Monday, March 31, 2008

How Likely was Joe DiMaggio's 56-Game Hitting Streak?

Not as unlikely as you might think, according to a few applied mathematics professors at Cornell, who ran 10,000 simulated seasons on a computer to determine the probability of the Yankee Clipper's memorable streak. What was particularly interesting about this article was that the professors found that during the history of baseball, the model predicted that there should have/could have been a 109-game hitting streak.

In any event, read the whole thing, especially if the pre-season reviews of your hometown team have you confused or if you have been so busy preparing for your fantasy league drafts that you just need a good change of pace from the other baseball news that you've been staring at.

So, if you agree with the professors' proposition, which players would be the most likely to go on a long hitting streak? Here are a few to consider (in no particular order):

1. Ichiro Suzuki -- he sometimes makes a game looking his own personal pepper exhibition.
2. Howie Kendrick -- because folks say that he was born swinging a bat.
3. Albert Pujols -- elbow injury and all, he's a premier hitter.
4. Chase Utley -- consummate pro, outstanding contact hitter.
5. Manny Ramirez -- Hall of Fame hitter in great shape in a contract year.
6. David Wright -- as great as the Phillies' outstanding top three are, many rate Wright better, and he can flat out hit.
7. Alex Rodriguez -- Best all-around hitter in the game.
8. Michael Young -- Rangers' SS gets tons of hits and has better lineup around him.
9. Vladimir Guerrero -- getting older, yes, but another outstanding hitter.
10. Matt Holliday -- Rockies' LF had great year in '07, hits in excellent lineup.

Hitting streaks are very fun to watch, and both Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins gave us a lot to watch over the past two seasons. Perhaps the professors' predictions will come true, or perhaps we'll keep waiting for the consummate hitter to go on that very long streak.

MLB Teams Eat Big Contracts

Bob Nightengale of USA Today wrote this article in today's edition about the Orioles' release of Jay Gibbons (whom they owe more than $11 million) and the Astros' release of Woody Williams (whom they owe more than $6 million). I give both teams' credit for making what had to be tough decisions (because not every team is named the Yankees or the Red Sox). It makes you wonder the thinking that must be going on in Philadelphia, where Adam Eaton is owed $16 million (and still penciled in as the #5 starter). Yet, if you think the Phillies' have problems, the Giants still owe the farm to Barry Zito, who had a horrible year last year and doesn't project to do much better this year.

So what does all of this mean? In a game defined by statistics, and where the stats have become much more insightful and pronounced, teams will scrutinize much more significantly whether they'll ink players to long-term deals. Sure, there will be an occasional market feeding frenzy (such as the one that got Aaron Rowand $60 million over 5 years last year, precisely because the Giants had to do something), but I think the trend will be to shorter (and perhaps slightly bigger dollars) contracts along what Andruw Jones signed with the Dodgers in the off-season (2-year deal at at least $12.5 million per).

Why? Because Zito proves that hurlers aren't worthy of long-term deals, and Tommy Glavine also proved that his recently concluded four-year contract with the Mets was only a break-even proposition. Three-year deals could well be the norm within the next five years, with four years being the max for pitchers. Position players could do slightly better.

And then there's the issue of position played and body type. For example, the Phillies and Ryan Howard apparently remain "far apart." Does that mean the Phillies are in the $14-$16 million range for a five-year deal and Howard wants $20 million per year for 7 years? Can that gap be bridged? Do the Phillies commit that much money to a big person? I know that might sound silly, but Baseball Prospectus has the numbers on the longevity of big players. Which is why the Phillies might be reluctant to give a 7-year deal to a 28 year-old player. Fortunately, they dodged an awful bullet when Scott Boras and Kyle Lohse rejected a three-year, $21 million offer after last season; Lohse re-signed with the lowly Cards for one season at $4.25 million.

Put differently, the more data that exists, the more scrutiny teams will give to player contracts. It could well mean that the extremely well capitalized teams fare better, because they'll be better able to eat their mistakes. But for most of the teams, going out five years on a guaranteed deal for a big-name player is a risky proposition.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Wally Moon, They Missed You

The Dodgers hosted the Red Sox in the Los Angeles Coliseum to mark the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles. When the Bums moved to L.A., they played in the Coliseum, a stadium so ill-fit for baseball that the distance from home to the left field fence was 201 feet.

Read all about it here, and, no, even with similar field measurements, the game didn't have a football-like score.

Oh, Wally Moon, for what it's worth, used to hit long pop flied over the high screen in left for home runs, prompting the media to label them as "Moon shots."

Thank you, Davidson!

Kansas' victory early this evening over #10 seed Davidson signifies that for the first time since the NCAA has created seeding, all 4 #1 seeds have made it to the Final Four. So, what you'll see next weekend are battles of titans -- Carolina versus Kansas and Memphis versus UCLA.

But for a while late this afternoon, the #10 Davidson squad carried the hopes of most of America. Yes, the theme from "Hoosiers" was replaying itself in my head, as Stephen Curry and the kid they call the "white lobster" kept Davidson in the game until the very end. Had Davidson run a better play in the final 15 seconds, you could have a variation of the Sesame Street song about things that do and do not belong together. Alas, it was not to be, as a very long three missed the mark, preserving Kansas' victory and sending Jayhawks' coach Bill Self to his first Final Four.

The real story of the tournament, though, has been Davidson, and I would submit that the MVP of the tournament should be Stephen Curry, even if his team hasn't made it to the Final Four. The kid was simply phenomenal, and his school's journey will be remembered for quite some time.

Thanks, Davidson, for giving me an underdog that played both smart and with a lot of heart, to watch deep into the tournament. You made this version of March Madness tremendous, and while I expect two great games in the national semifinals, the Final Four will be less special because you're not in it.

Will Teddy Roosevelt Win Tonight?

No, he hasn't been cloned, and, no, there isn't a caucus in South Dakota tonight. What is taking place is the Nationals' opener in their new stadium. And what also will go on is the between-innings race among Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt.

And, as I've blogged before, Teddy Roosevelt has never won a race. Will tonight be the night? Will the Nationals' brass let Teddy win?

Manny Acta does a fine job managing the hometown team, but the Nats are probably destined for fourth in the NL East, behind more talented and much better funded teams in New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Which means that by August, if he hasn't won before then, the most compelling drama in D.C. could be the campaign of Teddy Roosevelt.

What's the Best Hitter's Park in the Majors?

Believe it or not, despite the term "bandbox" used to describe Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, that's not it. That park is eighth on the list.

The Baseball Prospectus team, in its great pre-season baseball book, evaluates the parks. The best hitter's park, by some margin, is that of the Colorado Rockies. The best pitcher's park, again by a significant margin, belongs to the San Diego Padres. Rounding out the top 3 hitter's parks are those belonging to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds. Rounding out the top 3 pitcher's parks are those belonging to the Oakland A's and a tie between the New York Mets and Seattle Mariners.

Buy the "Baseball Prospectus" book if you're a real fan and believe that the numbers don't lie. So, if you're a Phillies' fan, don't despair, your park isn't as much of a launching pad as you think. And, if you're a Padres' fan, the label "best pitcher's park" in baseball cuts both ways. You might overrate your pitchers (who probably don't fare as well on the road) and harm your hitters, who could get frustrated hitting in your park. Don't expect too many free agent hitters to want to buttress their resumes at Petco Park.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Saturday Observations

1. Davidson was fun to watch last night, and Stephen Curry has been amazing. I was waiting for Wisconsin to come back, but Davidson kept on making shots. Beating Kansas will be a tall order, but it's been a tall order for an academics-first school to make a regional final. Most of the nation will be rooting for Davidson on Sunday.

2. Who will Indiana name as its head coach? Rumor is that Washington State coach Tony Bennett is the frontrunner, but Andy Katz of ESPN also wrote that all parties said that Indiana hadn't talked with Bennett. Katz also reports that Indiana wants to name a new head coach before the Final Four.

3. Why does my gut tell me that Loyola's Jimmy Patsos will be named the new head coach at Providence? Providence would be wise to hire him. I have a great Jimmy Patsos story (most favorable), and I'll share it in a future blog post.

4. Do the Phillies have enough pitching to contend for the NL Wild Card and NL East title? Let's see -- Cole Hamels gets injured every year, Brett Myers has trouble sitting still between starts, Jamie Moyer is 45 and got pounded on occasion last year, Kyle Kendrick snuck up on the NL last year but isn't overpowering, had a so-so spring and Baseball Prospectus worries that without enough strikeouts, he'll get hit, and Adam Eaton is plum awful. Closer Brad Lidge lost his job the past two years and starts the season on the DL, and substitute closer Tom Gordon is 40 and pitching with a partially torn labrum and was just all right last year. A lot will have to go right for the Phils to win 90 games and make the playoffs, even with their great hitting.

5. Is Citizens Bank Park the best hitters' park in the NL? No, it isn't, and it really isn't rated more than slightly a hitters' park, according to Baseball Prospectus, which rates the D-backs stadium and the Rockies' as the best hitters' parks in the NL.

6. New Phillies' reliever Tim Lahey, picked up off waivers from the Cubs, was a catcher at Princeton. After his senior year, when he was drafted by the Twins, Lahey's coach, former Major Leaguer Scott Bradley, told him not to let the Twins cut him without letting him try out as a pitcher. Prescient words -- Lahey won the Rule 5 lottery (the Cubs had to offer him back to the Twins, who declined) and now is on one of the most exciting teams in the majors -- and only 45 miles from his alma mater.

