Saturday, November 29, 2008

SportsProf as Your Next Offensive Coordinator?

The recent talk, particularly in Sports Illustrated, on innovation in college football reminded me of this post, which I wrote over four years ago. In it, I wrote of the single-wing offense of years ago and my proposal for a SportsProf offense that would rely upon six skill position players who all have the ability to run, catch and throw. The reason? Well, unless your team is blessed to have a transcendant pocket passer in Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, you might not have a chance to win the title for years. Okay, so Trent Dilfer did win a Super Bowl with the Ravens, but he's the exception, not the rule. More importantly, evolution in football is fierce. Coaches work around the clock to design defenses to throw offenses for a loop. Most of those offenses rely upon a strong-armed quarterback who can throw the ball into tight spots and lead their teams to victory. It stands to reason that defenses catch up with offense mindsets every day. Hence. . .

the SportsProf offense. And here's the thing: as SI writes in its current issue, many coaches -- from high school to college and even the pros -- are adapting elements of the single wing to throw off defenses, gain yards and win ball games. There are many reasons for this, but it's all about deceiving the defense. And, with a single-wing type of offense, the defense doesn't know who's getting the snap or what he's going to do with the ball once he gets it. So, it would stand to reason that if you run a generic set, but with a multitude of skill set players who can do it all (see Kordell Stewart, Antawn Randle-El, and a host of guys who were quarterbacks in college or high school), you can snap the ball to any one of them and call a nifty play that paralyzes the run stuffers and makes the super-fast linebacker of today go the wrong way.

Stuff like that used to be called gadgetry. Remember that the spread offense that many college teams now use once was derided as the "chuck and duck." Also, it wasn't as though when introduced the West Coast offense mustered a ton of respect. It was only when these offenses started to work well that they garnered the respect of those raised on the theory of "three yards and a cloud of dust." The old joke, of course, was that the "No Passing" signs near Ohio State's stadium were references to the preference for the running game and not traffic.

Today, though, athletes who play defense train year-round. Defensive coaches study film so much you wonder what they could do if they assisted General Petraeus with the surge in Iraq. They blitz corner backs, have down linemen drop back into coverage, play seven defensive backs at a time, call "house" blitzes and all the rest. The reasons that they do so are a) when they study film, they can predict to a degree what the other team will call depending on how the offense sets up at scrimmage and b) because each team has a relatively immobile quarterback (sorry Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, John Elway) who either has to hand the ball off or throw from a formation that suggests a tendency.

So, if you want to innovate, it might make sense to run plays from symmetrical formations that reveal no intentions or assymetrical ones than can support weakside plays. If you have not one but four quarterbacks on the field, some of whom might run when the ball is snapped to them, you can fool the defense. After all, it's hard to design defenses when you have trouble discerning from the way a team lines up how the team will break from scrimmage.

Multiple skill sets. Symmetrical formations. Intricately functioning assymetrical ones. Figuring out not only which linemen are strong, but which are mobile. Not relying upon one player -- the strong-armed quarterback -- for too much of your success. Not relying upon one lineman -- the left tackle -- to keep your quarterback healthy. If you're about to lament that this type of offense will eliminate the long passing game, it might not. It might change it, but it won't eliminate it. Besides, how many teams run more than a half dozen "vertical" long pass plays each game? Not as many as you might think.

So that's the SportsProf offense. Deception. Quickness. Smarts. Not relying too much on one player for your team's success or failure.

Welcome to the offense of the next decade. Many teams are adapting their playbooks to incorporate this type of thinking. I submit that it's only a matter of time before teams scrap their whole playbooks and design their offenses around their best athletes, not just their best passers.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thank You, NFL

I am an Eagles' fan, and the Eagles are hosting the Cardinals on Thanksgiving night.

The Eagles aren't quite in a free fall, but they're managing to get less out of their talent than any other team in the league at the moment. Saturday's game against the Ravens in Baltimore demonstrates the frustration that the players and fans are experiencing. Nothing went right, other than Quentin Demps' kick return for a touchdown (a rare occurrence for Birds' fans).

So, what better way to celebrate family holiday and spend time together than NOT watch the game on Thursday night? The NFL is providing that luxury to Eagles' fans because they are showing the game only on the NFL network.

And most of us don't subscribe to the NFL Network.

It's quite simple, actually. Cable companies already charge us a king's ransom for their products. It's a poundage that we have to pay to live in a civilized society, and it's an expensive one. The NFL Network is not part of your basic first- or second-level cable packages -- it's a premium channel that you'll have to pay extra for.

And most of us don't do that.

We're not inclined to pay extra for a time that's in the proverbial shopping cart going 70 miles an hour over the side of the cliff. We're not inclined to pay for extra luxuries in the worst recession the country has seen in 80 years.

