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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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Masterful--Lee!

Cliff Lee's stats for June are mind-boggling.

5-0, with 3 straight shutouts (first time a Phils' pitcher has done that since Hall of Famer Robin Roberts did so 61 years ago).

1 earned run in 42 innings, for a 0.21 ERA.

It's hard to imagine that Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Lee all will not make the NL All-Star team.

Oh, and tonight he shutout the Majors' best hitting team, the Boston Red Sox, 5-0 on a 2-hitter (he no-hit them through 5 innings). No runner got past second base, and he helped his own cause with a sacrifice fly.

Amazing game, and it also could mark the breakthrough of super-prospect Domonic Brown, who hit a line-drive 2-run homer to center and then doubled to left. Pretty good game for a 23 year-old rookie playing in the first game of a much-hyped series.

But the story right now is Lee, who is just unhittable.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Phillies Should Fire Their Hitting Coach

Last year, when their lumber was laboring, the Phillies fired their hitting coach, Milt Thompson, who, as memory serves me, was also the hitting coach when they led the league and or Majors in many categories in 2007, 2008 and 2009. But when they slumped or had a AAAA lineup because of injuries or both, the brass decided that they needed to fire Thompson. The players felt terribly, showed remorse and then hit well enough to win the division and go to the NLCS, only to labor again at the plate.

So now, they have a hitting coach in Greg Gross, who, like Thompson, is a Phillies' alum, but, who, unlike Thompson, doesn't have any track record of success with the big club. I heard on the radio tonight that the team has scored fewer than 4 runs in more games than they've scored over 4 runs, and, well, at almost the half-way point, it's time to shake up a squad whose bats look like they're pulling baseball's version of Rip Van Winkle (that is, if Washington Irving still gets read in high school literature classes). So, since the brass cannot fire the hitters, they should fire the hitting coach.

Of course, it's probably not Greg Gross's fault, and he makes a fraction of what most of the players make. But still, it's the simplest option. Gross will get fired, some hitting guru will replace him, the (overpaid) starters will express remorse and then go on a tear. Seemed to work last year. But if anyone can get Raul Ibanez, he with a .285 OBP, to stop swinging at the ball as if it were the slo-mo version of a golfing rendition of Swan Lake, or to get Domonic Brown to shorten his swing or to get Shane Victorino or Jimmy Rollins to stop swinging for the fences as if they were playing in the steroids era, good luck. Because at some point, this type of change must come from within.

That's my thought of the evening as to how to help fix the Phillies. Got any better suggestions?

Friday, June 24, 2011

First Jack McKeon, Now Davey Johnson. Who's Next?

When Edwin Rodriguez resigned from the Marlins, the Fish replaced him with 80 year-old Jack McKeon.

When Jim Riggleman left the Nats yesterday, well, it looks like they're going to name 68 year-old Davey Johnson, who seemingly last managed in the Majors when Bush I was president.

Which got me to thinking -- who else could be on a list with this type of logic -- you have to be over 65 and have had to have managed in the Majors but not for a while. Who else could be induced to return? Earl Weaver? Pat Corrales? Dallas Green? John McNamara? Lou Piniella? Jim Fregosi? Whitey Herzog?

I'm sure they're are a bunch of guys out there who might fit the bill -- Fregosi is the first who comes to mind, so, stay tuned, for instead of finding the next Mike Scioscia or Sparky Anderson, some GM won't want to rock the boat and instead will opt for the retread model instead of the latest model. If I had time to run the numbers, I would look to see whether the first-time managers or retreads fared better in their first season with the new club.

Meanwhile, though, somewhere "We want Fregosi" chants are bound to emerge from the deepest bowels of a one-third full stadium.

Penn Coach Jerome Allen Has Some Fans in My House

My son attended a basketball camp at Pennsbury High School this past week. It was a great camp, four straight days of non-stop basketball, with the counselors being current and former Pennsbury H.S. basketball players, among them, all-time Pennsbury great Dalton Pepper, who recently transferred to Temple from West Virginia (and, to top that, Pennsbury and Temple alum Lavoy Allen made an appearance the same day the hometown 76ers drafted him in the second round). And two college coaches spoke to the kids -- the first day it was Temple's Fran Dunphy, and the second day it was Penn's Jerome Allen.

Allen made a point to say that he was reluctant to go and speak at a school whose colors are orange and black (and, believe me, if you live in or near Pennsbury, you see a lot of orange and black). He asked the crowd of kids if anyone knew why.

