SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Return of the Ancient Mariner

Jamie Moyer, who missed all of last season recovering from surgery, has made the Colorado Rockies and is in their starting rotation.

At the age of 49.

What else is their to say, other than it's amazing.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Another Broke Former NBA Star

This time, it's Dennis Rodman.

It would be interesting to hear of stories of retired NBA stars with lives after basketball, and investment portfolios that reflect their hard work while playing. These examples would be great for current players and future stars to study and behold.

Memo to everyone: the huge money you make is for a limited period of time, so save your millions and make them last.

Somehow, I think that these examples get lost on young men, who get to where they are at the pinnacle of a game because they believe that they are invincible. Many probably think that the fate that has befallen Dennis Rodman and Allen Iverson, among others, won't befall them.

The will not to believe is pretty formidable, isn't it?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Importance of a Core

The New York media dubbed Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettite and Jorge Posada as the "Core Four," the leadership that helped the Bronx Bombers win a bunch of titles longer ago than we'd like to think. In thinking about the Phillies and reading Baseball Prospectus, I got to thinking.

First, in reading BP, what you quickly realize is that baseball players come and go and finding great ones is an art and not a science, even if a) the BP writers and the Ivy-educated Moneyball geeks have tried to make it into a science and b) the guys in Tampa Bay, particularly, have shown an aptitude for recruitment and selection that should be studied and copied because it seems that they do a better job with the numbers than anyone else. Still, in reading BP, you discern the following pretty quickly:

1. That baseball players, for the most part, come and go. I re-read the books from 2009 through today, and what I realized is that only 11 of the 42 players profiled in 2009 (only three years ago) remain with the Phillies (and that is the players that they actually write about, not the laundry list of position players and pitchers that they mention in passing at the end of a chapter on a team).

2. That most of the top 101 prospects (especially those beyond the top 20) do not make it, or, if they do, don't turn into stars.

Which got me to examine the eleven of the forty-two players that have remained on the Phillies' roster -- Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Cole Hamels among them. That's a pretty good core, (one that's helped win five straight division titles). There were/are others too -- Jayson Werth and Ryan Madson were there for a while, and the team added Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. That said, what drives great teams -- the Yankees for in the late 1990's and the Phillies from 2007 to the present is a very solid core group of players.

A rare, very solid core group of players. If it were so easy to repeat and replenish a core, we would have dynasties. If it were so easy to home grow future stars, teams would not trade them. Yet, the Phillies have fortified their core by trading many prospects, and, so far, none of them have become starts (Adrian Cardenas, traded to the Athletics in the Joe Blanton deal, had Major League .300 hitter written all over him, and he hasn't joined the big club. In contrast, Jays' catcher Travis D'Arnaud and Astros' outfielder Anthony Gose could be stars, though). And, for every Jeff Bagwell and John Smoltz, who emerge from pennant-chase trades to become Hall of Famers (or borderline Hall of FAmers), there are the Michael Taylors, Lou Marstons and Jason Donalds who might make the big club, but who don't come close to power their team to a championship. That phenomenon might make teams focus more on growing players at home or signing established players at free agents than trading their players for prospects. But I'll leave that to the mathematicians who seemingly know more than I do and are willing to go to great lengths to prove their theories.

Still, I go back to the concept of having a core group, whether home grown or acquired (in the case of the Phillies, all of the players I mentioned save Victorino were home grown, and Victorino was a Rule 5 draftee out of the Dodgers' organization). That's what teams need to win championships -- MVPs (Rollins, Howard), All-Stars (all of the above), players in the top 20% of their positions in the league (all of the above). Have that core, win ball games, and lots of them.

But it's very hard to find that group, isn't it? Despite all of the scouts, all of the front office personnel, most teams fail miserably. If you're a fan, when your team has a core of stars, enjoy it. Because, as Phillies' fans know, it will age quickly, it won't last, and it isn't like to replenish itself quickly.

For the Phillies, there's no better example than in the early 1980's, when the strike of 1981 hurt the team's chances to repeat its World Series title in 1980. The team started to age (it never had great starting pitching save Hall of Famer Steve Carlton and John Denny in 1983), and found it difficult to replenish. At the time, we thought that 2B Juan Samuel had future star written all over him, as did CF Jeff Stone. But Samuel couldn't layoff the outside breaking ball and became a super-utility player who would get exposed if he played too much, and Stone faded from the scene fast. Schmidt started to fade too, and Carlton ended up trying to rekindle his youth on about four different teams at the end of his career in the late 1980's. Then Phillies' fans had to endure the humiliation of owner Bill Giles' referring to the team as a "small-market" team as a reason the team refused to pay big salaries, the failure of Von Hayes to become a mega-star, the unsuccessful free agent Greg Jeffries, and advertisements analogizing strong-armed RF Glenn Wilson to Rambo. Vet Stadium, never great but once the home to great teams, eroded fast too.

Citizens Bank Park remains a great place, and the Phillies still have a very good team. The Yankees' "Core Four" is mostly gone -- Jeter had a semi-revival last year, Rivera had indicated that it's his last year, Posada retired and Pettite is attempting a comeback, but the Bombers' big bucks will ensure that they'll try to cobble together a core that can help keep the team not only relevant but preeminent (that and competition from the Red Sox and, yes, the Rays will help ensure that too). The Phillies have great starting pitching, but Howard is hurt, Utley is almost done, Ruiz is in his early 30's, Victorino can become a free agent, as can Hamels. The farm system -- used to land, among others, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Hunter Pence -- needs to reload. It doesn't appear that there is a core group emerging that can rekindle the current magic, say, in five years.