So thanks for denying us a simpler pleasure of watching -- for free -- an NFL game in our home town so that we could conclude the evening with our families watching the same brand of football that we'll get for free earlier in the day (that is, if you call what they're playing in Detroit football right now).

We'll get over it, even if we have to watch the Eagles play their last five games -- five weeks which are certain to go pretty slowly for Philadelphia fans.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The End of an Era in Philadelphia?

Or, is it?

Is Donovan McNabb through in Philadelphia?

Is the Andy Reid era over?

Don't be so sure.

First, the Eagles' ownership seems to love Reid. Second, the head coach seems to love Donovan McNabb. So, until we hear more, we can't assume that Donovan McNabb is through permanently as the Eagles' quarterback. Yes, he had a bad day today, but so did the Eagles' offensive line (which didn't do a good job protecting him or his back-up, Kevin Kolb, who did nothing to suggest he'll become a household name if and when he succeeds McNabb at quarterback). As for the Eagles' offense, we'll, it hasn't been all that imaginative for years.

Second, the Eagles have a thirty-year waiting list for season tickets, and their fan base would much prefer to have their homes foreclosed upon than give up their precious Eagles' tickets. So, they're not that likely to walk. Perhaps the Eagles would take a hit in merchandise, but my local Dick's cashier told me that they sell many $110 dollar NFL replica jerseys to fans. The bottom line is that the bottom line will remain healthy even if the Eagles keep Reid and McNabb.

Third, Kolb didn't look like the second coming of Roger Staubach, John Elway or Matt Ryan today. Now, putting him into a close game against the agile, hostile defense of the Ravens wasn't totally fair, and the offense line didn't seem to know how to protect him. So, fans have to be careful what they wish for. Yes, McNabb has looked bad in the past three games, can throw off the wrong foot and into the ground, but no fan should be eager to replace him unless we're pretty sure that the replacement will be an improvement. Kolb didn't look to be a step up, at least not today.

Fourth, the same holds true for Reid, but the argument to replace him is easier. He has shown blind spots as a general manager and a coach, each year for the past several years. The team seems to have reached a point where it won't get much better under his stewardship. More frustrating is that a Tom Coughlin-led Giants' team -- which seemed on the verge of imploding only two seasons ago -- is now the franchise to be emulated in the NFL. That's pretty hard for Birds' fans to take. And, of course, the Cowboys are trying to reclaim the mantle of being "America's Team" and the Redskins have finally turned the corner under the tumultuous ownership of Daniel Snyder. I would think it would be easier to replace Reid with a coach that has a chance to succeed than it would be to replace McNabb with a quarterback who can do better, at least next year.

Fifth, ironically, it would seem, the Birds' front office would be more likelly to part with McNabb than Reid. At least, that's the sense I've gotten from reading the local press in Philadelphia and listening to the radio. I still believe that McNabb can win a title with the right team and under the right system -- he needs better receivers than he's enjoyed during his tenure in Philadelphia. And, if the Eagles were to trade him, it's hard to believe they'll get more than a third-round draft pick for him. That trade, for the right franchise, could prove to be a steal.

So what do the Eagles do? They're 5-5-1, and realistically they'll have to win out to get to the playoffs. That would mean beating each of their division rivals, plus Arizona and Cleveland. More likely than not, they'll win only one of those games.

The air waves will be burning tonight and all next week about the Eagles, their coach and their quarterback. Expect the discussion to ensue throughout the remainder of the season.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Coaching Third and Fourth Grade Boys' Basketball

Many of you have linked to my posts about coaching second-grade basketball, which I did with a friend last year. We had seven boys and two girls on the team, and a majority of the kids had little knowledge of the game -- how to dribble, how to defend, how to crash the boards, how to shoot. The great news was that the kids were enthusiastic, worked hard, and progressed well during the season. We only had one practice per week (if that, as some weeks the gym wasn't available), but we drilled repetitively on some basic skills, tried to have a little fun, and had a good season. You can read about what we did in those practices here.

This year, we've moved up a grade. The league remains non-competitive (that is, the league doesn't keep score, even if the kids do in their heads), and, yes, man-to-man defense is still required (if I only could teach the kids the back-door cut -- which they're slow to grasp, we'd score layups at will all the time, because the kids still tend to crowd and overplay on defense). This year, the league is not co-ed, and we have a mix of third- and fourth-graders. Last year, we only had second-graders, so there is an upgrade in talent.

We've only had two practices, so I'll share with you what we're trying to accomplish in practice. We get about one hour, and we have either a whole "sideways" full court or half of one. Translated, we don't have a ton of space, so we make do with what we have. Here are some suggestions:

1. Make the most out of limited practice time. We only have one practice per week, so don't linger. Get the kids going, be organized, plan every minute.

