Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Yeah, Right, Alexei Lalas

The sitting GM for a Major League soccer team and former World Cup player has garnered a lot of attention by saying that the U.S.'s Major League Soccer is on par with England's heralded Premiership.

Yeah, right.

Lalas also said that when David Beckham gets to the U.S., he'll be a bigger story than Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan.

Yeah, right, again.

What Lalas is forgetting is that the world's best soccer is played in the Premiership and the "A" leagues in Italy and Spain, not to mention in Lyon, France. What he also neglected to say is that Beckham is on the downward slope of his career, while Jordan was transcendant almost to the end and Woods is at his peak, which, for him, is a lengthy high-level plateau of excellence. Almost a year ago, when asked to fill in the blank to "David Beckham is . . .", Premiership and American World Cup goalie Kasey Keller said "a poseur." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

I've blogged on this before, and I've opined that the reason the U.S. team hasn't fared well internationally is because many of the players play their professional ball in the United States, where they are not competing against the best. That statement holds up because when you look at the elite international teams -- Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Italy, France, England and Germany -- their players are all playing somewhere in Western Europe. The elite Brazilians are not playing in the Brazilian League, the elite Argentines aren't spending their prime playing for Boca Juniors or River Plate, and the elite Western Europeans aren't playing in the United States. To be the best you have to play and succeed against the best. The U.S. players haven't done that, and that's why the U.S. World Cup team hasn't had much success in the World Cup.

Lalas clearly is trying to draw attention to his league and his team, and it's working. Those comments will draw blog posts like this for a few days, at least, but his claims for the moment ring hollow. Until U.S. players who populate MLS teams get the U.S. to the semis in a World Cup, the MLS will be deemed, rightly, as an inferior league.

As for Beckham, he was predominant at one time, but no longer. According to one English friend, he's great on the set pieces (for you Americans, that means penalty kicks, free kicks and the like) but overall a bit too worn down and slow for international play. Still, the U.S. will get a good player with star power.

But no longer an internationally elite one.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Handicap of Wealth

In his wonderful book on Bill Bradley, A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee wrote that en route to becoming a star player, Bill Bradley had to overcome the "handicap of wealth." Bradley was the only child of a bank president and used to dribble his basketball on the decks of the cruise ships his folks would take him on as a young man. His background wasn't the same, say, as that of his Knicks teammate Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, who used to run home from school everyday, in part because he had to travel through some hostile gang territories to do so and who matriculated at Winston-Salem because most of today's big-time schools didn't recruit black players in the late 1950's and early 1960's.

I remember once attending a lunch where retired Princeton hoops coach Pete Carril spoke. Some of the old alums asked about the chances of a tall walk-on, whose father was a CEO of a prominent company. Carril looked glum. "I knew I was doomed when I rang the bell and a housekeeper answered the door." Basketball, after all, is about wanting -- no, having to have -- the rock, and if you have many of life's good things at your beck and call, so the theory goes, you're less likely to have the hunger that kids who sometimes go hungry have.

Having just read Cait Murphy's brilliant Crazy '08 (which I just blogged about and is a must read), I got to thinking. What prompted Hall of Famers like Ed Walsh and Christy Mathewson to pitch in 7 games in 10 days at season's end, to pitch over 400 innings in a season, and to pitch both ends of a doubleheader? Why did those guys work so hard, and why weren't they as brittle, seemingly, as the starting pitchers today, who get four days' rest and get about 35 starts in a season, don't go more than 6 innings and are considered aces if their ERA's are below 4.50 and they win 15 games.

Is the reason the "handicap of wealth?"

Remember, there was a strong reserve clause in those days, no union, and dire circumstances. Walsh, Hughie Jennings and others came from Pennsylvania's coal country in the northeastern part of the state. Shamokin, Kingston, Wilkes-Barre, Scranton. Kids started working by 6 or 7, went deep underground, worked as "breaker boys" sifting through coal chunks after they came down the chute into a bin, frequently got maimed, the mortality rate was high, and the wages were about 5 cents an hour. Many Eastern Europeans emigrated to America for a better life, seemingly in retrospect, for future generations, as their personal "present" could not have been all that pleasant. These fellows did not want to go back -- starring in baseball was a way out for them and many others, and there were always many who would take their place. The mines were a spectre, a place to come from, not to default too. Ditto for sweatshops and subsistence farms. To a great degree, there wasn't much, if anything, to fall back on.

