August 29, 2012

Back to football.

Roughly 11 months ago, I wrote a post about leaving the Philadelphia Eagles behind.

To put it mildly, I was frustrated. I was enjoying football less and appreciating other sports more. Sunday afternoons no longer had the same all-encompassing allure of years past, and the underachieving Eagles certainly weren't helping matters.

So, with the 2012 NFL season just about to start, how am I feeling about my footballs?

Well, I'd certainly rather live in a world with the sport than one without it, that's for sure.

As for the Eagles, I feel surprisingly hopeful. It might sound crazy, but I think that karma might be on their side. They didn't bring any new shitheads onboard, and they made good with some of their key veterans. If you value things like "chemistry" and "continuity," this year's team should have both in spades.

I like what Andy Reid and Howie Roseman did in the offseason. After one of the most disappointing 8-8 seasons in recent league history, it took some guts to run it back. This team was probably too talented to dismantle, but to try again with virtually the same roster -- not including picks and/or injuries -- is bold. And potentially stupid.

On paper, though, it's hard to argue with any of it. Talented players were resigned or extended. Promising rookies were snagged in what seems like a very impressive draft.

And the next in a long line of beloved backup quarterbacks has arrived.

The offensive line will be greatly weakened without Jason Peters; I wouldn't be surprised to see LeSean McCoy "regress" from All-Pro to Pro Bowler. At the very least, expecting 17 rushing touchdowns again is foolish.

It's also very unlikely that Michael Vick will play all 16 regular season games, which makes Nick Foles that much more valuable/prone to arouse controversy. But even if some people clamor for Nick "Mick" Foles-y, we all know that the team's going nowhere without Vick.

Which is fine; how many teams have two Super Bowl-caliber quarterbacks? Even with a "fragile" quarterback like Vick, it's asking a lot to stash another guy who can do more than just fill in.

Either way, we can say with almost near certainty that someone with a name (first or last) that ends in -ick will be at QB for most of 2012. Sorry, Trent Edwards.

It's a very talented team. Maybe among the best in football. But that and two bucks will buy you a bowl of soup; can Reid, Juan Castillo and Marty Mornhinweg turn these lovable scamps into a contender?

Obviously, Juan raises the most eyebrows. But at the end of last December, right before the finale of a very stirring football-themed post, I wrote this:
"Give Andy and Juan ... one more season to show what they've got."
And I'm glad I said that, because I still feel the same today. (That's the best/worst part about having a blog: Your opinions are retained forever, or as long as the Internet exists.)

Although a quick read through the terrific Eagles Almanac (summary: the team would've been better off playing a painfully simple base defense all year than struggling to adopt Juan's unnecessarily complicated schemes) threw cold water on some of that end-of-2011 optimism, I believe that Castillo will have learned from at least some of his mistakes. I think a full offseason, a slightly recalibrated secondary and a remarkably deep defensive line will bring forth an above-average defense, and the team can reenact the original 2011 strategy of "outscore the other team early and pound the shit out of their QB late."

Frankly, I'm still more concerned about the possible disappearance of NHL games than I am about the inevitable reappearance of NFL games. But that doesn't mean I won't be rooting for my Eagles, watching games (mostly theirs, but occasionally others) every Sunday and hoping that the luck of the Irish shines Philadelphia's way. It's nearly impossible to escape football in America; you have to be a hermit or an unrepentant dick to get away. And since I'm (mostly) neither, I won't even bother.

But I reserve the right, if need be, to write 2,000 more words about how much they totally suck come November.

August 9, 2012

Kevin Nash and his place in pro wrestling history.

Until Thomas Golianopoulos came along, I didn't know the world needed 3,500 words on Kevin Nash.

But his excellent piece on Nash, his career and the aftermath got me thinking. How will Kevin Nash be remembered?

To many people, he's probably just that big dude who pretended to be a bodyguard/truck driver for a while and then started the nWo. And that's really all you need.

But for wrestling fans, it's never that simple. And most fans, especially those who frequent the Internet, hate Kevin Nash.

