Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Olympic Quick Hits - Hazelwood

-One event that's been a disappointment so far is boxing. The scoring system is vastly different than in professional boxing making it difficult to follow, and the quality of fighting has been surprisingly low. You've probably already seen the famous bite clip, but look at it again and don't just focus on the bite - instead, notice how immediately the fighters go into a wrestling hug at the beginning of the round, typical of the general sloppiness the fights.

-An interesting photo essay on China's very youthful female gymnastics team.

-Even with the sense of unfairness in the women's gymnastics event overall - not only from the underage controversy but a puzzling bronze for China's Cheng Fei over Alicia Sacramone in the vault despite a crash landing - gymnastics has been surprisingly fun to watch. While I can't completely shake the suspicion that I'm being tricked into watching ballet, the athletic feats are pretty mindblowing - especially on the suspended parallel rings.

-All other sporting events seem like they're being pushed to the back page, but in case you missed it, the Rays are now in first by 4.5 over Boston.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Olympic Quick Hits - Agent Easy

- Phelps
Ok, most everything has been said. The enduring images of Phelps will be his Lezak primal scream, out-touching Cavic, and maybe even the goggle toss, when he won the 200 Butterfly without being able to see.

Just as revealing were Phelps' reactions to his other wins. For example, check out how he reacted to winning the 200 IM, in WR time no less. No excitement, barely any joy, only a controlled and almost perfunctory salute to the crowd. It was matter-of-fact. His lack of enthusiasm after the 200 Butterfly win was just as telling as his head shakes and deep breaths of elation and relief once on the medal stand for the 100 Butterfly (The Cavic race). Phelps had said from day one that 8 golds was his goal and this accounted for the most striking aspect of his time in Beijing, that for him the individual races were subjugated to that larger goal. And thus we saw that startling image of an athlete not celebrating a gold medal.

- Women's Gymnastics
Despite it's name, considering that the senior members of the teams are still teens, Girls Gymnastic seems more appropriate. With this in mind, it was somewhat discomfiting to see the steely looks of determination and focus on faces that you're used to seeing exclaim "We're BFFs!"

They would refuse to even look at each other when standing feet apart awaiting they're respective turns. Sure, it's what's expected from a high class athlete, but not from a high school girl, and it was difficult to reconcile the two.

To confuse me further, the formality of the presentation was peculiar itself: between events they were marched single-file, all the while looking straight ahead, as if they weren't permitted to acknowledge the crowd except for the specified times when they should curtsy after completing a routine.

Sticking with the age theme, was anyone else struck by the particularly high cut of their uniforms? Ok, obviously people were noticing, but if we're speculating that some of these girls aren't even 14, isn't anyone at all perturbed by this? Then again, I suppose the times, they are a changin...

- Usain Bolt's 100M
Thankfully only a few people have complained or bothered to characterize Bolt's jubilation as "antics." That celebration was full of joy and positivity and was so completely in the moment; it lacked the sometimes stale feel of premeditated endzone celebrations.

I don't buy the idea that it was showboating. The kid has been racing the 100M for only a year, and though yes, he did break the WR a few months ago, he didn't strike me as someone so full of himself that he slowed up to taunt the other racers. Rather, he looked to the right at the end of the race because the man to beat, Asafa Powell, was to his right, and when he saw no one, the chest pounding that followed came from exuberance, not from gloating.

While the analysts speculated that he could have made up as much as another full tenth of a second had he run the race in full, and thus completely obliterated the previous record, the image of him pumping his arms and pounding his chest, winning the race with such flare and still breaking the record at 9.69 - the visual of it all - will be just as, if not more memorable than a lower time. Without that memorable finish to go with it, the record would be just like any other as it would eventually be lowered over the years and at some point Bolt's name would be relegated to the level of nostalgia currently afforded LeRoy Burrell. Instead, the image of Bolt crossing the finish line will have Beamon-like staying power.

Of course Bolt made all of this moot when he broke Michael Johnson's already ridiculous 200M record, and thus cemented his legacy irrespective of his boyish joy.

-Agent Easy

Monday, August 11, 2008

The 4X100 Free Was Awesome

I watched the 4x100 Freestyle Relay in a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The bar was packed and the TVs were on with the sound off. More importantly, the bar was packed with hipsters, a group that generally does not care too much about sports, and only one tv was showing the games.

The French team's quote flashed on the screen as the teams were warming up.

"The Americans? We're going to smash them. That's what we came here for."

That comment only received minimal murmurs of boos. Obviously, relatively few people among the crowd of 100+ were paying attention, but for those that were, it got them that much more amped for the race. My group, for instance, tried to spread the antagonistic word as much as possible.

As the race went on, the din grew louder; more and more people were watching.

The crowd gave bursts of cheers anytime the Americans took, or even simply battled for, the lead, and conversely, responded with "ughs" of disappointment anytime they gave ground.

The cheers were trumping the "ughs" as Jason Lezak jumped in the pool for the anchor lap, though I would bet the majority (myself included) had assumed that it was Phelps swimming the last leg.

The cheers grew during the first 50 meters as Lezak was close to even with Alain Bernard (the author of the above quote), and they even culminated in a "USA" chant as they approached the turn. Though immediately after, the bar fell silent when we saw the gap in the turnaround, Bernard suddenly seeming to lead by more than ever before, and instantly the room's anxiety was palpable.

As Lezak started gaining ground in the middle of the pool, the crowd went from resigned disappointment to hope in those five seconds; the murmur grew and had already burst into screams by the time he touched the wall. This time, when the official finish flashed, the 100+ of us sustained the drunken USA chants for much longer, replete with fist pumps and bar slaps.

