SportsProf

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

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

If You're A Referee, I'd Like to Hear from You

I've heard some disturbing stories recently about parents who tried to intimidate referees at high school matches. In one instance, the parents parked their cars in such a way to block the ref's car in.

This was in a pretty well-heeled suburb, at a soccer game.

What, on earth, gives?

These are games.

Children's games.

Games are supposed to be fun.

If we start to evaluate our society by how we play our games, then we're not doing so well, are we? Yes, it's fun to win, but within the spirit of sportsmanship.

What are your stories?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Maybe Litigation Isn't So Bad After All

Over the weekend, a father in Philadelphia was accused of pulling a gun on his child's youth football team for allegedly not giving the kid enough playing time.

The kids in question are 6 and 7 years old. It makes you quiver to think what some parents would do to get their kids into a high-school contest.

It's hard to comment on this except to speculate that the father in question has other issues he's dealing with and that this issue, for whatever reason, sent him over the edge. But assuming he's a good employee, neighbor, provider and, yes, family member, what motivated him to do something as stupid as this?

It makes you wonder what fun our kids and their kids will have in store 25 years from now, doesn't it?

Gaylord Perry Lives

Read this and see what I mean.

Now everyone on the Cardinals will wonder whether Kenny Rogers is loading up the ball when he next pitches in the Series. His hands may be clean, they may sign him up for Dove commercials (or some form of axle grease used in Motown), but that still could leave the average Cardinal hitter (who, outside of Albert Pujols, isn't that good) wondering about which way the ball will dip.

Somewhere, Gaylord Perry is smiling.

And thoughts of the other Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler" come to mind. Because now Kenny Rogers the pitcher is playing a game of "Texas Hold 'Em" against the St. Louis Cardinals. Only he isn't in Texas any more, he's in Detroit, and he has the opposition guessing.

And he's pitching with the calm of a world champion poker player.

Will the ball dip, or won't it? Is it splattered with dip, or isn't it?

Watch out for Game Three.

Rumor has it that the Cards will sit on their bench before the game with files to polish up their spikes.

Detroit and St. Louis.

Ty Cobb, Kid Elberfeld, Wahoo Sam Crawford.

Dizzy Dean, Ducky Medwick and the rest of the The Gas House Gang.

Bring it on!

And watch to see if the games first pitch gives the Tigers' leadoff hitter a close shave.

Somehow, the umps would enforce the rule book on that one and warn the Cardinals' bench.

Why they didn't enforce the same book on Sunday night and toss Kenny Rogers is open to speculation.

Why Tony LaRussa didn't go out there and raise up a big storm also is open to question.

And now Kenny Rogers has 'em guessing for the rest of the Series.

Homecoming

Lost in all of the shuffle of a busy weekend in sports was my homecoming, where the Princeton Tigers hosted the Harvard Crimson, and my son asked me a few times what's Harvard's mascot. I was about to quip something like "Chairman of the Fed" when I realized that he could be Princeton's mascot. Of course, there is a Tiger on the field, but we didn't spot anyone in a Crimson suit acting, well, like a Crimson. For the six year-old set, that's important stuff.

It was a beautiful day in Princeton, and the alumni were out in full force. The Princeton University Band, which features a violinist among its members, entertained alums at pre-game parties, like this one:




Okay, so there are no band and athletic scholarships, and this band is about 32-strong and will not be confused with a band from the SEC, which probably gives scholarships and has about 200 members on average. Then again, ask most people at this Ivy contest what they first think about when they hear SEC, and they'll tell you it's the Securities and Exchange Commission. My guess is that the regulatory agency in DC probably has more folks in it who are alums of Ivy bands than SEC bands, but then you never know.

There was anticipation in the air. Harvard and Princeton both went into the game undefeated, and it was the first time since 1922 (and Princeton's famed "Team of Destiny) that both squads faced each other when undefeated. Harvard's QB was returning after a five-game suspension. Crimson fans would argue that he'd be rusty and therefore Princeton would have the advantage; Princeton fans would counter, more convincingly, I think, that the Crimson would have the advantage because the Tiger coaches weren't able to watch films of the QB this year and plan a defense against him.

In any event, it was a back-and-forth contest. We sat on the visitors' side of the field, where it was about 10 degrees warmer and we had to squint a bit. We watched the Harvard offensive line coaches fire up the troops, and heard a New Englander amongst the linemen exhort his teammates to "kick their asses", but with the "a" in "asses" sounding Roosevelt-like in its patrician discourse, so it was "ah-sses". The young man was passionate, but it was clear that the Harvard O-line was not going to whip out Steve Austin's "Bottle of Whup-Ass" any time soon. You gotta remember that unlike in certain other conferences, Ivy kids don't get course credit for playing football. Somehow, it's hard to fear a pollysyllabic behemoth who might have read Ivanhoe all that seriously when compared, say, to a 310-pound NFL O-lineman who's favorite reading is the menu at McDonald's. The former may have some appeal to the New York Times set, but it's the latter who leads your hometown team to a Super Bowl championship.

But don't say the Ivy kids don't care as much. They do. (The fans probably don't, as the Princeton Stadium wasn't full, and it seats only 25,000 fans).

