Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Down goes Frazier

That's Sports Tzu on the ground.

Welp, Google/Picasa decided to dump all web albums for the site without telling me or asking me if I'd like to, you know, keep one or two pictures for fucks and giggles (or to have a functional product).

So for now, Sports Tzu is going to be temporarily shut down while I kick and scream (and try to recover those lost images to restore the site to it's pre-nuclear-holocaust state).

Thursday, August 23, 2012

John Jaso is really good (no, really!)


I have a huge baseball crush on Seattle Mariners catcher John Jaso. Aside from his prolific beard (see above), his ridiculous stats with runners in scoring position, his tendency to shaving-cream-pie teammates during postgame interviews, and the number of game-winning hits notched into his belt this season, Jaso continues to push himself into statistically-rare territory. Not only does he lead the Mariners in pretty much every offensive rate statistic (including a whopping .901 OPS), which, granted, isn't that hard to do, he's also in lofty company in one particular area of his game.

This season, John Jaso has 43 walks and 38 strikeouts. It's pretty uncommon in this day and age to find a player with more walks than strikeouts, so I decided to scour through the statistics of every Major League team and see just what kind of company that put Jaso in. Out of qualified hitters, the only other players in MLB with more walks than strikeouts are:

David Ortiz. Prince Fielder. Joe Mauer. Chipper Jones. Joey Votto. And Carlos Lee.

And John Jaso?! What the f#$@!

Turns out Jaso did the same thing 404 plate appearances in 2010, but stumbled a bit last year (25BB/36Ks) before Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik traded for the backup catcher during the offseason. A dramatic swing change and a legitimate role in the lineup seems to have unleashed the bearded beast within. He's solidified a spot in the clubhouse and in the lineup, and Jaso was even behind the plate for Felix Hernandez's perfect game on August 15, drawing the praise of both players and pundits for the game he called (Felix, who normally calls all of his own pitches, only shook off Jaso a handful of times and applauded his catcher's calls after the game).

Even after Zduriencik traded for Yankees catcher Jesus Montero last offseason and drafted Florida catcher and NCAA player of the year Mike Zunino in this year's amateur draft, John Jaso continues to make himself invaluable to the Mariners lineup. And, no matter what happens with Montero and Zunino in the next couple years, it's going to be really hard for manager Eric Wedge to take Jaso out of the middle of the order. Unless, of course, Zduriencik and company decide to take on Miguel Olivo's $3M club option next season so they can run out a catcher who can't hit OR catch. Fingers crossed!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

In response to the Mariners' new arena traffic concerns

Two old white guys in suits being grouchy? It must be Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong!

The Seattle Mariners made it known far and wide that they were wary of a new Sodo arena. The building, proposed by Chris Hansen to serve both an NBA and NHL franchise for the city of Seattle in the near future (fingers crossed), was greeted with pure, unbridled excitement by nearly everyone in the city: Other than the Mariners.

The Mariners' biggest concern was one of traffic (or so the out-of-touch front office claimed). They postulated that the increased attendance of fans for NHL/NBA games at night would throw Seattle's gnarly, ridiculous traffic even further into the dredges. These are for games starting at 7 p.m. or so, mind you. And sure, the letter from Chuck Armstrong and Howard Lincoln was probably a bit of a wake-up call for Hansen and his team that dropping an arena in that area was going to be harder than expected, even if it did come across as petty and underhanded from a baseball franchise struggling to attract fans, but now that there's some space between the date the letter was written and today, I think I have a little more perspective to put this silly Mariners traffic issue to bed.

Currently, the Seattle Mariners are 10th in the American League in attendance. They routinely have less than 15,000 fans attending each home game, in a stadium built to hold ~45,000 people. When the Mariners were successful, even when they're not, Safeco Field can hold 20,000-30,000 more fans than are currently attending. It's not a pretty sight at Safeco these days. So, from a logical perspective (from their own logical perspective, nonetheless), the Mariners' concerns about traffic should extend to their own franchise, right? If the Mariners start playing better and drawing more fans, can't we, the angry commuters of Seattle, assume that traffic will also be thrown into utter chaos, based on their letter to Hansen and the city of Seattle? Should the Mariners reduce the available seats in Safeco Field to ensure traffic sanctity in the downtown area?

Do you see what I'm getting at here? It's obvious that the Mariners were feeling nervous about the prospect of losing more fans to the returning Sonics or a hot-ticket new NHL team, or perhaps making the team less-favorable to sell because of more immediate competition in the area (perhaps?!?), and that this Sodo arena deal has absolutely nothing to do with traffic. It's really kind of sad and pathetic that they, beneficiaries of public subsidies and funds for their own arena years ago, would be the lone stick in the mud about a "competitor's" arena in the same relative location, just because they're trying to, I don't know, stay marginally-popular during the winter when the NBA and NHL would also be in action?

The problem with that petty buffoonery is that the NBA and NHL seasons hardly overlap with the MLB season, the games are played late at night when the main commute is finished and any maritime freight traffic is already shut down for the night, and traffic is a massive systematic issue throughout the state, not just within a small stretch of the downtown area. So there you have it, with a little logic, the Mariners can rest easy knowing that a new arena won't do anything to Seattle traffic that they hadn't already handled successfully when they were popular.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Quick Takes - Umpires shmumpires!

No! Stay out! It's a trap!

People have been up in arms lately about umpires. Up in arms doesn't actually do it justice, people have been pissed. And, while I normally love a good anti-umpire revolt, this latest one is just way off-base. Frustrated fans have finally pushed the red button and fired their nukes, not realizing what the foggy aftermath is going to be like. We need umpires, and we need them to be human (weird, huh?). Umpires are what actually hold the games together -- we need their consistent-inconsistency -- and I'm going to tell you why.

Umpires, contrary to what the leagues want fans to believe, are not the unbiased, neutral third. Their only purpose isn't to blindly enforce rules, they are more of a facilitator of the sport, of the game, and they make a lot of calls based on the contextual moments within the greater spectrum of the sport. They let their emotions into the game as much as the players do, and they should! Anyone who thinks umpires should be robots is an idiot and doesn't understand the human element of sports. Why not just replace the players with robots too? They'll be far more accurate. Why not get rid of the pitcher and replace him with a pitching machine. Those things throw strikes all the time. The reason why we don't get rid of the players is because we enjoy and appreciate the human element. We enjoy their mistakes as much as their successes, because it's honest and genuine to performing. It adds drama to the games, we get to experience something uniquely human through them, and it should be no different with umpires.