That was then followed by a cacophony of "wows" and everyone catching their breath.

Just as the chant had died down, and a chant of "Fuck the French" had failed to gain traction, NBC showed the replay and a loud burst a of "Yeahs" answered. They showed the replay again not 10 seconds later, and as Lezak touched the wall, now for the third time, another huge cheer came . And then they showed the replay again and again, maybe 10 more times, and each time as Lezak touched the wall the entire bar erupted with yet another hurrah.

The bar exchanged high fives and traded exclamations of excitement, and the high lingered as everyone seemed to be less shocked by the actual race, and more surprised at the spontaneous passion that it inspired.

-Agent Easy

Update: A cool interactive graphic of the race (NYT)

Friday, August 8, 2008

Team Handball: Fun for the Whole Family

With 34 Olympic sports to choose from, you're probably going to stick to the standard American diet of Basketball, Track and Field, the Michael Phelps watch, Baseball, the recently popular Women's Beach Volleyball, and maybe some boxing.

A suggestion: Team Handball
Not to be confused with the sport practiced by the old guy at your rec center, wailing on a racquetbal with a gloved hand, wearing a tank top and prominently displaying his shoulder hair, this is NBA-type athleticism and fast paced ball movement coupled with the occasional body check or bear hug take-down. (Absence of shoulder hair not guaranteed).

The rule breakdown, quick and dirty: On a hardwood court, with a smallish rubbery, grippable soccer-styled ball, dribbling and and only limited steps allowed, players unleash shots from outside a six meter boundry. A goalie tries to get in the way.

The defensive rules are a bit vague, leaving it only at "frontal contact," so it gets pretty physical. If you don't believe me, you'll surely believe the Batmanesque graphic at the 2 minute mark of this video.

Holy-airtime Robin, this video is even better.

It's sometimes called "European Handball" so its not surprising that the favorites are Euros, namely Germany and Croatia, and that the US didn't even qualify. But, c'mon, there are guys out there making YouTube highlight videos of this stuff; that's reason enough to watch right there.

Here's NBC's official "what to expect" write-up.

-Agent Easy

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Jets' QB Gamble

It's hard to touch the Favre soap opera without feeling dirty, but against my better judgment... the Jets may have actually made a smart move in acquiring him.

Earlier in the offseason we puzzled over the Jets' offseason strategy, in which they paid big for veteran players despite coming off a 4-12 season when rebuilding seems the right approach. In particular, we questioned the decision to acquire veteran o-linemen like Alan Faneca and Damien Woody when there wasn't a quarterback in place to make the offense run, having only the weak-armed Pennington and raw Clemens as their choices.

I still think the Jets should have gone into rebuilding mode, but, in the context of their "win-now" strategy, for this year, getting Favre makes some sense, especially as it was done on the cheap. Although the memory of it has been erased by an embarrassing INT to end the postseason and an even more embarrassing offseason, Favre did have a very good 2007 season with 28 TDs and 15 picks (his lowest total since 2001). If he can come close to that this year, it would be a considerable improvement over what either Pennington (who'll find a new address soon) or Clemens is likely to do this year, and, as it's hard to imagine Favre playing more than a season in NY, it shouldn't delay Clemens's development by very long.

And if Favre can't produce for the Jets? They only have to give up a fourth-round pick; as the compensation for Favre depends on his playing time and the Jets' winning, they only have to give up a high round pick to Green Bay if the experiment works.

The Jets are a good fit in another way: while sending a new face into a QB controversy might seem to increase the chaos, you don't have the problem of undermining an established starting QB (as would have been the case in Tampa, for example).

Of course, there are some nightmare scenarios - Favre plays poorly and the coaching staff doesn't have the guts to bench him, or his careless, self-absorbed attitude rubs off on the rest of the team.

But, for a team like the Jets that has already shelled out to put other pieces in place to try for a return to the playoffs, this trade might be a risk worth taking. The Favre saga as a whole has made a lot of parties look bad - Favre, the Packers, and most of the sports media for its obsessive, gossipy coverage of the whole thing - but the Jets might end up looking good.


Monday, August 4, 2008

The Pudge Trade: What's In It for Detroit?

It's no surprise for a borderline playoff contender like Detroit to seek out pitching help, especially as their weak bullpen is a major part of their disappointing 2008 showing. What is strange is that they acquired him in a deal with no clear buyer or seller, and so gave up another "win now" kind of player in Pudge Rodriguez instead of the typical practice of giving up prospects for immediate help.

This would make more sense if there was a great young catcher waiting in the wings for Detroit, but that's not the case. Since the Pudge trade, they've been going mostly with Brandon Inge, a light-hitting career third baseman who'd already been slated as the likely 2009 catcher, and longtime minor leaguer Dane Sardinha.

It's possible that the Tigers front office considered it worth sacrificing some offense, which they have in abundance, for some help with pitching which, again, has been a weakness all season. Even so, the move has weakened the Tigers' defense: the Rays challenged them on the basepaths during a weekend sweep, going 3 for 5 in stolen bases on Friday and 2 for 3 in on Saturday - aggressive even by Tampa's standards.

The Tigers' decision to trade Pudge seems to lie in Detroit's offseason blockbuster deal for Cabrera and Willis which improved their lineup (if not their rotation) for this year, but, along with earlier trades, drained the organization of prospects. Needing bullpen help, the Tigers apparently had no choice but to give a present contributor. So far the risk hasn't paid off, as Detroit has lost four straight and has fallen even further behind Chicago and Minnesta in the standings.