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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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Invincible

Most of you who have logged onto this blog lately have done so because of references I have made to Vince Papale, the Cinderella-like football player who literally came out of nowhere to make then-new coach Dick Vermeil's Philadelphia Eagles in 1976. The story is know well-known that Papale, who did not play college football (he did graduate from hoops-happy St. Joseph's in Philadelphia), responded to an open tryout, ran a 4.5 40-yard dash, and made the then-downtrodden Birds as a special teamer and back-up wide receiver. Most definitely, you have logged onto this blog because of all of the hype surrounding Disney's latest sports movie, Invincible, which focuses on Papale's story.

It was an unseasonably cold and overcast day in the Philadelphia area today, and my family and I went to the local movie theater to watch the movie. We loved it -- it's the lastest in a long and distinguished line of feel-good sports movies, from Rudy to The Rookie, and it's an inspirational tale about a guy who had nothing to lose but had to overcome the sense that at thirty his life thus far had been only about losing. In the year that Rocky debuted, Papale was the real Rocky -- and he didn't just go the distance, he made the squad and lasted for three seasons. Philadelphians loved him and Vermeil then -- and they do to this day.

Mark Wahlberg did an excellent job of playing Papale (I'll overlook the fact that a) he doesn't really look Italian and b) he didn't nail the Philadelphia accent), and Greg Kinnear gets major props for his portrayal of Dick Vermeil. Only Vermeil can get Vermeil's intensity right, but Kinner did a nice job coming very close. The producers did a nice job of capturing a South Philadelphia rowhouse neighborhood, and, also, the relatively colorless 70's.

Before the Giants, Redskin and Cowboy fans weigh in and tell me in the comments section that the Eagles are awful, that the Eagles will come in fourth in their division, that the Eagles have no running game, no receivers and questions at linebacker, let's put partisanship aside and applaud Vince Papale's story for what it was and remains to this day -- a story about a guy who took a shot -- a long shot -- believed in himself -- and made it. That's the type of story that all of us can relate to and most of us need from time to time, regardless of the uniform the guy is wearing.

Go see Invincible -- you won't be disappointed.

Stand and Deliver -- Update (We Need $7,700 by Friday!)

If you've read the blog recently, you'll know that my major cause of the moment is helping Prep Charter, a charter high school in Philadelphia, raise money to enable its football team to have a season this season. Right now, Prep Charter's coach, Larry Arata, has raised $12,300 towards this effort -- he needs $7,700 by Friday to make the dream of his diverse group of kids and him a reality.

You can help -- by sending a check and sending it quickly.

Make your check payable to "Prep Charter" and send it to Prep Charter, 1928 Point Breeze Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19145, Attn.: Joanna Gabris, Principal, and please write "Football" on the memo line (and tell 'em that you're doing this to support Larry Arata in his quest to make a football team happen at this worthy school). Most of us won't have an opportunity to own any part of a football team, but here's a chance to start one -- and to make a serious difference in the lives of deserving kids. If you can give more -- and many of you can -- please write a bigger check. Some of you out there can, and it would be great if you could make the Prep Charter football team one of your most significant -- if not most significant -- causes for 2006. Prep Charter is a 501(c)(3) organization, which means that your donations will be tax deductible. And if you can't give that much, give something.

Read the post below for more details about Prep Charter's football program and its head coach, Larry Arata. Once you read it, I ask that you stand with me in supporting a wonderful cause.

Thank you very much.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Stand and Deliver

Update #3 (Written on August 20): Very nice article by Phil Sheridan, a sports columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, on Larry Arata and the Prep Charter football program. Read the article, this post, and then send a check to support a very worthy cause. Larry is all about helping the kids excel, and you can be a part of that.

Update #2: (Written on August 19): The Prep Charter football team is practicing hard. Look for a feature on the team and coach Larry Arata in the Philadelphia Inquirer around August 20.

Update (Written on August 15): I first posted this on July 24. Thus far, the Prep Charter football fundraising effort has raised about $4,000. I know that it's summertime, that many write their charity checks in December, and that some of you might have missed this story. For all of you checking out the blog because I once analogized an Eagles' TE to Vince Papale, the WR/special teams player who didn't play college football and who played for Dick Vermeil's Eagles for 3 seasons in the 1970's, you might find this story interesting. Philadelphia is full of stories like Vince's, and if you want to help launch many other great stories, please make a contribution to Prep Charter so that it can start its football program. Several of Larry's college classmates and former teammates have made contributions, and this is a great cause. Thank you for your support. (Information about where to send your contribution is set forth below -- and now is the time to help!).

