SportsProf

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

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Monday, October 31, 2005

Interesting Green Bay Packer Stat

The Pack is 1-6. They've outscored their opponents 158-139. Click here and do the math yourself. (Thanks to Mike Greenberg of ESPN Radio's Mike & Mike in the Morning Show for pointing this out).

Okay, if you toss out the Pack's 52-3 drubbing of the Saints, you'll have a 0-6 record where they've been outscored by 136-106. That said, if you look at their record, they've lost 4 of those games by a total of 9 points. I suppose that these numbers go to show you some of the foundation within the parity that the NFL celebrates is made not of concrete, but of rubber. Not only are there are a bunch of teams in the hunt for the playoffs every year, but that some of those teams are in the playoff chase rests not on a foundation of solid, clear wins over the opposition, but close calls. The ability to win those close ones, though, only helps prove that the teams that make the playoffs belong there. How long they'll last in the playoffs, though, is another story. I surmise that the teams that make it that have won many close games during the regular season could finally come to a game where they just can't cut it as close as they did during the regular season.

And go out in the first round.

That the Pack cannot win the close games is evidence that the Pack is not a very good football team this year. They can't close out their opponents, New Orleans aside, and, if they continue the pattern of losing the close ones, their opponents' total score ultimately will be greater than their own.

Even if it takes a few more weeks to get there.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Smoke or Smoke Screen?

The Sports Law Blog recently had an interesting post on a racketeering trial in NYC in which former Pitt star and currently NBA player Mark Blount's name has been mentioned. Click here and read this most interesting post.

Make you wonder whether college basketball, like democracy and sausage, is a wonderful thing, but you don't want to see how it's made. Alternatively, makes you wonder whether the alleged racketeer in question is dropping juicy tidbits to deflect attention off his real problems.

I am sure that as more rocks are overturned and more people are interviewed under oath, more facts will come out. Or not. You'll recall earlier this year that a booster in the Southeastern football part of the world was convicted of paying a high school football coach a nice sum to steer his player to a certain school. We're probably naive if we think that nothing bad goes on and that all players choose their schools because of how their schools will prepare them for life after basketball. We'd probably be accused of being cynical or worse if we believed that everyone got some sort of graft. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, which doesn't mean, though, that we simply can take the two extremes and divide them up by two and come up with an average expectation. My guess is that stuff like this -- which at this point only is alleged -- is a serious exception and not the rule.

Read the Sports Law Blog for more updates.

If I were Mark Blount, I would hire a publicist to field the media's questions.

And it probably wouldn't hurt to hire a good lawyer.

The Next Pete Gillen?

Fighting Irish fans had better hope not.

Notre Dame inked head football coach Charlie Weis to a 10-year deal that expires in 2015. After serving as offensive coordinator for New England's three Super Bowl teams, Weis signed a five-year deal before the beginning of this football season. Because in seven games he's instilled hope in the N.D. faithful that he can help wake up the echoes of past greatness, he was rewarded with a long-term deal.

Time, of course, will tell whether the Irish did the right thing. It could well be that Notre Dame has found the next Ara Parseghian. Heck, they'd settle for the next Dan Devine or Lou Holtz, both of whom won national titles at Notre Dame. They're certainly not getting Gerry Faust.

But you'll recall Gillen as the wunderkind Xavier coach who went to UVA with all sorts of high expectations, got a ten-year contract, and then failed to get the Hoos out of the ACC's second division in hoops. So bad was Gillen's plight that UVA bought him out of his contract with many years to go after last season, as it was clear that Gillen had not done for the Hoo hoop program what the faithful had thought he could. When signed to his long-term deal, some thought that he could rekindle the days when Ralph Sampson and friends went to the Final Four. Instead, his Hoos played like they were Delilah.

For Irish fans, there are many factors that make the comparison a bad one. First, Notre Dame doesn't play in a grueling football conference the way Virginia plays in a very tough hoops conference. The Irish are independents, and they get to pick their schedule. I've blogged on that before, and I'm convinced that Weis will pick the right blend of sure wins, challenging wins and very tough games to make the blue and gold a perennial contender. Second, Notre Dame's recruiting challenges, if anything, are as tough as Gillen's were, but for different reasons. Now, Gillen did have to go up against Duke, Carolina, Maryland and Wake, but Weis has some pretty stringent academic requirements at his school, far more stringent than say, Florida State's or Oklahoma's. That said, he can counterbalance those with the Notre Dame mystique; still, Notre Dame isn't for everyone. Third, Weis's pedigree is different. On the one hand, he hadn't been a head coach before he got to South Bend. On the other hand, he was an integral part of a hugely successful pro team in a time where parity is used much more frequently than dynasty. If you believe that winning begets winning, you'll think that Weis has a better edge than Gillen, who, while successful, didn't win at the level that Weis did. It's really and applies and oranges comparison.

Still, a ten-year commitment based on seven games is a huge one, and Notre Dame is making a big bet. They have to like what they see, but the ultimate proof will be several years down the road, when Weis's recruits become more entrenched (or should become more entrenched). The records of teams in 2007, 2008 and beyond will tell all college football fans whether this signing was a wise one.

It's also the most lucrative contract in all of college football. While that fact might make the Pete Carolls and Mack Browns jealous, at least for a while, it bodes well for them too. As Weis gets more money, so will they, and that, in turn, is good for all head coaches (and, presumably, the coordinators at the elite football schools). Whether Weis earns that money will be borne out by the results in 2008 and beyond. To have earned it, Notre Dame should be part of the BCS Championship conversation in the pre-season almost perenially and play in one of the elite bowl games almost every year as well.

And, in one or two of the ten years, win a national championship.

The echoes that all college football fans are hearing this morning are not the echoes of thunderous applause for the Rockne, Parseghian, Devine and Holtz teams, but, rather, the echoes of the change hitting the cash register at the Notre Dame Athletic Department.

At least for now.

Is Charlie Weis another Knute Rockne?

Or another Pete Gillen?

Or somewhere in between?

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Future Leaders of America, Beware!

Read this short link and see what I mean.

Sprint football is a phenomenon unique to Army, Navy, Penn, Princeton and Cornell, with VMI now getting into the act. Basically, it's for kids who weigh under 170 pounds. The problem for Princeton is that you get kids who always wanted to play football, and some of them never have. In contrast, Navy has a physical training requirement, which means that you can get about 75 Middies who are in great shape and who have a serious clue as to what they're doing.

Which means that on the Princeton side of things, there's a kind of ultimate frisbee attitude going on. Hey, let's show up, play some football, give it the good old college try, and see what happens. In contrast, the Middies play Sprint the way USC plays Notre Dame -- they go for the throat. Which would explain the result that I linked to.

Navy 98 Princeton 0.

According to my sources, Navy's attitude on the Sprint side of things has been a little punk-like. They were up 21-0 after 3 minutes and 49-0 at the end of the first quarter. Army, in contrast to their archrivals, did shellack Princeton, 45-0, but they called off the dogs rather early and let the deep bench players mop up. Navy did not. (Then again, having read John Feinstein's book, "A Civil War" about the Army-Navy game, you have to recall that when addressing service academy rivalries, both the Black Knights of the Hudson and the Middies agreed that the Air Force Academy cadets were punks. I suppose it's all relative.)

I'm not sure that this means a whole hill of beans except that Navy likes to dominate and Princeton should consider whether to re-tool the program or take the money that they spend on Sprint and spend it on some form of international math competition. (Believe it or not for those who read this blog, but the Ivies sponsor far more varsity sports than major conference schools -- link on, say, Nebraska, and then link on Princeton, and see what I'm talking about). Because it doesn't appear that the Tigers are spending their money wisely on Sprint, at least right now.

I also would caution Navy about teaching its kids to win graciously. 98-0 is a bit much for anyone to take, and there will be long memories. Princeton's Sprint team has a hefty endowment, and do enough to tick off the Tiger Athletic Department, they'll spend it better and figure out a way to kick your butt in your own house, even if it takes 20 years to do so. But the Navy coaches should take a page out of the book of Princeton's lacrosse coach, Bill Tierney. During the days that the Tigers dominated the national lacrosse landscape (and, in the past four years, while they've been on it, they haven't dominated), Tierney's teams frequently powdered their opponents. Yet, when you go back and look at the line scores, you'll see lots of them where the Tigers won 19-2, 19-3, 19-6, but they never scored over 20 goals. Why? Because even the fiery Tierney believes in letting the other team getting away with its dignity, no matter how outclassed they are.

I would submit that in the instance of the Navy-Princeton game, the only classy aspect of the host victors were their stunning uniforms. Because once the score got past the sixties, it was time to call off the dogs.

Even if it meant running the ball up the gut on every single play. For three quarters.

As for Princeton, the Tigers should seriously re-think their approach to Sprint Football. After all, I'm sure some Navy partisans will contend that the Tigers were so bad that Navy couldn't help but to score 98 points. Even discounting some partisan zealotry, the Tiger administration has to take some stock and figure out what to do next.

And encourage any Tiger team that plays Navy in the future to ratchet up their competitive juices just a notch.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

School Strikes and After-School Sports

A school district in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, called Pennsbury, is on strike. The teachers went out on strike not before school started, but this past Sunday, because they could not reach agreement with the school district on a contract. Times are tense in this school district, which is snuggled into a corner of Southeastern Pennsylvania that in places touches the Delaware River and is the last stop on I-95 before you get to New Jersey. Good school district, big school district.

And one with a football team with a 6-1 record, its best in years, and with a chance of making the state playoffs. In the past 10+ years, the big names in Southeastern PA HS football have included former state champs Central Bucks West and Neshaminy, both nearby schools, as well as St. Joseph's Prep and North Penn. This year, Pennsbury is knocking on the door.

