Count Me Out of Any and All Hall of Fame Melodrama

Apparently the San Diego Chicken is Cooperstown material but Barry Bonds is not.

In my dotage, I find myself at the heart of Major League Baseball’s core demographic. After all, I still watch playoff and World Series games in their entirety — not later, online, via some highlights package. I get choked up when Henry Aaron and other icons from my youth pass from the scene. I even cut MLB slack in small-but-meaningful ways — like this summer, when I pointed out that COVID-era baseball doesn’t suffer so much for the lack of fans, because we’re already used to watching extra-inning games where pretty much everyone has gone home.

But count me out of any and all Hall of Fame melodrama.

Yet another episode of this embarrassing, annualized hall pall descended last week when Trump toady and erstwhile World Series hero Curt Schilling was denied his piece of immortality, along with steroid poster boys Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. Ho fucking hum. Would-be inductees might be dicks, or saints, in the superficial and cynical ways these traits are communicated to the sporting public. But I am determined never again to invest emotionally in such constructs — the Hall of Fame being the greatest construct of them all.

What a sorry collection of misplaced sentimentality and tradition. Because of its Hall of Fame, MLB’s entire relationship to the past is a maudlin self-congratulatory muddle… The NFL? Worst sport coats I’ve ever seen. It’s as if new inductees are all guest-hosting Monday Night football in 1973… The basketball Hall of Fame is located in Springfield, Mass., in a nod to inventor Dr. James Naismith. As a Bay Stater who covered Travis Best in high school, I should stick up for it. But the place isn’t affiliated with the NBA, and so folks like Wilt Chamberlain and Alexander Belov and Pat Summit are honored side by side, with nothing at all to connect them… The World Golf Fame in Florida is absurd — and needy. Players need not retire from competition in order to gain entry. Phil Mickelson was inducted — in 2012! They invited Tiger Woods; he told them, “Not yet, thanks.”  Whatever… As for the NHL Hall of Fame: Is there one?

Award rituals in this country are unusually dependent on murky interpretations of phrases, term and ideas that feel dated or misplaced. “Hall of Fame”, for example, is a phrase that does not mean anything. What sort of “hall” are we talking about here? Like that place dead Vikings gather, if they should die holding a sword? In what other context do historic figures convene in this way, so as to honor them for all time time? It’s like a museum that is also an exclusive club — but only if you never gambled or did drugs?

The bizarre trappings of hall induction politics have become an anchor around the neck of Major League Baseball, in particular. Pete Rose pioneered this particular shit storm but let’s be clear: On-field greatness cannot effectively be withheld — not by a bunch of sports writers, based on something so amorphous as lapses in “character” or “integrity.” This is a level of caprice that is simply impractical.

The Baseball Writers Association of America, members of which vote on Hall of Fame induction, delineates HOF criteria this way: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

Pretty wide open to interpretation. It is, I suppose, some type of “injustice” that Barry Bonds has been denied entry based on his steroid use, but here is my solution: It does not matter to me, as a matter of will. And I would urge readers to join me in worrying about something else. It would frankly matter more, to me, had the juice won Barry and the Giants that World Series in 2002. Same with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — the juice won them nothing. So who cares. I’ve consciously turned myself off to the potential for outrage.

Now, if Bucky Dent or Aaron Boone were juiced, I’d be pissed.

Otherwise, meh.

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Coup-by-Con. An Alternative Fragment

“What’s unfolding now is an attempted coup by a con.”
—  Tim Egan, The New York Times, Nov. 20, 2020

In Xanadu did Coup-by-Con

Via stately news bubble decree

Where Rudy, the sacred river troll, ran

Amok through caverns baseless and inscrutable to man

      Down to the Four Seasons — no, not that one.

Twice the popular vote did sound

Never piercing unscalable walls girdled round

Rose gardens bright with sinuous rills

Where did blossom many a friv’lous conspiracy;

But elsewhere were norms, ancient as the hills,

At last resistant to rank shithousery.

But oh! that deep journalistic chasm which once slanted

Across White House lawns where talking heads did cover

A savage redoubt! So unfair! As holy and enchanted

As e’er beneath “Stop the Steal” banners was chanted

By dead-enders wailing for their demon-lover!

‘Twas from this chasm, with Georgian turmoil seething,

As if straight from his Base, source of all that mouth-breathing,

A mighty fountain of plots was voiced, incandescent:

Amid considered judgment only intermittent,

Huge fragments of bullshit vaulted like rebounding hail,

Or chaffy secular grain ‘neath Bill Barr’s tail:

And mid these flauncing “frauds”, these many losses

Did gum up momently the vote-count process.

