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 31, 2007

I Joined the Starbury Movement -- Will You?

I remember some cruel scenes, even when I was growing up, of kids being mocked because they got their sneakers from some bin at a five-and-dime store as opposed to Pro Keds, Converse or whatever brand was hot at the moment. I didn't care what people wore and was taught that it didn't matter, but unfortunately there were kids who were either too dumb to know better or who just simply weren't nice. Some of the kids in my neighborhood referred to the non-designer sneakers as "bo-bos", and as far as they were concerned you shouldn't have been caught dead in them. I know that I didn't participate in making fun of those wearing non-designer sneakers, and I recall telling them that it was wrong. My guess is that as an elementary schooler I didn't do it loud enough or soon enough, and I felt bad about the whole situation.

Fast forward by several decades, and the situation got exacerbated when Michael Jordan teamed with Nike to create unbelievably expense sneakers. Parents in all neighborhoods felt pressured to keep up and drop a lot of coin for sneakers, and it became a vicious cycle because kids grow fast and need new kicks all the time. It was hi "cha-ching" time for Nike and Jordan, but the societal good that resulted was non-existent, except for some fund managers who rode a Nike wave (or swoosh) every now and then.

And who wants to pay $40 or more for a pair of sneakers that will last six months? Especially if you have a couple of kids, and especially if you don't make a lot of money. Sure, you don't want your kids to wear Shawshank Prison-style footwear, but you also don't need to be like Mike.

Or Nike.

And that's where Stephon Marbury comes in. He worked with the retailer Steve & Barry to create Starburys, some funky sneakers that are sold exclusively at the retailer -- for $14.98 a pair! That's right, in case you can't read my decimal point -- fourteen dollars and ninety-eight cents a pair! We bought 4 pairs -- high tops for the kids for their basketball leagues (my daughter's have pink trim, my son's are all-white), high-tops for me (with Carolina blue trim, quite stylish) and some everyday low-tops for my son (they have some of the Knicks' blue and orange in them). They look good, feel great, and I saved a bunch of dollars by not going to Foot Locker or somewhere else.

Again, in case you missed it -- 4 pairs of sneakers for $60. As opposed to, say, $140.

Stephon Marbury and Steve & Barry's are an oasis of sanity in an otherwise commercial desert as far as affordable sneakers are concerned. They look good and feel great, so join the movement!

Now!

You'll be glad you did.

Ebbets Flannels

For a while I've received the catalog of Ebbets Flannels, a maker of vintage jerseys (minor leagues and Negro leagues). Over the summer, I indulged and bought a Homestead Grays home jersey (Josh Gibson's number on it) and a New York Knights t-shirt.

I wore the latter a lot this summer, including to a few Phillies' games at Citizens Bank Park (the shirt is blue with orange lettering and has the golden lightning bolt on the left sleeve). The shirt drew a bunch of nods from discerning fans, and it was fun to wear. I wore the Grays' jersey to my local mall on Saturday, and I drew hardly a look. Then again, a majority of the crowd consisted of teenagers, and some of them don't know about Jackie Robinson let alone Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige. Heck, you wonder if they've even heard of Franklin Roosevelt or know of the significance of D-day.

The stuff is of great quality, and you should check it out. If you want a vintage Major League jersey, go to the Mitchell & Ness website. I gave a vintage Mickey Mantle jersey as a gift to a friend over the summer, and it went over very well.

I'm not normally one to spend on stuff like this, but every now and then you have to say what the heck and go for it. I'm glad I bought my Grays' jersey -- and for a whole host of reasons.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Chess Question

The kids periodically ask me for electronic gadgets, such as iPods, and I'd be inclined to honor their requests if and when they improve on their bedmaking and putting-clothes-in-the-hamper rituals. My thinking is that if they leave clothes on the floor, what would they do with their iPods? And, if they did the same with their iPods, what would happen to them?

If you step on clothes, they might get a little dirtier. If you step on an iPod, you can't put it in the washing machine and fix it. Make sense? Okay, so it's my house.

I've taught the kids chess, figuring it's a game that will make them think and solve problems. They like it, and now I've given them an extra challenge -- beat Dad, and I'll buy you an iPod. Nano, Nano with video, what have you. Dad will play you on demand, and Dad will not teach you any pointers during a game. (My thinking on this translates to sports -- I try not to correct a bad swing during a game; we'll wait until practice to do so). I've even ordered a chess-for-kids book on Amazon to give them something to learn from, and I'll work with them after we play, but I will not help them win.

Right now, they know how to move the pieces, but they don't know anything about strategy. They somewhat embrace the concept that you have to attack while defending (golf is somewhat similar -- you have to pound the ball hard to get it close to the hole but be delicate enough to putt it in after having mustered your adrenaline to send it flying). Anyway, right now opening moves consist of moving pawns one space, say to king's bishop three. Not exactly the most robust of openings.

I have a fifth grader and a second grader. Neither is a math whiz (although having gone to school with some, I'm a little glad they're not), but both have a good sense of games.

What's the over and under? How long will it take both of them to beat me?

Sure, it depends on how hard they work at it, how much they play and how much they like the game. Assume they're in the middle of the continuum. They're not obsessed with it, but they don't hate it. Assume that they think it's a challenge and sometimes fun.

What do you think?

Who Remembers Manny Leaks?

