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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Saturday, June 28, 2008

The First Since Herb Krautblatt

Rider's Jason Thompson, selected 12th overall in the NBA draft and a rarity in the lottery in that he actually received his college degree before the draft, is the first Rider Bronco to play in the NBA since Herb Krautblatt.

Kudos to Jason's family, the folks at Cherokee High School in Marlton, New Jersey, Rider University (including A.D. Don Harnum and head basketball coach Tommy Dempsey) for producing such an outstanding young man.

Yes, there are doubts about the level of competition Thompson faced during his four years at Rider (perhaps the same way there were doubts about a certain Navy player named Robinson during his four years at Annapolis), but the Sacramento Kings are getting a quality kid who averaged a double-double in college and who only seemed to improve as the years went on. Those who doubt the pick will cite Rider and the MAAC and say they've won the debate. Those who tout the pick will cite Thompson's improvement over his four years at Rider, his work ethic, his character and their belief that he'll continue to improve. Geoff Petrie of the Kings is a pretty good judge of talent, so I'll trust his optimism over those who tout others who could have been drafted in that window who have accomplished less and might not be as mature as Thompson.

Let the games begin for Jason Thompson, because that's when these questions will get answered.

But for now, let him, his family and the Rider community take a bow. You all deserve it!

Should the Phillies' Jettison Brett Myers?

After last night's debacle in Arlington, the front office should give serious thought to what's been rumored around the Delaware Valley for weeks -- that Cleveland needs a closer, that Myers closed well last year, and that the Phils' need C.C. Sabathia to help them get to the World Series. If you're the Phillies, you make that deal in a heartbeat. If you're the Indians, well, you have to decide whether you're going to be sellers or buyers during a disappointing season thus far. If in fact that deal was offered to the Phils and they declined it, Phils' fans have every right to question the drive of the front office to win the title.

As Baseball Prospectus points out in its wonderful 2008 edition, the Phillies have been in a weird holding pattern for about 8 years -- winning between 80 and 90 games, and that this type of pattern doesn't last. A team either goes beyond and gets better or it drops down and has bad years. The Phillies have a good opportunity -- with the Mets so far being unable to reach the excellence predicted for them after the Santana trade and the D-backs coming down to earth -- to challenge the Cubs for the right to go to the World Series. It would be a shame if some mythical "what if" view of Myers eclipses the reality that chances like these don't come around too often.

Yes, Brad Lidge becomes a free agent after '09 and yes, the Phils' farm system is weak, so, no, you don't want to trade pitching prospect Carlos Carrasco, catching prospect Lou Marson and outfield prospect Greg Golson if you don't have to, and to trade all those guys plus Myers for Sabathia is too rich. That doesn't change the fact that the guy who came into your season as the #2 starter is now pitching like a Quadruple A pitcher and is now your fifth starter (yes, Adam Eaton is faring better than Myers). That's a hard fact to address for a could-be-very-good baseball team, and it will prevent that team from, in fact, being as good as it needs to be to get to the World Series.

Let the trade talks begin -- in earnest.

Is Rod Thorn the Best GM in the NBA?

Solely from his grades on the NBA Draft, Sports Illustrated's Marty Burns thinks so.

Nets' fans have a lot to look forward to. Click on the linked article to see how your team fared, because Thursday night was a dizzying night for "The League."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Brief Thoughts on the Late Jim McKay

Jim McKay, who died over a week ago, was one of the best sportscasters ever, had few peers, and, yes, no one now compares to him.

There are a few reasons for this assessment.

First, sports on TV were much more rare when McKay was on the air than they are now. So McKay was our teacher, our tour guide, and, yes, our magician, delivering all sorts of magical experiences that we take for granted today. He was wise, he was deferential, and along with Jack Whitaker was a wise and humble storyteller. The omnipresence of sports today takes away the special quality that sports on TV had three decades ago. Sports are no longer a precious TV luxury; they're a commodity. As such, even the best hosts and commentators are at the top of a commodity class and aren't really specialty items. For example, for those who remember Jim McKay, sports personalities such as Jim Nantz don't compare to him. Period.

Second, McKay was wise and humble, never bigger than the sport, not a smartass and never the story. Perhaps the traits of being a gentleman, courteous, wise and humble made him great. But he never acted like he was entitled, never acted like he was special or bigger than the story. And that's what we liked about him.

There are many sports shows today and many hosts, but all continue to operate under the large shadow that Jim McKay cast.

The sports world lost a giant earlier this month.

The Politics of Selective Travel Teams

My daughter came home the other day and told her that a good friend was upset because she was demoted from one level of a travel team to another. The friend's main beef was that there was a girl or two on the team from which she was demoted who were clearly inferior to the rest of the girls, but parents of the kids in question were coaches on the team.

Sound familiar?

Another situation: a friend of mine's kid is a good baseball player, played on a team that had three coaches and a three-man pitching rotation. The coaches' kids batted 1-2-3 in the lineup and got the chance to pitch (and were the only ones who got the chance to pitch).

What do you tell your kids in that situation?

On the one hand, we need good parents to volunteer to coach. We can't expect them to not have their kids on the team -- at least at some level. But therein lies the rub, doesn't it?

It's one thing in recreational leagues, but another on really competitive teams. In recreational leagues, you expect coaches to play their kids (and everyone else's) for that matter. And, yes, there are certain iniquities that will arise, such as perhaps a coach will prefer his kids and play them a little more or at better positions. In certain cases, the coaches' kids will be the best players, and in certain cases they won't be, but it all will work out. Also, at some point the kids figure out who are the best kids, and the whole machine of respect, as it were, will break down if the best kids ultimately don't play the right positions at the right time and enable their teams to win. After all, at some point we shouldn't be giving everyone a trophy.

