Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Calling Out Pfizer

Sorry, guys, but while I respect a lot of the wonderful things you do, cut the advertising for Major League Baseball's key games. Baseball is near and dear to my familly's hearts, we enjoy watching it together, and I have a young middle-school aged daughter and a son in third grade. Needless to say, I don't appreciate the "Viva Viagra" ads that appear with such great frequency between innings. I clutch the remote and change the channel immediately.

No, I'm not a prude, but there is a time and place for talking with the kids about sex education, but I'd prefer not to do so while watching the national pastime. Is nothing sacred? Can't we watch the game in peace? Yes, I'm a big fan of the First Amendment, and, no, I'm not a book burning suppressor of speech. But is there no dignity or decency left anymore? Can't we watch these games with some ads that are a bit more wholesome? You make Lipitor, the best-selling drug in the history of the pharmaceutical industry. It works well against cholesterol. Can't you advertise for that drug, or is it so successful that you don't need to?

At any rate, ditch these ads, because your company should show more leadership and take a stand that it isn't just in the pharmaceutical industry to grind out every last dollar.

And, this should get your attention -- I don't think Merck would do this.

Tommy Amaker Is At It Again (and If You're a Harvard Recruit, Let the Buyer Beware)

Or not, perhaps. It depends on where you sit.

If you're a Harvard hoops fan tired of holding your Friends of Harvard Basketball meetings in a phone booth, you might be happy with the Big East/Big Ten-like Darwinism that Amaker is trying to bring to Cambridge. If you're a member of the Harvard community hoping solely that your team has a fighting chance to contend for the Ivy title each year, you might be concerned.

The New York Times broke this story yesterday, and USA Today followed up on it today. Basically, Amaker just told five returning players that they would not make the varsity for this coming season. The objection? He told them in September, not after the season, when presumably had they wanted to, they could have decided to transfer to another school (including another Ivy) should they have wanted that option. Instead, he told them after they enrolled, and that creates all sorts of problems for the individuals, basketball- and transfer-wise, not to mention their shaken faith in the Ivy ideal, where sports aren't supposed to be this cutthroat.

One jettisoned player actually paid his own way to return to Harvard in August to work at Amaker's basketball camp this summer. The thanks he got? A pink slip for the fall season.


And not the Ivy way, so the Times suggests.

I agree.

Here are the two takes on the argument.

First, if you're defending Amaker and tired of the failure of Harvard hoops to make a dent in the Ivy conversation for the past 25 years, you'll say that it's Amaker's prerogative, as it's the prerogative of any coach who takes over a program, to separate the wheat from the chaff and turn the program around. You'll argue that if the school decided that Frank Sullivan wasn't going to win a title, then the remaining players that he recruited also weren't going to win a title, so it was okay to cut the five players. You'll also contend that the Ivies aren't bound by the 5-8 rule that scholarship schools must adhere to (in essence, a team may bring in only five recruits in any one year, eight over a two-year period), so a new coach can bring in his guys rather quickly to turn a program around. You'll also argue that every Ivy brings in between four and seven kids every year, and attrition is part of every Ivy hoops program, so why single out Harvard? Finally, you'll contend that the critics are wimps, that they've never competed on the court, and that they want to preserve the tea-drinking image of the Ivies without the harsh realization that athletic competition is just that, that if you want to win you need better players, and that most winning coaches would do what Amaker has done. In Harvard parlance, then you'd utter "quod erat demostratum", dismiss the rest of us as whining fools, and walk away.

And you'd have made a pretty good argument.

However. . .

I have three major bones to pick with the argument. The first one is the way that Coach Amaker went about cutting his players. All coaches let players know they won't make the team, but why did Amaker wait so long? Did he do it to prevent other Ivies from getting some of these guys (even if they would have to sit out a year), was it plain mean, or just clumsy? To me, cutting players -- within reason and with dignity -- is fine and happens with some frequency. Otherwise, Ivy hoops rosters would be bloated beyond practicality (and it's hard to know what each and every player is told during the recruiting process). But what happened here was wrong.

Second, before you throw the "that's what winning coaches" do argument, Amaker wasn't exactly a smash success at either Seton Hall or Michigan. True, he started on some great Duke teams, but having played for Coach K doesn't make you the next coming of Coach K.

Third, and importantly, there is a bunch of smoke around the Harvard program that suggests at least the presence of some brush fires. The Times wrote earlier this year about some questionable practices of one of Amaker's assistants, and the linked article suggests that Harvard might be recruiting some players who aren't up to the Ivies' academic standards. [An investigation cleared Harvard, but I believe it's the first investigation ever -- if not in a long time -- about the recruiting practices of an Ivy men's hoops coach -- and it happened right after Amaker's first season]. Recruit hard, keep Princeton in the cellar and go after Penn and Cornell, fine, but remember, you're not recruiting against N.C. State and Maryland, you're recruiting against other Ivies. It's one thing to want to win the league, but it's about time that someone takes a stand not only for honoring winners, but honoring winners who win with class and dignity, and, most importantly, within the rules. Former Penn (and now Temple) coach Fran Dunphy is a great example. Tommy Amaker should make the Harvard team his own and do his best to win, but he should take a few pages out of Coach Dunphy's book. Have one car accident in ten years, fine, you had an accident, but have two in eighteen months, and, well, you might just have a driving problem.

The irony here is that Harvard fans and alums probably might admonish me not to believe everything I read in the Times, and that would be rich, because they seem to quote the Times for just about everything else. If the Harvard athletic department and the Harvard men's hoops team keeps up this type of sportsmanship, then kicking the living daylights out of the Cantabs might become the overarching priority of even Penn and Princeton, each of which delights in pounding the stuffing out of each other.

Incoming recruits also should beware of what Amaker is selling them. Because if he goes the route of bringing in more than four players each year (say 6), he could be doing to them what he did to the players he didn't recruit. The counter to that, of course, is to contend that Amaker's just doing this now, to reverse a losing trend, and he needs a lot of new players right away. The Amaker supporters (or apologists) would contend -- without proof -- that Amaker wouldn't intend to do this every year. But until Amaker has a few years under his belt without making cuts like the ones he has just made, recruits and their parents will have to put the question to the coach and wonder just a bit.

Fight fiercely, Harvard, for sure.