The 1972-73 76ers won a total of 9 games the entire season. Their center was a guy named Manny Leaks, who played with NBA legend Calvin Murphy at Niagara. I think that Fred "Mad Dog" Carter, a talented guard, was on that team, but the rest of the squad was populated with players who wouldn't make today's fantasy league rosters, small forwards with no jumper, big guys who could be timed with an hour glass in their dashes down the court, one-time back-ups for good teams who disproved the notion that a back-up on a good team can be a good starter somewhere else, players like that. It was, to say the least, a depressing year in a hoops town.

Rock bottom.

Well, this week's SI predicts that the Philadelphia 76ers will be the worst team in the Eastern Conference. Mind you, I think that anyone who picks the Celtics as the best in the East or the favorite to get to the NBA Finals is just dead wrong, and it hurts as a Philadelphia fan to see the dreaded Celtics rise back to prominence, at least in the minds of the pundits who act as guardians of the pro game. What's more galling is that they do have the 76ers figured right -- they are a bad basketball team, a collection of swingmen, an injured post player who looks like he could be a Q-tip for Halloween, albeit with a gifted if aging point guard. There's not much muscle on the boards, and the collection of swingmen, all relatively young, offers some, but not much, hope for the future.

I pity Coach Mo Cheeks, who deserves much better. Whenever GM Billy King discovers that there are non-Americans who can play and help build a roster, it will be the first time. He's kind of on a parallel course with the Flyers, who only realized about 10 years too late that having good skaters on your team helps win hockey games and that having 6'5", 232-pound monuments does not. In King's case, he gets too much of a pass because he played for Coach K at Duke and communicates well with the press. The bottom line is that he hasn't helped the team win that many games.

Last year the 76ers were second-to-last in the NBA in attendance, and this year promises to be no better. And next year doesn't, either, unless and until the 76ers figure out a way to fortify a roster and make the team a serious playoff contender.

9-73 doesn't seem possible in a bloated NBA, but 23-59 does.

Ouch.

What Would Your Song Be?

Suppose you were a closer, and you could pick the song that they play at your home stadium when you enter the game from the bullpen. What song would you pick?



I don't know the title, but I'd pick the music from "Rocky" with the gongs that get sounded when the action begins to intensify. There are several gongs sounded in succession, followed by the type of "Rocky" movie music that let's you know the action is going to intensify. If you're a "Rocky" fan, I think you'll know what I'm talking about.



What would you do?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Terry Francona's a Good Manager

So says Jim Salisbury of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Too bad that they just discovered this fact. Few realized at the time that when Francona managed in Philadelphia he was managing a AAAA team that had two stars and a bunch of guys people have already forgotten.

Francona seems a bit stung from his experience in Philadelphia, and he's quoted as saying that certain media types painted him in a negative light. He's right, they did, and really for no good reason. They got on Francona for his pitching changes, but it wasn't as if he had a bullpen that was competent at putting out fires. They got on him because he touted the wares of jacks-of-all-trades like Kevin Sefcik, but what was he supposed to do, moan in public? No, he made the best of what he was dealt, and, quite frankly, it wasn't much.

Phillies' fans shouldn't have a short memory about the disastrous decisions the current ownership group made. Francona was a well-received choice at the time, but he really didn't have a chance to win.

When he was given the talent, he showed what he could do.

And remember this -- if your team doesn't have or is unwilling to spend for talent, it will not win.

Even if Joe Torre is the manager.

Or Terry Francona.

Only Three NCAA Men's Hoops Teams Have Done This

This being scoring a 3-point basket in every game since the 3-point shot was enacted (a twenty-year stretch).

Click here and scroll down to near the end for the answer.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fantasy Football with My Son

My second grader caught the fantasy football bug this summer, and, as a result, we entered into 2 leagues, one at espn.com and one at sikids.com. Both leagues are different, and we're faring much better in one than the other.

So let's go to the one where we're not faring so well -- espn.com. We entered a ten-team league, and this league has teams playing "against" one another every week. The computer automatically drafted for each team, and the computer program isn't nuanced -- it simply takes the best player on the the board. You activate a quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, a wide receiver or a running back in an extra slot, a tight end, a team (for defensive and special teams points) and a kicker. Which was all well and good, except the draft gave me 1 quarterback and about eight running backs, among them Brian Westbrook, Adrian Peterson and Edgerrin James. The sole QB was Chad Pennington (since released), and I had to scurry to build depth on the wide-receiving corps since 2 of my top wideouts were Javon Walker (injured) and Jerry Porter (in one of Dante's circles of football hell).

Anyway, we're now 3-4 in the league, despite the anomaly of having scored the second or third highest amount of points. The problem is that during certain weeks our team fared well, only to have the team we're matched up against in a "game" fare better. And it's not a case of our team having played bad defense; the other team's players simply had good weeks on offense, period. We've rallied well and hit the waiver wire aggressively, although we missed out on Derek Anderson, picked up Wes Welker but then let him go (to get Patrick Crayton). One was a bad non-move, the other a bad move. Still, we're in the hunt, and that's what matters. Working the waiver wire is pretty fun, although not every team is into the game as much as we and a few other are.

The SI Kids league is more fun and kid-friendly. Basically, you can cut your team each week and activate a new one. We're in a 100-team league, and we're in fourth place, as the Darwinism suggests that you make sure you have Tom Brady and Randy Moss on your team each and every week, and then you look for players who are playing teams with bad defenses. There's a salary cap here ($75 million), so you can't load up on all the big names, but Adrian Peterson costs a paltry $5.75 million or so when compared to the $11 million or so that Brian Westbrook commands. The key is watching the schedule and now seeing who plays St. Louis and Miami, among others. We're within striking distance of first place, and the most fun thing is that we do it together.

