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, July 17, 2008

Bad Lesson in Leadership: Swearing by Mistakes

Tuesday's All-Star game was a failure.

There, I said it.

Now, the Lords of Baseball will tell you that it was the best game ever, that it's a celebration of the sport, and a bunch of other nonsense. Why? Because they are steadfast in their belief that the game should have some meaning and should be played under a "last full measure" theory that normally is reserved for soldiers at a battlefront and not All-Star baseball players in an exhibition game. Nothing could be more absurd.

First, the game ended in the wee hours -- the day after it started. The average fan went to sleep to get up for work the next morning. Or, he was bored by the lack of action and unfair advantage the pitchers had over hitters who had never seen them before. Remember, All-Star pitchers get to the game by having excellent first halves of the season. It stands to reason that if it's tough for hitters in their own league -- who've seen them before, watch DVDs of them and get endless scouting reports -- have trouble hitting them, so will players in the other league who have no such advantages. Some players played way too much (George Sherrill, for one), while certain pitchers were thrown into action who started games for their teams only two days before. And Colorado manager Clint Hurdle warmed up Brad Lidge 6 times before inserting him into the game, an exercise in managerial malpractice if there ever was one. If Lidge gets hurt for the Phililes in the second half, the entire Phillies fan base should caravan to MLB's offices and protest. Finally, the managers were contemplating using non-pitchers had the game gone on for much longer.

All pretty messed up, if you asked me.

So why have I changed my tune? The other day I wrote that Bud Selig and company didn't mean any harm the way they constructed the current game, but that they erred because unintended consequences popped up that took the game to a ridiculous extreme. I gave them a pass, so to speak, on the condition that they fix the problem.

But what does Bud Selig do? He actually says the game was a rousing success. And that's a lesson in bad management and leadership. You lose your credibility when a bad situation pops up and you end up taking the point of view, "well, not only was it not a failure, it actually was a success."

A mentor once said to me that you're in trouble if you ever think -- careerwise -- that you are at a place you deserve to be. I've always adopted the thought process of Hall of Famer Rod Carew, who said that he excelled in hitting because he always told himself that there was someone out there who was trying to beat him and hitter better than he could. But Bud Selig obviously believes he deserves his perch as commissioner, and he's been in the job so long that he is committing a cardinal managerial sin -- he's believing in his own b.s. much too much. When you start to do that, your credibility starts to fail, and you turn yourself into an unclothed emperor. Evidence of Selig's hubris is that his deputy, Bob Depuy, has offered similar public statements about the success of the All-Star game.

Get a clue, gentlemen. It was a failure. It went on too long, it could have hurt careers, and there has to be a better way a) to determine home-field advantage in the World Series and b) to end a game that finishes in a tie after 9 innings. Many suggestions have been offered, and you should consider the best of them.

Yes, the teams are selling lots of tickets, but that doesn't mean that baseball is doing everything right.

And example 1 of a bad decision and a compounding of the problem is Tuesday night's All-Star Game.

Tour de Farce

Does anyone really care about the Tour de France this year? As in, of course, people who don't live in the French towns that appear on the map of the race?

How dumb can some cyclists be? Because this article reports that a third cyclist was kicked out for blood doping this year. Didn't those guys hear of Floyd Landis? Don't they surf the internet, read, talk to people in their sport?

I cycle for exercise, and right now I'm in pretty good shape. All that said, the more grueling a race/ride you undertake, the more your muscles are going to hurt. No matter what you eat, no matter how you sleep, no matter how many physical therapists accompany your team. So what would be so wrong having a race without blood doping? So, the times would be a bit slower, but to the average fan the race still would be a good feat and still would be fast. Instead, the sport is riddled with scandal, and its trademark is at an all-time low.

At this point, who really cares? And, if you're a cyclist, why risk your long-term health taking drugs at such intervals and in such quantities that you don't know what the long-term effects will be on your bodies. Quite frankly, your family members need you more than you should need the public to buy you a drink because you won some bicycle race 25 years ago that nobody remembers. That is, of course, if you'll live the extra 25 years to tell the tale.

Summer League Basketball

Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote a fine article on this wonderful Philadelphia-area tradition. There is something uniquely, well, basketball, about the City of Philadelphia. Lots of good players, lots of good places to get a good run in, traditions handed down from generation to generation.

