Sunday, July 31, 2005

Most Sports Shouldn't Have a Seniors Tour

I read a headline on this morning that said "Hearns Ends Five-Year Layoff With Win." Because it's baseball season, I figured that there was some pitcher named Hearns who escaped my radar screen and had somehow made a pretty amazing comeback. Not as wonderful, say, as Jim Morris's all-time story that made its way to the silver screen ("The Rookie"), but still pretty good. I mean, win against major-league pitching after a five-year layoff? Wow.

But my radar screen for things baseball is not that weak, and the only pitcher with a similar name was Jim Hearn, a journeyman pitcher with the Cardinals, Giants (when they were in New York and Willie Mays was playing) and Phillies -- in the 1940's and 1950's. Of course, if the headline were a typo and this was Jim Hearn who made a comeback, then "five-year" should have read "fifty-year", and, well, that story would have warranted a front-page headline in national papers, with the silver screen movie not far behind. While I knew, of course, that Jim Hearn couldn't have been the subject of the headline, I subsequently checked out Jim Hearn's career stats after having this initial thought rift, and there's one important detail that was missing -- Jim Hearn died in 1998.

Then again, that fact would have made the story even bigger and made us wonder whether the late John Henry Williams was in fact out of his mind when he wanted his father's body cryogenically preserved. You could see the headline now, "Cryogenically Reserved Journeyman Resuscitates Ailing Yankees' Mound Corps."

The headline, regrettably, wasn't a typo. It was about Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns, the one-time welterweight champion who fought epic battles with the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler about half his age ago. He made a comeback last night and beat some relatively middle-aged fighter, an anonymous thirty-five year old.

Comebacks by old boxers are nothing new. George Foreman made himself a national celebrity with his shaved head, girth, appetite, more sons named George than in the Windsor line in England and his fortune in putting his name on a nifty cooking appliance. Former heavyweight championLarry Holmes tried to do the same thing. And, who knows, perhaps in ten years after he shakes the cobwebs out of one of the most unique fighting brains in our era, Mike Tyson might make a comeback soon (if not, look for him to play a Sith Lord in whatever Star Wars movie that George Lucas and his minions might come up with in the future, should they decide to make a comeback; he has the right face for it).

They aren't pretty either, these comebacks. Sure, the men have the same names, but the bodies these names are attached to aren't the same as they were in their prime, and the abilities that these bodies have aren't what they used to be. No one liked to see Willie Mays at 43 chase fly balls in center field for the New York Mets -- he wasn't even half the player he was at half his age when he chased down fly balls for the New York Giants. Golf purists winced at watching Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer tee it up in the past several years at the Masters, where they had the right, as former champions, to return every year and contest the championship. You wouldn't rush out to see Bill Russell and K.C. Jones play competitive hoops today, and it wouldn't juice fans to watch Joe Montana and Dwight Clark to suit 'em up one more time for the 49ers (although a wag might argue that they could hardly fare worse at their advanced ages today than the current crop of 49ers' players would).

It would be nice to hear the legends talking about the games they played and to watch those gifted enough to entertain and teach to give clinics. Many do and simply don't enjoy the limelight, so they do so in relatively private settings. I do recall a great interview that Ahmad Rashad did on NBC years ago with Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain on the state of the NBA today and how they would play against Shaquille O'Neal. When the latter question was posed to them, you could see the competitive juices flowing in their eyes. Both agreed that they would run Shaq to tire him out, and the discussion was most compelling. Neither would have backed down, and neither was about to concede that Shaq could do anything that they couldn't answer.

Oral histories are one thing.

Oral surgery is another.

I don't want to see Bob Clarke trying to whack Phil Esposito today, when both are in their late fifties anymore than I want to see Thomas Hearns in the ring. Those greats generated great experiences for fans when they were in their prime, and by fighting today Thomas Hearns only can tarnish his image. Yet, I can see why he did it. I recall the scene in "Friday Night Lights" where Boobie Miles, the injured running back, cries in the car of his uncle asking what he would do in life because football was the only thing he was good at. My guess is that for some pro athletes, the combination of missing the competition and limited talents at other endeavors leaves them itching for a return. Some have nothing else to turn to.

Douglas MacArthur said "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away." That's what happens to many old athletes, who find different and lower-impact ways to compete. For those who still need the contact, the end product isn't always a pretty sight.

The difference between boxing and most other sports is the chance for a gate and the evolution of team sports. The need to play the best players prevents gimpy forty-two year olds from making returns after three year layoffs in the major team sports. Boxing, in its sad state of play, makes its money off headliners -- who can fill an arena, who can bring in the cable TV revenue. Until the state of play changes (and there are consolidated titles as opposed to approximately five different organizations who crown champions), old fighters will still get their chances, precisely because of the memories that they evoke and not usually because of the reflexes they can summon.

The end product can be nostalgic, sad and dangerous at the same time.

Here's to hoping that "The Hit Man" doesn't become "The Frequently Hit Man."

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Fear of Fleecing

The ominpresence of the media in baseball (and many other parts of public life) does have its (perhaps unintended) effects. General managers like to make striking trades in baseball, trades that involve more than the free agent signing of Roberto Hernandez or trading a 27 year-old AA player for Shawn Estes. They want to spring that one position player who can help ignite their sometimes-moribund lineup, or they want to acquire that craft thirty-six year-old lefty starter who can go about seven every now and then (and hopefully every fifth day) to tantalize the opposition, which otherwise is used to a diet of flamethrowing righties.

They also want to demonstrate to the manager, coaching staff and guys on the team that they have done everything in their power to improve their lineup and to add some gas in the tank. Bring over a marquis name who can start a fire, and perhaps the rest of the team will feed off the acquisition. It's happened before.

What's also happened is that some of the players traded to get that spark plug, or, that one guy who will help put you over the top because he's that extra reliever, have turned out to be almost surefire Hall of Famers. Years ago the BoSox needed some help in the bullpen and traded a AA first basemen for now-Phillies broadcaster, then set-up man, Larry Andersen. You all know his name -- Jeff Bagwell. (Andersen didn't pan out the way the BoSox wanted to). Years before that, the Detroit Tigers traded a single A pitcher to Atlanta for starting pitcher Doyle Alexander, and Alexander helped march the Tigers to a division title by going something like 9-0 down the stretch. That trade did work out well at the time. The Class A pitcher's name was John Smoltz.

This morning we all woke up and found out that the biggest news was that the Orioles and Rockies swapped mediocre outfielders (Larry Bigbie for Eric Byrnes) and that the Yankees acquired Shawn Chacon to help fortify a bullpen that is very iffy before the eighth inning. The proposed blockbuster that would send four prospects to the D-Rays, Manny Ramirez to the Mets and Mike Cameron and Aubrey Huff to the Red Sox has hit a snag (as reported on ESPN).

Complicating the fact is that certain teams don't know whether to be buyers or sellers. Take Philadelphia, for example. The Phillies, going into last night, were tied for last in the NL East, but only 6 games out of first. Their pitching staff has been riddled with injuries, their best pitching prospects are too hurt (Cole Hamels) or too confused (Gavin Floyd) to help now, and they could use a starter. Or perhaps two. Their "franchise" player, Jim Thome, has been on the DL for a while, and their best player, OF Bobby Abreu, has been in an awful slump since winning the All-Star weekend's HR contest in Secretariat-like fashion. They have some live bats in the lineup (Chase Utley immediately comes to mind), but it isn't the same without a healthy Thome.

And they have the hottest commodity out there, a pitcher who was voted in this past week's SI as having the best fastball in the game, closer Billy Wagner. The Red Sox and White Sox would get into a dramatic bidding war for his services, and the Phillies could re-load for next year, get Thome healthy (assuming he's still in the picture), get Randy Wolf healthy and Jon Lieber and Vicente Padilla fully straightened out and have a nice-looking team for '06, especially because they could add perhaps three prospects to the mix in a Wagner trade (although the reports I've read have indicated that the Phillies were asking "too much" for Wagner). Still, it's tempting.

But then there's the overall credibility problem. Any franchise would feel the heat if they threw in the towel and traded their closer, one of the game's best, when they're only 6 games out on August 1 (the ChiSox did that about 10 years ago when they traded about six players to the Giants when they were only 3 1/2 games or so out of first). The Phillies would especially feel it, because their credibility is so low with the fans anyway (the front office's credibility, that is) for a whole host of reasons I've written about before and won't repeat at this time. Trade Wagner, trade Thome even (were there to be any takers, and that's doubtful because of his contract and because he's hurt), and you're sending a message that you're rebuilding, and that could make it harder to sign attractive free agents, many of whom, you'd think, would want to join a contender. Then again, some AL team might want Thome (and you can unload a portion of his salary), and Wagner is a free agent after this year and has hinted that he wants to be on a contender. Tempting to trade them, isn't it?

What do you do?

Ed Wade, the Phillies' GM, hasn't been shy about making trades our about signing free agents. To his credit (in the sense that he hasn't always sat still), he's made some bold moves, but they've almost always occurred in the off-season. During the season, he hasn't done much to help his club during his seven-year tenure, usually making small moves, with his biggest one last year being the addition of career journeyman C Kelly Stinnett. The big trades that were made during the season in the past -- unloading Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen -- were unmitigated disasters. The Phillies' top prospects -- 1B Ryan Howard and pitchers Hamels and Floyd -- are being treated with such reverence that they might be held onto for too long (that's a much better argument in Howard's case than for the two hurlers). The team needs something other than the passage of time to get everyone healthy. Will they have the guts to go out and get it?