But then there are travel teams, teams in which people invest a lot of time and money, teams that exist to enable the best kids to get better experience than they would get in the rec leagues and, as a result, improve. It's a simple premise, to be sure, but then there's the question of who coaches the kids and who determines whether those coaches are the right ones and are being intellectually honest in their selections. For example, as an entry-level matter, you would hope that the parents who volunteer do so because their kids are truly exemplary, so that you avoid the situation where parents of kids with little ability end up coaching travel teams. That's one end of the continuum. The other end, high impractical, is that the teams retain professional coaches who are committed to player development and winning and only permit the best players to play. That won't happen because of the cost and the tradition that parents coach their kids in these endeavors. Fine, but where's the middle?

What if some coaches' kids don't improve as they age? What if those kids lose interest, get surpassed by kids who were viewed as laggards at a younger age? What happens if the parents insist upon continuing to coach? Who has the right/heart to tell them that their kids aren't good enough, that their gig is probably up? Or, are there iniquities that we should endure because the volunteerism is more important than a pure meritocracy, assuming, of course, that there is always a shortage of good coaches?

But if we do endure the inquities, what do we tell the kids who get penalized because the need for "good" coaches (read: any coaches who pass a background check, perhaps) is more compelling that the need for a meritoracy at the age of 11, 12, 16? Do we tell them that it's politics, that this type of thing happens, that we measure the kids not by how they handle victory but how they rebound from disappointment? Do we tell them to keep plugging when deep down perhaps they believe they gave it their all and failed, so what's the use if there's always going to be a political situation that could pull the rug out from under them? Do well tell them that they're right, that they got the short end of the stick, so to speak, and that it's unfair? Do we get critical of the coaches for putting nepotism over team?

How do you handle the disappointment of 11- and 12- year-olds? How do you tell them that it's worth it to keep plugging under these circumstances? When should the meritocracy take over?

Most coaches will tell you that they owe it to the team to play the best players, not players whose dads they know, whose previous coaches they know, players to whom they might have promised something or players with seniority. Why? Because if they want the team to win, the team needs to know that the best players will play, period. You don't get the back-ups to challenge the starters in practice if a meritocracy isn't in place, because kids need to know that if they bust their rear ends they'll get recognized and potentially rewarded. Show me a team without a meritocracy, and I'll show you a team with a losing record.

So what would you say?

Update on Working Out

I'm up at about 5 a.m. Are you?

If not, when are you getting your exercise, and how? For how long? How often?

Are you stretching? Getting resistance work? Getting aerobic work?

Just asking.

I've been true to my word and have been working out regularly (including on business trips) since mid-December (a visit to a clothing store to buy pants convinced me that it was time to take this stuff seriously). During the cold-weather months, I combined stretching with the Perfect Push-Up pads, medicine ball exercises and hard rides on a spin bike. Since it's gotten warmer (and lighter out earlier), I've substituted bike rides for the work on the spin bike.

I've lost about 15 pounds (most would say I look fine, but I'd like to lose about 7 more), have watched what I eat (the 100-calorie snack packs from Hershey, among others, come in handy) and generally feel pretty good. I have more stamina to have fun with the kids (and have stretched out my throwing arm playing catch -- or "having a catch" as we are wont to say in southeastern Pennsylvania -- with the kids. All good stuff.

I think we decide in middle age the type of life we're going to have when we get older (and, perhaps, how long a life). If you aren't exercising regularly, now's the time to get started. Start out slow, build up your endurance, talk with your doctor, go to a gym if you're clueless and ask for help, but do something.

And if you get up as early as I do, you'll be surprised to see how many people are out there before work -- running, biking, walking and in one case in my neighborhood, doing tai chi on the front lawn.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard Tripled in the Same Game!

Click here to confirm.

What were the odds of that happening?

Gazelles they are not.

Mets are Still Dangerous

Mets' fans shouldn't despair, and Philadelphia fans shouldn't get giddy.

Why? Because the Mets aren't that far below .500 and the Phillies aren't that far ahead of the Mets. The Phils' lead is far from insurmountable.

Yes, the Mets just made a managerial and coaching change that by definition is disruptive. While speculation about the manager's fate is gone, pressure on the team remains. One of the biggest sources, of course, is the fan base and the media. Foremost among the latter is the Mike and the Mad Dog Show on WFAN, where Mike Francesa and Chris Russo offered that while Willie Randolph said that while his players didn't look or act tough the way the Phillies did, they were tough on the inside, the truth might be that the Mets don't look tough because they're not. That's pretty harsh, and I don't think it's totally fair.

Yes, the Mets are aging and are built to win now despite a relatively young nucleus of Reyes, Wright, Beltran and Santana. And the aging Mets look pretty old right now. The starters haven't pitched as well as expected (as compared to the Phillies, whose starters, with the exception of Brett Myers, have performed beyond expectations). The Mets' bullpen, vaunted as the best in baseball at the beginning of last season, is not strong, while the Phillies, with an occasional lapse from Tom Gordon, has been among the best in baseball. Should Mets' fans despair about this?

Yes and no.

Sure, they should, in that the Mets' pitching staff has underperformed. But, no, they shouldn't, because the Phillies' staff has overperformed. If Oliver Perez and Mike Pelphrey get straightened out and the bullpen stiffens, the Mets could surge, and the surge could be magnified if the gravity pulls Jamie Moyer, Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton down to earth and the Phillies' bullpen gets figured out or tired. All of the above can happen, which is why the Mets' fans (and Mets) shouldn't despair.

On the hitting front, the Mets can get a lot better, and, again, surge. While Ryan Howard has gotten off to a bad start and Jimmy Rollins has underperformed compared to a year ago (in fairness, he missed a good chunk of the beginning of the season), Pat Burrell is having a career year in a contract year, Chris Coste and Greg Dobbs are doing their best Roy Hobbs' imitation, and Chase Utley (who has cooled off recently) is putting up MVP-like numbers. Again, the Phillies could dip, and the Mets could surge, but here I think the Phillies won't dip that much (and Rollins and Howard are starting to get hot). Why? Because the Phillies are a lumber company, plain and simple. They can flat out hit. Prolonged slumps are unlikely, but the Mets still can hit a lot better.

