(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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Friday, May 12, 2017

Popovich the Great

Spurs lose their point guard.

Spurs lose their best player. 

That player is one of the top 5 in the NBA.

They have Game 6 on the road in Houston.

Spurs win by 39, clinch series.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Confounding Sports Issues

1.  Professional baseball has been around for more than 100 years and pitchers seem to be getting hurt with increasing frequency.  You would think that with all the data that is generated that someone will map the movements of successful and injury-free pitchers and either draft for that profile or teach people what those with successful and injury-free careers do in terms of diet, exercise, sleep and motion.  Wouldn't you?

2.  The NFL draft has been around for a long time, too, and teams continue to find ways not to get it right.  Isn't there a football version of Nate Silver out there who could help a team get it right?

3.  College basketball programs still go for the "one and done" kids, but it seems harder for teams populated with them -- Duke and Kentucky and perhaps Kansas -- to win the NCAA title.  So would they consider the profile of the players they recruit?

4.  MLB has thirty teams, and that can make scheduling tricky.  The question is, are there cities where they might expand, if so, what are they?

5.  The NFL remains the most popular spectator sport in the U.S., even as more veteran players announce that they have serious health issues.  And those are the ones that we know about, as there must be some/many who suffer in silence in order to protect their privacy.  Will fan interest drop off over time over the guilt of knowing that you are watching a sport that can ruin the health of many of its players for life?  Shouldn't the fans worry about that and what it says about them?

6.  College players in men's basketball and football at many programs (and in some cases ice hockey and women's basketball) generate a lot of revenue for their schools (yes, even if 80% of DI football programs and/or athletic departments lose money).  Football players take great risks with respect to their health.  When will the time come when they get paid for their efforts beyond a scholarship and room and board? 

7.  MLB's average fan is 55 years old, and the games take a long time to complete, about 3:15.  I have been to two minor league games over the past two summers that ended in about 2:00.  The reasons -- a pitch clock and an "in between" innings clock.  When will MLB adopted both and make baseball more bearable to watch again?

8.  College basketball is very popular.  Yet, each coach gets about as many time outs as Elizabeth Taylor had husbands and the clock stops every four minutes for a media timeout.  What used to be a compelling product is almost unwatchable.  Basketball was not designed for the players to huddle every four minutes; basketball was designed to keep players moving.  Can the NCAA and the big networks who play for broadcast rights do something to make the games more watchable again? 

9.  The NBA has a lot of pizzazz, it really does.  Yet, the regular season seems endless, and then the playoffs do.  The regular season doesn't decided a whole lot after 55 games or so.  Assuming that's the case, can the NBA avoid the resting of players by cutting the season by a third and beginning the playoffs earlier?  Scarcity can do wonders for a good product -- it can make it even more popular.  No one wants to watch two twenty-win teams battle in March.

10.  When will the MLS take its next big step?  Can it, given the big bucks that Chinese teams are throwing at international stars.  The league puts on a good product, just not a great one.  It might never be the English Premier League, but could it rival another one of the top leagues?   Ever?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Phillies and Clay Buchholz: The Folly of Signing a Veteran with A Lot of Tread on His Tires

Signing Clay Buchholz to fill a hole in their rotation was a no brainer for the Phillies, or so they made it seem.  After all, he once was one of the top starters for the Boston Red Sox, the very-much-better-than-the-Phillies Boston Red Sox, and, heck, at 32 he should have something left and could well benefit from a change of scenery.  So, the team inked him to a one-year, $13.5 million deal with the hope that he could win double digits, eat innings and perhaps pitch well enough by mid-season that he would bring a prospect or two in a trade with a contender.  Sounds reasonable? 

Or not?

Well, Buchholz suffered a forearm injury in a start the other night, his second of the year, and he is out for the year.  $13.5 million for two lousy starts and a 12.27 ERA.  Tough luck?

Or not?

Read this article and then let's talk.  The argument here is that the Phillies, had they done better and more modern due diligence, could have predicted this injury and avoided the investment. 

Now, I don't know what the Phillies did in evaluating Buchholz.  Presumably, they brought him in, gave him a fitness test, tested his flexibility, evaluated old injuries and looked at film on him.  No, not tape of past games, but x-rays and MRIs, particularly on past problem areas.  And then they pronounced him fit.  Sounds reasonable?

