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Fifteen Months into NFL boycott, Life Continues Remarkably Unchanged…

So, I hear the Patriots are no longer unbeaten. I gather the NFL has deigned to grant Colin Kapaernick an audience — and Antonio Brown is officially old news? I know the basic outlines of this stuff despite the fact that, for the second season running, I’m abstaining from football. I’m not reading anything on the subject, not watching NFL games, nor college games (which barely register in my Yankee world), or even Patriots games on TV. I’ve found it instructive that a conscientious objector like myself need not actively follow the nation’s most popular sport in order to know with whom Josh Gordon has latched on, who’s been accused of sexual assault, and which guys should probably activate in your fantasy league this week. That’s one of the big take-aways here: The NFL is so dominant in our culture that one is effectively buffeted by news of all this stuff, non-stop, via the dribs and drabs of interpersonal conversations, serial web impressions and daily newspaper headlines (the one made of real paper), whether one wants to be or not. Love it or hate it, such is the NFL’s omnipresence in 2019: Americans routinely absorb its competitive results and attendant news/outrages almost by osmosis.

It’s difficult for me to profess, definitively, that I had ever come to dislike the NFL or football in general. Indeed, that’s part of the problem: I quite like it — as exhibited by my 40-plus years of fandom and three decades as a sports writer, including multiple essays published in this space (see here and here) and elsewhere. But the arguments for opting out of the NFL just kept stacking up, like the arguments against smoking — or those advocating more cardiovascular exercise. Or flossing. The smoking example is best: NFL fandom was something that undeniably amused me but was pretty obviously bad for me.

I was riding in a Lyft down in Philadelphia a couple months back when the middle-aged driver and I mused for a time about the Sox-Phillies series then taking place at Citizens Park. We quickly moved on to Celtics-Sixers before taking on the inevitable: the Eagles’ Super Bowl win over the Patriots in February 2018. A great game, despite the result, I admitted. But when he asked what I thought about Antonio Brown, or how long I thought Tom Brady might keep playing, I explained that I’d checked out of football starting the year before. He appeared sorta dumbfounded by this and asked me why. It wasn’t a long ride-share we’d ordered; my wife and daughter were in the backseat. I provided him only a slap-dash explanation. For you, dear reader, a complete set of well wrought justifications appears below.

Taken together, they make it ever more clear — to me, for me — that football generally and the NFL in particular were bad for me, like trans-fats. Or cocaine during the 1980s. Or fascism any ol’ time. But the NFL (and college football, it must be said) are frankly worse because trans-fats, for example, don’t seep unbidden into one’s body or consciousness via the culture at large, beguiling conscientious objectors and devotees alike with the same prurient, mass-produced id-candy.

Please believe me when I tell you this essay is not an exercise in virtue signaling. Like someone who stops drinking for the month of January, or perhaps indefinitely, I found it edifying to write this stuff down — to better process and perhaps defend (to myself) the quality of the decision-making involved. So, in no particular order of importance, let it be known that I’ve sworn off the NFL because:

1) It can kill you apparently. Not everyone who plays NFL football (or college football, or high school football) develops CTE-induced aphasia and dies, of course. But enough of them have, and enough exhibit these debilitating cognitive effects in the long term to make a compelling adverse case. Roman gladiators may have been the all-pro middle linebackers of their time, but eventually they were born from the arena in pieces. Free will allows anyone the license to play that game, but I’m free to opt out that sort of spectacle… How parents can allow their children to play the game, knowing what we now know, I truly do not understand. Create for yourself a Google alert for “High School Football Spinal Cord and Head Injuries” and witness the sickening news trickle in each Friday night, often via the live-Tweets of sportswriters who witness yet another ambulance on the field, under the klieg lights of small town America. It’s no shock to learn participation is falling across the country. I predict that, in 20 years, no public high school in the nation will have 11-man, tackle football teams, because no public school system will have the money to cover the liability insurance. Kids will continue to play football, or course, but only via private clubs. Like Rollerball.

