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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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Stephen A. Smith Condones the "Street Agent Payola" System

Click here and read it for yourself.

I can't tell whether he really believes what he wrote or whether he's trying to gather attention and revive a slipping career. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, though, and say that he really means that people should turn a blind eye toward agents paying street agents to funnel money to star athletes with the hope of landing them as clients, because the kids usually are poor, they sometimes need money for theirs or their families' well being, and, yes, because it's a multi-billion dollar industry so what shouldn't these kids get something to wet their beaks?

It's hard to know where to begin, but to start with ethics, corruption, doing the right thing, taking the road less traveled, resisting temptation, building character, trying to get through without owing something to the wrong people (who could hurt you literally and figuratively). What Stephen A. overlooks is that for every O.J. Mayo, there are dozens of kids who get caught up in a vortex of corrupt behavior that can spiral out of control and have them make terrible decisions. Such as: where to go to high school, which AAU team to play for, what shoes to wear, what money to take or not to take, and many more. Mayo's high-school history was checkered to say the least, but he was smart enough and good enough to figure out a path that now leads him to the NBA lottery.

Most kids aren't that smart or that lucky, and the agents and street agents are praying on their hope. Make no mistake about it, many these folks will say and do almost anything to get a client. It's just a business to them, plain and simple, and the money that they dole out is an investment. They don't care about the kids, but they do care about a return on their investment.

Here's a possible business model for Joe Agent. I work in Los Angeles, I'm starting to build a book of business after having apprenticed for someone else, and I have a $150,000 bankroll per year (my wealthy uncle loves me and supports my endeavor). I figure I'll spend $15,000 per on each of ten high-profile kids around the country. Some will take the money and screw me, some will remain loyal, and perhaps one or two might pan out, mindful that I need to watch and coddle them not only through some of their high-school years, but also through their college years. Oh, yeah, they'll get a scholarship to college because of their talent, but I'll take care of their needs. And, if they hit the first round, well then I'll get my 5 to 10% of their three-year deal and then, if they succeed, I'll get the same percentage off the six-year max deal that they'll sign thereafter. Say that deal is worth $105 million to the player, well, then, do the math.

Of course, there can't be that many Joe Agents, because the return on investment for say 20 Joe Agents spending $150,000 per year can't be that great for each of them. Well, that's probably okay, because not every business is destined to succeed. In fact, it's probably the case that some of the agents with the best books of business dole out even more money to lock down the top talent.

It's an interesting way to spend an adult life, spending your money on 17 year-olds with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement and their relatives, who cultivate expensive tasts fairly quickly and frequently. And without any guarantees that at the end of the day they'll stick with the agent who greases them for five or more years. And, of course, you have to deal with the street agents, too. Do you give them a Form 1099 for their work? Or are they on your payroll and do they get W-2's? How do you book the cash payments? As business expenses? Probably.

But in Stephen A. Smith's mind this is okay because payoffs have always gone on somewhere, we shouldn't sit in judgment of relatively poor kids, and because given how much money is made, they deserve their share. Given how wonderful the system is, that's compelling reasoning, isn't it?

Thanks, ESPN the Magazine, for giving a forum to this controversial viewpoint.

And then ask yourself the question: are you part of the solution or part of the problem?

A Good Walk, Spoiled?

Golf Digest is sponsoring a competition around the time of the U.S. Open that is just brilliant. They're having three celebrity and one unknown single-digit handicap golfer play the prepped-for-the-U.S.-Open layout at Torrey Pines within the next week. The three celebrities are Justin Timberlake, Matt Lauer and Tony Romo. The purpose will be to show just how tough a U.S. Open course is.

The general consensus is that with a gallery, TV cameras and U.S. open greens and rough, these guys won't break 100. If they don't, what the exercise will show us is how great the average PGA touring professional is at his craft and how tough a U.S. Open course is. The match will be shown on June 15, before the final round of the U.S. Open.

Yes, the three celebrities are used to performing -- Timberlake in front of screaming gaggles of young girls, Lauer in front of a camera and nationwide audience, and Romo in front of full stadiums of people devoted to the pagan religion known as American football. Does that mean, then, that they won't succumb to the overall pressue of U.S. Open conditions -- becase they're high-profile pros at something else. Then there's the true amateur, Jon Atkinson. How will he fare?

The whole concept is pretty cool, and I thank the Mikes on ESPN Radio for highlighting this competion for me this morning on the drive to work. Most of us are not single-digit handicappers, but still it will be fun to see how this foursome fares.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What's the Fate of Horse Racing if Big Brown Gets Hurt at the Belmont?

Just asking.

His trainer says he's quite the picture.

But if Big Brown gets hurt at the Belmont, what then?

Congress, after all, is in an election year. Now that the House has fumbled the steroids affair and the NFL has blown heat by Senator Arlen Specter, what would happen in the third round of the U.S. versus Organized Sports?

You could imagine the drama, subpoenaing the likes of Mr. Ed and Affirmed to the hallowed halls of the House to testify before the various luminaries who serve our country with distinction. You could see the New York Post's headline now: "Horses vs. Horse's Asses." The public will want answers, and your elected officials will stop at nothing to get them for you.

But would anything really change?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Robert Horry is Not a Hall of Famer

And ESPN.com must have had a slow sports news day to even say there's a debate on whether he belongs in the Hall.

J.A. Adande writes an article that talk about Horry's accomplishments, and while I won't debate that Horry has been a valuable member of numerous championship teams, his overall body of work just isn't good enough to warrant inclusion in the Hall. He's Leonard Zelig with muscle and a timely jumper, but he's not and has never been the engine that pulls the train to its destination. You think Hall of Fame, you think of names like Jordan, Pippen, (Magic) Johnson, McHale, Bird, Jabbar, Duncan, (David) Robinson, but not Robert Horry.

Again, that's not to knock Horry's career, his presence on those championship teams and his contributions to them. It's just to say that the Hall covers the elite of the league, and Horry's just not among them.

The Mets' Managerial Situation

When things go bad, management fires the manager, even though a Major League Baseball manager hardly has the impact on a game the way a head coach in the National Football League game can. Put differently, managers can help you win (or lose) roughly 6 to 10 games.

Perhaps the most eloquent statement came from the great Whitey Herzog in an interview in Sports Illustrated decades ago. Herzog said that if given a choice between a team with great talent and a horsebleep manager and horsebleep talent and a great manager, he'd bet on the team with the horsebleep manager every time. In horse racing parlance, you bet the horse, not the jockey.

Yet, the easiest thing for Mets' management to do is focus on the jockey, who, admittedly, hasn't done a great job with his horse. As Jayson Stark pointed out on ESPN Radio this morning, since Memorial Day of 2007, the Mets have played 162 games and are 4 games under .500. All that said, how good is this horse?

A Met fan friend yesterday opined that what the Mets need is Larry Bowa. My answer, and it hurt me to say this being a Phillies' loyalist, is that Bowa is the last thing this Mets team needs. Bowa failed in his two managerial stints, the first when he probably wasn't ready in San Diego, and the second (when he was more than ready), in Philadelphia (preceding Charlie Manuel). Bowa has proven himself to be an able #2 or #3 (depending on how you value third-base coaches versus bench coaches), but his temperament just doesn't gel with today's player. He's gasoline on the fire, because he hasn't fared well with his teams as a whole. As a top assistant, he's been invaluable to relating to players where the spotlight isn't on him (apparently he excelled in getting Robinson Cano to play beyond his ability as the Yankees' third-base coach).

What you need, Met fans, is an excellent manager, one tough enough to lead but one modern enough to understand today's player. The mid-day guys on WFAN got it wrong, Evan in particular, when he endorsed the concept that the Mets need a Hispanic manager. Sorry, Evan, but not only is that type of thinking against the law, it doesn't make any sense. There are all sorts of Hispanic managers, from bad to good to fiery to mellow. What the team needs is a manager who can relate to the makeup of the current Mets' team, regardless of whether he's Hispanic. If Willie Randolph isn't the guy, what the Mets need is the right one.

But then let's get back to the horse. How good are the Mets? Once they got Johan Santana, most pundits predicted they'd win the NL East. Even I, as a diehard Phillies' fan, conceded that the Mets were the team to beat, because they just added a guy whose projected won-loss record would be something like 17-8, giving then a plus 9 in the standings. In David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran they have an excellent nucleus, and in Santana they have an ace with some good other starters. The bullpen going into the season was more iffy than a year ago, but still solid despite the last-season collapse. On balance, they should have been made the favorites.

