Posts Tagged 'sports'

Playing God and Taking Shortcuts…

This financial crisis is more than what it appears.

It is symptomatic of a society that sometime over the last 30 years lost its way by seeking not the road less traveled, but instead the quickest route.

It is the culmination of a mindset that increasingly became interested in pursuing immediate gratification at any cost.

Look around you. In every area of modern life, the shortcut has become the rule, not the exception.

In sports, we substituted medicine for athleticism as steroids offered the quickest path to success (And I cheered as Mark McGwire belted homer after homer chasing down Maris’ record).

In entertainment, we substituted notoriety for talent as reality television offered the quickest path to fame (And I lapped it up as Richard Hatch ‘survived’ an island and dozens of out-of-control women wooed Flavor Flav).

In war, we substituted power for strategy as shock and awe offered the quickest path to victory (And I couldn’t pull my eyes away as CNN aired its little war video game, the pinball-like sights and sounds of buildings being destroyed and people getting killed).

In friendship, we substituted technology for intimacy as tweets and status updates offered the quickest path to communication (And I blog away, making facile analogies as dreams of writing the Great American Novel slip away).

It goes on and on and on.

We wanted it big, we wanted it all, we wanted it now.

Cheating, if not encouraged, was at least ignored. Just pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

So is it really any surprise that in business, too, we fell prey to the same phenomenon? In hindsight, it almost seems inevitable that we indulged in this financial alchemy, pursuing policies and practices to make the quick buck while conveniently ignoring the potential long-term negative consequences of our actions.  The no-doc loans, the credit default swaps, the collateralized debt obligations belong in the same metaphorical bucket as the anabolic steroid, Omarosa and gastric bypass surgery.

The funny thing is, the issue isn’t due to a loss of work ethic. Most of the bankers who concocted these weapons of mass destruction worked insanely hard at their jobs, just as our medically enhanced athletes put in long hours at the gym, just as our most vacuous reality stars went to incredible lengths to promote themselves (and just as I am spending way too much time trying to fine-tune this post).

And I’m not about to suggest that this eagerness to seek the shortcut is an entirely new development. People have of course always found ways to cheat or exploit the system – it’s just that in the past, the tools were more rudimentary and thus less dangerous (e.g. the spitball and the corked bat just can’t wreak the same havoc as the human growth hormone).

We became too smart and too powerful for our own good. We acquired knowledge and technology, but not the wisdom to use them productively, or to realize that sometimes we should refrain from using them at all.

And unfortunately, our primary solutions to this crisis so far – the stimulus plans, the bailouts, the monetary injections – offer more of the same. We are still seeking the quick, easy way out. Wanting it all, and wanting it now. Not willing to deal with the consequences of our actions.

Which of course makes perfect sense. In a world where man ultimately controls so little, including the time and manner in which he will depart it, how can we be surprised when he believes he has figured out a better way of accomplishing a goal and overplays his hand.

We have gotten what we deserved.

We have somehow lost our way.

We better find it back.

MOFT: Episode 12 (T.J. Oshie)

Just a few weeks ago, I fell in love with singer Ingrid Michaelson while watching her perform an amazing concert.

After 35 years of living, I had my first celebrity crush.

Well apparently, celebrity crushes come in bunches because I already have another one … and this time, it’s for a man, baby.

I love you, T.J.

I love you, T.J.

That’s right – I now find myself totally jonesing for St. Louis Blues hockey player T.J. Oshie. And I’m not afraid to admit it. This is an enlightened society, right? A movie called ‘I Love You, Man’ is the nation’s number one comedy, after all.

Now I know by merely mentioning hockey, I probably just lost a lot of my regular readers, but if for no other reason than to see a man without any hint of irony or embarrassment express his intense affection for another man,  please stay with me a bit longer so I can explain what’s so amazing about this 22-year-old rookie from the University of North Dakota.

Oshie is without a doubt a very solid technical hockey player. He’s a speedy, agile skater who’s got mad stick skills which he uses often to make defenders look silly. For a player his age, he’s also got an amazing, almost uncanny ability to read the ice and know where to go with the puck. He plays strong on defense and is versatile enough to be used on both the Blues’ power play and penalty kill special team units.

