(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Boston Whine Party

Employee breaks rules.

Employer investigates.

Employee destroys information.

Employee refuses to cooperate in investigation.

In most cases, employee gets fired.  No severance, no nothing, just a quick and quiet exit.

Unless, of course, you are a star pro football player, your enabling fans and admirers tell you that everything you do is okay, and you are a member of a union that has a collective bargaining agreement with work rules that protect you.

Fine, the union will stand up for the player, and the player has money to fight the punishment.  And, yes, everyone is entitled to a defense.  But. . .

The NFL hired an investigator with impeccable credentials.  The investigator did a thorough job in investigating what happened.  The NFL also has major credibility problems, and if professional sports don't enforce rules that affect the integrity of the outcome of any came, what do they have?  Most certainly not the fans' trust or belief that the game is credible.  Baseball took a huge it because of the handwave it gave to the steroids problem until the public outcry became so loud (as did the bulk of the players).  Soccer has problems because of FIFA's bribery scandal.  And cycling became a joke when it became clear that international icon Lance Armstrong was a fraud.

Organizations show integrity when they take stands that could cost them money or tarnish their image temporarily, when they admit that they are human and vulnerable and, yes, this star transgressed and will be held accountable.  That's the way the system should work.  This issue about Deflategate should not be that huge a deal -- Brady did wrong, he made a big mistake, and he should get punished for it.  Period.  But instead, he's the saint, the league is terrible, the commissioner is Darth Vader, the league is inconsistent on punishment, and Brady is a victim.  Wow, that's something. 

The fact of the matter is that another team complained and that Brady and some cohorts in the New England organization did something wrong.  Look, it isn't even the first time teams in the league did something wrong this past season, as one if not two teams were punished for pumping in extra crowd noise during games this year.  And those stories came and went because, well, the behavior was wrong, their was no excuse and perhaps because the stories didn't involve one of the best quarterbacks of all time and the Super Bowl champions.  (Yet, steroids issues in baseball involved all-stars and the cycling scandal involved the best rider of all time).  Somehow, the whole conversation of this is skewed because of very difficult facts involving domestic abuse cases, the intertwining of off-the-field matters with the league's code of conduct policy, letting the justice system take its course and many tough situations.  I am not defending the league's handling of the Ray Rice case.  That said, how the league handled those matters should not cloud the league's or anyone's judgment about how it should handle a matter that affects the integrity of the game.

The issue here is that the league must take a stand that no player is above honoring the rules of the game and also fair play.  Sure, we can take shots at the league for enforcing "no celebration" penalties and "keep your shirt tucked in" rules.  But if the league cannot discipline Tom Brady, what message is it sending?  That you need to try to cheat to be great?  That if you pile up numbers you are so valuable to us that we cannot hold you accountable? 

Again, everyone is entitled to a defense, and Brady and the players' association are well within their rights to exhaust their remedies.  And perhaps the investigator and league got it wrong.  But if, on its face, Brady had a role in telling those equipment guys to deflate footballs (and especially in light of the fact that the Colts had warned the league about this before) and then perhaps destroyed evidence and failed to cooperate, he should be happy with a four-game suspension and just walk away.

But most people in the workplace would get fired.

Star or not.

There cannot be two sets of rules -- one for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and the Patriots and one for everyone else. 

And that is Roger Goodell's and the league's point.

And it's a good one.

The Phillies Trade Cole Hamels

A few funny things happened on the way to trading Cole Hamels. . .

1.  He threw a no-hitter in his last start for the team.
2.  The Phillies haven't been winners exactly in development talent or in getting it for star pitchers.
3.  It remains to be seen whether they'll have broken their jinx of making bad trades by getting a few future stars in this one.  History is not on their side.

We go back to when they traded Fergie Jenkins in the 1960's to the Cubs for a bunch of players, only to see Jenkins become a Hall of Famer.  True, the swap of Rick Wise for Steve Carlton in the early 1970's proved to be a stroke of genius.  It's hard to argue with that one, as it is that despite a trove of promising starters in the late 1970's/early 1980's (Jim Wright, Tony Ghelfi, Scott Munninghoff, Marty Bystrom), none of them panned out.  It's also hard to argue that despite the touting in the mid-to-late 2000's the team had one of the best farm systems in baseball, almost none of those prospects turned into much (example:  none of the four vaunted prospects sent to Cleveland in the 2009 Cliff Lee trade materialized into an everyday starter let alone a star, and for all the trades made to other teams in the 2007-2012 time frame you could argue that only Gio Gonzalez has had a career worthy of mention).  Atop that, the team is saddled with the wreckage (at least in memory) of getting four suspects for Curt Schilling (who went on to have a close to if not Hall of Fame career) and the poor prospects it received when it traded Cliff Lee to Seattle (the season before they then re-signed him as a free agent -- just witness the struggles of Philippe Aumont).  Put simply, the Cole Hamels trade is a triumph of hope over experience.

