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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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Southeastern Pennsylvania: Football Hotbed

I read this a few weeks ago in USA Today -- its list of the Top 25 HS football teams in the nation, and three of them Neshaminy, St. Joseph's Prep and North Penn are located in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

For the uninitiated, Philadelphia is surrounded by four counties -- Delaware, Chester, Montgomery and Bucks. Delaware County touches upon the Delaware and Maryland borders (you have to go through it from Philadelphia to get to Wilmington, Delaware), Chester is part of Philadelphia' tony western suburbs (as well as includes some great horse country), Montgomery is bifurcated by the Schuykill River (which is home to Philadelphia's famous Boathouse Row) and is both north (Abington, Cheltenham, Huntingdon Valley, Wilow Grove) and west (Lower Merion) of Philadelphia, and, finally, Bucks, which is in between Philadelphia and New Jersey (and abuts Northeast Philadelphia, a big residential part of the city).

Neshaminy is in what's called Lower Bucks County (it's about a ten-minute drive from the city limits of Philadelphia). You may recall an ESPN documentary a few years back on one-time perennial Top 25 team Central Bucks West, which is located in quaint, cute, funky Doylestown, Pennsylvania, the county seat of Bucks County, which, by its name, is located in Central Bucks County. Neshaminy is the alma mater of former Penn State and NFL kickers Chris and Matt Bahr, won a state title a few years back and now is a perennial state title contender under head coach Mark Schmidt, as well as current Penn State freshman kicker Kevin Kelly. It's one of many rather large suburban Philadelphia school districts, and from what I've read Schmidt brings a level of intensity to his efforts that has elevated Neshaminy's overall performance (for what it's worth, the retirement of Mike Pettine, Sr., the coach of C.B. West, about five years ago helped put other "also-ran" schools in the same league on the map, as Pettine Sr.'s teams went about 325-15 during his tenure at C.B. West).

North Penn is in the same league as Neshaminy, the Suburban One League (which has four separate conferences based upon size of school and geography). It's a huge HS in Lansdale, Pennsylania, which is located in Montgomery County at the end of the R2 SEPTA train line that goes through closer bedroom communities into Philadelphia. It's also right down the road from Merck's West Point, Pennsylvania plant, an amazing facility in its own right (25-30 years ago, this used to be serious farm country). The coach that put North Penn on the map was Mike Pettine, Jr., and this team was featured in an ESPN documentary about five years ago. Pettine Jr. played for his father at C.B.West and then played DB at Virginia, where he graduated with a degree in economics. After coaching at another HS, he moved to North Penn (the players featured in the documentary went to play football at West Virginia, New Hampshire, Penn State and Pennsylvania, among other places). Two years ago, he left his North Penn program in the hands of his top assistant, Dick Beck, who played football for Temple at a time when the Owls might have won half their games and who played his HS ball for Pettine, Sr., Pettine, Jr. is now outside linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens.

Lastly, there's St. Joseph's Prep, the Jesuit HS in Philadelphia, a private Catholic high school located in the heart of North Philadelphia that always has been known for its outstanding academics. Major football programs and the Ivies flock to the Prep, as it's known. Among the Prep's alumni are Rich Gannon, the now-retired Raiders QB (his ability helped turn the son of one of my father's business partners, who was a pretty good football player in his own right, into a first-team all-Catholic wide receiver). Gil Brooks, a Prep alum who played his college football at Swarthmore, of all places, and whose day job is that of a partner in a major law firm, has helped continue the Prep's overall excellence. The Prep has one of the most loyal alumni groups in the City of Philadelphia, and their football alumni meet separately to support the program. Small school that plays with a huge heart, St. Joseph's Prep. Kids come to the Prep from Philadelphia, the four surrounding counties I mentioned above, and from Southern New Jersey. The reason is clear -- it excels in everything it does.

Football town, you say? Yes and no. The socioeconomic problems of the inter-city are such that the public high schools aren't turning out qualifying prospects the way they might have say three decades ago. The Catholic League used to turn out more, but their inter-city numbers have shrunk as the city's population has (about 2 million people lived in Philadelphia proper in 1970; now the population is about 1.5 million, approximately one third of which live at the poverty level or below). The Prep is a bastion, as are certain other Catholic high schools, and there are still certain pockets of good football in the public schools. The major transformation has been in the suburbs, where big high schools surrounding the city, such as Downingtown, North Penn, C.B. West, Neshaminy, among many others, have very strong programs, as do certain private schools, such as Penn Charter and Malvern Prep. The socioeconomics are different, as is the average education levels of the parents, and when you put those factors, good facilities and some good coaches together, you get kids who are attractive to major football programs.

Football area, you say? Overall, absolutely. The Phillies are in their first playoff hunt in twelve years, and the Eagles' season hasn't started yet. I occasionally listen during drive time home to Howard Eskin, the so-called King of Bling of Philadelphia Sports Talk and most likely the most listened to sports talker in the area, on WIP. Over the course of the past several days, I've kept an informal count of the calls about the Eagles (particularly Corey Simon, T.O. and whether they'll sign a big back or another WR, such as Peter Warrick or Peerless Price) and the Phillies, and there are at least four calls about the Eagles for every one about the Phillies, perhaps more.

Is there a correlation between playing HS football and rooting for the Eagles. Perhaps, but there are many people who don't look like they played any football and who look like they're not in shape to do much more than push a TV remote (and who also played Little League Baseball) who root for the Eagles than who play HS football today. Sure, I'm sure it helps the high schoolers that the local pro team is so good, but if you play football, you're making more than a surface commitment. You're making a commitment to getting hit. So I don't think that the Eagles have that direct an impact.

Communities do, parents do, good coaches do. At the HS level, baseball games have to wrestle with iffy spring weather, and while hoops are exciting, there are still games, not events (at least not until your team makes the playoffs). At the HS level, the games are events, full of pageantry and rituals, color guards and bands, and all of that can be quite alluring, as can the thrill of competition.

Whatever the reason, there are some good coaches and players in Southeastern Pennsylvania. So keep an eye out for them.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Follow-Up on Bob Huggins

I posted this in the spring about the then-brewing battle between U. of Cincinnati President Nancy Zimpher and now former hoops coach Bob Huggins. A loyal reader e-mailed me and indicated that the press stories about Huggins always focused on the negative, but there were lots of positives about Huggins and there was serious improvement in his program from the standpoint of graduating players. As you all know, Huggins was canned less than a week ago (or, put differently, jumped before he was pushed), proving that at certain major universities coaches of prominent programs are not bigger than the school.

As for potential successors, check out the College Basketball Blog and Yoni Cohen's breakdown of possible contenders for the job, some of whom will not leave their current jobs, some of whom seem to be listed as possibilities for every major open job, and some of whom would be fools to replace a larger-than-life coach (remember what happened to Rollie Massimino when he succeeded Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV -- it wasn't a pretty sight). One intriguing name is Penn's Fran Dunphy, a finalist for both the Ohio State and Georgetown jobs two years ago. Dunphy has itched to ply his craft on a bigger stage, but he's come up short, and time is running out on him (he's about 56 years old). He's an excellent coach, and he'd bring instant respectability to Cincinnati. Whether he could pack the arena and offer a Top 25 team every year is an open question. He'd certainly be a safe pick for Nancy Zimpher.

I don't know enough about the merits of the case to know who is right or wrong here. What I do know is that lots of bad things seemingly happened within the basketball program and to its players during Huggins' tenure. The image of the program was one of recruiting players from the Last Chance Corral, some of whom had pre-existing character issues or manifested them while at Cincinnati (which, to John Wooden's way of thinking, would explain why Huggins didn't win a national title). If you're a university president of a school that isn't an automatic magnet to good students the way, for example in the Midwest, Northwestern is, all you have is your image to go on. You're in sales just like anyone else, and you want parents of responsible young adults to select your school. It certainly doesn't help when one of the main images attached to the name "University of Cincinnati" was, rightly or wrongly, one of having the most controversial hoops program since UNLV's and some kids who did bad things therein.

In making her decision, Nancy Zimpher did demonstrate character. There was enough smoke around the hoops program to suggest that some serious fire damage occurred over the years, and she had to make a stand for the greater good of the entire university. No one person, no one program, is larger than the overall school. In making that call, she also took a stand that at least in the short-term runs against her overall economic interests, because it risks a large number of ticket sales and post-season appearance money that a successful hoops program like the Bearcats' could get by going far in the NCAA tournament. But to the good student in suburban Cincinnati who might have a casual interest in hoops but a more serious interest in attending medical school or starting his own business one day, it sends a message that Cincinnati is taking each student's education more seriously than the won-loss record of a basketball program.

And it's hard to argue with that.

In fact, I'd argue that you should stand up and cheer for that.

There is, for those readers of this blog, a serious difference betweeen Penn State, on the one hand, and Cincinnati, on the other, in terms of letting one individual become larger than the school. In Penn State's case, Joe Paterno's "trademark", as it were, is so positive that letting him remain does no damage to the school's excellent image and, if anything, helps enhance it (even if it a) diminishes the football program in the short term and b) creates a bad precedent of letting an individual have too much authority with the confines of the university). In Cincinnati's case, Huggins' "trademark", as it were, didn't have the same effect and, in fact, probably had the opposite, creating an image of a university with lax standards. If you're a university president, the choice is pretty simple -- the hoops coach had to go.