Yes, umpires make mistakes, but there are two kinds of mistakes: Positive and negative. A positive mistake is an umpire contextualizing a moment and figuring out a way to remove himself from the moment and let the players settle it. That happened in 1995 when Randy Johnson threw an iffy strike three to send the Mariners to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. That umpire easily could've called it a ball, but in those moments -- the same way there's an unspoken rule in boxing that you have to knock out the champion to take his belt -- the players should settle the outcome, not referees or judges making arbitrary decisions about play. And they are arbitrary, and no amount of instant replay can fix that.  The same type of thing happened this year when the umpires missed a base-hit off the chalk and called it foul, giving Johan Santana a get out of jail free card which he used toward the first no-hitter in NY Mets history. It doesn't always work in a team's favor, the way that Johnson strikeout did; just look at that blown call from a couple seasons ago when Armando Galarraga was denied a perfect game by a blown call. That was terrible, obviously a "negative mistake," and it adds a lot of credence to the robot umpire cries. But one missed perfect game does not beget destroying sports. And yes, instant replay and all that bullshit would destroy sports.

The common knee-jerk people jump to is to just add more widespread use of instant replay. They're doing it in baseball now, which means baseball is going to take even longer to finish a damn game. But it's a reaction in the wrong direction. There should be no instant replay. Not a little bit. Not even for quick consultation. It's asinine. Instant replay is the opposite of what should happen. The NFL is the court jester when it comes to instant replay, sending an umpire into a 1920s photo booth for five minutes to watch video from a billion angles slowed down beyond speeds that the human eye can even register. What is the point of that? Just make a call and MOVE. FORWARD. That's all you can do.

Instant replay kills momentum, and kills the passion of the fans, rendering them helpless in the stands while a human reviews the same play he just saw and makes a second arbitrary decision with slightly-more evidence (often useless evidence too). It's not worth the fuss. Umpires make bad calls, get over it. They make great calls too, and they don't make calls that a robot or a booth reviewer would've, because sometimes you just have to let the players settle things on their own. All of those ups and downs are part of what make sports great. Yes, umpires should have their "missed calls" reviewed, and yes, the leagues should take punitive action against umpires who consistently perform under the bar, but you don't replace them with pitch-tracking computers and 5 billion frames per second replays because of a few missed calls.

We need umpires. We may not always like them, but we need them. We need their mistakes, we need their emotions and their arbitrary, emotion-fueled calls. These are sports between people, for people, and if we take the human element out of refereeing them, we will muck up sports beyond comprehension. And besides, who enjoys yelling at inanimate objects, when there's a perfectly-acceptable human at the ready?

  • Reason #1 why a lot of sports fans and other professional athletes think golfers are stuffy boners (mmm) who can't handle a little adversity; from the Memorial this past weekend: "It makes it very difficult," Bubba Watson said. "Ever since they made that rule that cellphones are allowed, it's just not fun playing." Oh no! A camera shutter clicked in your back-swing! You poor thing! You should withdraw from the tournament and angrily/ironically text the PGA commissioner during your round to voice your distaste for cell phones! (Watson didn't do that, but Phil Mickelson did, and if Stuffy Boners had a centerfold, I would ... not buy that magazine.)
  • Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee is winless this year, thanks to the Phillies scoring 16 runs over his nine starts (1.78 rpg). I think I just found the Mariners a trade partner for Chone Figgins!
  • The San Francisco Giants aren't happy with Pablo Sandoval's weight. The hefty third-baseman has been told by manager Bruce Bochy that he needs to get in better shape, because if he can't play third base he'll be of no use to the team. I can't help but picture Bruce Bochy hitting warm dumplings at him at third base with a fungo bat.
  • Bruce Bochy: When you focus on baseball, when you concentrate... you stink.
    [Pablo frowns]
    Bruce Bochy: But perhaps that is my fault. I cannot train you the way I have trained the Giants. I now see that the way to get through to you is, with this.
    [pulls out a bowl of dumplings]
    Pablo: Oh great, 'cause I am hungry!
    Bruce Bochy: [laughs and pulls the bowl away] Good. When you have been trained, you may eat.
    [He eats a dumpling]
    Bruce Bochy: Let us begin.
  • The Miami Heat are one game away from missing out on a championship, and the reaction from fans and pundits alike is too much for me to ignore. Listen, I hate the Miami Heat, I hate the way they play and how they've almost single-handedly turned this league into a dog and pony show where players are more concerned with their clothing lines and # of appearances on TMZ than they are winning. I hate it. But, damn, relax everyone. People are calling for the Heat to "blow up" and start over, basically recreating the LeBron James Cavaliers. That didn't seem to work out too well, did it? The point is that the playoffs are hard, they're supposed to be hard! It's the freaking playoffs! Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls had to fight and scrap and claw their way through the playoffs every year, as did the Magic Johnson Lakers and every team ever. You know why? Because the playoffs are hard for fuck's sake! The Miami Heat have been extremely successful with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (and Chris Bosh? I guess?) as the focal points of that team. Just because you don't win every championship ever doesn't mean you should blow up the team and start over. This is a team on the brink of a championship. I don't think they'll win it this year, because they have some glaring holes, but they are still two wins away from going to the Finals. This offseason, if they retain their core nucleus and simply add a pass-first PG and an interior presence, they will be as good as anybody else in the league. Where is the goddamn patience in sports? Are people that fickle now that they can't handle not winning a championship every single season? Are the players that stupid to think they're going to pick out a ring like they're shopping at Jared? Just relax.
  • I just read the headline: "Report: Ex-players to combine concussion suits," and was severely disappointed when I opened the link to find that it wasn't about Iron Man, but was, of course, about lawsuits. I am a child.
  • Hey everyone! Get out now and vote for your favorite players for the MLB All-St.....zzzzzzzz....
  • I have to admit, I was a little bit bummed the other night when the Seattle Mariners didn't take high school phenom outfielder Byron Buxton with the third pick in the MLB Draft. They couldn't take him, because the Minnesota Twins picked him second overall, leaving me droopy and pathetic. Until! Until Buxton gave his post-pick interview to the MLBTV crew covering the draft, where he answered a question about whether or not he knew the Twins were interested with, "I don't know, I'm just a Twins now." Ah, yes, just a Twins now. Byron Buxton, all your base are belong to us.
  • In Euro 2012 news, Ukraine manager Oleg Blohkin thinks players on his team were victims of sabotage (I put that in italics because it's basically the coolest thing you can accuse someone of) after 10 players on the national squad suffered food poisoning the day before a 2-0 loss to Turkey in Germany. "It happened in Germany, but it is impossible to establish the causes - all ate different food. It may have been sabotage, I do not know. It cannot be accidental." It was the Germans, in the pub, with the expired sausage!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Quick Takes - Sociopaths at the wheel


My friend Hickey, whom you all surely know from Bathroom Science fame (search in the right-hand navigation if you're new here), and I were discussing a fascinating article from Internet juggernaut The Last Psychiatrist about narcissism and the idolization of ego in the modern world, titled "Why We Love Sociopaths." Hickey and I are, for the sake of this article at least, normally-cisstic and minimally-egotistical folks (no comments, please), so in the context of the article, we are the non-Sociopaths (again, no comments). There's a lot of great stuff discussed in the article, but there's one paragraph about the proverbial "line cutter" that really struck home with me:
He's a different kind of person than you.  He can do things you can't, do women you can't, he sees the world's rules differently, which specifically means he understands that there are no "world's rules," that rules are decided by those with power for their own benefit.  After he cuts in line, he pockets a Milky Way bar because, well, because he got away with it.  My grammar is correct: he can do it since he got away with it.
I have met many people like this, we all have, and I've certainly encountered them throughout the stages of my life (other than larval), but I happened to (nearly) run into one today on the commute to work, and there's no outlet for the rage it induces other than here. So prepare yourself. It's a simple tale, told a thousand times on a thousand drives across our fair land: The long, inchworm line of cars all waiting patiently for their chance to turn, for their number to be called. The single, rogue asshole who decides to forgo the line and drive up to the front, passing 100 cars in the process and darting in at the last moment before the turn to go forward on his merry way.

