Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Land of Second Chances


Michael Vick is scheduled to play quarterback for the Eagles tonight in an exhibition game against Jacksonville. He could take two snaps or 20, perhaps out of the shotgun or under center. He’ll no doubt show some rust, but he’ll probably make some plays, too. When it’s all over, and the protesters have screamed themselves hoarse, and players return to the numbing march of the pre-season, Vick will do what tens of thousands of released felons have done for centuries in this country.

He’ll return to work.

Every person who writes about the Eagles QB feels compelled to include an almost-boilerplate disclaimer in any column regarding the former dog-fighting kingpin and the heinous nature of his crimes. So, here is this missive’s obligatory proviso: Vick’s actions were terrible and unconscionable. They displayed an appalling lack of respect for other living things. When he was caught, he tried to hide behind the “culture” defense, as if any horrific crime can be explained away by the twisted logic that if others are doing it, it’s not so bad. Psychologists say that cruelty to animals (along with an unhealthy obsession with fire and rooting for Ohio State) is an indication of potential disregard for human life down the line. Vick was wrong and deserved to be punished severely.

And he was. He served a stiff, 18-month prison sentence, forfeited millions of dollars in assets and future income and was transformed from the face of the NFL to pariah and had his name attached to the horrible crime.

It’s hard to find someone outside of the dog-fighting arena that believes Vick wasn’t given what he deserved. And, now, he is being given what he also deserves: a chance to put his life back together. There are provisions, of course. He had better stay away from any situation that could bring a sniff of suspicion from the gendarmes. He must show contrition for the rest of his days, no matter how irritating the questions become and how stridently the animal activists protest his inclusion in society. Vick has to be a perpetual spokesman against dog fighting – even after his playing days are through. His rehabilitation will be done in a very public way, and one misstep will bring a firestorm of criticism and invective. This is Vick’s life now and forever. He created it and must live with it.

That’s how it goes in America. You mess up, you do your time, you try to move on. In the vast majority of cases, that process takes place far away from the headlines and TV cameras. Vick’s situation is different, because his high-profile profession made him the poster-boy for dog fighting, despite thousands of other miscreants who partake in the ugly pursuit on a daily basis. But make no mistake, he deserves no less of a second chance than anyone else who has paid a debt to society. No matter how you want to play it, Vick deserves to be playing football tonight.

There seems to be a new approach in America to forgiveness and rehabilitation, and Vick is getting the full effect of it. Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe it’s global warming. Maybe it’s reality television. But for some reason, we really want to see people pay a heavy price for whatever they do. For years, we have said America is about second chances, but it would appear as if the toll for those opportunities has risen at a pace that outstrips inflation. Yeah, we’ll forgive you, but only once you’re destitute and laid completely bare. In Vick’s case, he hit that bottom when he and the rest of the Bad Newz Kennels crowd started copping pleas, and the $130 million man became Inmate Number 7. It’s time for him to move on. And if you think that playing football gives him some kind of magical free pass from what he’s done and what he has had taken from him – rightfully – over the past several years, then you are either na├»ve or cynical. Keep one thing in mind: If Vick starts reverting to his Ron Mexico days, even a little bit, he is done. He’ll be tossed out of football, hoisted up on the highest yardarm and made to walk the plank. And he’ll deserve it. For now, however, give him the chance to make good (or bad). That begins tonight, when he takes a snap and tries to ply his trade.

Meanwhile, Plaxico Burress meets with his prison consultant about how best to approach his pending two years in stir. He finally copped a plea after realizing the New York authorities were intending to hit him harder than Troy Polamalu for bringing a loaded semiautomatic pistol into a nightclub last November. His sentence may seem excessive to some, because the only person hurt as a result of the stupid move was Burress himself. But since clubs like the Latin Quarter often attract an element for whom bringing roscoe along is de rigueur, the NYC crowd wants to send a message. Pack, and you will be slapped down.