2) The professional game would appear to be administered by fascists. Americans don’t understand (or refuse to recognize) what fascism is: the merging of state and corporate power into a single, hyper nationalist, corporate authoritarianism. The NFL’s 32 owners are certainly rich men in their own right, but they aspire to a higher, oligarchical power and prestige. They don’t covet these teams in order to gain entry into some prestigious boys club. They want access to the government/corporate apparatus that literally prints the money. To complete the picture, just watch a game on TV: 15 minutes of action surrounded by 3 hours and 45 minutes of commercials. Attend one of these games: The combatants stand around for an extraordinary amount of time just waiting for those television commercials to subside. That should tell you right there how much the competitive pales beside corporate… One of those all-powerful “corporate” partners is the U.S. military itself, our federal government. Who do you suppose provides the flyovers and dresses coaching staffs in various shades of camo, to subtly hype and recruit Americans for its volunteer armed forces? Indeed, this partnership was in place a decade before anyone realized it was a paid, client relationship, however symbiotic. Observe the Kaepernick situation. In February, he settled a grievance against the league that accused teams of colluding to keep the QB out of the NFL on account of his protests during the 2016 season. More to the point, remember that his kneeling was, quite openly and clearly, a protest of police brutality toward people of color. The league somehow spun this as an attack on the flag, the league, its corporate partners, our troops, God, on America itself. So far as the NFL is concerned, they are all one and the same.

3) Few American pursuits operate on the basis of such misplaced “manhood”. I sensed this when I was 8 years old and the situation has hardly improved since. We were again witness to this toxic state of affairs, in August, when Colts quarterback Andrew Luck opted to retire rather than deal with yet another injury/recovery process (merely implied was the regimen of drugs and steroids team staffs routinely deploy to speed along recovery and mask injury). In other lines of work we’d applaud a guy who had made his money and opted to “spend more time with family”. Instead Luck was pilloried for lacking toughness and not loving his team enough. This is happening more and more, of course, because while it pays quite well, football can maim you, or rob you of cognitive function, or kill you outright. The retirement of Vontae Davis a couple years ago hit home with me. He walked away from $4 million and it was like he’d beaten up his girlfriend or something. Wait! Bad example (see rampant misogyny below). Rather, it was like Davis had committed a hit-and-run. “This is a joke, you don’t quit,” said former coach/extant cartoon Rex Ryan. Another ESPN commentator, Damien Woody, added, “There is nothing funny about this. My blood is boiling. I want to fight this guy right now.” His teammate Rafael Bush: “I think I did lose a little respect for him as a man.” Manhood in the NFL is essentially defined by a willingness to get hurt and hurt others. Opting out of that makes you a pussy. Why would anyone with any sense choose to patronize anything like that?

4) The companion sociopathy to toxic masculinity is misogyny and the NFL has raised the latter to high art. With apologies to at least one niece who was well into cheerleading (and several others who participated in such things as high schoolers, including my wife), there’s something objectively creepy and reductive about it generally. I felt this way before I showed up at boho Wesleyan and got familiar with the patriarchy. On the most basic level, we must ask why girls are expected to cheer for boys but not the other way around (so binary!). And, while we’re on the subject, why must they do so in push-up bikinis? As per usual, the NFL has managed to magnify the phenomenon and utterly pervert it — into something grotesque, something that exceeds mere objectification. For years I’ve been reading about how little, in return for this creepy exhibitionism, NFL cheerleading squads are paid by their fabulously profitable employers. Only in the last couple years has it become clear the extent to which these women are exploited — expected to do team events without pay, for example; punished and/or fired for fraternizing with players (while players are not held to the same rules/standards). I could deal with the sexualized nature of their outfits and routines; to an extent I could swallow the questionable work conditions, which participants presumably chose of their own free will. What truly galled me and put me over the edge, however, was this story about how would-be cheerleaders who failed to make the Redskins squad were offered the opportunity to preserve their chances of joining next year’s squad by joining a sort of auxiliary, whose duties included tarting themselves up and flirting with high-rolling patrons in the skyboxes. To believe this practice was or remains restricted to Washington’s NFL franchise would be pretty naïve…

5) From a labor perspective, NFL brass have so brought the players’ union to heel that in this, the nation’s most lucrative sport, the individuals who create the spectacle itself have next to no power. Despite creating the most revenue and experiencing the shortest careers, theirs is the worst contract security among major American athletes; hockey players (many of whom are Canadian or European) have better access to guaranteed contracts, to say nothing of professional baseball and basketball players. While rampant militarism permeates the league and helps explains (alongside mere paternalism and racism) the extended blackballing of Kaepernick, his remains a labor issue at its core. On this, in America, we should be able agree: No employer has the right to tell an employee how to voice his or her political beliefs (do those who possess a right to work also possess a right to belief?). Neither does that employer have the legal right to collude with purported competitors to bar that person from employment on account of those beliefs. The NFL does both routinely. Special mention must be reserved here for college football, a farm system for which NFL franchises are not obliged to fund. Of course, in nearly every respect discussed here, the college game outpaces the NFL in terms of unconscionable behavior. “Student/athletes” create the college football product, too; they aren’t paid at all. Meanwhile, in many states, the head football coaches at state universities are the highest paid public employees in those states.