Having read the aforementioned article recently, I saw him try to dart in front of my car and just wasn't feeling it. I didn't want to reinforce the sociopath, I didn't want to reward the chaos. So, I laid on the horn and sped up to the car in front of me, shutting off the way like Gandalf in the mines of Moria. The car behind me followed suit and closed any gaps that might've opened when I sped up. I continued to sound my horn -- the vocalized threat of a modern primate under duress -- and hugged the bumper of the person in front of me. The asshole continued to turn, despite turning into a lane of opposing traffic, and finally swung in three cars behind me at the last gasp when someone sadly let him in. I was incensed, not because he won, but because everyone let him win. There are no rules. It didn't matter that I stood my ground. He cut off 100 cars to get in, and only had to mildly-tussle with three staunch drivers who weren't willing to let him in. BFD. It was a depressing morning, and a depressing realization that we really do love Sociopaths, and we are powerless against their lawless approach.

Maybe I should start riding a bike to work.

  • The Seattle Mariners have scored 31 runs in their last two games against the Texas Rangers, which is beyond exciting/amazing/unbelievable, but Mariners manager Eric Wedge keeps saying in interviews (paraphrasing), "See, this is what we've been telling these guys to do all year long!" And I keep thinking to myself, well no shit ... It'd be great to score 15 runs a game, and I'm sure you've said something to them about hitting and baseball and such. But to point to recent success and say, "Yup, this is what we told them to do, this is a result of something we did," is the baseball equivalent of Mitt Romney telling reporters that he's going to take credit for the auto industry's revitalization, because he just ... saw it happen from nearby.
  • Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Jason Babin plans to run with the bulls in Pamplona this summer, despite the risk of having his contract voided and potentially losing his career/life. "It's kind of a rite of passage," Babin said after his first OTA on Wednesday to the Philadelphia Enquirer. "It's a stamp. I guess in my brain I have a figurative man card that's got certain punches that need to be punched out. Everyone thinks it's dangerous and hazardous, but it's not if done correctly and soberly. Bulls can't turn the corner on cobblestone, so as long as you're on the inside you're going to be alright. I broke the tape down like game film." In lieu of a single joke, I will present to you the following series of jokes, because this paragraph is so ridiculous I don't know where to start:
    • Goddammit, is Hillary Clinton distributing man cards again?
    • Any time you start a sentence with "everyone thinks it's dangerous and hazardous, but it's not if ..." you're gonna have a bad time.
    • Up next on Mythbusters, can a bull turn a corner on cobblestone?!?
    • I'm pretty sure Jason Babin just wrote his own eulogy.
    • After "Run with the bulls" gets punched on his man card, does he get a free sandwich?
    • I know where Babin's coming from on this. I feel the same way when I down that big ass fish-oil pill. Exhilarating.
    • The thing that really jumped out to me was "if done correctly and soberly." Those two words are really incongruous, and, to my brain, the real sticking point in Babin's plan. See, just because you are sober, doesn't mean everyone around you is. If I'm driving a car at 20 mph through a school zone or something, there's a good chance I'm going to drive it correctly. But put a bunch of drunk people in the car with me, and stick my Nissan Pathfinder in the middle of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with race cars whizzing past at 200 mph (and all the racecars are now animate and angry and specifically want to run into me), my driving success is surely going to be influenced, right? I might still drive well -- hell, I might even survive -- but the odds are against me.
  • In the NBA, you are now apparently allowed to ninja-kick a defender in the knee who has jumped to block your shot, and the defender will receive a foul and you get to shoot free throws. Good to know.
  • The lead headline on BBC Sport is: "Injured Frank Lampard out of Euro 2012." They spelled "old" wrong.
  • Norwich manager Paul Lambert had his resignation request denied by his current club after rumors swirled linking him to the vacant post at Aston Villa. I smell a sitcom! Some guy tries desperately to get fired (a la George Costanza with the Yankees), but no matter what he does (within reason), no one will accept his resignation. He dresses casual on a Monday (the horror!); he wears ladies clothes but ends up getting featured in a company marketing campaign for LGTB awareness; he cooks fish in the communal kitchen (who does that?!). But despite his frustration, he's too guilty to stay at home and get paid (he's Catholic, hence guilt), so he keeps showing up to work to attempt to resign again. Rinse and Repeat (that's the name of the show). And he's played by Ricky Gervais (Stephen Merchant plays his best friend in a huge stretch role for the lanky Brit). You know, I probably could've just said "played by Ricky Gervais" up front and not bothered to write that horrible, cliche plot (and these unnecessary parentheticals that prompt my friend Steve to send threatening e-mails).
  • (Seinfeld voice) What's the deal with those five-toed running shoes?
  • Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku didn't celebrate the team's puke-inducing Champions League win over frustrations with his own playing time. Lukaku was transferred to Chelsea this past offseason for £20m, but made just four starts all year for the Blues. Lukaku said, "Chelsea really wanted me last summer and paid a lot for me, but after a while I thought, are you just throwing money around?" ... Aw, I don't have the heart to tell him.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Leave Chone Figgins alone (on the bench)


Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times Mariners Blog wrote an article today condemning the Mariners' decision to send Casper Wells to AAA in lieu of designating struggling infielder Chone Figgins for assignment. Baker makes the argument that Figgins is holding back the rebuilding plan the Mariners organization has; that he's single-handedly retarding the progress of the organization and the talented youth we have in the minor leagues. But Figgins is, well, he's nothing. He's a null value. He's an expensive null, sure, but he's still a null value, and doing anything with him at this point would actually be more of a detraction to the organization than letting him sit on the bench through the rest of his contract.

