Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Bizarre End to the Philadelphia Eagles' Regular Season

Most Philadelphia Eagles' fans would have asked you what kind of crack you were smoking if going into today's games you believed they had a good chance to make the playoffs.

Two reasons would have dominated their thinking. First, the Birds would have had to beat Dallas and then hope for two other results: losses by either Minnesota or Chicago and an Oakland victory at Tampa Bay. Second, the Birds played inconsistently in their first fifteen games and terribly in their loss to the Redskins last week. Taken together, few Eagles' fans were feeling good about the Eagles' chances today. Moreover, I'm sure that some were hoping for a shellacking at the hands of Dallas, if only to force ownership's hand regarding head coach and GM Andy Reid and the quarterback, Donovan McNabb (I am not among the disbelievers, however, when it comes to McNabb, whom I believe is good enough to win a Super Bowl).

And then a funny thing happened on the way to missing the playoffs for the third time in the past four seasons. When we turned on the television mid-afternoon, my son and I learned that the Vikings were in a dogfight with the Giants (who only let starting QB Eli Manning play the first half; the Vikings prevailed on a game-ending 50-yard field goal by Ryan Longwell), the Bears were in a tight game with the Texans, and Oakland was hanging in there against the Bucs. Then, the tides turned again, and the Bucs pulled ahead of the Raiders, thanks to a great interception return by safety Sabby Piscitelli.

But, by the time the Eagles-Cowboys game started, the stars had aligned for the hometown Birds. The Texans beat the Bears, the Raiders upset the Bucs, and the stage was set for the winner to go to the playoffs. That's right, the Eagles once again could control their own fate.

Against Dallas, of all teams, the team that Philadelphia fans seem to want to beat the most. Rewind to the season's outset, and many pundits predicted that the Cowboys were one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl. The Giants? Written off. Too many (for the worse) personnel changes. The Redskins? Ah, improving. The Eagles? Well, good, but aging, and probably falling short in what at the time was regarded as the toughest division in the NFL.

So what happened? The Eagles' shattered the myth of America's team once again. They showed that Cowboys' QB Tony Romo does not belong on the NFL's version of Mount Olympus, that they could force turnovers, and in the end, in the most unlikely of scenarios, the Eagles trounced the one-time Super Bowl favorites, 44-6. And now it's onward to Minnesota against the formidable but beatable NFC North champions.

The Cowboys get to play golf, think about a disappointing season and wonder which of their employee roster will help ring in the new stadium that awaits them. Not only did they not make the playoffs, they failed spectacularly in a must-win game.

As for the Eagles, they answered some questions today. Andy Reid will be back as head coach and, in all likelihood, general manager. You don't replace someone with his track record unless the replacement is superior, and most candidates to replace him would represent a significant amount of risk. Likewise, Donovan McNabb will return as the starting quarterback for the same reasons. Kevin Kolb represents too much of a risk right now.

There are other questions. The offensive line is iffy. The tackles are old and unrestricted free agents, and their best lineman (Shawn Andrews) is coming off back surgery. Their center is average. L.J. Smith, the underacheiving tight end, won't return (he's a free agent). The wide receiver corps is improved, but undistinguished. They could use an upgrade at fullback, some more depth on the defensive line and at linebacker. Most importantly, they need to get out of the 6-10 through 10-6 zone. You can't stay there forever, and they need to take a step forward again. The big question is will they?

Many local pundits hoped that something like this wouldn't happen. They fear that owner Jeffrey Lurie and president Joe Banner will tout this season as a triumph, as something to build upon. They hope that the front office will examine thoroughly whether Reid should continue, period, and, if so, continue to be both GM and head coach. They also hope that Reid will evaluate his coaching strategy and his quarterback and determine if changes need to be made. They fear that the front office and Reid won't do any of this.

Right now, it's much better to be in the playoffs than to lament what might have been. Eagles' fans are perhaps more giddy about crushing Dallas than about the prospect of the playoffs, although the gap between the two will evaporate by tomorrow morning.

The day's results were unlikely and unexpected.

Fly, Eagles, fly.


Yankee Hubris

The Yankees have invested over $400 million in C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira.