But also be sure to fight fair.

The whole Ivy League is watching.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Jamie Moyer as a Metaphor for the Economy

Given the turmoil in the markets, all of us will be working longer (and perhaps harder and perhaps showing less for the hard work).

Which, of course, brings us to the Seabiscuit of the National League, Jamie Moyer. Winning tons of games after the age of 35. Still going strong at age 46.

Jamie, you're everyone's hero. Tell us how you do it, because we'll all need to follow your lead. Your pitching effectively at 46 is like someone who's worked since he's been 18 still going strong at the age of 70.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The NFC East

Is it unreasonable to argue that the best four teams in the NFC are all in the NFC East?

Giants: 3-0.
Cowboys: 3-1.
Redskins: 3-1.
Eagles 2-1 (playing the Bears in Chicago tonight).

The Redskins beat Dallas in Dallas today, and the Eagles gave the Cowboys all they could handle down there a few weeks ago. This despite the fact that all pundits are still calling for the Cowboys to win the Super Bowl, based upon a combination of talent, size and speed. That prediction still might hold, but I would submit that the two wild card teams from this conference will come from this division.

And the last-place team might end up having as good a record as one of the teams that wins one of the three other NFC divisions.

They can call the NFC North the "Black and Blue" division all they want.

What should they call the NFC East?

The NFC Best?

The NFC Beast?

The rest of the season should be very interesting.

Is Penn State Really the Fifth Best Team in the Nation?

So say the polls. What do you say?

Of course, the amusing aspect of this Penn State team is that the gridlock over picking a successor to Joe Paterno will continue should the Nittany Lions get a bid to a BCS bowl game. On the one hand, should the Nittany Lions do just that, it would be a great time for Joe Paterno to go out on top. On the other hand, Coach Paterno would probably use this season's record as a compelling argument that he should remain as head coach.

For right now, all Penn State alums and fans are happy with the team's performance, and this group hasn't had a lot to cheer for in the past ten years. They're a good and loyal group, hearty Pennsylvanians, and, for them, as with most fans, winning causes them to forget about other serious issues facing the football program.

The Curious Hypothetical of Jamie Moyer

Career record: 246-185.
Career ERA: 4.19.
All-star appearances: 1
Twenty-win Seasons: 2.
Games won after 44 years old: 30.

Right now, my browser isn't permitting me to create hyperlinks to Baseball Reference or the Phillies' website, but I want to posit the question nonetheless. Moyer needs 54 games to get to 300, and thus far if a pitcher has won 300 games in his career, he's made the Hall of Fame. Some pitchers (Early Wynn comes to mind) hung on forever to get number 300. Suppose Moyer pitches four more seasons (he'll be 46 this fall). Suppose he wins 56 games over that span, an average of 14 per year. That would get him to 302 wins, and his winning percentage is great. Assume he stays with the Phillies, who have a number of hitters in their prime and, right now, a good bullpen. According to Baseball Prospectus, Citizens Bank Park is the eighth best hitters' park in Major League Baseball. That's certainly a plus (even if the fact that Moyer's essentially a six-inning pitcher right now is probably a neutral at best).

Would he be a Hall of Famer?

On longevity, yes. On winning 300 games, yes. On pitching very effectively after turning 40, yes. But. . .

would you say that he was one of those guys who, perenially, you would say was part of the conversation in most years as one of the best at his position in his league? That's where, I think, a Moyer candidacy would get into trouble. Naturally, all of this is moot. Moyer would need to pitch four more years, and his contract is up now. He has seven children, and when he was traded to Philadelphia two years back one of his published laments was that the game kept him away from his family. Still, most players don't want to retire. They simply give up when they can no longer play; the game retires them. My guess is that the Phillies will re-sign Moyer to another two-year deal (perhaps with a club option for a third) at pretty good money, unless, perhaps, the team were to win the World Series. Then, somehow, I think that Jamie Moyer might elect to retire.

Curt Schilling was his usual frank self earlier in the season when he offered that he doubted he'd pitch again. A reporter asked him whether he thought he'd make the Hall of Fame, and he replied that he didn't care. That's a healthy attitude for a person to take in any profession. Do your best, and then good things should happen. Curt Schilling is a Hall of Famer in my book because of his great regular-season performances and his almost unmatched post-season heroics. He was a significant part of any conversation as to who you wanted to pitch in a big game for most of the past 15 years. And, his numbers are compelling.

For many intangible reasons, Jamie Moyer is a Hall of Famer in my heart. His professionalism, his grit, his leadership and his compassion (he has been extremely kind to the boy about whom I blogged who was hit in the head by a rocket-like line drive off the bat of Jeremy Hermida in a game at Citizens Bank Park in August). Whether or not he makes it to Cooperstown is up to him and the electors, but better than being a Hall of Famer, Jamie Moyer is just a terrific teammate and guy to have on your team.

But deep down, I'm hoping he pitches until he's 50, wins 60 more games, and gives the Hall of Fame voters something to think long and hard about.

Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win!

It's a rare occasion when you get to take the family to a game where your favorite team can clinch a title. That's the position we found ourselves in yesterday afternoon, as we drove to Citizens Bank Park, hoping for rain, a good outing for Jamie Moyer, and a good enough offensive performance to carry the Phillies to victory and to the National League East title.

You all know the result -- the Phillies won, 4-3, against a gritty Nationals team that played as though it were trying to win the NL East title. As Baseball Prospectus wrote in its 2008 guide, it would be interesting to see what Nats' skipper Manny Acta could do with a good baseball team. He pushed all the right buttons yesterday, and the Phillies were in for a fight.

It was a great day all around. As we entered the park, the ushers handed us small towels with a red emblem that either said "Phiting' Phils" or "Fighting Phils." They were warm to the touch, and they were plentiful. We arrived early enough to watch batting practice, and the first sign of a special day was when Jamie Moyer alighted from the dugout about an hour before game time and, along with pitching coach Rich Dubee, headed toward the bullpen in center field. While the crowd had yet to fill the stadium, there were hundreds of people standing along the first-base line. As Moyer passed by, the fans gave him a rousing cheer. You see, while Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are the huge names on the Phillies, Moyer is the wise man, the sage veteran, the conscience of the team, the guy who strikes a chord with the entire fan base because of his professionalism and because at 45 3/4 he gives us all a sense that we, too, are young and still can battle athletically with people half our age. He gets as much respect now as any Phillie ever has.

