Ray Ratto

Sharks slowly sneaking onto the list of off-brand teams that could make a deep run


Sharks slowly sneaking onto the list of off-brand teams that could make a deep run

We put a lot of stock in “being under the radar,” as though the defining metric for anything is whether or not we pay attention to them.

This, of course, is insane, but it is a tribute to our ability to define all things based on the narcissism that comes with believing the galactic central point. It’s a lot like “he or she is the best player I ever saw,” as though you’re the one who defines such things.

That said, I give you the San Jose Sharks, who are slowly sneaking onto the list of off-brand teams that could make a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Not deep enough to get them a parade or even a reprise of their 2016 Finals run, in all likelihood, but deeper than you thought when Joe Thornton crumpled two months ago.

It wasn’t just their 2-1 overtime win against Vegas, the NHL’s version of America’s Sweethearts, though that didn’t hurt. It wasn’t just their secondary metrics, which put them smack dab in the middle of the league, if not slightly below. And it isn’t as though they are radically different with Evander Kane, their trade deadline rental-with-an-option-to-buy.

No, San Jose has readjusted on the fly to deal with its changed circumstances, at least enough to establish one noteworthy advantage over its competitors.

They own their division more completely than any other team (20-4-3, and given the NHL’s playoff format they wouldn’t have to play outside their division until the Western Conference Final. And since their first two opponents will be Pacific Division opponents, the Sharks have a way to establish their mode of play that they would not have were they playing a team from the Central.

They match up best against Los Angeles, against which they are currently matched, with a convincing 3-1 record; against Anaheim, the other first-round alternative, they are also 3-1, though two of the wins and the loss occurred in a shootout.

Then if they get around that hurdle, they would draw Vegas, which is essentially The Team The Entire Hockey World Is Rooting For. Vegas has won two of the three matches with one to go, but each team has won an overtime game.

In other words, the Sharks’ first two opponents would likely be some combination of teams they have beaten seven times in eight regulation games, and are 3-2 in coin-flip games.

You’d take those odds, a hell of a lot sooner than a first-rounder against Nashville, Winnipeg or Minnesota, and maybe even Colorado. It is therefore helpful that the Sharks play each of them once before the regular season ends, to provide a bit more input for our pending miscalculations.

Series are not macro, after all, and matchups against individual teams matter more than records against whole divisions. Moreover, the Stanley Cup Playoffs do not necessarily go to the team with the best record but to the healthiest team with the goaltender playing the best. In that way, they more routinely represent your 2018 NCAA bracket than your NBA Playoff bracket, where the chalk prevails an inordinate amount of time.

Point is, the Sharks haven’t really inspired the outside world much – that under-the-radar thing again – but they represent the solid counterpuncher who ought to at the bare minimum punish the team that beats them sufficiently to make that team’s passage through the subsequent rounds considerably more difficult. That is more than anyone thought they would do once Thornton went down, but less than the level of notoriety of about eight other teams. They are not invisible, but they are hard to find.

But maybe if they hired a nonagenarian member of the clergy to hang around and offer scouting reports to Peter DeBoer, they could become media darlings, for what that may be worth. And let’s face it, you mock Sister Jean at your peril.

The biggest problem with what Bill James said about baseball players


The biggest problem with what Bill James said about baseball players

Bill James, one of the founding fathers of baseball analytics, is not an idiot, despite what he said about Major League Baseball players being replaceable. Technically, after all, he is correct, because all baseball players except those current active have in fact been replaced.
But of course, that isn’t what he’s saying at all, and not what he said in a Twitter discussion. Here, indeed, is what he did say:
“If the players all retired tomorrow, we would replace them, the game would go on; in three years it would make no difference whatsoever. The players are NOT the game, any more than the beer vendors are.”
Now THIS is idiotic, and given that he is a consultant for the Boston Red Sox, who just won the World Series with 25 particularly gifted beer vendors, a source of great embarrassment to his employers (they pay for his consultation time, after all). It was at least embarrassing enough to him that he deleted it later, and has been doing the Twitter perp walk today to clarify, expand and, in some cases, limit his remarks.
In short, he replaced his remarks.
The Red Sox fled his first bit of typing immediately, of course, given that they have built a team they wish to maintain with people one of their contributing brains regarded, at least in one context, as “replaceable” by commingling them with anyone who can yell, “BEER!” repeatedly while walking up and down stairs.
And don’t get me wrong here. Beer vendors are fine and contributing members of society, and part of the entertainment that surrounds baseball. We hail them, their throats, and their arches.
But James dismissed them as replaceable, too, even though which is exactly the kind of logic one would expect to hear when collective bargaining negotiations begin, either with the Major League Baseball Players Association or with the concessions unions.
The problem, of course, is not that James said something silly/stupid, or that he retreated from it. That happens all the time.
It is that baseball is in a particularly fragile state culturally, and the idea that players are interchangeable is diametrically opposed to where the market of professional sports consumption is heading. 
In other words, baseball is not in a place to want to get smarmy about its product, even if the smarmer in question is “only a consultant” rather than an employee, a distinction the Red Sox took great care to make in its statement of repudiation of James’ analysis of players’ market value.
But even more than that, James’ gift to baseball is analytical, and measuring players and their deeds and making projections from those measurements is what made him worth hearing in a baseball context. All that work flies in the face of a statement that can and has been construed to lump them all into a congealed heap of disposableness.
Willie McCovey was by no means replaceable in any context, which is why the Giants held a memorial service for him before thousands at the ballpark Thursday. Mookie Betts is by no means replaceable because the city of Boston feted him and his teammates in a gigantic parade through its streets.
And baseball is popular entertainment, and entertainment is built on the basic notion that some people are exceptional at a thing other people wish to enjoy and perhaps even pay for the ability to see or hear. Those exceptional people may be replaceable in the biological sense, but not in any rational cultural sense.
Thus, James’ walk-back recognizes both the wasp hive he disturbed and the flaws in his expression. But the original words will linger far longer than his mea culpae, and will be referenced when the fun and games of collective bargaining negotiations begin. In short, he said something which ignored nuance and created an unintended and emotional backlash.
In short, not very analytical at all. 