A bunch of kids raised their hands and answered incorrectly, guessing that perhaps Allen went to a rival high school in the area. When he looked to my son's side of the gym, he saw a friend of my son's point to my son (which was somewhat ironic, given that the friend's father went to Oklahoma State, whose colors are orange and black). So Coach Allen asked my son if he knew, and my son said, "Because they're Princeton's colors." Happy that my son answered correctly, Coach Allen started to hand my son a very nice Penn practice jersey. At which point my son offered that he knew because his father went to Princeton. Whereupon, Coach Allen playfully pulled the jersey back, but then he gave it to him.

It was a great moment, and my son wore the jersey proudly the other night. (After all, two of his grandparents went to Penn and his father -- me -- rooted hard for the Quakers when he was a kid). There might well be some limits to the wearing of the jersey -- such as I don't think it would be wise for him to wear it in Jadwin Gym when Penn is playing Princeton, but it's as much a memory of a great camp and a unique moment with a great guy in Jerome Allen as it is about the Penn Quakers.

At least I can hope that, right, kids being their own people after a while?

Thanks to the folks who ran the camp and Coach Allen for a great day for my son.

A Manager Quits a Team That's Exceeding Expectations -- What's the World Coming to?

About a week ago, Edwin Rodriguez resigned from his post as manager of the Florida Marlins because the Fish were 1 for June. That was unfortunate, because the Marlins are in a perpetual state of flux and have one of the two shortstops in all of baseball (let alone the NL East) who are as enigmatic as they are talented and productive. So, blame Rodriguez if you must, but then the front office and the guys on the field should shoulder some of the load, too? Right?

Wrong, because it's far easier to jettison the skipper than a dozen players or the owner.

And then you have the Nationals, who, while not baseball's version of the Washington Generals (we'll leave that for the Pirates) have been something close. Yet, they've made some bold moves, have a few guys who can play, and, under the guidance of their skipper, Jim Riggleman, found themselves at a 38-37 mark (which is great in and of itself, but they also benefit from the unstable equilibrium that is the Marlins and the Madoff- and almost any other type of malady-bitten Mets). So, if Rodriguez were to get the blame for the Marlins' demise, you would think that Riggleman would get some share of the credit for the Nats' upswing (especially without #3 hitter, Ryan Zimmerman and last year's once in a many generation pitching wunderkind draftpick, Stephen Strasburg, both lost on account to injuries)? After all, Terry Collins, who is managing a Mets' team that has a funky combination of no-names, fading stars and upstarts, is getting some credit in the Big Apple for helping the Mets avoid the abyss, which is, in this case, unfavorable comparisons to the Piraes.

You'd be wrong again.

Riggleman approached the Nats' powers and asked them to exercise his option for 2012, given the Nats' great start. The Nats' front office's response? Nuts! (Okay, so that's what the 101st Airborn'es Anthony McAuliffe told the Germans when they asked him to surrender after surrounding him in Bastogne in World War II). Actually, it was probably a polite, "no," or "no, not at this time," but whatever it was, Riggleman decided that he'd rather spend the summer at some place he'd be appreciated than in the sweltering heat of D.C. So, he quit. Just like that.

There's probably more to the story, but you don't have to be a genius (and there are quite a few self-appointed ones in Washington) to deduce that somewhere someone has whispered into Riggleman's ear that because of his success in D.C., he could be a hot commodity for other jobs come season's end. Otherwise, why resign?

Just when things were starting to improve for the Nats, they lose their manager. Right fielder Jayson Werth opined that it really wasn't a big deal, because the players do the hitting and the pitching. Perhaps Werth thought he was showing public leadership for his younger teammates, who do need not to get unnerved at the loss of their skipper. Or perhaps Werth was just being inarticulate, as he has been at times in his career. Or, worse, Werth really means it, which meams that if Werth is the exemplar of veteran leadership in the Nats' clubhouse, the Nats' might have some deeper problems than the reports out of D.C. have hinted at thus far.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A League for Old Men

Congratulations to the Dallas Mavericks, who proved that thirty-somethings with the wisdom to play great together can win a title. Hats off to Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd (17 years in the league, first title), Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler and the team for a great run.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Panama Beats U.S. 2-1 in Soccer; They Must Have a Half Dozen Soccer Equivalents of Mariano Rivera, Don't They?

Read about the one step forward, two-plus step backwards approach that U.S.A. Soccer seems to be taking here. And then ask yourself the question: why is this sport so frustrating for a nation of 310 million people that has citizens who can solve many complex problems and that mustered the ingenuity, among other things, to build one big ship a day during WWII (courtesy of Henry Kaiser)?

