Monday, June 17, 2019

Are the Baseballs Wound More Tightly?

That seems to be what everyone is saying.  That the baseballs are wound more tightly, that the balls are jumping out of parks at record rates, that among others the Phillies are on pace to set the record for home runs yielded in a season (one pitcher, Jared Eickhoff, has yielded 18 dingers in his last 28 innings -- that is not a typo).  Many commentators are saying that unlike the last home run surge, when the players were juiced, this time the balls are.  Are they onto something?

Well, until a professor in materials science from Purdue tells us that they are (presumably by comparing this year's balls to balls used in prior seasons), consider this -- could the analytics that help hitters be further head of those that help pitchers?  That might be the better explanation.  Perhaps there is technology that can predict pitch sequences and gives the hitter a better chance of knowing what's coming.  Or, perhaps there is tracking technology that examines opposing pitchers' motions to the very small detail, looking for a "tell" that he is going to throw a certain pitch.  Oh, I'm not talking about something so obvious that half the stadium can tell that a pitcher is tipping his pitches, but something done through tracking software normally reserved for military applications that can discern a nuance so slight but detectable that a hitter then can predict with more certainty what is coming?

Is it plausible?  Yes, it is, but then again, the counterargument is compelling, too.  That if such technology were in place and deployed, ERAs would be even higher than they are (and they are still higher than last season) and batting averages would be even higher.  Fair enough.  But the fact that ERAs are higher and HR numbers are up suggests that there is something going on that is giving an advantage to hitters.  For years we have endured endless changes in pitchers to enable a manager to get the right matchup and then pitchers' throwing as hard as they can to get someone out.  Specialization, then, hit the craft of pitching to a degree not seen before.  And many of these pitchers, with narrowly defined roles, excelled.  Then again, there are many who did not -- it is a highly competitive business.

But something is going on, that is for sure.  The easiest explanation is that the balls are juiced because most teams have subpar bullpens and are struggling to get people out and hold leads.  Because to argue that each team is sophisticated enough analytically to have cracked the code of dominant pitching is to suggest that each team is well run and spends funds on stuff like this to the same degree.  Another possible explanation is that the focus on launch angle and exit velocity is such that those prone to hit home runs have mastered the adjustments to the modern game so much that we are hitting a high water mark for home runs (and possibly for strikeouts).  What might well happen is that teams will adjust again, figure out a new strategy, and then the home run numbers will drop again.  Baseball is, after all, a game of adjustments.

Is it fun, now, to watch baseball?  Lots of home runs, lots of strikeouts, a game that is much different from the game we watched 40 years ago.  The game takes longer, climate change has made the weather less predictable, and the ball is in play every four minutes.  Attendance is down.

But somewhere, some owners are smiling.  The ball is flying out of the park, right?  That fact brought people back to baseball in droves after the strike of 1994 that ended up causing the cancellation of the World Series soured people on the game for a time.  This time, the cause for concern is how long games take and how little the ball is in play.  Will this home run furor bring people back?

Don't bet on it.

Attention spans are shorter, there are many more alternatives for entertainment, and soccer, like it or not (and I like it) is zooming in popularity.  The NBA has a hot hand; basketball is cool.  Football remains predominant, even though those who play it are maiming themselves for life, most college football programs lose money and fewer kids are playing it.  Baseball has a chance to change its course.  So far, though, the Lords of Baseball have been resistant to change, and a huge labor war is brewing because analytics have all but nullified the goals of the players in the last collective bargaining agreement -- to enable free agency by or at 30 to enable a big pay day.  The problem is that the analytics have demonstrated that most players are on the decline by then -- and the free agent paydays are not forthcoming.  The owners have a good deal right now, but as someone once told me, too good of a deal is a bad one, because once the other side figures it out there will be hell to pay.  That day is coming.

So, are the baseballs wound more tightly?  Perhaps.  One thing is for sure -- because the balls are jumping out of the park, managers and pitchers definitely are . . . wound more tightly.

A Year for Hoopsters from, Well, Obscure Schools.