Sure, big contracts and the luxury tax have made the matter more complicated, but what's confounding is that almost every major league team save about four or five is in the hunt as of this date, and there has been almost no movement. The GMs are not stupid people, that's for sure, and most have to know the flaws of their teams. They need help to get away from the pack or to get ahead in the wild-card hunt, and they know it.

But they're still not making deals. Perhaps it's because there are so many "contenders" as it were that it's become a hotter market for sellers anywhere other than in residential real estate in New York City. Correspondingly, if so many teams believe they're in the hunt, they won't be willing to make a trade that ultimately could weaken their squad.

In other words, some of these contenders are hanging on by a thread.

And, to boot, they're afraid of being fleeced in their desperation to deliver a playoff team.

The ghost of Larry Andersen is a alive and well.

And the pennants races will be something to behold, wars of attrition more than thoroughbreds leaving opponents in the dust. Reports from the trainers' rooms will get top attention, as more pitchers and position players will be asked to wave the bloody sock made famous by Curt Schilling, rub on some liniment (or have cadaver skin sewn to their ankles to keep balky tendons in place), show up in the bullpen after going eight innings two days earlier or play with a hamstring so battered that one lunge for a ball in the gap could require surgery.

Which means, if you're a Cardinals' fan, you have to like your chances (I'd same the same about the White Sox, but with Frank Thomas gone for the year, it's a different team).

And, if you're almost everyone else, get out your good luck charms and make offerings to the baseball gods.

Because it appears as of this morning that your home team's GM will have very little to offer you.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

It's The Journey: The Larry Brown Story

Click here to see what I mean.

And a few quotes come to mind.

First, from career lefty journeyman fourth/fifth starter Dave LaPoint, who played for 9 teams in 11 Major League seasons. Upon reflecting upon his travels at the end of his career, LaPoint said something like, "My goal is to be a teammate of everyone in the Major Leagues." Whereupon a sabremetrics type calculated that at the end of his career, LaPoint had been teammates of about one quarter of the players then in the Major Leagues. Fast forward to Larry Brown's coaching history. Certainly, he hasn't traveled as frequently as baseball legend Harry "Suitcase" Simpson, NBA guard Flynn Robinson (who always seemed, in the 70's, to be included in every major trade) and LaPoint. But he has traveled a lot. So the challenge to the true numbers types is to figure out what percentage of current NBA players has played for Larry Brown. My guess is somewhere around 15%, given that careers can be short-lived.

Second, from Whitey Herzog, the outstanding manager for the Kansas City Royals in the 1970's. He once was asked how much difference a manager could make for a baseball team, and his response was, "Give me horsebleep talent and a Hall of Famer manager or a horsebleep manager and Hall of Fame talent, and I'll bet on the horsebleep manager every time." Fast forward, again, to Coach Brown. All the kings horses and men couldn't fix Humpty Dumpty, so why does this guy think that he can fix the Knicks? Then again, the second questioner at today's Knicks press conference (after TV personality Warner Wolf) pointed out that the Knicks haver seven one-time lottery picks on their roster. Of course, ESPN The Insider (John Hollinger) has done an analysis of the lottery picks over the past ten seasons, and he rates the Knicks dead last in drafting acumen during that time (the bright spot: Trevor Ariza, last year's second-year pick, looks very promising). The general NBA consensus is that the Knicks' roster has all sorts of problems, and it's hard to figure that even a coach as skilled as Brown can nurture this team into a contender.

So, the Larry Brown gypsy caravan has made its way to New York after stops in about half a dozen NBA cities, the Carolina Cougars of the ABA, UCLA and Kansas. Knicks fans should be happy that their beloved franchise has spent dearly to retain a Hall of Fame coach. How he will deal with Hall of Fame personnel blunders will remain to be seen.

Those of us who remember the daily tension between the mellow beyond belief coach and the 76ers star player, Allen Iverson, will watch with bewilderment at the interactions between Brown, his shoot-first PG Stephone Marbury, and his gunning wing players -- Jamal Crawford, Quentin Richardson and Alan Houston. It wil not be that much fun. You could have hired Guy Williams, the oft-maligned University of Houston coach who coached Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the rest of Phi Slamma Jamma (Rob Williams, Larry Micheaux and Michael Young filled out the remainder of this Fab Five) to coach the Dream Team that played for the U.S. in the '92 Olympics and Larry Brown to coach the Brazilian national team with Oscar, the offensive-minded forward who shot incessantly from outside, and the U.S. would have won hands down.

You still need the players. Either Larry Brown knows something that we do not, or he will get frustrated in New York rather quickly. He's met many challenges before and well could be up to this one, but when Knick fans start to get giddy with this rift, they should always remember what Whitey Herzog said.

You need players.

Even if you're Larry Brown.

Governor Hoops

Great article in today's USA Today regarding NJ's acting governor, Richard Codey, who coaches youth hoops in his spare time, most recently in a 95-degree gym. His older son is a junior co-captain of the hoops team at Drew University (which I believe is DIII), and his younger son plays HS hoops.

From many reports, Codey has gotten high marks as Acting Governor (he acceded to the role from the State Senate after then-Governor Jim McGreevey resigned last year). He won't be running for election in the fall, and it's an open question as to what he might do next.

Coaching basketball presents many challenges, but I'm sure that after dealing with the NJ legislature, it's a piece of cake.

Even in a 95-degree gym.

Many politicians appear on national media outlets in the sporting realm. President Richard Nixon, who resigned in August 1974, rehabilitated his public image by appearing at baseball games. PA Governor Ed Rendell does post-game football commentary on the Philadelphia Eagles for Comcast SportsNet, and he attends as many University of Pennsylvania football and basketball games as he can. You can spot him in the Palestra, Penn's wonderful home gym, in the middle of the lower-tier section that is across from the visitor's bench. Illinois Governor Rod Blagoyevich, who from my recent reports seems to be suffering in the opinion polls, shows up on Mike & Mike in the Morning on ESPN Radio from time to time, and one-time sportscaster J.D. Hayworth, a Congressman from Arizona, shows up on nationally syndicated Imus in the Morning, and I'm sure there are many others.

Perhaps the difference is that Codey seemingly didn't seek the national spotlight. He probably was reasonably happy in the State Senate in NJ, and surely coaching youth hoops isn't an attention getter the way doing commentary on a well-watched sports network does. And that fact might make Codey more endearing. It's not that the others are bad because they don't coach youth basketball, you can't say that. It's just that Codey is true to himself and staying with what he loves to do.

It's a fun story amidst a hot summer.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Glazers Should Beware

Several months ago, they finished the job and bought Manchester United, the marquis name (sorry, Arsenal and Chelsea fans) in the English Premiership, which, for those of my readers who a) will read on because this is about soccer and b) know nothing about soccer, is the top league in English football. For those of you who know about soccer, Man U is one of the best franchises in the world, a perennial contender. Among other squads in that rarified air are Arsenal and Chelsea of the Premiership, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus of the Italian League (the top league in Italy, that is; there is what is tantamount to a "B" League, too), Barcelona and Real Madrid of the Spanish League (again, the top league in Spain), Bayern Munich in the German League and so on. That's a rough landscape, but it should do for this post.

The sale of Man U was put, in the U.S. papers, as the equivalent of a sale of perhaps the most heralded franchise in all of U.S. sports, the New York Yankees baseball team. The Glazers got Man U and their valuable trademarks, and they believe, of course, that they can cash in on the Man U magic (I'd use mojo, but that's reserved for West Texas high school football) on an international basis. They paid dearly for the privilege, that's for sure.

Right now, Man U is in third place in the Premiership, behind surprising Chelsea (which has had an amazing year) and behind bellwether Arsenal as well. Both of those teams are based in London. For years, Chelsea fans had bemoaned the fact that they had become a relative also-ran, certainly not in danger of being relegated to the First Division, but not necessarily in striking distance of Man U, Arsenal, Liverpool and a flavor of the year who were at or near the top of the Premiership.

That was then.

Because Chelsea has a relatively new owner -- one of the Russian oligarchs -- Roman Abramovich. You're probably talking Glazer money (or more) with a Steinbrennerian temperment (or more). Get the guys with the big talent, win games. It's that simple, and Chelsea's doing it. Read this link for the latest news on a rumor about who Chelsea might be pursuing. The name, Shevchenko, won't mean much to Americans, but it will mean everything to fans of international soccer. The rumor, of course, is denied, and Chelsea burned its fingers on the stove earlier this year when they dallied with Arsenal player Ashley Cole, only to get fined for tampering. Clearly, the Chelsea squad is hell-bent on firmly maintaining its perch atop The Premiership. If they cast out enough lucrative offers, they're bound to field an "A" list team for years to come.

What will become of Man U? There are no reports of any demise at Old Trafford, the famous pitch on which Man U and its red jerseys play their home games. Will this dynasty remain so? Or, as with some dynasties, will it fall victim to the fierce Darwinism that takes place in professional sports? The bet here is that they'll stay near the top of the Premiership for a long while. The Glazers didn't leave themselves bankrupt when they paid all that money for Man U, and no doubt they'll have sufficient funds to acquire new talent and reward existing talent.

They'll have to.

Still, with Chelsea having come on like a freight train, and with Arsenal always tough, English soccer, err, football, should enjoy some great teams for years to come.

But they should allow for the fact that the champions, on occasion, will be owned by an American or a Russian.

Which means it's only a matter of time before a state-owned Chinese company or the Sultan of Brunei make a serious run for the New York Yankees.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Get Your Kicks

I suppose I also could have entitled this "I Get No Kick From Champagne" after the Cole Porter hit "I Get a Kick out of You," and I should be quick to point out that when I'm speaking of kicks I'm not speaking of a slang reference to sneakers (that's trainers for my readers across the pond). And before I continue on this rift, I need to state that this post is not about soccer, about which I post from time to time.