My friend Larry Arata needs your help.

Larry is a Princeton graduate, and after years in the business world couldn't avoid his true calling -- teaching young people in troubled neighborhoods -- any longer. About five years ago he walked away from the corporate life that is all but expected of many a Princetonian -- and became a schoolteacher.

In the intercity.

It's what many people talk about doing --working with young people and teaching kids, leaving a legacy that is denominated in something other than currency -- but few do. Larry has made this commitment and is working in an area where society -- and his kids -- need him the most.

At a Philadelphia charter school, Prep Charter, it's called, in a part of South Philadelphia called Point Breeze, nestled along the Schuykill River south of tony Center City and east of where the University of Pennsylvania is. It's a tough neighborhood, and gang violence has affected most of the students in their daily lives. The school has 150 students in each grade, and relies upon the Philadelphia School District and grant money from various sources for its funding. There doesn't seem to be much room for extras. Hence this appeal.

Five years ago Larry left the business world unfulfilled. He didn't make a fortune, but he realized that teaching kids in a troubled school district is what he's meant to do. Teaching and coaching football (and working construction in the summertime to help make ends meet). So far, he's doing the teaching part -- he teaches history, but he has yet to accomplish the football part. The reason: money.

This is a school that has gotten off to a good start. This is a school that in its short existence won the Pennsylvania State High School Basketball title last year in the AA class (the biggest schools play in AAAA). This is a man who has had his kids out on the sandlots playing flag football and in the weight room, both to give them a greater sense of purpose and discipline and to keep them off the tough streets. The kids themselves are dedicated. Many are not from the neighborhood and have long commutes on public transportation to get to the school.

It's a life that most of us do not experience every day.

While many of us like to read stories like this one for their happy endings, we don't know what it takes to help make the happy endings themselves. You need dedicated teachers, committed parents and disciplined children. It's far from easy.

Larry sent out a mailer recently to his Princeton classmates asking for money. He's seeking to raise $20,000 to start a football team, but Larry's always been a modest guy. I called him and told him that he should try to raise $50,000. I figure that if 200 people who we know can kick in $250 apiece, we can reach that goal easily.

Some here's the appeal -- give $250 to this cause. Make your check payable to "Prep Charter" and send it to Prep Charter, 1928 Point Breeze Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19145, Attn.: Joanna Gabris, Principal, and please write "Football" on the memo line (and tell 'em that you're doing this to support Larry Arata in his quest to make a football team happen at this worthy school). Most of us won't have an opportunity to own any part of a football team, but here's a chance to start one -- and to make a serious difference in the lives of deserving kids. If you can give more -- and many of you can -- please write a bigger check. Some of you out there can, and it would be great if you could make the Prep Charter football team one of your most significant -- if not most significant -- causes for 2006. Prep Charter is a 501(c)(3) organization, which means that your donations will be tax deductible. And if you can't give that much, give something. You'll be glad that you did.

There are many worthy causes out there, but this one is paramount for sports fans who want to make a difference.

The school administrators doubt that Larry can raise the money, and he needs it fast, say, by the end of August. So if you're going to commit to this, commit now. Send your check in today.

I asked Larry about his experiences at the school, and you can't help but sense his dedication to the school's mission and to the goal of giving everyone a great education. Last year at homecoming I ran into Larry, who had brought several of his kids in tow to show them a world far different from where they go to school. He is truly committed to this cause, and he deserves your support.

He recounted a story about how perilous it is to work in an intercity environment. One day last year he had his kids out on a field, playing flag football. They were having a good time when three toughs from the neighborhood showed up, the mouthiest being a 5'6", 135-pound kid who had no interest in school but a chip on his shoulder the size of the entire city. He and his friends mouthed off to Larry and Larry's students, who represent many different neighborhoods and ethnic groups. Larry tried to fend them off as politely as possible, and the toughs departed. Larry's kids went back to playing football. They resisted the temptation to mix it up.

If only it ended there.

About twenty minutes later those three toughs came back with about twenty of their friends from the housing projects in which they live. Their phalanx approached Larry's students, and their conduct was menacing. Larry has always preached a "turn the other cheek" mentality to his students, and he was proud that they backed him up but didn't engage the toughs in the trash talking that ensued or start a fight. As Larry was trying to keep the groups apart, the lead tough hauled off and belted Larry above the eye. Larry is a big man -- about 6'2" tall and weighing in at about 215 pounds, and he takes pretty good care of himself. He told me that it's as hard as he's ever been hit -- and this is a guy who played major college football (Princeton was Division I when he was there).