Five of the team's coaches, including its head coach, are in the teachers' union and won't cross the picket line to coach their kids. A sixth, the defensive coordinator, is an assistant principal at the school, will coach the team for as long as the teachers are on strike (by law, they're only allowed to be out 17 days). Other administrators will fill in to help coach the team.

This is a school district that has a state championship-quality girls' volleyball team, a defending state champion girls' softball teams and an outstanding wrestling team. Many of its other teams are perennial contenders in their sports. There's a lot of school spirit, and Reader's Digest rated the HS's prom as one of the top 100 events in America. In the past couple of years, a book was written about the high school. Whether it was favorable depends on your point of view.

Something, though, is wrong with this picture.

The strike has heightened emotions in the district. It's hard to say how the community is lining up, and I won't get into that, as this is a sports blog, albeit, I hope, a sports blog with perspective.

And, as much as I like kids, and as much as I like sports, I'm not sure the community's priority is straight if they have to worry so much about getting their games played. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think it might be better to focus the administrators' efforts in helping improve the district, maybe helping get special needs' kids and families the attention that they need, heck, even helping enhance the average kid's chances of getting into college, than playing games.

Kids' games.

Now, I know that the games are very important to the kids because, well, they're kids and in HS they can define themselves not always by the content of their character, but by the jersey on their back and the privileges that the jersey brings along, such as a group of friends and certain standing within the school pecking order, for whatever ultimately all that is worth (and let's not forget the parents, some of whom get some extra cache and verve because their offspring are starters on the teams). That said, they HS students are kids, and they're still figuring out their priorities, which is why adult leaders need to help set them.

And, if everyone looked in the mirror, the games wouldn't be very important. For, while I am certain that some kids will learn some life-altering lessons about hard work, team work and character from their sports teams, not all kids get that opportunity. And it really isn't fair that when school isn't available, somehow, the games continue -- at the expense of all other things that make school such an integral part of our communities.

The last time I checked, the sports were extracurriculars, which means they wouldn't exist if the curriculars weren't there.

And, at the present, in this particular school district, the curriculars aren't there.

Therefore, the games shouldn't be taking place.

That may sound a bit harsh, because the kids on the football team have no power over whether the kids go on strike.

But neither do the kids who have to work after school to help their families make ends meet, the kids who need extra help, the kids who are on the math team and the kids who have elected not to participate in any activities.

The energies should be focused on getting the teachers back into school, regardless of which side is right and which side is wrong, if that really can be readily determined.

And that -- a lesson about school districts, taxes, budgets, life tenure for teachers, co-pays on health insurance, senior citizens on fixed incomes, labor relations -- is a much more important life lesson than making sure that a football game gets played.

No one wants a school district and its residents to have to make these tough choices. No one really wants a strike, and no one wants kids to miss their games.

But in times of temporary turmoil, whether the games are played is of little importance.

Matt Leinart's Class Schedule Is

a) worthy of a scholar-athlete;
b) worthy of a scholar;
c) worthy of an athlete; or
d) a bad joke.

I'd have to argue d), and I'd argue it hard. Read this, and you'll see what I'm talking about.

Leinart, you see, needed only 2 credits to graduate coming into this football season. As a result, he's taking one, yes, only one, two-credit class. It doesn't matter what the subject is in my book (unless, of course, Jim Harrick, Jr., wizard of multiple choice tests in his for-credit hoops course while at Georgia, is teaching at USC). It does happen to be ballroom dancing. Which, naturally, sounds much less impressive than a course entitled "Examples in Leadership" or "Profiles in Courage" or Statistics 323 or whatever else that encourages a college student to expand his or her mind.

Why is this a problem? It's a problem because college is for students. Students who take a reasonable roster of classes that broaden them, help them think expansively, challenge premises and help forge a way of learning and thinking. Now I understand at some large schools is hard to get the opportunity to take all required courses for your major in eight semesters, and I know that many have to work to help pay their way through college, so they sometimes cannot shoulder a full load. There are many situations that have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

But one course? Just one? And in ballroom dancing? Does that really make Matt Leinart a student athlete? In a recent SI, Rick Reilly (with whom I sided mightily in the steroids affair in Major League Baseball), defends Leinart. No, check that, he elegizes him, lionizes him, use whatever fancy SAT word you want. Reilly, who frequently casts a critical eye on the sports world (even if I thought his piece on this cheerleader was a bit much; the letters to the editor criticizing this piece were better than the piece itself), misses the mark here. Leinart's course roster should not be worthy of praise.

It should be derided as what's wrong with certain aspects of major college football. That Leinart opted to forego turning pro and becoming a punching bag for the 49ers was praised because of his "Aw shucks, I just want to stay in college attitude." He got great praise for making what appeared to be a decision of character, turning down tens of millions of dollars. I, for one, thought that there remained certain classroom milestones that he wanted to accomplish, such as finishing a master's degree. The brainy quarterback, I thought, patiently waiting one more year, and learning a lot more in the classroom.

Instead, as it turned out, Leinart opted for the glory of potentially a wonderful championship season while enjoying the fruits of an upperclass college existence without virtually any classroom responsibility. And who wouldn't want that? Sounds like a lot of fun.

Now, the Reillys of the world would argue that Leinart, for all that he has meant to USC, has earned this right. But that's just plain wrong. He clearly has done a lot for USC, but they gave him a scholarship and the right to obtain a good education. Which he did. But what's wrong with the whole story is now he's playing quarterback without essentially being a student.

And that's not right.

Now, listen, Matt Leinart represents a lot of what's good in the college sports world, the formerly awkward kid with bad feet who has blossomed into an all-world athlete and potentially a very wealthy man. He deserves kudos for his play on the field, and I'll be among the first to say that.

What he doesn't deserve is praise for his decision to remain in college.

And what he certainly doesn't deserve is any mention as a scholar-athlete.

Because, in this case, he's just an athlete at a college.

And, this year, not a scholar at all.

(As an aside, a sad case occurred about 8 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania involving former all-Ivy and former NFL DT Mitch Marrow, who wasn't take a "full load" at Penn during his final season in which Marrow was a fifth-year senior. Penn ended up forfeiting the games in which Marrow played, and the problem unearthed itself when Marrow's mother called an administrator in the Penn athletic department and asked whether his tuition would ultimately reflect his part-time status, because Marrow wasn't taking a full load, which, as you'll read, was more than a two-credit course in ballroom dancing. Read more about that here).

Monday, October 24, 2005

Name Game

The proverbial they say that you're really only four or five phone calls away from almost anyone in the world. Avid moviegoers have played the game "Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon" owing to the fact that were you to name an actor or actress, you can say that he or she acted in a movie with someone who acted alongside Kevin Bacon in a movie. And I've once or twice wondered while driving along crowded highways as to how many people are in the public eye or close to someone who is (on the flip side, I always wonder how many convicted felons are breezing by me, too).

I am not that concerned about touching celebrity, because it's not always what it's cracked up to be. Meeting celebrities has its limits, because they seldom prove to be the same person as the image you created in your mind about them. After all, they're about as human as the rest of us.

Instead, I prefer to get amused by links to the famous, at least when the purported link gives rise to a certain level of humor. Now, the link I'm about to mention didn't arise in a humorous context, but picture a well-mannered, very bright suburban lawyer, super guy, hits a golf ball a country mile and has a handicap under ten. Works at a very good firm, earns a nice living.

He picks up a guitar recently for relaxation. Not an acoustic guitar, mind you, but an electric guitar, because he used to jam with some guys in high school and he finds it relaxing. We got to talking over the weekend, and I asked him what style he preferred.

"Springsteen?" I asked. I figured the Boss was a good place to start.

"No. Much louder than that. Bolder too." Now I can't recollect the conversation precisely, but I figured I'd step out there and take a bolder guess.

"Motley Crue?" I suggested, dating myself somewhat, but as those readers of this column know, I don't make many heavy metal references in my posts.

"Harder and louder than that."

Now I probably know the names of about a half dozen heavy metal bands, because to me they all have names like "Warlock's Butt", "Sister Slashed Me With a Machete" and the types of things that you don't typically discuss after dinner with children running around in a suburban house with a nice family room and good back yard. I was about to get stumped.

So I pulled a name out of the fire, so to speak.

"Anthrax?"

"You got it," he replied with a relaxed smile. "I grew up with those guys."

Now, I really know nothing about Anthrax, don't know whether its members are members of Mensa, preach at Pentecostal churches or drive sight-impaired people to the polling places on Election Day. All I had thought in the deep recesses of my mind is that naming a band after a poison that has something to do with cows was an odd way to brand oneself for life.

Not only did he grow up with them, but he jammed with them every now and then too. And he knows this guy rather well. Which is amusing, because when you Google that guy, you get this guy too. The former is a 42 year-old stocky guitar player who is engaged to Meatloaf's daughter, while the latter is a 300-pound tight end. And how many times have you been in a situation where you had to give your last name first? So, Scott Ian, meet Ian Scott.

And my guess is that the two of you will not be photographed together at any time in the near future, unless the former is a big Chicago Bears fan or the latter is a huge heavy metal aficionado. Next thing you know, my friend will tell me that a partner in his law firm represents several of the Bears, which, if true, could help arrange perhaps the first-ever meeting between Scott Ian and Ian Scott.

Heavy metal meets Heavy man.

Rock star meets Rock solid.

What all this means I cannot say, except that I look forward to potentially interesting links with friends occasionally in the future. Please, don't get me wrong at all, I cherish my family and friends a great deal. But you have to remember this, that beneath the great neighbor, solid citizen, church deacon, member of the Board of Supervisors, parent of your kid's schoolmates, are, among others, the guy who Barry Bonds hit most of his Little League home runs off of, the kid who caught Sandy Koufax in high school, the Orange County sorority girls who Venus and Serena Williams used to blast endless amounts of tennis balls by in junior tournaments, the girl who sat behind Tom Brady in home room and the woman who sold shoes to Michael Jordan when he was a pre-schooler.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Secondary Market For Tickets

I posted a while back on what I perceive to be the effect of StubHub.com and other sites. Most recently, The Sports Economist has an interesting take on what it headlines as "Legalized Scalping." The focus of the post (I confess I didn't have the time to read the linked articles) was on whether prices would drop because of the legal availability of these tickets (after all, the writers of this excellent blog are economists). Read the whole thing and draw your own conclusions.