2. We start with some simple talk about what we're trying to accomplish -- working on the fundamentals, looking to make a good pass, keep your head up when dribbling, sliding on defense, crashing the boards. That takes about 2 minutes.

3. We then spend about 3 minutes on defensive slides. It's a good way to get the kids' juices flowing, and we take them back-and-forth across the floor. We stop and start quickly, so they know that they'll have to move in short spurts and change directions.

4. Then we move into lay-up lines for about 3 minutes. Again, it's a good way to get started, and by this time we're ten minutes into practice and halfway through our first ten-minute segment.

5. We then work on dribbling drills for about 5 minutes. We do two drills, such as the "fingers" drill, where the kids dribble in place and switch hands on command, but they need to look at a coach and shout out the number of fingers he's holding up. This drill encourages the kids to look up and not at the ball. Then we'll do a stop and start drill, where the kids will dribble down the court and stop and throw a pass. We're trying to teach them to pass off the dribble fluidly -- so that they don't pick up their dribbles and hold the ball until the defense swarms.

6. We then working on passing drills for another 5 minutes. So, for example, two kids will make their way down the floor either chest- or bounce-passing the ball to one other. The theme -- make every single pass count. Make sure that the passes hit the kids near the letters, so to speak, so that they don't have to go reaching for the ball.

Then we have a one-minute water break.

The second segment of practice focuses on plays. So, we'll spend say 5 minutes on catch-and-shoot drills, as we try to teach the kids that when they're in close if they put the ball on the floor a defender will probably swipe it away. This drill is especially important for the bigger kids. Then we'll spend about 7 minutes on the give-and-go play and 7 minutes on setting screens. We tried the back-door play, but the kids aren't yet good enough to keep their dribbles on the one hand and do the cut on the other. We might continue to teach it, but at this age, teaching the pick-and-roll or the dribble handoff might be a better use of our time. After this 19-minute segment, it's time for another water break.

After the second water break, we'll spend 16 minutes scrimmaging, either 3 on 3 to emphasize defensive stops or 5 on 5. We can do better on offense in the former, but having 4 kids stand around isn't exactly optimal. We'll stop play to teach, so as to emphasize passing, not picking up the dribble too early, not dribbling into the corner, how to defend properly. After scrimmaging, we'll run a two-minute foul-shooting drill, and wrap up with the kids for another minute and then send them home.

The goal is to teach them more fundamentals, give them a good workout, and get them ready to play at a higher level, all the while having fun, which is the most important thing. This year presents different challenges from last year, as the baseline of experience is much greater than last year's. We're up for the challenge, and it will be interesting to see how well we can teach new concepts and how quickly the kids can grasp them.

I'd appreciate your thoughts on what works and what doesn't. What I just wrote is more in the way of a suggestion than a tried-and-true recipe. Thanks for your insights.

Accomplishing Goals

I travel with a PSP on long-distance business trips. I only use it on airplanes, and it's a good insurance policy in case of a travel delay or getting antsy on a very long flight, packed in coach.

For my latest trip I purchased FIFA Soccer 09, and it's a very complete game. I play at the "beginner" or "amateur" level, and while I sometimes play Arsenal against Tottenham, Lyon against Marseilles or AC Milan against Inter (not to mention Manchester United against Liverpool or Celtic versus Rangers), sometimes I need a break.

We all want to accomplish our professional goals in life. So what better a way than to accomplish goals than to score some!

How do you do that?

It's pretty easy. Take a four-and-a-half or five-star team (like some of the ones mentioned above) and play them against a team from the English Second Division (where the teams have half-star and one-star ratings). Play at the "beginner" or "amateur" level, and find yourself winning 10-0. Talk about accomplishing goals!

Now, it's not always that fun, as the PSP typically lets you run by the defenders in this format (as opposed to scoring dazzling goals with short passes or crosses -- the PlayStation 2 game used to let you do that), but, still, scoring goals is scoring goals, and in this world there's something to be said for having fun playing your games. Now, if you get pretty good at this game, you can tee up Arsenal against Tottenham in this format and win 7-0, too. That is, before your wrists start to get tired.

So, if you want to accomplish some goals, score some! It's good video game therapy from time to time.

Tom Coughlin Gets It

It's amazing that there isn't more of a buzz about the coaching of the Giants' Tom Coughlin. Yes, there's a buzz about the Giants' offensive line play and their running game, but not enough in my opinion.


Because Coughlin saw an ability to innovate in the NFL and he did. And this is the first significant innovation since Bill Walsh determined that with bigger and faster defenses, "three yards and a cloud of dust" and two-back backfields with both backs sharing a rather big rushing load would no longer work. Okay, so Walsh's innovation might be more significant in terms of having created a new football theory, but Coughlin's return to smash-mouth rushing is pretty clever, too.