A melee of sorts ensued. The neighborhood toughs went after kids of one ethnicity, piling onto them. Larry sprinted ten yards this way and ten yards that way, throwing the punks off his kids who were being attacked. About ten kids ran back to the school and sought help. Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, but was only five minutes, the Philadelphia police showed up. At the sight of their arrival, the two dozen or so neighborhood toughs ran back to their neighborhood. Unfortunately, for whatever the reality is in the modern world of policing, they did not pursue these delinquents (and, in my opinion, emboldening them to come back if this awful behavior does not bear any consequences). Larry and most of his team made it back to the school, thankfully with no injury more serious than the cut above Larry's eye.

I told Larry he was lucky that no one pulled a weapon.

He told me that the next day, in school, the kids who stood their ground were razzing the kids who ran back to the school, and the kids who ran back to the school said they did so because they thought they saw a gun. There have been shootings in this neighborhood, Larry advises me, but thankfully they emerged from this donneybrook relatively unscathed.

Prep Charter, as a public school, cannot turn away any kid who applies other than for reasons of not having any more room. They can, however, expel kids who don't measure up. While some explusions take place, the vast majority of the students are committed to learning. 90% of them end up going to college. The parents of these kids are to be lauded for steering their kids on a path to a better way of life. The students themselves are to be commended for their commitment to excellence.

And people like Larry Arata are to be cheered for standing and delivering.

But they need your help.

Please do what you can to make a donation to this great, worthy cause.

For those of you who know me, I'm creating an e-mail list and will e-mail you personally with a PDF version of the flyer that Larry sent out to his Princeton classmates a few weeks ago.

Please dig deep here and help out.

Your donation will definitely make a difference in the lives of a bunch of deserving people.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Why We Go To The Ballpark

Last Saturday night marked the final day of my daughter's week-long birthday celebration -- only she didn't know it. She figured that after a party with her friends, an exchange of presents within the family, a visit from relatives and a shopping trip with her grandmother that her birthday was, well, over. It wasn't that she was overly indulged, but overall it was a nice birthday.

It's just that there were a few surprises left.

We went to Citizens Bank Park last Saturday night to watch the Phillies play the Reds. We got to the park early, ate, and then I walked both kids down near the Phillies' dugout to try to get autographs (my wife stayed behind in the seats and watched us from afar). Most of you who have been to a baseball stadium know that it's not an easy endeavor to get an autograph before a game. The dugout itself is as formidable as the average NFL offensive line -- you literally have to lean up against it, call out a player's name, and hope that he'll autograph what you have with you -- and it protects baseball players better than even the Patriots' O-Line guards Tom Brady. That night, many fans hung out near the dugout, and outside of a lucky fan who got the autograph of reserve infielder Danny Sandoval, no one else got an autograph and few players emerged (when they did, they looked like prairie dogs at the zoo, stuck their heads out and then quickly put them back into the dugout). Rookie Fabio Castro was next to Sandoval but didn't sign, and Pat Burrell emerged, looked back at the fans with an empty stare, and then went back into the dugout. Ryan Howard emerged to sign for the honorary bat people of the night, but there was no way we'd get close to him -- or anyone else for that matter. I had counseled the kids ahead of time that this was the likely result, that there are tons of demands on players, and that most people don't want to be interrupted when they're going about their work routines.

The autograph search, though, was simply a distraction. There was better stuff in store.

Earlier, after I ushered my wife and kids to our seats, I excused myself to go to the birthday check-in station right behind home plate on the lower concourse. I told the person there that I had signed up for the "Phun Pack", and, as part of that pack, I was given a blue denim Phillies' cap with a retro "P" on it, the type that the Mike Schmidt teams wore (the "P", that is, and not the hat). I walked back to our seats and flipped it to my daughter.

"Happy birthday," I said. "See, I told you I'd get you a hat." This was her first Phillies' hat. I purchased her brother's first hat -- which he still wears, at his first Major League game, which I blogged about here two years ago.

My daughter smiled widely -- she liked the hat. A lot. I adjusted it and then she pulled her pony tail through it and wore it proudly.

After our hanging out near the dugout, we went back to our seats, and I quickly wrote down the lineups in our "family scorebook." A friend who is a loyal reader told me that he purchased a standard scorebook over 10 years ago, and his family made it a point of taking it with them to every game they attended -- whether Major League or Minor League, whether involving a Phillies' affiliate or not. He said that over time it has proven to be wonderful chronicle of the games they attended together, so I took his advice and have begun this ritual for our family.

