SportsProf

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

Name:

Not much to tell.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Friday, September 29, 2006

Old Tickets, Long Rain Delays and the Ghosts of 1964

Gloomy night in the mid-Atlantic region last night, the day that my dad would have turned 77 were he still with us. The Phillies ended up being engulfed in the longest rain delay in MLB history, only to fall to the Nats, 3-1 and fall two games out of the Wild Card with 3 to play. Phillies' fans are hoping that the echoes of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and yes, Joe Morgan (whose last-day HR in the fall of '82 while a Giant knocked the Dodgers out of the NL West lead and enabled the Astros to win the division) inspire Barry Bonds & Co. to take three straight from the visitors from L.A.

The Phils, meanwhile, travel to Florida to play a pumped-up Marlins' squad, two of whose players, Scott Olsen and Taylor Tankersley, provided bulletin-board material for the Phillies in this morning's newspapers. Apparently when your team's payroll has defined the new term "Loria Line", the payroll equivalent to hitting's Mendoza Line, there is no room in the budget for a Dale Carnegie course for brash rookies playing in one of baseball's circles of hell.

In St. Louis, the Astros have gained 8 games on the Cardinals in the past 3 weeks, summoning up bad memories for those in Philadelphia 50 or over who remember the collapse of the '64 team, which was 6 1/2 up with 12 games to play, only to end up in third place in the National League. Will the Cardinals hold on, or will Tony LaRussa get paired with Gene Mauch in post-mortem discussions about what went wrong with the Cards' season. Even the St. Louis headline writers are acting like they worked for The Philadelphia Daily News in 1964, calling last night's effort against the Brewers "half-hearted." Perhaps it's the Philadelphia writers who get the bad rap. At any rate, all eyes will be on the Cardinals -- and the Astros.

So what do do during a rain delay? After playing a game of Strat-o-Matic with my son (Brett Myers bested Bronson Arroyo, and Kenny Lofton got four hits in four at-bats -- we played the '05 season as, of course, the '06 game cards won't be out until March of '07), we watched a videotape of the 1980 World Series, the one and only time the Phillies won a World Series. One thing we noticed was how thing the players were, especially Bake McBride and Gary Maddox. Now, in fairness, people are generally heavier today, and there wasn't the weight training then that the players do today. There also weren't all of the supplements that are lying around, including, of course, the banned ones. We also saw great hitting by Willie Mays Aikens, Amos Otis, Willie Wilson and Mike Schmidt, as well as a great throw by Manny Trillo and some heartrate-increasing pitching by Tug McGraw. And, yes, there was Pete Rose's great "save" of a dropped foul pop-up by Bob Boone that signaled to Phillies' fans that for once the stars were aligned and that the hometown nine was going to win a World Series.

During the rain delay, we watched the "Return to Glory" episode that featured the Dodgers' improbable 1988 World Series victory of the Oakland A's, and that also featured Kirk Gibson's memorable game-winning HR in Game 1, when the rugged OF limped to the plate because of injured knees. One thing that was apparent that this Series was played before Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire discovered the weight room, GNC stores or poorly lit parking lots of local gyms and the people who hung out there. Back in that day, not every baseball player was built like he could catch a swing pass, lower a shoulder and knock out the LB trying to take his head off. Not that every baseball player today looks that way, either, but the comparisons are striking.

The rain delay continued, and I brought out an old lucite cookie jar in which I store my old tickets from sporting events. I know, they should be in lucite or lying flat, but there is only so much stuff you can keep. I found my father's ticket to Game 6 of the 1980 Series, the final game, and the face value was only $15.00. I found tickets from the 1983 World Series (where the Phillies lost to the Orioles) and the 1993 World Series (where the Blue Jays beat the Phillies). I found my ticket to Game 6 of the 1974 Stanley Cup Finals, where the Flyers beat the Bruins 1-0 after Kate Smith sang the national anthem. Through a bizarre set of circumstances, an acquaintance of my father's couldn't go to the game, and we sat in the fifth row behind the benches at center ice. After the Flyers won and started celebrating, I ran up to the benches looking for a souvenir. I took a water bottle from the benches. I still have it -- it's at my mother's house, but, of course, I doubt today anyone will believe what that was or where I got it. There's just no way to authenticate stuff like that. It was an energizing time nonetheless.