6) I never thought I’d say this, much less feel it so clearly, but the Patriots’ 20-year run of otherworldly, ungodly form has taken another chunk of the fun out of football-watching, for me anyway. The Patriots were terrible for decades, as any New Englander knows. For us fans, their all-too infrequent glimmers of contention (1976-78, 1985-86, 1996) were nothing less than thrilling. Well, that particular thrill is gone. In the 21st century, without fail, they go 12-4, win the AFC East and play for a chance to go to the Super Bowl — each and every year. Ho fucking hum. Is it Brady we should thank for this unprecedented, ultimately mind-numbing success? Is it Belichik? I tend to believe the latter and not because we are fellow Wesleyan Cardinals. Remember 2009, the year Brady got hurt? They went 11-5 with Matt Cassell at quarterback. But it really doesn’t matter who gets the credit. Sports are compelling because we don’t know what’s going to happen. With the Patriots in the 21st century, that suspense has been essentially removed from week to week.

Here’s the awkward thing (and mark this down as Reason #3,489 why American football fans hate New Englanders with the heat of 3,490 suns): The Pats, who once filled us with shame and self-loathing, have become a massive source of social and civic engagement. Where I live, here in Maine, people throw game parties where men and women alike don replica jerseys and eat snacks. These events are highly inclusive, communitarian, almost weekly affairs. It’s hard to find fault with them on any level. Indeed, it would be churlish to refuse invitations to this sort good natured revelry. So, while I am abstaining from the NFL, I did watch last year’s Super Bowl, for example — a terrible bore of a game, if we’re being honest. I attended a cocktail party last January, at a Florida golf resort, where the Pats-Chiefs AFC Championship game played soundlessly on massive flat-screen. That game was unbelievable, about the best riposte the NFL could possibly muster to someone like me (if we look past the fact that grandfatherly Pats owner/oligarch Bob Kraft flew to Kansas City directly from a Florida massage parlor). The Patriots have become such a civic/social institution in Maine that it’s honestly impossible to avoid them, even if one wishes to. In October, a friend invited himself over to my place after we finished music practice nearby. “Wait,” he caught himself, “you’re not watching football anymore…” Oh, come on over, I said reassuringly. Hewing to principle in such a case makes no sense at all. I’m not avoiding the NFL (or writing this essay) to signal any virtue. I’m not boycotting products made with slave labor after all (not technically). It’s just a football game… Of course, the Pats beat up on the Jets so thoroughly and unmercifully that Monday night, we switched it off and watched preseason basketball instead.

A Day in The Respite Life

6 p.m. on a Friday in May
The 12-year-old we’d been fostering for the previous 8 weeks, whom I’ll call Bri, informs us there is a concert at school where the “staff band” performs ­— and the kids apparently join in. Having been through the middle/high school thing twice with our own children, both of whom are off to or out of college, my wife and I are pretty well done with this sort of thing. It’s a Friday night after a long workweek. I’m making pizza… But we live in semi-rural Maine and our charge, the charming and talented if somewhat moody Ms. Bri, is generally starved for entertainment here, with us. So we scarf down a couple fresh-hot slices, drop her there at the education-plex two towns over, and head to a movie. Rocketman, listed at 7, doesn’t start till 8 apparently. So we opt for Booksmart instead. Not half bad.

9:30 p.m.
Home again, post-concert, we watch the finale of Killing Eve, which is probably, ahem, not appropriate for all three of us. Were the state to know we’d shown it to this 12-year-old, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) might just take her back. It’s a bit gory but remains high quality television, we reason — unlike her current obsessions, Riverdale and Vampire Diaries.

10:16 p.m.
Sharon notices that DHHS has in fact just called us. Somehow, in discussing the abrupt ending to Killing Eve, we’d missed it. Turns out our friends with the state have not checked in to take issue with Bri’s TV viewing habits. They’ve got a 6 month old and her 8-year-old brother both in need of a place to stay this weekend. Sharon and I look at each other. This is the “respite” exercise, the temporary care of foster kids and would-be foster kids on short notice for short periods. This is what we signed up and trained for. We call back and leave a message.

[To catch you up: Sometime last summer the Portland Press-Herald published an investigative series on the lives of children in the Maine foster care system. Household conversations ensued, mostly centered around how we as a society (and Maine’s worthless governor at the time) seem ever more and even deliberately indifferent to the plight of these and other kids, the least fortunate among us really. The 2016 election had also radicalized each of us in our own ways, effectively focusing our empty-nest minds on what we could do to make a difference, directly. An encounter at the mailbox — with our neighbor, who leads an agency that provides services to special needs kids in the foster system — led to an informal back-porch coffee, then a more formal information session in Biddeford. A series of training classes followed, then fingerprinting and ultimately a license from the State of Maine to serve as “resource” parents (recently rebranded from the more familiar “foster”). Sharon and I do respite care, the ad hoc, short-term care of kids between homes, kids just received into state custody, or kids whose long-term resource parents just need a week off. What you’re reading here is an account of one of the half-dozen experiences we’ve had so far in 2019. More families are needed, for the record; kids are still being housed in motel rooms. Do reach out if you’re foster curious.]