Tony Bennett played college basketball at University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.  He coached UVA to the national title this year.

Nick Nurse played his college basketball at the University of Northern Iowa.  He coached the Toronto Raptors to the NBA title this year.

Gary Woodland started his college athletic career by playing basketball at Washburn University.  He won the U.S. Open golf tournament at Pebble Beach yesterday.

Who's next?

Friday, June 14, 2019

Everyone Was a Warrior Last Night

The NBA could not have asked for better material for its marketing efforts than Game 6 of last night's Championship Finals.  What a grand game it was.  It showed that to dethrone a veteran, defending champion, you have to give it everything you have, you have to take the crown.  Even depleted with injuries, the Golden State Warriors ceded no ground to the Toronto Raptors.  If you are old enough, conjure up in your memory photographs of an Ali-Frazier fight, in black-and-white, with smoke rising to the rafters of Madison Square Garden.  Steph hits a three!  Fred Van Vleet hits one!  Draymond grabs another rebound!  Kyle Lowry made the court his own person playground at the games outset!  Kawhi, well, he was just being his awesome Kawhi self!  And Andre Iguodala, what can you say about his effort other than it increases and improves as the games get tougher!

Everyone who participated last night was a warrior.  In the end, the Raptors just had too much for the defending champions, but in falling so valiantly, demonstrated to all that despite the abundant talent in their starting lineup, they are a dynasty, champions so worthy of the name, valiant, gritty, determined, skilled.  It was just that Toronto, a team that the pundits thought might not make it to the NBA Finals, was too versatile, too resilient, too flexible, too tough.  But not by a whole lot.

Sadly, two great Warriors and top NBA players suffered awful injuries -- Kevin Durant in the beginning of Game 5 and then Klay Thompson in Game 6.  Both look to be out for all of next season.  Their injuries will make an already compelling off-season (and no one sets up drama for the off-season the way the NBA does) even more compelling, what with so many teams having sufficient cap space to sign a free agent to a max deal.  Will Durant opt out?  Where will Klay go?  Does the interest on the other free agents increase because of these injuries?  What will the Warriors do?  Will Kawhi stay in Toronto?  Will Kyrie go to Brooklyn and not Manhattan?  Will the Raptors' president stay in Toronto or take the purportedly huge deal the Wizards will offer him?  Where will T.J. McConnell go?  Okay, that last question might interest diehard 76ers' fans only, as they appreciated the hard work of the back-up PG during his seasons in the City of Brotherly Love.

It was a great night, a happy night, a sad night, a poignant night, a night to celebrate the best of basketball.  Both teams performed nobly, valiantly.  The refs also did a great job (save perhaps a late blocking call on Kyle Lowry that really was a charge on Boogie Cousins), and the three guys in the booth made salient comments without being obnoxious or tripping on one another.

What a great game!  Cannot wait for next season!

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Champions League Final

I realize it's a little late for fully blown commentary.  Overall, the game was a dud, and the better team won.  The soccer gods did justice to the soccer universe; Liverpool warranted a trophy after its amazing season in the English Premier League.  I mean, how many teams earn 97 points in a 38-game season and come in second place?  I wonder if any teams fared that well and finished second.  Spurs also had an excellent season, considering that they played most of their home games at a neutral site and had a smaller-than-optimal roster because of the funds they expended on their spectacular new stadium.  That lack of cash flow prevented them from making any moves in the off-season.  And as EPL fans learned within the past five years from a season in which City did the same thing -- stand pat -- and failed to repeat, standing pat and not tweaking your roster in a very competitive Premiership is a tough thing to do.

Both squads have excellent managers -- Juergen Klopp is en route to having a statue of him built outside Anfield and Mauricio Pochettino has done wonders in North London.  Liverpool has the world's best center back in Virgil van Dyk, an amazing attack, a top-five goalie and an underrated midfield, full of good leaders.  Spurs distinguished themselves through their gritty, hard-nosed play.  They too have stars -- among them, one of the world's best strikers in Harry Kane.  Yet, it was the decision to play Kane, or not to play Lucas Moura instead of one of Kane, Delle Alli or Son Heung-min that could haunt Spurs, Spurs' fans and Poch for a while.

