Monday, May 25, 2020

Baseball is Dying


It needed to be said.

Baseball had a golden opportunity to be the first sport back, the first mover in a COVID world.  And it blew it.  Why?  Because absolutely nothing comes easily when you are dealing with the owners and the players.  And the baseball media?  Oh, the newspaper columnists will write articles chastising the players' union and the owners on occasion, but the writers themselves are more content to write about nostalgia or what ifs going forward. 

Put simply, everyone is doing what they know how to do, want to do, like to do, but not what is needed to be done.  And what is needed to be done is to get the players back on the field, and to get people watching baseball again.

The owners will tell you that pre-virus all was okay with baseball, that revenues kept on increasing.  What they shied away from telling us is that the average age of a fan keeps increasing and the average attendance keeps dropping.  Atop that, there is a big gulf between the mean and median salaries (translated:  there are many fewer players making more than the mean than there are making below the mean), which generally makes the players unhappy.  Put differently, the collective bargaining agreement has been bad for the players, as analytics have evolved so much during the past several years that few players can get a big contract when they are free agents at 29 or 30 as compared to, say, five years ago. 

What makes things worse is that the game has become unwatchable.  Climate change makes it tougher to side outside and watch a game, and the pace of play is staggeringly slow.  The ball is only in play for about 15 minutes of the 3.5 hours or more that we are in the park.  And much of that is for home runs or strike outs.  Forget Earl Weaver's beloved bases-clearing double with two outs in the seventh.  That does not happen that often.  There are too many minutes elapsing between half innings and too many seconds between pitches.  And too many pitching changes.

The owners also are deluding themselves when they point to increased revenue numbers owing to TV deals.  The premise for those deals is that the networks and cable companies can sell the ads to justify those numbers, and, presumably, that the older demographic will have more disposable income to spend upon retirement.  I am not sure that was true before the pandemic; it certainly cannot be true now.  First, it is uncertain what ads they can sellin this economy.  Also, before the pandemic, about 80% of those retiring in 5-10 years had not saved enough for retirement, so where will they find disposable income to buy the advertisers' products, let alone for the cable subscription that will give them the opportunity to watch the broadcast in the first place?  No, those aging fans might have to make some difficult choices, and among them will be whether they up for a cable subscription or whether they go to the park in the first place.  As they age, parking in a remote lot and walking into a stadium will be difficult.  In addition, as a sign that clubs are worried, they are selling $50 a month access passes to young fans just to get them into the park in a "standing room" capacity.  That suggests that they cannot sell season tickets to that demographic. 

In short, what a mess, what a perfect storm, and you have a players' union that doesn't trust the owners, and an owners group that dislikes the players' union, an office of the commissioner that is weak in terms of the power of the commissioner and a commissioner who got there through building relationships with owners when he was their chief labor negotiator as opposed to a creative marketing type who can help create a vision that can help baseball to avoid the sporting world's natural selection process that has all but sent horse racing and boxing, two of the top five sports fifty years ago, to the scrap heap.  Baseball could be next and become a shadow of its former self -- and quickly.

This is a train wreck, and we are watching the train speeding down the hill toward the cliff with failing breaks.  Only neither the players nor the owners seem able to recognize it let alone to do something about it.

This is what should have happened already:

1.  Teams training in Florida and Arizona at their complexes, using appropriate social distancing rules (and baseball should be easier than even soccer, and soccer's Bundesliga -- the top league in Germany -- has returned just fine).

2.  Expand the rosters to 35 or 40, as you'll want to play as many games as possible say from July 1 through September 30.  Teams will need extra pitching, and players will get nicked up.

3.  Shorten the games.  Yes, shorten them.  Reduce the time between pitches and in between half innings.  Games are five innings, starters only can go three innings, and a team can use only four more pitchers after that.  Adopt the DH for all games.  If a game is tied after 5 innings, have a "braveheart" home run hitting competition.  Each players picks one team, each player gets five balls to hit.  The team with more HRs gets the win.  Each team can have its own pitcher pitch to its player for the HR derby. 

4.  Why?  Kids and those under 35 might pick up interest again, particularly if a 5-inning game might last 1:15 or 1:20 at the most.  You can have two a night if you want if you're baseball, and people all over the country can pick and choose which games they want to watch.  Imagine, a baseball game under two hours?  What a way to get a much younger demographic back into the fold! 