Face it, Figgins isn't a tradeable asset anymore. And while you might be able to pull off some ludicrous lopsided deal for Jack Squat (I think he's a catcher), where you eat the bulk of Figgins' contract and get some bullshit player in return, it'll never be a trade that benefits you in any way other than freeing yourself from Figgins. And unless he goes after manager Eric Wedge like he did Don Wakamatsu two years ago, what's the point? Every roster needs bench players. Every roster needs utility players and veterans to help guide youngsters through the day-to-day life of Major League Baseball. You need pinch-runners and defensive substitutions and late-scratch fill-ins. 162 games is a lot of freaking games, and depth is something every single team in the majors needs. And while Figgins' contract isn't that of a utility player, that's what he is now. Stop trying to make Figgins something that he isn't. He's a utility player. That's it. It's that simple. So, Geoff Baker and everyone else who's clamoring for a Figgins pink slip, forget the contract, forget the money owed -- the Mariners aren't going to get anything of value in return -- and embrace Figgins for his new multi-purpose role.

As far as what's "best for the organization," Figgins sitting on the bench is infinitely better for the organization than calling up a talented youngster from the minors to sit on the bench and stop getting regular plate appearances. The Mariners have far too many young players still working their way up and down the depth chart as it is; adding another to the mix would be pointless, which is obviously why they sent Casper Wells down to the minors. Wells is a talented player, jury's still out on how talented, but having him sit on the bench watching games didn't help him or the organization in any way. Sending him to the minors to get regular at bats did. So bravo to the Mariners for handling both Wells and Figgins the right way.

Who cares if Chone Figgins doesn't get more at bats this season? Who cares if he's "wasting away" on the bench? Who cares if he doesn't have the opportunities to boost his (non-existent) trade value to move him for another utility player who maybe costs less (but you still end up paying out on Figgins' contract anyway). The Mariners need guys like Chone Figgins, guys like Munenori Kawasaki (Mune should be playing more often, but that's another story), who fill a role and don't need 600 plate appearances to be an asset to the team. Yes, Chone Figgins is an asset to the Mariners (it's weird to type that), and as long as he's not a distraction or a disruption, he will continue to have a role and a purpose on this team.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ichiro and the dreaded leadoff spot


It was all Mariner fans heard about this offseason: Manager Eric Wedge was finally putting Ichiro in his place. One of the most famous Seattle Mariners in franchise history, one of the most prolific hitters the sport of baseball has ever seen, was being relegated from his legendary leadoff spot to the three hole, because the manager wanted to prove a point. It was his clubhouse, not Ichiro's, and he was going to change the tone of things in Seattle. Ichiro wasn't a "prototypical leadoff hitter," whatever the hell that meant, and it was time to move him out of his notorious slot and put someone else, someone more "traditional" (see: OBP), in his place. It started out well, with Chone Figgins battling pitchers and Ichiro "driving the ball more," another phrase the manager was tossing around that doesn't actually mean anything. But anytime you start a point with Chone Figgins, you know it's headed for trouble.

Ichiro now has 36 games under his belt in the 2012 season. The Mariners are obviously hitting the ball better as a unit, although their team on-base-percentage is horrific and they're striking out at near-historic rates, but what has the impact been on the future Hall of Fame right fielder? After leading the team in most meaningful offensive categories last year, in what was a painfully down year for Ichiro, the manager pointed the finger at him and said he needed to produce. Ichiro has responded this year, leading the team in batting average, on-base-percentage, hits, triples, BB/K ratio, etc etc., but the manager continues to constipate himself with the numbers that don't matter: Ichiro's lack of RBI production, something that's essentially out of his hands and dependent on the runners in front of him getting on base (which they aren't).

Wedge called Ichiro out to the media yesterday, along with the rest of his veterans, and has once-again called Ichiro's role into question, the very one that Wedge put him in, mind you. Instead of being an atypical-but-insanely-productive leadoff hitter, Wedge moved him to third in the lineup and is now bitching to the media about his "atypicalilty" in that role, too. But Wedge made that bed. He put a player who has, historically, collected more infield hits than anyone else on the team each year, and moved him to a spot where his infield singles would suddenly turn into fielder's choice outs and double plays. It's no surprise that Ichiro is tied for the team lead in GIDP (with a measly four, so let's not go overboard here). Ichiro is on pace to have more than double his previous career worst in GIDP. It's not rocket science. He hits a lot of ground balls and turns a lot of those ground balls into hits with his approach and foot speed. Now? Those are outs. And outs are bad, mmkay?

It's also no surprise that Ichiro's baserunning prowess has been reduced to practically nothing this season (we can debate the importance of stolen bases another day). Ichiro is on pace to pull in 13-14 stolen bases this year, ~50% lower than his previous career low. By putting him in the third position, Wedge is limiting one of Ichiro's greatest skills, his speed, as the power hitters immediately behind him swing away early in the count (Jesus Montero is second-lowest on the team in pitches seen/PA, behind Ichiro, of course). Wedge is limiting Ichiro's potential to get hits, he's reducing the number of plate appearances that his best hitter gets, he's reducing the number of available baserunning chances for his best baserunner ... the list goes on and on.

And none of it seems to be working in the Mariners' favor. Is that Ichiro's fault? Should he be adjusting his approach, the way the manager said he needed to this winter? Of course not. Ichiro, just like every other Mariner on the roster, should be put into a position by his manager to be as successful as possible based on his skillset. I read a book called Strengths Finder 2.0, one of those "take this arbitrary survey and we'll tell you what you're good at" books they latch onto in the business world. While the methodology wasn't perfect, Strengths Finder brought up a really interesting point: Too often we spend our lives worried about correcting our flaws, about neutralizing our negatives and trying to become a part of the common denominator, but in the process of doing that, we reduce the power and importance of our strengths, of the tools that we have that make us uniquely effective.

By moving Ichiro out of the leadoff role (which doesn't mean anything but it reduces his PAs over the season, hopefully puts runners on base ahead of him, and puts quick-swinging power hitters behind him), he's not only limiting Ichiro's success, but the success of the rest of the lineup. He's not highlighting Ichiro's strengths, but trying to minimize his flaws, and in turn, it's negatively effecting the potential of the Mariners lineup.

Meanwhile, Ichiro has been accused by the manager of not being "productive" from the third position. In the traditional sense, Ichiro hasn't been a "slugger." He's on pace for 5 HR and 59 RBI. Not the most awe-inspiring numbers for a spot in the batting order once owned by Ken Griffey, Jr. But Ichiro is second on the team in OPS (on-base-percentage plus slugging percentage), leads the team in total bases and hits, has limited his strikeouts and is on pace for a career low in Ks by ~33%, and he's second on the team in doubles and is on pace for a career high in that category. So what, exactly, is he not doing from a productivity standpoint that would prompt the manager to call him out to the media?

Ichiro has been excellent this year and should be applauded for the professional way he's handled the change and his hitting approach this season (not to mention his return to above-average defense in right field). He's been the best hitter on the team, despite being put in a position to fail and unnecessarily called out as a faux-scapegoat for his "lack of production" by the manager. It's time for Wedge to stop trying to send messages and puff his chest and put Ichiro back in a position where he, and the rest of the lineup, can be most-successful: The leadoff spot.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Grading the NFL Draft grades

Looks like somebody just talked to an expert!