All Moura did was singlehandedly will Spurs into the finals with a hat trick on the road in the Netherlands against an Ajax side that beat Spurs in North London 1-0 in the first match of the tie and then took a 2-0 lead.  That meant that Spurs needed to score 3 against Ajax on the road to propel themselves into Champions League final in Madrid on June 1.  And Moura scored all 3, including a goal on what had to be the final offensive opportunity in stoppage time.  How can you bench a player coming off a performance like that?  Moura was in top form, and he was a force to be reckoned with (and proved it again with the energy that he provided when he did come on in the final).  Poch deserves all the respect in the world, but he gambled starting both Kane (coming off an injury) and the bright young midfielder Harry Winks (also returning from an injury).  The gamble did not work; both were non-factors, Kane so much so that Spurs failed to take advantage of a 62-38% advantage in possession.

The future is very bright for both teams.  It seems as though Liverpool will be favored to win the Premiership next year, even with all of the might of Manchester City and City's having added Portuguese attacking midfielder Bruno Fernandes.  Liverpool undoubtedly will tweak its roster too.   Spurs, meanwhile, have a big decision to make on Christian Eriksen, their outstanding attacking midfielder.  Losing Eriksen would be a big setback for a team that has worked so hard to outpace its North London rival Arsenal and qualify for Champions League football.  Spurs' back-line has showed some age, and goalie Hugo Lloris has not been the stone wall that he once was.  But make no mistake -- Poch's teams are disciplined, organized and play within themselves.  Come to think of it, losing Poch to a team like Juventus would be a big blow too.

The game underwhelmed, but in the end the better team won.  And while, yes, I am an Arsenal fan, I have great respect for Spurs and what they have achieved.  They just did not have enough for Liverpool.

Then again, most teams don't.

Kawhi Leonard

The 2014 Spurs inspired me.  Actually, their wizardry on offense -- their crisp passing, the vision of three All-Stars (James, Wade and Bosh) running themselves ragged chasing the ball -- will be forever etched in my minds.  It brought tears to my eyes.  Why?

Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril once said that "a pass is not a pass if it is a last resort."  Hall of Fame lacrosse coach Bill Tierney, who won 6 national championships at Princeton and one at Denver is noted for saying "if the ball gets stuck in your stick, you will be sitting on the bench."  What do these legendary coaches mean -- that a player should be thinking about what he is going to do with the ball before he gets it.  The Spurs worked this theory to perfection that year -- and an outstanding coach in Erik Spoelstra and a core group of all-stars had no answer for what Greg Popovich and the Spurs did to them.  It was textbook basketball.  San Antonio put on a clinic.  So much so that I bought my son a championship t-shirt.  The reason?  To cherish excellence.

One of the Spurs, then a very young player in Kawhi Leonard, epitomized the basketball IQ that Coach Pop insisted upon from his players.  He knew where to be, he knew where his teammates would be and he knew both when it was time to be unselfish and when it was his turn to be the guy.   He put on an amazing performance in those finals, one that vaulted him to win the MVP award for that series.  He was just marvelous.

It is hard to argue with how good the following players are:  LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo.  All are excellent.

But are any of them better right now than Kawhi Leonard?

Pulling the Goalie

Last night, when the Blues went down 2-0 to the Bruins, I posited to a group of friends on a group text that Craig Berube, the Blues' interim head coach, should consider pulling his goalie with about 12 minutes to go in the third period if the Blues were down by two and say with 6 minutes to go if the Blues were down by one.  The reason, a brilliant article in the Wall Street Journal that did the math that suggested that NHL coaches are too conservative and don't give themselves the best chance to win if they only pull their goalies with about 90 seconds to go.  In other words, the conventional wisdom that has evolved over the years is dead wrong.  And one of my friends, a bright guy, posited the same thing -- that it was too risky.

