Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Brief Reflections on Baseball

I've watched a bunch of games this summer and have the following observations:

1. The Philadelphia Phillies are fun to watch. And a pox on the house of my Met-fan colleague who argued that Jimmy Rollins was limited offensively and that Shane Victorino isn't proven. If Rollins is limited, then the sky is his max. Also, the advent of Davey Lopes as a Phillies' coach apparently has sprung the fleet Victorino into his newly found role as a base stealer. The team leads the National League in runs scored (significantly so). Okay, so their pitching staff is leaky, two outfielders got hurt last night and Chase Utley is on the DL, but every team has problems. That doesn't mean that this team isn't fun to watch.

2. The Phillies Look Like They're Having Fun. Charlie Manuel deserves some credit -- this is a loose ball club. The position players, at least, looking like they're enjoying themselves immensely. So does Cole Hamels. Manuel also deserves credit, I think, for mentoring some players into being better hitters, with Rollins being Exhibit A.

3. Will the Phillies Fire Charlie Manuel After the Season? Jayson Stark was on my local ESPN Radio station last week, and he had some interesting points. Stark thinks that if Manuel doesn't get this team into the playoffs -- pitching shortages, injuries and all -- that Manuel gets the axe after the season. But Stark believes that if he gets the team to 83 wins with the pitching that he has (and he made these comments before Chase Utley got hurt and before both Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn went down with injuries), that Manuel should be Manager of the Year. Yes, Stark pointed out, Manuel can make iffy pitching moves. But the team is winning baseball games, too. Manuel has grown on me -- his team plays relaxed, and what are they going to do, replace him with a Larry Bowa type? Why? Okay, so there could be someone else, but the ownership shouldn't be so quick to dispense with Charlie.

4. Battle of the Shanes. On Saturday night, Shane Youman of the Pirates faced Shane Victorino of the Phillies. I'd bet it's the first time that a Shane pitched to a Shane in MLB history. I don't think that former Mariner and Phillie Shane Rawley faced any Shanes during his day. Victorino's team scored 8 runs in the bottom of the fifth on Saturday night and won going away.

5. A Tale of Two Cities. About 3 weeks ago I watched games in Philadelphia and Baltimore on back-to-back nights. The atmosphere in Philadelphia was electric -- Utley, Howard, Rollins and rookie pitcher Kyle Kendrick. Fans got to the park early, the Phillies banged out 23 hits and won 13-3. The following night we went to Baltimore, and the once-exciting place was funereal. I suppose that's what happens when you have ownership that is possibly worse than your neighbor 2 hours and 15 minutes to the north and you're on the verge of your tenth straight losing season (come to think of it, you haven't had that much to cheer about since you won the Series in 1983). Okay, Miguel Tejada and Melvin Mora were hurt, but this once was the premier baseball town in America (with St. Louis a close second). The fans were listless, and I suppose it's hard to get excited when your outfield includes Jay Payton and Corey Patterson, both of whom laid eggs with the fans as far as I'm concerned because they didn't sign one autograph before the game. They should feel fortunate to be in the majors and to have fans watching their product (as it turned out, the game was exciting, and the O's won in the bottom of the tenth on a Nick Markakis hit). In contrast, Jamie Moyer stood outside in a hot sun last Saturday night, the day after he pitched, and signed autographs for at least 20 minutes, maybe more.

That's about it for now. All typos are mine.

Driving Miss Dana

The Philadelphia Daily News' Dana Pennett O'Neil has a great column about riding along with Villanova assistant men's basketball coach Brett Gunning as college coaches survey the top high school talent at showcases in Las Vegas.

She's right, it does sound like dating.

No, not her and the Villanova assistant. The coaches and the players.

See and be seen, make sure your guys know that you're there.

Sounds glamorous, doesn't it? Chasing around 17 year-olds, 18 year-olds, their AAU shepherds and their parents and guardians, trying to get them to sign with your school. Heckuva way to make a living.

Hopefully they'll go to class and be able to distinguish GAAP from The Gap, writing computer text versus texting, Brahms from The Palms and Fitzgerald (from Madden 08) from Fitzgerald (the guy who wrote a few great books). Too much to ask for?

Read the whole thing.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Dangers of Spell-Check

Or, at least, the program in Word that can help create an unintentionally amusing situation.

And, here, I'm telling a story on myself.

Yesterday, I was sending an e-mail to a colleague asking him to create a summary to help justify a project. I told him to include all sorts of information, and I asked that the first two lines summarize the importance of the project (so that he could hook the reader right away).

The problem was, though, that I type fast and created a typo. Spell-check caught it, and as I ran through spell-check I hit "ok" or "change" to the first alternative that was offered up to correct my typo, thinking that it would pick the right word.