But as we know in baseball, five years is an eternity. In 2003, no one would have predicted a world title for the Phillies in 2008. In 2012, it's hard to predict what the Phillies or Yankees will look like in 2017.

And it could well be we'll be talking about the Nationals and the Angels.

Or, if they keep selling out and attracting top talent, the Phillies and the Yankees.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Is Chase Utley Through?

I am open to persuasion to the contrary, but outside of a trip to St. Mungo's (for the initiated, the hospital for wizards in Harry Potter), it's hard to see what palliative measures can cure Chase Utley and return him to being the premier second baseman in the National League. Instead, his a struggling big name who doesn't put fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers the way he once did. And that's sad for the Phillies' nation.

But he hasn't played more than 115 games in a season since 2009, and he's on the books for this season and next. Ironically, when he signed the long-term deal many years ago, I wondered how the Phillies would be able to re-sign him after 2013. Now, I'm just hoping he can be productive in a part-time role through the end of the deal.

This type of result is hard to predict for baseball players, who don't wear out the way that football players can, the way that soccer players can, and the way that basketball players can. Typically, they get thicker in the middle, they aren't as quick to recover from nagging injuries, and they can't pick up pitches as well as they once did. They also start families and don't want to be away as much as they might have wanted to when they were younger.

But Utley seems to have "baseball lifer" written all over him, as he's the baseball version of a "gym rat," always trying to do something to improve. Perhaps that drive is what led him to his current state -- he worked himself so hard that his key parts have all but worn out. It's sad to see, but it would be worse for the team to be in denial and hope to get much out of him ever again. A demise happens to every athlete; we just didn't think it would happen to Utley in his early 30's.

March Madness Offers a Poignant Vignette

During the telecast of the Carolina-Ohio game -- a very good game -- the broadcast cut away to a different site where CBS broadcaster Clark Kellogg was working. The short cutaway showed a misty-eyed Kellogg watching Carolina put the finishing touches on #13 Ohio a Sweet 16 game. Kellogg's son is one of the mainstays of the Ohio team.

I'm a big Clark Kellogg fan, and in the increasing "corporate" world of big-time college basketball (of which MAC member Ohio is not a part), it was heartening to see a father's involvement with the tournament. Kellogg himself might not have appreciated the invasion of his space, but he's a gracious enough guy to understand that the rest of us really felt for him. It's hard seeing your kid out there, competing, and, yes, not always winning. Because it's the kid out there, alone, and despite all of your parenting and your ingrained views of how to protect your child, there's nothing you can do out there to help him at the moment he's competing. Sure, there's plenty that you do to put him in a position to succeed, but nothing that you can do in the heat of the competition. And that's very hard for a parent.

Good direction from the NCAA crew last night to share this moment with us.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Retiring at 15

It was a single post on a message board about a month back, a lamenting dad regretting his daughter's "retirement" from softball and offering a wide variety of gear for sale -- two bats that each had a retail value of $300, catching equipment, other things. A list of gear so vast that it evidenced the girl's one-time commitment to a sport, a dad's commitment, and, perhaps an overextension in terms of time and emphasis. In layman's terms, perhaps the girl just burned out, and perhaps the dad was overexuberant (to put it mildly) about his daughter's potential.

I know of the girl, don't know the dad, and perhaps she's focusing on another sport, academics, friendships, wood carving, Scottish folk dancing, what have you. She's a bright, enthusiastic kid by reputation who has a lot of life ahead of her. But it is curious that she gave up something she cared so deeply about at the age of 15. Sadly, her experience is not unique.

And I've witnessed it first-hand -- parents who think that this is a ticket to a full college scholarship, parents who somehow think that having one talent (such as speed) will make a kid a college player even if the girl doesn't have a batting eye or an arm, divorced dads who get to spend huge amounts of time with their kids when the travel teams they coach play every weekend from mid-April through early August, rec leagues getting cannibalized by travel programs when kids are as young at 10, travel programs who require three days a week in the off-season and then almost every day during it, parents who spend thousands on trips, lessons, equipment, all in the name of something I do have trouble to fathom.

And this phenomenon begs some questions:

1. Do the parents think that they are acting in their kids' best interests? Yes, I would argue in almost every case they do.

2. Are the parents acting in the best interests of their kids? That's hard to say. You can tell by how happy the kids look -- on the bench, during the games and after the games -- as to whether this intense an activity is good for the kids. Many won't play in high school (although travel zealots will argue that travel ball is better), let alone college. Whether they develop "life skills" will depend on the quality of their coaches, with whom they will spend more time than teachers or parents (at times). My view is that the commitment requires way too much of families and kids, to the point where it doesn't let families be "whole" families, causes other kids to get neglected, and takes away from the player's ability to have a life outside softball. That's a big commitment and a big price to pay. As well as a commitment to eating salty, greasy hot dogs cooked in a crowded, usually not-so-clean snack stand repeatedly for about three months. If you make the commitment, pack the celery and carrots.

3. Are the coaches acting in the best interests of their kids? No, I would argue that in many cases they are not. The coaches end up coaching primarily because they have political juice in the organization to get a team or, at a young age, are the first or only parent to step up. Whether they have the ability to organize a team, communicate well with parents, relate to kids and teach the game can be a whole other story. What many who get involved want to do is get a preferred spot for their kid, who, in the brutal meritocracy we sometimes live in, might not always measure up. Hang around travel softball tryouts or tournaments and you will hear the term "Daddyball" mentioned more frequently than you would have guessed if you went in among the uninitiated.

