Sunday, April 26, 2009

Wait Before You Anoint the Florida Marlins

They've just lost 5 in a row, and they've blown two late leads against the (defending World Series champion) Phillies in the past two games. Here's a summary of last night's loss.

What makes the Phillies dangerous is that they come from behind and, when they have a lead, they usually hold it. Yes, they haven't gotten off to a great start, but it hasn't been an awful start either, and this is a team that has the best record in baseball in September and October over the past 5 seasons. Barring significant injuries (and a predicted dropoff, as I heard Buck Showalter say on ESPN Radio that he believes that Cole Hamels could have a dropoff this season because of the number of innings he pitched last season), the Phillies should be in the thick of the hunt for a playoff spot come Labor Day.

Wins in April count every much as wins in October, and the more you have earlier the less you need later in the season when you're in dire need of them to clinch a playoff berth. But remember this: the Marlins beat up on the Nats for much of their fast start, and part of their recent skein involved getting swept in Pittsburgh against a team that has had 16 straight losing seasons. What does it mean? Not a whole lot, as it's only April 26. All I'm point out is that we shouldn't anoint the Marlins the next coming of the 1984 Detroit Tigers.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Despair of Met Fans

Yes, I'm a Phillies' fan, I'll admit it, and I laughed aloud this morning when I was watching Sports Center during my workout and saw that Adam Eaton pitched 7 plus shutout innings against the White Sox, striking out 9 (6 on fastballs), to get his first win of the year. Eaton's ERA in his first two starts was over 11 (showing that he was picking up on his terrible season in Philadelphia last year), but he righted the course, relaxed and pitched a great outing -- better, mind you, than any outing the Phillies have gotten from a starting pitcher this season. The Phillies are off to a (typical for them) bad start, manager Charlie Manuel is concerned about their lack of punch, and fans are beginning to get concerned about the quality of the starting pitching. Still, it's early, and this team seems to heat up when the weather does.

Phillies' fans, though, aren't all that concerned, they've seen their team rally from deficits in the past 3 seasons, and most are currently focused on how the Eagles will do at the NFL draft tomorrow. It's not even May 1 yet, and lots can happen.

Mets' fans, though, seem desperate now. I listened to WFAN, the sports' talk station in New York, on my drive home yesterday, and Mike Francesa fielded many calls about the Mets and their lack of oomph. There were two main thrusts from the callers -- first, that the starting pitching after Johan Santana is bad and, second, that the team lacks grit, has no leadership and bad chemistry. A few callers went so far as to suggest that they break up the nucleus, and Francesa was wise to point out a) that it's very early in the season and b) the core of Beltran, Delgade, Reyes and Wright is perhaps the best in baseball and that no team has a core that can rival that foursome except the Phillies, but he did point out that the Phillies have more grit and even their lesser hitters are tough outs. That's as big a concession as you'll get from a New Yorker as to notion that anything in Philadelphia is better than anything in New York.

Here are my thoughts:

1. It is early. Mike Pelphrey pitched well for much of last season, John Maine fared well before he got hurt, and Oliver Perez can be brilliant. Livan Hernandez, the #5 starter, isn't all that good, but Mets' fans shouldn't give up on the other three starters any time soon.

2. Getting Gary Sheffield was a mistake. Fernando Tatis was a good story in 2008, he played well, and he didn't detract from the chemistry. Sheffield doesn't help a team whose chemistry already was in question, and he's taking away playing time from Tatis.

3. The chemistry is an issue, and the team needs leaders to step up and help give the team backbone. Right now, the nucleus is the same nucleus that didn't step up and provide that leadership in each of the last two seasons. And, for that reason, it might be wise for the Mets to trade Carlos Delgado.