Yes, they're getting arguably the third, fourth, fifth, thirteenth and twenty-ninth best prospects from a team that is five games below .500 and a starter who won 18 games four years ago and then had two very major surgeries and hasn't been the same, are eating the $34 million remaining on his contract, sent close to $10 million in cash to the Rangers and still somewhat promising lefty reliever Jake Diekman, along with Hamels.  Huge trade, reminiscent of around 1983 when the Phillies sent five players, including Julio Franco, to the Indians for then phenom Von Hayes (who would have drawn great praise today for all of his good numbers, especially his on-base percentage).  Hayes never materialized into a Hall of Famer, and Franco actually had a better career. 

Oh, we'll talk about the stud pitching prospect, the catcher who can throw and hit the ball out of the stadium, the outfielder with the strong and quick wrists and the two other pitchers until we're blue in the face.  But the pitcher must not blow out his arm and has to project to be at least the #2 in the rotation.  The catcher has to be close to an all-star and at least in the conversation.  And the outfielder must be an everyday player who can have an on-base percentage that hopefully is at least ten basis points above the Major League average.  If they get anything out of the other two pitchers, fine, but they need regulars, and they need a few who have the potential to be stars.  Why?  Because the Rangers are getting a big-game pitcher like Schilling was who can help lead them to the ever-elusive World Series title (and they missed their window over the past couple of years).

It's hard to gauge this trade right now.  Initially, I was horrified, as early reports did not include the #3 prospect in the organization, the star pitching prospect.  Still, in a way, it's sad to note that a star pitcher coming off a no-hitter with a team-friendly contract (why -- because it lasts for 3-4 more years as opposed to the 7 or so that the star free agents are likely to get in the off-season) cannot draw a #1 or #2 organizational prospect from a contender.  Perhaps this is the best the Phillies can do, but the pressure is on.  The view here is that if this trade fails along the lines of the Schilling deal (or, even along the lines of the Hunter Pence and Roy Oswalt debacles, where Pence turned out to be a mainstay and the key minor-leaguer cannot shake injuries and where they gave up value for Oswalt, including a throw-in minor-league outfielder who is very good) then ownership has to sell the team.  It will have zero credibility save among its wealthy buddies on the Main Line, and it will have proven that it cannot regain the culture that it had created on the foundation of the Ed Wade era (as it was Wade who found us Hamels, Rollins, Howard and Utley -- or at least that happened around his watch) about eight years ago.  Sadly, you cannot fire the owners, but this trade will say a lot whether this ownership group can rebuild the team and recapture the magic that made Citizens Bank Park a very special place even five years ago.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Friend's Lament: Why aren't we as interested in baseball as we used to be?

A good friend e-mailed after the All-Star game asking this question.  I offered the following:

1.  The strike of 1994 started the decline deep down.  How could both sides let the World Series get cancelled?

2.  Then there was the Steroids Era.  The owners let it happen, the non-using players knew it was going on and did nothing (if this were the Black Sox era, Judge Landis would have banned all of them), and the glorified fans known as many of the baseball writers chronicled and cheered the glorious offensive records that were being set, while conveniently ignoring whispers and the size of the average player.  What made it worse is that overall Major League Baseball did not apologize for this travesty.  Sure, there was the Mitchell Report and yes, the baseball writers are guarding the Hall of Fame with their lethal keyboards, but let's make no mistake -- that era was awful.

3.  Analytics have taken over the game for better and for worse.  "Moneyball" was great, showing that a little engine that could could outwit the big spenders.  It also showed teams that having a good face and being built like a tight end did not guarantee success in baseball, and that you could be built like Kevin Youkilis and excel.  But there are so many analytics today that unless you have a masters in math you cannot figure all of them out or calculate them.   And all those analytics do what math is designed to do -- to prove something.  Which means that while I might prefer Mays and you might prefer Aaron, there is some PhD in math from MIT who never played Little League who can prove who was better and why.  And there's fun in that for the math guys, but not for those of us who like the smell of the grass, the thwack of the bat, the thump of the ball into the mitt.

4.  It's hot out there.  Even at 7 p.m. in many parts of the country, the temperatures and humidity are high.  And that makes it no fun to watch games in such blistering heat.