I still submit that the effect of the secondary market of re-selling tickets won't be so much as to cause prices to drop (unless the teams do so in competition) but to reduce the overall amount of ticket sales that the teams will have. My reasoning is that there are many people out there who want good seats to many fewer games per season in baseball, for example, than even a partial season ticket plan would provide. And those folks want good seats, too, precisely because they're going fewer times. Then there are those who buy the full season ticket or even partial plans, but can't possibly go to all the games. Heck, they can't even give away all the tickets, and the tickets, by the way, purchased in that type of bulk, are very expensive. (In my post, I believe I did the math, but if you want 4 good box seats to a Phillies' game, for example, you're paying $35 per ticket, which, when multiplied by 4 (# of seats) and 81 (the # of home games), gives you a full season ticket package for 4 tickets per game at a cost of $11,340. How many people can afford that?

Very few.

So, what some people must do, whether for their personal use or their business use, is cut up season ticket plans. It's great if you can find 20 families to contribute to the full-season ticket plan for 4 tix per game, but that's not always so easy. My guess is that there are enough inefficiencies out there to create a bolus of unused tickets. And, given the cost of the tickets, you don't want to let them sit unused. Heck, you want to sell them to recoup some of your outlay.

Enter the problem for the teams. Those who don't participate in season ticket plans can buy single-game seats from the home team. Problem is, they can be in relatively remote parts of the stadium. Up until the past few years and the popularity of the internet, the average buyer has readily accepted this phenomenon, precisely because he has to concede that those who pay full freight for a full-season ticket deserve the best seats (even if they get screwed in the post-season and end up in the upper deck because of God knows how many tix MLB, the networks and the corporate sponsors actuallly get). The casual fan has had to take the leftovers.

But he doesn't have to anymore.

The reason is simple -- marketplaces like eBay and StubHub.com. Assuming away potential fraud for the moment (which The Sports Economist points out), there is a marketplace for the fan who wants to go to four games to do better than what the team offers from its remaining seats, and there's a place for the buyer of too many tickets to recoup some of his outlay. In economic terms, there's a fair-market transaction waiting to happen because there's a willing seller and a willing buyer. The seller gets to recoup some of the huge sums he's put out there for the entire season ticket package (and, by the way, there are people with partial plans who are doing this too), and the buyer gets better seats, presumably, than the ones he could have bought from the team.

Good news for the seller and the buyer. Bad news for the team.

The team doesn't get that incremental sale. The re-seller does, probably recoups his cost, and perhaps makes a premium, depending on the game. The Phillies' had 3.25 million fans in '04 (brand-new stadium) and drew 2.6 million in '05. In '05, the new stadium was only two years old, and the team fared much better than in '04. Sure, there were reasons for a dropoff, including the abject dislike of the team's GM, the injury to Jim Thome, the doubts about ownership and the pasting the pitching staff took in '04, as well as the firing of Larry Bowa. But 625,000 fans worth?

I do surmise that because tickets were so hard to get in '04, people who otherwise might have bought from the club might have pursued other venues, such as StubHub.com, precisely because everyone wants as good a seat as possible. So while part of the drop off was owing to the factors I enumerated, I submit that part of it was owing to the growing prevalence of re-sellers. I can't speculate on how many extra sales the Phillies lost, but I would venture to guess the number is significant.

How the teams react to this will be very interesting. It's easy to arrest people in parking lots for trying to sell extra tickets, but they'd have to pursue legislation to prevent people from exchanging tickets over the internet. And that could be hard to do if the re-seller is selling his tickets at face value or less.

Stay tuned, make sure you buy tickets from reliable sellers, and watch this story continue to unfold.

"Honoring" Larry Bird

Read all about it here (and I'm not talking about the recent SI article that discusses Bird's appreciation for Ron Artest, either).

When baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson inked a free agent deal with the Yankees, he said, "they'll probably name a candy bar after me some day." And they did, and they gave it out for free to the fans, who ended up showering the field with the bars.

But I doubt anyone has done for any other professional athlete what the guy referenced in the linked article did to honor Bird.

It's clearly unique.

And it may never happen again, either.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

On The Yankees Search For A Pitching Coach

It's not that they're interested in hiring Braves' pitching coach Leo Mazzone that's intriguing about all of this. Mazzone has been the Braves' pitching coach since 1990, and he has done a great job with some good talent. He's helped some pitchers pitch beyond their capabilities, and he's helped others harness substantial talent or re-kindle magic that they once had. He'd be a great get for the Yankees.

What's intriguing is that from this article it would appear that perhaps the Yankees front office had been talking with Mazzone's agent initially without the knowledge or input from skipper Joe Torre. Read Torre's quote early in the article and you'll see what I mean.

The skipper was quoted as saying that he hoped he'd have a lot to say on the choice of a pitching coach. That's not a ratification of the Yankees' front office, is it? Torre has been an outstanding manager in NYC for a decade and did a great job this year with an old team (average age 34) and a sometimes battered pitching staff. He has more than earned the right to have the primary say as to who should be on his staff, subject to a veto from the GM and owner if they were to believe that Torre's choice made absolutely no sense (example: were he to want to hire, say, David Wells, to be the pitching coach).

Now, it's hard to argue about the choice of Mazzone, but how will the managerial staff work if Mazzone basically gets hired without much input from Torre? How will the staff function if the primary recruiters of Mazzone are George Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman? Who really will Mazzone think he reports to -- them or his manager, Joe Torre? If you work for any kind of organization, you can readily see how messed up this situation could get quickly -- even if there are two highly qualified people filling their positions. The reportorial chain is very important, especially to highly motivated and highly successful -- if personally mellow and delightful -- managers like Joe Torre. If Mazzone thinks he can take his cues from Cashman and Steinbrenner -- and not Torre -- the relationship in the dugout will be dysfunctional.

What George Steinbrenner needs to realize is that the pitching coach isn't the source of his problems. He can sign Leo Mazzone, but Leo Mazzone does not have a sufficient amount of magic dust to cure aching bodies or turn Tanyon Sturtze into Mariano Rivera. He can't turn back Father Time for Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina, and he cannot heal injury-prone Carl Pavano. True, he has worked wonders in the past, but I would submit that it's the substance of the staff that matters a whole lot more than who is coaching them.

Yankee fans should note that also on the list is Yankees' scout (and former Expos', Red Sox' and Phillies' pitching coach) Joe Kerrigan. Kerrigan excelled in Montreal and for a time was viewed as one of the premier pitching coaches in baseball. He also did a nice job in Boston (in the time before he became the manager, where he was a disaster and lost the confidence of the clubhouse) and turned some careers around, such as Tim Wakefield's. He stumbled, though, in Philadelphia, and it's hard for me to tell whether he tinkered too much with the pitching staff there or conflicted mightily with his manager, Larry Bowa. As tough as Bowa can be, if you work for your manager, you have to work within his vision and framework. It's hard to say whether Kerrigan did that or not, but hiring Kerrigan here would seem to be a bold move -- and a risky one -- for the Yankees.

A friend who is a Yankee fan think that Mazzone will return to the Braves and that he's talking to other teams to get a better contract from the Braves. The Orioles are also interested in Mazzone, and that job could be a real challenge for a man who has accomplished much in his career. What sane pitching coach, however, would want to mentor the mound staff that plays in the best hitters' park in the American League?

Stay tuned. There's something brewing in the Bronx, as always.

In my mind, the big question for the Yankees this off-season is how do they get younger and quicker?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Ecksteined

You Google something on the internet to find out all about it. You Xerox something to make a copy of it. You use a Band-Aid to cover a boo boo on your little kid's knee. You Fedex a package because you want to make sure it gets to the place it needs to first thing in the morning.

For those of you who missed it, the Astros were up 4-2 last night with two down in the top of the ninth, up 3-1 in the NLCS, at home, with light's out closer, Brad Lidge, on the mound.

Things were looking pretty good for the 'stros, weren't they?

Then they got Ecksteined.

As with last year's World Series, the Cardinals had not been swinging the bat well in this series. The park was jumping, Houston's fans smelled the victory, and they were on their feet cheering in near delirium. The Astros have not been to the World Series in the history of their franchise, so this was quite a moment for the Houston baseball faithful.

Enter Eckstein.

There are shortstops who are more talked about. Last year, the Cardinals let their prized SS, Edgar Renteria (he who got the game-winning hit for the Marlins against Cleveland in the 1997 World Series), become a free agent. The heavy-spending Boston Red Sox inked Renteria. Then a musical chairs of free-agent shortstops ensued. The Cardinals waited, they needed an SS, but they didn't want to spend the $40 million or so that it cost the BoSox to sign Renteria. They didn't want to come close.

Enter Eckstein.

He played an instrumental role in the Angels' improbable run to a World Series victory over the Giants several years back, and he's the type of guy who just helps you win games. They inked him for a fraction of what it cost Boston to sign Renteria (I think it was something like $10 million over three years). And, he had a better year. Game-winning HRs, suicide squeeze bunts, taking the extra base, getting his uniform dirty, you name it, David Eckstein did it.

So it would figure that he would find himself in the middle of what happened last night. Actually, he started it. As he stood there at the plate, I said to myself, "There's no way David Eckstein will make the last out of the NLCS. No way." (He reminds me somewhat of Lenny Dykstra, with whom my best man played minor-league baseball and about whom my best man said, "Lenny always was thinking how to make something happen. We'd be on the road, tied 1-1 in the top of the eighth, with Lenny due to leadoff, and he'd be walking up and down the dugout, hitting his bat into his hand, saying 'C'mon, let's do something', and next thing you knew, he's standing on third base with a triple. Next thing you know, it's 4-1, and we've won the game.").