Five miles meandering with hazy, baseless motions

Through courts and canvass boards the sacred river did variegate,

Reaching Electoral College caverns unresponsive to the electorate,

And so sank this tumult to a lifeless ocean;

Of all this tumult Coup-by did first learn via Fox

Ancestral, once-allied voices prophesying a pox!

   On both houses beneath the dome of pleasure

   Floated fair and balanced on the airwaves;

   By way of Arizona, where was heard the mingled measure

   From the fountain and the caves,

A miracle of objective reportage, from outside the pleasure dome,

Where sun-disinfected facts still reigned!

Come 21 January would he finally reckon the damsel & her lawsuit

   In a vision he once saw:

   ‘Twas an Upper West Side maid

   On her dulcimer keyboard played,

   Singing of dressing rooms at Bergdorf Goodman.

   In spite of this (and others) could he revive, within His Base

   The symphony and song,

   To such a deep delight ’twould win another race,

That with blowing hard, loud and long,

Would build anew that alt-fact dome — perhaps merely on-air.

That sunny Capitol dome! those caves of ice!

And all who heard should still see them there,

And all the rest of us should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his Orange hair!

Weave a shrinking circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread

For he on Quarter-Pounders hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise/Total Landscaping

—   Hal Phillips (with apologies to S.E. Coleridge)

Pelé, Eusébio & Me: A Security Problem Waiting to Happen

by Hal Phillips

[See here an excerpt from Chapter 1 of “Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, HiddenHistories and the Making of Soccer in America, a manuscript now in the final editing stage and scheduled for publication in 2021.]

1. Hotbeds
When they came for Pelé that brisk June night, the locals ripped the shirt from his back. They got one of his shoes, too, and tore his shorts. Not the way to treat a global sporting icon, we can agree, but those American soccer fans of pitch-invasion age (let’s call it eighteen to twenty-five) didn’t know from matters of soccer etiquette, not back then, not halfway through the ever-so-brief Ford Administration, not so early in the game’s modern evolution upon these shores. When, in their misplaced excitement, they had finished with the 34-year-old Brazilian and some semblance of on-field order had been restored, Pelé was not seriously hurt. But he did lie prostrate for a time (and a bit freaked out, surely) on the weirdly verdant Astroturf at Nickerson Field. His tying goal, late and dramatic, was exactly what we’d all come to see, or hoped to see. That’s precisely why and when stormed the field in communal spasms of ecstasy and adulation. That’s what happens, we the faithful discovered that fateful night, when a flesh-and-blood savior comes to town and over-delivers.

The year was 1975. I was ten and three-quarters years of age. My father had chaperoned a few soccer teammates and me to our first-ever professional match: Boston Minutemen home to New York Cosmos. Up and out way past our bedtimes, we innocents were eyewitnesses to this madcap scene, to its confusing aftermath, to the new era it signaled. Capacity had been greatly exceeded that late-spring evening. This was obvious in the moment. The next morning, that situation would form the basis of hand-wringing accounts from a variety of Boston-area journalists — “a security problem just waiting to happen,” they tut-tutted. To my friends and me, this judgment seemed tone deaf and priggish. The good-natured mauling of soccer’s most august ambassador was, in fact, just one of several equally important, thrilling takeaways. First, our Minutemen won this game, 2-1, in overtime. Next, we watched American-born Benny Brewster and Shep Messing help them do so, first hand. Yes, Pelé Salvador was carried from the field — but we soon saw him, with our own wide eyes, get up and walk the earth again, right there on the sideline below. What’s more, for us, it was the broader tableau inclusive of all this stimuli — almost cinematic in scope and shock value — that made our hair stand on end. It seemed to our impressionable, ten-year-old brains that most of metropolitan Boston had flooded these modest premises to experience something truly massive and historic, something uproarious and unpredictable. Something almost holy.

We stood the full 90. Our serendipitous place in this passion play was a mere causeway, an interstitial place between places: a featureless concrete thoroughfare raised up in Brutalist fashion behind the west goal. Before and below us the action unfolded unobstructed, the spillover crowd enveloping the field in a picture-frame of living, breathing, hooting and hollering humanity. During the match this pending security issue moved and morphed like an amoeba, fattening in places only to thin back out, shifting sideways and backwards but never losing its internal, rectangular integrity where it met the field of play — that is, until Pelé struck from just outside the box some 20 minutes from full time. Behind us loomed a trio of high-rise Boston University dormitories. I remember craning my neck to see their many windows all filled with young, ticketless spectators. Beyond the opposite goal, the Boston city skyline twinkled in dark repose over the monolithic man-made horizon that was the Massachusetts Turnpike. For a soccer-mad kid like myself, this was the stuff of some baroque fantasy become real, for I could never have conjured such a scene without having witnessed it with my own waking eyes. 