Oh, where to begin! I give ESPN a B+ for their overall broadcast, mostly because Jon Gruden looks pissed whenever he's on TV and for some reason I enjoy that. And NFL Commish/Radio City Music Hall MC Roger Goodell will be given an A- for his quiet comfort in hugging large, weeping men during the first round. And I give that lady who stood with a bank of lights on a stick in the background of every shot a D for her red, ill-fitting polo shirt. And I give Mel Kiper Jr. a D- for never changing his greasy hairstyle for over 30 years. I give David Stern an F for not attending, because he should be booed during every draft, even ones that aren't related to his league. And I give former Florida defensive back Janoris Jenkins an A+ for having four kids while in college (what an over-achiever!).

Blah. Blah. Blah.

See, I was trying to establish the tone for this piece by showing the outlandish and completely arbitrary nature of how draft "experts" grade NFL teams for their rookie selections, but even as I was typing it, I found myself drawn into the satisfying world of grading shit. It's fun! And super easy, too! Any writer could do it, which is exactly what the NFL Draft post-apocalypse has become: Grade things based on whatever you want to grade them on. It's a ball pit of confirmation bias, where media members weight their own evaluations higher than the evaluations of, you know, people who work for professional sports teams. It's a common miscue for media members. We all think we know more than the people who play, coach, work for, etc. sports teams, because we have the opportunity to draw in grandiose outside perspective (even if it's our own biased, and therefore useless, perspective) and to slow-motion analyze every thought and action in any given game. I like to say "grandiose outside perspective" in a big, booming voice. It adds to the drama.

When I saw the NFL Draft grades come pouring out (or is it in?) from writers and pundits, I laughed. Not because they were wrong. No, how could they be wrong? These draft grades are nothing but pure opinion and guesswork. What was funny was how they arrived at their grades. I heard multiple pundits on the radio and TV who graded down teams who picked players they thought should've been drafted later. Just think about that for a second. They are grading down teams for drafting players that they, and only they individually, perceived to be in a certain slot in the draft order. And yet, the sort of beautiful economic principle of the NFL Draft, is that a player is worth wherever he was drafted. You can come up with your own values and assign them to players based on whatever bullshit you see and believe and hear, but, at the end of the day, a player is drafted precisely where he was meant to be drafted (I sound like Gandalf). These draft "experts" are utilizing their massive media platforms to criticize teams that drafted a guy they needed, but they ... maybe ... it's possible, I guess ... could've drafted at a later time. When it comes to the NFL Draft, it's not who you pick, according to the experts, it's when you pick them (according to their own vague valuations of a player's perceived worth ... fucking exhausting, if you ask me).

When it comes down to it, the draft grades are meaningless. Which could be the end of the conversation, really. The teams obviously don't give a shit about what grades their given, nor does it have any impact on anything, so why discuss them? I think they're worthwhile to discuss because they're a) revered by most NFL fans and used as a tool to manipulate public perception, and b) are a crutch that enforces and enhances the careers and credibility of the people who fans are supposed to look to for insider guidance, news, and perspective on the day-to-day sprawl of the league. The problem with this type of self-enhacement is that no one's ever actually held accountable. And, no, I don't think Mel Kiper Jr. should be booted off the air for having a "pick percentage" lower than 40% (or whatever), but the point is that the NFL Draft has become more about the draftniks and their super-conglomerates than it is about the kids getting drafted.

These are college athletes, who are being drafted into the NFL. They are the tiniest percentile of success that pro sports has, and yet, even before they play a single snap in the NFL, the media has already judged them and the teams who pick them. But the grades are false. They're factoring in the wrong variables, and they'll never be able to factor in the right variables because there are no variables to even measure! Every NFL player is only as good as his talent + commitment + (and this is the big one) CIRCUMSTANCE (see how big it is? I caps-locked that shit). A player has very little control over circumstance. A player can't control who is ahead of him on the depth chart. A player doesn't control the playbook, or even what plays are called. A player doesn't control whether or not his strengths are maximized. A player doesn't control the decisions of the coaching staff, or the front office, or who plays next to him. It's just ... insane how much money and admiration is poured into the pockets of draft experts who are measuring absolutely nothing. Isn't that insane? Is it just me that thinks that's insane? Hello? Am I the only one writing in this column?

This whole draft value and grading nonsense sort of segues into a deeper philosophical discussion. There's been a huge swing in professional sports lately (not just in America, but all over the world) in defining a team's success not by its on-field accomplishments, but in how much success a team achieves based on the financial and talent/skill value of the individual players. Every year, payrolls are released, writers dissect stats and compare them to the respective payrolls, and then GMs and front office execs are given shiny awards based on how much they were able to extract from the overall coinpurse. Shouldn't the best GM in any given league be the one who, I don't know,  put together a team that won the championship? How is "best GM" even a thing? We're rewarding people who aren't achieving the highest level of success because they achieved more than their arbitrarily-determined value? I agree that there's something to be said for putting together a successful team cheaper than your competitors. And in the world of economics, those people might win a medal or something. But this is sports, not economics. And while there's always going to be some overlap, these franchises are worth billions of dollars, which means those owners are worth a decent amount of cash themselves. The fact that we now celebrate mid-level financial commitment by rewarding GMs and players who are able to do more than the money says they should is a virus. It's a virus. It's spreading across the leagues and reinforcing lazy, careless, profit-based ownership. And NFL Draft grades are just another symptom of this shift.

These networks pay their experts millions of dollars to spout bullshit about players they hardly know. And yet we trust them more than we trust the teams. The teams, you know, the ones who have watched thousands of hours of video on players, who have full scouting teams assigned the singular task of identifying talent that fits into the offensive and defensive systems, the ones who build relationships with these players from the time they're in high school and continue to track their progress for half a decade before the draft. No, we trust the guys who cycle through college players like Tyrion Lannister at a brothel. It will take years for most of these draft picks to even be relevant, and if they are (or aren't), it's all a product of that talent/dedication/circumstance formula. So let's just enjoy the draft, enjoy whatever players our teams selected, and wait and see what that formula produces. And please, for the love of whatever, let's stop allowing these so-called experts to control the collective response of a team's fanbase. It's frightening.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Quick Takes - Ninja Turtles

My feelings exactly, fellas.

Michael Bay has never been a friend to Quick Takes. Nor his own children. Nor the holy Moviefather above, who will send Michael Bay to film Hell upon his death, where he shall be forced to watch hours of his own shitacular movies with his eyes held open like "A Clockwork Orange" while Julia Roberts sprinkles salt onto them with one of those awesome salt-shakers they have for popcorn at the theatre. And yet, despite making some of the worst movies in cinema history (I always read "cinema history" in my head in a British voice ... try it out, you'll never go back), Michael Bay and I have rarely crossed paths. I watched the first "Transformers" movie and decided that any further sequels would be viewed sans me; I still contend that "Armageddon" is, unequivocally, the worst movie ever made; and "Pearl Harbor" sort of hit home because he was raping a part of two countries' histories for his own wallet-padding, but other than that, Michael and Me are not in regular company. Until now.