And he was probably there too long to begin with.

Sure, Cincinnati fans will be angry with Zimpher, but what's to say that the next coach they hire won't be better? What's to say that they can't win with kids who don't get their names in the papers for the wrong things? Again, that's not to paint the entire team with a broad brush, because my loyal reader who's a Bearcat fan reports that there were solid citizens on that team, and I'm sure there were. But the issues that permeated this program are more complicated than that, and the Bearcat hoops program needs a new beginning while the university gets a better perspective of the importance of winning college basketball games.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

A Second Rate American Product?

Say it can't be possible!

But it can.

Before I go any further, I want to distinguish between the U.S. National Soccer Team and Major League Soccer. The former, ranked #6 in the world by FIFA, international soccer's governing body, is primed to make serious strides at the 2006 World Cup and is a great team. The latter, a fledgling professional soccer league, is a distant, poor cousin to the top leagues in England (where Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United are perenially at the top), Italy (AC Milan, Juventus and Inter Milan) and Spain (Real Madrid, Barcelona). If you need any evidence, look to the 5-0 shellacking a team of MLS all-stars took at the hands of a somewhat uninspired Real Madrid team (which is populated by, among others, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and David Beckham, to name a few) last week. Eric McErlain of Off-Wing Opinion did a nice job of breaking down the game and issues with U.S. professional soccer (whose season doesn't overlap the top international leagues' seasons entirely, thereby ultimately making it tougher to compete with those leagues for the best players). Put simply, losing in soccer 5-0 is akin to losing 15-0 in baseball or 42-0 in football. While it is true that the MLS team had little rest and hadn't played together before, the game still demonstrates the distance between the best league in the U.S. and the best leagues in Europe.

For whatever reason (and I really cannot explain it), I have become more interested in international soccer. Perhaps it's because the U.S. team is at its all-time best (further to the point on the distinction between the MLS All-Stars and the U.S. National Team, many U.S. national team members are playing in Europe, while many MLS All-Stars are not U.S. national team members). While I don't have Tivo (Eric reports that he does and tapes games constantly), I did just subscribe to a nifty little package from Comcast (at $5 per month) that gives me the Fox Soccer Channel, Gol TV and the Fox regional channels, which should give me broader coverage of college football and basketball in the U.S. Thus far, I've watched some good English Premiership games on Fox, including an interesting matchup between Bolton and West Ham yesterday (where I learned that when a shot hits the post, it can make a clanging noise that sounds like a traffic accident, so forceful are the shots of some of these players).

If you're interested in following the World Cup at all next year, I'd recommend getting this package from your cable network and tuning in every now and then. If you watch the top leagues, you'll get a sense of who the top players are from around the world. The rosters of Bolton and West Ham, two teams that are mid-level Premiership teams (for the uninitiated, the Premiership is the top English soccer league) are populated with international players, some of whom will start for their country's teams in the World Cup.

I do watch the MLS on occasion, and I find it to be an interesting product to watch, but it lacks the excitement that soccer-crazed Europe brings to everyday matchups. Soccer does take some getting used to, because most Americans over 35 didn't play it growing up, and because it's still a laggard in the U.S. sporting culture. We're not inundated with it every day the way you would be if you lived in London, where pages and pages of the newspapers are dedicated to lengthly articles of all soccer matches, from the Premiership all the way down to the lowest-ranked leagues. The game moves more quickly than baseball, but it's a game of ebbs and flows and bursts of energy. Get caught napping, and you'll miss a nifty two thirds of the field pass that springs a forward to get a good shot at the goalie. There isn't much scoring, but that doesn't make the action any less compelling. After all, there's a lot of excitement when you're in the 80th minute and the score is deadlocked. Lots can happen.

Soccer's a much more physical game that people in the U.S. can imagine. Read this link about yesterday's game between last year's champion, Chelsea, and Tottenham, and you'll think that you're reading about a game between the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs -- from the 1970's! Before you analogize soccer to ballroom dancing, think again. These guys bang into each other pretty hard, and they're not wearing any padding. Yes, of course, it's not American football, where the injured lists seemingly swell every year despite advances in training and technology. But considering that the players don't wear helmets or pads, and you might think again about how tough players have to be to play this game.

The U.S. sporting climate is terrific, and there are many games to watch and, more importantly, many things to do for the average American sports fan. And while the choices in America are second to none and the opportunities are vast, professional soccer in the U.S. has a way to go. That said, some outstanding owners and investors are involved in the product, and that fact alone should give the U.S. soccer fan base hope for a constantly improving MLS.

I'm not sure that the MLS will be able to lure stars from all over the world who are in their prime (why play in Chicago if you're Brazilian when you can play in Barcelona or Madrid and be treated like an international rock star?). In Madrid, London, Paris, Rome, Manchester, Torino and elsewhere, soccer is king. The bigger challenge for the MLS is to tap into the ever-growing talent pool of American players (who only thirty years ago were more likely to play Little League baseball than kids' soccer) and keep them home. Landon Donovan returned to the MLS from Germany, but many outstanding players are playing overseas (where the buzz and, yes, the money, are superior to what's offered in the U.S. today). That ultimately will be the test of the MLS.

In the meantime, check out the MLS on ESPN and pick up that package from your cable operator if it's available. You won't be disappointed.

That is, if you get the chance to pull yourself away from your favorite baseball team (especially if they're involved in the playoff hunt), your favorite NFL team (as the season begins) and your favorite college football team.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Getting the Best Tickets to Your Favorite Games

For those of us, that is, who don't have the level of interest or resources to purchase season tickets to our hometown teams, and who want to purchase between, say, 2 and 6 tickets to a game. For example, if you're a Phillies' fan, and you want to sit downstairs at Citizens Bank Park, the tickets can run you $35 apiece. Say you want four seats to a game, and say that your schedule is such that you can't determine in March what game you precisely want to attend in August. Suppose, further, that you can make that decision in July.

The easiest way to get "very good" season tickets is to purchase, with a consortium of friends, four tickets at $35 apiece per game to all 81 home games and then divide them up say twenty ways. That would ensure you'd get tickets to about four games at a contribution of $560 (this comment assumes a perfect efficiency, of course, that you can get 19 other acquaintances to commit to this structure, that you can divide tickets fairly, and that no one minds getting at least one game with the Diamondbacks). (The cost of four season tickets at $35 apiece is a staggering $11,340).

Failing that, you have a bunch of choices. You can go online at the home team's website and purchase the best available seats (in my case I ended up getting reasonably good seats on the right field line), you can buy better seats from a ticket broker (albeit at a hefty markup from face value), you can chance buying tickets from a scalper in the parking lot (and stories of forgeries today make me wonder as to what you're really buying), or you can go to a place like StubHub.com. As I pointed out in an earlier post, my friend who went to the same Phillies' game as I did (and he's not even a Phillies' fan) got tickets about a week before the game on StubHub.com -- and he and his kids sat between home plate and third base (I sat on the right-field line). Because you don't necessarily talk about what things cost among friends, I didn't enquire as to what he paid, but I doubt he paid much more than I did (and given that the Pirates were in town, he could well have paid less than what I paid the Phillies for worse seats).

This episode raises a lot of questions in my mind. First, would it be fair for teams to charge more for games against "better" teams? For example, the Phillies might want to charge more for games against the Mets, for two reasons. First, the Mets are usually pretty good. Second, New York fans are wont to drive to Philadelphia for the games, and presumably they'd pay a little more (within reason; they won't go it they think they're getting gouged) for the privilege (than, say, a Phillies fan would pay for the privilege or watching the Rockies or the Diamondbacks). Second, would it be fair for teams to draw more distinctions among their ticket prices? For example, shouldn't seats behind home plate and between home plate and the bases cost more than seats on the same level that are on the right-field line? I appeal to fellow bloggers at Sports Economist for some help here, as they know more about this stuff than I do. It makes sense to me, and I think that people might pay a little extra for those seats.

All that said, I wonder about the ultimate effect that a StubHub.com will have on professional teams that do not sell out. After all, the team will want to sell me (and many like me) that extra ticket, will they not? After all, the teams are in the business of selling as many tickets as possible. Heretofore, my natural inclination was to go online and purchase the tickets from the team. But if I'm taking a little kid, or if I don't go that often, I'll want to sit in as good a seat as possible.

Which means I'll check out a place like StubHub.com as well as checking out the home team's website, because the chances very good that I'll be able to get a better seat on StubHub.com than I would from the home team (unless, of course, there are no tickets available on the alternative websites because the tickets are being used by their original purchasers, friends of the original purchasers, or those who purchased tickets from the original purchasers in an off-line transaction -- and that appears to be unlikely every game). Note that I said that I'll be able to get a better seat, because then the question arises as to what the price for those tickets will be. But then you remember that these are the Phillies we're talking about, so who knows what the premiums on tickets will be (and they'll be less or non-existent for teams that are out of the running, and in those cases tickets might even be selling at a discount). As a result, I may be able to get baseball tickets at face value. Or less.