The next thing we noticed was that the Phillies were relaxed before the game. Pat Burrell was the first position player to come out to stretch, and before he went back into the clubhouse he signed autographs for fans along the right-field line. His doing so surprised us. Normally it's Moyer who signs on days he doesn't pitch, Utley who signs about 10 autographs at the same spot along the right-field line before he heads in, and perhaps Cole Hamels, a Moyer protege, every now and then. But Pat Burrell? His contract expires after the season, he likes Philadelphia, and perhaps he's getting nostalgic about his time in the City of Brotherly Love.

Finally, it was game time. The weather was overcast, threatening, but the rain held off. The Phillies ran out to the field, and Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins met near second base. They shook hands, as if to tell us that they had come this far, they were out there to do business, and that the day was going to be special.

Moyer got the Nats out 1-2-3 in the first and pitched an outstanding 6 innings. The Phillies went up 3-1 by the middle of the game, thanks to the stalwarts -- Utley and Howard -- and great supporting player, Jayson Werth (home run) and the light-hitting starting catcher (Carlos Ruiz). My eight year-old said to me after Moyer exited, "Dad, we're going to win this game." Said, of course, with all of the exuberance of a third-grader.

I had endured enough shots to the arm and head from his twirling his rally towel, but this remark couldn't go unnoted. "Hey, wait a second," I admonished, "you haven't been a Philadelphia fan long enough. There've been enough late-game disappointments in Philadelphia sports history to get overconfident with only a 3-1 lead." I'm sure that he thought, "what's he talking about?", but I needed to make the comment nonetheless. The 1964 Phillies, the 1977 playoffs, where ghosts of Manny Mota and Vic Davalillo haunted Veterans Stadium for years, John Havlicek's stealing the ball against the 76ers, among others.

The Nats stayed gritty. No one told Anderson Hernandez and Cristian Guzman that they were 59-100 going into the game, and the Phillies' bullpen bent a bit. The hometown team yielded another run, and going into the bottom of the eighth it was 3-2, Phillies. Up until that time, of course, the story was Moyer, Werth's home run, and two great fielding plays by Jimmy Rollins, one on a funny hop to short that he grabbed at eye level to make an inning-ending play, the other a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch in short center that prevented a big Nats' inning. On that play, Rollins collided with Shane Victorino, but thankfully the starting centerfielder wasn't hurt. After that collision, the Phillies' fans saw skipper Charlie Manuel run as fast as he probably can to check on his speedy outfielder. As Manuel ran back to the dugout with equal vigor, he received a nice ovation from the fans.

In the bottom of the eighth, Victorino singled, and then 3B Pedro Feliz doubled to left center. Watching Victorino run three bases at a time is a true treat, and he sped to the plate, giving the Phillies a 4-2 lead. I then explained to the kids that this run is called an "insurance" run, because it's great to go into the last inning with an extra run, just in case.

Enter "Lights Out" Brad Lidge, the Phillies' closer, who was 40-40 in save attempts during the season. You would have figured that he would nail down the victory, enabling the team to start the party. Why not? He had been perfect all year, and, after all, the Nats were 59-100 while the Phillies were 77-0 when holding the lead after eight innings, the best record in the majors.

Well, "Lights Out" almost got his lights put out (or lit up, depending on how you categorize it), and the ghosts of Phillies' pasts -- Davalillo, Chico Ruiz and the rest -- were dancing in the atmosphere. The clouds were getting more ominous, and the patchwork quilt lineup that is the Nats' team summoned its inner Andre Dawson and Gary Carter -- two stars from the franchise's past -- and played as if it were they who needed to come from behind to win the game. The Nats scored a run and had the sacks jammed with one out and Ryan Zimmerman coming to bat. Lidge clearly pitched more like his injury-prone Houston self (the guy who lost the closer's job twice) than the guy who was arguably the NL's best closer this season.

Zimmerman hit a hard grounder up the middle. Most of us thought it was through. Rollins dove, flipped it to Utley, who pivoted and threw a high strike to Howard at first base. Double play! Game over! Phils win! Phils win! Phils win!

I turned and hugged by son, and then pivoted to hug my daughter and my wife. We high-fived the guy in front of us (who had a nifty catch of a foul ball innings earlier), his young daughter, the guys behind us, the people next to us, and people walking by in the aisle. Then we all stood there, watching young men in their prime running onto the field and jumping up and down. We cheered them, wildly, thanking them for their great season, for their pluck in September, and for winning the division. It was great to watch, great to be there, great to share with my family.

I welled up just a slight bit, if only to remember my late father, with whom I went to games from the time I was a three year-old (to the old Connie Mack Stadium) to the year before his death, over 22 years ago. We suffered when I was young, enjoyed a great team when I was in high school, and saw them start to slip right before he died. We drove to the games or took the subway, sat on the third-base line, and marveled at the batting prowess of Mike Schmidt, the fielding wizardry of Larry Bowa and Garry Maddox, and the master craftsmanship that Steve Carlton displayed ever time he took the mound. Somehow, I felt, he, my late grandmother (who listened to every game) and my late great uncle (who sometimes attended family functions with a transistor radio in his suit jacket and an earpiece in his ear) were there, watching, cheering along with the rest of us. And, I sensed, that this was the way with many Phillies' fans yesterday, that not only were they cheering for themselves, but they were also cheering for the memories that they had over the years and the additional chapter that was written yesterday.

Unless you've lived in New England recently, you just don't get to enjoy championship moments that frequently. When you do, you have to really enjoy them. Sometimes we don't cherish our celebrations for long enough, and that's a shame. We're off to somewhere else, to the next appointment, the next requirement, the next obligation. That's understandable -- it's a fast-paced world that moves quickly -- but it's nice when that world slows down, almost to slow motion, so that you can remember the smile on your child's face, the joy your wife shows at the victory, the happiness of a large segment of the population.

Because it doesn't happen every day.

And when it does, it's something to savor, to share, and to remember for a long time.

Rollins to Utley to Howard.

Moyer, the wise southpaw.

Forty-five thousand people, jumping for joy.

Hugs all around.