4. Do the coaches think that they are acting in the best interests of their organizations and the kids they coach? I believe that they do.

5 Do the parents and kids really care about the organizations for which they are playing? Hell no, I would argue, most of them care about putting their kid on the best team possible, getting them the most playing time and getting them at preferred positions and spots in the order. Heck, they don't always care about how poorly other girls on the team fare, especially if that slump cements a situation for their kid or gives their kid a chance. Bottom line is that kids can move frequently from organization to organization year after year because the parents believe that there always is a better situation out there for their daugther to showcase her unique skills.

6. Do the coaches run a meritocracy? Only if the coaches don't have kids on the team or coach the best players. Otherwise, accountability is a problem, as kids get spots because their dads coach or because their parents are friends with the coach. That happens too frequently, and it can cause real problems in terms of how a team performs. Somehow, if a kid knows that she is protected, she might not bust her rear end in practice to stay ahead of the competition or keep up. I've seen this happen, and it's detrimental to a team's chance at success.

7. Is the required commitment too much? Absolutely. Three days a week in the off-season, atop school work and perhaps playing another sport, and then a huge commitment during the season. I've sat on sun-baked fields for two full days for an entire season, and while I made some good friends among the parents, I didn't spend time with the rest of my family and my daughter had trouble getting together with friends outside softball. Atop that, unfortunately her particular team did not have good chemistry, so she didn't make good buddies on the team (even if she was well-liked herself, which was the case). A tournament every weekend for 12 weeks? Can't there be a weekend or two off? A full commitment in the fall of practice 2-3 days a week and 4-6 tournaments, depending? At the age of 12? 14?

As the kids get older, there is a natural attrition. Some kids do lose interest, some kids do not improve, some parents cannot make the commitment -- time or financial or emotional. In any sport there is a pyramid that results from natural selection -- the talent rises to the top and keeps on playing, while the kids with lesser skills attrite because there is nowhere for them to go. That's a sad reality that puts too many kids on the side lines and robs them of the enjoyment of playing competitively for the sake of enjoying a good, local experience. In the age of green initiatives, rising gas prices and complicated lives, having robust local leagues is something to strive for, not to avoid. Yet, read any travel forum, and you'll see the rec league referred to only in derogatory terms.

So back to the impetus for this post, a 15 year-old girl who is a good athlete and was known to be a good teammate, with a good bat, a good arm and a good sense of humor. Retiring for reasons that are unknown. Was it the commitment? Was it parental pressure? How quickly did the joy vanish?

And why?

It's a sad story.

Kids shouldn't be retiring at 15.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Reason for Eagles' Fans to be Optimistic

The team just signed guard Evan Mathis to a 5-year deal.

Why is this significant?

Because over the Reid/Lurie years, the Eagles took a point of view that many players were fungible (depending on what position they played). So, for example, name an all-pro linebacker from the Reid era and you cannot. Likewise, name an all-pro defensive tackle, name all-pro wideouts for most of the McNabb era and so forth. On the one hand, they probably have a wealth of data that tells them when players start to depreciate the same way that companies know that property, plant and equipment depreciate over time. But there's a difference between human capital and machines, and at times when to acknowledge and drive this difference has been a weakness for the Eagles.

Case in point was last season, when the Eagles were so "great" at acquiring big names that they forgot anything about whether there would be any chemistry in the locker room or leaders to help steer the team. Case in point was when they inked Michael Vick to a long-term deal. Talented he is, a leader he does not appear to be. And, if your quarterback is not a leader, you had better have some other good players who can lead. Last season, the Eagles did not seem to have such players; the Giants seemed to have many of them, foremost among them, Justin Tuck. The Eagles, well, they missed the playoffs. The Giants, on the other hand. . .

And look, I'll admit that the Giants had to make hard decision in their off-season by letting go veteran offensive linemen Rich Seubert and Shaun O'Hara. So, it's not as though all teams keep players forever; they don't. But in the Eagles' case, they have assumed so much that certain players are certain positions are fungible that they don't seem to care whether they re-sign or not. Thankfully, they seemed to have altered their course a bit, opting for some continuity on the offensive line, and inked Mathis to a long-term deal.

This might be nothing, it might be a small signal, but it is comforting to a fan to know that there will be more certainty as to who will play on the offensive line after years of many comings and goings.

Now if only the Eagles would do something about their linebacking and defensive line play. . .

Why Should Phillies' Fans Be Optimistic?

This might make me sound like a typical Philadelphia fan, seeing the clouds on a sunny weekend (which it will be), but there hasn't been a lot of good news for this team. Still, the talking heads locally predict a division title and say 95 wins. The national media seem a little more skeptical, but it's hard to see who can really take the title from them in the NL East. All that said, here are the causes for concern.

1. Ryan Howard. Jimmy Rollins offered to ESPN the other day his view that Howard might miss the season. Regardless of his inability to avoid the shift and his streakiness, Howard produces in the middle of the lineup. That said, it has struck me over the past couple of years that he doesn't provide the menacing threat that other big hitters -- Prince Fielder (with his great on-base percentage) and Albert Pujols do. Seems to me that he has become more of the "just another big guy" to try to fool in the clutch. Put differently, he is what he is, and he hasn't adjusted much.

