SportsProf

(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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Monday, February 28, 2005

Is The NCAA Flunking Teams Out?

It's hard to say.

It is admirable, after all these years in existence, that the National Collegiate Athletic Association is actually attempting to take serious stock as to whether its member institutions are helping their athletes be meaningful students. The last time we checked, the purpose of going to college was to learn more, grow as a person and, yes, become more marketable on the job market (in an ever more competitive world, no less).

The problem now, or so it seems, is the metric. The blogosphere and the sports blogosphere in particular is full of talk of metrics to measure sports-based performance. The numbers guys love baseball, and now they're also showing their prowess in basketball as well. That's all good stuff, and a lot of it is meaningful, even if some of us like to think of our games as artistic tapestries and not scientific proofs (i.e., I have more points per possession than my opponent therefore I win).

Read the article, and you'll see that perhaps there's a problem with the denominator (if, in fact, a percentage is what's really being examined here). For example, if players leave school, say for athletic reasons (i.e., they'll get more playing time elsewhere), how do they figure into the calculation? As a flunk out? As someone who couldn't do the work? Then again, those who leave because they jumped before the academic deans pushed them should figure into the equation.

Needless to say, there will be programs who will protest that they've been singled out unfairly. And some of them will be right. There also will be programs who will skate by on a foundation of majors for players that includes tiddlywinks and video-game playing. That's not right either.

The one thing about metrics is that an institution has to crawl with them before it hits a full stride. It has to take a chance on a set of metrics and then has to work diligently to continue to refine them. During the incipient period, the institution has to show some flexibility to avoid bad results, and then, too, it has to show a strong backbone to make sure that it enforces sanctions against deficient programs. First, the NCAA has to establish a basic metric that works. Once it does that, perhaps it could go the bolder step of establishing additional metrics, such as those that weed out "eligibility" majors, i.e., those courses of study that won't lead to anything meaningful career-wise but will keep players eligible for an entire career. That might take some doing, but it's worth the try at some point.

The good news is that the NCAA member insitutions are taking a stand.

Now it's time for the members to help improve the system of measurement while at the same time supporting the system of enforcement.

After all, we're talking about eligibility for games here juxtaposed with skill sets for life. When you put it that way, the latter always must prevail over the former.

Most kids can get over a loss in a key game.

What they cannot overcome is a system that doesn't stress over everything else that they get the best education possible.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Penn Clinches Ivy Hoops Crown

They weren't supposed to be this good. They were supposed to come in second in their league at best, or so said the pundits, who believed that with two first-team all-Ivy selections returning from last year's squad that won the Ivies, the Princeton Tigers were going to repeat as Ivy champions. That prediction was certainly the safe bet, and I, for one, made it too.

But the Penn Quakers didn't listen to the prognosticators, not during the pre-season predictions, not right after a start that saw them almost get blitzed out of the state of Wisconsin, and not after some early January games that had their fans wondering whether they'd win at least 10 of their 14 Ivy league games. No, the Penn Quakers only listened to their coaches and themselves, and they never quit.

Their coach came into the season after dallying with his alma mater, LaSalle, who wanted desperately from him to return to right their scandalized program, and he came into it with several question marks on his roster. The biggest question marks were at guard, in two distinct ways. First, would the Quakers be able to develop any depth at the position, given that they lost two guards to graduation and had two freshmen coming in? Second, would senior PG Eric Osmundsen, thus far a disappointment after his transfer from Utah, demonstrate the talent that the Penn coaches thought he had when he arrived at Penn?

There were other questions too, about leadership, about graduation losses, about whether a heralded sophomore class would improve or fall prey to the gravity pull known as the sophomore jinx. Finally, could Fran Dunphy lead a team to an Ivy title without a break-it-down, penetrating point guard? Those who have watched Dunphy coach over the years know that this was one of the most critical questions.

The positive answers to those questions climaxed last night, when the Penn Quakers beat Columbia, clinched the Ivy title and became the first team to make it to the NCAA Tournament. How they won the Ivies so easily is a testimony to their coach and to his players.

First, Dunphy made two fundamental changes to his coaching style. He didn't make his offense so guard reliant, and he stopped doing the tinkering and dallying for which he had become famous during his tenure at Penn. That meant that he wouldn't run the offense solely through one guard, and that meant that he wouldn't play too many players and fall in love with a Mike Sullivan, Charlie Copp or Jeff Goldstein. What resulted was that he basically played seven guys up until this weekend, when apparently Osmundsen was still battling the flu and reserve G David Whitehurst got many meaningful minutes. In essence, Penn had been an Iron 7 for most of the Ivy season.

Second, the Quakers won the Ivies without that penetrating PG, giving them their first title in the Dunphy era when a signature guard wasn't manning the point. Instead, he had a signature two guard and a signature small forward. In soph 2G Ibby Jaaber, he has the best defender in the Ivies, a shutdown defender who leads the Ivies in steals and is about to set the single-season record for the league in that department. Like many Ivy players, he has one hole in his game, which is outside shooting; otherwise he'd be launching three balls for some coach on Tobacco Road. His presence in Penn's press against Princeton at the Palestra helped ignite Penn's amazing comeback about a month ago.

As for the signature small forward, Tim Begley is the consummate basketball player. He can hit the open man, he's great at moving the ball around, and he can shoot the three. He also wants the rock during crunch time, and he's played very well. He is just a special player.

Penn never totally solved that guard problem, either. Frosh combo guard Michael Kach, who had showed some promise, quit the team around Christmas. Until Whitehurst emerged this past weekend, Osmundsen and Jaaber were getting more than 35 minutes a game, with Begley sometimes sliding into the backcourt. Osmundsen has played well in spurts, most certainly good enough to help his team to the title. He has shown ample evidence of the skill set that had Penn coaches after him when he was a HS senior near San Diego. Great? No. Outstanding PG play, a penetrating PG? No, not really. Just fine? Absolutely.

Penn's Iron 7 (or 8) won't go down as one of the best team's in Penn's history. But like the Princeton team of about five years ago, when John Thompson III first manned the conning tower of the hoops battleship known as Princeton and having to energize a program that had lost its top two coaches and about seven players to injuries, professional baseball contracts, graduations, transfers and years off, this team will go down as one of the most special. It's a team with the most improved player in the Ivies, soph center Steve Danley, two small forwards in 6'6" soph Mark Zoller and Begley, and ostensibly two two guards in Jaaber and Osmundsen. It's first two players off the bench are 6'9", senior Jan Fikiel and soph Ryan Pettinnella. The former is known for being a finesse player with a touch (at times) while the latter is known as a banger without one. For most of his career Fikiel played inconsistently; the night Penn made its heroic comeback against Princeton about a month ago, he turned into Dirk Nowitzki for a half, zinging three after three.

Over the years, more Penn players than not have majored in some business discipline offered by Penn's heralded Wharton School of Business.

This year they've earned their degrees in chemistry.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Mike Montgomery At Golden State

He can't say that we didn't warn him.

16-38.

Ouch.

Montgomery had a Top 25 if not Top 10 program at Stanford.

He traded that record in for a rich payday, but, unfortunately, that's about it.

Which goes to show you that the old Whitey Herzog adage holds true. (For those in the blogosphere who don't remember him, Herzog was the outstanding manager for the Kansas City Royals in the day when they were one of the preeminent teams in the American League and had a player named George Brett -- the 1970's). When asked about the difference a major league manager makes, Herzog said something to the effect of, "If you give me horsebleep talent with a great manager and great talent with a horsebleep manager, I'll bet on the horsebleep manager every time."

Now before you jump on me about how much more of a difference a hoops coach can make than a baseball manager, the point still holds true. If you don't have the players, it doesn't matter who the coach is. Rick Pitino and John Calipari learned that, and even Larry Brown has felt that pain at times during his career.

As Mike Montgomery is feeling now.

Coach, the Stanford job may not be open, but some Top 50 college jobs could well open up this off-season. If you want to reconsider, there are probably plenty of college programs that would welcome you with open arms.

Friday, February 25, 2005

John Chaney Suspended For Three Games

This time, Temple University acted.

They didn't let their Hall of Fame coach call the shots.

The Temple administration couldn't do that, especially with crosstown rival St. Joseph's fuming over what happened in a game between the two schools earlier this week.

Especially with the national media heaping scorn on their lenient self-imposed justice that they orchestrated within eighteen hours after Tuesday night's game ended.

Especially when their coach talked to the media on the day before the game about what he was planning for Tuesday (goon-like hoops if St. Joe's kept on setting the types of screens they were setting) and then, down only 6 with 15 minutes to go, put in a seldom-used senior strongman, Nehemiah Ingram, to commit mayhem against St. Joe's.

Especially when he kept the player in the game after the player received a technical for rough play.

Especially when the player committed three fouls after the technical and fouled out after only playing four minutes.

Especially when one of the victims of the hard fouls, St. Joe's F John Bryant, a starter, broke his forearm and is out for the year.

Especially since St. Joe's had rallied from a tough start of the season and was making a run at the Big Dance.

Especially when the Temple student section almost rioted.

It's still not enough.

Chaney shouldn't be eligible to coach again this year. Period.

He's only out for the remainder of Temple's regular-season games. He's back for the A-10 tournament and, if Temple acquits itself well enough, post-season play.

Meanwhile, John Bryant's season is over.

As for Ingram, he should be out for the year. St. Joe's has forgiven him, saying his coach put him up to it, but the Nuremberg defense shouldn't work. A senior should know that to go into the game to commit violence is dead wrong. Nehemiah Ingram should be gone. For the year. At his level of experience, he has to be held accountable for his actions.

Meanwhile, John Bryant's season is over.

After all, if a player gets into a fight he's kicked out of a game. If he gets into another fight after that, he's gone for the year. Given what Ingram did, he was lucky he didn't get kicked out of the St. Joe's game (he should have been). He's getting off easy, and he should thank his lucky stars.
And be furious with his coach.

