Sunday, January 23, 2011

TV or No TV? That is the Question

Having grown up during the television age, I have been genuinely surprised to meet people who say they don’t have a television in their home and don’t want one.

Not anymore.

Not after another weekend of sampling the vulgarity, coarseness and incivility that passes for entertainment on TV.

Indeed, if I was not a sports author and journalist who enjoys watching athletes, I would be accepting offers for my 25-inch set right now.

Channel-surfing last Saturday night while waiting for ESPN’s coverage of Australian Open tennis, I came upon “Harry’s Law,” an NBC series starring Oscar-winner Kathy Bates as a fired corporate lawyer who opens her own practice in a hardscrabble section of Cincinnati.

In this episode, Bates’s character, Harriet (nicknamed “Harry,” hence the title), tells an opposing attorney that a jury would be more inclined to rule for her client instead of his because, “You’re an a**hole.”

The obscenity was uttered so casually, so quickly, there would have been no time to cover the ears of a child who doesn’t deserve such an assault to the ears and senses.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no prude. I was a huge fan of “The Sopranos” during its six-season run on HBO. It was one of the best-acted, best-written shows in television history.

However, the profanity, nudity and whackings in Tony Soprano’s world were expected.

And HBO is a premium channel, so you know what you’re paying those extra dollars for.

But nobody watching NBC at 8:16pm on a Saturday night should expect to hear one character on a drama series call another “an a**hole.”

Whatever happened to the family hour? Remember when the networks told us the period from 8pm-9pm Mondays through Saturdays and 7pm-9pm on Sundays were reserved for family entertainment?

Has the concept of non-offensive, family-oriented nightly entertainment on over-the-air television become as antiquated as the rabbit-eared antenna?

Do TV network honchos really believe that only vulgarity sells? That only a show with characters saying crude things to each other can be “edgy” and “hip”?

Is that why Kathy Bates is allowed to speak from the gutter in prime time?

Is that why “stinks” has been replaced by “sucks” in commercials and on TV series?

Is that why Fox Sports commentator Terry Bradshaw could say “sc*mbags” on a Sunday afternoon football show earlier this month and face no consequences?

Is that why CBS now presents a prime-time sitcom called “S**t My Dad Says”?

Is this what CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, WB and UPN think they have to do to compete with the brain-numbing boorishness of shows like “Jersey Shore,” which continues to set ratings records on MTV?

Much of television today resembles a warped game of limbo in which the overriding question is, “How low can you go?”

Low enough to compel many viewers to become far more discerning about what they watch and when—or join the growing ranks of those who use a television only to watch DVDs while ignoring network shows altogether.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Indomitable Mariano Rivera

With Trevor Hoffman announcing his retirement from baseball this week, Mariano Rivera stands ready to take possession of the only significant record for relief pitchers that he does not currently hold.

Hoffman, who ended his career with the Milwaukee Brewers, retired with 601 career saves.

Rivera, the New York Yankees relief ace since 1997, has 559 saves, only 42 behind Hoffman.

The number 42 is particularly significant for Rivera. He is the only player in the major leagues still wearing No. 42.

Jackie Robinson was baseball’s most famous No. 42. Major League Baseball officially retired the number on April 15, 1997 — the 50th anniversary of Robinson becoming the majors’ first black player with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Players who already wore No. 42 during the 1997 season were allowed to keep the number until they retired. Rivera is the only such player left.

Rivera has worn No. 42 with such distinction that he, like Robinson, will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer someday.

No relief pitcher in the history of baseball has been better than Rivera. Here’s a point-by-point comparison between Rivera and Hoffman:

Rivera: 41
Hoffman: 43

Major League Baseball seasons:
Rivera: 16
Hoffman: 18

Regular season saves:
Rivera: 559
Hoffman: 601

Regular season games:
Rivera: 978
Hoffman: 1035

Regular season ERA:
Rivera: 2.23
Hoffman: 2.87

All-Star appearances:
Rivera: 8
Hoffman: 7

Postseason saves:
Rivera: 42
Hoffman: 4

Postseason games:
Rivera: 94
Hoffman: 12

Postseason ERA:
Rivera: 0.71
Hoffman: 3.46

World Series championships:
Rivera: 5
Hoffman: 0

As the numbers clearly show, Rivera has been far superior to Hoffman in postseason games, when the stakes are highest and the pressure and media scrutiny are the greatest.

Only once did Rivera and Hoffman go head-to-head in the postseason. In the 1998 World Series, Rivera’s Yankees swept Hoffman’s San Diego Padres. Hoffman went 0-1 with one blown save and a 9.00 ERA while Rivera was perfect, saving all three games in which he appeared without allowing a run.

And Rivera is equally impressive off the field.

Growing up the son of a fisherman in La Chorrera, Panama, Rivera learned at an early age the value of hard work, religious faith and giving back to others.

Yet he remains humble, hard-working and altruistic despite the phenomenal success he has enjoyed as a Yankees reliever since 1995.