Fight fiercely, Harvard did. On the one hand, it must be easier to coach "smart" kids. On the other, their bodies can't always do what the coaches want them to do. Here's an example of a Harvard precept (the coach is the guy kneeling with the Harvard baseball cap on backwards, drawing up a formation):



While the line play interested my kids, they thought it was really nice of the Harvard kicker to serve the other player drinks. Cute observation, because on most football squads the kicker is lucky not to have the offensive linemen tape him to the goalposts after practice. I didn't tell the kids that, though. They might get the wrong impression about kickers, football and Ivy League football.

At any rate, the Tigers enjoyed a good first half after having their first punt blocked and seeing the Harvards score on the ensuing possession. After that, it was mostly Princeton, as the Tigers led 24-14 at the half and seemed in control of the contest. There was a controversial unsportsmanlike conduct call on the Tigers at the end of the first half that led to a Harvard score. My group was about as far away from the call as a fan could be at Princeton Stadium, so we chalked it up to overzealousness and a player one-upping an opponent about which school had the better genomics program. Getting the last word on boasting about tougher curricula is probably worth 15 yards if the punch line was good enough. Then again, from a football standpoint, that call helped give Harvard renewed life.

Harvard woke up after halftime. Perhaps the head coach chanted "Larry Summers" ten times to the left side of the defensive line and linebacking corps at halftime, or perhaps he appealed to their sense of scholarship by positing that the Princeton players felt superior because their school has taken steps against grade inflation while Harvard has not. Or perhaps he told them that their play resembled a bunch of Republican congressmen running from the press at the mention of former Congressman Foley's name more than an undefeated football team on a quest for a championship, but whatever the motivation, the Harvard eleven responded.

Two touchdowns later, is was 28-24, Harvard, and things looked bleak for Princeton. The Harvard QB looked like an upper Midwestern version of Donovan McNabb (this is a very loose analogy, because he ran well, but his physique more resembled that of College Physics Magazine's Hunk of the Year Contest winner than that of the Philadelphia Eagles' QB, who, at about 240 pounds, could fit in on the average Ivy line with little problem), dropping back and then running for first downs. The Princeton defense tried to contain him, and they had difficulty. Yet, during the day, they excelled at keeping their arms in their air trying to defend passes, and ultimately a few fell into the hands of Princeton's nickel back late in the game.

The Tigers marched downfield on the first of that future Wall Street star's picks, and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on one of Harvard's defensive backs helped the Tigers immeasurably. Whether the young man was flagged for boasting about Harvard's larger endowment is open for speculation, but the Tigers drew energy from the flag and scored what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown. Final score: Princeton 31, Harvard 28.

Yes, the Tigers are actually tied with Yale for first place in the Ivies. Here's proof:



And that's when the second pick happened, again by the same defensive back, and the Tigers ended up running out the clock.

Good food, good friends, good weather, the kids had fun, so what's more to ask on Homecoming, I ask?

Parking -- Free.

Pre-Game Party -- Free.

Tickets at the 40-yard line -- $4 apiece.

Programs -- Free.

Post-Game Party (with shrimp and oysters) -- Free.

Victory over Harvard at Homecoming and a fun outing with the family: Priceless.

Or, as they would chant in Tigertown:

Hip, hip, hip!

Rah, rah, rah!

Tiger, tiger, tiger!

Sis, sis, sis!

Boom, boom, boom!

Bah!

Tigers, Tigers, Tigers!



Sunday, October 22, 2006

And the Only Reason Billy King Keeps His Job As 76ers' GM Is. . .

that the 76ers are up for sale.

Think about it, the Flyers get off to an atrocious start this year. First, the cut three players, including a 15-year NHL veteran and a free agent they signed in the off-season to firm up their back line, and, then, they show long-time fan favorite and favorite of owner Ed Snider, Bob Clarke, their GM, the gate, along with well-respected coach Ken Hitchcock. Put simply, the Flyers were caught napping when the NHL changed the rules after the strike season and ended up with lummoxes when they needed cheetahs. Most teams figured out that the brawling, hit 'em with your big guys style that Ed Snider helped found in the mid-1970's finally became extinct.

Except for Snider and Clarke, and, well, the "owner" (Snider acts as owner but Comcast Corporation actually owns the team) doesn't get fired. It had to be hard for Snider, though, to see Clarke go, because Clarke is like a second son to him.

So why was the headline about the 76ers? Because Comcast owns them, too, and they've performed worse than the local hockey team over the past five seasons and Billy King still holds onto his job as GM. Funny thing was that King was once rumored to be a U.S. Senate candidate to face Republican Arlen Specter. That led to two thoughts -- 1) he could do less damage in the Senate than he could to the local hoops team and 2) what made anyone think he could do anything in the Senate since he's failed at helping run the local hoops team, Duke degree and Coach K connection (as well as Larry Brown connection) or not.

But Billy King remains, probably because the team is up for sale and won't make any changes until it is sold. Somehow, it strikes me that Billy King won't be the GM under the new ownership, and he may want to hook up with his fellow Duke alums Christian Laettner and Brian Davis and try for a second act with the Memphis Grizzlies.