Mr. Bay has decided to reboot the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As someone who owns the original trilogy (I can't fucking believe I just typed "the original trilogy" when referring to TMNT) and continues to watch Turtles I and II well into my mid-to-late 20s', the idea of Michael Bay, the Jose Canseco of the film industry, taking something so precious to my heart and the collective nerdheart (trademark?) of the TMNT community, the ones who grew up with "Turtles in Time," who played the arcade game at Shakey's Pizza during baseball banquets, who knew every word (and dance move) to Vanilla Ice's "Ninja Rap," and who fell in love with the butt-chinned April O'Neil in the amazing live-action Turtles film, and turning it into a Hollywood action porn cash cow is almost beyond comprehension. Not only is Michael Bay (he's not directing it, but come on ... we're not children, we know how this whole dog and pony show works) planning to make the Turtles aliens, yes, that's right, aliens, not mutants, as their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles moniker would have you believe, but fucking aliens from another planet (because, as he says, he wants to add a "richer back story"), but he's also dropped the TEENAGE MUTANT from the title of the move altogether! Now it's just the ... NT. "Ninja Turtles." Does that mean a goddamn thing to anyone?! No, of course not. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles describes everything you need to know about what you're getting into, but "Ninja Turtles" just sounds like something the joke-writing manatees pulled out of the pool for a gag on "Family Guy."

So how did Bay respond to the furor from millions of TMNT fans suddenly crying out in terror? "Paramount marketing changed the name. They made the title simple. The characters you all remember are exactly the same, and yes they still act like teenagers. Everything you remember, why you liked the characters, is in the movie. This script is being developed by two very smart writers, with one of the original creators of Ninja Turtles. They care VERY MUCH about making this film for the fans. Everyone on this team cares about the fans. Just give them a chance. Jonathan the director, is a major fan of the whole franchise. HE'S NOT GOING TO LET YOU DOWN."

I can't wait to see the turtles transform into their super-robot-alien-biotech megaform and shoot green laser ooze out of their giant ninja belly button while battling mecha-tank Shredder, a sentient tank who broke out of Area 51 and is terrorizing New York City, while Will Smith (who will play Casey Jones, a retired New York Rangers hockey player turned pizza delivery guy who befriended the Adult Alien Ninja Turtles as a boy on the Air Force base in Roswell, New Mexico, where the AANT crash-landed years ago, only to find them in NYC living in a penthouse with Ceelo years later while delivering an astounding 45 pizzas to their location) performs a remixed "Ninja Rap" inside the cabin of a 2013 Saturn Vue during the final battle and creates a musical knockout wave that temporarily shuts down mecha-tank Shredder, allowing the turtles to belly-button ooze him to metallic smithereens and save New York City.

  • You know how I know I'm getting old? The Arizona Diamondbacks will be wearing throwback uniforms this year.
  • A fourth division German football club, Magdeburg, has been in a bit of a scoring rut lately, going five straight matches without a goal. That type of impotency would bring most fanbases to their knees, but not in Germany! Magdeburg's resolute (and hilarious) fans held up large arrows throughout the match to point their team toward the goal, even assembling behind the goal in a larger arrow formation to form a sort of Power Rangers' super arrow. Magdeburg scored, but lost 2-1. Womp wah.
  • I'm still waiting for Tim Tebow to start throwing right handed.
  • Amare Stoudemire is out indefinitely with a back injury, according to a press release by the New York Knicks. That's not particularly funny (unless you find humor in bulging discs, which is very hard not to find humor in), but the fact that the Knicks spelled his name wrong in their own press release is.
  • The New England Patriots have signed reserve quarterback Chris Simms (son of Phil Simms, son of Gloin ...) to an "undisclosed coaching role" with the team, ending the young Simms' quarterbacking career and starting a new one: Bill Belichick's hoodie fluffer.
  • For those of you worried about the Mariners' two exhibition losses to Japanese teams in Tokyo this weekend: Relax. The Mariners just traveled halfway across the globe, were assuredly jetlagged and physically exhausted, and faced two Japanese teams at home with absolutely no scouting reports for either team (yes, yes, the Japanese teams probably didn't have scouting reports on the Mariners either, just ... go to your corner and let me finish). Hector Noesi, the Mariners pitcher acquired via Michael Pineda earlier this year, was 4 years old when legendary Japanese slugger Tomoaki Kanemoto was drafted, and the two squared away against each other in a game of immense significance and pride to the Hanshin Tigers. Methinks the Hanshin Tigers had a bit more experience than the young Seattle Mariners, who were not only playing in a country 95% of them have never been in before, but also experiencing and soaking in a new culture. This is one of those "once in a lifetime trips," so forgive the Mariners players if they got caught up in the sights and sounds of the Tokyo Dome and didn't win meaningless exhibition games. Just relax everyone. Exhibition games don't count. I promise. Even Bud Selig knows that.
  • The real takeaway that I have from those two games is a lot bigger picture than, "Oh my god, we can't hit! We're already the worst team in baseball before the season starts!" We knew the Japanese players could play based on their dominance at the World Baseball Classic in recent years, but Major League Baseball has always played down their success, and, really, the success of every country in baseball other than the United States, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, because baseball has always been an exclusive club for Major League players only. The best players in the world flock to America to play, and there are a million (dollars) reasons why, but the future that I see, that I want, that baseball needs, is inclusive. Imagine this: Shorten the baseball season by 30 or so games, but add in a "Champions League" style tournament throughout the season, where the best teams from all of the qualifying leagues throughout the world play each other -- a la UEFA's Champions League tournament -- in a yearly "best team in baseball" competition. There is nothing more prestigious in international football than the Champions League, and it's prestigious because the best teams in the world (well, in Europe, but in football those are synonymous) are competing against each other in a knockout tournament. It's like a centrifuge of football, and it makes every Tuesday and Wednesday throughout the football season unfathomably exciting. There's nothing like it in any of our American sports, probably because we can't handle not being the best at things ("What's that? Our soccer team didn't make the Olympics? Whatever, we don't even like soccer!"), but trimming back the domestic season and mixing in a knockout competition throughout the year against the best teams in the world would be the best thing to happen to baseball ever. Yes. Ever.
  • The best part of the NCAA Tournament has to be Anthony Davis' unibrow, right?
  • The NBA, always one for racial harmony (see: NBA dress code, Allen Iverson, etc.), has released a series of bizarre T-shirts, featuring popular NBA players with their heads spliced next to the heads of their teams' mascots (the grammar, my god, the grammar). There are some innocuous ones, like LeBron James's half head/half Miami Heat fire-basketball, but there are also some pretty ignorant/insensitive ones, with players like Brandon Jennings (Milwaukee Bucks) and Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls) spliced next to the heads of animals. Just what every athlete wants: To be compared to a rabid, snorting animal. Did Donald Sterling come up with this T-shirt promotion?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Arsene Wenger & Arsenal: An untenable relationship