In summary, there is a lot of baseball left to be played. The Mets could take a lesson from Willie Randolph's firing and say to themselves, "Hey, I had a lot to do with that and I need to do better" -- to a person. Much of the core won't be moved. Wright and Santana are cornerstones, and no one will take Beltran's contract. Reyes could get moved in the right blockbuster deal, because there are those in the media who think that his lack of maturity is hurting the team. At any rate, however, when you see the names, their potential and their past achievements, you should realize that the Mets have a ton of ability which, if harnessed, could help lead them to a good run over the last two thirds of the season.

So before they start ordering the champagne in Philadelphia and talking about whether the Red Sox would offer a good matchup in the World Series, the Phillies need to remind themselves -- daily -- that their division rivals and the rest of the NL will get up for them and give them everything they have. If the Phillies are championship worth, they'll rise to the occasion.

But to do so, they'll need continued good pitching (and good health) from the likes of guys named Moyer, Eaton, Kendrick, Condrey, Madson, Romero and Gordon.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Phillies Still Need a Signature Song

They don't have the races of the sausages or the Presidents, and they don't have "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" or "Sweet Caroline." To enhance an already great atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park, they should have a "fire us up" song that gets everyone further pumped. And, now, they should totally forget all references to that awful "Whoot There it Is" that the fans adopted in 1993 to cheer on the misanthropes whom good fortune befell in an improbable magical year.

What do you suggest?

Why Should We Care About Chad Johnson?

"Chad Johnson Returns" is a headline from my local cable service, one of the top sports headlines of the morning.

And this is relevant because?

First, what have the Bengals accomplished in the past 20 years?

Second, isn't wide receiver the position in the NFL populated with the most talent?

Third, why does it seem that the biggest goofballs in the NFL are wide receivers?

Slow news days in the NFL, that's for sure.

Where are the stories about the cancellation of the collective bargaining agreement? Testing for performance-enhancing drugs? Helping disabled retired players? The Foxboro Film Festival?

Calling Baseball Statheads

Riddle me this. . .

The Phillies pounded the Cardinals two nights ago and scored 20 runs in a win. Last night, the same guys could muster only two runs.

And that got me to thinking. . . what are the stats on teams who score say 10 or more runs in a game -- how do they fare the next night? Have they finished at .500 over the past 10 years, or is their record significantly below .500. Something tells me it should be the latter, but, then again, perhaps there's no correlation at all.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Philadelphia Electric Company

The Philadelphia Phillies are in a zone. They thrashed the St. Louis Cardinals 20-2 last night in St. Louis, setting the tone with a three-run top of the first courtesy of back-to-back-to-back homers by guys named Utley, Howard and Burrell and then a nine-run fourth that saw their pitcher, Kyle Kendrick, get two hits in the inning. Read here for a recap of the game.

They are lighting it up in ways the city hasn't seen since the Schmidt-Carlton teams of the late 1970's (the '93 team was interesting and exciting in its own way, but much more idiosyncratic than the thoroughbred-nature of both the teams from the late 70's and this current team).

Okay, so it's only mid-June, but can't a (long-suffering) Phillies' fan have some enjoyment right now? It's not like we're Boston where there seems to be a title every calendar quarter. Heck, we haven't had a title in a quarter century.

And it's fun, at the end of a work week, to watch your team score 20 runs in a game.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The NBA's Mess

The NBA has a great season from a competition standpoint, and they have their dream final match-up between two old Titans, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. The networks and the league couldn't have asked for more.

So all should be great in the NBA, shouldn't it? Merchandise sales should be up, the buzz should be greater, people should be more interested in shelling out big bucks for season tickets. LeBron, Kobe, Paul, Kevin, Ray, Tim, Manu and the gang all should be the talk of pro basketball fans.

It should be that simple, shouldn't it?

But, no, the walking scandal that is Tim Donaghy just won't go away. More stories are emerging, some owing to Donaghy or his lawyer, others owing to enterprising journalists who won't stop turning over the rocks until there are no more rocks to turn over. Speculation has popped up about the 2002 NBA Western Conference finals, and then, because of the digging, a story (or two or three hundred) have emerged that officials (including Federal agents) questioned various refs about the conduct of a ref not named Tim Donaghy. You can read the most recent link to ESPN on the topic here.

Something is rotten in the State of David Stern, who has closed ranks and is trying to brush off the story as a sideshow, speculation, a non-event. He'll now have the privilege of telling his story to members of Congress, who, once again, are quick to jump in and ask questions. They figure that if they do so they'll draw ratings in an election year close to that of, well, the Super Bowl.

First it was performance-enhancing drugs. Then it was the Foxboro Film Festival. Now it's alleged outcome-altering performances by referees. The smoke is certainly thickening.

But is there anything there? What's clearly not there is transparency. The NBA has a credibility problem right now, and what it should do is hold a press conference and explain the nature of investigations, and this one in particular. What investigators do (or so I'm told) is start with their basic fact pattern, find witnesses, ask them questions, review related documents and see where the investigation takes them. If this means that the investigation focused on other referees (which it might have), that's fine, but then say that (and you don't have to name names) and then clear the conduct. For example, what was the conclusion about the referee who was the focus of the link? It could well be that questions were asked, exculpatory answers were given, and the inquiry ended. What the NBA public needs to know -- and must know -- is that the inquiries have ended, that Donaghy was the only bad actor, and that they vigorously review performances, hold refs accountable, and occasionally terminate refs who just don't get the calls right.

Period.

But if they can't do that, then what's going on? Over a dozen refs were implicated in a tax scandal years back when they cashed in their first-class airplane tickets, bought coach tickets, kept the difference and didn't report that difference as income. Many resigned, one went to trial and was acquitted, and I believe a few were re-hired or reinstated after being suspended. That problem, in and of itself, was a black eye, but it's long since passed. That issue, however, did send a signal to undeworld types that there could be a ref population interested in making more money or in need of more money because of increasing lifestyle expectations. That's speculation, of course, but the longer this particular scandal has been in the NBA's rear-view mirror, the better for the league and the good refs (and that's a huge majority of them).

