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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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Free Manny Acta!

The guy can manage. But now the Nats are 13-36, they cut Daniel Cabrera, they've probably used over 20 pitchers this season, their opening-day CF was sent to the minors, their budding star catcher is on the DL, and, well, they are a terrible baseball team.

How bad?

Bad enough that. . . they have three slow guys in the outfield -- Josh Willingham in left, Austin Kearns in center and Adam Dunn in right. The latter two are so slow that. . . you could time them with an hourglass in running from the outfield to the dugout. Dunn turned every fly ball into an adventure on Friday night, and Kearns looked challenged (to say the least) in playing center yesterday and today.

In many leagues, there's a mercy rule for games where a team leads by 10 runs after a certain inning. At 13-36, ML B should consider whether to give the Nats' season the mercy rule. They play hard, they have some talent, but they are just not a good baseball team right now.

A Kind of Cool Father-Daughter Moment

I spent most of yesterday at a softball tournament appropriately called the "backbreaker", because a) the 12 year-old girls play 3 games in one day and b) the parents sit on stands (and not in chairs with backs on them). We got a very early start because the girls' first game was at 9 in the morning, and the fields were about a half hour from our house. This was the first tournament for the team that my daughter is on, and, needless to say, the team was eager to see what it could do.

The girls lost every game but acquitted themselves well -- you could tell from various episodes that the team has talent, it was just that they just formed about 2 weeks ago and hadn't had the game experience or the repetition of some of the other teams, which, we learned, had been playing together for a while.

My approach to these games is to be a pretty demure parent and fan. I don't give my daughter instruction about the physical aspects of the game -- how to throw, how to hit -- but we do talk about various situations -- rundowns, what to do with runners on first and second, basic situations. And that only occurs when were in the house. As a fan, I cheer good plays but refrain from yelling out to my daughter (except to cheer a good play on occasion). I and the other parents cheered the entire team, and that was fun.

I sat far enough from the dugout that you couldn't see much except for the on-deck batter taking practice swings and players entering and leaving the dugout. Most, if not all, of the girls don't look for their parents, and my daughter was no exception. The girls were all business. Anyway. . .

My daughter came up with the bases loaded and two outs in the middle of the second game, which was the closest game they played. As a parent, I was hoping and praying that she would get a hit and continue the inning, and she delivered with a single up the middle. That led to a bigger inning, and my daughter scored a run. She ran into the dugout and, instead of heading straight in, she paused in the area where the on-deck batter would stand. She caught my eye, and instinctively I tugged on my hat and tipped it every so slightly, with a smile on my face. The grin that returned was great, showing a combination of poise and self-confidence that any parent is looking to establish in a pre-teenaged daughter.

There was a breeze, the temperature was in the mid-70's, and a group of young girls came together as a team. It was fun to watch.

Friday, May 29, 2009

In Defense of Tim Floyd

Paul Shirley, who played for Floyd at Iowa State and who wrote a very candid and at times hilarious book on his life as an NBA journeyman and international hoops gypsy, wrote a great piece that appeared on HoopsHype about Floyd.

Bottom line: Shirley doesn't think that Floyd committed the violations of NCAA rules that are alleged against USC with regard to O.J. Mayo.

My take:

1) Shirley is as honest as they come, and his vouching for Floyd is high praise.
2) The investigators will have to determine what happened, and if something bad did, whether Floyd had anything to do with it.
3) If nothing happened, it's a shame for Tim Floyd to have to go through all of what's he's gone through and will continue to go through.

Taking on the Umpires

Score it AAA Ump Todd Tichenor 4, the Red Sox and the Twins 0 in last nights Sox' victory of the Twins. Tichenor ran Twins' catcher Mike Redmond and skipper Ron Gardenhire, and, later, Bosox catcher Jason Varitek and skipper Terry Francona, from the game.

As if. . . we pay to see the umpire go WWE on the contestants and provide the highlights of the evening. Either a lot of bad things happened to the home plate ump (or bad things were said) or by trying to maintain control of the game he lost his own composure and found himself the subject of much criticism this morning (including from ESPN.com's Peter Gammons). You can read a benign version of the game here.

Of course, crew chief Jerry Layne rose to Tichenor's defense (as if he's supposed to do anything else), but read Layne's comments and see if you agree with him or if he's being a bit (at least) intellectually dishonest about what Tichenor was trying to accomplish. My view, on watching the video, is that Tichenor has way too quick a reaction to Redmond and Gardenhire, had a point with Varitek (unless he provoked it) and got too literal on the "you can't argue balls and strikes at all" rule with Beckett. The bottom line is that like players, umps can have awful nights, and Tichenor had an awful night.

Why? Because no one is talking about the Sox' win or Varitek's two homers. They're talking about the ejections.

And that's bad for baseball.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

They Also Serve Who Stand and Wait

I don't know who authored that line, but tonight I stood outside in 50 degree weather, in a 10+ miles-per-hour wind, in the rain, to watch my daughter play in a softball game. Her team played a more experienced, more confident team and won, and, without going into details that might remind you of a co-worker's review of his weekend golf game at lunch the following Monday, my daughter contributed to the victory. But it was cold out there, nasty, and the comraderie of the parents who opted not to sit in their cars was worth it. Only about one quarter of the parents stood outside, but I hope that their kids appreciated it.

Baseball's Democracy in Action -- Somewhat Scary

Raul Ibanez is only 6th among NL outfielders in All-Star balloting.

Say what?

He's hitting .352 with a Major League-leading 17 homers and 43 RBI's, hitting safely in 35 of the Phillies' 42 games this season.

Come on, All-Star voters, start reading the newspapers and the websites and follow the game!
So far, Ibanez has been lights out for the Phillies. He's a terrific hitter, a dignified guy, and he's fitting in well on the Phillies. Hopefully he'll rally in the balloting and get the honor he deserves from the fan balloting. If not, his skipper, Charlie Manuel, is likely to pick him as a reserve, as Manuel will be the manager of the NL team.

Why You Play to the Very End

Because you never know how the game will turn out.

Last year, the Phillies trailed the Mets 7-0 and were well on their way to losing a game. So much so that they let their long reliever, Clay Condrey, lead off an inning. Condrey doubled, the Phillies put some hits together, and they won the game, once again dispiriting the Mets.

Yesterday, Cornell led Syracuse, 9-6, in men's lacrosse with 5:30 left in the game and by 9-8 in the waning seconds when the Orange scooped up a loose ball, made a somewhat miraculous flip toward the goal, and an Orange player tied the game with four seconds left. That's right, when the reporters started to press the button on their stories of a big upset, they had to straighten them out and wait for the outcome -- a Syracuse victory in overtime. You can read about the game here.

I didn't watch the game live but wished that I had. Syracuse epitomized what competition is all about -- that within the context of a sporting contest, your players give the last full measure and play until the clock expires. The Cornell Big Red played a great game, worthy of a title, and their best player, Max Seibald, is a terrific player and leader. But what makes Syracuse a dynasty is that they not only recruit and develop some of the best talent in the country, but they also come up with plays like this and win titles.

The Orange battled with fifteen seconds left when all seemed lost. And for that refusal to quit, they got rewarded -- check that -- they rewarded themselves -- with another national title.

Who is Dustin Ackley?

The baseball world has been abuzz about the flamethrowing hurler from San Diego State named Stephen Strasburg, who is a sure bet to go #1 in this year's baseball draft (to the Nats). Some have called Strasburg the best prospect ever (did we hear that about Mark Prior?), and he has great stuff -- a fastball that can eclipse 100 miles per hour and that stays in the upper 90's late in the game. And, yes, the ball moves.