And, well, in the age of our knowing too much about our athletes, too much commercialization about our sports and the pro game's having become too much about entertainment, leagues like these are special.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Few Points to Save Major League Baseball From Itself

1. Jettison the notion that you have to play the All-Star game to a point where you could ruin a participant's season just because Bud Selig thinks that to give the game meaning it has to determine which league gets home field advantage in the World Series. The better solution is to give the league that wins more games in interleague play the home-field advantage. Why? Because that would show, all things being equal, which league is tougher and therefore more worthy of the home-field nod.

2. End the All-Star game after 9 innings, even if there is a tie. Take a page out of hockey's book, and create an old-fashioned shootout. In baseball's case, go back to a home-run-derby-like scenario. Take the three top home-run hitters on each squad, give them each three "outs" and see which squad combines for more home runs. The league whose squad wins the "shoot out" wins the All-Star game. If there's a tie after three hitters apiece, then add another, and so forth, until the event is decided. Talk about adding some suspense and not forcing the public to watch 15 horrid pitching-dominated innings, well, I think that this solution will do just that.

Right now, the construct doesn't work. That's not to say that Bud Selig or anyone involved in MLB is evil or silly or stupid or anything like that. It's just to say that despite the Commissioner's best intentions, his solution fails.

It's time to try something new.

Armageddon is Here

The NFL is investigating whether players are using gang signals in their on-field celebrations.

Then again, if people watch the sport because of its action and, yes, violence, is this development an illogical part of the sport's evolution? Might an anthropologist categorize teams as gangs and the civilians' support thereof as filling a need to be part of something big, tough and strong?

Or, is it as Dennis Northcutt said, that players use their own hand signals as a means of saying hello to family members around the country?

My suggestion is to sentence Bill Belichick to solve the problem. After all, no one is better at dissecting tape to discern another team's signals. My guess is that the cryptographers buried deep in the halls of the Patriots' offices will find a way to determine whether these are actual gang signs or symbols from the Rosetta Stone that basically mean, "Hey, during our bye week, let's go to Las Vegas with Pac-Man Jones?"

Just a thought.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Oscar the Grouch is Out

CBS has parted ways with Billy Packer, its color commentator on NCAA men's basketball tournament broadcasts for 34 years.

While you hate to see anyone lose a job, Packer's separation from CBS was long past due. He became too much of a lecturer and a scold. Quite honestly, as much as I appreciated his in-depth hoops knowledge, I got tired of listening to him on the broadcasts and occasionally turned the sound down (I also think that Jim Nantz is way too saccharine, but apparently America disagrees with me there).

This is not to say that all American sports fans are age-ists. After all, we still like Dick Enberg, and I could have listened to Jim McKay and Jack Whitaker endlessly. Why? Because not only were they good teachers, they were warm and engaging. Packer, to his credit, was true to himself and really didn't care how he came off. He thought, my guess is, that his knowledge would always carry him through.

Viewed from a different angle, Packer had a great run. Who stays in the same job for 34 years anymore? But perhaps that longevity was part of the problem. Packer wasn't refreshing anymore, and he did get stale in his job. His replacement, Clark Kellogg, not only will offer great knowledge and, yes, candor, but also a less prohibiting approach overall, and one that's more welcome in people's homes.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Phillies Will Not Make the Playoffs

Not with this roster, no way, no how, no matter how much the spin doctors located in Citizens Bank Park will tell you otherwise, how anesthetized they are from the gate receipts resulting from an overabundance of beer vendors in every aisle, heck they're probably drinking too much of the suds to notice the following problems:

1. Adam Eaton is terrible. He's the type of pitcher that will have a couple of outings where you'll think that maybe he's turned the corner, only to give up a two-run double to Randy Johnson, whose career is almost ready for the turkey buzzards whose mug Johnson's resembles when he gets angry. Sorry to be so harsh on all accounts, but Eaton should not be in a playoff team's rotation.

2. The team also is without a fifth starter. Brett Myers' return is all but guaranteed physically (he'll return from Allentown after the All-Star break), but where's his (ten-cent) head? If he returns and excels, great, as the Phils will have four Major League starters, but if he falters, the Phillies -- without any improvements -- will plummet faster than a guy going over a cliff in a shopping cart.