Here's why:

Delgado seems to be a good guy, a dangerous hitter, but at the beginning of last season his bat was in question (he turned it on so much that for a while he was a legitmate MVP candidate), and he is a very limited fielder right now. He's the senior statesman in the clubhouse, and the younger players in all likelihood defer to him and haven't stepped up and asserted themselves as leaders. Compare this situation to Philadelphia about three years ago, where the team was stuck in the mud a bit, winning a few more than it lost, but the senior statesman on the team was Bobby Abreu. Abreu is a good guy, a good teammate, and when people look back on baseball stats he'll be viewed as one of those guys who put up great numbers but somehow wasn't as good as the top 10 players in the league. He also was a mellow guy, not a leader, but the younger players deferred to him. The Phillies sensed this, and in a controversial move (Abreu was popular), they traded him to the Yankees for four marginal prospects, one of whom was so good at baseball that he'll now be playing basketball at the University of Kansas (C.J. Henry). At the time, the conventional wisdom was that the Phillies gave away Abreu.

And they did. But, by doing so, they opened the door for the younger personalities to assert themselves in the clubhouse. No longer did they defer to Abreu (I have to check the dates, but it might have been that they had peddled Jim Thome for Aaron Rowand before that season began). Instead, Jimmy Rollins emerged as the team's vocal leader, and he's a tough and gritty guy. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard emerged as stars, and the whole persona of the team changed. Not only were they talented, but they could hit in the clutch, come from behind and win.

Now, I'm not sure who among Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Jose Reyes can be the Mets' Jimmy Rollins, and my guess is that it's not Beltran because he's over 30 and if he were going to assert himself as the vocal leader he would have done so already. Maybe it's Wright, maybe it's Reyes, but the Mets' front office needs to create the opening so that the swagger of Reyes can trickle down to everyone else. But as long as Carlos Delgado is the senior statesman, it seems as though the younger players will continue to defer to him.

Anyway, it's just a thought, and the Mets probably wouldn't think of trading Delgado because they might not have anyone to replace him and he hit at a torrid pace for most of last season. Still, if chemistry is an issue for this team, they don't have to totally break up the core, they just might want to slice away the oldest piece and let the younger players -- who are among the best in the NL -- emerge as leaders and create a new personality for the team.

It worked for the Phillies, and the Mets certainly have enough talent that it can work for them.

And, Mets' fans, lighten up! It's not even May 1. It's a long season, and you have plenty of talent to win it all.

"Viva Viagra" and Other Sports Ads

This morning, as I was grabbing my briefcase and headed out the door, I heard my son singing "Viva Viagra." He's a huge baseball fan, he watches MLB Network and ESPN, plays Little League and was outside yesterday hitting the ball off a batting tee into a net (his next game is this weekend).

He's also 9.

Which means, of course, that baseball gears its ads to middle-aged men whose only choices for extra curricular sports in the spring were baseball, baseball and baseball and who went to games with their dads, grandfathers and uncles. Besides, 9 year-olds only ask for money, they don't have income, and heck, most advertisers will tell you that the reasons why SI doesn't sell many ads and that the sports pages have very few when compared to other sections (and those other sections are hurting massively because of the advent of Google, Yahoo and Craigslist) is that men don't make many purchasing decisions anyway -- women do. So, one product that can be very attractive to middle-aged men is a performance-enhancing drug, albeit of a different stripe.

And that means that our young kids have to see stuff like this. I chuckled from afar (my wife believes that I'm a perpetual nine year-old), and my wife pointed out that of all the things to sing aloud my son probably shouldn't chant this advertising jingle in his third-grade class. Wise woman, my wife is, given that kids get sent to the principal for less (this is a school where the playing of touch football is banned, albeit because the kids pile onto each other every time there is a fumble).

Now, I did shudder at listening to sports talk radio in the car when the kids were even younger, because, again, stations like WIP in Philadelphia were won't to advertise for the likes of the adult novelty and video shops that sounded salacious over the airwaves. Needless to say, I was quick to change the station to something else, but these sports stations aren't informational, they're opinion-oriented, so why expose your young kids to critical men and women who call up usually to complain about something?

And then there was this morning, where I heard the first ad I ever heard from a licensed proctologist. The gist of the ad was that 80% of men have some type of hemorrhoidal problem, and that the doctor in question could take care of them painlessly and in his office, and, yes, he also does colonoscopies, so, in a way, this cat is a one-stop shop for all of your GI problems. I'm not going to name him or link to him, but the ad did recite that his website is I kid you not.

In world where less is sacred by the day and people reveal intimate details on Facebook and MySpace, my susceptibility to being shocked has also diminished. That said, I wonder what sponsors will emerge to support sporting events in the near future, given that the major sports are all hurting for advertising dollars and need them now more than ever.