7. Will the Beijing Olympics turn into a spectacle? Will Western Europe boycott because of human rights violations? What would the Chinese do to retaliate?

8. Nice stories in the central NJ papers about the DII lineman Heath Benedict, an NFL prospect, who passed away the other day. He was a graduate of the Peddie School in Hightstown, NJ, and his head coach said that he was the best lineman he'd ever seen, and a good guy to boot.

9. Won't Indiana give Bob Knight a chance at a last hurrah?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The $24 Million Mistake

It's hard to believe that the Padres actually snookered the Rangers a few years back and peddled lame-winged Adam Eaton for Chris Young, their #2 starter. It's even harder to believe that the Phillies, notoriously tight with their nickels (and loathing them because they're not dimes) gave Eaton a 3-year, $24 million contract as a free agent before last season. What was even worse was that Eaton had the highest ERA for all N.L. starters last season (close to the area code for Richmond, Virginia) and was left off the Phillies' post-season roster. Apparently, the team's front office decided to restrict fireworks shows for the post-game.

Now Eaton is back to his old tricks, and he was lit up today in his final post-season start better than the famous boathouses light up the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. He is vying for the fifth starter's spot (the first four are populated with Brett Myers, Cole Hamles, 45 year-old Jamie Moyer and second-year man Kyle Kendrick, who hasn't had a great spring either). The linked article reports that Eaton said he wasn't sure he's going north with the team, and Eaton's at least perceptive. It's hard to go north with the team when your career is going south.

It's not that Eaton is a bad guy, and once upon a time ago he displayed enough talent to be a first-round draft choice. It's just that he gets injured about as often as Carl Pavano and when he's healthy lately he's pitched like a 4-F who got starting assignments during World War II because most of the guys who could actually pitch ended up in the service. At any rate, the Phillies purport to be a team that will contend for the NL East title or a wild-card berth. It stands to reason that they won't do so if they trot Eaton out to the mound every five days.

Commentators had noted that the strength of the Yankees lies in the fact that they can write off mistakes like the signing of Carl Pavano. The question remains what the Phillies will do with Adam Eaton and the two years remaining on his contract. $16 million is pocket change in the Bronx; it buys some serious real estate in the City of Brotherly Love. But the Phillies will be deluding themselves if they put Adam Eaton in the rotation. Unfortunately, they don't have too many options. Kris Benson, who signed a minor-league contract, isn't ready. Chad Durbin has shown some promise, and a minor-league named Carpenter who's destined to start the season at AA Reading showed some great stuff against the Yankees yesterday.

Phillies' fans should be concerned but shouldn't be totally bummed. Why? Because it's as Phillies' pitching coach Rich Dubee said in today's Philadelphia Inquirer. Dubee remarked that the team used 28 pitchers last year, so anything's possible. On the positive side, they could find another Kyle Kendrick or J.C. Romero. On the negative side, the odds might be that finding guys like that to help your team just can't happen every year.

It's a shame for both Eaton and the hometown 9 that Eaton can't pitch the way both hope and the way Eaton once did. It would be a bigger shame, though, if the Phillies made their decisions based on hope and their unwillingness to write off a big contract than on recent history.

Memories of Dave Zinkoff

Thanks Howard Eskin, of WIP Radio in Philadelphia, for entertaining stories of the beloved once-upon-a-time Philadelphia 76ers public address announcer (and, in the opinion of many, including me, the best P.A. announcer ever). I listened to various Zink stories during late drive time yesterday, and have the following to add:

1. I loved the story about his handing out kosher, "Formost" salamis to fans at games. The way he said "salami" was classic, and, in fact, The Zink could have read the phone book and made it interesting (the same way Streisand or Sinatra could have sung it and kept audiences captivated).

2. The Zink's "Zinkisms" were classic. At the time in the NBA when in the penalty a player got three shots to make two, the way he said "three" was even exciting, and when a 76ers' shooting guard was at the line, he would say, "Lloyd at the line, Free to make two."

3. His "Two minutes left in the quarter" utterances made you feel that there were two minutes left in the history of basketball.

4. He credited assists well, as I still have ringing in my head "Caaaaahter from Cunning-haaaaaaam," citing to many a good pass from Billy Cunningham to Fred Carter. Timeouts were also an event, because even "the 76ers call tiiiiiiiiiime" could add drama to a contest.

5. How about Julius "Errrrrrrrrrrrving?" Or credits to assists from one-time power forward George McGinnis to anyone -- "Clyde Lee, by George!"

6. Parking lot issues also became celebrated. "There's a car in the parking lot, Pennsylvania License Plate Number XYC 129. Your doors are locked, your lights are on, and your motor is hum-mmmmmmmmminggggggggg."

Okay, so perhaps you had to be there, but all I know is that up in the rafters of the Wachovia Center is a banner with The Zink's name on it with a big microphone (instead of a number) on it, and it rests next to banners for Dr. J, Wilt Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham and Hal Greer, to name a few. He was that good at what he did.

And here's my favorite Dave Zinkoff story:

As you know, perhaps the most heated hoops rivarly in the 60's (and it missed some time when the 76ers were horrible in the early 70's but picked back up in the mid-to-late 1970's and early 1980's) was the rivarly between the 76ers and the Boston Celtics (the rivalry was so heated in the mid-1960's that then-76ers owner Ike Richman died of a heart attack in the midst of the 76ers-Celtics game).

In the late 1970's, I was at a 76ers-Celtics playoff game with my dad at The Spectrum, and the Celtics had jumped to a big lead. Late in the game, the 76ers roared back and the atmosphere was just plain electric. Right after the 76ers scored the go-ahead basket, a somewhat deflated Celtics Coach Tom Heinsohn signaled for a timeout so he could offer his now-struggling squad a lifeline. The 76ers' fans were just going wild, and The Spectrum was a place that could get very loud, and this was about as loud as it could possibly get. The fans went nuts during the timeout, and the public address announcer was silent.

The crowd was just about calming down right as the timeout was coming to an end. With perfect timing, right as the players were turning from their huddles to come back out to the floor, Dave Zinkoff broke the silence. In his inimitable staccato, The Zink offered: "As. . . I . . . was. . . trying. . . to say, the Celtics call tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime." The place erupted again, even louder than right when Heinsohn signaled for a timeout in the first place. Sheer bedlam in the place, and all because of an outstanding, amusing, kind, very competent public address announcer who added so much joy to a professional basketball era that stressed team play, competence and excellence over cigar bars, dancing girls and entertainment.

Dave Zinkoff was the master when it came to public address announcers, and every time I hear "two minutes left in the quarter" or see a small kosher salami, I can't help but smile at warm memories of excellent basketball, times spent with my dad, and a unique individual.

Sports Illustrated and the Princeton Basketball Family

A recent Sports Illustrated features an article on Georgetown's head men's basketball coach, John Thompson III. It's written by Alexander Wolff, Princeton Class of 1979 (Thompson was Class of 1988). Prominently mentioned in the article is Thompson III's former coach, Pete Carril, who is a member of Basketball's Hall of Fame.

As far as articles go, it's a good article, but. . .

1. Why all of the sudden a focus on the head coach of a #2 seed? I suppose the response is "why not?" I suppose the real answer is that he's a terrific coach, a great guy, an Ivy alum, the son of one Hall of Fame coach and former player of another, but is this really news? Hasn't it been written before, many times over?

2. Why is there so much focus on the Princeton basketball family still? My surmise is that because there are Princeton alums at SI and that Wolff likes to write about the subject. Look, you'll get no argument from me that Carril was a great coach (as was John Thompson, Jr.) and that John Thompson III is an excellent coach. But how many times does this topic need to be mentioned or addressed? Truth be told, the other Carril progeny have fared in mixed fashion recently. Joe Scott did not do well at Princeton (he is now at Denver), and Chris Mooney is struggling at Richmond. Sydney Johnson inherited a tough situation from Joe Scott at Princeton, and the Tigers finished at 6-23 this year. Carril's former top assistant, Bill Carmody, has performed in middling fashion at Northwestern (and that assessment might be charitable) and has not gotten the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament. Save for a great relationship with his university's president, I would have thought that after a bad season in this, his eighth, at Northwestern, Carmody might have lost his job after this season. Craig Robinson, a two-time Ivy Player of the Year at Princeton, has excelled at Brown. Yes, it's very impressive that a former Ivy head coach has so many players and former assistants as head coaches. But that story has been written. . . many times.

3. Would SI have written this article if Alexander Wolff and certain editors had gone, say, to Texas-Corpus Christi, University of Portland or Grinnell? What would SI be writing about, say, if Wolff and the same fellow reporters and editors had attended the University of Pennsylvania? Might not another story have been written -- one that covered neither Princeton nor Penn? Perhaps, pray tell, Cornell, once known as an ice hockey school.

3. Penn fans would be correct to argue that SI has a Princeton bias. After all, Fran Dunphy arguably is at least the second-best head coach in Ivy history. Penn fans can make a cogent, persuasive argument that within the Ivies, he was the best, although before a national jury they'd probably lose to Princeton alums about Carril. Still, Coach Dunphy is an excellent coach, is excelling at Temple, and his former top assistant, Steve Donahue, has persisted at Cornell and did an amazing job this season in leading the Big Red to an undefeated season in the Ivies and an NCAA berth. Yet, the stories don't persist -- in SI at least -- about the wizardry of Fran Dunphy (and, also, about what a wonderful guy and teacher he is).