A great day.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Just When I Thought It Was Intolerable to be a Phillies' Fan. . .

The Mets made it more intolerable to be one of their fans.

There they were last night, with a four-run lead, and on the cust of trailing the Phillies by only a half game with four to play and leading the Brewers in the Wild Card race by one, when they blew the lead and then failed to score in the bottom of the ninth after putting a man on third with no one out. The Cubs prevailed, 9-6, in ten innings.


Double ouch.

Of course, don't count the Phillies out. The Mets play the pretty good Marlins this weekend at Shea (the same squad that took 2 out of 3 from them in Shea on the last weekend of last season), while the Phillies host the gritty if last-place Nats. Who knows, Manny Acta's team could storm into Citizens Bank Park and take three from the home team? It's unlikely, but the Phillies stunk the joint out last night against the Braves, losing 10-4 in a pathetic game. A win last night would have put them 2 1/2 up with 3 to play. That looks a lot better than being a game and a half up with three to play.

One thing is for sure: Omar Minaya will spend serious bucks in the off-season to upgrade the Mets' bullpen, while the Phillies will hunt for at least one more starting pitcher and a leftfielder, unless, of course, they re-sign Pat Burrell.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Citadel Cadets Assault Princeton Band Members

Hard to believe that this happened, but apparently it did, and The Citadel's president says that his cadets have to be held to a higher standard. Read all about the incident here. (The Citadel beat Princeton 37-17 in a Division I-AA football game in South Carolina this past Saturday).

This isn't the first time the Princeton band has had trouble with a military academy. In the fall of 1981, officials at West Point banned the Princeton band from playing at Michie Stadium. It was Army's homecoming, and the Long Grey Line just didn't appreciate the whacky and sometimes warped sense of humor of the Princeton band. At the time, I thought that the decision was wrong, but, well, it's hard to beat Army on their home turf at many things.

At any rate, it would be convenient to say that those Cadets wouldn't have been able to muscle the Princeton band in Tigertown, but I'm not sure that's the case. The Cadets took issue with where the band marched, even though Citadel officials did not make any part of the campus off limits. They probably wouldn't have traveled to Princeton to watch the game, and, if they did, they probably wouldn't have gotten into a ruckus because what caused the ruckus is local to The Citadel. That said, I'd stack up the finest of Princeton's ROTC members against the finest Citadel cadets any day of the week.

The whole thing sounds unfortunate. The Princeton band members in all likelihood didn't know that where they were marching on the Citadel campus was going to strike a nerve in some, and some Citadel cadets lost their cool. But I do think that The Citadel president has it right, the cadets should have shown more judgment.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Makings of a Field General

A few nights ago, the Phillies beat the Marlins in Miami, 3-2. The Phillies' bullpen relieved Joe Blanton most ably, and Brad Lidge once again got the save. The Phillies' broadcasters said that the bullpen saved the day and was the game's "most valuable player," but I'd submit that lightly regarded (by fans and those who don't root for the Phillies) catcher Carlos Ruiz was the hero of the night.

Put simply, Ruiz took charge. He picked a runner off first, blocked the plate and tagged a runner out, and made enough mound visits to earn a free trip to anywhere in the continental United States. He kept his pitchers calm, helped Ryan Madson recover and pitch out of an inning, and, well, he looked like a respected veteran who steadied the good ship Philadelphia during intermittently turbulent waters. Ruiz was something to watch -- the master craftsman showing up with his lunch bucket and doing an honest day's work, only to step up and help when the others needed it.

His was quite a performance, and his play in September has been terrific. On that particular night, it was a Hall of Fame show.

Idaho Cheerleaders' Ditch Skimpy Uniforms

A wise soul once told me that the complaint is rarely the problem. Fans of the Vandals complained that the outfits of the team's cheerleaders were too revealing, so the Idaho administration has revamped them. Click here and read all about it.

The Vandals' cheerleading squad will be better covered. The fans (or at least some of them, presumably not, however, males in the age 19-34 age group) have been heard.

My question is what makes someone want to become a cheerleader. Sure, there's athleticism involved, and, yes, it's nice to show school spirit, but, as far as girls are concerned, is that what we want our daughters to learn -- that you should cheer the guys while wearing formerly skimpy uniforms and now just cheer the guys? Isn't it better to grab a field hockey or lacrosse stick, shoot a basketball, swim -- even play dormitory intramurals -- than cheer the guys?

Yes, pillory me, cheerleaders and relatives of cheerleaders, or, at least, explain what is so compelling about cheerleading and why you don't believe that we're relegating girls to second-class citizen status by sending them a message that they're supposed to cheer boys. I suppose from the standpoint that it's good to have an activity for everyone and "hey, it's exercise, and most of the country is overweight", it's a fine activity. But, again, I still don't understand it.

So, Maxim lovers, the Vandals' girl cheerleaders aren't going to offer the show they used to. That won't make you happy, and you should protest because if it happens in Idaho, the trend could move everywhere save both coasts, where society is more permissive. So write your University presidents, petition the boards of trustees, and save the tradition. In this day and age, where frugality will rule, point out that skimpier uniforms actually will save the school money. Go do that.

But for the rest of us who wonder about these things, wouldn't the money allocated to cheerleading be better spent on intramurals, wellness programs, something else?

Release the hounds.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Big-Time Schools are Barcoding Student Athletes

First, kudos to Sports Illustrated. Some of us wondered who they'd find to write columns inside the back cover after Rick Reilly departed for the glitz of self-congratulatory ESPN. Well, they've actually improved the species, even though Reilly is very good. Former New York Times sports reporter (okay, so writing sports for the Times is like being on the Zimbabwean national hoops team) Selena Roberts and SI veteran Chris Ballard have written some terrific columns, with Roberts' being the most recent one.

Basically, big-time football schools (her example is Tennessee) have swipe cards that their student athletes must use to track their movements, say from the athletic dorm to classes to study hall to the weight room. Isn't that just great?

Who benefits here?

The coaches? Are the kids chattel? Cattle? Lambs to the slaughter? Are the coaches protecting the schools' investment despite the fact that some of the kids aren't encouraged to study anything meaningful and are kept eligible for the glory of the school and its bragging rights? Are they simply making sure that the kids don't stray, that they do their homework (even if it's in Basic Football Theory or some other such nonsense)? Is that it?