There were tons of Phillies tickets, some of which had a face value of $5 or less. I couldn't remember whether I had the tickets from August 1990, when I was in Europe on a business trip. The significance of that was that I had planned to go to a Phillies' game that week, and it turned out that Terry Mulholland pitched the only no-hitter in Veterans Stadium history on the night I was supposed to go to the game. There were Dodgers' tickets, Giants' tickets and A's tickets from my days of living in California, and various college football and basketball tickets. I shared them with my kids, who couldn't believe at how inexpensive some of those tickets were relative to what we pay today. It was a great trip down memory lane on a day when I remembered my father, who, would have been 77, still would have found ways to take my kids to games and would have loaded up their rooms with all sorts of goodies. If there's one solace that I can take from his too-early passing (he died 20 years ago), it is that the kids are endowed with his spirit and sense of joy about their games -- both playing and watching.

I miss him, especially at times when the Phillies are doing well, which remain far too few. We shared the watershed days of the late 1970's and early 1980's, and I look back thankfully to the Sunday plan that he purchased and our trips to Veterans Stadium where it was hot as can be and where there was a giveaway and Steve Carlton ended up pitching on Sundays before 45,000 more often than not. I remember how we left home after an early lunch for a 1:05 game, only to return home slightly after 3 with my mother asking what happened. The answer was simple and funny -- Carlton had hooked up in a classic pitcher's duel against the Padres' Randy Jones, who, for two years in the mid-1970's pitched like the great lefties of all-time -- Koufax, Spahn and Grove -- and the Phils won 1-0 in a game that took only 1:30 to play. Sure, the Vet isn't Wrigley or Fenway, but your hometown park is a magical one when you're a kid, and, when your team is winning, it's heaven on earth, your secular temple.

The tickets were a trip back in time for me. I haven't matched them up on the internet with actual games, but at some point -- perhaps during the next big snowstorm in the winter -- I'll do that. Normally I don't like rain delays, but what filled last night's up was a link between generations -- what I had with my father and what I'd like to accomplish with my own children. Seeing them laugh at Bake McBride's hair or Larry Bowa's bouncing after McGraw struck out Wilson to clinch the World Series, having them marvel at the World Series tickets, sharing chuckles at some of the outfits people were wearing, even in 1980, was much fun. I hope to be around them for a long time, and I hope that I am honoring my father's memory by starting them on the road to a good number of shared experiences that they'll reflect back upon happily decades down the road, just the way we did last night.

Yes, our favorite team lost (the game began at 11:37, and I was fast asleep by the time it started), and, yes, they're probably going to miss out on wild card birth narrowly for the second year in a row (sorry, but the realistic Phillies' fan must take over now -- it's a time-honed defense mechanism). But the compelling thing about the national pastime is sharing it with your family and friends.

Even in a rain delay.

Especially in a rain delay.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

How About This for a Baseball Statistic?

I'm reading Baseball Prospectus's book "Baseball Between the Numbers", and I'm getting dizzy with all of the fact and figures that are out there surrounding baseball. Given bio-engineering and performance enhancing drugs (read: Victor Conte meets "The Six Million Dollar Man"), I wonder if we're about a century away from some type of pseudo-droid whose performance will be relatively predictable if he gets the right type of medical devices, legalized medicine and macrobiotic food. That's why I always liked the Jim Leyritz's of the world, guys who come up big in the clutch but whom you wouldn't recognize in the Saturday morning line at your local post office. To me, there's some element of the game that refuses to let the numbers guys predict everything. Chris Coste of the Phillies is proof of that.

Still, the numbers in baseball are more compelling than in any other sport, and baseball fans live for them. Most still focus on batting average, home runs and RBIs, as well as runs scored and total hits. Look at the Sunday papers, and they'll give you the cumulative hitting stats by league, where players are ranked by batting average and then you also see their home runs and RBIs. Forget about on-base percentage, forget about slugging percentage, and forget about OPS, which adds the former two. They don't appear in Sunday papers, and they don't even appear in my fantasy league (which really makes it a true fantasy league).

So, while we're at talking numbers, here's a stat that I think is a measure of a hitter's productivity (an analogous one could be calculated for pitchers, but I haven't gotten there yet). Let's called it TBP -- Total Bases Produced, and it's a ratio whose numerator is total bases plus walks plus hit-by-pitches plus net steals (steals minus the number of times caught stealing) over total plate appearances (at-bats plus walks plus hit-by-pitches). To me, unless I am missing something, this talks about how many bases a batter produces per at-bat.