But it won't happen.  The owners and players are creatures of habit.  And they need to write all of their agreements down to the last detail.  That could take weeks if not months, given how many details would need to be ironed out.  But it would get baseball teams back playing again and fans back watching.  Instead, we'll read about the reasons why baseball cannot get back on the field.  We'll read columns that blame the players, columns that blame the owners, and columns that blame both.  In the end, time will sail by, and there will be no baseball in 2020.


So, let's see, going back 26 years.  We have witnessed the following:

1.  Cancellation of the 1994 World Series because of labor unrest.
2.  The steroids era.
3.  The greenies era.
4.  The sign-stealing era.
5.  Endless debates about whether, among others, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are worthy of the Hall of Fame.  (Forget about Pete Rose for a moment).

And now we would have gridlock regarding getting back onto the field at a time when it really is needed.  At a time when it could be the first mover.  At a time when it needs to reinvent itself and attract a whole new generation of fans.

But, no, the players and owners will not get it done. 

And, somehow, they'll still expect all of us to come back in 2021, expressing neverending gratitude that they are back and how fortunate we are that they are back.  But there's a funny thing that can happen with people.  No, I don't think that this inability to get a product on the field in and of itself will cause fans to give up the game.  But I do think the accumulation of all that has gone on since 1994 just might cause a significant number of fans to walk away. 

Enough is enough.  People are tired of the sport doing its laundry in public.  People are tired of watching a boring sport with so little action.  People are tired of paying $5 for a water in the stadium, over $20 for parking and say over $200 for a family of four. 

People are also tired, generally, and many are broke.  And the last thing anyone needs when he is tired or broke is seeing millionaires fight with billionaires and have both groups expect him to care. 

He has much bigger problems than that. 

Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Associaton should take note.

Before they realize that the slope toward the cliff gets steeper and more slippery, and the friendly fans are not there in enough numbers to pull them away from it.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Long Absence . . .

I am not a scientist.  I am not an astrophysicist.  Yet, I sometimes have wondered about the solar system.  How many planets are really out there?  We only can see so many, but does that mean that there are only the ones that we see?  How do we know, for example, that there are not advanced life forms living on planets that we cannot see, that perhaps do not need a certain proximity to the sun to guarantee survival?  The questions can be endless.

I sometimes have wondered what if the world as we know it ceased to exist.  Perhaps a series of nuclear explosions led all world leaders to lose their minds and destroy the earth.  Would absolutely nothing be left?  No life anywhere?  That's kind of deep; I do not think about this too often.

But now we are dealing with the issue that there are no sports -- anywhere.  Anywhere save people playing e-sports in their own homes or doing whatever they can by themselves in their back yards, working out in home gyms and the like.  Name a sport, and it is not there.  March Madness is gone.  And so are many other things.  When you drive by fields to pick up groceries, no one is out there playing.  No one is permitted to.  Right now it is like lyrics from a Goo Goo Dolls Hit -- "Reruns are our history."  Except that in some cases, they are our present to.

Sports will return, no doubt.  How they return depends on how nasty this virus becomes and how hard it is to contain.  I'm not so worried ultimately about people sharing basketballs in competition or people sitting near one another at stadiums.  Again, and it is a matter of when, that should happen again and will happen again.  The bigger question will be what will sports programs and leagues look like?  Much of that will depend on how long this crisis lasts and how much this virus damages worldwide economies.

There are dominoes that could fall.  I am not privy to the TV contracts that pour billions into professional sports leagues and teams (with, of course, the elite leagues getting the lion's share of the money).  I also am not privy to the advertising contracts that enable the major networks to pay huge sums for the rights to broadcast games.  Likewise, I also am not privy to the balance sheets of the major leagues and clubs -- how much cash do they have in reserve, how much debt do they have.  And I also am not privy to the finances of many individuals -- will they re-up for TV packages and tickets to games when this all shakes out.  Ditto for corporate sponsors.  My overall estimate -- and I am not an economist -- is that certain teams and leagues will fail, that attendance will be down, revenue will be down, and, ultimately, player salaries will drop or be flat.  Of course, until all this shakes out, it is impossible to answer two gripping questions -- by how much and for how long?