It didn't, and the result was hilarious, at least to me. (I ultimately caught the error, arranged to recall the message and believe I did so successfully, although it can be hard to tell). I'm sure if I didn't recall it the people to whom I sent it, with whom I've worked for a while, would have laughed at the error too.

So here goes: I meant to tell the recipient to discuss early on the importance of the project (okay, it sounds obvious that that's what you should do in a summary, but so be it). As I said, I type fast, and I misspelled "importance". I left out the "r", so that "impotance" is was showed up. Writing quickly, I assumed that the first alternative spell-check would have offered would have been "importance", so as I rushed my way through spell-check I accepted the first alternative that was offered without looking too closely.

Except it wasn't "importance." It was, you guessed it, "impotence."

I had occasion to re-read the message about two minutes later when I went to check to see if I conveyed a key detail (I had), and I caught the mistake. "Please make sure that you write about the impotence of the project early on to hook the reader." Or something like that.

And I had to admit, it was a classic, a 180-degree goof up. Yes, my fair colleague, please write about how bad the project is in the first two sentences and why it won't work. Given how hard I've been working lately, I could only laugh at myself at how silly the sentence read, and I learned a lesson, which is that you have to take more time with spell-check.

Or else risk using words that convey the opposite of what you intended.

Even if they create temporary amusement in the process.

Where Water is Thicker Than Blood

Okay, so this is the life they chose. . .

No, that doesn't mean that a la "The Sopranos" or "The Godfather", someone gets whacked. All that it means is that baseball is a business, too.

The Phillies traded a minor-league pitching prospect for the ChiSox starting second baseman, Tadahito Iguchi. They figured to do something after a wild rookie pitcher for the Nats broke Chase Utley's hand on Wednesday.

The prospect they traded? A Class A pitcher named Michael Dubee.

So what, you say?

He's the son of the Phillies' pitching coach, Rich Dubee.

Maybe this is an amusing story, maybe it isn't, but perhaps it would be more newsworthy if Dubee's last name were Gillick and the Phils' GM traded his own son to help the team. You know the line, "he'd throw at his own mother if it would help the team win."

In this case, he'd trade the son of his own pitching coach to help the team win.

It's just business, though, not personal.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Compared to Barry Bonds, He Is

The volcano that is Curt Schilling's mouth blew molten lava all over the baseball world, with the best money pitcher of his generation blasting Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro over steroid usage on Bob Costas's show on HBO.

Among Bonds' responses was that Costas is a "midget" who knows nothing about baseball.

Interesting choice of words, Barry. After all, you are a Giant. . . and, well, a giant, so compare to you most folks in baseball are midgets.

At least now they are.

But were they in the early 1990's when you were a Pirate? Were you a giant then? Or did something change?

The bet here is that the difference in bulk and girth between you and Costas is much greater today than it was 15 years ago, and that hasn't come from simply eating "Rice-a-roni", the San Francisco treat or bowls of seafood-laden pasta at Fisherman's Wharf.

Be careful how you choose your words, Mr. Bonds, or else people will scrutinize your physique more than you should draw attention to it.

Bob Costas shouldn't be too upset, especially if he considers the source.

As for Curt Schilling, his comments are an enigma. Wasn't it he who once said in the late 90's or early 00's that he had walked through a locker room and slapped a few teammates on the butt and was asked by them not to because apparently that's where they took their injections? (I think he was with the Dbacks at the time). And then didn't he subsequently close ranks with his fellow trade unionists and go mum on the steroids issue? And now this?

Schilling talks, Bonds calls people names.

What say you, Bud Selig?

The Phillies Need a Song. . .

For the seventh-inning stretch.

In Baltimore, they play the late John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." (I don't really consider Baltimore "country", although it is south of the Mason-Dixon line and there were many secesh sympathizers there during the Civil War, including some assassins who tried to knock off President-Elect Abe Lincoln as his train made his way through Crab City before his inaugural in 1864). I am curious, though, how this song came to be so embedded in the culture of Oriole Nation.

In Boston, they play Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline." (Diamond is from Brooklyn, and I'm not from Boston, so I wonder what the significance is).

In Philadelphia, they need a complement to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Here are some suggestions (in no particular order of preference):

1. Chubby Checker's "The Twist." An old Philadelphia classic, and good for aerobic exercise after the 7th inning stretch. A contender.

2. Bobby Rydell's "Volare." Another old Philadelphia classic, and on the same label as "The Twist." Can you tell me the label? Anyway, it's a bit schmaltzy, and now most of the people who heard of it are grandparents. Probably a long shot.