But even if I pay a premium of $5-10 per ticket for that one game I want to go to, I'd do it if I can sit between home plate and third base than out in the outfield. And that means that if people like me are thinking this way, and if they are willing to purchase tickets online from third parties (and I believe there are secure ways to do so), that the teams are not selling incremental tickets. Instead, the purchasers of season tickets are finding a good way to help support their ticket purchases, as opposed to having to fork over over $10,000 for four very good tickets in a season's package, only not to use many of them. (I submit that even if you find a way to divide four tickets among many families, there still will be many tickets that potentially could go unused -- and online venues offer a way to recoup what otherwise would be lost out-of-pocket costs).

I wonder how the teams feel about StubHub.com. I'm really only focusing on baseball, because there are 81 home dates a year. My sense, from taking a quick glimpse at StubHub.com, is that the hometown Eagles' tickets are going for quite a premium at that venue, as they probably do for many NFL teams. But for baseball, where the ticket prices are creeping higher and higher, my guess is that they can't be that happy about this new phenomenon. After all, it is they who want to sell you that ticket in the end -- at the expense of those who are shelling out a ton of money to get season's tickets.

As I posted earlier today, the Phillies' are in a pennant race. They are playing well, and I might want to catch another game. If I do, I will go to StubHub.com before I go to the Phillies. It's not that I expect the Phillies to have a very good seat waiting for me -- I'm not much of a customer for them. But now that there's a secondary market for already sold tickets, I'm more optimistic that I can enjoy a better experience by getting closer to the action.

The Phillies don't want to hear me say that, of course, and I'm not doing myself a service by writing this because I could give others who are in competition for tickets with me some ideas about where to get better seats. But I'm grateful for the new marketplace, and I intend to try it out at some point in the near future.

The Ghost of Chico Ruiz

The Philadelphia Phillies are in the hunt for their first playoff berth in 12 years. In the 102 years that they've played the World Series (actually, by my count, 100, because John McGraw boycotted the 1904 series and there wasn't a 1994 series owing to labor discord), the Phillies have made it five times. They lost in '15 and '50, won in '80 and then lost again in '83 and '93.

And then there was this, which is indelibly etched into the minds of Philadelphians who were born in 1956 or before. Mention the name Chico Ruiz to Phillies fans from a certain era, and they'll require sedation. Mention the name of the late Gene Mauch to Phillies fans from that era, and you'll get a string of adjectives, from superlatives to profanity, all of which are meant to convey the same feelings about the skipper of the most ill-fated ship since the S.S. Titanic and before the Minnow of Gilligan's Island fame.

Last night the Phillies tattooed the Diamondbacks, 11-3 last night, to keep them 1.5 games ahead of Florida, Houston and the Mets in the wild card race, 2.5 ahead of the Washington Nationals, the team whose clock looks like it's just about to strike midnight and who itself is ready to turn into a pumpkin. More interestingly, the Phillies are only 2.5 games behind the Braves for the NL East lead. The Phillies' stellar play since the All-Star break is confounding to some longstanding Phillies' watchers, given that a) they lost lineup anchor Jim Thome for the season (and when he was in the lineup, he played dreadfully), b) they had two dreadful months' worth of pitching from big free-agent signee Jon Lieber, c) they've lost formidable lefty starter Randy Wolf for this year and possibly next, d) they have a first-string catcher who many of the starters don't want to have catch them and e) they play in a bandbox ballpark more suitable to a HS girls' softball league than Major League Baseball.

They also have a front-office, about whom I have blogged before, in whom the fans have almost zero confidence. Mention the Brahmin group of owners (from old Philadelphia families), and you'll be met with sighs at best and scoffs at worst, and they symbolize a group of owners who, during their tenure (which comes right after the relative golden years of Ruly Carpenter's stewardship) haven't seemed overly committed to doing what it takes to put a contender on the field every year. In total fairness, with the advent of Citizens Bank Park (which is in its second year), the ownership has ponied up serious bucks to put the Phillies' payroll at least in the top ten in the majors, if not higher.

The ownership, of course, evokes certain responses, but then there's the GM, Ed Wade, whose moves and demeanor remind certain fans of a stern schoolmaster whose results demonstrate that the school he runs is the type of school you'd send your kids to if they couldn't get into someplace better. Wade has to be happy that the volcano that is Terrell Owens erupted this summer, so as to have Owens replace him as the most disliked sports figure in Philadelphia. Wade has to be sad that the Eagles' popularity is such that it's taken a bunch of attention away from the Phillies (and perhaps from him), as the team that he and his staff have put together is playing very well and worthy of plaudits at this point in time. Wade is a lightning rod for criticism of the Phillies, and he's also a symbol for the perennial frustration that they have provide the fans during his tenure. Click here to see what I mean, and click the links within to get a sense of some of the trades he's made. (There's also another sense of frustration in longstanding Phillies' fans, who remember fondly one-time GM Paul Owens, who had a knack for making trading-deadline moves in the late 1970's that always seemed to boost the club; in contrast, Wade traded Tim Worrell for Matt Kata this year, his one move before the trading deadline).

Despite the historical baggage (the Phillies are one of the worst franchises in the history of professional sports), the present-day club is functioning well. Among the bright spots are rookie 1B Ryan Howard, who might turn Jim Thome into Wally Pipp, as there's speculation that Thome might have played his last game at 1B for the Phillies. Howard has played so well that unless the Phillies could get a front-line #1 starter for him, they'd be foolish to trade him, which means the Phillies will eat some of Thome's hefty salary if they move him in the off-season. There's also 2B Chase Utley, the spark plug of the team, who has been unfettered since the Phillies moved Placido Polanco (with whom Utley platooned) early this season for Ugueth Urbina. LF Pat Burrell has broken free from the dreadful slump that paralyzed him two years ago, and RF Bobby Abreu has finally emerged from his awful swoon that followed his amazing display in the All-Star weekend's HR contest (he hit a grand slam last night).

And the pitching has been very good. True, they lost Wolf for the year, and, yes, Lieber has been disappointing at times (even if he's better than the guy he replaced, Eric Milton), but Brett Myers has gotten out of former pitch coach Joe Kerrigan's overanalytical gulag and turned himself into a pitcher, Vicente Padilla is hurling well, and journeyman Cory Lidle is an excellent groundball pitcher. Toss in rookies Robinson Tejeda and Eude Brito, one of the best setup men in baseball in Ryan Madson (who leads the majors in holds) and outstanding closer Billy Wagner and a bunch of other relievers who have been steady, and you have the formula of a team that's primed to stay in this hunt until the very end. Click here for the Phillies' stats for 2005 thus far.

Reasons to be optimistic? You bet. After all, as much frustration as the owners and front office have given Phillies' fans, at the end of the season the lineup reflects how the players on the roster fared. Which means, of course, that even great management can put together a team that loses, and that average management can put together a winner occasionally (such as every 12-15 years or so). This team definitely has a chance to go to the post-season.

In most cities, the fans would be absolutely giddy by this prospect. The team would be the talk of the town, they'd get tons of free publicity, the TV people and DJs would be talking them up, and kids at school would be focusing on the Phillies. But two factors combine to reign in the giddiness. The first is that at some point in the past fifteen years, Philadelphia has transformed itself into a football town. A combination of the Phillies' inept management and the baseball strike of 1994, along with the in-your-face style of Buddy Ryan, the early success of Ray Rhodes and the excellence of Andy Reid caused this change. The second, of course, is the ghost of Chico Ruiz, evidenced in the late 1970's by Greg Luzinski's futile ballet after balls hit by aging pinch hitters Manny Mota and Vic Davalillo in the 1977 LCS and then by Mitch Williams' World Series-ending gopher ball to Joe Carter in the 1993 Series.

Put simply, Phillies' fans are waiting for something bad to happen, for some evildoer, someone who must not be named, to put sugar in the team's gas tank, put a key on their sportscars bright cherry red paint job, to cause a thunderous collapse along the lines of 1964. For while you had to have been born in about 1956 or so to remember the debacle of 1964, if you were born after that you can recall vividly your relatives' talking about that awful time long into the 1980's. As a result, the Ghost of Chico Ruiz (who, for the uninitiated, stole home in the bottom of the 15th inning of a road game in Cincinnati during the last two weeks of the 1964 season to give the Reds a 1-0 victory and start the fateful fall of the team), lives on in the children and grandchildren who watched that train wreck.

In Boston, they called it the Curse of the Bambino.

In Philadelphia, it's the Ghost of Chico Ruiz.

Now, it's true that the 1980 squad, an outstanding team from top to bottom, eradicated the historical frustration of Phillies fans that dated back to the team's inception, including the spectacle of blowing a 6.5 game lead with 12 to play in 1964. But curses are different from ghosts. You can purge a curse, as the Red Sox did last fall, but ghosts linger long after the times in which the baseball-playing bodies to which they once were attached lived. So, in 1980, the Phillies eradicated whatever curses permeated their landscape.

But the Ghost of Chico Ruiz lives on.

Will the hometown nine build on this excellent second half, catch the Braves and win the National League East? Or, will they stay atop the Wild Card standings and make the playoffs that way?

Or will something strange happen in extra innings on a road trip that leaves a tired squad's spirit depleted?