At any rate, don't look for either the Flyers or the 76ers to improve quickly.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Flag Football and Throwing a Football Around

My six year-old plays in a flag football league with a bunch of other first graders, and it's hilarious to watch. The kids wear colored jerseys and are named after college teams (and, yes, there is a Miami), and the jerseys are the size of hospital dressing growns for the big and tall set than rather particularly tailored to the skinny boys that tend to populate this game. The kids wear the jerseys, black pants and cleats, and they are required to don mouthgards (whether they can keep them in their mouths or not hold onto them while they play is another story).

And then there are the flags, which rest on either hip at the end of a belt contraption and which are the source of every defensive player's attention. Grab a flag, and you've "caught" or "stopped" your man. The kids line up with five kids on the line and two in the backfield. Most of the plays are running plays, some reverses, some misdirection, and an occasional passing play. Sometimes it looks like a fire drill, and at other times you get the one kid who is quicker than others, sometimes because he's spent a lot of his free time chasing after his older siblings. My kid's team has one of those kids, and every time he touches the ball he runs at least for half the field. And he's also the kid who makes most of the stops on defense.

My son likes to block, and the coaches tell the kids to hold their blocks. Sometimes the kids take their coaches too literally and simply hold, so instead of holding their blocks they are holding their opposite numbers. He likes to snap the ball and play quarterback, and he's had some keepers where he's scrambled into the secondary, if only to have the fastest kid on the other team get one of his flags right before he is able to break into daylight. He threw an incomplete pass and was lucky to escape the fate of one of his teammates, who threw an interception that, yes, the fastest kid on the other team -- and boy was this kid fast -- ran in for a score.

There's also the kicking game, and, no, they don't kick points after touchdown. Rather, they try two-point conversions, but they do kick off. When it was my son's turn, I figured that he would suffer the fate of his teammates by running up to the ball and then stopping his momentum (and torque) and then dribble the ball on the ground for about ten yards. But he didn't do that. Instead, he kept his momentum and hit a line drive that went about ten or more feet in the air and many yards downfield, well over the heads of the boys on the opposing team. I was amazed, agape.

So what happened?

The fastest kid on the other team scooped up the ball and made a beeline right up the middle of the field. In essence, my son outkicked his coverage -- on a kickoff. Fortunately, he had kept on running straight downfield and yanked the flag out of the kick returners belt, making the stop. So who said kickers aren't tough enough?

Amazed and agape, again. But very mellow in my celebration, of course.

Most parents are mellow, and the league has a code of conduct that prevents parents from doing anything other than encouraging the teams. Occasionally, there's a parent who's on the sidelines pacing, waiting to see his kid's talent emerge and break a run. I'm told that the parental interest (or is it interference?) increases markedly as the children age, but I doubt I'll be one of those parents (and I doubt my son will be one of those kids who will be a star running back at high school, but there are those who look like they could be on their way). Still, the kids are only six, and it will take many years for the talent to develop and, importantly, separate.

My wife isn't a huge football fan, and when she's gone to the games I've asked her for a report on what's happened, and she shrugs and smiles. "It's hard to say," she has offered on more than one occasion. "It looks like a bunch of kids running around, and it's hard to see what they're supposed to be doing." And then she adds, with a smile, "But it looks like they're having a lot of fun."

Which is the way it's supposed to be.

I don't know whether my son will continue playing flag football or will graduate to the Pop Warner's tackle division. He and I and my daughter (who's nine) love throwing a football around the yard, and my daughter has offered that she can throw a football better than any girl in her fourth-grade class (the gym teacher has taught them how to pass). After receiving some of her spirals last weekend, I can testify that she has quite a good arm and probably throws better than some of the boys (she wants to be a softball pitcher). And it's a really fun thing to do, tossing around a football, on a sunny weekend afternoon with no time constraints, laughing and pretending to be the favorite pro football player of the moment. We do it in the fall, we do it in the summer, and we look forward to do it on Thanksgiving. On that particular day, there's something very special, and we're thinking of talking with a bunch of families in the neighborhood to combine for a Thanksgiving morning touch football game.

That, too, should be a lot of fun.

To be clear, I am not sold on the overall football climate in this country, but when you individualize it and make it fun the way we have tried to, well, to a large extent that's what really should matter.

Just remember that when you send your six year-old to "go long", don't send him on a collision course with the mailbox.

John Chaney in Retirement

Mark Kram of The Philadelphia Daily News wrote an excellent article in today's paper about the retirement of former Temple basketball coach John Chaney. Coach Chaney sounds and looks very relaxed, and the stories that are related in the article are great. There's a particularly good one about a painting called "The Bench," that will make you laugh.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

As We March Further Down the Road to Childhood Obesity

School districts are banning games of tag in the school yard.

Yikes!

Risk management rules again. It's better to avoid a tort risk than to create an environment where our kids can improve their physical fitness and avoid adding excess pounds. You can insure for the former, can't you, but not the latter? And, yes, kids can get hurt (doing anything), but shouldn't they be able to be kids and have free play? Does all play have to be programmed, like youth soccer?