4. Perhaps this is more of a constructive criticism of the SI editors and/or Alex Wolff, but enough about the Carril legacy. Been there, done that, it's amazing, yes, Grant Wahl, the Princeton offense has been copied many times, but enough is enough. Why? Because the last time I checked, the Ivy program most worthy of national publicity over the past 8 years has been Penn's, not Princeton's.

That's my take on it, and, as most of you know, I am a Princeton alum, big Princeton basketball fan, and grew up in the Philadelphia area as a rabid Penn fan and hold the Penn program and Fran Dunphy in high regard (all the while loathing the possibility of having my beloved alma mater lose to the Quakers).

Silly Story of the Day/Week/Month/Season/Year?

Our second-grader is playing Little League baseball, and league rules now require/suggest that the kids wear cups. Not just catchers, like when I was a kid, but everyone. (Who knows, if trial lawyers and insurers have their way, in 2050 all kids will play all team sports in the then-modern day version of chain-mail armor). Anyway. . .

We didn't get a chance to get my son his before his first practice, which was last night. I had suggested that my wife stop by a sporting goods store yesterday to pick one up for my son, but she demurred. That, she advised, was something for a dad to do for his son.

Before practice, the head coach's son was at our house for dinner. He's a bright kid, and he started talking about the fact that he has a cup. Whereupon, my wife asked the following question: "Did you get the cup at Dick's?"

My son's friend and my son started giggling and then burst out into belly-like laughter. The sophomoric humor (okay, it's actually grade-school humor) wasn't lost on her. And, of course, when he returned from practice, the first thing my son wanted to tell me wasn't about his teammates, his hitting or fielding, but about the funny thing that happened at dinner.

Second grade boys and their humor. I suppose that if the local Sports Authority were closer to us than Dick's, dinner last night at my house just wouldn't have been the same.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Why is Good Relief Pitching in Such Short Supply?

Anywhere you look, you read that teams are concerned about their bullpens, at least most of them.

Why is that? Two thirds of the players organizations sign are pitchers, who constitute over 40% of a Major League team's roster (assuming a team carries 11 pitchers). Yet, why are relief staffs so tenuous? Last year, going into the season, the Mets had a 'pen that was the envy of baseball. By season's end, that same bullpen had fallen off the table, capped by Jayson Werth's spectacular steals of second and third off a move-less Billy Wagner to give the Phillies a thrilling come-from-behind win, putting a nail in the Mets' coffin. Sure, Duaner Sanchez had been in a cab that got into an accident that caused an injury, and yes Guillermo Mota had to sit out because of the steroids ban, but why do so many bullpens either falter or fail to materialize?

Here are some theories:

1. Overuse early in the season. That certainly happened to the Phillies, whose bullpen got off to a decent start despite injuries to two closers, first Tom Gordon and then Brett Myers. Others filled in, but Charlie Manuel overused Antonio Alfonseca, whose arm was almost falling off by season's end. That overuse almost crippled the Phillies (especially when Gordon and Myers were out), but the team rallied despite a) Ryan Madson's injuring his arm (and he was pitching great at the time) and b) Geoff Geary's temporary loss of his finite control (read: he was throwing too many too-slow pitches over the fat part of the plate). Thereupon, Myers and Gordon got healthy, Geary got his groove back, journeyman Clay Condrey pitched rather well (his over 5.00 ERA was misleading, because he pitched well in 30 of 34 outings -- when he was bad he was terrible), and the team signed lefty J.C. Romero, who proved to be quite a find. Still, overuse of hot pitchers hurts.

2. Failure to select the right pitchers. True, if most relievers were any good, they'd be starters, and they find themselves in the 'pen because they don't have enough good pitches to get through a lineup three times without getting tattooed the second time around. Madson was a failed starter for the Phillies, and Geary was a slow pitcher with excellent control, but he didn't really have an out pitch. The bottom line is that even if pitchers have one wicked pitch, they need to have the right mindset to relieve -- which is to be ready to throw at a moment's notice and to be able to handle either pitching an inning three days straight or not pitching for four straight games before getting back in. This seems rather obvious, but I felt the point needed to be made -- selecting people with the right mentality.

3. Injuries. Part of it stems from overuse, part of it stems from bad mechanics or bad luck. Whatever the reason, some guys get hurt (throwing is an unnatural motion, throwing breaking balls is even more unnatural), and that's why 2/3 of the guys you sign are pitchers.

Still, those explanations beg the question why bullpens are repeatedly iffy. Why can't teams find legions of Scott Linebrinks, set-up men who throw pretty well for years in a row? Why doesn't this happen? And, when one emerges, why is it not expected for him to succeed for a decade?

You figure that the Lords of Baseball spend so much money on everything that some team might have taken a crack at beginning to solve the problem, if not solving it completely. But it seems to me that no one has, and that there have to be reasons besides overuse, picking the wrong guys or injuries.

Unless, of course, it's a crap shoot, so it's all about picking the right guys. After over 100 years of trial and error, you think that some "Moneyball" type -- say the Baseball Prospectus people -- would have numbers that show the way to find the right relievers.

The mystery, though, remains.

And that's perhaps why we have compelling stretch drives most years.

No Honest Man Rests Easy When the Legislature is in Session

Congressman Tom Davis (R-VA) has issued a 109-page report attacking the credibility of Brian McNamee.

Another wonderful example of your tax dollars at work. This guy must have plenty of time on his hands, and while this isn't a political blog, my guess is that he gets elected because he has a safe district and is good at bringing home the pork.

Which is interesting, because in this case he's acting quite pigheaded, and his report begs the overarching question that the public asked at the time the Clemens hearing was held: why is Congress taking a look at the Clemens affair in the first place, and why has this become a partisan issue? Given how nasty politics can be, you can imagine the attack ads in the fall: "And Tom Davis supports people who use illegal drugs in our national pastime."

The whole thing shows a system run amok. A 109-page report?

Some people definitely have too much time on their hands.

And who polices them?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Family Trip to Spring Training

About 30+ years ago, my family vacationed on the west coast of Florida. My father and I traveled to Bradenton, to McKechnie Field. I vaguely recall that it resembled a high school field and that we sat on the third-base line on bleachers. The game wasn't that crowded, and we watched Juan Pizarro try to resurrect his career with the Pirates. Pizarro, showing a gut that would have made Ray King proud, threw fifteen straight balls. When he threw a strike on the next pitch, the crowd roared, and Pizarro seized the moment by tipping his cap. I think that he got out of the inning. Overall, it was a cool experience, and it really had an intimate feeling.

Last Wednesday, the family and I traveled to Clearwater Beach, Florida, with tickets in hand to see 2 Phillies' games in Clearwater and a Tigers-Indians game at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, about an hour and fifteen minutes away.

Here are some observations:

1. Brighthouse Networks Field, where the Phillies play their spring training games, is just first-rate. The Phillies' high Class A team, the Clearwater Threshers, plays its games there, and it has to be one of the nicest Class A parks in the minors. Becuase of its relatively small size, there's not a bad seat in the house. (Apparently, the new ballpark, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which will host the Iron Pigs, the Phillies' AAA team, could claim the title of the best minor-leage park in the country).

2. We saw the Phillies beat the Pirates, 3-0, last Thursday. Kyle Kendrick pitched 6 solid innings, but Phillies' fans need to remember that he pitched against roughly a AAA lineup. The Pirates' regulars, for the most part, stayed home. Nyjer Morgan, who might get the nod in CF for the Buccos, started in center, and Doug Mientkiewicz, primarily known for his glove at first base, batted third and played right. Clay Condrey and J.D. Durbin pitched well in relief. Tom Gordon finished up, and he was wild high.

3. We saw 3 homers, a prototypical Ryan Howard bomb to left center, a Pedro Feliz liner over the left-field wall, and a Geoff Jenkins fly ball to right that heavy winds kept on blowing and blowing until the ball sailed over the right-field wall. There were no extra-base hits in the game other than the homers.

4. Phillies' back-up catcher Chris Coste is a class act. Unfortunately, because it rained the night before, the Phillies' kept the tarp on the field. That meant no batting practice, and that meant that there were no players on the field early to sign autographs. The team came out late, and it looked like only Jamie Moyer and his protege, Cole Hamels, were signing before the game. That had to frustrate the fans, who line up along the left-field line to get autographs, but who are chased from that area at about 12:20 to enable those who sit in that area to take their seats. Do the math: game starts at 1:05, fans are chased at 12:20, no BP, and few players are on the field before 12:20. Why do I care? Because I have young kids, and they care.

So why is Coste a class act? Well, he caught the whole game. The regulars for the Phils got their 3 at-bats and then headed to the locker room afterwards, walking down the left-field line but not stopping to sign (hard to blame them, the game had to continue). After the game, most of the players walked down the left-field line, away from the fans, and opted not to sign. Coste, who caught the whole game, was one of the last to leave the field. It was a relatively hot day, he was carrying his gear in a bag, yet he stopped to sign for a while. About four other players who were walking near him and looked ambivalent about signing, stopped to sign. It was fun to see -- and you can tell that Chris Coste commands respect in the clubhouse. The man has worked for everything he's got. (We didn't get the autographs, as we were in line to shop at the store at the stadium for t-shirts).