No, it's about kickball. It's making a comeback.

Yes, the kickball that you played on an asphalt playground in elementary school is now more popular than ever, owing, to some degree, from the fact that people who once played it in elementary school are now playing it as adults. There's even a World Kickball Association, and, yes, the kids are still playing it in elementary school.

I have ambivalent memories about playing kickball. I discovered it in second grade, at a time in my life when I went to a new elementary school and was finding my way there. I wasn't a bad athlete then (it was only in post-adolescence that I discovered that my feet wouldn't move as fast as my brain told them too), but I wasn't a veteran of the school, and I wasn't included in kickball games in the early fall. Thankfully, we had a good second grade teacher, and she assigned the ball to a different kid each day so no one could hog it. Early in the school year, on a day the ball was mine, I was bouncing it around the playground when one of the biggest kids, the kid who frequently got into trouble but the teachers didn't dislike because he was charming (and those peers who didn't envy or even admire his skill hated him for it; I benignly envied it -- he was somewhat hard to like, but much harder to dislike), came up to me and told me that the ball was needed for kickball. I told him fine, but I had to be included in the game, and he said "Of course" and I was a regular in the game ever after. At any rate, it was fun because you could play it on asphalt without getting hurt, and you could kick the big ball far. In a sense, it was the only game in town. The field adjacent to the school was more a rock refuge, it sloped sideways, and it wasn't the easiest to play football on. Baseball was out of the question, because most kids couldn't throw the ball with any sense of where it would end up. There was a serious risk of bodily injury in the national pastime.

We took our games seriously, as second grade boys were wont to do, because our worlds were small and at that point in the world one defined himself the best among his peers not through the speed with which he did math problems but through how far he could kick the bouncy red ball or how well he could hurl it. There were some good athletes in those games, too, but while they were good you could tell at that time they were good within reason. No one was doing anything supernatural with the ball the way a future professional athlete would, and none of the players became a star athlete in high school (some did play on varsity teams, but never as the headliners). They would become, later in life, a paper salesman with a drinking problem, a paper sales executive without a drinking problem, a jeweler who had kicked a drug habit, a corporate trainer, a couple of divorce lawyers, a PhD from MIT, and a few guys, to borrow from "Animal House", whose whereabouts are "parts unknown." (Don't try to guess my occupation; I didn't list myself among the participants).

Still, back then, every game counted. We rushed out to recess and after lunchtime, and we bristled when the bell rang and we had to shuffle back into school. Look back, it didn't mean much -- it meant almost everything.

I don't know what lessons I recall from those days. Perhaps the adages "95% of life is all about showing up" and "possession is 9/10's of the law" come to mind, but I can't say, as some coaches have, that I learned about character or could predict who would become what because of the way they approached the bouncing rubber ball. Many of those who didn't get chosen still turned out fine, and some who starred didn't. In the end, it was just another kid's game.

So they're playing it again, the weekend warriors are, and good for them. I hope that they get great enjoyment from this game and that they stay in shape as a result. Too many people are out of shape these days, either failing to find the time to exercise or failing to find something that intrigues them. For men over 40 who want to live into their 80's the answer is simple -- you don't see many overweight men who are in their 80's. Get your kicks in if you must -- you'll be better off for it.

And, when you catch the biggest jerk in the league in a rundown, hit him hard with the red rubber ball. It won't hurt much, because it's hard to throw it with much on it, but nail him just the same.

For old times' sake.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Melting Mojo? (Updated)

Original Post -- 7/20/05

I loved Buzz Bissinger's book Friday Night Lights, about HS football in Odessa, Texas, and, while the movie didn't live up to the book (that would have been a tall order, as I count the book as one of my top five sports books of all time), it was quite good. I didn't get the chance to see it in the theater, but I've watched it a few times on DVD, and I enjoyed it.

Of course, it left me a little bit curious as to the state of HS football at Permian HS today. I had read that Roy Williams, the one-time star Texas WR now among a trio of potential superstar receivers with the Lions, went to Permian, but I wondered as to how the Mojo was going recently. I checked out this website for answers.

As you can see, the Mojo magic last appeared, really, in 1998, which I believe was Williams' senior year at Permian. Since '98, the varsity has gone 29-31 and has not made the playoffs. Given the fervor for HS football that was portrayed in both the book and the movie, I wonder how the alumni and town elders are taking this. After all, they are somewhat familiar with droughts in West Texas. Somehow, I think that for this West Texas town, the lack of rain might be easier to take than a paucity of victories on the gridiron.

I'm not familiar enough with Jared Diamond's work to have figured out why societies can vanish, why certain dynasties fail, why certain things are so hard to sustain year in and year out. You hear from time to time the comment that while winning the first title is tough, winning the second one is even harder. Well, this is a school that has won six state titles in 40 years, no small feat in the most football-obsessed state in the country. I'm not familiar enough with Permian, West Texas or Texas to know why the HS football program at Permian has been average for the past six years.

But there are a few things that come to mind. One is evolution. For as long as Permian was sustaining its excellence, they were the measuring stick. Other schools had to figure out how to beat Permian to reach the pinnacle. You might argue that eventually if one school district kept trying, they'd figure out how to do it. If that has been the case, then it figures that other school districts would follow. The second is burnout. While success can beget success, it also can weigh so hard on the minds of impressionable young men that the pressure is too much to bear, so much so that even good kids and players walk away. Sports are supposed to be fun, but it must be hard when you walk into a situation where not advancing to the state semifinals each year might be deemed a failure. The third is population. It well could be that other areas developed faster than the Permian area, which means that other school districts grew at Permian's expense, because people might have moved into those areas instead of Permian's. If that has been the case, other districts have prospered at a disparate rate when compared to Permian. Translated into something more understandable, other districts may be drawing more people than Permian's, thereby giving those districts a bigger pool of potential players to choose from.

One case in point is somewhat closer to me are the Philadelphia suburbs, where the legendary Central Bucks West HS is located. This school, located in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (the county seat of beautiful Bucks County), had a great coach in a guy named Mike Pettine, Sr. (his son, Mike Jr., was featured in an ESPN documentary about a nearby HS, North Penn, that had a pretty good team of its own, a few years back; Mike Jr. is now outside LB coach for the Baltimore Ravens, and Mike Sr. is retired, and he was featured in a few documentaries as well). Pettine Sr. had a record of something like 300-30 in his years at C.B. West, and he build a dynasty. When he stepped down, a few things happened to C.B. West. One, his chosen successor, a charismatic coach (from newspaper accounts), Mike Carey, stayed for only a year, because his business committments were too demanding. The next coach, Randy Cuthbert, a one-time C.B. West star who starred at Duke and played a few years in the NFL, had his work cut out for him. For starters, Pettine Jr. was building a dynasty at a rival HS. Second, Neshaminy, a large district nearby, was coming on strong, thanks to a strong coach in Mark Schmidt. Third, the Central Bucks School District, the third largest in Pennsylvania behind Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, was creating a third HS, C.B. South (there's also C.B. East). As a result, the population going to C.B. West was decreasing, and now kids who might have gone there were going to South. All told, a bunch of factors contributed to taking C.B. West off the national map.

Dynasties are hard to hold onto, nearly impossible if you ask me. The Yankees don't win it every year, and they have more money than Croesus. Even lesser goals are harder to achieve. This past season, Princeton ended a 50-year streak of having winning records in Ivy hoops competition (men's). Sounds easy, winning more than 50% of your games in the Ivy league, doesn't it, even if your Penn or Princeton? Not a chance. They had some pretty good teams there.

The good news is that just because teams fall off their lofty perches doesn't mean that they're fated never to return. Tides ebb and flow. Get a few good players, get a coach who can inspire and who demands excellence, and the magic -- or Mojo -- can return.

Or start anew.

Just ask the 2004 Red Sox, for starters.

Update (July 24). I picked up a copy of the newest paperback version of the book at my local Barnes & Noble and read Buzz Bissinger's afterword, which is quite good. In a nutshell, the overall reaction to the book probably contributed greatly to the decline of this football dynasty. If you're a fan of Texas HS football, you would have categorized the Mojo Madness as emblematic of the passion Texans have for football. If you're a detractor, you would have categorized the passion as borderline insanity. If you're in the middle, you might have said that while community spirit is great, the community was overlooking certain other priorities, such as opportunities for other kids in other sports and the overall quality of its education. As Bissinger points out, while the passion remains, partly in response to the book, the school district has taken measures to improve the overall quality of educational life at Odessa Permian. Put differently, it isn't just about football anymore.

A friend of mine who is a priest told me a funny story about what he was told about playing golf when he first became a priest. The old joke was, "Break 90, and you're neglecting your parish. Shoot over 90, and you're neglecting your golf game." The same might hold true for HS football. Win more than 7-8 games every year, and you're neglecting your HS. Win fewer than half your games every year, and you're neglecting your football team.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Rap Sheets And The Rap Generation

All winter and spring, one of the major stories in the NBA was that Commissioner David Stern wanted an age limit. He didn't want Diaper Dandies playing in the NBA, plain and simple. He probably didn't like what he perceived to be the NBA's version of childcare, the posse, running the lives of young players who were entering the league. Perhaps he didn't think that these kids could handle the pressures of NBA life, and you can bet he perceived the influx of HS kids as being bad for the NBA's image.

