Tuesday, February 14, 2012

On swimsuits and the rest ....

I'm not one of these people who spends a lot of time moaning and groaning about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. But that's only because if I waste a minute worrying about it, I may forget to sort my socks.

This year's edition is out, with Kate Upton graduating from mere swimsuit model to the cover. Good for her, I suppose. It'll certainly do wonders for her career.

But just because I don't spend a lot of time getting exorcised over the annual SI Swimsuit Issue thing doesn't mean I don't have opinions. I always have opinions.

Here are some of mine ... on this subject anyway.

First, one of my favorite SI issues of the year isn't so much the swimsuit. I can take or leave that, really. No. It's the issue after the swimsuit, when the letters to the editor cut a wide swath between faux righteous indignation and downright creepy worship of the women who model the swimsuits.

To those who would kill more trees complaining about the issue, I have a solution. Don't buy it. Don't read it. Don't let it into your house. That way, you can't see it, and it won't eat at you to the point where you have to look totally ridiculous complaining about it. Unless, of course, your goal in all of this is to amuse me. Then ... OK. Have at it. Because it is amusing.

To those on the other end of the spectrum: Please. I've seen less creepy letters in Playboy and Penthouse (which I only read for the articles).

Now, to be serious for a few minutes. If your idea of a harbinger of spring is to look at women in swimsuits, have at it. Myself? I get a bigger thrill out of watching the truck leave Fenway Park in February.

Somewhere in the back of my mind is the notion that Sports Illustrated, which otherwise does a damn good job telling the story behind the story about the world's biggest athletic events, adds to the culture of objectifying women -- whether it's doing so with tongue planted firmly in cheek (which, at this stage of the game, is most likely the case) or it actually thinks producing the issue counts as compelling journalism.

And you can be sure that with each hysterically overwrought letter protesting the issue, there are guffaws of laughter at SI's headquarters and ever more resolve, as a result, to keep printing it. And in the grand tradition of the American free enterprise system, I'll bet the money SI rakes in via advertising and increase sales helps the magazine finance some of the other, good, things it does the rest of the year.

However, it's just that sometimes, I just feel that the exploitation of someone like Kate Upton, who's only 19, is just as creepy as some of those those letters can be.

I know Kate Upton probably got paid a bundle for the shoots that ended up with her on the cover. Kate's probably good for the entire year -- and maybe then some -- with the money she's received. So in that sense, it's hard to make the argument that she was exploited at all.

But make it we do. Because even if there's more than a little hint of teenage-boy cheekiness about all of this, the issue reinforces the notion -- which I think is still a strong one -- that there are still environments in this world where women advance to the level of their looks, and not their talents and abilities.

By all means, enjoy the issue. I'm an SI subscriber, and the magazine has taken to putting a box inside the front cover asking people like me to let them know if they do not want to receive this issue. I didn't bother responding this year, which means it'll come to my house, the way it always does, and that it'll go largely ignored. I suppose that even in my apathy over it, I'm contributing to its yearly presence in our lives, and I accept that.

We still live in a world where style trumps substance. You see it every day. And the SI swimsuit issue really reinforces that superficiality.

It's a free country, however. SI is free to publish the issue, and we're free to either buy it or skip the honor. Or, if you're me, allow it to be mailed to our homes every February so it can sit on the coffee table.

OK. End of rant ... even if it was a mild rant.


Today's Valentine's Day, which, if you're so inclined, is the day you can shout your love from one end of the world to the other without looking overly mawkish about it.

Or, at least, it would appear to be that way.

Sorry to be so cynical. It's just that as I get older, it dawns on me more and more that Valentine's Day is getting to be just like Christmas, except the sentiment is a little different.

You'll notice that around Christmas time, people seem to be nicer. For that one week out of 52, the idea of good will toward men (and maybe even peace on earth) seems to penetrate our thick veneers. And as soon as January 2 comes around, all that good will goes right back into the box, and, they used to say on the Outer Limits, we resume our normal programming.

Valentine's Day seems to be when everyone freely expresses love, buys flowers and cards (this is not only a Hallmark Holiday but a florist's delight as well), and springs for dinner.

And what happens on February 15? "honey, there are leftovers in the fridge."

Again, to be serious, I have nothing against Valentine's Day. It's just that if we're all not careful, that love we so freely shout out to the world every February 14 can quickly get swallowed up the other 364 days of the year by the stress of work, the demands of life, bills, finances, health issues, the ruts we're all prone to fall into, too much TV or too much computer, and -- maybe most of all -- the rigors of parenting.