Meanwhile, John Bryant's season is over.

That's the iniquity here, isn't it? The player who got hurt because of the cowardly acts of two men misses the rest of what could have been a fun stretch run for St. Joe's, and, meanwhile, the two perpetrators get off relatively easily.

And the Atlantic 10 Conference administration, particularly Commissioner Linda Bruno, should be replaced. Not only did Bruno tolerate a huge violation of any code of hoops coaching decency when she agreed to Temple's charade of a one-game self-suspension of Chaney, she also ignored St. Joe's request that Ingram be suspended. The reason the A-10 gave was that Ingram was just following orders, so he wasn't the culpable one. Huh? Since when is a college student, especially a senior, not responsible for his actions? Ingram should have known better. He should be gone for the year, even if it's his senior year. Even if he'll miss senior night. What type of message is the A-10 administration sending to college players -- that's it's okay to do something if your coach says so? What kind of leadership is that? If I'm Linda Bruno, I'm getting my resume out on the street, because if I'm the St. Joe's administration and head coach Phil Martelli, I want her out of her job. Starting tomorrow.

To be clear, I remain a fan of John Chaney, although my admiration of him has dropped quite a bit since what happened Tuesday night (I will not disrespect his entire body of work because of this deplorable incident, because I think that wouldn't be fair either). No one should be above the rules, the law, the code that says as a leader of young men you never instruct a player to hurt another team's player, though. John Chaney should be on an absolute zero-tolerance policy, and he'd be lucky to get that.

Meanwhile, John Bryant has a broken forearm. The St. Joe's kids, a great group, now lose a solid contributor to their program. Their chances to go deep into the post-season are a little more in doubt than they were Tuesday at tip-off.

At least the Temple administration acted more strongly than the farce they orchestrated on Wednesday morning.

But it's still not enough.

Not that the Atlantic-10 administration would know the difference.

Top Dollar In The WNBA

Women's Hoops posted this morning on Swin Cash's three-year deal with the Detroit Shock. There are probably over 100 NBA players who make more money for one game than Cash will make for one season.

And 95% of them aren't as good relative to their league as Cash is to hers.

Sure, you can make all the arguments you want that the NBA draws and the WNBA doesn't and that the NBA players from a market standpoint deserve more money because of the TV ratings, the ad sales, the merchandise sales, the tickets sales and all of the money involved, and it's hard to argue with you on that point. If you're an NBA fan you'd probably argue that the WNBA players shouldn't be jealous, that they should be happy to make what they're making.

Those arguments are all well and good, but one thing is clear -- the WNBA players play for the love of the game as much if not more so than for the money.

So the next time a Latrell Sprewell or someone else complains about needing more money or having to feed his family, he should remember the WNBA players and think about how fortunate he is. He has great skills, and he does work hard, but there aren't many jobs in the world where the matchup of hard work and talent yields as much in compensation as playing in the NBA.

And, better yet, the NBA players don't have to endure Russian winters to supplement their income.

Let The Buyer Beware

Is Maurice Clarett unsafe at any speed?

More probably has been written about this guy in the past year than almost the rest of the sure-fire first-round picks combined.

Some would say that where there's smoke, there's fire.

Clarett would probably counter that he still has the fire, the right kind of fire, and he's out to prove that at the combine in Indy.

Many coaches and scouts get fooled by combine workouts. Just ask Ray Rhodes about Mike Mamula. It's one thing for Clarett to show that he's in great shape and has great skills at the combine. It's another thing for him to demonstrate that he can handle life as a professional athlete.

Will he redeem himself? Or will he fall into the category of Lawrence Phillips, a great talent whose off-the-field problems ultimately kept him off the field?

It's hard to say at this point.

Update (February 27): Unfortunately for Clarett, it got a whole lot easier to say after the NFL combine, where Clarett quit the drills after posting offensive linemen-like times in the 40-yard dash. It's hard to see him being drafted at all let alone on the first day after what happened in Indianapolis.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Is The Future of Big Ten Hoops Bleak?

It is if you go by the barometer known as the McDonald's All-American rosters. (Thanks to the ACC guru of the blogosphere, Dave Sez, for the link).

Here the numbers:

Conference Number of McDonald's All-Americans

ACC 7
Big 12 6
SEC 5
Big East 3
Pac 10 2
Conference USA 1.

Some pilots joke about Midwestern states by calling them the "fly-over" states, in that you fly over them to get from coast to coast. All kidding aside, is the Big Ten becoming the "Fly-Over" Conference for HS prospects?

Not yet, of course, as Illinois is the top-rated team in the nation and still undefeated. Still, the Big Ten looks like it might only get three bids to the Big Dance, and that's a low number for one of the "major" conferences.

I had a conversation with a friend regarding my sports "reality" TV show post, in which I featured a show called "Pimp My School", a takeoff on MTV's "Pimp My Ride", where a school with a moribund program could bring in the renegade coach, the bad boosters and some shoe company hucksters and, say, turn Vanderbilt's football program into a contender. We then got to talking and discussed the practical reality that kids might not want to go to, say, Penn State to play basketball given that Penn State is a football school. We also discussed that most schools can't pull off the ultimate double and have great programs in both, for whatever reason.

For example, USC basketball isn't that good, and neither are the Duke and North Carolina football programs. Illinois's football team is not good, and neither are Kansas's, UConn's or Syracuse's. In a similar light, the basketball programs at Cal, Michigan, Miami and Auburn aren't that great either.

So let's look at the Big Ten and play "football school" or "basketball school" and see what we find:

Illinois -- basketball school.
Indiana -- basketball school (but neither team is very good right now).
Iowa -- football school.
Michigan -- football school.
Michigan State -- basketball school.
Minnesota -- neither, really (although football probably has an edge).
Northwestern -- neither, really.
Ohio State -- football school.
Penn State -- football school.
Purdue -- football school.
Wisconsin -- both, actually (an exception!)

And, the three schools who will make it to the Big Dance are (drum roll please)-- Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin. The rest just aren't very good basketball schools. Which could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy if you're a HS kid who wants to play against the best. Go to the ACC and pound against a Top 25 team every week, or go to the Big Ten and play against a few excellent hoops programs, a few okay ones, and then some plum awful ones. Where do you go?

In contrast, let's look at the ACC:

Clemson -- football school
Duke -- basketball school
Florida State -- football school
Georgia Tech -- basketball school (but football is okay)
Maryland -- basketball school (but football is good)
Miami -- football school (but hoops are pretty good)
North Carolina -- basketball school
NC State -- basketball school (but actually middle of the pack in both)
Virginia -- football school
Virginia Tech -- football school (but hoops is playing out of its mind)
Wake Forest -- basketball school.

There's more balance here, because two football schools - Miami and Va Tech -- just might make their way into the Big Dance.

Where's the better competition for hoops? Most definitely in the ACC and the Big 12, and also in the Big East.

Whither Big Ten hoops?

Only time will tell.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Is John Chaney At The End Of The Line?

He was clearly out of line, both Monday night and last night, that's for sure. On Monday, he told all who would listen that he was tired of St. Joe's using illegal screens to set up its shooters and that he was going to do something about it. On Tuesday night, he sent in seldom-used senior Nehemiah Ingram to send a message to the Hawks. Ingram fouled out in four minutes of action, mugging Hawks' center Dwayne Jones and doing all he could do to set the Guiness Book record for shortest time to get disqualified (he failed in that regard). The spectacle was bad enough, and then after the game John Chaney told the world that he sent Ingram into the game to goon it up.

Bad stuff.

Especially from a pillar of the game. A Hall of Fame coach who spent a lifetime battling the odds, for himself and his kids.

Temple jumped on the issue quickly, which is a tribute to President David Adamany. After all, they say the hallmark of a good compliance program is investigating matters promptly and then imposing appropriate corrective actions. So, by the time A-10 Commissioner Linda Bruno got with Adamany and Temple AD Bill Bradshaw, the Owls administration was ready with a statement of apology from Chaney and an agreed-to one-game suspension, which means that Chaney will miss the final home game for his seniors (which is fitting for Ingram, to whom he owes a major apology for putting him in a terrible position against St. Joe's last night).

Tonight Bruno appeared on WIP Radio in Philadelphia with talk-show host Howard Eskin, and she answered questions about the entire incident. Bruno said that she thought the incident was handled well, and that the A-10 has to move on.

Eskin, never one to shy away from a controversy, stated his opinion, which is that the punishment was way too short and that Chaney has overstayed his welcome at Temple, has too much sway over the administration there, and should be fired. He, like many, also thought that St. Joe's handled the whole affair with a great deal of class.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Temple's Actions. The Temple administration is to be commended for jumping on this situation very quickly. They held their coach accountable, brokered a good result for them, and can safely say that they took the whole affair very seriously. The jury is still out, of course, whether this is significant contrition or an expedient way to smooth over a bad situation. Time will tell. If Mt. Chaney erupts again, then the Temple administration failed in its mission here.

2. Chaney's Punishment. Chaney's punishment was too lenient, and the A-10 should have considered suspending him for the season. There are many reasons to support a longer suspension. One, Chaney telegraphed what he was planning to do before the game. What went on was premeditated. Two, this isn't the first time during his career that Chaney created a public spectacle. Years ago he created a bad scene after a game against UMass in which he charged into a press conference, erupted and said he was going to kill John Calipari. No one took the threat seriously, but it was a bad display of behavior. Third, he could have caused a riot in a packed arena. In a cross-town rivalry game, the potential of vocal fans becoming violent is no laughing matter. Lastly, he's a leader of young men, and he failed miserably and publicly. A-10 Commissioner Bruno took the easy way out here.

3. Should Chaney be Fired? No, he should not be. You don't throw away a career over an incident like this, but Temple needs to talk with Chaney seriously about his future and tell him the next time he's out. He's done enough at and for Temple not to get dismissed this time. In addition, his teams haven't performed that well over the past five years, suggesting that perhaps Chaney should retire. He's in a similar situation to that of Joe Paterno -- no one can let him go, and he's not willing to let go. But he should seriously consider passing the torch. He's looking for that one final NCAA Tournament appearance, but he just may not get his team there anytime soon. Both icons -- Chaney and Paterno -- should consider retirement. And soon.

