly, they do it quick and without any kind of warning, and we must be on our toes. Remember El Pipila? Well, don't forget him. He's got a lot to say about times like these.


Brief Interlude In Which Barcelona's Good Start Is Discussed

Yes, under the sage guidance of Master Guardiola, the club has once again transformed itself into a clean and lethal strike force that sends fear into the hearts of even its allies. Yes, Samuel Eto'o maybe a temperamental son of a bitch who's prone to sulking and fits of blind rage, but he's also got the clearest vision and most precise technique of anyone you're likely to come across, and that includes that fairy Cristiano Ronaldo. Times like this call for un-liberal language, I'm afraid. The most telling result was not any of the humility-inducing thrashings of Atletico, Basel, Malaga or Almeria. It was the 1-0 win away at Bilbao. Why? Because Basques blow up trains, that's why, and they make goddamn sure that visiting clubs are aware of it. Athletic Bilbao, like Chivas, only signs players who are from their own little piece of the world. Some folks say, and I was guilty of romanticizing in it my younger and less aware years, that it makes them quaint and nostalgic but I say it makes them pseudo-fascist uber-nationalist pigs who want nothing more than to eradicate Africans and South Americans from football, and probably the world. Barca has its share of Catalans - including Pep - in its employ, but they also realize that being pro-Catalonia or pro-Barcelona is about your soul, not the place your mom was when she dropped you out. Lionel Messi and Rafa Marquez have blaugrana blood even though they were born in another hemisphere. Whereas Cesc Fabregas' credentials are under question. So, anyway, round about way of saying that going into the den of Basque nationalists and coming away with 3 points in the face of all that was astounding. This year, there's some depth to the character of the club. Getting Edmilson, Deco and Ronaldinho away was the key, of course, and getting Eto'o to see his role. Not many clubs improve simply by purging their Brazilians but Barcelona did just that, and I couldn't be prouder.


Brief Detour in which Baseball Strategy is Discussed

There have many weird trends this season. Some, like hitting the pitcher 8th, are kind of quirky and negligably important. Others, such as shattering maple bats, seem dangerous and of critical (but non-baseball related) import. One trend, having really good hitters sacrifice bunt, is so mind-numbingly fucking stupid that I have no idea why all the managers who have employed it have not been taken out and shot for the better of society.

Most recent example: Top of the 6th inning, and the Rockies have a 1-run lead over the Pirates. They are out of the playoffs, probably, but on a hot streak in a weak division. Last night, they took an early lead and completely blew it. Tonight, they had a 4-0 lead that the Bucs had cut to 4-3 by the time of this event.There were runners on first and second with no outs. This is a situation where they can be expected to score 1.573 runs in an average inning. Even better, Chris Iannetta is up and he is hitting .281/.383/.536 coming into the game. Nevermind how good those numbers are for a catcher, those are good numbers for anybody. He is a very good hitter. The pitcher's spot is up next, but Seth Smith (who is hitting .226/.293/.377 in a small sample size) has stepped up to replace the pitcher in the on deck circle. Chris Iannetta sacrifice fucking bunts the runners over to second and third, thereby decreasing the run expectancy to 1.467 runs. Still good! Except Troy Tulowitzki made a fuck stupid baserunning play on a Seth Smith ground ball and was tagged out between second and third. So, first and third with two outs brings us to a Willy Taveras groundout and 0 runs scored in the inning.

Post-script: In the bottom of the inning, the Pirates took the lead and are now up 5-4. The Rockies deserve to lose this game. And! Clint Hurdle deserves not to have a job. This is exactly the dumb shit he does all the time and, let's face it, the honeymoon is over. It's part of a maddening trend, though, and that asshole Dusty Baker started it.


The Fix Is Something Something

I don't really care for or about basketball, but when the Lakers and the Celtics happen to magically play each other in the NBA Championship just after a referee betting scandal, the corruption is just too giddy and blatant to ignore. You've got to admit how ballsy it is for David Stern to go ahead and offer up some corruption as proof that there is no corruption. It'd be like Bud Selig allocating all the good players on bad teams to the Yankees and Red Sox free of charge in order to distract from the steroids scandal. I guess it could be just an interesting coincidence, and the fixing-mechanism known as the Salary Cap has been leading to something like this for a long time anyway, but it smells. The Celtics were a laughing stock not that long ago, and as I recall, Ray Allen was on the downturn of a stunningly uninteresting career at about that same time. Now, all of a sudden he's gone from being the poor-man's Reggie Miller to being the third prong in a three-pronged attack that has taken the NBA by storm. I mean, what the fuck, man? Did the royalty checks from He Got Game quit coming in?

In the interest of a fairytale storyline appearing and a resurgence of interest and goodwill shooting towards the eyes of the NBA, I guess it will have to go seven games. I guess Kobe Bryant will pass the ball to some white guy who makes a game-winning shot when the Lakers look like they have their backs against the wall. (Note: if the Lakers don't have white guys, we're counting Pau Gasol. I'm obviously not going to spend any time looking at their roster or whatever a real commenter would do. Incidently, I really like Pau Gasol. I've only met him once, but he was reading The Power of Now that once. Seems all right.) I guess one of Boston's big three, maybe even Ray Allen, will foul out in the deciding game. Overtime, dramatic three-pointers, close-ups of Kevin Garnett's sweaty forehead. That's what we have to look forward to, and it'd be thrilling if it were less predictable.