It's nice to have a day for celebrating love. It's better to do it all the time. And best, especially if there is no special "someone," to shower yourself with a little of that love and celebrate who you are.


Just a word or two about the Grammy's (which obviously took the entire spotlight away from everything else Sunday night after Whitney Houston's untimely death).

I've always told people that if I could be anyone in the world, I'd pick Bono because of the power his words have over millions of people. But Sunday, at least, I'd have changed all that and decided to be David Grohl.

First, Grohl struck a chord with people like me, who value hard work, musicianship, and talent over the increasing encroachment of technology into the mix. He said music isn't so much about being perfect, but that it germinates from the heart and the mind. And as far as he's concerned, if it's not in either of those two places, it's not anywhere.

Amen. This is one of the reasons that, especially on a night that reached back and celebrated an era where all of music was made that way (Paul McCartney, the Beach Boys and Glen Campbell), the Foo Fighters were recognized as much as they were.

The other reason I'd have gladly traded places with David Grohl for the night is that he looked like the happiest person on the planet up there jamming with McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Joe Walsh et al during the Abbey Road finale. Watching him (and them) go at it? That's music ... the unbridled joy you get from performing for people. It was awesome, and it was easily the highlight of the show.

Other Grammy observations ...

Who, or what, is a Nikki Manaj, and what on earth was that all about?

It is obviously sad and tragic that Whitney Houston died. But because she died the night before the awards show, and because most everyone feels her tortured lifestyle played a role, the amount of grief displayed Sunday night for her was disproportionate in comparison to say, Clarence Clemons, who is truly a giant in his own right, and who was acknowledged only in the litany of "those who have left us" toward the end of the show.

So it's even sadder to read that there was supposed to be a tribute to Clemons, but that it got bumped to make room for Jennifer Hudson's tribute to Whitney. Boy, I could think of a few other things that could have been bumped to make room for Clarence ... like, maybe, Nikki Minaj??

As it turns out, there was a nice, tasteful tribute to Etta James (though they managed to miss her entirely in the end-of-show litany) and, of course, one for Whitney. Glen Campbell was honored for his contributions (and rightly so), and the Beach Boys were trotted out to sing a portion of "Good Vibrations" (if you've ever heard the Ann and Nancy Wilson version of that, you were absolutely pining for it listening to the Beach Boys singing it Sunday).

But nothing other than a mention of Clarence Clemons' name and a snippet from his famous solo on "Jungleland."



Ronald Reagan (no favorite here) used to say his 11th commandment was "Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Other Republicans."

And you'd think that the party that's fallen over itself in recent years to be most thoroughly aligned with the "Great Communicator's" political philosophy would at least heed that very important piece of advice.

Someone forgot to tell Newt Gingrich.

I have rather curious criteria for judging political candidates. First, I feel they're all, to various degrees, con men, so you can't judge them on that (unless they resemble carny barkers so much they're obnoxious about it).

But disposition means a lot to me. And a lot of the time, knowing that most of what any politician says during a campaign you have to take with a grain of salt, I go right to disposition if I can't think of another reason why I'd want to vote for someone.

And petulant people really turn me off.

Newt isn't just petulant. He's nasty. I'm no fan of Mitt Romney's, but for all I don't like about him (and there's enough), I can't say he's nasty. Actually, his disposition's one of the better things about him. Even people in Massachusetts who really fought with him on issues agreed that he was a lot easier to deal with as a person than he may have been when it came to ideological struggles.

But Newt? Not that I care, but he's the type of guy who can easily bring the whole party down with his nastiness and petulance.

Hey. Go right ahead. The day moderate thinking conservatives retake the Republican party will be a happy day for all of us, as far as I'm concerned.


Pitchers and catchers report in five days. C'moooooon srping!

Friday, February 10, 2012

On legacies and such ...

The Super Bowl is over, the Patriots lost, and now the debate begins over whether they, along with Tom Brady, truly belong in that Pantheon of great franchises and quarterbacks.

Who cares?

Why is this so important? Don't their accomplishments speak for themselves? Is there any need to thumb-suck over just exactly where they fall?

I don't get it. They've been to five Super Bowls in 10 years, and won three of them. In that 10-year span, they've only missed the playoffs twice, and won the AFC East the other eight times.

They had a spell between their last Super Bowl and this past January without a playoff victory (0-3, if you include XLII). Somehow, that was supposed to have tarnished their legacy.