I do confess that I'm not a huge fantasy fan, but participating with my son is fun and we've learned the NFL a lot better than we otherwise would have had we not joined these leagues. Basketball, of course, is up next, and participating in an NBA Fantasy League is particularly a good thing if you're a Philadelphia 76ers fan, where the reality won't be too pretty this year.

But first thing's first -- we have a bunch of roster spots to fill because we have a lot of players who have a bye week this week.

Monday, October 22, 2007

What a College Football Season!

My Temple Owls are now the scourge of the MAC, having won three straight for the first time since 1990. Yes, that is not a typographical error -- 1990!

Somewhere, Bill Cosby is lighting up a cigar, and Joe Klecko is lifting up eighteen wheelers to celebrate.

Remember the name Al Golden -- he is working a miracle on North Broad Street.

My Family is Getting Booed!

Actually, this has nothing to do with our being Philadelphia Eagles fans.

We're heavily into Halloween in our Southeastern Pennsylvania neighborhood. During the past week, anonymous packages of candy have been left in goody bags on our front porch along with a flyer indicating that we got "booed" and should deliver copies of the flyer and candy to other people's front porches.

It's actually kind of cool and shows community spirit in a good way.

And I never thought I'd say that getting booed is fun.

On the Yankees' Managerial Change

Overall, I think that the Yankees erred in the way that they treated Joe Torre. He's a classy, dignified guy, and while $5 million is a lot of money to turn down, you simply don't treat a manager who led you to 12 straight playoff appearances and 4 World Series titles the way the Yankees did. Offering any manager with Torre's track record a one-year deal was dignity stripping, and the Yankees, who spend money the way Pac-Man Jones doles his out at a strip club, suddenly got awfully careful with their dollars when it came to their manager. Clearly, they really didn't want him to return, despite what Sons Steinbrenner have said publicly since the public relations fiasco of last week.


After all, Charlie Manuel, a manager who makes the late Casey Stengel look like a Shakesperean player and whose handling of pitchers won't be confused with that of Tony LaRussa, got a two-year deal in Philadelphia and he hasn't won anything. But the circumstances are somewhat distinguishable (and the expectations in the Cradle of Liberty are lower than they are 90 miles to the north) . Manuel did get the Phillies to their first playoff berth in fourteen years despite mentoring a team that suffered numerous injuries and fielded 28 pitchers during the season. Uncle Charlie, as he's now known, clearly deserved the new deal. He did a helluva job.


But is he Joe Torre?


And that leads to a whole bunch of questions. First, let's take a question that Colin Cowherd raised on his show on ESPN Radio. If you say that the ALDS loss wasn't Torre's fault (and his players were quick to rally to his defense), then can you give him credit for the four World Series titles? It's a good question, and it goes to the heart of how much difference a manager makes anyway. The answer, probably, is somewhere in between. Torre wouldn't have won any titles without the talent the Yankees paid for, but he did set a tone of professionalism and class that helped the Yankees ignore all of the NYC-induced pressures and led them to four world championships. Then again, remember an adage that Wall Street types are fond of turning to when the markets are red hot: "Don't confuse brains with a bull market." Put differently, years ago SI wrote an article on Whitey Herzog, the great Royals' manager, who opined that if you have a great manager with horsebleep talent or a horsebleep manager with great talent, he'd bet on the horsebleep manager every time. Bottom line: a manager makes some difference, but not to the degree that a head coach does in the NFL. It's hard, though, to calibrate that difference. Back to Cowherd's point -- Joe has some responsibility for the Yankees' not getting past the first round of the playoffs during the past three seasons. He can't be anointed with sainthood for the four titles and then not be held accountable for the "slide" that the Yankees have suffered during the past three seasons.


Fine, but it's more complicated than that, isn't it? The Yankees' pitching wasn't as strong during the past three seasons as it was when they won the four titles. So is that Joe's fault, or that of the front office, especially one that stops at nothing to acquire the talent that it thinks it needs. Still, in the end, there's another baseball adage -- it's easier to jettison the manager than a bunch of players, including pitchers who are past their prime or who were free-agent signing mistakes (such as Pavano, Igawa, etc.).


Then there's the question that unabashed Yankee hater Chris "Mad Dog" Russo posed on "Mike and the Mad Dog" on WFAN in New York (he is, by all accounts, an admirer of Joe Torre). Russo's position is that while it's all well and good to say that Joe hasn't done as good a job as in the past, who out there is better for this team at this point in time? It's a great point, because it's hard to know. Who wanted to follow Bear Bryant at Alabama or John Wooden at UCLA? After 25 years, it seems that 'bama finally has found a successor to Bryant (and this is written in jest because some fine men have filled that position, but to the fans they just weren't Coach Bryant). Can that new manager succeed?


Again, it's probably up to the manager, the front office and the players. Will the front office fortify the roster the way it has in the past? Will the manager establish his own identity and bond with the players? Will the core of the team let a new manager into their hearts, or will some of them -- Posada and Rivera -- bolt for other pastures? In other words, how long with the mourning period be, and how long will the adjustments take?



Then there's Hank Steinbrenner, King George's maligned son, who was publicly hurting when he lashed back at Torre after Torre claimed that the Yankees' offer was an insult. Hank made some good points, especially regarding the fact that in '95 Torre was a managerial re-tread two times removed and his father gave him the chance of a lifetime. It's an excellent point, for sure, but a hard one for the public to swallow. After all, the Yankees didn't manage the P.R. well, and all the fans know is that a man they truly trust no longer is running their team. People quickly forget the past (it's human nature but generally a good idea), and many fans don't remember that Torre's elevation wasn't exactly met with cartwheels in Manhattan when the Yankees selected him to be manager. Bottom line: Hank has a point.