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Bankrupt: The Perils of Exerting Moral Authority You Don’t Have

Let’s suppose, as a sort of thought experiment, that we the American citizenry were presented with a judicial candidate — or any public figure with influence on law or policy — who just happened to be active in the Boys Scouts of America the last 20 years. Let’s further suppose this particular figure was not merely a proud former Scout; he credited the organization and its philosophy for providing him his core moral and philosophical compass. As the number of sexual abuse settlements involving the Boy Scouts of America passed the 80,000 mark this fall, ultimately bankrupting the organization, would the general public not pipe up at some point and say to this public figure, “Hey, um, your attitude toward the Scouts, in light of the newly revealed reality, is at the very least awkward. It’s actually pretty fucked up, if we’re being honest. You, or anyone really, who puts such public faith in the philosophy or teachings of something so clearly dysfunctional, should probably not be in a position of authority in our government, much less the high court.”  

Well, I ask you, America: Why does membership in and advocacy for the Catholic Church not prompt a similar rebuke? Today, six of the nine people on the U.S. Supreme Court consider themselves Catholics. All five conservative members on the court — including its newest addition, Trump-favorite Amy Coney Barrett — are quite open about the influence their Catholic faith has had and continues to have on their jurisprudence. In light of the church’s own ongoing sexual abuse scandal, one wonders why the American public tolerates this outward accreditation of something so clearly dysfunctional.

At the very least, we should be talking more about their recusal from cases involving religious faith.

For all the intertwining of Trumpism and evangelical Christianity, no religious force comes close to rivaling Catholicism on today’s high court. The Boston Globe broke the Church’s sexual abuse scandal early in 2001, but its impact has hardly abated, much less blown over. Nearly two decades on, each month brings another report of a U.S. diocese admitting to cover-ups and the shuttling around of offending priests — rather than promptly removing them from contact with children. To date, 21 Catholic dioceses have themselves declared bankruptcy on account of all the financial settlements they’ve been obliged to pay. To be clear, these are just those dioceses that could not afford to compensate all the parishioners who’d been sexually violated by members of its clerical class. There are dozens more that acted as abominably — the priests themselves and their higher-ups in the hierarchy — but could afford to financially compensate its victims.

This is to say, the problems posed by Catholicism remain extraordinarily relevant and widespread. The cynical response to this clearly systemic grotesquery goes right to the top apparently, to the Vatican itself, as November’s allegations against former Archbishop of Washington Theodore McGarrick have proved.  

Vocal defenders of the Catholic faith, who include all these conservative justices and our boot-licking attorney general, Bill Barr, tend to blame the church’s abject moral failings on an infestation of homosexuals in the priesthood, or an evil liberalization of the church stemming from Vatican II reforms in the 1960s. When news of all this abuse first broke, in 2001, these and other Catholic apologists attempted to localize the blame in Boston. When that proved impractical, they blamed the liberalization of America generally. Barr is still beating this drum.

It’s high time that Catholics owned the facts and facets of their own faith, of their church structure and history, of the clerical hierarchy that has contributed to this epidemic of sexual abuse.

As such, America and Americans should also begin to insist that its Catholic public officials — attorneys general, justices serving on any federal court — refrain from using or otherwise citing their Catholic faiths in the execution of their public duties. Would we ask anything less of former Scouts?

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Can Rodent-extermination Yield Life Lessons? You’d Be Surprised

Ed. — From 2000-2003, I wrote a monthly op-ed column for The Portland Press-Herald, which had resolved to make space for a regular op-ed feature called “Stages”.  In essence I was the paper’s “30something with kids” columnist. As I’m now 50something and my kids are both out in the world, columns like the one below make for some fun, retrospective fodder here at halphillips.net

•••

 “It smells like burnt popcorn.”

“Popcorn?” countered my mechanically inclined brother-in-law. “Really?”

“Yes. Definitely popcorn.”

“Well,” he surmised, “I bet you got a mouse in there or somethin’.”

So was broached the Great Tailpipe Poser. My riding mower had been belching smoke from its bustled backside and it smelled for all the world like burnt popcorn. There was no other way to describe it. The beast had sat dormant for months, resting comfortably in the shed until my 5-year-old son and I had fired her up to haul some gravel. Silas adores the John Deer. Can’t get enough of it. He’s always more than willing to help with any chores that involve the tractor. On this occasion, he and I were filling a few craterous potholes on our long dirt driveway. 

Despite the layoff, our beloved Deere had started up fine, ran fine, hauled the trailer just fine. But when I turned it off, billows of black smoke emanated from the exhaust pipe. It smelled like burnt popcorn, as indicated, and my mechanically disinclined mind didn’t know what to make of it.