(When the Yankees won the 1996 World Series, Rivera excelled as John Wetteland’s set-up man. Rivera became the closer a year later.)

Married and the father of three sons, Rivera has helped finance the construction of an elementary school, a church and computer centers in his native country.

This winter, Rivera has delivered Christmas gifts to children in Bronx, NY, where the Yankees play their home games, and Panama. He does this without seeking publicity.

But his many contributions on the mound have been impossible to conceal.

Rivera dominates hitters with a devastating fastball that seems to grow teeth and bore in on hitters, often turning their bats into firewood. The fastball, along with his mental toughness and resilience, has set Rivera apart.

"I think the key to be successful in the closer role is to learn how to bounce back after the blown save or the losing circumstance," Rivera says. "Learn to come back from that and put that behind you."

Rivera overcame adversity in his first season as the Yankees’ relief ace. With the Yankees just four outs from winning the 1997 American League Division Series against the Cleveland Indians, Rivera gave up a game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. Cleveland went on to win the game and the series.

Rather than be haunted by that failure, Rivera came back stronger. He helped the Yankees win the next three World Series — and did not allow an earned run in any of his 18 postseason appearances in 1998 and ’99.

Consistency on the field and off has been a major reason for Rivera’s success. He doesn’t just kill time in the bullpen and wait to be called upon in the late innings. He remains a student of the game.

"Watch the game, pay attention to the hitters and once I do that I have some kind of idea on how to attack them," he says.

Yankees fans have come to expect satisfaction whenever Rivera emerges from the bullpen at Yankee Stadium to the tune of Metallica’s "Enter Sandman." And Rivera rarely disappoints.

Rivera, who recently signed a two-year contract worth $15 million a season, has averaged 35 saves a year during his career. That means sometime during the 2012 season, he should surpass Hoffman and become baseball’s all-time leader in saves.

Rivera is already baseball’s greatest relief pitcher ever. But after he breaks Hoffman’s record, there won’t be any doubt.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ron Franklin, you will be missed

If you are the type of sports fan who just watches the game without paying any mind to who is broadcasting it, then you probably heard of Ron Franklin for the first time this week.

ESPN fired Franklin today for comments he made to colleague Jeannine Edwards at a production meeting before the Chick-Fil-A Bowl in Atlanta last Friday.

Reportedly, Franklin referred to Edwards as "Sweetcakes" during a discussion unrelated to football. When she rightfully objected, he called her "asshole."

That may be all most people care to know about this story.

But there is more to be said about an excellent play-by-play announcer who should not have lost his gig because of one high-profile mistake.

I have never met Franklin and probably never will. But I will miss hearing him on ESPN's coverage of college football and college basketball.

Franklin's college hoops partner, Fran Fraschilla, is someone I used to cover for Gannett Newspapers when Fraschilla coached at Manhattan College. Fraschilla and Franklin made an excellent team on Big 12 Conference games.

The Franklin-Fraschilla duo gave us no hype, no screaming, a few deadpan jokes and plenty of substance. They were consistently a good listen.

With a Texas twang, Franklin's booming voice easily cuts through crowd noise. Hence, he never screams at his audience. He knows football and hoops, and has an understated play-by-play style in the Ray Scott/Jack Buck tradition.

In today's era of screaming boyish chatterboxes in the play-by-play chair, people like Franklin are valued by sports fans like me.

Did I know Franklin was capable of obscene, sexist comments? No.

Did he deserve to be suspended? Yes.

Did I think he would be fired? Never.

At age 68, Franklin may never get another network gig, which has more to do with the way the business of sports television has changed than with any perceptible decline in his skills.

Considering that Vin Scully is in his 80s and still going strong as the voice of the Dodgers, Franklin might have been able to go another 10 years on ESPN had the network allowed it.

Franklin, who was a star sportscaster in Texas before joining ESPN 25 years ago, may decide to go local again. If that's the case, I hope to find one of his games on satellite sometime soon.

Finally, on the subject of what may have triggered Franklin's ugly comments toward Edwards, I say this not to try to excuse the inexcusable but to make this point: The ESPN of today--with sideline reporters as eye candy on football games despite the ladies' glaring lack of football knowledge--bears little resemblance to what ESPN used to be.

Franklin, I suspect, resented having to share air time with someone who lacked the credentials to be on a football telecast, someone with whom he never had to work back in the day.

Sideline reporters on ESPN, women such as Edwards, Erin Andrews, Heather Cox and Lisa Salters, add absolutely nothing to a game telecast.

Sideline reporters on football games are so irrelevant that CBS does not even use them on its NFL telecasts, and nobody misses them.

Eye candy disguised as sideline reporters exist, as former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson once told me, to give guys something pretty to look at.

Well, I don't need any more candy.

For me, the game is enough and it always will be.

I suspect Ron Franklin, a play-by-play man from the old school, felt the same way.

Hence, it did not take much for him to snap.

It's just too bad Franklin did not complain from a seat at the hotel bar like everyone else who strongly dislikes what the hyperbolic, shallow, always-be-selling ESPN has become.