That's great, good for the Nats, who have some promising starters in their organization, but then the question remains -- who will get drafted second? You can read this piece in SI.com to learn about UNC second baseman Dustin Ackley, who, in other pieces, gets compared to Chase Utley. Ackley is drawing high marks, and could well follow Strasburg in this year's draft.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Varsity Ain't What It Used to Be

The Yankees went into this weekend's series against the Phillies on a 9-game win streak, only to drop two out of three to the defending World Champions. The two losses came despite two straight blown saves by the best closer in baseball last season, Brad Lidge (the Yankees were 1-1 in blown saves by Lidge). In dropping 2 out of 3 to the Phillies, the Bronx Bombers looked more like a team playing paint ball than being a serious contender for the World Series.

Look, I know that's harsh, but I reacted to the buzz about the Yankees' win streak the way I did to the hype behind the Marlins after their 11-1 start (with all of the senior cognoscenti on ESPN touting the Marlins as a force to be reckoned with in the NL East). Well, after that start, the fish have gone 9-25 and sent last year's pitching star Ricky Nolasco to AAA after he got bombed in last night's outing. It's not that the Yankees are a bad team -- far from it. It's just that you can't spend over $400 million in contracts and then have yourself declared as the team to beat. Not when the strong, young Rays are in your division, not when the Red Sox are your archrivals and when the Blue Jays seemingly demonstrate the chemisty that you've lacked during your 9-year World Series victory drought.

I recall in 2006 when Mike Francesa arrogantly dismissed the Tigers as wannabes in the AL playoffs by saying that Detroit had beaten up on lesser teams and now it was time to play "the varsity" -- the New York Yankees. The Tigers promply popped the Yankees upside the head and sent them packing. Yes, Detroit lost to the worst team to win the World Series in a long time -- the St. Louis Cardinals -- but that loss only underscored the problems the Yankees were having, to wit: they spend money to draw over 4 million fans, but not necessarily to win a title.

Fast forward to this weekend. They spent over $400 million on A.J. Burnett, who pitched more like Adam Eaton (just released by Baltimore) than, well, Jake Peavy, on Friday night, Mark Teixeira, an outstanding player if not, to borrow an analogy, the straw that stirs the drink, and CC Sabathia. One-time stalwart catcher Jorge Posada is hurt, and his backups might forever remain unknown. Centerfielder Bret Gardner is not that good, Hideki Matsui's bat looks slow, Baseball Prospectus doubts how much Derek Jeter has left in the tank, Robinson Cano seemingly still misses Larry Bowa, and you're not going to win much with an outfield of Johnny Damon, Gardner and Melky Cabrera. But that's not why I wrote this post.

Remembrances of Francesa's boast and his upbeat mood on the air during this past week combined to bug me, as did the Yankees' celebration after they came from behind and beat the Phillies in the bottom of the ninth on Saturday. This wasn't a come-to-home-plate-and-mob-the-guy-who-scored-the-winning-run celebration. That would have been okay. What made it worse was that the team ran out past home plate and onto the middle of the infield, as if -- and here's the thing that should get Yankee fans -- this was a huge surprise that doesn't happen to them that often. Look, the Yankees beat the Phillies coming from behind, fair and square. But the celebration belied a team that has veterans and that's supposed to be a contender. It was the celebration of an also-ran team that did almost the impossible, and it suggested to me that perhaps deep down this group hasn't totally figured out who they are and how fare they can go. Put differently, it looked bush league in the sense that minor leaguers upsetting the WBC American team might have celebrated this way.

But it's not the celebration that a varsity team has, that the Yankees have. A true Yankee team would have been happy, but it wouldn't have acted as if this were the biggest win of the year. Worse, Alex Rodriguez was interviewed after the game, and he talked as though his teammates were his brothers. Gag me, please. World Series champions have great chemistry and are populated with players like Jamie Moyer and Chase Utley, David Eckstein and Albert Pujols, but not necessarily guys like A-Rod.

Yes, the Yankees could win 90+ games and make the playoffs, and with the money they're spending they should. But that doesn't mean they'll get out of the first round, not until they get healthy, play with more confidence, and add to their depth.

Because while $400 million can purchase great talent, it doesn't buy chemistry.

And just because you think your team is the varsity to everyone else's Little League doesn't make it so.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Anger as the Province of the Self-Righteous

Mark Cuban admitted he was wrong, and he apologized, although not in the most appropriate fashion. He admits it.

Kenyon Martin just won't let it go. The Denver Nuggets' forward is pretty angry about what Cuban said to his mother, but Cuban makes a good point -- what about Martin's behavior? Most of the MSM's coverage has focused upon Cuban's insult, but where is the concern about Martin's words? Are the writers less concerned because a) Martin was a participant in a game, hot and bothered, and therefore to be held to a lesser standard and b) Cuban was a spectator and should have known better? Or, is it because they're more afraid of crossing Martin than they are Cuban?

At any event, this story is overbloated, overheated, and over-discussed. Kenyon Martin should consider taking the high road that he insists Mark Cuban take. Otherwise, he has little credibility.

Two wrongs just don't make a right, even if someone else "started it."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sonny Hill Agrees With Me

One of the most recent issues of The Sporting News featured an article on the fifty best in-state rivalries. When the article got to Pennsylvania, TSN highlighted Philadelphia's Big Five -- the basketball rivalry among LaSalle, Penn, St. Joe's, Temple and Villanova. The article also listed the five best players at each school, as follows:

LaSalle -- Lionel Simmons;
Penn -- Dave Wohl;
St. Joe's -- Jameer Nelson;
Temple -- Mark Macon; and
Villanova -- Howard Porter.

I was reading the article at the dinner table on the night it arrived and said "What?" aloud. To me, there was no way that Kenny Durrett wasn't the best player in LaSalle history. Not as bad, but still bad, was that the author picked Macon (who Dick Vitale loved as a freshman but about whom it was said at the end of his career, "He came in as a senior and went out as a freshman") over Guy Rodgers or Hal Lear. Rodgers and Lear combined to form the best backcourt in the history of the Big Five and one of the best in the history of college basketball. Macon was a good player, but Rodgers and Lear played in one Final Four together (and one of them, I can't remembber which, played in a second Final Four); Macon got close but never there.

I also scratched my head in puzzlement over Wohl, but the author correctly noted that while Penn had many good teams, no one player stood out above the pack. He's probably right, although Corky Calhoun, Bob Morse, Phil Hankinson, Tony Price, Jerome Allen and Ibby Jaaber should have figured into the conversation. While recency could have dominated the discussion (as it did with Macon and Simmons), I might have picked Morse, for the simple reason that I don't recall many forwards shooting the ball from the outside as well as he did.

Anyway, I went to run some errands this morning and, as usually is the case on Sundays, I put on WIP, the local sports talk radio station. Sunday mornings belong to Sonny Hill, the one-time great basketball player who founded an awesome youth basketball league in Philadelphia that exists to this day and who has served as a mentor to so many basketball legends -- players and coaches -- over the years. When the caller referenced the selections for LaSalle and Temple, Sonny dealt all over the selections, getting about as emphatic as I've ever heard him. He said what I had thought -- about Durrett and Rodgers and Lear. He also went on to tell a great story about how he, John Chaney and Jay "Pappy" Norman, at the end of their days playing in the Eastern League, used to play pick-up against a LaSalle team that featured Durrett, now-Temple coach Fran Dunphy and a great defensive guard named Roland "Fatty" Taylor. According to Sonny Hill, "we tuned them up every time. Every time."

I hope that someone sits down with Sonny Hill and a tape record and downloads all of the great stories and wisdom of the man. He's knowledgeable, he's enthusiastic, he's wise, and he possesses the art of storytelling that I fear will die out after the generation that was born in the 1930's leaves us. Don't worry, he's vigorous and terrific, and I look forward to the time I get to spend with him on Sunday mornings.