4. John Chaney and the Officials. John Chaney was totally out of line, even if he was right about the screens. There are ways to protest this, but Chaney is being hypocritical. Why? Earlier this year his Owls were leading Joe Scott's Princeton Tigers at Temple by 2 with 15 seconds to go. Princeton drove the length of the floor, and G Will Venable put up a layup off the glass with about 5 seconds to go. Temple swingman Dustin Salisbery batted the ball off the glass, and no goaltending was called. It was the worst non-call of the year, by far, as that's an automatic goal-tending call. Princeton got shafted on the call. Did Chaney give the game back? Did he say that the call was so bad that overtime should have been mandated? No, he didn't. He won the game (and it was his 1,000 game as a coach), and he was all excited. As for Scott? He tore after ref Joe DeMayo after the non-call, but quickly regained his composure to congratulate Coach Chaney and then was gracious in defeat at his post-game press conference. And there is no more fierce a competitor than Joe Scott. Temple just didn't play well enough to win last night, even if the refs had whistled St. Joe's for the bad screens.

My bottom line here is that you have a veteran coach who has lost his patience with his kids, with the refs, and perhaps with the game itself. He is a venerated figure in college basketball and in Philadelphia basketball, and he should exit with that respect intact. Unfortunately, it can take decades to build an outstanding reputation, and only a day or two's worth of bad incidents to taint one's legacy forever.

Hopefully the Temple administrators and Coach Chaney can talk openly on his future and reflect on that point.

Before things get really ugly.

When Stealing Is Good And Legal

The late Al Smith, the one-time Governor of New York, made this comment while touring the law library at a law school located in NYC: "Gentlemen, there sit two men who are learning how to pay a bribe, only to call it a fee." I'm sure that as a veteran of Tammany Hall politics, Smith knew a lot about how to dress up such situations, as plain old stealing wasn't legal, even in NYC and even by its politicians, in the 1920's.

But fast forward to the 21st century, and there's a whole lot of good, legal stealing going on. And it's in court, too, or, actually, on a court.

A basketball court.

Rick Pitino has spoken of defensive touches, and his assistants keep that stat because Coach Pitino believes that if your team is disruptive enough on defense, it will win the game. Many fans focus on the scorers, the rebounders and even the shot blockers, and all appreciate the great pass. But fewer focus on the steal, and the last time I checked forcing a turnover might have even a greater magnitude than having your opponent throw the ball away.

It's called making things happen, and the players featured in the article all are difference makers. All can change the flow of a game, just by anticipating and being in the right place at the right time.

Stealing?

It's what the all-Americans do on a basketball court.

And in this case, it's not even for a fee.

One Reason Why NBA Players Are Lucky

Because they don't have to ride on Russian trains to get to a game.

But current WNBA stars do. And they have to brave Russian winters as well.

Click here to read former UConn and current Seattle Storm star Sue Bird's diary about her experiences in Russia. Her positive attitude is infectious.

Why do these stars go abroad to play? Two reasons, mainly. First, it's the money thing. The Europeans pay good money to women's hoop stars to play over there. Second, it's the competition. I once heard Larry Brown talk to a bunch of HS kids about how to get better, and his simply eloquent advice was, "play every day." His sales pitch was that somewhere out there kids are playing every day and automatically improving, so if you want to improve, you should do the same thing. In order to keep honing their craft, the WNBA players need to seek out the best competition.

I couldn't imagine some current NBA players going over to Russia, not staying in top hotels, and sleeping in the bottom bunk of a Russian train. Then again, they don't have to, although I'm sure that some of the guys at the end of the bench who have played in other countries have some interesting travel tales of their own.

It's always fun to read about what Sue Bird's up to, because she always has a smile on her face. In contrast, while Barry Bonds had a smile on his face (and if I were his media advisor, I would advise him to use it more often), he's seldom happy, or so it seems. There are enough bad stories in sports out there right now -- the NHL lockout, steroids in baseball, the conviction of the booster who apparently bribed a HS football coach to steer his kid to a certain SEC school, the questionable quality of the NBA's product (and the public utterings of malcontents such as Latrell Sprewell) -- that it's nice to talk about a fun one.

Some players would view a winter of hoops in Russia as a trip to a Siberian gulag.

Sue Bird views it as an opportunity.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Sports Reality TV That Could Be On Its Way

Let's face it, there's no sports reality TV that can top the run that the Boston Red Sox had last year or that could top the Cinderella-like story of Smarty Jones. That was really good stuff, and baseball and horse racing captivated the sports nation's attention last year.

For most of us, that's the type of sports reality that we like to see. We're not as big fans of, for instance, ESPN's made-for-TV entertainment (such as the Texas A&M players with the Australian accents), the World Series of Poker or Ultimate Fighting Championships. Or anything on Pay-Per-View. That stuff has its place for certain viewers, but I don't think for most of us.

One of the toughest jobs in the entertainment world is creating new programs for all of the TV channels that are out there. Some of us are wont to say that the more stations that are out there, the less there is to watch. So, if Anna Nicole Smith, Ozzie Osbourne and the Gottis can get their own reality shows, there is room out there in the sports world for the following:

1. The Ozzie and Jose Show. In the 1950's there was "Ozzie and Harriet," an all-American pastime in and of itself, so we figure that in the 21st century there should be Ozzie and Jose, featuring the Canseco brothers, one of whom helped deflower the national pastime as we knew it. See them get into bar fights, see them get big, see them go to the local batting cages and hit prodigious shots. See them drive fast cars, make friends and name names. Should be a go on one of the cable networks, and reports are that John Walsh has been asked to host.

2. Iron Coach. The Food Network has gotten a ton of yardage about face-offs between celebrity chefs, and this show will feature face-offs between celebrity college basketball coaches. The pilot will feature Louisville's Rick Pitino and Memphis's John Calipari, either playing paintball against one other, debating, slinging mud or mud wrestling. This show will not be for the faint of heart, and there will be no "Kumbaya" singing on this show. One episode, featuring a "Pin the Motivational Strategy" on Mizzou mentor Quin Snyder, also is being planned.

3. Pimp My School. Buoyed by the success of MTV's "Pimp My Ride," Snoopp Doggy will take over for XBizkit and visit colleges whose football or hoops programs have a history of faring terribly at the Division 1 level. Snoopp will field letters from beleagured fans, and then take his crew (consisting of parolees from the NCAA's sanctions program and nefarious boosters) to your school to, well, give its programs some life. Among the early candidates are Temple's and Duke's football programs, Duquesne's and Penn State's basketball programs. If you've watched the MTV show, you'll know that the Yugo that goes into the shop on a Monday comes out as a souped-up Herman Munster mobile on a Friday. Potentially the blockbuster of the reality shows. Especially when the prosecutors and FBI agents come calling.

4. Hard Court TV. Hosted by Nancy Grace, who has charmed CNN audiences with her imitation of Major Hofstadter of "Hogan's Heroes" fame when talking about any notorious defendant currently on trial in the American court system, this show will focus on day-to-day life with the Portland Trail Blazers. There might even be some shots of game action, time permitting.

5. The Commish. NHL boss Gary Bettman will be miked as he goes through his daily chores trying to lead the world's now-dormant preeminent professional hockey league. After a series of negotiations, the Ancient Eight owners that really run the NHL have agreed not to censor the daily musings of this one-time David Stern protege. There are rumors that this show might not run for more than one canceled season.

The guys at ESPN, HBO, Showtime, the major networks and the minor networks have their work cut out for them. The one thing they have going for them is that the public is clamoring for this type of stuff, and some of the shows have great potential. I mean, if Anna Nicole and the Gottis have drawn and audience, these guys should fare far better.

And if all of these ideas, fail, there's always Mike Tyson.

The Art of the High Majors

They play at a different speed from the rest of the competition. No, I'm not talking about the top five drivers on the Nextel Cup circuit, I'm talking about the top college basketball teams in the country.

I'm as much of a hoops romantic as everyone else, and I always like it when a Southern Illinois makes it to the Sweet 16, but let's face it, if you're a romantic in that realm, your college hoops rooting experience will end before the NCAA Tournament does. While many like to watch the Bracket Buster weekend (and it's fun), what the teams involved are fighting for ultimately is a chance to win one and, if they're very fortunate, two games in the NCAA Tournament.

After that, the chalk takes over. Many rooters hold out hope against all hope that a Gonzaga or a St. Joe's can make it to the Final Four, and they've come awfully close. But that's just one slot out of four, and those four slots usually go to the big names.

And it's easy to see why.

They just play the game at a different level. They play it crisper, faster and, yes, even harder. Their concentration is better, they're better drilled, and they're better focused.

Case in point, last night's Wake Forest-Duke game. I didn't watch all of it, but I watched a lot of it, and the intensity was just great. Both sides worked very hard at both ends, and there was outstanding play on both sides. Duke won because J.J. Redick seems to rise to ever challenge thrown at him, and his 38 points (a career high) couldn't have come at a better moment for the Blue Devils. Duke had been on an uncharacteristic slide, and Redick was the stopper last night. I've written before about "Zing", and there was a ton of "Zing" in his game last night. He hardly missed.

If you watched this game you noticed the high basketball savvy, you noticed the marksmanship, you noticed the hustle. You probably also noticed the speed, although sometimes that's hard to pick up on television. A few years ago I watched Kansas play at Princeton, and the effort that the Jayhawks put forth was nothing short of spectacular. Every time they got a rebound, the Jayhawks sprinted to their appointed spots on the floor and ran downcourt with a great sense of urgency. They also worked very well together on defense. Princeton, on the other hand, looked like it was playing at another gear. Unfortunately for the Tigers, their engine, as it were, didn't have the gear that the Jayhawks' did.