3. "Gonna Fly Now." This is the theme from Rocky, but it's not known for it's lyrics, and you don't always want to summon up the image of a local fighter getting pounded. Right now, it hits the hometown bullpen too close to home. While Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" is a great "pump me up" type of song (and at the core of "Rocky III"), remember the word "Tiger." It isn't eye of the Phillie, but, then again, what really is a Phillie? Pass.

4. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, "We're Havin' a Party." It's a great song, one that everyone can sing along to, and it's really upbeat. Sure, Southside is from the north Jersey Shore, which means that many of his fanatics are Mets or Yankees' fans, but the music is good (even though few listen to music on the radio anymore, and, well, that pastime fits into the song's lyrics pretty well). Then again, you have to be a pretty good time to have this upbeat a song. And the Phillies can score runs, so they definitely have an offensive party in their bandbox of a ballpark. I don't think this would work in Baltimore, where the hometown nine is en route to a tenth straight losing season. A contender, if a bit of a darkhorse.

5. Sister Sledge's "We are Family." Great song, and sung almost 30 years ago by native Philadelphians. Problem is that the cross-state Pirates made this song famous with their '79 Series victory, when they came back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Orioles. This song is akin to a retired number -- no one really should use it as a theme song any more -- they won't be able to do it justice the way Willie Stargell and the Pirates did it. (One note here: the Phillies' AAA team will move from Ottawa to Allentown, Pennsylvania starting next season and be named, gulp, the Allentown Iron Pigs. Here's to hoping that Billy Joel's "Allentown", in which he sings of "closing all the factories down" doesn't make it to the Iron Arnold Ziffels' seventh inning stretch). Not an entrant -- it's retired.

6. The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie." Okay, it's an oldie, but it's one that the fans can sing along to, dance to, and drink beer to, and given how many $6.50 Buds they sell at Citizens' Bank Park (why can't they at least sell a fine Pennsylvania beer, Yuengling, instead of send money the Cardinals' way is beyond me). Choruses of "Louie, Louie" will echo throughout the stadium and make every night seem like a summer beach party. A little lowbrow, but it has a shot.

7. "I Feel Good" by James Brown. Now, Brown didn't necessarily lead a stellar off-the-stage life, but how can professional sports owners really complain given all the scandals that have befallen them? Steroids in baseball, Epogen in cycling, a corrupt ref in the NBA (allegedly), a dog-fighting scandal in the NFL (allegedly), so James wasn't a saint. But the song is really upbeat, you have that cool shriek at the beginning, and, well, to be outside at a baseball game in the summer, with family and friends, should make everyone feel good. Then again, if your startingpitching staff if populated with AAA refugees, perhaps "I Feel Good" isn't the message you should send (but you won't play Elton John's "Rocket Man", either, and I doubt the players' union would let you create innuendos against your pitching staff anyway). Intriguing candidate.

8. The Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up." Great to get the juices flowing in the seventh inning, even though after the initial words it's not the easiest to understand the lyrics. And perhaps this song gets overplayed and overused that it could end up being a cliche at the ballpark. Pass.

But for another "fire me up song", how about. . .

9. C&C Dance Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat." Martha Wash belts out "Everybody Dance Now" in a Hall-of-Fame caliber performance, and Freedom Williams' provides a complementary rap. Hearing "Everybody Dance Now" after sitting for seven innings could be just what the hometown crowd needs. This song should be a contender, even if it doesn't have the shmaltz of "Sweet Caroline" or the hillbilly, feet-stomping appeal of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." The problem probably is that outside of Martha Wash's exuberant singing of "Everybody Dance Now" the song isn't the strongest in the world. A contender, but not a strong one.

10. Al Alberts' "One the Way to Cape May." Alberts (who had a kids' variety show on local TV for years and who's now in his late 70's, composed this little ditty many years ago about driving down to the various points at the South Jersey shore, culminating in Cape May. It's shmaltzy, it's summery, and it's just flat out great. Perhaps, above all, this should be the song that they play after "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Could be the winner -- shmaltzy, you can sing along to it, and it has a tie to the Phillies' Nation.

Now, as for after the ball game. . .

How about John Lee Hooker's "One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer"?

After all, that's probably what Charlie Manuel and his coaches down after watching the bullpen blow a 4-2 lead after an excellent performance by Cole Hamels.

Follow the bouncing ball. . .

Deion Sanders on the Michael Vick Case

From yesterday's Southwest (Florida) News-Press. Roger Cossack or Nancy Grace he isn't.