I had argued the contrary position before, because I didn't think that the youngsters are the cause of the NBA's problems. I still don't, and I think that the best players should play in the premier league, whether they're eighteen (LeBron James as a rookie) or thirty-eight (Reggie Miller). And, to the extent that the NBA's reasoning resulted from rap sheets of the kids once they joined the league, Michael McCann of The Sports Law Blog has demonstrated that there is no correlation whatsoever between youth and arrests among the NBA population. In fact, the opposite is true.

Read his entire post, as it presents an excellent study of NBA players who have been arrested over the past several years. The striking point is that the kids (with perhaps one exception) don't show up on the list, but college-educated veterans predominate.

A friend of mine once told me that in life "the complaint isn't the problem," that when someone complains about something he usually has a beef, but the beef isn't what he relates. It's usually something else.

I've always thought that to be the case with the NBA, and I'll reiterate my point that by focusing on the ills of the HS generation, the NBA was deflecting the public's attention from its real problems. Sure, the NBA doesn't want HS kids who aren't ready for the league joining it; no one does. Sure, the NBA doesn't want the Korleone Youngs and Ousmane Cisses of the world from ruining potential promising careers by joining the draft out of HS. But the NBA did benefit greatly from LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire, to name a few, and foregoing college didn't hurt the careers that much of kids named Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O'Neal and Rashard Lewis, even if it took them a few years to get going in the league. My guess is that Greg Oden and O.J. Mayo would help the league more than hurt it if permitted to skip college and join the league directly out of HS. If the age limit is a real issue, it's a minor one.

You can read my prior posts as to the ailments of the NBA; I won't repeat them here (you can hit the links about and read what I had to say). And while I don't love the dunk, think And1's street ball is mildly amusing for about five minutes but otherwise think it's neutral at best for the game, and while I think that there are too many self-interested people giving biased advice to young players (translated: put up the points to get noticed; forego the fundamentals), it's the overall product that needs an overhaul.

The influx of foreign players has been great for the NBA. It has given the league an international appeal, it has enabled the best players from around the world to play in the best league, and it has injected a core of fundamentally sound players into the league. Does this mean that the quality of U.S. hoops has slipped or that the quality of international ball has improved? I think it's a little bit of both. The great players in the U.S. are so athletic that they have eschewed the fundamentals to some extent. That tactic may work through HS and some college, but when you get to the NBA a lack of skills even for the best athlete could make him an average player at best. In contrast, less athletic foreign players have made inroads because they can shoot the mid-range jumper, defend, pass and hit the boards. This phenomenon has nothing to do with the age of players entering the NBA.

The proof is in the rap sheets, not the rap generation.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Transfer's GPA Should Help New Team More Than His PPG

This one's just too good to resist.

About three years ago, the University of Pennsylvania had recruited two hotshot post players from national HS programs. One, Steve Danley, has turned into a nice center (he'll be a junior in the fall) -- he played his HS ball at the famed DeMatha Catholic program in Hyattsville, Maryland. The other, and perhaps more highly touted, was Ryan Pettinella, a forward from one of the top five HS teams in the country, McQuaid Jesuit out of Rochester, NY. Pettinella didn't do much for most of his freshman year, came on strong at the end, and was in Penn's rotation last year (Penn's rotation consisted of a 6'8" center (Danley), a 6'6" SF and three guards (6'3" and above) and two big forwards, graduated senior Jan Fikiel and Pettinella. Pettinella showed some fire last year, but he still looked unpolished offensively.

And apparently he wasn't happy at Penn, so he announced his intention to transfer. Initial speculation was on A-10 school St. Bonaventure, which is close to his Rochester home. That might have made some sense, as would have a transfer to a school with decent hoops and a good academic reputation.

But both were not to be.

Ryan Pettinella has transferred to the University of Cincinnati.

Now, to be fair, Pettinella is entitled to his decision, Cincinnati has some good academic programs, and Bob Huggins does know how to coach hoops. But, the program has been known as a renegade program, and it isn't as though relatively slow-footed Ivy hoopsters intuitively have a place in a program that is known for having outstanding athletes. You could ask that if Pettinella had such a good game coming out of HS, why didn't he go to a good national school that played a tough schedule and featured solid academics, such as Rice, Tulane, Vanderbilt, and many others. For whatever reason, he didn't do that, and I ask the Penn cognoscenti who sometimes read this blog to weigh in on what Pettinella's choices were coming out of HS. You wouldn't think that Cincinnati was one of them (then again, when kids do transfer, frequently they transfer to schools that did recruit them hard out of HS).

I ask the Cincinnati fans who might read this post (and there are those of you out there) what Cincinnati is thinking by inking Pettinella. Is Huggins convinced that Pettinella is a player, or is he throwing a bone to University President Nancy Zimpfer, about whom I've blogged before, by bringing in a player who definitely is a "scholar-athlete?" (Reports out of Cincinnati is that Zimpfer wants Huggins out, and the two definitely are photographed together frequently -- Zimpfer, reports indicate, wants to enhance Cincinnati's image and doesn't necessarily believe that Huggins helps the school's brand name).

I wish Ryan Pettinella well at his new school. Here's to hoping that he'll find the appropriate balance between basketball and school that apparently eluded him at Penn.

It's just that when you hear of a HS kid's decisions, usually when he's considering to play for Penn he might be considering a few scholarship schools, Princeton and a couple of other Ivies. Cincinnati doesn't usually figure into the mix.

Until now.

Just don't expect that if Frank Sullivan were to leave his post coaching Harvard that Bob Huggins would make the short list (were he in need of employment). True, Harvard did lure Cincinnati's then-outstanding football coach, Tim Murphy, to Cambridge about ten years ago, with outstanding results. Then again, Murphy wasn't compared to Jackie Sherrill in the press the way Huggins occasionally draws a comparison to Jerry Tarkanian.

So watch out, Ivy League, as your top recruits might also be on Cincinnati's list.

When Being #6 Is Something To Cheer About

We live in a country and a world where people always remember who won, but seldom, if ever, remember who came in second. Sure, we'll remember that Joe Frazier fought amazing bouts with Muhammad Ali, that the Celtics and Lakers battled mightily in the 1980's in the NBA (and that Celtic and Rangers battle mightily in the Scottish Premiership -- at least Scots will remember that), but we don't remember who finished second to Lance Armstrong three years ago or who Michael Phelps edged out for his gold medals. It's hard enough to remember the champions if you go back enough years, let alone those who were the runners up.

Which means, of course, that if you're not number one, what does your ranking mean? For starters, it tells you who you have to beat to get to the top. If you're not ranked number two, what does your ranking mean? Again, it tells you what you have to do to get to the finals, if the final game is a two-person or two-team matchup. So, if you're number 6, why should you get excited?

Because we're talking about soccer, that's why. Particularly, U.S. men's soccer. Most recently, FIFA, the ruling body for international soccer, came out with its perioidic ratings. And before you say, "well, there's Brazil, Argentina, England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain and then all the rest," look again. Because in the peleton behind Brazil at #6 is the U.S. national team -- its highest ranking ever.

While some of the perennial bellwethers are ranked highly, currently showing up in the top five are Mexico and Czech Republic, both of which, while historically decent teams, haven't been elite teams. Coming in at #3 is the Netherlands, which, as the tallest country in the world (i.e., its citizens average the greatest height in the world), had fallen on hard times (I might be wrong, but I believe the Dutch national team failed to make the World Cup in 2002), with some suggesting that if your players are too tall, they can't compete as effectively on the pitch. So, does this mean that the ratings are upside down? No.

It's unclear what the ratings actually reflect. Italy, which has some outstanding players, is ranked #14, so it's not clear whether the Italians have fallen off or they simply haven't played their best players in the international matches that contribute to these ratings (meaning that they haven't won as many games as they could have had they played their front-line talent all the time). Still, rankings have to be based on something, and the #6 ranking is nothing to laugh about. What this says is that the U.S. has some a long way in the past ten years in soccer and is a force to be reckoned with.

If the rankings hold and the U.S. team peforms accordingly, look for them to make the quarterfinals of World Cup 2006.

U.S. fans love contenders and winners. If the national team continues to improve and has a chance at competing meaningfully with the titans -- Brazil, Argentina and France, among others -- more and more U.S. viewers will tune in.

We call baseball's championship the World Series, and while U.S. players are the best in baseball, not that many other nations play the game (evidence of this is that the International Olympic Committee just dropped baseball from the summer games). We deem the winners of the Super Bowl world champions, and while they're the best at what they do, football is hardly played in any other country. While basketball is played worldwide, it isn't played on very high levels in that many countries outside the U.S.

But soccer is.

We've watched Lance Armstrong defeat cancer and win the Tour de France year after year. We watched the U.S. men's ice hockey team defeate the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Games en route to the gold. Outstanding accomplishments, both.

But if somehow the U.S. men's soccer team were to win World Cup 2006, well, that would be one of the most amazing stories of them all.

Because then a U.S. team would have beaten the world at its own game.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Best Hockey Player in Ecuador Syndrome

Read this and get a sense of what I'm talking about.

A good (blogger) friend of mine likes to deal in analogies, so he'll use the phrase used in the title to the post when confronted with some information that is less than impressive. For example, if you say someone's the best securities lawyer in Boise, a place not known for securities lawyers, he'll remark "isn't that like saying someone is the best hockey player in Ecuador?" Current sports examples would be "he's the best starting pitcher on the Rockies," "he's the best running back in the Ivy League," "she's the best soccer player in Calgary" and, well, you know the drill.