Still, the NBA needs to clear the air here. If Commissioner Stern fails to take the lead on this, he'll have created a vacuum, and bad things typically fill vacuums. Congressional hearings, published speculation, nasty rumors.

Which is too bad, because on the court, the NBA has had a very good season.

Then again, if the ref scandal isn't put to bad, the overarching question remains: "do we really know that the NBA has had a good season?"

The Kid in the Park

My second-grader tried out for an all-star team about a month ago and didn't make it. He didn't go into the tryouts expecting to make it, and his baseball season was one of downs and then ups. He got off to a slow start, but then after some coaching by his coaches and me on a few subtle hitting points (and thanks to some insight from loyal reader TIGOBLUE, among others), he started to hit line drives. Thanks to to endless backyard sessions, he strengthened his arm and became adroit at catching the ball. Most importantly, he loves the game, has fun, and has improved.

While his season wouldn't have predicted his making the team, his performance at the tryout actually had to give the coaches running the tryout something to think about. He was one of the first to hit, and hit a bunch of hard liners into the outfield as part of his tryout (better than a large majority of the kids on that day). He showed okay at the other skills -- including fielding grounders, throwing, baserunning and catching fly balls. The latter was a particularly tough undertaking -- the kids were facing a bright sun with no clouds, so picking up the ball wasn't all that easy. He was satisfied with his tryout, and a few dads of other kids complimented him on his effort.

After the tryout, he asked me how I thought he did, and I told him that I thought he gave the coaches who were doing the evaluations something to think about. Truth be told, I didn't want to get his hopes up or down, as I honestly didn't know the criteria, how many coaches' kids would (deservedly, precisely because their dads were volunteering) make the team, how many kids were spotted during the season because of their good play, and all the other nuances that would go into the selection process. Plus, something like 35 kids were trying out for about 14 spots.

When the list was posted, my son's name wasn't on it. He wasn't bummed, he knew the odds weren't great, and he was satisfied that he gave it his all and made a good accounting. He pleased himself with his effort and the results, and he knew that he had something on which to build. Still, I'm sure he was disappointed -- he had given it his all, showed well and didn't make it. That's the nature of the thinking of a second-grader, and my wife and I did our best to shore up his outlook. It didn't take long -- he knows that we always need to keep on trying, to keep on having at it.

And that got me to thinking about the kid in the park.

I grew up in a town with high achievers -- driven parents, professional and professorial parents, high expectations, uneven wealth, uneven opportunities. Restrospectively, some of those with all the advantages didn't take advantage of them, while those with fewer made the most of them. And, again, that got me to thinking of the kid in the park.

There was a park in our town where we played, it had ball fields and a playground, some nice tennis courts and one of those walls where people could hit tennis balls to hone their forehands andd backhands. The high school's tennis team at the time had been undefeated for about 10 years in a row. Competition was fierce, because there was enough affluence that kids could play in the winter and foul weather at tennis clubs and country clubs. In contrast, the basketball team didn't do as well. To paraphrase John McPhee from his book on Bill Bradley, "A Sense of Where You Are," the town was too handicapped by its relative wealth to field enough hungry kids to band together to have top-notch hoops teams.

The kid in the park didn't come from the wealthiest family in town. His family was comfortable enough. He wasn't the best athlete, or the most gifted tennis player, or the best student. Put differently, the accolades didn't readily come his way. He wasn't, for example, as bright as the kids who would go to MIT or as gifted an athlete as the running back who got admitted to Harvard or the baseball player who got drafted by the Yankees. He was a nice kid, a good student, and there were many of those in our town.

What distinguished him, though, was that he wanted more. He wanted to be a better tennis player, and he wanted a college education, something that wasn't as accessible to everyone then. Inflation was very high, the economy was iffy, and not as many people went to college then as they do today. So every day during summer vacation, he was in the park, hitting balls against the wall. Constantly. Backhands, forehands, serves, dinks, overheads, drops, whatever he could accomplish on that wall. In the morning, in the afternoon, in high heat and humidity.

Coaches will tell you that what distinguishes the outstanding from everyone else is what they do in the off-season to improve, and this kid worked his butt off. Day after day. Year after year.

That hard worked helped the kid surpass some of the more advantaged kids on the high school tennis team. He had the endurance and grit to win most of his matches, and those results along with strong academics earned him a college scholarship. After several years in the workforce, he earned an MBA from Harvard, started his own business, sold it for millions, and is now off doing other things. I haven't seen or spoken with him since high school, he was a year ahead of me, and we weren't buddies. But I always respected him immensely, and I was heartened to see how successful he's been, given how determined and hard-working he always was.

I'm convinced that the seeds of this man's success were sown through the tireless work he did in the park as a teenager, work done mostly alone with no guarantee that it would lead anywhere (I tell my kids that there is a guarantee that if you don't put in the hard work, you won't get to where you want to go because you won't improve). He didn't start out the star, the kid picked first for all the teams, the kid the teachers identified as among the most talented.

But the standardized tests don't measure determination, the ability to rebound, and the overall grit one needs to accomplish what he wants to in life. Some of those with more athletic and academic gifts didn't put in the effort this kid did -- perhaps they didn't think that they had to or needed to, or perhaps they were told so much how good they were that they didn't think they needed to work as hard. Whatever the case, the kid in the park had his goals and dreams and worked toward them, every day.

I have shared this story with my children to underscore the message that talent alone isn't enough, that talent without effort is a sin and that determination and hard work will help you achieve your dreams.

So when you're measuring your kids against where you think they should be or against other kids, remember that each kid is different, each kid develops at a different pace, and life is a marathon, not a sprint. The key for us as parents is to keep teaching, keep guiding, keep encouraging, and never stopping our determination to find those skills and interests that light up our kids -- and then to turn on that "kid in the park" in each of them.

Because it's not always the cards your dealt or how you start the journey, it's how you play them, how you handle the journey, and, yes, how hard you work through the finish. My kids know this as much as they can at their age, and both look forward eagerly to their next seasons and the challenges and opportunities that await them.