Is soccer big in your area? Many kids play it, because at a young age it doesn't involve the investment in football equipment or the potential for bad injuries. It doesn't involve the hand-eye coordination of baseball, and at a young age when kids pitch either they stand around and get walked or cannot get the bat off their shoulders when facing the best kid. So, they get bored. Lacrosse and ice hockey are expensive, too, the former in terms of equipment and the latter in terms of paying for both equipment and ice time. Basketball, to me, is a winner, because the kids at the youngest ages get equal playing time and get to run around. Soccer, then, is similar.

A one-time U.S. coach offered that the training in the U.S. is so regimented that the country is "a nation of midfielders." What's clear is that the country has had significant problems developing strikers, and there appears to be a dearth of talent at the highest levels, so much so that the U.S. soccer powers that be have scoured the world looking for dual citizens who somehow live and play in another country but will be eligible to play for Team U.S.A. It's almost as though they've posted a neon sign that exclaims: "If you can play striker and have U.S. citizenship, apply immediately."

Why is the U.S. having so much trouble?

There are several explanations:

1. Soccer remains a secondary sport in this country. Sure, there is a groundswell of fans in various places, but there aren't as many as there are for professional football, college football, baseball, college basketball and, yes, even pro basketball and pro ice hockey. As a result, despite the outstanding play and money in England and Spain, among other places, it just doesn't get the play here. In almost any other country, soccer is the thing. Not here.

2. The best athletes in the U.S. do not play soccer. They play anything but. That's the simplest answer to why the U.S. isn't better, but if you were to take Derrick Rose or Chris Paul and have had them play soccer, I have little doubt that they might be on par with the Kakas and Messis of the world, and their height would give them an advantage. That supposition also assumes that there would be some many good athletes playing the sport that the competition -- formally and informally (in pickup games) would be so good that the U.S. would continue to develop outstanding players. So, even if one Derrick Rose-caliber athlete were to play soccer, I don't think that would be the answer for the U.S., as it wouldn't appear that we have the systems in place -- or the competition -- to hone the skills of such a high-level athlete (I'll explain soon enough).

3. The reason for the hypothesis at the end of paragraph 2 is that if you had Rose-caliber athletes playing, presumably they'd be working out on their own -- on playgrounds -- to create, to work on their individual skills, to improvise. This happens all over the world, especially with kids who have a passion for the game or a drive to get out of some pretty poor living situations (that said, Kaka's father is a fairly well-to-do engineer in Brazil). But the fact remains that they play "pick-up" soccer in many countries, and it doesn't seem that they do so here. The demands are great, but the creativity isn't. It's good that Claudio Reyna has taken up a sizeable role in U.S.A. soccer, because he once remarked that the didn't want his kids to play organized soccer here because it was too regimented and stymied the creativity that makes players all over the world great. That's something that the powers that be need to chew on.

4. The U.S. had made advances, but I don't think that the U.S. will significantly improve its stature until you have about 30-40 players playing in the top leagues in Europe. Once that happens, then you'd have some serious competition for the national team that might lead to a Final Four appearance in the World Cup. If you looked at the roster that Spain fielded against the U.S. a few weeks ago in a friendly match, the players either played for Barcelona or Real Madrid, two of the best teams in the world. The U.S. might have a player or two on a top team, but none are stars. The Spanish team is loaded with them.

5. So what's the solution? First, recruit athletes who might opt for other sports, such as football. Small running backs might get some glory in high school, but a 5'7", 165 pound kid with quick feet and great moves in traffic might play soccer for money into his early 30's. He might be done after high school. Second, recruit athletes beyond what seems to be the traditional vineyards -- the middle class. Try to recruit kids from a broader economic spectrum -- that might help. Third, change training methods. What has been going on hasn't been working. Find a nation that has been more successful, study why, and see what the U.S. can implement that might work. For example, a recent article in the Sunday New York Times wrote about the Dutch system, which, while flawed in certain ways, doesn't overwork its young players and nurtures them until they're ready for the big time. Fourth, it's not totally about the money. I'm sure that wealthy donors can help fortify the U.S. national program with the best of everything, but that's not enough. The leaders need to be more creative and think out of the box about how to get going -- and that means more than looking for expatriated U.S. citizens to return.

This is a big opportunity for the right leadership. Right now, U.S.A. Soccer will tout the virtues of MLS (which does have its diehards), but, let's face it, it's not a Major League product along the lines of the best leagues in England, France, Spain and Germany (I'll include Italy, too, but I'm mindful that corruption over the years has made it pretty hard for teams not named A.C. Milan and Juventus not to win, although Inter Milan and AS Roma have fared well on occasion).