How many rules can there be? How many rules should there be? Can't we just let kids be kids and run around and create their own games?

Enough is enough.

General Managers Gone Wild

Well, not exactly, and, certainly, not yet.

But because of the Yankees' crash in the post-season and the Mets' starting pitching problems (as evidenced by last night's loss) the post-season sweepstakes for starting pitching will be a feeding frenzy.

And this guy should get a ton of money, as it seems like the Yankees and Mets will have to pursue him. This guy should fare well, too (and likewise will draw interest from both of those teams). And the way he's pitched in the NLCS, Jeff Weaver, despite his spotty track record in recent seasons, could well get a Derek Lowe-like contract (you'll recall Lowe's heroics in the 2004 post-season after he was yanked from the BoSox rotation during the regular season).

The Mets have a frail Pedro Martinez, an ancient (if very gutsy) El Duque (who well could be in his forties), a soon-to-be-long-gone Steve Trachsel, an Old Master (who might not get the calls on the lines anymore) in Tom Glavine and an up-and-comer in John Maine. That's not exactly a starting pitching staff that makes people think "well, there's a strong chance of post-season success." It's relatively old, battered and tired.

The Yankees have Chien-Ming Wang, who is excellent, but they also have Randy Johnson, who's undergoing back surgery, who's old and who hasn't pitched well, Carl Pavano, who hasn't been healthy since he's been in NY and hasn't exactly wowed anyone with his judgment and Jaret Wright, on whom they've never been able to count. Cory Lidle, who just passed way, would have been a free agent, and Mike Mussina is a free agent and, from what I've gathered, unlikely to return (although I confess that I may be wrong about that). This, too, is not a pitching staff that makes one think that the Bronx Bombers are likely to make a deep run in the post-season. It's incomplete, inconsistent and injury-prone.

Oh, it's a fine time to be a free agent starting pitcher when both New York teams will be in the hunt, big-time, to fortify their staffs and are in need of at least two starting pitchers apiece.

Once the World Series is over and free-agent signing season begins, the hunt for big baseball game is on.

And the trophies are the guys who can pitch 200 innings and bring you 15 wins a season.

Omar Minaya has done a great job with the Mets, but the early line says that George Steinbrenner will get who he wants. Minaya, after all, hasn't been in Queens all that long, and he hasn't gone head-to-head with the Yankees.

It's the T-Rex versus the Raptor.

And it ought to be fun to watch.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

I Know Sports Frog is Good, But. . .

I never knew how good. Gary Clark's update on the English Premiership is just first-rate.

And, yes, I'm playing ESPN's English Premiership Fantasy Soccer game. You get a budget, and you basically need to find guys who either can score or prevent the other team from scoring. One thing's certain -- take Thierry Henry, the Arsenal striker from France who just may be the best striker in the world.

Book Review: Michael Lewis's "The Blind Side"

Within the past couple of weeks, I read two excerpts from Michael Lewis's new book, one in the Sunday New York Times Magazine and one in Sports Illustrated. Both were excellent, and both compelled me to run out and buy "The Blind Side," which is Michael Lewis's new book regarding the evolution of the left tackle position in the National Football League. Lewis's last book, Moneyball, illustrated how a creative general manager, Oakland's Billy Beane, could field competitive teams by spending less and using statistics to find outstanding players measured in terms of metrics that not every team was willing to adopt.

The book hits the evolution of the position of left tackle from two distinct angles. One has Lewis address how the advent of the New York Giants' Lawrence Taylor in the early 1980's, and his team's deployment of the blitzing linebacker on a righthanded quarterback's blind side, had teams scrambling to figure out how to better protect their most prized player, the starting quarterback. (The advent of Chris Doleman, the quick and strong defensive end for the Vikings, contributed to the evolution too).

Before the advent of players like Taylor and Doleman, all offensive linemen were lumped together and paid similar sums. After the arrival of those players, teams had to find big and quick offensive linemen who could thwart those able players (such as Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace and William Roaf, among others). The left tackle, then, moved from being just another lummox-like offensive lineman to, in many cases, the second highest paid player on the team. Protecting the quarterback's blind side, to this day, is a key driver for all NFL coaches. Each year contenders turn into pretenders after they lose their starting quarterback to injury and the backup simply cannot run the offensive to playoff standards. That's why protecting the starter is so important, and that's why left tackle is such a prestigious position.

The book's second angle is much more compelling. It shows to what lengths colleges will go to lure the next best left tackle prospect to their school, and, more importantly, how a kid emerged from nowhere in Memphis (how this kid made it out of a horrible situation is a tribute to the kid himself and the people who took him into their lives and homes) to become the hottest left tackle prospect in the country a few years back. It's the tale of Michael Oher, now the starting left tackle at Ole Miss, and of the Tuohy family, which adopted him. (Lewis has a Tuohy connection -- he and Sean Tuohy, Michael Oher's adoptive father, grew up together in New Orleans). Oher, a very large and nimble teenager (nimble from spending the ages 10-15 doing not much more than playing basketball most of the day and showing two guard skills despite being about 6'5", 350), showed up at a private Memphis Christian high school as a tenth grader (age-wise; school-wise, he was at the elementary school level). Tuohy's daughter attended that school, and Leigh Anne Tuohy, Sean's wife, became a second mother to Michael Oher. Through Michael's persistence and the Tuohys' dedication, he made it through high school and became a legimitate Division I recruit.