Just remember to show the proper amount of respect to the legends of the game.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Of Vice and Men

The Philadelphia Daily News has an article in today's paper (with photos) of tryouts for the Philadelphia entry in the fledgling Lingerie Football League. Columnist Sam Donnellon tries his best to keep a straight face, especially when writing about the talent.

Today, Delaware became the fourth state to legalize sports betting. Hopefully, that Delaware was the first state to sign the Constitution (and that's how the state touts itself) far outweighs that it's the fourth state in the sports betting game.

Thoughts?

Well, people dissed the Ultimate Fighting Championships, which have taken root (resembling human cockfighting), and tolerated Arena Football (not real football, but fun for the whole family at an affordable price). The former seems to thrive, while the latter is in the ICU and on life support. Who knows whether the LFL, as they're calling it, will promote responses other than derisive LOLs? Most certainly, the LFL will try to take merchandising to a whole new level. Look, the Constitution has the first amendment, the LFL benefits from freedom of expression (unless, of course, there are wardrobe malfunctions), and people will make their own choices as to whether they'll attend. Personally, I think the league sends a bad message about women, but this sort of stuff does sell (and I'm giving it publicity and, as a result, more attention).

As for Delaware, well, on the one hand the state fathers and mothers must believe that why shouldn't they get a piece of the pie and let Nevada and the two states that went before it have all the fun. On the other hand, what type of message are we sending? That this type of behavior should be encouraged? Or, are we resigning ourselves to the fact that this stuff goes on all the time and why shouldn't the state take a cut? Somehow, I don't think that societies and governments can solve all their problems by legalizing this stuff, but there you have it.

Is there outrage at this? Surprise? We're all agog about the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs, but should we be concerned with these trends? Also, I'm interested in learning whether the pro sports leagues will figure out a way to get a piece of the pie. I think a creative intellectual property litigator might argue successfully that absent the intellectual property of the team -- which the sports books exploit to make their money -- the sports books wouldn't have a product. So, perhaps the NFL will try to shut down the sports books or, alternatively, get their beaks wet.

The proliferation of sports betting will cause leagues to look at their procedures for hiring and assigning officials, as well as compensating them. All leagues will have to figure out a way to have their officials as bribery-proof, and the NFL -- for all the money it involves -- might want to make its officials full-time officials. As legal sports betting proliferates, the hunt for inside information and the temptation to bribe officials will increase.

As for the proliferation of sports lingerie, well, we're already there, if you look at the cheerleaders or dancers that pro sports teams deploy. All the LFL is going is having the dancer/cheerleader type compete wearing what they would otherwise wear in a non-contact occupation for the men's team. The real question is whether the LFL will play its games on turf or on grass fields that are susceptible to becoming muddy. The leaders of the league are selling a product, and, no doubt, they'll try various tactics to pack the house, sells ads and sell merchandise. Who knows, perhaps we'll be in store for "EA Lingerie Football" -- it might become a better seller than the game itself.

An interesting day for the sports world, to say the least.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Did O.J. Mayo Actually Select USC, or. . .

did USC actively have recruiting him in their game plan and did USC coach Tim Floyd give a street agent $1,000 as a means to get that person to steer Mayo to USC? Yahoo.com suggests that there's a big Federal investigation going on and that one of those street agents told Federal investigators that this happened.

Let's not jump to any conclusions here, and before you can say "Duke lacrosse" ten times you can conjure up all sorts of questions and allegations against many major colleage basketball programs (such as how did a New York kid end up playing ball for Floyd while he was coaching in Ames, Iowa of all places)? That's not fair to Floyd, who deserves the floor, a chance to answer, and, yes, if necessary, a lawyer.

There's a bigger problem here, which is recruits' senses of self-importance and entitlement and the proliferation of street agents who ingratiate themselves with star players and put themselves out for sale to some agents who need the cloak of cleanness but who also need guys on the street to stay close to and bring the key player into their stable of athletes. I don't know how you stop this business, but it's messy. A friend's son almost landed a job several years ago for a self-styled up-and-coming sports agent in the Philadelphia area. His job? To start and run basketball camps for underprivileged middle- and high-schoolers in the inner city. The reason? You don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure out that by being ubiquitous, the one kid with a chance to play beyond Division I might come into this agent's orbit.

So who are these street agents? Why do the players take things from them? What role do college coaches play in this -- do they encourage/enable the street agents? The purpose of this post is not to express surprise or shock -- there is so much money to go around in major college basketball and the NBA that it's not surprising that hangers out try to scratch additional pennies from the money tree, precisely because that's where the money is. The disappointment is that these guys don't get hit with a broom every time they try to enter the building.

Now it's USC's and Tim Floyd's turn. Is this street agent telling the truth, or is he making up a story to save himself?

The NFL and the Pension Plan Decision: A Study in Bad, Unintended Consequences

USA Today has a good article about the NFL's decision to alter the pension landscape for employees of teams (assistant coaches, front office personnel). While intended to save money and avoid untenable pension liabilities (something which state and local governments should spend some time on now), this particular plan could have unintended consequences -- compelling long-time assistant coaches to quit and take their retirements now or else risk losing what they've accumulated and accepting far less should they wish to continue on their jobs. You'll have to read the whole thing to get the flavor, but suffice it to say that some key long-time assistants might have to leave their teams if they want the retirement that they have worked hard for. If they stay, they could be putting their hard-earned retirements at risk.

It's hard to believe that the NFL wants this to happen, unless the powers that be believe the following: 1) there are some long-in-the-tooth assistants who need to retire to make room for up-and-comers; 2) the league needs to put a terminal cap on these assistants' pensions to prevent them from accruing even more benefits; or 3) look, other companies have had early retirement packages, and while the NFL's message isn't as eloquent or thoughtful, what the league has done in practice is the same thing and people will just have to lump it, because in the new economics these things will happen.

My guess is that when the owners were presented with this plan, they jumped at it with alacrity because they saw the savings. Look, many teams have cut front-office staff, and the league has done so too. I confess I don't know when season-ticket renewals went out but assume that they did so after last season, so most teams have solid season-ticket levels, although a) there probably are teams that continue to need to sell tickets and b) advertising revenue has to be down. Therefore, the league, like every other business, explored ways to save money, so they jumped at this opportunity.

But did they consider the effect that this plan would have on this type of employee. They might have considered the front-office employees (and many in the working world would jump at the chance to accept an opening in a sports' teams front office, and there is plenty in the talent pool right now to replace retirees, especially as jobs that require much less of a unique skill than, say, coaching an offensive line). But with assistant coaches, let's face it, while there are many at other pro teams and in the college ranks who would jump at the chance to be an NFL assistant, there are some assistants with unique skills (like the guys coaching the Colts' offense) that will be very hard to replace. Yet, under the new structure, those guys might have no choice but to retire.

The lesson to be learned here if you're making decisions for a business is to encourage those whom you charge to create solutions like these to speak truth to power and pound the problem hard for unintended consequences. Because I doubt that the Colts would want to save a million bucks on pension contributions if that meant turning a Super Bowl contender into an 8-8 also ran.

Why the (Relatively) Low-Budget Minnesota Twins are in the Hunt Every Year

Read this piece by ESPN's Tim Kurkjian and see for yourself.

Basically, it comes down to this: the Twins stress character every day, so much so that the team's leaders drive the integrity issue and the team's core values, permitting the manager and coaches to focus on the important stuff. Take this formula and apply it to other organizations that you're familiar with -- businesses, schools, teams -- and then look at the successful ones and see why. Most often, you'll see that all team members back the organization and support the group's overall goals and objectives.

Good Piece on Memphis's Josh Pastner

I have never met Josh Pastner, and I wish him well in his new position as head men's basketball coach at Memphis.