Contrast your average-to-very good mid-major team to a high-major, and you'll see pockets of brilliance in two different ways. First, there are a couple of players who could play at the high-major level, and perhaps one who could start and perhaps even one who could star. Second, these teams can put together strings of outstanding play that could make a more talented high-major team look flatfooted and out of step, perhaps even for an entire game.

But then you have to come back down to earth. Because most of the time the beloved mid-majors cannot string together weeks on end of high-level play, especially against Top-25 competition. They simply do not have the talent to do so. True, there are many teams who dominate their conferences, and those teams are special. It just may be that they're not worthy of a Top 4 seed in the tournament. Or a spot in the Sweet 16.

They practiced the high art of high-major Division I college basketball last night at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Both teams had at it, hammer and tongs, for the entire game. Each team answered the other's challenges all night long, and in the end Messrs. Redick, Melchionni, Ewing and S. Williams were too strong for Messrs. Paul, Gray, Levy and E. Williams.

It was quite a show, and the level of play should get better come March.

After all, whoever will emerge as the national champion will have to play even better.

And that's hard to imagine.

But it will be fun watching.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Say It Ain't So, Jose (The Poem)

Those of use who remember
past titans of the home run chase
recall split end-sized sluggers
without acne on their face (or elsewhere, for that matter).

We remember players
who resembled gazelles, not moose
whose faces appeared on Wheaties boxes
and weren't poster kids for The Juice.

(We also remember when
The Juice had a totally different meaning
He was a running back with a great gift
whose soiled image also requires dry cleaning.)

We remember when thirty-five homers
was enough to win the HR crown
And when pitchers' ERAs above four and a half
got them run out of town.

We watched lithe sluggers,
the McCoveys and the McGriffs
slam moonshots into history
only to have the puffed guys turn them into stiffs (comparatively, that is).

Then we watched the players get much larger,
and hit more home runs than ever before.
The fans cheered and the owners profited,
and everyone wanted more.

The rumors were always there,
The kinds that made the purists twinge.
Whispers were that the guys weren't getting their power from spinach
but out of a back-alley bought syringe.

"But you have no proof," haughty talk show hosts said hotly in defense of the stars.
"How do you know that it's all not the product of hard work?"
"Because you just don't get that big that quickly at that age," came the fans' replies.
"There's just no 'clean' in the sluggers' clean and jerk."

Then the Feds got into the act,
busting an alchemy lab on the West Coast.
Names were named, stories were written,
and some reputations just became toast.

The prodigal son then came home
or up from one of his many circles of baseball hell.
With tales of chemistry about as frightening
as the sound of the Rebel Yell.

In the meantime baseball had enacted a policy
that all of the players would get tested.
The game would get cleaned up, for sure,
with the threat of careers getting arrested.

And now the denials have come from all corners
that none of the names named ever transgressed.
Which makes the whole story beg the question,
"why the policy if no one confessed?"

The wagons have circled,
the spin doctors are in full gear.
"No one has been a proven user," is the word.
Mighty Baseball is covering its rear.

No one knows what to make of
the prodigal son and 40-40 club guy.
Is he telling the truth,
or is he telling lie after lie?

As Baseball enters this season,
The Lords wish the whole mess would go away.
After all, none of this could have happened, could it?
Say it ain't so, Jose!

The Upside Down Year Of Ivy Basketball

Ivy hoops fans went into this year thinking that the same Ivy Hoops World Order that has existed for much of the past 35 years would have stood pat. Penn and Princeton, Princeton and Penn.

And then everyone else.

The Ivy Hoops World Order almost has gotten to the point where the average Penn and Princeton fan would prefer to see the archrival win the Ivy title than any other Ivy team. The reason: worthiness. I recall about three years ago when Yale and Penn had a playoff game to determine who would go to the NCAA Tournament, and many Princeton fans told me they were actually rooting against Yale because the NCAA Tournament was a "Princeton and Penn" thing. Most couldn't admit they were rooting for Penn, but they were rooting against Yale.

And this year promised to be no different. After all, Penn usually reloads before it rebuilds, and while the Quakers lost three starters, they had about half a dozen promising players returning. The Tigers, meanwhile, returned two first-team all-Ivy players, so it was easy to make them the favorites. As a result, going into the season, the Ivy Hoops World Order looked secure.

At least to those who prefer the Ivy Hoops World Order.

But you couldn't have told that to the six head coaches at the "other" Ivy basketball programs. If you look at the standings today, with five (or six, depending) games to go, it's clear that those "other" coaches weren't paying attention to the Ivy Hoops World Order. Sure, they knew about it, but they didn't get the memo that said that they were supposed to play second fiddle.

Case in point is Ivy Coach of the Year favorite Terry Dunn, the new coach at Dartmouth. Dunn came to Dartmouth to find a program at its nadir, only to have returning Ivy Rookie of the Year Leon Pattman leave the team. Even with that loss, the Big Green, who probably didn't combine to win 5 Ivy games over the course of the previous two league seasons, are now 5-5 in league play. The Ivies don't give a Coach of the Year award, but if they did, presumably Dunn would win it hands down.

Case in point #2 is Cornell coach Steve Donahue, once upon a time Fran Dunphy's top aide at Penn. Donahue struggled mightily in his first four years in Ithaca, but today his Big Red squad is in third place in the Ivies, at 6-4, three games behind Penn in the loss column. While Donahue's squad isn't likely to overtake his former boss's, his team has battled all year and, once the season ends, should find itself with the Big Red's first first-division finish in the Ivies in a long time.

Case in point #3 is Harvard coach Frank Sullivan, who never seems to get the help at the admissions office that the other Ivy coaches do. Yet, he still has managed to bring his team's into the league's first division many times during his tenure in Cambridge, and this year so far his team is 5-5 in the Ivies. That's a great showing for a coach whose team was predicted to vie for the league's basement with Dartmouth.

Case in point #4 is Columbia coach Joe Jones, who last year took over a Lions' squad that wasn't in much better shape than Dunn's Big Green squad after last year. Jones has recruited well and has shaped a team with leftovers from the Armond Hill era and his own recruits into a formidable opponent. The Ivy results aren't there yet, for at 3-7 thus far the Lions could well finish in the Ivy cellar. Give the younger Jones another year or two, though, and let's see what happens. The future for Columbia basketball looks bright.

Case in point #5 is Yale coach James Jones, Joe's older brother and the biggest enigma of the bunch. When he arrived in New Haven about four years ago, the Elis were coming off a 4-24 (or something like that season). Jones got the Yale players to focus more intensely on basketball, got them in better shape, and Yale became a tough opponent. They were emotional, physical and feisty under James Jones before they got enough talent to challenge for the title. When they did, three years ago or so, they tied Penn and Princeton for the Ivy title before losing to Penn in a playoff game to determine which school would represent the Ancient Eight in the NCAA Tournament. Since then, the Bulldogs have disappointed. They've underperformed, really, given the talent that Jones has been able to bring to New Haven. After all, 2G Edwin Draughan and PF Sam Kaplan were Top 150 recruits, C Dominick Martin transferred from Princeton and had been recruited by Stanford out of HS, and SF Casey Hughes was a big recruit too. Given the talent, you'd have to pin the disappointing results on Jones, who substitutes frequently and appears to rely on emotion and a physical style of play more than sound planning. Well, you could have said that until this past weekend, when Yale, at the time 3-3 in the Ivies, played an unkind host to Princeton and Penn, scorching both teams and, in the process, pulled itself up to a 5-3 record in the Ivies, good for second place, two games behind Penn in the win column. Yale still faces an uphill battle, because it doesn't play Penn again, and it will need two other teams to knock off the Quakers in order to force a tie for the Ivy title. Still, they seized the moment and took it to Penn and Princeton when they had the chance.

In contrast, recent bellwether Brown is having a rough year, proving that a returning Ivy Player of the Year and no other proven veterans cannot come close to winning at title. The Bruins' results come as a surprise, given that mentor Glenn Miller has been a master of forging winning squads. And, of course, there's Princeton, a team that has fallen off the table, at least this year. Teams didn't lie down and roll over for the league favorites. In contrast, they came at Princeton hard, and the Tigers, still loaded with talent, haven't been able to mesh. Right now the Tigers stand at 3-6 in the league with 5 games to go, and their 48-year streak of finishing with a .500 record or better in the Ivies stands in grave danger. Remember, one of those games is against Penn. Look for the streak to get broken this year.

Ivy boosters will note that the league's RPI is about five places higher this year than last year, and they'll argue that the Ivy League is a better league based upon that statistic. Boosters of all Ivies other than Penn and Princeton will argue that parity, the noun that is synonymous with the National Football League, has come to the Ivies as well. There are those, however, who argue that mediocrity has taken over, and that it's not so much that the other teams have closed the gap with Penn and Princeton but that Penn and Princeton have sunk back to the levels of the teams that they used to beat regularly.

It's an interesting debate, and I for one will argue that these Penn and Princeton teams aren't as good as the Penn and Princeton teams we've watched since the late 1980's. As for Penn, they haven't had a true PG since Andy Toole left, and for much of this year they haven't had an inside game. True, C Steve Danley is much improved, but against Princeton in the Palestra Penn had trouble defending inside and scoring inside on offense. And they don't have a penetrating PG. Princeton is adjusting to a new coach, and he is adjusting to his talent. While the Tigers do have first-team all-Ivy talent returning, they've also had to rely on freshmen too much and lost a key player -- soph big man Harrison Schaen -- to a year off. These Princeton Tigers don't play with nearly the crispness they played when they won two Ivy titles in the past four years, and while the opponents have had something to do with that, the Tigers have had something to do with that too -- bad execution.

The RPI is an over-used statistic, and until you see several years in a row of the "Other Six" beating up on Penn and Princeton with regularity, the argue that parity has somehow enveloped Ivy basketball just will not work. Yes, the Other Six will be encouraged about Princeton's free fall this year, but under Joe Scott, Princeton will beat most of the Other Six most of the time.