Two years from now, Burress will be out, and no doubt looking for employment to support his family, which will swell by one during his time in stir. And when he does, the NFL should allow him back in. He’ll have to prove himself contrite, of course, and the media will help him do that, just as 60 Minutes did for Vick. Burress will deserve a second chance, just like Vick does. It’s up to him whether he makes the most of it or tosses it away.

That’s how it’s supposed to work in this country. Right?

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: As one of the largest critics of Majoke League Baseball’s steroid abusers and enablers and the inflated performances they have fostered, El Hombre feels like a hypocrite when he celebrates Usain Bolt’s ridiculous exploits. The Jamaican sprinter has been absolutely electric since the ’08 Olympics and watching him run is pure, unadulterated pleasure. But is he clean? Please, oh, please say it’s so…Is there a player in the majors dumber than Billy Wagner? Probably not. Now clear of Tommy John surgery and hoping to become a reliable pitcher again, he seriously considered staying with the sad-sack Mets, rather than joining the Red Sox as a set-up man for Jonathan Papelbon. A key consideration was whether the Sox would pick up his option for next year (Wagner didn’t want that to happen), at a cool $8 million. Chances are Wagner won’t get that on the open market, and if he did, it likely wouldn’t be with a team as good as Boston. Once again, money trumps the chance to win…Kudos to Vandy hoops coach Kevin Stallings, who forfeited a $100,000 pay raise in order to fund a team trip to Australia. The excursion was planned because Commodore center A.J. Ogilvy is an Aussie and went on as scheduled because of Stallings’ largesse in the wake of institutional budget cuts. Well done, coach…Thank goodness the NFL, NCAA and other sports confederations fought so hard to stop gambling on games in Delaware. Now there won’t be any more betting on sports outside of Las Vegas. Right…More Bolt: His handlers are discussing a book deal with some publishers. The guess here is that it will be a fast read…The WNBA season is rocketing toward a scintillating close with playoff berths hanging in the balance andzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? With fewer than 40 games remaining in the season, it is absolutely time for the Phillies to begin investigating other options at closer. Brad “Lights On” Lidge has blown an MLB-high nine saves this season and has shown no consistency or reliability in the spot. That may be okay in a division with no real competition and a league that seems to have few worthy regular-season challengers for the best overall record, but it won’t cut it in the playoffs, where shaky late-inning relief is a huge reason teams blow championship shots. Lidge shouldn’t be thrown onto the Adam Eaton Memorial Ash Heap, but the Phils need to groom someone to share the job with him, so that when Lidge has worked a couple days in a row, he doesn’t have to go out to the mound when he doesn’t “have anything on the ball,” as was the case in Tuesday’s hideous meltdown against the Pirates. Or, when he can’t stop opposing batters from slapping him around, the Phillies will have another option. The sad part of it is that going into the Phillies’ half of the ninth against the Pirates, Lidge and Chan Ho Park were both warming up. Had manager Charlie Manuel made the right choice, Park would have tried to close things out. That would have taken advantage of his great work of late and given Lidge a night off after three straight days of work. Manuel has been vocal in his support for Lidge, but he can’t blow the team’s chance at a repeat by sticking with an unreliable performer. Let Park start closing and see how he does. Or, if Brett Myers is healthy and ready to be effective at the big-league level, let him take a shot. It will most likely be better than what Lidge has given us.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: It would be absolutely wonderful if the Minnesota Vikings were torn apart by in-fighting, factionalism and other divisive circumstances and finished below the Lions in the NFC North. Wednesday’s report of a “schism” (What, did the Vikes sign Martin Luther?) in the Minnesota locker room over Cowboy QB’s recent decision to unretire was welcomed by anyone who celebrates the team, rather than the individual. If indeed there are large groups of players on the squad with significant issues over C-QB’s egomaniacal behavior, kudos to them. And no amount of practical jokes, swashbuckling play or aw-shucks, made-for-TV smiles by Number Four will change that. Coach Brad Childress took a huge risk waiting this long to import an outsider on a team that had already developed an identity and had bonded around two other quarterbacks. In the end, this might become the textbook example of why football is unlike most other sports, due to its need for team harmony, no matter how jaded we may think the millionaire players may be. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if the new passer was absolutely awful and was given no choice but to return to a quiet life of mowing lawns and shaving every third day back in Mississippi.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Right To Work


Rick Pitino had a little more on his mind than Jeremy Tyler when he stepped to the podium at Louisville Wednesday and began the public portion of his recovery from self-imposed wounds to his reputation. Seems the Cardinals’ hoops coach had injected himself into the national healthcare discussion with his admission that he had provided $3,000 to a paramour for “health insurance,” when she came to him six years ago with news that she was in the family way with his spawn.