Or not?

What if there are other ways to evaluate players?  Such as. . . looking at a succession of recent film of them in their workouts and in games and assessing what they do in workouts, all with a view of predicting whether what they do puts undo emphasis on a certain muscle group.  And, if an exercise regimen is not put in place to address that issue, the player will suffer an injury.  A classic example is former NBA player Grant Hill.  Injuries to an ankle plagued his career, so much so that he went to an advanced performance institute in California for an evaluation.  As the story goes, the way Hill moved and worked out affected his hips, and that effort ended up putting undue stress on the ankle he kept on injuring.  The institute prescribed a different workout regiment to address Hill's problem, and in the ensuing five years he missed only five games with the Suns, and none because of the ankle injury that had affected him previously. 

I understand the theory that "no one washes a rental car," but at $13.5 million for a year Buchholz was going to be a pricey rental.  And it's not that he had a ton of suitors.  Wouldn't it have made sense, then, for the Phillies to run him through the type of evaluation I described?  It could have evaluated Buchholz and anticipated this type of problem.  Or, did the Phillies believe that at $13.5 million Buchholz was an acceptable risk and that they have enough starters in the minors who could rise to the occasion should Buchholz get hurt?  But if that were the case, then why spend all that money on Buchholz?  The answer -- clearly, they want the minor leaguers to get more seasoning.

Fast forward to potential free agents, where you would want to perform this evaluation to protect your investment and to ensure that you can get the most out of  the player.  It stands to reason that a hot free agent might not agree to such scrutiny out of a (probably irrational) risk that the tests would uncover something career threatening.  Besides, free agency is an exercise in supply and demand.  The hottest free agents will get the least amount of scrutiny because, well, they're in short supply.

But is the problem statement all backwards.  Shouldn't MLB want to do this anyway?  Shouldn't the players' union advocate for this?  Players could get the best advice on fitness and excellence and that advice would benefit everyone, including the fans, who get tired of seeing pitchers break down year after year.  If I were a player, I would get this type of evaluation to help my performance.  Imagine the nagging injuries going away.  Imagine doing targeted exercises to improve muscle groups that can help avoid injury, precisely because of the player's anatomy and movements.  Sounds too good to be true, except that it is not.

So the Phillies now will have a not-completely-ready-for-prime-time starter come up to the big leagues to replace Clay Buchholz in the rotation.  The sad fact is that the Phillies could have avoided the problem altogether.

And they are not alone.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Which Records Will Not Be Broken?

Every time a significant record gets broken, discussions ensue.  Russell Westbrook broke Oscar Robertson's record for triple-doubles in a season, so the talked move onto other records.  So, I'll submit to you, will the following be broken:

1.  Cy Young's 511 wins in baseball.

2.  Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.

3.  Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game.

4.  Wilt Chamberlain's 55-rebound game.

5.  Wilt Chamberlain's averaging over 50 points in a season.

6.  Byron Nelson's 11 straight wins on the PGA tour.

7.  Nolan Ryan's 7 no-hitters.

The list, of course, is endless.  Some sports' records are more memorable and more conversation-worthy than others.  Football stats, for some reason, don't carry as much interest in the conversation of sports fans.  Hockey stats don't transcend hockey fans.  But basketball stats -- in some measure because of the Herculean accomplishments of Wilt Chamberlain -- do.  And baseball has been made for stats since it began, only to undergo a revolution that made it even more made for stats, the difference being the first wave of stats was the equivalent of a photograph and the current wave is the equivalent of an x-ray. 

Let the discussion ensue.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

In Memoriam -- Wayne Hardin

You might not remember his name.  But you probably do if you rooted for Navy with Heisman winners Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino or Temple with some greats that included Joe Klecko or Penn State, whose teams in the late 1970's Hardin's Temple Owls tormented, losing two close ones, a one-point loss at Franklin Field and a three-point loss at Veterans Stadium where Temple had the ball late in a tie game only to caught it up and lose very late on a field goal by one of the Bahr brothers.  This was a game where Hardin leveraged every advantage he had, including having his nation-leading punter Casey Murphy punt on third down to keep the Nittany Lions deep in their own part of the field for a significant portion of the game.  But for that fumble, the strategy could well have led to a very sweet Temple win.

Wayne Hardin died today at 91.

