How do you suppose Head Coach Bill O’Brien of the Houston Texans feels about his team’s participation in “Hard Knocks” last summer? We know the Texans, though they really had no choice in the matter, went along with it without apparently trying to sabotage the show, but still . . .

There is a reason why the U. S. Supreme Court still resists having its proceedings and deliberations televised, and it is probably the same reason as Coach O’Brien’s when he  initially resisted Hard Knocks: People behave differently when they are on camera. The media, of course, want to do the Supremes, just like they wanted to do Coach O’Brien. In the case of the Supremes, they invoke the argument that the Court’s actions are the public’s business, that the people have a right to know. In the case of Hard Knocks, the media (at least HBO) have an easier case to make to the NFL: it is good theater, a great marketing device for the league, and if it only screws up one team for one year, no big deal.

It is hard to watch the 2015 version of the Texans without forming the impression that something is very wrong, that the talent is not that bad (better than last year’s 9 & 7 team), that the problem might be the coaching. Do you suppose the coaches did a lousy job of preparing the team because they could not concentrate 100% of their attention upon their job of preparing the team? Same with the players? Do you suppose Coach O’Brien, who is a very smart and entertaining guy, got a little too caught up in playing to the camera?


Don’t know about you, but this British Open gave me just the first little glimmerings of Spieth Fatigue. The guy is fabulous, a great golfer, a great competitor, and obviously a person of high character. Not an exaggeration to call him the anti-Tiger when it comes to personal behavior. His performance in the Open was excellent, despite the shocking breakdowns with the putter. Great theater, and I rooted for him with every shot. But despite all of this, a small part of me kept thinking, what if he won this one, indeed what if he also won the PGA for the Grand Slam? Wouldn’t he be tempted to pull a Bobby Jones and just retire immediately? Or wouldn’t he at least lose some of his ambition?

Regarding his game, I do not mind a bit that Spieth is not that much more physically-gifted than the better of the two Johnsons, gritty little Zach, who played so well and won. Sure, it was fun to watch Tiger before he was ruined by his ego and Hank Haney; his game was dramatic, way better than that of the competition. Spieth may never win a Major by 8 strokes or intimidate his fellow pros. But if you really like golf, like it for more than just spectacle and theater, Spieth is at least as much fun to watch as was Tiger, because Spieth reveals so much about the mental side of the game and the character side of the game. Every tournament is a competition, yet every opponent likes and respects Spieth and would be shocked if he were ever disrespectful or unpleasant to another player.

But what if Spieth had fulfilled every possible ambition a pro golfer could entertain, winning the whole shebang in one spectacular year? What if his earnings from tournament purses and commercial endorsements reached a point where they were closer to a hundred million than to one? What if he felt compelled to swap his starter mansion for something a bit more like that of the CEO of a tech company? Aren’t you just a little relieved to know that it should be at least another year before Heir Jordan, having scarcely achieved legal drinking-age, decides the world is too much with him?

By the way, it is hard to take a guy like the inferior Johnson, Dustin, as seriously as one takes a player like Zach Johnson or Jordan Spieth. For one thing, I have a hard time imagining Zach Johnson and his wife posing in matching bikinis at poolside, or starting a family before they started a marriage. For that matter, I would not be shocked if it turned out that Mrs. Zach is a better golfer than the soon-to-be Mrs. Dustin, maybe a better choice for the cover of a golf magazine.


To Chambers Bay Golf Course, home of the 2015 U.S. Open: How do I despise thee? Let me count the ways.

Ugly course – so ugly it was almost comical. No compatibility with the area into which it has been crammed.   Does not exploit the gorgeous visuals of mountains, water, densely-wooded terrain around it. Built with a bulldozer, not natural in any way. A fake links course, beginning to end. No trees, no water, no real grass, no green greens, etc. This may be the first politically correct golf course, but if this is the future of the back-to-nature movement in golf, I must quote Samuel Goldwyn: include me out.