10:24 p.m.
The state calls right back. On speaker, Haley (I’ve changed all these names) sounds to my middle-aged ears impossibly young, flustered, disorganized and why not? These two kids have apparently just been taken into the state’s custody from a Portland homeless shelter; it’s 10:30 on a Friday night and they need a place to stay, a place that isn’t a motel — through Tuesday. We explain we can take them through Monday morning, when we both go to work. Haley seems relieved and grateful at this news. They need our address. Halfway through Sharon’s providing it, I interrupt and ask for the phone — Haley’s uncertainty, her inability to answer some basic questions (What sort of provisions do the kids have with them? How many diapers are they bringing, how much formula, what happens on Monday?) did not sit exactly right with me. “Sorry, Haley, but I have to say, this all sounds a bit dodgy. Can you provide us the name and number for your manager, or the state case worker on 24/7 call?” Not unrelatedly, our 12-year-old has a bio-mother whose parental rights have been terminated but remains determined to stay in touch with her daughter and ultimately reunite, which is impossible until she turns 18 — but here we are. Social media and phone use are total minefields… For a brief moment on the phone with DHHS, I thought this might be a ruse to find out where we lived, for future surveillance/stalking. Upon hearing my doubts, however, Haley snaps back into sober bureaucrat mode, indicating that it was she who was in charge so late on a Friday night; she reels off a bunch of other stuff that ID’s her as a legit DHHS employee. We provide our address.

11:05 p.m.
It’s half an hour’s drive to our place from the DHHS mothership, in Portland, and in those 30 minutes we ready as we can: pulling the antique bassinette from Sharon’s closet, making up a bed for the 8-year-old, pulling out clothes that might fit him. Throughout, Bri, who generally alternates between sullen and charming — because she’s 12, and because she doesn’t know where she’ll end up when the school year ends, when the summer ends — is fully energized and engaged. She proves a huge help, doling out advice about the sort of clothes they may or may not come with, cleaning her room and offering the second bed in there (if the boy doesn’t want to crash alone). We agree she’s the one who has the most recent baby experience, vis a vis her younger siblings, who, she explains (for the first time), were still very young when her homeless mom bounced from place to place, when the state finally took possession of them after 3 second chances, when all three kids moved from foster home to foster home. More than either of us, Bri knows what this sort of exercise entails.

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Hello, World. Welcome back to The Middle Kingdom

There’s a reason China has long referred to itself as The Middle Kingdom, and Daryl Morey, the NBA and frankly much of Western Civilization is beginning to understand why.

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Morey is the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets and, until last week, he was known primarily as one of the league’s most savvy operators, an early, successful adopter of advanced hoop metrics and a keen, innovative judge of talent in a league turning inside-out (read: the NBA’s new, stat-backed reliance on 3-point shooting). He’s also politically aware, apparently, something he exhibited last Friday when he tweeted his support of Hong Kong protesters in their running battle with China’s central government. “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” he wrote.

Well, with that seemingly innocuous digital bromide (the political equivalent of “Boston Strong”), Morey has pissed off that central government, in Beijing. In the process, he may have inadvertently clued much of America into the fact that the unilateral, post-Cold War Era is over.

Morey has since taken the Tweet down but he, the Rockets and the NBA have reaped the 21st century whirlwind.

In response, the Chinese Central Government has announced that Rockets games will no longer be broadcast by Chinese state TV or partner Tencent, which recently agreed to a $1.5-billion deal with the NBA to stream games in China. Last year, some 600 million Chinese watched an NBA game in this fashion. The Rockets themselves just happen to have been the most popular team in the country — mainly because Yao Ming, China’s most successful NBA product, played his entire career in Houston. Today Yao is head of the Chinese Basketball Association. On Monday he severed the CBA’s relationship with his former team.

What we see here is an illustration of why China is known to itself (and to every other historical culture in Asia) as the Middle Kingdom. China so named itself circa 1,000 BCE, when the reigning Chou people, unaware of advanced civilizations in the West, believed their empire occupied the middle of the Earth, surrounded by unsophisticated barbarians.