After the Blues went down 2-0 I decided to go to bed, if for no other reason that I thought that the Blues were just unlucky last night, that Tuuka Rask translated from Finnish into mid-American English means "Iron Door on Hockey Goal" and that Berube would do nothing out of the box to try to cut the deficit.  As it turned out, the game turned into a route, and now the Blues are returning to Boston with the series tied at 3 for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.

This by no means is an indictment of the Blues or Berube.  The Blues were hockey's worst team on January 2, and Berube has performed nothing short of a miracle in St. Louis. That said, doing things because, well, "that's always the way things have been done" might help avoid a coach from getting fired for making wild bets with his strategy, but at the same time might prevent him from being a transcending innovator.  Food for thought for hockey -- this is an exciting series.

Oh, and I did not post a hyperlink to the article because there is a paywall.  But look for the article or a scholarly paper or two on the topic -- you will find it compelling.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

FOGO -- WTF?

I have more than a passing interest in lacrosse.  I know people who played it, my son played it in high school for a while, I have been to travel team tournaments and a few NCAA Division I Final Fours.  At times, it can be a most compelling game.  That said, in this advanced age of specialization, there is something that is killing it -- the advent of the FOGO, which stands for "face off, get off."  The FOGO can be one of the most important players on the team -- all for a player who in all likelihood will not take a shot on goal, not get many assists and will not be on the field for important defensive series -- and who might be on the field for less than 10 minutes of a 60-minute game.

The FOGO arrived on the scene when the Lords of Lax decided that there should be a faceoff after every goal is scored.  Before that happened, it was "make it take it" -- according to a friend who played DI lax back in the day -- before the advanced age of specialization.  That is, you scored a goal, you got the ball.  At some point, the rule changed, and smart coaches -- and there were many of them -- figured out that they needed kids to specialize in the skill of bending low, with the back of one's stick to his opponent's, and exhibit feats of strength known to edge rushers, Greco-Roman wrestlers and perhaps Frank Costanza on Festivus in order to win the ball and get a team's offense going.  Have a good FOGO, one who can win many more than half of his face-off attempts, and your team will have more than a good chance of winning games, for the basic reason that you will have the ball -- and thus many chances to score -- much more than your opponents will.  Have a great FOGO and you can get to the Final Four.

I am not criticizing parents who encourage their kids to become FOGOs or players who become FOGOs.  Trevor Baptiste, seemingly a wonderful young man, was a four-time all-American at the University of Denver -- as a FOGO.  Baptiste was all set to go from his private school in northern New Jersey to Franklin & Marshall, a DIII school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania when Denver's Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Tierney saw him play.  Lax coaches are known for not poaching recruits who have committed to other schools; Tierney spoke with the F&M coach, got his approval to talk with Baptiste and low and behold what Tierney saw in the 5'9", 220-pound or so midfielder bore out -- Baptiste was amazing.  As is Yale's TD Ierlan, a FOGO who almost singlehandedly demoralized #1 Penn State yesterdaly in the first half with his ability to win almost every faceoff against the Nittany Lions.  The Lions are known for their scintillating offense, but they could not get it into gear until the second quarter because Ierlan kept winning faceoffs.  By that time Penn State was down 10-1, and while they staged a noble comeback, the difference in the game was the work of Ierlan.  He dominated the conversation of the announcers on ESPN.

The importance --and I would say exaggerated importance -- of the FOGO begs the question -- is this really good lacrosse, is this really necessary and does this specialization make the game better?  There was a time in basketball where they had a jump ball at mid-court after each basket, until some guys with names like Wilt Chamberlain made a mockery of it, won almost jump ball, and now the game has evolved today where they have a jump ball to start the game and on a rare occasion when the rule compel a jump ball as opposed to the possession arrow's dictating which team gets the ball next after the players tie up the ball.  Basketball is much better for it.

So why can't lacrosse either go back to "make it take it" or giving the ball to the scored upon team after a goal is scored?  The games will go faster -- there were times in yesterday's Penn State-Yale contest where the standoff between faceoff men lasted at least 20 seconds if not more, so determined and stubborn were the gallant FOGO's not to yield any edge to their opponents.  More importantly, guys who are not on the field for much of the time will not have an overexaggerated impact on the game.  Sure, women's softball pitchers can have a huge impact on the game -- but they are out there as focal points the entire time.  The FOGOs -- they are hardly on the field.  That just does not make any sense.  Let the players who are on the field the most have the biggest impact on the game.