I like soccer. It's a great game, but U.S. fans should be critical of the sport and the product the way they can be of everything else. And that criticism isn't meant to bury the sport because it might threaten the "traditional" sports. Nope, it's not. It's mean to challenge the powers that be to piece together the best thinking of other national powers to come up with a feeder system that can help make the U.S. preeminent.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

MLB To Realign?

Apparently the topic has come up in the talks over a new collective bargaining agreement.

The plan would be to have two fifteen-team leagues (with possibly the Astros moving to the AL to form a natural rivalry with the Rangers), and then you'd have 5 playoff teams from each league, dispensing with the divisions. That structure would avoid a few bad results of recent years, where a more worthy team that finished say second in the wild-card race lost out on a playoff spot to a division winner who barely had a .500 record (I think this occurred with the NL West a few years ago). What it will not do, of course, is mimic the English Premiership soccer league by forcing the worst three teams in each league into AAA and then elevating the best three teams. The new structure also won't help teams like Baltimore, Kansas City and Pittsburgh suddenly improve.

That said, the new structure would offer hope for teams like Baltimore and Toronto, who are stuck in a division with high-spending New York and Boston. There's nothing to say that were they to have a record that wasn't as good as that of the Yankees or Red Sox but that was among the top five that they couldn't make the playoffs. Under the current structure, no matter how good they would be, they would be out of luck. I am pretty certain, though, that concerns about high-performing AL East also-rans and their potential for making the playoffs hasn't driven this discussion.

Change is challenging. The proposed changes are, among other things, not only this new format but also adding a fifth playoff team. The details for the structure of the playoff aren't clear, but it had been reported that if there were to be a fifth wild-card team added to the divisional format, the two wild-card teams would have a very short (perhaps 1-game) playoff series. Under the proposed new structure, there wouldn't be divisions, but the only way to get to a "Final Four" in each league would be to have the fourth and fifth teams in a playoff. If the powers that be are not willing to shorten the regular-season schedule, you could have the World Series in early November, and that's not appetizing for the sport as a whole and fans in the Middle Atlantic region and New England in particular.

Still, it's good to change things up every now and then, but all this talk of restructuring belies a major flaw in MLB that could haunt it in years to come -- the lack of a salary cap. The union detests it, but practical economics might compel it. The simple reason is this -- there will be a pronounced need to prop up the teams that perennially will not be among the top half in payroll. Statistics have shown that while spending in the top half doesn't guarantee a winner, your chances of making the playoffs are much less than if you do spend in the top half. Which means that if the economy gets tougher, perhaps there' s another recession, perhaps we hit either a deflationary or inflationary spiral, discretionary spending might take a hit. Which means that the teams that seemingly hang in there on a thread because they offer a product that cannot make the playoffs, well, those teams might not hang in there any more. Sure, the "bankruptcy" word seems incompatible with professional sports, as there is always some newly minted billionaire who might not blowing hundreds of millions of dollars for a trophy. It's hard to argue with that. But it's also hard to argue with teams that are tantamount to the Washington Generals, trying to hang in there year after year with mostly empty ballparks, relying on a few good gates when close by, winning teams visit and bring fans (see, for example, the gates in Pittsburgh and Washington when the Phillies are in town or the gate in Baltimore when the Yankees are in town). Without a salary cap, those teams' mission could become futile, and, yes, under the right circumstances, they could disappear. At some point there won't be a point to fielding a team that just has no chance of making the playoffs.

MLB needs a full roster of teams so that they can have a full season, but it needs to give fans and future fans (young people) a chance to see the hometown team win. What are the owners' and union's suggestion for this outside a salary cap? Revenue sharing doesn't seem to have worked, and the NFL's model suggests that in any given year a poorly performing team can turn its fortunes around pretty quickly and become a winner. MLB is more complicated, because in football you don't need to groom players in a farm system the way you do in baseball. But, if you had a salary cap, the best teams would have to do more than outspend the small-market teams. And then things would get interesting.

One friend in business has suggested that you don't need panels of smart people to come up with new, brilliant ideas. Sure, MLB can create committees to study this, but they can do something much simpler -- copy the NFL's model, because it works. If they were to do that, they'd have a more vibrantly competitive league, instead of one that depends upon big-market teams and the best-heeled owners. It would be great for the Pirates and Royals to contend again, and it would be great for fans everywhere if their team had a legitimate chance. Sure, there are some owners who will continue to botch it, but you might even draw more and better owners if they knew that they would compete in spending on players on a level playing field, regardless of how much revenue their media networks can generate.