The game started with a bang (unfortunately the Phillies would end up losing the game after the usually reliable Tom Gordon gave up the go-ahead runs in the top of the ninth), with David Dellucci hitting a home run out of the #2 spot to give the Phillies a 2-0 league in the bottom of the first. During the top of the third, my wife and daughter were engulfed in a conversation, and I saw a college kid wearing a Phillies' hat and carrying a satchel approach our row. He didn't totally seem to know where he was supposed to be, but I caught his eye and pointed down to where my daughter was sitting.

He entered the row and in a loud, booming voice indicated that he was here to lead the surrounding rows in singing "Happy Birthday" to her. The people in the surrounding rows thought this was pretty cool, and they sang enthusiastically. Our Phunster then completed his act by showering my daughter with confetti.

She thought it was the greatest.

"Thanks, Dad," she said. "I just love little surprises like these."

See, the Phillies, who have lavished tons of dough on the unable, unwilling, underwhelming or unappreciative, can also make a nine year-old feel like a million bucks.

It only got better.

There was one more surprise.

After the home fourth, the Phillies scrolled their birthday wishes up on the scoreboard above leftfield. My daughter saw her name in lights among the other birthday greetings. Her smile upon seeing her name was as bright as the lights on the scoreboard. It was great to watch.

Later she said that even though the Phillies lost, she went to sleep with a wide smile on her face. Flash might not have shined that particularly day, but the Phillies' organization did.

This is why we go to ballgames -- to eat peanuts, sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," keep score, talk about when Ryan Howard is going to hit a home run (I said to my son right before Howard jacked one that night that he was going to put one orbit on the next pitch -- and he did!), talk amongst ourselves and just have a lot of fun. Whether or not the home team fares well cannot eclipse our fun -- we simply won't let it, precisely because we have little control over what management does. That's why we go to baseball games -- to be together in great weather, watch a kids' game and talk about statistics that in the greater scheme of things mean very little but in these cathedrals in each city mean everything. There really isn't anything like it.

The Phun Pack cost eighteen bucks.

It will pay dividends for a lifetime for a young girl. Because in a sea of about 40,000 people, she felt like she was the most important kid in the world.

A win would have been nice, but her smile meant everything.

That's why we go to the ballpark.

Fantasy Football on the Radio

Please spare me.

I was running an errand this morning and tuned into the local ESPN Radio station, where two guys were talking about strategy in drafting your fantasy football league team. Fantasy football is like certain other things in life -- many might do it, but you shouldn't discuss it in proper company.

No one cares about rehashes of golf games and how fantasy players perform, except for the participants in the golf game or the league. Before you chastise me for listening to the program, I listened for about 2 minutes before switching it off. That's right, just long enough to determine how bad it is and how desperate local radio stations are for filler. Where's the bigger commitment -- such as to covering local HS football teams and how they'll fare in the upcoming season? A program like that certainly would be an improvement. Besides, if you're a fantasy GM and you participate because you want the thrill of being a general manager or player personnel guy, isn't your ego big enough that you'd dismiss these shows because, well, you know better or you wouldn't be participating in the first place?


Still, it is a big business, especially if you look at the space national sports publications give fantasy stuff. And I'll confess I've been in a baseball league for about 20 years and participated in a World Cup fantasy challenge on ESPN.com this summer. But outside of talking to a narrow group of fellow fantasy travelers, I don't discuss the stuff with anyone outside of the realm.

As I've said before, the more channels there are on radio and TV, the less there is to listen to and watch. With expansion comes the need for filler and, yes, a predictable dilution in talent.

Sorry, ESPN Radio, but this stuff is about as bad as your TV movie of "The Junction Boys" with Australian actors who just couldn't quite get the Texas accents.

The Next Vince Papale Story -- Again

Most of the recent hits to this blog have been from people who have "Googled" Vince Papale's name and come up with a story I wrote about 2 years ago on now-former Eagle TE Jeff Thomason, who was plucked at Super Bowl time from being a site manager for the home builder Toll Brothers in southern New Jersey and added to the Super Bowl roster after his good friend and former fellow Eagles TE Chad Lewis suffered a Lisfranc sprain to his ankle and wasn't able to play in the Super Bowl. The analogy was somewhat attenuated, because unlike Papale, Thomas had played college football and had played pro football before returning to the NFL. I summoned the image of Papale because once again the Eagles plucked someone from the working world and added him to the roster. It was a great story while it lasted.