By double digits.

And until someone displaces him, Fran Dunphy is the dean of Ivy coaches, and he and his staff recruit great. And they coach pretty well too. This Penn team lacks a PG and has no guards coming off the bench; the sixth and seventh men are 6'9" or taller. Still, this is the team that in all likelihood will win the Ivies.

I will concede that some of the Other Six have improved, but not significantly enough to support the parity argument. At least not yet.

Has the Ivy Hoops World Order changed? Or is this season more like a small earthquake that has just adjusted the seismic plates on which the Ivies' foundation rests, shifting about the residents on a temporary basis?

Only time will tell. But one season's worth of games do not form a trend.

Not by a three-point, err long, shot.

Friday, February 18, 2005

One Baseball Writer's Mea Culpa

On the steroids issue.

Thanks, Hal Bodley of USA Today, for being a stand-up guy on the issue. The MSBM (mainstream baseball media) did miss this issue, and Bodley points out the paucity of steroids stories over the years.

I agree with Bodley that there should not be an investigation of the past. I have never called for that. What has irked me is the spinning and denials that are going on from all corners, including the "ah-heming" being done by baseball writers. I hope that those die down and that baseball can move on in a clean fashion. I don't necessarily agree that the fans are that culpable. Sure, they enjoyed the comic book-like atmosphere and all of the home runs, but if they were clamoring for more it's only because the powers that be in baseball hooked them on the spectacle, like good marketers should. There were many of us who remember well the physiques of Musial, Mays, Williams, Aaron, Jackson, Schmidt and the rest and questioned the inflated physiques of the modern-day titans.

We just didn't have a newspaper's inches for a forum. But we did talk about it. And if we didn't go so far as to commit libel or slander, we did wonder how men past their growth years grew so much and looked so good. Especially because many fans work out themselves, and somehow they couldn't put on the mass that certain players did.

Thanks again for being so forthright. The talking heads on the MSBM networks and the big names among baseball writers have been fidgeting for a while on the topic. They'd prefer to write about whether the Yankees have the answers this year, whether the BoSox can repeat and how the Braves get it done every year.

And that's all good stuff. Most people don't like friction or controversy, but fewer people like hypocrisy and transparent denials.

Hal Bodley's column is a good start. Let's hope that the MSBM recovers from this disastrous era of non-reporting and covers in depth the entire game, and not just moon shots of balls going over the walls of picteresque parks with short porches.

The past should be appropriately buried, but the Lords of Baseball, the writers and the fans should remember this era for a long time and not permit a repeat.

Hope does spring eternal, after all.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Yankee Go Home?

Or to the old-age home?

The New York Yankees are old.

Now, I like the Yankees, respect Joe Torre, admire their accomplishments. But if you look at this year's roster, the principal position players are all over 30, except for A-Rod, who is 29. You can look it up.

But I'll spare you that, by reciting the ages of those guys here (average age of the first 9 -- 33.44):

C -- Jorge Posada, 33
1B -- Jason Giambi, 33
2B -- Tony Womack, 35
SS -- Derek Jeter, 30
3B -- Alex Rodriguez, 29
LF -- Hideki Matsui, 30
CF -- Bernie Williams, 36
RF -- Gary Sheffield, 36
DH -- Ruben Sierra, 39.

And here's the pitching staff (or, in some cases, contenders therefor -- average age -- 34.08):

Kevin Brown, 39 (40 on opening day)
Tom Gordon, 37
Randy Johnson, 41
Steve Karsay, 32
Mike Mussina, 35
Carl Pavano, 29
Paul Quantrill, 36
Brett Prinz, 27
Mariano Rivera, 35
Felix Rodriguez, 32
Jaret Wright, 29
Tanyon Sturtze, 34
Mike Stanton, 37

What can you glean from this recital? Here are a few thoughts:

1. The Yankees' farm system is plum awful at turning out prospects these days. Is there really anything more to say? And the problem gets worse because the pressure to win in NYC is so great that it's really much harder to break in a rookie in the Bronx than, say, in Kansas City or even St. Louis. It figures that the Yankees probably are more reluctant to be patient with rookies than most other teams, given that the expectations are so high.

2. Players break down as they get older. People do. It's a fact, and you don't have to be Charles Darwin to figure that out. Sure, Jeter, A-Rod and Hideki are at their primes, but what happens if one of the other guys goes down for an extended period of time. I like Tino Martinez, but he'll suffice if Giambi cannot come back. Otherwise, the Yankees have little depth. There are some younger arms, but the core of the pitching staff suffers from the same issue as the position players -- age is creeping up on them. Fast.

3. It's hard to figure what Giambi actually will do, and it will be interesting to watch MLB this year in light of the new steroids policy across baseball to see which players will have down years. If any Yankees were users, well, a drop off could hurt this proud franchise (as it would any franchise).

4. The Yankees payroll only will grow, and it will become harder to win. If you're not developing players, it means you don't have good prospects to trade, which means that you'll have to do more on the free agent market in the ensuing years. Which means you'll have to spend more money to fill the holes in your roster, and free agents aren't always the right fit. The risks are huge. And given that the Yankees haven't won a World Series since 2000, the odds could well get longer.

5. Tons of pressure on a pitching staff that has some age issues of its own. The Big Unit is over 40 and Kevin Brown soon will be, Mike Mussina is over 35, and the two new additions -- Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright -- will face huge pressure in New York (see, for example, Ed Whitson and Javier Vazquez, not to mention Brown). The Big Unit has defied logic and orthopedics for his entire career, and Brown is stubborn enough to have a great season. I think he just might. Mussina is the stealth pitcher, he doesn't get his due, but he performs pretty well. I love Pavano and his attitude, but he hasn't had more than 1.5 good seasons since he's been in the majors, and he's had injury problems. I think he'll succeed; the Yankees need him to. I don't understand Jaret Wright at all and think he'll be lost without Leo Mazzone whispering into his ear (although Jason Marquis thrived in St. Louis after leaving Atlanta). Mariano Rivera's shield of invincibility got rattled last year. Felix Rodriguez is an enigma in a set-up role, and Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill were all but worn out at season's end last year.

It could well be that all of these huge names lead the Yankees to one (or two or three) more last hurrahs. But it also could be that you'll be watching many guys whose best days are behind them, especially if many break down at once. And in my book, unfortunately for the Yankees, the breakdowns are more likely to happen than the championship runs.

If you're a Yankee fan, you have to be happy with the moves your team made to improve in the off-season, especially with respect to the pitching staff. But you also have to wonder whether even King George can outwit Father Time.

Obladee, Obladah

Life goes on.

That's tough news for hockey fans, but the NHL cancelled its season yesterday. Click here to access the league's website for the details.

I confess that I didn't read the details, because in this case the headline was enough for me this time.

There will be no season. Period.

That means that we could have seen the last of some great, aging players like Mark Messier, ron Francis, Scott Stevens, Al McInnis, Brett Hull and Chris Chelios. That means that the people who work in the front offices of the clubs might see their jobs in danger. It means that the people who worked part-time as ushers, program sellers, concessionaires and press-box attendants won't see that additional income anytime soon. And it means that the businesses that surround these arenas -- the places where you go to grab the quick bite to eat before faceoff -- will continue to hurt.

When you have a situation like this, it's clear that everyone loses. Especially when the battling parties each believe that they're entitled to their own set of facts about the true status of the National Hockey League. One fact, though, that both sides must agree to after today is that the NHL is in serious trouble.

Years ago the NBA was in serious trouble too. Most of its teams were losing money. I believe that this was when Bob Lanier headed the players' union and when Larry O'Brien was the Commissioner (one of his outside advisors was an NYC lawyer named David Stern). There was no salary cap, and the league was still suffering from its salary wars with the ABA (even after the merger, as a legacy of the merger was inflated salaries). It took some bold steps on both sides, but they eventually achieved a labor accord that has given rise to the relative labor peace the NBA enjoys today (and the relative financial success). True, the NBA's product is flawed, and true their salary cap is a bit odd, and true, it's hard for a team to get out of the basement, but the NBA enjoys a lot of popularity. And the players are making great money. And the owners are relatively happy.

Meanwhile, the NHL has jeopardized the popularity that it has, which has waned over the years and which has relegated this once-proud league to the second or third tier of major sports. Now, with the NHL out of sight, the vacuum that most thought was temporary will become permanent, at least for the remainder of this hockey season. And the problem with voids is that left unattended, they'll get filled with precisely the type of stuff you don't want them to. Which, in the NHL's case, means other sports. Perhaps its professional or college basketball, perhaps it's Arena Football or Indoor Soccer, but something will rise up and fill the gaps that hockey has left.
And when that happens, a sport already on the brink will be looking at an even steeper hill to climb on the road back to recovery.

So Gary Bettman didn't give in, and neither did Bob Goodenow for that matter. Great. No one cried uncle, no one flinched, no one pulled the car off the road during the game of chicken.

And when that happens, to mix metaphors, all you have is on big train wreck.

As with many things in life, it can take a lifetime to build up a career, a reputation, and only a single incident to tear it down. Wrecks usually delivery tragedies or bad endings, and the powers behind the NHL and its players are now left to do failure and root-cause analysis, spin why they weren't wrong and then try to rebound.

The arenas will remain dark, the kids won't be hawking their concessions, the players are playing in Siberia (literally and figuratively) if they are playing at all. And while the owners are viewed as wealthy people or companies, it's the rare bird that can let an active asset sit dormant for a whole year and then act as if it doesn't hurt them in the pocketbook. Same with the players, from the marginal ones who need the competition to improve to the aging ones who could use that extra big paycheck.