Follow me so far?

If you go to ESPN's statistics for each team, they provide enough detail that you can calculate this yourself. I did it three days ago for four Phillies and four Mets -- Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell for the Phillies and David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado for the Mets. Please bear with me here, because unfortunately the time that I have to write doesn't coincide with the time I have to hunt for my back-of-the-envelope calculations (which I misplaced), so I'm writing from memory here. Going into Tuesday night's games, Messrs. Rollins, Utley and Burrell had TBP's ranging from about .565 to .585. Messrs. Wright, Reyes, Beltran and Delgado had TBP's ranging from about .570 to about .605 (I confess that Beltran's might be a bit higher).

Ryan Howard?

A TBP of about 0.72.

Albert Pujols is in the same rarified air, slightly higher than 0.72.

Okay, so most baseball watchers had already narrowed down the MVP race to Pujols and Howard.

This number tells you why. These guys produce more bases per plate appearance than any other players.

And that's probably enough to win the MVP race.

A week ago I would have said that the MVP race was Howard's, hands down. This morning I'm not so sure. If the Cardinals blow the NL Central, then Howard will win the MVP award. However, if the Phillies don't win the Wild Card and if the Cardinals preserve their lead and Pujols plays a key role (his 3-run shot last night won the game for the Redbirds), then he will win the honor.

Total Bases Per Plate Appearance -- Get your calculators out today!

All Hands on Deck

The Phillies beat the Nationals last night, 8-7, in 14 innings to keep their Wild Card hopes alive. They trail the Dodgers by 1 game.

I listened to the game when they were down 4-3 and watched it from the 7th on after they took a 5-4 lead, only to have the Nats come back and tie it in the 9th and 10th. It was a flat-out great baseball game, and you wouldn't have known that the Nats are out of contention or that manager Frank Robinson is in danger of losing his job from the way the home team played last night.

It was a night where both closers pitched badly, Tom Gordon for the Phils (who threw twice as many balls as strikes) and Chad Cordero for the Nats. It was a night where Ryan Howard was walked intentionally 3 times late in the game, only to see the guy hitting behind him, Jeff Conine, go 0-7 for the game. It was a night where of the 25,000 in attendance at the game's beginning, those who were there at the end favored the Phillies and were most vocal about it. It was also a night where bunting was paramount (Nook Logan for the Nats and Michael Bourn for the Phillies), where the Made-for-Disney career minor leaguer (Chris Coste) kept on getting hit after hit late in the game, and where a career AAAA player (Clay Condrey) pitched outstanding relief for the victors while one of the last men standing in the Phillies' bullpen, Rule 5 pick Fabio Castro (who usually only pitches when the team is about to ten-run rule the opponent), got an iffy save thanks to a great turn of a double play by Chase Utley and Rollins in the bottom of the 14th.

The managers combined to make more moves than Bobby Fischer did against Boris Spassky in Rejkjavik over thirty years ago. 47 players made their way into a contest that lasted almost 5 hours. The Dodgers' game in Colorado, which started about one and a half hours later, ended before the Phillies-Nationals contest did. My guess is that the Dodgers' players were a little delayed in leaving the clubhouse, prone in all likelihood to watch the end of the game at RFK Stadium to see whether they'd have a one- or two-game lead after the night ended.

Frank Robinson managed as though it were his team who was desperate to grab the Wild Card berth, and his players reflected his intensity. In the end, it was Jimmy Rollins' two-run triple in the top of the 14th that proved too much for the gritty Nats. Somehow, Fabio Castro had enough to preserve the Phillies' lead (and avoid a third blown save in the game for the visitors).

It was a great game.

Kudos to the diehard Phillies' fans that made their way to DC and proved to be a vocal presence for their beloved team. I do agree with Jimmy Rollins, though, in that the fans should lay off Pat Burrell, who has had a woeful September and has probably played his way out of Philadelphia, even if the Phillies will have to pay the Pirates, Expos or any other MLB equivalent of a certified diamond landfill to take him off their hands. Look, Burrell is trying, and he doesn't want to hit majestic pop-ups or strike out with the frequency that he has in September. On the very bright side for an acquirer, he has a good on-base percentage and an excellent ratio of total bases plus walks and net steals over total plate appearances, right up there with his more heralded teammates Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins (Ryan Howard is a galaxy of his own with this statistic). It sends the team a weird message -- you're manic about their prospects but very down on one of their own. My request -- be kind here, show magnanimity and cheer everyone.