That said, after doing some minor searching via Google, I'm pretty convinced that his grandfather was good friends with my father.

In any event, here's a wonderful piece from Dana O'Neil on ESPN.com on the second-youngest men's Division I basketball coach in history.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Football, Fumbling and Morning Coffee

I work in an office like many, and like many I go to the kitchen in the morning to get a cup of coffee. That sounds simple, right, except for the fact that a) lots of people are getting their morning coffee at the same time and b) the hallways where my office is located are narrow and therefore pose problems for spilling coffee.

I worked for some pre-possessing people early in my career, those who were wont to pick apart not only your placement of commas but also your carriage of coffee. This particular guy was one of the owners of the business, and he insisted that we all place lids on our coffee cups, so that if we misstepped or banged into someone, coffee wouldn't spill on the carpet. (Whether or not this particular executive cared more about his carpets than about his employees' sustaining first- or second-degree burns remains open to speculation).

So, here's how the sports analogy comes in handy: you notice when watching football games that running backs (and where necessary, quarterbacks and receivers) change their carriage of the football and sometimes the arm that they use to tote it depending on where the defenders are, as one of the primary objectives of the defender is to strip the ball carrier of the ball. Now, it isn't my colleagues' goal to knock a coffee cup out of my hands, but they are motivated to get from one location to another with dispatch. That means, of course, that they'll walk quickly in hallways, not always cognizant that there might be oncoming traffic.

So, what do I find myself doing when I'm walking in the hallway with a cup of coffee? I find myself switching hands, depending on which side a person walking quickly in the opposite direction is likely to be on, taking into account merging hallways, cube and office locations, and the locations of doorways. Translated, I probably switch the coffee cup from hand to hand six times during my jaunt from the kitchen to my office. So far, this theory has worked well, although there isn't all that much "opposing" traffic, so to speak. Still, I think that the likes of Tiki Barber (who had fumblitis until changing his approach to carrying the football) would be proud of me for the combined sense of office citizenship and dogged determination not to drop the goods. Then again, he might well think that I've taken the analogy way too far and think I'm nuts.

No, this does not mean that I shoot baskets with crumpled balls of paper, slam dunk thinks into the recycling can, lead a fast break toward the lunch truck or anything like that. Okay, so I shoot a basket every now and then. Who doesn't?

And, remember, this is a pretty parochial undertaking on my part. I don't expect anyone to channel his inner Keith Jackson and yell "fummmmbullllllllll" if I were to drop the coffee.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Two Roster Moves That the Phillies Should Make

Okay, well, at least one.

The Phillies did a great job with their payroll in the off-season. They gave good contracts to Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Jamie Moyer and Cole Hamels and inked Raul Ibanez as a free agent. The latter signing looks to be a brilliant move. They increased their payroll almost 30% during the worst recession anyone can remember, and they made a decision to eat the remaining $9 million on Adam Eaton's contract and roughly $7 million on Geoff Jenkins'. So, as a fan, you have to be pleased as to everything that they did.

Except, okay, this is a small point, but their bench is no stronger than last year, and if they were going to spend that extra $25 or $30 million, couldn't they have spent a few million more. Why, you ask? Because while I'll take Chris Coste as the back-up catcher (look, I love the guy, but he's on the wane offensively and defensively), it's hard to defend having Miguel Cairo on the roster. The Phillies already have a utility infielder in Eric Bruntlett, so why do you need two banjo hitters on your bench? (And Coste is approaching Mario Mendoza territory with every month he ages). Why not have a fourth outfielder, a righty with some power, on your bench?

The Phillies need one. They had hoped that John Mayberry, Jr. would show enough in spring training to win the position, but while he hit some homers, they didn't believe he was ready. So he's toiling with the AAA Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, and it doesn't seem that he's quite ready yet after being down on the farm for a few months. Meanwhile, Miguel Cairo is killing them. He's something like 1-15 on the season, and at 34 his best days are behind him. He adds no value to the roster -- one that desperately needs a righthanded power-hitting threat off the bench. True, the Phillies did make a pass at Gary Sheffield, but there have to be others out there for the taking who would fit in nicely instead of Miguel Cairo. It's hard to imagine he'll be here come June 15.

That said, it's also hard to watch Jack Taschner pitch. Taschner didn't set the world on fire for so-so Giants teams, and then all of a sudden at the season's outset the guy wins the baseball lottery by getting traded to the defending world champions. Now, the circumstances that necessitated Taschner's arrival were unique. Lead lefty reliever J.C. Romero decided that he knew enough of amateur pharmacology to purchase something at GNC to help him, only to learn that whatever he took was on the banned substance list. (Even more bizarre, MLB held a hearing on the matter in between games of the World Series, and Romero didn't tell his team about it and pitched great). So, the Phillies elevated #2 lefty reliever Scott Eyre (who pitched great for the team last season after coming over from the Cubs) to the lead lefty set-up role, and put Taschner in Eyre's old spot. Apparently, the team believed that J.A. Happ, who pitched well last season and battled Chan Ho Park nobly for the #5 position in the starting rotation, only to lose on a split decision, wasn't ready for this type of set-up work (Happ is excelling in the long man role). So, enter Taschner.

And he's been a launchmaster, with a WHIP well over 1.50 and blowing (another) lead today. To make matters a bit more unsettling, it was curious that, at the time the Phillies acquired Taschner, they didn't pursue either Joe Beimel or Will Ohman, the two top lefty relievers available. Either could have been had, even if one or both had to yield on their dreams to get a J.C. Romero-like contract (i.e., a multi-year deal, even if Ohman especially deserved one). Now, it could have been that both balked because they couldn't tell what their futures would have been in Philadelphia after Romero returned (a status made all the more precarious if they had signed a one-year deal coming off the good seasons both had), but the Phillies ending up going for the cheapest option in Taschner. And the results are showing.

Ruben Amaro has done some fine work as General Manager for the Phillies since Pat Gillick retired and he took over the reigns. What he now has to do is do what Gillick did best. And that was not making the big, splashy signing, but rather making the small moves that yielded the likes of Scott Eyre and Matt Stairs. GM Amaro, if you have two such moves in you, figure out who's going to replace Miguel Cairo and Jack Taschner and make the moves as quickly as you can.

Will the Giants' William Beatty, the 60th pick overall, succeed?

Here's the reason I'm asking the question: Joey Harrington failed.

So why the analogy, you ask? Good question. Harrington was and probably remains a well-rounded individual. I recall stories when he was a senior at Oregon about his being able to play the piano at concert-level quality and how he joined the student body at basketball games, dressed up in a fright wig and helped lead cheers. Sounded like a great guy, a guy you would have loved to have had at your high school, a guy who was a real positive force around the campus. At the time, I actually loved the fact that he was an exceptional piano player.

Fast forward to Beatty, an offensive tackle out of UConn, a man who is an accomplished artist, who studies the bible, cooks, sews and paints portraits. Another Renaissance man, a well-rounded individual who is guaranteed to be a better interview than the average linebacker from one of the many linebacker factories who only can talk about getting to the quarterback and making tackles for losses. (You can read the article in today's New York Times about Beatty here). But the article brought to mind Harrington and something that I've always wondered -- who fares better, the single-track minded player or the player whose interests are diverse.

Look, Peyton Manning has proven himself to be funny in his commercials, and while he was a good student I doubt that during any discussions with pro teams he discussed the merits of Proust as compared to his aspirations for the Pro-Bowl. That Peyton Manning has succeeded results from his savant-like knowledge of offenses and defenses and his slavish commitment to being better prepared than anyone else in the game. In contrast, Harrington had other talents and interests. That's not to say, by the way, that Joey Harrington is a bad guy, didn't prepare well or any of that -- but he did have other interests and other things to draw upon.