Sports are important to many of us, the same way other cultural institutions are important to others -- museums, theatre, symphonies.  All organizations are hurting save the mega-corporations that procure and deliver necessary household items and food at this time.  The same way COVID-19 does not spare people because of their birth, race or religion, it does not spare any industry or institution economic damage.  It is an equal opportunity disruptor.

Certain leagues rely heavily on TV money and income beyond ticket sales.  A prime example of that type of league is Major League Baseball, which has seen its attendance drop for a while.  COVID-19 could change some of baseball's economics and even the way the game is played.  I wonder if the average fan will want to stay as long at a ball park given fear -- rational after a vaccine program or otherwise -- of staying in the same stadium with 35,000 others for an extended period of time, especially when the ball is not in play for 90% or more of that time.  The traditional feeding system of MLB has been a minor league system that seems leveraged and under-funded; the players clearly are underpaid, and there were plans to drop many franchises.  Those that survive will need financial help to do so.  Local business groups and municipalities will be hard-pressed to do so; they have many other pressing problems to attend to.

There are many other examples as to how things might have to change.  We all must be patient.  You can be sure that each league and each team is working on crisis planning, business interruption planning and contingency planning, running teams of people to workshop all types of different scenarios.  For example, the English Premier League seemingly needs to finish its season in order not to have to return about $1 billion in TV money to Sky Sports.  Right now, it is difficult to predict when this season might resume, but assuming it does it might have to under far different circumstances.  Might games be played without fans?  Could you have a situation where a team may activate more than 18 players for a match, and then have more substitutions -- say 6 or 8 per match instead of the longstanding 3?  After all, the injury risks looms large if players have to return quickly after training sub-optimally. 

This is the type of crisis that no lawyer could have foreseen when drafting contracts.  I always have said that it is better to have a wonderful business partner and a "meh" contract than a great contract with a "meh" business partner.  These are times where good business partners need to get together, toss out the old agreements, and do what makes sense to help the sporting world re-open when it can and return to its robustness as quickly as possible.  To do so might require some new capital, some creative structures (such as back-end loaded payouts), but there are many who have the creativity to do just that.

Of course, getting the entire world back to work and assuring their basic needs is of paramount importance.  This compelling need eclipses those of the sporting world, period.  Besides, if the world does not take care of its own, there will not be any fans to cheer, let alone people to work at the stadiums, people to sell merchandise, food and beer outside the stadiums and people to work for the clubs.

Today, the rivalries that sometimes fuel us and help our teams get to great heights do not seem to matter much.  We all are fans of Real Madrid, Barcelona, ManUnited, the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers, New England Patriots, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, because we all are in this together. 

Social distancing stinks; it is a must.  Playing sports video games has its limits, as does working out in the home gym.  In certain ways, we all need to impose upon ourselves the self-discipline that champions display in every sport -- denying themselves many things in order to excel and be the best.  This is a test for us all -- we need to focus, act smartly, take care of ourselves and our families, and our physical and emotional health.  Yes, sports would have helped us with that, but right now it carries too much risk. 

So, here's to hoping that we take care of ourselves and each other well enought that we can contribute to a vigorous sporting world when the time comes that we can. 

And then the rivalries will return.  We might look at them differently forever as to how much they really matter, but they will be back. 

And we will have much to be thankful for when that happens, because it also will mean that the worst is over.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Major League Baseball Blew It at a Time When Its Credibility is at a 100-Year Low

Players want to win so badly they apparently devise a scheme to cheat.  At least one coach, educated at an elite school, is a ringleader.  The project gains momentum.  The team installs surveillance cameras to steal signs from the catcher to the pitcher and then relays them to the hitters.  The hitters, sometimes moody fellows, are very happy.  They know what pitches they will be facing -- like having the questions to the exam before the date of the test.  Whoopie! 

The manager, educated at an even more elite school than the coach, tried to stopped it a few times but failed to report these serious integrity violations up the reporting chain -- in this case, to his general manager, a very well-educated fellow himself.  The team already had a reputation for being difficult; it had to fire an assistant general manager for insensitive comments to women reporters after a relief pitcher with a history of domestic abuse helped the team win a key game.  Got all that?  And the general manager had an inkling himself that something strange was going on.