They deserve it.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Should Baseball Have Instant Replay?

I don't know how it would work and under what circumstances it could be used, but the Phillies (and, yes, I bleed for them) lost last night because the umpiring crew blew a call which they acknowledged that they blew.

In the second inning, with 2 men on base, Chase Utley hit a very long humpbacked line drive that made a beeline for the rightfield foul pole. Utley later said he lost the shot in the lights, but at the time the umpiring crew ruled the shot a foul ball, and no one from the Phillies' bench protested the call. All the while, the Phillies' broadcast crew watched an instant replay, and it was clear that the ball hit the foul pole (perhaps a few feet above the right field fence) and was a home run.

The Nationals beat the Phillies, 4-3.

Now I'm not going to argue that this blown call could cost the Phillies a season. Sure, it might have cost them last night's game, but the Phillies left a bunch of men on base, and Pat Burrell looked lost out there. As for the season, the Phils lost something like 25 of 31 in the heart of the summer, at a time when they had Ryan Madson and Gavin Floyd in the starting rotation, both of whom they stayed with too long. It wasn't until after the July 31 trading deadline that the team came to life, and it came to life once those who remained could relax because they weren't on the trading block any more. Presto, magico, and the Phillies, who have one of the two best records in September over the past two seasons, turned into a wild card contender.

All that said, the call last night was bad, and it does bear on the season. Isn't there anything Major League Baseball can do to correct obvious errors like this? Shouldn't the umpires' crew chief be able to check a TV monitor on long fouls that come close to the foul pole? Is there any harm in that?

No, I don't want NFL-like instant replay, and, of course, there is no way to penalize a baseball team with a timeout the way you can in the NFL if a team challenges a call. Still, in the past two weeks, the Phillies have lost two home runs (Ryan Howard's was the other) because the umpires weren't in position to make the call. That's not right, and something should change.

And, yes, I would say this if the Nationals or Padres or Dodgers were on the losing end of these decisions.

Apparently the umpiring crew from last night's game told a Comcast reporter that they felt terribly that they missed the call. It's good that they could admit the transgression, and I'm sure that the umpires will learn from the experience. Chast Utley was gracious after last night's game, saying that the umpires are human, and everyone makes mistakes (he booted a grounder last night that enabled the game-deciding run to score).

Lots of grace, lots of contrition.

But going into tonight's game, the Phillies are trailing the Dodgers by 1 in the Wild Card chase.

And they shouldn't be.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Compelling Unsuccessful Owners to Sell a Team

Bear with me here.

Suppose you live in a town where your team has lost more than it's won for more than ten years in a row. Suppose that during this time the same ownership group has owned the team for seven years. It's a fact that the four major sports leagues have a monopoly on the sport in your town. In any other business, if you have seven bad years in a row you're probably out of business and the management team is gone, most likely long gone. In baseball, basketball, football and hockey that doesn't happen.

Al Davis continues to run the Oakland Raiders into the ground.

The Pirates have had, what, 14 straight losing seasons (and the same ownership group has owned them for more than five years, I believe).

David Glass hasn't done anything to help the Kansas City Royals' fortunes.

Up until recently, Donald Sterling made the L.A. Clippers the laughingstock of the National Basketball Association.

I'm sure that there are other examples.

The point is that the local fans are stuck. There was a great debate last week on ESPN Radio about the walkout that 1000 fans staged at Camden Yards last week to protest Peter Angelos' ownership of the Baltimore Orioles. If you know anything about Baltimore, you know it's a great baseball town. Its stadium is terrific, and its history from the 60's to the 80's was rich. Since the late 1980's, though, Baltimore fans haven't had much to cheer about.

So the fans staged their walkout. Peter Angelos, a pugnacious lawyer (and, no, that's not redundant), chastised them for their behavior, claiming that they didn't know what they were talking about and that they were dissing the players on the field (query whether, if asked privately, the players would have agreed with them about Angelos' ownership of the team). The bottom line, as Angelos should know, is that the figures don't lie. The great thing about sports is that the won-lost record is the final metric as to whether you've had a good season. And how many consecutive losing seasons have the Orioles had? Nine, to be exact.