The last five weeks of the season will tell a lot. It says here that with exciting young players in Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, the Phillies' have a fighting chance. The big question for this time won't be whether they hit, but whether the starting pitching can hold up during the home stretch.

Because in the end, as rock beats scissors, talent beats ghosts.

Even in Philadelphia.

The Caddy from Harvard

Alums of Ivy League schools do all sorts of interesting things for a living (as do alums of every school, of course), and this is a story about a veteran caddie at the venerated Merion Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia, the recent site of the U.S. Amateur and once a site of U.S. Opens (that is, until both golf courses and golf equipment took their equivalent of steroids, rendering the Merions of the world relative pitch-and-putt courses for which the Tiger Woodses of the world wouldn't need to pull out their drivers). Click here to read all about it.

It's been said that the A students will become your doctors, lawyers and professors, the B students will populate the businesses and that the C students will make the millions. Which suggests, of course, that the brainiacs who get admitted to Harvard will provide wise counsel, for example, to the average Yalies (academics-wise) who ran for President in 2004. If that is the case, then who better to provide sage advice on a golf course than a zenmaster who went to Harvard?

Friday, August 26, 2005

Three Things to Remember About Great Managers

Tony LaRussa now is third on the all-time list for wins by a manager, trailing only John McGraw and Connie Mack. He passed Sparky Anderson yesterday. In all likelihood, this cements LaRussa's ultimate election into the Hall of Fame.

Remember three things about great managers:

1. They have also lost more games than most managers ever had. (I recall the quote from Pete Rose after he broke Ty Cobb's record. A reporter asked him how it felt to have more hits than anyone in baseball history. Rose replied, "I probably have more outs too." The stats guys checked out that comment, and it turned out Rose was right. I'm sure if you check out my comment, you'll see it has some merit, if for no other reason that you have to manage a long time (and not get fired) in order to win all those games, so that means you're losing a bunch of them too.

2. When Sparky Anderson got elected to the Hall of Fame, he said something like, "Great manager, huh. I was fortunate enough to be given great talent, and then smart enough to stay out of their way." There's some truth to that.

3. Finally, from all-time great if not Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog, who in an SI article about 15 years ago said, "If you took great talent and gave them a horseshit manager and gave a great manager horseshit talent, I'd bet on the horseshit manager every time."

Yes, LaRussa is a great manager, and he was bright enough to figure out ways to win with great talent (although some detractors will claim that he should have won more than one World Series with those A's teams of the late 1980's, and I think they have a point). Still, he's sustained excellence in Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis for over 20 years, and that's simply amazing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Sports Weekend

It's great every now and then to get out there and do something (as opposed to, say, watching a game on TV or surfing the net for information about your favorite teams). This past weekend, I had the opportunity to do just that.

It started on Friday, when I golfed with some colleagues at a beautiful course that has few members and therefore does not have people crawling up your back or hitting into you. At one point in my life, I played 20+ rounds a year, but in my current state I play only a handful of rounds annually. This was one of them, and it was a great time. Yes, it was overcast, and yes, because of the lack of rain in the Mid-Atlantic region the greens were like glass, but the air was fresh, it wasn't too hot (as opposed to a week earlier, when it was 95 or higher with the humidity in the eighty-plus percentage range). I hit the ball well for someone who doesn't get to the range more than a few times a year, hit some good fairway woods, re-discovered the joys of the Adams Tight Lies utility club, learned (again) that I can only pop up a lob wedge (you're supposed to lob it, not launch it like a missile straight up in the air), straightened out my drives and only lost one ball (into the water adjacent to a short par three). Yes, I shot a 108, but I must have three-put at least two-thirds of the greens. Clearly, the short game needs improvement, but I hit enough good shots to keep me coming back.

On Saturday night, I took the family to Citizens Bank Park to see the still-in-the-hunt Phillies play host to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Last year I blogged about taking my son, who was four and a half, to his first baseball game, and this time it was my wife's and daughter's turn, not for their first baseball games (the former grew up in Baltimore during the Orioles' heyday, and the latter has been to minor-league affairs), but for their first time at Citizens Bank Park. We arrived about an hour and twenty minutes before game time, went to the Phanatic's Phun Zone where the kids played briefly in the playground maze, and then headed to center field for some barbecue at Bull's BBQ, where yes, the old Bull himself, Greg Luzinski, looking cool in his wraparound shades, was signing autographs.

I quickly pointed out to my Baltimore-bred spouse that the BBQ joint is a ripoff of the first new genre stadium BBQ joints, Boog Powell's place at Camden Yards in Baltimore. First, the Orioles had the idea first. Second, Boog was known both as a cook and an eater, where Luzinski was known only as the latter (if he's a gourmet chef, somehow the ubiquitious Philadelphia media missed out on that one). Third, Boog always seemed to be comfortable talking with people; Luzinski looks like he'd rather be deposed. The one-time hitting coach for Tony LaRussa in Oakland (he got the job after Jim Lefebvre went to manage the Mariners years ago, only to lose it after the Mariners canned Lefebvre) has been retired for a while. The food was pretty good.

And it proved to be an old-home week of sorts, too. As we're sitting down (note to fans: if you want to grab a table there to eat, good luck), we run into a good friend of mine from college, down from Boston with his two sons, both of whom are big baseball fans (mine is becoming one, but for right now he's a huge Star Wars fan and is much more familar with the Hutts than hits and with Chancellor Paplatine than Commissioner Selig). He has made a great promise to them -- he's going to take them to every major league park. So far they've made it to seven, including Shea Stadium, where they were the night before. His boys, who are 10 and 5, looked thrilled to be there, and it was great to see all of them. (My friend was smarter at procuring tickets. I bought mine through the Phillies and ended up on the right field line; he bought his here, perhaps weeks after I did, and sat between home and third base. Next time you want seats, go to the web site that is not the team's first).

Both his kids and mine played this old carnival game near Bull's, which has the participants stamping their feet to get Phanatics of different colors to run the bases. If you win you don't get a special prize, just a coupon to get a sticker that's about the size of your thumbnail. (If you save the coupons and amass about thirty, you could get something pretty good, but my guess is that most don't do that). After that, we parted ways, and on our way out of Bull's we ran into my son's soccer coach from last spring, who was taking in a game with his wife. There were only about forty thousand people at the game on this nice night, so it was neat to run into people we know.

Then we made our way to our seats, the kids with their gloves primed for action, dad carrying a bag of Crackerjacks that our daughter asked us to purchase, and sat down on the rightfield line. Thankfully, the configuration of the new stadium is such that if you sit on the right field line, you are actually closer to the action than the dugout, by about 20 feet. (We witnessed Pirates RF Rob Mackowiak make a fine catch, followed by his doubling Chase Utley off first base). When we sat down, an eight year-old girl with a pageboy haircut came over to say hello -- she is a classmate of my daughter's. She was there with her grandfather, who was nice enough to take her, her sister and a cousin to the Build-A-Bear workshop (where the basic, unclothed Phanatic dolls costs $22 to stuff). So, before the game began, we saw three different people we know. Small world, a big ballpark is.

The game began with the Pirates taking a 1-0 lead, but then Utley doubled in a few runs, Brett Myers pitched well after getting shelled in this three previous outings, and the Phillies won 5-1 to stay atop the NL wildcard race. In honor of Myers' prior appearances, we purchased peanuts to make our "buy me some peanuts and Crackerjack" lyric complete, and my now five and a half year-old son spent a good part of the early innings being my personal peanut sheller. The weather was warm but not too humid, and, well, as I've written before, there's not much better a feeling than to do as previous generations before have done and take your family to the ball game. While we didn't drop a bundle at Build-a-Bear, all told our night, including tickets, parking, dinner for four, a program, photos and photo holders at the photo shop at the ballpark (where we donned Phillies' jerseys), Crackerjacks, peanuts, a foam #1 Phillies hand for my son and a program ran us a total of about $240. That's a lot of money, but it was well worth it.

That said, how most families go to more than a few games a year does mystify me, but not as much as the Pirates' fans sitting behind me, who were more than willing to drop $6.75 for a beer. Then again, if I were a Pirates fan, I would keep re-loading on the beers. The team they field might be better than a AAA team, but most of their guys would be bench players on the contending teams in the majors.

We stayed for about half the game and then decided to call it a night. The air grew more humid, and we had a day at the beach scheduled for the following day. So we took the long drive home, stopped for ice cream, and then put the kids to bed. The whole family had a great time, thanks to the Phillies and their excellent ball park. That the home team is in a playoff race is not lost on me, as the Phillies haven't generated this much excitement in twelve years.

The next day we took the drive to Manasquan at the North Jersey shore, where the kids, whose swimming skills improved markedly at day camp, were eager to see one of my best friends from college (and the best athlete I know, a former AA pitcher) at his parents' house there. I promised them that he would teach them the finer points of wave jumping and boogie boarding, and he did just that. It was my son's first time boogie-boarding, and he took to the shallower part of the ocean like a veteran, standing sideways and beginning to float before the waves would carry him toward the shore. My daughter had boogie boarded a few times before in Cape May, but she was eager to do it again. She looked like even more of a veteran, as she donned a rash guard over her bathing suit. The kids loved being in the ocean and didn't want to get out, but after four hours of the sun and Atlantic, they decided it was time to go. They had been on their feet for a while, and they were getting tired. The drive to the beach is only about an hour, and the kids enjoyed themselves very much. I know that future beach vacations will consist of the kids staying in the water incessantly, with dad giving an occasional glance to make sure that they're doing fine with their boogie boards. Seeing the smiles on their faces as they were getting the hang of it was something to behold. My daughter is a more confident swimmer, and she glides with a quiet confidence. My son showed the exuberance of a just-named lottery winner, so giddy to enjoy his newly acquired skill. At dinner that night he insisted upon being called "Champ," because that's what my good friend called him as he taught him the magic of gliding in on the waves.