3. The bullpen will get worn out if the starters don't improve. I have great faith in Ryan Madson, Chad Durbin and Brad Lidge, but Tom Gordon is ready for retirement, Rudy Seanez is a journeyman and Cliff Condrey is a mop-up man who sometimes makes the mess worse. Recent addition R.J. Swindle's name says it all. With his oh-so-straight (and slow) fastball and his 53 miles-per-hour curve (so slow that the Phils don't show the mph on their scoreboard when he throws it, because it would lead the average Budweiser-fueled fan to think that they transposed his mph count at the pitching alley in the outfield with what's happening in the game), he's not a Major Leaguer.

4. The Phils' catching is limping. Okay, so Chris Coste and Carlos Ruiz are fine defensively, but Coste is oh for the recent homestand (something like 0-20) and Ruiz is hitting .205 with an on-base percentage and isn't much higher. Right now, both are automatic outs, and that's troubling. They need passable offense from this position, and they're not getting it.

5. The off-season moves to buttress the outfield failed. The play of Geoff Jenkins and So Taguchi demonstrates why the Brewers and Cards, respectively, let them become free agents -- both are through. Shane Victorino is hot now, but he hasn't been an equal to Aaron Rowand, whose leadership and gumption the Phillies' miss. Jayson Werth had his moments earlier in the season, but he's not as good in right now as Victorino was last season. Yes, Pat Burrell is playing like one of the best outfielders in the league, but the overall outfield play has been disappointing.

6. The offense is less patient than last year, swinging at too many pitches early in the count, and is not playing as well. Ryan Howard is hot, and that's because he's gotten more patient at the plate. But Jimmy Rollins is only faring okay, and Chase Utley has cooled off since a torrid start of the season. Chants of "MVP" that sometimes pop up at Citizens Bank Park for him now are unwarranted. He's an outstanding player, but he's not playing like ann MVP.

So what do the Phillies need?

1. At least one starting pitcher, perhaps two. It may be that they should call up Carlos Carrasco from AA Reading to fill one spot and perhaps J.A. Happ (who threw well in two recent starts) for the other. Eat Eaton's contract, send him down, whatever, but shed the anxiety and the medication that goes with it when he pitches. Or, work a trade for an available starter, but get a battler. The team doesn't need A.J. Burnett, because all reports indicate that he's an underachiever with little feel as to how to pitch. If the team does nothing here, it's sending a messagse to its fans that it's happy with its revenues, it needs to save its dough for the large contracts that Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell and Cole Hamels will command shortly, and it thinks it's okay to contend for a playoff spot forever.

2. Get a third or fourth outfielder, someone with pop who has a good on-base percentage.

3. Have Jimmy Rollins continue to work with Milt Thompson and Charlie Manuel on his hitting, so that he can regain the groove that he created last year.

As Baseball Prospectus eloquently pointed out in this year's edition, a team cannot stay in the zone that the Phillies have been in forever. That zone is the 85-win zone, which the Phillies have been in for about 7 years. Teams usually go one way or the other, and at the season's outset that publication opined that the Phillies were only a good player away from doing something special (I think reaching the World Series). But they didn't enter the Santana sweepstakes, and they failed to land C.C. Sabathia or Dan Haren.

So the Phillies have two choices -- make some changes or stand pat. To do the latter would be a public denial of evolution and the inevitability of change, and a concession that they're happy with their gate and leaving the rest of their season to the vagaries of fate and the pitching ability of guys like Adam Eaton and Brett Myers. If that's not a train wreck waiting to happen, nothing is.

And guys like Cole Hamels, Brad Lidge, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and, yes, Pat Burrell, deserve better this year.

More importantly, so do the (long-suffering) fans, who have heard enough spinning from the team to develop a severe case of fan vertigo whose only remedy either would be a sale of the team to ownership with better clues and resources or choosing another team to support.