The book makes interesting observations about college football coaches, high school coaches, and college football programs (I doubt that Lewis will be invited to Ole Miss anytime soon, as the book makes head coach Ed Orgeron sound like a semi-articulate cheerleader who is trying to mode a bunch of kids who probably don't belong taking a college curriculum into a national championship football team). And the book cogently points out how much many coaches (prominent among them Tennesssee's Phil Fulmer and then-LSU coach Nick Saban) wanted this amazingly athletic big kid to anchor their offensive lines for years to come -- all because he has an amazing athletic gift that will enable him to battle hard-charging right defensive ends for years to come.

Each story -- the analysis of the evolution of the left tackle position in the NFL and the Michael Oher story -- makes for good reading separately. Together, you get a great sense of not only the importance of the left tackle position, but how far and wide the "College Football Industrial Complex", as it were, will go in America to source the next great left tackle.

Read the whole thing -- it's another winner from a great writer.

Monday, October 16, 2006

I'm Getting Old (And Here's Why)

Everyone knows that if Game 5 of the NLCS wasn't rained out tonight, the Mets would have had to chose pitching the likes of Pee Wee Herman, Bud Melman, Hawthorne Wingo or Joe Klecko in Game 5. Yes, the Mets pitching is depleted.

So bad, in fact, that at Shea Stadium the other night a fan held up that said: "Glavine and Maine and Pray for Rain."

I didn't watch the broadcast (it was a school night) at the hour the sign was shown, but a colleague at work mentioned it and thought it was a very clever sign. She's not that much younger than me, but she thought that the idea was original.

And she was wrong.

Most fans under 40 would think that such a sign is one of the most clever baseball signs in a long time. The fact is that it derives from almost half a century ago, when the Milwaukee Braves featured two outstanding pitchers, future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn (the winningest lefty of all time) and Johnny Sain (who would go on to become a very good if controversial pitching coach, controversial because his popularity on his team frequently eclipsed that of the manager's). Unfortunately, the Braves, who featured, among others, players like Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron, had little else in the way of starting pitching, so the saying, yes, was "Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain."

So while the Met fan who created the sign tapped into a rich baseball legacy, he wasn't original. It's a shame, though, that today most fans wouldn't know about Spahn or Sain and the Braves' need for rain (a variant of the slogan was "Spahn and Sain and Two Day's Rain", because then pitching rotations contained only four pitchers).

The Mets got that rain tonight, and that gives the Ancient Met Tommy Glavine an extra day's rest and the Metropolitans a better chance to go back to Queens leading the Cardinals 3-2 in the NLCS. I am too young to have watched Spahn or Sain, and I don't know whether they ever got the rain they needed (perhaps in '57, but then, I believe, the Braves also had Lew Burdette on the roster), but Glavine and Maine did.

Pray for rain, indeed.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

PlayStation Review: FIFA Soccer 07

Why do I play this, you ask?

It goes something like this:

I, like most of the rest of you, have a job that is challenging and occassionally stressful and frustrating. It's a job where we talk about goals and objectives, and it's a job where sometimes you can lead a team to an outstanding result and sometimes when the moons aren't aligned it resembles a cat-herding exercise. It's an international job, too, so it helps to know international cultural aspects to let your colleagues know that you care about their culture. I don't know if the prior sentence logically followed the one that preceded it, but I write this to give a backdrop as to why I play this particular game.

First, the kids started playing soccer at the age of 3. They've since taken a break from it because the soccer locals are intense about it and are seeking commitments at ages before the talent truly separates that my "renaissance" kids (my joking term, not anyone else's) don't want to make and neither do we. Travel soccer at 7 1/2 seemed a bit much and also seemed predicated on a parent's willingness to drive as much as a kid's ability to play, and that, to me, is a mixed message. Kids on competitive teams should play because they're the best players, not because their parents can do the driving. Otherwise, it's tough to win if you can't put the best team out there all the time (that is, you have to play everyone because everyone has been willing to make the trip, and kids who travel will get discouraged if they join the team but don't get to play). Anyway, I wanted to learn more about soccer, so I took up this game several years ago, first playing FIFA Soccer 05.

Second, I wanted to learn the international game. It goes without saying that soccer is the most popular sport in the world, and I wanted to know who the key players are and what the key leagues are. With the World Cup coming up in '06, I wanted to get a sense of which countries were the countries to watch and who were the key players. Ultimately I learned about players like Zidane, Cannavaro, Buffon, Cech, Dida, Robinho, Ronaldinho, Henry, Owen, Rooney, Figo, Deco, etc.