Outside the Mets, the Yankees are the only team to open up their pocketbooks in a big way (signing Francisco Rodriguez; the Phillies signed Raul Ibanez and the Dodgers Rafael Furcal, but not at overly huge numbers compared to what K-Rod and the Yankee trio commanded). Either they know something that the rest of us don't, or else they've committed some big-time folly.

Yes, the Yankees generate more revenue than other teams (from the YES Network, among others). But we're in a recession, New York is probably in a bigger recession than the rest of the country because of the throes of Wall Street, and, well, Hank Steinbrenner so far has proven only that he emulates his father's bluster, not his business savvy. And as we've learned so many times, business savvy can skip generations and frequently does.

On the positive side, Sabathia is an oustanding pitcher (especially before the post-season) and can help carry a team long distances. Burnett is a great talent who did well in Florida and still has a lot of tread left on the tires and is well-qualified to be a #2 starter. Finally, all reports on Teixeira is what a machine he is -- defensively as well as offensively. If you take the "advocacy" point of view, the Yankees struck gold and Red Sox' and Rays' fans should shudder because the Yankees have reloaded and are overdue.

On the negative side, Sabathia, the thoroughbred, has come up lame in the post-season, and his girth creates concerns about longevity. He carries a lot of weight, figuratively and literally. He's a risk over the course of his entire contract. Burnett, another thoroughbred, had few teams all that interested during last year's playoff run. The stories focused on his makeup and personality, not great things to hear if you're going to pay the guy north of $16 million per season. As for Teixeira, it's hard to find much negative except to question whether he's in the uberstar class of players like Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez. There's not question that he's a prime-time player, but can he withstand the expectations of being the main guy? If you take the "criticism" point of view, the Yankees have definitely improved their team, but they've made some big bets, particularly on pitchers, that could come back to haunt them.

So did the Yankees act wisely? I'd rather have the troika they signed than not to have them. I do wonder whether they overpaid, particularly for Burnett, and whether they gave Sabathia too long a deal. I also wonder how real the suitors were for Teixeira at the price point he finally settled on. Signing players at big numbers is what makes the Yankees the Yankees. Whether these signings prove wise and whether the Yankees can sustain the revenues they enjoyed before the U.S. financial system collapsed in September remains to be seen.

Mock NBA Draft

Hoops Hype has posted a mock NBA draft. Carolina's do-it-all Tyler Hansbrough projects as #23 in the first round, based on production, not potential.

If this projection isn't a symbol of the NBA's potential (huge) problems, I don't know what is.

Let's use the economy as a metaphor. Many people were living beyond their means, placing value on things well beyond what they were worth. Take a look at your nearby shopping mall. Huge sales, little traffic, lots of big brands suddenly not worth what they were six months ago.

Take a look at the NBA. Lots of flash and dash, with the product being questionable in most places save the elites. How much longer can the NBA sustain this model? (True, their jerseys are cheaper than NFL jerseys, but perhaps that's because you don't get sleeves with an NBA jersey).

Take a look at the downstairs prices at the average NBA game versus the average Major League Baseball game (save New York, perhaps). Who will continue to buy these tickets at these prices? And for how long?

Here's something to consider. I was at dinner last night with a friend who is a lawyer representing mutual funds. He explained last night that fund companies have serious budgeting issues because they make their money by taking a percentage of the assets they have under management. Well, suppose a fund family had $10 billion under management at the end of 2007. Then suppose that same fund family will have $6 billion under management at December 31 of this year. Finally, that fund family "charges" one percent of all assets under management. So, at the end of 2007, its revenues were $100 million. Now, at the end of 2008, its revenues would be $60 million. Somehow, some way, that fund family has a lot less revenue and, therefore, will need to cut back on its spending.

Well, NBA, most of your customers are in a similar predicament. And, while sports are said to be recession-proof (a statement to which I don't subscribe given how expensive some tickets are these days and how mediocre some teams have remained over the course of decades), the economy is in a bad way and could remain so for some time. In turn, your customers will feel it -- corporations and individuals alike. Unless you're selling to the super-rich exclusively, you're going to have a problem. All of a sudden, your franchises are worth less, and, as a result, your tickets.

I have argued for a while on this blog that the NBA should shed teams, shorten its schedule, improve its product and give the world better basketball. The NBA over the years has ignored such criticism, because in sales the numbers don't lie. My guess is that the NBA office has liked the numbers -- in terms of ticket sales, TV revenue and merchandise sales -- enough to dismiss such criticism as ill-informed. And, to be fair, they have had a point. In the short term.