Wearing an open-collared shirt and a grave expression, Pitino followed the blueprint in his remarks, admitting his “indiscretion,” asking forgiveness from Louisville, the fans, his family and any media types who might be screaming for his resignation/removal from the bench. He talked about the need to move forward, how the best way to confront a bad situation is head-on and that “if you have a problem and you tell the truth, it becomes part of your past; if you lie, it becomes part of your future.” That’s profound stuff, to be sure, and it’s part of the reason – along with the Cardinals’ need to compete with a fully-operational University of Kentucky Death Star down the road and need to sell tickets in a rough economy in the new arena they’ll be inhabiting next season – that Pitino will likely survive this sordid affair.

When Pitino does return to the business of coaching college basketball, he’ll have to meet with assistants to come up with some new big-man prospects to pursue, because the 6-11 Tyler, U of L’s top recruit for 2010, has decided to pass on his senior year of high school to play for Maccabi Haifa. Saying that next season would be “extremely boring” if he had to face the triple-teams that rivals used to neutralize his size and skill, Tyler has chosen to become the first American-born player to leave high school early and play professionally overseas.

And he won’t be the last. Say what you want about the magic of the prom and how seniors “rule the school,” but guys like Tyler have different priorities and goals than the typical prep senior. They want to play NBA basketball, and they are exploring new avenues to reach their ultimate destinations. There will no doubt be many people who moralize about Tyler’s family, agent (former NBA player B.J. Armstrong) and adviser (shady former sneaker shill Sonny Vaccaro) and their allegedly exploitative treatment of the young man, but they will be wrong. All around the country and the world, elite athletes are being removed from their cozy schoolyard cocoons and fast-tracked toward professional careers. Tennis players are harvested while still nine and 10 years old for special training. Golfers get the same treatment. Special “academies” have sprung up throughout the country designed to cultivate young talent and distribute it to the proper outlets. And yet Tyler and those around him are going to be excoriated for doing essentially the same thing: playing in an environment that will allow him to grow quickly.

Oh, but he’s being paid for it. And by missing out on his last year of school, he’s missing a chance at an EDUCATION, which is the buzzword used by the college basketball hucksters to stop those promoting the right-to-work in their tracks. It’s a classic tactic, the kind of apple-pie and mother term that can’t be assailed. “What? You want to deprive these youngsters of an EDUCATION? Well, you have some pretty strange ideas, mister.” Forget that the kids who want to play in the NBA, particularly those of the one-and-done variety, couldn’t care less about Intro to Philosophy (Descartes: “To be is to do.” Nietzsche: “To do is to be.” Sinatra: “Do-be-do-be-do.”) and are generally checked out of classes by March of their freshman years. The people pimping their TV product are disingenuous about the game, to be sure. They talk about the awful NBA and its powerful spell while trying to sell ads and attract eyeballs by hyping the latest Duke-Carolina matchup or screaming about this season’s best newcomers.

Jeremy Tyler has made a calculated move designed to further his pursuit of a career. He may well graduate with his class at San Diego HS after taking classes on the net or completing coursework with a tutor in Israel. Or, he might just take the G.E.D. Not that either option matters to the NBA executives who will be assessing his potential. They don’t care about chem lab. They want to see his drop step. Tyler’s time with Maccabi Haifa will improve his game, and the years he spends abroad will help him grow more than any history lecture could. You want to study the Middle East conflict? He’s going to live it, baby.