5.  Tickets are more expensive, and so is parking and beer.

6.  The games are so gosh-darn long.  A game takes 3:30 to play, and the ball is in play for about 15 minutes.  There is only so much catching up one can do with friends over that long a period of time.  Forty years ago I went to a game at Vet Stadium in Philadelphia, Randy Jones of the Padres against Steve Carlton of the Phillies.  Game was over in 1:28.  Great game, home team won, hot day, but game  was short.  MLB should think about that.

7.  The offense is terrible.  Strikes zones seem bigger, pitchers throw extremely hard on every pitch (and injuries have not abated over time, which is sad given that if front offices can figure out analytics to guide their selection of players, they should be able to figure out physiology enough to keep their pitchers healthy.  Long gone are the days when Iron Man Joe McGinnity pitched both ends of long-gone doubleheaders for the New York Giants -- and he did not miss time because of arm injuries).  No, I don't want to return to the Steroids/Amphetamines Era, but OBP  is the lowest it's been in 35+ years.

8.  Even with the fun parks, the game seems antiseptic.  There is no Cal Ripken streak, no great  recovery by the BoSox after being 3 games down in the 2004 ALDS, no huge names with personality.  Sure, there is Mike Trout, but who else is there?  Miguel Cabrera is great but doesn't seem to have pizzazz, and Albert Pujols has tailed off.  A-Rod is damaged goods; Derek Jeter retired.  The newer phenoms don't have the buzz yet.

9.  Is baseball losing kids?  My son doesn't follow it, and many of his friends do not.  They love basketball and soccer (which has grown in the US tremendously, especially interest in international soccer) and football.  Baseball is the game that I went to with my dad.  Carlton and Schmidt are greats that I refer to.  Even I saw Mays, but he was at the end of his career.  Many great industries lose their preeminence when they think they are on top, and then fail to save themselves.  About 45 years ago boxing, tennis and horse racing were much more popular than they are now.  There's a lesson in that somewhere.

10.  There are so many choices for entertainment.  Baseball used to have fewer competitors.  Now there are great restaurants, other teams, big TVs with comfortable chairs and cable in the air conditioning of your own home.  Back then, a trip to the ball park was something special and more affordable. 

I still like the game.  My dad took me to Connie Mack Stadium in North Philadelphia when I was three.  I saw Aaron, Clemente, Mays and the hapless Phillies.  Parking was strange, the Vet then was new and space-age like, and the Phillies got better.  We talked baseball all the time, kept score, and looked forward to our father-and-son outings.  And because of that, I'll always be a fan. 

But it's just not the same. . .

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

From the Ridiculous to the Absurd in. . . Philadelphia

It was bad enough that the Orioles beat the Phillies 19-3 last night, setting a team record for home runs in the process.  It is bad enough that the Phillies are having their worst road trip ever, dating back to 1883 and that the team is on pace to lose 108 games.  Atop that, the Tonight Show-like jokes keep coming.  Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski tweeted that the Cardinals also tried to hack into the Phillies' computer network, but they couldn't figure out how to solve for DOS. 

The sad thing is that the 76ers might be creating and drawing worse headlines.  On Saturday night at 9:42, the team announced the 2014 first-round pick Joel Embiid suffered a set back in his recovery from a broken foot.  When you announce something that late on a Saturday night, it means that you are trying to get people to miss it.  Atop that, former coach Larry Brown is lobbying the front office to hire former star Allen Iverson as an Assistant General Manager. 

Okay, so OF Jeff Francouer finished the game up in Baltimore last night, laboring through two innings because, among other things, the bullpen phone was off the hook.  That was tough enough to watch.  But a third straight year of potential awful seasons will be tough to swallow.  It's no one's fault, per se, and what's worse is that reports were that Embiid looked great in workouts in Los Angeles prior to this announcement.  The truth is -- if and when healthy -- Embiid is a beast.  Perhaps now a beast lost or a lost beast or a beached beast, but a beast.  The only articulate word is "aaarrgh."

And so the draft looms, and that's a big media event for the 76ers.  But what's almost comical is Brown's suggestion -- Allen Iverson as an assistant general manager.  What, precisely, would he manage?  He had trouble managing himself and perhaps was the worst team captain in the history of professional sports.  It was all about Iverson, not about anyone else, and while he was a supreme talent who didn't usually have a good supporting cast, he wasn't a team guy.  Ergo, put him in the front office.  And Brown's recommendation is curious -- Iverson drove him nuts and had the putative owner (a 1%er named Pat Croce) intervene between him and Iverson. 

All that eclipses the many and sometimes puzzling moves of Eagles' coach Chip Kelly, who makes the media darlings often times miss Andy Reid, who somehow missed the training session for coaches who have to deal with the media.  The discussion around the release of one-time Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis was somewhat baffling. 