The requests, "dad can you pitch to me?", "dad, can we have a catch?", "dad can you catch me?" come repeatedly, and the looks on their faces tell it all -- hope endures over the temporary setbacks that sports give us and teach us to overcome.

And the lessons of the kid in the park endure for all of us and can help us in our everyday lives.

Have at it.

Do your best.

Train and practice constantly, and give yourself time to see the results.

If you do all those things, you'll improve and develop good habits for life.

Just like the kid in the park.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why Don't Marlins' Fans Go to the Games?

I've always said in Philadelphia that fans will go to a cow pasture to watch a good team but won't go to a palace to watch a bad one. In recent years, Phils' fans have enjoyed a convergence of an outstanding venue and a good team.

I know that there are (major) stadium ills in South Florida, but drawing on 12,000 plus to a battle for first place in June in South Florida last night in the first game of a 3-game series between the Phillies and the Marlins? Are you serious? The joint has been jumping and packed in Philadelphia, even on iffy weather days in April and ghastly hot days in the summer (fortunately, the Phils were on the road during the recent heat wave).

Why isn't the joint jumping in Florida?

Marlins' fans have some excellent position players (Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla) and talented young pitching, so what gives? Are there not enough baseball fans? Is it that the weather is too good and that people prefer to do sports rather than watch them? Is the stadium that awful?

Sports fans shouldn't take their local good teams for granted. They may become scarce.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The "Hoop Dreams" of Horse Racing: "The First Saturday in May"

I heard the filmmakers on WFAN in New York on Friday talk about their documentary, which is about horse racing and which has gotten good reviews. It's called The First Saturday in May, and it's worth a good look if you're a horse racing fan -- and even if you're not.

Here's why: the documentary cost $1 million to make, it's well-reviewed, and the only way these guys can make any money is through their own sales of the film, which costs $19.95 (click on the link, and you can purchase it). The big chains aren't interested, and if they go to an art house, the split is such that they don't make a dime. The filmmakers have good financial backers, but they made the film on a bare budget, apparently skipping lunch on certain days. If you're a member of the viewing public and like films like these, take a moment to buy a DVD. You'll be glad you did.

Padres Sweep Mets; Randolph Watch Back On?

Just wondering. The Padres are beat up, down several good starting pitchers, can't hit well, play in one of the best pitchers' parks in the majors, and they up and sweep the Mets. The Mets aren't playing to their talent level, but is that Willie Randolph's fault, or is it Omar Minaya's?

The talk will intensify on the New York airwaves tomorrow, but the Mets' front office should be very careful. Are they really sure that Willie Randolph is the issue? Or is it that outside a great nucleus, they're a "too old" team that is showing signs of the tentativeness that comes with age? Translated, is it the manager, or is it the players? And, if it's the manager, what type do you hire to replace Randolph, who (as "Baseball Prospectus" put it), isn't as good a manager as he was heralded in 2006 (when the Mets won the East) or as bad as he was criticized for the team's collapse in 2007 (when they folded their way out of the East crown and even the wild card in the last 3 weeks of the season)?

The Phillies are hot, and the Marlins aren't showing any signs of weakening yet. By no means, though, is the NL East a foregone conclusion, and the season is still relatively young. That said, when do the alarm bells go off in New York?

And, if they're sounded, who gets tossed overboard?

Heart of a Champion

Okay, in retrospect I think that most would agree this particular game shouldn't have been played, but people are human, it's rained throughout a bulk of the ten-and-under softball season, and the playoffs had to begin. Which, for my daughter, they did yesterday, in the Middle Atlantic region, at 1:00 p.m. in the afternoon when the temperature was 97 degrees, there was little breeze, some shade in the dugouts, and atop the temperature, high humidity.


The players really couldn't warm up, as it was so hot they remained under a snack pavilion about 50 yards from the playing field, a hot clay soil infield with a grass outfield (that only a few days ago was almost unplayable owing to torrential rains last Wednesday). The 11 a.m. game was finishing, and two girls fainted from the heat. One was woozy, the other was unconscious. Thankfully, both are okay.


The coaches and league officials decided to play the 1 p.m. game, albeit under looser rules. The game would go four innings, not six, and substitutions could be rather liberal in case girls needed to come out of the game because of the heat. To make matters worse for my daughter's team, their uniforms are black.


Even the socks.


Think Bear Grylls, "Survivor Man", in the episode where he was in the hot Namibian desert. Only, thankfully, with caring coaches and parents, outstanding high-school-aged umps, and lots of hydration in the offing.

To prepare for the event (I am only a parent in this particular league, not a coach), I filled up a large Playmate cooler with ice, two ice packs, a wash cloth, two 32 ounce bottles of water, a 32 ounce Powerade drink and two 20 ounce Gatorades). I sat along the fence near my daughter's team's dugout, under an umbrella. The Gatorades were for me.


The coaches did a great job monitoring the team, and it was a very close game. Two girls from my daughter's team took themselves out. Thankfully they just looked very hot; they didn't look like they were close to passing out. The catchers were particularly tough, because if it was hot wearing black out there, it was even hotter under the cumbersome tools that catchers are compelled to wear.


Most of the pitchers faltered, meaning that they were taken out of the game after they walked four batters in an inning (replaced by coaches on the other team), and my daughter was no exception. She threw some strikes, but she overheated, and her face turned bright red from the heat (she had 50 sunscreen on). Thankfully, a cool-as-a-cucumber teammate (both in composure and temperature), soldiered on and threw strikes all afternoon. She was probably the least strong of those who took the mound (read: not as fast as the others), but she got the ball over and was clearly the star of the day.



After she pitched, my daughter came to the bench, hot and tired. After each inning I checked on her to make sure that she was drinking her Powerade (she drank about 28 ounces of it during the game, a span of about 2 hours), wiping down her face, putting ice packs behind her neck and pouring cold water on her head (and on the heads of the other girls who asked). She was hot and said she didn't feel great, but she didn't looked faint, just tired. The game was tied as her team was going into the top of the last inning, and she was up fourth (to the best of my recollection, as it was hot for me, too). There were runners on first and third when she came up.