The NBA now has a unique opportunity to improve its product. It should take it, or else risk plummeting sales and revenues.

Because watching its current brand of basketball -- with too many teams, too many games and too many isolation plays -- is a luxury.

Last time I checked, luxuries don't fare so well in a recession.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Great Observations from Dana Pennett O'Neil on "The Jay Wright Show" Last Night

Working late, driving home in the soup, I happened upon Villanova men's hoops coach Jay Wright's radio show. Among the guests were Minnesota Timberwolf Randy Foye (a Villanova alum) and's Dana Pennett O'Neil, who covers college hoops and who once covered 'Nova for the Philadelphia Daily News.

O'Neil is first-rate at her job, and she offered one great line last night and some chilling observations about men's college basketball recruiting.

O'Neil is a Penn State alum, and she commented on the inking of 82 year-old Penn State coach Joe Paterno to a three-year contract extension. She lamented the fact that the Nittany Lions still don't have a succession plan, and contrasted that fact to the fact that several programs around the country with younger head coaches have them. Then she got to Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, a good coach who's well-liked in the Penn State community (he's also a Penn State alum). Bradley's name at times has been bandied about as a successor to Paterno. Offered O'Neil: "He's just like Prince Charles."

Touche. The man who might never get to the throne because of the longevity of the person ahead of him.

She then moved to a piece that she recently wrote on regarding college basketball recruiting. This is required reading for anyone who is a college basketball fan and wonders how kids get to certain teams. The rules permit some absolutely slimely behavior, and it appears in cases that "handlers" of kids -- AAU coaches and the like -- pocket fees, indirectly, of course -- for the possibility of delivering players to schools. One example in O'Neil's article is how Kentucky got a recruit by paying his father several thousands of dollars in fees to speak at head coach Billy Gillispie's camps. (That father pocketed monies for speaking at a few other major college coaches camps too). Another example is how kids get to travel all summer and appear at elite camps. Some of this kids have little money of their own, so how do they get there?

The coaches interviewed are all over the place. The most honest of them appears to be St. Joe's Phil Martelli, an outstanding coach who plays by the rules. Others -- and some would surprise you -- have a view that so long as it's not prohibited it's permitted and that you need to maintain your edge by doing what you can within the rules to land players. Lest you think that high-end DI players are students first, you might think again. After all, given the ethics that surround how some kids get to certain schools, what can they possible learn from the recruiting process that's a good life lesson. They'll clearly learn that someone gets greased somewhere all the time.

And that's just delightful. Look, I don't expect the most successful people to be saints. Most people push hard to be successful. But I do expect them to stay well within NCAA rules and common-sense ethical rules. And the latter area is where we get into problems. They say that sausage and democracy both are wonderful things, but that you don't want to see either of them made. Perhaps the same holds true for Division I college basketball. Read the whole thing and make up your own mind.

You shouldn't be shocked by what you read unless you truly believe that every kid takes challenging classes, will be proficient in math, science and a foreign language and ready for a white-collar job upon graduation. That clearly doesn't happen, but O'Neil doesn't get into the student-athlete paradigm. Perhaps she will some day. This article simply focuses on the recruiting process, and, yes, it resembles sausage-making.

Read O'Neil's stuff on ESPN. She writes well and was a solid contributor on Daily News Live on Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia before moving to ESPN. She wrote a thoughtful piece on this topic, and hopefully it will start some serious discussions among basketball coaches and at the NCAA about the next stage of reforms in DI recruiting.

Only in America

I was somewhat surprised when I read the blurbs section of my morning paper to learn of a controversy in Northeastern Pennsylvania involving a ShopRite's refusal to inscribe a birthday cake with a child's full name.

The ShopRite, you seek, objected to writing the kid's name. They did offer the parents to inscribe "Happy Birthday" and leave room for the parents to inscribe the rest of the name, but the parents refused and went to a Wal0Mart, which happily obliged them.

Before you jump to conclusions, understand that the name of the child is Adolf Hitler Campbell. He has a sister whose middle name is Aryan Nation and a brother named after Heinrich Himmler.

In a land of forgiveness that treasures freedom of speech and accommodating customers, who's right -- ShopRite or Wal-Mart? You can read more here.