The question, though, is how good is everyone else? Okay, you can talk about chemistry and leadership, but after Santana and Maine, how good are the starters? Oliver Perez is an enigma, and Mike Pelphrey remains a project. Who knows if Pedro will return or El Duque will return to form? And how good is the bullpen? Who are the other excellent hitters besides those who comprise the nucleus and Moises Alou when he's healthy? I know I'm being hypercritical here, but I'm doing so to make a point -- is the team as good as advertised? Can it really be the National League representative in the World Series?

My answer remains the same as it was going into the season: yes, absolutely, and here's why. The Marlins will wilt in the summer heat, despite their great start. While proving that they're a team to reckon with in the future and while they'll be getting some pitchers back, they're not there yet. The Braves don't have a killer x factor that scares you, despite Chipper Jones' galvanizing arguments that he's a Hall of Famer. The Phillies remain dangers, and if they start to hit (which they've showed signs of doing), they could bludgeon the division and win it by 5-7 games. Yet, their starting pitching is iffy. Brett Myers has a ten-cent head, and Adam Eaton has pitched with disastrous results. Their bullpen, though, remains solid. The Cubs and Astros have shown might in the Central, but the Astros are playing beyond their full-year capabilities and something (bad) usually happens to the Cubs. The Diamondbacks are for real, but the rest of the West doesn't scare anyone. In short, why not the Mets?

Which is what the Mets' ownership must be thinking, and that means that they'll make a move soon. But when you're replacing a key member of management, you should only do so when you have a solid candidate lined up. While it's hard to line anyone up clandestinely (because the media is ubiquitous), the Wilpons and Omar Minaya must have some ideas. They can't go with a rookie manager with this veteran club, and they should hire someone who's taken a veteran team either to the Series or won a Series with a veteran team. Among those out there are Jack McKeon (who probably is retired for good now), Bob Brenly (who did a nice job with the Diamondbacks), Mike Hargrove (who admittedly didn't reach the promised land with the Indians and who hasn't managed for years) and a few others. My choice would be Brenly, even though he's not Keith Hernandez, Edgardo Alfonzo, Gary Carter or someone with even remote ties to the Mets' organization.

I feel badly for Willie Randolph and hate to see anyone lose a job. But if the Mets are going to make a move, they should make sure that they're hiring the right person for a complicated team -- someone with a thick skin for the New York media, someone with patience for the rookies, someone positive enough yet tough enough for the modern baseball player, and someone who knows how to win.

I think I probably just described Joe Torre and Terry Francona.

Who else fits that bill?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Grow Up, U.S. Women's Soccer Team!

Read this excellent article in yesterday's New York Times and see what I'm talking about.

Everyone knows that in the women's World Cup a few years back, head coach Greg Ryan made a mistake and benched stellar goalie Hope Solo in favor of old favorite and World Cup hero Brianna Scurry for the semifinal game. The result: Scurry looked slow-footed, the U.S. was routed, and Ryan ultimately lost his job. En route to the latter result, Solo opened her mouth and complained, very publicly, that Ryan's decision was wrong. In the process, and, yes, wrongly, she threw the respected Scurry under the bus.

Solo later apologized, very publicly, about her transgressions.

So it all should be over, shouldn't it?

Nope.

Not a chance.

You see, the U.S. women's team is acting like a bunch of thirteen year old girls who've just gotten their own cell phones and are trying to own the landscape in middle school. They started the bad behavior after Solo initially transgressed, banning her from the team, the consolation game, the flight home and the team's hotel. Instead of embracing someone who was hurting, showing they were forgiving and, yes, bigger people, the other members of the U.S. women's soccer team, all of whom must be the equivalent of altar girls and none of whom has ever said something she wished she hadn't, took the other road, the road much more frequently traveled.

Virtual shunning.

Or so it seems. Friendships are over, moments are awkward, the fracture hasn't healed, and no one is showing the leadership to put once-upon-a-time former best friends together to mend the rift, publicly declare that it's over, pull the team together and give it at least a puncher's chance to win the 2008 Olympics. But no, the rest of the women's soccer team knows better, feels that if they continue to ignore the problem, Solo will vanish or will forget or that somehow the team can pull together to win the gold medal.

That's realistic, isn't it?

Yes, Hope Solo made a mistake, but in her mid-twenties, she was bound to, even a big one. She got caught up in a moment, ventilated publicly, and has paid an awful price for her transgression.

But hasn't she paid enough?

So who, exactly, are the leaders on the U.S. women's soccer team? Or, are the team members subject to the same criticism that the Boston Red Sox were when they weren't winning with great frequency decades ago -- "25 team members, 25 taxi cabs" when they were on the road?

Leadership requires putting the good of the team over everything else. Leadership means standing up to those who didn't transgress but who are acting badly know and saying that the rift is over. Leadership means that you do your best to heal all rifts and make things right. Don't just sit around and let bad things fill this awful vacuum. Solve the problem!

If you don't, you won't win, few will remember you, you'll get your coach fired and U.S.A. Soccer will have to take a long hard look at team chemistry and determine who will represent the country in the 2010 World Cup. And, yes, it will be an easy fix to cashier Hope Solo and find another goalie. But that would be the wrong fix, too, because among those who remain will be a bunch of people who acted in petty fashion and demonstrated that their own emotions and egos were more important than the greater good.

So, members of the U.S. Women's Soccer team not named Hope Solo, forgive her, talk to her, talk out your problems, and, yes, even apologize for not forgiving her soon enough. If you do this, you'll find out that you'll play better, and your team will play better, too.

The Old Princeton B-Ball Windbreaker

Years ago, when Pete Carril coached basketball at Princeton, if you supported the friends of Princeton basketball group at a certain level, you got to choose a gift from the b-ball program (only the difference was tax deductible, for those of you who care about these details). Anyway, if you gave over $100, and you got to choose from Princeton b-ball sweatsuits, umbrellas, blankets, athletic socks and windbreakers. Over the years, I picked up about 4 sweatsuits (one for me, one for my spouse and two for friends), a blanket and two windbreakers (one for my mother for yardwork and one for me).

I've had my windbreaker for about 15 years and it's shot. The lettering (placed where a left breastpocket appears on a sportcoat) has all but faded, and, well, the windbreaker looks bad and even out of style. I've insisted upon wearing it up through this spring, but the family has prevailed upon me to get rid of it because, well, it doesn't look flattering any more. I've always worn it with pride to show my support for the "Little Engine That Could" of college basketball, but now it's time to discard it.

Unfortunately, I can't replace it. (Once Bill Carmody became head coach in 1997, he discontinued the practice of giving the gifts, probably because some of the gifts cost about $50, the donors probably didn't need them or had collected plenty of them over the years, and the program needed the money for various enhancements the university couldn't provide). I still support Princeton basketball with great enthusiasm, even if there have been many lean years since John Thompson left four years ago. I'll miss my constant spring reminder of doing more with less, of a "Moneyball" approach to college basketball, of backdoor cuts and interesting bits of philosophy.

I'll probably look nicer, but then again, the guy who sent me the windbreaker as a thank you never really cared about that, as it was and remains what's inside that counts.

As it always was with Coach Carril. He wasn't about flashy "Midnight Madness" displays or fancy trappings, just getting the best out of each kid and winning ball games. I'll still remember the Carril era for its economy of movement, clearness of purpose and honesty in its everyday dealings, windbreaker or not.

But, Coach Johnson, if you want a suggestion. . . enable your fan base to purchase some logoware. You'll be surprised, even in your rebuilding years, how many people will wear it proudly to show their support.

Sorry, Lacrosse Fans, But . . .

I have two major beefs with the college lacrosse game.

First, despite the entreaties of ESPN and its color commentator, Quent Kessenich, lacrosse is not the fastest game on two feet. Sorry, but check out something called basketball and something else called football. Not much is faster than when Chris Paul is running a fast break or Devin Hester is returning a kick. Lacrosse touts, come up with a better tag line. This one fails.

Second, the game is not telegenic and suffers from what hockey does -- it's hard to pick up the ball and you can't see the faces of the competitors. Those two aspects of the game will not help make lacrosse more popular beyond those whose families and friends play the game. Yes, the national championship game might draw market share, but the average game will have trouble drawing on television. It might be like hockey -- in person it's a much better product.

How Do You Know Which Team is Your Favorite?

Chances are you have many favorite teams. If you live in Boston, you might root for the four professional teams plus some college teams. You think that because you're a local or a native that you root for them equally, but how can you be sure?

I'll throw out the following hypothesis -- your favorite team is the one you stay up with to watch their West Coast games, the one whose results you eagerly look for the next day, the one you make the most time for, and the one whose ups and downs resonate with you for the longest.

So, for me, that team is the Philadelphia Phillies.