Today, the players can become free agents, the average player's salary is somewhere around $2 million, the travel is nice, the per diems generous, the royalty monies from the Players' Association's licensing deals terrific. Many players go to college, and even those who didn't, for the most part, come from much better living situations than players at the turn of the 20th century. Cars, IPods, nice sneakers, air conditioning, better medical care, etc. Put differently, if these kids don't make it, they won't go work underground for five cents an hour in dangerous conditions.

So, does that mean that the modern player isn't as driven for the big records? For 300-inning seasons, 30 wins, pitching through more pain? Clearly, today's professional athletes are motivated and want to win. But they're also more specialized and coddled than ever before. At the turn of the 20th century, the team's trainer, who probably had little formal training, used to create a rubdown ointment by mixing Tabasco sauce with vaseline and rubbing it on a pitcher's arm (one team called that concoction "Go Fast"). Today, there are all sorts of resources for players to train, both at the ballpark and available for a fee. Ditto for medical attention. Pitches are charted, exercise regimens are tailored, and many teams have detailed video libraries about every at bat a position player has taken and every pitch a pitcher has thrown. And there's also the most successful union in the history of organized labor, the Major League Baseball Players Association, that looks out for the interests of the players. And, of course, every player has an agent to look after him.

And many have luxury cars, more than one house, lots of trappings.

But are they as hungry? They're competitive and motivated, but I'll submit that they're not possibly as hungry as they were 100 years ago. First, they literally aren't as hungry. Read the oral histories of those who played in the "outghts" and teens and you'll figure that out in a hurry. Second, the union provides some excellent benefits to assist players, and the pension is outstanding for those who qualify. There were no such benefits 100 years ago. Third, the pitchers way back when just didn't know any better. There weren't 100 years of metrics that the statheads have pored over in excruciating detail (and providing front offices with kernels of wisdom to enable them to rest their pitchers and spot them when necessary), and "sports" medicine was about 70-75 years from starting. Fourth, well, just look at the top two reasons. The players didn't come from money, they didn't have any leverage, and the teams did absolutely everything they could to win. There was no safety net.

Take a look back at the 2001 World Series, when Randy Johnson, having started a few days earlier, came out of the bullpen for the Diamondbacks to win, in relief, Game 7 of the World Series. And who could forget a trio of Red Sox pitchers, Curt Schilling among them, walking out to the bullpen in the 2004 American League Championship Series, to do anything it took to help the BoSox come from 3 games down to win that series? Why did we like that drama so much? Because it was all hands on deck, and because it was the way that teams did things many years ago. No safety net. No tomorrow. Just pure baseball, figuring out any way to win a game to play another day.

Take a look at the records -- the number of wins Jack Chesbro had for the Yankees in a season, the tales of "Iron Man" Joe McGinnity, who pitched both games of a doubleheader and won (but earned the nickname for having worked at an iron foundry in the off-season), the number of innings Walter Johnson pitched season after season, the 511 wins of Cy Young, and the reports of pitchers starting 5 games in 10 days.

Those were the days when it was win and have a nice life or go home and have an uncertain one. That history might explain, for example, why there are so many players from the Dominican Republican, many of whom wouldn't have much to go home to if they didn't make it. And it also might explain why certain records will not be broken in our lifetime, if ever.

So, does the "handicap of wealth" permeate into baseball? Or is it a handicap of too many comforts and the trappings of wealth? Or, perhaps, is it progress?

The Best Baseball Book in a While

I read all sorts of books, from popular fiction that's considered "beach reading" to military histories to all sorts of books about sports. I'll review a few of them here over the course of the next several weeks (highly recommending one, recommending another and suggesting that you read the third only if you haven't read anything on the topic anywhere else). In any event, I stumbled upon a gem at the book store over a month ago. I didn't know what to expect, and it turned out to be a real find.

The book is entitled Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History, about, for the most part, the 1908 baseball season, the year of a torrid pennant race in the Senior Circuit among the Giants, Cubs and Pirates, the year of "Merkle's boner," of very brave umpires, corrupt or pusillanimous league officials, fiery players, some of whom literally did anything it took to win, while others displayed sportsmanship that was well ahead of its time. Mixed in with the detailed research and punchy, fluid prose, is some social history from the era. Murphy, a college softball player at Amherst a few decades ago who now is an editor at Fortune, hits a home run.