5. Jamie Moyer is another class act. According to some fans who were standing near me while I was overseeing my kids' attempts to get signatures, Moyer signs all the time and chats up the fans. He knows that he's very fortunate to have this type of a career, and his humility and friendliness is refreshing (that's not to indict the other players -- look, it's their working environment, and there are dozens of approaches to the game, but it's nice to see Moyer in action).

6. Rainouts are frustrating. After seeing the Phils on Thursday, we were looking forward to the Phils-Tigers at the same park on Saturday. Unfortunately, it poured. The game was called after 3 innings. Among the frustrations: the kids had a great spot for signatures before the game, in the first row along the left-field line, but we had no rain gear whatsoever, so when it poured we went to our seats, which are under cover. When it stopped, it was closer to game time, and, wouldn't you know it, they relaxed the 12:20 "rousting of the autograph seekers" deadline and let people stay in place. And who signed right near where the kids had been standing? None other than Ryan Howard. My son, of course, wears a Ryan Howard jersey. Oh well, we can't always get lucky.

Doubly frustrating is the rainout policy. We paid $22 apiece for four tickets, and the policy is that we can redeem these for a) a certificate for tickets for next year's games, which only may be redeemed in person or b) Clearwater Threshers tickets. What a joke/ripoff. How many people perenially travel to spring training? How many people will be able to redeem their rainchecks in person? Most people were traveling back to the Philadelphia area, so the Threshers/Phillies could end up with a windfall. Our solution, so far, is to mail in the tix, get the certificate, and then sell it on ebay next year. If you have any suggestions for me on this point, let me know.

Then we spent $18 for a Clearwater Threshers umbrella, so that we didn't get totally soaked walking back to our car. Somehow, the very nice, complimentary shuttle that the stadium provided for a lift from the parking area to the field disappeared for the return trip, and the drainage wasn't great. Our seats were under cover, so we didn't get wet during the rain delay, but it was a frustrating day.

7. Does anyone know how the Tigers' field got the name Joker Marchant Stadium?

8. We sat in the sun for the Indians-Tigers game Sunday in Lakeland, where there was an impressive array of medical practices and treatment centers of all sorts right near the stadium. It was a long drive from Clearwater Beach, but we made it there with about 10 minutes to spare. Fausto Carmona started for Cleveland, and he brought the heat, with his fastball routinely at 95 m.p.h. Gary Sheffield hit a 2-run shot early in the game after a Jhonny Peralta miscue at short, and later Travis Hafner turned on a fastball and hit a frozen rope out to right -- that shot was one of the fastest to leave a park that I'd ever seen.

9. The fans are interesting. On Thursday, we had a family sitting behind us, including a middle-aged mom who thought she was sounding cool in front of her teenage kids by yelling things such as "we want a pitcher, not a glass of water." What she forgot -- and her husband reminded her -- was that she was yelling this at Kyle Kendrick, and they were Phillies' fans. Sitting down the row behind us (thankfully) was their college-aged nephew, one of those types who has to speak several decibels louder than anyone and tries to start cheers to draw attention to himself. Thankfully (for us), he suffered from the "America generally has too much girth" syndrome and spent a good amount of time at the concession stand (he liked the four-pack of sliders -- perhaps more than once). On Saturday, we sat in the very last row under cover, and there's the new phenomenon of "standing room" tickets to deal with. The people standing behind us were reasonable, given the circumstances, but we did hear perhaps four too many cell-phone conversations with other family members about whether Matt or John had extra tickets for the upcoming game against the Yankees.

None of that, though, was major. The Indians-Tigers game was interesting because we wore gear for neither team and because the Tiger fans are more laid back than the Philadelphia fans. Most of the fans around us were nice, although there was a third-grader with perhaps undiagnosed ADD sitting in front of us who kept swinging one of those small souvenir bats (his mother either didn't notice or is blind in her right eye) a little bit too wildly. That was nothing next to the high school boy next to me, who had a frustrating conversation with his girlfriend (who, after what I'm about to write, should wonder what she sees in him and ditch him unceremoniously). On three occasions during the first six innings, he bent his head toward the ground, opened his mouth, and spit, right there, right on the concrete, right between his feet, only about a few feet from me. The third time, well, I had to say something.

Me: "You know, you shouldn't be spitting there. You're not supposed to do that. It's unsanitary."

Him (not angry, not incredulous, but puzzled): "I can't spit. You mean, I can't spit?"

Me: "You shouldn't spit."

He then got up and went to the concession stand.

I felt like George Costanza at that point. Why me? What I should have said was "Well, there's no sign that says you cannot spit, but there's also no sign that says that you can't urinate there, either, and why would you want to do either?" I mean, where are these people being raised? Where is the class, the etiquette, the manners, the, well, sanitary behavior? Imagine if all 8,000 people were to spit during the seventh-inning stretch? It was pretty disgusting. I let it go a few times, but the third time was the charm.

Small stuff, to be sure, but I wanted to point this out to share my fandom experiences with you so that if you've suffered goofballs near you, well, you're not alone.

Overall, it was warm weather, and we were watching baseball in short sleeves in March, once on a weekday afternoon. The family was together, we enjoyed some good play, and the peanuts down there were excellent. Talking baseball, cracking open some peanut shells, shopping for souvenir shirts after the game, it was all pretty wonderful.

Now if you can tell me how to salvage my $88 investment in a rained out game in Clearwater . . .

Because right now, it looks as though the home team has told me to go spit.

Broadcasting Idiocy

Perhaps this should have been entitled, "Are they still at war with the English language?"

How many times have you heard broadcasters use the term "good success", as in "they're having good success with the dribble-drive offense." Or, how many times have you heard the term "good win," as in, "The 76ers got a good win last night in Boston."

Okay, folks, riddle me this: Is there such as thing as "bad success?" Is there such a thing as a "bad win" (and, no, Greek mythology enthusiast, let's keep the discussion of Pyrrhic victories out of this blog)?

I was just wondering.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Travel Baseball Teams for 8 year olds

I don't understand why these exist and why the kids simply can't play intramural ball.

Please explain in the comment section if you do. Thanks.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Class Act to Retire

Jeff Conine will retire on March 31 as a Marlin. He had two stints with the team and played key roles in the team's 1997 and 2003 World Series victories.

He was and remains a class act. Please click on this link for my family's one interaction with Mr. Marlin when he was a Phillie during the stretch run of 2006.

Thanks for the memories, Jeff.

And thanks for making a certain September night a year and a half ago a very memorable one for my two young baseball fans.

The Men's Bracket and Graduation Rates

Read the link to ESPN here, citing Richard Lapchick's annual study.

If you want to predict who'll win the tournament based upon graduation rates, then you're going to have Western Kentucky going all the way.

One thing that isn't clear is how the rate is calculated and who is in the denominator. For example, should the following people be in the denominator:

1. students who leave early to turn professional;
2. students who voluntarily transfer; and
3. students who gave up their scholarships and quit the team but do not transfer (collectively, the "Special Cases")?

I would argue that they shouldn't be, for the precise reason that these are players who voluntarily elected to leave the school. What would be more helpful would be publishing the matriculation rate, the transfer rate, the leave early for the pros rate and the graduation rate for the difference between number of matriculants during any period minus all departed matriculants during the same time period divided by the difference between the number of matriculants minus the Special Cases.

Here's an example:

Suppose School A had 16 matriculants over a 4 year-period (the max, I think, under the 5-8 rule). Suppose that after 6 years the following happened: 2 turned pro early and 2 who voluntarily transferred. Suppose that the remaining 12 players all graduated within 6 years. I would submit that the graduation rate would be 100%, under the formula 16-4/16-4 = 100%.

I would submit that the following should be included in the denominator:

1. students who flunk out or are asked to take time off because of academics;
2. students who are asked to leave because of disciplinary reasons; and
3. students whose scholarships are not renewed (for whatever reason, including that they'er not good enough).

So here's another example: School B had 16 kids matriculate during that four-year period. 1 turned pro, 2 voluntarily transferred, 1 had his scholarship non-renewed and 2 were asked to leave because of discipline or academics. The rest graduated within 6 years. I would submit that the graduation rate should be 16-6 divided by 16-3, or 76.9%. My sense is that under Lapchick's formula, the rate would be 16-6 divided by 16, or 62.5%

The article says that Lapchick computed the graduation rates by giving players six years to graduate from the time they became freshmen. Those of you who recall the movie "Animal House" will recall Bluto's famous line after the Dean kicked the fraternity brothers, en masse, out of school: "Seven years of college down the drain!" Well, I would submit that six years is ample time for a student-athlete to graduate, even with the big burden that DI college hoops places on him.

My guess is that the denominator doesn't take into account the factors I raised above (the first paragraph with #s 1 through 3 in it). Why? Because Duke's graduation rate is a surprisingly low (for Duke) 67%. My strong guess is that of those who didn't graduate, all of them either transferred to another school or went pro early. If that's the case, then, to me, Duke's graduation rate for men's basketball players should be 100%.

It always helps to understand fully the assumptions that go into any study. The ESPN doesn't shine a bright light on Lapchick's study, with the result that the results will get misinterpreted.