So I called my brother-in-law, Brian. He’d know what to make of it.

Well, according to Brian, mice have been known to crawl into such things as tailpipes during the winter months to stay warm, make nests or what have you. This was news to me, but I was perfectly willing to accept this premise along with his recommended course of action: “Just run the engine for a while. That’ll clean it out.”

No problem. I’ve no great love for mice, nor for their rodent cousin, the gray squirrel. In fact broiling’s too good for them, in my opinion. 

•••

We had mice in our pantry this fall. They ate our rice and potato chips with impunity, defocated on our shelves, basically intruded quite rudely upon our living space — that is, until I systematically trapped them out of existence (until next fall). Trust me: All this talk of building a better mousetrap is purely metaphorical. There’s no need. They work great! Baited with a bit of chunky peanut butter, traditional mousetraps are ruthlessly efficient.

Squirrels? Don’t get me started. They’ve haunted me since one literally invaded an apartment I shared in Greater Boston, chewing its way through a cheap drop-ceiling and falling onto the coffee table. Years later, when my wife and I lived in Portland, we had several furry, gray scoundrels living in our walls. They got in through a hole created by some rotting wooden roof-molding. Came and went as they pleased — that is, until I bought a Have-a-Heart trap. I snared a bunch and released them a healthy distance away. Like Yarmouth. Or Quebec. 

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Barrett’s Association With Trumpism Will Never Fade. We Should See to It

I’ve got a question that Democratic senators might have considered posing to Amy Coney Barrett on the occasion of last week’s hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee: What’s a nice woman like you doing keeping company with a bunch of fascists like this?

That’s perhaps a bit flip, but the substance remains: At what point does someone like Amy Coney Barrett — at what point do all the judges to whom Trump has granted lifetime appointments — take responsibility for who made them? More important, to what extent can citizens trust the jurisprudence of people who, like Barrett, swallowed hard and accepted these appointments from someone so obviously illiberal, so clearly unfit for the job, someone who (lest we forget) was impeached not 9 months prior, someone who subsequently mismanaged and repeatedly lied to our faces re. a public health crisis (out of pure political self-interest, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of Americans dead), someone who (according to Mueller report) would have been charged with 10 counts of obstructing justice were he not a sitting president, someone who refuses to disavow white supremacists, someone who apparently ran up hundreds of thousands in tax bills to foreign countries while paying next to no taxes in his own (during his presidential term!), someone who is essentially an unindicted co-conspirator in a felony to secure a second term by stopping the count of mail-in/absentee votes — something he has told us he is going to do! He also awarded Rush Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom. A superb judge of character, our president.

It would be naïve to ask, “What does it say about Trump that he has openly cited the need for Barrett to be on the high court in time to provide him a 5-4 decision, a la Bush v. Gore in 2000, should a disputed election be flung into the courts?” We know why. He’s incorrigible. But this misses the larger, more immediate point. What does it say about Barrett that she’d accept this man’s nomination — then refuse to discuss her recusal during the Senate’s advise and consent process?

Should we succeed in unseating Il Douché, we as a people will be obliged to confront the incredible damage he and his administration (and his followers) have to done to the United States, its culture, its comity, its government, its legal norms and infrastructures. Addressing and mitigating this damage is already underway — witness the discussion of SCOTUS expansion, of 18-year terms on the high court, of statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico (to remedy the undemocratic concentration of power in 20-odd sparsely populated farm states, many of them literally manufactured in the late 19th century to, wait for it, boost the electoral power of the Republican Party). There is little question from either side that Biden will win the popular vote in two weeks time. If we are fortunate enough to see that vote reflected in the Electoral College (our most troubling monument to dead Confederates), there will surely be a roll-back of executive actions this administration has backed — a fairly common occurrence when one administration is replaced by another.

But the undermining of U.S. law and legal precedents by Trump appointees extends to the government bureaucracy and its courts. This man’s enablers, those he installed, must be identified and held to account. Amy Coney Barrett is a good place to start.

I’m 56 years old. Reckoning with this successful attempt to pervert and circumvent our legal system will dominate our politics for the remainder of my lifetime. I recognize the Federalist Society and movement conservatism predate Trump’s inauguration. But the president has bared and magnified the naked, reductive politics at play here, for all to see. As such, for decades to come there will be ongoing reference to and spotlighting of the 300-odd judges that Trump nominated and Mitch McConnell forced through the hyper-politicized Senate from 2016-2020 (after slow-walking Obama nominees for 8 years).

What we do with Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Barrett and their Trump-nominated, lower-court brethren remains to be seen. But their lifetime appointments, from Trump, expose them to a different sort of long-term scrutiny. It’s not going to go well.