Well, there's another "Made for Disney" story going on in Philadelphia right now, and you can click here to read all about it. Phillies' catcher Chris Coste is an amazing story in perserverance, as he was a career minor-leaguer (playing in Indy leagues, the minors and in Mexico) for about the past 15 years. At 33, Coste came to the Phillies' camp in spring training, auditioning for a job as a back-up catcher and corner infielder. He hit about .470 in Spring Training, only to be the last cut when the Phillies acquired David Dellucci from the Rangers.

So Coste got sent to AAA, to Scranton Wilkes-Barre, where he handled the pitchers well and, yes, honored that euphemism by hitting about .177 or thereabouts. When Mike Lieberthal went down with a knee injury and prospect Carlos Ruiz struggled in his first call-up of the season, Coste was called up (given what Coste was hitting at the time, the call-up seemed odd, but the Phillies were thin at catcher and Coste had showed them something in the spring). At the end of July, his job became more secure when the Phillies had sent Ruiz back down to the minors and designated back-up catcher Sal Fasano for assignment (ultimately trading him to the Yankees for two Tom Tresh cards and a Reggie bar).

There were very good reasons for all of this -- Coste is now hitting about .365, catching Cole Hamels and Jon Lieber and, at 33, making a case for himself that he should be the Phils' starting backstop next season (Lieberthal is a free agent).

And, yes, the movies have come a-calling.

Forget about that, though, as this is a very good story. And before Phillies' detractors point to the ascension of Coste as what's wrong with the Phillies and their farm system, think again. Offense isn't the Phillies' problem -- they're in the top 3 in runs scored in the National League. Pitching woes have plagued the team all year, and no one has griped about the catching, just the throwing from the mound.

Especially when one of the catchers is hitting about .365 in his rookie year.

Friday, August 11, 2006

That Gagging Sound You Hear

results from USA Today's on Terrell Owens, published in today's paper. The gist of the article is that two weeks have passed without any nonsense from the 11th-year wide receiver. No conflicts with Jerry Jones, Bill Parcells or Drew Bledsoe. You read it and decide, but at least as far as the Cowboys are concerned, USA Today should be called USA Toady, at least today. Yes, if you believe it, they're singing "Kumbaya" and locking arms around the campfire in the Big D.

The article glosses over the fact that T.O. has said that he probably won't play until the regular season starts, that he has a hamstring injury (even though an MRI was negative) and that he brought in his own training team to help him recover from his injury. Could this be a case that T.O. is just doing all that he can to heal quickly, or is it that he's showing the same prima donna tendencies that he displayed with the 49ers and the Eagles, both of which led to disasters for those teams? And why can't people own up to the fact that it isn't Dallas, its history or the reputation of Parcells that, if it happens, will cause Owens' good behavior but rather the fact that if he acts out and poisons one more team, he is through? That to many is Owens' primary motivator.

This drama will play itself out, but as with second and third marriages, this is a triumph right now of hope over experience. There's no doubt about T.O.'s talent and his accomplishments, but at 32 he's closer to the end of his career than the beginning, so it's hard to see how he can undergo a personality makeover. Rather, what this guy needs is a personality bypass operation. It says here that l'affaire hamstring is a harbinger of problems that are likely to emerge if a) Bill Parcells tries to run the ball more, b) Jason Witten and Terry Glenn become preferred targets or c) Bledsoe makes one mistake too many in a game. Oh yeah, and what if T.O. says that another quarterback -- even the football geriatric Brett Favre -- would be better than Bledsoe?

I am amazed that so many people have been so quick either to come to Owens' defense or to give him a pass and say they'd take a chance on him, the most recent one being John Madden. Yes, you can't deny the talent, but you can question the chemistry. Football especially relies on chemistry and leadership, and Owens is a potential wrench thrown into the engine of any team. Then again, perhaps each Hall of Fame coach thinks that he too can change anyone and make a winner out of everyone. That said, most of those great coaches say that one of the things they learned early on in their careers is that you can't change people fundamentally and that you shouldn't try.

Yes, all is hunky-dory in Dallas, the same way it was when T.O. first joined the Eagles a few years ago.

It's what they call a honeymoon phase.

And it will end soon enough.

Lots of people are writing off the Eagles again this year, but to do so overlooks a few basic facts: 1) 13 players, including several key ones, were on the IL last year, 2) injuries were bad for the DL and OL, and you need the earthmovers to control the line of scrimmage and win the game -- both are significantly deeper this year, 3) Andy Reid's track record, and 4) Donovan McNabb's health. Yes, there are questions about health and size at RB, quality at WR, and ability at LB, but every team has question marks. The Eagles have to prove that last season was an aberration, and they look like they are on a mission to do so.