Visuals – the primary colors of the course are light brown, tan, and a hint of green, but the “sand” in the bunkers is the color of concrete – an ugly blue-grey that clashes severely against the dormant grasses. An ugly combination. The whole course is ugly, ugly, ugly. The fake hills are homely – and hazardous because of the stress and risks they impose upon the players.

The railroad – how could anyone pick a site where a gorgeous view of the bay and the mountains is obscured by a line of railroad tracks consistently occupied by lengthy, noisy freight trains?

Environmental sensitivity – the dried fescue fairways and rough are apparently supposed to educate us, to persuade us that this is the future of golf because it uses so little water and therefore is so simple and cheap to maintain. But the fake hills and the bunkering give the lie to all that. The bunkers are gigantic, ubiquitous and full of irregular borders and edges;  the cost of maintaining them in playable condition must be enormous – guess it is OK to spend a fortune on fossil fuels to power an armada of mowers and edgers and trimmers, so long as you are saving on the water bill.

Distances going from a green to the next tee – ridiculous. Watching the vertigo-afflicted Jason Day trying to navigate those great distances, mostly by trudging up stairs, down stairs, then up stairs and down stairs again and across bridges and such, was disturbing. No wonder it took 6 hours to play a round. To make matters worse, the tree huggers who planned the course, lacking any actual trees to hug (there is but one tree on the entire “natural” landscape), have installed no cart paths on which to walk – indeed they reportedly have forbidden everyone, duffers and pros alike, to use golf carts unless you are certified as disabled. Navigating this re-enactment of the Bataan death march, without a cart, is something normal people would normally eschew.

The greens – as most of the pros noticed, the greens are terrible, absurd. It is not just that they contain the lethal combination of multiple different grasses, each of which grows at a different speed from the other grasses – in other words, by late afternoon, there is no such a thing as a smoothly rolling putt, as all putts have to bump their way through multiple changes in the height of the grass. Beyond that, the grass itself is like what you get when you have your general contractor not only build your house but also build your lawn. Poor sub-soil, total crap, stuff that will never grow properly, densely, and evenly.

Golf values – even if you ignore the greens and the ugliness, and give credit to the variety and complexity of the strategic demands of the course, it is hard to love a course that throws so many good shots into weird rolloffs, often leaving the player farther from the green than he was before he hit the shot. Not that Augusta and Pinehurst don’t have severe undulations and rolloffs, but this was like clowns and windmills. Way too much luck involved in the outcome of the approach shot. While an “A” shot often got an “A” result, just as often it did not, and a huge number of “B” shots got an “F” result while many “F” shots ended up pretty well. An Open should not be played at a venue where the correlation between the quality of the shot and its outcome is so consistently low.

Political correctness – I blame all of this on the USGA’s fussy Mike Davis and the rest of the blazers and bow-ties crew, all of whom seem obsessed with imposing their environmental and social views on the rest of us and changing the nature of the game. Don’t use water, don’t provide cart paths or short distances between holes because walking is good for you, return the game to the way it looked before we had the money and the tools to make the courses nicer, etc. Just as cars and carts are bad, trains are good – even if they are plug ugly, they ruin the views, and they are a noisy distraction.

As for the tournament, there were issues beyond the lousy golf course.

The crowds – the worst I have ever heard at a golf tournament –even worse than what you get at that frat party disguised as a golf tournament that is held every winter in Phoenix, where they have that special stadium on the par 3 hole so that those most drunk or stoned get to be a part of the show. In the case of the Chambers Bay crowds (which sounded as though their vocalizing had been amped-up by the TV people rather than muted), I have never heard so many attention-deprived idiots competing to make the most loud, intrusive, player-distracting shouts  – including the now-ubiquitous “go in the hole,” timed to occur simultaneously with the impact of club on ball and usually offered on tee shots that have a zero probability of going in the hole. Why these drunks, stoners, and social misfits are not instantly ejected from the premises, especially at a Major, is just beyond me. They, along with those whose cameras click or cell phones ring during play, should be thrown out, no exceptions, no excuses.