Read the whole thing and be thankful that not every former athlete or movie actor turned public figure has something to say or is someone we should follow. Deion writes himself into a corner at every turn in this piece, and the point about society's "using" Michael Vick because the sporting world right now is boring would be comical if it weren't so off-base.

To be clear, I don't want to stick the proverbial Nifong into Vick yet. The justice system will take care of that, and Vick has hired high-priced legal talent to represent him. But when Prime Time starts explaining why athletes like dog fighting, he loses me completely.

Heinrich Heine once wrote that "people who burn books will someday burn people."

What do we say about people who train dogs who will fight to the death -- for the sporting pleasure of those adults?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Tim Donaghy Affair

Tim Donaghy has a mess on his hands, he's been called a criminal, he's been convicted in the media, and he hasn't been indicted yet. There are conflicting media reports about the following: a) whether any players and any other refs are implicated and b) whether Donaghy did anything more than bet on games in which he officiated (read: fix them). The latter point is somewhat humorous, because the odds are that if someone bets on something where he can affect the outcome, he will. In basketball, that means using your whistle more (or less) than you were trained to. I'm sure that the people who dig deep into the numbers will examine Donaghy's recent history very closely. Check that, they already have.

So what will all sports do now? Will they keep all sorts of metrics on their officials to determine whether there are any statistical outliers and how the outcomes of the game match up against Vegas lines (read: if Ref X refs in too many games that hit the under, does that raise a red flag?). If Official Y in the NHL calls 10% more major penalties than the next guy, and half of those aren't against guys who are labeled "goons," does that mean there's a problem? Do you automatically terminate the guys at the top of the suspicion list to keep everyone honest? And how would that type of taxation affect behavior? Instead of doing what they're trained to do, will refs then look at the stats and adopt "make up" calls in subsequent games to put their averages back within the norms? Will a committee be required in the NBA before a second technical is given or when a ref now wants to eject a player right off the bat by issuing two technical fouls at once?

It would be interesting to see what "randomization" security measures are in place now to make sure one official doesn't officiate in the same venue too many times during a season. It would be interesting to see what type of screening goes on, because there is no screening that can assess the vices of a referee that effectively. Even if the newspaper reports about an investigation into Tim Donaghy two years ago are true (the NBA allegedly investigated Donaghy), the investigation didn't result in a suspension or termination of Donaghy.

This whole affair reminds me of the guy who owns the beach house and who is obsessed with cleanliness. He goes ape when a grain of sand appears on his dining room carpet. What he doesn't realize is that while he can keep the beach out of his house and buckets of sand out of his house, if he's to have any enjoyment of the beach, grains of sand will find their way into his house. While Donaghy's alleged conduct stained the NBA, it is tantamount to a grain of sand. For unless there's a huge pattern of game-fixing that implicates players and refs (read: the beach now is in the house) or a pattern of refs conspiring to fix games (read: the buckets have made their way in), Donaghy is like the grain of sand that makes his way in -- the league really couldn't have done much to prevent this from happening.

I'm sure it officers an Employee Assistance Program to those who need help, but my guess is that Donaghy (if the charges are true), like others with problems, wouldn't have admitted to it and therefore wouldn't have availed himself of the program. That said, what could the NBA have done other than to impose measures that a) from the get go would tarnish their officials' reputations and b) would invade their privacy in significant ways. Is there really a need for that?

Sure, new forms of checking metrics will arise that will red flag certain behavior (if those forms don't exist already), and that's okay. Usually those metrics weed out incompetence and not corruption. But let's be careful not to besmirch the reputations of many over the conduct of a single actor.

Not everyone cheats. Not everyone corrupts the system and their job. Not everyone tarnishes the reputation of an entire group through the actions of an individual. In fact, most people out there do the best they can and don't cheat.

Let's not forget that when watching an NBA game the next time.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The NBA's Worst Nightmare

I've frequently wondered when this would happen, and not if, and the reason simply is the disparity between the money that those who officiate the game make and those who play it (analagously, given the penury with which some judges are treated and the money the lawyers before them can make, I've had occasion to wonder not if, but when this type of controversy would hit a well-known court as well) as well as the fact that, well, people are human. Sorry, call me cynical, but human behavior is what it is -- flawed. I've once had a friend refer to an ad that said "name your top 10 at this profession -- one of them is an alcoholic." That doesn't mean, of course, that professional referees are prone to corruption. It's just that they're human, and, well, even with the best screening mechanisms a problem like this could occur.