The evidence was pretty cut and dried.  Some team leader -- presumably a veteran who oddly enough is now the manager of another team or the coach in question (who just got fired as the manager of a team that won the World Series a year after this team did) instructed personnel to put up surveillance cameras to steal the signs of their opponents.  And then the players figured out ingenious ways to relay to their teammates in the batter's box what pitch was coming, including banging on a trash can in the dugout.  Perhaps the hardest thing to do in all of sports is to hit Major League pitching -- it comes at the batter very quickly and the player has no idea -- in a perfect world -- how the pitch might move or how fast it will be.  (Teams use neuroscience tests to evaluate the reaction times of prospects when they evaluate them for their draft of amateur players).    But the batter can do much better when his teammates let him know what is coming.  The splits that this team -- the Houston Astros -- had in the World Series in 2017 were pronounced -- it hit much better at home, where it had the cameras and relayed signals to hitters, than on the road. 

Scandal?  You bet.  Integrity of the game damaged?  Definitely.  Character of the game in major question after this?  Of course.  Especially after the league has endured -- in the past three decades -- the steroids scandal, a pretty much covered up scandal about the widespread use of amphetamines, and a scandal about the signing of international players that cost one general manager his job (the Braves' GM at the time).  Major League Baseball is a listing ship in so many ways, and over the past three decades it has struggled mightily to counter the notion that it does not pay to cheat.

Because it has paid for players and teams to cheat, especially while the players and teams were cheating.  Records were broken, contracts were awarded with huge dollar amounts, championships were won.  Oh, sure, now some of the perpetrators cannot get voted into the Hall of Fame and have been publicly shamed, but it does not seem that anyone has learned any lessons from what happened even thirty years ago, let alone in 1919 with the Black Sox scandal.  Cheating seems to be ingrained in the culture of the game, and it reappears in different forms seemingly every five years in some way and every quarter-century in a major way.

So, presented with all of the evidence, what did Major League Baseball do?  Its commissioner, Rob Manfred, cut a sweetheart deal with the Astros (even if it included fines and a forfeiture of draft picks) after you get past the fact that he ultimately compelled the termination of employment of their heralded general manager/manager duo of Jeffrey Luhnow (for overseeing a bad culture and knowing some of what was going on) and A.J. Hinch (for overseeing a bad culture, knowing about what was going on and failing to stop it).  Atop that, the commissioner muzzled every other team from talking about this scandal.  Right now, the Astros are a disgrace, and the Red Sox are about to be labeled as one.  And the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost to both teams in the 2017 and 2018 World Series, respectively, should be silent?  Seriously?

Even more importantly, the commissioner failed to take any action against the players.  The reasoning he offered was that the GM and manager are responsible for the behavior of the players.  My guess is that the commissioner did one of three things.  He acted like the big-law firm lawyer he once was and got the players to cooperate in exchange for leniency -- so that he could land bigger fish in the general manager and manager.  That's a typical tactic of prosecutors in a white-collar crime investigation -- go after upper management, not the workers.  Sometimes it is in the right thing to do, but on other occasions it is not (and Crane was exonerated because there was no evidence that he knew what was going on).  The second theory is that he cut a deal with Jim Crane, the Astros' owner, so that in exchange for ultimately having the Astros fire Luhnow and Hinch, Crane got to save his players, the team's competitiveness and his revenues.  Because if MLB went after players and suspended a good part of the Astros' roster, no one would go see them play and they might set an all-time record for losses in a season.  The third theory is that Manfred was fearful of a prolonged battle with the players' union that might last into the negotiations of a new collective bargaining agreement, which is bound to be hotly negotiated.  So, he pulled his punches.

None of the above is acceptable if Major League Baseball wants to maintain its integrity.  If he went after upper management so as to send a message that they are responsible for the entire team's behavior, that's fine, but it does not go far enough.  I have no problem with the termination of Luhnow and Hinch; they should have been fired.  But Manfred failed to go far enough.  And, in white-collar criminal prosecutions that result in charges against higher ups, that does not mean that the company does not terminate or take disciplinary action against those who were involved in the bad behavior, even if no criminal charges were brought.  But what owner will take a stand for integrity that will cost it some very good players and its revenue?  Apparently, all owners are okay with what Manfred did.