Because almost every NFL defense -- even the 3-4 -- has been built to stop West Coast-style offenses and, most certainly, one-back offenses. Which means that there's been a tendency for a while to stop the "death by a thousand cuts" passing offenses over stopping up-the-gut rushing attacks. That tendency gave Coughlin -- a firm believer in the notion that winning the battles in the trenches on both sides of the ball leads to victories -- a chance to take an old-time notion and jam it down the throats of those who like to throw tons of packages at you but don't necessarily have the strength to stop run after run after run.

Is what Coughlin's doing that innovative?

No and yes.

No, because, well, rushing the ball right at the defense has been a part of the game since the beginning of the game. Yes, because it takes courage to go against the grain and emphasize the run when teams obsess over having the perfect quarterback who can work miracles. Make no mistake -- Eli Manning is an excellent quarterback -- but the Giants' ball-control offense tires out defenses and puts tons of points on the board.

Tom Coughlin, whom I criticized in these pages a couple of years ago for failing to control the egos and dissenters in his locker room, has done just that and created an offensive style of football that differs somewhat significantly from those of the rest of the pack and could well lead the Giants to their second straight Super Bowl victory.

Old-time football. It's not exactly "putting on the foil" (for those who might like a Slapshot reference), but it works like a charm.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The National League MVP Voters Got It Right

Albert Pujols is the best player in the National League, and, yes, in 2008 he was the most valuable, or, at least, deserving of the award. He kept a so-so at best Cardinals team in the hunt for most of the year, and that effort, while playing with a bad elbow, and his numbers, were worthy of the National League's most valuable player award.

Yes, I am a Phillies' partisan, but no Phillies' position player deserved the MVP award this year. While Phillies' fans chanted "MVP" near the end of the season when Ryan Howard came to the plate, the slugging first baseman didn't have the numbers that Pujols did and was not nearly as consistent. But for an awesome September, Howard would have had an average year (for a slugger, and not just for him). That September was memorable and helped propel the Phillies to the NL East title, of that there is little doubt. But Howard's body of work during the year didn't merit the MVP award.

As it was, the Philadelphia chapter of the baseball writers voted Brad Lidge the team's MVP, and they got it right. Going into the 2008 season, I had said that if the Phillies hit the way they did in 2007 and got some better pitching, they could win the division (of course, I said this before the Mets acquired Johan Santana). As it turned out, the team didn't hit the way it did in 2007, but the pitching -- and particularly the bullpen -- was better. The major difference was in the closer position, where Brad Lidge had a perfect game of a year. As for the position players, well, Jimmy Rollins' overall game was in a funk through August, Chase Utley didn't look right after May (although he revived nicely late in the year), Pat Burrell was about even (although he didn't do much from August through year's end, although, yes, he did have a few big hits).

But why digress on the details? Two years ago, Rollins was the MVP, and three years ago it was Howard. Utley was a favorite going into this season, and his torrid early months forecast a third MVP award in a row for the Phillies. But does it really matter? All members of the 2008 Phillies contributed to something much more satisfying -- a championship.

Yes, it's nice to get the hardware, and it's nice to be called a Cy Young Award winner, a Rookie of the Year, an All-Star, an MVP Award winner, a Gold Glover (and, yes, Chase Utley should have won one this year, too).

But it's even better to be called a champion.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hope for Princeton Basketball

Central Michigan beat Princeton, 55-53, in the Tigers' season opener at Jadwin Gym tonight. And, yes, Central Michigan isn't Michigan State, and a Chippewas fan told me at halftime that his alma mater was missing two of their top players. Still, they had at least one good one left, as 6'8", 235-pound forward Chris Kellerman scored outside and inside, had 28 points and led his team to victory.

So why was there hope?

Was it because the Tigers only lost by two in their home opener? Was it because they started two freshmen, two sophomores and a senior? Was it because they started a front line that goes 6'9", 6'8", 6'7"?

Answer: none of the above. (Click here for the box score).

The answer is that frosh PG Doug Davis scored 25 points, is a great ballhandler, can break the ankles of a defender, can shoot the three and can take over a game. When was the last time a Tiger had 25 points in his first game in a Princeton uniform? Not in the past 30 years, I don't think. When was the last time the Tigers had a player this exciting? And when was the last time the Tigers had a guard this able on offense?

Imagine this: a Philly point guard in a Princeton uniform. Take the the years of wisdom and court savvy handed down from the likes of Sonny Hill, Guy Rodgers, Hal Lear, Earl Monroe, Andre McCarter, Pooh Richardson, Sean "Reds" Smith and many others and send it to Princeton, to be coached by a terrific guard himself in Sydney Johnson, and you could have someone very, very special.

I can't say that a star was born tonight, because Doug Davis came into Princeton with star quality. But a star was launched tonight, and if you're a Princeton basketball fan, you have to be very happy. I'm not sure where this year's team will go, but in Doug Davis you have someone to build around for four years.

