The Failure of Philosophy 

The year in sports shows the limits of Mensa management.

Damn, we're smart.

Small ball for the Warriors — Don Nelson fills the lineup with undersized sizzlers and runs rings around the big trees of the NBA. Long ball for the Raiders — Al Davis finds outlaws and square pegs and then pours them into Silver and Black, causing the rest of the NFL to get the vapors at the scope of his audacity and brio. And of course, Moneyball for the A's — not just a book, but required reading for earning an MBA while subverting the Hollywood cliché in which the grizzled old scout trumps the soulless pencil heads. And it's still going to be a Hollywood movie, starring Brad Pitt. Damn, now we're good-looking too.

Still, this was the year that the limits of management by Mensa became painfully clear. The Warriors had the playoff door slam shut late on them last season, so they dropped nine in a row to start this year, allowing them to make their vacation plans early.

The Raiders lead the world in fired coaches, stupid penalties, and psychotic press conferences. In other words, business as usual.

And the Athletics, the team that has carried the banner for brains over bucks, finished their ghastliest season in years mostly as a consequence of turning the tome that defines their identity into a crazed instructional manual, proving that no matter what book of the Bible you're reading, trying to live according to a literal interpretation is a good way to wind up 24-1/2 games out of first place.

East Bay sports fans live pretty comfortably with being outspent or outmanned, but being outsmarted? Damn, that hurts!

Everyone said Chris Webber was past his prime when Coach Don Nelson dug the decade-old all-star out of his sarcophagus and said he could raise the ancient one back to life. Everyone was right. Not just an act of hubris, a middle finger and upraised forearm to the conventional wisdom which stated: This guy wrecked your team ten years ago, but by bringing him back now that he is awful and starting him every fucking game, you will most likely not be avenged. The curse of the mummified power forward was clear and terrible, Webber 2.0 couldn't shoot, pass, or run. The Warriors had to slow down their slash-and-dash style to accommodate the aged. Needless to say, they went on their one extended losing streak of the year, creating just enough of a deficit to cost the team the single game it needed to make the playoffs for only the second time in the millennium. When Webber went back to the tomb, nobody else in the NBA even glanced in his direction.

The Raiders story is a ghoulish one they tell to frighten young owners sitting around the campfire. Taking pride in zigging while the rest of the National Football League zags is all Al Davis and the Team from the Decades has left. When the league's mandarins say no wide receiver is worth mega-millions, Davis defies them adding zeroes to contracts nobody is contesting, bidding up against phantoms. When the potentates say it might be best to sign your first-round quarterback to a contract sometime before Halloween, Davis scoffs at their bourgeois sentiments, and then must watch his prize pupil bomb the midterm days after receiving the course syllabus. When the mucky mucks at the top say that the long bomb passing attack went out with disco, Davis sings "I want to put on my boogie shoes." But most of the Raiders rot has centered on the role of the head coach. The rest of the league assumes that you should hire a guy with experience winning or someone with potential. Davis will go with a guy failing. When the league commissioner came to Oakland two weeks ago, for the first time in years, many felt it was to tell Al to hand over the keys, that he was a danger to himself and people who might be getting interested in football. Instead the leader of all football did the cruelest thing of all, turning away from the wreckage that is the sixth straight ten-loss season and said of the bloated contracts, ill-prepared rookies, and overwhelmed coaches, "Nothing to see here folks." And he's right. But because we're in the Oakland television market, we still have to watch them whenever they manage to sell out the Coliseum.

Finally at the A's, who were chided for playoff flameouts two short seasons ago but now only get to the post-season if they buy tickets, general manager and team superstar Billy Beane went wiggy on his own philosophy. Moneyball simply put means that you trade your valuable commodities at their peak value, allowing you to reap a harvest of a half dozen cheaper future prospects, who of course, in turn can be flipped when they max out. This is all well and good, but seems to lead to the reductio ad absurdum of June 2008. That's when the A's traded Rich Harden, the best starting pitcher they had in a decade, to the Cubs because his contract wasn't due to expire for two years. While that meant he had extra value, it was a cool comfort to A's fans who got to watch their homegrown product take Chicago to the playoffs. Then, days later, Joe Blanton, our opening day starter, who also was safely signed for years, was given to the Phillies for a bag of broken bats and proceeded to hit a home run and win Game 4 of the World Series for the eventual champions. While Beane is correct that swapping his best players while they're still affordable is slick business, the past two years have been like the sub-prime mortgage catastrophe, selling property we never intend to occupy, dumping star players since we never intend to compete. It's about as much fun as rooting for the futures market — and, in 2008, about as profitable.

Then, this fall, the A's did something out of the ordinary, signing big free agent Matt Holiday of the Colorado Rockies and bidding up another expensive mercenary Rafael Furcal. It's the kind of move that 29 other teams in baseball are in the custom of doing but the fact that the A's are doing it has made the powers-that-be anxious, wondering what kind of con Billy is up to now? Have we changed our ways? Are we gearing up for a fire sale that would scorch the ones we've done up till now? Are we insane?

Damn, we're smart.


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