It's hard to see the sporting world digging deeper, unless they're going to try to lure you to your neighborhood casino (and they're popping up everywhere) that has a shopping mall that offers you all of the stuff I just mentioned.

Because then you'd have true one-stop shopping that appeals to the basest of human wants.

And now that Ultimate Fighting Championships are getting more legitmized by the day, will there be professional Rollerball anytime soon?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mistakes and the NFL Draft

Did you ever wonder how the MLB and NFL drafts differ so much?

In baseball, territorial scouts figure out who the best prospects are in a region and report them up to the front office. The front office then sends out regional cross checkers, and, sometimes, national cross checkers are used. The ultimate goal is to come up with a list of priorities for the Major League Baseball draft. The scouts use all sorts of metrics and gather as much information as they can. And, since the advent of Billy Beane, they are more likely than not to rely upon past performance and the player's current skill set as an indication of future performance (that is to say, it's hard to teach a wild swinger the strike zone, whereas Kevin Youkilis's knowledge of the strike zone propelled him to the majors, even though many old-school scouts would have knocked him because of his physique). Sure, they like upside, but if you haven't produced reasonably well, you're not going to be a high draft pick (even under non-Moneyball theories; to the contrary it's struck me that unless someone ran like a deer, had a rifle for an arm and a powerful bat, you'd get marked down despite your accomplishments because of flaws in your skill set as opposed to upgraded because of hope). Baseball people are funny that way.

Andy Staples' column at regading overrated and underrated players brought this home for me. Major League Baseball doesn't have pro tryout days at colleges, there isn't a scouting combine, and players don't take Wonderlic tests or other personality compatibility tests. But, in the NFL, there are those front offices who get caught up in the feeding frenzy of mining data other than what the player did on the field to determine who has more of an upside and who will continue to improve and excel as a pro. Unfortunately, these front office folks can be prone to ignoring stellar on-field play as an indicator of future performance. Which means, of course, that there are plenty of opportunities for future Billy Beanes of football.

Read Staples' column, and particularly the reference to linebacker DeMeco Ryans and see what I'm talking about. All Ryans did at Alabama was make plays for four years and establish himself as the best defender in the SEC, yet he didn't go in the first round (he's shined in the NFL). And the conventional wisdom -- shared by every GM despite evidence that Means made the plays -- was that Means lacked the "it" factor to go in the first round. Huh? I also read Mel Kiper's draft guide last year, and the most appealing running back to me was a kid who, while a little bit small and from a school not known for football, had a sub 4.3 time in the 40-yard dash, caught the ball well and had a great writeup as to his makeup. Yet, this kid, despite his production, didn't go in the first-round, either. His name? Chris Johnson (of East Carolina), who starred at RB for the Titans last season. Yet, all GMs passed on Johnson in the first round too.

Why doesn't production at a high level in college suggest future performance? And why do scouts get giddy on guys who haven't had that many starts (such as Mark Sanchez and Aaron Maybin). What's the matter with the standout who started for 28 games at an SEC school, made all-conference twice, got some honorable mention all-American publicity, made the plays and has good size and reasonably good speed? He's a known quantity. Yet, GMs insist upon selected guys with a little more flash and dash because they project better.

But the fact is that it doesn't appear that those high-ceiling guys fare better. At any rate, read Staples' column and decide for yourself whether unrealistic expectations of high picks in the NFL draft reflect the victory of hope over experience.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Peter King on the NFL Draft for the Giants, Eagles

I agree with the veteran SI writer -- if either team is looking for a WR to select with its first-round pick. Basically, the advice is -- don't do it. Read the article (it's short) and draw your own conclusion. King presents great evidence that most WRs taken on the first round fail (which is why in previous years the Eagles have avoided taking WRs on the first round, because it's been reported that they believe WR is one of the deepest positions in college football and that they can fare well with lesser picks). King suggests that the teams -- who usually have winning seasons and are never that far from a serious playoff run -- trade their picks for either Braylon Edwards (although he had a lot of drops last year) or Anquan Boldin. It's pretty sound advice.