For the ensuing 3,000 years China has indeed been the center of the universe in Asia, such has it dominated economic and cultural affairs in this region — in a way that has no European, African, Middle Eastern, South or North American analogue really. In Asia, over this long arc of history, China’s military whims were routinely indulged. Its culture effortlessly spilled over into countless neighboring nations. Its outsized market (always a function of its outsized population) routinely bent foreign states to Chinese will.

North Americas and Europeans have a difficult time grasping this concept — the enormity of China’s power — because recent history doesn’t bear this primacy out. Starting in the mid 1800s (when the English first acquired Hong Kong and its holdings in the Pearl River Delta) and ending with Mao’s victory over nationalist forces in 1949, China was something of a geopolitical and economic pushover.

Here’s the way I’ve always thought of it: China just had a bad century. The Chinese call it a “Century of Humiliation”… But one or two bad centuries in 30 isn’t such a terrible batting average and, in any case, that blip is over. Its recent “rise” is merely a reinstatement of a longstanding status quo.

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More proletarian landmarks rent asunder by Portland’s upward mobility?

Silly’s main “dining room”, home of the Key Lime Pie Shake and the Slop Bucket

Two pillars of Portland’s bar & restaurant vanguard exited the city’s vibrant but transitional culinary scene last week. First came the announcement that Silly’s, long a boho totem on Washington Street, would close its doors on Sept. 1. Two days later, Brian Boru — the peninsula’s “It” bar for much of the 1990s — announced its doors would close.

In a Facebook post equal parts trenchant and heartfelt, Silly’s owner Colleen Kelley explained that the city, in general, and the Washington Street corridor, in particular, were rapidly becoming too chic for her tastes. She also has an aging father who requires her 24/7 attention, something the restaurant had commanded for the past 31 years.

“My sister Shelley and I have sold the buildings — not Silly’s, just the buildings,” Kelley wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “As much as Erin and Will, the managers, and the rest of the staff are taking care of me and the business, it is constantly challenging to do business with the city of Portland, which also wears me out. Another huge factor in my decision: I am smart enough to know my business model won’t work in a city destined to be Seattle, which isn’t meant to be a slam; it is just my opinion of where Portland is going. I don’t want anything but wonderful things for Portland, Maine. I have enjoyed many years here. However, I am a fat woman who serves fat, over-portioned food and I won’t charge 24 dollars for 4 oz. of dip and some pita bread.”

Not 24 hours before this news broke, a Portland friend had raved to me about a new southwestern restaurant that had just opened on Washington Street, long a gritty thoroughfare that, of late, has gentrified — commercially — thanks to a raft of restaurants, breweries and distilleries. To call these “upscale” is to ignore the inherent casual vibe that pervades all things Portland (I can’t think of a single restaurant in the city where jackets are required or shorts frowned upon). But this much is beyond dispute: Portlandia in 2019 is increasingly posh; the owner of Silly’s has recognized this and wants no part of it.

One key to understanding both closings has nothing to do with Portland’s national rep as a city for haute bourgeois foodies. Note the first sentence Kelley wrote: She mentioned buildings twice. The real estate market in Portland is blowing up; the opportunity for businesses of all kinds to cash out is only a phone call away.

This dynamic was even more evident with the Boru closing. It was announced Thursday, August 22 that its last day would be Monday Aug. 26. This bar sits more or less all by itself in the middle of an open, undeveloped lot — half the size of a full city block. It’s adjacent to the Old Port, walkable from Congress Street and the tony West End; it’s right across the street from the civic center.

Someone clearly made the owner an offer (based on potential/developed real estate value) he couldn’t refuse… Decision-making is rarely so simple as that, of course. See a sensible rundown of the factors contributing to the phenomenon here… It’s not capitalism run amok — just more evidence (as if we needed any) that its churn never rests.

Still, I’m conflicted by all this because while I’ve always loved Silly’s, one of Portland’s great draws — to me, as a 50something residing half an hour north, in New Gloucester — is the fact that when Sharon and I want to dine out, there is ALWAYS some hot new Portland restaurant we’ve been meaning to try. Folks tend to blame hipsters for the Seattlezation of Portland, but we and our middle-aged comrades are part of the problem.

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Three Rules to Promote Baseballing Alacrity

Three Rules to Promote Baseballing Alacrity

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See here three simple rules for the betterment of baseball and the country whose pastime it remains, to the extent that anyone can sit through an entire 9-inning game these days without the aid of a DVR.

First, give the ball to the pitcher and oblige the batter to be ready when the ball is delivered. This sounds simple, and it is. Honestly, it’s more or less the way baseball was prosecuted up until around 1980. We are simply codifying a throwback policy, whereby, once a batter strides to the plate from the on-deck circle and establishes himself in the batter’s box — two things he can do with levels of speed and alacrity entirely of his own choosing — there are no more batter-initiated timeouts.