Some individual judges will perhaps adjust and move away from Federalist Society-approved originalism and other specious stances undergirded by right-wing, white supremacist, and moneyed interests (methinks Judge Roberts is doing this right now). Others will not. Dealing with this latter group of true believers, and their blinkered attitudes toward precedent, and the legacy of the demonstrably fascist figure who nominated them, will be difficult.

But it will have to be done and the particular case of Amy Coney Barrett is a logical, timely place to begin this effort. If it requires her tarring and feathering, so be it. She has made her bed.

Some senator should have urged her to simply withdraw. “You don’t want to be the face of Trumpism going forward,” Amy Klobuchar should have told her on Monday, Oct. 12, the day hearings began. “You seem like a nice person. Don’t put your family through this. Because, you know, there’s a name for people who do the bidding of fascists and accept their patronage… They’re called fascists.”

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We Can’t Have Law and Order with Apples this Bad

I’ve now read and heard dozens of reports on the Breonna Taylor case. Her killing, the result of a no-knock warrant in March, took place in a Louisville apartment building full of witnesses. Who, if anyone, is responsible and who, if anyone, should be charged in her death boils down to this nugget from the grand jury testimony made public by the District Attorney on Oct. 2: “Eleven of 12 witnesses on the scene that night said they never heard the police identify themselves. One of them said he heard the group say ‘police’ just once.”

The three cops who broke down the door and traded fire with Taylor’s boyfriend claim they did announce and identify themselves as police. They have not been charged and according to the District Attorney, will not be charged. In not bringing any charge connected to her killing, the D.A. has chosen to believe these three officers who, had they failed to identify themselves (as 11 of 12 witnesses have attested), would likely be facing manslaughter charges today, at the very least. So, even if they aren’t lying about having completed this simple and mandatory identification procedure, we can agree the cops continue to have a very strong incentive to lie — unlike those 11 witnesses, who don’t have any such incentive.

We Americans talk a lot about bad apples, how many there really are, and what percentage of the bunch they might reasonably despoil. But we can agree that lying — in police reports, in sworn testimony to grand juries — is something police officers do quite routinely. I know this from working with police departments as a reporter and city editor. We all know this from simply following the news today, in an age when smart phones and body cams make plain these lies after the fact. [If the body cam footage has been misplaced, you can be sure it will likely contradict a falsified police report.] Cops lie individually, to cover their own wrongdoing. They do it in strategic concert with prosecutors to “solve” criminal cases and get them off the books, or to make prosecutions stick where available evidence cannot. And they lie on behalf of each other, largely refusing to call each other out for this lying, which is a clear and conscious subversion of law and order. This awkward relationship U.S. cops can have with the truth is something the African-American community has been talking loudly about — but white America has largely dismissed — for centuries.

It’s not clear to me whether Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Williams, is counted among the 12 witnesses cited above. But he too claims not to have heard the police announce themselves. Is he lying? He certainly reacted like someone who had genuinely NOT heard anyone at his door identified as police — because when they broke down his door and entered the apartment, Williams immediately shot one of them. Shooting anyone is a risky enterprise. If you know they’re cops (because they’ve effectively announced themselves as such) it’s almost ludicrously risky.

And here the grand jury report reveals still more curious behavior from the District Attorney Daniel Cameron: Williams clearly shot a cop, who clearly claims to have announced himself before entering the apartment, despite so much witness testimony to the contrary. And yet Williams has not been charged with a crime either. In this respect, it seems the D.A. is inclined to believe Williams and his right to defend himself, in his home, against an intruder, with lethal force. Indeed, if the D.A. were convinced that Louisville police had effectively announced themselves, it seems fair to ask why Williams wasn’t charged with shooting one of those cops.

Finally, what is anyone who has studied this case and the grand jury report to make of the overall conduct, capability and character of these particular cops? The grand jury report is damning in multiple respects. The three officers at the door are sticking to their story: They announced themselves. They broke down the door. They were immediately fired upon. In returning fire, they killed Taylor. Once inside the apartment, two officers fired a total of 32 rounds, at least six of which struck Taylor.

Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, told the grand jury that immediately following the shooting, an officer told Walker he was going to jail for the rest of his life. Then the officer asked Walker a question: “Were you hit by any bullets?” Walker said no. The officer responded by saying, “That’s unfortunate.” Grand jurors, increasingly aware of just how shoddy this police work had been, asked whether officers executing the warrant were aware that police had already found Jamarcus Glover, an ex-boyfriend of Taylor’s who was the target of the overarching drug investigation. The report includes no answer from police. Glover was in fact in custody by the time the police raided Taylor’s apartment.