2. Chase Utley. When he signed his long-term deal several years ago, I wondered out lout what it might cost the Phillies to re-sign him when the contract expired in 2013. Now I'm hoping that the Phillies can get anything out of him for the next two years. Utley had the second lowest line-drive rate in the Majors last year (only ahead of Vernon Wells, whose long-term team had become the example of recent long-term errors -- and I am hoping that Howard's does not but fear that it might). He missed a large part of last season and, again, is not the hitting machine that he was several years ago. It's hard to see what he will bring to the club when he comes north except a reputation for pushing himself hard and a record of past accomplishments. The team cannot win on names alone, and the fear is that Utley simply might be through.

3. Roy Halladay. Not a major concern for down, but it doesn't help the optimism cocktail when you read that he gets annoyed from reports that his velocity is down. Then again, he's thirty-five and has a lot of tread on the tires, but, of course, then again, he's pitched masterfully everywhere he's been.

4. Placido Polanco. The Phillies seemingly will suffer the last year of the deal on this thirty-six year-old third baseman's contract. It baffled me a few years ago when they signed the Ancient Mariner, Raul Ibanez, to play left at 36 and then brought along Polanco at 34 when the team (desperately) needed to get younger. Polanco missed a lot of time last year because of injury, and, well, hasn't this become a trend? Cross the thirty-one, thirty-two year-old threshold and seemingly get more injuries (see, e.g., Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins, who it is good to see in a Phillies' uniform as opposed to say, a Red Sox' one).

5. Domonic Brown. The Phillies (desperately) need him to succeed, because if he can fulfill his promise he'll give them a huge stick in the middle of the order, making the losses of Utley's power and Howard less visible. Then again, reports from Clearwater is that while he's built like a better version of Garry Maddox, he looks like Greg Luzinski (the later years) out there in left field. That's not a good sign, but Brown is a linchpin. The Phillies can get younger faster if he can stick in left field.

6. The Farm System. Once vaunted, not in need of rebuilding after they traded almost every prospect for the likes of Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence. There are no position players on the farm worth talking about -- and the name of one former one -- Anthony Gose -- might come back to haunt them for years to come (he was sent to the Astros in the Pence trade and has the makings of a star written all over him). Okay, so you have to give up value to get it, but if the Phillies need help mid-season, there is precious little to trade except more pitching, as there are "Baby Aces" down on the farm. Then again, two-thirds of the prospects you sign are pitchers and most don't pan out, and, as far as I can tell, the results have been mixed for the prospects the Phillies traded over the past several years (where, for example, is the supposedly untouchable Kyle Drabek)? The current downturn of the farm system bodes badly not only for trades, but, more importantly, for replenishing the big club. It seems like only yesterday that the Phillies made room for Rollins, Utley and Howard, but that was almost ten years ago, and there haven't been many good position-playing prospects coming up since then. That hurts.

7. The Cole Hamels' Contract Situation is the Real Litmus Test. The great news for Phillies' fans is that both sides are talking seriously, they are saying all the right things and that Hamels likes the team and the town and wants to stay. If that trend continues, the Phillies will have done a great job firming up the best rotation in baseball. That said, if the Phillies really show their age and falter early (against perhaps the most favorable schedule in the Majors as they are playing -- almost exclusively -- second division clubs in April), then Hamels could have second thoughts. The reason is clear. He's had a lot of fun playing for an elite team that packs the house and goes to the post-season. If he were to see what many might think is a harbinger for several years to come -- a decline -- he might reconsider whether to hitch his expensive wagon to this organization at this time or head elsewhere -- such as back to California and either a rebuilding Dodgers team or, more likely, the increasingly competitive Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

The will not to believe, historians write, is strong and can be why bad things happen in world history while the world watches. I won't give a history lesson here, but I will say that while I find pockets for great optimism -- the starting pitchers, a more experienced bullpen, Shane Victorino (who had an excellent year this year and is playing for a contract), Hunter Pence, John Mayberry, Jr., the re-signing of Rollins and a better bench, the team is older and the lineup no longer scares people. Sure, the pitching can take them far, but the lineup needs to produce, and, as they say in Missouri, "You've got to show me." Last year, an almost also-ran team from that state, which owed its appearance in the post-season to the Phillies' great play against the Braves in the last week of the season, showed the baseball world through its pitching and hitting. The 2012 Phillies need not to rest on their reputation, but to rally their collective mojo and put it all together. They had a great regular-season run in 2011, only to dishonor it by losing their way in the NLDS. What this season will show is whether that disappointment was an aberration, or a telltale sign that the teams in the rearview mirror are even closer than any of us would like to admit.

My prediction: 87 wins and a post-season appearance. What happens after that is hard to predict.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Why We Watch the Tournament, Part II

#15 Lehigh 75 #2 Duke 70.

One of the biggest upsets in college basketball history.

Someone forgot to tell Lehigh coach Brett Reed and star C.J. McCollum that they were supposed to make a good show of it and then lose the game.

What a performance! Just awesome.

Congratulations to Lehigh and Norfolk State for jobs very well done tonight.

Why We Watch the Tournament

#15 Norfolk State 86 #2 Missouri 84.

March Madness, indeed!

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Princeton Women Are Ranked #24 in the Nation

A great accomplishment for Coach Courtney Banghart and her team.

The team heads to Bridgeport, Connecticut as a #9 seed, playing 8th-seeded Kansas State. Win that one, and, in all likelihood, they get a match-up with Connecticut.