Putting aside the freedom of speech issues, how on earth can anyone in their right mind name their kid after Adolf Hitler? Perhaps the answer lies within the question and the term "right mind." The Campbells think they're correct, and many of us would beg to differ. I pity the child, who, my guess is, will get a bunch of attention because of his name, almost all of it bad.

I believe that in German the authorities have much more control over what you can name a child, and that it would be almost impossible if not illegal to name a child Adolf Hitler. Yet, in America, you can. The question for those who would say that the ShopRite is obviously correct is where you do you draw the line. Suppose a store were to decline Thais because their last names are long or Muslims because they think they're terrorists ? The answer isn't as easy as many would think.

Likewise, the question for the Wal-Marts of the world is how far do you go to accommodate people? And, because of the First Amendment, should you even care at all (unless someone told you they planned to put a bomb in the cake). President Bush's popularity rating is very low -- do you decline putting his name on the cake? Bernard Madoff? Marc Dreier? Michael Vick?

Who decides? Where do you draw the line? Or, do you draw it at all?

So that's the intellectual conundrum for the day. The questions get the hardest when you marry speech you do not like with a law that helps make the country great.

Reflecting upon Mo Cheeks

Thinking aloud, I can think of no more classier an individual who has graced the Philadelphia sports scene, as a player and as a coach.

Mo Cheeks, we will miss you very much.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

More on Coaching Third and Fourth Grade Boys' Basketball

In my prior post, I described how our first game went. We excellent on offense, were good at rebounding, outscored the other team significantly but didn't pass the ball well, didn't screen and sometimes ran into one another on offense. So. . .

At our practice last week, we emphasized passing, dribbling with the player's head up, screening and moving without the ball. We only get about one hour, we spend a bunch of time on fundamentals, and when we got to the screening, rolling and two on one drills, suffice it to say that practice didn't go great. We didn't have enough time to put in plays, and I'm still not sure that with only one 55-minute practice per week we really can get the kids to remember set plays from week to week (some aren't even 9 yet). Walking out of the gym, I said to my co-coach, "Well, we'll see how they do on Saturday."

Before the game we warmed up with layups and a two-on-one drill (as we find ourselves frequently on fast breaks, with two of our guys against one defender). I took a few of the kids aside and reminded them about screening, showed them where to set screens and to call out screens to the better ballhandlers. I didn't expect much except this -- we have a bunch of talent on our team, and the kids can run.

So what happened? Well, we "won" by an even bigger margin than the week before. With the first game jitters out of the way, our kids played with more focus. As it turned out, despite the uneven practice, what we said about dribbling with heads up, spacing, passing and setting picks started to take root. Two players set screens that enabled dribblers to go in for layups. Some kids showed nice moves when they switched hands while dribbling. On the fast breaks that we had, they filled the lanes nicely and evenly. By games end, we had five kids sprinting down the court. Now we need to work on finishing plays -- we put the ball up too hard on the breaks, and missed more layups than we made.

Our league is non-competitive, so there is no official score, and there is no playoff system. Our goal is simple -- to help the kids play together better, to have each kid improve week to week and to have fun. The kids inspired us by how hard they worked. We don't yell at them (this is a recreational league -- a kids' game that's supposed to be fun), just to them, reminding them about keeping their hands up on defense, about staying with their man, and about looking for screens. We take care to point out to the kids what they did well when we take them aside to coach them on what they can be doing better.

So what's the message in all this? Here are a few:

1. Focus on the fundamentals. Make sure each kid can handle the ball, dribbles with both hands and with his head up. One of our fastest players focused on dribbling with his head up -- he played a much better (and more controlled) game.

2. Emphasize crisp passing all the time. We have a saying: "Make every pass count." That means don't throw the ball at someone's knees or feet, give them the ball chest high so that they can move right away when they get the ball. I took a few of the kids aside before the game and told them that my challenge was for each of them to have at least one assist.

3. On defense, tell the kids to hustle a little bit more. Translated, that means that we teach them to step in front of their opponent's "strong" hand and make them switch hands. Our best defenders picked up on that early, and they created steals when the opponent tried to switch hands or reverse course. It's a good skill to teach, and you can disrupt the rhythm of even the best players on the other team. We also encourage deflections, and we're working with the kids to stay under control. Yes, we have a few kids who bump into their opponents a bit too much.