And when was the last time a Princeton basketball fan had this much excitement?

Sydney Johnson is onto something in Princeton. The Tiger hoops magic is coming back.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Charlie Weis to Call the Plays for Notre Dame Against Navy

So touted the headline on

Context, though, is hard to discern. My immediate reaction was: "And this is a good thing, why?"

I'm sure some Domers will say that this is great, that Weis is an offensive genius, and that, well, this needed to be done. I'm sure that others will say that this is evidence that Weis really was meant to be a coordinator, and that this is an indication that perhaps he isn't the head coach people thought he would be after his first season in South Bend.

Wise move?


Somewhere in between?

Notre Dame fans, what say you?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Support Princeton Field Hockey!

When: Tuesday, 1 p.m. at Princeton's Class of 1952 Stadium.

What: The Princeton Field Hockey team plays Stanford in a play-in game to determine who goes to the NCAA tournament.

Why: The Princeton Field Hockey team is the Ivy champion, they have excelled in the Ivies for a while, they show great grit and teamwork and are ranked #11 in the country.

If you're a Princeton fan and have some time on Veterans' Day, this is a good way to spend an autumn afternoon, cheering on a great group of young women.

Go Tigers!

Holliday No Longer On Ice, But Is He Headed to Siberia? reports that Matt Holliday, the Rockies' slugging outfielder (who also happens to be an excellent base stealer) is about to be traded to the Oakland A's.

That's probably better news for the Rockies, who are going to get some prospects and, as a result, aren't going to have to face trading Holliday at the trading deadline in a contract year (where reports were that they weren't going to be able to re-sign him) than it is for Holliday. The reason: the A's seem to be the Sisyphus of the Majors, just like the mythological character who kept on pushing the rock up the hill, only never to get to the top. Make no mistake, Billy Beane is an excellent general manager, one of the best in the game. The question is: can the A's win the division and get back to the World Series?

At any rate, Phillies' fans could only dream about the prospect of getting Matt Holliday. It would have been great having a lineup that started with Rollins, Victorino, Utley, Howard and Holliday, but it's not meant to be. The Phillies need to devote serious resources to offering long-term deals to Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels, among others. Inking Holliday was a luxury that they just couldn't afford.

College Football: It's Fun to See Different Teams Doing Well

Neighbors and friends went to Penn State, but a close friend grew up in Iowa City, so I witnessed the despair of the Penn State faithful and the joy of my friend at Iowa's last-minute upset of #3 Penn State. I'm also enjoying the run of Texas Tech, which is #2 in the country. After all, many years ago, when people talked of the stalwarts of the then-Southwest Conference, Texas Tech's name did not come up.

What do you attribute the newly found parity to? Is it that all schools are limited to 85 scholarships? Is it that some of the best players at the elite schools don't stay for the full four years (while they might at some of the schools that don't have the recruiting magic of the perenially elites)? I think it would be hard to say injuries and academic woes, because they happen to every school every year.

And then there's a school's commitment to its program. Sometimes schools that have been beaten down renew their commitments in terms of facilities and coaching staffs. There's also innovation. The Texas Tech offense is just hard to stop.

Take a look at these two lists:

Texas Tech
Penn State
Boise State

and then this one

Ohio State
Miami (FL)
Notre Dame
Florida State
Virginia Tech

Suppose you hadn't watched college football for ten years. Which list would you believe represented the top 10 teams in the country?

Then again, all this raises the question that won't go away: should there be a playoff system?

Friday, November 07, 2008

Oregon State Men's Hoops Recruiting

should get a boost from the fact that Barack Obama was elected president. As most readers know, the OSU men's hoops coach, Craig Robinson, is the older brother of Michelle Obama, the first lady-elect.

The Sports Law Blog has a good post and link regarding how Craig Robinson might use this fact to his advantage in rebuilding the OSU program. Most certainly, the relationship between the two should help Craig Robinson a good deal. That said, Craig Robinson is an excellent coach and terrific guy, and high school coaches and parents would be fortunate to have such a good man coach their kids for four years.

Apparently, offering a kid a night in the Lincoln Bedroom is an NCAA no-no. But there's nothing to prevent OSU to schedule a few games in the DC area every year and then make a trip to the White House and a get-together with the leader of the free world.

Now that would be pretty cool.

And it would beat a promise of a trip to the Rainbow Classic any day of the week.

Hisses and Boos for Sports Illustrated

Dear Editor:

I just received the edition that should have covered the "Fightin' Phils" win in the World Series over destiny's darlings, the Tampa Bay Rays (whom you predicted would win the Series). I should have read an elegy about all things Phillies, how well they played, how much almost every player contributed, about Charlie Manuel, Jamie Moyer, Joe Blanton and the rest of the gang.