Mike Greenberg thought the gesture was eloquent, but in the end he agreed with Mike Golic that the walkout would have no effect. The fans really aren't going to turn their backs on baseball. Sure, some will, as there are many who won't support a perpetual loser. Fair enough. But for the rest of us who don't want to throw out the experience of sharing a great game through the generations of our families, we're stuck. Sure, we could switch allegiance to an out-of-town team, but it's not easy to travel hundreds of miles to a game and it's not a guarantee that you'll be able to get tickets. Put simply, you're stuck with the bad ownership for as long as they decide to own the team. You'll go to the games because you like the sport and because the opposing team might have some good players, but you're experience will be a relatively numb one.

And that's just plain unfair. I won't argue the merits of whether pro sports are a "business" according to the U.S. Supreme Court and, as a result, deserve the protections they get as monopolies, but I will argue to the Lords of Sports the point of fundamental fairness -- it just isn't fair to Royals' fans or Raiders' fans or even Phillies' fans (the last 2 seasons and 1993 notwithstanding, as the past 22 years under the current ownership has been a painful experience for the most part) that they have to suffer with unsuccessful ownership for years on end. The fans should have some say, shouldn't they? Or, if they shouldn't have those rights, shouldn't the sport as a whole have some say so as to police its trademark and the quality of the game? Shouldn't they say to Kansas City, "hey, you've had your shot, ownership, but now it's time to sell the team. Auction it off, get New York investment bankers in a bidding war for a new toy, sell it for hundreds of millions, but sell it and let someone else try to run the team. Someone who, as a qualified bidder, will agree to increase the team's payroll well past the Florida Marlins' "Loria" line of $15 million to the average of the league within three years of owning the team. Someone who will have to sell the team if they don't have a certain amount of winning seasons over a certain period of time.

That rule, in and of itself, will make all pro sports leagues more competitive and give the loyal fans in some towns with historical doormats some hope. Royals' fans who so loyally supported George Brett and Company deserve better, as do Raiders' fans who recall a time when no one wanted to face Ken Stabler, Art Shell and Gene Upshaw. Pirates' fans deserve a return to the days of Pops Stargell and Dave Parker at some point, don't they? The pro leagues all have their pockets of perennial losers. And, yes, now the Baltimore Orioles fit that bill.

Sorry, Mr. Angelos, but your team has had nine losing seasons in a row. Clearly, the genius you have shown in winning lawsuits has not translated to the baseball diamond. There's no great shame in that. You entered the arena, did the best you think you could have, but you did not succeed. Many don't. But unlike the real world, where businesses that can't turn a profit end up getting acquired or shuttered, you can continue on with your exclusive license, charge more than five bucks for a beer and throw out a pitching staff more ready for a beer league than the Major Leagues.

And get away with it.

That's just not right.

The fans of Baltimore, Oakland, Kansas City and all of professional sports deserve better. All organized leagues should adopt a "call" rule that enables them to require a franchise's ownership group to put the team up for sale if minimum requirements for success are not met. America is the great meritocracy, so if these are our great American games, they have to compete on a fair business playing field that enables the consumer to have a chance at seeing a winner. Putting in this "call" rule will ensure loyal fans that they will actually have a chance to root for a winner.

Is there anything wrong with that?

There are little boys and girls in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Kansas City who have grown up and are growing up watching bad teams. Don't try to buy them off with the fact that at least they get to see the Yankees, Red Sox, Braves, A's, etc. come to town, and they should be satisfied with that. Who is satisfied with that? Who likes rooting for a team with no hope? It's just not right.

I watch my local team, the Phillies, with excitement these days. Last night they lost a compelling game to the Astros, a game between two teams fighting for playoff spots. There was a sellout crowd, and the fans hung on every pitch. The hometown nine lost, but the game was a great one. It was a great feeling to be able to watch a game that meant something on September 25 for only the second time in the past 20 years (and the second time in the past two years). Too infrequent, of course, but fun last night (and, yes, I still believe that the best thing the current ownership group could do is sell the team, because they would have been out of business and jobs years ago if the market in which they compete is truly competitive). Everyone should have that feeling -- or at least the chance to have that feeling.

Walkouts like the one the Orioles' fans staged are noble but won't achieve the goal of having current ownership sell the team. But they should send a message to professional sports leagues that they should not tolerate bad ownership groups who are not committed to fielding winners.