4. Stay with the kids on screening. Remind those who seem more inclined to do it where to set the screens. Right now, we're focusing on screening the player guarding the ballhandler, to enable the ballhandler to swing around the pick for a layup or short jumper. We're not as advanced as to have off-ball screens, but we'll get there. The kids saw the results of the screens -- they were pretty good.

5. Be patient. Stay with the drills, and the kids will get better at them. Repetition is key.

6. Finally, let the kids be themselves. The talented ones figure out good ways to get to the basket, and the rest crashed the boards. Emphasize team work and hard work, and good things will happen. Be positive, be encouraging, and even the least talented kids will improve. All each kid needs is for someone to be patient with him and guide him. This isn't rocket science -- it's teaching good skills.

Have fun!

Pat Burrell as a Mentor, Will be Missed

So says Chase Utley. (Scroll down to the end of the article to read Utley's quote).

Three's a Crowd in the MNF Booth

Mike Tirico is the play-by-play guy, and he's good enough at his job.

Ron Jaworski prepares better than any analyst in the business, is likable, fair and knows what he's talking about.

So Tony Kornheiser, who is better known as a writer, is in the booth because. . .

Can anyone answer the question for me?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Metbeats, err Deadbeats?

Fred Wilpon, the Mets' owner, invested a lot of his money (how much, though, we do not know) with Bernard Madoff, the Ponzi of his generation, the guy who looks like he scammed investors out of as much as $50 billion. The scheme is so broad that it's rocking banks in Spain, France and Japan, and perhaps bankrupting many residents of a $17 million per townhouse community in West Palm Beach. Read The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal for the gory details. As Eddie Murphy said in Trading Places, the way to really get at rich people is to make them poor people.

The papers over the course of the past two days send a mixed message. What I took from them is that yes, Wilpon and his family trust did invest a bunch of money with Madoff. The real questions are how much, and will this problem hurt the Mets?

Look, everyone is poorer as a result of the cataclysm that hit the Dow in the past three months. The Arena Football League won't play in 2009, NASCAR is hurting (the Big 3 automakers' troubles have wounded this organization), and you have to wonder about the WNBA and even the NBA and NHL. Companies just can't pony up for tickets any more, they're slashing their advertising budgets, and, well, the story just isn't pretty. Major League Baseball will get hit too, in some way. Perhaps the sponsorships won't be there, or at least in the amount of dollars the teams might expect. Ads for local TV and radio will be harder to sell. Expensive merchandise won't sell as readily, and people will give up season ticket packages.

What could be worse for the Mets is how well capitalized they'll continue to be and how much money the Wilpons can continue to throw at free-agent signings. Sure, the Mets are in the best media market and, yes, they generate a bunch of revenue. But the team hasn't been shy about spending on free agents, and you have to wonder if the monies deployed to sign these players come from operating revenues or infusions from the Wilpons. If it's the latter, that could spell trouble for the Mets.

Look, I'm a Phillies fan, but I would take no joy out of a financial demise of a great team. The Mets put out a good product, and their compulsion to win brings out the best in the NL East. The division wouldn't be a strong were the Mets to suffer a serious financial wound, and, by the way, I wouldn't wish anyone to be a victm of a Ponzi scheme, especially this type of betrayal, one that took place over decades. The whole Madoff affair is one big mess.

Reports in the following weeks should tell us how well or poorly the Mets will fare because of the Madoff situation.

Wisdom and Silliness from Philadelphia

The wisdom, of course, is the signing of Jamie Moyer to a two-year deal. Yes, it's risky to ink a crafty 46 year-old lefty to more than a 1-year deal, but Moyer rocked last year for the Phillies. He's a hometown guy, he's a team leader, and he still gets people out. Remember, it's been said of lefties that they're like a good wine -- they get better with age.

My guess is that the equity markets affected Mr. Moyer, who has seven children, in such a way that perhaps the corpus of money he saved up isn't what it was, say, before the Phillies figured it out in September and went on their dash to the World Series. As a result, that extra, second guaranteed year became more important. When the Phillies figured out that someone else will sign Derek Lowe for more money than he's worth, the options to replace Moyer became fewer and further between. That's why Moyer got the second guaranteed year -- it's a function of supply and demand (which is also why Pat Burrell right now is lingering on the free agent market -- he could be victim of the economy because streaky, slow 32 year-old below average fielding left fielders aren't as much in demand). At any rate, signing Moyer was the smart move.