As for those who scream about the deterioration of America’s youth and the evil attraction of professional basketball at the expense of the “pure” college game, wake up. Tyler is an 18-year old man who can go to war, be charged with capital murder (and, in some states, fry) and get married. (It’s unclear which is more risky business.) He wants to go to work, and that’s not a bad thing. And anyway, El Hombre hears that this year’s prom theme at San Diego High is “All-a-Twitter.” Who wants to be part of that?

As for Pitino, he’ll be just fine. The Cardinals need a heavyweight on their bench for the coming wars with John Calipari and UK. Louisville can’t afford to take a step back, not with so much at stake. And as the coach looks for someone to replace Tyler in the 2010 recruiting class, he’s advised to be careful on the home visits and steer conversation away from his moral obligation to prepare mothers’ sons for life. Stick to basketball. That’s what this is all about, anyway. Jeremy Tyler knows that, perhaps better than everybody else.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Reason number 932 professional golf is a joke: Tiger Woods broke the rules. Tiger Woods wasn’t fined. Think the PGA is scared of him? Nahhhh. Everybody knows a showdown between Hunter Mahan and Steve Stricker at this week’s PGA Championship would make for compelling TV…If the U.S. soccer team wants us to believe that it is becoming a world power, as its crowing after a second-place finish at the Confederations Cup indicated, it must stop playing for a tie on the road in World Cup qualifying matches. Once Mexico evened the count Wednesday at the Azteca Stadium beehive, the U.S. lined up at the 18 and assumed a defensive shell. Disaster was inevitable, and it struck in the form of a 2-1 loss in front of the typically classless tricolores throng…If there is a bigger jerk in professional sports these days than Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, then stay away from him. Kane became abusive with a cab driver over 20 cents and allegedly hit the man who didn’t have sufficient change from $15 for a $13.80 fare. (He had the buck.) Kane will most likely avoid jail time for his alleged assault, but this wimp on the ice who delivered all of 18 hits last year sure looks like a classless dolt, especially after pulling out the “Do you know who I am” line. We sure do now, Patty…If you watch just one thing on TV this weekend, make sure it’s the 100 meter final at the World Track and Field Championships in Berlin. Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay are likely to square off in what could be one of the most compelling sprints in history...David Mamet is taking on The Diary of Anne Frank, for Disney of all places. Didn’t know there was so much profanity in the story. Wonder what part Alec Baldwin will play.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Phillies absolutely made the right decision in moving Satchel Moyer to the bullpen to make room for Pedro Martinez in the starting rotation. The Old Man was losing his precision, and when your fastball tops out at a school zone speed limit, you had better hit your spots. Moyer’s whiny reaction belied his 51 years in the major leagues and was surprising from someone who should know more than just about everybody that baseball is a business. Now, this whole thing comes with a codicil. Martinez may have picked up the victory Wednesday night against the Cubs, but his performance was hardly overwhelming: 5.0 IP, 7 H, 3 ER 99 pitches. If he’s going to need 100 pitches to get through five innings, even with a 12-1 lead, Martinez will be better suited in relief work, because at least Moyer could get into (and most of the time through) the sixth. Martinez deserves a couple more starts, but let’s not get carried away with his debut, because he looked very much like a guy at the end of his road.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: The entire Michael Vick situation is getting more ridiculous by the minute. As the disgraced QB approaches inclusion on an NFL team’s roster, his spin cycle is in danger of careening out of control. Vick will be on “60 Minutes” Sunday for the obligatory public mea culpa. He has had “adviser” Tony Dungy doing advance work for him. The TV folk are laying the groundwork for his return. Is there anybody else out there who smells dead, rotting fish? For the record, “60 Minutes” is aired by CBS, an NFL TV partner. Dungy works for NBC, another league outlet. (And wouldn’t you be a little mad, as a sports director, that one of your employees is withholding information from you?) And, of course, espn is a full-fledged propaganda cohort. Vick’s coming back, and the NFL is creating the perfect environment for his return and a great storyline for the upcoming season. If you think any of this is happening organically, you probably are betting on the Lions to make the playoffs this season.