But the real reason Oshie is so special – and why he has become My One Favorite Thing of the week – has nothing to do with his physical talents but is all about the way he plays the game, the size of the kid’s heart.

Oshie’s not a big dude, at least in terms of NHL players, coming in at an official (and from my eyes, generously measured) 6 feet 0 inches and 194 pounds. But he plays like an absolute lion, going 110% every shift, throwing his body around without any regard for his physical well-being.

Every game, Oshie skates with intensity, aggression, and most importantly, infectious joy, and his impact is having a dramatic effect on the entire team as the Blues are on one of the most exciting late-season runs in recent memory.

Dwelling at the bottom of the conference just a few weeks ago, the team is now battling hard to nail down one of the final playoff spots with two weeks left in the season. In January, I predicted that with a core bunch of talented young players (David Backes, David Perron, Andy Mcdonald, Patrick Berglund, Brad Boyes, Roman Polak, Eric Johnson to name a few),  the Blues would soon be a force to be reckoned with, winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup within five years.

But watching Oshie makes me think that timetable could be moved up considerably. Just look what Oshie has done for the Blues this week alone. Last Thursday night, after sitting out a morning practice skate with some sort of bug, Oshie scored two points with an assist and a highlight-reel goal (shown here) to help the Blues beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-2.

Then in a key back-to-back weekend series with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Oshie showed what a stud he truly is. On Saturday night, after serving a stint in the penalty box, Oshie returned to the action and laid a huge, clean hit on Blue Jackets star Rick Nash, causing a bit of an on-ice ruckus since marquee players don’t usually get hit like that.

The Blues ended up winning that game in an overtime shootout, and it was quite clear that the Blue Jackets wanted some vengeance during the next match, to be played in Columbus in less than 18 hours. But instead, Oshie just doubled down on his ultra-coolness by scoring the first goal of the Sunday game, adding an assist, and most awesomely, doing the following when Rick Nash tried to exact retaliation …

The Blues won Sunday’s game 5-2, moving for now into sole possession of the eighth and final playoff spot.

Yeah, so I now got me a man-crush for T.J. Oshie. That’s OK. I’m cool with it. And it”s not like I’m fawning all over Oshie’s long wavy locks of hair or his baby face and the way his cheeks get all red and pinch-able when he exerts himself.

OK, maybe I should stop now. But T.J., I love you, man. Truly…

Super Bowl Special: Who are you rooting for? The psychology of fan loyalty …

Tomorrow evening, the football franchise I grew up with, the franchise I lived and died with and rushed home from Hebrew school every Sunday to watch play, will be competing – after decades punctuated almost entirely by failure and futility – for its first world championship. And I really don’t give a damn.

In fact, under normal circumstances, I’d probably be rooting against the Cardinals, sipping on some of that sweet schadenfreude soup, just like I’ve done in the 20-plus years since the franchise bolted from my hometown of St. Louis.

But oddly enough, I will actually be pulling for the Cardinals tomorrow, partly because I have a lot of Cardinals players on my postseason fantasy squad, but mainly because the Cardinals have Kurt Warner as their starting quarterback, the guy with the inspiring backstory who once led the St. Louis Rams, the team I now cheer for, to its own Super Bowl victory nine years ago.

I find the dynamics of fan loyalty fascinating. Sport gets its very meaning from the support of large and loyal fan bases, but what exactly makes us root for (or against) a team?

I mean, I totally understand the appeal of actually participating in athletics and sports, the thrill of competition and personal triumph, but why do we become fans? Why do we root for teams at all?

When you really think about it, it’s rather silly that we get enjoyment – not to even talk about the extreme behavior sports fans like me often engage in, the emotional highs and lows we go through – from watching the successes of a bunch of guys we don’t know, who usually didn’t grow up in the city where they now compete, and who will often switch teams for the allure of a few more dollars. We’ve accomplished nothing when the teams we root for win, and failed at nothing when those same teams lose, but you wouldn’t know that by the reactions from diehard fans. Being a fan is fulfilling and frustrating in ways I don’t even begin to understand.

When the Cardinals left St. Louis, I was bitter. I thought the owner Bill Bidwill was a greedy prick who had no legitimate rationale for abandoning a town that showed a tremendous amount of loyalty, especially considering the team’s rather dismal on-field track record. I thought the move was a lousy thing to do, and I found myself taking delight in the Cardinals’ continued failures – all the losing seasons, the awful draft picks, the half-filled stadiums that still haunted the franchise in Arizona.