So let's crystallize all of the arguments and come to a conclusion. All speakers -- Cowherd, Russo, Torre and Steinbrenner the younger make valid points.

Should Joe Torre have been fired?

Should he have been offered a two-year contract with an option for a third year?

Should the Yankees have done what they did?

Should Joe Torre be returning to the Yankees?

Did the suits, the beancounters, make a mistake? Did they forget the public relations aspect of their decision, or did they draw up the decision tree wrong?

I think that they goofed. The Yankees either should have told Joe Torre they wanted to make a change, feted him, offered him a sinecure position for the next 3 years, a Joe Torre day, etc. and scripted a grand and respectful exit, or they should have offered him a 2-year deal with an option at the same money he was making, not a deal with incentives depending on how well the team fared in the post-season.

Why?

Because that's how you treat a future Hall of Famer, in New York City, where even the most highly paid manager in the game gets paid what is tip money to Alex Rodriguez.

I wish Don Mattingly, Tony Pena and Joe Girardi good luck. The comparisons will be inevitable, and each of these men will fail in them. And their successors might fail, too.

It says here that you don't want to be the manager to succeed Joe Torre. You want to be the manager to succeed the manager who failed to replace Joe Torre.

Pointers, Anyone?

I've taken the plunge and am going to co-coach my eight year-old's basketball team in a local league.

Any and all constructive advice is welcome.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

So You Want Your Son to Play Football?

For a long time?

Professionally.

Read this.

It's a good piece from today's Philadelphia Inquirer about Kevin Turner, a former NFL fullback who played a while for the Eagles. It talks about the physical toll football takes on young men, especially on those who play professionally.

If you work in a company, most likely the most physical activity you'll engage in is for the company softball team, picking up a box that weighs 20 pounds or accidentally bumping into the side of your desk, where it comes to a point, and getting a bruise that will last a week.

If your work means you're an elite professional football player, you're hefting weights, running hard or colliding frequently. Now, truth be told, we don't see the stories of former football players who are in great health. There are several reasons for this. First, unless they've gained success in a different endeavor later in life or are written about in a "where are they now?" piece, they're just not newsworthy, because that's the way society is. Our journalists are more prone to write about the train wrecks than trains, period, because the former sell papers. Second, some probably would argue that very healthy former NFL players just don't exist.

Is there a former NFL player who played for more than 4 years who didn't have -- during his football career spanning the Pee Wee leagues through the NFL -- surgery, a concussion, a broken bone or a bad sprain? It's hard to believe that such a player exists. Not to mention, of course, stingers, contusions, lacerations, etc. Most, my surmise is, have suffered a combination of all of the above. Taken together with the continuous pounding and at times overuse of muscle groups, you have a recipe for a long-term problem -- bad to awful post-football health.

So what are the solutions? Here are a few to think about:

1. The NFL should sponsor research into the types of therapies that help players recover more quickly and help heal their injuries better and faster. For example, I remember reading about James Laurinaitis, the Ohio State linebacker, who sleeps in the type of oxygen chamber that Terrell Owens and many other professional athletes use. His reasoning: you don't feel the toll of the hitting for more than a day after you sleep in this oxygen tent. If that feeling, as it were, can be substantiated, why don't NFL teams spent the half a million required to give those to each player on the team? Just a thought. Additionally, there's been a ton of talk on the illegal use of steroids and HGH. Performance enhancing drugs are a taboo subject, but suppose clinicians determined that a selective, prescribed use of HGH during the season could help players recover more quickly and lead them to a longer, healthier lives post-football. How would the NFL treat that information?

After all, the NFL is partially a crap shoot, isn't it? The teams with the fewest injuries have the best shot to get to the playoffs and beyond. At any rate, good therapies should be investigated -- soon and hard.

Because stories like Kevin Turner's are becoming more and more frequent (and there are probably plenty of others with maladies who do not get written about).

2. The other point I'll make is about equipment. Right now, many players wear minimal equipment because they don't want to get slowed down by it. That's right, for some it's just a helmet and shoulder pads, and the shoulder pads are sometimes pretty small. Forget the neck, hip, thigh and kneepads. Remember the scene in Invincible where Vince Papale wanted to show Dick Vermeil he was fast enough to cover kicks? What did he do? He jettisoned a lot of his padding.

First, should the NFL legislate what padding players should be required to wear? It's ironic that the uniform police will fine you for shirts not being tucked in or for wearing unsanctioned gear, but not for not wearing injury-saving gear. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Second, I'd commission UnderArmour, DuPont (makers of Kevlar) and others (including those who make airbags for cars) to come up with the ultimate in unitard uniforms. These uniforms will have a sleek look to them, be made of lightweight material, but provide a lot of cushion to a player upon impact. No, the player's uni won't inflate like the Michelin Man, but he'll have a lot more cushion than he did before. That uniform is coming, folks, but perhaps not for 10-15 years. It's too good an idea not to invest in.

Third, I'd also have some fitness requirements in the NFL. Put simply, no sumo wrestlers, no obese players, and I'd do so before Congress makes obesity a protected category under the ADA. Why? Because some of these guys aren't healthy, don't look healthy, and are carrying around too much weight in the long term. By existing in the NFL, they create bad habits in others. Everyone else feels he has to get big, perhaps to the point of overdoing it in the weight room. And for what? To keep up with the "run stuffer" who isn't required to do anything more than perhaps run three yards and hold his own for say three seconds? This particular point, though, would be hard to enforce.