Which brings us, of course, to the subject of the link -- Penn State basketball. I blogged earlier this year about whether schools in the Big Ten were football or basketball schools (one reader correctly pointed out that Minnesota is neither -- it's a hockey school). It's not a great thing to be the head hoops coach at a football school or the head football coach at the great hoops school. Few know the name of the Penn State hoops coach or the Duke football coach. Especially when compared to the household name that the head football and hoops coaches at those respective schools. And the legacies of the hoops program at Penn State and the football program at Duke are rather small.

So what should one make of Penn State's hoops program? Four years ago it made it to the Sweet 16. Shortly thereafter, Coach Jerry Dunn was fired, and he was placed with his former assistant, Eddie DeChellis, a Penn State alum, who had done some distinguished coaching at East Tennessee. DeChellis wasn't the big name eastern hoopsters were hoping for (for example, Penn head coach Fran Dunphy was mentioned as a possible candidate), but he had produced, if at a lower level of competition, he was an alum, and he had been an assistant in Happy Valley.

But in three years he's fared miserably. Worse, he's suffered a significant amount of attrition, and he lost two very good players from last year's squad. He's a positive guy, and he's trying to turn all of his bad news into good stuff, but you can't win without good players. (Mike & Mike in the Morning on ESPN Radio featured a good-natured back-and-forth in which Mike Golic doubted that Larry Brown could turn the Knicks into a championship contender in three years, while Mike Greenberg argued that he could; I agree with Golic -- the guy's name is Larry Brown, not Merlin -- he's a coach, not a magician, and without the players Brown won't coach a contender). And DeChellis simply doesn't have them.

And it's hard to get those players to Penn State, too. Penn State is not near a major city, it's relatively rural, it doesn't have much of a hoops tradition to speak of, it's a football school, and so far it hasn't doled out the bucks to the type of name coach that might be able to fashion a winner. Not only is he competing against other Big Ten schools for talent, but also Coach DeChellis is competing against Big East and A-10 schools too. West Virginia had an excellent team last year, as did Pitt and Villanova. The Big Ten disappointed in the regular season, but came up mighty in the NCAA Tourney. There are lots of good players for the asking, but right now their destination isn't Happy Valley.

It's hard to tell from the article whether this is a make-or-break year for Coach DeChellis. But if it isn't this year, it might have to be next year. With the attrition, this year's squad doesn't seem too promising, which means that in the remaining weeks of the summer, Coach DeChellis needs to get oral commitments from a few players with serious game in order to help turn the Nittany Lions into a contender.

But here's the rub for a HS star. Go to Penn State, be the man, be a 20 ppg scorer on a team that goes 10-18 and doesn't play in the post-season. Perhaps get invited to Portsmouth, the first NBA tryout camp (which hasn't turned out that many NBA players when compared to the more prestigious tryout camp held subsequently in Chicago), perhaps play overseas. Be the best hoopster in Happy Valley, err, the best hockey player in Ecuador. Or, go to a team that is a contender, perhaps ride the pine a bit but get better through banging against upperclassmen in practice and then working on your game in the summers, help your school get into the Big Dance, and then have a better hoops experience. If you're that HS star, where do you go?

And that's where Ed DeChellis has to give the best sales pitch of his career.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Decorative Lettuce (and the Power of Patience)

Decorative lettuce, you say?

A friend of mine is a fund manager, and in his job he evaluates the stocks of a variety of companies on a daily basis. Periodically, as an investor or potential investor, he meets with management teams of companies to kick the tires and ask them questions regarding their businesses. Very frequently, he listens in on public companies' quarterly earnings' calls, in which management teams announce the most recent quarter's earnings to the public. Typically, institutional investors and securities analysts populate these calls.

Years and years ago, a major airline held a conference tall to talk about its recent earnings and about its need to restructure and cut costs -- between $500 million and $750 million. The CEO began his presentation with a discussion of the decorative lettuce that was included with the meals that the airline served and how its elimination would save the airline about $1 million a year. The audience gasped, at least metaphorically (because the calls place the listeners on mute), and with whatever quick forms of communication they had in those days, got the word out to traders everywhere that this management team had some interesting priorities (the basic reaction was that the company had to cut between $500 million to $750 million a year in costs, and here they were talking about decorative lettuce). The stock sank rapidly that day and lost a significant amount of its value.

Which brings me to the Boston Red Sox. They announced a couple of deals yesterday, in which they acquired IF Tony Graffanino from AAAA Kansas City, journeyman OF Adam Hyzdu from San Diego (it's his fourth stint with Boston, and his claim to fame is that the's the guy who succeeded Ken Griffey, Jr. as the CF for Moeller High in Cincinnati), and OF Gabe Kapler, who cut short his journey in Japan to rejoin the BoSox. In addition, they let go Alan Embree, a one-time outstanding lefty reliever who had struggled mightily this year. You can read all about it here. Is this serious stuff, or is this just decorative lettuce?

Gotta respect the BoSox organization for what they did last year. But that was last year. And these moves, by any account, are small potatoes (they call into view the scene from "Crocodile Dundee", where a mugger wields a stiletto and, in trying to mug Crocodile Dundee, says "I've got a knife." To which the Aussie outdoorsman shrugs, pulls out a machete from his shirt and says, "That's not a knife. This is a knife." Memo to Theo Epstein: those aren't real serious moves. P.S.: Hope that the Boss of your Evil Empire doesn't acquire the equivalents of Mace Windu or Qui-Gon Jin before the trading deadline is over.

Which brings me to the franchise that still probably isn't sure whether it's a buyer or seller -- Philadelphia. The Phillies have played great since the All-Star break, even if they are pitching- challenged in a ballpark that had to have been designed by someone from Disney's theme parks (the theme here: "Home Run Derby"). They've played well with their big free agent signee, Jon Lieber, on the DL, with solid if inconsistent lefty Randy Wolf on the DL, with their bullpen still figuring itself out, and with Paul Bunyan, err, 1B Jim Thome, on the DL. They have plenty of excuses if they lose, but they're finding reasons to win.

Exhibit A: Ryan Howard. Howard is the 1B prospect who hit 40-plus HRs at AA and AAA last season, and was hitting about .380 at AAA this season, but found himself stuck behind Jim Thome with nowhere to go in Philadelphia, because he's not OF material. There were tons of articles about how Father Time was working against the Phillies, how they should have traded him when he was red hot last year, when his market value was at its highest, how the Phillies were simply failing to leverage on of their best assets -- the right to Howard. The jury is still out on that one, of course, but the Phillies and their fans are grateful when the injury-plagued Thome went down that the organization still had Howard. Last night, he got off to a woeful start, and he struck out the first three times he faced Dodger pitching. Showing the patience of a veteran, Howard hung in there and hit a mammoth two-run homer in the bottom of the tenth to give the Phillies the win.

Now, the Phillies may not have the magical mojo of the Nationals, who seem run-challenged enough that they'll fade like a rabbit in a 1,500 meter race, and they may not have the history of the Braves. But they seem better equipped right now than the Marlins, who can't piece together consistent efforts, and the Mets, who can't seem to take that big step forward. Will they be there in September? Who knows, but for Phillies' fans, it's good to even have this conversation than to start talking about the Eagles in July.

Will they make a move? As buyers? As sellers? It's hard to say. They definitely have some talent to trade, but they have to tread carefully here. They don't have the deepest organization, and trading a Cole Hamels or Gavin Floyd to rent a pitcher for a half season might prove to be a big mistake for the franchise.

Then again, for a franchise that has had a woeful amount to be excited about in its 100-plus-year history, a trade that could land a Jason Schmidt and help the Phillies finish off the Nationals and Braves down the home stretch would be very tempting.

The Phillies' fans have had years and years of decorative lettuce and other questionably appetizing meals (if you had eaten what they called pizza at The Vet, you know what I mean). Now it's time for GM Ed Wade to serve up the big bash and prove to the doubting fans once and for all that when it's time to make a move, the Phillies can.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Grizzled Veteran

It used to be that baseball rosters were parabolic in nature. While the Sports Economist and those far more advanced in numbers than I can elaborate better (and perhaps tell me if I've got something), rosters had some type of symmetry to them. There were a few rookies, a predominance of players in their prime, and then a few aging veterans hanging in until the end. The latter were around to rekindle some magic on occasion, to teach the rest of the team how to stay focused and get things done, and to do something critical every now and then.

Parabolic, you say? Well, in addition to that type of parabolic phenomenon taking place, the salary structure also was parabolic. The rookies didn't make much, the players in their prime made the most, and the aging veterans, some of whom were one-time stars but most of whom were not, made somewhere in between (of course, I'll concede that the aging future Hall of Famer might have been a drain on the budget, because he still might have commanded top dollar even if his results didn't justify the absolute amount of his deal). Still, the players who did most of the heavy lifting, as it were, got the money.

It was fun to see guys at the end of the line hanging in there, happy to be there, and sticking around because they loved the game, they needed the game, they might have needed the money, and for the life of them they didn't know what they'd do once their ability declined so much that they no longer could make a team. Okay, so perhaps visions of an age-challenged Willie Mays in the '73 Series playing for the Mets cause the purist fan to shudder, but you know what I mean. A veteran bench populated with guys who produced big-time at one time in their careers gave fans more hope that their team could fare well over a tough stretch than a bench of twenty-fifth men who came cheap and weren't likely to be remembered.

That was then.