And I eagerly and immediately embraced the Rams when they moved to St. Louis, even though that franchise did basically the same thing to LA fans that the Cardinals owner did to us. I started rooting for a team that I had never seen play live, rarely watched on TV, and whose history I knew basically nothing about.

In fact, I was already in college and not even spending much of my time in St. Louis when the Rams made their move. And even if I still lived in St. Louis, why exactly did I automatically get excited about a local sports teams with which I had no real other connection? I have some fond feelings of St. Louis, and who knows, I may one day move back (don’t tell the folks … or the girlfriend!), but it’s not like I’m bursting with civic pride.

And what does a successful sports franchise say about the city where it competes anyway? The answer, of course, is nothing meaningful.

I can kind of understand rooting for one’s countrymen in the Olympics because their successes or failures can say something about the strength or talents of the nation at large. The same goes for teams from one’s chosen schools and colleges.

But in general, fandom is a rather odd phenomenon. Is it just passed on from parent to child, imprinted on our brains at a very young age so that it becomes nearly impossible to view our allegiances rationally? Does it stem from something primal – the need to bond to something larger than oneself, to form communities beyond our families, the same need that drives us to join churches and synagogues, fraternities and sororities, or dare I say, cults?

And what about you? What teams do you root for and why? Do you have any unusual allegiances? Or notable allegiance switches? Discuss…

Super Bowl Special: The Top Ten Mega-Sporting Events (5-1)

So in honor of Super Bowl Sunday, I’ve compiled a list of my Top Ten Mega-Sporting Events. The first five I wrote about in part one, which to recap were:

10. Triple Crown 9. The Grand Slams of Golf and Tennis 8. NBA Championships 7. Bowl Championship Series and 6. World Cup Soccer

And now I present to you my top 5 Mega-Sporting Events:

5. The Olympics (Summer) – Frankly, I’m never as interested in the actual competitions as I think I’m going to be, but this is just a cool concept and always a huge spectacle (perhaps never bigger than it was this year in Beijing). It was even cooler when it was limited to amateur athletes, but that distinction is so blurred now I can understand why that qualification disappeared. I love the fact that the Olympics are in certain ways totally separate from politics, and yet in other ways totally tied to politics as well. Plus, you can’t have any more tradition and historical significance than you get with the Olympics. The Winter Olympics are cool, as well, but I’m even less interested in those events.

4. World Series – I love baseball. As a native St. Louisan, it’s kind of a pre-requisite, given that the Cardinals are by far one of the top 10 franchises in all of professional sports. Going to a baseball game is one of the most enjoyable leisure activities in this world. I have so many incredible childhood memories that involve the sport, and certainly one of the best moments in my recent life was when the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006. I really wish I could put the World Series higher, but i have to accept the fact that baseball is no longer America’s game now, let alone the world’s (I mean, it is kind of arrogant to use the word ‘World’ in your championship when your only claim to that title is the Blue Jays – in fact, the World Baseball Challenge is an emerging competition that has a lot of potential). I don’t know if it’s the aftermath of the whole steroids era, or maybe still lingering resentment from the strike, or maybe the talent dilution from expansion (particularly with pitching), or the way the Yankees continually make a mockery of the game’s economics, but baseball just doesn’t feel as relevant anymore.

3. Stanley Cup - People who don’t love hockey – and that includes the vast majority of Americans – won’t get this one, but I love the Stanley Cup playoffs. True, it goes on for far too long (as does the NHL regular season), but the excitement of a postseason hockey game is almost overwhelming for me and my fragile heart. Nearly every rush up and down the ice is dramatic, and the intensity only increases as you get closer and closer to the end of the third period in a tight game. And if you happen to be lucky enough to get a sudden death overtime, there’s nothing better. My St. Louis Blues used to hold the longest postseason appearance streak among any professional sports team – a dubious feat given they never won the Cup in those 24 years – so it’s been quite sad to watch the team miss the playoffs the past several seasons. (Mark my words, however: The Blues have some amazing young talent that will lead the team back to the postseason next year at the latest, and to their first Cup within 5 years).