Lawrence Taylor didn't. One-time Bengals' defensive tackle Mike Reid did. Reid, an All-American at Penn State, abandoned a reasonably successful young NFL career to pursue his real passion -- writing country music songs in Nashville. Give up the NFL, you say? Well, Reid did. In addition, an undersized guy like Zach Thomas excelled in the NFL because he was focused on one thing -- getting to the guy with the football. I hadn't read any articles in the national publications about Thomas's ability to do batik, carve wood or carmelize spare ribs and win a throwdown against Bobby Flay. That he was great was founded on many facts, one of which was a single-track mind where football was (and is) concerned.

So, I'm not writing to say that William Beatty will fail. To the contrary, he seems like a well-rounded guy with a good balance of family, faith and outside interests that should keep him sane once he gets burned on national TV. He also seems to be coming into his own, football-wise. Moreover, the Giants are known for building great teams and for evaluating players well (their won-loss record is prime evidence of that). So, obviously, my hypothesis doesn't concern them one bit.

But, somehow, deep down, I do wonder if anyone ever researched the topic whether there are certain tendencies among starters and all-pros that distinguish them from those who are back-ups, don't get off practice squads or out of NFL camps.

Team Handball: Will it Get Traction the U.S.?

Stefan Fatsis writes an excellent piece in today's New York Times on team handball, a game which the cognoscenti call handball, a game which is big in Europe but is hardly mentioned in the United States. Make no mistake, Fatsis is a cheerleader for handball, and in his article he laments why it hasn't gained traction in the U.S. Part of the problem is political -- the U.S. has been a mixed bag as far as support for the sport and the International Handball Federation has had more accusations leveled against it than the people who ran the prison in Gitmo.

I have watched handball, and it is a great game. Yes, in person, because a good friend was on a California team that played in a national tournament at the St. Joseph's University Field House in Philadelphia about ten years ago. This friend played football and baseball in college and played minor league baseball, and for him, life after baseball meant trying to find another competitive outlet (he did, in the form of handball; now he's old enough that he's playing competitive ping pong, but that's a story for another day). In any event, I've also watched it on TV during the Olympics, and the people who play it are good athletes who, no doubt, could have excelled at other sports had they opted to do so.

I don't know what handball hasn't grown in popularity in the U.S., especially because a) basketball is so selective that there are plenty who can't excel at basketball at the highest level who could excel in handball, b) football is a brutal game with short careers, c) baseball has waned in popularity and d) hockey, when you get past the diehard fans, isn't all that popular. That said, lacrosse has become more popular among men and women, and, to me, the variety and interesting aspects of competition that handball offers get surpassed by lacrosse for one particular reason -- it gets played outdoors. Then again, what's to say that in addition to basketball, volleyball, wrestling and indoor track schools cannot offer handball. Sure, we'd have to train teachers to coach it, but how hard should that be?

I suppose another reason is the oversaturation that exists already. Kids have tons of distractions and requirements today. Some are overscheduled; others have too many stimuli, whether they are overscheduled or not. For example, today's kids aren't as knowledgeable about what base to throw to in baseball because they have many more distractions from video games, TV shows, commitments to scouting and musical instruments than we did as kids. Back in the day, there were fewer options, so we watched NBC's game of the week with rabid attention and picked up on the nuances of the game and prided ourselves on it. Today's kid isn't as "baseball ready" in the field as a kid from 30 years ago, and once his game is over the last thing he probably wants to do is watch his local professional team (unless, of course, they're among the elites).

It sounds like USA Handball is better organized and has better backing. The best thing to happen to it would be a) many colleges adopt it at a club level and b) getting elite prep and private schools to adopt it as another winter sports option. It's hard to see, in this economy, public schools adding a program like this, and it's hard to see parents supporting a kids' league in a sport with which they aren't that familiar (especially if neighboring communities aren't likely to do so). So, if USA Handball were to establish its grass roots in the way I just described, they can teach the game nationally and help build a better appreciation for it.

Comparing Sports Illustrated to The Sporting News

When I was a kid, baseball was so big and The Sporting News was so baseball focused that it was automatic for me to subscribe. The publication came out weekly, published the box score of every game, and newspaper writers who covered baseball teams for a living also wrote a weekly piece on their team. If you were a baseball fan, you got this publication.

I graduated, so to speak, to Sports Illustrated as I grew older, perhaps for a few reasons. First, I didn't have the time to follow baseball as closely as The Sporting News offered, and the advent of USA Today enabled me to get enough news on non-local baseball teams without my having to subscribe to TSN. Second, I liked the writing in SI better. TSN was straight reporting, whereas at times SI waxed lyrical and gave more features-oriented, moving portraits of the subjects they covered. Third, SI covered a wider variety of sports, and I believed that I was frequently guaranteed to learn something outside my comfort zone. I couldn't say the same for TSN.

Fast forward to today, and I subscribe to both publications. What I said about SI's writing to a degree holds true, although the publication is thinner than ever and you don't get much day-in, day-out news out of the publication. In fact, the comfort zone of SI is much more narrow, so the articles about fertile fishing grounds are relics of the past. You might, for example, learn more about a high-school basketball program that you didn't know and that SI thinks is setting a (wrong) trend, but the days of going beyond the majors and NASCAR seem to be behind them.

TSN has undergone quite the transformation and is far superior in terms of giving you behind-the-scenes, day-in, day-out news about your favorite sports. The recent issue, for example, puts forth a great effort on the life of, and draft-day activities of, then-Missouri and now Philadelphia Eagles' wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. It's an article worthy of SI, only it appears in TSN, as do various analyses of NFL team's drafts, the needs of BCS football programs and feature articles on Danica Patrick and Gary Bettman (neither of which I read because I'm not into Indy car racing or the NHL). In contrast, SI's "Inside" features -- which they recently put in the beginning pages of the magazine -- continue to fail. They're small snippets about the major sports, incomplete thoughts, and not all that informative. SI should stop trying to be what it's not in the magazine -- which is TSN -- and focus on what it does best -- which is outstanding writing (it can always put the other stuff on its website, which it does). So. . .

I was pleasantly surprised with the breadth and depth of TSN. It's also far cheaper (about 15 bucks a year, a fraction of SI's cost) and easier to share with a young sports fan, who will grasp the more simplistic framework of the magazine and be able to learn much about his/her favorite sports without having to read a 2,000 word essay. That said, if you're still looking for some of the best sportswriting on the planet, you should continue to get SI.

Right now I'm a new born-again convert to TSN, so I will not suggest any changes, while I have subscribed to SI for decades. I would suggest to SI that it go back almost to its strict essay format and not only cover the major sports, but also give us insights into international soccer and the passions of people about their sports from around the globe. In that regard, SI has lost its edge a bit and should fight to regain it.

Both are good publications, so enjoy!

Friday, May 08, 2009

If I Won the Powerball Lottery, I'd. . .

Besides making significant charitable donations and gifts to family members, I would:

1. Purchase 4 seasons tickets to the Phillies in the Diamond Club Dugout section right behind home plate.
2. I'd secure the services of a limosine driver to take me to and from the Phillies games I'd attend. (Note: my friends would rejoice because I'd probably share more than a majority of the tickets with them).
3. I'd donate sufficient funds to my local kids' baseball and softball leagues to have them purchase a) automatic tarpaulin machines for all infields, b) the proper equipment to drag infields and fill in the holes on pitchers mounds (to the extent that they don't have it) and c) endow funds for a maintenance crew for several years (within reason). The reason for this particular donation is paramount -- we've had seemingly endless rain in the mid-Atlantic region, so much so that it's hard for the fields to recover after large amounts of rain. While it's not possible (unless you have Bill Gates-like money) to have enough money to donate to your local leagues to enable them to have fields worthy of Major League Baseball teams, donations like this certainly should improve the quality of (sports) life in the town in which I live.
4. Go on an annual fishing trip (fly fishing in a stream).
5. Go to my first (and probably only) Super Bowl.
6. Attend a Masters.