So he pulled an Eckstein.

He battled Lidge and then singled to left.

The invincible Lidge.

The second-best closer in the game, they say, next to the guy in the Bronx. Name of Rivera.

Rarified air.

Then Jim Edmonds worked Lidge masterfully for a walk.

Then Albert Pujols did what we expect of our Titans in big moments. Jacked a hanging slider so high and hard that NASA's radar system -- also located in Houston -- picked it up. 5-4, Cardinals. Jason Isringhausen, not considered one of the best closers in baseball, finished off the Astros in the bottom of the ninth.

Series is now 3-2.

But it's going back to St. Louis.

Take a bow, Eckstein.

You dented the armor of a supposedly invincible foe.

Again.

You Ecksteined them.

And Ecksteining the other team is what great baseball players do.

Monday, October 17, 2005

I'm Glad They Didn't Make Casablanca II

Yes, folks, Rocky VI is in the works.

Read all about it here.

I honestly thought they'd stop with Rocky V, which made very little sense, although it gave cameos to Philadelphia media veterans Al Meltzer, Stan Hochman and Elmer Smith. Rocky IV had some moments, but the speech at the end about "can't we all get along" was a bit much, and I doubt that a bunch of dyed-in-the-wool Soviets would have rooted for an American over a Russian, even if the Russian looked like a big Swede (which he was in real life). Rocky III had some fun for everyone, even if Mick the trainer (played by former Penguin from "Batman" Burgess Meredith) died in the movie.

Perhaps that's it. Rocky VI will be twice the fun of Rocky III.

Yeah, right.

As much as I liked the earlier Rocky movies, at some point enough is enough. After seeing Rocky KO Tommy "Machine" Gunn off the front of a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority bus in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia, I thought I had seen it all.

But apparently none of us have.

So what's next?

Will Rocky fight the Easton Assassin, Larry Holmes? How about George Foreman?

Sylvester Stallone is 59 years old, not an age where people get into the ring and lace 'em up. The only thing us Rocky fans can hope for is that Rocky VI pulls a Rocky and gives us a final, pleasant surprise -- another heartwarming movie.

It's unclear whether Talia Shire will be back, although Burt Young probably will be. How about Mr. T or Hulk Hogan? Will Clubber Lang be in Rocky's corner this time?

There are lots of unanswered questions, and unfortunately for Rocky fans, there is no logic to the Rocky series the way there has been to the Star Wars saga.

Rocky does have his "Yo" to the Jedi's Yoda, but that's about all I can think of at this moment.

What will they think of next?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Sticking To Your Dreams

How many times does it happen? The swift RB in HS has dreams of playing RB in college, only to be told that his skills are more suited to WR or, more predictably, DB. The RB, though, still yearns to play RB, and he ultimately ends up getting lost in someone's system. Either he goes to the big-time school and gets buried, transferring to a DII or DIII school or simply fading away, or he plays DB but his heart never really is in it. The competition is so tough and so few can play the featured running back, so the HS star goes from a year of euphoria (his senior year) to a year of despair.

This guy, though, is different (he's the one featured at the top of the linked article). His name is Steve Slaton, and a lot of what I would call mid-major DI teams recruited him out of HS -- as a defensive back. Even though he simply tore it up at RB. Tore it up. Still, the DI schools -- not your Michigans and USC's, mind you, but the Marylands of the world, wanted him to play defensive back. Some local papers took the bite, too, as I recall that the Philadelphia Inquirer, to honor his accomplishments on the field, named him first-team all area, not as an RB, but as a DB.

Still, the kid knew what he wanted, and his confidence never wavered. West Virginia beat Louisville in triple OT yesterday in a game that Mountaineer fans will be talking about for a while.

All this kid did was score 6 touchdowns!

In his debut!

Against a nationally ranked team.

Some RBs never score that in a career, let alone one game. Now, Steve Slaton didn't start the season #1 on the depth chart, but he hung in there, he prepared, and when his number was called, he bowled them over. Literally and figuratively. Six TDs against a team like Louisville is quite a coming out party.

WVa should thank Steve Slaton for sticking to his dream of being a major-college running back. For if he hadn't, he'd be playing DB for Ralph Friedgen at Maryland, and Coach Friedgen, an offensive expert, has to be wondering what he (and many others) didn't see in Steve Slaton that Rich Rodriguez and the WVa staff were willing to take a chance on.

And Steve Slaton has to be brimming with confidence. Yesterday's performance validated the most important decision in his life to date -- where to cast his lot in college, and how. Having read what he accomplished yesterday, it seems like the frosh RB is good not only at life decisions, but on-field decisions too.

Then Again, About Ed Wade. . .

There's this.

Sheesh.

Sounds like even the Phillies' ownership finally sensed that America is a real meritocracy, and that they had to fire their GM on merit.

Not only for his decisions, but for how well he got along with others.

It also sounds like Dave Montgomery, the Phillies' president, fully understands how important Billy Wagner is to this franchise. One of the top five closers in the entire game can cover up a lot of ills, such as an iffy starting pitching staff and a stadium built more for middle schoolers who eat too many Tastykakes than for Major Leaguers.

Read the whole thing, and you'll see why there was no way ownership could have let Ed Wade continue in his job. Not if they wanted to keep Billy Wagner.

All this said about Ed Wade, I still don't think that firing him is the entire prescription for wellness the franchise needs.

The problem is, you can't fire your home team's owners.

But the fans can vote with their feet.

As they did last season.

And, despite their best record in a while, they might do that again this season.

Read the article, and you'll wonder why Ed Wade was permitted to stay in his job for so long.

The Philadelphia media is very tough, but they were kind to Ed Wade in that they tried very hard to report the real stories and not the personality conflicts that are inevitable when an organization's activities are scrutinized publicly every day. You didn't read about this sort of stuff that often. Now that Ed Wade is gone, you're getting a picture of what he was like. It may be that the circumstances changed him, or it may be that he was always like this. Hard to know, and it's not as though the columnists are perfect, either. Remember that, too, when you read the linked article.

And then draw your own conclusions.

No matter what your perspective, it's a bad ending to a bad run.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Hoops Fever

For those of you who follow this blog, you know that I am a big follower of Ivy hoops and a fan of the Princeton Tigers. My unique perspective is that I grew up in the Philadelphia area as a diehard Penn Quakers fan, so I love the Palestra and have a lot of respect for both the Princeton and Penn programs.

During the hoops season, for Ivy hoops information, you have to check out both the Princeton Basketball News blog (run by a very generous guy named Jon Solomon, who, incidentally, is a Northwestern alum and not a Princeton alum) and the Ivy Hoops website. The Princeton hoops blog is an off-shoot of the Princeton Basketball News website, which is first-rate, and there's a chat list that you can join and read commentary from subscribers, most of whom are Princeton alums and/or fans. All of this is good stuff, and the Ivy Hoops site has up-to-date information regarding Ivy hoops recruiting.

For college basketball generally, I already recommended that you buy this hoops guide (on a business trip I read The Sporting News' college hoops yearbook, and while it provides good details on what I would call college hoops' version of the BCS schools, it doesn't go into the detail on that many schools, and The Blue Ribbon Guide does). As for college hoops blogs, there are many of them to which I link, among them Yoni Cohen's College Basketball Blog (Yoni does an excellent job of trolling the net for tons of articles about the top college hoops programs), the ACC Basketblog (which has been very generous in its linking to this blog in the past), Dave Sez (a frequent linker who provides excellent insight as to the ACC -- and he's an alum of Washington U. in St. Louis, to boot!), the Patriot Hoops blog and Hoop Time (both of which are dedicated to the Patriot League (and who can catch the Bucknell Bisons this year?), Big Ten Wonk, the St. Joe's of the Midwest Hoops blog (I'm sorry, I meant the Marquette Hoops blog) and many others. There is a lot of interesting insight there in the blogosphere, and, yes, while there's also some very good stuff in the mainstream media, the blogosphere can and does add a unique perspective.

As you know, I also follow certain coaches, and I am most intrigued as to how Larry Brown's patience will fare in New York. You can read this from Hoops Junkie and decide for yourself. I agree with the premise -- I think that regardless of whether he's one of the best coaches of his time, if he doesn't have the talent, he won't fare that well. It will be a painful year for the blue and orange.

College hoops is among upon us!

Update on Penn and Princeton Hoops Recruiting

For Princeton, click here.

For Penn, click here.

Does every player in the league seem to be a shooting guard, 6'8" forward who perhaps is neither a 4 or a 5, and an undersized PG?

The Penn report, from The Daily Pennsylvanian, seems more gleeful than the Princeton report, which is from The Trenton Times. The former is a student newspaper; the latter is not. Penn perhaps has more reason for glee, given their most recent triumphs in Ivy play. Still, you never know how good these kids are until they walk into the gym and begin playing. Ryan Pettinella was supposed to be one of the next best big men for Penn. After two undistinguished seasons (okay, Penn fans, there were glitters of promise every now and then), he transferred to Cincinnati. That move backfired when Cincinnati gave head coach Bob Huggins his walking papers, and Pettinella is now at a community college near his home in upstate NY. Similarly, Princeton combo guard Max Schafer was a first-team all-state player in basketball-rich NJ, only to have two lackluster seasons for the Tigers so far.

Remember, they're just teenagers. While Penn is gleeful about recruit Andreas Schreiber (and the report on him confuses me a bit -- if he's that highly ranked out West and he's that great a get for Penn, you'd think he'd be choosing Penn not only over Princeton, but also over schools more highly rated than UC Santa Barbara -- whose nickname is the Gauchos and who play at a court called the Thunderdome). Penn fans who read this blog, please comment on what you're heard about Schreiber, especially those of who who sometimes watch practice at the Palestra and pick up things here and there.