That is the main point -- that the players who play most of the minutes have most of the impact.  Sure, you can argue that no one has ever won the Tewaarton Award -- given to the best DI lax player -- being a FOGO.  That's because the FOGO's do not rack up goals and assists.  But the FOGO's determine in great part which team will have the greater amount of possession -- and thus the opportunity for more goals and assists.  And somehow, that just doesn't seem right.

I am sure that my lax friends will tell me that I am wrong, that the game is great, that I am the one exaggerating the importance of the FOGO and not the Lords of Lax, but I would like to understand why they say that.  I do not think that there is a phenomenon like the FOGO in any other sport -- and to me, that is a good thing.

End the FOGO.  Make the game better.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The 76ers' future

The Philadelphia 76ers' spin machine will work overtime to pat the franchise on the back for its heroic effort in its playoff series against the Toronto Raptors and losing Game 7 on a last-second shot to one of the best players in the game.  If spin were the measurement for success of an NBA franchise, the 76ers would be champions.  The reality is something far more stark -- especially since the team lost badly twice in this series.

First, the team reinvented itself twice during the regular season.  How could it have expected to get to the conference finals with a group that had hardly gotten to mesh together?   Especially when it was hard to find practice time for the whole squad together, since star center Joel Embiid was dealing with an iffy knee and other health problems.  The expectation was unrealistic.  And it shows how far the team is from being an elite one.

Second, the team only has four players signed for next season -- Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Zhaire Smith and Jonah Bolden.  It needs to find 11 more players.  Even if say 3-5 of the current squad come back, the remainder of the roster will take some time to come together with the current squad.  That there are 13 teams with cap room to sign a player to a max deal (and a few might have room to sign two players to max deals) exacerbates the team's problems.  There are not 13 or more players worthy of a max deal, which means that there are owners out there who will overpay for players.  And that means the competition will be fierce for Jimmy Butler, who is worthy of one, and Tobias Harris, who is not.  The Clippers traded Harris for what they could get because they did not think him worthy of a max deal, and, as it turns out, they fleeced the "win now" 76ers for Landry Shamet and three first-round picks, killing whatever might have been left of Sam Hinkie's thoughtful "process."  Don't expect the roster to be a cornucopia of high-ceiling players; at least three will have significant holes in their games and be satisfied being part of the "happy to be here" club.  Flying on private jets and staying in five-star hotels are great perks.

Third, Ben Simmons' lack of a jump shot kills the current makeup of the team.  Absolutely kills it.  NBA basketball people know it; the press seems to ignore it, look at the positives, defend Simmons for being "only 22," point to his highlights and his stat lines.  The latter, though, are only part of the story.  Simmons touches the ball more than any other player in the league, and is happy to dribble the ball hard down the court, take off near the foul line, turn his back to the basket and try to find an open man.  That's a strategy?  Because Simmons cannot shoot, Coach Brett Brown, about whom an open question remains whether the players still listen to him, locates Simmons on the low blocks.  Why?  Because put Simmons up high and the defenders will lay off him -- he cannot and will not shoot.  As it turns out, putting Simmons on the low blocks is worse.  He clogs that area, takes it away from the league's most devastating low blocks player, Embiid, and enables his man to double Embiid, who publicly is magnanimous in his comments but privately must be livid.  Simmons might thrive in a run-and-gun scenario; he is doom to a half-court offense.  That he did not work on a jumper last summer is a reflection on his desire and character.  If he does not develop one this summer, the 76ers will have a huge problem, perhaps insurmountable.  

Fourth, Embiid needs to get into better shape.  Part of this is on him -- he has to lay off the milk shakes and try to get in the pool when his knee is bothering him.  It seems like he knows this, has accepted this and will accept this challenge.  Part of this is on the team -- NBA teams range widely in their attention to nutrition and fitness, and would be well-advised to take pages out of the books of European soccer teams to condition their players better.  An in-shape Embiid, one who can play 75 regular-season games, is a top-5 player.