To them, Nash is the guy who kept Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero down for so many years. The wrestler-slash-booker who ruled over WWF and WCW with an iron fist, who pushed his Kliq buddies to the top and buried rising stars like Bill Goldberg when it served his purposes.

The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder why this viewpoint, which still rests on a lot of general speculation and rumors, somehow tarnishes Nash's wrestling career.

I've always assumed -- and the article confirms this a few times over -- that Nash is a smart guy. For one thing, he's still alive, which is more than most elderly professional wrestlers can say.

So how much can we blame him working his way into a position of power, for using his intelligence and skill at handling backstage politics to ensure a lengthy run at the top? It sounds like, to him, pro wrestling was and is a job. He was a floor manager at a strip club until he stumbled upon a new career that revolves around yelling into a microphone and fake-punching people, and it made him millions of dollars.

Now, I don't mean to excuse Nash of any wrongdoings along the way. But I know a little about how wrestling operates, and to me, he sounds more and more like the only sane person amongst a swarm of overenthusiastic psychopaths.

I really enjoyed the book Ring of Hell, a detailed look at the life of Chris Benoit and everything that led up to the eventual murder-suicide that forever changed the world of pro wrestling. The author, Matthew Randazzo V, paints Benoit as mentally imbalanced long before he committed any crimes. This isn't because he tortured little animals or terrorized his family; it's because he was hopelessly devoted to professional wrestling. Because he'd bash his own head in, day after day, just to put on a show. To be the best wrestler he could be, even if the pay was minimal, the audiences were nonexistent and a rise to the top of the industry was far from a certainty.

Randazzo has a point. Pro wrestlers are, by and large, insane. They have no union. I believe they pay for their own travel and their own health care. Most of them wrestle because it's what they were raised to do, what they were surrounded by as children. They throw themselves into these jobs (and you have to, because there are only so many) and most of them never come out the other end.

The logical way to approach a pro wrestling career is to get in and get out. Make as much money as you can, as fast as you can, and escape while you're still breathing. But when it's all you know, how do you just walk away? Most don't, and that's why the attrition rate is so damn high.

It was a little easier for Kevin Nash; he backed his way into the industry by virtue of being a giant. He's what most wrestling promoters are looking for, or at least what they were looking for, back in his day. Guys like Benoit and Guerrero had to battle for every inch, but Nash was essentially handed the heavyweight title in 1994. His path to wrestling fame, and the cash that accompanies it, was a lot less bumpy than most people's.

But from what I hear about the Benoits and the Guerreros of the world, it wasn't about fame or money to them. They wanted to be heavyweight champion because it meant you were number one. Like Bret Hart before them, they thought the belt was real. That it was something you could, and should, earn through hard work and commitment.

Which is absolutely insane. It's all fake. Vince McMahon and a team of writers decide who has the WWE title and why, and they can force you to drop it to someone else at any moment. For many wrestlers, the obsessed ones, its a carrot to dangle in front of their faces. "Go out and kill yourself every night, and maybe we'll think about giving you this hunk of metal in a few years."

Kevin Nash is the smart one. He understood, and understands, how this all works. He seems like a dick, and he probably buried a few careers unnecessarily along the way, but he found an industry that operates in a remarkably outdated fashion and capitalized. A lot of the backstage stories that emerge, about how Nash would hold both WWF and WCW hostage with ridiculous demands, are probably at least a little tinged with jealousy. As Diamond Dallas Page says in Golianopoulos's story, if someone like Kevin Nash had been in charge of his career, he'd probably have a few more million bucks. I suspect a lot of guys, looking back, feel the same.

And he ended up making his company, and everyone associated with it, a whole lot of money, too. He was one of the biggest reasons that WCW rose to the top in the 1990s; "smaller" guys like Jericho and Dean Malenko might not have had such a highly rated television program to show off on without Nash, Hulk Hogan and the nWo. And the desire to see those "vanilla midgets" rise to the top, the wave of support that led McMahon to offer them serious WWF contracts, that wouldn't have existed without Nash and his cronies "holding them back."

