Sunday, September 25, 2005

They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To

This great sports columnist would have been 100 today.

And what a writer he was, a fair man who called them like he saw them.

In the linked article, his son, an outstanding journalist in his own right, writes about what he and his sister, the famous writer's daughter, thought their father would have thought about sports today. I think that they got it right about their dad, Red Smith, and there are a few things that I would have added.

He wouldn't have liked the sportswriter as celebrity, and he also wouldn't have liked the conflicted role that ESPN sometimes plays, where on the one hand they tout a sport because they've committed big bucks to it, but on the other hand they try to cover it. And he certainly wouldn't have made himself the story, as some current "journalists" tend to.

There are outstanding writers today, and, no, I don't subscribe to the notion that they don't make 'em like they used to. Each generation produces its greats, and I, for one, feel privileged to have read Red Smith's columns as a younger man (as well as Dave Anderson's), and to have listened to Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn broadcasts of the Phillies' games.

Today, Harry Kalas remains a household name, while Red Smith's name has faded in memory (understandably, as he died 23 years ago).

That's a shame, because he was a Hall of Famer in his craft, and he would have taken a stand on the steroids issue and given his colleagues the courage to have done the same.

Which is what no current baseball writer did (to a degree, SI's Rick Reilly did, but he doesn't write as frequently as a daily newspaper's sports columnists).

So, let's remember Red Smith fondly and hope that those who write today honor the titans who preceded them.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Princeton Alum Named Capitals Captain

Jeff Halpern, onetime forward on Princeton's ice hockey team, was named the 12th captain of the Washington Capitals. Thanks to Eric McErlain of Off-Wing Opinion for his post on the subject. As Eric points out, Halpern's Caps could have a tough go of it this year, so the team will need all the leadership skills he can muster.

For those of you who haven't tuned into Off-Wing Opinion, it's an excellent sports blog, and perhaps the best ice hockey blog out there.

It's not usual for a Princeton alum to captain an NHL team. A Harvard alum led the union (Bob Goodenow), and he did a good job about 10 years ago but not so good a job this past year. Ken Dryden, the Canadian MP who once upon a time starred in goal for the Canadiens (when the Canadiens ruled the ice hockey world), went to Cornell, and there have been plenty of NHL players from the ice-hockey playing Ivies (which means not Columbia or Penn). What's more unusual is that until the coaching tenure of Don "Toot" Cahoon, who coached Halpern, Tiger hockey fans didn't have all that much to cheer about at all. Princeton is the southernmost collegiate ice hockey school, which puts the Tigers at a recruiting disadvantage. It has a nice, cozy arena (Baker Rink), and college hockey is fun to watch, but Halpern's journey is proof that if you have talent and are willing to work hard, you can achieve a lot.

Congratulations to Jeff Halpern for this honor, and good luck to the Washington Capitals this season.

Sad Ending In Baltimore

Read this and see what I mean.

Rafael Palmeiro is persona non grata in Camden Yards.

And it's ugly. If he's not telling the truth, he's imploding. If he's telling the truth, the Orioles could well implode.

So one of only four players to have hit 500 HRs and get 3,000 hits is told to clean out his locker and go home for the remainder of the season. It's hard to imagine that there's much work left in Major League Baseball for 40 year-old outfielder-first basemen who have lied to the United States Congress.

Unless, of course, you go to play 3,000 miles away in San Francisco with MLB's other lightning rod for interesting substance suspicions, Barry Bonds.

Imagine what those post-game press conferences would be like. The hostility could be so thick that the writers might have to go on the juice just to gain enough strength to withstand the withering body slam-like glares they'd get from both Bonds and Palmeiro if they asked the wrong questions.

There's enough wackiness in Baghdad by the Bay that the average fan in San Fran would hardly notice that Raffy is in the house. Go there, and there'd be so much focus on Barry's passing Babe Ruth on the HR list that few would even notice Raffy's playing 1B for the Giants. The last time I checked, the Giants did need some more oomph on offense, and what better a way to get some than to go to one of the best offensive players of all-time?

Rafael Palmeiro.

Before you dismiss this idea, remember how gone many thought Jason Giambi was in New York at the season's outset. An absolute pariah, he got off to such a slow start that there was talk of sending him to AAA Columbus to straighten out what was then his woeful swing. Fast forward a few months, and the player with the scarlet letter turned out to be a clutch hitter for the Bronx Bombers. Where would Joe Torre's squad be without the one-time AL MVP? Probably sucking wind behind the Red Sox, instead of ahead of them.

The owners have turned a blind eye to the steroid issue in the past, and the New York experience shows that the baseball public is a forgiving group and has a short memory (although Expos' fans, whose long-suffering hopes for a world champion got smashed into the boards in the 1994 strike, wouldn't agree). Brian Sabean doesn't have the budget that Theo Epstein or Brian Cashman do, and Palmeiro probably can be had for a bargain-basement price.

Still, focusing on the present as I usually do in this blog, this story is just plain ugly. First, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa looked pathetic during the Congressional hearings. Then word comes out that Palmeiro flunked his drug test. And now this.

It's hard to imagine a more empty feeling than to have amassed the numbers that Rafael Palmeiro has, only to have most of the baseball public (except for some totally deluded baseball writers who still claim they'll vote for him for the Hall of Fame) think of him as baseball's version of Sadaam Hussein.

There's a saying that it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. That may well be true, but it's also better to have not played than to have achieved the pinnacle under questionable circumstances at best.

The one-time banjo-hitting first baseman turned himself into a star attraction that everyone would pay to see, a Springsteen-class baseball player.

Until a drug test strongly suggested that he was more like Milli Vanilli than the Boss.

What's next after you're banned in Baltimore?

Blackballed from baseball?

The Goblins of Cincinnati

As you probably could guess, I've had a very busy week, which included testing my physical fitness on a rock climbing expedition in the Catskill Mountains that showed me a) that I'm in pretty good shape, b) I should stretch my calf muscles more and c) that using New Balance walking shoes to climb rocks is a very bad idea (I probably strained the calf muscles by pressing harder on the climb to compensate for the lack of traction).

So last night I was tired, watched the Phillies and the enigmatic Vicente Padilla blow a 6-1 lead against the not-as-hapless-as-you-think Reds, only to trail 10-6. At that point, I thought that the Phillies' season was over, shut the TV off, and tried to catch up on some work. Drats, I thought, what a way to go. Handle the Braves pretty well, take care of the Marlins, and then tank against the Reds.

I came downstairs this morning to hear my wife tell my daughter that David Bell hit a dramatic two-run HR in the top of the ninth to enable the Phillies to beat the Reds 11-10 and to gain a game on the Astros, who lost. Somehow, I thought that the ghosts of 1964 were in full retreat, taking it on the chin from the likes of Chase Utley (whose 3-run homer brought the Phillies to within a run) and Bell (who has been very clutch as of late).

Now, it may be that the Phillies will not catch the Astros, and it may be that the Phillies have even underachieved with the fifth highest payroll in baseball. It's not as if this squad is 25 games over .500, it's only about half of that. Which isn't saying a whole lot, except that in the NL, with the exception of the Cardinals, there are lots of above-average baseball teams. But what the Phillies have shown as of late is that their hitters can be clutch, and that their pitchers have some grit, even if last night was disappointing from a hurling standpoint.

Still, if you're a Phillies fan, you have to like what you see. The team seems relaxed, the players are having fun, and the games are fun to watch. Watch Ryan Howard come to the plate, and you see a fearful opposing pitcher (perhaps only fearful opposing righty pitchers, as Howard is still trying to figure out the riddle of the lefty pitcher), and I don't remember many big men striking such fear in opposing pitchers in the NL since the days of Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell (yes, of course, there's Barry Bonds, but how many more titans are there?). See Chase Utley, and you see a tough out. Jimmy Rollins? Okay, he does need to work on his on-base percentage, but he also has a 28-game hitting streak, the longest in modern Phillies history. David Bell? True, he has been a disappointment since they signed him as a free agent two years ago, but he's a consummate professional, and he gives his all. It also looks like the balky back is doing much better. Corner outfielders Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu? More clutch than you think.