Hitting a three-wood two hundred plus yards over a wide pond, eating peanuts at a baseball game, listening to your spouse explain a sacrifice fly to an eight-year old girl, standing in the Atlantic Ocean helping your kids have a ton of fun, running into old friends, we all must remember to do that more often.

It was a great weekend.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Anomaly of the NL West

Right now there are some interesting playoff races going on in Major League Baseball. The NL East has no clear best team, and that makes the race for both the NL East title and the NL Wild Card look like L.A.'s rush hour. The NL Central has the Secretariat of the bunch, the Cardinals, with the Astros trying to hang on in the chase for the wild card. It may be that good pitching beats good hitting any time, but you can't win if you don't score. Tell your pitchers that they have to toss shutouts to get ties, and they might press too much. That's the predicament the Astros are in.

Then, of course, there is the NL West, where the winner of that division will be lucky to break .500 and win 82 games. As much as I like it that the Padres beat the Braves in extra innings last night, the fact remains that the Pads might finish below .500 and take their division. Needless to say, that would make the Cardinals happy, as they could like their chops at the prospect of facing a team in the first round that would have finished dead last in the NL East. That's probably the closest thing to a bye that could happen in the history of Major League Baseball, or at least since the 1904 Giants elected not to play in the World Series.

And it isn't fair. Not that there haven't been other imperfections in the history of the majors and its post-season games, but this one would take the cake. There should be no way a team that doesn't break .500 can make the post-season, period. Even if it wins its division.

If I were commissioner for a day, I would create an edict (not that anyone would follow it anyway) that in order to make the playoffs, a team has to play at least .500 ball (if not achieve a record that goes 82-80). If a division leader doesn't achieve that record (and I don't think that this situation has come up before in MLB), then the team with the fourth best record overall in that team's league makes the playoffs instead, even if it means that three teams from one division make the playoffs.

As a result, instead of the Padres, you could end up with the Braves and Cards as winners of their divisions and then the Phillies and Marlins in the post-season. Given how close the NL East has been this year, and given that the play within that division has been superior to anything put up in the NL West, that's not an unfair solution. Let those teams go head-to-head in the post-season to slug it out one more time. The drama would be compelling, even if it would mean pitting teams against division rivals in the first round of the playoffs -- something that MLB has avoided at all costs.

Because those teams would have earned it.

And you'd enhance your product's credibility by making sure that only the worthy make the playoffs (something that cannot always be said for your brethren in the NBA and NHL, where too many teams make the post-season).

Sure, some teams limp into the playoffs, having won wars of attrition against bitter rivals by throwing out their starters on three days' rest and exhausting a bullpen that's been expanded in September to include eight or nine relievers. Yes, some of those teams are battered and tired and have nothing left to give in the post-season.

But at least they've played well enough to earn the right to be there.

Right now, it's hard to argue that anyone in the NL West can make that claim. To be fair to those teams, they are playing as hard as they can under rules that they didn't create. Right now, their stalking horse isn't the Cards or the Braves, but the Padres, and that's the way it should be.

But the Lords of Baseball should plan for the future and see a much broader picture. Hopefully, when they do, they'll adopt the rule I suggest, so that they can avoid the mockery that the NL West has become this year.

Perhaps the Padres or someone else will go on a tear in the last six weeks of the season, win two-thirds of their games and make the prospect of embarrassment vanish. That would be great for baseball.

As would a rule that would help ensure that a sub-.500 team will not be able to make the playoffs.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Wait 'Til They Find Out That Bass Fishing Is More Popular

The NHL has a new TV contract.

It's not with ESPN. No surprise there.

It's with Comcast. Click here to read all about it.

Given all of the free-agent signings and wheeling and dealing that went on, you would have thought that Home Shopping Network would have been a good match for the NHL. Given how badly the NHL has done on TV over the past several years, and given that they've probably lost some fans because they didn't have a season last year, the NHL is probably lucky to have a TV contract at all, even if it's worthy of a punchline on The Comedy Channel (and not even a time slot on that network). The new network is called OLN, Comcast's foray into the world of sports.

All kidding aside, the NHL probably didn't have much from which to choose. The Comcast folks are savvy business people, having built up this huge media company from a lonesome cable TV franchise in Tupelo, Mississippi that they owned about 40 years ago. While media and tech-related business are on the growth end of the investment spectrum generally (as opposed to value), the guess here is that Comcast made a value play here. Get the NHL at a reasonable price, promote it smartly and then hope to the high heavens that this season is one to remember. Will the players come back refreshed, and will traditional powers return to glory, or will the product be mediocre owing to rust and serious changes to many teams' rosters?

In the linked article, one media observer comments that Comcast's new network becomes a more serious player (and not a niche one) because it has acquired rights to NHL games. That's an interesting observation, but I'm not there yet. I can't agree because until the NHL accumulates some serious ratings, the new Comcast network, OLN, cannot be considered to be a serious player in the sports world. Once considered one of the "top four" sports in America, professional hockey has fallen pretty far. Certain below football, baseball and basketball, but also below college football, college basketball, NASCAR, golf and a few others. That doesn't make the NHL unimportant, hardly. But it doesn't make it the eye catcher it once might have been.

They say that one man's junk is another man's joy, and it will be interesting whether George Bodenheimer or Brian Roberts is proved right by each's decision as to the appeal of the NHL. Did George Bodenheimer cut his losses, or did Brian Roberts find a gem at a yard sale?

Time will tell.

Everything's Up To Date In The Show Me State

Maybe the local baseball nine needs a bit more of this, courtesy of the local football eleven.

Painful times for a once-proud baseball franchise.

Eighteen losses in a row, and counting.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Seldom in Doubt

Skip Bayless on the Philadelphia Eagles.

I don't necessarily agree with him, but the Eagles should allow for the doubting.

After the Eagles lost the NFC championship game two years ago at home to a Carolina team that they were favored to beat, Eagles fans went into the off-season worried. They worried because that made three straight losses in the NFC championship game, two in a row because their passing game seemed outmatched and where their linebacker play seemed subpar. In addition, there were worries at defensive end, because they didn't get much of a pass rush, either.

Previously, Eagles fans had wondered publicly about the team's personnel moves. There were times where Andy Reid and company made moves that left people wondering, but the body of work of the Reid administration over the past five years has been very good. They have drafted reasonably well and signed some good free agents. But after the Carolina loss, the fans were worried, and there was no talk from the team about what it might do in the off-season.

The team needed improvements, but they had convinced some in the local media that linebacker play wasn't key to a successful defense for them and that they were happy with their wide receivers and their defensive line. So what happened? On the first day of the free-agent signing period, they signed All-Pro DE Jevon Kearse, the former Tennessee Titan. After a complicated series of events, they acquired WR Terrell Owens. And, for good measure, they inked then recently released LB Jeremiah Trotter, as a backup. All played well (Trotter, after starting perhaps a half a dozen games beginning in mid-season, was named to the Pro-Bowl as a starter). In short, they perceived that they had needs, and they moved to fill them. The fans were very excited going into the season, as well as they should have been. And the Birds played very well.

Going into this season, the fans were worried about quality play on the defensive line, depth on the offensive line and in the offensive backfield. The team has a ton of good (if not great) players on the defensive line, and they answered a potential problem at DT by drafting Mike Patterson of USC on the first round (especially in light of the holdout of DT Corey Simon, who is unhappy at being named the team's "franchise player"). They answered depth questions at RB by taking Ryan Moats, a spark plug out of Louisiana Tech, on the third round, after many had projected he would go higher (some still believe they should have opted for the "big" back). As for the offensive line, they get back G Shawn Andrews, last year's first-round pick who looked very promising in the pre-season before getting hurt in the first game, and they drafted OT Todd Herremans out of a D-II school, and he's looked good so far. OT Tra Thomas is still battling a medical problem, but no one seems publicly worried that the Eagles haven't re-loaded their offensive line.

Enter the Achilles' heel, wide receiver.

They let the overly talkative Freddie Mitchell go before this season began (although he was more productive in his own mind than in the eyes of the team, the media and the fans), and then WR Todd Pinkston, who did show some improvement last year, rolled up his Achilles' in practice and is done for the year. That leaves them with Greg Lewis, a third-year man with 24 catches in his career, one-time third-round pick Billy McMullen out of UVA, who has not cashed in on his opportunities to date, and this year's second-round pick Reggie Brown out of Georgia, who has played well in training camp. In all likelihood, none will immediately change the way defensive coordinators plan for the Eagles the way T.O. has.