2. Super Bowl - I talked enough about this one in the lead-in to the original column, so I don’t have much to add here. But I just figured I’d throw in a photo of my most memorable Super Bowl moment here to the right. (I find it fascinating that I abandoned the Cardinals franchise when they left for Phoenix, and even started relishing in their failures, while I now root for a franchise that never played a game while I lived in St. Louis. If I have time, I hope to write a post this weekend on the psychology of fan loyalty. BTW, this weekend, for a variety of reasons, I will be rooting mightily for the Arizona Cardinals).

1. March Madness – OK, this is probably at least as much about gambling as it is about sport, but is there any postseason experience more thrilling than the NCAA College Basketball 64-team tournament?? I so look forward to those first two weekends, when you can just plop yourself down in front of the TV and watch game after game after game, and it’s almost a given that you are going to get enjoy at least several buzzer-beaters, overtime thrillers, and huge upsets. Even people who don’t like basketball or don’t know much about it usually enter an office pool of some sort, making what happens in March matter for almost everyone in America. For fans of teams still in the hunt (or gamblers with intact brackets), the drama only builds as the tournament rolls on to the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, and then the Final Four. When each round of your tournament gets its own special name, you know you’re talking about a postseason done right. There is nothing else like it in the sports world.

Ok, so that’s my list. Did I miss anything? What would you change? Let ‘er rip in the comments!!

Super Bowl Special: The Top Ten Mega-Sporting Events (10-6)

The Super Bowl is upon us. It’s a remarkable event, able to bring together the vast majority of Americans, calling them to a rather inert form of action in living rooms and bars all across this great land. In this Age of Entertainment Plenitude, with the hundreds of TV channels and thousands of other diversionary options we now enjoy, it’s a remarkable feat. Some watch for the game, which usually disappoints, some watch for the ads, which usually disappoint, some may even watch for the halftime entertainment, which always disappoints, but most watch because, well, everyone else is doing it.

For the sheer scope and spectacle of the event alone, the Super Bowl surely ranks as one of best sporting events in the world. But where exactly does it rank? Well, I have listed below my list of the Top 10 Mega-Sporting Events in the world.

(Realize, however, I can’t help but create this list with my own personal sports biases, meaning for example that you will not find any auto racing event here, even though I am quite aware the Indy 500 and Nextel Cup Chase provide chills and thrills to millions of Americans. I am also being pretty strict in my definition of sport, meaning The World Series of Poker, Nathan’s International July 4th Hot Dog Eating Contest, and The Strongest Man competition – all events I enjoy watching immensely – have also been left off the list. Golf, for some reason, still counted.)

So without further ado …

10) Triple Crown – I can’t say I know or care much about horse racing, but I must admit watching these amazing, noble beasts compete fills me with all sorts of powerful, mixed emotions. The animal lover in me cringes at how the sport uses and at times abuses the horses (watching a horse get put down after a severe injury is almost unbearable), but I also agree with the people who argue that many of these horses, especially the legendary ones, take an enormous amount of pride and enjoyment from running and racing. Horse racing has a long and storied history in America – I encourage people to see the movie Seabiscuit for one of its meaningful chapters – and the fact that no horse has won the elusive Triple Crown title for 30 years only increases its mystique. Obviously, the Kentucky Derby is by far the best-known and most-watched race in the Triple Crown, but I have a fondness for the Belmont Stakes, where a few years ago I bet $5 on Sarava, who spoiled Big Brown’s chance at a Triple Crown and at 70-1 odds became the biggest underdog to win in the race’s history.

9) Tennis and Golf Grand Slams – If three competitions are good, then four must be better, right?? Right! Now, I’m putting these two together because I view tennis and golf as pretty similar: Individual sports – played mostly by rich, white people (at least in America) – that can be quite monotonous to watch, but at times create compelling theater, such as any match Nadal and Federer play (like this weekend at the Australian open) and last year’s U.S. Open, when little-known Rocco Mediate took a hobbled Tiger Woods to a sudden death playoff before finally succumbing to defeat on the 91st hole of the tournament. The grand slams in each sport consist of the four major tournaments, none of which I can highlight as clearly standing out above the others (though if I had to pick, I’d go with the Masters in golf and Wimbledon in tennis because they don’t have generic names). Both golf and tennis are sports I generally don’t care much about, but when the grand slam tournaments roll around, I usually start paying attention.