Now, before we get so high that we're flying at commercial jetline altitudes, you'd rather be the Astros right now than the Phillies. That's for sure, you'd rather have the lead. But so far the Phillies have left the Mets, Nationals and now Marlins in their wake, and for most of the season the talk was about every wild card contender but them. But somehow they keep on hanging in there, and there remains enough time to catch the 'stros and make the playoffs.

It's been a fun month.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Must Read: "The Miracle of St. Anthony"

Put simply, if you're a basketball fan, you have to read this book. Adrian Wojnarowski, a reporter for The Bergen (N.J.) Record and spent a year a few years back with the St. Anthony Friars, the high school hoops team in Jersey City, NJ whose coach is Bob Hurley, Sr., one of the best HS hoops coaches ever and father of former Duke star and NBA player Bobby Hurley (as well as former Seton Hall player and outstanding HS hoops coach Danny Hurley) In the book, the author writes about the private Catholic high school itself, the two nuns who will the school to remain afloat, the legendary basketball coach, his family, his assistant coaches, his trainer and his players.

You all know about Hurley, Sr., all the state championships he's won, the very high national rankings he's achieved, and the difference he has made in his players' lives by stressing excellence. You'll learn about a particular group of kids, an underachieving senior class and some talented juniors, and how he forges them into a selfless unit that has another great season (I won't give away how successful the team ultimately was).

St. Anthony H.S. and the St. Anthony hoops program isn't just one man, and Hurley would be the first to tell you so. That said, he's a superluminary at this school, and he means much more to it than just being its men's basketball coach. He's a taskmaster on the court, but you won't find a coach with a bigger heart. He truly seems interested in what's best for his players, and he works hard on their behalf. For Hurley, it's not about always placing his top kids with the biggest name schools, but the right schools. For example, one of last year's seniors (a junior when the book was written), was a 6'9" post player named Ahmad Nivins, who is a good student and who developed his talent later in his career. By his senior year, all of the big-time schools were recruiting him, yet Nivins, with Hurley's blessing, chose St. Joe's in Philadelphia. There were three main reasons -- St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli was interested in him when few others schools were, Nivins liked the school's business school and emphasis on academics, and Hurley also thought the school would provide the right type of nurturing environment. How many HS coaches would have told their kids to pick St. Joe's over a Big East or ACC school? Not many.

There's also a hilarious story about Hurley, former player Jerry Walker (who played his college ball at Seton Hall) and then-Villanova coach Rollie Massimino, who was recruiting Walker hard for Villanova. If you don't like Massimino, you'll love this story -- it's just a classic, and Wojnarowski tells it very well. There are many uplifting stories in this book, and a few sad ones too. Throughout, there's the constant of adults who care -- Hurley, his top assistant, Ben Gamble, his other assistants, Tom Pushie and Darren Erman, all of whom acted as a buffer between the taskmaster Hurley and his players. There are the sisters who run the school, and there are parents here and there who care (in the case of Nivins and PG Derrick Mercer), who care too much (Sean McCurdy's mother and Lamar Alston's stepfather) and who aren't there much at all.

Wojnarowski has succeeded in turning a diary about hanging out with one of the country's top high-school hoops teams into a page turner. You want to keep reading to figure out if Ahmad "Beanie" Mosby gets back into Hurley's good graces, if Marcus Williams can rekindle the old magic that had him as one of the country's most talked about ninth graders a few years earlier, if Otis Campbell and Shelton Gibbs can fulfill their potential, why recruiters are flocking toward the team's only white player, the out-of-place Connecticut native McCurdy, and whether recruiters will get interested in the undersized PG Mercer and the enigmatic, undersized center, Barney Anderson. You want to keep reading to see if they can beat Seton Hall Prep, if they can win the Class "B" Parochial title, and how they can fare against St. Patrick's of Elizabeth and Bloomfield Tech.

I've read a bunch of good hoops books, from Connie Hawkins' "Foul" to "In These Girls Hope is a Muscle" to "Fall River Dreams", and this one is as good as it gets. I'm glad I picked it off the shelf of my public library -- it was well worth it.

To get into the proper mood for the upcoming college (and HS, for that matter) hoops season, get "The Miracle of St. Anthony". You won't regret it.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

What Were They Smoking?

Sorry, but I never drank the Vikings' Kool-Aid or smoked their brand of tobacco going into this season, as I couldn't see why everyone was so excited about a team that, without Randy Moss or a first-tier RB, somehow was going to get past Philadelphia, Atlanta and Carolina en route to the Super Bowl (as some had predicted). True, the NFC North was weak going into the season and got weakened further when the Packers lost Jevon Walker for the season last week. Yes, Detroit has some potential (they have three wideouts who form one of the most talented combinations in NFL history), and Chicago is rebuilding, so perhaps the Vikings were touted as the potential division champ by default (which shows how good people think Daunte Culpepper is).

That's one thing. But to anoint them as a team that could have gone further belied the facts. It's not like Bud Grant is coaching the Vikes, it's Mike Tice, better known for some iffy offensive play calling and creativity with complimentary tickets than coaching genious. And it's not like their transplants on defense have anyone forgetting the Purple People Eaters.

True, it's early to call it a season for the Vikings, but it's not as though they were the Eagles two years ago, who marched back furiously after losing their first home game to the defending Super Bowl champs (Tampa Bay) and losing their second game to the would-be Super Bowl champs (New England). The Vikings' losses don't compare to that pair. The Vikes lost at home last week by 11 to a rebuilding Tampa Bay team, and today were waxed in Cincinnati by a score of 37-8. And these aren't either Kenny Anderson's or Boomer Esiason's Cincinnati Bengals we're talking about either. Yes, the Bengals are an up-and-coming team that is doing a lot of things right, but they shouldn't be beating the Vikings by 29, should they?

Or should they? Maybe the Vikings just aren't that good. Maybe the team that wins the NFC North will be like the San Diego Padres, who just might win the NL West this year with a sub-.500 record. It could happen in the NFC North, too, even if the Bears put the Lions through the Veg-o-Matic today and beat them by something like 30 points. Could an 8-8 team make the playoffs when some 9-7 ones miss it? It could happen in the NFC this year.

Every year, the prognosticators get a pet team that they tout for amazing accomplishments. Last year, there was much pre-season hype surrounding, among others, the Buffalo Bills, who last time I checked sat at home during the playoffs. This year, the Vikings were that pick, and unless they shift gears quickly, they'll have plenty of free time on their hands once the regular season ends.

Sure, there are teams who have breakout seasons every year, that's true, but realistically that could more mean making the playoffs than traveling to the Super Bowl. Yes, the Vikings will get to Detroit this year, but only for their home-and-home series with their division rivals.

Exorcism Of The Ghost of Chico Ruiz?

A short while back I posted on the problem that haunts the Philadelphia Phillies, the looming spectre of the Reds' SS in 1964 stealing home in the bottom of the 15th inning of a game in Cincinnati that prompted the demise of a would-be magical season for a franchise with a record of tepid play.

That was then.

Then there was this.


Against perhaps the best pitcher in the National League. A pitcher whose manager has so much confidence in that the pitcher batted eighth, ahead of a rookie shortstop. Against a resurrected reliever whom the Phillies jettisoned after last season because he pitched badly. Against defenders whose resumes boast Golden Gloves.

Could it have been an exorcism?