T.O. returned to the Eagles today, and questions abound. If he plays the way he's capable of playing, if he gets his act together, and if he can co-exist with his QB and coaching staff, he can put up the type of season that will get him even bigger money than he's making now (which, by the way, still puts him in the Top 10 of receiver compensation, according to a report by Chris Mortensen that I heard on ESPN Radio the other morning). If that happens, the Eagles will still reign supreme over the NFC East.

But if that doesn't happen, and the T.O. that has confounded impressive football men in San Francisco shows up and acts out, then the question that will be answered immediately will be whether the Eagles did enough in the off-season to plan for this contingency. If Lewis, McMullen and Brown step up, then Andy Reid looks like a genius. But if they play WR the way Barry Gardner and Levon Kirkland played middle linebacker a few years ago, Donovan McNabb ought to double his padding, because opponents will blitz him off the bus. And Andy Reid and company won't look very smart, because, to Bayless' way of thinking, they should have seen the T.O. storm coming.

Right now, the best the Eagles' coaches can do is to honor Kipling's words from "If" (and, I'm paraphrasing here) stand tall amidst the commotion and allow for the doubting of, well, all but diehard Eagles fans.

It may be that they'll be able to reach a workable detente with Terrell Owens.

And it may be that as we speak they're working on a deal that will ship him to Cincinnati (or whichever of the four teams in the NFL that Mortensen identified the other day that might have enough cap room to pull off a deal with the Eagles). If anyone is interested, of course.

Sure, as Bayless says, the Eagles can really lose out here, and he has a point.

But T.O. can really lose out here, too. After his track record in San Francisco, if he does anything now other than give his best, who will want him? Who will give him that big payday that he richly deserves? One burned, twice shy, the saying goes. What will teams say after two teams have been burned? They'll bar the doors.

So, in the end, Skip, the Eagles aren't at as big a disadvantage as I perceive you think. Because life will go on for the Eagles, and given the weakness of the NFC they'll still go 10-6 without him and make the playoffs, and you can be sure that two years from now they'll have rectified the situation enough to return to Super Bowl-quality status. And, to your point, they probably will have learned the lesson that you don't think that they have learned.

But T.O. might be stuck in the middle of nowhere.

With no one to listen to him.

NIT, NCAA Settle Lawsuit; NCAA To Buy NIT?

Many years ago, around the time that the Boys of Summer won their only World Series, the NIT was the bigger deal. You had to be invited to play in that tournament, and, as such, it had more prestige than the NCAA Tournament. Since the early 1960's, when the NIT let the NCAA invite teams to the latter's tournament first, the NIT has skiied downhill with little chance of reversing its momentum. Primary evidence of college hoops gravity (something that even Jim Harrick, Jr. couldn't have tested in his classic test for his college hoops course while at Georgia).

The NIT, a vestige of when NYC viewed itself as the center of the college hoops universe (in addition to being the center of the universe for virtually everything else), believed that the NCAA wanted to push it under the bus. So, it filed a lawsuit, claiming that the NCAA had created a monopoly in violation of the antitrust laws. Suffice it to say that the NIT believed that since it couldn't win on the court, it had to win in court.

We do live in a litigious society, and you could argue that the NIT went into court because it knew it was licked on the court. In other words, file a lawsuit, give the NCAA a pack of trouble, and then get a good settlement. Or, you could argue that the NIT was backed into a corner (by an entity that was trying to corner the market) and rightly sought redress in the courts because it had no chance to win on the court. Litigants who have nothing to lose can be dangerous, and the NIT, given its scrawny status when compared to the NCAA post-season Big Dance, had very little to lose except for its legal bills (and it's an open question whether its lawyers pursued the case on contingent fee basis or not). On the other hand, while desperate litigants can pose trouble, if they don't have much of a case, then the other side simply has to wait them out (and spend a bunch of money in the process). No matter how you look at it, prolonged litigation probably wouldn't have benefited either side in the long run.

In any event, the NCAA and NIT have decided to settle their lawsuit. That detail came out last night. What just came out today is that the settlement might involve the NCAA's buying the NIT. That's what USA Today is reporting today.

Professor Michael McCann of the Sports Law Blog has an excellent take on the situation as well (he posted before the news broke that the NCAA might purchase the NIT). The settlement bears watching. If, on the one hand, the NIT claimed that the NCAA was trying to monopolize college hoops by trying to put it out of business, how can the parties justify the settlement in light of the monopolization argument if the NCAA buys the NIT? The answer probably lies somewhere within the recesses of the bright minds representing the NCAA, who will argue that the NCAA doesn't have a monopoly over college hoops and won't after what they will deem to be this insignificant purchase.

If the NCAA purchases the NIT, what will happen to the NIT-sponsored events? Will there be a post-season tournment for those also-rans who didn't make it into the NCAA tournament? Or will the NCAA simply expand its post-season tournament to 128 teams (or at least a 128-team bracket populated by 96 teams, thereby giving 32 conference champions or the Top 32 ranked teams in the country a first-round bye)? After all, those who do mergers and acquisitions for a living look for synergies, and it doesn't appear on its face that the NCAA would want to run two separate post-season tournaments. Think of the attractiveness of a longer March Madness period. The possibilities could be very lucrative for the NCAA, while eliminating the distraction of the NIT.

As for the pre-season NIT, who knows? That seems to be an exciting tournament, although it transpires so early in the season that many well-rounded sports fans are still paying attention to their favorite college and professional football teams. That tournament might be worth keeping.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Doomsayers Are Out Again

Terrell Owens is suspended.

Brian Westbrook boycotted camp for about a week, then came in to preserve his rights to free agency in a year.

Corey Simon isn't in camp; he doesn't like the franchise tag.

Todd Pinkston blew out his achilles tendon and is done for the year.

DE Jerrold McDougle was shot in the stomach in Miami a few weeks ago and will be out for about another six weeks. According to Coach Andy Reid, McDougle had a great off-season and was primed to have a good season this year (he was oft-injured the past two seasons).

LT Tra Thomas has been battling blot clotting problems and is on the bench.

Backup RB Correll Buckhalter missed last season, got hurt in training camp this week, and might be out for the season again. Another RB, Bruce Perry, has been battling injuries.

The Eagles are through. The ship is sinking.

Mark Schlereth this morning said that they won't get to the Super Bowl this year. Mike Greenberg said that they won't win the NFC East. Others are probably licking their chops, and I'm sure some football writers will be saying the same thing.

The Eagles cannot win without T.O. and even oft-maligned Pinkston. They'll miss Thomas and Simon.

Three seasons ago, Donovan McNabb rolled up his ankle and backup Koy Detmer hurt his elbow in the very next game. So in came third-string QB A.J. Feeley, who started all of five games in college, and the Eagles won their last five games and went to the NFC championship game. Two seasons ago, they lost their first two games -- to defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay and to ultimate Super Bowl Champion New England -- and the fans were calling for Andy Reid's and Donovan McNabb's jobs. They went to the NFC championship game. Last year, they lost veteran Pro Bowl CBs Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor to free agency, traded solid OL John Wellbourn to Kansas City and lost DE N.D. Kalu, Buckhalter, FB Jon Ritchie and RG Shawn Andrews for the season with injuries -- either in training camp or early in the season. And then T.O. got hurt in the last third of the season, and without him (and four key players on injured reserve) they won the NFC championship game and made it to the Super Bowl.

Have they been just lucky, or is that a trend?

It says here it's more than luck. Plain old pluck and the art of plucking the right talent from a talent pool that gets heavily scrutinized had something to do with it too. As well as coaching and cap management.

I'll be the first one to admit that without their first two wide receivers, the Eagles have a problem. Owens is a game breaker, one of the top three receivers in the game. But he's not worth anything to his team if he's a disruptive force, a human volcano whose eruptions not only are unpredictable, but come at the worst times. His cheerfulness on the sidelines during the NFC Championship Game and his return -- against his doctor's advice -- to play in the Super Bowl were most admirable. For that, for the fact that his prior agent negotiated a bad contract, and for the concept that he's not one of the top ten highest paid WRs in the game -- he wants more money. He won't talk to the Philadelphia media, instead preferring to talk with anyone on ESPN who will listen. Tonight, Chris Berman interviewed him and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, during the halftime of a pre-season game. T.O. is taking his case to the public. But instead of sounding like someone with a real grievance, he comes off more like Latrell Sprewell when Spree claimed that $14 million wasn't enough to feed his family. Rosenhaus seemed exasperated, but he'll have a hard-time convincing that a multimillionaire with a history of not getting along with his coaches is underpaid. They did not make a compelling case, unless it was for an audition for an MTV video.

The Eagles do need T.O., but T.O. also needs the Eagles, he needs to play. He was in camp, and he says that he was doing his job. Rosenhaus said that Andy Reid told him that T.O. was practicing hard. Reid today said that he'll keep the spat within the Eagles' family. T.O. said that Reid told him to shut up, so he told Reid to "shut up" back because Reid wasn't his parent and didn't have the right to talk to him that way. My sense is that if Andy Reid sent T.O. home for a week, he wasn't the poster child for a team-oriented work ethic that Drew Rosenhaus said he was. Andy Reid has done a lot of great work in Philadelphia, and he deserves the rebuttable presumption that he is in the right here and Terrell Owens is in the wrong.