Meanwhile, Dallas has bet a lot on Terrell Owens. To quote Mike Ditka, "if you buy a rattlesnake for a pet, the odds are it's going to bite you someday." Bill Parcells knows that all too well. If all goes well with Owens, the Cowboys could be a very good team. But if Mount Owens erupts and spews lava all over that glorious franchise, Cowboy Nation will shake their heads and wonder why ownership trusted the situation in the first place.

There's calculated risk-taking, and there's speculation. After T.O.'s track record in San Francisco and Philadelphia, having him on your roster is a speculative play.

Kind of like taking your salary, going to Vegas, and putting it on red.

So before people in Dallas get drunk on the great receiver the home team signed, they should sober up and look at the track record.

And then get out their lucky charms.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Revenge of the Nerds

Rotisserie Geeks 1, Major League Baseball 0.

As I understand it, the wise men at Major League baseball decided to take a stand and insist that fantasy leagues license the right to use team names and player names, because they constitute intellectual property that belongs to MLB.

As Warner Wolf would have said, if you took Major League Baseball and 48 pages' worth of a judge's opinion, you lost (the opinion apparently was 49 pages long).

Here's the thing: it may be that the trial court is wrong and that MLB will win on appeal. It may be that MLB (and the union) have a good point. Yes, it may be that they are right as a matter of law.

But it's also the case that you don't always win by being technically right on every point. What the Lords of Baseball don't get is that fantasy leagues help the teams make more money by promoting the game. People who play fantasy ball for modest sums and pay stat services to compile their numbers are more likely to spend money on all sorts of stuff that baseball sells -- merchandise, tickets, etc. So why do they insist upon a cut of this particular action?

Because, I suppose, it makes money, and, because, I suppose, they believe that they have to pursue all intellectual property matters to that they can't let anyone think that they've pulled something over on Major League Baseball. Fine. But the owners have a monopoly on the Major League game in their cities, and that can spell trouble if you live in Tampa Bay, Kansas City or even Philadelphia, where your teams flirt with mediocrity perennially. We can't bring in another team, we can't compel our incompetent owners to sell the team (I'll say that about Kansas City and Philadelphia), and if we want to watch the game live we have only one choice. Why not just leave our fantasy leagues alone? What's the harm in that?

There are some things worth fighting about. This, I would submit to Major League Baseball, is not one of them.

Leave the armchair GMs and managers alone, before they pick up their pitchforks and hoes and march en masse on the stadiums of the teams that are destined to finish at best in the middle of the pack. Make the game too commercial and too mercenary, and you'll turn people off for good. It's bad enought that World Series games start after my kids' bedtime -- don't be the Total Scrooge and take away the fun of your loyal fans.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Beach Reading

Here are five recommendations for books you might want to read on your favorite beach or by your favorite pool before Labor Day. All are sports-related (mind you, I do read other types of books), and there's a sixth I'll mention even though I've only just begun it. Depending on your interests, all are worth a read.

1. The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry & the Boys of Crenshaw by Michael Sokolove. This book chronicles the 1979 Crenshaw HS baseball team in South Central Los Angeles, a team which featured not only future star Darryl Strawberry, but the talented and enigmatic future Major League third baseman Chris Brown. Many other players were drafted, and the book covers not only their senior season in HS but also what became of these men after high school. It may well be that no inter-city HS produces a squad this good again in our lifetimes. I came away from the book understanding better the problems that befell Darryl Strawberry, and I also came away with some respect for Chris Brown, a player who attracted derision during his career for some of the alleged reasons he couldn't play in a game (or two or three dozen). It's a compelling book for many reasons -- and you'll learn not only how hard it is to make it out of Crenshaw, but also how hard it is to make it past the Major League drafting into becoming a serious prospect.

2. The All Americans by Lars Anderson. Anderson, an SI writer, writes mainly about two former Army players and two former Navy players who played in the 1941 Army-Navy game and fought in World War II. His writing is insightful, and he covers these men on their paths to the service academies as well as in their lives during and after the war. You might not have grown up having heard of Robin Olds, Henry Romanek, Hal Kauffman or William Busik, but these are men worth getting to know. This is an unsung book, and while each generation creates outstanding men and women, there's something to be said for the comment that they don't make men like these anymore.