The Phils trailed the Marlins 2-0 going into the top of the ninth, with the D-Train, Dontrelle Willis, cruising against them. Willis allowed the first two batters to get on base, prompting Jack McKeon to call in his closer, Todd Jones. You can read all about it in the linked article, but 2B Luis Castillo booted a ball and also forgot to go into short center for a pop up that CF Juan Pierre tried and failed to catch on the dead run. Later a ground ball went through 1B Jeff Conine's wickets, and Jones also threw a ball away on a Chase Utley bunt that went between the pitcher's mound and third base. Four errors in one inning.

I might well have the sequence out of order, but there were timely hits and a few walks, and when the dust settled at the end of the top of the ninth, the Phillies had scored 10 runs, and led 10-2. Instead of having to insert closer Billy Wagner into the game (which Charlie Manuel had planned to do if the Phillies' offensive output was limited to only three runs), the Phillies' gave Wagner an extra day off and closed the game out with outstanding middle reliver Aaron Fultz.

The Phillies were 1-61 in games they trailed after 8 innings going into yesterday's game. Now they're 2-61.

This is a team with a catcher who some of the pitchers don't like throwing to and who is a fair hitter at best, an SS with a 23-game hitting streak but who may be ill-suited to the leadoff role, a 3B with a balky back, a big 1B who can't hit lefthanded pitchers, no true CF, and an LF and RF who are accused of not being clutch. This is a team without its purported best producer on offense (Jim Thome) and its ace lefty starter, who had Tommy John surgery (Randy Wolf). This is a team with patchwork starting pitching, but with an outstanding bullpen (Fultz, Wagner and setup men Ryan Madson and Ugueth Urbina).

This is a team with intangibles.

And yesterday's game kept them on 1/2 game back of the Houston Astros for the wild card. This is a team who lost 5 in a row a couple of weeks ago, was in all of those games and should have won at least three of them. This is a team that has kept on coming, and could easily have mailed it in yesterday because the D-Train was cruising and Fireman Jones was awaiting them should the Marlins' ace have faltered.

Could yesterday's result prove to derail the Marlins' season? Could it make the Phillies'?

We'll know in a few weeks.

But right now the stars are aligned for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Talking On Radio Bad For Eagles Players' Future (Updated)

First it was Irving Fryar.

Next it was Brian Mitchell.

Then it was Ike Reese.

Followed by Jon Ritchie.

Now it's Hank Fraley's turn.

Interspersed among these noble men was Freddie Mitchell, the Mouth That (Occasionally) Scored, who didn't have a regular show but who appeared as often as he wanted on Howard Eskin's drive-time slot on WIP. The King of Bling hosting the King of Underachieving (for a first-round draft pick who liked talked about himself) -- a mutual lovefest.

The history is simple. Fryar had his own radio show (co-hosted by a WIP regular), admittedly was at the end of his career, and then was gone shortly thereafter. Mitchell had his own show (WIP), did well as a kick-return man, but left town two years ago after the Eagles only offered him a one-year deal (at age 37) and the Giants offered him a two-year deal. (Good move for the Eagles: Mitchell fared poorly with the Giants and ended up leaving pro football after only one season at the Meadowlands). Reese had his own show (WIP) played very well on special teams, was special teams captain, made the Pro Bowl last year, but essentially was the fifth linebacker in a 4-3 defense and, because he was an eight-year veteran, was compelled the Eagles to do a serious cost-benefit analysis in terms of the salary cap (in other words, he was replaceable with a less experienced and less costly player). The Eagles opted not to re-sign him after last season, and he is now in Atlanta, where he'll either show that the Eagles goofed or the Falcons did. Ritchie hurt his knee in the first game of the season last year, went on injured reserve, and lost his job to Josh Parry in the pre-season. The show, not on WIP, was well-hyped, and I'm sure neither the radio station nor the player felt good about the injury. Mitchell's history was well-documented. Cut before camp started, he signed with Kansas City, hurt his knee, refused the Chiefs' recommendation that he have surgery, and was cut, principally because the team didn't think his knee would hold out for an entire season. At 26, he may have very few NFL options left.

Enter Hank Fraley. He now has his own radio show, he's about 29, and for the Eagles once you hit thirty you're getting old. Offensive tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas are 32 and 30 respectively, and the talk in Birdland is that one reason the Eagles are stockpiling their cap space is to use it in the off-season on free agents. (A side note: talks have broken off with Brian Westbrook on a contract extension, and reports are that there will be many free agent RBs after this season, which is probably why the cap-savvy Eagles did not feel a need to give Westbrook the kind of money he was seeking). Look for the Eagles to sign a veteran OL -- or two, in the off-season. The team just re-loads, it doesn't seem to need to re-build.

So what will Hank Fraley's future be?

Given the history of those who have had their own radio shows, the prediction here is that the Eagles will have a new center in the fall of 2006.

Update: (original posted on 9-9-2005): I read in this morning's papers that DT Sam Rayburn and LB Jason Short also will be alternating on a radio show on the Eagles' flagship station. As most of you know, T.O. has a radio show with Dan LeBatard. Speculation on WIP is that T.O. might not rock the Cradle of Liberty next year. Short is a special teams tough guy and backup LB, and Rayburn is in the DT rotation, and my guess is that the jinx just can't be that widespread. Still, we'll have to wait until after next year's training camp to know for sure.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Back in the U.S.S.R.

Not quite, of course, but when you read this from HoopTime about the point guard of the Russian national team, you'll understand.

See, he's not from Moscow, Irkutsk, Vladivostok, St. Petersburg or anywhere in between.

He's J.R. Holden, one-time star of the Bucknell Bisons. No less an authority than Russian star Andrei Kirilenko has called Holden one of the top point guards in Europe.

Did we miss something when Holden played in the Patriot League? Is his name not Holden, but Khrushschev? Did he change his name to play incognito in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania?

No, he did not. Rather, Russian premier Vladimir Putin granted him special citizenship. The same way a major college might let in a transfer to fortify it's band, err, football team, the Russians took in a transfer to help their hoops team. My guess is that entreaties to the Philadelphia 76ers Allen Ivanovich and the Phoenix Suns Stefan Nashinsky failed, so Putin and the Oligarchs went for the next best thing.

In any transaction, you need a willing buyer and a willing seller, and that's what you had here. Could it be that the Russian National Team is playing its own version of Moneyball, especially when it knows that it can't land anyone who is well known? Then again, perhaps the wrong Russians are making the decisions. After all, perenially also-ran (albeit, a good also-ran) Chelsea of the English Premiership turbocharged itself after one of the Russian billionaires bought it, fortified it with huge names and then put the jets to the rest of the Premiership last year. Perhaps the Russians need a better benefactor to lure the top hoopsters to Russia and to take Russian citizenship. Then again, with English soccer, the billionaire isn't requiring that his signees take on any new citizenship obligations, just that they play great soccer.

So J.R. Holden of the Bucknell Bisons is the point guard of the Russian National Team.

Only in America.

Err, Russia.

The Rasheed Wallace Of International Soccer

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney is getting quite a reputation. After getting his first yellow card against Spanish League team Villareal, he got his second when he sassed the referee right in the referee's face. The talented striker has a penchant for getting into trouble, and he's marking himself for future yellow and red cards because of his attitude.

There's one huge difference, though, between soccer and other major sports. In the National Basketball Association, if you get tossed, your team gets to replace you in the lineup, so it still will be playing five on five. The same holds true for the NHL and NFL -- get tossed, and your team still can play at full strength. True, they might miss the tossed player, but they'll be playing with the same number of players as the other team.