At least the Eagles have a chance to win. . .

At least the 76ers have some hope. . .

At least the Phillies have the memory of 2008.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Sepp Blatter

When I was in high school, the hippie chick teacher came to school with her arm in a sling and a black eye.  She offered that her VW van got into an accident.  By the time I was a senior, she had four accidents in three years, one of which put her in the hospital for a few months.  My father advised, "Son, when you have one accident in a while, it's probably an accident.  But if you have four accidents in three years, you have a driving problem."

It would be one thing if FIFA were known as this pristine organization and if international soccer were bribe-free.  Today, the FIFA board makes the IOC board look like the College of Cardinals.  Scandal upon riddle upon nuance upon scandal make this an ethical meal along the lines that the ethics version of Adam Richman would try (and fail) to eat in an episode of "Man versus Food."  There's just too much smoke and fire around FIFA.

Sepp Blatter tried to save himself, and despite his shortcomings realized that it was too little too late and for the game he loves, he had to resign.  It was the wise decision, because Sepp Blatter presided over a culture that seemingly became rotten to the core.  It would have been hard to expect him to clean it up, given that the apparent rot that occurred over decades happened on his watch.  How could any reasonable fan expect him to clean up all of the mess?

That fan couldn't, and now FIFA has to pick someone with the stature to fix things.  In a world where deals are made every day and leaders have to make difficult decisions, it will be hard to find someone who hasn't been a part of something that didn't go wrong at some point.  Find the person without any blemishes, and it could be that that person didn't lead anything of substance or try and fail at something.  There are warts everywhere.  The key will be to find someone who found something, spoke up about it and fixed it.  Whoever that may be.

FIFA couldn't continue with Sepp Blatter.  But who can they find who can help reform it? 

Many will want and take the job.  The question is who is worthy.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The National Significance of a Relatively Small Sports Headline

About five years ago, Princeton's lacrosse coach, Bill Tierney, announced that he was leaving Tigertown to move to the University of Denver.  The lacrosse world buzzed a bit -- on the face of it, this was a curious move because Tierney had built a juggernaut at Princeton, winning 6 national championships in 22 seasons.  The East is the lacrosse hotbed; very few schools play Division I lacrosse out west.

But there were two more important subheadings.  First, understandably Tierney moved to the best program possible out west because he and his wife were empty nesters and their three grown kids were out west and they wanted to be closer.  That made perfect sense.  The second subheading had two parts -- one, that you knew that Tierney was going to Denver to bring his all to the program and two, that it only would be a matter of time before he would build a national contender and win a title.

He built a national contender pretty quickly; he just won his first national title at Denver.

The national significance -- for years the lacrosse powers that be and are were trying to give the sport more national appeal, appeal beyond the fact that Notre Dame plays the sport and that Ohio State does. Until Denver's victory, no team outside the Eastern time zone had won a national title.  (Still, there are only a handful of Division 1 lacrosse teams outside the east coast).  A parallel could be women's basketball, where, for the longest time until perhaps the late 1970's and the early 80's, the national, big state universities had also-ran teams and the likes of Immaculata and Delta State dominated.  Well, if you argue that Denver's win might open the eyes of the bigger schools to go bigger time in lacrosse, you might see the likes of Stanford and USC and other big schools starting programs (and figuring out the balance within their athletic programs under Title IX).  And that could lead to many more schools playing Division 1 lacrosse -- in all time zones.

So, a veteran coach moved cross country to be closer to his grown children.  He builds a better program.  He wins a national title.

And now people care about the sport far beyond the East.  Denver's 2015 national title could be a defining moment for collegiate lacrosse.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The FIFA Indictments

I'm all for globalism.  I mean, why should the U.S. and Western Europe have all the fun?  Plus, if there is more fun and interesting stuff going on everywhere, perhaps there would be less violence.  In soccer terms, that means, from a theoretical standpoint, it's good to host the World Cup all over the world. 

But when you hear that Qatar was awarded the World Cup in the middle of the summer, it makes you wonder what soccer's main body was thinking.  After all, the World Cup in Brazil this past summer took place in weather hot enough that for the first time, play was stopped for the occasional water break.  What did FIFA think would happen in Doha?  That players will be allowed to play with "camelback" water sacks on their backs to enable during-the-game hydration?  Would fans be hooked up to saline IVs in 115-degree temperature.

Sorry, FIFA, but on its face, this award looked suspicious.  I mean, hold it in Qatar's winter and explain why and get the buy-in from the world's soccer leagues, fine.  That would have been less suspicious.  But in the summer -- it just did not make any sense.  And, of course, now there are allegations that certain people -- FIFA officials -- made a lot of cents out of the deal and perhaps the award to Russia for 2018.

