I used to enjoy ESPN's The Sports Reporters. It was a Meet the Press for the sports world. They discussed the issues of the day in a humorous, but still journalistic vein. Host Dick Schaap was a dignified, well-spoken, diplomatic consensus builder resolving any issue among his guests with a droll aside. I looked forward to it every Sunday.
Little did I know that it would lead to sports journalism being ruled by sound-bite heads shouting each other down.
Schaap passed away, and with him the spirit of the show died. But that didn't stop ESPN from proliferating the show with The Sports Reporters II, Pardon the Interruption, and now the Jim Rome Is Burning (we don't need no water yudda yudda) show. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon were frequent guests on the old Sports Reporters and had their fair share of gibes and well-played points, but they were always within the Schaap-inspired context of the show. As the hosts of PTI, Kornheiser and Wilbon "play" two angry sports fans shouting at each other with ill-conceived, ill-researched, and ill-mannered opinions, or more to the point rants (not that there's anything wrong with it). Bob Ryan, another frequent Sports Reporter guest was suspended recently by the Boston Globe for obnoxious comments he made about Jason Kidd's wife that must have sounded like a great sound-bite to his id at the time.
That is the root of the problem, this type of "reporting" is so contextually based that unbelievable comments may be uttered by somewhat intelligent people but they sound reasonable at the time. It's some ultra-cool sports journalism Fight Club that is understood on a visceral level but nobody talks about (since that's the first rule of Fight Club after all).
Along the same lines, a guilty pleasure appeared on Comedy Central a few years ago that poked fun at the politically correct world with two hosts who played dumb boors but were obviously smart, sophisticated individuals. Yes, they were offensive but they made fun of themselves and the medium they exploited. I'm talking about Frasier of course? No, sad to say, I mean The Man Show. I never watched it regularly but if I passed it by channel surfing, it was always good for a chuckle or two. When one of the hosts, Jimmy Kimmel, was given his own late-night show, I thought that he could shake up the genre the way Letterman did in the Eighties. Unfortunately, his show has been a crashing bore and will probably soon go the way of the deer-in-the-headlights-ness that was the Chevy Chase Show.
What do these two things have to do with each other you ask?
Enter one Bill Simmons, who is a columnist of sorts for ESPN2 (the Deuce, you say?). He is a sound-biter of the highest, or lowest, order as well as a writer on the ill-fated Kimmel Dead show.
Simmons recently wrote about Roger Clemens' failed attempt to secure his 300th win against his former teammates and Mr. (and I use the word loosely) Simmons' favorite team, the Red Sox. You see, Simmons still carries a grudge against Clemens for having the audacity to have left his beloved Sox in the first place. He wrote an article a few years ago explaining why Clemens is the antichrist. It's kind of a funny idea if done with the proper tone, but Simmons' ham-fisted screed against Clemens that totally ignored the facts regarding Clemens' career as well as his departure from Beantown was far from funny. It was a good sound bite though. He presented the rest of the sports world as some sort of idealized Rockwellian romp that was despoiled by the roué (Clemens), who deflowered the girl, er, franchise while continually twirling his evil moustache.
In the non-300-win article, Simmons calls Clemens a "traitor" who "sold out an entire city. He didn't care about us." Simmons relayed that when Clemens was hit on the hand during win 299, also against the Red Sox, he "was muttering under my breath, 'I hope it's broken in eight places.'" Look, I'm a Philadelphia fan, and I know mean-spirited fandom.
I have witnessed, but never participated in, my fellow fans cheering a severe injury to the Cowboy's Michael Irving, throwing batteries at J.D. Drew, and throwing snowballs at Santa Claus. And even I cannot understand wishing serious injury to an opposing player, especially one who for so long plied his trade for your team. When Robert Person entered the Clemens game as a Red Sox reliever, I gave him a hand, not that he could hear it (or heaven forefend, the Yankees fans in my section could), but he had played for my Phils and I just wanted to tip my cap to him.
So back to the mouth that roared: why did Simmons so hate Clemens that he would enjoy a serious injury to the Rocket? He gives us three reasons in his diatribe-"there are three smoking guns against Clemens which are indisputable". I will list them and review the basis in reality, if any, in each:
"1. After signing with Toronto -- and let there be no doubt, Clemens grabbed the highest offer -- he didn't spend more than five seconds thanking the Boston fans in the 'I'm fleeing for Canada even though I always said I would only play for Boston or Texas' press conference."
So? Ballplayers say a lot of things. "I'll never play for them" or "I only want to play for them" or "it's not about the money". Playing baseball is a job. It's always been a job and it will always be a job. If your heroes don't live up to your expectations by taking less money to stay with an organization that sees him as being in "the twilight of his career" when he still have at least three Cy Youngs in his arm, then maybe you should stick to fiction instead of reality.
Clemens was a free agent. Toronto offered him a lot of money. Dan Duquette was busy running the Red Sox into the ground. He didn't believe in Clemens. He wrote at the time:
"For a number of reasons -- such as his health and conditioning, poor run support and minimal support from the bullpen -- his record and performance had slipped in his last few years with the Red Sox."