As I sit down to write about Arsene Wenger and this struggling Arsenal side, I find myself immediately on eggshells. I feel like before I even try to be critical of the tenured Arsenal manager, I have to throw out a lengthy disclaimer about how great he's been and how much I love cuddling with his effigy in my bedroom to allow myself the space to write about him without causing a riot amongst Arsenal fans. We're a bit touchy about Arsene, eh? There's a word I love to use for a situation like this, where people are abnormally and irrationally sensitive about something and it causes them to become emotionally overworked: Butthurt. That's right, we're too easily butthurt when it comes to Arsene Wenger. It's like the success he's brought the club and the prestige and sustainability he's fostered for Arsenal excuse him from honest, rational critique. But it shouldn't be one way or another: It shouldn't be so extreme. You can critique the manager without "forgetting the past," and you can honor his contributions to the club by putting his current struggles in perspective. That's what a rational writer and reader would do, and, well shit, we're Arsenal fans, we're supposed to be the rational ones (insert fans of other clubs getting butthurt here).

So instead of writing a disclaimer worthy of the MPAA (although isn't the above technically a disclaimer? Hmm ...), I'm just going to write about Arsene Wenger and Arsenal without letting myself get emotionally unstable. Yes, all hail Hypnotoad Wenger, etc etc. But let's just be reasonable for a day. Just one day. That's all I ask. This is not what any of us expected going into the season, even after the late transfer dealings this summer left the club with a stumbling start. The team pulled itself together admirably and started rattling off wins. It seemed like things were headed in the right direction. So what went wrong?

It'd be easy to blame injuries, or youth, or inconsistency, or whatever buzzword is fluttering through the Arsenal pressers this particular week. But those are all symptoms of a deeper disease. Arsene Wenger has lost the locker room. It's a common phrase in American sports that rarely pops up in the world of international football: "Lost the locker room." But when I watch this team, this frustrated, hangdog team, I see a team that's lost the motivation to be great, and that comes from the manager. That comes from the persistent belief that fourth place is a trophy worth celebrating and admiring. Fourth place is admirable, especially when you accomplish it (or above) consistently over more than a decade, but it can't replace the ultimate goal to win the league.

That's the thing about sports: There are supposed to be ups and downs.

If you have the financial clout and the technical system to stay highly-competitive year after year, then bravo, you've accomplished something that very few teams are capable of accomplishing. But, and it's a big but(hurt), winning a championship is worth much more than consistent top-tier mediocrity (sort of an oxymoron, but Arsenal fans know exactly what I'm talking about). Taking the risk to pursue a championship, knowing that there may be an inverse effect after a championship where the club has to regroup and recover, should be seriously considered by the board and the manager. And you could make the argument Wenger tried that after dismantling the Invincibles squad and trying to restock his team with young starlets who would bring the club back to glory. But that didn't work, and it continues to fail because of a deep-rooted lack of diversity and veteran leadership in the first team that stems from five years of transfer miscues by the manager.

This isn't a complete team. There are massive gaps in multiple areas of the club, areas that Wenger used to be flush with: Strikers, veteran stars, smart & sturdy defenders. And those gaps frustrate not only the fans, but also the players. There's no one to help guide the youngsters to greatness, the way Cesc Fabregas was nurtured by some of the world's best before earning the starting mantle. There's no one to hold them accountable other than the manager. And while Wenger has tried valiantly to bring in more veteran leadership to the club and further accountability from within the player ranks, there isn't a culture to match the desire (not to mention his stubbornness to continue playing certain "favorites" within the club). If I worked in an office, and it was filled with a bunch of inexperienced co-workers, or co-workers who didn't have the right skills to be successful, and there was no one but the boss to keep everyone in line, there's a damn good chance that company would suffocate and die, because you need layers to a business, just like you need layers to a starting XI.

And that squad construction has left a few good workers, surrounded by people who aren't ready or don't have the proper tools, all frustrated and bickering throughout a match. When I watch Arsenal play, I see a team that is divided. I see Robin Van Persie and Mikel Arteta alone in attack. I see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain thriving despite the pressure and the system and still think to myself: He could really use a teacher, a mentor. I see Alex Song alone and stuck between his best position (deep-lying defensive midfielder) and his personal frustration with a toothless attack. And Song's been distributing the ball beautifully through the middle too in January and February! He's been an absolute killer in attack, but why is he even there? Because there aren't any better options. I see a defense that, on paper, should be world class, but is continually beat by the same basic tactics and is left scratching their heads and shouting at one another with misguided anger.

That anger is misguided because they can't go storm the sideline and shout at the manager, but they also don't have the freedom and flexibility tactically to adjust and to make themselves structurally better on the fly. Meanwhile, the bench is riddled with pissed off veterans who were brought in specifically to add leadership and guidance for the "talented youngsters," who are now openly bitching about a lack of playing time and undermining the whole reason they were purchased. I don't blame them either. We're not getting the results, so why are we still sending out the same squad & formation? Part of it is that the veterans on the bench aren't any better than what's out there, so Wenger's stuck (by his own hand, mind you) with a tired, exacerbated, and over-extended squad that can't find a secondary attack outside of RVP and can't defend simple long-ball tactics from the opposition.

It all comes back to Wenger. I have the utmost respect and admiration for him (dammit, I'm already prepping a disclaimer! Stop it, Erik!), but when you lose your locker room, when the players just don't want to play for you anymore, the situation becomes untenable. Arsenal and Arsene Wenger are like a bitter old couple, they feel like they've invested too much to break up, but they're just not right for each other anymore. Everyone knows it, hell, even they probably know it, but there's this sticky familiarity that forces a bad situation to persist. I think Arsene Wenger could probably go to another club and succeed immediately, and I'm sure if he takes over the France national job one day, they'll play the best football they've played in years, but the Arsenal team is stagnant and brooding, the fans are understandably-frustrated (and don't give me that "you're spoiled" shit, we can be critical of the present and still acknowledge and respect the past), and the manager's great legacy is being tarnished because no one's willing to walk away.