And the whole situation isn't likely to improve anytime soon.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

McNamara's Band

Maybe it's something about Pennsylvanians. Or maybe it's something about people from small cities. But no matter how you categorize it, it's neat. It takes you back to the days when there were only seven channels on your television if you lived in an urban market and probably many fewer if you did not. It takes you back to the days when it was very hard to see your favorite team or players play on television, because they just didn't televise that many games. It takes you back to the days when people traveled serious distances to go to games because in order to find out what was going on you just had to be there.

What is it? It's the phenomenon surrounding Syracuse's star guard, Gerry McNamara, the pride of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Read the linked article, and enjoy the excitement of a hometown as its citizens travel on buses (50 of them) to watch Gerry McNamara play in a recent home game at Syracuse.

That's right, 50 busloads. In the dead of winter. From a region that hasn't had a ton to cheer for in the past quarter century.

Perhaps that's why this kid is so special to people from his hometown. And what makes the whole situation even more special is that the kid recognizes how unique and special this situation is.

I like the games of Syracuse's star power forward Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara, and I appreciate how special they are as players. Warrick could have been a lottery pick in last year's draft but stayed in school, and while he's a little short in stature to play the four he makes up for it in skills and heart. And McNamara -- to call him a throwback would be to say that he's all heart without the skills, and that would be just plain wrong. The kid can flat out play. I have been critical of Syracuse's scheduling in prior posts, but that's a different issue. The Orange have some great kids on their team.

Certainly worth the $55 charge and 50 busloads of people making a long busride on a school night to see a hometown hero play.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Closing of the Ranks

The steroid story of the day is a report that an FBI agent warned Major League Baseball ten years ago that players were using steroids.

Major League Baseball's response: it never happened.

So now we're watching an amazing phenomenon. The organization that insisted upon a steroid-testing policy isn't willing to admit that it made any mistakes or acknowledge that any individual used the stuff. So, once again, I'll ask the question: why do you need a policy if no one used the stuff?

Of course people did, but the folks who run MLB are embarrassed at this whole scandal and they're closing ranks to protect their investment. Call it it spinning, call it spin-doctoring, they're doing it. (They're also a little late with their policy, but expect to see the fine print soon). Rumor has it that they're calling J.K. Rowling to see if she can write some magic into the script and hope that the headmaster, Bud Selig, can wave a bat and make the whole mess go away.

It's one thing to dispute what Jose Canseco says, but the FBI too? And what will happen when some player comes forward, a player with a conscience, someone who people genuinely like, and spills the beans, names names. What will Major League Baseball and the players' union do then? Shun the guy, or give him an award? Or will this turn out to be like a Mystery Book Club Thriller, where potential confessors and transgressors start to disappear one by one? Who will write the final chapter on this -- the heretofore fawning (or fanning) national baseball media, or John Grisham?

To be clear on the point, I want Major League Baseball to put this who ugly chapter behind it as quickly as possible. I don't want to fry the players who cheated, I just want to make sure that those who did not get their due (and that history isn't kind to those who got their power out of a bottle). I don't really want to hash out what might have happened in great detail, but I also don't want to condone the hypocrisy that was the ostrich-like treatment this subject was given while it was going on and the public denials that are taking place now.

I want to watch baseball games with my son, who I took to his first game this past August. I want to talk with him about the nuances of the game, about how sometimes the second basemen and shortstop communicate as to what pitch will be thrown, about how to hit the cutoff man and about how a fleet outfielder takes the extra base. I don't want to have to explain to him why certain players look like professional wrestlers (the same way that parents didn't want to have to explain to their kids what Bill Clinton was doing with Monica Lewinsky). Thankfully, I probably won't have to do that, but some parents, whose kids are older, will be hard pressed to explain why once favorite players seemingly have shrunk and aren't hitting the ball with the power they once did.

Baseball is the national pastime, still. It's a game where you can have a conversation with an old friend while watching it and eating peanuts. It's a game that still fits into the line of "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet." It's about your grandfather's Dodgers when they were in Brooklyn, about how old you were when the Amazin' Mets were doing their thing, about where you watched Bill Buckner muff the grounder that cost the Red Sox the '86 World Series. It's about watching Steve Carlton pitch as a kid and wondering how he got his concentration, and it's about memories of lithe outfielders named Mays and Aaron hitting prodigious shots. It's about watching a game on a warm summer's day, eating ice cream with your family.

And it needs to get back to that. Fast.

But not without having learned some tough lessons about conduct that took place during the past ten or so years.

To the credit of those involved, the teams and players have taken a decent (if not iron-clad) first step toward solving the steroids issue. (They haven't tackled amphetamines, but they'll get there one day, I suppose). To their detriment, the closing-of-the-ranks strategy is undoing some of the good will that they engendered by agreeing upon the policy in the first place.

Let's hope that all of the vetting gets done quickly and efficiently, so that all fans can focus on legitimate accomplishments and end up rooting for people who are not pharmacologically enabled beyond all reason.

Our country's best institutions always don't enjoy smooth sailing. They go through rough patches, and their measure is taken not by how they do during the glory days, but how they handle their adversity. Glossing over problems without a reckoning that demonstrates integrity only prolongs the agony. Standing up and addressing problems head on could well be tough medicine for Major League Baseball, but in the end it's medicine worth taking. In the long run, the game will be better off.

It's hard to say what that medicine is or how long it will take to work, or, even, in what form it will come, but whoever is dispensing it has begun to medicate the patient. If the powers who run Major League Baseball and the players' union are intellectually honest about the entire situation, they'll realize that ducking is best done on the field, not off it.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Happy Valentine's Day From The National Hockey League

Well, at least they're waiting at day, according to Eric at Off-Wing Opinion (whose coverage of the NHL labor problem has been outstanding). Waiting a day, that is, to announce that they are cancelling the season.

How kind of the NHL powers, not to ruin Valentine's Day for their loyal fans. Not to run a day of love, a day of good feeling, a day of hearty reflection for hockey fans, some of whom no doubt have made hockey a part of their married lives, either as fans or hockey parents or both. It was very kind of them to wait a day.

The players' union and the owners now need to realize that the type of war they are engaged in is the type where no one wins. If the players get their way, the league will go broke, and if the owners totally get their way, the players might well go elsewhere. Neither side wants to make the first move. Neither side wants to show any weakness.

Which is very fitting for the only major sport where fighting is actually part of the game. Which gives me an idea -- Bob Goodenow and Gary Bettman should drop the gloves and slug it out somewhere.

It's a fun thought on a fun day.

The Role of Fans in the Penn-Princeton Hoops Rivalry

Kyle of The Mid-Majority Report had a unique post about the Penn-Princeton game played last Tuesday night at the Palestra. Penn fans will read it with glee, while Princeton fans will shrug at best, bristle in the medium and steam at the worst.

The post is not about the game itself. Rather, it's about the Penn fans, the Red and Blue crew, and their determination to write the wittiest, most biting and most pointed barbs at their orange-and-black rivals as they can.

And they did. Needless to say, the Tigers are down. They are now 2-5 in the Ivies with 7 games to play, in last place, suffering from not only that awful record but the fact that they were favored to win the title this year (and Princeton is in danger of having its first sub-.500 Ivy season in its history). Penn fans chided the Tigers about the Ivy cellar, about being an unworthy rival, about having lost to virtually every other Ivy, about their winning percentage (and Princeton's acceptance rate) and about the fact that Penn president Amy Guttman was a big loss to Princeton (she was Princeton's provost before coming to Penn in mid-2004).

The Princeton fans? They were stuck in the corner of the Palestra behind the Princeton bench, they cheered a bit (including "We Can't Hear You" at the Penn fans when the Tigers were up about 18 with 10 minutes to go), and at the end of the game were left agape. They were seriously outnumbered, and while they would have been drowned out because of what happened, they were left agape as a result of Penn's comeback (or Princeton's big fade).

Princeton fans are more tame generally anyway. Now, Penn fans might want to analogize themselves to the Cameron Crazies, but I think most would agree that the analogy fails for a variety of reasons. Duke is the preeminent college hoops program, they hardly ever lose, and they go deep into the NCAA tournament every year. Moreover, they always play to packed houses, a claim that Penn cannot make unless the home game is against a Big 5 rival or Princeton. That said, they're still excellent fans.

Tiger fans aren't as vehement as Penn fans, and that fact probably ticks Penn fans off to no end. Are the Princeton fans acting superior, are they not engaging the Penn barbs because they don't think that Penn is worthy of engaging (the way Yale and Harvard might be), or are they not as hardened hoop fans as the Penn fans (in that while they root for their teams to win, they don't necessarily try to out-root the other team)? My answers to those questions are no, no and yes. Put simply, Princeton fans just don't have the enmity toward Penn that Penn fans have toward Princeton. The Princeton diehards do, but there are many fewer of them than there are Penn diehards. Penn is a bigger school, it has more alumni, and it's located in a bigger hoops hotbed.

Naturally, the fans in this rivarly will take their shots when the opportunities are ripe, and Penn fans have had sufficient targets this particular Ivy season. In fact, Princeton has probably presented Penn fans more lines of attack this season than ever before. Within this rivalry, tides can change, and rapidly. A kid quits, a kid transfers, a kid flunks out, a kid gets hurt, a key recruit doesn't show, and, all of a sudden, the other team has an edge. So while Penn has the edge now, in terms of the record and the digs, that won't always be the case.

And, when it isn't, Princeton fans will most certainly be ready.

More On College Football Recruiting

Okay, gang, here are some more numbers on college football recruiting. Please remember that this is an exercise in where the top say 300 + recruits are going (and I confess to not the neatest methodology in charting this, so this is correct within plus or minus 1.5%), and it is not weighted as to who got the best recruits. So, for example, your favorite school might have gotten only 5 of these kids, but if they're the right five, your school might have fared better than the school who got 14 recruits, all of whom are in the 150-300 range. With that by way of introduction, here's the breakdown:

First, the Top 10 schools (in terms of the # of say Top 320 or so recruits):

1. Iowa -- 15
2. Oklahoma -- 15
2. Tennessee -- 15
4. USC -- 14
5. Florida State -- 13
5. Michigan -- 13
5. Nebraska -- 13
8. Florida -- 12
9. LSU -- 11
10. Miami -- 10
10. Texas -- 10.