Allegedly, of course, because no blogger or media member should "Duke Lacrosse" anyone who has been charged with a crime, even if he's Michael Vick and the accusations are hideous. I don't know whether the accused NBA ref is guilty or not, but the accusations -- as I've heard them piecemeal -- are upsetting. (The one good thing that happened today was that the media outlets named the ref who is under suspicion. Earlier in the day The New York Post and others said that an NBA ref is under suspicion, leaving the entire NBA fan base wondering which referee was the guy in the spotlight, thereby casting aspersions on all referees).

Americans love the integrity of their games. I recall a scene in the original "Longest Yard," when the former star quarterback (played by Burt Reynolds), asks the character named Caretaker why people hate him so much given that the prison population was a violent bunch. Caretaker said something like this: "What you have here are your robbers, arsonists and murderers, but you threw your own football games. Now that's un-American."

Ref likes to bet. Ref makes bad bets. Ref gets into guys who don't like that people owe them money and can't pay them back. The shylocks ask for something he can give them. Ref gives them outcomes of games, shylocks bet on those outcomes and win large dollars. Twenty, fifty large. Over many games. People can't keep secrets. Someone gets pinched, someone trades something juicy to a prosecutor eager for a headline (and there are those prosecutors who love headlines). Wiseguy sings, gives up a non-wiseguy, so maybe he angers a fellow button man by killing a golden goose, but he doesn't rat on a buddy. Prosecutor gets something juicy, something that will stick.

Plausible? Seems that this is what's going on.

And the NBA has a mess on its hands.

A big mess.

Now some former prosecutor turned big New York law firm partner will conduct an investigation, review tape of all games where this ref tried to influence the outcome. They interview players, fans with good seats (who might have overheard what the ref said when teeing up a player or coach in the heat of a game), interview the scorer's table officials, and publish a 500-page report after thousands of hours of investigation at $500 per hour, at least. The average official, who has done nothing wrong, will suffer. Fans will ask him how much he's being paid to throw a game, and fans sit close to these refs and the refs can hear. A player might say something during the heat of the moment. And the league will put in place some rigorous screening system for its refs and perhaps for technical fouls and for calls in the last five minutes of a game. The league will certainly overreact, as Congress typically does after there's a scandal. And what they'll find, ultimately, is that they can't legislate behavior. All they can do is perform better background checks.

The refs in the NBA have added flavor to the game over the years, and there have been and are many outstanding ones -- something that must not be forgotten. I remember once, years ago, I was sitting behind the basket at 76ers-Celtics game at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. I can't remember precisely who the players were, but I was yelling at the great referee Earl Strom that the Celtics' center (it might have been Dave Cowens, whom I thought was excellent) was backing in play after play and elbowing the 76er defending him time after time without getting called for an offensive foul. Finally, on the next play, Strom called an offensive foul on the offending Celtic player and then there was a timeout on the floor. I stood up to stretch and I see the referee pointing at me. I was probably an old teenager at the time.

Me (surprised that someone of Strom's stature would notice me): "Me?"

Strom (smiling): "Yes, you." (smiles again). "So what did you think of that?"

Me (smiling widely, giving the thumbs-up sign): "Great call, great call, keep it up."

Strom smiled, put his whistle in his mouth and ran back toward the floor. I'm sure I had nothing to do with me, but he did hear my voice (otherwise why would he have said something?), and that was his personality. He loved every minute of what he did, and it showed. All he was doing with me was having fun with a kid who loved the game as much as he did (and, who knows, as a kid he might have been as partisan for a team as I was for mine). And now there are doubts about all NBA referees, and that is a shame.

Because all we know is that there are allegations that one guy might have altered the outcome of games because he got in with the wrong crowd.

So let's not jump to conclusions. All we have are allegations. Nothing has been proven. But even if they stick, does that mean that the NBA is rotten to the core? Hardly. What it would mean if true is that flawed human behavior victimized the NBA. And before we go off on our high horses, let's be careful not to hold the NBA to higher standards than we hold ourselves or our own favorite employers, because I'm not sure that the best compliance system in the world could have stopped this.

The NBA will investigate, the Justice Department will do its thing, and the referees' union will do what it should, which is protect its own membership.

These guys have some of the toughest officiating jobs in any sport. They run, they get screened out of plays, and they have big guys flying at them, and they make instant decisions. They're not always right, and the fans and players and coaches just want them to call the game consistently for both teams. And almost all of the time they do.

All that said, the NBA does have a credibility issue here, at least with some people, if not with me. Uncertainty helps create credibility problems. The slow passage of time until the indictment is announced will be torture to the NBA. Until the case is tried and the NBA's investigation concludes, no one will know exactly what happened. And that's what the NBA is up against now -- doubt and uncertainty.

And a populace who is shocked that an official could have done something like this.

Bud's Dilemma

To go or not to go, that is the question.