8) NBA Championship – While I’m well aware for most people this would be higher, I’ve always sort of thought of pro basketball as a crappy sport. This is partly because my hometown St. Louis never (edit: in my lifetime) had a team that I grew to love and root for, and partly because pro basketball is a crappy sport. Why do i say that? Well, basketball is supposed to be a team game, but you can’t usually tell by watching the NBA as every man seems to playing out on his own island and defense seems an afterthought. I think the game may actually be too easy for players, as baskets seem to fall with amazing ease. Compared to the excitement of the college game, where you can almost always feel the energy and the players’ pure love of the sport, pro basketball is a big disappointment. No player really seems to get too worked up until the end of the game, so I feel like you can totally miss the first three quarters of a match and still get at least three-quarters worth of the excitement. For me, the NBA Playoffs are kind of like the fourth quarter for the regular season. It’s the time to start watching. Intensities and rivalries heat up significantly, making the game exciting again.

7) BCS – Whereas pro basketball gets substantially better in the postseason, college football oddly takes the other tact by engaging in one of the most atrocious contraptions in sports today: The Bowl Championship Series. It was bad enough when college football had its 200-odd bowl games, all sponsored by corporate America, the vast majority of which were soulless and meaningless events designed only to put a few million more dollars in the coffers of universities. But then when college football fans cried out for a postseason that meant something, that could actually produce an undisputed champion, the powers that be came up with the wretched Bowl Championship Series, which is designed only to put a few hundred million more dollars in the coffers of universities. Everyone knows some sort of college football playoff system would be infinitely more exciting, including President Barack Obama. Unfortunately, the current system is so profitable, that not even the wishes of the most powerful man in the world will be heeded anytime soon.

6) World Cup – I know for 90%-plus of sports fans on Earth, this would probably be No. 1 on the list. But again, I can’t help but let my personal preferences color this ranking. I just don’t love soccer. It’s okay. The players are clearly tremendous athletes. But all that running, with so little scoring, kind of just reminds of a mouse going in circles on a wheel (which is exactly what auto racing reminds me of, except machines and not athletes are doing almost all the work). Plus, all that player diving and writhing after every little piece of contact is totally obnoxious. What can I say? I’m American, and in America, we play soccer as little kids, then move on to bigger and better things. But I have to admit, I get a little riled up for the World Cup – I even got up in the wee hours of the morning in 2002 and invited my cousins over to watch the US try to make its mark in the soccer world.

Ok, that’s No. 6-10. The Top 5 Mega-Sporting Events in the next post.

Predictions for ’09 (and a review of my ’08 calls) …

In my most recent question column earlier this week, I asked for readers’ predictions for the upcoming year … aside from Genghis bravely predicting that Obama would become POTUS, I didn’t get too many responses.

So I’m going to ask for your predictions again, while repeating some of the predictions I made and adding a couple of more, before I revisit some calls I made this year.

First, the predictions for 2009. I’m sticking mostly to economics, with a few foolish forays into other areas (I was going to make a call that Prophet would finish his Top 10 2008 Albums list next February, but I see now he’s picked up the pace):

Economy

  • Unemployment, now at 6.7%, surges past 9 percent and falls just short of double digits
  • Gold now at about $845-$850, revisits all-time highs at $1000 an ounce, probably later in the year
  • Obama puts alternative energy initiatives on back burner at first, but then gets more involved as light crude oil, now at about $36 a barrel, rebounds first to $55-60 in short-term and then approaches $90 sometime next year. Gas prices again become a political issue.
  • ‘Class’ replaces ‘race’ and ‘immigration’ as the next big battleground in America. We see several examples like the factory sit-in we saw a couple of weeks ago. At least one of these protests turn violent and leads to a fatality. Unemployment benefits get extended again, and numerous other populist measures, including foreclosure relief, get passed by Washington.
  • The market has another down year, probably more than 10%, but stages a pretty decent rally early in the year, with the Dow hitting 10,000 again. IPOs remain few and far between, but Facebook does end up pulling off one of the few big new public stock offerings of the year next fall. The stock does well in the short-term, leading to another mini-rally.