If Manfred cut a deal with Crane to save Crane's team's 2017 World Series title, his revenues and future seasons (this one, which had Manfred pursued players might have been played with a makeshift roster), he failed to protect the game.  Fans will call the Astros cheaters in perpetuity and, worse, be forever skeptical that MLB will ever do the right thing when it comes to matters of character and integrity.  Imagine the booing -- both against the Astros and targeted at current and former Astros.  It will be fierce.  Strip the Astros of their title, hurt them at the gate and punish players -- then everyone gets closure.  But right now, there is none and does not look like there is going to be any.

If Manfred avoided a fight with the players' union because, well, in his mind there were just too many players to discipline, he whiffed big time.  So what if the union were to grieve punishments and prolong the process?  Fight them every step of the way.  The institution of Major League Baseball should have the high ground here.  But by not taking disciplinary action against players, it surrendered it.

So where are we now?  This is a sport that once was the national pastime.  Now, it is a shadow of its former self and in crisis.  By failing to address this cheating scandal with complete measures, it sends a message to players that they still can cheat and win titles and to fans that they cannot trust the people who run the game or who play it.  Baseball not only should take the steps I outlined above, they also should create an Office of the Commissioner that has enough independence to do what is right in the eyes of all of the game's constituents, and not just the owners.

Just when you thought Major League Baseball could not go any lower than the steroids scandal . . . this.

And it stinks.

Monday, January 06, 2020

What Game Were the Officials and NBC Commentators Watching Last Night?

Jadeveon Clowney put his helmet on the neck and head of a diving Carson Wentz.  Seven officials saw nothing wrong with the hit, putting out a statement after the game that Wentz put himself in play by diving forward and that Clowney's contact with him was incidental to the play.  Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, together with sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya, missed the call entirely.  This dirty hit changed the game.  The Eagles had a good shot to win it with Carson Wentz on the field; without him, they had much less of a chance, despite trying hard to win the ball game.  The NBC crew went so far as to elegize Clowney for playing with injuries.  It was as if Wentz left the game because of a routine injury.

The officials missed the call.  The broadcasting crew should have called them out on it.  Instead, they did nothing.  So much so that they failed to discuss the impact the absence of Wentz had on the game.  The NFL, if it has any brains -- and that's questionable -- should do the following:  1) Clowney is done for the season and gets a heavy fine; and 2) this officiating crew is done for the season as well.

Let's compare this game to a match between English Premier League heavyweights Arsenal and Chelsea a few weeks ago.  Jorginho, a star midfielder for Chelsea, was on a yellow card when, in the second half, he grabbed an Arsenal player by his jersey and impeded his progress -- a second yellow card offense.  The referee -- Craig Pawson -- missed the call.  Arsenal had been up 1-0, and Jorginho ended up scoring a game-tying goal late in the match (Chelsea went on to score another goal to win 2-1).  Had Pawson made the obvious call, Jorginho gets a second yellow card and an ejection, and Chelsea is down to playing with ten men.  The odds are that with ten men Chelsea won not have won this match.  Perhaps, with their talent, they might have fought to a draw.  Pawson's bad decision cost Arsenal, and his penalty was that he was not give a match to referee the following week.

If the NFL were serious about this sort of thing, it would have a similar rule.  If a player gets ejected for flagrant conduct, he gets suspended for a few games and in the game itself, his team's unit has to play with one fewer player.  That type of penalty would put a stop to the egregious type of hit that Clowney put on Carson Wentz, thereby taking away the Eagles' best chance to win after a total of eight plays. 

Instead, the officials did nothing, and there is little hope in Philadelphia that either the officiating crew or Clowney will get disciplined.  And even if that happens, it is too little, too late.  Right now, in the NFL, it is worth having defensive players take aggressive shots at the quarterback.  In all likelihood, the officials might miss it or simply throw a flag for roughing the passer.  Sure, it's a fifteen-yard penalty and potentially a fine after the league office reviews the hit, but it's a smart cost of doing business.  After all, who wouldn't trade a 15-yard penalty and a $50,000 fine for the ability to knock the opposing team's starting quarterback out of the game and significantly increasing your team's chances of winning a game.  In all likehood, the hit will not draw a suspension for the next game.  Whether it's good sportsmanship or not, it's smart sports economics.  Seattle just might have lost that game in Philadelphia yesterday had Clowney not made his dirty hit.