That's not true for soccer. Get a yellow card, you're on probation for the game. Get two yellow cards, you're out of the game and your team plays a man down for the rest of the game. If two players get red cards, you play two men down from then on. And under certain circumstances, and I'll ask blog readers to chime in here, you also could miss subsequent games. For example, Rooney will miss England's next World Cup qualifier, against Austria, because he picked up a yellow card in each of his last two World Cup qualifying games.

It's not a whole lot of fun for a team playing a man down; skilled opponents can take advantage of it the same way good NHL teams can take advantage of power players. Imagine, though a power play for the entire game.

Somehow I think that Rasheed Wallace (and Charles Barkley before him) would have figured out alternative ways to vent their emotions if each time they were tossed from a game their teams would have had to play four on five. My guess is that after a few times of that happening, their teammates would have sent them a message in some fashion.

And it would involve more than putting shaving cream in shoes or itching powder in underwear. Probably a trip to the woodshed to speak frankly with the veterans about how to act.

For England to fare well in World Cup 2006, they'll need Wayne Rooney on the front lines, scoring goals. Without an effective Rooney, they have little chance of getting to the quarterfinals.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

An Almost Forgotten Story

Last night, there were two Atlanta-Philadelphia matchups. One involved a hunt for a playoff spot.

That one was the one that received almost no attention.

Sure, everyone was talking about the Eagles-Falcons at the Georgia Dome, how it was a match-up of last year's NFC title game contestants (or would have been if Jeremiah Trotter didn't manage to get himself ejected before the game began, bringing back memories of the scraps the Broad Street Bullies got into against almost every opponent in the mid-1970's), and how it might be a preview of this season's NFC title game -- which will be played in 2006!

What they weren't talking about was the other matchup, the one at Citizens Bank Park between the Braves and the Phillies, where a little known and inexperienced Eude Brito hurled 6 spotless innings and outdueled Tim Hudson en route to a 4-1 Phillies' win when, coupled with Dontrelle Willis' 21st victory at the expense of the Astros, put the Phillies 1 game out of the wild card, now trailing the Marlins (the Astros are in-betwen, , 1/2 game behind the Marlins).

Should have been a big headline, should get a lot of play in the Soft Pretzel City given that it's only the beginning of the NFL season. After all, it's not like the possibility of the playoffs are an every-year occurrence in Damascus on the Delaware (as opposed to the reference the late, great Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle once made about his city, "Baghdad by the Bay"). So, you would think that the Phillies would be selling out and that the airwaves would be rife with Phillies' chatter.

But you'd be wrong.

In a city that puts football first and basketball (college and HS especially) now second, the Phillies are announcing attendance that is about 8,000 short of capacity, and the reporters noticed over the weekend that the actual attendees were numbering fewer than the announced, paid gate. That's hard to believe, to a certain degree, because the ownership has spent a bunch of money on payroll (they have about the sixth highest) and on a new stadium (the two-year old venue is a beaut). What more can the fans ask for?

Yes, school is back in season, and that hurts the gate, especially because, as with many urban areas, the suburbs are more and more spread out, with the result that what used to be a short subway ride for city dwellers and perhaps a 1/2 hour drive from closer-in suburbs is in certain places a 1-hour jaunt (I grew up about a 30-minute ride from the Vet and live about a 45-minute ride -- without traffic -- to Citizens Bank Park). In addition, because the fan base lives further out, it lives closer to some very nice minor league venues -- Class A Wilmington (Delaware), about 30 minutes from the park, Class AA Reading (about 1 hour and fifteen minutes from the park), Class AA Trenton (about a 50-minute ride from the park) and independent league teams in Camden, NJ (about 10 minutes from the park) and Atlantic City, New Jersey (about 1 hour and 20 minutes from the park). All of those venues provide a much less expensive alternative to the Phillies, plus, if there's a shorter ride, that's easier for kids to take. You probably can go to 4 or 5 Trenton Thunder games for every Phillies' game.

Lastly, especially to the north of Philadelphia in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (which is between Northeast Philadelphia and the Delaware River, separating Bucks County from Trenton), there has been a significant influx of New York diaspora. The result -- Met and Yankee fans living in the Phillies' geographic base and not adopting the Phillies. Among the families that we're friendly with are two Met fans and a Yankee fan among the dads, and they're much more passionate about their teams than those who I presume are Phillies' fans.

And then there's the long-since-blogged-about distrust of the ownership team in Philadelphia. I have exhausted my writing on that topic, but it permeates the lack of fanaticism about this team. Until this ownership is replaced with a passionate group that will settle for nothing less than contending for a title each year, the fans will turn their energy toward the Philadelphia Eagles, who have delivered a great product during Jeffrey Lurie's tenure as owner.

The sad fact remains, though, that this is a baseball team that for all its warts -- at the ownership level, at the managerial level and on the team itself -- deserves better fanfare than it has received. It's September 13, and they're in hot contention for their first playoff berth in 12 years.

Yet all they were talking about at most water coolers in the greater Philadelphia area this morning were their beloved Birds.

And they're 0-1.

Erudite Trash Talking?

If you think that last night's trash talking between the Eagles and Falcons was bad, check out this post from Dave Sez regarding the Florida State-Duke football game. Needless to say, the Florida State folks don't have much respect for Duke football, and the Duke folks don't have much respect for Florida State's academics.

Myron Rolle, are you reading this? Perhaps you might want to reconsider your oral commitment to Florida State and settle on some place more balanced -- like UVa.

At any rate, it's a funny line that a Florida State coach said that the only way Duke's supposed to score is on a test. I'm not as certain that it's that funny when players from the superior academic school taunt those at the lesser academic school by saying that the Florida State guys will be working for the Duke guys some day. After all, there's the old saying that the A students become your professors, doctors and lawyers, the B students your executives and the C students and below your multimillionaires. And, if any Duke player goes into the sports agency business and represents football players, the chances are he could be working for a Florida State player.

Then again, if players at any school can major in, say, football or get academic credit for playing their sport and take tests along the lines that Jim Harrick, Jr. gave his hoopsters in the infamous basketball course he taught when his father was head coach at Georgia, the humorous chants are fair game.

And the offended players can get back at the taunters with a good and clean hit on the humurus during the game.

That is, of course, if they know where that is.

But even if they don't, it probably doesn't even matter. Because the kids at the Florida States of the world are so busy running by the kids at the Dukes of the college football world that to pause to give a whack on the humurus (or any other blockable body part) might just be a waste of energy.

It may be that more Dookie gridders end up with more executive management positions than Seminole gridders, but the lessons they learn in humility, battling adversity and picking themselves up off the ground should remove some of the cockiness that can otherwise be found in the student section at any given home hoops game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In other words, the losing record could make them better managers.

Then again, if I'm hiring, I might want someone who was around a winning program for a while, who knows what it takes to commit to winning, because winning can be contagious. If I take that human resources viewpoint, while I might like the fact that someone went to Duke, I'm not sure that involvement with a 6-42 program over the life of someone's grid career proves anything other than a determination not to quit and a dedication to physical fitness. I'm just not totally sure that it will translate well to leading a winning team.

But that Duke degree certainly opens up a lot of doors and starts a lot of conversations.

As will, in perhaps more specified places, a Florida State football pedigree.

So, sports fans and gridders alike, be careful what you say about your opponents, because it could only end up giving the other side more motivation to beat you.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Live Blogging: MNF -- Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest

First, if Jeremiah Trotter threw a punch, it was the type that a third-grader throws when taunted for popping up in kickball.

Second, if the rule is that if you throw a punch and you're automatically, ejected, why weren't both Kevin Mathis and #21, Hill, of the Falcons, ejected, instead of just Mathis?

Third, shouldn't Mathis get more penalized for having started the altercation? Perhaps Trotter should have gotten 15 yards and Mathis ejected?