It was Hardin who innovated, who elevated Temple's schedule, who engineered some outstanding seasons with talent that the linked obituary references.  He prepared for a home game against powerful West Virginia by having his players practice carrying him off the field after they won the game.  Big underdogs, they smoked the Mountaineers at the old Temple Stadium in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia off Cheltenham Avenue.  He once deployed a "relief pitcher" strategy for his Maxwell Award winning quarterback, Steve Joachim, occasionally pulling him for a talented back-up, Marty Ginestra. 

His teams played hard, his teams executed, and his teams won a lot more than they lost.  It took decades to bring the program back to prominence.  Sure, a young former Alabama assistant named Bruce Arians made a go of it right after Hardin left in the early 1980's, but even the very promising Arians struggled and a whole host of successors did the same, some mightily.  It took the hiring of former Penn State player and assistant Al Golden a decade back to begin the turnaround; the Owls have been pretty darned good ever since.

I went to a lot of the games that Hardin coached; the Owls were in almost every one of them.  The team was fun to watch.  I'm sure Coach Hardin appreciated the turnaround on North Broad Street and at the Linc very much and probably jumped for joy when the Owls took it to Penn State two years ago.  He is in the College Football Hall of Fame, and Temple was fortunate to have him for a good part of his career.

May he rest in peace.

Guess Which Team is Baseball's Most Profitable Franchise?

I'll give you five guesses. 

Let's start with some of the bellwethers. . .  New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.  The first four are rather obvious, and, well, the Cardinals just do it about as well as anyone and have done so for a long time.

All are wrong.  Want five more guesses?  Sure, you got 'em. 

New York Mets, San Francisco Giants, Washington Nationals, Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers. 

All are wrong, too.  I put those five in there because I figured that either the size of the city or recent success might figure into profitability.  Or demography, in terms of how large the city is.  You'd be closer there.

The answer, as it turns out, or at least according to one of the best chroniclers of American wealth, Forbes, is the Philadelphia Phillies.  That's right, the team that won it all in 2008, lost in the World Series in 2009, lost in the NLCS in 2010, lost in the NLDS in 2011, was about .500 in 2012 and has been a bit like the shopping cart sliding off the side of the mountain over the past five years (including last night, where they lost 14-4 to the Mets at home, gave up 7 HRs and only put pitchers on the mound whose ERAs exceeded 10).  This means that the Phillies have more operating income than any other team in the majors.

Of course, for the wealthy and rich and famous, winning does count for something.  I'm cure Cubs fans are thrilled with their World Series and could care less about the club's profitability.  That's not to say that their owners would tolerate a huge money loser -- who would or could -- but that they do want to spend money wisely because of two principles -- 1) you can't buy excellence, but you must pay for it and 2) the analytics show that the top teams also are among those who have the top payrolls.  The Phillies haven't tried to buy excellence (in terms of free agents) in quite some time and haven't paid for it in recent years, either, preferring to let big contracts expire without committing to new, big contracts.  As a result, their pitching staff is patchwork, their bullpen is an amalgamation of loose parts, and their lineup is waiting on the prospects down on the farm to deliver. 

What they benefit from is a loyal fan base, a fun ballpark to attend and a large enough demographic to support the team, along with a good TV/radio contract.  Now that this news is out, I'm sure that the sports talk radio hosts are having a field day with it and the fans will become more impatient for progress.  The key for the team know is whether their alleged cornucopia of prospects really bears any fruit. 

The news has to hurt Phillies' fans, as 2008 and the magic that was that season was not that long ago.  But some bad strategy in the front office -- ignoring analytics and letting the roster age without a plan to infuse the team quickly with younger talent -- led to the place where they are now -- one of the bottom third of all teams in the Majors. 

It's good that the team is showing a good profit. 

They now will need to invest that money in the talent to be a good team, one that can contend.

If they do not, the fans will ensure that the profitability drops.

And then they won't be atop any lists.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Daryl Morey is Right

I've blogged about this point from time to time over the years, with the question being:  what is the purpose of having such a long regular season if so many teams make the playoffs?  I like that question, but there are others that are better.  Including in that group are the following:  1) how many games does it really take to differentiate among the teams and 2) if you cut the season in two, would the teams with the records that slot into the playoffs differ from the roster of teams after a full season?