A pretty august group, right? Note how Kirk Ferentz has really built a powerhouse at Iowa. Charlottesvillian chronicles Iowa's banner crop on the TigerHawk blog site very nicely. Watch out for Iowa and its QB Drew Tate in next year's Heisman Trophy derby. Nebraska might strike you as surprising given the Huskers' disappointing campaign last season, but it appears that Bill Callahan has wasted little time in bringing in top recruits, and this number doesn't include his juco crop (and reports indicate that this is a very strong group).

Here are my conference-by-conference breakdowns:

ACC (62 Top Recruits)

Boston College -- 3
Clemson -- 4
Duke -- 1
Florida State -- 13
Georgia Tech -- 1
Maryland -- 8
Miami -- 10
North Carolina -- 1
N.C. State -- 3
Virginia -- 8
Virginia Tech -- 9
Wake Forest -- 1

Big East (8)

Connecticut -- 2
Pittsburgh -- 3
Rutgers -- 1
Syracuse -- 1
West Virginia -- 1

Big Ten (60)

Illinois -- 1
Iowa -- 15
Michigan -- 13
Michigan State -- 4
Northwestern -- 3
Ohio State -- 9
Penn State -- 4
Purdue -- 6
Wisconsin -- 5

Big 12 (54)

Baylor -- 2
Colorado -- 2
Kansas State -- 1
Missouri -- 2
Nebraska -- 13
Oklahoma -- 15
Texas -- 10
Texas A&M -- 7
Texas Tech -- 2

Pac 10 (43)

Arizona -- 4
Arizona State -- 2
California -- 8
Oregon -- 2
Oregon State -- 1
Stanford -- 5
UCLA -- 5
USC -- 14
Washington -- 1
Washington State -- 1

SEC (74)

Alabama -- 6
Arkansas -- 4
Auburn -- 6
Florida -- 12
Georgia -- 9
LSU -- 11
Mississippi -- 4
Mississippi State --3
South Carolina -- 5
Tennessee -- 15

Others (19)

BYU -- 2
Eastern Michigan -- 1
Louisville -- 3
Marshall -- 1
Middle Tennessee -- 1
Northern Illinois -- 1
Notre Dame -- 7
Tulsa -- 1
UTEP -- 2

So what does this tell us:

Well, only 64 Division I-A teams recruited a Top-325 player (which means about half of the Division I-A teams did not). That's for starters. Second, the Big East is in trouble. Third, if you're in the Big 12 or SEC and didn't land one of these guys, you'll be in for several long years. Yes, that means you, Vanderbilt, Indiana and Minnesota. It means that Charlie Weis did okay despite holding two jobs at once. It means that Bobby Petrino's dalliances with other head coaching jobs probably hurt his recruiting yield at Louisville. It means that Nebraska is on the way back, that the SEC is very strong and that most of the teams in the Pac 10 are not.

I've always thought that the way a college football program excels is to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Heck, it's the way pro teams excel, what with how New England's offensive line put a force field around Tom Brady and then rushed Donovan McNabb rather well. In college, it's no secret that the top teams do just that, and then, with the attractive of peerless line play, they bring in the best skill position players. That's what the elite programs are doing here. And, like a lot of other things in life, a relatively small percentage of teams brings in a rather large percentage of the best talent.

If you're an Iowa fan, you have to be pumped, because it could well be that Kirk Ferentz brings a national championship to Iowa City. If you're a Tennessee fan, well, you re-loaded. If you're an Alabama, Colorado or Penn State fan, you have to wonder if and when the magic will return.

Take this chart for what it's worth, which, admittedly, isn't a whole lot. I enjoy the numbers and the breakdowns, and that's why I wrote this post. It's always interesting to see where the bluest chips end up and why. It's also interesting to see how they turn out after 4-5 years on a college campus (if that).

Sunday, February 13, 2005

You Know It When You See It

Andy Katz posted a good piece on espn.com about what a mid-major really is. And instead of agreeing with conventional wisdom (which gives precious little direction as to what a mid-major is), Katz uses some more precise (if still somewhat rough) metrics as to how to define a mid-major. It's good reading, and it's a good topic to discuss, especially at this time of year.

I've always thought a high-major program to be a school that is in the top 8 or so conferences and that isn't in the cellar of those conferences. For example, an easy choice for a high-major school is Illinois. Michigan might not be as ready a choice because the program has fallen since the ill-advised days of the Fab Five, but they're still a high-major. Why? They're not a doormat, and they're a player or two away from being a Top 25 team. Then you get to Penn State and Northwestern. The former clearly was a high-major under Jerry Dunn about four years ago when they went to the Sweet 16. Now, they're a doormat, and they're a mid-major. At best. Northwestern has finished in the middle of the Big Ten, so they fall into high-major territory, but, then again, they haven't appeared in the post-season since about the time that Mary Tyler Moore was on the Dick Van Dyke Show. Perhaps, then again, they're a mid-major.

That's my general sliding scale, except for one thing. I think that the big-conference schools who aren't high majors sometimes denigrate the common usage of the term mid-major. Why? Because to me, a mid-major school is one that you don't want to play if you're a big-time school, especially at their site or in a tournament. For example, if Penn State is a mid-major, are they worthy of the same respect as, say, Pennsylvania? After all, the former is in the Big Ten, but they're a football school, and the latter not only has over 1,500 career wins to its program's credit, but also was picked as one of the Top 16 programs (that means that they came in 16th) of all-time.

The answer is no. Pennsylvania is a mid-major in every sense of the word, a feisty program that has a great coach and gets good recruits. They are an upset waiting to happen every time they play a school from one of the Top 8 conferences, and they play in the best arena in the country. Penn State? You cannot say the same about them. Their program just doesn't generate the same amount of respect. Princeton, although having an off year, falls into the same category as Pennsylvania. Temple's John Chaney reluctantly scheduled them to fill a void in his fall schedule, then vowed never to schedule them again. After getting whipped at Princeton 22 years ago, Coach K will never play in Jadwin Gym again. He'll play Princeton in Cameron, but not in New Jersey.

Why does that happen to the classic mid-majors? Because the "big-time" programs have nothing to gain by beating a Penn or Princeton, to their way of thinking, than if they beat say a school from another Top 8 conference. So, in their minds, the mid-majors come geared up to play as if the game were their NCAA Final Game. They'll point to Bucknell's win over Pitt at Pitt when Pitt was ranked in the Top 10 as an example of what they don't want to have happen to their team.

So they'll schedule a few tough non-conference games and then games against Army, Savannah State and Prairie View.

And that's where their logic is flawed. My guess is that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee would much prefer all teams to play the toughest non-conference schedules possible than to go on the Syracuse Diet and play cupcakes, twinkies and bon-bons until conference play starts. And that would mean a high-fiber diet of tough-to-digest "mid-majors", such as the Pennsylvanias, St. Mary's, Princetons, Niagaras, George Washingtons, Mid-American Conference favorites and schools in that realm. Unfortunately, that type of diet is a long ways away for most big-time teams.

Andy Katz is probably right that there are three tiers of teams, and, then, that some conferences have teams that can slide up to higher tiers or down to lower ones. The whole discussion is an interesting one, but, even if the semantics are resolved, the issue of why the big-time teams don't schedule better games against Mid-Major competition before their conference seasons start remains.

Call them Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 teams, call them Mid-Majors, call them whatever you want, but one thing remains certain. Come NCAA tournament time, we're all rooting for the Mid-Majors and beyond to slay the giants in the first several rounds of the NCAA Tournament. After all, for every Illinois, North Carolina, Washington, Kansas and Syracuse there is a Coppin State waiting to take care of business.

And The Meaning Of This Is?

Allen Iverson scored 60 points last night as the 25-26 76ers beat the Orlando Magic by 13 points.

His team got to the NBA Finals in 2001, when Shaq and Kobe and teammates beat them in five games. Since then, the rest of the league has gotten a bit better, the 76ers a big worse, and, well, they're probably at best a first-round playoff casualty this year.

It's true that Iverson hasn't had the best supporting cast during his career, getting a Yang to his Ying. Then again, Tracy McGrady got a Yao to his Ying, and so far Houston still has some problems. (They're good but not good enough, at least yet). As for Iverson, the question to a degree is whether the Sixers just haven't been able to find the right complements or whether Iverson hasn't been unselfish enough to enable the right complements do what complements are supposed to do.

Make a one-and-gun team into the Seattle Supersonics, the Phoenix Suns or the San Antonio Spurs.

He's not that young anymore -- he's 29 -- and there's only so much time left before the hoops gods don't prevent that small body from taking the pounding that he takes every game. He's a valiant warrior and he plays very hard, but in the current vernacular of the working world, he's supposed to play smarter and not harder. And that means, of course, helping make teammates better and helping make his team's offense a well-choreographed exercise like these guys and not an offense that relies on the age-old clear out.

He's fun to watch, he's one of the league's most popular players (in terms of jersey sales) and without him the 76ers' attendance would probably sink to among the lowest in the league.

And without him the 76ers' place in the standings would probably sink even lower too.

The big question remains whether, with him, the 76ers' place in the standings can return to the lofty perch that the team established just a few years ago.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Say It Ain't So, Jose

At least that's what the Lords of Baseball, the current players and the current baseball media must be thinking.

My guess is that after Major League Baseball promulgated its ban on steroids and its testing for their use, most involved in baseball thought that all of the ugly baggage of the BALCO case (and any other past whispering) would be dispensed with. After all, they admitted they had a problem, they dealt with it (although many thought they dealt with it less than robustly) and it was time to move on. Attendance was great last year, the Red Sox of all teams won the World Series, and they handled the problem the way the average fan would handle a case of the hiccups. Call it closing ranks, call it hiding in plain view.