Baseball about 100 years ago was far different from the game today. Fans could actually sit on the field if the grandstands overflowed, thus creating some interesting ground rules. All players had jobs in the off-season. A future Hall of Fame catcher, for example, worked as a private detective. You'll read of the players' hatred of the reserve clause even way back when, the determination of many to make it at all costs because of the poverty they desperately wanted to leave behind, the threats that gamblers posed to the game, and you'll even see a photo of Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown's fabled right hand.

You'll read about the Cubs' Orval Overall and the Phillies' "Giant Killer" Harry Covaleskie, who beat the New York nine three times in the last few weeks of the season to cause the Giants endless grief. (And you'll hear a continuation of the stories told in Lawrence Ritter's brilliant Glory of Their Times as to whether the young pitcher left baseball because of a sore arm or because the bench jockeys swore he kept bologna in his back pocket and rode him mercilessly about his snacking habits, driving him from the game).

I wrote earlier that Cait Murphy hit a home run with this book, but she actually achieved a Triple Crown. First, she researched the heck out of the subject matter and tells detailed "back stories" to some of the stories that many baseball fans and self-described experts thought they already knew. Second, her writing style is unique, transcendant and entertaining. She doesn't mince or waste words, and the combination has a very real feel to it, as if someone were narrating a documentary with vivid photos scrolling on a screen. Third, she takes you back in time and makes you feel like it really is 1908 and you're there.

Baseball fans -- just go out and buy this book. You will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Why is the College World Series So Late?

Unless the colleges participating in the CWS are on trimesters and, as a result, let their kids out in late June, most schools participating finished their academic years at some point in May. Which raises the question as to why the "Super" Regionals have just finished up and why the College World Series will begin in the middle of June?

While Major League Baseball is very popular in the U.S. (if not the number one sport), college baseball always has been a poor cousin to college football and college basketball. It's almost as if the lack of popularity of college baseball supports an often-heard maxim down south that there are two sports, football and spring football, and that the fans of the former foresake their college baseball team to watch spring practice. Alternatively, after two intense seasons watching big-time sports, they take the spring off. Either way, the average sports fan can name many college football and basketball players and coaches, but I'll bet even the best fans can't name ten college baseball coaches and players.

Which leads me back to the premise of this post -- why is the CWS so late? And does anyone really care other than those who play, their families and friends and certain members of college athletic departments? Does college baseball suffer from the professional ice hockey syndrome -- that the only fans are the ones who go to the games? And why does it make sense to start the CWS in mid-June? No one is around, and most students are off to summer school or their summer jobs? The magic of March Madness is totally lost on the NCAA and its member schools.

Why is baseball so baffling? The World Series starts so late at night that young fans can't watch more than the first few innings, and the games take so long that even an average fan must turn them off in order to be in reasonable shape for work the next morning. Its college counterpart is equally inept and drawing a longer-lasting fan base, although in fairness professional baseball has historically eclipsed college baseball to a degree not found in football or basketball. Still, starting a tournament when most schools aren't in session (other than summer session) strikes me as silly. Again, another opportunity lost to garner young fans.

Will I watch? Perhaps and perhaps not. But what's compelling about this tournament to watch it?

There's one and only one March Madness. What do you call this?

The NCAA's June Swoon?

The Flip Side to NFL Glory

Read this and see what I mean.

Someone once wrote that the winners write the history books, which means that you don't frequently see stories like this. Most likely, the only stories you see about former NFL players are about the superstars when they make the Hall of Fame. Seldom do we see stories about those who are less fortunate but no less critical to the success of the NFL -- the average player.

And it's no surprise that the detritus of the NFL survives in the form of broken bodies. After all, how would you fare if since seven or eight, and into your late twenties or earlier thirties, you spent a good part of your young life colliding with other people? It seems that both the NFL Players' Union and the NFL are woefully unprepared to deal with the massive problems that certain former players have.

For some, being an NFL superstart is a glamorous life. For many others, this story is a sobering reminder of what being a pro player is all about.

This story also makes me reflect on the "early" retirement of Giants' RB Tiki Barber.

Smart guy.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Indy Car Tires

I read an interesting article in this month's "ESPN The Magazine" about Goodyear and the manufacture of Indy car tires.

Did you know that

a) They cost $418 apiece;
b) a car uses about $30,000 of tires per race; and
c) (the most compelling item in my opinion) at any one time in a race, the only rubber hitting the track (of all 4 tires combined) is roughly the size of the sole of a men's size 11 shoe.

It's always great to read articles in national publications that actually teach you something. It's also a small article, a two-page layout, but great stuff nonetheless. There really isn't a good hypertext link to the article, but go within the ESPN website and find the magazine, and check it out.