The batter is not a prisoner there. He can step out. He can wave to his mother in the stands or adjust his balls. He can tug on each batting glove strap as often as he likes, or, to be more accurate, dares. But he clearly won’t overindulge in any of this behavior because he knows the pitcher, once in possession of the ball, can deliver it to the plate whenever he chooses.

Base hit, foul ball or stolen base? The process resets, meaning he can step out and tug on those batting gloves before re-entering the box.

Some have called for the umpire to be more diligent in calling batters back into the box. That won’t work. It’s arbitrary and frankly not the umpire’s charge. Should the batter be inclined to see some pitches (something the Moneyball Era has emphasized), superfluous batter routinization between pitches will disappear almost instantly — and completely organically.

There is no penalty for stepping out of the box – only that you might not be in the hitting position when the ball arrives at/near the plate. There is no need to make special accommodation for the delivery of signs from the third-base coach. They can be delivered to/received by the batter at any time, though it seems prudent to get this done prior to said batter entering the box.

The umpire is free to call time at his discretion — for example, when a player is knocked down or back by an inside pitch. Resetting is a simple matter, as the umpire already holds the game balls on his person. By not handing a new ball to the catcher, or not winging it out to the mound himself, he has called time and allowed the batter to regroup without ever calling time.

I’m not sure whether the baseball rulebook even acknowledges a batter’s right to call timeout. If so, this would be the only rule-change required. Otherwise, it’s a seamless move back to the way batting was prosecuted over the game’s first 150 years.

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Network Snafu Stymies Smartphone Scrabble

Network Snafu Stymies Smartphone Scrabble

Scrabble

A week into the Great Scrabble Freeze-Out of 2014, I’m left to contemplate my beginnings. It all started in the Dominican Republic back in January 2013. Then again, the game took root far earlier than that. There has always been Scrabble.

The Scrabble I play now, or did until a week ago, is the Facebook incarnation pimped via some Hasbro app. Jeff Wallach turned me on to this smartphone-enabled version of the game during a media junket to Casa de Campo, in the DR. I noticed what he was playing on his phone. When I inquired, there was a guarded, secret-society, “Can you handle the truth?” aspect to his responses. I guess I was deemed worthy enough. I’ve played some 350 games vs. Jeff and a dozen different opponents since.

Scrabble has always been with us, of course. We’ve all played it through the years, perhaps introduced to the game by parents, as I was. This wasn’t any rudimentary Candyland-type diversion, or some lame exercise sexed up by three-dimensional playing surfaces (The Game of Life), or anything requiring physical skill (Jenga), or something reliant on wellsprings of trivial knowledge.

Scrabble was and remains utterly singular and vital: strategic word-smithing in the language soup we all slurp.

This essay was long time in coming. I write it now because the mobile app that enables smartphone Scrabble has been unable to connect with Facebook for almost a week. Web alerts tell us developers are on the case. Until they solve the problem, short of going on the laptop and playing there (a place I do NOT wish to go), I’m stymied — and so are my half-dozen current opponents. I texted one yesterday: “Life has so little meaning without Scrabble.”

“I feel rudderless,” he responded. Immediately.

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The Podbay Door: NHL Down to Four

The Podbay Door: NHL Down to Four

Hello and welcome to The Podbay Door, the audio magazine here at HalPhillips.net. It’s June, and that means the Stanley Cup Playoffs are barreling toward another riveting conclusion. We’re down to four teams and they are arguably the best four, if the regular season is any guide: Pittsburgh vs. Boston in the Eastern Conference Final, and Los Angeles vs. Chicago out West. Of course, the regular season is rarely a trusted guide in NHL matters. Favorites normally have a tough time in the NHL playoffs, which routinely produce a Cinderella, or two. We discuss that trend and this year’s anomaly with hockey sage David DeSmith, whose A Position contributions can be found here. Note that while we recorded this conversation just prior to the start of each Conference Final, technical difficulties kept us from posting until today, with the Bruins and Blackhawks each holding 2-0 series leads. The Bruins’ performance has surely surprised most everyone, Mr. DeSmith especially.

Bruins-Rangers: A Curious Rivalry Renewed

Bruins-Rangers: A Curious Rivalry Renewed

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The Boston-New York sporting rivalry, one-sided though it often is (Hub fans invariably care more about beating anything NYC than the other way around), has traditionally taken a backseat on ice. Still, it beggars belief that Bruins v. Rangers — a battle of Original Sixers separated by just 200 miles — has become such a non-entity, largely because the two combatants have not played a single playoff series since 1973, despite having always competed together in the Eastern Conference (or some ridiculously named facsimile thereof).