Seemed like a good plan, I am sure, for all of those involved. And that includes the mainstream sports media, who isn't the check and balance on the sports establishment the way, say, the front-page writers are on government and the politicians who run it. Why is that? Probably because many writers are at least secret fans of the teams they cover (after all, it's more fun to cover a winning team than a team that will lose 100 games, although it probably takes more talent to cover the latter than the former), and probably because outside of the daily sports pages the networks who cover the sport have a major conflict of interest that has many facets. First, some of them televise games, so it's against their best interests, in terms of selling ads, to expose a scandal and report it in detail. Second, some of those whom the networks employed are in what I will now call baseball's orbit. They are former players and managers who have friendships with those whom they are covering and, perhaps, who themselves want to be employed within organized baseball again -- in the front office or in the dugout. As a result, the easier road is to close ranks with your former teammates, friends and potential employers, as opposed to expose the Michelin-man aspects of some former and current players and their numbers. Sure, there's objectivity as to managerial moves, player moves and on-field decisions, but not about the larger issues that face the game.

But like the kid who was incredulous when he heard that of all people Shoeless Joe Jackson had something to do with the 1919 Black Sox scandal, the fans are incredulous that Major League Baseball and the writers who cover it (some of whom they very much respect) have been more than content to cover it up instead of cover it. No, I am not suggesting that they know of bad things and have worked with teams not to print them. Rather, I am suggesting that they conveniently turned a blind eye to a huge story.

I have posted on this topic before, here, here, here, here and here, and now I want to explore some new theories at my surprise and disappointing at the mainstream sports media. I mean, how many times have you had to listen to sports talk radio and hear the hosts challenge callers about the alleged steroid use of various players (Mike and the Mad Dog on WFAN in New York, for example, grilled/pile drove at least one caller over the summer because he actually hadn't seen Barry Bonds take any controlled substances) and ignore the point totally. True, if a caller hadn't seen the usage, that's one thing, but can't the radio hosts and writers at least speculate as to the difference in size between Bonds when he was a Pirate and the Bonds who is a Giant? How does that happen? It's a fair question to ask, and it's not libelous in the least.

Where were the questions about one-time average hitters suddenly becoming power hitters? Hitting 50 home runs in a season? About physiques markedly changing?

Therein lies the problem with the mainstream sports media. To whom are they accountable? To which audience are they playing? Are the ESPN commentators playing for ratings? Are they being constructively critical? Are they asking the really hard questions?

I mean, how can you miss that some of the players had bodies like the guys in the WWE, which had a steroids scandal of its own? How could you miss that players' numbers increased dramatically and only chalk it up to diluted pitching because of expansion and smaller ballparks? After all, last time I checked teams almost required pitchers who could throw in the 90's, whereas in the 70's and 80's it was okay to have guys who threw even in the 70's. And the last time I checked, it was harder to hit guys who throw in the 90's than guys who throw in the 70's, even if the latter group had Bruce Hurst as a member and now has Jamie Moyer as one.

Worst of all is the disrespect those whose numbers didn't increase with the times got and those who played in eras before the smaller parks and all-too-probable steroid use. And isn't it ironic as all getout that now everyone is denying that he used steroids. After all, why did Major League Baseball enact the policy in the first place if the owners and many players think that using the juice was a problem? Just to deal with the BALCO guys? Just for a handful of guys?

Here's a tip to all baseball fans out there -- give yourselves a lot of credit and never, ever let a baseball writer or radio show host patronize you again on what you do or do not know about the game of baseball. Ever. You know about pitch counts, you know about platooning, you know about who can cover what ground and you know which guys have natural power and look like Henry Aaron and Willie Mays and which guys look more buffed than Ted Kluszewski (who was the biggest guy in his day) and have bottle-bought power the same way a supermodel has a bottle-bought coiffure. Which means that when you were kids you learned well the lesson from "The Emperor's New Clothes," a lesson which apparently was lost on the mainstream baseball media.

After all, the logic problem presented is fairly simple -- why does a policy get enacted? It gets enacted because there is behavior that management wants to change. Most of America puts up stop signs after accidents happen and usually doesn't have the foresight to put them up when they sense future train wrecks. Is baseball different? I don't think so in this case. The policy was enacted because there was a problem. Which means, of course, that more than a handful of players were getting their newly found power from problematic sources (to say the least).

It is dangerous to paint with a broad brush, so I don't want to say that every reporter and commentator missed the story (but most of them did) or every player is juicing (there are obviously many who are not and did not), but there was enough stuff going on that the story should have been covered. Kudos, at least, to those players who strong-armed their union management into doing the right thing. That decision took some guts.

As will digging hard and doing an analysis of players whose physiques changed markedly over the years as their power numbers did. And that should happen, if for no other reason than to re-legitimize the numbers that earnest players put up without any artificial help.

The baseball fan base -- and the integrity of the game -- deserve nothing less.

P.S. If the mainstream baseball media doesn't do it, I'm sure that the sabremetricians will. So go to it, guys, and show us the discrepancies.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Power Corrupts

The Yankees knew. (if you need to enter passwords, enter sportsprof for both the user name and the password).

That had to be it, hadn't it?

After all, didn't you wonder why the Yankees didn't come out and terminate Jason Giambi's megabucks contract after his testimony in the BALCO case leaked? Most of the pundits thought that's exactly what King George would do, given that Giambi's performance, when coupled with his contract, presents an albatross that any team would jettison in a heartbeat if it could. The reason, or so everyone thought, was steroid usage. It hadn't to be banned from his contract, wasn't it?

It wasn't.

The Yankees could have had the right to terminate Giambi's contract if they had insisted upon, as an exception to the guaranteed money language, the right to terminate if the player embarked upon certain conduct. For example, many contracts ban players from engaging in certain off-season pursuits that might injure them and render them unable to play. Many, I imagine, ban usage of illicit substances.

Remember Aaron Boone? The hero of the ALCS in 2003? Aaron Bleeping Boone to most of New England (except for the transplanted Yankees who work at Harvard). The hero of NYC in 2003. Well, Boone blew out his knee after the 2003 season, rendering him unable to play, and the Yankees invoked the clause in his contract that enabled them to void paying him about $6 million for 2004 because Boone hurt himself playing pick-up basketball, something which his contract prohibited him from doing (or, at least, gave the Yankees the right to terminate his deal if he hurt himself in that pursuit).

So Boone gets booted for getting hurt playing basketball, and Giambi gets a pass for injecting steroids. Helluva world, Major League Baseball, isn't it? Read Murray Chass's article and see what I'm talking about. According to Chass, the Yankees and Giambi (and his agent) eliminated steroid usage as a reason to terminate the contract.

Eliminated it, as in took out the language. What do you think that meant? Do you need a law degree to read the vast gaps in between the lines?

Of course not. The Yankees knew.

And what's worse is the way they're acting about it now.

So what are the messages that we get from all of this:

1. If I am a Major League Baseball player, I'd hire Arn Tellem as my agent in a heartbeat. How he was able to eliminate steroids as a reason to void the guarantee is one for the ages, especially for a baseball player who looks more like a pro wrestler than a first baseman. I mean, Frank Howard, the legendary first baseman (for his size, anyway) for the Washington Senators and others was one of the biggest players in his day, and he didn't look like Giambi. Not even close.

2. The Yankees were desperate to continue their dynasty, and they wanted Giambi's homers and RBIs in their stable and not in Boston's or any other rivals. They were looking for a swing of about 90 HRs and 260 RBIs -- 45 HRs and 130 RBIs they hoped they were getting, and 45 HRs and 130 RBIs that they knew somebody like Boston wouldn't be adding precisely because it was they who were inking Giambi. Of course, this says a lot about the Yankees. First, they do take big risks. Second, they are far from saints and could care less about setting examples for young people. Third, they are stuck, stuck, stuck, with Giambi's contract and Giambi, and, quite frankly, the two deserve one another. You can be sure that while George Steinbrenner put a good public face on yesterday, he had to have ranted and raved like hell to try to get out of this contract when the news broke. Or so it would seem. The Yankees made a big bet and they lost big-time.

3. Hypocrisy in baseball continues. You may recall from reading the accounts of the 1919 Black Sox that White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey wanted the whole scandal over and done with so he could get his players back. Sure, gambling was awful, the implicated players did terrible things, but he had a team to run, and his players were what made his franchise so valuable. He wasn't going to do anything to boot his players from baseball -- the newly hired strong-arming Commissioner did. The strong guess here is that the owners overlooked the steroids issue because it paid them to. After all, baseball was reeling after the 1994 strike, and it took the Lords about 10 years to get the game back to the health it had enjoyed before. Part of the remedy were smaller parks and more home runs. . . and perhaps controlled substances. The home runs certainly brought the fans back. Who cared whether possessing them and using them in an unprescribed fashion is a crime -- it wasn't banned as part of the collective bargaining agreement with the players' union?

4. Fred McGriff. Why do I mention him? Because there probably hasn't been a more dissed player over the past several seasons than the Crime Dog, whom I'll alway remember as one of the best first basemen of his era (thanks to ESPN Radio for pointing this out). I recall McGriff's hitting a home run in the 1993 Series against the Phillies, a blast to the upper deck in Vet Stadium that John Kruk said "took out a family of four." McGriff was a great player, and he clearly wasn't on the juice. All of these scandals help enrich his legend, and, to me, make him a lock for the Hall of Fame. Why? He had hung around trying to reach 500 dingers, because he thought he needed them for admission to the Hall. Now that the truth is surfacing, we should thank Fred McGriff for his integrity. His home runs were real.

5. What will the ban on steroids do? Check out the Sports Economist for his thoughts on the subject. Home runs are down, even though ballparks are smaller than they were, say, 30 years ago. How much the numbers will stay down remains to be seen.

This whole saga stinks to high heaven, and the Yankees didn't do anything to make it better yesterday.

There's a saying in political circles that "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

It might as well have been said about Major League Baseball too.

Absolutely.