According to the New York Times report from Oct. 2, members of the Grand Jury “asked if the police had recovered drugs or money from the apartment; the detective said no, and that the police had not searched the apartment for drugs or paraphernalia after shooting Ms. Taylor. [Italics mine] They asked whether he had diagrams of the scene (no) and why the officers’ body cameras were not activated (the detective said he did not know).” To call this a botched operation from underperforming police personnel is to spruce it up quite a bit.

There was a fourth cop who, once the shooting started, went outside and proceeded to “discharge his service weapon” randomly into Taylor’s apartment (and other units) from outside the apartment building, on the street. This additional example of substandard policing could not be explained away apparently. That officer has been charged with wonton endangerment and dismissed from the force, though none of the bullets from his weapon appear to have harmed Taylor or anyone else.

This is the brand of policing and grand jury investigation we are told to support, without question.

NBA Bubble Splendidly Unmoored from Post-Season Predictability

Bam. BAM-BAM!

When I sat down in late August to write this essay — about neutral courts and how they’ve made the 2020 NBA Playoffs the most wide-open, unpredictable tournament the league has ever conducted — turns out I did not know the half of it. Less than 48 hours later, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot Jacob Blake 7 times in the back. NBA players still in the Disney Bubble would soon go out on a 72-hour wildcat strike.

[Don’t believe the naysaying, by the way: Without NBA players and their new post-Blake resolve, arenas in NBA cities would not have been made available for voting on Nov. 3 — in exactly those urban areas where creeping fascism had closed so many polling places. Neither would the league, its owners and players association have pledged to “immediately establish a social justice coalition, with representatives from players, coaches and governors, that will be focused on a broad range of issues, including increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.”]

I don’t want to diminish those efforts. Indeed, I would like to see that coalition formally funded. But events that last week in August only confirmed my original premise: We are in fact witnessing the most mercurial, fascinating NBA post season in history — and perhaps the most competitively compelling.

There are two surprisingly concrete explanations for what makes these playoff games so damned watchable: First, the Bubble’s quarantine construct necessarily does away with home court, as all the games are played on either of two fan-less facilities located on Disney’s Orlando, Fla. campus. No NBA playoff tournament had previously been held on neutral courts. Ever. The effect has been monumental and fascinating — and here’s why:

Sporting events are interesting because their results cannot be predicted ahead of time. The less predictable the result, the more interest. Traditional NBA playoff games are claimed by the home team 65 percent of the time. Winners are not predestined, of course, but this makes NBA playoff games less interesting from a competitive standpoint than, say, NHL and MLB playoff games, where the home team only wins only 54 percent of the time, according to 538.com. This is why we love the NCAA basketball tournament: 63 one-off games played entirely on neutral courts. Any team can win pretty much any one of those games. That’s compelling.

The impact of neutral courts inside the NBA Playoff Bubble has been striking. Only four times in 73 NBA seasons had a team fallen behind 3 games to 1 and come back to win that playoff series. The Denver Nuggets did it twice this summer, in consecutive series. We saw the top overall seed, the Milwaukee Bucks, eliminated in Round 2. That’s happened only twice in 20 years. The Clippers, a 2 seed in the West (and odds-on co-favorite to win the NBA title, according to Vegas oddsmakers) also lost in Round 2. Make no mistake: Home court protects favorites, the higher-seeded teams. And neutral courts weaken that paradigm almost to the point of shredding. They replace it not with random results but less predictable results. And that’s more fun, full-stop.

Dozens of assumptions and conventions normally attached to the playoff crucible also fell away this summer. For example, the recently completed Miami-Boston Eastern Conference Final: When the Heat won the first two games, it conveyed a different brand of superiority — because they had won neither game with the benefit of home court. And yet, when the Celtics fell behind 3-1, it never felt insurmountable — because, if they were to come back, never would the Celts have to win on Miami’s home court. Denver showed that, on neutral courts, a team can find something, make an adjustment and win three in a row. Sadly, for me, the Celtics could not make that happen. But lo and behold, we do have an NBA finalist, fifth-seeded Miami, that no one would have predicted when these playoffs started.

The NBA has rarely seen this sort of playoff fluidity, not since the NBA/ABA merger (1976-80), which effectively shook the snow globe and produced five different NBA champions in five seasons — the only time that has ever happened. Forget individual playoff games. On either side of this outlying interregnum, higher seeded NBA teams (buttressed by this potent home-court advantage) claimed individual playoff series 74 percent of the time. The NBA has been around for 73 years. In that time, 1 seeds, 2 seeds and 3 seeds have accounted for 71 championships.

Removing home court — expunging the predictability of moving that enormous advantage from city to city in the 2-2-1-1-1 format — has proved exhilarating. The entire psychology of playoff basketball this summer has become splendidly unmoored.