Fifth, the front office seems to be dysfunctional.  The owners are New York private equity guys with little connection to the city and to the fans.  They hired a general manager with precious little experience (even if he is by all accounts a good guy), perhaps because Elton Brand was the only person willing to take the job. They are sharks about promotion and maximizing ticket value, but after the hype you have a team that is an odd aggregation of parts, not all of whom function in harmony most of the time.  Brand is outmatched as a GM, and it seems as though Jerry West and the Clippers took him to the cleaners on the Harris deal.  Odd that the league forced the team's hand to oust Hinkie and bring in the younger Colangelo because of the older Colangelo's thinly veiled interest in what was best for the league (and that Adam Silver failed to see a hidden agenda) but failed to step in to thwart this version of highway robbery.  This trade was a disaster.  Harris seemed to melt a little every time the lights got brighter.

Sixth, speculation will run rampant about free-agent signings and who goes where.  Butler and Embiid do not seem compatible with Simmons, and Brown's coaching seemed to favor Simmons over Embiid and Butler.  Butler only will return if a) Philly offers him the most money (and it can offer more to him than others) and b) if Philly offers him the best opportunity at a championship ring (much more doubtful).  The bet here is that he goes elsewhere, and to play for and with a coach who is more aligned to his style of play.  The bet here is that the team will sign Harris -- to a max deal -- and hype it to the max.  Then they will pursue various free agents, but it seems unclear as to who might be a good fit.  

Seventh, as for free agents, some speculate that the team will sign a point guard -- such as Kemba Walker or D'Angelo Russell.  Fine, but then what of a Ben Simmons without a jump shot?  That point guard will not want to co-exist with a Simmons who has to run the offense.  So, can you turn a Simmons without a jumper into a power forward?  Yes?  No?  Is that what  you drafted him for?  Or does he just morph into a much better hyped form of a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?  Simmons cannot co-exist with a true point guard, and the team does need some guards who can guard other teams' guards; it failed mightily in that regard this past season.

Eight, and this goes along with the prior points, can you trade Ben Simmons?  Opinions vary as to his worth.  My view is that he is not now viewed as someone who was worth the top pick in the NBA draft.  My view also is that there are a few front offices who still might view him that way and might want to build their franchise around him.  Which begs the question -- who are those desperate owners and general managers and who might they offer for Simmons?  One logical franchise is Sacramento, which just missed the playoffs, which has a bevy of pedigreed young players and a head of basketball who has been known to make bad decisions in the past.  Can you get Vlade Divac to give you De'aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley, Jr. or Willie Cauley-Stein for Simmons?  If you can, make the deal, and make it fast.  

Nine, the team needs to sign bench players.  Mike Scott and James Innis are worthy of a return; Greg Monroe and Boban Marjanovic should go.  JJ Redick is worthy of a return, but at compensation far less than the $23 million the team gave him last year.  That makes seven players when you include the four signed up for next year.  The team needs eight more, so if you add the first-round pick the team has it will need seven more players.  That is a tall order for any team, let alone one that is touting itself as building for even better years.  The status of the roster suggests a desperate ownership group that cashed in many chips for an obviously flawed "win now" strategy.  It also suggests that it is a funny way to build a contender for the future.

This off-season is crucial for the 76ers.  Get it right, and they get to the conference finals.  Get it wrong, and a downward spiral might begin.

And then the process was just that -- interrupted, flawed, failed.  With nothing to show for it except a sizzle machine that is worthy of Hall of Fame mention.

And plenty of empty seats.

Again.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Jan Vertonghen

Yesterday's Champions League semi-final match between quick, upstart Ajax and a battered Spurs squad was marred by the aftermath of a collision between Spurs' two center backs -- Belgian national team teammates Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who comprise one of the best center back tandems in the world.  What resulted was both players lying on the ground, Vertonghen bleeding profusely from the nose and holding his head.  The referee stopped play; the Spurs' physios ran onto the field and did what they could to stop the bleeding and do what physios normally do -- patch players up and keep them in the match.  Especially one as important as a Champions League semifinal at home.