Or, do the kids benefit? That would be because the schools want to make sure that each student-athlete really is a student first, that he goes to class, gets the help he needs, progresses toward a meaningful degree should he not become a lottery pick? Is this what's happening? Is this just an extra perk of being an elite football player -- that someone cares so much for your developing your intellect?

All most kids know in high school is that they have to win a scholarship. The elite ones become elite because they focus on one major thing -- athletic excellence. Were they to focus on other things and be better-rounded they might not achieve their excellence on the gridiron because they'd have other things to fall back on and might not need the sport as much. I'm not sitting in judgment of that. But, many kids don't know what they're supposed to demand and expect once they get the scholarship. Progress toward a meaningful degree that will help them get a good job? Some skills that will help them do that job well? No, many just know that they next step on the ladder to the NFL is getting that scholarship and playing at a BCS school.

Which means, probably, that they're not asking the right questions. I'd also submit that they aren't specifically told that they're getting Lojacked while their academic careers could be getting hijacked, because coaches who win stay and coaches who lose -- despite classroom excellence -- get put into the "nice guys don't win" category. Would you want your kid to be barcoded? Would you want your kid not to be able to go to a lecture about solving Fermat's theorem, about how physics affects daily life, about libertarian politics? Or how about just having a Frappucino with a nice girl, talking about a novel they were reading in English class? Instead of having a position coach or graduate assistant play secret police and watch the kid's every move.

Aren't these kids supposed to be on their way to adulthood? Aren't some of them future leaders? Can't we trust them to do the right thing?

This development is so strange that it deserves questioning at best and ridicule at worst. Barcoding student athletes?

What's next, cloning them?

A Suggestion for an Invention -- the FireProof, Lojacked Mattress Cover


For those of us who have poured money into 529 college savings plans for our kids over the last, say 7-10 years, we'd probably have been better off stashing 50's and 100's into a fireproof, waterproof, weighted mattress cover (with a LoJack tracking system and, perhaps, some type of non-toxic, but disabling, gas that gets emitted if someone with fingerprints other than yours tries to take it).

Okay, so this isn't a sports topic, but most of us won't have kids who get offered scholarships based on their athletic ability.

At any rate, for you curious inventors out there. . .

A Dad With Too Much Free Time

We had great weather in southeastern Pennsylvania this morning, so I took my son to his fall baseball game. He has a nice, supportive coach, who moves kids around in the field and in the batting order. My son is one of the youngest players on his team, and the team has a bunch of nice kids on it. The parents are supportive, and the dads who help out are nice men.

The other team's coach, is out of control. This is a recreation league, and the kids are supposed to have fun. His intensity is such that his veins come close to popping out of his head. He has held as many as four practices in a week, tells the kids to get to the games an hour and a half early to warm up, and was seen earlier this year ejecting others from the batting cages (where you do not have to sign up) so that his team could get their batting practice before a game. He deploys signs for his hitters, bunts frequently and is a pre-possessing presence.

Oh, and did I remember to tell you that the kids are eight and nine years old?

Guys like these give kids' sports a bad name. Guys like these cause kids to quit at too young an age because they take the fun out of the game. Whatever happened to encouraging kids to do their best, taking those who struggle aside for a teaching moment, sharing a smile with them, and pointing out to them the things that they did well? Whatever happened to letting kids be kids, to putting up with less-than-optimal-for-serious-adults discipline because these are young kids playing a kids game? There are times where you want your kids to become more serious and more disciplined, but I'd submit that games for eight and nine year-olds are not those.

The problem with kids' games is that adults with too much time (and I would argue that if you could schedule four practices a week with the sun setting earlier and earlier you do have too much free time) or who treat the games as if they're the Super Bowl ruin the sport for everyone. One of the other dads was seething as the man's over-the-top-attitude, but collectively we shook our heads in disbelief that we had "one of those guys" in our midst.

At the end of the day, the man's actions would be comical if they weren't so sad. There are too many parents out there who take games for kids too seriously. The problem sometimes is that the parents who put them in the proper perspective don't always have the time to volunteer, while some who volunteer put so much effort into their coaching that it's as if they're trying to seek some form of redemption for deficiencies in other parts of their lives. Or, they just want to win so badly that they forget that these are recreation leagues where participation and teaching are key.

I don't mind coaches who stress the fundamentals and want to win. I don't like it when, after a certain age, everyone gets a trophy. Fair enough, but there has to be a better balance somewhere, and I hope that someone who knows this man well will take him aside and suggest that perhaps he take a different approach to his coaching. He's embarrassing his kids, and he's embarrassing himself.

Even if his team wins.

Because, in the long run, the purpose of young children's sports suffers.

Time to Pass the Baton?

Joe Paterno spent the second half of today's Penn State -Temple game in the press box, complaining of a sore leg.

The off-season in Happy Valley has shown us two polar trends. First, the positive -- the Nittany Lions jettisoned their predictable 1970's offense for a spread offense that has given opponents fits this season. Okay, so no one will make a convincing argument that either Coastal Carolina or Temple warrants significant respect, but the switch is a sign that the only thing that will remain nostalgic at Penn State are the uniforms (which I hope they do not alter). Second, the negative -- the police blotter in State College, Pennsylvania has had too many appearances from Penn State players. The former is a sign that even an eighty-one year-old coach can adapt. The latter is proof that it's hard for aging grandparents to raise young adults.

I've blogged about this topic before, and some of you have bludgeoned me, especially when the Nittany Lions had a top-10 season a few years ago. While I applauded the turnaround at the time, I also noted that it was probably an aberration, akin to the Phillies' 1993 World Series appearance, which losing seasons surrounded and overshadowed. True, they went from JoePaTurnover's team to JoePaTurnaround's team. Every now and then lightning does strike in the oddest places. Taken together, though, you have an 81 year-old coach, a program that will not crack the Top 10, and a program that lacks the overall discipline that winners display. Show me a national champion, and I'll show you fewer appearances on suspended lists and police blotters than the Penn State gridders have shown this year.