The Phillies' front office has a unique opportunity here and a great core of players. It's time for them to step up to the plate, seize the moment and make the moves to turn a good team into a great one.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Funny Exchange as We're Leaving Citizens Bank Park Last Night

We're leaving the park and walking to the parking lot. We parked at the Wachovia Center, and that venue hosted the Arena Football playoff game last night featuring the Philadelphia Soul. So, we're walking near the Wachovia Center, and there are two big young guys behind us. We wondered why traffic was a bit more intense than we expected, and then I remember that there was a Soul game.

Me to someone in a car: Did the Soul win?

Passenger in car: Yes, it was an exciting game.

Guys behind me: The Soul won. Who cares?

They had a point. Most Philadelphians don't care about the Soul, the Kixx, the Wings, or teams not named the Eagles, Phillies and 76ers. They like their college basketball, and little more than those who attend their games really follow the Flyers.

The Soul Were Playing at the Wachovia Center last night?

Most people would have asked if they were a band.

Imagine if the 76ers Sign Josh Smith and Cory Maggette

They will be pretty quick and more athletic, but it also means that Maggette will be replacing Andre Iguodala, whom the 76ers probably wouldn't re-sign if they ink both of those guys.

But what the heck, they'd be even more explosive, quicker, and continue their ability to run past most of their opponents, if not all of them, because they're a young team and some of the opposition has a collective set of creaky knees. The main focus for them would then have to be, well, defense and shooting the basketball, which has become a lost art.

Ed Stefanski did not take the GM job to stand pat. He took the job to mold the team in his image and to figure out a way to dislodge the Celtics and Pistons on the one hand and the Magic and Cavaliers on the other. Not to mention Toronto and a team that should re-surge, the Bulls. Will he succeed?

Look for more activity on the signing front this week.

Chickie's and Pete's Crab Fries

Okay, so I was a good dad last night and stood for 10 minutes (at about 5 of 6) in line to purchase (for 6 bucks) a large container of Chickie's and Pete's crab fries, which are nothing but french fries spiced with Old Bay seasoning. That's it. There is no crabmeat in the fries, it's just that they taste seafood-like because of the seasoning. Yet, people line up for at least a half hour once the game begins to purchase these morsels (the same way I lined up a few weeks earlier at Tony Luke's concession in left field to purchase a roast pork sandwich with provolone and broccoli rabe -- recommended by the Philadelphia Daily News) and a steak sandwich for my son. That was a pretty good sandwich, although I can't really recommend standing in the hot sun for a half hour to purchase it.

But back to the crab fries. Six bucks? For fries? (Heck, though, the Phillies' fans pay $6.75 for a beer). Are they that good? Do we really need them? Doesn't America need fewer fries and more salads (which are hard to find at Citizens Bank Park) and sprouts? More 100-calorie snack packs? Why can't we simply bring our own Old Bay, buy fries at a concession stand where they sell chicken nuggets or steak sandwiches and season the fries with our own seasoning? Has anyone ever thought of that? You'd save at least $3.00 on already overpriced ballpark food by my counting.

When I got back to our seats, my son and his friend tore into the offerings and enjoyed them very much, giving me thumbs up. Their faces were smeared with the Old Bay, and they gulped down their drinks. My wife and I also sampled a few, and they were pretty good.

But to stand in line for them for a half hour during the game? What's your take?

View on the National League East

It will go down to the wire in September between the Phillies and the Mets. Sorry, but the Marlins will fade (not enough) and the Braves look like sellers at the trading deadline. Look for them to peddle Mark Teixiera to a contender for prospects, especially guys who can pitch. The Nats, well, Washington remains first in war, first in peace and, now, last in the National League East.

I was at the Phils-Mets game last night at Citizens Bank Park, and the managers managed the game as though it were a World Series game. They played chess, and Jerry Manuel won, in part because certain of his counterpart's moves didn't work (putting in J.C. Romero and Tom Gordon in the right spots, only to have them not deliver) and in part because his counterpart (Charlie Manuel) overmanaged when Pedro Feliciano was put in the game to pitch to an announced Greg Dobbs only to have Manuel pull back Dobbs for Jayson Werth, who got a key hit (but then got thrown out trying to stretch it into a double). That move left the Phillies without a good pinch-hitter later in the game, when they were compelled to use light-hitting receiver Carlos Ruiz to bat in the bottom of the eighth instead of Werth (as fifth outfielder So Taguchi is almost ready for the glue factory, especially when platooned RF Geoff Jenkins is hitting more like a fifth outfielder for a bad team). Still, it was exciting, and it goes to show you that an otherwise outstanding effort from a starter gets marred when he makes one mistake (in this case, the Mets were up 3-0 when John Maine gave up a three-run shot to Ryan Howard). What sank Maine was, two batters earlier, his hitting Shane Victorino with the count 0-2.