At any rate, I hope it's not the case that when society looks back on football fifty years hence, they aren't questioning it's popularity the way many question boxing's now. Boxing was extremely popular 50 years go, only to fall off the proverbial table because of shady promoters and questionable judging, even at the Olympics (recall the farce that befell Roy Jones, Jr.). Thankfully, football isn't a judged sport, but it's pretty brutal. A landscape littered with wrecked lives of former players might ultimately give society cause for more than the occasional pause it does now.

To avoid that, the NFL needs to act swifty in all sorts of research and development activities to ensure a better and much safer environment for the guys who play the game.

They deserve it, because most of them do not make superstar money.

So You Think You Know Football?

Quick, name the top 10 on the all-time touchdowns list for the NFL?

Easy, huh?

Okay, if you guessed Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith you have two of them.

Who else?

Jim Brown?

Sure.

Walter Payton?

You bet.

That's four.

Who else?

How about Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk, Cris Carter, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens and John Riggins?

That's the list, and you can look it up here.

Breaking into the top 20 are LaDanian Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander and Randy Moss.

The Brian Westbrook Overpayment Saga Continues

Last year the Eagles overpaid Brian Westbrook.

Literally.

They paid him a $3 million roster bonus twice, no doubt to the great consternation of the front office and the unfortunate individuals in human resources or payroll who pushed the button on the error. Seems like everyone admitted that the overpayment occurred, but the money still hasn't repaid.

To quote Westbrook from the linked article, "it's a bad situation."

The sides agree that the monies need to be repaid (the Birds would be over the salary cap if it were not), but there are complications. For example, Westbrook received $1.7 million after taxes were withheld, and the Eagles need the entire $3 million returned, meaning that Westbrook will have to petition the tax authorities for refunds of the $1.3 million in taxes that were withheld. That sounds like a ton of fun, doesn't it?

In the end, it's an unfortunate distraction for a team that has had plenty of them already. The Eagles erred by making the payment, and Westbrook's agents (or Westbrook himself) should have caught the error promptly after the payment and tried to resolve it then and there (that still might not have made the return of the withholding taxes any easier, presumably, but perhaps it would have had the error been caught right away).

What a mess.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Every School Should Have an Owner Like Boone Pickens

Texas A&M cut the young man from its hoops team, so he ended up at Oklahoma State. And then he made millions in the oil business. So now he's trying to repay the folks in Stillwater by donating megamillions to their athletic program, and he's figured out an insurance program to help fund it. Read Frank Fitzpatrick's excellent article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about Pickens and how every school wishes they had someone like him.

Now here's the rub: South Florida is #2 in the BCS, and the school is only a year older than the BCS system. They don't have a Pickens, and they're probably the fourth or fifth best known football school in Florida (okay, so they're probably tied with UCF). OK State has tons of money behind it, and the most notoriety that they've gotten this year is that their football coach teed off on a local newspaper columnist.

The money certain will make it interesting at OK State, but can they buy a title? The conventional wisdom among college athletic fundraisers is that they certainly can.

Many Brits lament the notion that Russian oligarchs not only are buying up the mansions in Mayfair, they're also buying up teams in the Premiership, England's top soccer league. Perhaps your school needs a Roman Abramowitch.

Northwestern's men's hoops program?

Temple football?

The possibilities are endless.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Reflections on the Phillies' Season

Much has been said and written, but here are my thoughts:

1. The Phillies did the right thing by re-upping Manager Charlie Manuel. While I and many others thought Ed Wade whiffed when he hired Manuel over Jim Leyland (who wanted the job), Manuel did a good job and deserved the new contract. I still stand by my original position regarding Leyland, but let's give credit where credit is due. Charlie got the team to play hard, be positive and stay together as a team, and in the modern day that's no easy task. He deserved the new deal. The atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park was electric; down the road in Baltimore it was funereal. Charlie still isn't the best at handling the bullpen, but what manager would have done a lot better having to use 28 pitchers in a season.

2. Pat Burrell had an excellent second half but hit .157 in the last 16 games. Can the Phillies rely on him in the last year of a contract that will pay him $14 million? That's hard to say. The team will excel if they get second-half Pat, but if they get the guy who was hitting .201 on July 1, they'll have a considerable hole in their lineup.

3. Good moves by Pat Gillick's group: a) figuring out that Kyle Kendrick could play a meaningful role in the rotation; b) signing Jason Werth; c) signing Greg Dobbs; and d) perhaps the best move, signing reliever J.C. Romero off the BoSox' scrap heap.

4. Bad moves by Pat Gillick's group: a) trading for starting pitcher Freddy Garcia ($10 million for one win, as it turned out); b) signing free-agent pitcher Adam Eaton to a 3-year deal worth $24 million (Eaton had the worst ERA among NL starters), c) signing 3B Wes Helms to a 2-year deal (he had a significant power outage in perhaps the best hitters' park in the majors), d) signing C Rod Barajas to a one-year deal (he turned out to be lame at blocking the plate, thereby drawing the ire of the hometown fans).