"Dad, I think I can do it," she offered.

"How do you feel?" I asked. To be very honest, she looked much better than she had when she came off the mound. In fact, she looked almost as cheerful as she was when the game began.

"I think I'll be okay, I feel pretty good."

At that moment, I felt a little bit like Norman Dale in "Hoosiers" when he was tempted to stitch up a badly cut kid and put him back in a playoff game, only to refrain from doing so because he knew deep down that there was a certain price to winning he could no longer pay. Except for two things. First, I wasn't the head coach, I was the kid's father (more pressure, not less). Second, thankfully, my daughter actually looked pretty good.

Needless to say, I was nervous, especially against the backdrop of the prior game. After all, this wasn't the Super Bowl or Game 7 of the World Series, this was the first round of a local softball league's 10 year-old post-season tournament. My daughter wanted to play. Her team didn't do that well during the season. Personally, I didn't think that they had much of a chance going into the game, as they lost badly two days earlier and fielded the ball poorly, resembling at times old "Keystone Cops" films. But here they were, with a runner in scoring position, and one of their best hitters, she, on deck.

I sighed a deep sigh. Deep down, I admired my daughter's grit. She definitely wanted to be out there. She had made several good plays in the field, including a nifty unassisted double play where she ran in about five steps to catch a dying quail of a popup and then scampered back to the bag to beat out one of the other team's best players and double her off. She also had a line-drive single up the middle and a hard ground ball that turned into a fielder's choice. But, then again, I was wondering, "are you sure?" Then again, I thought, I was really well-prepared with the ice and Powerade and ice packs. Perhaps I had summoned my inner athletic trainer. We looked at each other.

"Okay, then, get in there," I whispered, "but if you get to the plate and don't feel well, call time out, tell your coach, and you'll sit down."

Before you ask where were the coaches, you have to understand that they were watching the game closely and that much of the prior back-and-forth took place when the previous hitter was batting.

My daughter put on her helmet, grabbed her bat, and stepped up to the plate. At this point I had forgotten about the game and was focused only on her, hoping that I had made the right decision in letting her hit.

On the first pitch, she lined a single that bounced about a foot before second base and went into the outfield, scoring a run. The team scored another, and went into the bottom of the last inning up two runs. They got another inning from their totally cool pitcher, my daughter made a play in the field, and they ended up victorious.

After the game, they shook hands with the other team, got a good pep talk from their coaches, were told that they were scheduled to play the next night at 6 p.m. (when the league thought it would be cooler), and I took my daughter to the ice cream truck to buy her a frozen ice and then cranked the air conditioning in my car. It was only a two-minute drive home, and then she cooled down in the air conditioning, kept on drinking liquids and took a cool shower. By about an hour later, she looked totally fine, we went to a family function, and we had a good night.

We shared a nice chocolatey dessert at the restaurant, and while the others were talking she said to me, "Dad, thanks for being so prepared today with the ice, the water, and the Powerade, it really helped."

I complimented her on her performance in the field and at the plate, and we joked about the one piece of advice that comes in handy for pitchers: "have a short memory," is what I've told the kids, as there's always tomorrow.

Then she said, "Dad, I am not a quitter. I wanted to stay in the game, and I wanted to win."

To which I replied, "I know you did."

She smiled.

While I felt like Angelo Dundee helping rally Muhammad Ali in one of his fights against Joe Frazier or a trainer at an NFL camp making sure the players stayed hydrated, I think that under the circumstances I made the right decision. I know my child, I know the coaches, and she wasn't at any time incoherent when she came off the mound, just sweaty and tired. By the time she batted again, she was relatively peppy and ready.

Still, in thinking about the game last night before bedtime, it probably shouldn't have been played. Not against the backdrop of what happened in the earlier game, and not at the time it was, which was 1:00 p.m. The coach's wife left us a message that night asking how our daughter was doing, and then this morning we learned that the game tonight had been canceled until the heat index drops below 90. Thankfully, everyone involved learned a lesson from playing a ballgame in a humid furnace -- don't try to cram games into a weekend even when you've missed a lot of time because of rain.

The girls who played yesterday were valiant, whether they won or lost. They cheered their "softballish" cheers, they ran the bases, they stood in the hot sun, and they were gamers at the plate. They are to be congratulated for their grit and determination, while the girls who took themselves out are by no means shamed but are to be honored for knowing their limits.

All that said, I am very proud of my daughter and her teammates. They fought hard, came back after a terrible game two days earlier, and they refused to quit. Naturally, I'm especially proud of my daughter, who worked hard to stay focused and hydrated and came up with a big hit to help win the game. She said she wanted to be in there, and then she delivered when the stakes were the highest.

She, like her teammates, had the heart of a champion.

Philadelphia Eagles Fans: Watch This

Tigerhawk links to a video of an eagle who picks up a goat and throws it off a cliff.

Watch it and then think of what this could mean for the Eagles' upcoming season. Will the defense get its uber-aggressiveness back and get after it the way it did several seasons ago when the squad made it to the Super Bowl and fell victim to the Foxboro Film Festival? This particularly eagle can really get after it (and one recent publication -- I forget which -- did name the Eagles' defensive line as one of the top 5 in the NFC).

Of course, if the Eagles' defense rises to this level of violence, no opposing quarterback is safe. Then again, the NFL would probably institute new "Eagles" rules that will make quarterbacks less vulnerable to attack.

Okay, so maybe the metaphor doesn't really exist, as football isn't played on cliffs (even though Eagles' fans think that they themselves are frequently on them), and quarterbacks are more mobile than goats, but defensive ends are pretty spry guys. The video is pretty amazing in its own right, isn't it?

This particular eagle is one tough bird.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Dwight White, Former Steeler Defensive Lineman, Dies at 58

One of the leaders of the Steel Curtain defense is dead at 58.

The lead article points out that about 40 former Steelers have died since 2000, with roughly half of them dying at the age of 59 or younger. This is a sad statistic and raises all sorts of questions about the toll playing football for so long and then living without football takes on a former player.