Bud Selig hasn't indicated whether he'll be present when Barry Bonds breaks Hank Aaron's all-time home run record.

Here are the reasons not to go: you've taken a big stand against steroids, you're conducting an investigation headed by the former Majority Leader of the United States Senate, no one's cooperating, and you are a born-again righteous "purity of the game" person and don't want this alleged transgressor getting the adulation that Henry Aaron rightfully deserved.

Here are the reasons to go: if you don't go, you're a hypocrite, because you, your then fellow-owners, the writers who can act as toadies, managers, general managers, the players' union -- everyone close to the game, in fact -- took a powder after the damaging, season-ending strike of 1994 and for many seasons thereafter fell in love with smaller parks and the giant men who were bashing the ball out of them. All of a sudden many parks had a carnival-like atmosphere, and guys like McGwire, Sosa and Bonds were the featured attractions. Baseball rebuilt its image and the owners for whom you front cashed in, big time. And where were you and the boys when all this was taking place? Counting the money. Another reason, not well articulated on ESPN Radio by Peter Gammons (who is very knowledgeable about the game but just dead wrong on this point and sounds terrible making his case, like someone who isn't taking the problem seriously -- Gammons doesn't even apologize for it and sounds like the septuagenarian roving minor league catching instructor who scratches his crotch in public) this morning, is that you'd be dishonoring the game if you didn't go or that every era had problems -- gambling, spit balls, alcohol, pep pills, you name it. So, why single this particular guy out and urinate on what should otherwise be a celebration?

Helluva choice, huh?

Jim Bouton's epochal words from "Ball Four" ring true: "If a pitcher could take a pill that would guarantee him a 20-win season even if it would take five years off his life, he would do it." And home run hitters would do so for the analagous 50 home-run season. All while the Lords of Baseball,Knights of the Keyboard and Squires of the Screen said absolutely nothing, even if the average size of a baseballer increased markedly from '94 on (just look at films from the '80's to see how much bigger players have gotten, and don't just say it's because of the nation-wide obesity epidemic or because of the hormones found in cows and chickens and therefore in our meals). There was something more to it.

So what do you do, Bud?

If you go, you won't look happy, and you think you're a hypocrite because you're not taking a stand against the Darth Vader of the Evil Empire of Steroids.

If you don't go, you'll look like a grudge-bearing sourpuss who is fighting over something that so far hasn't been proven.

Or, you'll look like someone who is taking a stand for something he believes in.

What would you do? What would you have Bud Selig do?

Pray that A-Rod goes on a home-run hitting tear and breaks Bonds' record within the next five to seven years. . . and that Barry Bonds goes away.

Or send Jose Canseco in your place.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Home Run Derby

I write this before its conclusion, having only watched what seemed to be the interminable first round. I have a few observations:

1. It was way too long, taking almost 1.5 hours to complete.
2. You need "fun" announcers but not clowns. Joe Morgan is an announcing nerd who takes himself way too seriously. John Kruk in the booth would have been a much better choice.
3. Chris Berman is becoming a cliche.
4. Kenny Mayne played the role of the clown -- watching him in a kayak was painful and it wasn't funny.
5. It's much better to have these things at night than at twilight. Some hitters had to hit balls coming out of bright sunlight.
6. There's no drama unless a contest like this is held during the night.
7. There's no drama having a home run derby in a pitcher's park, which is what the park in SF is.
8. The whole thing seemed to lack energy, which is either because Northern Californians are too mellow or because Barry Bonds casts such a long (and bad) shadow over this game that his story dwarfs this contest.
9. The production dishonored the dignity of Willie McCovey, a class act if there ever was one.
10. There were way too many commercials and way too much studio analysis.
11. Yes, 40,000 people paid $175 apiece to watch this event -- they and the TV audience should get refunds.

Home run contests like this should be magical affairs.

This one, at least in round one, was a lead balloon.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Take Me Fishing

A couple of years ago I took my then seven year-old and five year-old fishing off the heels to a successful trip to the Pocono Mountains where a beautiful seven year-old girl cast like a pro and caught 6 fish in two mornings of fishing -- bluegill, bass, sunfish. Several months after that, I took them fishing at a local pond, and we didn't catch anything, well, except that when my son cast his Scooby Doo rod, he caught the meat part of his right thumb. After that, he wasn't too enthused about fishing.

Over the past couple of years, in about five or six sessions we came up empty. The fish took most of our bait, or they didn't bite, or a huge orange grass carp stared at my daughter's line but didn't grab at the bait. Perhaps we went too late in the morning or too early in the afternoon, the bait was wrong or the hooks were too big. We tended to buy earthworms at a local beer distributorship, only to learn that other locals catch their fish with frozen hot dogs, corn and bread.