3. When The Game Stands Tall by Neil Hayes. Don't hold me to the precise numbers -- when "The Streak" started or how many games it lasted, but suffice it to say that this story is about De La Salle HS in Concord, California, the HS football team that won something like 150 games in a row -- fielding a team of roughly 48 players, including several who played both ways. The book is about the school, the team, the beginning of the streak, key games during the streak, and teams that played within the past 3-4 years (the time when Hayes was writing the book). The coach, Bob Ladoceur, is not only a gifted football strategist but an outstanding mentor to young men (and some of the young men are great kids in their own right). His coaches don't recruit (sure, parents and kids talk up the team and the free press that the school gets is amazing), and they don't dole out special favors to football players. The team excels by outworking its opponents -- they start on their strength and conditioning work in January -- by being better prepared, and by creating a unique atmosphere among the players that mandates honesty, responsibility and accountability. The coaches-and-players-only sessions in the garages of parents the night before a game form part of the foundation of this excellent program. Whether you're into football, the rituals that are HS football or even business management, this book is for you. De La Salle HS is all about team, which is why they have been so successful. Sure, they have turned out some outstanding players, but you'll believe Ladoceur when he says that isn't the goal at all. This is a "must" read for parents, coaches and fans.

4. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. If you want to begin to understand why Brits (and, frankly, most Western Europeans) are nuts about the game we call soccer, read Hornby's book, which is basically a diary of key soccer moments in his life and how they affected him. In the U.S. we have pockets of fanaticism -- baseball in Boston and New York, football in many major cities, ice hockey in Detroit, HS football in Texas and so forth, but all of England seemingly is soccer-crazed (cricket and rugby just aren't national pastimes). I still am not sure I get all of it, but if you want to begin to get it, read the book.

5. Strat-o-Matic Fanatics: The Unlikely Success Story of a Game That Became an American Passion by Glenn Guzzo. This is the story of the great baseball dice game, Strat-o-Matic, that I and many of my friends played as kids (after the age of 10 or so). The game helped us learn the game better, helped with our applied math, and helped us decades ago to figure out that what was important wasn't what the broadcasters and writers told us (batting average, HRs and RBIs) but the numbers that the "Moneyball" and "Baseball Prospectus" folks told us are more important. Sure, we couldn't have articulated the same principles then, but deep down we knew that there were numbers churning beneath the surface that had better meaning, and we drafted our players based upon certain measurements (including on-base percentage). I suppose we missed out on some unique career opportunities, didn't we? This strikes me as more of an "in-house" book, in that Guzzo got tremendous cooperation from the founder of the game, Hal Richman, but that sense really doesn't matter because the book is a good read if you're into this game or know someone who is or was and wants to understand them better. I enjoyed reading it, and while I'm no longer the "Fanatic" I once was (a friend who ended up getting a PhD from an Ivy school and became a tenured biology professor used to refer to it as my "silly game"), I have fond memories of playing game after game on hot summer nights, and I'm introducing my kids to it.

6. Baseball Between the Numbers by the Baseball Prospectus Team of Experts. I'm not sure I buy everything they're saying (and I haven't finished the book), but these guys have done a great job of fleshing out even more statistical measurements than Bill James had in the past, and they make great points about a whole variety of topics. You should only read this if you want to totally re-shape the way you think about the National Pastime. If you're one of those people who is content to read the Sunday statistics compilation and, based upon that, determine that Player X should win the MVP of his league because he has the best combination of average, home runs and RBIs, don't read the book. I think that wouldn't be a wise decision, however, because their math will help explain the reason (or two or three) why you like a certain player or don't like another. I do wish that a) these guys could suggest a Sunday statistics compilation for the major papers to run that lists the most meaningful stats and b) that they could convince my fellow fantasy league owners that the measurements that we use today are rather silly.

Enjoy the rest of the summer, and pick up a couple of these books -- you'll be glad you did.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A Crack in the Foundation?

Atop the annual lovefest that is the NFL's Hall of Fame induction, this.

The old coach is looking for one more shot at the title.

The thirty-something receiver is looking to be a bit brittle.

The old coach hates injuries. As Mark Schlereth once said on ESPN Radio, he and his teammates considered injured teammates to be "dead."

The thirty-something receiver likes to train his way.

If he doesn't heal quickly (he has a pulled hamstring), the collision between the Hall of Fame coach and the very talented if enigmatic and problematic wide receiver should get very interesting.

In Philadelphia, there was a lot of static, a lot of noise.

In Dallas, there will be one large crack, if and when it happens. It will be loud, it will be ugly, and someone will not be left standing. And it will be over, fast.

Perhaps that "it" will never happen.