The powers that be in MLB are focusing on the deck chairs.

They should be focusing on the ship.

And not just steering it, but considering whether it needs an overhaul.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why is Succession Planning So Difficult?

Exhibit A: West Virginia's handling of head football coach Bill Stewart. It's a mess.

Exhibit B: Penn State and Joe Paterno. Another mess, and, yes, risking heresy and vitriolic attacks from Penn State fans, it's gone on for way too long. JoePa should have had a graceful and gracious exit many years ago.

Exhibit C: Fill in the blank.

In the case of Stewart, they had hired a coach in waiting, which was fine, but now the WVa faithful and brass are impatient and want that successor manning the conning tower now. The problem is that they failed to tell Stewart that, and they have a mess on their hands.

In the case of JoePa, well, they let him become larger than Penn State itself, which is ironic given that Paterno, through large donations, has shown his love for Penn State. Except, unfortunately, Paterno's love for himself exceeds his love for the institution to which he's added so much. When someone becomes bigger than the institution, well, then you'll have the makings for a disaster in succession planning. Other examples are Bob Knight at Indiana, when accountability for outbursts (but never integrity) became and issue and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, who occupies a perch in a somewhat inaccessible tower in Cameron Indoor Stadium and for whom succession plans are unclear (although Coach K is in great shape and his teams are performing at a high level, so there are no issues there, but there could be some day).

Succession planning anywhere is one of the most difficult tasks to undertake. It's hard to find good and patient successors, and it's hard to get leaders to step aside, especiallly if they won't have anything to turn to or think that they won't or, plain and simple, will miss the adrenaline rush. Combine the two, and you'll have major problems. Look, Texas had Will Muschamp as a coach in waiting to replace Mack Brown, only to have Florida pluck him away when Urban Meyer surprisingly retired. Score one for Texas for having a good plan, but now they'll have to go back to the drawing board. So, even when you do it right, you run the risk that an opportunistic program will grab your program's successor, thereby getting a free ride off your school's planning. Penn State had John Sandusky and then Fran Ganter in waiting; the former left to work with troubled youth (where he's had some personal problems) and Ganter, who turned down the Michigan State job, ended up timing out, so to speak -- Paterno didn't leave and Ganter's offenses had their troubles.

So, what to make of all this? I suppose that the coaching trees of life are such that there are ample successors anywhere, and that the meritocracy is such that a halfway decent coach will succeed a coach who retired or was terminated. And, perhaps the problem that I identify is only for schools with older coaches (of whom there aren't many) and legends (of whom there are even fewer). And that compels a question: can you name a school where someone followed a legend and excelled? Let's think about that.

John Robinson did a pretty good job at USC after John McKay. Bill Guthridge did a good job at UNC after Dean Smith, but then Matt Doherty failed (and somewhat miserably at that). Mike Davis couldn't fill Bob Knight's shoes at Indiana, but Joe Hall did a good job succeeding Adolph Rupp at Kentucky. And that's pressure, isn't it? Would you want to succeed Coach K? Or, would you rather carve out a path -- like Brad Stevens at Butler -- where you could build your own name without following a legend? After all, Coach K was one game over .500 after about 7 years at Army when he got the Duke job. He was by no means a sure thing (and it took John Wooden 15 years at UCLA and perhaps Pete Newell's retirement at Cal before he won his first national title).

So, perhaps it's a slow sports news day. Dallas's 3-2 advantage over Miami is yesterday's news. Hitting is down in Major League Baseball. Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith had a jovial dinner -- yesterday. And if you think that the labor skirmish in the NFL is bad, wait to you see the sabre-rattling in the NBA.

But, for now, contemplate succession planning for all your teams. Both for coaches and position players.

It's much harder than it seems.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Sale Would Be Great for 76ers' Fans

Why?

Because as Comcast, they're part of a corporate entertainment portfolio, and their "owner," Ed Snider, never understood much, if anything, about basketball (except when the team was a tenant in his building). The problem for the hoops team is that Comcast' owns the Flyers, Snider's their leader, too, and, well, having a hockey guy run a hoops team is like having, well, a hoops guy running a hockey team.

It hasn't worked and it doesn't work.

My guess is that New York financier Josh Harris is a hoops fan, can't budge the Knicks from the Dolan family and either didn't want or missed out on the opportunity to buy the Nets. As much as Harris's $1.5 billion net worth is staggering, he wouldn't have been able to win a bidding war against a Russian oligarch anyway. You can bet your Faberge egg on that one.