And now the coach's health seems to be an issue. Okay, so the problem that put him in the press box might not be major, but, still, the Penn State administration must think about a successor now, whether it's Tom Bradley, the defensive coordinator, Rutgers' Greg Schiano (whom I submit would be a major mistake) or someone else (I would argue that Temple's Al Golden, a Penn State alum, would deserve a strong look. Yes, Joe Paterno is an institution, but a true icon knows when to hang 'em up and to try to leave a legacy that is stronger than his own. The sands are running low in the hourglass on this front.

Call it heresy, call it disrespectful, but when you write you have to take a stand. And that stand is that it's high time for Penn State to fete Joe Paterno and then turn over the reigns to someone else.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Forgive Ed Hochuli

Yes, veteran NFL official Ed Hochuli made a big mistake in Sunday's Broncos-Chargers game, and, yes, it came late in the game and probably cost the Chargers the game (of course, had the Chargers' defense played better in the earlier parts of the game, Hochuli's call wouldn't have affected the outcome). You can read about the mistake here.

But that's it. Hochuli made a mistake, plain and simple, but it's over. People make mistakes all the time, and big ones at times, too. That's what makes people human and not robots, and what makes people special is their ability to learn from mistakes, pick themselves up, move past them and improve. If you believe you've been hurt by a mistake, you certainly have a beef, and, unfortunately, sometimes they can't be undone the same way you can't put toothpaste back into the tube. Ed Hochuli can't take back his inadvertent whistle, and the Chargers cannot win that game.

And that makes the hurt worse, for Hochuli, whose error is very public, for the Chargers, who have a loss, and for their fans, who, like fans of many NFL teams, see their emotions go up and down with their squad's won-loss record. But that doesn't make the mistake unforgivable, and that doesn't make Hochuli a bad referee.

Hochuli will be held accountable by NFL officials, as has been publicly stated. He has apologized publicly for his error, which was unintentional. He feels worse than anyone about what happened, and, I'm sure, wonders whether his 15+ years of outstanding work gets tossed out the window because of this one misstep.

It shouldn't at all. Ed Hochuli is an outstanding NFL official, perhaps the most trusted in the game. He has done and will continue to do great work. Most of us know that, so all of us should forgive him, put it in the rear-view mirror, and move on. It's that simple.

Some will remain angry, and some will be self-righteous. But show me someone in any profession who is perfect, and I'll pick that demonstration apart. Show me someone who hasn't made any mistakes, and I'll show you someone who hasn't accomplished much. Show me someone who is a harsh critic of people who make mistakes, and I'll show you someone who is holding others to standards that he himself cannot meet.

Remember, Ed Hochul is an outstanding NFL official, and his career proves this statement. His accomplishments far outstrip this error, and the harsh critics need to get over this and move on. It's an unfortunate episode for all involved, but we shouldn't throw a good official under the bus because of it.

Let it rest.

Many Shirt Sponsors in the English Premiership are in Trouble

Read this article from Bloomberg and see what I'm talking about.

The biggest source of sponsorship revenue in the Premiership is from companies who pay big pounds to place their logo on the front of a team's jersey.

Insurance giant AIG paid along the lines of $102 million to put its name on perennial power Manchester United's laundry for five years. Now, people are wondering what will happen to the jerseys and their sponsors. As the writer on Bloomberg wrote, the reference to AIG really could read the U.S.A. given the Federal government's recent bailout of the company.

That development, of course, would be very interesting, especially to those who don't like the idea that somehow England is the 51st state of the union.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

DeSean Jackson Should Send Brian Westbrook a Fruit Basket

Or buy the star RB a Rolex to thank him for saving him from the Hall of Shame for his boneheaded play last night on national TV.

In case you missed it, in the second quarter Eagles' QB hit the elusive, diminutive receiver on a post pattern for what looked like a touchdown. There was only one problem. Jackson started to coast at the five yard line and, thinking he was in the end zone, flipped the ball behind him nonchalantly at the one and a half yard line, as if scoring a touchdown on Monday Night Football was no big deal. Naturally, Jackson thought he was in the end zone, but he wasn't.

So absorbed were the Dallas defensive backs chasing Jackson that they didn't notice the wide receiver's error. So, no one from the home team tried to scoop up the ball. The play was dead, and then the Cowboys challenged it. The officials ruled that Jackson fumbled the ball before he scored and that the ball was dead on the one.

Needless to say, everyone was shocked. Lucky for Jackson, Westbrook scored on a one-yard dive on the very next play. So, for all the drama, the Eagles waited precisely one play to score.

Yet. . .

it was a boneheaded play by an overconfident rookie, who, no doubt, will endure all sorts of razzing from his teammates about the blunder. Perhaps Jackson will now make sure he's at least even with the goal post before embarking on any post-TD hijinks. Given the talent he's displayed so far, the bet here is that Jackson will have many more reasons to celebrate his own touchdowns in future games.

It wasn't quite the "Miracle of the Meadowlands" (where are you, Joe Pisarscik?), but it was embarrassing nonetheless.

More Idiocy in Milwaukee

Perhaps Doug Melvin and the Brewers' ownership know more than the rest of us, and that Dale Sveum (not part of the great Milwaukee ditty of "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain", however) will become the Midwestern version of Jerry Manuel, turn the team around (although Manuel currently is suffering from the same problem -- lateinningsbullpenitis that plagued his maligned predecessor) and lead the Brewers to their first playoff appearance in 26 years.

The firing of Ned Yost with twelve games to go in the season was a bold move.

But as they say in the air force, "there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there is no such thing as an old, bold pilot." Put differently, the GM won't last long if he thinks like this. The fans won't tolerate ownership if they think like this. Perhaps they should have examined another fact -- they have a team that isn't great at getting on base, even if it hits for power. Have too many guys who hit .232 or .252 with 15 homers but who don't walk, and, well, your offense will bog down too. While Yost made some mistakes -- I find it hard to defend playing superannuated utility man Ray Durham for both games in Sunday's twin bill and batting him in the middle of the lineup -- it's hard to believe that he's as bad a manager as the team played in the last two weeks. Yes, the Brewers picked the wrong time to slump, but is canning the manager the right answer?

And I thought that some of the silliness in the Milwaukee ownership vanished when the Selig family relinquished control of the team.

Apparently not.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Making Progress on North Broad Street

Last year, Buffalo came into Philadelphia and smoked Temple, 42-7.