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Nines on a Scale of 10: GOLF goes splendidly small bore

Norfolk GC in Westwood, Mass.

Sometime this dark pandemic spring, probably late March, I got a call from Ran Morrissett, the North Carolinian who administers the GOLF Magazine course-rating operation. Starved for human contact as we both were, he and I chatted at length on various obscure but often fascinating golf course subjects. Somewhere during that extended natter he informed me that GOLF and its web incarnation, Golf.com, would soon be compiling, publishing and posting a Top 50 ranking of top 9-hole courses in the world — and that a fellow named Mike Dutton would be calling me. The resulting 100 Best Short Courses package — Top 50 Nines, 25 notable par-3s, 25 primo courses under 6,000 yards — was posted at golf.com this week; it will be published (on paper!) in the August/September print edition.

As it happened, Mike Dutton did call me, in April. He was helping Ran compile info on all these 9-holers and wanted to pick my brain. Mike has it in his head that he needs to play every nine in New England, perhaps the world (before he dies presumably). Had I played Castine? What about Megunticook? And what did I really think of Wayne Stiles’ Wilson Lake Country Club in Wilton? To answer all these questions, Mike and I did the only sensible thing: We made plans to play the 9-hole Clinton Golf Club together followed by nine more, 15 miles down the road, at an even more obscure nine, Cedar Ridge GC in Albion.

Once COVID-19 golf restrictions were lifted May 1, Mike and I would play several Maine nines this spring and summer, but not all of them — and we didn’t agree on everything. And that is perhaps the most exhilarating thing about rating/ranking golf courses. Mike is super keen on the nine at Castine GC, on the north shore of Penobscot Bay, for example, where I am less so. You can see from the new ranking that his opinion on Castine carried more weight ultimately. But here’s the take-away: It’s great fun to rate a course and defend that rating, to rank the level of “test” here vs. there, to verbalize competing definitions of “shot value”, to compete as to who can more sagely nod one’s head when discussing “great pieces of terrain.” (I’ve found it useful to stroke one’s chin whiskers, to break up the nodding.)

I’ve been a member of the GOLF panel since 1997. It is not hard science, this business of ranking one course ahead of another. And yet it is also the highest, most intellectually developed form of grille-room banter there is, or so it says here. No one cares about your golf game. Honestly, they don’t. No one. They don’t care about the irons Dustin Johnson is playing, either, or how Phil Mickelson will do on the senior tour, or Fedex Cup points. Compared to all that frippery, the course you and your buddies just played, or soon will play, stands as perhaps the only truly meaningful and lasting touchstone the game of golf has to offer.

In that spirit, here’s my own list of Top 6 Maine Nines. My state of residence was represented in GOLF’s World Top 50, but not to the extent warranted, in my view. Wilson Lake, which didn’t make the grade at all, is almost certainly better than North Haven (#14), and way better than Castine (#46). But geography, conventional wisdom and confirmation bias often conspire to blur such realities.  

Wilson Lake CC, Wilton — Superb nine from underrated Golden Age designer Wayne Stiles and the only real quibble I have with the otherwise stellar ranking published this week. Definitely top 50 material. I visited here years ago but only for a drive-by. I played it this past June and wow, what a great collection of holes. Huge, diverse greens. Not a single middling hole out of nine. The routing is a bit back and forth (1, 3, 4, 5) but this can and should be forgiven over a great piece of terrain.

North Haven GC, North Haven Island — Another cracking, full length nine that is extremely scenic and even a bit raw in spots. Not mis-ranked in the Top 50 but because it’s another Stiles design, its reputation seems to me a bit overcooked, for reasons likely attributable to the Penobscot Bay ferry one must board to get there.

Clinton GC, Clinton — Homemade nine between Bangor and Waterville, and a really good one. One funky hole but 8 strong ones, solid green complexes and immaculately maintained. Suffers in some quarters because it’s new (opened early 2000s) and unabashedly modern in its design aesthetic.

Megunticook GC, Rockport — There is a demonstrable bias toward vintage golf courses within pretty much the entire course-rating community. One tries to resist — because it can hurt some courses and help others unnecessarily. So, I’m surprised Megunticook didn’t make the top 50, for it is very old, really well preserved, splendidly old-world kooky in the extreme, and super fun. The 9th green is so devilishly small, a foursome likely could not play it and maintain a responsible social distance.