Anyway, the next best thing for Harris is the team 90 miles to the south, the 76ers, with a good young nucleus and an energetic coach who revived the franchise. True, most NBA teams lose money and, true, the 76ers had the sixth-worst attendance in the league, and, true, the average salary for an NBA player is $5 million, but it's also true that this summer's collective bargain agreement negotiations might just well rearrange the salary structure in the NBA the way the owners believed they had to in the NHL in order for that league to survive (come to think of it, perhaps the 76ers could use the influence/talents of Ed Snider this summer, if only regarding the CBA negotiations for the NBA). So, Comcast might think it's getting out before an anguish-laden, bloody contract negotiation, while Harris might think he's getting in when the buying is good, because the new CBA (in his view) only will serve to improve the average team's profitability.

If Harris is looking on the 76ers' purchase as the ability to turn around a distressed asset, that will be one thing (and perhaps he won't endear himself to the 76ers' fans). If, on the other, he's looking to do that and he is a big hoops fan, well, the 76ers franchise will fare far better under his stewardship than they have under Ed Snider's.

76ers' fans and Philadelphia-area hoops fans have known this for a while -- when it comes to hoops, Comcast's sports emperor, the almost sycophantishly referred to "Mr." Snider, has been naked for a while. It will be good to see someone take over the team who will make the 76ers -- and only the 76ers -- his top priority.

Close the deal, Mr. Harris. Pro hoops fans in Philadelphia can't wait for a new era to begin.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Phillies Have a Starting Pitcher at AAA who is 5-0 with an 0.74 ERA

His name is Brian Gordon. He's 32 years old and not on the 40-man roster. He converted to being a pitcher in 2006 (he was an outfielder).

On the one hand, if he were a prospect, he'd have made the Show a while back.

On the other hand, you play you who play, and the results do not lie.

What becomes of the Brian Gordons, especially in an organization with 7 guys who've started for the Phillies already, and he's probably behind a few others as well?

The Rec League

It was a hot night last night, and my daughter's softball team played in the first round of the playoffs.

It was a game featuring the following:

1. The umpire giving the other team's pitcher the size of a regulation door and her team's pitchers a strike zone the size of a window.

2. Fielders seeing routine balls go under their gloves, throwing to the wrong base, getting picked off base.

3. A fielder, after having two frustrating plays in a row, storming off the field and throwing herself down into the ground, crying.

4. A batter throwing down her helmet and bat after striking out (and not being held accountable by her coaches).

5. Base coaches staring into space and not sending runners on obvious "move up" situations, such as wild pitches.

6. A coach yelling at his team to get more energy and cheer for teammates and to pay better attention, only to miss sending a runner because he was talking to a parent while his team was batting.

7. A coach showing up with a shirt quoting the bible with a cross on it -- and showing up with alcohol on his breath. (Two dads with significant knowledge of the game offered to help at the season's outset, only to be told "we've got it covered.").

8. The body language of many of the girls suggested that they wanted to be elsewhere.

9. A girl getting called out on strikes on a ball that bounced in front of the plate (strike two bounced before the plate and was outside). She swung at neither.

10. Everyone bats, which is fine (the rosters have about 15 girls on them), but one team batted its best four hitters fourth, seventh, eighth and tenth.

Was this "The Bad News Bears?" Was Morris Buttermaker coaching one of the teams?

Nope.

This was a middle school/high school rec league playoff game.

Huh?

Yup.

Look, I don't have the highest expectations for rec leagues, but I do for any municipal athletic association that runs one. Ours, regrettably, is so focused on its travel organization that the travel teams hog the fields (and have "invitational tournaments" where they use township fields to raise money to support their travel habit, without, I'm sure, paying any significant user fees because the township elders believe that the kids are from the township, when only about 25% of the girls in the organization are). I also expect coaches to be responsible, organized, communicative, enthusiastic and didactic, and, yes, I expect them to play to win.

The league's commissioner is a saint, ever committed to the rec league cause by trying to create a decent experience, accounting for the strengths and weaknesses of people. He's doing great work while getting little support from a corrupt organization. Why corrupt? Because the guy who heads up the softball program seemingly does it so that his daughter can have a spot on an elite "A" travel team that she has no business being on because she cannot hit (nice kid, by the way, but either you can hit or you cannot). That dad is one of that team's coaches, and that team only has 4 kids (of 12) from our town on it (two come from 30 miles away), and one of the locals -- a great kid -- apparently quit because of playing time issues. Unfortunately, there are too many stories of people taking leadership roles to help assure that their kids will get their spots.