TV coverage – a whole story in itself. There were at least a dozen things I found totally wrong – chief among them, the fact that in 4 days I rarely saw the ball in the air and I never once spotted it on the green until it had stopped rolling and I had walked up to the screen to watch it from a distance of 2 feet.  No contrast between the color of the ball and the color of dormant fescue, plus lousy camera work.  Secondly, Fox somehow ran out of time before completion of the full telecast of all rounds on Saturday – forcing us to watch the last 3 holes by channel-surfing to locate one of those goofy split screen deals that we are supposed to think enhance the TV experience instead of ruining it. Guess the Foxies failed to consider the possibility that a tournament round on a silly course like this would actually take more than 6 hours. Maybe the camera crew was plucked from the Bill O’Reilly show rather than drawn from a pool of people with prior experience in covering a golf tournament, people who could actually pick up the flight of the ball and show it from an angle and perspective that gave you some feeling for whether it was a good shot or a stinker. The ineptitude was shocking.

Announcers – And then there were the TV commentators. The guy who presumably knew the least about golf, Joe Buck, the play by play guy, was surprisingly good, or at least surprisingly adequate. And a couple of the over-the-hill golf pros, like Corey Pavin, were fine. But Greg Norman was a flaming disaster. Norman apparently believes that, because he won a lot of tournaments, he knows more about golf than everyone else and so it is his right, indeed his duty, to lecture us about how he would have played the shot or swung the club. Obnoxious and boring. I put Norman right up there with Nick Faldo (oops, Sir Nick Faldo), when it comes to self-centered boors.

The good news – Good thing the day was saved by a small group of marvelous players – especially Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, and the beleaguered Jason Day – who made the event memorable: great competition, great theater, an admirable winner. Not even a lousy golf course and an incompetent telecast can ruin a great golf tournament.


A baseball column. Stranger yet, a Houston Astros baseball column.

Had hardly noticed the Astros since their previous owner allowed, and then abetted, the team’s steady decline from excellence, to mediocrity, to total futility, after they had gone to the ’05 World Series. Have yet to read a persuasive (or even cogent) analysis of why that owner, Drayton McLane, precipitated the race to the bottom, but nearly everything written on the topic seems to mention money.

Under new ownership since 2011, and with an owner (Jim Crane) and general manager (Jeff Luhnow) who appear to have a strategy and to be devotees of the “sabremetrics” school of baseball analysis, the Astros began the Jim Crane era by completing the team’s decline into oblivion by disposing of the few remaining players who possessed major league skills. With aplomb, they quickly achieved the distinction of having both the worst team in baseball and the lowest-paid. All the while, to an aviary chorus of “cheap-cheap-cheap,” they stuck to their version of the Billy Beane/Theo Epstein model of incessant roster changes, while playing astonishingly bad baseball: they outdid McLane’s final, 105-loss season by losing 107 games in 2012 and 111 in 2013. The fans responded appropriately: when the team rallied to lose a mere 92 games last year, one heard no sound in the Astros’ stadium but crickets.

But here we are in 2015 and, voila! The Astros are the hottest thing in baseball, best record in the American League, looking like they might have to be taken seriously. Naturally, there is abundant analysis of the sudden reversal. Analysts point to their unique distinction of leading the league in home runs, stolen bases, and strikeouts, a rare and seemingly bizarre combination that somehow occurs only with highly successful teams.   Seems especially odd considering that the team’s batting averages are shockingly low – the Astros swing only for the fences, as though mere singles were beneath their dignity. Some mention the upgrade of their bullpen, which is less observed because less eccentric.

Here is my two-cents’ worth.  Check out the Astros’ outfield. Maybe the most interesting aspect of the Astros’ strong defense is their outfield: all three starting outfielders are natural center fielders.  In modern baseball, as in Babe Ruth’s day, the only genuine outfielder on most teams is the center fielder, the only one who combines speed, range, ball-hawking skills, and a good arm. Yes, the right fielder often has a good arm, but generally, left and right fields are where you stick the fat guys who can hit.   The real outfielders are center fielders: think Joe DiMaggio, Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey, Kirby Puckett, Tori Hunter, even the immortal Jim Busby.   Where did the best hitter of all time play? Ted Williams was a left fielder – limited speed, range, and arm. Ty Cobb played center, but Babe Ruth played in right – the proper place for a fat guy with a big bat and a great arm.