Princeton didn't land uberrecruit Brian Zoubek, the 7'1" son of a Princeton alum who chose Duke after his junior season at Haddonfield (NJ) HS ended. They got a very good consolation prize, of sorts, in 6'4" shooting guard Blake Wilson, a teammate of Zoubek's. A Penn cognoscenti told me that Penn was hot on Wilson's trail and was excited about the prospects of landing him, so getting a commitment from Wilson is a good thing for Princeton (which, by the way, shot much better last year than its fans had come to think -- it was the Tigers' defense that was their undoing last year).

Princeton fans shouldn't start thinking about any domino theories though. For example, should Zoubek go to Duke and get buried on the bench or hate it or want to go somewhere where he can play and star, don't start thinking that he might transfer to Princeton to play with Wilson. Sure, it's a fun thing to dream about during a horribly rainy week in New Jersey (like the one we just had), but it's a delusion and most unlikely to happen.

I'll have more on my thoughts for the Ivy hoop season in a few weeks. I'll give you one hint as to my outlook. Penn should be strong, but Princeton could surprise (on the positive side of things, this year).

Then again, what else is really new?

Rejoice Not

It's not usually good to see someone lose a job.

Not even Ed Wade, the now-former Phillies' GM, if you're the type of Phillies fan who thought the man to be a symbol of the ineptness of one of the worst franchises in the history of baseball. If you're the type of fan who longed for someone to boo out of town long after you helped show onetime Eagles head coach Joe Kuharich the gate in the late 1960's. If you're the type of fan who helped banish Dodger pitcher Burt Hooton to the dank showers of then then relatively new Vet in the NLCS in 1977, by booing him off the mound.

Or if you're the type of fan who enjoyed the glory days of the Ruly Carpenter period of enlightenment (1975-1983) only to suffer with the know-nothingness of the post-Ruly Carpenter, Bill Giles-driven era of 1984 to the present, but who isn't, per se, a boo bird.

To Ed Wade's detriment, he had the Phillies' GM's job for 8 years, had a slightly sub-.500 record, the team never made the playoffs during his watch and he traded Curt Schiling and Scott Rolen in bad deals to good teams for guys whose names you remember about as well as the kids who were second-string on your 5-6 high school football team during your sophomore year. Also on your watch, the team built a beautiful new park with dimensions more fit for a beer league slow-pitch softball team than a team that was supposedly built on pitching.

To the team's credit, at the end of the Ed Wade era, they upped their payroll into the upper echelons of Major League Baseball (I think that they had the sixth largest payroll in 2005) and built that new ballpark. They also finished with a flourish, have some bright young stars, and finished well despite having a starting pitching staff more cast out of Major League, the movie than Major League, the real-life team. They won 88 games, finish 2 behind Atlanta and 1 out of the wild card -- and the guy gets fired.

Don't get too giddy, even if you don't like Ed Wade and you thought his firing was long overdue. The firing is as transparent as the iffy ability of the Phillies' ownership, and I'll tell you why.

1. Ed Wade is a sacrificial lamb today. The team had its best record in about 12 years, and the guy gets canned. He built a pretty good team, one with young stars, has some decent prospects coming up (Shane Victorino, for one). Yes, the farm system is bleak, and someone has to be held accountable. The bad stuff all sticks to Ed Wade; some should stick to his draft architect, Mike Arbuckle.

2. If Ed Wade should have been fired, he should have been fired right at the time the team was leaving the Vet and moving to Citizens Bank Park. Then, the fans would have had a momentum Trifecta -- new park, Jim Thome and a new GM. That would have made the fans so giddy that they would have bought every seat in the park for several years running, and, then, Wade would have been fired on merit.

3. Or he should have been fired last year, when his own personal Trifecta around the time of the opening of Citizens Bank Park proved to be a dud. Jim Thome (who hit about .200 with men on base in 2004, beset with recurring injuries) turned out not to be a thoroughbred who could run in the Triple Crown, but a somewhat lame (if powerful) horse. Someone (perhaps overly active pitching coach Joe Kerrigan) addled Kevin Millwood, who has pitched brilliantly in Cleveland. And David Bell proved to be even more lame than Thome. That's at three strikes, and then Wade rightfully should have been let go.

4. Instead, because Phillies managing partner Dave Montgomery is a loyal guy, he kept Wade on. The enmity of the Phillies' fans grew, and the "once burned, twice shy" adage kept popping into fans' heads. Okay, he fired Larry Bowa, and if Philies' fans were mad about that, they have to look at themselves and admit that this particular bit of pique was misplaced. True, the team has some sensitive types, but quotes from many scouts in the national publications stated that the Phillies would play better once Bowa was out of there. Even if he was our grouch, he didn't translate well in the clubhouse. There is old school and new school, and Bowa is old reform school. That type just stopped playing well almost everywhere. Score one for Wade, zero for the Phillies fans on that front.

But then he hired Charlie Manuel, a known friend of Jim Thome, at the expense of Jim Leyland. The Jim Leyland who managed the Pirates to the playoffs, the Marlins to a World Championship and the Rockies to the playoffs. A Jim Leyland who once burned out but who was seeking a resurgence like Dick Vermeil did with the St. Louis Rams. And what did Ed Wade do?

He made the wrong choice. The Phillies fans gasped. How many more mistakes could Ed Wade make? Be permitted to make?

5. The big issue this year was that despite the exciting season, attendance at CSB dropped from 3.25 million to 2.65 million. That's a lot of $6.25 beers and cheesesteaks at Tony Luke's not sold. That's a lot of Build-a-Phanatics not made. That's a lot of dough that desperately could have been used to sign Billy Wagner this off-season, who, if the Phillies don't re-sign him, puts the Phillies approximately 10 wins down and gives whoever signs him, such as the Mets (Mike Franscesa of WFAN in NYC thinks this is a match made in heaven) at least 10 more wins. Which puts the Mets in the playoff hunt next year, if this happens, and the Phillies with even more of a dwindling gate.

Make no mistake -- what would you rather have -- Billy Wagner as your closer with Ed Wade as the GM or a recycled 40 year-old Jose Mesa as your closer with Gerry Hunsicker as your GM while Wagner is closing for the Mets? Because that's what the choice might end up being.

Still, the biggest resounding cry from the fans was Ed Wade, and that's a shame. Ed Wade didn't deserve the vilification he got, which was vicious at times. He did deserve criticism, sometimes considerable criticism, but I think that there's someone else who deserves more. Rather, some other people.

Who may those people be? The Phillies ownership, starting with their fountainhead, Dave Montgomery, the team's president, and running all the way through to the wealthy and in this case anonymous Philadelphians who own the team but never say "boo" publicly. This group has all of the passion of the gentry who golf clap about the best new gladiola strain revealed before a luncheon of tea sandwiches and sherry at the monthly meeting of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society. As the team has foundered during their twenty-year tenure, they have put no face on the team the way Comcast has done with the Flyers and 76ers, and the way Jeffrey Lurie has with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Put simply, it is they who deserve the lion's share of the criticism, and it is they who are both the source of the problem and the solution.

Their past history certainly isn't a predictor of future success. The cons are the awful performance of the team through the 1993 season and the bad performance in the mid-late 90's up until a few years ago. The cons are that they seldom have shown a sense of urgency to do what it takes to get over the top and make a consistent, meaningful challenge to the Atlanta Braves' supremacy in the division (not to mention the Marlins two World Championships in the past eight years -- an expansion team for crying out loud). The cons are the drafting blunders (remember Jeff Jackson, heralded as the next Willie Mays, after having played only about a 20-game season his junior year in HS in Chicago?), the inconsistency of the farm system, paltry moves recently at trading deadlines and of course the fiascoes involving Scott Rolen and then Curt Schilling.

The pros are that they did build the new ballpark, that they have a trio of exciting young players, that this season they cobbled together a starting pitching staff to make a serious run at a playoff spot and that they've spent money (if not altogether wisely) most recently on playoffs. But that doesn't mean for a second that they won't revert to prior form, especially if attendance could drop another several hundred thousand this season, if Wagner goes somewhere else, if they can't meaningfully resolve the Ryan Howard/Jim Thome dilemma at first base, if they somehow return all of Mike Lieberthal, David Bell, Pat Burrrell and Bobby Abreu to the starting lineup (the latter two put up fine numbers, but the public perception is that they have about as much "oomph" as the Temple University football team), if they can't add a good starting pitcher.

So the writers can write all they want that former Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker is the answer or that yes, Brian Cashman, the Yankees GM, could solve a lot of the Phillies' ills. But what they must remember is that even if Cashman were to come to Philadelphia -- or the BoSox Theo Epstein, whose contract is up -- they still are stuck with the same ownership that has brought you a sometimes dreadful and at best inconsistent product over the past 20 years.

And what Cashman or Epstein would realize when he gets here (and my assumption is that neither would come unless he could ascertain for certain that the commitment to winning is real) is that they won't have the financial commitment of George Steinbrenner or John Henry -- or their passion for winning -- in this ownership group. Which means no matter how good they are (and their owners' spending boatloads of cash can cover up a lot of ills the same way a very talented lineup can make a manager of average ability look like a genius), they might not get to show it if the overall revenue base is in decline.

Sure, the team needs a new GM. It needed one four years ago.

But it won't establish a meaningful standard of excellence -- the way their neighbors, the Philadelphia Eagles have -- until they get new ownership.

Philadelphia Phillies' fans have suffered enough.

It is time for the current ownership to sell the team to someone with the fire in his belly to turn it into a perennial winner.

Because getting a new GM is only a band-aid.

A serious, big band-aid.

But a transparent band-aid at that.

And once the Phillies' fans realize that jettisoning Ed Wade doesn't turn out to be the palliative this club needs to cure its ills, they'll be even madder (both at themselves for being duped again and at the ownership) than they are now.