After all, as to Duke, a great selling point should be -- and probably is -- "hey, we graduate 100% of the kids who elect to stay 4 years, but we also offer a superlative basketball environment that will enable you to turn pro early should you so elect."

So, let's be careful when we look at graduation rates. The schools with the top rates -- Western Kentucky among them -- still will have outstanding graduation rates. But certain lower-rated schools may suffer because of attrition that wasn't totally of their own making.

NCAA Men's Tournament Predictions (Upsets Included!)

Here goes:


Play-in game: Mt. St. Mary's over Coppin State. Why? Because I have a theory that tournament wonders who have had so-so seasons flame out in the tournament. Coppin State had a Cinderella run in the MEAC, but their dancing will soon be over.

First round:

Carolina over Mt. St. Mary's. The Tar Heels will be up 25 at the half.

Arkansas over Indiana. The Razorbacks played wells in the SEC tournament, and I wonder if the Hoosiers have enough spirit left after their coaching drama played out recently.

Notre Dame over George Mason. GM got its huge moment in the sun a few years ago when it made the Final Four, and to some N.D. looks a tad slow. But they have the horses inside and can shoot it, so they'll advance.

Washington State over Winthrop. Some pundits are giddy over Winthrop's continued excellence, but WSU is from lumberjack country and throws a buzzsaw at opponents. The Cougars advance.

St. Joseph's over Oklahoma. Call me Philly-centric, but the Sooners were good if not great in a good conference. St. Joe's will win if they D up enough in the contest -- they can move the ball around on offense and score with anyone.

Louisville over Boise State. No Statue of Liberty plays available for BSU, and Rick Pitino is a fine tournament coach and knows how to play his Cards.

Butler over South Alabama. A team from Indiana must advance, mustn't it?

Tennessee over American. Another route.

Second round:

Carolina over Arkansas. Just too many horses for the Heels, who are, after all, playing in Raleigh.

Notre Dame over Washington State. These teams will maul one another, but the Irish will shoot it a little better.

Louisville over St. Joe's. Hawks have a shot and will stay with the Cards for about 33, 34 minutes, and that's when the elite teams take over.

Tennessee over Butler. This could be a great game, but the Vols are just too tough.

Sweet 16 Round

Carolina over Notre Dame. Irish aren't quick enough to stay with the Tar Heels, and if there's banging to do inside, Tyler Hansbrough is the best there is.

Tennessee over Louisville. People have downgraded the Vols, but they were 29-4 and are an excellent team. They'll prevail here.

Regional Final

Carolina over Tennessee. Another potentially great game, but the Heels' depth is just too good.


Kansas over Portland State. A 16 has never beaten a 1, and it won't happen here.

Kent State over UNLV. Don't overlook the MAC.

Clemson over Villanova. Nova was the last at-large team to make it, and they've been inconsistent all season. If their guards excel, they could win. But Clemson is one of those teams that could steal a Final Four berth, and they're too tough to lose here.

Vanderbilt over Siena. It's a tad trendy to pick Fran McCaffrey's Siena squad, but I see no basis for the upset. Vandy comes into the tournament rested, they're fundamentally sound, and they'll win this one.

Kansas State over USC. Intriguing matchup, with Beasley on KSU and Mayo on USC, but I'll go with the big guy and Kansas State here.

Wisconsin over Cal-State Fullerton. Because of the Badgers' brawn, this could be a boxing match. If so, Wisconsin wins on a TKO.

Davidson over Gonzaga. Yes, Gonzaga made it to a regional final several years back, but Davidson is pretty tough. This could be one of the best first-round games, and Davidson wins in a slight upset.

Georgetown over UMBC. The Hoyas defend like nobody's business, and defense wins championships. Georgetown wins this one.

Second round

Kansas over Kent State. Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk, and right now it's still wise to bet the chalk. Kansas wins.

Clemson over Vanderbilt. The Tigers make the most of their first appearance in the Big Dance since God knows who was president (I think Ronald Reagan). They advance.

Wisconsin over Kansas State. A physical battle is in the offing, and Wisconsin takes it.

Georgetown over Davidson. The Hoyas are too tough here.

Sweet 16 Round

Clemson over Kansas. My upset special so far, especially because a) not all #1 teams make it to the Final Four and b) so many ESPN analysts are picking the Jayhawks to win it all. Clemson played Carolina very tough -- they'll show what they're made of here.

Georgetown over Wisconsin. The Badgers could well win this game, but somehow steady Jonathan Wallace makes a key player or two down the stretch to enable the Hoyas to prevail. Imagine what he could have done had he gone to Princeton, as initially planned!

Regional Final

Clemson over Georgetown. The Tigers' magical run continues, proving that while the Big East was stronger than the ACC overall this year, the ACC's top three are about as good as it gets.


Memphis over Texas-Arlington. How about by 40?

Mississippi State over Oregon. The youngest Hansbrough brother contributes to the Bulldogs' victory.

Michigan State over Temple. Sorry, Seth Davis, but while Temple has played well, I think they'll have left something in the A-10 tournament. While the Big Ten didn't have a great year, Michigan State is too formidable for the Owls.

Pitt over Oral Roberts. The Panthers are on a roll.

Marquette over Kentucky. Wildcats got in on a "laundry" bid, in that the tournament committee must feel that they always belong there if they're close. Marquette wins by double digits.

Stanford over Cornell. Shows the Committee's sense of humor, pairing two brainy schools against one another. Or, it shows that the Committee is anti-intellectual. Either way, the Lopez brothers are just too tough for the Big Red.

St. Mary's over Miami. The Gaels are a good basketball team.

Texas over Austin Peay. Longhorns have had a good season, could make a deep run.

Second round

Memphis over Mississippi State. Derrick Rose and company are deep and talented and earn a trip to the Sweet 16.

Pitt over Michigan State. The Panthers are on a mission.

Marquette over Stanford. Big East beats Pac-10 the way rock beats scissors.

Texas over St. Mary's. Hard to bet against the chalk that lost to Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk! in its conference final.

Sweet 16 round

Pitt over Memphis. Both teams are tough; Memphis' poor foul shooting costs them dearly here. This is my second big upset special.

Texas over Marquette. Marquette is good, but not as good as Texas.

Regional final

Pitt over Texas. Bob Knight picked Pitt to win this region, and so do I. A quietly outstanding season for Jamie Dixon and the Panthers.


UCLA over Mississippi Valley State. As we said, no 16 has ever beaten a 1. . .

Texas A&M over BYU. This is a pure conference play, taking the Big 12 over the WAC.

Drake over Western Kentucky. Drake can flat out play, and they'll get the win here.

UConn over San Diego. The WCAC got three bids, but UConn is the team to beat here with its ever-improving center, Hasheem Thabeet.

Purdue over Baylor. Don't understand why the Bears got into the tournament. Boilermakers are too solid to lose here.

Xavier over Georgia. Remember my rule #1: don't pick a conference also-ran who happened to win its conference tournament. The reason: they left their magic in the conference tournament. Xavier wins this one, by serious double digits.

West Virginia over Arizona. Joe Alexander and the Mountaineers win over a Pac-10 version of Baylor.

Duke over Belmont. Coach K has won more games than any other coach in NCAA tournament history.

Second round

UCLA over Texas A&M. Ben Howland is one of the best coaches not to have won a national title. He won't lose here.

Drake over UConn. On the one hand, UConn has a lot of talent. On the other hand, they hiccup on occasion. Drake puts the "major" into mid-major and shows that winning the Missouri Valley Conference means a lot.

Purdue over Xavier. Sorry to bet againt Xavier, but many an ESPN guru has Xavier making it at least to the regional final. Take the Boilermakers in a mild surprise.

Duke over West Virginia. Devils are too disciplined not to make it to the next weekend.

Sweet 16 round

UCLA over Drake. Drake's great run ends at the hands of the Bruins.

Duke over Purdue. Blue Devils have too many weapons for the Boilermakers.

Regional final

UCLA over Duke. UCLA's talent wins out here.

Final Four

Carolina over Clemson. Heels repeat their performance in the ACC Final and beat the Tigers in a great battle.

UCLA over Pitt. Panthers make a game of it, but Bruins are just too good.


Carolina over UCLA. Tar Heels, to me, are the best in the nation, and they prove it here.

As for my Final Four, I had two #1 seeds, a #4 and a #5. Remember, since the start of naming #1 seeds, there hasn't been a tournament where all #1 seeds make the Final Four.

Good luck with your picks.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Lenny Dykstra, Investment Guru

Read this article from the Philly papers, which cites to a back-and-forth that Dykstra had with TV investment personality Jim Cramer.

But before you invest with the Dude, look into Barron's archives for its take on how well Cramer actually has fared with his recommendations, and read the back inside column in the current issue of Sports Illustrated, whee Chris Ballard discusses Dykstra's plans for a magazine for pro ballplayers to help them manager their money and the fees that Dykstra will charge.

And then decide for yourself.

Caveat investor.

Was Brett Favre Overrated?

Sal Paolantonio of ESPN apparently thinks so.

Paolantonio also blasted the media for heaping undeserved praise on Favre. I recall telling a colleague at work, an ardent Giants fan, that if the Giants could keep the NFC championship game close the Giants could count on an SFI to help the Giants win the game. What's an SFI?