Third, I wanted something to relax with at the end of the day. I quickly learned that I could score goals every day if I played the game at its lowest level ("Amateur") took a good team (such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, AC Milan, Real Madrid, Juventus) against a bad one (such as Guegnon, Valenciennes, anyone in the English second division) and played at home. Initially I was winning 5-0, and then I started to win 8-0 or even once 11-0. How? I became adroit at dribbling, at passing, at handling the "set pieces" and at corner kicks. It was a great reward when I could center a ball from the wing and have an Henry or Rooney or von Nistelroy convert it into a goal. I don't get tired of the English announcer's exclaiming, "They just can't stop scoring." Occasionally I play the game in Spanish so I can hear the play-by-play announcer yell "Gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool!" in a fashion that makes my son and I smile widely every time I hear it. That type of enthusiasm is infectious.

Anyway, the 05 game was fun, and the 06 version took some getting used to. The quality of the graphics was better, but you had to adjust to the game and think a few more split seconds ahead. The set pieces also got easier to calibrate, for in the 05 game despite the best of my trying I usually sailed a free kick so far over or beside the goal that it caused the broadcaster to say "they could have had a goal next to the goal and he still wouldn't have scored." Yes, the broadcasting was realistic and frank, even if the set pieces weren't.

The 06 improved the graphics and fixed the set pieces and seemed a marked improvement over the 05 game. Also, the referees were more wont to give red cards for initial egregious fouls in the 06 game than in the 05 game, and that has continued into the 07 game. Still, in games that feature, say, Chelsea hosting Scunthorpe or Swansea or Arrington, you aren't likely to have that many cards, because the players from Chelsea are so much better that they run laps around the players from an average Football League Two team.

The 07 game is an excellent game, with some of the improvements being that you can play the game from the vantage point of varying camera angles. I have chosen the "Dynamic" angle (resembling a realistic broadcast), changing the default from an overhead camera that seemed rooted in an old U.S. basketball arena than in a football stadium. The sun for the day games seems a little bit bright, and there's no option (as there was in 05) for playing on a rainy day (actually in 05 the rain was randomly generated -- you couldn't ask for it). The fields look more realistic, even with worn patches around the goals. You can play games in various famous international venues, but it was a bit disappointing not to be able to play Arsenal at Tottenham at Tottenham's home pitch (apparently the EA people can only tailor the game to so many different stadiums, so yesterday I played that match at London's Wembley Stadium; Arsenal's, Chelsea's and Manchester United's home pitches are featured). That's a minor knock, however, because you can pick teams from an increasing number of international leagues (last year they added the Polish league, this year the Turkish). The 07 game is an improvement over the 06 game, but not as big an improvement as the 06 game was over the 05 game.

Overall, FIFA Soccer remains a winner and is a fun way to play computer soccer and to learn who the players are on what team. There is one word of caution for beginners: be patient, as you have to learn all of the different buttons on the PlayStation controller and how they can work in combination with each other. It takes time. Dribbing comes easily, as does basic passing and shooting. But when you want to lob, hit a hard cross or get an extra boost on your first touch, well, you need to play the game for a while to learn the nuances. Give yourself a few months, and you'll be playing the game well.

That said, don't let this pastime detract from your day job. For me, it's a good occasional diversion when I need to wind down.

After all, it's fun to achieve goals, and it's fun to score them too.

A Hockey Game Broke Out in Miami Last Night

Read this and see what I mean.

I watched footage of the Miami-Florida International game last night and wasn't surprised to see that 8 FIU players were kicked out of the contest after a donneybrook ensued at the end of an extra-point conversion or that 5 Miami players were ejected. What did surprise me was that the Miami player wielding the helmet (and, by the way, why would anyone wander into a fight among huge football players and NOT have his helmet on?) and the Miami player who was trying out his stomping techniques were not among those ejected. My guess is that the ACC commissioner and the NCAA will weigh in and make those two student-athletes miss several games and contemplate how best to handle their anger.

It was an awful display.

It also makes you wonder about the future of Miami football coach, Larry Coker, about whom I blogged earlier this season when he issued a statement discouraging his players from owning guns. Makes you wonder whether Coach Coker has control of his own team.

Okay, boys can be boys and bad things can happen (if you think I buy those arguments, you're dead wrong), but I recall Michael Irvin's comments a couple of years ago after the awful incident involving several Indiana Pacers' players who went into the stands in Detroit and battled fans. When one of his co-commentators on an ESPN show said that fans can say terrible things, Irvin replied: "How can you let anyone have that much power over you to cause yourself to do something so stupid?" Or something to that effect.

It was a great point.

I don't know who started it and who thought who was defending whom, but stomping and helmet-swinging have no part of a college football game. Nor do rugby scrums where players are simply teeing off on one another. It was an embarrassing moment for college football last night, and perhaps those with power over their own teams will mete out a punishment that serves as a significant deterrent for years to come.

That it involved Miami is significant too, and the episode reminds me of that conversation I had with my dad about the high school teacher who kept on missing time because she had four car accidents over a two-year period.

"Son, if you have one accident, it's probably an accident. If you have four accidents over that period of time, you probably have a driving problem."

Miami might have that type of problem. The recruitment of Willie Williams, players defending themselves with guns, and now this.

And it says here that Larry Coker, who was on the ropes, doesn't coach at Miami after this year.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Hold Those Tigers!

The Detroit Tigers aren't the only hot Tigers in the U.S.