And that won't be a pretty sight.

Especially when they're not coming to the ballpark.

LeBron's Pain Was Very Real

You've probably heard about LeBron James' recent health scare. It was scary for a guy so young, and it was definitely real. Before you wonder how someone could be in such pain for having "just" a virus in the chest, stop. If you've had pleurisy (and I have), you think it feels like you got hit by Ray Lewis and Junior Seau in their primes -- at the same time -- running full tilt -- one hitting you from the front, the other from the back.

It hurts that bad.

The bad news is that there isn't much doctors can do for it, because pleurisy is a virus and therefore there aren't any drugs that can make it go away. Pain medication helps alleviate the agony to a degree, but basically you just have to wait a few weeks for the big hurt to go away.

Thankfully, it doesn't appear that there's anything wrong with LeBron's heart, and his current lung condition is far from permanent.

LeBron James is a warrior out on the court, but even warriors fall prey to the stuff that the guy in the rafters can catch.

And despite what type of physical condition you're in, it still hurts.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Chase Utley Is A Hero (In My House)

There's nothing like childlike enthusiasm, and I've blogged here and here about my kids and baseball. My son's first game at a Major League park is indelibly etched in my memory, as is the first time I took my daughter to a game at Citizens Bank Park and the weekend when she handwrote three letters to three different Phillies, asking each to autograph a baseball card or a picture from a magazine that she had enclosed. She even addressed her own return envelopes.

I warned her not to expect much, that ballplayers are very busy people, that they get lots of mail, and that their schedules are such that they don't have much free time. Anything, of course, to lower expectations to a reasonable level. Put simply, I told her not to be terribly disappointed if she didn't get any returns. ("But how could they at least not return my baseball cards," she asked). How do you provide a real-world answer to someone who has that type of moral high ground? You can't.

It's been fun to watch my daughter become a baseball fan. She hadn't shown much interest in the game up until this year, but she's strong and tall and can swat a softball after having gone half a year without swinging a bat. She watched me watch the Phillies down their home stretch, saw David Bell hit an improbable grand slam on TV to help win a game, watched Chase Utley leg out a triple in her only trip to Citizens Bank Park, marveled when I explained Jimmy Rollins' hitting streak to her. In other words, she was a sponge for information about the national pastime.

I don't know what prompted her to want to send away for autographs, but I suppose it's because it gets harder and harder to meet players in person and talk with them, something, I think, after shedding initial shyness every kid would want to do. In a world where it's hard to talk to a live person when trying to figure out your utility bill or phone bill, in a world where people get a sense that their access to important things in their life is getting more limited, people want to be able to get something tangible, to relate more to their teams. That might be why so many grown men where jerseys of their hometown football teams to home games. That is why kids line up for autographs, because it's not as though they can stop a player on the street and ask about how he became great at what he does.

Years ago, things were different. A family acquaintance used to call The Ben Franklin Hotel, which was located at 9th and Chestnut Streets, and talk to Ted Williams when the Red Sox were in town to play the Philadelphia A's. The acquaintance was a teenager then, and Williams was such an iconoclast that he would hang out with those who sought him out. My dad lived in a neighborhood where Robin Roberts, the would be Hall of Fame pitcher for the Phillies, lived close by. Del Ennis went to the same high school that my mother did, and, well, the gap between ballplayers and their incomes wasn't then what it is today. True, they did enjoy some degree of adulation, but they were closer to the fans, the country had fewer people (by about half of what it has today), and even if it had half as many Major Leaguers then, there was a tangibility that's lacking today.

So last weekend, when I was packing for a trip, I heard my wife tell the kids that she was going outside to get the mail. It was an awful, rainy day, and everyone was stuck in the house because there was no chance to ride a bike, kick a soccer ball, or do the variety of stuff we do on weekends (note, despite our affinity for sports, we do not sit around watching games all that much). Then I heard some shouting.

"Daddy, Daddy," I heard, and within about fifteen seconds the shouting got closer to me. "Daddy, daddy, guess what?" My daughter is a very pleasant, collected kid, and I could have guessed what, but I wanted her to tell me.

"I got something back in the mail from one of the Phillies. I can't believe it. I got something back." As predicted, the smile on her face could have lit up a foggy valley on a moonless night. She took the time to send the letters, and she got a response! Quickly, too.

So she and I went downstairs and looked at the envelope. There is was, with no return address, addressed to her in her own writing. She opened it carefully, and deep down I was hoping that it wasn't a blowoff, a simple return of her letter and the item she sent to be autographed. The letters were cute, telling the player that she was eight, in third grade, and a fan. Yes, there was one more hurdle to go.

She opened the letter slowly, and out came a four by six card of Chase Utley, turning a double play, signed by him, with his statistics on the back. The article we sent, from ESPN The Magazine, was returned. Accompanying the card was a form letter apologizing that he could not write back personally, but that he hoped that the recipient would appreciate the signed card.

Did she ever! She looked at it and held it, shared it with my wife and me, and carefully showed it to her kindergarten-aged brother, who was envious that she got something special and he did not. After looking at it for a while, she put it in a hard cardboard folder, to keep it for posterity.

Chase Utley made her day.

And has a fan forever.

I know that Chase Utley won't read this. It's bad enough at times dealing with the Philadelphia press (which already, after the Eagles' loss to the Cowboys, has started sliding down the perilous path toward writing off the team's Super Bowl chances for this season), so I doubt that he'd have much time for bloggers. But if anyone who has the ear of a professional athlete reads this, please tell him or her how much it means to a little kid to get a piece of mail answered.

True, there are some brats who will brag incessantly about how many cards or autographs they have, and I'm sure there are some who write at the request of those who will sell a signed card on e-Bay. But for the budding future fan, the smiles that responses to letters bring are worth much more than the cards themselves can possibly be sold anywhere.

Writing pad -- $1.29
Envelopes -- $1.29
Stamp -- $0.37
Baseball card -- $0.50

Signed card from Chase Utley in response: Priceless.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Happy Valley Again

They're singing different tunes in State College, Pennsylvania, now that the Nittany Lions have beaten two ranked teams in consecutive weeks, one of whom they most certainly were not expected to beat (unless, of course, you were Lou Holtz on ESPN and called the win). Two weeks ago, Joe Paterno's squad thrashed an up-and-coming Minnesota Golden Gophers team, and two days ago they beat Ohio State.

6-0.

Cracked the Top 10 in the polls.

The Lions have a very tough schedule remaining. They're at Michigan next, and they also have Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State on the schedule. Sure, you can toss in perennial Twinkie Illinois, but the other schools on the schedule are formidable.

All of this success, no doubt, is sure to rekindle the debate whether Joe Paterno has outstayed his welcome in Happy Valley. I am sure that there are many fans who are newly reconverted to the JoePa cause, while they're remain diehards who believe that despite this recent burst of success, Joe still should go. Some of those fans will particularly recall a season the team had within the past 10 years, when they got off to a torrid start just like this one, only to lose three games to the likes of Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue at the season's end to knock them out of a serious bowl game. In other words, the start's important, but so's the finish, these folks would argue, so let's not get too giddy right now.

(Some giddiness, though, is perfectly acceptable).

Here are my thoughts:

1. This is quite an accomplishment for a team that came into the season with a confidence problem.

2. The Penn State defense could well be the best in the nation, as I thought they were last year. My reasoning is that the Penn State offense is iffy enough that the Penn State defense is probably on the field more than any of the nation's other top defenses, which means they have a higher probability of getting tired (as the old adage goes, to win you need to keep your defense off the field). As such, per minute this could be the best defense in the country.

3. I don't really think that the 6-0 record sheds much light on the Joe Paterno debate. He should not get an extension beyond his current contract, and he should not act like he's larger than the school in controlling this debate. He did a bad job with his succession planning, and he shouldn't get any ideas about turning the reigns over to his son, Jay, the way Bob Knight and Eddie Sutton are in turning their college hoops reigns over to their sons. Joe Paterno is an outstanding man and has been a great coach, and no one can take those facts away from him. But in the end, it's past tense when someone says he should turn over the reigns to someone else.

4. The Lions do have a tough road ahead. Win out, and they're in the national championship game discussions, depending on what USC (which still has Cal and UCLA on the schedule in a surprisingly tough Pac-10 race this year) and Texas (somehow always finding a way to create a blemish on its record), among others do. There remain a plethora of undefeated teams, something that should change in the ensuing weeks. Lost two or three of the remaining games, it still will prove to be a nice year and improvement over prior years.

But right now, all of that is conversation. For Penn State fans, the proof is in the record, and the Lions are undefeated and in the hunt for a national championship.

And that's all that matters.

Because when you keep winning, the conversations, as they should be, are rather simple.

Friday, October 07, 2005

For Serious College Hoops Fans

If you like college basketball or if you think you're among the cognoscenti about college hoops, you have to buy this book. I have purchased The Blue Ribbon Guide for the past five or six years, and while it costs 3+ times the money a shorter magazine might cost, it's well worth it. The coverage of the Top 25 teams is outstanding, and the coverage of the average team is excellent and, importantly, detailed. Put simply, you'll get much more detail (if much less pizzazz and color) in The Blue Ribbon Guide than in any other publication. The articles on each non-Top 25 team contain quotes, discuss the entire roster, the effect of player departures and the potential impact of new recruits. I read it closely when it arrives, and then I refer to it periodically during the year.

This guide suggests a concept that I've had for a while about a college basketball blog. There are many excellent blogs out there on college hoops (click on the links section of this blog to find many of them), but none goes so far as to cover every DI conference and team in detail (at least to my knowledge). My proposal to the blogosphere is that someone create this blog, which would have links to each team in each conference, the newspapers (student and otherwise) covering these teams and the team's own websites (which are populated with information published by the college's sports information department). In this fashion, you could have one-stop shopping for all college hoops teams. Yes, I know that the professional publications claim to provide this information, but they don't provide sufficient links or information. They provide what I would call "accomodation" coverage -- just enough to be respectable, but not enough for someone who wants to dig deeper. And if you read many of the blogs I link to, you know that there are fans out there who like to dig deeper.