But what Vertonghen suffered was not a kick to the shin or a bump on the back of his leg.  His head collided with that of a teammate.  Hard.  It seemed to be an awful blow.  The physios stopped the bleeding and then took Vertonghen off the field -- this is permissible without substitution, as the Spurs played with ten men on the pitch -- to change his jersey (there was blood on it) and to attempt to stop the bleeding a bit better.  Having thought they achieved that, Vertonghen -- to the delight of the Spurs' faithful, too -- was sent back onto the pitch.  Mission accomplished!

Or so someone thought, but not everyone.  Vertonghen was not right and quickly signaled so, looked woozy and almost collapsed when the referee once again stopped play to enable Sissoko to come in for him.  When the play stopped, Vertonghen, looking wobbly, needed assistance to be helped off the field.  It was a sad moment -- for football, for the Champions League, for Spurs and for Vertonghen, who clearly deserved better.  He was hurt.

It is easy, of course, to say that the Spurs' physios (for you Americans, that's trainers, which, in UK English, means sneakers) and medical staff failed Vertonghen.  I read in one account that Vertonghen passed the initial concussion protocol tests that FIFA/UEFA/EPL whomever -- have in place.  What is problematic is that there is no intermediate solution for a player -- either he gets substituted off or he remains in the game.  And in football, if a player gets substituted off, he is done for the contest.  There is no opportunity for him to go off, be evaluated, and come back in -- unless his team is willing to play a man down for a long period of time (as you might estimate it might take 20-30 minutes for a proper evaluation to occur -- and not the 2-3 minutes that Vertonghen apparently got).  So, perhaps FIFA/UEFA et al. should consider a new rule that permits a team to take a player off the field and provide a perhaps temporary substitute while that player is getting a fuller and better evaluation for a concussion.  If that rule existed, then the stark circumstances that exist now -- substitute or keep the player in the game -- go away.  But if a new rule should not come about, then the choice need not be stark, as Vertonghen has a full life to live -- take the player out of the match.  Period.

Yesterday's match deserved more discussion of Ajax's continued sparkling run, its young captain, its fearless center midfielder and its enterprising keeper.  It also warranted a discussion of Neres's hitting the post in the second half and the ramifications of that near miss, Spurs' tactics and the effect of all of Spurs' injuries and Son's suspension on the match.  All are good topics for discussion.  Instead, the mishandling of Vertonghen's injury draws a billing right after the announcement of the surprising final score.

I am not a Spurs' fan; as an Arsenal fan, it is almost constitutional that I cannot be.  Yet, I respect their organization tremendously -- from top to bottom -- and what they have accomplished.   I also like an underdog -- hence my admiration for Ajax.  What happened to Vertonghen and Spurs could have happened to any team anywhere.  Let's hope that the football powers combine their best thinking to make sure that something like this does not recur.  And here is to a speedy recover to Vertonghen, and for that matter, all other injured Spurs.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

My Friend the Accountant

Great guy.  Self-made, one of  a lot of kids, the last one in the line, father died when he was a young teenager.  Worked his rear end off, smart, serious, engaging, good husband, father, thoughtful, dependable, good neighbor, just a wonderful person.

We went to the Phillies game the other night, had a fun time, as the hometown nine won, this time in convincing fashion.  We enjoyed the game and used it as a vehicle, as many do, to get caught up.  We touched upon a lot of subjects, including the expense of going to a baseball game.  My first reaction was to joke that the expense seemed to pale in comparison to going to a 76ers' game (where there are 41 home games to the Phillies' 81) or an Eagles' game (where there are only eight home games and the Eagles' make sure to get their monies' worth).  But we did some basic math -- parking costs $20 if you want to park close enough not to exhaust your young kids by the time they get to the ball park.  Tickets on the second level can cost roughly $35 apiece, which means that's $140 for a family of four.  Let's say you need four waters -- at $5 apiece and you purchase food for four people.  It's not cheap there, so let's say by the time you buy the French fries, chicken tenders, and perhaps other artery-clogging food and ice cream you spend say $30 on water (two for the adults) and another $70 on food.  (Beers go for about $12 apiece, so let's surmise that the adults will not drink in front of the children -- not the best assumption at the ballpark).  So the interim math is $20 for parking, $140 for tickets, and say $100 on food.  Already that's $260 dollars.  And for good measure perhaps you purchase a souvenir or two, you know, a Phillie Phanatic hat or a team hat or a jersey shirt or something, and let's say you spend another $60.  That's about $320 for a family of four.