It's time for a change.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Finishing

I don't recall when I first heard this term used in sports, although it might have been used in conjunction with Chris Webber's role on Michigan's "Fab Five" teams in the 90's. Webber isn't a great shooter, but he had a knack of getting inside and making a lot of baskets in traffic. It also seemed like he could follow others' shots and convert offensive rebounds into scores. The Fab Five rolled over most of its competition, and they had a good knack of finishing off opponents. Put differently, when they had an opponent in a bad place, they kept them there. True, those Michigan teams did not win a national title, but they did finish off most of their opponents.

Now, that term is widely used, and whether you use it in sports or in business, you know the types of teams, players, people and companies you're talking about. You're talking about people who take a project from start to finish and, yes, they get it done -- well and on time.

Fast forward to today, where at the start of the fourth quarter my beloved hometown football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, was smacking their division rivals, the New York Giants, all over Lincoln Financial Field. Donovan McNabb's offense was impressive (despite a few drops from starting FB Thomas Tapeh), and the defense put a great rush on Eli Manning (who, when they didn't, excelled at finding open receivers). The much-talked about defensive line, which goes eight deep and sometimes substituted the back-up line for the starters, fired off the ball well, the Giants, relatively speaking, look tired, and it was 24-7 at the start of the fourth quarter.

And then the Eagles forgot that they were playing the formidable New York Giants, a division rival (oh, I said that already), a team that made the playoffs last year, and a team that most predicted would finish ahead of them in the division this year. Andy Reid's offense got conservative and neglected to do what had given them the big lead (shades of the sleep-walking that they suffered during the fourth quarter when trying to come from behind the Patriots in the Super Bowl two years ago). Michael Lewis failed to pick up a Plexico Burress fumble deep in Eagles' territory that would have ended the Giants' drive early in the fourth quarter (Tim Carter ended up falling on the ball for a TD that, after the PAT, made it 24-14, Eagles. Had Lewis picked up the ball, the score would have been 24-7, with the Eagles in possession. Talking about a big swing -- in points and momentum). Brian Westbrook fumbled later in the quarter, Trenton Cole incurred a stupid personal foul in that gave Giants' kicker Jay Feely an makeable FG with ten seconds to go to send the game into OT, #4 CB Joselio Hanson seemingly played his way onto the waiver wire with his inability to cover a bed let alone Amani Toomer or Burress, and the Eagles' imploded.

To the Giants' great credit, the Eagles' failure to finish them coincided nicely with their refusal to believe that they were finished. They kept on coming at the Eagles, and their fortitude was rewarded. Eli Manning, battered but unbowed, kept on rallying his team, and he hooked up with Burress with about 5 to go in OT to give the Giants' an improbable walk-off win in OT, 30-24.

It wasn't rope-a-dope, it wasn't playing possum, it was just a refusal to quit when the other team had hit them hard for three quarters of the game. The Eagles had the Giants on the ropes and failed to finish them, and, despite what Giants' fans might say now, after three quarters most, if not all, believed that their season was in jeopardy and that their team was finished for the afternoon. Give the Giants loud kudos-- they fought back mightily and will build on this win in weeks to come. But as much credit as the Giants deserve, the Eagles deserve the same amount of criticism. In the weeks to come, we'll see whether this victory will be more of a boon to the Giants than the crushing defeat will be a consistent nag on the Eagles' confidence.

The Eagles just plain blew it today.

Going into the game, many Eagles fans expected their team to lose today. They were concerned that the Giants needed the game more, and, as a result, would come in more focused. The Giants did need the game more and got out of the gate quickly, but it was the focus of the Eagles that impressed everyone for 3/4 of the game. Given the way the game went down today, Eagles fans will be most bummed not only that the team lost, but how they lost.

Philadelphia is a city starved for a champion. Deep down, Eagles fans had hoped that last year was an aberration, and that their beloved Birds would recover, go 10-6, and at least make the playoffs this season. Their schedule is tough, but their defense seems revamped, and the offense seems reinvigorated. Most fans won't despair after this loss, for it's much too early in the season. It's when we're in week 13 or 14, with 3 starters on the IR and the team battling for a wild card spot or division title, that they could look back on this game and wonder what the season might have been had they been able to finish the Giants today.

The Giants' showed a champion's determination today. They keep their calm and took each series one at a time, and with precision they wore down the Eagles' defense and exploited the absence of Lito Sheppard and Rod Hood in the secondary. Helmets off to them for a wonderful effort. When everyone thought they were finished, they finished strong.

The Eagles?

They simply failed to finish.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

FIFA's Probably Got It Right This Time

The U.S. national team is now ranked #29 in the world rankings.