But, alas, that's for another day. In the meantime, for the best one-stop coverage of all college hoops' teams at a season's outset, you know where to turn.

Enjoy!

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Anointment Interrupted

I was wrestling with the headline for this post, as there were several potential juicy ones. Such as: "Gagne? How About Gag Me?" Or how about "Forsberg Forstalled?" Or "Primeau Suspects?" Read this and then guess what I'm talking about.

Many publications have the Philadelphia Flyers playing the Calgary Flames in the Stanley Cup finals. Many publications rate the New York Rangers the worst team in the National Hockey League. So what happened last night, in the Flyers' own building? The visitors prevailed, 5-3. Not an auspicious beginning for the Stanley Cup contenders, you say?

The game got enough attention from the 20,000 or so diehard hockey fans in Philadelphia, while the remainder of the sports fans are wondering how long Eagles' kicker David Akers will be out and whether the Birds will have to make a go of it next weekend with only 3 defensive tackles and 3 defensive ends. There's some talk of the baseball playoffs, the Phillies are virtually forgotten, and the Sixers are so perched in the middle of the pack that it's hard to generate much enthusiasm for their bloated payroll and ticket prices.

The Flyers tried to capitalize on the hockey drought, and they did an excellent job in the off-season of fortifying their roster. Bob Clarke, their GM, is heralded as ingenious for finding a way to ink Peter Forsberg while peddling Jeremy Roenick out west. They have two solid goalies, three big defensemen plus another who can play offense, two twenty year-old forwards about whom only raves have been written, and some big names to boot.

So what did they do? They laid an egg, big-time, in the game that was supposed to rekindle hockey interest in the greater Philadelphia area. I tuned into the game late, on the new OLN network, thought Sam Rosen was very good, but thought the quality of the picture paled in comparison to what you can get on HDTV for the baseball playoffs. Note to the file: once you watch any sporting event on HDTV, it's hard to watch anything else without it. Comcast's Sports Network has an HDTV counterpart; OLN needs one too.

The Flyers, of course, will be fine, and they could finish 81-1 and storm to their first Stanley Cup title in 30 years, when the team had such colorful players as Bob "Hound" Kelly, Don "Big Bird" Saleski, Andre "Moose" Dupont and, of course, Dave "The Hammer" Schultz, a fighter who actually scored 20 goals in one season. Can this group bring back the magic? The Flyers ownership can only hope so.

And, even if they catch som lightning in a bottle, I wonder whether they'll generate even close to the excitement that the 76ers did about four years ago when they challenged the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

And even if they do generate a great deal of excitement in the spring, the average Philadelphia sports fan will still be wondering about which free agents the Eagles will sign in the off-season and how Donovan McNabb will recover from post-season surgery on his sports hernia.

After all, in many sports venues in the Philadelphia area, when there are dull moments, you can hear an Eagles cheer generate spontaneously. The Phillies battled gallantly for their playoff lives, and yet about one and a half times as many people were watching the Eagles play the Chiefs as were watching the Phillies play the Nationals (during the time the games overlapped).

Still, that popularity shouldn't diminish any accomplishments of any other sports teams in the Philadelphia area.

Even if their own Stanley Cup favorites got off to about as bad a start as they possibly could have.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Curb Your Enthusiasm

At least that's what Jake Peavy should have done after the Padres clinched their division. Read this and see what I mean.

Proving perhaps that he's a long-lost Gramatica brother (was it Bill or Martin who blew out a knew while celebrating a kick years ago), Peavy broke one rib and possibly two when he was whooping it up with his Padres teammates after this historical event.

It's not that the Padres have much of a shot against the Cardinals anyway. But to have had a shot, they needed their ace to pitch well yesterday. He did anything but, thanks to his physical problem. And it goes to show you that no matter how much training, stretching and training room time professional athletes get, there's always a few of them who can come up with the highly improbable injury.

I'm sure there's a list of them somewhere, such as cutting oneself while opening up a package, putting one's finger behind the bagel that's being cut with a Henckel's knife, falling out of bed onto the floor and onto a water glass left at bedside, breaking one's hand on the headlight of one's 1950 Ford, but this one is high up on the list.

It wasn't as though the Padres won 114 games in the regular season. It wasn't as though someone had pitched a perfect game, a no-hitter or hit in 36 straight games. It wasn't as though someone hit a dramatic walk-off home run to clinch the ALDS, ALCS or World Series. It was about a .500 team winning a division that no one seemed capable of (or deserving of) winning.

A friend of mine frequently says that you have to be careful about taking victory laps in anything you do, because there's always someone to hit you from the blindside as your turning the corner down the home stretch to make the experience painful in the end. My wife and I joke to each other when we're talking about an accomplishment that we shouldn't separate our shoulders patting ourselves on the back. In the Padres case, one should be careful not to fracture ribs while jumping up and down in childlike glee.

Especially when there are more games to play.

Potato Bowl Watch

My proposition, put simply, is to pair up the two DI football programs who get routinely mashed during the season in the "Potato Bowl." Play it at the home field of Boise State (which, ironically, does a lot of mashing), throw out the appropriate symbolism, and then see who is the best of the worst (you could host it in Chicago, but then you might have to call the game "The Best of the Wurst" instead of the Potato Bowl).

Click here for the list of candidates. (Duke fans don't laugh, your school isn't that far removed from the list). The possibilities for matchups are intriguing. A Temple-Rice game would match the only two DI football schools with the nickname Owls. A Temple-Pitt game would make the game an all-Pennsylvania affair. A Vandy-Rice game would pit some of the smartest gridders in the South against each other. An Army-UNLV game would present a stark contrast between a school that graduated some of the country's top leaders and a school that hosted Jerry Tarkanian. If they keep it up, Arkansas, Kentucky and Washington could make it into the Bottom 10 by the end of the year. Ty Willingham did have his troubles in South Bend, but he certainly doesn't deserve that fate.

Truth be told, few do, but everyone can't win their college football games. You wonder, though, why some schools keep at it. Unfortunately, we don't have the European soccer rules that demote the last three teams into D-IAA and elevate the top D-IAA teams into DI, not that that would make much sense in this context. You also don't have a mercy rule, which, in essence, would cause a school to drop a sport if it had, say 20 straight losing seasons.

Right now, it looks to be a Temple-Florida Atlantic matchup, as opposed to the all-Owl game between Temple and Rice. Come to think of it, the Potato Bowl promoters wouldn't support that matchup anyway, as you don't usually serve Rice when you serve potatoes.

Unless you can mash everything up together and no one can tell the difference. Call it risotto, for crying out loud.

Just don't televise it.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Character Is Fate

If there was ever any doubt, consider the following:

The kick returner fumbled the ball; the other team recovered.

The punt returned botched a return, the ball went behind him, and he recovered his fumble for a five-yard loss.

The new kicker had his first FG attempt blocked.

Then his team scored a much-needed TD when trailing 17-0, only to have the long-snapper mess up the snap, causing the holder to throw a desperate pass for the conversion. It fell incomplete.

On the ensuing kickoff, the other team's kick returner returned the kick for a TD. 24-6, the home team.

In the heat.

The visiting team's QB should be the principal patient in a M*A*S*H unit. A DT had to be carted off on a stretcher. The leader of the defense tweaked his ankle and then played with an ankle so heavily taped it looked like it was borrowed from a mummy.

So what happened?

The visiting team, in a game few expected them to win, reeled off 31 straight points and won the game, 37-31.

Sure, the teams in their division have improved. True, they've been analogized more to the Buffalo Bills of about 10 years ago or the Atlanta Braves, bridemaids and not brides. Yes, many had said they'd slip back this year, that others are closing the gap. That still may be true. Only time will tell.

But today this tough band of veteran football players, battered and bruised, stood together and staged one of the all-time stands, upping their record to 3-1. It could well be that they finish at about 10-6, getting a wild-card berth, and then winning one game in the playoffs before bowing out. After all, the NY Giants are a bit hot right now, and there's no one more optimistic (or patronizing) than a Giants fan, because, after all, everything in NY automatically is better than anything in Philadelphia.

But if the Eagles do get to the NFC Championship Game, or even to the Super Bowl, they will look back on this day and draw heavily from it. I had thrown my hands up in frustration with about 4:30 before halftime, virtually incredulous that somehow Dante Hall managed to shatter their momentum by returning the ensuring kickoff for a TD after the Eagles had scored their first TD. I had shut off the TV for a while.

And I was wrong. Tired from a bunch of things, I had said to myself, "well, this just isn't their day, and, yes, with Donovan McNabb hurting, they just won't go 13-3 or so as they did last year." And I was bummed, still smarting from the disappointment that the Phillies couldn't have at least forced a playoff for the wildcard with Houston. When I turned the game on again, it was 24-16, and the Eagles were driving with about 6 minutes to go in the third quarter. Then all of a sudden the game was tied.

Dawkins. McNabb. Sheldon Brown (2 picks, including 1 for a TD). Jeremiah Trotter. T.O. (a monster day). An O-line that treated the Chiefs in the second half as though they were rag dolls.

The football Giants play about 90 miles to the north, and they won in a romp today.

But it says here that the real giants today were about 1500 miles from home, wearing their road white jerseys, standing about as tall as any football team can.

If character, as Oscar Wilde wrote, is fate, then the Eagles should be playing well into the post-season.