Dumb: Trotter, for putting himself in a position to really hurt his team. Last time I checked, Trotter is the primus inter pares on the Eagles' defense, the heart of it. If I were Jim Mora, Jr., I'd trade Mathis for Trotter any day of the week. If I were Oliver Stone, I'd suggest that Mora his player up to it.

Dumber: The NFL and its officiating crew. You just don't do this, especially under the circumstances of opening night. Throwing these guys out of the game? Show me the punches? Trotter threw his arms out, in my opinion, and Mathis started it. Then Hill jumped in. Sorry, but this is a travesty, and the refs poured gasoline on it.

Dumbest: ESPN's pre-game crew. Tom Jackson deserves much better than Stuart Scott, Michael Irvin and Ron Jaworski. They sounded somewhat nonsensical about the whole affair, with Jaworski saying that now, without Trotter, the Eagles have to outscore the Falcons to win the game. Thankfully, Irvin quickly reminded him that that's what teams usually have to do.

Prediction: It's easy to take the Falcons now, and backup MLB Mike Labinjo's name sounds more like banjo (in, he could play banjo in a Mummers' Band) than Trotter, but somehow the Eagles will have enough mojo, with Labinjo performing well or poorly, and T.O. and Donovan will put on a show. Call it a hard-hitting, physical game. Call it Eagles, 27-17.

And then call out the officials for abject stupidity, and make sure, if you're the Eagles, you stay the heck away from the opposition during the pre-game. And look for the Eagles and Falcons both to get fined for the pre-game version of the New Zealand pre-rugby match tribal chants that took place after the Trotter-Mathis quarrel. Call it perhaps $250,000 apiece, to be donated to flood victims. As bad as the Trotter-Mathis spat was, what followed could have led to a whole bunch of ugliness.

Vince McMahon couldn't have teed this one up any better.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Wake Up The Echoes -- Again

Well, these guys are for real, as they beat their second ranked opponent in two weeks, and they've done it on the road to boot. Rumors out of South Bend are that Touchdown Jesus is now Wave Jesus, as he's been rumored to have been leading the "wave" cheer to the Domers on campus.

Notre Dame 17, Michigan 10.

What does this mean?

First, that Charlie Weis can coach.

Second, that if Lloyd Carr were coaching at Temple, it could well be that he, like Bobby Wallace, would have trailed Wisconsin 51-0 at the half in Madison (as also happened today). Put differently, SI, in its pre-season forecast, commented on the Iowa-Michigan game that it would pit the Big Ten coach regarded as getting the most out of his players (Kirk Ferentz) against the one suggested to get the least (Carr). Which means. . .

Third, Iowa will win the Big Ten (even if Ohio State beats Texas in Columbus today).

Fourth, Notre Dame could well go to a BCS Bowl and do some damage.

Fifth, Notre Dame should have a good recruiting year.

Okay, so it's premature to suggest that they'll win a national title in the next three years, that's for sure. But for the Irish faithful who have waited so long for something good to sustain itself, they're entitled to get giddy.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Last Chance Corral?

With certain exceptions, most baseball fans have something to despair about.

For example, if you're a Phillies' fan, you're not as enthusiastic as you were during the Mike Schmidt/Steve Carlton era because the ownership group that purchased the team from Ruly Carpenter, you believe has either betrayed or failed you. They have made bad free agent signings (Gregg Jefferies, for one, and now, the Jim Thome signing doesn't look so good), bad trades (do you remember who they got for Scott Rolen or Curt Schilling), bad selections of managers (remember Nick Leyva? Jim Fregosi? How about Charlie Manuel -- choosing him over Jim Leyland?) and bad management decisions (building a field with Little League dimensions in their new stadium for a team that had good pitching the years prior to the move from The Vet). Put simply, you believe that the management group is out of touch, isn't committed to winning the way their neighbors to the north are, and you are skeptical that under this administration your team can get to the World Series. So you don't turn out the way you used to.

If you're a Diamondbacks fan, you wonder how your World Championship team of a few years ago could plummet off the proverbial cliff and smash into the ground with last season's woeful record. If you're a Giants fan, you have the bittersweetness of Barry Bonds, great player, but he makes himself hard to root for. And then there's the issue of his relationship with his personal trainer and his training and ingestion methods. If you're a Rangers' fan, you're wondering when you'll get the pitching staff to make the hitters proud. And so on and so forth.

If you're a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, you wonder if you'll ever get the magic back, now that you've clinched your thirteenth straight losing season. You might as well call the time after Barry Bonds departed for the Giants as the P.B. era in Pittsburgh (post-Barry), because your once-feared franchise is now the cupcake on the schedule for teams in the playoff hunt. People used to fear a lineup that included Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Mike Easler, Manny Sanguillen, Richie Hebner, Rennie Stennett, Bill Madlock and many others. Akin to the way the city itself used to make steel and now provides services like many other cities, the Steel City has lost its muscle baseball-wise. Thirteen straight losing seasons? How many more can this franchise endure? Do fans honestly go into the season thinking that they have a shot at the playoffs with the roster they have? What do they root for?

Then again, there are the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers, who haven't fared much better, either. It's not that the Pirates are alone among once-proud franchises with their plight, but they're close to it.

And it's a shame.

Anyone who watched the Pirates in the 1970's witnessed a great rivalry with their cross-state rivals, the Phillies, especially from 1975 on. Those teams would save up something extra special for one another, and the games were just great to watch. I remember once when Jay Johnstone, the outstanding hitting (and flaky) RF for the Phillies snuck in from right field to pick Dave Parker off first base, as the first baseman wasn't holding the runner. Clutch hits by Easler, moon shots by Stargell, steals by Omar Moreno, great fielding by Mike Schmidt, clutch strikeouts by Steve Carlton, all wonderful memories.

Today it's hard to name a Pirates' player.

And that's sad.

Sad for the Pirates' fans, who deserve better. Sad for baseball, because a once-proud franchise is in a bad way. Emblematic of the dynamics of the modern world, where you have to work hard and smart to figure out a way to keep up and compete. Billy Beane has found a way in Oakland; there hasn't been similar thinking in Pittsburgh.

So if you're a Royals' fan, a Tigers' fan, or a fan of any team who isn't a perennial playoff contender, take heart.

At least your team isn't the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But Pittsburgh natives can take some consolation.

The NFL season starts this weekend.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Northern Ireland 1, England 0

(Original Post: 6:00 p.m. September 7, 2005; updated below).

Read all about it.

The struggling English team now has to beat Austria and Poland to qualify for World Cup 2006. In their next game they'll have to do so without their young striker, Wayne Rooney, who got his second yellow card in as many games and, as a result, has to sit out the next match.

Northern Ireland was ranked #116 in the world at the time of the match. (U.S. sports fans should view this upset akin to say Temple's beating Miami in Philadelphia).

The English coached might get sacked (or tossed or pitched, depending on whose vernacular you use) if the team doesn't fare better on the pitch -- and soon.

The best teams in the world blend together tons of talent to create the superpowers that are Real Madrid, Chelsea, AC Milan, etc. It's a harder challenge for national teams, some of whom who have to try to blend together amazing talent, when that talent actual has real jobs -- the teams that pay them tons of Euros to ply their craft. Many countries have tons of talent, so before you say that the talent will always win, they have to work to play well together.

There are many powers in the world of soccer, the established ones like Brazil, Argentina, England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, and the up-and-coming ones, like the United States and, down the road, China, by virtue of population alone. Those who make the final eight aren't always the most talented teams, but they are the teams that are playing the best soccer at the moment. That's a tribute to both the coach and the players, all of whom take great pride in winning this tournament. It's just that they don't have the time to choreograph their efforts for their countries the way they do in the premier leagues in Europe.