The great thing about fishing is that fishermen are eager to share their wisdom and that you definitely learn from your experiences. For example, two years ago we learned that on overcast days the fish are more likely to come out than on bright, sunny days, because like people they don't like to stay out in the sun too long. Translated, that meant that glorious casting bore results on overcast days, while dropping our lines close to the dock worked on a sunny day. The fish liked the shade that the dock offered.

Our collective wisdom taught us a few things this morning. First, it was hot and humid, so we decided to drop our lines near the dock, especially after a man on a bass boat told us while alighting from his boat when we arrived at the dock that the fish weren't biting. Second, after trying with mid-sized hooks and bread and failing, we went to school on advice that a man who worked at Dick's told us the night before -- use smaller hooks for the lake we were fishing. So, we switched to rather small hooks. Lastly, we switched to red trout worms, figuring that live bait would work better than bread. I also improved my knot-tying and untangling of lines.

What happened was instant success. We were oh for our careers fishing in our home county, and last Sunday the fish took about 22 of our worms and we caught nothing. Once we switched to live bait and smaller hooks, the sunnies and bass attacked our lines with reckless abandon. My now seven year-old son caught 6 fish in an hour (and, yes, we catch and release), working so quickly that I hardly had time to put my line into the water. Finally, when he took a break, I dropped my line right near the dock and landed a nice-sized bass. Very gently each time we removed the hook and released the fish back into the water.

It was a great morning, standing on a dock, with a slight breeze, talking to my son and concentrating only on fishing. Yes, we wished it were a little cooler and, yes, we wished that casting longer distances would bring us more fish, but you take your fishing opportunities as they come, learn from them, and then have fishing tales to tell.

I find fishing particularly relaxing because there's no collateral noise. The boats are quiet, as are the fishermen, and the people who come out to enjoy this particular park do so with a degree of reverence. It's about enjoying nature, not seeing how loud you can be in an open space. The fact that tying knots, putting on bobbers and leaders and the right hook requires concentration removes you from thinking about your daily routine and what might await you at the office the following week.

It's also a very affordable hobby. A Pennsylvania fishing license (with a trout stamp) costs $31, but all told your fishing rod, reel, bait, hooks, leaders, bobbers and pliers (yes, you need the latter to help you remove problematic hooks from a fish's mouth) won't run you more than another $50 total (you don't have to spend more than $30 for a good rod, and there are kits that you buy that give you all sorts of lures, leaders and hooks in addition to a rod). You then go outside, stand on a dock or the side of a lake, and cast away. Bring a chair to sit in, bring your sunscreen and a playmate cooler with a cold drink, and you're all set.

Sounds pretty simple and peaceful, doesn't it?

And that it is.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

I'm Not the First One With This Theory, But

here goes.

Everything evolves, some things for the better, some for the worse. People, products, environments. The average NBA player is much taller today than, say, 30 years ago, flat-panel TVs are much cheaper now than even three years ago, and bald eagles have come back while I've heard that cell phone usage is harming bees. I'm not a little bit out of my depth on some of these issues, but I think that I've painted my point with a broad brush. Change happens.

Tony LaRussa helped evolve the role of the modern pitcher. Long gone are the days when teams like the Orioles had a four-man rotation, whose members each won 20-games. You could look it up, but Messrs. Palmer, McNally, Dobson and Cuellar did just that. At some point rotations morphed into five-man efforts, and, yet, seemingly pitchers started to get hurt more than ever. Relief pitching a half century ago was the refuge for those not good enough to be starters. That still holds true today, the theory being that starters have enough stuff to get through a lineup three and four times, while relievers have (many) fewer "out" pitches and basically could go once through a lineup, if that (and those relievers are the "long" relievers). Let's put closers in the discussion's parking lot for a moment, because they've been heralded as a different breed of cat.

If there's any doubt that starters have more talent and stuff than relievers, witness various World Series of seasons past. The fifth starter (and sometimes the fourth) gets primo bullpen service time. The reason -- his stuff is more electric than the stuff of the hypothetical, average long man (where there's no guarantee that his stuff will be there year-in, year-out, which is why there's significant turnover in bullpens year-in, year-out). The starter has 2 or 3 excellent to pretty good pitches, while the reliever might have one "out" pitch. Therefore, he'll have a better chance to get people out, even if he doesn't have much experience coming into the game out of the bullpen.