Sure, the Eagles are the "hot" team in the city now, and the Birdlls have overtaken the Phils in popularity since, perhaps, the mid-1990's (after all, we Philadelphia fans only could ensure oh so much assinity from then-managing partner Bill Giles, who insisted that the Phillies were suffering as a small-market team when the truth was the fans were suffering from small-minded ownership). The Flyers have always ponied up the money to try to remain competitive, and the 76ers are headed up now by a guy who made his name in, yes, hockey. Go figure.

Okay, I've rambled a bit, but the truth is that the Phillies are my favorite team. My dad split a Sunday plan with one of his friends, and we went to about 7 games a year on Sundays, somehow seeing Steve Carlton pitch more often than not. We shared that time together and, now that my dad's gone, I share baseball with my family. We have a partial season ticket plan to the Phillies, and we enjoy very much going to games and watching the hometown team. The fealty, as it were, runs deeper than the fact that the Phillies are my hometown team. It's a kinship to shared family times within a relatively small family, just sitting there, eating peanuts and trying to predict when the stars will hit home runs. It's all good fun.

Despite being a sports fan, and haven't dedicated a full Sunday to the NFL or an afternoon to watching the Eagles in a long time. Yes, I'm a bit fair weather -- if they make the playoffs I'll watch the entire game. But otherwise, I'm not going to sacrifice the fall's good weather to sit for three hours watching any game. The Eagles have been a captivating team, but tickets are very hard to come by and then, if you get them, you'll have to endure some of the diehards. Last I heard, the Linc isn't necessarily the place for women and children.

I grew up with the 76ers thanks to a family connection, had great seats (downstairs, center court, 20 rows up at the Spectrum cost about $15 apiece then), and lived and died with them. Died mostly in the late 60's and early 70's, after they traded Wilt and before they pivoted, signed George McGinnis and then Doctor J. Lived and had fun with them in the mid-1970's to very early 1980's, where somehow, some way, they couldn't get all the way up their seemingly Sisyphian hill. Then, in 1983, they did just that, and that was a special team. But over the past 25 years the NBA has morphed from great hoops to mediocre entertainment, too many teams and games, too many tattoos and dancing girls. I like the 76ers and Maurice Cheeks, but their ups and downs aren't all that compelling for me anymore.

The Flyers, though, come in last, if only because I didn't grow up in a hockey environment, my father disliked hockey, its homogenous fan base and the Flyers' owner, Ed Snider, for reasons that were never totally clear to me. I suppose that my father disagreed that fighting should be part of any sport, joined the bandwagon when the Flyers won 2 Stanley Cups in a row (perhaps only because he didn't want to see his kids become outliers by channeling his dislike of hockey and because the Philadelphia area needed a champion), but still didn't care for it too much. Besides, we had baseball and basketball to share (not to mention local college football games), so our sports dance card was full. The irony isn't lost on me that a guy who's still resting on laurels created almost 35 years ago now is in charge of the 76ers too. Put bluntly, despite the Flyers' turnaround this year, Ed Snider isn't doing a great job presiding over either professional sports team in Philadelphia.

At any rate, the Phillies are it for me. I check their scores frequently, read the accounts of every game I missed, follow Chase Utley and Ryan Howard closely, among others, share their triumphs and defeats with the family, and go to more of their games than those of any other team. Yes, we root for all Philadelphia teams and hope they win, we really do, but none of them affect our day the way the Phillies do.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Sam Bowie Owns Horses

One of the most oft-injured (and therefore disappointing) players in NBA history was Sam Bowie, the Pennsylvania native who played at Kentucky and then was drafted between Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan in the NBA draft.

The Philadelphia Inquirer published this article about the hoopster turned breeder of trotters in today's edition.

So, my question is this, does anyone see the irony about Sam Bowie's training horses? If you do, please let me know by posting a comment.

Book Review: The Mogul: Eddie Gottlieb, Philadelphia Sports Legend and Pro Basketball Pioneer

Things were different then.

No cell phones, no cable television, no big arenas with luxury boxes, cigar bars and $6 chocolate chip cookies.

No private jets, no entourages, no bling.

The guys my dad knew as casual acquaintances were short, rumpled guys, serious, determined, some lacking in basic social graces except "how ya doin?", and you weren't sure that they meant it when they said it. Sometimes they seemed to be in a hurry, trying to get from one opportunity to the next, yet, because the pace of the world was slow, at other times they seemed to have all the time in the world.

They were older than my dad, not necessarily old enough to be his father but most certainly much older brothers. They worked hard, they were deal makers, promoters, men who tried to make something happen. They weren't necessarily hale fellows well met, but they were, well, memorable.

They ate from the automat at Horn 'N Hardarts on East Market Street in Philadelphia (and if you ever had the baked crock of baked beans there, you'd remember it for life and swear that nowhere, nowhow could anyone come close to replicating that type of delicacy), they had their businesses in their heads or on random pieces of paper stuffed in their pockets, they knew everyone and every gym and playground, and, boy, could they tell stories. You see, Philadelphia was smaller then, much smaller than it is today, and people lived closer in, so you ran into people everywhere you went and they were prone to stop by, unannounced, to say hello, because that's what people in those days did.

I'm not going to reveal the source of my knowledge of the topic of the book, but Eddie Gottlieb was familiar to my father, because one of the supporting cast mentioned in the book was a neighbor of, and business associate of, my father (lest you draw any inappropriate conclusions, the business was totally legitimate and my father was a straight arrow). As a result, I had heard references to "Gotty" all of my young life, because Philadelphia was a basketball town, and Gotty, all 5'4" of him (sorry, Rich Westcott, but if Eddie Gottlieb was 5'8" then Wilt Chamberlain was 7 1/2 feet tall), was a well-known figure.

No one outworked the man, no one knew the business of professional sports better than he, and no one could lay claim to being the father of the NBA more than Eddie Gottlieb could have. He got his start as a player, a teacher, a promoter, and he formed a legendary team of intercity Jewish young men called the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (the SPHAs) that was one of the best early teams in the history of organized basketball. I recall summertime conversations at the pool of a friend of my father's when the dads would talk about the SPHAs and how great some of the players were. The father of the SPHAs was Eddie Gottlieb.

Eddie Gottlieb also was a booking agent, and he had dibs on certain venues and got a cut of the take when he booked a team in a venue. He was involved in various ways in Negro League baseball, and if there were those who had bad things to say about him, they did so much more because of his tightfistedness with money (he treated nickels like they were manhole covers) than they did because of his views on race (which were not enlightened, especially at the time he owned the Philadelphia Stars).

He ended up buying the Philadelphia Warriors from Walter Annenberg and coaching them, but he was no Red Auerbach. Auerbach was the innovator on the court, whereas Gottlieb coached the team with no great method, except, perhaps to coach to a style that would maximize an exciting style of play and therefore put people in the seats. After he sold the Warriors to a Bay Area group in the late 1950's, he served as a consultant for the team. Seemingly forever, he sat on the NBA rules committee, advocated many rules changes that made the game more entertaining (such as the 24-second clock, although it wasn't his idea), and served as the NBA's schedulemaker until his death in the late 1970's. At one point prior to that time, the NBA tried to get a computer to replicate Gottlieb's Herculean efforts in scheduling the long 82-game season, and the computer short-circuited.

Gottlieb never married, looked out for a sister who was in and out of mental institutions her entire life until she died in her mid-70's, was charitable to all sorts of people and causes without ever seeking any publicity, hung out with legendary 76ers public address announcer Dave Zinkoff (the best P.A. announcer in the history of the pro game), used to eat frequently at the house of one-time 76ers' owner Ike Richman, had a messy office that had all sorts of visitors, kept most of his business dealings in his head, bought 6 suits at a time, and once asked for a player to return twelve cents to him when he gave the player too much meal money a month earlier. Many liked him, some didn't (because he was direct in his dealings and not a diplomat), but all seemed to have respected him. He was a true period piece, an American original the likes of whom will not be replicated.

Author Rich Westcott did as good a job as possible writing a book about this legendary man, and, overall, it's a good read. The unfortunate aspect of biographies like these is that Gottlieb and his contemporaries are long-since deceased, and the guys who played for him are either pretty old or deceased, and, in any event, the activities of which they speak happened four, five and six decades ago. In short, it's hard to capture the flavor of the times or the people involved in the tapestry that was Gottlieb's life because the source material isn't as rich as it was, say, thirty years ago. Nonetheless, Rich Westcott described the Eddie Gottlieb who was described to me -- direct, persistent, brilliant, and, deep down, a nice man with a passion for promotion and basketball.

If you're looking for a good book to give your father for Father's Day about Philadelphia sports way back when or the NBA's history in particular, buy him this one. It's a good read, and it takes you back to days when the game was more accessible, and when the owners ran the teams for the love of what they were doing and not to feed their own egos.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Should Baseball Have Instant Replay?

The report here is that the Majors might try instant replay in the Arizona Fall League.