Baseball and Generations of a Family

The Phillies' run toward the NL wildcard has been at worst an interesting distraction for what's now a football city and at best another dalliance with the bigtime (with a chance for more) for long-suffering Phillies' fans. The Phillies are by no means a great baseball team. Their starting pitching is iffy at best, two of their power hitters seemingly put up great numbers when the game isn't on the line, their leadoff hitter doesn't walk, their highest-paid player has been out most of the year and their manager has all but exhausted an outstanding bullpen. That said, their SS (and leadoff hitter) has now a 36-game hitting streak, and for those of you who were wondering, the number of hitting streaks that long is about the same as the number of perfect games, which puts Jimmy Rollins in rare company. The right side of their infield is among the best in the NL, and Chase Utley and Ryan Howard should give Phillies' fans plenty to cheer about in the years to come.

As I write this, the Phillies are battling to hold off the Nationals and hoping that the Cubs can overtake the Astros, forcing a one-game playoff to determine who will be the NL wild-card winner. Phillies' fans haven't had this much excitement in 12 years. It has been fun to watch, especially the grit of SP Jon Lieber and the clutch play of Utley and Howard (who should be the NL Rookie of the Year, if for no other reason that he's hit and hit again in the clutch during the Phillies' run and has put up outstanding numbers to boot).

For me, the excitement takes on all the more meaning because of the bridge to generations that I have become. My father passed away about 20 years ago, and while raised a New York Giants (baseball, for those of you too young to remember that the SF Giants began in NY), converted to the Phillies in the mid-1970's when a youthful infusion that included Mike Schmidt and Larry Bowa helped pull the Phillies from the mediocrity to which they had become accustomed. He took me to games at Connie Mack Stadium and then, up until his death, we went to games at Vet Stadium. He taught me how to keep score, how to look at how the players shifted in the field depending on who was hitting, how the middle infielders communicated as to who would cover second base, and how important it was for batters to be selective in the strike zone. One day I remarked that a certain starter was en route to a complete game, and he said, "I don't think so, son, it's the fifth innning and he's already thrown 100 pitches." This was in the late 1970's, when stats like that weren't made available to the average fan or announced on the radio. A pitcher himself in college, he knew the game rather well.

When he died, the game lost some meaning for me. The Phillies didn't help matters, as Ruly Carpenter sold the team to a consortium led by then President Bill Giles, whose acumen for baseball hardly matched Carpenter's. All you need to know about Giles was that he thought that the Phillies suffered competitively because they were a "small market" team, even though the fans knew that Philadelphia is one of the top 6 media markets in the country. Put simply, Giles and his Philadelphia brahmins never wanted to pony up the cash necessasry to field a competitive team -- at least until a few years ago. No dad, bad teams, then the strike of 1994, and, well, it just wasn't the same.

The reverse in attitude toward spending that culminated in the signing of Jim Thome, along with the building of Citizens Bank Park (and, by the way, I would have gone to a cow pasture to watch a winner, and CBP won't hold much allure if the Phillies turn into the Phillies of the mid-1990's), and the growth of my kids rekindled my interest in the team. That the Phillies didn't bury young players as was sometimes their wont also helped, as it's just plain fun to watch the grit of Utley and the mammoth power of Howard. Most importantly, the interest of an eight year-old red-headed little girl helped too.

When we went to a game at the end of August, my daughter paid rapt attention to all of the goings on at the ballpark, liked the fact that David Bell got his uniform dirty, saw Chase Utley leg out a triple and rooted for Bobby Abreu, because a schoolmate of hers once met (or so she thought). She liked the pageantry of the ballpark, the excitement of the crowd, the fact that she was at an event.

Since that time, she's watched games with me, seen clutch hits break open ball games and watched guys like Bell, Utley and Howard get key clutch hits during the past several weeks. She's asked about how we could meet a Phillie and talk with him, and I told her that was unlikely. Then she asked if she could get autographs, and in her best third-grade handwriting she wrote letters to Bell, Utley and Abreu, enclosing either baseball cards or magazine photos and self-addressed, stamped envelopes, and asked them for their autographs. Now she's sitting and waiting, hoping that one of these busy players answers her letter. I don't know what the odds are, but I hope that ballplayers realize how they can make a little kid's day by answering a simple letter with a signed card. If she gets a response, her smile is guaranteed to light up an evening sky on a foggy night when there is no moon.

Meanwhile, the Cubs just pulled ahead of the Astros, and the Phillies are holding on. If these results hold, there will be a one-game playoff tomorrow, and we'll all be watching it with rapt attention. Somewhere out there, I know my dad is watching over us, and he'd be proud to know that his granddaughter is rubbing her Phillies-red rabbit's foot and pulling for the home team.

The baton has been successfully passed, I think, and now we're talking about lining up some good seats for next year.

Except, right now, we don't have to wait until next year.

At least not yet.

And that's a wonderful feeling for a Phillies fan, especially one who has shared the game and will continue to share the game among his family's generations.

Pass the Crackerjacks!

The Wonderlic Test and The NFL: Which Group Would You Take

I've posted before on the Wonderlic test as a predictor for how well football players might fare (as all NFL teams use this test to assess the aptitude of potential players), and The Wall Street Journal this past Friday wrote an article on "The NFL's Smartest Team" and posted Wonderlic composites for all NFL teams and composites for the 40 college teams that scored the highest. It's interesting stuff, to say the least.

What it might mean is another story.

Suppose I were to tell you that you could have two groups of teams to chose from in a bet. The best would be that you get one half of the NFL teams, and that you win if more teams from your groups rack up more "playoff points." For example, you get one point for each team that makes the playoffs, two for a playoff win in the opening round, three for a playoff win in the next round, five for a win of a conference title game and ten for a win of the Super Bowl. I'll give you two groups, and you tell me which one you'd pick:

Group A

Detroit Lions
Denver Broncos
Miami Dolphins
Pittsburgh Steelers
Atlanta Falcons
Indianapolis Colts
New York Giants
Philadelphia Eagles
Houston Texans
New Orleans Saints
Jacksonville Jaguars
Cincinnati Bengals
Washington Redskins
Kansas City Chiefs
Arizona Cardinals
Green Bay Packers

Group B

St. Louis Rams
Oakland Raiders
Tennessee Titans
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
San Diego Chargers
Dallas Cowboys
Chicago Bears
Carolina Panthers
San Francisco 49ers
New York Jets
Cleveland Browns
New England Patriots
Buffalo Bills
Baltimore Ravens
Minnesota Vikings
Seattle Seahawks.

It's hard to say, isn't it (I would take Group A, for what it's worth)? What if I were to tell you that the teams in Group A finished in the bottom half of the Wonderlic testing for the NFL (with the lowest team on the list, Green Bay, having finished the worst) and the teams in Group A finished at the top, with the Rams having scored the highest composite score? What if I were also to tell you that going into this weekend, teams in the "dumber" group had a composite record of 26-19, while teams in the "smarter" group had a composite record of 20-27?

For example, defending Super Bowl champ New England comes in at #11, while Super Bowl runner-up Philadelphia comes in at #24. The 0-3 Raiders are #2, while the N.Y. Giants, whose QB, Eli Manning, had the highest Wonderlic of any QB, came in at #23. Yes, the so-far hapless Cardinals and Packers came in at #31 and #32 respective, while the darkhorse Super Bowl contender favorite Panthers are at #8. The Steelers are #19, and the Colts, with their brainy Manning at QB, finish at #22.

Last time I checked, you wanted the kids on the Math Team to keep the score, and the kids who were chosen first for kickball to do the tougher work. Which means, as with every other metric that can be used, the Wonderlic isn't the greatest predictor of future results. It may be true that the strong take from the weak and the smart take from the strong (to quote Hall of Fame basketball coach Pete Carril), but it's also good to have tough guys who don't think too much who just go out there and get the job done. Have not enough "smart" guys on the team, and you probably make more than your fair share of mental mistakes. Have too many, and perhaps you get paralyzed by analysis.

Then again, I would love to see the Wonderlic scores of the front offices, head coaches and coordinators of all NFL teams. My guess is that when you sorted that list, the teams that score at the top are also the teams that have fared the best in recent years. After all, Pats coach Bill Belichick was a math major at DIII academic powerhouse Wesleyan. Which means that you need the right combination of brains and brawn every time, with some of the real brains on the sidelines and in the front offices, as well as in key positions on the field.

Yes, the WSJ also posted its list of the top 40 college teams (in terms of Wonderlic scores), and perennial also-ran Stanford tops the list, which goes to show you that while you may have a bunch of future MBAs on your roster, if they can't resolve gridiron conflicts with the violence allowed on a football field, they can't win. Put differently, my guess is that the Stanford folks can't lift as much weight or run as fast as their oft-maligned counterparts at USC (which, incidentally, finished a respectable #21). And before Stanford alums start blasting archrival Cal for lowering standards and just letting in anyone, the Golden Bears finished at #3. So, sacrificing two spots in this contest is well worth it to Cal, which has fielded a top-25 contender for the past several seasons. Rounding out the top 10, Purdue (#2), BYU (tied for #3 with Cal), UCLA (#5), Oregon (#6), Wisconsin (#7), Iowa (#8), Oregon State (#9) and Nebraska (#10). For those loyal readers out there, Notre Dame came it at #11, Michigan at #14, UVA at #15 and Penn State at #19.

So, NFL fans, let's watch this list closely and follow it until the end of the year, at which time I'll try to match it up with the results. Maybe there's a correlation, maybe there's not, and that's what makes this whole exercise so amusing.

I suppose somewhere out there is a professor of exercise science trying to create a composite score for fitness workouts for people who work in high-level academic pursuits and who is trying to theorize that the brainiest people who get the best results, most grants and most notoriety are the ones who are the most dedicated to their personal fitness. Just imagine the stats, that the Astrophysics Department of Cal Tech benches more than the Astrophysics Department of the University of Colorado, while the Harvard Math Department completes more laps in a swimming pool than the Math Department at Stanford, and then there's the Cal Physics Department, which plays fewer squash games per capita than the Princeton Physics Department.

Would it matter at all?

Let the debates begin!