Monday, February 11, 2013


Special to The New York Daily Postday


Now, there's really no excuse.

Monday's news that Pope Benedict XVI will be stepping down for health reasons provides Alex Rodriguez with the perfect example of self-sacrifice in the face of adversity. The Pontiff, with years to go on a lifetime deal, walks away from a gig far greater than that of "part-time Yankee third baseman," putting the Catholic Church ahead of his own ego.

If the Pope, the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, can walk away, then so can A-Rod, the disgraced and despised roider at the center of the Biogenesis scandal. Perhaps in doing so, A-Roid can regain a fraction of the respect and dignity he has sacrificed at the point of a needle.

Sources in the Yankees' front office who are unauthorized to speak on the record backed the idea. "If this doesn't point the way, I don't know what will. I mean, the Church isn't the Yankees, but it's close enough. And Pope Benedict has more mobility right now than A-Rod does."

"I mean, there are ways to raise the heat. We could play 'Ave Maria' in the clubhouse. Maybe bring back Chad Curtis. But it's up to him."

Rodriguez has been under enormous pressure to leave the game over the past month. On the heels of a humiliating postseason in which he single-handedly torpedoed the Yankee offense in an ALCS sweep at the hands of the Tigers, Rodriguez underwent a left hip arthroscopy last month. He is, at best, expected to miss half the season and could miss all of it. The Yankees have signed Kevin Youkilis to play third base while A-Rod recovers, meaning they're spending $40 million on aging third basemen this year, all in the name of the most unpopular baseball player since A-Rod's fellow cheater Barry Bonds retired.

A source close to A-Rod dismissed the idea. "Alex wants to get healthy and get back on the field, to earn both the money he's owed and the respect of Yankee fans everywhere."

That's small-minded and weak. Neither Yankee fans nor the Yankee front office nor MLB wants to see Alex Rodriguez don pinstripes again. Pope Benedict XVI was as beloved as A-Rod is despised, and he still found it within himself to set ego aside and resign.

It will, as so many things with cheating ballplayers do, come down to money. Rodriguez is owed $114 million for the five years remaining on his contract, and, unlike Benedict, he hasn't taken a vow of poverty.

Then again, what A-Rod could do would be, in many ways, greater than what Pope Benedict did. After all, Pope Benedict is backed by a deep bench of Cardinals and a Church with both an unlimited budget and no luxury-tax concerns. The Yankees are hamstrung by their desire to get under the tax threshold for 2014, a move that would save the Steinbrenner brothers millions in tax penalties for years after that.

This isn't really about money, though. Pope Benedict has lit the way for Rodriguez to regain his good name. If he were to come clean about his steroid use, cite his bad hips and his desire to leave the record books unsullied by his tainted numbers, and walk away now, Rodriguez might regain a measure of the respect he's lost over the past five years. He'll always be a cheater to some, but to others, a move like this might be enough to reconsider his career by the time his name comes up for the Hall of Fame five years down the road.

It's your move, Alex.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Newsletter Extra: Momentum

As you surely know, Sunday's Super Bowl was interrupted early in the third quarter when about half the Superdome's lights went out. The game was delayed for 34 minutes, and from the time the game resumed to the end, the San Francisco 49ers played better than they had prior to that point. For most, this made the loss of lighting a key trigger event in the game. I spent some time on Twitter yesterday pointing out how silly this was -- even over and above the bullshit dump that is "momentum" -- but it's worth spelling it out in greater detail.

The game resumed with the 49ers in a third-and-14 spot at their own 40-yard line. Colin Kaepernick was chased and completed a short pass to Delanie Walker well short of the marker. Down 28-6, facing fourth-and-seven from their own 46, the Niners elected to punt, a pretty bad decision that went largely unnoticed. Andy Lee punted the ball into the end zone, and the Ravens took over at their own 20. Joe Flacco immediately completed a pass to Torrey Smith for a first down.

Full stop.

At this point, both teams' units have been on the field since the delay. The Niners offense ran a give-up play, their punter managed to miss the red zone from his own 30 or so, and their defense allowed an immediate first down. The aftermath of the blackout delay was that the game was going exactly as it had gone from the opening kickoff. Even if momentum existed the way the entire sports-media community insists that it does, it had not moved following the blackout delay.

The Ravens proceeded to run three more plays on this drive, falling short of a first down by about a yard, maybe less, and electing to punt on fourth-and-1 from their own 44. (Again, a bad decision, but cowardly punting is the way the big, strong manly football of the NFL is played.) Sam Koch followed Andy Lee's lead and kicked the ball into the end zone.

Now we're on the third possession, the eighth snap, about two minutes of game time and maybe ten minutes of real time into the post-delay football game. Now is when the game did change. Kaepernick scrambled twice for a total of 20 yards, and the Niners' comeback was on.

Two theories:

1) The game changed when the delay happened and momentum shifted, only it waited until the Niners failed and then the Ravens averaged six yards a play on their drive and executed a bad idea of a punt, to make that clear.

2) The Ravens punting on fourth-and-1 gave the Niners an opportunity, and Kaepernick's two scrambles -- he had one in the entire game to that point -- opened up an element of the offense that made it incredibly hard to defend.

You can listen to a thousand football players and a million sportswriters, but there's an infinitely better argument to be made that the fourth-down punt at midfield was what changed the game, rather than the delay. Here's the thing, though: nothing changed the game. Two good football teams played, and at some moments, one team played better than the other one did.

I find the "momentum" discussion painful because it diminishes the game and the athletes who play it. The desperate need to find reasons for everything that happens and to assign meaning to small streaks of events is disrespectful to the talented men on the field. The difference, the real difference, between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers is measured in tenths of a percent. Play that game 10,000 times and no team will win more than 5100 of them. Outcomes are what they are not because of some mystical force that -- according to its own adherents -- comes and goes unpredictably, but by the effort and execution of absurdly talented men. There's just enough randomness in the form of bounces and officiating -- where NFL refs have a lot more leeway to affect a game than do their MLB counterparts -- so that the entire construct rests shakily, like that couch at grandma's no one will dare sit on.

If you can't appreciate the football game you watched last night on its merits, if you need to parse the events just so to fit a narrative, have at it. But when you do, get it right: the fourth-and-1 punt, not the blackout, was the hinge on which the two teams' play swung.