A stupid Favre interception. And Favre threw two of them.

Don't get me wrong, Favre was a great quarterback, in the all-time top 10. He certainly wasn't the best, and if he's in the top 5 he's closer to fifth than first. After all, you wouldn't take him over Montana and Unitas, and I'd take John Elway over him too. That's not to knock Favre, of course, because he's in the Pantheon of all-time great QBs. It's just that when he retired, the media -- including a chorus of former players -- threw way too many bouquets his way. There were too many utterances of "the best ever," and they were misguided.

But it's what you get when the media become glorified fans instead of disinterested (and, yes, for you folks out there disinterested means impartial) journalists.

It took guts for Paolantonio to say what he said. The average football fan should be throwing him a bouquet for keeping the analysis honest.

Delicious, if Strange, Irony In Philadelphia

Last season the 76ers traded Allen Iverson to the Nuggets because this AI didn't grasp the concept of team basketball after a decade in the NBA. The 76ers figured they'd be rebuilding, and the Nuggets figured they'd be contending for a title.

Well. . .

As it turns out, the 76ers look to be solidly in the playoffs. They're 7th overall in the East, 5 up on the 8th place Nets. They have a shot to finish as high as 5th, although I'd say that they probably have the best shot of overtaking the Wizards for the sixth berth. Not so bad for a team that looked to have no inside game in the fall. I read one report where a rival scout said that they're the fastest team in the league, and everyone is contributing. Last night C Sam Dalembert blocked shots by Tim Duncan on two straight possessions down the stretch, and guys like first-round pick Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams are making serious contributions. They're not the bigggest team out there, but they play well together and have demonstrated a lot of heart.

The Nuggets, on the other hand, are a handful of games out of the last playoff spot in the West, despite having around a .600 overall record that would make them fifth in the East. One interesting stat I saw a week ago was that the Nuggets were 23-2 when Iverson has 10 or more assists. My guess is that many have tried to tell Iverson over the years that if he focused more on passing, he'd open up the floor more for his teammates, get better shots and help his team to a better record. You'd think that the coaches in Denver tell him this frequently and point to the stat that I just did. Then again, it's hard to talk to AI, and he's been in the league long enough to change his behavior.

Philadelphia is better off without Allen Iverson and the drama he brought to the team. Denver, ironically, has played better with him, if not good enough in the West.

The trade's a win-win proposition, but right now you'd have to say that the 76ers got the better of the deal.

If only, though, they had made it several seasons earlier, as the AI soap opera had outlasted whatever popularity it had generated when the 76ers went to the finals in 2001.

Congratulations to Fran Dunphy and the Temple Owls

When Fran Dunphy took the helm at Temple two years ago, he took the conning tower from Hall of Famer John Chaney, a great coach who in all likelihood retired a few years too late. Temple made a great choice, and a magnanimous Chaney (of whom I'm a big fan, despite a rather serious behavioral lapse from the bench late in his career) was fully supportive of the move. All cheered the choice, although many (rightfully) wondered how easy it would be for Dunphy to transfer over to fully blown DI hoops, where scholarships are given, and where he'd be coaching a different kind of kid from the one he coached at Penn, where Dunphy excelled.

I doubt that even Coach Dunphy would have predicted that he'd have the Owls in the NCAA tournament just two years into his gig, but he's done just that. The Owls played well in the later stages of the season and put forth a great effort in the A-10 tournament, capping it off with a 16-2 run early in the second half to finish off another Bubble team, St. Joe's, to win the title. You can read about that victory here.

Fran Dunphy is an outstanding coach and Owls' fans have to be ecstatic. This is Temple's first NCAA tournament berth since 2001. My guess is that there will be many more during the Dunphy years, and recruiting is certain to pick up.

Baltimore is a College Hoops Hotbed

Coppin State, Mount St. Mary's and University of Maryland, Baltimore County all won their conference tournaments and are all headed to the Big Dance. Congratulations to all of those schools and particularly Coppin State head coach Fang Mitchell, who steadily guided his team after a 2-19 start to win 12 of its last 13 games and earn the tournament bid. Mitchell has been at Coppin St. for a while, and about 10 years ago his team lost a second-round game by a bucket, thereby denying them the distinction of being the first 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16.

Going into the season, fans would have thought that the three other area schools a bit more prominent on the radar screen -- Morgan State (the #1 seed for the MEAC tournament), Loyola (picked to contend for its conference title) and Maryland -- all would have had a better chance to make the Big Dance.

Goes to show you why college hoops is such a great game and why they play the games -- teams and teamwork by young players can surprise us all the time.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Big Five's Streak Continues (Phew!)

The St. Joe's-Temple A-10 final tonight guarantees that the Big Five's streak -- 30 years of having at least 1 member in the NCAA tournament -- continues. The winner gets an automatic bid to the Big Dance. And, it could well be that the loser gets an at-large bid (especially if it's St. Joe's, by virtue of the Hawks' two wins over Xavier).

St. Joe's rebounded from some defensive lapses late in the season to cement its berth in the tourney with a win over Xavier in the semifinals of the A-10 tourney yesterday. Temple has surged under second-year coach Fran Dunphy, and the Owls are playing well enough to warrant an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Something tells me, though, that the Owls won't go if they don't beat the Hawks at 6 p.m. EDT this evening.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Is Michael Vick Still Relevant?

Or has the NFL truly moved on?

And will it ever look back?

Here's the most recent story on Vick.

Will he get a second chance?

Surely. Quarterbacks get plenty of second chances in the NFL. Most don't succeed, but then there's the example of Trent Dilfer, who found Super Bowl glory with the Ravens, proving that you don't need a Hall of Fame QB to win the Lombardi Trophy. Dilfer, though, didn't have to take a couple of seasons off because a felony conviction.

It's hard to say the type of player Vick will be when he returns. He was a big disappointment, insofar as he was touted as a superstar, what with his arm strength and his speed. In the end, he was a poor man's version of Allen Iverson, a guy who could dazzle and put up some big numbers (particularly on the ground), but who didn't necessarily make his team and the players around him better.

Some franchise will opt for hope over experience and give Vick a hard look, more likely as a backup. Then again, some team could be so desperate it might hitch its wagon to Vick to turn the team around, but I seriously doubt it. Most NFL coaches are conservative, and most don't have too long a time to make their teams contenders. As a result, a coach who would opt to start Vick (from the get go, as opposed to after the season-opening starter falters) would be doing the coaching equivalent of putting his paycheck on Red at the Wynn on a busy night, but worse.

Why? Because when you bet the rent money on red, you have a 50% chance of winning. If you were to start Vick from the outset, it says here that your chances of success -- meaning a playoff berth -- would be (much) less.

Stranger things have happened, of course, and Vick could emerge from prison a changed man. Wiser, more patient, more willing to meld his talents with the vision of his offensive coordinator. That could well happen. Then again, it might not.

In the meantime, Michael Vick sits in jail, and, with each passing day, vanishes a little bit more from the NFL radar screen.

Kyle Lohse Strikes Out

After last season, where Lohse pitched pretty well for the Phillies on their stretch run to the NL East title (the Phils got him in a trade with the Reds), it appeared that Lohse and agent Scott Boras were looking for a big-time, long-term contract. Say along the lines of the 3-year, $24 million deal Adam Eaton got from the Phillies the year before. Truth be told, Lohse pitched much better at a lower price for the Phils than Eaton did.

Yesterday, Lohse inked a one-year, $4.25 million deal to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that probably doesn't figure to contend for a division title, except that in the NL Central it's not clear that a team will need more than 85 wins to take the division. This article from suggests that Lohse and Boras blew it, that Lohse was asking for too much and that he turned down a deal in the range of 3 years for a total of $20 million from the Phillies.

Talk about playing too hard to get.

Kyle Lohse is a decent pitcher who should fare well with the Cards. With only a one-year deal, he could be available at the trading deadline for a team that needs pitching help down the stretch.

As one Philadelphia-area paper suggested this morning, that team could well end up being the Phillies.


If Lohse pitches well again, he should take a page out of A-Rod's book and consider replacing Boras with an agent who has a more realistic view of the market and can wrap up a lucrative long-term deal. After all, good pitchers know that you can't throw the same mistake pitch twice and get away with it.

Bob Knight on ESPN

He's great. He's patient, he's smart, he's insightful, and he looks like he's having a good time.

It's unfortunate that Coach Knight only gets remembered for his intermittent, bad public acts. But in his case, it's the case of a good man doing bad things (and not of a bad man acting badly). Coach Knight did a ton of good in college basketball, and it's a pleasure to have him share his wisdom alongside his good friend Digger Phelps and anchor Rece Davis.

So therein lies the question: is Knight's appearance on ESPN actually an audition for his last big-time coaching job? He looks relaxed, he looks vibrant, he knows the game well -- and many Top 50 athletic directors are watching him nightly. Remember, Bob Huggins has gotten a couple of chances after his Cincinnati debacle, and he doesn't nearly have the reputation for integrity and graduating players that Knight does.

The big issue, of course, is relevance, at least in terms of the ability to recruit and coach today's average eighteen year-old. Huggins clearly still has the lingo down and hires assistants to help him manage the team and the lives of a bunch of late adolescents -- if he didn't I think he'd be out of basketball. In contrast, it's less clear whether Coach Knight has adapted over his many decades of coaching -- after all, this isn't West Point in the 1960's.