This year, it took a walk-off Hail Mary play for Buffalo to edge the Owls -- in Buffalo -- 30-28.

A heartbreaking loss for the Owls, but another solid indication that Coach Al Golden is one of the best young coaches in college football and that he is improving the Temple program every year.

Yes, the Owls should have won this game. Yes, one of the three defensive backs who was near the Buffalo wide receiver who caught the winning touchdown actually should have been in front of him, instead of being to the side or behind him. Yes, there really isn't anything known as a bad win or a good loss.

But, teams do measure themselves through the stat sheets and how individuals fare year after year. So, while yesterday's last-play defeat was an awful to swallow for the Owls and their fans, small glimmers of hope emerge. The Temple Owls, you see, show up and give their all every week.

Next time, they'll either clock the quarterback or smother that football.

Week in, week out, Temple fans should be looking forward to next time.

USC: The Reason L.A. Doesn't Need an NFL Team

#1 USC 35

#5 Ohio State 3.

One team looked like a Ferrari.

The other one looked like a part-time middle school lunch room aide's 12 year-old Camry ready for a makeover on Pimp My Ride.

Of course, USC isn't an NFL team, but the Trojans are one of the elite college football programs and seemingly re-load with the best national talent every year. Last night's game was proof as to how good they are -- they lived up to the hype. Given all the excitement around USC's program, why would Los Angeles need an NFL team?

The Trojans have more than enough glitter and grab enough headlines to make fans in Southern California not even think about it.

Of course, had the Raiders not left years ago, they could have JaMarcus Russell and company looking like, well, Ohio State did last night, only on a weekly basis. And if that were the quality of football presented in Los Angeles, the Raiders might not draw better than the best CIF football teams, let alone USC.

Why Was Frank Kremblas Let Go?

Unless you're a huge Milwaukee Brewers' fan or a baseball insider, you have never heard of Frank Kremblas. He's been a career minor-league coach and manager, and for the past four years he's managed the Brewers' AAA affiliate in Nashville. Going into this season, he had led the top minor league affiliate to three straight division titles. This year, though, the Sounds finished 59-81, and the Brewers gave Kremblas the gate.

The reason: he wants a Major League coaching job, and the Brewers aren't going to give him one. The way this MLB.com article spins it, the Brewers are showing their largesse here because by jettisoning Kremblas, they're letting him pursue a Major League coaching job with another organization. Mighty big of them, huh?

This development happened despite the fact that almost everyone on the current Brewers' roster has played for Kremblas, and the players quoted in the article only had good things to say about him. It would stand to reason that unless the Brewers' believe that Kremblas' talents are uniquely suited to developing younger players as a team's manager and are stubborn in that regard, they'd be able to find a position on the big club where he could continue to nurture the same young players he developed in the first place. And you'd figure that he'd more than earned his shot because of his track record.

It sounds simple enough, matching up a track record with a mutual ambition. The Brewers want to make the playoffs year after year, and Kremblas wants to be on the coaching staff of a successful team. Somehow, it seems like he's earned that opportunity.

But the Brewers haven't made the playoffs in twenty-six years, or before some of their core nucleus of players was born. You don't have to be a mathematician to figure out that for every stretch move of signing a C.C. Sabathia, there's a questionable one, such as deciding to let Frank Kremblas go. The Brewers haven't made the playoffs for the past 26 years on merit, despite the conflicted Commisioner's view that the disparity of wealth between small- and large-market teams impaired the chances of once tough franchises like Milwaukee and Kansas City to win. In the Brewers' case, it was a combination of bad management (borne from nepotism), the inability to raise sufficient funds to stay competitive (and I'm not talking about revenues, but capital from ownership) and poor decisions in the draft and player development.

Most people won't even notice that the Brewers let Frank Kremblas go, and those who notice will shrug and not care. But if you're a Brewers' fan, you have to wonder -- at least when you read the article -- about the wisdom of this decisions and similar decisions that you don't know about.

After all, they all add up -- so far, to twenty-six years' worth of an absence from the post-season.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Everything's Up to Date in Oklahoma City

The NBA's Thunder have sold out all of their season tickets (13,000) in five days. They will allocate 4,000 tickets for single-game sales. That's pretty amazing, and the NBA should be happy to be in a city that wants a franchise so badly.

The Phillies Shouldn't Re-Sign Pat Burrell

While he had an excellent first part of the season, he's hitting .167 since August 5. Last season, Burrell was among the best offensive players after the All-Star break (among the top in on-base percentage), only to fade mightily in the last two weeks of the regular season. He's a defensive liability, and now he's not hitting in the clutch for the Phillies (in contrast, offensively challenged catcher Carlos Ruiz is hitting over .300 in the past month, but otherwise his season has been a disaster at the plate).

Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley (who also has not displayed the offensive pluck he did earlier in the season) are the core of this team and nearing their primes. The Phillies need help, though, in the outfield. Burrell should go. CF Shane Victorino is a good player, and part-time OF Jayson Werth needs to prove he can hit righties consistently to take over for Burrell (Utley three years ago had to prove he could hit lefties consistently, and he has done so). RF Geoff Jenkins will be back because he has a year left on his contract, but he's been a dud, as has fifth outfielder So Taguchi, who has only a one-year deal and appears to be through. Yet, despite the Phillies' challenges in the outfield, I don't think they should re-sign Burrell.

Burrell is finishing a 5-year, $60 million deal. He'll be 32 in October, and I can't see him getting more than a three-year deal. The question is, how much will he command -- I would say in the $10 million per year range, perhaps more if power-starved teams believe he'll meet a need, which means the contract offer also could swell to four years for $12 million per. Somehow, though, I don't think he'll get that. He's not someone you can build your franchise around; he's the fourth or fifth most important player in a good team's lineup. And yet. . .

The Phillies might try hard to re-sign him because he's a good soldier, seemingly well-regarded in the locker room, predictable, and, well, affordable and, yes, safe. What they should do is get someone with more upside, more spark, someone who can field the position better and hit more consistently. I don't know who might be available in a trade or via free agency, but the Phillies' ownership will need to trawl the waters hard to find at least two outfielders in the off-season, perhaps three depending on what they do with 40 year-old Matt Stairs.