After numerous blown home run calls this year, do the Majors have an alternative? Put differently, to what would instant replay apply? Just home runs? Check swings? Third strikes? Whether balls are foul or fair? Bang-bang plays on the bases? Diving catches?

That's the problem. I don't think that instant replay should apply to anything other than home run calls. That's where most of the problems have arisen, and they've arisen because of the designs of stadiums, foggy nights, balls leaving the park so quickly, among others. That problem, as it were, could be easily rectified. If the umps aren't sure whether a ball left the park, after the play stops, they can signal the replay official and look at video.

Problem solved.

Beyond that, I think that baseball is asking for trouble, especially since they've quickened the pace of play. During my years of viewing, I think that the umpires get mostly everything right. Check swings? The catcher appeals to a base ump, who gets it right. Third strikes? Why should they be treated differently from first or second strikes? So long as the ump has a consistent strike zone for both teams, I'm fine, even if it's painful at times to witness a different interpretation of the strike zone from the one I'd use (translated: umps with bad backs or big stomachs sometimes are overly generous -- or not -- on low strikes). Close calls on the bases? They don't miss many. Ditto for diving catches.

Used correctly, instant replay could help improve MLB's product.

On a limited basis.

Where Else Did the Patriots Cheat?

Former NFL lineman Ross Tucker said that Coach Bill Belichick also played games with the injured reserve roster.

Filming where he shouldn't have been filming.

Stashing healthy players on the I.R. and then letting them practice.

What else?

Tony Dungy appeared on Mike & Mike on ESPN Radio this morning and, in response to a question, indicated that to some degree Belichick's accomplishments will be accompanied with some doubt. Dungy is a very gracious guy, and he didn't elaborate, but it's clear that the antics of Belichick and the Pats riled many in the NFL.

It's one thing to be aggressive. It's another to go past the boundaries because you start to believe your own press clippings as to how great you are and then (wrongly) believe that because of your genius status the rules don't apply to you.

And that seems what happened with Belichick. If what Ross Tucker says is correct, it seems that the NFL will have no alternative but to investigate this allegation as well. Investigators tend to turn over rocks until there are no more to turn over. In the case of Belichick, I don't think that NFL Commisioner Roger Goodell has a choice here.

Tucker seems credible. He's bright, he has no axe to grind, he was an NFL journeyman, an unsigned free agent out of a school (Princeton) that doesn't groom guys for professional football. He's not on a crusade, so to speak, he's just making a point.

And that raises the question as to what else might have gone on in New England that blew through stop signs and boundaries.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Brilliant Choice for Bucknell Men's Basketball

Bucknell hired two-time DIII coach of the year Dave Paulsen (formerly the head coach at his alma mater, Williams College) to replace Pat Flannery. You can read about the hiring here.

Paulsen is a great, creative choice for Bucknell. He withdrew from consideration for the Dartmouth job a few years ago when the Big Green hired Terry Dunn (my guess is that Paulsen just didn't feel he could win in the Ivies at Dartmouth -- and Dunn's tenure is proving him right). He should have been (and perhaps was) a candidate at Brown to replace Craig Robinson, and I also thought that Penn and or Princeton should have considered him for their vacancies when Fran Dunphy moved to Temple and Joe Scott went to Denver.

It's easy to say why: the just is a proven winner, period, and success begets success. Paulsen knows how to coach smart kids, and with some scholarships available at Lewisberg, he should make the transition to the Patriot League rather easily.

I can't say enough about what a great choice this appears to be. Congratulations, Bucknell, on your decision.

Only in Europe: Man U, Chelsea battle in Moscow

Which is pretty ironic that the Champions League was decided in Russia, given the recent influx of Russian owners of about 25% of the Mayfair section of London and of teams like Chelsea and Portsmouth. At any rate, Man U (owned by Americans) and Chelsea (owned by oligarch Roman Abramowich) battled in Moscow yesterday, with Man U winning a bloody match on penalty kicks.

You can read all about it here.

The match report leaves me with only one question: If Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portguese native who plays for Manchester United, isn't the best soccer player in the world at the moment, who is?

Comment below.

Who in the World is George Sherrill?

Where did he grow up, where did he come from, and why at 31 after years of not closing is he now all of a sudden close to the lead in the American League in saves -- and as a lefty, too? And for the surprising Baltimore Orioles!

Click here for information but not necessarily clues.

Was Sherrill suppressed because he didn't have a blue-chip pedigree? Often-injured? Is he a late bloomer? Did he have a miraculous later-in-career velocity transplant, a la Jim Morris of The Rookie?

Are the barriers to entry to becoming a closer lower than they've ever been? Is that good for the hypothetical, average relief pitcher? How many teams are confident in their current closers? How many say novenas every night for them? How many are looking to change their closers?

At any rate, George Sherrill appears to be a great story.

NBA Mock Drafts and the 76ers

Here's an NBA mock draft from Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated. Thomsen has the 76ers picking West Virginia's Joe Alexander with the pick, over big men such as Georgetown's Roy Hibbert and Rider's Jason Thompson.

I think it's a great pick. Alexander excelled in the NCAA tournament, playing the best hoops outside of a guy named Stephen Curry. Sure, at 6'8", 230, the cognoscenti will say that he's too short to play the four and too slow to play the three. How many times have we heard that? And how many apologies have we heard from those who said that guys like Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier couldn't play in the NBA?

Alexander wins. NBA teams need to focus not solely on promise, but guys who make the plays and help their teams win games, night in and night out. Guys who keep working, guys who hit the boards and the open man, and guys who hit the clutch shot. Alexander is all of those guys. I marveled at the slippage of Boozer years ago to the second round, because all he seemed to do was make the plays, and he's proven me right.

Joe Alexander is another excellent player. The 76ers would be lucky to get him.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

How Tough are the San Antonio Spurs?

Tough enough to be only 1 of 20 teams (out of a denominator of 100) to win a Game 7 in an NBA series on the road.

That's tough.

Call it game-tested tough, Texas rodeo tough, whatever you want, but this is a playoff-tested team that will go down with its boots.

The NBA regional finals should be a treat. You have Kobe and the gang against the wisened old pros of San Antonio, and then you have the Celtics (to whom many pundits gave the title in the pre-season) against other set of wisened old pros, the Detroit Pistons.

The networks probably are craving another Celtics-Lakers final.

The basketball purist in me wants to see the two old bands battle it out for perhaps one last time. I'm going with age over beauty, and I'm picking the Spurs to meet the Pistons in what should be a classic NBA final.

There is No Fix in the Tim Donaghy Case

Although the disgraced former NBA's referee apparently suggests otherwise.

Tim Donaghy, who admitted to gambling on basketball games he officiated, is up for sentencing in Federal court soon. His attorney wrote to the judge stating that his client fully cooperated with investigators, revealed pieces of information that could have led to further investigations, but that Federal prosecutors have done nothing with that information and that the NBA might have pressured the U.S. Attorney's office to go no further on the matter.

It's hard to believe.

U.S. Attorneys are among the most zealous people on the planet, and if they are presented with facts that lead to further investigation, under normal circumstances they'll continue to pursue their leads until they come up dry. Moreover, it's hard to believe that any outside organization -- especially the NBA -- would have enough juice to get U.S. attorneys to back off.

Mike Greenberg discussed the allegations on ESPN Radio this morning and wondered aloud whether there was anything to this story. It was not Greenberg's best moment, because he's not familiar with prosecutorial climates and usually relies upon legal analyst Roger Cossack to help him. Had Greenberg involved Roger Cossack this morning, Cossack would have said almost precisely what I did -- that the U.S. attorney would have pursued all credible leads and that there's no way a U.S. attorney would stop because the NBA asked him/her to do so.

Oh, yes, there can be fixes everywhere, but do we believe that there has to be a fix everywhere? Is that the way we all want to live our lives? Look, if Donaghy's attorney has something, he should raise it more articulately with the higher ups at the Justice Department, with the press and with the judge, and then let "the system" take over. It's my opinion, though, that perhaps Donaghy didn't have as much information to give as he or his attorney thinks.

If there's something to this story, it will come out eventually. But respected pundits such as Mike Greenberg should give more thought to giving credibility to allegations without consulting with their experts.

Tigers Don't Have "Eye of the Tiger"

Good piece in today's USA Today by Bob Nightengale on what's ailing the Detroit Tigers.

My assessment: you have a team built to draw 4 million, but not necessarily a team designed to win a championship.

The reason: there is no established leader on the club, and none of the 7 all-stars has shown a willingness to seize the leadership mantle and make the entire team accountable. Another take: there is no one person who sets the tone whom the other all-stars are willing to follow. Last take: the putative superstars don't have a sense of urgency about winning.