The first question is as much rhetorical as anything else, but the NBA has a credibility problem because of Gregg Popovich's innovative brain.  Needless to say, if you can rest players, the season is too long because you do not care if you lose a particular game when the stars are resting.  Atop that, the advertisers and networks cannot be happy when their Saturday night marquis match-up is missing both teams' top three players (as happened recently).  The second question is something that your average mathlete can solve with the right data.  My guess is that a number between 50 and 60 as opposed to the current 82 might make sense.  You could spread games out a bit more, not have back-to-back games, build in more rest, make the games, well, scarcer.  Whether fans would be willing to pay say 1.5x the face value of a current ticket price if you reduce the number of games from 82 to 55 is an open question, however.  My guess is for some games, absolutely.  As for the last question above, Mike Greenberg of ESPN Radio asked and answered it this morning on his radio show.  Apparently, this year only two teams that would have made the playoffs on January 31 are not making the playoffs right now.  Perhaps the order of the teams in the standings is different, but the cream of the crop distinguished itself well before the All-Star break.

Atop that, there have to be all sorts of analytics that support a shortened season, including lengthening a player's career because he will have to take less pounding on his limbs as he runs down a wood floor that is positioned atop cement.  The playoffs could start earlier and be better (no, I would not take more teams).  The TV ratings will improve because each incremental regular season game means more. 

This would be a gutsy decision, akin to the government's repealing reams of statutes.  Why?  Because why governments are usually best at passing laws, they aren't so great at refining them or removing them.  Old laws remain on the books and sometimes can be used to prosecute people in ways that were long since forgotten.  That said, why is it against any rule -- written or unwritten -- that a sports league cannot shorten a season?  (Some leagues should also consider eliminating a few franchises).  That would be a courageous decision for the NBA and could also open up the possibility of international expansion.  For example, you could put a team in London, perhaps one in Madrid, Paris or Barcenlona.  Eastern teams could take a trip to Western Europe; Western teams could take a loop through Tokyo and Shanghai, for example.  The possibilities are endless.

Daryl Morey has been very successful as a GM and recently spoke out on the subject.  You can read what he said here.  He also is a very smart guy.

People should listen to him.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Ruminations on a Middle-Aged Man's Diet and Exercise Program, Part I

I lost a bunch of weight about 15 years ago, only to gain it back incrementally when I told myself that eating ice cream with the kids wasn't so bad and that I could keep it off if I wanted to.  The problem was that once you ate a little, you started to eat more.  And then your life was so pediatric in nature that juggling spousehood, parenthood and work was too much to provide time to exercise.  To stay awake, you ate foods to sustain you, usually of the variety that tasted much better than they offered nutritional value.  I also lost a bunch of weight several years back, but suffered a few injuries that prevented me from exercising, and, yes, the incremental eating came back.  Mind you, I tried, but I didn't have a nutritionist, coach, workout partner, healthcare professional or anyone helping me. 

I was tired at the end of 2015, stiff, out of shape and weighing about 25 pounds more than I thought I should.  I contemplated what to do next.  I have a membership to a good gym, and I also have some good equipment to work out with at home.  I went on line and read, enough at least to find a good diet app at the Mayo Clinic and to watch my portions and habits.  It's been over a year since I started, and I'm down 25 pounds and in very good shape.  I still have about 8 to go to get to my dream weight, and the final pounds are the hardest to lose and keep off.  Especially when you need to socialize and are a foodie at heart. 

So what did I do? 

First, I did the right things diet-wise.  I didn't go on a gimmicky diet.  But I did cut down on fried food, sweets and red wine.  I found that getting processed sugar mostly out of my diet, along with the alcohol, made me feel more relaxed and enabled me to sleep better at night.  I also made sure that I ate plenty of fruits and vegetables; my daughter remarked that within the past 15 months she's seen me eat more fruit than she had during the time she's been on this earth.  Typically, that can mean berries at breakfast, a banana with lunch, an orange or apple in the afternoon and some melon at night.  Four servings, perhaps five, all good.  I'll touch more upon the diet later.

As for exercise, as it turned out, I wasn't doing a great job of it.  I did a lot of cardio and some stretching, but no weight training.  By a lot of cardio I mean either 30 minutes on a rowing machine and then 20 minutes of a fixed bike.  But I went at it either leisurely or very hard; no in between.  I lost some weight because per the Mayo Clinic app I cut down on my portions and what I was eating.  That was good.  Then I went for a comprehensive physical.