Instead, we got a thought piece (for the most part) from Tom Verducci about ways to change the World Series. Sure, the Series needs to be changed, but couldn't you have had someone else write that article after you published the huzzahs for the Phillies?

Your coverage wasn't worthy of the great achievement of this team. Perhaps if they played the game wearing skimpy bathing suits you would have done a better job.

I remain

a longtime subscriber who just can't make out the print of ESPN the Magazine.


Mark Cuban Would Be Good for Major League Baseball


Because apparently Bud Selig doesn't think so.

As the linked post explains, Cuban has expressed interest in owning the Cubs. (Perhaps he'd even shorten his name to Cub as part of the deal). Cuban is a breath of fresh air, generally, and why shouldn't Major League Baseball have an owner in its midst who challenges the status quo (after all, that's particular in vogue right now) and asks some good questions about why MLB works the way it does?

Because, somehow in some way, the Lords of Baseball think that Bud Selig has all the answers, or, put differently, is enough of a stooge that they can vector onto him whatever they want and he'll follow along under the facade of leadership. But the Lords should remember that Bud works for them, not the other way around. Why shouldn't they want Mark Cuban?

Is it because they want to perpetuate the same type of thinking that a) had a World Series game start at 10:00 p.m. and b) had another one played, in part, in a torrential downpour? Is it because they want to overlook the rather pronounced enlargement of the average MLB player, which resulted not from overeating, weightlifting or additional hormones in our food but from syringes?

There have been many worse owners in Major League Baseball, including some who just can't get their teams back on track and win. So, it's okay to let Peter Angelos make a mess out of the once-proud Orioles, David Glass to wreck Kansas City, and the McClatchy family to keep the Pirates in losing fashion? That's fine, but letting Mark Cuban into the owners' club isn't?

C'mon, Bud, share your thoughts with us, just like you did after you suspended Game 5 of the World Series.

The baseball world awaits your wisdom.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Early Holliday Season in Philadelphia?

So reports's Jon Heyman, who reports that the Phillies are aggressively pursuing Matt Holliday, who is eligible to be a free agent after the 2009 season and who, apparently, the Rockies have no chance of retaining.

The article isn't clear as to whom the Phillies would have to trade to land the leftfielder. Shane Victorino's name was mentioned, but the Phillies would be hard-pressed to replace the Gold Glove centerfielder and catalyst. The Phillies have a core crop of minor leaguers, including catcher Lou Marson, shortstop Jason Donald and pitcher Carlos Carrasco, with whom they were unwilling to part in the pursuit of CC Sabathia from the Indians.

But let's suppose they land Holliday. How about this for a lineup:

Jimmy Rollins, SS
Jayson Werth, RF
Chase Utley, 2B
Ryan Howard, 1B
Matt Holliday, LF
Shane Victorino, CF
Pedro Feliz, 3B
Carlos Ruiz, C

That's pretty impressive, especially in the first through sixth positions. Holliday is an upgrade over Burrell, whose contributions fell off the cliff starting in August. The Phillies might miss Burrell's on-base percentage, but they won't miss his defense (awful, if not as bad as that of Chris Duncan of the Cardinals) and his streakiness. Reports were that the Phillies had made up their mind at season's end to part with Burrell (he made $14 million this year). The bet here is that some AL team will overpay for him and give him at least 3 years and $10 million per.

But Matt Holliday? In Philadelphia? In that lineup?

Look out!

On Chase Utley's Speech at the Phillies' Parade

Dear Chase:

You're a tremendous player. The fans love watching you play because you play with such even-keel emotions. Most of us get frustrated when our internet connection isn't fast enough, but you are one cool customer. You don't get too high when you get a big hit, and you don't get too low when you strike out more than once in a game.

We do admire you for that, although history in Philadelphia tells us that the most popular player on the 1980 World Series champs was neither of the team's Hall of Famers -- Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt -- but a happy-go-lucky relief pitcher who showed lots of positive energy -- Tug McGraw. We admired Lefty for the precision he brought to the pitching mound, but he was strange. He didn't talk to the Philadelphia media for over a decade. We loved Schmidt's prodigious accomplishments -- he had an outstanding on-base percentage, was the best home run hitter in the game and the best fielding third baseman -- but he was a cool customer, keeping all of his emotions inside. It was hard to warm up to him the way we could McGraw or the easygoing star centerfielder, Garry Maddox.

So, okay, you're not the personality guy on the team, but boy do fans admire you. Jimmy Rollins seems to be the team's leader, Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard seem to be relaxed and happy, Shane Victorino is a prime catalyst, and Jamie Moyer the elder statesman. Which means that you don't really have to say much -- you can let your bat and glove do your talking for you.