You'll recall that going into the World Cup, they were ranked #5, only to not survive the first round of play. It didn't help that they were paired with the Czechs and the Italians (and the U.S. was ranked ahead of the World Cup champions going into the tournament).

You wonder what goes into the rankings, but retrospectively it's hard to see how the U.S. could have been ranked so high with very few of its players playing on good teams in the top leagues (some exceptions: Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride). Now the U.S. is probably where it belongs, and, hopefully, those who run U.S. soccer know that in addition to youth programs and hype, they need to get their best players playing in the best leagues in Europe and succeeding. Until that happens, the U.S. program probably will be like a low-Division I hoops program in NCAA Basketball, where getting into the tournament is an achievement and getting past the first round is the best you can do.

SI.Com's Fan Value Index for Baseball Stadiums

Click here and read all about it.

The difference between the best FVI and the worst is significant, and the one thing that you'll find is that age does matter. The older stadiums don't fare so well, but some of the newer ones don't excel the way their teams and their designers probably think that they should.

Read the whole thing and tell me what you think.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Great Baseball Vignette

Yesterday was an awful day in Southeastern Pennsylvania, as we were feeling the effects of Hurricane Ernesto. Fortunately, there wasn't any flooding, just a steady, soaking rain that began Friday night and continued throughout yesterday afternoon. And, no, The Cat in the Hat didn't show up to entertain us, we just had a few play dates for the kids, baked cookies, and watched our local baseball team fend for itself in the intrigue that has become the National League's wild card race.

We had tickets to last night's contest, a regularly scheduled affair between the Braves and the Phillies, under cover on the first level, months ago, figuring that we'd see a decent game between the perenially power in the NL East and our hometown Phillies. What made matters more interesting was that a game that was rained out on July 22 was scheduled for yesterday afternoon, which made yesterday a "day-night" doubleheader. Why was that interesting? The weather, of course. Going into Friday, the reports on Ernesto's path were dire enough to lead the average fan to wonder whether they would play any baseball in Philadelphia before Sunday.

The first game, scheduled to begin at 1:05 p.m., didn't start until about 2:35 p.m., thanks to Ernesto. In addition, that game began in a rainstorm, which thankfully abated as the game went on. Thanks to a few homers from Chase Utley, the Phillies held a 3-2 lead going into the top of the ninth. Unfortunately for the Phillies, their closer, Tom Gordon, still isn't available after complaining of shoulder soreness in early August. That has meant that Phillies' skipper Charlie Manuel has had to resort to a bullpen by committee that consists of the ever-seemingly-washed up Arthur Rhodes, middle reliever Geoff Geary, a good thrower of strikes but a pitcher without a great out pitch, and swingman Ryan Madson, who has not improved upon his breakout year in 2004 and seemingly has regressed. To make a long story short, for the second game in a row (the other being Thursday night's against the Nationals in DC), the Phillies' bullpen blew a lead. This time it was Rhodes who gave up a monster shot to the red-hot first baseman Adam LaRoche to give the Braves a 4-3 win. Ouch and double ouch!

Going into Thursday night, the Phillies were 60-0 in games they led after eight innings. Now they are 60-2. Every team in the wild-card race has serious flaws, most of them having to do with pitching. Put that flawed pitching under a magnifying glass, and, well, you wonder why the team is in the wild-card race to begin with, and then you remind yourself that outside the Mets most NL teams just aren't that good. Having watched the Phillies lose that game, we were wondering whether it was in fact worth it to drive down I-95 to Citizens Bank Park, especially at the tail end of a hurricane.

It wasn't a hard decision, really, as we had paid good money for the tickets, we had been inside all day, we were going to sit under cover, and the weather looked like it was clearing. So the kids put on their Phillies' shirts and hats, we took rain gear, we took our family scorebook (where we're keeping score of the games we attend), the kids grabbed their gloves, and off we went. We made great time in getting to CBP, in part because the afternoon game wasn't that well attended (the weather and the fact that it wasn't a regularly scheduled game but a makeup game on a holiday weekend probably had a lot to do with that). I got the kids' a cheesteak (which they split), and then my daughter, who is 9, asked if we could go down to the dugout area to try to get autographs.

She had prepared for this day by making sure that my wife brought a Sharpie (the pen which writes on every surface) with her to the game. So, after my 6 year-old son and she finished eating, we walked over a few sections and down the stairs all the way to right behind the dugout. My daughter was hoping a player would sign her hat; my son was hoping someone would sign his glove.