Time for 49ers, Raiders fans to turn to Gandhi on Thursday Night Football

Time for 49ers, Raiders fans to turn to Gandhi on Thursday Night Football

OK, no more whining. You’re all done. We’re all done. Thursday night is coming, and unless you’re planning to leave the planet either physically or ethereally, there is no point going on about it all week.
The Oakland Raiders will play the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday night, and it will be horrific. Two of the three worst records in the NFL (2-13), the two worst records against the spread in the NFL or CFL, and all but three teams in college football, and two teams going nowhere at Warp 2 will face each other in what will NOT be for Bay Area bragging rights. Nobody is bragging about this, trust me.
That’s the set-up, kids. Nothing good comes out of this whatsoever, and not even the notion that the teams will never play each other again while sharing the same geographical area saves it. It is the very essence of athletic toxicity.
And now we’re done. These are the conditions that prevail, and since you well might be fans of either team (or both, if you’ve been raised poorly), your choice is clear.
You have to Gandhi the week, accept the scorn, and move on.
You have no arguments to “Your team sucks” to offer even each other, so why raise your blood pressure? You cannot even dog New York Giants fans; at least they have a tougher schedule and the inside track for the Justin Herbert sweepstakes, so why agitate yourself needlessly? You don’t even get the satisfaction of firing your coach like Cleveland did Monday morning after Cleveland fired its NBA coach on Sunday morning, thereby doubling its civic pleasure, so the road from Hell has not yet been graded, let alone paved.
Your game -- sorry, this game -- is the worst prime-time game BY STATISTICAL FACT after Halloween in the history of television, so just deal with it as Gandhi did -- with non-violent resistance in the form of enduring what you must now and gathering the strength in time to refuse what cannot be accepted.
And by “deal with it,” we mean agree with every taunt, every snide remark, every chunk of ill-intended smack. Nod knowingly and say, “Yep, you got me there, champ. My team sucks the concrete off the sidewalk, no question. You’re very smart to point that out to me. I wouldn’t have realized it without your generous help. Thank you.”
And then walk away. Sticks and stones might hurt you, but your only response can be abject agreement followed by tactical retreat. Verbal abuse needs something flammable to keep it lit, and whether you’ve moved to the other end of the bar, the other end of the street or the other end of the galaxy, they can’t hit what they can’t reach.
Plus, smack without response really is just bullying, and if your bullying needs someone else’s team allegiance as tinder, then your skill is not a quality skill. Anyone can punch down; the best punch up.
And you, who cannot punch at all, can only get through the week by accepting your fate: “Yes, your team is better. Yes, your team’s record is a direct result of your superior character. Yes, you are a genius by wearing the correct piece of laundry. I can only apologize for stealing air that rightfully belongs to you.”
And then absent yourself, silently plotting your revenge.
Now that last part isn’t what Gandhi would do. He did resist the injustices of colonial rule and repression over decades, but he knew in the end that he would get his back. And the Raiders and 49ers cannot be bad forever – that job is apparently reserved for the Browns.
That’s when you get yours back, and double. All you need is patience, and for your team to stop decomposing.
Oh, you Raiders fans might give in to the temptation of badmouthing the 49ers in the months you have left to bother before they leave for Las Vegas, but it won’t be a satisfying experience. Beating the 49ers when they’re good is better, because beating the mighty is always better than beating the equally lame.
And the same is true of 49ers fans. If your team has beaten the Raiders, what exactly are you winning? A slightly lower draft choice? Hardly seems worth it.
So, as you are inundated this week by the well-earned negativity your teams have presented you, escape quietly to a more peaceful place. Watch the game if you must, pass on it if you can, and spend your time in more fruitful pursuits.
Say, alphabetizing your children’s candy and take out the good stuff when they’re not looking. Sure, it’s punching down, but when the reward is a Three Musketeers that you didn’t work for -- well, every bit of sound advice comes with an asterisk.