I can only imagine the headlines in the English papers tomorrow morning, but they'll be for the ages. Somehow, I think that many a Northern Irelander will still be up to greet his morning paper delivery person, as the celebrations will go on through the night.

They'll be talking about this one in London -- and Londonderry -- for a long time.

Update: Click here for what the English papers had to say about last night's game. I spoke with an acquaintance in London today, and I asked how brutal the headlines were on the back pages (i.e., the sports pages). His reply: "Back pages? Are you kidding me? This is front-page stuff. And it's brutal." First time England lost to Northern Ireland on the road in 72 years.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

NL Wild Card: A Study In Fundamentals and Contrasts

Two games last might probably demonstrated why the Phillies and Mets will not earn the NL Wild Card spot this year. Both teams had winnable games, but either bad mental errors or poor fundamentals -- on the part of star players -- cost both teams their games last night.

First, Phillies against the Astros in Philadelphia last night. Game is tied at 1 in the top of the ninth, and Billy Wagner, perhaps the best closer in the NL, is on the mound for the Phillies. He walks the first batter, Lance Berkman. Eric Bruntlett is sent in to pinch run for Berkman. Todd Pratt is catching, with a new and perhaps not totally broken-in glove to boot. Bruntlett steals second and third, and on both occasions he got a great jump and Pratt double-clutched. In basic baseball parlance, Bruntlett stole both bases off the pitcher. The next hitter singles him in, and the Astros go on to win the game 2-1. (Tomas Perez, not known for his longball power, almost gave the Phillies something to remember last night. In the bottom of the ninth, he jacked a shot to right that the wind held up at the front of the warning track; the way it was hit, it had "ballgame" written all over it, but it wasn't meant to be for the Phillies).

After the game, Wagner got testy with the reporters who asked him about what happened, saying something like "everyone who watches baseball knows that I don't have a move to first base." That was after he said his move to first base "sucks." Now, I'll allow for the fact that the competitive Wagner was just as disappointed as anyone in the Phillies' sphere, perhaps more so, and no one likes to be asked a tough question right after the situation happened. Fine, but Billy, if you're such an elite player, why do your fundamentals suck so badly? Sure, the role of closer in the Majors has morphed into a position where you don't come in with men on base, you start the ninth, because there just aren't that many complete games anymore. So, typically, closers don't inherit runners the way they used to. That job goes to the underrated and lesser paid middle relievers, who while they don't rack up the save stats, get their teams out of more jams than the Yankees serve at their average pre-game spread on a weekend day game.

That Wagner and other closers start innings and don't inherit runners explains why Wagner's move is deficient, but it doesn't excuse it. Championship teams don't lose games in a pennant race by having back-up infielders stealing bases with little threat of getting caught in tight situations. Wagner may be an elite closer, but he failed the Phillies big-time in a primary fundamental way last night. He knows it, all opponents know it, and there doesn't appear to be a thing that anyone can do about it, at least for this season. Elite closer? Last night's debacle throw that label into question.

That moves us to the Mets, which no less an authority than Baseball Prospectus predicted would win the NL wild card. Apparently, BP ran 1 million scenarios a few weeks back, and predicted that the Mets had the best chance, followed by the Phillies. Those numbers are great, but to paraphrase Casey Stengel, they don't really give you the lefthanded hitter who can hit the ball past the shortstop. Or, in the Mets' case, the ace starter who can check baserunners and prevent them from running wild.

I saw the highlight on ESPN, didn't watch the game live, and don't know when in the game this happened, but basically with the game tied the Braves had Marcus Giles on second with fewer than two outs. Someone hit a slow roller to Pedro Martinez's right, between the mound and third base, and Pedro moved over, picked the ball up and threw it to first to nail the runner. Just one problem: he didn't check Giles, and the speedy 2B gauged Pedro carefully, made it to third just about as Pedro released the ball and was more than halfway home by the time that the first baseman caught the ball. Giles scored standing up, Atlanta wins the game, and the Mets are now behind Houston, Florida, Philadelphia and Washington in the wild card race (oh, yes, not only did the Astros leapfrog over the Phillies, over whom they have a 1.5 game lead, so did the Marlins jump over the Phillies). In other words, they're a few steps shy of being out of it.

What does this all mean? Maybe it means nothing, maybe it was just a bad night for an elite closer who usually doesn't allow baserunners, and maybe it was just a great play by Giles as opposed to an omission by Pedro Martinez. And maybe the Phillies and Mets have enough gas left in their pit area to fill up the tank one more time and make a run during the home stretch like they did several weeks back. But both teams seem tired and unclutch, and neither has showed the killer instinct in the past week.

Championship teams play moneyball, small ball and any type of ball to win game after game and maximize their chances. Also rans swing at the first pitch after the tiring opposing hurler has walked two batters on eight straight pitches, miss first base on a potential double (as Jimmy Rollins did last night), hold runners on third while facing ace closers, leave too many men on base and don't get more than five innings out of their starters.

The Braves, despite tons of serious roster changes over the past several years, have found ways to continue winning. The Astros have three starters and a closer and then a bunch of guys who rival the 1906 ChiSox, the "Hitless Wonders." Yet, in both cases, they continue to find ways to win and are on a roll.

The Phillies and Mets, meanwhile, are running out of gas.

And time.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Must Joe Paterno Go?

I've addressed this question here, here, here, here and here, and, from the looks of it, many college football fans, and Penn State fans, remain interested in the topic and won't let it go. I even went so far as to point out who the possible successors to JoePa could be. That list is somewhat dated, but I tried to play recruiter and figure out who JoePa might want to anoint and who might be acceptable in the nirvana that Coach Paterno has tried to create in central Pennsylvania. I even went out on a limb after some college football scandals and defended Coach Paterno, because he is a believer in doing things the right way (and some coaches are not) and did so again when he stuck his neck out and made the right call in the BCS voting.

By way of disclosure, I am not a Penn State alum and am not related to any Penn State alums. I actually rooted against Penn State as a kid because my dad played football at Temple and the Owls quixotically scheduled the Nittany Lions and scared the living daylights out of them twice in the 1970s. I had friends who are Penn State alums, respect Coach Paterno's accomplishments and enjoyed the Penn State football update that was shown at 11 a.m. on Sundays when I was a kid and featured the great broadcasting of Ray Scott, who once had broadcast the Green Bay Packers games. Ray Scott was a standard setter, great to listen to. So I consider myself a neutral in all of this. I am not happy that Penn State is suffering, as others may be, and I am not a defender of Coach Paterno just because he's meant so much to Penn State. After reading about Penn State's barely beating South Florida last weekend, I figured it was time to bring out this old posts again and re-start the discussion.

After considering a variety of factors, I agree with those who say that Joe Paterno must go. Not only has he been great for Penn State, he's been a great beacon for all that is right about college football and a great example as to how to run an outstanding program. But within the past 5-10 years, he has not been a great mentor or succession planner, he has put himself in a position where he's made it impossible for the institution he loves so dearly to make the right move without looking terrible (which, to a degree, means he's made himself more important than the institution, which is contrary to what he teaches to young men in order to mold them into a team), and he is risking leaving the program much worse off when he leaves (whenever that is) than when he got there (he inherited a good program).

But Penn State, returning a defense that was in the top ten statistically despite being on the field probably 5 minutes per game longer than any of the other top ten defensive teams because its offense was so weak, and returning virtually that same offense, is a far cry from the football teams of the 10-20 years ago. People used to fear Penn State. Penn State used to be a major event on the schedule of every opponent who faced it. Those anonymous, faceless uniforms symbolized the ultimate in sacrifice and selfless teamwork.