There is irony here. These Astros were built on statistics. Their offensive strategy is the baseball equivalent of the basketball strategy of their Houston neighbors, the Houston Rockets. The Rockets’ model is built around James Harden and other players who score most of their points on either layups (the ultimate high percentage shot) or 3-pointers (where 30% accuracy scores more total points than 40% accuracy from 2-point range). The Astros’ model is built around guys with a .220 batting average with lots of strikeouts but lots of extra-base hits, which they consider more productive than a .270 average with fewer long balls. Pure analytics/sabremetrics. But their defensive strategy does not come from Billy Beane or Theo Epstein, it comes from an old-fashioned idea, that outfield statistics are misleading, that it is better to make a few more errors while chasing down a ton of balls that would fall for hits if your outfield were only average, defensively. There is really no reliable, objective way to identify balls that one outfielder would catch but another would not; this involves subjectivity, not data.

This issue has been debated for decades, in terms of infielders, where teams used to go for little guys who covered a lot of ground (say, Luis Aparicio or Ozzie Smith) rather than bigger guys with limited range who made few errors and were very good hitters (Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez). But it is rarely applied to outfield play.   What the Astros have done is to field an entire outfield of guys with questionable offensive skills but  who are very fast and have excellent range and ball-hawking skills. One must assume that their theory is that even if such guys make a couple dozen more errors in the outfield in a season, they more than compensate by running down dozens, maybe hundreds, of balls that would fall for hits (maybe extra-base hits) in a more conventional outfield.     And this writer, for one, absolutely loves the strategy – just as he loves watching a pure center fielder run down a likely triple and turn it into a rally-killing out.


A brief message on Tom Brady and his under-inflated footballs.

It now appears more probable than not, that Mr. Brady’s preferences regarding the firmness of the football were well known within the New England Patriots’ organization. It is well known that Mr. Brady is an intelligent and articulate man and that his preparation for football games is meticulous. It is well known to anyone who plays any sport that differences in equipment can have a major effect upon the performance of the players – if that were not true, why would the NFL set strict rules for equipment, including the inflation of the ball?

It has become obvious that Mr. Brady, like the Godfather, is surrounded by a lot of “buffers” and that he need not bother himself with issuing direct orders to anyone in order for his wishes to be known and honored. Picture a casual encounter in the locker room, in which Mr. Brady mentions to one of his buffers that what he really loves in a football is a pressure of so many PSIs. Buffer A later relays the message to Buffer B, etc.   No one says a word to the team’s revered – and insulated – owner, no one says a word to Head Coach Belichick. Everyone has plausible deniability. Brady throws for many yards and many touchdowns.

Confronted with these facts, millions of commentators and fans have provided the classic contemporary responses to cheating: (i) Who cares? – The Patriots won the “Deflategate” game (the 2014 AFC Championship game) 45 – 7, showing they were so superior that they would have won decisively even had the footballs been completely detumescent ; and (ii) In the immortal words of our erstwhile Secretary of State, “What difference at this point does it make?” Much of the analysis mentions the financial enormity of the pro football enterprise, the high profile of Mr. Brady and his team, football’s recent troubles with off-the-field misconduct by many players, possible declines in the sport’s popularity because it is so dangerous to play, etc.   People comment on the fact that so many people comment.

Here is a comment I have yet to hear from anyone: Mr. Brady and the Patriots cheated, and that is wrong. They knowingly and intentionally violated a rule of the game and concealed and denied their misconduct, and that is wrong. The effect on the outcomes of the games is not relevant. The time it took for the cheating to be discovered and demonstrated is not relevant. The popularity of the participants is not relevant. Does it make a difference at this point that Brady and the Patriots cheated? You bet – a huge difference. Everyone loses: Brady, the Patriots, the National Football League, football and sports in general, and the country and our culture. We are all diminished.