Tony LaRussa changed the role of the closer. Say 25-30 plus years ago, the closer came into the game near the end, but not exclusively in the ninth inning. If the starter got into trouble in the eighth with one out and two on, the closer would come in, put out the fire (hence the term "fireman" and the Rolaids "Fireman of the Year" Award). Invariably, he then would pitch the ninth. Check out the records of guys like Rich Gossage and Bruce Sutter, not to mention Dan Quisenberry, and see what I mean. Those guys literally saved the game; they just didn't pitch the ninth. They were closers and finishers in every sense of the word, and, I'd submit, among the best relief pitchers -- ever.

LaRussa changed all that by creating relief specialists. Long relievers have existed for a while, the guys who you want to keep the game close and honor Hippocrates' oath of "First, Do No Harm" and whom you pray won't bring gasoline to the fire. But they came in when your starter got lit for five runs in the first three innings. LaRussa created the lefty set-up man, the right set-up man, and even the mid-game specialists. Look at a box score of LaRussa-managed teams going back to Oakland and see what I mean. To the discerning, his managerial moves were a work of art. The man truly knew his staff and which buttons to push.

In evolving the role of the bullpen, though, he led the transformation of the "macho" fireman who would come in and put out a late-inning fire into the guy who pitches the ninth. Even Mariano Rivera, the best closer ever, pretty much pitches the ninth. To Joe Torre's great credit, the Yankee skipper would bring in Rivera in the eighth to pitcher either two full innings or at least part of the eighth before finishing the game, especially in late-season games and in the post-season. By doing this, Torre put the "fireman" back into Mariano's job description, at least during certain moments. Make no mistake, though, Rivera is an exception. He's one of the best ever, and he would have thrived in the days of Gossage and Sutter. I'm not sure many other modern closers would have.

Today, the hypothetical, average closer pitches the ninth. His team could be up one to three runs (any more wouldn't qualify for a save), but there is no real danger (except, perhaps, for the heart of the opposing team's order coming to the plate in the ninth). In this fashion, he's not putting out a fire, he's merely closing out the game and pitching the ninth. While it's nice to have a flamethrower like Billy Wagner pitch the ninth, I would question whether it's that imperative to have that intimidating closer finish the came. Couldn't someone else do it? A less dominating pitcher who has good control and probably won't put more than one baserunner on? I know that relief pitching is in (very) short supply this season, but what I'm really getting at is whether you need your best reliever to pitch the ninth. Do you?

Or do you need him to come in during situations like this: you're up one run, on the road, in the bottom of the seventh, the other team has men on second and third with one out. Shouldn't you put that lights-out pitcher in then, to put out the fire? You can do a double switch if you want him to pitch more than an inning (admittedly, if he pitches 2 1/3 then he might not be available for a couple of days, but these situations don't happen every game), but then you're putting your best pitcher in the game in an appropriate situation. He can change the tide of the game and help your team put it away. Put in a middle guy, he gets shelled, and then you're down at least a run and you might never get the opportunity to use your best reliever. Do you think the game could evolve in this fashion? Are closers becoming too much of a luxury? And why do closers burn out, and why do teams change closers more frequently than you would think?

My view is that the game will evolve in this direction -- using your best reliever in the toughest situations. Look, you don't want a weak pitcher to finish the game, but you definitely want a strong one to put out the fire, because closers no longer do that. And that pitcher might become your most valuable non-starter, because he's the guy to stop the bleeding and, perhaps, change the tides of the game. Because if that guy puts out the fire in the seventh and then uses his lights-out stuff at least in one more inning, the whole tenor of the game changes. As an example, remember El Duque's performance with the sacks jammed and no outs in the fifth inning of a Sox-Astros World Series game several years ago. El Duque came into the game as a reliever, and he ended the threat. Checkmate.

I write this from the vantage point of watching my hometown Phillies put in nameless souls game after game who haven't been able to stop the bleeding. There's decent talent on that team to finish about .500, and its Achilles' heel is its relief corps (and it was so at the season's outset). True, they have two injured closers (one of whom is a recently converted starter), but they haven't had anyone (not even the heretofore reliable Geoff Geary, whose pinpoint control took a holiday, costing Geary an unplanned summer trip to AAA Ottawa) to stem the tide. The Mets excelled last season because they had a transcending 'pen, with several guys who could do just what I've written about. Okay, so the worst team to win the Series in decades beat them in the NLCS, but the teams that have gotten to the top (Detroit, for example) had guys other than closers who could put out the fire (and you could argue that setup man Joel Zumaya, when healthy, is the best reliever in Motown).

So watch the evolution of pitching staffs during the next ten years, and watch front offices dissect the situations I've highlighted and how they're best handled. And then take a solid GM with a manager willing to take a few more chances to win, and you'll start seeing some very solid relievers emerge in a new role: The True Fireman.