That would be a high-class problem to have.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Are the Redskins the NFL"s Version of the Portland Trailblazers or the (old ) Los Angeles Clippers?

So, Dan Snyder tried something different, giving up a bunch of picks for the opportunity to draft Robert Griffin III.

This compels analogies to the Blazers (who ended up picking Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan and Greg Oden over Kevin Durrant) and the Clippers, where high-round draft picks went to perish. You can't say that Snyder hasn't tried things -- he has -- but he also has tried so many things and failed that it makes you wonder why anyone should think that this move should work, as positive as people are on Robert Griffin III (hint: they were positive about Akili Smith, Tim Couch, JeMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf, among others, too).

I recall reading a story once about Art Schlichter, the ill-fated former Ohio State QB whose gambling addiction has ruined a once-promising life. The story was that Schlichter kept on better on football and losing, prompting his bookie to suggest the following:

Bookie: "Listen, you've lost 20 bets on football games in a row. Why don't you try something else, like basketball?"

Art (somewhat protesting): "But I don't know anything about basketball."

Look, few would argue that you do not need a good signal caller to win. And Griffin is a very impressive quarterback and person. I wish him all the success in the world, even if his likely new team plays in the same division as my hometown team. That said, the Redskins have been to their free agents what the Sports Illustrated jinx has been to teams who are going well.

Something just tells me that under Dan Snyder, things won't go well in the nation's capital. Perhaps he should try buying the Wizards, even if he doesn't know anything about basketball.

Live at the Wells Fargo Center -- 76ers 104, Jazz 91

Had a rare Friday night to sit at center court about half way up in the first level to watch this game, and have the following observations from a solid 76ers' win:

1. Under Doug Collins, the 76ers play with great effort and energy. He sets a good tone for the team, as do its leaders, and the players play hard to try to keep up with each other.

2. Utah's defense made it difficult for the 76ers' Andre Iguodala to get shots, so as with any good player, he improvised, scoring a double-double -- 10 points and 10 rebounds.

3. The Jazz have no guards. They have some bigs who are intriguing -- Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter (who is huge) -- but they have zero in the backcourt. Devin Harris looked lost, Earl Watson is outmatched, Raja Bell is past his prime, and Gordon Hayward is intriguing but is not as athletically gifted as many others out there. He had a good night, but it was a good night for a flawed team that needs more oomph from the PG position.

4. The player who struck me as having the highest ceiling out there last night was Favors. He is a large, strong guy, had some great moves inside. I know that he disappointed last year, but the 76ers had no answer for him inside. That said, the 76ers' problem is a lack of big, physical big men, so my measuring stick is imperfect.

5. It's hard to see how Doug Collins' current dalliance with Evan Turner as the PG will work in the long-run, given that they have a good-sized PG in Jrue Holliday (6'4"), who, especially if he can cut down on the turnovers (and not dribble between two defenders and give up the ball), seems to be the PG of the future. Then again, perhaps the organization is showcasing turner and working very hard behind the scenes to score Dwight Howard in a trade. Josh Harris, the 76ers' owner, has worked in the cut-throat world of deal-making for over 20 years, and he didn't buy the team to be an also-ran to a Russian oligarchs' Brooklyn Nets or the goofball Dolan family's Knicks. He looks like a nice guy, especially with all his kids sitting near him court side, but this guy plays to win. And, the 76ers have a bunch of intriguing players who they can give up in a trade.

Still, while Turner gave a good effort he doesn't seem to have the explosiveness of a Holliday and had trouble -- to me -- demonstrating an ability to penetrate the way Holliday can. That said, his length at the point (the 76ers announce him as 6'7" is intriguing).

6. You gotta love the 76ers' bench duo of Lou Williams (who is so smooth) and Thaddeus Young, who could be the most underrated player in the league (Young was +21 last night, Williams +18, and those plus/minus numbers were far better than any other 76ers last night and telltale of the difference they made in the game).

A small forward cannot guard Thad, and the bigs have trouble staying with him. He's a battler inside, and he just makes things happens with a hoops IQ that seems off the charts. As for Williams, well, he's terrific at creating space, and in the NBA space can be defined as creating a 6-inch window in which to get off your shot. Both played more than half the game last night, and both scored in double digits. That's the thing about the 76ers -- they get balanced scoring from the entire team and don't rely upon one guy. That said, they don't have the go-to guy who can bring it home routinely when the game's on the line, although I would say that Williams is an offensive force.

7. Jodie Meeks, the two guard whom the team acquired last year, seems to have fallen into irrelevance, and rookie surprise Lavoy Allen only played a minute last night. Then again, it's a grueling season, so it make me wonder how the team rations minutes with five games in a week. Some guys might flat-out get tired, although in Allen's case he's battling fellow rookie Nick Vucevic for minutes. Vucevic looked pretty good on the glass last night.

8. It was great to hear the "10-9-8-76ers" song from years past, but I still don't get the concept of the dancing girls, and it's gotten worse. Somehow, the team strips (pun intended) itself of its dignity by having its "dancers" and then "junior dancers" and then "little girl" dancers. That and the young men who jump on trampolines to dunk the ball after the third quarter all cheapen the overall product, which should be about compelling basketball. Sorry, but I could imagine the look on Bill Russell's face if he saw this hijinks going on while he was en route to leading the Celtics to another title (then again, Wilt Chamberlain might have enjoyed it).