Except there's this one thing that we have to discuss -- the day that you decided to open your mouth, wearing your Seattle grunge-rock attire at the parade and say something other than the usual post-game speak about "seeing the ball well" that many players dive into in interviews. Because you don't usually say much, we can all imagine what you might say if we could talk to you in detail about the art of hitting, about fielding your position, and about the mental game of baseball. Because you hardly said much, we envisioned you as a bright UCLA man, a guy we'd want to have over for a meal, shoot the breeze.

And then you opened your mouth and said a bad word. Illusions -- to the extent they remained after your profane utterance within earshot of a microphone at the All-Star Game's home run hitting contest -- were shattered. Many who held you up as the ultimate professional to be admired suddenly found you to be about as thoughtful as the small number of fans who harrassed Tampa Bay fans at Citizens Bank Park during the Series. Parents were shocked, grandparents horrified, young children disappointed.

More so than if you struck out four times looking in Game 7 of the World Series.

Listen, we still like and admire you, we just despise what you said. And for that you owe everyone an apology. You didn't need to tarnish a very happy day by saying what you said. Your overall "rating", as it were, among Phillies' fans is down, not because of your play, but because of this. Do the right thing, offer a sincere, written apology, and get kudos again in our forgiving world for being a stand-up guy and admitting your mistake.

Again, we still love the way you play and are grateful for all your efforts. Thanks for your great play in the 2008 World Series.

Just tweak your overall "game" a little bit.




Why Signing Pitchers to Long-Term Deals is Risky

Barry Zito.

Kevin Brown.

Darren Dreifort.

Carlos Silva.

Those are just some examples of teams inking free-agent pitchers to long-term deals, only to have them blow up in their faces. John Donovan of Sports wrote this excellent piece on why it might not be such a good idea for any team to offer CC Sabathia the huge bucks that he's asking. Why? Despite the excellent work of Sabathia during his career and especially this past season, such agreements are more likely to fail than not -- by a two-to-one margin.

The Brewers and Yankees are going to compete for Sabathia. The difference between the two franchises (and, for that matter, the Yankees and everyone else) is, as Mike Francesa has said on WFAN, that the Yankees can take these risks, take a loss on them every now and then, and not have their franchise suffer for years because of a bad investment. The other teams -- with the possible exception of the Boston Red Sox -- cannot suffer such bad investments and have their teams thrive year in and year out.

So, the question is: will Sabathia remain Sabathia the Great, will he turn into Kevin Brown and get hurt, or will he become the Zito of the Midwest or East. Let's re-visit this question in a few years.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Phillies -- My Personal Parade

By now almost everything that could have been written about the Phillies' magical 2008 season has been written. We've read about the strength of the Phillies' bullpen, the sagacity of Jamie Moyer, the personal transformation of Brett Myers, the emergence of Cole Hamels as a national star, the perfect year of Brad Lidge, the monster shots of Ryan Howard, the savvy, excellent play of Chase Utley, the catalytic ability of Shane Victorino, Charlie Manuel, a "players" manager who knows where to draw the line, the Hall of Fame general managership of Pat Gillick, the timeless home run call of Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas and the victory parade to end all victory parades. Lots of great photos and articles, lots of great moments, and a wonderful time for legions of devoted fans who kept the park packed until 2 a.m., stayed steadfastly in a downpour and rooted hard in the cold. The book on 2008 has been written, the t-shirts and hats and collectibles created, and, well, as of Monday the team will announce a new GM to replace the retiring Gillick and talk of rebuilding the roster. The Circle of Baseball Life, as it were.

I've shared with you some of my personal story, but not all of it. You know from previous posts that my father took me to games as early as 1964, that we watched the Hall of Fame performances of Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt, the playoff teams of the late 1970s and the World Series teams of 1980 and 1983. (Dad was at Game 6 of the 1980 Series, when Tug McGraw struck out Willie Wilson to end the game and clinch the Phillies' Series victory). We watched some great visiting teams and players -- Bench, Seaver, Perez, McCovey, Mays, Winfield, Carter (Gary), Stargell, Parker, and many, many more. We sat in the Sunday heat at Veterans Stadium, once couldn't find our car during a thunderstorm, drank cokes, ate hot dogs and peanuts, and loved talking baseball.

This was the same guy who played wiffle ball with me since I learned to walk, who carried me into our pediatrician's office on several occasions when my congenitally trick knee would pop out on me as a young boy. The same guy who played two major college sports (including baseball) while only being able to see out of one eye, the guy who would pitch to me in the front yard and catch me with his suit and dress shoes on on a hot summer's night. The guy who taught me to love the game of baseball as a hobby and a pastime, even though, I'm sure, was somewhat disappointed that I didn't demonstrate a fraction of his baseball ability (and whose disappointment, though, did not manifest all that much after a (short) while).