But even if he wasn't good for the business, even if he did value the careers of himself and his friends over a bunch of wrestlers who didn't necessarily look the part, to bash him for these presumed crimes seems to be buying a little too deeply into the twisted world of pro wrestling politics. Because it's not about right and wrong with pro wrestlers (and the devoted fans who love it). It's about perception, and dedication, and how much of your life you're willing to turn over to an industry that chews people up and spits them out.

Guys like Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero are put up on pedestals for giving it their all, and then they kill their families or die of drug-induced heart attacks. All enthusiastic pro wrestlers aren't necessarily degenerates, or twisted individuals. But maybe what makes them so enthusiastic is a flaw that can be neatly repackaged as a virtue. Maybe one day, when we look back on the history of pro wrestling, we'll see the ones who got out early and (relatively) healthy, who took what they needed for their families and moved on to less detrimental careers, as the only reasonable men in a business that should've been dismantled a long time ago.

August 1, 2012

Interesting trades considered.

This is what happens to a team that's 45-57 at the trade deadline.

You have a five-tool player like Shane Victorino who's about to hit free agency, and you have an arbitration-eligible, name-value bat like Hunter Pence.

And you trade them both.

Maybe you don't get an excellent return. Certainly nothing close to what the Phillies gave up for Pence a year ago.

But you get what you can, and you move on.

Although we don't know what else was out there, the haul can be certainly critiqued. There's no Jonathan Singleton or Jarred Cosart coming back, and there's nobody who'll make a big difference next season.

The crown jewel is Tommy Joseph, who should unseat Sebastian Valle as the "catcher of the future." Baseball America had him as San Francisco's number two prospect. John Sickels had him at number three. Everyone agrees that he's got some pop.

As for the rest, Nate Schierholtz is probably just good enough to avoid being shot into the sun. Seth Rosin has actually been called the "real steal of the deal." And Josh Lindblom is a cheap right-handed reliever who's already accustomed to pitching in the late innings. Try to ignore the fact that he kinda stinks.

Maybe they should've moved Victorino weeks ago, if only to shake things up. Maybe they'll really miss Pence in 2013, even though his OPS this year is lower than Pedro Alvarez's. It's more likely that his .954 OPS in 2011's 236 plate appearances was the real aberration; he's a complementary player, and soon to be an expensive one at that.

For better or worse (and it's looking like worse), Ruben Amaro Jr. really went for it last season. The Phillies were 68-39, six games up in the division, before throwing Pence onto the pile. If that team wins a championship, the second in four seasons, nobody cares about a post-title meltdown.

They didn't win a championship, though, and now they suffer the consequences. Key pieces have been sold at auction, and they're still short (at least) two outfielders and a third baseman for 2013.

Throwing gigantic contracts at stars won't solve the problem. There are a few decent guys available this offseason, but no one who will singlehandedly put the Phillies over the top. And there's no guarantee they'll want to come to Philadelphia, either. Much like his mentor Pat Gillick, Amaro is going to have to fill in the margins. So far, that hasn't been his strong suit.

Doesn't mean he'll have to dumpster dive; the team's under the luxury tax, and I'm sure those in charge are well aware that the winning needs to resume post-haste. Offer some of those outfield bucks to Michael Bourn. Make a run at trading for Chase Headley. Maybe sign someone injury-prone but talented, like Shaun Marcum, to fill out the rotation (ensuring that Kyle Kendrick will remain a very expensive long-man). Try not to splurge on expensive relievers, but if you must, bring in someone a little more reliable than Chad Qualls.

A few moves like those would strongly reinforce my belief that the window hasn't slammed shut just yet. A lot internally still has to go right. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard need to get -- and stay -- healthy. Domonic Brown must become a legitimate everyday outfielder. Roy Halladay needs to summon up at least one more ace-like season. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels must pitch like Cy Young candidates again.

But the potential is there. There's some hope that 2012 isn't the beginning of the dark ages. A savvy general manager should be able to take his barrel of cash and turn three aces, 30 homers from first, two solid (when healthy) veteran middle infielders and a top closer back into a contender. I guess we'll see how savvy Ruben Amaro Jr. really is.