So here's my proposal:

1.  Automatic ejection for hits like Clowney's.
2.  Three-game suspension and big fine.
3.  Team has to play one man short -- on all sides of the ball. 

That will stop dirty hits. 

And level the playing field after one occurs.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Too Many Games Turns a Sport into Entertainment and Not Competition

Back in the day, there was scarcity.  I watched NBC's "Game of the Week" because I got to see teams other than the one that played in my home city.  And, as for the team in my home city, no home games were televised, and not all road games were either.  We listened to many games on a transistor radio.

We appreciated those games the same way we appreciated the telecasts of the "ECAC Game of the Week" for college basketball.  In my city, a UHF station would televise college games of the schools in the area, dramatically so.  It was the ECAC Game of the Week, the local games, an occasional national telecast, what was on ABC's "Wide World of Sports" -- and nothing more.  We appreciated what we saw because there was no internet, there was little if any cable television. 

Today, you can get almost anything on your phone -- through subscriptions, yes, but still on your phone, on your pad, on your PC.  And when I saw anything it could be a game from the Big Sky Conference at 11 pm eastern time on a Thursday night.  It's hard to appreciate much of anything when the airwaves overwhelm you with everything.

My particular bone to pick is with hockey and basketball, where so many teams make the playoffs as to render the regular season all but meaningless.  I mean, why play 82 games in basketball and 80 in hockey if half the teams in the league make the playoffs.  What is the point of the regular season if there is no crowned regular-season champion and if all that matters is the post-season playoff system?  With respect to the NBA, so unimportant is the regular season that teams regularly rest key players later in the season, when playoff seedings all but have been determined.  And that is just awful.

People pay very good money for NBA tickets.  After getting years of data, the NBA teams have priced their tickets in such a way that season ticket holders pay top dollar and then suffer when they try to sell tickets for almost any game on the secondary market.  I have experienced this myself with my town's team.  A top team came through the other night, and the secondary market's prices were one half of what I paid for my tickets.  And if a star sat out, well, that's insult to injury.  After all, you are paying top prices to see the best play.

Except the way the NBA is set up, if it's all about winning the title for an elite team, it has no incentive to play key players in meaningless games.  And it's hard to argue that among 82 games, some are not meaningless, especially if it's the fifth game in eight days on a road trip.  The players get exhausted -- from the travel and from the exertion.  Hard to blame the players for not wanting to get injured and the teams for not setting themselves up for deep playoff runs. 

But it's also hard not to blame the fans for getting really frustrated.  Let's face it, many games are just entertainment because the teams know that either they are saving themselves for the playoffs or because they have no chance of making the playoffs and are playing to create good film for individual players on the trade market or to get a better chance at a top draft pick (which means they are fielding lineups that cannot beat even average teams).  The NBA thinks it has a good thing, but good league evolve just when they think that they have solved their biggest problems.

My solution:  shorten the season, adopt some one-and-done "cup" tournaments among teams with trophies that over the years will matter, and have fewer teams make the playoffs.  Take some pages out of the international soccer playbook, but give all teams more to play for.  And consider moving franchises and compelling ownership to sell if a team finishes in the bottom 10% say three times in a five-year period.  No one wants to pay good money for a franchise that is poorly managed.

Make the games mean something again.  Enough of the hip public address announcers, dancers, gimmicks between quarters, flashing lights, big scoreboards.  Give us good games, games with meaning.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Making Way for the Next Generation -- of Players, Leaders, and Even Owners

We see people age quickly in sports.  Coaches get sentimental, so do teammates, do does the media, and so do fans.  It is sad to see aging stars fail to keep up, fail to make the runs they need to, fail to do the things that made them stars in the first place.