From all accounts, White had a good, albeit way too short, life, working as an investment professional after his years in the National Football League, where he was known as a consummate competitor. Still, to lose such a good man so young is very sad.

Two Amateurs Break 100 at Torrey Pines

I blogged previously that four amateurs were going to play the U.S. Open course this week at Torrey Pines, will galleries and TV coverage, under U.S. Open (read: very tough) conditions. The point is to show the average golfer how hard a U.S. Open course is. In response to this event, many PGA players, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson among them, responded, in almost reflex-reaction form, "Oh, they won't break 100."

Well, Dallas QB Tony Romo shot an 84 (and, remember, this is not his day job and in all likelihood some of the entrants might not break 84 in the opening round), and singer Justin Timberlake shot a 98. Here's to hoping that for their sake they had some serious coin riding with some of the PGA pros. NBC Today Show host Matt Lauer carded a 98, and the unknown amateur who won the lottery to get into the match, Nebraskan John Atkinson, shot a 114 (he's probably the one the rest of us can really relate to). You can read all about the match here.

I didn't know what to think when I heard that this match was going to take place, other than I thought it amusing that the PGA pros were so sure that these amateurs wouldn't break 100. After all, Tony Romo is an excellent athlete who plays under all sorts of pressure (including having large men who want to hurt him chase him on every play) and before big crowds. Somehow, this type of walk, even on a difficult course, had to present different sorts of pressure and a challenge that a true competitor could relish.

Guarantee you one thing, were a PGA pro to try to play quarterback in an NFL exhibition for a few series of downs, he'd break something.

And it wouldn't be a record.

10th Round All-Stars and Beyond

Jerry Crasnick at ESPN.com has a fun article that gives you a starting lineup comprised of players who were drafted in the 10th round and later. It's a robust group, and I'd like to see a 25-man roster full of those players to determine whether they'd really have a shot at the post-season. Among the names are Roy Oswalt, Russell Martin and Mike Lowell.

Friday, June 06, 2008

It's June 6 and Chipper Jones is Hitting .418

Is anyone noticing?

Jones hit his 400th home run last night and is hitting .418.

That's not a typo, it's .418.

And it's June 6.

If you're not paying attention now, when does this start to get interesting.

July 1?

August 1?

September 1?

Can he keep it up?

Charlie Manuel and Jimmy Rollins: Leadership Two Times Over

I attended the Phillies' 5-0 victory over the Reds at Citizens Bank Park yesterday. Great day for a ball game, sitting with my cousins, eating peanuts, catching up, watching Cole Hamels pitch a masterpiece (a three-hit shutout on about 100 pitches), seeing many fly balls get caught on the warning track and, overall, having a great time. After all, what's so bad about watching a big-league game during work hours, especially in a great ballpark with a hot team?

The Reds gloves turned to iron on occasion yesterday. The first example was on a pop fly to shallow left. Jimmy Rollins hit it, and Reds shortstop Paul Janish dropped it. Ball hit the heel of the rookie's glove, allowing the Phillies to score their first run. Rollins ended up on first base, and we didn't think anything of it.

Next inning, Eric Bruntlett goes out to shortstop, and we're left thinking, "Uh-oh, he's hurt his ankle again. Great, and just before a very tough road trip."

But that wasn't the case.

Manager Charlie Manuel, you see, was miffed that Rollins didn't hustle. The pop fly was high enough that the reigning MVP should have been on second base. Apparently, Manuel has talked with Rollins during the former's tenure in Philadelphia on several occasions about hustling all out. So, he benched Rollins.

Bruntlett went on to make a Gold Glove-like play that robbed wunderkind Jay Bruce of a hit, the Phillies won, and then the story came out. The manager benched the MVP for not hustling.

Ouch.

Especially in this day and age. The day of the star player as unaccountable rock star who trashes the big suite at the five-star hot phenomenon. The manager was miffed. How would the star player react?

The star player took it like the team leader he is. He admitted he goofed, talked about his prior conversations with Manuel, admitted that he had no one to blame but himself and said his manager was right. Talk about total accountability. Talk about leadership. Rollins owned up to his miscue.

And that's great for this ball club. If the reigning MVP accepts this type of accountability, the rest of the team will follow. It's as simple as that.

And now to the manager. Charlie Manuel gets ridiculed by people who don't like his speech and at times have questioned his "good uncle" approach, but if he's a "good uncle" he's the avuncular type who tells the truth and holds his nephews to high standards. It takes a lot of guts for management to stand up to a star in any profession, and the sign of integrity and longevity for an organization is when management has the guts to tell a star that he or she is wrong. That's precisely what Charlie Manuel did, and it was the right call. He has a very good team, and he wants them to be great.

If the Phillies go further this year than last year, they all might point to the mid-game benching of their MVP and leader as a turning point moment, a time when accountability is king and when everyone acknowledges that they all should expect more -- out of themselves and each other -- and be accountable for their actions.

Great game yesterday for the home team.

And an even better lesson.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Red Sox Should Sign Barry Bonds

Yes, that's right, and you've heard it from me.

Why, you ask?

Okay, so I don't like Bonds particularly, blogged about him and steroids and the whiffing of the media, the union, the teams and the Commissioner's office on the issue of performance-enhancing drugs and thought that the whole affair stunk the joint out (whatever the joint really is, and no pun intended). His life is not well ordered right now, what with the Federal indictment and stories about how easy he was to get along with in the Giants' clubhouse and, of course, the doubts about what drugs he did or did not use.

But here's the thing: 1) baseball has generally forgiven those in the Mitchell report in that it will not take further action, 2) Bonds was a great player before he started using the stuff (meaning that he still has some hits left in him -- and walks, too), 3) Bonds apparently has been staying in shape and 4) the chance to win a World Series on a veteran team would probably cause Bonds to behave and not pull the stuff he did in SF where, let's face it, for years he was the only prime-time player on an otherwise so-so team. There really is little downside for the Sox, who need a prime-time DH now that David Ortiz is on the DL and will be out at least a month with his wrist injury. What better way to replace a great player than with one of the best hitters of all time, even if he has little gas left in the tank?