In other words, they've lost the "Eye of the Tiger."

But it doesn't look like they're going to listen to their version of Apollo Creed and go train in a decrepit, inter-Los Angeles gym with young minor leaguers who have the "Eye of the Tiger" any time soon.

Naturally, the Tigers' gruff old manager disagrees with any popular psychology, but, then again, old-school baseball people are among the most xenophobic people out there. Something is rotten in Detroit, and if Jimmy Leyland doesn't help fix it fast they'll ride him out of town in a foreign auto that they've set aflame.

The Tigers right now have the worst record in the American League and are on pace to lose 100 games. You really couldn't hit that number with a $138 million payroll if you tried. After all, the Tigers' ownership isn't baseball's version of "The Producers", and the 2008 Tigers aren't those owners' version of "Springtime for Hitler." The Motown ownership wants its local nine to win in the worst way.

Still, the Tigers are a foundering team right now, and they had better go on a streak of some sort soon before resignation sets in that the best they can do is finish .500. On paper, they have the whole package. The key is whether they can put it all together on the field.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Martelli Rule

I heard a snippet on ESPN Radio in Philadelphia this morning while driving to work. Afternoon drive-time show host Mike Missanelli was interviewing Martelli, who gave his views on college basketball and the NBA's requirement that (in essence) requires high-school seniors to go to college for one year before pursuing a pro career.

Martelli's prescription: that the NBA should have the same rules that Major League Baseball does. Require high school kids to either go pro out of high school or stay for three years in college before being eligible for the draft again. In this fashion, the creme will go pro right away, and the rest will go to college for appropriate seasoning. Sure, there's a risk that too many kids will opt for the draft out of high-school, but once they hear the stories of the Korleone Youngs of the world they might think differently.

The NBA's current set of rules is bad for colleges and college basketball. While every coach should want to recruit the top talent, most are sensible enough to realize that recruiting top-10 talent means you'll only get a kid for a year. It's hard to build a program that's rooted in transcience, and that's what you'd have should you recruit too many "one and done" players. Put differently, the NBA benefits from this rule; colleges don't.

Major college coaches are left in an awful conundrum. Recruit the top talent and risk having bad continuity in your program. Fail to recruit the top talent, and you might miss out on that one player who for one year (Carmelo Anthony comes to mind) could help take your program to the Final Four. Worse, decline to recruit that player because of continuity issues, and then watch your rival take him and get to the Final Four.

Martelli's rule makes sense. Despite the NBA's rigidity, some players (Dwight Howard, LeBron James) are ready to go straight to the pros. They belong there and shouldn't be compelled to go to college for a year today. The remainder should commit to college for three years, get seasoned, and then be eligible for the NBA draft. As a silver lining, they'll have three years' worth of credits toward a degree and could easily go back to complete their education. That is, of course, if the kids today are actually expected to go to class and make progress in meaningful subjects.

What say you NBA, NCAA?

Should There Be Legalized Sports Betting in New Jersey

State Senator Ray Lesniak, political patron to one-time Governor Jim McGreevey, thinks so.

He wants the state to challenge a Federal law that limits sports betting to four states, most prominent among them Nevada. So far, Governor Jon Corzine's office has declined comment.

Corzine made a mint helping run Goldman Sachs, the investment bank that specialized in, of course, legal investments and speculation. So, it would stand to reason that the governor would support this challenge, given that New Jersey has huge unfunded pension obligations, an aging population and is almost out of moves when it comes to find ways to raise revenue.

Watch this one -- the stakes are high, and New Jersey smells the money.

The odds are that they'll take action.

So that, at the end of the day, their casinos can take the action.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Jason Giambi's Lucky Gold Thong

From the category of, "you're probably revealing too much information than the public should or really needs to know" department, Jason Giambi revealed that he wears a lucky gold thong under his uniform pants when he tries to snap out of a slump.

Girly man? Crazy man? Silly man?

If the back story were that he took it off a Bangkok stripper in a game of Texas hold 'em at 2 a.m. on a cruise near Cabo San Lucas while partying with Guns 'N Roses and doing flaming shots with the Dixie Chicks, well, that would make it more interesting. The story didn't reveal where Giambi sourced the undergarment. Perhaps Brian McNamee procured it for him. After all, you doubt that Major League Ballplayers would purchase XXL skimp undergarments themselves in Manhattan, where many worship the Yankees more than their religions. Somehow, news would have gotten out.

But, no, Giambi had to tell the whole world about his superstition and his cure for the common batting slump. Okay, so it's not a common batting slump, for him at his age it could be a career batting slump. Teams simply don't let mid-thirties first basemen who can't field a lick hang around when they're hitting a buck eighty and only have warning track power.

The New York Daily News apparently broke the story, and they've been good at digging up the dirt on many a New Yorker. In this case, they'll be fervent about digging up the gold, as in gold underwear. Apparently, Giambi, the owner of the garment, might have loaned it to other teammates when they were in slumps.

Male bonding at its finest, wouldn't you say?

So, Mr. Giambi, if you have any other secrets, rest assured that they won't remain safe in New York for long.

Are Labor Troubles Brewing for the NFL?

It appears that the NASCAR-like appeal of the NFL (in that each time has the same amount of money to spend and there's a hard salary cap) might end, and soon. The owners are reported to be seriously considering opting out of the collective bargaining agreement with the players. There wouldn't be any immediate effect, but things could get mighty interesting after the 2009 season.

For the teams with the big bucks, opting out has serious appeal. For those without, well, doormat status could be perenially upon you.

Ryan Howard and a Megabucks Long-Term Contract

All we heard in spring training was about the Phillies' going head to head with Ryan Howard and trying to hold the line on salaries. Howard, eligible for salary arbitration for the first time, was asking for $10 million; the Phillies' countered with (what some fans considered was a miserly) $7 million. During the time leading up to the arbitration, we heard fans and pundits offer that the Phillies' ownership was being predicably cheap, that holding the line on this rare slugger was a mistake and guaranteed to put him in a Yankees' uniform in 2012. Howard won the arbitration, and, to both parties' credit, they handled the matter (at least publicly) with dignity.

The season then began, and people began to forget about Howard and his contract issues. After all, he did just win $10 million, and the beginning of the season transcended contractual matters. Then a funny thing happened -- Ryan Howard looked like he forgot how to hit for the first say 35 games of season, waving at all sorts of junk and hitting a paltry .174, or roughly his weight in the eighth grade. Suddenly, all of those folks who had challenged the Phillies' wisdom of not giving Howard Miguel Cabrera-like numbers (and, after all, Cabrera showed that he couldn't lay off the junk food last year, while Howard has a nutrionist who helps keep his big-boned physique in check) grew silent, about as silent as they were loud when the Phillies disagreed with the first baseman's arbitration number.

Instead of advocating that the Phillies open up their vault for Howard, they were silently praying that their slugger would return to form. Thankfully, within the past 10 days, the slugger has started to hit. Put Howard's recovery along with the return of Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, and the Phillies somewhat dormant bats (yes, they have been hitting homers, but their team batting average was among the worst in the NL) are going to start making quite a racket (witness last night, when OF Jayson Werth cranked 3 home runs and knocked in 8). All of this, of course, is positive for the Phillies.

But then there's that lingering question of a long-term deal for Howard and what he's worth. Current Phils' GM Pat Gillick doesn't like long-term deals. Then again, Gillick is retiring after this season and his heir apparent, Assistant GM Ruben Amaro, might feel differently. Still, the bright folks at Baseball Prospectus have been consistent in their belief that Howard doesn't project for consistent production over the course of say, a seven-year deal, because players with his size historically don't play well into their mid-30's (especially without the assistance of performance enhancing substances). Names such as Bobby Bonilla and Mo Vaughn, among others, come to mind. The former got heavy, and the latter got so heavy that he had orthopedic problems (ankle) that rendered him unable to play. Atop that, Howard is (very) streaky, and then you wonder whether at 28 (Howard will be 29 in November), Ryan Howard is worth a 7-year, $140 million deal (Chase Utley a year ago receive a 7-year, $84 million deal -- while Utley hasn't slugged the way Howard has, he's more likely to be productive -- very, perhaps -- at 36 than Howard is). Finally, there's the Barry Zito albatross, which is that no GM wants to give a long-term deal to a hitter who turns out to be the hitting version of Zito, the Giants' hurler who got $126 million in a long-term deal a few years ago only to fall off the cliff.

It's not easy to be a GM, is it. Sure, you have to pay for the top talent, because it's hard to have a top team if your payroll isn't in the top third of all of baseball. I believe that the numbers show that, and while the Rays and Marlins are doing well right now with (much) less than the traditional front-runners, it's only mid-May, and novas tend to flame out over the summer. It's an age-old story in baseball. Yes, right now the Rays and Marlins are doing well and the Rays particularly project out well over the course of the next several years, but their current formulas are much more ones as to how to rebuild a team than they are to build a champion now. That digression aside, do you lock up Howard at what he wants, negotiate something in the middle, or keep on taking him to arbitration until he's in his early 30's?