Wenger has set up this club for sustained success, and he's done it all with limited resources and a charge from the board to cut costs and help fund the new stadium, and I would shake his hand and ask for a photo if I ever saw him in person (let's get honest, I'd weep like a 14-year-old at a Lady Gaga concert), but Arsene Wenger isn't Arsenal, he's a part of it, for sure, but he's not the club itself, and both he and the club can survive (and even thrive) without each other. It just takes a little guts to say, "This isn't working," and then the much-needed death and rebirth can begin.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Thierry Henry - The Return of the King


Full disclosure: I think Thierry Henry is one of the greatest footballers to ever play the game. There, now that that's over with, we can have a rational, measured conversation about his epic -- and the word epic must be applied here -- game-winning goal today in the FA Cup over Leeds. For those of you who don't follow the world of football as closely as I do, and for the smaller subset of you who don't follow Arsenal as closely as I do, Thierry Henry, in one of the most dramatic transfers in my memory, recently returned to Arsenal on a two-month loan deal from New York Red Bulls. If you don't know what that means to Arsenal fans, just type in "Thierry Henry" and "Arsenal" into YouTube and say goodbye to your weekend. The greatest striker to ever wear the red and white returned to his club for what was meant to be a squad boost to a depleted front line and a locker room boost for an inconsistent, youthful team. What it became today, after his epic game-winning goal (have I mentioned it was epic?) in the , was something out of a fucking J.R.R. Tolkien book. I would apologize for my language, but I'm so freaking excited about what happened today that words of all sorts of fire and density are spewing forth like magma from an erupting volcano (AHHH!). And to answer your inevitable question, yes, volcanoes are awesome, which is why I used one as a positive analogy.

But for all the superlative adjectives I could use to describe Thierry Henry's career, what he meant to Arsenal, and what him scoring a game-winning goal (epic) tonight has done for a frustrated, albeit slightly-spoiled, fanbase, most football fans know the "Thierry Henry story." Even the staunchest anti-Arsenal fan is a fan of Thierry Henry's body of work, because, well dammit, he's just that good. He played a match tonight at a stadium where they've already erected a statue of him.

So I'm going to avoid talking about Thierry Henry's brilliant career, and talk about something small, something so miniscule-beautiful (it's a thing), that it single-handedly expresses what I love about football. When Alex Song (circled in red) received a pass from Andrei Arshavin at the top of the box, he had a myriad of options ahead of him. In this frame, Thierry Henry is off camera to the bottom left, doing what he does best: Finding a gap in the defense.


Song could've kicked it ahead short to Arteta, swung it out wide to an open winger, or pushed it into tight space where Aaron Ramsey was waiting. But Song stepped up and held onto the ball patiently, waiting for the attack to open up in front of him. He pressed forward with the ball, sucking the defense toward him, which appeared to open up a few passing lanes. From here, he still held full control of the situation, but remained patient.


Song's options were to hit the streaking winger to the top right, who then could've fed a cross into the box; pass short with Ramsay and try to open up a one-two to push him deeper into the danger zone (squealing guitars), he could've lumped it back to Arshavin, who would've had a pretty good amount of space in front of him to either hit the cross-field winger on a diagonal or take a long shot (he's good at those), or he could've tried to lay a perfectly-weighted pass in the direction of a streaking Arteta who was hustling behind the first layer of defense, but instead, he checked up, bought himself a little more time, and waited for the real chance to open up for him. Notice the four defenders forming the back line. Where are their eyes? All on Song. This is important when you see the next frame. Let's just take a big breath here, because the next frame is so beautiful it needs to be seen twice. Once without my fucked-up scribbles, and then once with them so I can actually explain what made this moment so spectacular.


Do you see it? Alex Song sees it. He's still got loads of options too, and he's collapsed the front line of the defense in on him. He basically single-handedly froze eight players just from pushing forward and holding onto the ball. Had he made a different decision, to just quickly pass it off to someone else, this whole play would've broken down.

All right, now I'll show you the same frame but with some scribbles. Get excited.


You'll notice the winger at the top right now, his arms raised, begging for the ball. What the hell? Why do people do that?! NFL receivers, Kobe Bryant, and wingers. They're all the bloody same. They all want the ball and they throw fits when they don't get it. But Alex Song is in no position to pass to that winger, and, frankly, even if he did manage to get it out wide, the left back would've had plenty of time to close and the winger would've, at best, managed to thump a cross into traffic. They're set up well to defend the cross, just not the player who snuck his way into the frame. See the circle there? That's Thierry Henry. That's one of the greatest players in the history of English football. He's completely unmarked. They're not even watching him. They're just locked onto Alex Song and the ball. And Thierry Henry, who just came back from holiday in Mexico two weeks ago, is hardly match-fit, and probably shouldn't have even played in this match, has such tremendous instincts that he immediately recognized the diagonal and made a run so sweet it should be watched and emulated by strikers around the world; it should be played over-and-over again by youth coaches to show their young strikers what a run is. He has to time it PERFECTLY, there can be no error at all, because if he times it wrong, he'll be offside and the whole thing could come crumbling to a halt. But he spotted the gap, took the chance, and we're all now better off today than we were yesterday having witnessed it.

(Also, I'd like to show this to you from a different angle, to shut up those conspiracy theorists among you who would try to ruin this incredible moment by shouting offsides. There, suck it.)



All right, back to the action.



Song threads a brilliant pass through four defenders and hits Thierry in stride. Snapshot aficionados will notice I've put an X through the winger again. He's fucking persistent, isn't he? The ball is already on the way to Thierry F&#%ing Henry, and he's still shouting for the ball. Put your hands down. Just watch. That's what the defenders will be doing in a couple seconds.


Thierry receives the ball and flicks it up in the air with a deft touch that brings tears to my eyes (his first touch is the opposite of Nicklas Bendtner's), stopping a difficult pass with tremendous skill and laying it out in perfect position at his feet. While he's running. While defenders are chasing him and a goalkeeper is about to come out toward him to close the distance. Thierry Henry's got some big ones, doesn't he?


Henry opens his body up, giving him a secondary angle to the far post, but he splits the goal in half and essentially leaves the keeper with a bit of a conundrum (left or right? Hmm!). Now, I've seen other strikers miss this shot so many times I've lost count. I've seen it smacked against the side netting, lofted over the keeper, rolled wide right (Theo Walcott's favorite one), or even just kicked right at the keeper. But I had no doubt what was going to happen when Thierry got in this position, and you can see an Arsenal player sprinting forward with his hands raised already. Apparently, he's done his Thierry homework like the rest of us (minus the defenders, who obviously watched a few MLS matches last year and thought Henry was a horse headed for the glue factory).


Look at it. Just soak it in. Let that beautiful shot make love to your eyes. Let the outstretched keeper toil in infinite space and time, the ball already behind him, 60,000 fans in mid-leap, the game, once tied, a millisecond away from being over.


Voila. The money shot. Henry sprinted down the touchline, his arms spread wide in unexpected -- but strangely expected, too -- glory. His teammates tried to mob him, but Thierry kept running down the sideline, shouting passionately at the home fans who've shown him decades worth of love and adoration. He looked like he'd just won at "Gladiator" (I'm really good at Roman history, obviously), and as he ran down the sideline, he embraced his coach, Arsene Wenger, the way a child hugs his dad after his first home run. It was fucking epic, and I got misty. It could've have been written any better.

That goal is why I love football, not just tactically, but because of the drama and the strategy behind something so simple as a well-timed run behind a weary defense. Thierry Henry is why I love football. And I'm sure as hell glad to have him back in an Arsenal jersey.