Politics

  • The Obama inauguration attracts more than 3 million visitors, and the combined TV audience for his speech exceeds that for the Super Bowl, drawing more than 100 million viewers. There is at least one announced assassination attempt that is thwarted.
  • Biden was right after all and some terrorist organization or rogue state tests Obama’s resolve by the summer. We have the first attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 and it’s possibly a multi-city attempt that mimics the chaotic action in Mumbai. (Please god I hope I’m wrong on this one).

Sports

  • The Panthers meet either the Patriots or the Colts in the Super Bowl and win it all.
  • The Red Wings win the Cup. The Celtics repeat. (These are huge guesses).
  • The Yankees win the division, but flame out in the first round of the playoffs. Girardi is fired by the end of October. The Angels get to the World Series and play the Dodgers in an all-SoCal World Series. Angels win. My beloved Cards come in 3rd place in the NL Central division, which the Brewers win.

So should anyone listen to me? Probably not. My track record this year for predicting events was so-so. I was generally dead-on with economic trends, as I have been very negative for over a year now. On February 11, before I started blogging, I wrote an email to Jim Cramer, stating that we are heading into a ‘severe economic downturn that will last longer than most people are predicting,’ adding:

We are still in the early throes of this current crisis. We still haven’t seen any bankruptcies. Foreclosures and defaults have been at a minimum. The job market has only just begun to show signs of strain. The pain will of course spread to the rest of the world, which is wallowing in our debt and weak dollar, causing a global slowdown. Much more damage will be done, many more shoes will drop.

In a July post on pessimism, I predicted 50% odds for a multiyear recession, and 10% chance for a depression, fairly bold but probably not high enough odds for either. When the Lehman bankruptcy occurred on Sept. 14, I warned this wouldn’t be the end of the story and a systemic collapse was possible. When the Treasury first presented its bailout plan, I said there would be bumps along the way and that other industries would quickly be lining up for money, including the car manufacturers.

When it came to the financial markets, the record was much more mixed. I probably made my best call of the year on July 4, calling oil a bubble about to pop on the exact day it hit its high price for the year ($140+). Despite talk of new rules against speculation and for offshore drilling, I also correctly pointed out that the main reason for oil’s fall would be a rapidly weakening global economy. However, in that same piece, I said there’d likely be one more big run higher and that oil was not going to be heading to $50 anytime soon (It’s now in the $30s. Oops).

My calls for short-term bottoms and tops in the stock market were generally correct, but often early by a matter of days or even weeks, which makes a huge difference if you actually wanted to trade on the information (which I would NEVER recommend, as you have probably realized by now I like to talk out my ass a lot).

For instance, on Oct. 8, I called for a short-term bottom in the market, but it didn’t start happening until the next week. In a follow-up post on the 13th, I thought the rally could have some legs (somewhat true) with the Dow possibly hitting 11,000 (way untrue), but that we would revisit our earlier lows ‘in the next few months, if not sooner’ (true) and that we’d hover around the Dow 8K-9K for a year or more (to be determined).

I didn’t make many political calls, but wasn’t so impressive here either. In July, I predicted an Obama victory and said ageism would prove to have a bigger impact than racism (hard to judge the latter call, but I think it was a pretty good one).

On Sept. 3rd, I said McCain’s Palin could backfire but was the only thing he could to generate even a trace of the excitement of the Obama campaign.

On Sept. 24th, I called McCain’s announcement that he was postponing his campaign to focus on the economy as ‘just silly’ and ‘annoyingly hyperbolic.’

When the bailout was being debated and strongly questioned in Congress, I said it would surely pass; It was vetoed. To be fair, after the bill was vetoed, I did correctly predict a new bailout proposal ‘very similar’ to the rejected one would pass.

And in sports, the only prediction I made was a hopeful and ultimately correct one that St. Louis Rams Head Coach Scott Linehan would be fired after the bye week. Unfortunately, Linehan’s firing didn’t lead to ‘watchable football’ as I had hoped.

OK, now it’s YOUR turn. Go out on a limb. Make some calls. Trust me, if you’re right, you’ll look like a genius, a seer, a visionary. And if you’re wrong, no one will remember (at least not ’til I revisit these predictions next year)


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