The Princeton Tigers are 5-0, 2-0 in the Ivies and off to their best start since 1995. They beat a good Brown team last night, 17-3, in Princeton and have a defense that could well win a title.

Next weekend's game against archrival Harvard could pack Princeton Stadium for the first time since its inception.

Could it be that the Tigers have another title in them? Where's Penn? Where are Yale and Harvard?

The season is only half over, and the Tigers still have some serious work to do.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Remembering Cory Lidle

Alan Schwarz of ESPN.com hits a home run with this story.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Yankees

Okay, so I'm a bit late, but I wanted to gather my thoughts. Here they are:

1. I respect George Steinbrenner, Joe Torre, most of the players and the Yankee tradition. It's the Yankee fans that can drive you nuts, personified by New York sports talk show host Mike Francesa of "Mike and the Mad Dog" on WFAN in NYC. His calling the Yankees "the varsity" and implying that everyone else is lucky to be in a league with them have always been a bit much. Memo to Mike: Where the *@^&%$ has the varsity been for the past five years?

2. Was A-Rod really the problem, or basically the lightning rod for a concept that friends at work referenced (and which they heard on the fan): "The roster designed to draw 4 million fans isn't necessarily the roster destined to win a World Series." Put differently, where's the Tom Lawless, the Bernie Carbo, the John Lowenstein? Nowhere to be found, that is. Hard to have great chemistry in that clubhouse with a bunch of high-salaried players wanting, or used to, marquis idol status.

3. What happened to the great Yankee bullpens? The better bullpen in NYC (and best in the Majors) is across town, and Mariano Rivera is at the end of a brilliant career and has an iffy wing. He wouldn't have been able to pitch more than 1 inning a game, and the set-up guys aren't nearly as good as when they had Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton. If a starter goes 6 innings, who gets the starter to Mariano?

4. What will the Bombers do for starting pitching next year? Randy Johnson needs too many joint transplants to make a meaningful contribution, and it's doubtful the Yankees will exercise the club option on Mike Mussina, who can still pitch. Chien-Ming Wang is very good, but who will join him? Carl Pavano? Jaret Wright? With the questionable bullpen and a depleted starting rotation (and outside Barry Zito, not much out there in free agency to help), the Yankees could drop behind both Boston and Toronto in the NL East.

5. Will the Yankees move A-Rod? Rumors have been flying about A-Rod's future, especially with the return of Joe Torre, so the off-season in the Bronx should be interesting to say the least.

6. Does the Varsity have one more World Series in it with Jeter captaining the team? Derek Jeter is a great player, a Hall of Famer, but the lineup didn't come through in the clutch, the team is aging (two seasons ago it was the oldest lineup in baseball, and now it has to be close), and I think that the odds are against it. It seems that you need a mix of young, mid-career and old players, thoroughbred starting pitchers, crafty veterans, long men in the bullpen having career years and a closer who is at the top of his game. That's not the Yankee roster, and it's hard to build chemistry when each of your starting position players has made an All-Star team but your bullpen is populated with people who are not comparable in ability.

7. As for Yankee fans, be patient and be thankful you have an owner who will try to do everything it takes to win a World Series. Most cities don't have that type of owner, and you should hope that when the Boss is gone, those who succeed him feel as compelled to win as he has felt.

Bottom line: The Yankees will somehow be in the hunt next year.

Even if their payroll approaches $250 million.

"Excellence," a one-time Nobel prize winner once said, "cannot be bought. But it must be paid for."

For the Bronx Bombers, that's an interesting thought. Paid for how? Through patience? Through developing pitchers? Through developing position players? Through realizing that you don't have to have $10 million plus players at each position and that it could be okay to have a Jeff Conine, a Jamie Moyer on your bench?

The off-season, and the hot stove model that comes with it, will be very compelling indeed.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Feel Good Story of the Year

Read this -- you won't be sorry.

It's the story of the journey of Chris Coste, the 33 year-old rookie catcher with the Phillies who had a remarkable year for the club. It's the story of a guy who's traveled a lot, who bided his time, and who made the most of his opportunity.

The Philadelphia Eagles gave us Vince Papale.

The Philadelphia Phillies have given us Chris Coste.

His is a wonderful story.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

How to Protect Ryan Howard in the Lineup

Now that the Phillies have been eliminated, it's probably the most compelling question for GM Pat Gillick to answer. Yes, there are tons of roster questions, but during the month of September (and the Phils and Astros have the best records in baseball in September over the past two years; too bad for the Phillies that their July was so putrid) it became clear to opposing managers that if they intentionally walked Ryan Howard or pitched around him (giving him little to hit, which meant either that they would walk him by nibbling at the corners), the Phillies didn't have much behind him to create runs.

David Dellucci, who played well in a part-time role when he and Shane Victorino were the fourth and fifth outfielders earlier in the season, failed in his platoon with Jeff Conine, who was acquired for the stretch run.

Conine hit reasonably well average-wise, but showed little pop.

Pat Burrell's season, and perhaps career in Philadelphia, fell off the table.

Chris Coste wasn't a consideration, but he might have been a better option than the other three. Still, a 33 year-old rookie having one magical season is probably not the long-term solution to protect Ryan Howard in the lineup.