Today they are an object for pity, for prompting the saying, "well, when he was at the top of his game, they were really something." And while I'm among the first to be in favor of making sure that it's all about the student-athlete, I'm also among the first to make sure that no person becomes bigger than an institution, even if he helped build it. Coach Paterno has seldom, if ever, coached on sentiment. He doesn't play players because he promised something to the kid, to a HS coach, or because the kid's dad played for him; he'd tell you he'd strive to play the best players. That's what any championship coach strives to do.

Unfortunately, he's not honoring the messages he's instilled in his kids for years. He's just not the same coach he used to be, and there's no shame in that. But because he's stayed too long, he's itching for that one shot at redemption, the one shot to tell people that he still has it. And the fear is that the longer he stays at it, the more pathetic and, yes, quixotic, his quest will become. Correspondingly, because he's been in there so long and has overstayed his welcome, he should be easier to ease out of his job. How can anyone argue that it's not time for a change at the top of the Penn State football program?

If they're honest with themselves, as all coaches demand that their players be, they'll agree. If Coach Paterno asked himself these questions, he'd have to agree to.

With all due respect to the so many good things Joe Paterno has done for Penn State, Penn State football and college football, it is time for Joe Paterno to retire.

Penn State will not forget him, and they will be certain to honor their past. At the same time, they must not fear facing the future and what a new coach will bring, and they must let the new coach be himself and coach the way he wants to. Forty years ago they let a long-time assistant with thick glasses take the reigns from a successful coach, and now they must let a coach with a lot of promise -- and not a caretaker -- put his own imprint on Nittany Lion football.

And bring gridiron joy back to Happy Valley.

Globalization and Sports

Skip Sauer of Sports Economist has a great post on the influence of Yao Ming generally and China more specifically on the international hoops economy. Put simply, thirty million Chinese fans watch each Houston Rockets game on television. That's compared to approximately the 1 million or so other (and presumably, American) fans who watch the Rockets on TV.

Do you hear the cash registers working overtime? Is David Stern salivating?

Now, that's not to say that the average Chinese hoops fan today has enough disposable income to buy all sorts of Rockets merchandise, but what it does demonstrate is the potential economic impact of the world's largest nation (population-wise). It's huge. The big question, as the post indicates, is the ultimate relationship between the Chinese government, on the one hand, and the NBA and other hoops organizations, on the other. I'm sure as with many things a happy medium will be achieved, but don't think it will ever be as simple as paying whopping transfer fees to the Chinese government in exchange for springing Yao from a bunch of in-country commitments any time soon.

Then again, given the 15 million plus in Euros Newcastle just paid for the rights to Michael Owen, perhaps the Chinese would be wise to consider this type of economic model in selling rights to their players.

How sports get "globalized" is interesting. Baseball, to a certain extent, has failed, as it and softball have been kicked out of the Olympics. Baseball also hasn't spread to that many countries. Sure, it's played a bit in The Netherlands, Italy and Russia, as well as Japan, Australia, Taiwan, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia and Canada (and if I've missed a few nations, bear with me), but it hasn't gone to say, China or India, say, nearly the way that soccer has come to the U.S. Yet, the overseas influence has been significant, as Venezuelan voters weighted in loud and clear in this year's All-Star balloting, propelling, among others, Bobby Abreu, normally an also-ran in voting, into a starting position this year. Japanese voters have acted similarly for Japanese players. In contrast, while soccer hasn't become the United States' national pastime, the United States has adopted soccer well enough to qualify for the World Cup.

Soccer is played in Florida, but baseball hasn't taken route in Shanghai or Bombay.

So where is the United States' trade balance in all of this? It hasn't exported either baseball or American football very well. NFL Europe has performed marginally, and I don't know much to say about Canadian football except that it's an interesting phenomenon. The U.S. has made a mark on ice hockey, as now there are many American-born players, whereas thirty years ago there were not (and ice hockey is popular in many cold-weather countries, but that's hardly a U.S. export). As for soccer, it has supplanted Little League baseball, and the U.S. has performed well on an international scale most recently. In short, we've imported it better than we've exported baseball. Overall, it's probably a draw.

Watch Yao, the NBA and China for fascinating developments in the years ahead. China is building up its athletic base to send a message to the world for the 2008 Olympics, which it's hosting in Beijing. Thirty plus years ago, it was all about the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and which nation would capture the most medals. In 2008, there will be a different nation stalking the U.S. -- China.

Unless, of course, after performances in world championships before then, it's the other way around.

Where Are They Now?

Here's a link to a good article in The Daily Pennsylvanian about recent Penn Quaker hoop alums and where they're playing their overseas ball. Two are playing for last year's German league champion (one played for the championship team last year), while the other, after two years in Spain's "B" league, just signed with a team in Israel.

Great to see these guys getting a chance to show their stuff overseas. What this article suggests, and perhaps a good look at can confirm, is a) that it's hard for U.S. players to break into the upper echelons of overseas hoops because of limitations of non-citizens per squad (i.e., perhaps no more than three) and b) that the Ivy players fall behind in this pecking order because the competition they played against wasn't as good as, say, some of the bigger names you'll recognize on Eurobasket from bigger schools. Put bluntly, as much as there are those who like to tout the top Ivy teams and suggest how well Ivy players might match up against players from other schools, both the Ivies' post-season record in the NCAA Tournament and the placement of Ivy alums on elite overseas teams is humbling and puts Ivy hoops in perspective.

All that said, it's amazing at how much passion Ivy hoops can generate, especially from the likes of Penn fans and Princeton fans. The rivalry is as good as it gets in DI college hoops, especially because the Ivies do not have a post-season tournament.

On a different note, Penn is taking a page out of Princeton's book and now has two alums on its coaching staff. Last year, former all-Ivy guard Matt Langel joined Fran Dunphy's staff, and more recently former forward Shawn Trice did the same. As mostly everyone knows, Princeton's extended hoops family is huge, and there are three Princeton alums coaching DI schools -- Joe Scott (Princeton), John Thompson (Georgetown) and Chris Mooney (Richmond), with former Princeton mentor Bill Carmody serving as head coach at Northwestern and being assisted by former Princeton players Craig Robinson and Mitch Henderson, while former Princeton player Sydney Johnson is an assistant on John Thompson's staff.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Lost In The Shuffle

Last night, the U.S. men's national soccer team, ranked #6 by FIFA, international soccer's governing body, beat Mexico, ranked #5 by FIFA, 2-0, for the seventh time in their past twelve meetings, guaranteeing them a spot in World Cup 2006. In all likelihood, the U.S. men's team will be one of the top eight seeds, thereby assuring them that to get to the next round they won't have an international power in their same initial group. On a day when Scotland tied Italy and Paraguay upset Argentina, the U.S. men rose to the occasion.

This is a great victory for the U.S. men and U.S. soccer, yet probably was obscured by the opening weekend in college football and the various pennant races in Major League Baseball, not to mention the final exhibition games in the National Football League. To get to the World Cup, the U.S. team had to get by a bitter rival, one that seemingly resents the surging U.S. squad. (Click on the link and read the comments of Landon Donovan and the Mexican national team's coach to see what I mean).

It seems that finally, after years and years of youth soccer, the U.S. is finally mining the depths of the commitments of soccer moms and dads everywhere and coming up with the right combination of players to compete effectively on the international level. That's not, however, to say that the U.S. is caught up in every respect. U.S. players haven't achieved the international stature of the stars from many other countries. Yes, Freddy Adu has received a ton of publicity, but he's nowhere on the same international stage as almost the entire Brazilian national team (among whom are names such as Dida, Roberto Carlos, Ze Roberto, Roque Jr., Julio Baptista, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Adriano, etc.), England's David Beckham, Ashely Cole, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen, France's Zidane Zidane, Thierry Henry, Claude Makelele, Lillian Thuram, David Trezeguet, Italy's Totti, Del Piero, Tacchinardi, Vieri, etc. Still, the U.S. has come a long way, and World Cup 2006 will definitely be worth watching in the United States next year.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Top HS Football Recruit Picks Florida State

Myron Rolle, ESPN's top-rated HS football recruit and a DB at The Hun School in Princeton, New Jersey, has chosen Florida State.