Nowadays, with the salary structures being what they are, most of the grizzled veterans, in fact, don't stay around, for one of a variety of reasons. First, some make enough money to walk away from the game at a reasonably young age, so that they can spend more time with their families than hang around as marginal players. Second, these folks might typically command more money than your Joe McEwings, Jeff Mantos and David Newhans, to name a few, so if you're faced with a directive from the top to economize and you're a GM, you'll take a McEwing over, say, a Benito Santiago or Robbie Alomar because the latter aren't going to play that much and there's some guy at AAA who'd love the job and make a lot less. You'd rather put your money on the core of your team than spreading it out so that you're twenty-third man is perhaps the highest paid in the league. True, he could help you win a few games, the reasoning goes, but he won't win a pennant for you. He's the twenty-third man for a reason.

Mark McLemore, Mariano Duncan and Tony Phillips, where are you when we need you?

So, instead of watching the grizzled veteran at the end of a nice career (and, in Alomar's case, a Hall of Fame career in all likelihood), you get the Newhans and McEwings of the world, and you love it when they excel because they represent the little guy out there, the kid who wasn't the first-round pick or who didn't go to the University of Miami to play college ball, and when they do well you get that warm feeling. And that's a pretty good feeling, of course. But it doesn't add the same drama of seeing Pete Alexander pitching out of jams for the Cardinals against the Yankees in the World Series, or Joe Morgan and Tony Perez helping the Phillies win a National League pennant in '83 (for example). The large salaries of today probably have ended that phenomenon.

Except in the Bronx. Where a kid who came up with the Yankees just came aboard again, perhaps ending his career where it began. That's right, the Yankees just got Al Leiter from the Marlins, and they're hoping that he can summon up his pitching mojo one more time and help the Bombers overtake the BoSox and make the playoffs again. He's not the pitcher he once was, but he's a veteran, crafty lefty who might have a few key wins left in him.

Part of the move is desperation. The Yankees have used 11 starters this year and have put many pitchers on the disabled list. Part of it is romantic. My guess is that there were other candidates, but not that many. In Leiter, they get a player who won't be intimidated by the legend of the Yankees, and they'll get a guy who will care what the hometown fans think because he's a North Jersey guy (and former Met to boot). He'll want to go out a winner more than anything. He's made his money, he's pitched for a world champion (the Marlins in '97), and he has nothing more to prove.

Potentially great stuff later in the season, the 39 year-old Leiter pitching against a 37 byear-old Curt Schilling on a Sunday against the Red Sox.

What a match-up of veterans.

That's the way baseball should be in the heat of a pennant race.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Another Longstanding Company Going. . . Going. . . Gone

Lots of brands come and go, as do lots of products. I remember as a kid when you'd see tons of ads for Alka Seltzer, Rice-a-Roni, Lestoil, Geritol (with Art Linkletter doing the pitching), Razzles and a whole host of products too many to name. I also remember collecting baseball cards.

I wasn't the type to flip them (I didn't think the game made a whole lot of sense). I didn't put them in the spokes of my bike, because I valued the cards too much. At a very young age, I did draw on them with magic marker, and I stored them, like many did, in old shoe boxes with rubber bands wrapped around them. I'm sure, to save space, that my mother threw out her fair share, because, back then, no one viewed them as an investment, as something to save. Everyone viewed them as something to talk about, something to study, and, yes, we did chew the gum that came with the packs (and had to wipe the powdered sugar from the gum off the cards). We bought them for a nickel a pack, later raised to a dime, and we bought a few packs at a time. Up until 1974, I believe, the cards were printed in series format (instead of all at once), which means in today's market that cards printed in the last series of a year prior to 1974 could be more valuable because there weren't as many of them made as there were of the first series.

It wasn't all that complicated.

Lots of things change, and it's said that those organizations that seize upon change and embrace it are the ones to survive (and thrive) the longest (a look at the companies that made up the Dow Jones industrial average thirty years ago compared to today is testimony to that). Back then, there were seven channels on your TV, three of them UHF, which meant that the picture was hard to get. There wasn't any cable, there weren't personal computers, video games (there was pinball), and there wasn't as much in the form of entertainment. You didn't see your home baseball team that much on TV, and you listened to the games on the radio. For people over a certain age, you learned the game not only from your family members, but from your home city's local broadcasters. And from the stats on the back of baseball cards.

I'll always have a fond place in my heart for Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn. I grew up listening to them broadcast the Phillies (they were a big improvement over an aging Byrum Saam, and out-of-his-element -- in my opinion -- Bill Campbell and an ancient Jimmy Dykes, the shortstop on the great A's teams in the last 20's and early 30's), and they were just first-rate. I recall fondly turning on my radio at bedtime to listen to games from the West Coast, and my then-funky clock radio had its own shutoff switch. I put the timer on for an hour, and I could listen to a few innings. I also would pull out my baseball cards from time to time, wondering all about the players I was hearing about on the radio or, a few times a year, seeing in person.

I read about this the other day, and was reminded of it by skimming Off-Wing Opinion this morning. Fleer, one of the oldest baseball card companies, has gone out of business and is liquidating. A while back they were up for auction, had $40 million in debt, and Upper Deck offered $25 million. As can be the case with failing companies, management sometimes gets too romantic, too stubborn, too optimistic or too much in denial to deal with their problems before things get really bad, and they turned down the bid. The auction is today, and Upper Deck offered just $2 million.

I don't know much about the economics of baseball cards today, about who buys what memorabilia and what items are hot (other than to have some general knowledge that hip-hop stars like Mitchell & Ness's vintage jerseys). And I don't know even if interest in Pokemon and Yugi-Oh cards has cut into baseball's share of the card market. I do know that kids are more scheduled than before, probably have less free time, and, when they do, they're either on-line or playing on their Game Cube or PlayStation 2 or something like it. As Fleer's demise demonstrates, they're not flipping or trading baseball cards like they used to, and they're not putting them in the spikes of their bicycles.

Then again, what kids are permitted to ride to a friend's house anymore without an escort today?

I like looking at my old baseball cards every now and then, and occasionally I'll try to buy some cards on eBay to fill in a set or two that I have. My kids wanted cards this past winter, and I bought a good set for each of them at Target that had cards for a lot of the stars. Name an All-Star, and his card was probably in the packet. They had fun playing with them -- for a couple of days. Now they sit on their shelves, and, no, they're not that interested in baseball.

(Then again, perhaps I'm not either. My hometown team is mediocre and has been for years, and I'm busier too. I envy Yankee fans, because for the past ten years they knew that when they were turning on their televisions that they were watching a team that had a chance to win it all. We Phillies' fans haven't had that same experience, and yet, somehow, we're still loyal.)

Does Fleer's demise mean the end of an era?

Not really, because for many that "era" ended a long time ago.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Matt Walsh Signs with Miami Heat

Hot off the presses, so read all about it.

And some of the money is guaranteed, too!

It's a free country, so it's any college player's decision to leave school early and to enter the NBA draft, even if you don't have a prayer of being drafted. Matt Walsh, the swingman from Florida with the good offensive game who was MVP of the SEC tournament, left Florida early, as did teammates David Lee and Anthony Roberson. Many questioned why any of them left early.

Lee went to the NBA-sponsored workouts in Chicago and impressed the scouts so much that he made his way into the first round, being the last pick of the first round. Roberson flopped in his workouts and went undrafted. Walsh worked out for a lot of teams -- but he didn't go to the pre-draft camp in Chicago. Even so, on the eve of the draft was confident that he was going to be selected between 18th and 30th in the first round.

He went undrafted. And because he signed with an agent after declaring for the draft, he became ineligible to return to Florida.

Someone gave Walsh bad advice, at least as to the part about being drafted in the first round and most likely about electing not to go to Chicago. Walsh and his camp (his agent and his father, particularly) are defensive on the overall point of what advice Walsh got and whether it was bad, arguing that the critics don't know what they're talking about. Whether Walsh had a shot at making a pro roster -- even if going undrafted -- well, it's obvious that some people, including Matt Walsh himself, liked his chances.

There is more to this kid than the frilly haircut and headband that he fancied while he played at Florida (and there's more to him than the Playmate girlfriend he had, too). He played hard, has a good offensive game, is pretty quick and is an excellent shooter. He's relatively slight in build and has to get stronger, but he does have the potential to be a good player on a professional team -- somewhere. Clearly, he'd like his next team to be an NBA team, and not one in Spain or Italy.

I thought Walsh would have benefitted from another year in college, a year in which he could have gotten stronger and better on the defensive end to solidify his status with an NBA team and, importantly, to get serious playing time. It's unclear how Walsh will develop even if he makes an NBA team, because most likely he'll be a thirteenth, fourteenth or fifteenth man, and it's unclear how much playing time, let alone roster time, he'll get in that spot.

Hard being a kid, and hard to filter advice when the lights are so bright. Let's just hope for his sake that in pursuit of those bright lights, the heat that they give off doesn't melt a promising pro career that begins, from most estimates, prematurely.

A Story That Just Doesn't Make Sense (Updated)

This was first posted on July 8, 2005

Former Mavericks forward Alan Henderson, an Indiana grad and to the best of my knowledge the son of a cardiologist, was arrested in NYC because he had a handgun in his luggage. He currently is an unrestricted free agent who, according to the article, could get 15 years in jail for this transgression. My guess is that he won't get anywhere near that and probably won't get jail time, but this one leaves me puzzled.

How did the gun get there?

Assuming it was Henderson's, what could he possibly have been thinking?

Clearly there's more to this story than has already been reported. I don't want to make jokes at Henderson's expense, speculate as to what drove him to do this (if in fact the gun wasn't planted) or scold him when he hasn't been convicted of anything.

Which leaves me with the same question: how did this happen?

And why?