However. . .

the man is one of the best coaches of all time. Give him the right big-time program with the right assistants -- who can recruit and relate to the players readily (and have one of those assistants be an heir apparent) -- and I submit that he has another national championship in him. It has to be the right fit, of course.

Could it be that Coach Knight goes back home again to Indiana?

Memo to Florida's Nick Calathes: Transfer to St. Joe's

To: Nick Calathes
From: A Philadelphia Big 5 Fan

Because your coach called out your current team, Florida, said he doesn't like the existing personnel and doesn't think the team can win, you might want to reconsider whether you should stay in Gainesville. After all, wasn't it F. Scott Fitzgerald who said "there are no second acts in American life.?" Your coach, Billy Donovan, won 2 national titles, which makes me think that he had one more act than most successful Americans ever get. It could well be that despite the personnel issue, the odds are that Donovan won't win another national title anyway.

So, why stay at Florida? Okay, maybe you shouldn't have gone there in the first place, given the Freakonomics-type logic I just displayed in the prior paragraph. So, if you are to leave, where should you go?

That's easy. Your older brother, Pat, seemingly has had a very nice career at St. Joe's. You know the school well, and it has some national cred because several years ago Jameer Nelson and Delonte West led it to a regional final. The Hawks have some awesome guards, and coach Phil Martelli is a good coach. Go there and you could help take that program to a Final Four. You'd be a magnet for attracting all sorts of outstanding players, and the basketball atmosphere in Philadelphia is top-notch.

Excellent school, excellent hoops. Okay, so it's the A-10 and not the SEC, but the SEC isn't exactly setting the world on fire right now, is it? You'll also be playing for fans who are more supportive, more patient/hopeful about winning a national title (after all, they haven't been there, and the ride to that regional final was magical and had the nation's fifth biggest media market buzzing for almost half a year), and for a coach who is first rate. Sure, Florida is an outstanding place, but right now the situation more resembles Melrose Place (you probably are too young to remember that LA-set TV show about dysfunctional twenty somethings) than a setting for a top-25 college hoops team.

So, in case you're interested, Hawk Hill should be the first place you visit.

After all, the Hawk shall never die.

And you could help make it soar to the greatest heights ever!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Unhappy Young Baseball Players and Their Contract Renewals

Prince Fielder, Jonathan Papelbon and Cole Hamels are upset because they didn't get more money out of their teams.

Yes, they've performed well, but they have to remember that they are part of the strongest union in the history of the world. It's that union that negotiated the structure for their contracts, their ability to go to arbitration, and their ability to sign lucrative long-term deals that will pay off in full should a) they get a career-ending injury in the first week of a five-year deal or b) they stink the joint out (see Adam Eaton's 3-year, $24 million deal for an example of how good a job the players' union has done for its membership). Unfortunately for these players, it's also the same union that negotiated a construct whereby they can get renewed for a few years at relatively small dollars because they haven't played long enough in the majors (even if they've performed very well).

So, if they're angry, at whom should they be angry? Should they be mad at their teams, who are negotiating contracts with older and (sometimes) more established stars? Or should they take it up with their union, because the system hurts young players who excel and protects older players who sometimes do not? (This is the same union that closed ranks to protect users of performance-enhancing drugs at the expense of the players who did not, thereby helping put a cloud over the entire membership). My guess is that the union picks its battles, and the veteran players who control it look out more for their own interests at the expense of the budding young stars.

What the Brewers, BoSox and Phillies have done is good business. They pay big-time wages to a whole roster of ballplayers, and, no (and this applies even to the Red Sox) they don't have unlimited piles of cash to throw at their players. Sometimes they might even do things that on their face don't make a lot of sense (such as the Phils' signing Adam Eaton last year for huge free-agent money) until you consider them within the construct of the collective bargaining agreement. Eaton had enough service time in to become a free agent, with the result that he cashed in. Fielder, Papelbon and Hamels all project to getting huge contracts in the future, whether through arbitration, signing a long-term deal with their own team, or becoming free agents (or a combination of those three). They just need to be patient.

And, perhaps, to channel their frustration to their union, as opposed to their own ball clubs.

The Ivy League Will Investigate Allegations About Harvard

Click here for an article on the subject.

The Ivy League issued a short statement, and Ivy coaches declined comment about alleged recruiting violations in Harvard's basketball program. Apparently, their athletic directors placed a gag order on them.

Which means that some of those coaches must be furious. That's understandable, given how much energy goes into recruiting players for your school's basketball team. Former Princeton coach Pete Carril used to refer to his school's admissions office as "Heartbreak Hotel."

Harvard also is investigating.

Is the NCAA next?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Is Harvard Cheating in Men's Basketball Recruiting?

The New York Times today, in an article that appears on the front page of its sports section, calls into question Harvard's overall approach to its men's basketball program. Read the whole thing here and draw your own conclusions.

Pete Thamel's article calls into question the following:

1) Is Harvard lowering its standards in trying to admit higher-caliber basketball players than it has in the past? (Yale head coach James Jones, for one, thinks so, as do former Harvard assistants Bill Holden and Lamar Reddicks).

2) Did both Amaker and current assistant Kenny Blakeney commit recruiting violations? (The Times thinks so, and Brown head coach Craig Robinson suggests as much, as does the executive director of the National Association of Basketball coaches, Jim Haney).

The Harvard A.D., Bob Scalise, comes off poorly in the article, as he basically throws Holden, Reddicks and even former head coach Frank Sullivan, a good man and good coach, under the bus in his praise of the current coaching group. So remember this, Coach Amaker, that if you fail in your new endeavors, the charms of A.D. Scalise could be launched in your direction, too.

The article, overall, reports a paradigm shift in Cambridge, which will cause some ugliness that will reverberate through the Ivies. Recruiting guru Dave Telep is cited as saying that Harvard's current recruiting class might be the best in Ivy history. Which means that either the other Ivies are envious or that the other Ivies are ticked because Harvard is breaking rules. Or, it's somewhere in between, that Harvard is stretching certain rules. Without follow-up articles on the point or an NCAA investigation into some of the alleged activity, it's hard to tell totally at this point. That said, the activities of current Harvard assistant Kenny Blakeney (before he was hired at Harvard) seem dubious at best.

So what's Harvard doing? Is the Harvard administration injecting the recruiting equivalent of banned substances into the process? The recruiting methods seem questionable and might warrant investigation (it would be hard for the NCAA to avoid this article, even if it's Harvard), but Harvard probably can do with it wants so that its overall team satisfies the Ivies' labyrinthine recruiting index.

(Remember this, that if the Crimson are found guilty of recruiting violations, it will be interesting to see what the sanctions are. The Ivies' don't give athletic scholarships, so the NCAA can't take away scholarships. They can take away the ability to play in the post-season, and the guess here is that if the Amaker administration is found guilty, Amaker et al. might be asked to make a quick exit out of Cambridge).

As to the index, is Harvard recruiting inadmissible candidates, or is it simply lowering its standards for men's hoops -- so that it still falls within an acceptable range on the Ivies' index but compete better? And, if so, is that so horrible? (It certainly would be for the coaches who were fired last year, who were up against tough odds to recruit a team that could fight for a championship).

Of course, even if Amaker can get all of these kids (and the Times suggests that his top recruit, a center who appears in the ESPN's Top 150 HS recruits, has not achieved the minimum number in the index that would allow him admission to any Ivy), can he coach them to a title?

Remember a few things. Only one of Coach Mike Krzyzewki's disciples -- Mike Brey (now at Notre Dame) -- has been a successful head coach. Others -- Quin Snyder (disgraced at Missouri), David Henderson (fired at Delaware) and Amaker -- have not succeeded. Amaker was so-so at Seton Hall before failing at Michigan despite being a decent recruiter. So, it remains to be seen whether Amaker and his assistants can coach well enough to challenge for the Ivy title. Then again, if the talent he brings in is so transcendant, he might not have to be that good of a coach at all.

Just a good recruiter probably would suffice. Given what the Times reports, that's a potentially scary proposition.

But remember this: the road to future Ivy titles still goes through Ithaca, Philadelphia and, yes, even central New Jersey, despite Princeton's down period. Steve Donahue is cooking with gas at Cornell, and Glen Miller is re-loading the talent in Philadelphia. Sydney Johnson at Princeton will need a few years to rebuild, but the Tigers' storied program will rebound (it has before).

And now, given this article, every other coach in the Ivies has a new bogeyman -- Tommy Amaker, he of the impeccable resume, now of Harvard, who now has a firestorm to deal with.

Because the Times has just turned the basketball players he brings into Cambridge into the Ivy athletic world's version of Hessians, whether they deserve the label or not.

Stay tuned, as this story has many more chapters to be written.

Bill Carmody's Job is Safe at Northwestern -- Perhaps for 3 More Seasons

So says Northwestern's president, Henry Bienen.

Northwestern has never made a post-season tournament -- not even the NIT in the era after the NCAA tournament expanded to 65 teams. When the Wildcats hired the former Princeton mentor in 2000, they certainly must have hoped he would have led them to a post-season berth by now. This year, the Wildcats are 1-14 in the Big Ten, 8-18 overall this season.