Let's fast forward to FIFA's head honcho, Sepp Blatter, who has hired a good crisis management communications firm to try to separate himself from this alleged mess.  Either he is Sergeant Schultz from Hogan's Heroes reincarnate, suffering from dementia or truly believes that someone he can separate his leadership from what appears to be a culture where handshake greetings are of the "palms up" variety.  Or so it seems.

I've written on many occasions that we should not try people in the media and that law enforcement can be wrong, so the FIFA group deserves a good defense and its day in court.  That said, if the allegations are proven, Sepp Blatter has to go. 

The reasoning is quite straightforward -- if the allegations are true, then all this happened on Sepp Blatter's watch, which would mean that his form of leadership wasn't clear or ethical enough to dictate to his leadership that asking for bribes was forbidden.  At many companies, division leaders get terminated when lower ranking employees do criminal things because there is an automatic assumption that the culture was too lose and enable the bad behavior to occur.  Those dismissals are fast and not always right or fair, but they do send the message that the culture of the organization and integrity of the brand are more important than any single individual.

For right now, the world will watch the U.S. prosecutions unfold, and we'll all learn enough whether FIFA is really FEE-FA, a nefarious version of "pay to play."

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Big Trouble for St. Joseph's University and Potentially All Colleges -- Hazing Scandal Lawsuit

Imagine that you are a freshman athlete. 

You played all sorts of travel ball, invested in private hitting, fielding or pitching lessons, got up at very early hours on weekends for long drives to remote fields on hot days, played three games in a day, got yelled at, got dirty, used Port-a-Potties that sometimes were reminiscent of the sewer pipe that Andy Dufresne had to crawl through during his escape from Shawshank Prison, and your reward was that at some showcase tournament, a college coach came up to you and said, 'Hey, I like your game, would you consider coming to our school?'  Imagine the excitement, the rush -- I tried hard, and someone noticed.  Someone wants me!  And hey, there could be some need-based aid, merit money, other aid, this could help pay for college, too.  Maybe, maybe not, on the latter point, but then again you get to play a game you love at the college level.  Most people don't get that chance. 

You get to the college, and then all of a sudden it's like you're entering a new school in a bad neighborhood where the older girls act mean because, well, they are in charge and they can.  They force you to do humiliating things in the name of tradition and team bonding,  very humiliating things, things that go against your values and sadly the values of the Jesuits who run the school.  Things that would draw tabloid attention. 

If you speak up, you're finished.  You'll get ostracized.  You're a whiner, complainer, not a team player, a loaner, the weird girl, you don't get it, you're not part of the band of sisters, whatever.  And why?  Because you have good values and you have morals.  And God forbid, you tell your parents and they complain, well, that's just as bad if not worse.  What, are you not tough enough to stand up for yourself -- you have to go crying to mommy and daddy?  Omigod, you are such a wimp, why should we want you as a teammate.

It is this backdrop that freshman softball players at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia seemingly entered into.  And now, one of the players who was hazed is suing St. Joe's.  You can read the link to the article here

This is a troubling lawsuit.  Presumably, the plaintiff either left school out of anger, humiliation, embarrassment or being ostracized.  She will have a variety of claims, and the school will have to answer them.  St. Joe's does not want to get to a jury.  Where was the Athletic Department?  Where was the coach?  Was there training of coaches as to how to prevent hazing, teach against it, educate on it, recognize it?  Was there training of upperclassmen?  Many jurors will be parents.  Many also will have read headlines about how various dioceses dealt or failed to deal with allegations of abuse by priests (not the same topic, of course, but perhaps representative of a culture). 

If this were to go to a jury, the award could be devastating, as could a judge's opinion as to what the standard should be for a school to educate on and prevent this type of behavior.  Both could be very costly, both financially and to a school's reputation.  The damage to the victims has been done.

The plaintiff and those like her had to muster courage routinely to challenge and defeat opponents.  This time, they have to summon even more courage to challenge a school that was supposed to protect them and teammates that were supposed to be their friends. 

Once upon a time, they were young girls in pony tails, singing cheers from the bench, stealing bases and grinning on base hits or good plays in the field.  College ball was supposed to be the crowning experience, a reward for their dedication.  It shouldn't have to be an exercise in growing up way too fast and experiencing things that one should not be forced to experience. 

This case looms more largely than just a hazing incident at a relatively small, regional Catholic university.  If it is litigated, both the award and the findings could have widespread implications for athletic programs everywhere.  If institutions are smart, they'll examine their programs, policies and training to help ensure that hazing of any form does not occur.