Update (July 13): One of my many readers is closer to this situation than most. He has advised that many athletes in the public eye fear for their safety and carry guns for their own protection. Apparently, Henderson was carrying the gun for his own protection, had it properly secured in his luggage, and then ran afoul of New York's strict gun laws in the process. He is a very solid citizen from all reports, and here's to hoping that the NY District Attorney views this case as simply a bad mistake and let's Henderson go without processing this case any further.

How Did This Guy Get His Nickname?

Kids can ask the most confounding questions. In a roundabout way at the breakfast table this morning, we got to talking about various nicknames (one of my angels asked what a "pinhead" is). My wife and I tried to explain, and then I mentioned that a baseball player for the Phillies years ago had the name Willie "Puddin' Head" Jones. Call it an extension of nicknames, call it a stream of consciousness, call it that Philadelphia has had champions only in 1915, 1950, 1980, 1983 and 1993, so the champions are memorable, even if they date back 50 years.

And he just wasn't any old ballplayer. He was the third baseman, a good third baseman, for the 1950 "Whiz Kids" team that took the NL by surprise, won the pennant and then lost four straight (albeit close) games to the Yankees in the World Series. True, the team had future Hall of Famers Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn on the team, but it also takes players a notch or two below, like Del Ennis, Dick Sisler, Eddie Waitkus, Bubba Church, Curt Simmons and, yes, Puddin' Head Jones, to get you there.

So the question arose at the breakfast table, "What does 'Puddin' Head' mean?"

Quite frankly, I didn't have a clue. I can only speculate that either Mr. Jones liked to eat pudding or that people thought he was a bit batty, err soft in the head, and since pudding is soft, well, you can make the connection, I suppose (sorry for the Yoda-like sentence). But those are only guesses.

If any of you can enlighten me, such as the Sports Curmudgeon, I would be grateful.

Thank you.

Monday, July 11, 2005

A Minor Leaguer's Odyssey (Baseball)

Great article in today's USA Today about Ryan Zimmerman, the (high) first-round pick of the Nationals, and how he's making the adjustment from being an all-American at UVA to playing in the minors.

You might recall Jim Bouton's line from Ball Four -- "the minor leagues are very minor." He had a point.

The college kids go from a relatively pampered college experience -- flying to games and staying in nice hotels -- to a situation where they have to mesh with 25 guys who are new to them, live in cramped quarters, not make (at least for most of them) a ton of money and have to adjust quickly to a higher level of talent. It's not easy, and the Darwinism that goes on here proves that it's not just talent that wins out, it's also the ability to act maturely and cope.

One of the best points Buzz Bissinger makes in Three Nights in August is about former Cardinal (and Orioles' and Phillies') pitcher Garrett Stephenson. Stephenson frustrated Cards' skipper Tony LaRussa because he really hadn't figured out how to pitch. Instead, he relied way too much on his fastball, usually with bad results. The reason was simple, really. While Stephenson could get away with blowing his fastball by hitters in high school, his fastball just wasn't good enough to accomplish the same results in the majors. And Stephenson, of course, is far from the sole example of this phenomenon. In fact, it's the rare Major Leaguer who doesn't have to make adjustments constantly as he climbs the ladder to the big leagues. What worked in HS doesn't necessarily work in college, and what worked in college doesn't necessarily work in the pros. You not only have to work hard -- you have to get better.

The adjustments start in two major ways. First, living-wise, you're on your own. I recall phone calls from one of my closest friends while he was pitching in Rookie-League ball in the Appalachian League years ago. He called at dusk while sitting on a milk crate at a pay phone from a parking lot at the local supermarket (there had been a day game that day). He lived in a trailer with another player, and he had an old Toyota that barely got him around. And he didn't complain. At all. He loved what he was doing, and he knew he was paying his dues. Some of the kids straight out of HS didn't fare so well. This was their first time away from home, they came from small towns, they didn't know how to deal with failure well, and they ultimately didn't make it.

The guys who adapt are the ones who make it. It doesn't matter whether they're staying at a 4 Seasons or Super 8 or in between (which, yes, might be a Motel 6). All that matters is that they have a shot at their dream, they're playing a kids' game, and they are getting a chance to do what they've always done.

The second adjustment is to the game itself. Put simply, everyone is better. Even if you just played at national champion Texas, you'll find that not everyone on your team is professional material and, also, that the guys you're playing against are very good and very hungry (sometimes literally, depending on where they're from and whether they got a good signing bonus). The starting pitchers might be a little wild, but they can bring it. The hitters can get around on fastballs. The fielders have more range.

For some players, the adjustment takes a little while (not to mention the adjustment to wooden bats). Some never adjust at all. They can't get used to be awaying from their support network, they don't get used to the better pitching (or hitters if they're pitchers), and they can't get used to the accommodations. There are lots of HS and college heroes in every state, but many of those kids aren't multi-dimensional enough or adaptive enough to make it. What works well at home simply doesn't turn into an outstanding road act.

Those who make it are testimony to making the most out of the everyday and not to worrying about what the press writes or what the front office says. Front offices make mistakes, and opposing teams are all eager to pounce upon them. If young players let themselves get defined early, they'll fall victims to the gravity pull of criticism and fail. If young players let the commentary serve as a challenge to show the world that they can do that the critics say they can't, they'll have a shot.

And those players are, in fact, special kids. Because some people don't get it -- the ability to stay calm in the cockpit and be honest in their assessments of themselves (and eager to receive coaching and constructive criticism) -- until they're in their thirties and forties. Baseball players, of course, have to get it in their twenties (with the possible exception of lefty pitchers, who might be able to mature when they're in their early 30's) and get it fast.

Because there's always some player coming up to take their jobs away. Every day, every year.

There's the old saying that "it's the journey," and my bet is that those who focus on the journey and making the most of it fare better than those who lock and load on the destination and fail by doing so, because with each at bat they put pressure on themselves to make the majors. By contrast, those who focus on the journey simply want to have a 2-4 night with an RBI and an extra-base hit in Altoona. And you don't get to play in The Show without having those nights in the Altoonas, Readings and Trentons of the world.

Read the article, read Steve Fireovid's "The 26th Man" and other books about journeys through the minors, because that's where the stars are made and where the stars themselves earn their reputations.

And check out a minor-league game every now and then. It's a good time.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Iceberg Strikes Back

I've blogged before about the story of the Alabama booster who allegedly funneled money to a HS football coach to have his player steered to the Crimson Tide. This wasn't a $20 "plumber's tip" either (non-native Philadelphians might not get the reference, but the Justice Dept. prosecuted plumbing inspectors in Philadelphia for decades' and decades' worth of taking cash "tips" from builders as a means to getting plumbing plans approved), but a six-figure payoff. The booster was convicted in federal court, a place where allegedly can turn into reality.

Lots of Alabama fans are angry at Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer for creating this situation, when, in reality, all he (and others, as it appears from the article I link to below) told the NCAA of alleged funny business going on at Alabama. To see how ugly this whole affair has really gotten, read not only the linked post under Fulmer's name but an article in yesterday's USA Today on the dismissal of a lawsuit by two former Alabama assistants implicated in the scandal (who sued the NCAA on grounds of defamation). I don't know Fulmer and am not that familiar with the Tennessee program, but a) anyone has the right to report a recruiting violation and b) the booster who was convicted at trial was convicted without the testimony of Fulmer. Seems like someone isn't being totally honest here, and it may be that 'bama fans aren't being totally honest with themselves (if, in fact, they are still seething about this whole affair). Seems pretty convincing to me that their guy, as it were, did something wrong.

Well, now the booster has spoken. He didn't say much, and he didn't say anything you didn't think he would say, either. He's not a happy guy for sure, and deep down it may be the case he's the guy who hoped the "everyone does it defense" would have worked or is puzzled when told that an old way of doing business wasn't legitimate in the first place. Still, you should read the post and decide what to make of it. Maybe there's a whole way of doing business in the SEC that us northerners in college football-challenged blue states just don't understand.

The whole affair is very sad and shows that corruption can exist around any situation where large sums of money are in play, in this case BCS, bowl and advertising dollars, not to mention ticket sales. It does appear that one of the victors here is integrity, and it remains to be seen whether this was an isolated case or whether there are others out there that are under investigation but have yet to surface. It's hard to believe that this is the only case like it -- paying for players.

What I am curious about is that other schools were mentioned as suitors in the sweepstakes for the recruit in question, Albert Means. Did any of those other schools get investigated? Did any of their boosters offer improper inducements? Perhaps there is another series of investigations going on that have yet to surface.

Grand game, college football.

Too bad that on occasion, stuff that goes on outside the lines has to interfere with, or tarnish, the good stuff that goes on between them.

Football is for the players, coaches and students. At times, it can be a very humbling game.

If only the boosters would realize that and act accordingly.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Next Eckersley?

Doubt it, although Curt Schilling's injection into the BoSox' bullpen mix is intriguing.

Fact: The BoSox need help at closer.

Fact: Keith Foulke, the BoSox' closer, didn't pitch well recently.

Fact: Keith Foulke is on the disabled list.

Sounds promising for Schilling to play the role of the terminator, doesn't it?

Fact: Schilling struggled through this last rehab start in Pawtucket and couldn't make it through five innings.

Not quite that promising, huh?

Sounds more like Schilling will pitch himself back into shape out of the bullpen than be the primary closer in Foulke's absence. Alan Embree and Mike Timlin are top-drawer setup men, and each probably can fill in at closer for a short while (neither is a long-term solution). That said, Schilling is a gamer, a guy who loves the attention, and the prospect of being the guy to close out a game has to thrill him.

He's proven that he's one of the best Stopper's in the game.

Can he also be an effective Closer?