5. Big questions for the Phillies:

a) Can you strengthen the bullpen, or are they confident with Brett Myers, Tom Gordon, Ryan Madson, Geoff Geary, Clay Condrey and J.C. Romero, assuming they sign him. The first three were on the DL in '07, and Geary and Condrey yo-yoed between AAA and the majors. Madson was on a roll when he got hurt, and Gordon pitched pretty well when healthy. 90% of Condrey's outings were good, the other 10% were disasters in every sense of the word. They might go for another lefty, and if they can get Mariano Rivera as a free agent, they'd probably move Myers back to the rotation. Also, it's doubtful that they'll want to stay with the injury-prone Gordon if they could get a setup man from another team. They just might be able to do so without spending for a huge contract.

b) The starting pitching is iffy. Cole Hamels is a bona fide #1, but then you have the former Ancient Mariner, Jamie Moyer, who will turn 45, and Kyle Kendrick, both of whom are #4 starters at best. There are two openings. Jon Lieber and Garcia will not return, and my guess is that because of his contract Eaton will. Kyle Lohse pitched okay in the other opening, but I don't think he'll return because Scott Boras will ask too much money for him. Curt Schilling looks like an attractive possibility, and he'd probably like to end his career in Philadelphia unless the BoSox decide they can't live without him. The way he pitched last night, they might decide to go a little younger.

c) The lineup. The post-season exposed 2 significant weaknesses of the Phillies, pitching and the fact that their hitters strike out too much. It's hard to say what Pat Burrell will do in '08, but you have to think that if he starts out healthy Ryan Howard will cut down on his strikeouts and not turn into Dave Kingman. The team could use another strong righty bat, especially if Aaron Rowand opts for big bucks somewhere else, and recent reports were that he's asking for $84 million over 6 years. If he gets that, what's Howard worth once he is eligible to become a free agent, $20 million a year? He might well be. The Phils will save money because at some point soon they'll stop paying for part of Jim Thome's contract, they'll not be paying Rowand, they'll not be paying Garcia ($10 million) and Lieber (about $8 million) and Burrell's contract ($14 million) expires after this season. So, that leaves money open to spend on signing Howard to a long-term deal and spending selectively on the free-agent market. They also could use a third baseman, and a Dobbs/Helms platoon is weak. They didn't exercise their option on Abraham Nunez, who forgot how to hit after batting .285 in St. Louis 2 years ago, but they don't want to spend for a huge contract. If they could get a strong righty bat to supplant the platoon, they will.

6. The season. It was great to go to CBP and see the fans so excited, game in and game out. Jimmy Rollins clearly emerged as the team's leader, and his smile is infectious. The team had a bounce in its step all season, and Rollins set the table, literally and figuratively. The young nucleus -- Rollins, Chase Utley and Howard -- is about as good as it gets in MLB, and the role players all contributed. Yes, the bullpen was iffy, but in the end it was the Phillies' pen that stood tall during the regular season while the Mets' pen and starters faltered. Who would have thought that would prove to be the case when the season started? Very few. The pitching is a bigger question mark, and it might be a good idea to get a humidor from the Rockies and sweat and swell the baseballs a little bit to make them less hittable. Howard's so strong he'll still jack them out of the park, and Utley hits line drives so he'll be fine. But it would be nice to cool off out-of-town hitters. Just a thought.

The team didn't honor its magical finish with its post-season showing against the Rockies, but the Rockies might prove to be the hottest team in the history of the game, and I'm hoping that they are. They did everything right, and the Phillies just didn't have any answers. Still, after two previous seasons of failing to make the playoffs in the final week of the season, they taught themselves this year that they could finish strong and do just that. They need to build upon this finish and do a better job next year, and the competition is tough. The Braves are resourceful but might be close to rebuilding, and the Mets were in disarray and could still be feeling the sting next year. Hard to say, but the future looks pretty good in the City of Philadelphia.

I played hooky from work and went to Game 1 of the NLDS with a close friend from high school, and it was a great feeling watching playoff baseball on a Wednesday afternoon. What could be better? Being with a good friend, watching a playoff game, and it makes me wonder what's up with the folks in Arizona who let so many seats go unsold for the NLCS this past week. That wouldn't have happened back East, no sir. Anyway, it figured that Jeff Francis would have pitched a great game against the Phillies, because the Phils had tagged him for a 15.12 ERA in prior games against him. Francis has 4 pitches, got them all working early, and proved very tough to hit. Was I disappointed? Absolutely. Was it fun to be at a playoff game? You bet.

This time, "Wait 'til Next Year" has a much different ring to it. The team accomplished a great deal, and things definitely are looking up. Thanks to Jimmy, Chase, Ryan and Charlie, among many others, for a wonderful year.

Baseball is a great bonding experience in our family. I went with my dad for years before he died, and our family goes to games together and talks intently about the Phillies. The fact that they're exciting made for a more compelling summer and fall, as I only can imagine what the little kids in Kansas City talk about as early as May. I do wonder what my dad would say about this team -- he'd love Rollins and be happy he's become more selective at the plate, he'd think Utley is a throwback to another era and one of the best he's seen, and he'd marvel at Howard the way we marveled at Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey decades ago. He'd love CBP, he'd have cherished taking his grandchildren to games, and he'd watch Cole Hamels fool hitters in amazement. I wish he were here to share this with, but I do take great comfort in the fact that he was at Game 6 of the 1980 World Series when Tug McGraw struck out Willie Wilson to give the Phils their first World Series title ever.

And who knows, perhaps within the next 3 years my own gang will be able to experience that type of joy.

The Art of Raising Big Money for College Sports

Frank Fitzpatrick's first article of a two-part series about major colleges' fund-raising efforts for sports and how sports-related donations now constitute a bigger part of major universities' fund-raising efforts than ever before is must reading if you have had any issues with or curiosity about the topic. Click here for a link to his article in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Once you've read the article, ask yourself a few questions:

1. Is this a good thing?

2. Who really benefits from all of these donations?

3. Do these donations enhance the quality of college life?

4. Do these donations enhance the quality of the average college education?

5. What do the donors receive in return?

6. Is the focus of the major institutions where it should be?

7. Is there a danger with some institutions that the performance of their football team and men's basketball team eclipses the overall mission of the university?