Rolle made the announcement live on some of ESPN's channels, and he cited that Florida State offered him the best combination of academics and football and that academics played a very important part in his decision. The linked article quotes Rolle as desiring to major in pre-med courses and graduate in three years. Rolle chose Florida State over, among others, Michigan and Penn State.

Myron Rolle is, of course, 18 years old.

I have read articles about him in papers near where I live and in national magazines, and by all accounts he's a wonderful kid with the right priorities. Bobby Bowden has landed an outstanding young man, and I wish both coach and player all the best.

I do have my doubts that Florida State offers the best possible academics in combination with football and would argue that schools such as Michigan, Virginia and Cal among others, would offer better combinations, although UVA and Cal don't figure into the national championship conversation as much as say Michigan and Florida State. I also have my doubts that Rolle can graduate in three years carrying a pre-med load.

Playing football at a high-caliber Division 1-A program is a big responsibility, almost like having a full-time job. Graduating from a huge school in four years isn't that easy for the average college student (the published data on the NCAA website indicates that FSU's graduation rate for student-athletes roughly matches the graduation rate for all students -- about 62%). In contrast, schools better known for their graduation rates (and, to some degree -- sometimes small, sometimes large -- better academics) have higher graduation rates -- Michigan (about 75%), Penn State (about 83%), and Virginia (about 83%). While I think it can safely be argued that Texas offers better academics than Florida State, the Longhorns' graduation rate for athletes is lower (at about 57%). Then again, had Rolle put academics well ahead of football, and assuming that he had the grades and scores to qualify, he could have gone north on Route 206 a bit to Princeton University, whose graduation rate for all students is an eye-popping 97%. Unfortunately for the 1-AA Tigers, the quality of football played in Tigertown is far less robust than the school's graduation rate.

To his credit, Myron Rolle appears to be seeing the best of both worlds, and he's thinking of life beyond football. Some old-time football tough guys would say that a goal of being a doctor would be a distraction and help Rolle lose his focus from becoming the best DB he can be, which is why, presumably, he chose FSU, which has among its football alums Deion Sanders. Others would say that he picked the right school to do both, because presumably the academic competition at FSU might not be as tough as at a place like Michigan. The key thing will be whether he gets the support to come to practice late if he needs to attend an afternoon chemistry or biology lab, and how the coaches really feel about it.

You may recall one-time Vikings' RB Robert Smith, the one-time standout at Ohio State, who st out a season after squabbling with a Buckeyes' assistant about his class schedule. (Smith presents a nice contrast to the most recent big-name back at OSU, Maurice Clarett, for whom going to class seemed to be an imposition on his priorities). Smith ended up leaving school early to play in the NFL, and then he retired at the relatively young age of 29 to move on to the next chapter in his life. Smith, in a way, did it all, although I don't know now if he's currently in med school or doing something else. (You may also recall one-time Ohio State and 49er tight end John Frank, who retired before his skills gave out to enroll in medical school -- Frank played on some of the great Joe Montana-led teams).

Myron Rolle has unique gifts, most notably on the football field. You can't blame a teenaged gymnast for moving to Houston to work with a Carolyi or a HS tennis player for moving into Nick Bolletieri's academy in Florida to maximize her unique talents, and you can't blame a HS kid from going to the place that will give him the best shot to play DB for serious money some day. If he were my kid with that type of talent, I would have counseled him on doing what he did -- find the best combination for him and a place that would support all of his goals. For this kid, playing football at Duke, Vanderbilt or Rice, not to mention Stanford or Northwestern, just wouldn't have cut it.

Even then, I might have tried to nudge him toward UVA or Michigan just a bit.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Corey Simon To Sign With Colts

Good news for Colts fans, former Eagles' DT Corey Simon will now help firm up a defense that NFL experts said had cost the Colts a chance at an AFC championship. Simon has apparently agreed to a multi-year deal.

Simon is not, however, the second coming of Warren Sapp in his prime, as his agent, Roosevelt Barnes, suggested in the linked article. He is a good DT and a durable one at that, as he only missed two games in his five years in the Cradle of Liberty despite having had surgery on both shoulders while in college. Yes, he has gone to the Pro Bowl, but last year he didn't arrive to the Birds in shape, took a while to get there, and was outplayed by three other Eagles' DTs -- fellow starter Darwin Walker, Sam Rayburn and Hollis Thomas. In fact, it was the play of those three, plus rookie Mike Patterson from USC, that gave the Eagles' comfort to remove the franchise tag from Simon and let him go. (Counterpoint on this: See the "opposing scout's report" in this weeks SI's NFL preview, in which the scout opines that the Eagles are thin on the DL; the counterpoint to that is that the prevailing wisdom in Philadelphia going into training camp, even with Jerome McDougle's recovery from gunshot wounds, is that the Eagles had unusual depth at DL).

Who is right? Who benefits?

Simon is workmanlike, and when he's on, he's an excellent DT. One question is whether he's in shape and, if he isn't, how long it will take him to get there. Another is that his best season was when he was a rookie and recorded 7.5 sacks. That's far from implying that he's had a downhill slide, but you have to examine his career performance and draw your own conclusions. That said, Simon has to be an upgrade for the Colts, and he's a very good citizen to boot.

The Eagles have made very smart personnel decisions during the Andy Reid era, and I've blogged about them before. Hugh Douglas was riding high a few years ago, wanted a big contract when his was up, and didn't get one. Flew to Jacksonville, had a bad year, was let go before last season and ends up as a backup on the Eagles. He had clearly overestimated his market worth. Before that, Jeremiah Trotter wanted huge bucks from the Birds. The Eagles let him fly to prodigal son Daniel Snyder's open-wallet policy in Washington, where he struggled for two seasons and was cut. Came back to the Birds for far less money (having personally lobbied Andy Reid while Reid was on vacation fishing) and played great last year. They let Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent go the free agent route last year, replaced them with two all-pros (Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown), and Taylor was cut in pre-season by Seattle this year. Vincent, a classy player, is in the final years of his career with Buffalo. They might have missed when they let LB Shawn Barber go to Kansas City as a free agent, as they missed when they signed Nate Wayne and Levon Kirkland as free agent linebackers. But they didn't miss when they traded disgruntled OL John Welbourn to KC, either.

Did the Eagles know something? Do their algorithms tell them about a player's useful life based upon the grind at his position and his injury history? Are they properly confident in the core of four DTs they are keeping for sure, two of whom have issues with injuries (Thomas is oft-injured, and Rayburn has a nasty hyperextended elbow problem now)?

Time will tell. History is on their side.

This may be a move that benefitted both teams. The Colts clearly will get an upgrade at DT, while the Eagles can give meaningful playing time to excellent players in their own right, one of whom, Patterson, might surpass Simon's accomplishments (many Eagles fans didn't think that Sheppard and Brown could be better than Vincent and Taylor, but they're every bit as good, if not better in some aspects of their game). In addition, the Eagles free up cap space, which, according to what I've heard, can be rolled over and used in a subsequent year if you don't use it in a current year. That explains how the Eagles gave big contracts to T.O. and Jevon Kearse before last season, as they have had a reputation for always being under the cap. That also could enable them to lock up SS Michael Lewis to a long-term deal, as well as free up money to sign an excellent free agent OT after this season, as both starting tackles -- Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan -- are over 30.

Corey Simon will be missed in Philadelphia for many reasons.

But the Eagles usually find a way to move on.

And that's a hallmark of an outstanding organization.