Of the current roster, a suggestion was made to move Chase Utley to fifth to protect Howard. Aaron Rowand, interviewed on a local talk radio station, said he had thought about his team's putting Utley behind Howard, but, if they were to do so, he would move Howard to third in the lineup and Utley to fourth. Still, that's a risky proposition, because Utley's speed would be taken away and because the front four of the lineup -- SS Jimmy Rollins (who showed amazing power in the second half of the season; he and Utley were only the third 2B-SS combination in baseball history to each hit over 25 HRs -- the other 2 were Vern Stephens and Bobby Doerr of the Red Sox, who did it twice over fifty years ago), CF Shane Victorino, Utley and Howard.

So, instead of tinkering with the current first four, GM Pat Gillick probably will hit the free agent market looking for a big bat. The problem is, there aren't any, really, for two reasons. First, the pickings are slim, which means that those bats who might be available (such as Giants 3B Pedro Feliz) probably will be offered more than they're worth. Second, the Phillies have payroll issues. Ownership is still paying off part of Jim Thome's contract, and they'll probably have to agree to eat a bunch of Pat Burrell's should the team get the OF to waive his no-trade contract and send him away. Atop that, ownership needs to find a way to lock up Utley and Howard to longer-term deals, the way the Mets did with SS Jose Reyes and 3B David Wright. Management can't use the Thome and Burrell situations as an excuse not to offer more money and security to Utley and Howard -- it wasn't the players fault that ownership had made those decisions. And it doesn't look like they're going to lock up Utley and Howard now.

There could be, though, one solution, controversial, perhaps cost-effective, that Pat Gillick might be willing to go for. It's creative, it's explosive, it's risky, but it might not be as expensive as you think.

His name is Barry Bonds.

Loyal blog readers know that I am no huge Bonds fan, and that my detractions come not from his efforts on the playing field, but from his persona off it and, yes, some of the life choices he's made in furthering his career. I can't say right now that I endorse what I'm about to suggest (which is more in the way of a prognostication or speculation), but it just might make sense for the Phillies.

Here's why:

1. Bonds missed most of the '05 season and was iffy in the '06 season. He did show signs of improvement at the end of '06, and he might have another season or two left in him where he could put up good numbers.

2. Bonds wants the home run record.

3. Citizens Bank Park is a home run hitters' park. SBC Park in SF is a pitchers' park. The chances for Barry Bonds to hit more home runs more quickly is tempting.

4. Bonds is a #5 hitter now. Have him and Utley sandwich Howard, and, well, all of them will get tons of pitches to hit. The prospects are frightening.

5. Bonds' physique should be better in '07, as '06 seemed to be a healing year for him.

6. He might come more cheaply than his current contract. He's controversial, he's at the end of his career, and he might sign a 1-year deal for $10 million.

7. He seemed to have bonded with Ryan Howard at the All-Star Game.

Here's why not:

1. He's old, not fully healthy, and not a long-term solution. If the Phillies can find a longer-term solution, they probably will.

2. He'd be a liability in the field now; he's more suited to being a designated hitter somewhere in the AL.

3. The Phillies demonstrated great chemistry in the clubhouse after the July 31 trading deadline. Why bring this guy in to challenge that chemistry -- you know he will.

4. The Phillies don't need him for attendance purposes. He was roundly booed in May when the Giants were in town, and the fans, who showed the team a lot of love during the playoff drive, will be confused and/or upset at the move. That said, if the team gets him and he says the right things and gets off to a good start, they could embrace him. However, given the city's experience with Terrell Owens, the fans might not give Bonds a chance. Once burned, these folks not only will be shy, they could be derisive at the start.

5. The whole BALCO/steroids mess (which, by the way, is perhaps #1 in the way of priority). Bonds is radioactive -- he could help big-time or he could turn into baseball's version of Three Mile Island. That's a huge risk in and of itself.

6. Putting Bonds behind Utley and Howard would give the Phillies' three lefty bats in the heart of the order. Yes, pity the teams whose starting rotations are laden with righties, but you can imagine that most managers would try to manipulate their rotations to throw as many lefties as possible against the Phillies. That's not to say that these guys can't hit lefties -- they can -- but lefties are, well, lefties, and their craftiness can cause even this Murderer's Row to flail and dying-quail breaking pitches in the August heat.

7. Bonds isn't an everyday player anymore. You'd still need someone to platoon with him; that might be Jeff Conine anyway.

So what's the verdict?

Signing Bonds would look more like a last-ditch, stop-gap measure than a well thought out move of a savvy, seasoned GM who is looking to build a better team for '07 and beyond. While Bonds could solve an immediate problem, he could create many more. His availability is tempting, but given the way Gillick shaped the Phillies into a contender this fall (after the July 31 deadline he opined that the team might not contend until 2008), he probably has enough moves up his sleeve to improve the roster without pulling the national pastime equivalent of driving to Atlantic City and putting all of his pre-2007 moves on red.

Yesterday the Phillies were knocked out of playoff contention.

Today it's raining hard in the Philadelphia area.

It was fun turning on the hot stove, at least for the moment.