Somehow, so long as Howard continues to do an excellent job of keeping his own middle in check, I think that the middle is where both sides will (reasonably happily, too) end up.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Why Rome Fell, or, The Silliness of College Athletic Programs

Most Division I programs lose money -- only about 15% finish in the black.

And why is this the case?

My theory -- instead of encouraging participation and fielding dozens of intercollegiate teams, those schools bet the farm on football and basketball, the revenue sports, and somehow they get it wrong. Whether they underprice tickets, have more assistant coaches than some departments have professors or their schools have academic and student life deans, spend scary amounts on training facilities and athletic dorms or pay their coaches outrageous sums, they lose money.

Is that a bad thing? I mean, breaking even is probably fine, because you'd expect schools to subsidize the bulk of their athletic programs. After all, if they give swimming or golf scholarships, they're not getting the allocated monies back in the form of ticket revenues. But if they're losing money, they have to assess their priorities and look for the root causes of the issue (note I said issue, and not problem, because some schools might find it okay to lose million on athletics if they believe they breed good will among alumni or if they think that those monies are better allocated than they would be to provide more financial aid or support academic programs).

Still, when you look at some of the expenditures, you start wondering when some schools will say enough. What will be the ceiling on compensation for football and basketball coaches, for recruiting and travel budgets, for facilities? And why spend monies on those line items?

Seems to me that many schools don't have their priorities right. They should encourage participation and good health, and not sitting and watching.

And spending.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

How Good is Marcus Camby?

He must be really good to get named to the first-team all-NBA defensive team when his team, the Nuggets, plays matador-like defense as a whole. Then again, the hand-waving by guys named Anthony, Iverson and Smith must give a player like Camby plenty of opportunities to shine on defense.

I confess I laughed at the irony of a Nugget's being named to the all-NBA defensive team, but someone on that team had to play some measure of defense. It's just too bad for the Nuggets that Camby's intensity didn't rub off on the rest of Denver's rotation.

Calling Out Mike Greenberg on the O.J. Mayo Controversy

Mike Greenberg, for all intents and purposes, opined that he really didn't see -- in the abstract -- what was wrong with a sports agent's passing money along to O.J. Mayo. Greenberg offered that the offering and the taking of the money aren't illegal, it's just that a self-appointed regulatory body (the NCAA) and colleges (such as USC) prohibit such behavior. He then offered that in other businesses people offer such payments -- for example, to teenage tennis stars, etc. -- and that such payments aren't illegal if the kids turn pro right away.

To paraphrase Greenberg's on-air partner, Mike Golic, "Greenie, are you kidding me?" Golic took the opposite point of view, which is that such payments start a slippery slope that lead from agents to boosters to paying kids illegally to play.

My take: Greenie, have you heard of ethics? Why is it okay for an agent (allegedly, of course) to hire "street" agents to funnel money to star athletes with the hope of inking them to a contract when they're eligible to sign one that will a) get the kid-turned-star big bucks and b) the agent a good 5% of all sports-related and endorsement-related revenues? It's plain unethical, it's taking advantage of kids, it's potentially rendering them ineligible to play at the best training ground possible to up their market value, all in the name of the aggrandizement of the agent. Do the agents in these circumstances care about the kids? Probably not, because if they have enough street money they're making bets. Dole out, say, $30,000 a year to say 10 kids, and one or two of them might hit and earn you commissions that far exceed this business practice. And why would the kids be selecting you? Because you're good, or because you're buying them and you're acting in your own interests.

Such practices are predatory, and kids don't know any better. It's hard to turn down the perks and the green, especially if you're a kid who's gone lacking for material things and you're a kid whom everyone says is wonderful and therefore entitled to life's good things. Sure, the kid should have a good moral compass and realize that there's no such thing as free goods or free money, but many don't. Humans yield to temptation on occasion, and the thought of a free convertible, free clothes and a free flat-screen TV might be too tempting to turn down. Especially given how minimal the NCAA's monthly stipend is for athletes on scholarship.

The son of a friend of mine wants to be a sports agent. Why? Probably because he hasn't figured out that there is much more sizzle than steak out there. Yet, he turned down a summer job with a sports agent in a big city. The job? Running basketball camps in poor neighborhoods. The catch -- why do you think the agent is doing it in the first place? And, it's not as though the athletes you're seeking to represent are grateful, nice or fun to be with. They're a mixed bag, to be sure, just like any other profession, except that the sense of entitlement is probably greater. Be careful what you wish for kid, or else, if you start at the bottom, you'll be the one with the bag of cash.

So, Greenie, please reconsider your thoughts on this one. You're a wise soul in a sea of somewhat frustrated, self-righteous commentators, and you're usually right on the mark.

This time, though, you miss it. Agents who funnel cash to kids just shouldn't be doing it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Thoughts on Mike D'Antoni to the Knicks

In no particular order:

1. Why would a guy on the cusp of coaching championship teams opt for a four-year sentence in New York? It doesn't matter who coaches this roster, the team really won't be able to contend for a playoff spot for two years and go past the first round for three. Some would say that's optimistic. So why did D'Antoni go to the Knicks?

2. Why would a team that is notorious for overspending ink a coach for a four-year deal at $6 million per (whose recent experience has not been building teams but coaching excellent ones) when it doesn't have the talent to make the playoffs? Put differently, couldn't they have gotten by for a few years by hiring a didactic, solid, young coach, a Lawrence Frank wannabe, say at $1.5 million per for three years? That situation would have offered two advantages. One, the young coach could turn into a keeper. Two, if he didn't, you then could hire a big name coach to come in and take the team to the next level.

3. Why build around an offensive-oriented coach when you know that to win a championship, you had better play great defense. You can only run by opponents so often. Denver learned that, and you would think that by now they've learned that in Phoenix.

4. Back to D'Antoni. Okay, so Jerry Reinsdorf wouldn't have offered you $6 million per, but you would have had the opportunity to coach a team that has some (very) high potential college all-stars -- Deng, Hinrich, Gordon. Instead, you get a team that has a bunch of big-contract, low-production players. What you'll realize, quickly, is that you can't change these guys, and you'll re-learn that in the end it's only so much about coaching. More of "it", as it were, is about talent.

5. As for Donnie Walsh, he mollified the hungry fans by offering them up D'Antoni and showing them that he has the wherewithal to hire the best and brightest. That's fine, but he also sent a signal that under the Dolans, the Knicks still aren't above big-money folly. The proof will be in drafting, in moving big contracts, and in pivoting this bloated roster into a lean, mean fighting machine. We'll see.

The Knicks would have been better off saving their money. Their roster can't play the way D'Antoni's squad played in Phoenix, and help isn't quickly on the way. Sure, Isiah the coach alienated the players, but it was Isiah the GM who created the awful roster of players. Not even coaches like Auerbach and Jackson could (or could have) taken this Knick squad and turned it into a champion.

Keeping Stats on the Most Curious Things (Baseball)

Last week, the Phils' Jamie Moyer got two hits in a game that he won. I heard on ESPN that he was only one of 3 pitchers in the past 75 years who got 2 hits in a game at the age of 45 or over. Which led my wife to ask the following question: how many pitchers over the past 75 years were there over the age of 45? Put differently, what was the denominator? We thought the whole comment was kind of silly, although getting 2 hits at the age of 45 in a game is very impressive if you're a pitcher.

But it's not as rare, apparently, as any pitcher's getting over 350 wins in a career if you starting pitching after 1911. Apparently, only 3 pitchers have accomplished this feat -- Warren Spahn, Roger Clemens and now Greg Maddux. Thousands of pitchers have been eligible, and only 3 have done so. Mike Greenberg was probably right on ESPN Radio this morning when he said that we're probably not going to see another pitcher win 350 games in his career in our lifetime. Much has to go right for any pitcher to do so. To me, this is a better stat to consider, because we're talking about pitchers who are at the pinnacle of the sport.

In any event, if you want to know how many lefthanded first basemen hit 3 or more homers in a game ever or how many Major Leaguers were born in Paris, someone, somewhere, will be able to provide that information, and rather quickly too.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Bad News Iron Pigs

The Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, the Phillies AAA affiliate based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, are 6-30. That is not a typo.

The Iron Pigs heralded their new stadium as the 31st best stadium in baseball (presumably next to the 30 that are situated in the majors). That's great, but they probably have the worst record in all of organized baseball, a feat that the Phillies -- notorious for underwhelming us with their farm teams -- couldn't have planned if they tried.