As for Tra Thomas, he's been up and down for the Birds over the past three seasons, but he has played at a high level. A rookie named Todd Herremans, a fourth-round pick and former Division II all-American, has been getting reps against Jevon Kearse and others. Said Hugh Douglas, "He has a mean streak." And no one has said Tra Thomas is done for the year. As for Simon, he's an undersized DT who disappears at times, and while he's a starter the Eagles are blessed with extraordinary depth on the defensive line. Everyone said that they would miss Vincent and Taylor last year, and the Eagles didn't miss a beat without them. Somehow they figure out ways, year after year, to reinvent themselves and play at a very high level.

No doubt, the challenges are very great for the Eagles this year. Sustaining excellence in the brutal meritocracy called the National Football League is a tall task. The football fates have presented Jeffrey Lurie, Joe Banner and Andy Reid with big challenges every year. And every year, they have turned problems into opportunities.

The bet here is that they'll resolve most of their situations and make the playoffs.

Again.

Because football is a team sport, and because their team has a strong core and strong leadership.

Because team transcends T.O.

No matter how good he is.

Taking the Fifth

Rafael Palmeiro won't talk about his steroid suspension. His agent, Arn Tellem, who is also the agent for Jason Giambi, has apparently advised him not to. Instead of soaking up the seventh-inning stretch, Palmeiro will be taking the Fifth.

Greta Garbo said "I want to be alone." Hall of Famer hurler Steve Carlton declined to talk to the press after the Philadelphia media was critical of him for a bad 1973 season (that followed an all-galaxy 1972 season). Those two had their reasons, as I'm sure both thought to a certain extent that talking to the media would invite an uwanted infringement on their privacy. Palmeiro's case, of course, is totally different.

We all wondered what Carlton would have said during his wonderful career (as it turned out, he was rather wise not to talk to the media during his career if his later-in-life statements about various current events are any indication of what he might have said while playing). His pitching did his talking, and, boy, he threw a slider that turned sluggers like Dave Parker into fan dancers. There was eloquence in Carlton's silence, and while that ticked off the Philadelphia media, the fans actually didn't care that much.

There is eloquence in Palmeiro's silence too, as there is eloquence in the various media types who have spoken out on this affair -- and in those who have not. Hall of Fame second baseman (and ESPN commentator) Joe Morgan has blasted baseball and Palmeiro, one-time Cub 1B and current Diamondbacks broadcaster Mark Grace and former Mississippi State teammate and SF Giants first baseman Will Clark have weighed in as well. As has SI columnist Rick Reilly, who, as I have done many times before, blasted the mainstream baseball media about taking a powder on steroids and Palmeiro (Reilly went so far as to call out espn.com's Jayson Stark by name, ridiculing Stark's commentary that he'd still vote for Palmeiro on the first ballot; Reilly did so in this week's SI, which is only available to subscribers at this point, or else I'd link to it).

Even if Palmeiro doesn't say a word about his problems, you can guarantee it that fans everywhere will fill in the silence.

As they should.

Loudly.

Meanwhile, the mainstream baseball writers have to figure out what to do on this point. When I see them on television or hear them on radio, they sound very uncomfortable when the topic of steroids comes up and look like Senator (and future Vice President) Dan Quayle did in his debate against Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 (for those too young to remember, deer look more relaxed in headlights). Some writers say that they're not cops, that steroids weren't illegal in baseball (even if they were illegal in the United States, which oddly doesn't seem to matter to them), so they'll still vote Palmeiro on the first-ballot of Hall of Fame voting. Others take a different tactic, demanding clear and convincing evidence that someone was a user before casting aspersions on their career achievements. Those writers go so far, as do some others, as accusing those who cast doubt on the integrity of baseball achievements as cynics precisely because they don't have that kind of proof.

I believe that writers like Reilly and Mark Bechtel of SI.com and the rest of us for that matter have every write to have our doubts. First, there's the BALCO case. Second, there is Mark McGwire's testimony and Jose Canseco's admission, as well as intrigue around Sammy Sosa, Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi, not to mention Barry Bonds. And now there's Palmeiro. Third, if baseball had no significant steroid problem, then why did the most successful and aggressive union in the history of the United States, the MLBPA, agree to a stiff steroids policy? This is a union that will go to war over a sentence in a contract, let alone a controlled substance.

Where are the others? Will they be content to cover the games on the field only, or are they willing to cover the entire game. I didn't like the Max Mercy character in "The Natural," but one thing he said made some sense. Players might come and go, Mercy said, "but I'm here to protect this game." The purpose of a free press generally in a democracy is to keep government honest. The purpose of the baseball press should be not to cheerlead for the home team, but to keep the integrity of the game intact. The press has not spared Commissioner Bud Selig or players' union honchos Donald Fehr or Gene Orza on general labor issues or Selig on the All-Star Game fiasco of a few years ago and a whole host of issues. So why the silence here?

Are they going to step up and protect the game in its entirety, or are they going to continue taking their own version of the Fifth?

In reading Eight Men Out, we learned that most of the media covering the 1919 Chicago White Sox failed to see that the team threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. A few sportswriters, including the legendary Ring Lardner (as well as Hall of Famer pitcher, Christy Mathewson, who smelled a rat while covering certain games in the press box) fulfilled their duty and spoke out on what they had heard and saw. Many did not. History views Lardner with reverence; the others' reputations are found in the scrap heap of baseball history.

How will history view some of the biggest names among baseball writers today? And what will they tell their kids about journalistic duties and ethics? What will they tell their kids about taking a stand?

No one's saying that the whole scandal isn't ugly and that it doesn't present baseball writers with some tough choices. It absolutely does.

But, then again, that's their job.

Covering the entire game, from the foundation to the window treatments.

And not just the facade.

Because if they do just that and nothing more, then they're participants in a farce.

And that's clearly not their job.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Next Jerry Rice?

Hardly.

Depending on who you ask, either Eagles Coach Andy Reid put T.O. in a timeout or T.O. put himself in exile. Either way, Terrell Owens returned to his house in South Jersey, shot baskets, got his ab machine out and did an ab workout before the media in his driveway. Fans went to his house, he opened the door, signed a few autographs, and even went on camera for the press.

Terrell Owens, meet Jerry Seinfeld's "Bizarro World."

Reports out of Philadelphia indicate that Owens was supposed to be nursing his tweaked groin when Coach Andy Reid spotted him on a separate field running full-bore sprints. Hard to tell what happened from there, whether Coach Reid asked Owens if he could run all-out sprints why wasn't he practicing with the team or why was he running all-0ut sprints when he should have been nursing his injury. Subsequently, they had a heated argument.

And Andy Reid reminded Terrell Owens that he who runs the team has more power over Eagles' football than he who runs his own mouth.

What a mess.

What type of legacy does T.O. think he's leaving? Tell you what, if you play word association games and mention T.O., you'll probably hear "pain", "selfish" and "annoying" as much as you'll hear "great player." Or more. He is a great player, but he's doing a lot in his present environment to make everyone understand that while the 49ers were having their problems and weren't very good two years ago, T.O. must have created a lot of his own trouble. Somewhere, Steve Mariucci is saying "I told you so."

NFL careers go by with the blink of an eye. Two defensive players held out on the Chicago Bears in 1985 and missed playing on a Super Bowl champion. After that missed year, Al Harris and Todd Bell weren't the same players. It wasn't because they missed a Super Bowl; it was because they missed a season. T.O. is getting up there in football years. What could he be thinking?

His babysitter, err, agent, Drew Rosenhaus, flew to the Philadelphia area today to do damage control. After he stops spinning to the press, he should start talking to his client, advise him to grow up, honor his commitments, and complete what could well be a Hall of Fame career. There's one hitch though -- some modern players, unlike Jerry Rice, just don't want to listen. They assume that their great gifts transcend the ball field to most of life's endeavors, and, as such, don't want to listen that much, if at all. Sometimes an agent or lawyer does his best work by standing up to his clients and telling them when they're wrong (and telling them how to save face).

Last off-season, there was a fiasco involving the 49ers, the Ravens and the Eagles. The winner was Philadelphia, clearly, even though it was a case of "be careful what you wish for." When the Eagles got T.O., they knew that they were getting a great talent, even if he required a lot of maintenance. For most of last season, T.O. played very well and conducted himself admirably. But, as with most dormant volcanoes, they erupt eventually. It took T.O. one year.

And after he signed a big contract. A contract that he didn't have to sign. A very lucrative contract. Okay, so it's not the "top" contract, but, again, T.O. signed it.

Which means he should honor it. During his time off, he should read books about the importance of team, of honoring commitments, of keeping one's own counsel, and of drawing less attention to one's self. They can only help.

He certain doesn't need to watch TV, especially the daytime soaps.

Because right now, he's playing the lead in a reality version.

And not a very good one at that.

Monday, August 08, 2005

They Coulda Been A Contender

Steve Young made the Pro Football Hall of Fame yesterday. That's not huge news, in that his election to the Hall of Fame was announced months ago. You all remember him, the prolific QB out of BYU who was a back-up in Tampa Bay before getting traded to the 49ers, where he replaced Joe Montana (as if that were really possible) and helped the 49ers maintain their standard of excellence.