The dumb move came this past week from one of Moyer's proteges, wunderkind portsider Cole Hamels, who called the Mets' choke artists when interviewed on WFAN. Cole, who was at his most eloquent during the post-season, took the bait -- hook, line and sinker -- from the NY radio station hosts and created bulletin board material for an entire season. Why did someone like Hamels say something so stupid? Well, he didn't have his mentor, whom he follows around reverently during the season, there to filter his remarks. Moyer offers the wisdom of experience, while Hamels offers, at times, the untamed qualities of youth. Forgive Hamels, he's not even 25, and most of us have said or done things before that age that we wouldn't have done given what we know now. Still, you're asked to grow up faster in the world of sports, and Hamels proved in this instance that he hasn't fully matured as the total person yet. (Then again, such brashness might be the key ingredient to what makes him great).

Moyer and Hamels, bookends on a championship season, back together again for at least two more years.

The ambassador and the prodigy, still going strong.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Philadelphia Thrift?

The world has changed for everyone. People's retirement funds are way down, the reign of the financial institutions as we once knew it is over. Wall Street's glitter no longer reflects the way it once did, and most businesses have fewer dollars to spread around than before.

Baseball is no exception, and the post-financial institution crash era has given a new meaning -- for all of us -- to the term "prudence." That's not to say that teams threw around money extravagantly before (in baseball terms; in the world of most us, baseball players are extremely well paid). But now they must look even more closely as the dollars they'll spend.


Because despite arguments that sports are recession proof (and I'd submit that there are Philadelphia Eagles' fans who would let their houses get foreclosed upon before they'd give up tickets to their beloved Birds), this recession is an extremely deep one, and we haven't hit the bottom yet. It will affect teams in the following ways:

1. Sponsors will look at their advertising budgets more closely. Not only will local revenue suffer, but the share of national revenue will suffer too. The demand for ad time will drop, and, therefore, the price of media time will drop too.

2. Businesses won't pony up for luxury boxes or season tickets the way they once did. If you're cutting budgets, stuff like this is the first to go. In addition, there will be season-ticket holders who drop their plans. Again, if you're watching your wallet, no better way to save thousands of dollars a year than to pass on a full- or partial-season ticket plan.

3. Merchandising revenues will drop. Somehow I believe that fans everywhere will make their favorite jerseys and t-shirts last longer. I, for one, plan to wear my Phillies' World Series gear as long as possible.

4. Concession revenues might drop too. Again, paying $6.75 for a beer today at Citizens Bank Park, for example, doesn't look as appealing as it might have before our retirement accounts plunged off the cliff.

That means front offices everywhere are looking for bargains, and they're especially not going to let sentiment or fan commentaries get in the way of wise decisions. For example, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro has tried hard to sign Jamie Moyer, a free agent, to a new contract. The Phillies reportedly have offered Moyer 1 year with an option. Moyer, who just turned 46, wants two guaranteed years. Yes, Moyer is a great clubhouse presence, an outstanding member of the community and he had a great year. But he's also pitching on a considerable amount of guile, his best days behind him (or so it appears). I'm a huge Moyer fan, but I would consider a 2-year deal for Derek Lowe (okay, at more money) a better investment. I really would hate to see the hometown team lose Moyer, but it's a business.

I can't say the same for Pat Burrell or understand where all of his newly found fans are coming from. The guy is 32, has very limited range in the field, can't run, and was terrible from August through years end (he did have a few big hits, but he was mostly unproductive during that time). He also did nothing from September 15 through the season's end in 2007 (even after a span from July 1 through September 15 where he had the best on-base percentage in the National League). Burrell would make a fine DH in the AL, and is probably worth a two-year deal with a club option at about $7.5 million per. He made $14 million last year, the fifth in a back-end loaded contract. My guess is that he's looking for at least 3 years at $12 million per, and he's not worth it. I've looked in many places for "hot-stove" stories about interest in Burrell. All that I've been able to find is that he's a second-tier free agent who might suffer because of the recession. Right now, he has no publicized suitors.