What is frightening for the Phillies is that should a few players go down, there isn't much help on the farm. When Jimmy Rollins went down recently, the Phillies called up an infielder (Brad Harman) from AA Reading.

But the Iron Pigs have the new stadium and an enthusiastic Lehigh Valley (comprised not only of Allentown, but of Easton and Bethlehem) going for them.

And, so it seems, little else.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Relegation, American Soccer Players and the English Premiership

Just when you thought that U.S. soccer was getting better and might have a better chance in the next World Cup, this. . .

9 of the 12 Americans playing in England's top league are on teams that face relegation, a uniquely European soccer-ish concept, which means that if they finish in the bottom 3 in the league, they get dropped down to the next lower league. If you're thinking baseball, that might mean that the Pirates, with 15 straight losing seasons, would be playing in the AA Texas League (or worse). But before you draw any conclusions, it's not really fair to say that the dismal play is the Americans' fault, although one team, Fulham, has five Americans on it. Also, not all of the top-drawer Americans play in the Premiership, so it's also hard to say that the Yanks will have trouble getting either into the World Cup or, if in, out of the first round.

Still, I'm having a hard time believing that U.S.A. soccer will make serious inroads in international competition until dozens of players are playing in the top leagues in Italy, Spain and England, with many of them playing on the top teams in those leagues. If you look at the elite international teams, you'll find that they populate the best teams in the best leagues with their players. The U.S. is not there yet.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Gavin Floyd Update

Could he be this generation's version of Fergie Jenkins, on whom the Phils' gave up as a young hurler over 40 years ago, only to have the lanky Canadian turn into a Hall of Fame pitcher?

Floyd was the number 4 draft pick overall about 7 years back, but he struggled mightily in the City of Philadelphia, a kid with about 2 1/2 pitches who didn't know how to close out hitters and pitch as precisely as you have to in the majors. Did the Phillies rush him? Probably, but patience and an abundance of good hurlers in Philadelphia necessitated the Ed Wade-led front office to rush him to the bigs, hoping that his talent would transcend. As one-time Michigan State football coach Duffy Daugherty was quoted as saying, "Potential means you ain't done it yet." And, despite plenty of opportunities, an ill-prepared Floyd didn't get it done in Philadelphia.

The Phillies traded him to the ChiSox a few years ago for iffy-winged Freddy Garcia, the biggest bust in Philadelphia since Morganna stopped trying to kiss Mike Schmidt. Garcia is history, and now Floyd is pitching very well under Ozzie Guillen. Right now, Floyd is another in a long line of examples of how the Phillies have been inept, historically, at developing young pitchers. (Cole Hamels, in contrast, is a refreshing example that they can develop a young pitcher).

Why did Floyd fail in Philadelphia? Was it because the Phillies were impatient? Was he ready? Was he immature? Did he not listen to coaching? Did he need a change of scenery? Were too many expectations placed upon him too early? Did he think he could get by on too few pitches, on talent alone? Did he fail to realize that he couldn't simply blow the ball by hitters the way he did in high school? Or, was it just a "bad situation" for both the team and the player?

At the time, the Garcia trade looked great for the Phils, a case of the team shedding a disappointing high draft pick and getting a 17-game winner (albeit with only a year left on his contract). Garcia, as it turned out, was hurt, spent almost the entire season on the DL and is now in baseball oblivion. Floyd, meanwhile, looks like he's starting to tap into the great talent that made him such a high draft pick.

I'm happy for Gavin Floyd and wish him well. Somewhere, though, deep in the bowels of Citizen's Bank Park, some folks are shuddering that the team has once again goofed on evaluating and developing pitching talent.

The Problem with Having Rattlesnakes as Pets

is that they can rear up and bite you.

Which is why the MLB Players' Association's concerns about collusion over teams' not signing Barry Bonds is misplaced.

You saw the reports about how much looser the Giants' clubhouse was this spring. This is a polite way of saying that despite random acts of kindness he might have shown to individual teammates, the guy, generally, was not a good teammate in the clubhouse.

You don't know whether he did or does take performance-enhancing drugs.

There's a concern regarding what he did or didn't say to Federal authorities and whether he might have perjured himself.

You also don't know how much he thinks he's worth on the market.

Given all that, why does the word "collusion" need to enter into the equation. Seems to me that each team has made an independent judgment -- a pretty obvious one, at that -- that they don't want Barry Bonds and all of his baggage around.

At least for now.

Come July, come August, when a good team, particularly an AL team, is a bat short, that team might be tempted to sign Bonds to a short-term deal to help them carry the day. If Jason Giambi continues to whiff but the Yankees hang in there, perhaps King Hank I will pay a small king's ransom to retain the Homering Hessian for a partial season. Should the A's get closer and Frank Thomas or Jack Cust go down, Billy Beane might just get tempted to get Bonds to cross a few bridges and commute to Hegenberger Road and the Oakland Coliseum.

But collusion?

The MLBPA needs to do a better job of prioritizing its battles.

Monday, May 05, 2008

How the Other Half Lives

The sports pages typically cover the victories. They write about successful people, for even those who lose the big game are successful, precisely because they had to have enough talent, drive, discipline and coaching to get there in the first place. The sports pages cover the elite teams and leagues for the most part, and, in the lesser leagues and less-popular sports, those who win.

We don't usually get stories about those who don't make it, those on whom fame's unyielding spotlight shone at a young age, only to have the story not turn out the way it was predicted too when the spotlight first discovered a youngster. Sometimes the kid gets hurt. Others, the kid just doesn't improve, or the kid has bad work habits, substance abuse problems, problems with authority. That's the way it is, we suppose, some make it, others don't, but we don't usually find out what happens to those others.

They disappear, they find other things to do, they shun attention because who really wants to be a part of a "what happened to the guy who was supposed to be great?" story. What's compelling about some -- those who tried really hard -- is that they had a singularity of purpose usually ascribed to those who are very successful. These folks, like those who get the big contracts, are so focused on their craft that they do not want to do -- and sometimes cannot do -- anything else well. Or at least as well as how they played their sport. My big question there is how did you decided to give it up and how have you been able to replace your love of your sport? One day, perhaps, I'll get to write that story.

Stories about those competitors are compelling because those folks tried to maximize their talents, only to find that they weren't good enough. Then there are the folks who just can't handle the attention, who fail to put in the effort that their talent cries out for. The folks whom trouble continues to find.

The linked article is such a story. It's about a defensive lineman from the Philadelphia suburbs who, several years back, committed to Florida State. He never made it to Tallahassee, however, because of a variety of circumstances that demonstrated that the kid had a lot of growing up to do. According to many scouts, he was the best defensive lineman they had seen in 10 years, a sure thing for the NFL. And you know how the story goes, many who go into college as potential NFL starters come out as undrafted free agents. The talent business in professional football, you see, is an inexact science.

But this was no street kid. He went to a very good high school, the son of a single mother of three children, the other two of whom are college graduates. A good, dedicated mother, responsible siblings. But, for some reason, this kid just couldn't shake many distractions.

No, he's not dead, and, no, he's not in jail. He does have some charges pending against him, and he's now playing his college ball at a Division II school in North Carolina, trying to harness an amazing amount of ability into a potential career in the National Football League. It may be a long shot, but quick, very strong, energetic 6'3", 320-pounders who can play are few. He might, just have a shot.

Read the whole thing. You'll find the source of his attempted turnaround compelling, and you should empathize a bit with a kid who got too much attention too soon for his abilities and who just wasn't able to handle the notoriety that went with it.

Makes you wonder, though, for every Chris Long and Glenn Dorsey, how many more Callahan Brights are there?

Book Review: "The Soloist" by Steve Lopez

Steve Lopez once wrote some of the best (and funniest) columns in the history of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The City of Brotherly Love is many things, including a source of characters who just cannot get out of their own way. One of my favorite Lopez columns was when he went to a La Cosa Nostra-frequented barber shop in South Philadelphia asking to get a "mob" haircut. This was at the time that Nicodemo Scarfo and his gang were frequently in the news, and the local wiseguys were wont to be visible wearing their velour sweatsuits and their pompadours. At any rate, Lopez is a very gifted writer, and he now plies his trade at the Los Angeles Times.

I re-connected with Lopez's craft while on a long drive for work that took me through the Pennsylvania suburbs and heard him interviewed on talk radio. The subject was this book and the subject matter of the book, a mentally ill homeless man in Los Angeles named Nathaniel Anthony Ayres, mid-fifties, African American. Lopez saw him playing a two-stringed violin on the streets of L.A., not far from skid row (which is amazingly close to the Times' offices). You see, columnists are always looking for the next story, and what makes writers like Lopez transcend is that they keep themselves on edge, wondering where that next story will come from.