What also is hard is that when players have seniority, they set all sorts of examples for the younger players as to conduct.  Some of those examples are bad.  For example, a leader gets into the clubhouse early, leaves late, and talks with the younger players about how to sleep, how to eat, how to take care of their bodies so that they can have long and productive careers.  An aging star who is not a leader expects his own set of rules, and while he might play hard, he does nothing to elevate the team.  In fact, some of these leaders, who insist upon deference because they have been there and done that, do the opposite.  And then there are those veterans whose experience gets them deference whether they seek that deference or not. Put differently, those veterans can set the tone and the mood for the team.  That can mean that a laid back veteran's approach to the game blocks the energy that a younger group of stars ready to take over might want to display.

My crucible for this particular theory is Arsenal FC, which discovered something very interesting yesterday when it removed David Luiz from the lineup.  There is no doubt that Luiz commands respect -- he was an instrumental figure on the Brazilian national team (which while not successful according to Brazilian standards in recent World Cups is still a very difficult team to make and start for) and Chelsea (which did win titles while he was there).  But the 32 year-old Luiz is far from the player he was five years ago.  Chelsea fans were happy when he left for Arsenal; their view was that he was well past his prime and because his skills had eroded, he would take chances that created goal-scoring opportunities for opponents, and too many of them at that.  Some of those gambles cost Chelsea games.

Yet so desperate did Arsenal believe itself to be that it purchased Luiz from Chelsea and anointed him a starting center back.  His personality is such that it can be dominating -- you can see that on the field.  The problem is that Arsenal had gambled with aging and/or underskilled center backs -- Laurent Koscielny (aging and frequently injured), Shkodran Mustafi (underskilled for the EPL), and Sokratis (perhaps not performing as the skills he demonstrated at Dortmund predicted he would for Arsenal.  Then there were younger defenders -- Mavropanous (injured and developing), Rob Holding (missed last season according to injury) and Callum Chambers (perhaps just not good enough).  So, they added Luiz.

The problem is that he has not performed nearly well enough to suggest that the club is better off with him.  Yet, he started almost every match for the Gunners, except for yesterday.  And free of his opinions and actions, the Gunners played a more low-key duo at center half and then opened the club up for younger players -- Kieran Tierney (went off because of an injury), Ainsley Maitland-Niles (best match in months), Lucas Torreira (who finally showed what we all had expected of him when he joined the club from Sampdoria two years ago) and, of course, Gabriel Martinelli, a generational attacker in the words of that great developer of talent, Juergen Klopp.  What result was an Arsenal that threw its cares to the wind, was not paralyzed at the back, relaxed in the second half and put on a show against, admittedly, a struggling West Ham team.  That said, any football manager will tell you that three points for a win is three points, and you take them regardless of how well your opponent is playing at the time.

I don't want to put all of Arsenal's problems on Luiz.  I think that 65% of the issue is with management.  The good news is that they parted company with Ivan Gazidis; the bad news was that they lost outstanding talent scout Sven Mislintat in a power struggle with Raul Sanellhi, a former Nike executive who did a stint at Barcelona, but who seems more like an influencer/operator than a real football guy.  The other bad news is that they still have Stan Kroenke as their owner, and his track record says that he owns without passion or commitment to using personal funds to take a team to an elite level.  That has not cut it in North London, and it is time for the Kroenkes to make that commitment or sell the team to someone who really cares about winning.  To crystallize the problem -- Daniel Levy, Tottenham's chair, has out-"ownered" Stan Kroenke markedly in the past five years and has made gutsy decisions that have made Spurs an elite team, in contrast to Kroenke's actions, which have made Arsenal a complicated puzzle wrapped inside a riddle.

On the pitch, the good news is that the team started to do yesterday what everyone thought it would do when all players got healthy -- turn it loose on offense and make themselves difficult to defend and to challenge.  That said, the team still has needs at center back and center defensive midfielder, needs that former manager Unai Emery wanted to fill but met with rebuffs from management, and my guess is was Sanellhi speaking for Kroenke.  On the pitch, the club is turning to its very talented younger players to help forge a path forward and build some belief. 

Off the pitch, though, is where to watch if you are an Arsenal fan or observer.  Will Stan Kroenke be a dilettante, or will he be a passionate football fan?  Arsenal, its former players, and its fans deserve a lot more than they are getting at the moment for this jewel of a club. 