And, yet, people are blasting the Phillies for being cheap regarding Burrell. While I have not been the biggest fan of the Phillies' ownership, they have many challenges facing them. For example, Ryan Howard, Ryan Madson, Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino are eligible for arbitration. If the Phillies cannot get any of those players to sign deals (and my guess is that they won't until they move closer to eligibility for free agency), expect them to get big raises in arbitration. Those awards will increase the payroll significantly. Moreover, the Phillies need to tweak the roster here and there. They could use at least one more starting pitcher, another solid reliever and an outfielder to replace Burrell. All will cost money, but it's not likely they can sign Burrell for big numbers if they need to pay more to four players who are more valuable to the team.

Do I want Moyer back -- yes, but at the right price.

Do I want Burrell back? No, not really, but if he were the best option, he definitely must return at the right price.

It strikes me that the market for most players -- except the exceptional ones (and I'd put Sabathia and K-Rod in that category) -- has shrunk. Fans need to be patient with their teams and wait out the off-season. After all, while you might not be thrilled that your team is being thrifty, you don't want the long-term agony of suffering through a rushed, long-term deal for an albatross.

New York Money

Okay, so the banking world is in the dumper. Right around the time of the fall of the Houses of Bear and Lehman, the demise of Merrill and the humiliation of Citi, the conventional wisdom was that the recession would hit NYC harder than many areas (save Detroit) because 12.5% of the jobs accounted for about 35% of the tax revenues in NYC. Translated, if the investment banking community takes a broadside and starts listing quickly, the money that customarily cascaded to the restaurants, salons and other service providers would trickle to a halt quickly. Digging deeper, one would wonder what cash many would have left to pony up for the most expensive seats in baseball, big cable bills, and the merchandise that fans started to think was an entitlement.

I even read yesterday (I think it was on Jon Heyman's post on that the second-tier free agents in baseball (Pat Burrell comes to mind quickly) might get hurt in the recession, as teams are worried about their revenues. Now, I'm not the biggest Burrell fan, but guys who hit .270 with an OBP of .385, hit 30+ homers and knock in 95 runs a season are few and far between (okay, he looks like a statue at times in the field, but he'd be a good DH in the AL). Moreover, many teams have to be worried about all sorts of revenue, because in this deep of a recession few get spared.

Unless, of course, you're CC Sabathia or K-Rod, who are signing sizable deals with the Yankees and Mets respectively. Which means that the Yankees are fortifying an area of considerable need -- starting pitching, while the Mets are doing the same with their bullpen. Both teams will be much more formidable with these additions, and you can make the argument (once again) that the Mets are the team to beat in the NL East (despite the Phillies' having won the World Series). But, huge signings don't guarantee World Series appearances, and for all their moves (both through elevations of players like David Wright and Jose Reyes and signings of players like Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana and K-Rod), the Mets still have figured out the algorithm that gets them to their first series since 2000. The Yankees have been more successful, of course, but in the past 5 years they've had more than their share of frustrations.

Put differently, just because you open your wallets doesn't mean that you'll win a World Series (see Mets, Yankees, Cubs). Then again, just because you're smart with your money doesn't mean that you'll win one, either (see A's, Twins). To me, the former have a better chance than the latter because after some point you must pony up and pay for excellence. Naturally, that excellence has to stay healthy and hungry and can't simply mail it in after the big bucks have been guaranteed. Still, the bet here is that while these signings excite Yankee and Met fans, respectively (God forbid you to root for both teams in NYC), the lifelong fans will view these signs with a "wait and see" attitude.

Why? Because Mo Vaughn ballooned and faded after becoming a Met, as did Bobby Bonilla. Carl Pavano, fresh off outstanding post-season work, got hurt, as did Billy Wagner, whose closer skills began to fade. Tommy Glavine was really nothing more than an innings eater, and he went out with a big implosion. Beltrain has not become the next Roberto Clemente, Jason Giambi had as many downs as ups, and the last version of Roger Clemens (a very expensive version, too) was not good.

There have been, of course, many successes. A-Rod, for all of the lightning he attracts, is an amazing player. Mike Mussina pitched very well in New York. Johan Santana is one of the three best starting pitchers in the National League. Wagner was very good for two years, and so forth.