9. The 76ers might have sold 18,000+ tickets for the game, but the arena didn't seem to have that many people in it.

All that said, this is a fun team to watch, and could it have been that the team was showcasing Evan Turner for a trade involving say another player (Young?) and some picks for Dwight Howard?

76ers' owner Josh Harris had made many successful bets in his career. Don't wager against him here.

Book Review: "Out of My League" by Dirk Hayhurst

Sports books are an interesting genre. There aren't all that many of them, I don't think that they particularly sell all that well, and we all have our favorites. It just that they don't come around all that often.

I recall fondly Jerry Kramer's "Instant Replay," about life on the Vince Lombardi-led Packers in the 1960's, "Ball Four," Jim Bouton's M*SH-like tell-all about life on the woeful Seattle Pilots (now the Milwaukee Brewers), and Lawrence S. Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times," a delightful oral history of baseball played at the turn of the 20th century. And then there's Buzz Bissinger's "Friday Night Lights," about high-school football in western Texas, a compelling story about how football can dominate a local culture, and many others that you can find if you Google "SportsProf" and "book review" or my holiday shopping list from many years ago.

Hayhurst wrote "Bullpen Gospels," about his trials as a minor-league pitcher in the San Diego Padres organization. He brings a unique device to his craft -- he avoids the potential fallout from "Ball Four" and the wrath of teammates and organizations by changing names and making up composite characters, all the while mentioning some real-life people as well. I don't know whether baseball nerds are now going back to the Padres' records in the 2005-2008 time frame to try to figure out -- using whatever cryptographic devices are available -- who was who, but that really doesn't matter all that much. What matters, particularly in this book, is what a great story Hayhurst has to tell about what baseball life is really life for most of the elite athletes who rise as high as to have a chance to make the Majors.

Most do not have the lives of the stars about whom we read every day. Most do not have the shortest road -- bonus baby, minor-league success, fast path to the Majors and a long career. For every Trevor Hoffman there are dozens of minor-league relievers hoping to climb the ladder, one minor-league level at a time, get noticed, and then, after they string together many good performances, perhaps get put on the every-so-important (but little understood) 40-man roster and make "The Show." Hayhurst is the everyman, the player who excelled in high school, pitched in college (albeit at a cold-weather school) and then struggled to define himself as unique and indispensable among a bunch of players with similar backgrounds -- competitive young men who enjoyed much success during their young lives, only to face a brutally Darwinistic process in which most of them would fail to achieve their dream -- The Show.

What Hayhurst reveals is the human side to the journey, family issues, trying to live a good life, trying to have a relationship, trying to invent the Garfoose (read the book and you'll understand), and dealing with early wake-up calls, low minor-league wages, bad nutrition, questionable accommodations and dealing with good outings and bad. For anyone who has worked in a situation where you're competing to get to the next level -- whether it be a baseball team or a law firm -- you also can find yourself in an interesting situation, where you rely upon the comradery of your teammates but, at the same time, realize that when they slip or fail that creates and opportunity for you. And, as with any organization, there are terrific people and absolute nut cases. And there are also pecking orders and unwritten rules that you had better know.

Hayhurst has a gift of making you become him, feel his pain and his sorrow, want to jump into the narrative and either root for him or, at times, shake him and tell him perhaps that he shouldn't go to the "dark place" (my term) after a particularly bad outing. You like him because he's real, get annoyed with him at times because of intermittent self-absorption (which you can understand completely if you've ever been in a similar situation), want to jump into the book to root for him and, at times, live and die with every outing. That said, what you also realize is that all that glitters is not gold, and that the life of a professional athlete, particularly the ones on the way up and not sure of their future, is not the most relaxing way to spend one's time. What it also makes you appreciate is how hard it is to get to the Majors and how much special talent -- physically and mentally -- players in the big leagues have.

The writer seems to be a terrific guy -- self-aware, kind, bright and determined. I have no way of verifying that, of course, except to say that the honesty with which he writes is refreshing and not designed to paint him in a positive light. He is human, he errs, he loses his cool, a reflection of an elite performer succumbing to the pressures that many do not understand but that exist in most people. Think it's easy to pitch in front of 45,000 people, or to pitch when the brass are in the stands reviewing the talent on the team? Or to be a professional athlete when spending an entire season sleeping in a sleeping bag?

For anyone with ambition, for anyone who's tried to climb the ladder, for anyone who is coaching anyone who is trying to do that or trying to be supportive of that person, for anyone who wants to know what it's like -- "Out of My League" is a great book that teaches many lessons.

Because for most of us, our journey is like that of Dirk Hayhurst, a relatively anonymous baseball player trying to get ahead.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

At Jadwin Last Night -- Princeton 62 Penn 52

You start sounding like an old, grouchy alum when you say, "well, things aren't the way they used to be -- and they were better then." Well, I hope that's not the case, but last night's Penn-Princeton game at Jadwin did have some meaning to it, and yet the game wasn't a sellout and the atmosphere wasn't quite as intense as way back when. In fairness, Princeton was playing for pride and for its seniors, who were playing their last home game. Those stakes, however, pale in comparison to what the old grads remember -- that the games meant the Ivy title, period. There weren't any interlopers like Cornell or Harvard then, just Penn and Princeton, vying for the title. It wasn't that way last night, and the fans had to settle for the proverbial half a loaf.