Equally predictable has been the dismantling of the never-proud Colorado Rockies empire. On one hand, you can't be too eager to dismiss the whole thing this year because injuries are a convenient and ready excuse for their shitty performance, at least in Philadelphia and Chicago. Pitching has been a completely predictable disaster, and the thing that annoys me most is that Clint Hurdle and Dan O'Dowd seem just as unsurprised as me that all the retreads they're trotting out to the mound are self-destructing at rates that would make even the most diligent suicide bomber uneasy. Glendon Rusch? Give me a fucking break. There's some reason to think that the triumphant return of Troy Tulowitzki and Matt Holliday will mean something, but if a god damn 8 run lead isn't safe, as it wasn't against Chicago on Friday, then who cares? The Rockies had a pretty good chance to put together something akin to the Twins of the early part of this decade or the current Indians and compete year in and year out for half a decade or more. Instead, they opted for sentimentality like the '93 Phillies and '05 White Sox and you reep what you sow, don't you? The best bet is that inflated expectations from last year mean that Hurdle and O'Dowd are on the chopping block, but that kind of optimism is dangerously neglegent of the power of the Good Ol' Boys Club. More likely; another 12 years of mediocrity before a big fluke season. Make no mistake, some guys are about to get traded and the return on Holliday, Atkins or whoever had damn well better be something more than Trader Dan got for Larry Walker. Got help us.

As a newly minted MLS season ticket holder, I think I have some obligation to comment on the goings-on in Commerce City, but I've been watching so gleefully at the dismantling of Rijkaard's men that I have to plead distraction on the soccer front. Zambrotta's the latest to go, and good riddance to the guy who seems like a swell chap for an Italian footballer but was consistently bad at, you know, his job. Edmilson's off to Villareal, and we can all just hope that Yaya Toure has the decency to take him out at the knees the first time the teams square off next year.

The Rapids have been a lot of fun to watch, in spite of their complete unwillingness to finish. Omar Cummings can only score when the ball's put right to his feet and he's in front of an open net, and then he only scores if he can somehow be convinced that in that situation it is totally unnecessary to dribble. Weird, slightly off-kilter Scotsman Tom McManus seems like he might get things going in a little while, but the weird loyalty to Cummings is going to have to stop sometime. Yes, be very afraid. 12 points from 9 matches is good for 2nd place in this ridiculous league, so any predictions or analysis are an exercise in intellectual masturbation that even I'm not willing to delve into.

Now, let's just wait to see who wins Euro 2008, and start shopping for padding and maybe bullet-proof vests ahead of the DNC Convention in August. I think it's better not to be too hasty on these things, but if you're not prepared, you're liable to be swallowed up by the crowd. Let's just say that if Germany, Holland or Italy wins the Euro, that taken in combination with the Celtics-Lakers nonsense is a harbinger of evil and it'd be best for everyone involved just to get out of this city when Barack and Hillary swing in to settle their bloodfight. You don't want to be involved, even as a witness. Believe me.


Eulogy for Frank Rijkaard

The match against Mallorca today was just absolutely devastating to watch. Frank Rijkaard deserves better, but it reminded me of a bullfight. At the end, no matter what happens, you know the bull's going to die. The optimism (and, with it, the disappointment) of the last couple of seasons had just vanished for me and, it seems, for the club. Even when they went up 2-0, it was tense. You could just feel that they were going to lose. Fans had been whistling at Eto'o and after he scored, he angrily kicked the ball into the net twice more, then waved to the crowd with a scowl firmly planted on his face. There was no joy there, not even though they were ahead 2-0. Not from anybody, and it just seemed so obvious that they were going to collapse. Then, 1 goal, 2 goals from Mallorca in the space of 3 minutes. A third in extra time, just after Barcelona had blown two good chances and just after Edmilson had been sent off in what could only be the most fitting way that the man responsible for the "black sheep" remarks earlier this year to end his career at the Camp Nou.

A third, and the look of heartbreak on Rijkaard's face was shared with the team and the fans, but the loneliness was his own. Out came the white handkerchiefs, which took on a sort of cruelty they hadn't had before. They used to say come on, you're better than this. Just score! Just win! Now, it was clear, so long you rotton bastard, who can't even manage a win against a mid-table mediocrity in his last match at home. So long, you bastard. It's not that he didn't try. It's not that he wanted to lose.

Cruelly, Barcelona fell pray to the same disease that had crippled Real Madrid in such horribly recent memory. All the stars in the world don't make the best team, and if Thierry Henry wasn't the problem, then Ronaldinho was. If not Ronaldinho, then Eto'o. If not Eto'o, maybe Marquez or Puyol or Yaya. Somewhere, at some point, Barca lost the spirit of the side that rose to the top of Europe (my God, was it only two years ago?) and gained nothing but a whole lot of t-shirt sales. Is that Frank Rijkaard's fault? Maybe. Who cares about the last game of the season, though, with nothing to play for but 3rd place? We, Barcelona fans, can only hope that Pep Guardiola can bring the same kind of passion for the beauty and art of football at its finest that Rijkaard did, and manage somehow to convince multi-million dollar shaving cream spokesman athletes that the pride in playing for a club with UNICEF across the shirt is more important than the number of minutes they get, or the likelihood that they'll get to be on the cover of FIFA 09.