The bet here is that they'll re-sign Burrell, though, because stretching to improve the team by taking greater risks is not within the make-up of the ownership or the front office. Sure, Carlos Carrasco, Lou Marson and Jason Donald might become good Major Leaguers, but had the Phillies packaged some of them in a deal with Cleveland, they'd be leading the NL East right now (probably by more than 3 games) because they -- and not Milwaukee -- would have CC Sabathia on their staff. Having Sabathia would have given them more wins and would have put less strain on an overtaxed bullpen. And it's not as though these prospects would turn into Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips, the players that the then-Montreal Expos gave up to Cleveland during a stretch drive many years ago to land Bartolo Colon. Somehow, the Phillies don't seem to generate clusters of prospects the way other organizations do.

I, for one, have little enthusiasm for a Burrell re-signing and a concomitant failure to improve the starting pitching roster. Jamie Moyer's contract is up, and at 46 (he'll turn 46 in November) despite his excellence while in Philadelphia you have to wonder how much he has left. Adam Eaton's contract puts an $8 million albatross around the front office's neck for the 2009 season, and Kyle Kendrick is now a project. Yes, you have Cole Hamels and a revived Brett Myers, although I'd submit that the latter's goofy streak makes it hard to predict how well he'll pitch next season (I am optimistic, though, on the topic). And Joe Blanton is a .500 pitcher at best. The farm? No one seems to be jumping up and grabbing a starter's position. If the Phillies do re-sign Burrell at a good price (for them), then the fans will tolerate it only if the team upgrades in the outfield and behind home plate. Otherwise, you'll have a team that could slip to .500 rather quickly.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

NFL Angst

I still wonder whether the NFL makes any sense. It's pretty sad for such a strong business to have a flagship franchise limp markedly a few minutes into the first game of the season because a key player got hurt. Now that key player is out for the year, and the pundits are scurrying to rewrite their predictions as to who will win the AFC and the Super Bowl because superstar QB Tom Brady is out for the year.

Worse yet, his back-up, Matt Cassel, was a back-up in college who has hardly taken any snaps in the pros. To New England's credit, the front office and head coach excel at finding talent. So, Cassel could prove to be the second coming of Earl Morrall, the career back-up who helped engineer the Dolphins perfect season in 1972 after starting QB Bob Griese went down with an injury early in the season. More modern day examples are Kurt Warner, when Trent Green went down with a season-ending injury in St. Louis roughly 10 years ago, and Brady himself, who got his chance as a lowly sixth-round pick when starter Drew Bledsoe went down with a season-ending injury a few years later.

The odds, though, aren't great. Seasons past are littered with the broken bones and torn sinew of many a good quarterback. For every Warner, Brady and Morrall there are dozens of no names, never wases and retreads that further tortured the landscape, even if some of those back-ups shined temporarily. New England and Cassell are in a tough spot, and everyone will gun for the green quarterback.

Of course, those who believe Bill Belichick is a genius will say that he knows what he's doing and that Cassell now has a chance to become, well, another Tom Brady. Then again, the more pragmatic will question Cassell's tenure and experience (even though reports are that he prepares well) and wonder why such a stalwart franchise didn't pony up bigger bucks to have a better QB backing up their starter. That's a good question, but few teams have, say, a Jeff Garcia standing by when a Donovan McNabb goes down. That's the exception, not the rule, and many a QB makes his bones (at least to become a 10-year back-up, which is what A.J. Feeley will be when he's done in Philadelphia) by stepping in to replace a seasoned veteran.

Yet those fill-in roles can be misleading. Even if the back-up acquits himself well, he normally does so in a more protective environment than his predecessor's and with a watered-down version of his team's offense. Feeley's example is telling, in that about 5 years ago he filled in for McNabb and won 5 straight after both McNabb and back-up Koy Detmer got hurt. Thereafter, Feeley reverted to his back-up role, was traded for a second-rounder to woeful Miami where he couldn't hold the starter's job, and then ended up back in Philadelphia as a caddy for McNabb. All that said, Feeley, like Cassel, was a back-up in college. At some point, the talent does separate, and it remains to be seen whether New England's (must be) high hopes for Cassell are misplaced and, if so, whether they've been misplaced from the get go.

But back to the main issue. The NFL plays with fire each and every season, doesn't it? The odds are against its 10 biggest jersey sellers all going down with season-ending injuries by the end of the first game. That's true, but is it acceptable for the league and New England fans that their season gets dramatically altered before the end of the first game?

Since I don't have an alternative other than touch football, I suppose it is.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

How Would You Handle A Media Onslaught?

The Phillies' Kyle Kendrick came up last year in the middle of the season. Prior to his elevation to the Show, few in Philadelphia (except, perhaps, those who read Baseball America) had heard of him. What he lacked in stuff he made up for in competitive makeup, and he was a credible starter for the Phils, who made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.

Fast forward to this season, where Kendrick got off to a good start despite a bad spring. True, he had more run support than most other NL pitchers, but he still won games. All this for a kid who say five years back turned down a full ride to Washington State to play quarterback. Not too bad.

The thing of it was, the kid tried to adapt. Sooner or later they'd catch up with his stuff, so he worked to add a pitch and to improve his current offerings. Lately, though, in the past 6 weeks, he's been getting lit up. Boos (and it's still hard for me to imagine booing your own team's players when they're making a good effort) that once were Adam Eaton's exclusive franchise now find their way to Kendrick. The talking heads (and writing ones, for that matter) are calling for the Phils to replace him in the rotation with J.A. Happ. Should the Phillies make the post-season and only need four starters, these commentators have determined that the young Kendrick should be the odd-man out.

So, if you're Kyle Kendrick, in your mid-twenties, how do you handle this? How would you handle this? You play a sport you love for great money, and your triumphs and failures are magnified for the public. How do you handle the media, whose membership isn't full of people who have done their homework or have clues to begin with? How do you handle the fans?

I don't envy Kyle Kendrick's position right now, but he seems like the type of guy who can handle adversity and who will be resourceful enough to have a good Major League career. But before any Phillies' fan starts to unload on Kendrick, who gives his all, that fan should consider how he'd want to be treated and how he'd want his kids to be treated in the same position.

It isn't easy.

Perhaps that's why they pay him the big bucks.

But it still isn't easy.

Pitchers are, after all, human.

And on some days, some are much more human than others.