As it turned out, I was doing too much cardio, not enough weights, not enough stretching, and not the right type of cardio.  So, I adjusted my exercise program to start out with a few minutes of cardio to get the blood pumping, a solid stretching routine focusing on core exercises (I pulled a few exercises from a yoga class I had attended), and then interval work on a fixed bike or on the rowing machine.  I worked out with a medicine ball and resistance bands, then lifted weights at the gym and did pushups at home.  The goal was to take weight away from the midsection and to elevate it to the chest muscles.  That coaching session with a personal trainer -- came with the comprehensive physical -- put my workouts on a good course.

As for the diet, I'll offer the following (all geared to try to eat about 1800 calories a day):

Breakfast -- nonfat yogurt with cinnamon, with a portion of flax flakes and a portion of low-sugar granola mixed in.  A portion or two of berries.  Water.

Work -- decaf coffee or green tea, drink more water.

Lunch -- salad with veggies, chick peas from the salad bar at a local supermarket, low-cal dressing.  A piece of fruit.

Snack mid-afternoon -- piece of fruit.

Dinner -- some protein (fish, chicken mostly), perhaps more salad and then steamed vegetables.  Also a change for a sweet potato every now and then, a small portion of whole-wheat pasta or a piece of bread.  Some fruit after dinner, sometimes a banana, sometimes some cut melon.

Snack (if needed) -- small piece of dark chocolate or some unsalted, unbuttered popcorn.

The key things are will power (to keep up the impetus to exercise) and discipline (to stay focused on the diet and on exercise).   Sure, you can have a steak to celebrate something and a piece of birthday cake every now and then.  You just cannot do that or have a drink routinely. 

I feel good -- stretched out, in shape and ready to go out into the world.  Sure, it can be fun to have ice cream sundaes or brownies or both daily, but as we age our metabolism changes and health problems can magnify.  I want to be one of those people who takes long walks when he is in his 80's and is flexible enough to keep moving and stay active.  There's one way to do that -- take care of yourself.

Who Will Have Drawn More People to Philadelphia (Who Will Spend Money) -- the NFL or the Pope?

Silly question, right?

As popular as the NFL is in the US, the Pope has a bigger following.  As much as American football fans might dislike the notion, there are more football (read: soccer) fans who are Catholic than American football fans.  The math is not that hard.

The Pope came to Philadelphia about a year and a half ago.  The city spend so much time on advanced public relations and planning for safety that people were discouraged from coming.  And, if they came, they might not have stayed in the city proper, and they most certainly did not patronize an amazing restaurant community in Philadelphia.  The city just made it hard to get close to where the Pope was visiting and, if you don't agree with that comment, you have to agree with the notion that the city gave off the perception that it would be hard to move around.

Estimates were that 2 million of the faithful were going to descend upon Philadelphia; those dropped to 800,000, but then experts pointed out that the Benjamin Franklin Parkway would have had to be four times its size to accommodate that many worshippers   As it turned out, 142,000 attended the papal mass on a Sunday in September.

Now the city and NFL are predicting that 200,000 will attend the NFL draft and related festivities on a three-day weekend at the end of April.  Do the math -- that's 58,000 more than attended the papal mass.  Then again, the last time a pope visited Philadelphia was about 35 years earlier; the NFL hasn't held a draft in the Cradle of Liberty for over 60 years.  Advantage:  NFL.

Of course, estimates are just that, and the weather will affect the number of attendees.  Have great weather, possibly exceed the estimate.  Have a nor'easter or a rain storm and 50 degree temperatures with wind, and the number will be much lower. 

It seems like the city isn't over-communicating about the congestion the way it did for both the Papal visit and the Democratic convention.  Which means that people might actually decide to come.  Let's face it, the average NFL fan is much more likely to open up his wallet to partake of the local gourmet fare than the average pilgrim (where the visit was the thing, not tourism or dining) and the average Democrat (where politics were the priority and absent dinners at steakhouses to scratch others' backs, food also was an afterthought).  The NFL Draft Party or whatever they are calling it is different -- first and foremost, sports tourism and food will be a priority.  Yes, the fine dining establishments might not benefit, but it could be a banner time for places like Pat's, Geno's and Steve's, among others.

Let the fun begin!