I told the kids that last night was probably not the optimal time to expect players to sign. After all, it was a lousy day weather-wise, the players had gotten to the park very early for the first game, and they probably weren't in great moods because of the way they lost the first game. In addition, there wasn't much time allotted between games -- because of the rain delay in the first game -- so they had to compress their pre-game warm-ups. In fact, there was no batting practice before the second game. In short, I didn't expect it to be a target-rich environment.

Now it's hard to get pre-game autographs at most parks to begin with. The dugouts are formidable barriers, and their roofs are long enough that it's not so simple as to hand things to players (whose backs are usually to the stands anyway). There is an element of "toss and catch" involved -- the player has to indicate a willingness to sign, and then you toss your item and a Sharpie to him. Many players don't sign -- because they believe that there isn't time to sign eveyrone's stuff, and, therefore, they don't want to risk alienating anyone so they don't sign. At least that's a theory I heard espoused.

The kids stood right behind the home-plate end of the dugout, near the side where Charlie Manuel stands and watches games. Closer to the other end, rookie OF Chris Roberson was patiently signing balls and gloves for fans. Many Phillies were far away, on the outfield grass behind first base, doing some sprints and stretching. At about 5 of 7 I told the kids it was getting a little bleak (we had been there for all of about 7 minutes) and that in a few minutes the security people would ask us to leave because the game was to start at 7:05. My kids were good-natured about the whole affair -- they went into the quest with low expectations.

Then something pretty neat happened.

Right after we got to the dugout, Jeff Conine and Jose Hernandez, both of whom the Phillies acquired for the wild-card chase, emerged from the dugout to have a catch (Conine started the second game in right; Hernandez started in third -- both would have great nights). As their catch ended, Jeff Conine started to head toward the part of the dugout where the steps near Charlie Manuel's usual perch are. The kids, in their Phillies' finest, looked at him with a modest degree of hope. He saw them, I could have sworn he winked, smiled, pointed to my son, and then gestured with the ball to my daughter, and then he proceeded to roll the ball atop the dugout roof right to my nine-year old daughter. His eyes caught mine, I said, "Thank you very much", and he nodded his head in acknowledgment, both of us, even for a brief instant, sharing the moment that it was special for young kids to receive a baseball from a big leaguer. The kids shouted "Thank you" as well, and they were just amazed that the Phillies' rightfielder tossed them a ball and made their night.

It was very cool.

An older couple -- there with their adult daughter -- saw the whole thing and nodded at me with warm smiles, sharing the moment of how special it can be to go to a ballpark. I relish every trip to the ballpark with my family, as I had years ago when my father and I went to Veterans Stadium on Sundays to watch outstanding teams play before 45,000 people. Jeff Conine made this night particularly special for my kids, and we won't forget the night for a long while. Atop that, the Phillies won 16-4, rapping out 20 hits, and Jeff Conine had a wonderful night.

We've put the ball in a lucite case in our family room -- my son was quick to point out that it's an official ball -- and one day we hope to get Jeff Conine's autograph on it. Whether we get that signature or not, we have something better -- a moment together, and a moment involving a big-leaguer who seems to know just how special the big-league experience really is.

Another great reason to go to the ballpark!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Stand and Deliver (Update)

Prep Charter raised the $20,000 it needed to start its football team! In about 6 weeks, many people from various parts of head coach Larry Arata's life came through, along with people who read Phil Sheridan's very nice article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about Larry and the program. A hearty thanks to all of you who contributed.

You'll probably read more on this topic from time to time. A bunch of us who are friendly with Larry are going to try to put together a group that gets together on an annual basis to raise the money for this program and keep the fund evergreen. Naturally, we'll need to get the school's and Larry's blessing, but if we get them, the possibilities are endless. Perhaps we'll even get an autographed Vince Papale jersey to auction at our first charity auction!

The Gallup guys wrote a book called "How Full is Your Bucket?", and it's basic premise is that we all have "buckets" and that by helping others fill up theirs, we fill up our own. By helping Prep Charter and its football team, we help a worthy group of kids participate in a worthwhile program. We fill their buckets -- and their community's buckets -- by helping fortify a great activity. Correspondingly, we've filled our own by helping make our community a better place.

Prep Charter and football may not be your thing, but if you don't have a few good causes yet try to think about what your causes might be and then get involved. You'll be glad you did.