The Philies' post-season was rife with emotions for me and many others. Baseball is the game many of my generation shared with their fathers (and grandfathers), and the Phillies hadn't been in the Series in 15 years and hadn't won one in 28. Philadelphia had gone 25 years without winning a championship in a major sport, and, well, we've been disappointed over the years. So much so that there were more than a few of us who saw the suspension of Game 3 on Monday night -- despite the Phillies' being up 3-1 in games and tied with 3 1/2 innings to go -- as an omen of doom, that the baseball gods were going to deny a great group of fans (as the victory parade demonstrated) and a wonderful team a World Series title. Put simply, while we enjoyed every hit, every home run, every great pitch, we weren't going to relax until, well, Brad Lidge struck out Eric Hinske to clinch Game 5 and the world championship for the Phillies.

My eyes welled up at the time, I high-fived my kids and my wife, hugged them, and just sat in my family room with a big smile on my face. Friends from all over emailed me, and I had been emailed my cousin and an old friend constantly during the game, sharing thoughts, emotions and hopes. A good friend called me from Citizens Bank Park (a work commitment compelled me to decline a mid-day offer for 2 tickets to the clincher) to share in the noise and revelry. Boy, it was loud!

It was a great night, and, yes, somewhat hard to get work done the next day. I work in central New Jersey, in a place full of Met and Yankee fans, but my colleagues were waiting to see if I would demonstrate a post-Series glow. I don't have a ton of hobbies, but following the Phillies is one of them. Yes, I smiled, and I bought a celebratory cake for all to share. The victory seemed surreal -- after all, the Phillies have been around since 1883 and had won only one Series before this year. The enormity of the victory had yet to sink in, even as I managed to contribute to the region's retail economy buying shirts, hats and other collectibles for family.

The parade would follow two days later, this past Friday. I managed to get two tickets to Citizens Bank Park to watch the end of the parade. I don't use the words "always" and "never" all that much, but I never want to pick one child over the other. So, we left the decision to my kids. My younger child, my eight year-old son, said my eleven year-old daughter should go because he's gone to more games with me. Moved by her brother's generosity, my daughter said that my son should go because he said she could go. So began an endless loop. In the end, they couldn't decide.

So I started to call friends of mine who might want to go. One had family responsibilities, one was taking his daughter to visit a college, a few others had work commitments. After a short while, I determined that going to the parade wasn't meant to be for me, and that I actually didn't need to go. Instead, we offered the tickets to a family in our community full of diehard fans. The look on their faces was all I needed -- they were thrilled to go.

I watched the parade on my computer at work (sorry, IT colleagues, as I know that streaming slows down the internet for everyone) and called my mother for updates (she was watching on TV at home). I marveled at the sea of red, the large crowd, the reaction of the players to the cheering they received from an entire region. It was great to see, galvanizing what I had always known -- that the Philadelphia fans are as dedicated as they come.

While the parade closed the chapter on the season for many, it hadn't for me. I still kept on thinking of my dad, who died way too young, in his mid-50's, and how great it would have been for him to share it with me and my family. About how we would have gone to games together, how he would have bought all sorts of Phillies stuff for the kids, how we would have talked about Cole Hamels' ability to deceive with his changeup, Ryan Howard's power, Chase Utley's overall excellence, Jimmy Rollins' leadership, and so on. We miss our loved ones for all sorts of reasons -- for their unconditional love, for their wisdom, for their humor and for the things we shared with them the most. For me, baseball was at the top of the list. The Phillies' success once again rekindled my strong, loving memories of my father. I needed to find my own way to close the chapter on the Phillies' season. Somehow, going to a parade with at least a million people in attendance just wasn't going to be it.

So this afternoon, I went to his grave site. I took with me a Phillies' towel and a cigar (he and many of his friends used to light them up on occasion). I placed the towel next to his headstone and started smoking a cigar, just the family plot, his headstone, me, my cigar and my thoughts. I shared with him news of the family and, of course, the Phillies, and how he'd have so much to be proud of. I watched as a few cars with Phillies flags drove by, headed to grave sites perhaps for the same reason I did. That notion, perhaps, might be lost on an entire nation -- that the Phillies' victory evoked so many positive memories and emotions for all of us.

I laughed, and, yes, I cried. I cried for the joy of what we couldn't share together, for the joy of what happened, and for the plain fact that I miss him. I laughed at some of the things we would have thought humorous, but, mostly, I just sat there, puffing this big cigar on a beautiful fall afternoon, alone in my thoughts, being thankful for what I have and for the bond that the Philadelphia Phillies and the game of baseball created between us.

That solitude was my parade, my way to close the chapter, my way to honor the Phillies and my father and to express my gratitude. Not just to a great baseball team, not just to great shared experiences with my family from spring training through Game 5, but also to a good man who gave me a great gift. I needed something less complicated than that -- just my father's memory, a cigar, and a nice fall afternoon.

Thank you, Philadelphia Phillies -- for everything.