Castine GC, Castine — There are some wonderful holes here and Willie Park Jr. (designer of the North Course at Olympia Fields, host to the recent BMW Championship and ’03 U.S. Open) provides a distinct pedigree. In light of Mr. Dutton’s enthusiasm for the place, I have resolved to revisit, perhaps alongside…

Bucksport GC, Bucksport — Stopped to play here with Maine State Golf Association poobah and noted links hound Michael Moore on the way back from MDI a few years ago. We were both stunned by how good it was, as we’d never heard anything about it, good or bad. The polar opposite of Megunticook: modern, full-length (a brawny par 37), compact routing on high but gently rolling ground, huge greens and not overgrown with trees.

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Kittansett Stands Alone, Unclassifiable and Sublime

[Ed. This integrated piece appeared as a course feature and Walker Cup sidebar in LINKS Magazine during the summer of 2006.]

Rolling down Point Road toward The Kittansett Club, past Sippican Harbor and passing before an ever more stately line of summer “cottages” (all in gray shingle), the ancient course comes into view through the driver’s side window — initially a hole or two bounded by Cape-style miniature pine, but then a striking, open expanse punctuated by golden fescues, lines of bracken hedgerows and chocolate-drop mounding. From this vantage, at this introductory stage, it’s perhaps too easy to lump Kittansett in with the dozens of quirky, antique but ultimately docile, wind-dependent tracks that dot the Northeastern coastline.

But Kittansett is seldom what it appears to be, especially at first glance.

Members here bleed the right color and the course itself, perched on Butler Point and surrounded on three sides by Buzzards Bay, is surely transformed by a stiff wind. But the layout is so much more: a steely, uncommon test on the calmest of days. When I visited in late June, a wind-killing fog (thick enough to cancel the first day of the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open down the coast at Newport) had settled over the place. Yet Kittansett’s length (6,814 yards, par 70), its smallish steeply pitched greens, its overall strategic mettle were undiminished. They are, in fact, enough to humble and beguile just about anyone in any sort of weather.

“I’m not sure people realize just how difficult this golf course really is,” says Steve Demmer, the head pro here since 1994 [departed in 2014]. “Not even the members, who are used to the carries, the obstacles and the speed of the greens. When the rough and wind are up [and they usually are], this is a lot of golf course.”

Opened for play in 1923, Kittansett and its various attributes should surprise visitors. It’s a seaside course — peninsular for heaven’s sake; the Aboriginal American name means near (sett) the sea (kittan) — but there isn’t a proper dune in sight. By all geographical rights the course should be links-like, but trees line two thirds of the routing and the soil isn’t sandy at all, meaning it seldom plays hard and fast.

The course feels quite natural but was in fact designed to within an inch of its life by one Frederic Hood, who had consulted with Donald Ross and worked from some drawings provided by William Flynn. But he built the course himself with local crews of similarly inexperienced folk. Kittansett is the only golf course on Hood’s resume; he never designed nor built another.

Indeed, on a largely tree-lined golf course, it’s hard to imagine a seasoned architect would have placed such a proliferation of fairway-impeding obstacles. Thirteen holes at Kittansett feature some sort of deep cross bunker or bank of mounding perpendicular to play. The corridors are naturally ample. But hardy stands of white pine, oak, cedar and tupelo frame the inland holes, creating a extremely stout test when it comes to driving the ball — between the trees, over and around these myriad crossing features, and amid a random collection of chocolate drops.

Here and there these oversized Kisses sit (more like chocolate-covered cherries really), often without apparent purpose, on the periphery, but other times quite strategically. The two that stand sentinel on either side of the somewhat lunar 16th fairway appear to frame the target but are actually 50 yards short of the green, seriously messing with a visiting’s depth perception. “They had to put the rocks somewhere,” Demmer says with a smile and a shrug.

Because of the ever-present winds perhaps, Hood’s design rarely calls for forced carries into the greens themselves. The oft-photographed 3rd, a pitch across an ocean inlet to a green surrounded by beach sand, is the notable exception. More often the cross hazards come earlier in the golf hole. At 16, for example. On the 424-yard 6th, three staggered lines of cross-mounding jut in from the left (the last sits 220 yards from the back tee). A similar trio is reprised at the wonderful, short par-4 10th, where the hazards are reasonably cleared with a long-iron or fairway wood — mind games notwithstanding.

The 11th with its massive cross bunker gaping in from the left is perhaps the most brutish poser on a course replete with them. The eye-catching hazard sits well short of a flamboyant green cleaved by a deep swale — but all this is obscured by the bunker’s 7 foot lip. From the back tee, 241 yards away, the tiny exposed portion of the putting surface appears to sit precariously (and inaccessibly) at the edge of the world, 15 feet above a bunker bounded by ball-sucking bogs. The prudent play is left of center, directly over the bunker’s highest point; this allows the contour to shape the ball onto the green. But it’s a leap of faith even for members familiar with the gambit, and a thrilling leap at that.

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