This year, they won the two games they had to win to get to the Super Bowl, but lost to a team that -- I think, anyway -- was better than they were. In fact, I'd submit the Baltimore Ravens were probably better too.

And that brings us right back to where we were before that Denver victory. The loss somehow tarnishes their legacy.

Can we agree on one thing? That half the reason why the "experts" are so gleefully pillorying the Patriots has more to do with their perceived institutional arrogance (Bill Belichick's reputation as a cheater a big part of that) than anything else?

I think that's a fair statement. People tend to get bored when the same teams win again and again. I can remember hating the Dallas Cowboys when I was a kid for that exact reason. They won so often, and there was such an institutional quality about them, that winning was often a given. If there was any question about a call, for example, it would go their way.

Call it the Duke syndrome. There's no reason to despise Duke's basketball team. They have a coach, Mike Krzyzewski, who appears to play by the rules and win the right way. There are no recruiting scandals. You never see Coach K on the sidelines browbeating players, the way his mentor (Bobby Knight) did. When he loses, he conducts himself with class. His players, if they don't come out early, graduate.

Yet I never root for the Blue Devils unless they're playing North Carolina, and even then, it's with great reluctance. Why? Because every blasted time a call could go either way, it goes to Duke. Every time. Seriously. I can remember once listening to a coach harp on an umpire who had an unusually generous strike zone against a pitcher who really didn't need his largesse.

"He's good enough as it is," the coach barked. "He doesn't need YOUR help."

That's how I feel about Duke. Year in and year out, the Blue Devils are more than capable of sinking or swimming on their own. Do they need to get every close call too?

This happens more often than not with teams who have winning legacies. I've seen it happen so often. An upstart team (or better, a team that has no business even being in the game) finds itself in a position to win against the established order. Next thing you know, the underdog team is called for holding at a critical time, or one of its players brushes up against Shaquille O'Neal and is called for a foul. Or, in the case of baseball, Derek Jeter comes to the plate in a critical situation and gets every stinking borderline pitch until he gets a good fat one and drills it.

The Patriots have finally reached that point ... but believe me, they had their moments of being absolutely jobbed out of victories too in the days before Bill Parcells finally changed the culture of the franchise for good.

I guess you could call it a case of "to the victor goes the spoils." The more you win, and more it gets to be almost institutional, the more breaks you get. And the Patriots caught a ton of them this year. I can remember wanting to throw things at Don Shula when I watched him on TV. Shula's Dolphins, in the 1970s and 80s, were like the Patriots are now. It was never a question of whether the Dolphins would make the playoffs, it was "who do they play, and can Griese/Marino/whomever win playoff games by themselves?"

But they rode that wave of reputation for years before it all finally caught up to them. And Shula had his bouts of arrogance too. The biggest thing with him was that all while the Dolphins were winning, he was on the NFL Rules Committee, and always managed to influence the rules changes to benefit whatever situation he was in. If you wonder why it is that offensive linemen can practically pull defenders' arms off in efforts to protect the quarterback, look no further than Shula, because you know that rules regarding holding have been relaxed (which also begs the question as to what criteria referees DO use when the actually make the call).

Similarly when Indy's Bill Polian was on the rules committee, Peyton Manning's receivers were mugged by the Patriots in the 2004 AFC championship game. Manning was picked off four times, and the Patriots beat the Colts to make the Super Bowl.

The next year? New rules ... favoring receivers. Hey, you have to use your influence any way you can.

The Patriots have their share of arrogance within their organization. Some would say more than their share. You can start with Bill Belichick himself. Now, it isn't possible for anyone to be as intrinsically evil as The Hoodie tries to make himself out to be. It's almost as if he asks himself, "how can I look like more of a jerk here? Am I doing all that's humanly possible to be as big a churl as I can be?"

If you look at the whole man, he's probably not so bad. But his football face, and his football persona, are deplorable. They violate everything your mother ever taught you about being polite and pleasant. The Football Hoodie wouldn't tell you if you were on fire. He'd tell you to wait until Wednesday when the first injury report comes out.

He's a big reason why, today, everyone's pig-piling on the Patriots about their legacy. Which is fine with me. And it wouldn't matter if he were Rex Ryan, who is his polar opposite in every way possible. Rex is getting his share for being the braggart who can't back it up. And that's after making the AFC championship game two straight years!