But this report indicates that the storm chasers might start to gather their equipment and start a watch pretty soon.

If this relationship works, it will be the triumph of hope over experience.

If it fails, well, the future Hall of Fame coach and his owner will look pretty stupid.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Opiates for the Masses

Read this and see what I mean.

The Philadelphia Phillies are touting the following:

1. Chase Utley's 33-game hitting streak.
2. Ryan Howard's home run prowess.
3. Rookie Scott Mathieson's first Major League win.
4. Made-for-Disney back-up catcher Chris Coste's elevation to the majors (where he's hitting the cover off the ball) after 15 years in the minors.

All of these things, of course, are good.

1. Chase Utley is the best second baseman in all of baseball.
2. Ryan Howard is one of the best first basemen (okay, so his defense needs work), and together with Utley they form the most exciting right side of the infield in baseball.
3. Mathieson is one of a corps of young pitchers that first-year GM Pat Gillick is hoping will make the Phillies respectable in a few years.
4. Chris Coste's story is the best since "The Oldest Rookie" (whose title morphed into "The Rookie" when Disney made the movie.

However. . .

After the most recent salary dump (which most Phillies' fans have to concede was needed), Gillick conceded that the Phillies won't contend in 2007. You don't have to be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist to figure that out, because a) the Phillies don't have the pitching and b) even with extra money to spend, the free-agent market this off-season will be weak and few first-line pitchers in their right minds would choose to pitch in the cozy confines of Citizens Bank Park when they could pitch in a venue more likely to increase their fame. Most fans won't like an "off" 2007, but the problems for the Phillies won't end in 2007. In fact, they could just be starting.

Because while intellectually the fans might accept the strategy, these fans have tolerated, endured and even supported mediocrity so much so over the past 20 years that they might just stop coming to the ballpark. The novelty of the place has worn off (it's in its third season), and as I've written, they'll go to a cow pasture to see a winner but they won't go to a palace to see a loser (and especially a losing team whose ownership has been out of touch for decades). The ramifications of a potential mass "voting with the feet" is that revenues could drop significantly, with the result that ownership could start to argue that they can't afford to pay free agent salaries or even higher salaries for budding stars because they don't foresee a revenue base to sustain the payroll.

The proverbial "slippery slope", as it were. Perhaps it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are, though, flaws in that argument too, in that if they spend money to make money, as the saying goes, and lock up Utley, Howard and the young pitchers (including Brett Myers, who is a must keep in order for the franchise to build something solid), people might just renew their faith in the hometown team and keep coming out. Pat Gillick thinks he has a nucleus (and, at least, he pronounces the word correctly) of about eight players he can build around -- Utley, Howard, SS Jimmy Rollins, CF Aaron Rowand and pitchers Myers, Cole Hamels, Scott Mathieson and Ryan Madson. Maybe he's right, or maybe Rollins has a fatal OBP problem, Rowand is just an above-average CF and Madson might end up being another Pat Combs and Mathieson another Marty Bystrom. Who? That's the point.

Last year the hometown nine won 88 games and missed the playoffs by a single game. This season, well, they're so far out of first place that they can't see it with binoculars. Next year they'll probably need a telescope.

So, Phillies' fans, you have to be careful what you wish for. The team, as you knew it, got partially blown up before the trade deadline, and the demolition will be completed by next year's winter meetings. Just don't expect an instant turnaround anytime soon. And don't complain about it either.

In the meantime, enjoy Ryan Howard as he begins his journey to become the next Willie Stargell, enjoy Chase Utley's hitting streak, Chris Coste's life story and some brilliance that some young pitchers will show during the next couple of months. Save your bucks, too, for you'll need a bunch of those $6.75 beers to drown out your sorrows once again.

It's just that it's even money that "E-A-G-L-E-S!" chants will start resounding through Citizens Bank Park by mid-August.

Chase Utley and Ryan Howard deserve a little more than that.

Here's to hoping that the Phillies' front office will do a better job of keeping them than they did with Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen, one of whom has won two World Series since he left Philadelphia, while the other has appeared in one.

But don't let the highlight films fool you. They're just highlights.

Keen observers tend to look at the roots. And if you link here, to Baseball America's website, you'll notice that there isn't much help awaitin' down on the farm. The roots just aren't all that pretty.

There may be a nucleus of eight, but even assuming that all of those guys will pan out, where will the other 17 come from?

So sit back, enjoy the mammoth home runs, the hitting streak, and an occasional outing by a rookie pitcher where he strikes out 12 in five innings.

Because, for right now and perhaps through 2008, that's all you've got.