I don't have the time to link to the game coverage in the Philadelphia Inquirer (or Mike Jensen's piece in the same paper), but here are a few observations:

1. Penn was, well, flat. It was as though every Penn player not named Zack Rosen was waiting for Zack Rosen to pull another Harry Potter-like act out of his bag of tricks and will Penn to victory singlehandedly. His teammate and good friend, Rob Belcore, said as much in Jensen's column. Put frankly, save the efforts of Belcore and soph center Fran Dougherty (and occasionally Miles Cartwright), the Penn team looked relatively absent, especially on offense. Penn's coach, Jerome Allen, was frustrated, too, and was quoted as saying that the team without anything to play for showed more energy than the team with everything to play for. While I understand his feelings, and he's being honest, as a coach he might have been better off saying, "Gee, we didn't show the energy we needed tonight to win, and I take full responsibility for not preparing my team well enough to put them in a position to win."

2. Rosen had an un-Rosen-like night, taking 24 shots to get his 19 points and not getting to the foul line once. Ask most coaches, and they'll tell you that if you can force the other team's best player to take 24 shots to get 19 points, your team (and not his) should be in pretty good shape. Rosen worked his butt off to get difficult shots, and he also was forced into taking some bad ones. Credit Princeton's stifling defense, which a) forced the southpaw Rosen to go right, b) switched well, and c) used its length to disrupt the passing lanes. Douglas Davis, T.J. Bray and Jimmy Sherburne all hounded Rosen, and in the short time out there, I thought that the soph Sherburne did the best job on Rosen. Also, Rosen did not get to the foul line once last night -- further evidence of how difficult Princeton made it for him last night. He's a great player, but he did not have a great game last night, and Penn especially needed one from him.

3. Princeton played with a lot of energy, although somehow the sight of the junior center Brandon Connelly doing his Kareem Maddox imitation failed to impress. At the beginning of the second half, when Penn started to make a run, we saw Connelly do his back into the paint work and miss a short shot, only to have Penn covert on the other end. While Connelly has improved much while at Princeton, the ball is better off in the hands of others, particularly the likes of junior forward Ian Hummer (who was the star of the game, with his energy, his offense, his defense and his passing) and Davis.

4. As for the future, while Princeton will miss Davis, it has many good players returning, among them Hummer, Bray, freshman Denton Koon and many others who give Princeton the tallest and rangiest team in the league. As for Penn, they'll miss Rosen terribly, but they'll have Cartwright and Dougherty back. Senior sharpshooter Tyler Bernardini wasn't a factor last night, and they'll miss both him and Rob Belcore, who had a very good game. I don't know who is having what type of recruiting year, but that's for another post and another time.

5. Another factoid: Princeton honored its women's team at halftime. Over the past 3 years, they were 41-1 in the Ivies. This year they were 14-0 and won 12 of their 14 league games by 25 points or more. The Harvard men might be getting all the hype, but it says here that relatively speaking, the Princeton women are better. Yes, of course, I am a partisan.

6. I am sure that the Harvard team was whooping it up in Cambridge, and congratulations to them. That said, I would have preferred a Penn appearance in the Big Dance over a Harvard one (assuming Princeton wasn't good enough to go), but not at the expense of a Princeton loss in Jadwin last night.

Great end to the season for Princeton -- the second year in a row they've knocked someone out of a chance for the NCAA tournament, albeit not as sweet as last year, when their win put them in. Tough end of the season for a great program at Penn, a great kid in Zack Rosen and a good coach in Jerome Allen.

Here's to hoping that in future years, both Jadwin and the Palestra will be packed, both teams will be the top two in the Ivies, and the rivalry will resume with all its intensity. Both Penn and Princeton need each other to be good in order to make the rivalry what it once was.

And, yes, good luck to Harvard as the Ivy representative in the NCAA tournament. And good luck to the Princeton women, too.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Shane Victorino

I tried to write a witty headline, I really did, but his statement today that he wants a 5-year contract prompted many reactions.

Among them:

1. Jimmy Rollins, a former MVP, "only" got a 3-year deal, and constructively, is better at his position than Victorino is at his, so why should the 32 year-old centerfielder get a five-year deal?

2. Doesn't he remember that Aaron Rowand wanted a 5-year deal many years ago, and left because he got a 5-year, $60 million deal, only to stink the joint out in SF. (The deal was very good for Rowand, who has been a huge bust, and it got him a World Series ring even though he had very little to do with the Giants' success)? Based upon that scenario, why would the Phillies opt to make that type of mistake when they avoided it in 2007? In fairness to Victorino, the Phillies had him waiting in the wings to take over, thus making Rowand expendable. It's hard to see who they have waiting in the wings to take over for Victorino, unless they were to move John Mayberry to CF, which could be a possibility.

3. Victorino is injury-prone, and, as he ages, he's likely to break down more. So, an investment in an aging CF for five years might not be wise.

4. Are you kidding me?

Look, the Phillies want to avoid the luxury tax and they need to get younger. The bet here is that a) they'll spend all their energy to re-ink Cole Hamels, b) they'll find a younger replacement at third and (finally) a 3B who can hit with power, and c) they're probably (anxiously) awaiting what to do with Chase Utley, whose contract expires at the end of 2013. Two years ago, I worried about how much the Phillies might have to pay to re-up Utley in 2013. Now I'm worried that he'll be a liability for two full seasons (as his line-drive rate in 2011 was the second-lower in the Majors -- behind Vernon Wells).

It's hard to see the core group from 2008 age, but the age has been showing. The OF is now younger, but the IF and C are aging, and Hamels at 28 makes sense for a long-term deal. But resigning Victorino would mean that the team would hope that somehow each and every over-32 player could defy the aging process, and they just will not be able to.