Well, here's a story. . .

When I was at Princeton, the Ivies didn't have the annual limit on football recruits that they do now (about 35 per year). So, you had perhaps 80-100 incoming players for the freshman team -- every year. One friend joked that they brought in 100 kids, and 70 of them were defensive backs. Many of the Texas kids quit, because they played AAAAA football there, made the state playoffs, played before huge crowds, and, well, playing on a Friday night in hand-me-down uniforms before about 42 people was a big letdown. On top of that, you had kids in your class who weren't recruited who played HS football also.

Some U.S. towns complain about the overpopulation of deer in their area; the Ivies thought that they were overpopulated with football players. That led to an initiative from Brown's president to reduce the number of incoming recruits (thankfully, hunters were not retained to shoot the excess population). There were many reasons for it. One was that it wasn't a good idea to have a situation where a bunch of kids would be walking around campus unhappy because they weren't playing. Another was that it wasn't good to create a situation where a bunch of former players would be negative about the team (for a variety of reasons, including that, perhaps, the coach played favorites or, worse -- and sometimes this was the case -- the coach didn't know what he was doing). Finally, there was the issue of how interesting and diverse you wanted your student body to be, and why should football players make up about 10% of your incoming class (in some places it swelled to say 20%, where incoming students who weren't recruits still had HS football on their resumes). In retrospect, the decision was sound, and reflective of good leadership.

Anyway, during my sophomore year Princeton was bringing in a bunch of recruits to show them the school. A friend of mine, who was a starter at a skill position (and who believes that he got admitted to Princeton, in part, over his HS valedictorian because of his ability to catch footballs going over the middle), got a call from the coaches, asking him to host a recruit. They paired the recruit and player up because both were interested in politics, government and law, and both had religious backgrounds.

The recruit was a somewhat scrawny 170-pound lefthanded quarterback who, from all accounts, really could motor. He was setting records in Connecticut, which, while not the HS football hotbed that New Jersey was and is (and this is where his host hailed from), still meant something. The coaches thought that this kid would be a great get, because while there were talented QBs on the roster, this kid had one thing that other QBs didn't have and that you couldn't teach -- speed.

So, the host showed the kid around, and they got to talking about the kid's choices. The kid was an excellent student, said he liked Princeton and that if he were going to go to an Ivy League school he go to Princeton if admitted. Before the host could get giddy, the recruit also pointed out that he was considering a group of West Coast schools that liked to throw the ball, such as UCLA, Cal and Stanford, among others. That's right, at certain times way back when even the Ivies dallied with some big-time recruits (they do in certain instances today, but every time they're up against, for example, Duke and Stanford in basketball, they lose the recruit). Connecticut HS football or not, this kid had worked his way onto the national radar screen.

My friend contemplated the information and then said, "Hey, listen, you're fast and you're a lefthanded quarterback [suggesting, for the uninitiated, that schools can get superstitious about lefty QBs and, at least back then, many didn't like them]. Don't go to one of those schools -- they'll make you a wide receiver or a defensive back. Come here and they'll let you play quarterback, you'll start, and you'll win some games."

The kid elected not to matriculate at Princeton University.

A few years later I'm living in Northern California and get a phone call from back East and some godawful hour of the morning (a roommate of that recruit's host forgot about the three hours' difference, so I got a call at about 5:15; but for the fact that I was a native Easterner living in California, I would have thought that a close relative had passed away). My friend was quick to point out that the then QB sensation in college, BYU's Steve Young, signed a $40 million contract with the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League. All this for a kid who could have started for three years under a relatively anonymous offensive coordinator of little distinction (except, perhaps, for his like of chocolate eclairs) in central New Jersey instead of Norm Chow, passing game coordinator extraordinaire, about whom much has been written, all of it good. That's right, the Princeton recruit way back when was the guy who was enshrined in Canton, Ohio yesterday -- Steve Young.

Many Ivy alums eventually make their way to Wall Street and make millions. This Ivy recruit never played for a home team within a thousand miles of the Big Apple, and yet he signed for his millions right out of college. Somehow, I think that the kid made the right decision. Better be traded from Tampa Bay, where you backed up Steve DeBerg, to San Francisco than being a bond trader. At least for this guy.

My friend, the host, by the way, has gone onto a glorious career in the law, has a wonderful wife and three terrific kids. My guess is that if he took the aptitude test for player personnel directors for professional teams, he might have failed.

I remember when a Top 25 HS basketball player, Adonal Foyle, chose Colgate over a number of suitors. He hails from St. Vincent of the Grenadines, and his guardians were professors at the school. Foyle had a nice career at Colgate, and he's been in the NBA for a while. Perhaps he's as good now as he would have been had he gone to UConn or Syracuse, and many would take the long NBA career that he has had. My guess is that he would have been better had he played against better competition in college. Hard to say how Steve Young would have developed, but my guess is that he wouldn't have become the Hall of Fame player he was had he played regularly against Columbia and Dartmouth (Jay Fiedler, the one-time Dartmouth QB played well in Miami, and he's clearly not the talent Young is).

But it's fun to think about.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Are Viagra Poster Boy's Pants On Fire?

I blogged the other day, right when the news came out, that we needed to wait and see what the real story was behind Rafael Palmeiro's positive test for steroids and his ten-game suspension. I cautioned that we shouldn't throw his career on the garbage heap because of this test (and, from listening to ESPN Radio, some Hall of Fame Voters indicated that they probably would still vote for Palmeiro, if not on the first ballot) without hearing more about what happened.

According to this report, the veteran player who did ads for a prescription drug to spice up his private life was taking a non-prescribed, illegal drug to spice up his professional life. Hard to figure what Rafael Palmeiro was thinking. Was he so close to getting 3000 hits and so fearful he would not that he took this drug to get there? Or was he on it all along, figuring he wouldn't stop until he got caught? Or was it that he figured that he would be able, with lawyers' and his union's help, to defeat any charge that he was using steroids? Or was it something else? It doesn't appear that the "cat ate my homework" or "someone slipped something into my pre-game orange juice" defenses are available here. You wouldn't think that your test would come up positive because you were ingesting something by accident. And if you took something and didn't know what it was, well, you can't hide behind that defense, either.

Is this good for baseball? ESPN Radio presented two takes on it this morning from nationally syndicated columnists, one who said that in naming Palmeiro, baseball can pass the stone that is the steroids scandal because those who were decrying steroid use got the scalp that they were hungry for. The second take was that this is horrible for baseball, because this situation raises more questions than it answers, and the lingering pall of steroids simply intensifies because of this -- it doesn't vanish. (That Jason Giambi, presumably a recovering steroids user, had in July the best month of any position player dating back about three years has not gone totally unnoticed in this discussion).

This cannot be good for baseball, even if the suspension of Palmeiro demonstrates that baseball's compliance program is working. Any time a sport reveals awful news about a player who has had one of the best careers of all time, it's a very sad day. Because instead of saying, "well, now it's over," the average observer will say, "okay, who else is out there that they haven't told us about yet?" At least for a while, they will do just that. Jose Canseco may be a lot of things, but he wasn't totally wrong on this issue.

So what's next for baseballl? Baseball, the Orioles, and Palmeiro will have to weather this storm. Needless to say, some Congressman might inquire whether Palmeiro was in contempt of Congress or, worse, guilty of lying under oath, when he emphatically denied (at the March hearings) that he was using steroids. Baseball, the Orioles and Palmeiro will have to deal with the embarrassing fact that all the while Palmeiro's run toward 3000 hits was being touted and Palmeiro was being praised, he was under investigation for steroids use. Some of the criticism, which no doubt will be withering, will be unfair. Due process is important, and what was supposed to happen while the agreed-to review process within baseball was taking place? Was Palmeiro supposed to stop playing? That had to be a tough situation, especially for the front office of Major League Baseball. No doubt the Orioles benefitted from the entire situation, because a) they were in a pennant race and faring well and b) had the news leaked out regarding Palmeiro's alleged midsdeeds before he reached his milestone, the Orioles wouldn't have gotten the publicity they did because of it. Remember, as bad as steroids can be, some teams in the past definitely have benefitted from its players use of them.

Hard to predict what else is next. Few would have thought baseball would make a clean break from the steroids scandal when it announced its policy earlier this year. This episode will have baseball observers wondering, at least for a while, what other skeletons are in baseball's increasingly well-lit, presumably walk-in, closet.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Has The Other Shoe Dropped?

Rafael Palmeiro has tested positive for steroids.

He has been suspended for 10 games.

What does this mean? It's too early to tell, I think. Palmeiro and the Players' Association are putting a good face on it, and, until information to the contrary is revealed, might be an accurate face.

But it also might not be.

The story just broke today, so lots will be written on it over the next couple of days. Right now, it's hard to say what it all means, and while I was on my hobby horse months ago arguing that the new baseball rules didn't evolve because of the absence of steroids (put differently, I found it hard to believe that so many denials were being made given that MLB, Federal investigators, Congress and even the players' union conceded that there was a problem), baseball fans need to let this story play out. Palmeiro has Hall of Fame credentials, and it would be too expedient and unfair to toss his career on the garbage heap just because of this test and this suspension.

The next several weeks ought to prove very interesting, indeed.