Let's watch and see.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

For Those of You Wondering About Bernie Carbo

read this.

Some of you won't remember Carbo, because if you're say younger than your late 30's you won't remember the big-haired (some would say "bad hair day") journeyman outfielder who hit a dramatic three-run homer in Game 6 of the epic 1975 World Series to tie the game and set the stage for Carlton Fisk's home run in the 12th that gave the Red Sox the game and sent the Series to Game 7.

Fisk, of course, is someone everyone will remember because he's in the Hall of Fame. He was one of the best catchers in the history of the game, and he deserved his enshrinement in Cooperstown.

The Bernie Carbos of the game don't make it into the Hall of Fame, but they contribute to making the game what it is. (Red Sox fans, as Carbo points out, will never forget him).

True, you can't extend the Hall of Fame to cover all of the role players who have had their brief moments in the brightest spotlights of baseball, but perhaps there should be a section (and, who knows, there might be) dedicated to players like Sandy Amoros, Al Gionfriddo, Tom Lawless, Bernie Carbo and the countless number of other players like them who did something memorable -- either making a defensive play or getting a key kit -- that sprung their teams on to greater heights.

We usually focus on the greats and how they fare in the post-season. If they did well, some would shrug off their results by saying it was expected. If they flailed at pitches and failed, well, those failures get put under the magnifying glass. The most recent example were the position players of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2004 World Series. There once was a rock group years ago called Men Without Hats. The hitters for the Cards in last year's Series were either Men Without Hits or Men Without Bats. It wasn't a pretty sight.

While I love watching Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, I also liked the fact that Mark Bellhorn got some key hits last year for the BoSox and that Derek Lowe resurrected his career with two outstanding post-season pitching performances.

The big names fill in the seats and give us careers to admire (as well as some amazing feats in their own right), while it's the role players who sometimes play like big names and give us moments worth remembering. . . Carbo's home run, Amoros's catch, Gene Larkin's single to knock in Dan Gladden to win the 1991 Series.

That's what makes baseball special.

It's good to see that Bernie Carbo has turned his life into something more than a "one-hit" wonder.

Even though that particular hit was something to behold.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Here's the Thing: No One Seems to Care

I always enjoy reading who made the All-Star team (and who didn't) and how internet voting from other countries affects who gets elected to the All-Star game. I'm particularly thrilled to see David Eckstein get a starting spot in the All-Star game, as I saw him as a minor-league second baseman more than five years ago for the Trenton Thunder when they were a Red Sox affiliate (the year I saw him play, he hit .330, stole 50 bases and had an above-.400 OBP). Eckstein personifies the term "winner" (despite this, the BoSox let him go after the following season, and Baseball America didn't have him in their Top 10 Red Sox' prospects after that great AA season -- OF Michael Coleman, who turned down a football scholarship to either Alabama or Auburn, and the late 1B Dernell Stenson, topped the list). He makes things happen, and it's great that not only does he make the All-Star team as a starter, but he does so from the best baseball city in the U.S., St. Louis.

If you'd like to see a kid with electrifying stuff, vote for Brett Myers, the Phillies' starter, for the 32nd player on the NL team. When the kid is on, he is lights out, showing the talent that enabled him to become a top draft pick several years ago.

Finally, and here's the who cares part, Barry Bonds isn't an All-Star. And no one seems to care. At all.

Which goes to show you that no one player is larger than the game, and that the game can survive the loss of one of the best players in its history (it helps when he has made himself unapproachable and, as a result, unlikeable to most).

There will be many great, young stars for you to watch at the All-Star Game, and a few older ones as well. Barry Bonds will not be there, but not many will notice.

Which is as is should be, to a certain degree. Let's rejoice in those who made it and not worry too much about those who are not there.

Or, at least, those who never showed the fans even a small fraction of the attention (and sometimes affection) that they showed him.

They say it's a game for the fans, and, if that's truly the case, the fans will get to see a great game, without having the arrogance of one of the all-time greatest rubbed in their faces.

We do miss your prodigious talents, Barry Bonds, but somehow the All-Star Game will feel a bit better without your being there, as much as I want the all-time greats to participate in the game.

I hope that wherever you are doing your rehab, you are bummed that you're not in the All-Star Game, and that you actually miss the festivities.

Because, if you do, then you'll start to get it.

Moneyball versus Three Nights in August

The link between this school of thought and this one, both of which have been well articulated, is hurt. Again.

The link is J.D. Drew, the guy who fulfills the Moneyball criteria of having a good on-base percentage but who flunks the Three Nights in August criteria because he's too brittle, puts up numbers but doesn't seem to be at the heart of his team, and, well, doesn't come up when you use the term gamer.

Now, Moneyball is, to a degree, an elegy for the numbers crunchers and, to a large degree, supports eschewing the porkpie hat-wearing, fried-foods eating grizzled old scouts who still liked to grade prospects, in part, on whether they had the "good face." (Click here for a captivating book on the topic of baseball scouting.) Moneyball implies that the numbers matter a ton, and that if you get the players with the right numbers, you should win a lot of ball games.

To a degree, the Moneyballistas have a point. I mean, why carry a shortstop with an OBP of .284 even if he's a good fielder when he gives you two automatic outs at the end of a National League lineup? Put differently, the Moneyball theory proves why certain players who seemingly always have gotten the job done get it done -- because they have good batting eyes. A major argument in support of a strong Moneyball policy is the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who actually hired stats guru Bill James as a consultant. Then again, the Red Sox had the second highest payroll in the majors, and that's a somewhat un-Moneyball number because one of the basic premises of Moneyball is that teams with less money had to figure out how to win more games -- and that's where the numbers crunching came in. Another strong supporting argument are Billy Beane's Oakland A's, from which we got the Moneyball moniker. But those A's fall victim to former Michigan State football coach Duffy Daugherty's line about potential ("Potential means you ain't done it yet."). The A's, put simply, haven't done IT yet.

To a degree, though, the LaRussaistas have a point, too. The LaRussaistas might grudingly concede with the strong Moneyball wonks argue -- that a good manager doesn't mean that much to his team's performance, perhaps as many as 6-10 games a year when compared to the role coaches in other sports (particularly football) play. That said, those games are critical games and could make the difference between making the playoffs and not making them or getting to the World Series and not getting there. And before you think that the LaRussaistas don't care about numbers, read the book. They most certainly do, and they watch tons of film and crunch tons of numbers, all with the hope of getting the right matchups.

So what's the difference?

The principal difference between the Moneyballistas and the LaRussaistas is type of player that should be emphasized. The Moneyballistas look at the numbers so much that they probably overlook other characteristics, such as work ethic, leadership, ability to get along with 25 other guys, coachability, etc. Mathematically, to them, the numbers matter a lot more than, say, whether the .250 hitting first baseman with 35 HRs and an OBP of .370 whom the numbers love backbites the manager or is such a hard partyer that his bad habits are wearing off on the rookies. The LaRussaista would like to have that player too (but definitely would like him less), but would be happy to trade him for a more team-oriented player with slightly less skill but a better work ethic because, in the end, he believes that the qualities of a person that cannot easily be reduced to a mathematical formual matter a lot.

That's not to say that the Moneyballistas are the free-love advocates in baseball, don't have standards, are blue-state America haters who don't take our nation's traditions seriously. Hardly, and it's also not to say that they'd advocate having players of so-so character on the team. But what it is to say that at the forefront of advocating change, they're locked in on the numbers at the expense of almost everything else. Their metrics have shown them to be a very creative bunch, and there are teams out there who have adopted the Moneyballista metrics and have succeeded.

It's also not to say that the LaRussaistas think Moneyball is totally without merit. How could they? Anyone who played APBA or Strat-o-Matic years ago (in leagues where you drafted teams) could tell you the value of OBP for a hitter and OBP yielded for a pitcher. That's what made the Darrell Evanses and Frank Tananas of the world so valuable (even if the former hit .240 and the latter had a .500 pitching record at times), not to mention the Mike Schmidts and Joe Morgans. LaRussa and his guys know all about the numbers, and they work them to death to try to get the best matchups within games. Moreover, they're not even the neandarthals that some of those in the modern baseball camp try to make them out to be. They're not solely searching for huge HR hitters or 92 plus flamethrowers. To the contrary, they're looking for situational hitters, hitters who know the strike zone and know when to pounce on the pitcher's first pitch and when to make him work. They'd rather have pitchers who torture hitters with pitches in the 80's that have movement than with throws in the 90's that don't.

So who's right -- the Moneyballistas or the LaRussaistas? There are merits to both sides, and both sides probably have a good degree of overlap. One thing is for sure, guys like LaRussa prove that a good manager can make a difference, and we'll all realize that when he's inducted to the Hall of Fame and he joins Sparky Anderson, who managed the great Reds teams in the 70's and the outstanding Tigers' team in '84, there. Part of being a good manager is staying out of the way of talented players and letting them go to work. But the other part is, as Dusty Baker would say, trying to turn on the light bulbs inside them to get that little bit of extra out of them that can make them something special. As Three Nights in August points out, that's not such an easy thing to do.

Both are excellent baseball books, as is Lawrence S. Ritter's The Glory of Their Times, an oral history of baseball in the 1900's and 1910's that should be a must read if you haven't read it yet (if you click on the link, you can buy it right now -- you will not be disappointed). People sometimes talk about matchups between ballplayers then versus now, and, I think, despite evolution and advances in training, I'll take the ballplayers back then if there ever could be head-to-head competition.

The reason?

The game meant more to those guys than it does to the average player playing today.

Moneyball or no Moneyball.

Because back then there was a lot more to playing than just the money.