And probably fund many more travel and leisure opportunities.

Dominic DiMaggio is Dead at 92

Click here to read an excellent article from the Associated Press about the former Red Sox' outfielder and brother of Yankees' Hall of Famer Joe.

He was nicknamed the "Little Professor" because he wore glasses and was 5'9". There had been a song in New York with a refrain of "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio" that Red Sox' fans adapted for their own benefit, singing: "Who is better than his brother Joe? Dom-in-ic DiMA-gee-o."

They loved Dominic DiMaggio in Boston. He was a great player in his own right, not quite at Hall of Fame level but an outstanding contributor to the Red Sox. If you want to get a good sense of him, read David Halberstam's 2003 book, The Teammates, a great, short read that reflected upon DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams. Put simply, Dom DiMaggio was a great guy -- as an athlete, as a businessman, as a teammate and as a family man. For all the glory that his brother received, it appeared to me that Dom DiMaggio led the (much) happier life and was a true Renaissance man.

Read the obituary, read the book, and then wonder about how you view the headlines and the big names. Is everyone else in the family lesser because they don't receive the headlines of the (more) famous brother, or is it the case that life isn't always what it seems, and that you don't really know what someone else's life is all about because you don't live in his house? You'll probably learn a lot by going through this exercise.

At any rate, thanks, Dominic DiMaggio, for setting the great example that you did.

Rest in peace.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

A-Rod and Manny

First, Selena Roberts writes that A-Rod tipped pitches to opposing players while on the Texas Rangers in exchange for getting tips about what pitch was coming next. Only in games where the outcome had little doubt, of course.

Next, today MLB suspended Dodgers' outfielder Manny Ramirez 50 games for using a performance-enhancing drug.

As these things usually come in threes, what will come next.

How about:

1) a star player announces that he's been undergoing treatments for a sex change operation;
2) a front office has been laundering money for Al Qaeda;
3) umpires are on the take.

Both stories are, of course, sad events for a great game. People are human, and they are flawed, and, well, what else is there to say other than A-Rod is very complicated and somewhat troubled to say the least, and Manny, well, was being Manny once again, except this time instead of just looking silly he ran into the authorities and got slammed.

Before mid-morning, the headlines were that the Dodgers were enjoying their best start at home for a Major League team in over 100 years. By nightfall, he'll be dissected on national TV, his team left with a big hole in the middle of its lineup, and all of the baseball pundits wondering what else will hurtle forth from those working behind the scenes in baseball to come up with stories about the central figures in the game.

Citi Field is a Cavern

And a big one at that.

Last night I watched an aging mere mortal, Chan Ho Park, twirl an excellent game for the Phillies, only to lose to the best pitcher out there, Johan Santana, 1-0. The Mets held the Phillies to 3 hits, and Santana struck out 10 (making Jason Werth looking particularly silly on several occasions; Werth was one of the hitting heroes of the Phillies' previous series in St. Louis).

Last night was my first glimpse at Citi Field. A friend who is a Mets' fan lamented to me over the weekend that the fences were too far back, that fly balls die there, and that the Mets will have to shorten the fences at some point. Otherwise, it will be dubbed "Petco East" in a hurry. (The wags will have a fun time with the analogy of a company that, among other things, sells dog food to a commercial bank, but lest I digress. . .).

The comment piqued my curiosity, because when Citizens' Bank Park was launched about 5 years ago it was dubbed a launching pad, and many fans, writers and pundits publicly worried about the Phillies' future. (Contrary to some popular opinion, CBP is not the best hitters' park in baseball. The last time I checked Baseball Prospectus, it was only the eighth best hitters' park, with Coors Field and the park in Arizona being the best). They worried that good pitchers wouldn't sign as free agents or stay in Philadelphia, that teams built around power haven't been successful all the time (they pointed west to Chicago and Wrigley, and many of their comments were on the eve of the Red Sox' winning two World Series, which, of course, disqualified the lament to a certain degree).

And they worried too much. The Phillies managed to build a solid hitting lineup, fortified their bullpen and had enough starting pitching to stay in the games. They adapted, and they won the World Series last year. Somehow, the concern about the fences at CBP and the carry didn't matter all that much.

And they probably, in the scheme of things, won't matter all that much at Citi Field. The Mets will learn to build a team to their advantage, even if their pitchers will need to be cautious on the road, where balls will carry better (the Mets' pitchers could get a little less careful given that balls don't carry all that well and then learn on the road that a warning-track flyout in Citi will be a home run in Cincy). The Mets have a good core of position players, have money to spend (unless Bernie Madoff's transgressions mortally wounded the Wilpon family's finances), and have a good ability to adapt. Instead of having Citi as a place that kills the home team's bats, opposing teams will come into the stadium overswinging, knowing that runs could be hard to come by.

The reactions to the new Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are interesting and somewhat predictable. Many will point out what they are not, and fewer will enjoy what they are -- at least if their home teams are struggling and the stadium seemingly is playing a role. But while the ball carries in the new Yankee Stadium, the Yankees' pitching hasn't been all that good, either. And while the ball doesn't carry in Citi, the Mets' bats haven't woken up. During the long haul, it seems like the stadium factor evens itself out, while a team's shortcomings become more magnified.

All that said, Citi is a cavern, and the ball hasn't carried so far. Whether that lack of carry gives Mets' pitchers a false sense of security when they go on the road remains to be seen, as does whether the Mets will milk the built-in advantages of their home field for all their worth.

Even if it means fewer home runs from the lumber company of Delgado, Beltran, Wright and Reyes.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Mock MLB Draft

In case you were looking for a mock Major League Baseball draft, here's Michael Huang's offering from The Sporting News.

It's no surprise that Stephen Strasburg, the smoking throwing starting pitcher from San Diego State, is projected to go to the Nationals at #1. (And speaking of the Nationals, Jayson Stark of ESPN.com joked on ESPN Radio this morning that he was watching as to who will win more games this season, the Royals' Zack Greinke or the Nats).

Populating AAA Baseball Rosters

If you click here, you get to a page on Baseball America's wonderful website. The page can be a gateway to reviewing every roster in every organization in Major League Baseball. I'm a stathead, and I'm fascinated with how teams are built, so this page probably interests me more than the average fan. And, over lunch, I clicked onto the rosters of the AAA teams of every Major League team. What I found, generally, was that the rosters are populated with the following types of players: aging vets with Major League experience looking for one last shot, aging vets who might have gotten a cup of coffee in the majors hoping for one more shot (these guys can be younger than the first group, aging minor league vets hoping for their first shot (and the good stories that come with that first shot), and up-and-coming players getting more experience so that perhaps they'll be ready to make a significant impact in the Majors. From my read, the first three groups comprise the bulk of the roster, especially the position players. Pitchers are more of a mixed bag, but suffice it to say that the average age on a minor-league roster appears to be great than 25, which means that these players have been in the minors for a considerable amount of time (whether they came to the minors out of high school after three years of college).