What's the worst that can happen? Bonds proves immediately that he's a clubhouse cancer. If that's the case, cut him loose after a week. If that were to happen, his career would be all but over, because if he can't get along with a top-notch team and one of the best managers in baseball, he surely wouldn't like a return to Pittsburgh or an opportunity in Kansas City.

What's the best thing that can happen? He rehabilitates himself partially in the eyes of the baseball world, is a good citizen in the clubhouse and hits 22 home runs and knocks in 60 in a partial season's work, helping lead the BoSox to a world championship. That could happen.

The Red Sox are known for making smart moves, sometimes even bold ones. There really is little downside to signing Barry Bonds, and if they want to remain relevant and bring down the upstart Tampa Bay Rays a few pegs, they should sign the future Hall of Famer and re-load immediately.

Monday, June 02, 2008

The People's Republic of China

apparently doesn't really care about the "People" part of the title.

In fact, you can make the case that they'd rather have visitors to the Olympics act like china dolls than people.

Read the rules for the conduct of people visiting the PRC for the Olympic Games, and then decide for yourself.

And therein lies a funk in tautologies. Should the wars -- intellectual or otherwise -- stop so that the games can be played without politics. Or, should the international public stand up to the PRC and not let it put on a show the way Hitler's Germany did in Munich in 1936 (which still makes me wonder why the IOC and its authoritarian, bigoted and insensitive chairman let the games go so quickly back to Germany in 1972). But, then again, is the PRC analogous precisely to Germany in 1936? Do the protestors think that they'll be permitting history to repeat itself if the games can take place in Beijing unimpeded?

What will the media -- print and visual -- be permitted to cover? What should we really believe?

From the looks of it, these games aren't about the proleteriat, but those in the PRC who are determined to hold onto their power at all costs. After all, to borrow a line from an earlier version of Andre Agassi, "Image is everything."

Josh Hamilton Deserves to be an All-Star

And I'm not just saying this because I was prescient enough to draft him for my fantasy team.

The guy is hitting the cover off the ball. He's now second in the all-star balloting for outfielders in the American League, and deservedly so.

He's had a rough journey, Hamilton has, and it's been well-chronicled. He's straightened out his act, and he's having a great year.

Book Review: "The Downhill Lie" by Carl Hiaasen

I love Carl Hiaasen's books, the hilarious mystery thrillers that lampoon all that Hiaasen thinks is wrong with South Florida -- real estate developers, theme parks, plastic surgeons and their customers, you name it, Hiaasen has a way of writing books with passages that will give you repeated belly laughs. He's that good.

So, based on that joy that he brings to his readers, his publishers prevailed on him to keep a diary on his return to golf after several decades (three, I believe) of not having played the game. The diary picks up on Hiaasen's relationship with his deceased father, a lawyer who worked six days a week and decided to forego church to golf on the seventh, his mother (ever loving), his wife and children, and his various friends (including Mike Lupica). It's a chronology of a middle-aged hacker, replete with Hiaasen's trying various gimmicks to help his game (tried, I believe, for the sole reason to give us fodder in the book as opposed to because Hiaasen really believed that the equivalent of mood necklaces and herbal pills would work), of trying different clubs and taking a variety of lessons.

And, put simply, it's just not that interesting or good.

Yes, Hiaasen summons moments of literary brilliance from a humor standpoint with some of his analogies, and, yes, there are a few poignant observations about his relationship with his father. But, overall, the book rambles and doesn't have a logical endpoint, although Hiaasen tries nobly to bring the book home at his club's member-guest day. The end is predictable, though, for a seemingly overrated 15 or 16 handicapper who benefits mightily from a USGA rule that permits golfers at his level to max out at a 7 for holes where otherwise he would score much worse. That Hiaasen actually was able to score in the 90's regularly after having hit so many balls into the water amazed me to a degree, but, then again, it's perhaps because he found the bad shots and, yes, shanks, more compelling to write about than good shots (of which he must have had some when he shot in the low 90's).

Still, there's not enough of the old Hiaasen to save the book, and his attempts at sentimentality -- about fathers sharing the game with sons -- aren't enough and aren't that good. It pains me to write this review, because I am a big fan of Hiaasen's works overall, but I think that if you're looking for a good father's day read for your dad, you'd be better off buying something else.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Silliness of a Ritual at Citizens Bank Park

First, it's not original.

Second, it doesn't accomplish the intended purpose.

Third, it's a bit silly.

What I'm talking about is the ritual where fans in the outfield are compelled through peer pressure to throw an opposing team's home run ball back onto the field. It's a bad ritual for a whole host of reasons.

First, it's the Cubs' ritual. (I don't think it's a particularly bright ritual, and while lots of great things come from Chicago, they're bound to come up with some doozies of bad ones, too, all from a franchise that hasn't won it all in 100 years).

Second, it fails to accomplish the intended purpose, which is to tell the world we don't want their stinkin' ball and it should go into the trash. Because that's not what happens. What happens is that an outfielder throws the ball to one of the ball girls on either the first- or third-base line, who then gives it to a fan along the right- or left-field line, as the case may be. Usually a young fan, but why does this make any sense at all? So, a little boy catches a home run off say Manny Ramirez, a future Hall of Famer, and to his great dismay "must" throw the ball back onto the field (the self-appointed zealots, fueled by thin $6.50 Budweisers, can be menacing, to say the least, especially for a youngster or adolescent). That ball could end up in the mitt of a similar little boy who sits in one of the first rows along the left-field line. That doesn't seem fair, does it?

Third, who really cares? Let the fans who get the ball keep the homer the same way that fans long the base lines keep foul balls. Because the logic, to a degree, is the same, and no amount of peer pressure can compel a fan to toss back a foul ball, and for security reasons I doubt management could tolerate a constant tossing back of balls.

In any event, Philies' fans, you're a good lot, but let's come up with something more original.