For one game.  And let's suppose you want to go to several more during the season.  That could be roughly $1,000 for four games.  That's a lot of money, especially where the average income in the region is less than $60,000.  Is it reasonable to expect someone to pay more than 1% of his/her income for the luxury of going to a baseball game and for an increasingly strange and hard-to-fathom product?  Last year there were more strikeouts than hits in the game -- for the first time ever.  And it took on average four minutes for a ball to go into play.  Even taking into account the odd turns the game has taken, it remains expensive to go to a game.

So, some questions must be asked.  Is it good business to charge $5 for a water as opposed to encouraging people to bring their own reusable water bottles and filling stations so that they can save money?  Is it good business to charge what they do for food, too, and $20 for parking while they are at it?  The principal owner of the team is worth more than $1 billion and vowed in the off-season to spend "stupid money" to sign free agents, and then gave Bryce Harper $330 million over 13 seasons for a guy who is about half as good as the unavailable and area native Mike Trout.  Perhaps John Middleton paid "market" for Bryce Harper, and it stands to reason that he believes he bestowed many good things on his fans with that signing, the signing of Andrew McCutcheon, and the trades for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto.  What he and his fellow owners -- all seemingly well-intentioned, good folks -- did not do was improve upon the fan experience in the one way that would help the fans -- making the game more affordable.

Those who defend baseball will argue that the game still draws a lot of fans and that only a few franchise have financial/attendance problems.  And they might be right.  I have gone on and on about the average age of a fan being 58 and how the younger generations are not flocking to the game because climate change has meant it is very hot to sit out there for 3.5-plus hours, because the game is increasingly boring with pitching changes, mound visits and strikeouts and such.  When the average age of a fan is 58, what that means is that you have people who are making more money presumably in their jobs because they are at a point where they are highly paid or they are retired and have save up enough to spend their discretionary money on leisure.

Perhaps.  But there is a big "but" in all of this.  Most people do not have enough to retire on.  The good economy will not last forever; we have not had a recession in 10+ years.  Parking is not all that close to the stadium, and as people age they will not be able to get to the ballpark or do the necessary walking within the stadium to get to their seats.  After all, the average person in the country is not in the best shape.  Discretionary income might not be as discretionary for people as it is now.  At some point people might say "are you crazy, I will not pay $5 for a water or $11 for a beer or $10 for crab fries.  That is insane."  (My family already is saying it).  And with brutal competition for your internet/cable dollars, people might be content to watch at home (and that gets into a whole other set of issues -- loneliness and isolation, which could end up being bigger killers than heart disease and cancer).  Putting all of this together, baseball has a unique opportunity to create a wonderful experience for a community -- where people can gather -- outside -- for a fun event that creates community.  It really can do this.

If it doesn't price people out of the market.  Especially when there are 81 games and the games are not as scarce as football (which has its own set of issues).

So back to our conversation.  His refrain -- "how can the average guy afford this?"

The answer is, increasingly, that he cannot.

Even with a growing population.  Even with a good economy.

Businesses can make decisions when they are on top or perceive that they are that can render themselves extinct.  Boxing and horse racing used to be among the top five spectator sports.  There is nothing to say that other games will not evolve them into more fringe sports.  Minor league baseball is fun, fast and affordable.  But the big-league game is not.

All you have to say is $5 for a water and you lose me at hello.

The Lords of Baseball should think hard about this.

And make some changes.