But at the end of the day, it's not just about the money. It's about chemistry, it's about putting together a team that picks each other up and has an attitude that it can win at any time. It's not about people who want to brand themselves and garner endless endorsements. It's about the pitcher who goes on three days' rest, it's about the light-hitting catcher who starts to take command of a pitching staff, it's about the middle reliever who finally listens to the pitching coach, works out harder and turns himself into a setup man. It's about a group of 25 highly skilled players pulling together.

Both NY teams have the ability to put together a roster of all-stars that will sell ticket after ticket. Right now, though, both are searching to get into the groove that all World Series champions find at some point, the groove that the Yankees found so well in the mid-1990's.

The bet here is that these two signings will push both teams closer to finding that groove.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Baking to Impress (Or, Tap Into Your Inner Renaissance Man)

Want to impress, well, anyone? Then try this recipe, thanks to McCormick, the spice company. They placed an ad in Bon Appetit, I followed it, and drew good -- no, check that, rave reviews.

1. Pre-heat your oven to 425 degrees.

2. Take out four 6-ounce custard cups, grease them thoroughly with butter.

3. Melt 8 oz of butter in a microwaveable (and pretty large) bowl, along with 4 oz of semi-sweet baker's chocolate (I used 3 oz of Ghirardelli and 1 oz of 62% Scharfenberger).

4. Whisk those ingredients together in the bowl.

5. Add in 1 tablespoon of Cabernet or other wine (I used a Bordeaux) and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Keep whisking.

5. Add 2 eggs and 1 egg yolk. Whisk together, along with 1 cup of confectioner's sugar.

6. Then add 6 tablespoons of flour, and a quarter teaspoon each of cinammon and ginger.

7. Once everything is all mixed together, pour the mixture into each of the custard cups.

8. Put the custard cups on a baking sheet (this can get a little tricky, because the recipe doesn't tell you how to prevent the cups from sliding off the sheet). Put the cups/sheet into the oven.

9. Take out of oven after 15 minutes (or when the outside edges are firmer and the middle is still soft). Let cool for 1 minute.

10. Use a knife around the outside edge of each custard cup. Then, being careful not to burn yourself, turn the custard cup upside down and put onto a serving plate. Sprinkle with some confectioner's sugar.

The cake is harder on the outside, and inside it resembles chocolate lava.

Following a recipe really isn't that hard, and you'll impress anyone who partakes.

Happy baking!

Opening Day: 3rd and 4th Grade Basketball League

We were nervous, my co-coach and I. Only two practices, the last one before Thanksgiving. We heard reports that other coaches actually were putting in plays and that they were working. Well, what could we do? We thought we had some talent, and when we got to our game we learned that the kid who hit jumpers in the second-grade league was on the other team. Okay, so we had a challenge.

But it's a non-competitive league, an excellent ref stopped play to explain situations, and it's all about fun and developing skills. The league requires man-to-man defense (the high school coach apparently insists upon it), and the league also now requires that you play your best players in the second quarter (so that they get to go against the best players on the other team). All ten of our kids showed (one had a travel soccer game 25 miles away earlier that morning).

So what happened?

First, the kids played tenacious defense. They deflected, they stole the ball, they disrupted, and they rebounded okay if not great, but they hustled. I don't think the other team's coach had set plays, but if he did, they got no traction. Man-to-man defense can do that to you (it affected us to). Memo to coaches at this level -- don't worry so much about set plays. Teach your players to screen, roll and keep on screening. The outstanding shooter on the other team scored one bucket the entire game.

Second, the offense was uneven. We had a few skilled kids who could go coast to coast after a rebound, and we hit many more shots than the other team. Of our four primary ballhandlers, only one can dribble with his head up, slow down, keep his dribble and pass off it. He threw some outstanding passes. The other three are very athletic, but we kept telling them to slow down. Practice this week will emphasize playing more under control and passing. Still, we were off to a good start.

The best moment of the day came at half-time, when our best player, the ballhandler who passes and rebounds, came up to me and whispered, "I think I am dominating." I smiled and replied, "Tell you what -- hit a few more shots and throw some more good passes, and I might agree with you." He had an excellent game.

All in all, it was a fun day. The kids worked hard, and they're getting to know each other. My co-coach and I have taken mental notes on some of the things we want kids to work on -- catching and shooting for one, dribbling with heads up for all, setting screens for most. It promises to be a fun season.