8. Is there a risk that the big money will corrupt the decisionmaking and priorities of the boards of trustees and senior administrators of the major universities? Or, how much has that "corruption" permeated the thinking of major college administrators?

9. What do most Americans think of when they hear the following names of universities:

A. USC
B. Stanford
C. Alabama
D. Duke
E. Ohio State
F. Florida
G. Yale
H. Georgetown
I. Oklahoma
J. Kansas
K. West Virginia
L. Cal-Berkeley
M. Kentucky
N. Williams

I won't begin to answer the questions here, but will the average reader think first of a school's academic reputation or of the football team and men's basketball team and perhaps the number of players those programs have put into the pros? What would your first response be?

Friday, October 12, 2007

And Celtics Fans Shouldn't Get Too Giddy

Two stars over 30, a third who is a great player but for whom they traded half the roster. The other 2/5 of the starting lineup is thin, the bench is almost non-existent. One of your Hall of Famers has a rep as a clubhouse lawyer, all three superstars need the rock to be effective, two of them don't like to play defense, and, well, you have a recipe for disaster. Especially considering that no NBA team has won the title with three players averaging over 20 points per game.

And who will help out off the bench?

Scott Pollard? Eddie House?

Perhaps they can score Alan Houston in a trade with the Knicks.

Celtics fans should recall what a Yankee fan said last year about the great talent the Yanks had assembled. "It's a team that can draw 4 million fans, but not necessarily a team that will win a World Series."

Touche -- 3 Hall of Famers, perhaps, but not enough chemistry to win an NBA title.

But they'll draw fans wherever they go, because the NBA is more about entertainment than diving for loose balls, setting the good pick, running the good break.

Unless you live in Phoenix, Detroit, San Antonio or Phoenix.

And perhaps a few other places.

Ed Snider Must Go

I posted this in January, and it's still true.

What has the guy done to merit the faith that Comcast puts in him to run the Flyers and the 76ers? If you're a Comcast shareholder, ask Brian Roberts and the management team why Snider still has a job? With all the talent that exists in the NBA and NHL, why can't and won't they find anyone else to run these teams?

Snider did a great job building the Flyers' franchise and brand, there's no arguing there. But that was a long time ago in the sports world, and hockey seemingly has passed him by. As for basketball, it never was his bag, and the current makeup of the 76ers shows it. I won't say a bad word about Coach Mo Cheeks, but GM Billy King shouldn't still have a job, and the next time he finds a good player from the other side of the ocean will be his first despite the fact that many successful teams have done just that. Philadelphia can be a passionate hoops town, but right now that passion is locked and loaded for the local college teams. The 76ers had the second worst attendance in the NBA last season. What's Comcast waiting for, when the 76ers are statistically significantly the worst in attendance?

Sorry, local sports fans, but a change is needed at the top. A new focus, a new direction, and, yes, new management. Otherwise, enjoy watching the craft of the visiting teams, because the hometown teams won't be victorious in hockey and hoops for a while.

Broad Street Bozos

You would think that the Philadelphia Flyers (or Fly-errs, given the horrible miscues of late) would finally get the message that it's not the mid-1970's and that goon hockey is long gone from the NHL. Perhaps now that a second Fly-err has gotten a long suspension for a stupid, dirty hit will tell the Broad Street Battery Artists that enough is enough. Read here about Jesse Boulerice's attempt to use a hockey stick for cutlery and see for yourself.

It was bad enough after the rules change that took place after the strike that the Flyers signed statuesque players to play a game that no longer had a role for them. Watch the lummox lunge at the guy on the other team who can skate right by him and watch the hometown six lose (some of these guys were so stationery -- can you say Derian Hatcher at career's end -- that pigeons might have found a home on them). Time and time again. Yes, Ed Snider and Bob Clarke were perhaps trying to relive their glory days of Dave "The Hammer" Schultz and Andre "Moose" Dupont, but the fact of the matter was that times have changed mightily since the fighting, slashing days of the 1970's. If only, though, someone were to tell Snider and Clarke.

So now they've still been at it, and I'm sure that loyal fans will argue that these guys acted alone and the team didn't put them up to it, and I'm sure there's a lot of truth in that, except for a basic premise that still exists in hockey -- you need fighters to police the game and keep everyone honest when the sticks get too high and the checking gets a bit too out of hand. That's all well and good except for when the tough guys fight too often and too dirty. That is, of course, if you believe the premise from the get go.

The NHL will keep suspending players who lose their cool and do stupid things, but, as with anything else, the real deterrent will come in one of two ways, one good and one awful. The good will be if someone commits some mayhem that disfigures in a temporary way and then gets suspended for a year or two -- without pay. That type of suspension will act as a major deterrent to future brutality. The awful way if someone gets hurt irreparably or killed because some goon with marginal talent loses his cool and blinds someone or paralyzes someone. Then a suspension will be permanent, and future violators will lose their right to play the game. But why should the NHL wait for this to happen?

Because most of the time society puts up its stop signs after the bad accidents, not before them.

So why should the NHL be any different?

The Unknown Quarterback Factor

In previous blog posts over the years, I've posited that there are about 75-100 guys in the country who could be (good) starting quarterbacks in the country but who for some reason don't get the chance. These guys played well in college, have the arm strength, etc., but something is held against them. For example, in Tony Romo's case it's the fact that he went to Eastern Illinois. Once-upon-a-time Dolphins QB Jay Fiedler went to Dartmouth (he could have gone to Purdue), and had Fiedler not gone to an Ivy League school perhaps the doubts about him would have been fewer.