So, what's the solution? While this particular rec league ambles along, I am not sure we're doing adolescent girls a good deed (particularly the 13 and 14 year-olds) by putting them into situations where they cannot learn good skills and teamwork and achieve excellence. A few of the coaches are terrific, the commissioner among them. But why this doesn't happen is because the town has created a caste system. The local girls that do play travel walk around with an air of confidence (and some should, they are fantastic players) because they are fortunate enough that the local township and athletic association have agreed to give the travel organizations a stranglehold on the resources -- they get priority for fields and practice time. And that's just wrong.

What should happen, instead, is that the townships should have much more inclusive programs that help develop the girls -- holding clinics, situational practices, and then give the best players the chance to play a modified travel schedule that puts them in some tournaments and perhaps the Babe Ruth championship. Interestingly, some townships that have a lower average income than ours do just that, if for no other reason than the families cannot fork over the $1000 or so it takes to join a travel team (not counting a bat, glove, gasoline, tolls, sunscreen, food and whatever other ancillary costs are involved). I would submit that while those organizations might not win an ASA or PONY national title, they might have more fun (so long as they have good enough pitching, which is important for fastpitch) because the girls are from the same town, know each other and get to bond, as opposed to being gypsy mercenaries who can rove from team to team each year because their parents are looking for a better spot for them to showcase their talents and perhaps, ultimately, get them a look from some college that might be willing to give them some money. I ask the mathematicians out there to tell me what the odds of that happening are versus winning a $200 million Powerball lottery.

Oh, and by the way, the odds of an elite travel organization from a non-warm weather place winning an ASA or PONY national title can't be that big, either,

At the end of the day, we're all looking for fun and rewarding experiences for our daughters. My daughter happens to be a pretty good player who could play travel had various circumstances (too many very early weekend wakeup calls, conflicts with other commitments, behavior of certain parents and coaching lapses) not combined to tell us that perhaps living a more balanced life for everyone in the family was a better idea. True, the softball isn't as good, and we didn't expect that. But what we do expect, and what every citizen should demand, is that a local athletic association donate a significant amount of resources for rec league experiences for girls of all ages.

There's a place for the travel and the rec league, and both can co-exist. But don't let selfish parents hijack the travel organization for their own purposes, and don't let your local athletic assocation support that behavior or turn a blind eye to it.

And love your kid, no matter what, and tell them that there can be all sorts of experiences, good and bad, but, at the end of the day, they should pursue excellence in everything they do and not settle for less, that they should set the bar high for themselves regardless of the circumstances.

Make the good throw, chase the runner back to a base, know what to do with the ball before you get it, take aggressive leads, and play hard.

Regardless of whether your local organization's leadership really cares, and regardless of whether your coaches have a clue.

The Sad Decline of Lenny Dykstra

The former Mets' and Phillies' star faces 12 years in prison for a variety of charges.

Yes, of course, he's innocent until proven guilty, but this guy's had more problems than are contained in the average problem set given to chemical engineering majors in their thermodynamics class.

The difference is that the engineers are getting trained to solve those problems, while Lenny seems to be out of moves.

It has to be such a high, playing Major League Baseball at such a high level. Everyone wants you, seeks you out, you're making huge sums at a young age, and you are sitting atop the world. But unless you have another skill set that can elevate you to that same perch after you're done playing, how do you deal with the fact that you're not drawing close to the same compensation and you're not in demand the way you used to be? That has to be difficult for anyone to deal with, and the way the world is we read more about the declines than the guys who go back to relatively "normal" lives in the same world in which we live. I'd like to hear both stories -- the stories of the coping and the stories of the struggles, because all that glitters is not gold forever.

Monday, June 06, 2011

BCS Strips USC of 2004 Title; So Who Gets Stripped of a Recently Won Title in 5+ Years?

Read the story here.

Everyone hailed USC's depth, Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and head coach Pete Carroll. What they heralded was a team with a weak leader and not much character. Unfortunately, there were young men on that team who had character and could lead, but Bush apparently had his hand out and Carroll either knew what was going on and did nothing to stop it or should have known.

What a mess, and there are legions of coaches who get fired because they won't do what USC did. And, sometimes because of that, they cannot win. Meanwhile, Carroll gets rewarded for his coaching expertise (where it seems, depending on the hijinks, he was playing with a loaded deck). Instead, will USC investigate whether to pursue Carroll for damages? It would be a first, but, then again, what did the university know and when did administrators know it.