I like Shane Victorino a great deal and have appreciated his contributions very much. He's positive, he has great energy, he has a solid track record of achievement, and he's a key part of the team's success. But it could well be that he'll get big bucks from a team on the verge of contending before he gets it from a team that, above all else, cannot get any older.

A five-year deal just would not make any sense for the Phillies, great, past contributions or not.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

UCLA Basketball -- What Has Been Going On?

George Dohrmann, whose wonderful book about the troubling, depressing, and sometimes explotiative world of grass-roots basketball in California I wrote about here, wrote a piece in this week's Sports Illustrated that slams the UCLA basketball program for letting entitled high school stars run amok, for Coach's Ben Howland not holding them accountable, and, generally, for a recent demise of the program despite all-universe recruiting classes. I can't link to the article, but it's worthy of reading. Predictably, UCLA disputes Dohrmann's article and is closing ranks around Howland. You can read that piece in the Los Angeles Times here.

I have a few observations:

1. Not all all-world recruits come off badly in Dohrmann's article.

2. Howland comes off badly, as either abusive to his staff and student managers or aloof from his players, opting to let them enforce their own rules. It's a strange portrayal of someone who "manages up" well in corporate parlance, as he always seems to appear on the right media venues and has been a frequent guest on, for example, "Mike & Mike in the Morning" on ESPN Radio. Now, maybe we hear the real Howland with Greenberg and Golic, maybe we don't, so it's up to you to decide. Typically, what we see when people have their make-up on and are on stage differs from rehearsals and when we see them backstage. Translated, that means that no one is as perfect as he might seem when either rehearsed or relaxed.

3. Some all-world recruits come across as spoiled kids, juvenile delinquents, undisciplined or entitled or a combination of all of the above. That makes you wonder whether each and every major college coach has a sufficient amount of control over his program. Or, are the real puppet-masters the people who control the grass-roots and AAU teams that Dorhmann painted a gloomy picture of in his book? The ramifications of the answer to that question are that the grass-roots guys know that they can influence kids to do all sorts of things in exchange for unquestioned playing time, such as transfer to a rival school. So, for example, if Reeves Nelson was a sacred cow for the guys who sponsored his AAU program, David and Dana Pump (of whom Dohrmann has written extensiely), does that mean that Howland felt obligated to give him special treatment or risk damaging his pipeline of California talent, because according to Dohrmann, the Pumps are significant power brokers at the grass roots level? Don't underestimate the potential for that to have happened, as it seems like the AAU coaches have much more influence over kids than their high school coaches do.

4. What would you do when faced with the conundrum of maintaining your job, salary and lifestyle at the prestigious, historic UCLA program by allowing if not condoninng or embracing the petty corruptions that seem to cause even initially the most moral of men to bend if not cross the line by embracing these self-appointed power brokers and then letting the behaviors of the stars slide and accumulate, or, alternatively, take a hard stand, hold kids accountable, shape and mold them, and occasionally kick a kid off the team because he believes that the rules do not or should not apply to him because, well, he played for an elite AAU team in Southern California and had the impression that he was en route to the NBA and that he didn't need much coaching, just the opportunity to showcase and put the finishing gloss on his abilities at the next level?

The irony, of course, is that by seemingly not instilling the discipline that the winning programs seem to have, Howland might have jeopardized his trademark, if not his standing at UCLA, by allowing this to go on. So, if he overlooked things to protect his recruiting pipeline, then he might have damaged his future precisely because the talent from that timeline wouldn't do what it takes to win. In contrast, if he instilled more discipline, some of the most entitled recruits would have taken their games elsewhere, thereby damaging Howland's reputation with the AAU coaches and causing the best home-grown talent to go elsewhere. Mollify the talent, lose games. Adhere to time-honored coaching and leadership standards, jeopardize the pipeline of talent and at least fear that you will not win games. It's not an easy choice, given how great the pressure is to win.

UCLA doesn't agree with Dorhmann's portrayal, and that's to be expected. They have to protect their trademark, their brand. That said, certain numbers do not lie -- the players ultimately dismissed, those who transferred, and disappointing won-loss records given the available talent. That seems to suggest that all is not right in Westwood and has not been at some time, whether people like Ben Howland or not.

In business, leaders discuss a "root-cause analysis" for failures. I frequently subscribe to "Occam's Razor," which suggests that the simplest solution is the best one. To me, the root cause of some of the evils in major college basketball is the grass-roots system, which distorts reality for the most gifted players at a young age and creates a self-image of invincibility and unaccountability. The best players ask for feedback, work harder, work to make their teammates better and set a great example. All coaches should remember that. It seems, at least for a while, that Ben Howland might have forgotten that, so instead of molding a team of stars together, he had a roster of big names that failed to shine.

This, too, shall pass, for UCLA and for Ben Howland. It's a shame that such problems befell a historic program, a seeemingly decent guy in Ben Howland and the players themselves, who should be forgiven because they were just kids at the time. It seems that UCLA is more toward solving its problems than before, but a good lesson should be learned -- coaches and leaders should teach and lead the kids, not use them for their own purposes and gain (and that particularly goes for those who run AAU programs). If everyone remembers that they are there to develop young men into better men, stuff like this won't go on.

Sure, you might have to boot a promising player from the team, suspend him or encourage him to transfer because he will not be happy in your program. But the earlier you do it, the better, as you'll be helping your program and the player at the same time, and, importantly, early enough on for both to rebound.