The point of this conversation is that it's been conventional wisdom in recent years that for a team to have a good shot at a Super Bowl title, you need a great QB, and, at that, a QB who came in as a known quantity and was drafted in a high round. That said, there are NFL QBs who are doing well who flew under the radar screen or who, if known because they played at a big-time football school, weren't expected to do much in the pros. Romo is an example of the former, Tom Brady the latter. So, to examine this point further, the Mikes (Greenberg and Golic) reviewed each team's starting QB and evaluated whether they were known or unknown quantities coming out of college. The results might surprise you. Here goes (and I'm inserting my own opinions, and not those of the Mikes, and I'm also going with the guy who started the season for his team, with one proviso -- in Chicago's case, because Rex Grossman was replaced for performance reasons, I'm going with Brian Griese, but I'm not going with substitutes because of injury):

NFC East:

Dallas -- Tony Romo -- unknown
New York -- Eli Manning -- known
Washington -- Jason Campbell -- known (first-round draft pick, for those who might forget)
Philadelphia -- Donovan McNabb -- known

NFC West:

Arizona -- Matt Leinart -- known
Seattle -- Matt Hasselbeck -- unknown
San Francisco -- Alex Smith -- known
St. Louis -- Marc Bulger -- known

NFC North:

Chicago -- Brian Griese -- known (third-round pick out of Michigan; led team to Rose Bowl win)
Detroit -- Jon Kitna -- unknown
Green Bay -- Brett Favre -- known (second-round draft choice)
Minnesota -- Tavarious Jackson -- unknown

NFC South:

Atlanta -- Joey Harrington -- known
Carolina -- Jake Delhomme -- unknown
New Orleans -- Drew Brees -- known
Tampa Bay -- Jeff Garcia -- unknown

AFC East:

Buffalo -- J.P. Losman -- known
Miami -- Trent Green -- known
New England -- Tom Brady -- unknown
New York -- Chad Pennington -- known

AFC West:

Denver -- Jay Cutler -- known
Kansas City -- Damon Huard -- unknown
Oakland -- Daunte Culpepper -- known
San Diego -- Philip Rivers -- known

AFC North:

Baltimore -- Steve McNair -- known
Cincinnati -- Carson Palmer -- known
Cleveland -- Derek Anderson -- unknown
Pittsburgh -- Ben Roethlisberger -- known

AFC South:

Houston -- Matt Schaub -- (relatively) unknown
Indianapolis -- Peyton Manning -- known
Jacksonville -- David Garrard -- unknown
Tennessee -- Vince Young -- known

The tally: 21 known, 11 unknown. So what does this mean? It means that drafting a QB on the first round doesn't guarantee success in the NFL (okay, so that's not too profound). The year that the Eagles drafted Donovan McNabb, he was the third player taken in the draft, but behind two quarterbacks -- Tim Couch and Akili Smith. The Bears banked on Cade McNown of UCLA that year, taking him early in the first round, and there was talk in Philadelphia that the Eagles should have opted for him instead of McNabb. McNown was a big-time bust; McNabb has been very good when he's not been hurt.

So what's the formula? Romo excelled at Eastern Illinois, Garcia at Fresno State. Brady had trouble winning the job at Michigan and lost it to supposed wunderkind Drew Henson, who after flirting and failing with the Yankees' farm system then failed with Bill Parcells in Dallas. Hasselbeck played well in college and comes from a football family.

The Mannings both played great in college, ditto for McNabb, Young, Leinart, Palmer and many others. It's hard to determine precisely how to predict who will excel or who won't, except that in retrospect had one compared Peyton Manning's maturity and preparation with Ryan Leaf's you probably could have predicted that Manning projected better than Leaf, who is now a college golf coach, did (San Diego drafted Leaf right after Indy drafted Peyton). But what this does go to show you is that with any NFL position, you can find gems in later rounds.

The big difference, though, is that a head coach is much more willing to give a sixth-round cornerback a chance to replace an injured starter or even to beat him out than he would a fifth-round pick who excelled at Harvard, Mount Union or Rice (with apologies to Tommy Kramer fans). Suppose Drew Bledsoe hadn't gotten injured several years ago in New England? Would Tom Brady have gotten a chance to beat him out? It took a few spectacular failures in Dallas for Romo to get his chance, and for Pete's sake Kurt Warner played in the Arena League and was stocking shelves at a grocery store in Iowa before finding Mike Martz and becoming the star attraction in St. Louis's "Greatest Show on Turf" and becoming an MVP.

The conclusion: there are many guys like Brady, Warner and Romo out there, perhaps enough to populate back-up positions on half the NFL rosters. What there usually are not are head coaches with enough self confidence to make the call, give up on the guy with the big-time reputation who either is a step too slow, can't read defenses well enough or doesn't quite have the arm strength for a guy who might be slightly undersized, but who has the courage, leadership and savvy to simply make the plays. Analogously, Jimmy Johnson had the guts in Miami to draft a 5'10", 220 pound linebacker named Zach Thomas and make him an All-Pro. Why? Because when he looked at film, all he saw was that Thomas made the plays. In stark contrast, Ray Rhodes in Philadelphia once took a physical specimen named Jon Harris despite the fact that Harris seldom made the plays in college (he went to UVA) Harris bombed out after two seasons; Thomas is still playing.

There are Zach Thomas-like quarterbacks out there. Those who get the chance usually do so because of injury or desperation, and year after year they perform.

Perhaps it's time for this particular subset of the talent pool to get a more serious look.