Going into the season, Carmody's overall record was 95-113 overall and 35-77 in the Big Ten (where he was named coach of the year after the 2003-2004 season). To show how trying the circumstances are facing the hoops program at Northwestern, its public relations staff highlighted in his bio on the schoo's website that Coach Carmody had more wins in any seven-year span in Northwestern basketball history than any other coach. For a full coaching bio on Carmody, click here.

Great to have the University president in your corner and a coach at a school that looks far beyond the won-loss record and possible revenues that could go with it.

How rare is that?

And, I would submit, it's a "good" rare, because Bill Carmody is a good man and excellent coach.

The New President of the Pittsburgh Pirates

His name is Frank Coonelly, and he's a very bright guy. He worked as a partner in a national law firm specializing in labor and employment law matters (where he represented Major League Baseball) and then moved to MLB to help counsel various groups within MLB, including the all-important Player Relations Committee. All the while, he performed very well.

He's now in his first year as President of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he's drawing great praise for his work to turn around the organization and instill an new attitude in a franchise that has had 15 straight losing seasons and hasn't had much to cheer about since before Barry Bonds signed with the Giants as a free agent. Read this article and see what I mean.

And I'm sure he'll do a good job, especially if the Pirates' ownership is willing to spend the money necessary to attract and retain outstanding talent on the field. Ask any business leader, and she/he will tell you that recruiting, developing and retaining outstanding talent is a key to an organization's success. Coonelly has taken steps on the recruiting part, at least in so far as he hired a new GM (right out of Cleveland's excellent front office) and has begun to revamp the scouting system (although it's arguable that the Pirates have developed better young starters in Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell than a majority of Major League teams). The big issue, of course, will be in recruiting free agents and in paying current players enough to stay away from free agency.

And that will be all about the bucks that the Bucs will permit Frank Coonelly to spend.

This issue reminds me of a passage from Mark Harris' great book, "The Southpaw," in which the protagonist and narrator, Henry Wiggen, is the young star pitcher for the fictional New York Mammoths. Wiggen recounted how the scouts descended upon his house after his senior year of high school around 1950 (when there was no draft).

"About a week afterwards, a man come from Cincinnati. He said he had signed up 25 young ballplayers between October and December. 'How much are you paying a young fellow to sign?' said Pop, and the man said he was not paying a cent except fare to spring training, and Pop said if Cincinnati had such splendid habits of saving money they might just as well save their breath besides because I was not signing up free like somebody's slave. The man hemmed and hummed and said he might pay 500 as a starter. Pop said he did not care where he started so long as he ended up at 5,000.

"'There are boys all over the land that would give their right eye to put their autograph on a Cincinnati contract,' the man said.

"'I am pleased to hear these remarks,' Pop said. 'I am sure you can win many pennants on sheer enthusiasm.'"

Mark Harris was right on more than 50 years ago. Enthusiasm only gets you so far. As Nobel laureate Val Fitch once said: "Excellence cannot be bought. But it must be paid for."

Frank Coonelly is a smart guy, and I'm sure that he didn't take the job in Pittsburgh if all that was promised was that the Pirates would take a Moneyball approach. After all, many teams have done that (the way NFL teams solved the 46 defense and learned to score on it), so that's not a novel approach and few teams really can get by and win without being in the top third of spenders in MLB. Which means, then, that the Pirates have probably committed to spending a significantly greater amount of money on players than they have in the past.

All of which bodes well for long-suffering Pirates' fans.

You have a great ballpark, and it's time to fill it up and hear the sounds of victory, to rekindle the echoes of greats like Stargell, Parker, Madlock, Easler, Sanguillen, Stennett and a whole host of other clutch players.

Watch out for the Pirates -- they may be onto something. Maybe not immediately, but don't expect them to be doormats in the NL Central for long.

Required Reading: How Not to Behave at a College Basketball Game

Read Grant Wahl's piece from a recent Sports Illustrated here.

The article addresses an increasingly disturbing trend at men's college basketball games -- out-of-control fans who have almost no boundaries when it comes to decency.

And it has to stop.

Root for your team, yes, but to personally go after players on other teams, dialing their cell phone numbers, harrassing their family members at games? What's going on with that?

Read the whole thing and then reflect upon what college athletics are supposed to represent and how people are supposed to behave.

Because the behavior described in the linked article is indefensible.

Congratulations to the Cornell Big Red Men's Basketball Team

When Steve Donahue took the head coaching job at Cornell eight years ago, some of his friends must have told him that he was nuts to do so. After all, what was the upside? Sure, after a decade assisting Fran Dunphy at Penn (and very successfully so), it was time for Donahue to take a step up and get a Division 1 head coaching job of his own. But in the Ivies, where schools not named Penn and Princeton had little chance of winning the title (except during those schools' blue period from '86 to '88, where both Brown and Cornell managed to snare a title)? What was he thinking? After all, former Chuck Daly assistant Ray Carazo over 20 years ago failed at Yale (despite coming from a Penn program, which, at the time, was nationally prominent and, yes, much better than Dunphy's two decades later). I'm sure that someone had to raise that ominous precedent with Coach Donahue.

After 7 years and a .387 winning percentage (Donahue was 74-117 going into this season), the doubters had to be there. Most coaches get canned after that type of record over that period of time -- heck, most don't get 7 years to demonstrate a .387 winning percentage. Yet, Donahue kept his cool, kept working hard, and the Cornell administration kept their faith in him.

The result: the Cornell Big Red are the first team this year to clinch an NCAA tournament berth. The season is a testament both to the Cornell administration's faith in Steve Donahue and, more importantly, Steve Donahue's belief in himself and his staff and their collective work ethic.

How wonderful is this accomplishment? Try playing Penn and Princeton on back-to-back nights during the season. Why's that so important? Because most teams go 1-3 or 0-4 in those sequences year in and year out. That tag-teaming ability, as it were, has proven a huge barrier for the success of other Ivies' men's hoops teams.

Year in and year out.

Penn's coach, Glen Miller, earlier this year said the other Ivies had better not get used to Penn's down season, because the Quakers will be back. Most assuredly, Penn has a lot of talent and has always been able to recruit it. This season, the Quakers lost two key returnees prior to the season and then fielded a team that consisted mostly of underclassmen, and the inexperience showed. Next year, they'll be better, but they'll still have to establish a consistent rotation and have leaders emerge. Princeton, on the other hand, has a serious rebuilding job. The Tigers, currently 5-20 and without a road win this season, are losing two of their top players in forwards Kyle Koncz and Noah Savage, and they're probably several years away from contending.

So don't count out the Cornell Big Red -- or Coach Steve Donahue -- any time soon.

Patience is a rare commodity in college basketball -- and the Cornell Big Red are getting rewarded for it.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Jackie Moon, Semi-Pro and the ABA's Steve Aschburner has an excellent piece on the American Basketball Association, which Will Ferrell's making fun of in his new movie, Semi-Pro.

For those of you too young to remember the ABA, read the whole thing. You'll get an appropriate perspective about a pretty good hoops league. Sure, they had the red, white and blue ball, but the ABA had plenty of stars. Its overall quality was compelling enough to enable the league to merge with the NBA.

It wasn't a circus.

Or, at least, no more so than the NBA -- with its dancing girls, game-show host types in the stands, disrespectful public address announcers, etc. -- is now.

Two Goofs by Baseball Prospectus

I had pre-ordered this outstanding book from Amazon, only to have it come a week late. I had figured that the editors were proofreading the book and updating it for the free-agent signings and trades that happened before spring training.

Well, I had figured wrong. The book fails to take into account the trade of Johan Santana to the Mets, thereby making a mess of their assessment of the NL East and NL as a whole. The writers praised the Phillies with faint damns and hinted that the defending NL East champions will defend their crown, if only because the writers seemed less enthusiastic about those running the Mets. That's all well and good, but now one of the best starters in baseball -- if not the best starter -- is on the Mets. It would have to figure that perhaps now the Mets have to be the favorites in the NL East, but you wouldn't know that from reading this book. Johan Santana is still in Minnesota according to these folks (and, yes, I know that the way the book is written, players are written up with the team they were on at the end of the prior season, but their blurbs indicate where they'll be playing this season. Santana's blurb doesn't mention the trade).

Second, do the Padres have position players whose names begin with N through Z? Because the book I have doesn't allow for such players.

I've only had the book for two days, and the errors tarnish the sterling reputation of this group of authors. C'mon, guys, most of us would have preferred assessing the NL East with Santana on the Mets than not (even diehard Phillies fans like the truth, particularly because many are masochists who punish themselves agonizing over what the hometown team doesn't have). Your book is premised on how teams can step up their games. You need to step up yours.

Selling Futures in Future Stars

Read here about Indians' pitching prospect, Randy Newsom, who apparently tried to do just that.

Kiplinger Personal Finance, for which there currently is no link to the most recent issue, reported that while Newsom proposed an interesting investment to the public -- paying now for shares in his future income as a Major Leaguer should his career take off -- the Securities and Exchange Commission nixed it. Basically, you may not offer an investment to a broad group of people without going through the registration process. So Newsom's idea is either dead or on hold.

I'd submit that were this investment to be available, it would be a bad bet. It strikes me that 2/3 of the players signed are pitchers and that most fail, so you'd be better off buying an index fund or perhaps even putting your money on red at the roulette table at your nearest casino. But investing in a pitcher -- someone who makes his living deploying an unnatural motion? Don't quit your day job.

And don't bet the rent money.