All that said, here's a list of some of the more prominent names, by organization, and their ages (all of the players are at the AAA affiliate):

Arizona Diamondbacks: Ruben Gotay (26)
Atlanta Braves: Vladimir Nunez (34)
Baltimore Orioles: Jolbert Cabrera (36)
Chicago Cubs: Chad Fox (38), So Taguchi (39), Mark Johnson (33)
Chicago White Sox: Keith Ginter (33), Andy Phillips (32), Daryle Ward (33)
Cincinnati Reds: Johnny Gomes (28)
Cleveland Indians: Matt Herges (39), Tomo Ohka (33)
Colorado Rockies: Josh Fogg (32), Sal Fasano (37), Mark Bellhorn (34)
Houston Astros: Brendan Donnelley (37), Matt Kata (31)
Kansas City Royals: Bruce Chen (31)
Los Angeles Dodgers: Shawn Estes (36), Eric Milton (33)
New York Mets: Elmer Dessens (38), Nelson Figueroa (34), Mike Lamb (33), Wily Mo Pena (27) and Bobby Kielty (32)
New York Yankees: Casey Fossum (31), Brett Tomko (36)
Philadelphia Phillies: Mike Koplove (32), David Newhan (35), Pablo Ozuna (34)
San Diego Padres: Emil Brown 34)
San Francisco Giants: Ramon Ortiz (35)
Seattle Mariners: Chris Woodward (32)
Tampa Bay Rays: Randy Choate (33), Adam Kennedy (32)
Texas Rangers: Bryan Corey (35)
Toronto Blue Jays: Wade Miller (35), Jason Lane (32)
Washington Nationals: Ron Villone (39), Josh Bard (31), Ryan Langerhans (29), Corey Patterson (29).

If a team is n't mentioned, it means either that a) they don't have a player over 30 on their AAA roster or (b) they have someone in their early 30's whom you probably wouldn't know.

In any event, take a look at the website and tool around in the rosters and the statistics. You'll learn a lot about the future of your favorite Major League team.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Fantasy Team Blues -- It's Only May 2.

My partner in our Rotisserie League team (the name "Rotisserie" dates us, doesn't it?) had to leave our draft early, and he's usually the better prepared of the two of us. We've been in the same league for about 20 years, won two consecutive titles about 15 years ago, and we didn't seriously contend until last year, when another team that hadn't won it in a while ran out to a big lead, so much so that most of the other teams threw in the towel and didn't pay much attention to them. Except us, of course, as we won an auction for Manny Ramirez, kept on replacing disabled players and had a strong pitching nucleus of Cole Hamels, Tim Lincecum and Roy Oswalt. To make a long story short, we were up 1/2 point going into the final day of the season. What happened next was that our competition had three starting pitchers going on that day, we had none, two of those guys pitched well (helping ERA and WHIP) and we lost by a point. That hurt.

This year we were able to retain 9 of our 23 players, albeit at higher prices. We also drafted new players who, by and large, have not panned out. Right now, we're in eighth place out of 11 teams, and a whopping 35 points out of first place. The best a team can do is score 88 points, the leader has 75, and we have 40. Thankfully, it's only May 2.

It's not as though our leader has any of the following players: Albert Pujols, David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Hanley Ramirez, Manny Ramirez or Ryan Howard. He's more likely at this point to have Brian Giles, Adam Dunn and everyone's favorite second baseman not named Chase Utley, Orlando Hudson. His pitchers are strong, but he doesn't have Hamels, Lincecum, Oswalt, Peavy or Santana, to name a few. Which means, of course, they can start to replicate Billy Champion, who started the season 6-0 in 1974 for the Brewers -- and those were the only games he won all season. Make no mistake, the owner of the first-place team is a formidable opponent, very knowledgeable, and a perennial contender. He's the guy who always seems to pick up the good player off waivers right before you do.

But remember, it's only May 2. Those who are having Hall-of-Fame seasons in May sometimes wilt and have AA seasons by August. We all jokingly remember the case of Tuffy Rhodes, who hit three homers in one of the Cubs' first games about 10-15, years ago. Off to such a good start was this rookie (or perhaps a second-year player) that the bidding on him went out of control, and Rhodes went for prices the likes of the top hitters went. The only problem is that he hit about 3 more home runs during the rest of the season. Thankfully, Rhodes has had a happy ending of sorts -- he's one of the leading home run hitters in the history of the Japanese League, and he recently hit his 450th career home run.

So, my advice to those on top is to enjoy the ride and do the most to continue to fortify your team. If you're like most of the rest of us -- because most of us are not in first place and very far away -- chill, scout players, replace your disabled and demoted players promptly and, if you're allowed a few waiver moves, use them wisely.

But by no means panic or throw in the towel.

It's only May 2.

The Troubling Case of Oliver Perez

Again, the disclaimer: I am a Phillies' fan (you can do a search on Google for SportsProf and Phillies and figure out that there are longstanding, emotional reasons for this). That said, I am not a partisan. I have a great deal of respect for the Mets and for Major Leaguers in general, and while I like to see the Phillies win I derive no joy when the careers of opposing players seem to be (even if temporarily) on a precipice. And that's the case right now with the Mets' Oliver Perez.

He has a 9.97 ERA, had a bad outing yesterday against the Phillies, and now Mets' skipper Jerry Manuel is trying to determine whether to demote Perez to AAA Norfolk to straighten out his problems or to put him on the disabled list. Remember, GM Omar Minaya opted not to pursue sinkerballer Derek Lowe and chose instead to re-sign Perez at 3 years and $36 million (Lowe, in his mid-30's, wanted a fourth year). Perez has great stuff, and when he's on, he's unhittable. When he's not, well, he's wild, in the strike zone and out, gets hit, walks people, and doesn't fare well. And, right now, he's far from the Perez who can baffle hitters and make them wonder if their careers are in jeopardy.

The Mets can hit. The Mets' bullpen is now one of the best in baseball. But the Mets realize that they have to have enough starting pitching behind Johan Santana to get them to that now-vaunted bullpen. They need Oliver Perez, and they're hoping that he can stage a Brett Myers-like turnaround to help fortify their starting pitching staff and be a strong contender for a playoff berth come the fall.

Initially Perez was receptive to a demotion, but he's a five-year man and can decline it. He also said that his knee has been bothering him, so perhaps a stay on the 15-day disabled list and three rehab starts can straighten him out without a blow to an already shaky mindset. It's tough to see pitchers struggle, and while I don't want to see Perez torture the Phillies, I do wonder what he can do if he harnesses his massive talent and puts it all together for the Mets. Mets' fans remain hopeful, as does the Mets' front office.

Omar Minaya dodged a bullet several years ago when he lost out to the Giants in the Barry Zito sweepstakes. Had he won that contest, he problem wouldn't be the GM today because the Zito signing is one of the biggest busts of all-time. In this past off-season, he opted to re-sign Perez. He also made some very good moves in trading for J.J. Putz and signing free-agent closer Francisco Rodriguez (K-Rod to the faithful). In doing that, he fortified the bullpen, which was the Mets' achilles heel in 2008, and did an excellent job. Whether he has put together a strong enough team to win it all -- as Baseball Prospectus suggests the Mets can -- remains to be seen.

I feel for Oliver Perez and hope that he finds consistency.

Book Review: "How Soccer Explains the World"

Of the first American generation to play soccer at the expense of Little League baseball, Franklin Foer is a soccer fan and at the time the book was written, the editor of The New Republic (I don't know whether he still is). His good, short work attempts to relate soccer with the politics of various countries, including many in which intra-country rivalries are intense -- England, Scotland, Spain and Italy -- and he succeeds. What ensues is an outstanding, well-written work that touches upon themes of ethnicity, nationalism, globalization, prejudice and corruption. As I wrote in an earlier post, if you live in the United States and ever question the decisions of the officials, be thankful that you don't live in Italy or Brazil, where corruption can run rampant, referees can make frequent questionable decisions, and where the deck can be stacked against your favorite time.