Now, you might ask what would make this story compelling, because, after all, Los Angeles is the homeless capital of the country. What's so special about this man, in his mid-fifties, who has a pretty bad case of paranoid schizophrenia?

Well, the guy went to Juilliard.

For a while.

There's more, too. Mr. Ayres grew up in Cleveland, his parents' marriage broke up, and after the divorce his father moved to L.A. and his mother re-married. Neither parent was able to give him the attention he needed after that, and he dove into his music. Various mentors took a great interest in him, and he made his way to Juilliard with relative ease. Staying there, though, was another story. It was a hyper-competitive place then, an exercise in survival of the fittest, and amidst all that was the Vietnam War, the 60's, and the tough times that went with it on the racial relations front. Amidst all that and his family stuff, Mr. Ayres became unglued. Seriously unglued.

Decades later, Steve Lopez met him on the streets of Los Angeles, his worldly possessions in a shopping cart, his talent and his brain intermittently switching from signs of sanity and brilliance to displays of anger and frustration. Lopez chronicles his relationship with Nathaniel Ayres masterfully, showing the horrors of this awful disease and Lopez's frustrations with the system and his own ability to help someone in need of help. The story -- one of a columnist's spending an inordinate amount of time to help a gifted fellow man, and of a onetime prodigy's struggle with his disease, is most compelling. It's a story of compassion, of struggle, of growth, and improvement -- not just for Nathaniel Ayres, but also for Steve Lopez.

Steve Lopez's gift is that you can almost visualize the interactions between the two men, you can hear them trying to hold a conversation over the traffic that zooms by the tunnel where Ayres lived for a while, you can hear the ramblings of a smart but troubled homeless man, and above all, you can sense the music of both the man and the situation he's in. To mix many metaphors, Steve Lopez painted a picture about a gifted musician -- and, yes, a gifted writer's attempts to help that musician -- with words.

And he did it well.

If you're too busy working, too busy having fun, too busy coaching your kids' teams or too unconnected to the problems of the real world that surrounds you, if you know a family that's struggled with a loved one who once was normal and a switch flipped and all of a sudden everyone got caught up in a neverending drama of unpredictable, destructive behavior, or if you just want to reconnect with your sense of humanity, read this book.

It's a great story by a great writer, and, hopefully, the book will shed light on mental illness and the homeless in a way to spur more of us on to help others.

Where Sportswomanship Ruled The Day

You might have seen the feature on ESPN, but this article in USA Today highlights the extraordinary sportsmanship that took place in a woman's softball game between Central Washington and Western Oregon for their conference's championship. Had the graciousness of the Central Washington players not taken place, no one would have seen the results of this game, and except for those in the Northwest whose passion is softball, most would have forgotten this game rather quickly.

Instead, the legacy of this game will live on, indefinitely, because of an unselfish, gracious act that of an opposing team that enabled an injured opponent to complete her first-ever home run -- in a game that meant everything to all of these young women.

Thank you, players and coaches from Central Washington and Western Oregon for giving us this great sequence. This was a championship game for at many levels, the most important of which was the celebration of sportsmanship at its highest level. For that, all of you are to be congratulated.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Julio Franco Retires

It's a sad day in baseball when the ageless Franco hangs up the spikes and for those of us who rejoiced that there actually was a player in the bigs who was older than we are. Sure, we'll root for the ageless forty-somethings who rely upon ibuprofen, ointments, ultrasound, ice and TENS units, among others, to keep them going from game to game. But there was something about Franco, his physical conditioning and his refusal to quit that was quite compelling.

Because he was a position player. Most of the forty-somethings -- Jamie Moyer, Tommy Glavine, Randy Johnson -- are pitchers. Sure, there's the occasional Moises Alou, who will hit until his 60, who plays into his forties, but it's much more rare in the current era for a position player to play into his forties than a pitcher. And Franco played -- okay, at the end, not so well -- until he was 48! And not in the Minnie Minoso sense of play, either. He was on active rosters making contributions, occasionally belting Major League stuff into the gaps with conviction.

Thanks, Julio, for an outstanding journey! We'll miss you.

Princeton's Men's Basketball Recruiting

For those of you who were wondering, The Daily Princeton reports on Princeton's 5-man incoming recruiting class.

The recruits, of course, sound promising, and this is Sydney Johnson's first recruiting class, really (Coach Johnson wasn't the one who recruited this year's freshman class).

Needless to say that with several departing seniors and the team's coming off a 6-23 season, these recruits will get every chance to help turn around the Princeton program.

Now, Wait a Second, Philadelphia. . .

Don't get too excited that the Flyers have reached the Eastern finals in the NHL. Yes, they are one series away from getting to the Stanley Cup finals, which, if they win, will give Philadelphia its first major-sport championship since the 1983 76ers. Yes, the Flyers' post-season efforts have been particularly impressive, defeating the Caps in OT in Game 7 in the first round and then dispensing with the heavily favored Habs (whom they didn't beat at all during the regular season) 4-1 in the second. R.J. Umberger has emerged now as a very special player, and Martin Biron is playing very well in goal, and many others are excelling. All that is well and good.

But they're only halfway there, which, admittedly, is the best a Philadelphia sports team is doing at the moment. This is something to celebrate, and, at least for a while, more of us in the Philadelphia region will be watching hockey -- either the actual games or updates on our Blackberries -- during this next series.

Whether most of us will actually switch to watching the Flyers as opposed to the Phillies, though, even this early in the baseball season, is doubtful.

Such is the life of an NHL franchise, even one with a hard core of diehard fans like the Flyers.

Notes from Watching the Mets and Diamondbacks

I was with a bunch of old friends this weekend near Key West, and amidst the barbecue and boating we tuned into the Mets-Diamondbacks game. Here are a few thoughts:

1. Dbacks, what's with the dome and the lighting? It looked like you were hosting a night game in broad daylight. I realize it's terribly hot in Phoenix during baseball season, but change the ambience a bit.

2. The Dbacks have excelled at building their team from the ground up through their farm system.

3. Mets' starter Mike Pelphrey needs to learn to finish hitters and strike them out. He has a blazing fastball, but until he learns to set up hitters better through locating the fastball and getting his breaking ball and slider to bite better, he's not going to be able to go through the opposing lineup more than twice. With the heat he brings on his fastball, you wonder whether the Mets' brass might consider turning him into a closer once Billy Wagner leaves.

4. The Mets' fans with me are down on Willie Randolph and yearn for Nationals' manager Manny Acta to replace him. They intimated that it was Acta, and not Randolph, who was GM Omar Minaya's top choice to replace Art Howe as Mets' skipper several years ago. Their beefs with Randolph: he treats different players too differently, can be too passive at times and is too hard on his second basemen (given that he played the position) and made the wrong call on prospect Ruben Gotay. The observation about Randolph and second basemen is particularly compelling given recent comments that recently fired Mavericks' head coach Avery Johnson never established a good point guard in Dallas (because he played the position once himself).

To me, the Mets still have a formidable lineup and good enough pitching to go deep into the season in playoff contention. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, have established themselves as the top team in the National League.

For now.

Can the Phillies have 3 MVP's in a row?

It's possible, but even they would tell you that they trade all the individual awards for a World Series trophy.

Last year, when the sportswriters called NL MVP Jimmy Rollins on the day that he was elected MVP, one of the things that Rollins said was, "if Chase Utley hadn't gotten hurt, you'd be calling me about a quote on his winning the award." Or something to that effect, as my memory isn't that precisely. Utley was having an all-world year when he got hit by a pitch twice on the same day, broke his hand and went on the DL for a month. That injury effectively ended Utley's quest for the MVP award. Rollins seized the mantle and led the Phillies to their first division title in 15 years.

This year, Utley's making up for lost time, as he hit his 13th home run last night in an extra-inning loss to the Giants. There are four great things (among many others) about Utley. First, his work ethic is terrific. Second, his demeanor is even keel, he takes his successes and failures in stride. Third, his swing is excellent, short and compact with tremendous torque in between. The economy of his swing seems to guarantee that he won't go on prolonged slumps. Fourth, his size. He looks like the size of the guys who played 20+ years ago -- no extra substances for him, or as much as we can possibly tell from looking, anyway.

There's no doubt that Utley is the best second baseman in baseball, and he's a joy to watch play. The Phillies are hanging in there at 17-14 despite having missed reigning MVP Rollins for most of the season (high ankle sprain) and CF Shane Victorino for a few weeks. How many teams can flat-out hit the baseball well enough to survive a loss of their numbers 1 and 2 hitters for an extended period.

At any rate, this season promises to be a great contest among the Phillies, Mets and Braves for 1 or 2 playoff spots in the NL. Those three seem to bring out the best in one another, and it promises to be a great season.