They are capable of and need to find a manager who is not inexpensive but who can develop players and make key acquisitions -- someone like "the next Juergen Klopp."  Some of the names bandied about -- Sousa, Marcelino, are not top-tier managers and have had enough experience to suggest that they never will be.  There will be much eloquence in who the next hire is.  The more you hear Arteta, Pochettino, Nagelsmann, the more you hear smart football people talking.  The more you hear Marcelino and Sousa, the more you hear puppetmasters talking through enablers.  It's that simple.

And they need to become an ownership that has a passion for winning, not just for owning.  If the Kroenkes cannot muster that level of commitment, they should do the honorable thing and sell the club to someone with much more of a deep-seated caring about Arsenal as a way of life, and not just as investment.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Lou Whitaker Should Be Very Annoyed

So whatever they call the Veterans Committee for Baseball's Hall of Fame met over the weekend.  They announced that they had voted two people into the Hall of Fame -- Marvin Miller, who led the players' union into becoming the most powerful and feared union in the history of organized labor, and Ted Simmons, a good hitting catcher who spent his career with the Cardinals and Brewers. 

What is much more noticeable is who they left out -- Lou Whitaker, who, along with Alan Trammell (who is in the Hall), formed the longest-standing double-play combination in Major League history.

A player needed 12 votes to get into the Hall.  Dwight Evans, who played right field for the Red Sox on teams with Hall of Famer Jim Rice, got eight votes.  Dave Parker, who played right field for the Pirates and Reds, got seven votes, and Steve Garvey, the first baseman on some very good Dodger teams in the 1970's and early 1980's, got six votes.  As did Whitaker. 

I am not going to tear down the players who got as many as or more votes than Whitaker.  All were fine players in their own right; I am not sure that any of them belongs in the Hall of Fame, though.  Then again, given who is in the Hall of Fame, good arguments can be made for each of them.  (At one point in history, the Veterans Committee was so populated with former players that they decided to vote in their teammates -- including many Cardinals and Giants, some of whom, by today's standards, are not Hall-worthy). 

Wins Above Replacement Player is a measure that many use to determine who the best players are and were and who belongs in the Hall and who does not.  Here is the WAR for Simmons and the others above:

Lou Whitaker -- 75.1
Dwight Evans -- 67.2
Ted Simmons -- 50.3
Dave Parker -- 40.1
Steve Garvey -- 38.1.

Whitaker is in rarified air -- his career WAR is higher than those for Luke Appling, Reggie Jackson, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Arky Vaughan, Paul Waner, Derek Jeter, Harry Heilmann, Johnny Mize, Trammell, Ron Santo, Frankie Frisch, Barry Larkin, Gary Carter, Tony Gwynn, Al Simmons, Eddie Murray, Pudge Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, Edgar Martinez, Ryne Sandberg, Fred Clarke, Ernie Banks, Roberto Alomar, Joe Cronin, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Goose Goslin, Craig Biggio, Andre Dawson, Willie McCovey, Dave Winfield, Richie Ashburn, Billy Williams, Lou Boudreau, Home Run Baker, Harmon Killebrew, Zach Wheat, Yogi Berra, Mike Piazza, Vladimir Guerrero, Bill Dickey, Hank Greenberg, Willie Stargell, Luis Aparicio, Willie Keeler, Bill Terry, Tony Perez, George Sisler, Joe Tinker, Orlando Cepeda, Ralph Kiner, Nellie Fox, Mickey Cochrane, Johnny Evers, Jim Rice. . . and, well, you get the point.

So, what were the following people thinking -- George Brett, Rod Carew, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, Robin Yount, Sandy Alderson, Dave Dombrowski, David Glass, Walt Jocketty, Doug Melvin, Terry Ryanb, Bill Center, Steve Hirdt, Jack O'Connell and Tracy Ringolsby?  These are the members of the Modern Era Committee.  What was so awful about Whitaker's body of work and so wonderful about the work of Simmons that he gets elected and Whitaker does not?  And, likewise, why did Evans and Parker get more votes than Whitaker and Garvey the same amount? 

I watched all of the above-named players play, as well as Tommy John, Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy, each of whom was eligible for votes.  All were very good players.  But in a sport where the numbers supposedly do not lie and the metrics matter, it is hard to ignore the difference between Whitaker's WAR and everyone else's.

The question is -- the others might have had strong advocates for their election.  Who was advocating for Lou Whitaker? 

And should it matter.