So, before you think that the Italian team Juventus is a dynasty built on outstanding play in key matches a la epic games between the Yankees and the Red Sox, you might think again (according to Foer, calls and no-calls in favor of the team from Turin, toy of the all-powerfull Agnelli family, contributed to many of the championship wins of Juventus). Brazilian soccer -- not the business of spawning great players but of keeping them in Brazil and having good teams there -- is a mess. Rooting for domestic Iranian soccer teams is a peaceful way for the citizenry to protest against the mullahs. Barcelona, the team now of Thierry Henry, the great French striker, seems to be the fairest of them all, and the Tottenham team, a perennial also-ran in the English Premiership has fans who think they identify with persecuted Jews (according to a legend) only to appear, through their cheers, as rabid anti-Semites. Foer also touches upon the blue-gray type rivarly of the Scottish teams Celtic and Rangers, the former supported by Catholics and the latter Protestants, where both teams foster the hatred of the other in order to enhance their revenues. So, while soccer may be the most popular game in the world, that popularity seems to come at a steep price.

Read the whole book and see what you think. Franlin Foer is thought-provoking in his prose, and you'll be glad that you spent the time to read it.

Hope for All Aspiring Little League Pitchers Out There

It's only May 2, but I saw on ESPN last night that the Phillies have had 11 players walked with the bases loaded. (Yesterday, they beat the Mets in the bottom of the 10th when Sean Green walked Shane Victorino with the bases loaded). So, you have to figure that guys whose average salary exceeds $2 million a year have walked these 11 Phillies.

Which gets me to my next point.

My son had a rough outing late yesterday pitching in Little League (my son walked the 6 batters he faced). He's pretty resilient, but needless to say, he was upset that he had this much trouble (he's had various degree of success in prior outings, and he knows that when you play baseball - where the failure rate can be high -- you have to have a short memory). Still, it's interesting to note that Major League pitchers -- with their high level of skill -- walk players with the bases loaded (something that's really not supposed to be done at that level). I shared that with him -- he was nonchalant about hearing about it becauses that fact couldn't "unwalk" the players. Still, the fact wasn't lost on him that pitching is tough.

Especially when you are 9.

As I tell the kids on occasion, it's easy to take victory laps when you succeed, but it's important that you recover from your disappointments and don't let them define you and make you think that you cannot succeed. My son swung the bat pretty well and made a nice play in the field, and that put a smile on his face. By pizza time late last night, despite the disappointment, he was laughing with a teammate.

Everyone needs to remember that this stuff should be fun -- even me -- but parenting pitchers is not easy. Thankfully, he has nurturing coaches who teach the game well without trying to manage the game like they're Earl Weaver or Lou Piniella (and, trust me, there are those who do that and can take the fun out of it). All I can do is try to provide moral support, say something to get a smile, and, on occasion, promise a post-game ice cream.

I felt for Sean Green of the Mets last night. I doubt he was laughing with a teammate at his post-game meal after the game.

No Fan of the Boston Celtics, I, But. . .

Great teams and organizations develop bench strength, in any business.

Brian Scalabrine, Mikki Moore, Eddie House (the latter owned the house last night in Boston with his clutch shooting, scoring 16) and Stephon Marbury combined for 30 of the Celtics' 109 points in the home team's 10-point win of Game 7 of their series. Click here for the box score.

A great, gritty performance from the Celtics. Have bench strength, will be tougher than anyone thinks in preparing for the series. The Celtics' bench made the difference last night.

Friday, May 01, 2009

A Wee k's Worth of Sports-Related Observations

I was traveling in Europe this week, and I have the following observations:

1. Before I left, I watched my son's Little League game. It's neat to see the kids emulate the Major Leaguers as they get older, the way they stand in the field in their "ready" stance and the way my son walked to the mound for a "conference" when the coach came out to settle down the pitcher (the catchers don't know instinctively how to do this yet).

2. It poured all day Sunday where I was in France, so instead of walking around a beautiful area I rested, watched the London Marathon on TV (with the commentary in German) and then watched the Manchester United-Tottenham game. The Spurs, as Tottenham are called (and note I use the British grammar of deploying a plural verb instead of a singular one), were up 2-0, and then the referee made a game changing call, calling a penalty shot for Man U when the Spurs' goalie collided with a Man U player. Man U converted, and ended up scoring five consecutive goals in a 5-2 rout of Tottenham. Needless to say, a ref's call can change the tenor of a game -- and quickly.

3. The French Ligue 1 is undergoing a change at the top. Lyon had won 8 straight years, but now Marseilles (the fourth-largest city in France; Lyon is the second) is in the lead, with Bordeaux (yes, they of the famous wine) in second. Lyon is in third. One of Lyon's best players is Fred, a Brazilian. I offered to my football-mad colleagues in Ireland that if Fred were a star (and a one-named one) in the U.S., the appeal of his name would probably yield him four-fold in endorsements what his salary is. At any rate. . .

4. I ended up watching most of the semifinal of the Champions League between Man U and Arsenal (a team from North London, archrival of Tottenham), nicknamed the Gunners (three of the four semifinalists in the Champions League are from the English Premiership). Either Man U was a step too fast or Arsenal a step too slow, because Man U had tons of chances in the first 25 minutes and ended up prevailing 1-0. Man U's Anderson has one of the best "first touches" (read: he has the breakaway speed of a Ty Lawson) of anyone in soccer. As a friendly commentator mentioned on TigerHawk (quoting me), Man U's jersey reads "AIG", because one of the most lucrative ways for a soccer team to raise monies from sponsors is to sell naming rights to their jerseys (Arsenal dons "Fly Emirates" on their jerseys). Now, given AIG's predicament, I suppose it would be too much to ask that the New York Yankees of world soccer wear "USA" on their jerseys.

But it got me to thinking about how much money U.S. teams (especially in the NFL and MLB) could make if they sold jersey naming rights. The San Francisco Giants could say "Oracle" on the front of their shirts, the Philadelphia Phillies "Comcast", the Dallas Cowboys "Dell" and so forth. The possibilities and dollars could be endless.

5. Irish colleagues regaled me in the country's love for Gaelic football, a combination of soccer and rugby that they say resembles Australian Rules Football. Apparently each county has a team, the players on the teams insult each other mightily, the fans go at each other too, but, get this -- they leave it all on the pitch. They enter the stadiums peacefully, they leave peacefully, and the players enter and walk off together. The players train hard for their sport, but it's hard to discern whether they're full-time players or not. The Dubliners seemed to suggest that fans from Tiperarry are particularly rowdy (and you're now among the cognoscenti if you refer to Tiperarry as "Tip").

6. Sky Sports ran banners beneath their continuous coverage of soccer and cricket for Major League Baseball, and I was happy to see that Jimmy Adams was still doing his thing for the West Indies cricket team (about 10 years ago, while in London, I watched a game in what was tantamount to the World Series of Cricket between Australia and the West Indies in which, by all accounts, the West Indies mounted the best comeback in world cricket history -- led by Brian Lara, one of the best cricketeers of all time, Courtly Ambrose and, yes, the same Jimmy Adams). That's all I remember from watching Sky Sports on cricket.

7. Football teams can get relegated from one division to a lower division (correspondingly, fare well in a lesser division and you can get elevated to the next highest division). So, there was lots of talk about who from the vaunted Premiership could get relegated. Apparently, those in Newcastle and Middlesbrough are worried. Get relegated, lose big dollars, jettison your roster so that you can live within a much lower budget. The Orioles, Pirates and Royals are fortunate that in MLB there is no such thing as relegation.

8. I was waited excitedly to check my Blackberry this morning to see the 76ers-Orlando score, figuring that the 76ers had a great chance to even their series given that in addition to being without Jameer Nelson (who got hurt before the All-Star break), the Magic were without Courtney Lee and Dwight Howard. So what happened? The Magic made the 76ers disappear, winning by 25 (and it wasn't that close). I felt like a kid on Christmas morning who found lumps of coal in his stocking.

That's the week, in a nutshell. More later.