That streak ends Thursday night with Game 1 of the NHL’s Eastern Semifinals at the TD Banknorth Garden, and perhaps it will light a fire going forward. If nothing else, it will serve as a stirring flashback for hockey fans of my vintage who remember a time when this was a proper rivalry and home teams wore dark uniforms in their own barn — a practice that had long prevailed back in the day, was abandoned by the NHL in the mid-1970s, but has recently been restored.

The Bruins’ blood rivals are, of course, the Canadiens, whose decades-long torture of Boston peaked just as the Rangers rivalry fell away, in the late 1970s. Those Montreal teams were all-timers, star-studded winners of four straight Stanley Cups (1976-79). The B’s, though very good throughout the ‘70s, simply could not slay them. Even in their heyday, when they netted a pair of Cups, in 1970 and ‘72, the Bruins were never obliged to beat the Canadiens in a playoff series.

Montreal had many rivals during that period, and it only stoked Boston passions further that peut-être Les Canadiens didn’t care that much about beating the Bruins. Today, recent form and some incendiary incidents of thuggery have perhaps stirred in Montreal fans a hatred that matches that of Bruins Nation.

[Indeed, much of Canada has every right to loathe the current B’s following their organ-removing defeats of heavily favored Vancouver in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, and Monday’s unlikely Game 7 dispatch of Toronto’s Maple Leafs, in overtime — the Bruins had trailed 4-1, with just 10 minutes remaining. No Canada-based club has won the Cup since 1993, a fact that continues to gall hockey purists (read: 90 percent of the population) north of the border. Maybe derision of the current Bruins can be that one elusive thing all of Canada can agree upon…]

The Bruins of the early 1970s were not so villainous. They were Big and Bad, in an admirable way, and the Rangers — more of a finesse team, built on the refined skills of Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Brad Park and Vic Hadfield — proved compelling foils. Boston beat them to win the Cup in 1972. Their last playoff meeting was a Ranger victory, the 1973 conference semifinals. As a young Bostonian, I vividly remember resenting the Rangers for unseating the defending Cup champions, a loss that kicked off one of the most frustrating runs of near misses in hockey history. (Boston would lose the 1974 Cup final to Philly before dropping a dizzying succession of playoff series to Montreal, each one more gut-wrenching than the last.)

But any resentment of the Rangers didn’t last.

Terry O’Reilly and his crew famously went into the stands at Madison Square Garden to punch up some Rangers fans in December 1979, but the lack of playoff confrontation — who could imagine it would last fully four decades? — effectively defused the rivalry. The 1975 and 1976 trades that shipped Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Carol Vadnais to New York, in exchange for Ratelle, Park and “Nifty” Rick Middleton, further blurred the line between bitter enemy and mere foe.

Montreal became the fixation.

It’s funny how that works: The best rivalries become a sort of long-term competitive obsession, to the exclusion of teams that might well be torturing or otherwise beating you in the moment. Boston endured 39 years between titles (1972-2011), and in that seemingly interminable span they were beaten back by several great teams of longstanding: the Islanders of the early 1980s, Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers… Yet we Bruins Fans never stopped hating on the Canadiens exclusively.

[Another great piece of nostalgia prompted by this year’s playoffs: the return of the Islanders after a long post-season absence. Just seeing their uniforms, admirably unchanged from the glory days, stirred strong memories of Bossy, Gillies, Trottier, Nystrom, Smith and Resch. The Nassau County Coliseum — scene of so many vintage Bruins telecasts delivered via rabbit ears and Channel 38 — remains impossibly small, dark and retro. Their current star, John Taveras, wears no. 91 and, for a brief moment during their first-round loss to the mighty Penguins, I mistook him for Butch Goring…]

The Rangers famously went 54 years without a Stanley Cup before winning one in 1994 (deploying a goodly number of former Oilers, it must be said), and I’ve no idea whether Ranger fans brought with them on that long and painful journey a particular rival, or developed one. Maybe, for a time, it was the Islanders. Maybe it has become the Washington Capitals, whom the Rangers seem to have faced, in the playoffs, every year for the last two decades (though it’s hard to develop a rivalry with a team that has never won anything, ever).

If it’s been the Bruins all along, I feel sorry for them, because we never really noticed.

FootGolf? Yes, FootGolf. Where Do I Sign…

FootGolf? Yes, FootGolf. Where Do I Sign…

 

Here’s all I have to say about the advent of FootGolf: “It’s about freakin’ time.” Anything that essentially combines my two favorite participatory sports — and knee-high argyle socks — has my full attention and support.