As for the Phillies, in a tough series their weaknesses get magnified. The Ancient Mariner, Jamie Moyer, pitched well enough to keep the Phillies in the game, but the team didn't hit with electricity and the bullpen faltered. Up until this point it's been among the best if not the best in the NL East, but last night it looked, well, average at best. It also didn't help that long man Rudy Seanez came in to keep it close at 6-4 in the top of the ninth and gave up three more runs. What had been a relatively close game turned into a rout, and a good team's bullpen can't let that happen.

So I return to my view, that these two teams will battle in September for the NL East title. The Mets did gain some ground on the Phillies when the latter recently lost 13 of 18, but probably not enough. After all, it's hard to believe the Phillies will endure that type of drought again. Then again, the Mets might, even though they looked pretty sharp last night and, as of this writing, had gotten an outstanding effort from enigmatic Oliver Perez this afternoon. Still, in the end, about 87 games wins it, but either team should be a formidable opponent in the post-season.

One post-script for Phillies' fans -- right now the Phils have the 13th highest payroll in the Majors (Mets are third), and C.C. Sabathia is out there for the taking. He's good enough to help get you to the World Series (with Sabathia as the #2 starter and ever-improving Kyle Kendrick -- another outstanding outing today -- as #3, Moyer as #4), you have a good-enough starting staff to get to the World Series. The big question is, of course, what possibly do you have down on the farm that you could trade to the Indians (who are known for getting outstanding prospects in deadline deals) to pry Sabathia, especially since he'll light up the free-agent market next year and probably end up a Yankee? Is it worth it?

The Phillies' front office has had a credibility gap with its (ever-patient) fans, and sometimes they forget the adage that "excellence cannot be bought, but it must be paid for." Translated, it means that the results of bargain-basement Tampa Bay this year are rather fluky, and, of course, the Rays will have to cough up the big bucks in future years to hold their great young roster intact. But the bulk of the playoff teams are at the top of the payroll spectrum, and the Phillies probably will get there again, offering a long-term deal to Pat Burrell and also potentially having to ink Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard to long-term deals (if not after this season, soon thereafter). At any rate, if the front office balks and the Phillies go one and done in the playoffs, the fans will look at this season as the one that got away.

All-Star Rosters

A few observations:

1. Let's stop the charade that calls for each time to have a player on the All-Star team.
2. Do you really mean to tell me that Cole Hamels isn't one of the top 10 pitchers in the National League?
3. Let's watch ballot box stuffing. It's bad enough that Ryan Theriot outpolled Jimmy Rollins at shortstop, but to name Kerry Wood as a pitching selection after the Cubs already are more than well represented is absurd. I wonder if he'll even be healthy enough to last the season.
4. The Cardinals' pick should have been Kyle Lohse, what with the way Ryan Ludwick has struggled in the past month.
5. Pat Burrell deserves to be on the All-Star team. Yes, that's unbelievable coming from Philadelphia, but he's having a great (if contract) year. Look for the Phils to re-sign him.
6. Both Billy Wagner and Brad Lidge (who inked a new contract today for $37.5 million over 3 years, with the Phils thereby sending a message to Brett Myers that he'll either reform as a starter or find himself pitching in Kansas City) deserved to make the team.
7. I'm glad for both A-Rod and Derek Jeter, especially for Jeter, who deserves to be an All-Star in Yankee Stadium.
8. Somehow, it's hard to see an NL All-Star team without David Wright, one of the best players in the National League.
9. It does show the Phils' depth that the two most recent NL MVP's don't make the All-Star team (Ryan Howard and Rollins), but that they have two players on it (Chase Utley, the leading vote getter among all players and Lidge), one who's in the voting for the last player (Burrell) and one who definitely should be on it, a stopper if there ever was one (Hamels).

Okay, I've said my peace. What's your view?