The numbers clearly do not suggest that Clemens let himself go physically. In fact, he averaged a whopping 125 pitches per start in '96, a career high. And if somehow you did think Clemens wasn't in proper condition while posting the second-best strikeout rate of his career and throwing his career high in pitches per start, wouldn't you keep him to find out what he could do by "getting into shape?"
Clemens did have a few injuries toward the end of his career with Boston, but isn't that part of the game? Doesn't it happen to a number of athletes without the claim that they are "dogging it"?
For Clemens' part he explains the departure as so:
"It's no different than one corporation asking you to work for them, saying we want you, and the other corporation lets you go," Clemens said. "It's pretty easy. If [the Red Sox] had gotten anywhere close in the ballpark it would have been an easy decision [to stay]."
Bill, if CNN/SI offered you twice what you were making at ESPN, are you seriously going to tell us that you would stay with ESPN? If so, you are as dumb as you sound.
Look, sports are big business. He worked his tail off; he left. Now move on.
As shall I, to this "throwing the fans a bone issue." What bone? And to whom should he throw it? Simmons talks about Drew Bledsoe taking out full-page ads thanking the fans. Well, that's nice, but he still left and what does your "thank you" get you? Besides why thank a city and a team that had made it clear you were no longer wanted.
"2. The following spring, Mr. Ungrateful arrived in Toronto in the best shape of his career. Why? As he kept telling reporters, he wanted to prove to Boston management that they were wrong about him."
Maybe Clemens wanted to prove that he was not in the twilight of his career. He had a personal challenge and he did his best to overcome it.
David Eckstein is revered for considering his height, or lack thereof, as a personal challenge that he had to overcome. Sports figures especially the ones getting longer in the tooth are fighting the detritus that befalls their bodies on a daily basis. So Clemens had a place to focus that challenge, the Red Sox management. He got himself in great shape and owes the latter half of his career to that training regimen. Good for him.
J-Lo uses a past relationship that ended badly to impel her forward and she's Driven. Clemens does it and he's a wicked a-hole? He was no longer on your team. When he was, he pitched well. Move on.
"3. Frustrated by the losing in Toronto, Clemens orchestrates a shady trade to our archrivals -- the Yankees, a little like switching over from the Bloods to the Crips -- with help from an illegal 'You can ask for a trade if you're not happy after two years' clause in his contract."
First, "illegal"? If the contract were illegal, why didn't the Jays take it to court?
Second, he was 35 and coming of his best back-to-back years of his career. His team was treading water, and he wanted a championship. He had an opportunity to go to a sports dynasty. Why not explore that opportunity?
No one forced the Blue Jays to offer Clemens an out in his contract. They're big boys with big lawyers, who all knew what the implications were. They got three major-league players in the trade so don't bleed for the Blue Jays.
Besides, aren't you a Red Sox fan? What do you care if Clemens screws over Toronto? What does it have to do with you?
And don't talk about shady trades when Boston has been able to exploit its close ties to Bud Selig to pick a star player off of the baseball-owned Expos roster and retrieve a player who had signed a contract with a Japanese team. Let's discuss illegalities for a second...
To sum up, "he just doesn't give a crap. And that's the root of the problem here. That's why Roger Clemens is the only modern-day superstar who doesn't belong to a single city."
First, that's not true. Bonds played for Pittsburgh and the Giants. Maddux, the Cubs and Braves. Glavine, the Braves and Mets. Randy Johnson, four clubs. And your beloved Pedro Martinez started life as a Dodger, blossomed as an Expo, and then was wrested away from Montreal by a richer organization, your Sox. And by the way, Larry Bird coached the Pacers, not the Celtics. And you beloved Bobby Orr finished his career with the Blackhawks, you moron--sorry, it just slipped out.
And second, of course Clemens doesn't care about you. Is he supposed to be altruistic or is he supposed to play baseball? As Durocher said, "Nice guys finish last." You had a great pitcher for many years. That does not mean that he has to send you flowers the morning after or call you the next week. The fans are big boys. They can handle it.
By the way, Simmons says that:
There are many ways to figure out true Sox fans -- like when someone calls Bill Mueller "Mule-er" (it's pronounced like "Miller")
Are you really that mental? Mueller played seven seasons in San Fran and Chicago before you, who are afflicted with a Boston-strain of baseball myopia, discovered him.
This is really what it's all about, isn't it? I have defended my choice of Boston fans as the best on my "About Me" to Yankees fans on numerous occasions. I harken back to my days at Fenway when I lived in Boston in the late Eighties and Early Nineties. It was a time when older fans seemed to collect around the infield portion of the stands keeping score and discussing the pros and cons of certain strategies employed in the game. In the outfield bleachers, younger fans enjoyed a college-like atmosphere, tossing beach balls and acting obstreperously charming.
I finally realize that those days are gone. Maybe it was the strike. Maybe it was Dan Duquette. Maybe it was the end of the Yawkey regime. Maybe it was the deification of this "Curse of the Bambino" tripe.
Whatever the cause, I can no longer characterize the Red Sox fans as the most intelligent any longer. When the spirit of the fans is typified by troglodytic, self-involved, self-important horses asses like Simmons, I have to reassess my opinion. For the time being, I'll leave the space fallow while I mull it over. It's not as if it matters to anyone else, but it matters to me.