Are we now supposed to be cynical about the leading programs the way we were (but not the media who covered the players) about buffed up baseball players?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

How Generations Change: I'll Take Scott Cousins on My Team

I want to start this by saying that I think that the Giants are a great organization, that how they came about to winning the World Series last year was terrific, and that Buster Posey was the spark plug that put them over the top and is a great player. So let's get that out of the way now.

But I also want to say that I like hard-nosed baseball players and players who play to win. There is no "slide or surrender" rule like there is in girls' softball (and I like that rule), so until there is, players are allowed to crash into catchers who try to block the plate. That's the way it's been in baseball since the Wrights played for the Cincinnati Red Legs, and that's the way it is now.

So, to me, all this condemnatory talk about Scott Cousins is wrong, even if it is borne out of something that for all intents and purposes a baseball team's form of mourning for the loss of the heart of its team. I get that, and I'd be sad if I lost a player like Buster Posey for the season. But let's make one thing perfectly clear -- what Cousins did was within the boundaries of the rules and within the spirit of the game -- he played to win. Had it happened in the heat of a pennant race in September to give the Marlins' the NLCS clinching game, people would have heralded it as the baseball version of the last full measure that combatants at Gettysburg gave (according to Abraham Lincoln). That it happened before the All-Star break shouldn't even matter much, for the last time I checked, a game in early April counts as much as sometimes the more closely watched games during a September pennant chase.

So all of the lingering focus on Cousins in San Francisco -- and some of the comments, whether intentional or not but that might provoke violence against Cousins -- must end. The Giants need to get over this incident and fast, or otherwise their leadership will give their team -- a good team -- an excuse to fail for the rest of the season. Why? Because right now the focal point is the loss of Posey, and that focal point will give the average Giants' player an excuse to lose, simply because they can all say, "well, what did anyone expect, we lost Buster, didn't we?"

And that's precisely what you never want your team to think. What you want them to think is that the remaining guys each have an opportunity to step it up, show that they can make a bigger difference and, also, honor their hurt teammate by playing even harder to make up for his loss. If Brian Sabean wants to serve his team well, he should take a different approach, focus his energy on inspiring the healthy Giants, and fire them up about going on a mission to show the rest of the league that they still are a very good baseball team.

As for Cousins, well, I harken back to almost 40 years ago, where there was a firebrand named Pete Rose who played for the Reds who ran the bases with a fury, played the field with a fury, and tried to figure out every which way to beat you. He studied pitchers, he studied situations, and they didn't call him "Charlie Hustle" because he waltzed to first base after a walk. No, he sprinted. And, yes, he smashed into Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star game to score the winning run and injured Fosse in the process. Fosse at the time was a promising young catcher, and regrettably his career didn't progress thereafter the way many thought it might have.

There wasn't any hue and cry after the game that Rose played dirty or that the rules should be changed. The collision was unfortunate, but emblematic of one of the most charismatic players in the game, Rose, who played to win and played for winners. (My father admired Rose's approach to the game, and once I asked him why, and he said because Rose reminded him of one of his favorite players of all-time, Jackie Robinson, by the way he did anything to beat you).

Rose, perhaps because he had "Hall of Fame" stamped on his forehead, was admired, and Fosse wasn't an established star. This time, the circumstances perhaps are reversed, and Cousins is getting vilified as a result. I am not so sure, though, had this collision happened in 1970 that there would have been much public outcry about Posey's injury other than it was unfortunate but part of the game.

Would you have wanted Rose on your team?

Absolutely.

Would you want Cousins on your team?

If that collision is an indication of his fire to win, absolutely.

Is it very unfortunate what happened to Posey?

Absolutely.

Was it within the rules?

Yes.

Is it understandable that Posey is upset and that the Giants have been reeling over this?

For sure.

But it's time that everyone moves on -- there is still a lot of baseball to be played and in Posey's case, rehab to do so that he can reestablish himself as the star he still remains destined to become.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Why Some Ivy Athletes Are Special: Penn Hoopsters Zack Rosen and Dau Jok and Their Trip to Rwanda

Read their travel diaries here.

This isn't about a job on Wall Streetor a no-show job, it's not about trading memorabilia for tattoos (allegedly), about getting a car for nothing from someone you shouldn't have dealt with, about playing your sport all summer so that you can keep a starting job and potentially your scholarship.

It's about two Penn students who happen to be basketball players on their trip to Rwanda.

They sought to be inspiring, and they, themselves, were inspired.

As you'll be when you read of their journey.