I knew there was something out there like this, but until I read this piece, I had no idea it was so well developed, and so intrinsically awesome. As a devotee of disc golf, I embrace the game in all its alternative forms. But this one takes it to a new level. There’s even a rule book, to be consulted in the event one’s approach hits the pin and ricochets backward into a lake. (Of course, if that should happen, the ball would be floating on the surface and could presumably be retrieved, prior to a legal drop).

Soccer and golf have a long and distinguished history together. There’s the dreaded foot wedge, of course. And there was that time Alan Shearer played through our group at Gleneagles. I’d love to see him hole out with a proper foot wedge and run the length of the hole with his signature hand held high.

Check out more information here. There’s apparently a FootGolf facility in Las Vegas, but that’s awfully far away. If anyone out there knows where this activity can be pursued here in New England, I’m all ears. After all, there was a FootGolf World Cup held in Hungary in 2012. I now have my sights set on 2016.

With Paterno book due in August, A Question Nags

With Paterno book due in August, A Question Nags

One thing’s for sure with the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal-saga, which re-emerged to dominate headlines this week upon release of Louis Freeh’s damning report: I’m glad Jerome Carboni didn’t live to see it. If the father of my college housemate, Dennis Carboni, had not passed away a few years ago, this Paterno debacle would surely have killed him.

The Carbonis were a hardcore football family and though it hailed from Meriden, Conn., hundreds of miles from Happy Valley, Mr. Carboni worshipped Joe Paterno and Penn State football. Dennis hinted to me that it might have had something to do with a shared Italian-American heritage, but let’s be honest: There was a lot for a 70something football fan to admire in the way Paterno conducted his affairs at Penn State. The perceived emphasis on academics. The pointedly unflashy blue-and-white uniforms. The long tenure. The absence of scandal.

Joe Posnanski is 50something, but he was clearly similarly drawn to this Paterno story-myth. Starting in early 2011, Posnanski, then a Sports Illustrated baseball writer, went so far as to secure access to Paterno and his family, relocate to State College, Pa., and set about researching a biography. The idea, as detailed in his own book proposal, was to “tell the remarkable story about a man who could have been anything but decided that the best way he could help change America was one college football player at a time.”

Like Jerome Carboni, Joe Posnanski was a true believer.

The contents of this eagerly awaited book — scheduled for release in August — will be all the more anticipated for the author’s pre-publication seclusion. Posnanski has said or written next to nothing about the project since going underground shortly after the scandal broke in November 2011, other than to acknowledge the obvious: The tenor of said book has changed dramatically. He’s also been under the gun; Simon and Schuster moved up publication of the book some 10 months to cash in on the salacious topicality of the subject. (Since leaving SI to write it, Posnanski has found time to partner with Major League Baseball on a web venture that involves USA Today, apparently).

I have nothing against Joe Posnanski, but I’ve read pretty much everything I can find online about his peculiar role in this ongoing drama (which, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, certainly qualifies as tragic), and nowhere does Posnanski offer, nor does any journalist care to ask, the nagging question here: What did Joe know and when did he know it?

I wrote about this in November 2011. With every passing day, it gets harder to believe that a professional biographer was ensconced in State College doing research for months ahead of November 2011, and never got any wind of the allegations against Sandusky. People in the Penn State community knew what was going down. Janitors. Administrators. Journalists. Grand juries, the likes of which leveled the charges against Jerry Sandusky back in November, don’t get called or conducted in a vacuum. Word gets around. Consider all of Sandusky’s alleged victims across the community… You’re telling me they were all so cowed by Paterno, so deludedly intent on avoiding damage to the school’s football “brand”, that no one would have taken Posnanski aside and said, “You should read what this guy Mark Madden’s been writing in the Beaver County Times”? A conversation like this one and a single Google search would have revealed to Posnanski this kernel.

Maybe these sources were indeed too intimidated to have that conversation with an SI reporter on book leave. Freeh’s report indicates that janitors in the locker rooms witnessed many damning things but never reported them, so fearful they were for their jobs. That’s logical, that Paterno would wield enough power to deter a janitor from reporting a child rape in a Penn State locker-room shower. And, as we’ve read in Freeh’s report, Paterno did know about what had happened and moved concertedly with administrators to keep it hidden.

It’s complicated, but Posnanski is damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. If he knew something and sat on it, yikes… If he didn’t know anything, what sort of research was he doing all through 2011? A lot of sitting around the kitchen table with Joe Paterno, apparently.

The latter is certainly less damning on the ethical scale. There’s no moral lapse in setting out to write a sports hagiography; they are written all too frequently. But if he was truly caught unawares, the surface nature of Posnanski’s research becomes embarrassingly clear when we consider the massive powder keg he failed to notice.