Tom Brady tries to project himself as something a little different. He doesn't try to be a churl. But, methinks there's more than a little Eddie Haskell in him. He's as cooperative and cordial as he has to be in the required settings, but something tells me he's not like that all the time. He doesn't always come across as being all that genuine in candid moments, like when he points to the referee and starts to beg for calls ... or when you see him getting into dustups on the sidelines, trying to blame receivers when plays don't work.

Manning used to do that too, in his early days, and he took a lot of heat for it as well.

I know it's a competitive game. Tempers get the best of you. And it may be unfair, but when the spotlight falls on you, it reflects that moment and no other. If you've picked that particular time to go off on your receiver who has just missed a ball that was a hair beyond his fingertips, or who couldn't come up with a pass that you threw behind him, you don't look very good. And Brady's done that a couple of times.

Once again, I have to draw an analogy. Call it the Jim Rice syndrome. Rice, who is now in the Hall of Fame, was one of the more menacing Red Sox clubhouse figures to deal with. He once ripped the shirt off a reporter. He gave arrogance a new meaning, his incredibly condescending and uncooperative nature rubbed off on the rest of the team, and he was universally despised for just about his entire career. And I honestly think that had a lot to do with the fact it took him until almost his last year of eligibility to make the Hall of Fame. He was borderline at best, and his churlishness didn't help his cause.

However, he was one of baseball's most feared power hitters, too -- at least for about eight or nine years. But he also led the league, in just about every one of those years, in hitting into double plays. This is where the Rice Syndrome comes into play. I submit that had he been a Cal Ripken Jr. type of guy (look it up; Ripken hit into his share of double plays too), nobody would have cared. They'd have all realized that in order to hit into that many DPs, you often have to hit the ball on the screws ... right at an infielder.

You never heard people complain about Ripken's double plays. But that's all you heard about with Rice. Never mind the homers are RBI. People focused on the double plays. And ... Rice, if you listened to his critics, was the absolute kind of knocking in meaningless runs.

This was the media's way of paying him back for the bad Karma he spread around.

This is now what I think is going on with the Patriots. By any measurable standard you choose to use, five Super Bowls in 10 years is pretty damn good. The only franchise that compares with the Patriots since the New England began its run is the Pittsburgh Steelers (three). Since 2000, the Giants have also been in three Super Bowls, winning twice.

The Colts, for all their glittering statistics, have been in only two, winning one.

Since the year 2000, the Steelers have won two Super Bowls, as have the Giants ... both one less than the Patriots.

In a league whose system and salary cap almost invites mercurial season-to-season performances, the Patriots have been remarkably consistent, winning eight divisional championships in 10 years. In that span, they have had double-digit regular-season winning records every years except for 2002, when they won nine games. Three times over that span they've been 14-2, once 13-3, once 12-4, twice 11-5 and twice 10-6.

This year, with a defense that all but the most rabid pom-pom wavers could easily see was not of championship caliber, they found ways to win, and make it all the way to the Super Bowl. Sometimes it was luck. No question. Sometimes, like in that first Denver game, teams handed it to them. Sometimes, they just came out and beat the other team silly with their offense. And sometimes (like the Washington and Miami games) they had to hang on by the skin of their teeth.

And we all know what happened in the AFC championship game when Billy Cundiff missed the field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.

But they won. There are 32 teams that begin this quest each September, and only two standing the first weekend of the February. One of them was the Patriots, despite all their shortcomings.

So if you want to vent your frustrations over the team's institutional arrogance, be my guest. There's enough to complain about. Watching a Belichick news conference after the Patriots lose is like grilling someone about an embarrassing family secret. Listening to him in the middle of the week berating reporters for asking questions he doesn't deem worthy of answering, your jaw drops at how someone who's that accomplished could also be so rude. It just doesn't compute.

You hear things about how generous he is with his friends, and how gregarious he can be in relaxed settings, and that's nice. But his job also includes dealing with the media too, and however much he doesn't like them, it still goes with the package. We don't necessarily like him all that much, either. I know, personally, that as much as I might be inclined to call Rex Ryan a blowhard (and I am!!), I'd also prefer dealing with a blowhard who gave you something you could use than a guy who, when he has a chance to connect with fans after a tough loss, says "we just got off the field. I don't know."

So yes. Hate him as much as you want. But as far as their legacy goes, the Patriots don't have to justify themselves to anybody. In every conceivable, measurable category of the 21st century, they come out ahead. That may change in the near future as other teams rise up to assume their dominance. But for now, even with this loss, the Patriots are still the current NFL standard. And any suggestion to the contrary is just ludicrous.