It will be interesting to see what both teams do, and you'll recall that there was a good article in "ESPN the Magazine" a few years ago that suggested that teams really shouldn't want to select anyone with a high pick because the failure rate was so high (as was the expense of the failures). Don't be surprised that if the Eagles don't see someone they like with the 21st pick that they trade down and out of the first round for the third year in a row. They also need a TE and a running back, and their philosophy also has been that you can get good value from the RB position after the first round.

And despite Philadelphia fans' frustration with the Eagles' not winning the Super Bowl during Andy Reid's tenure, Reid has gotten the Birds to the NFC championship game 5 times (where he's proven to be a poor man's Marv Levy). Reid does know what he's doing (after all, he's not Matt Millen), and one of the best RB's to come out of last year's draft (who had a brilliant writeup in Mel Kiper's draft guide by the way) was Chris Johnson of East Carolina, who was drafted after the first round and starred for Tennessee. And, because of the need for cap management, Johnson cost his team a whole lot less precisely because he didn't go in the first round.

Oh, those general managers in various cities are wily foxes all. John Clayton of ESPN wrote an article the other day about the five best, and he included Reid, Bill Polian and Bill Belichick in the mix. Creative, aggressive, and, yes, their teams win more often than not. Jerry Reese likewise has excelled for the Giants, and this draft day should prove to be a most interesting one.

One aside: In this morning's "Philadelphia Inquirer", Sheldon Brown indicated that there are other Eagles who are unhappy with their contracts. Note to Sheldon: you are pouring gasoline on a fire, and in most NFL locker rooms you'll have guys who are unhappy with their contracts for the same reason you are with yours. But here's the question: what were you thinking when you signed the deal you did early in your career -- didn't it cross your mind that you were trading potentially larger numbers in later years for the guarantee of a big bonus that you earned before you had a chance to get hurt and ruin the opportunity to earn those bigger dollars in later years? Didn't your agent tell you that? Don't you know that the average NFL career is so short that players assess this risk frequently in their careers, and didn't you also know that you were offered this type of deal before anyone else in your draft class. Your a good, decent man and a great player. Please figure out a way to make peace with the situation -- you owe that to yourself above all others.

Pirates Sweep Marlins, are 9-6! Pirates Fans: Go to the Park!

Yes, that's not a misprint, and for all of us Phillies' fans, we had to endure all of the talking heads on ESPN and MLB TV marveling over the glorious 11-1 start of the Marlins, how they were for real, how their hitting will hold up, their pitching staff is excellent, and how the Phillies and Mets will be in a run for their money come September. Memo to talking heads: yes, the fish are talented, but they beat up on the Nats for the most part and it's not even May 1 yet. Let's wait a little bit before the excitement should mount (remember, a Chinese leader once said that even at 200 years, it was too early to tell whether the U.S.A. is a success).

Anyway, the so-called lowly Pirates, they of having 16 straight seasons, swept the front-running Marlins in Pittsburgh, finishing them off today, 7-4. The Pirates are 9-6 and, some would argue, it is they and not the 11-4 Marlins who should be the talk of the National League. If you dig further into the land of the Pirates, you'll note that pitching coach Joe Kerrigan is doing wonders with the young pitching staff, which has given the Buccos five straight strong outings. Kerrigan, you may recall, worked wonders in Montreal, Boston and Philadelphia before flaming out in his hometown City of Brotherly Love and ending up as a bullpen coach in the Bronx. He has had a successful (if tempestuous at times) career (he failed in his stint as the manager in Boston), and might just be the pitch doctor that the Pirates needed to help give some rigor to a staff that, even for the Pirates, disappointed last year.

As someone who fondly recalls the great Pirates teams of the 1960's and 1970's and the great rivalries that they had with everyone, particularly the Phillies in the 1970's and early 1980's (and most certainly before MLB killed the rivalry by putting the Phillies and Pirates in different divisions), I am very happy to see this and hope it lasts for a while. Team president Frank Coonelly and GM Neil Huntington are working hard to undo a decade and a half's worth of damage (perhaps it's the curse of Barry Bonds, given that the Pirates haven't had a winning season since Bonds departed in the early 1990's). This sweep is great news for the Pirates, and their fans should celebrate.

And go to the ball park.

In droves.

The Fall of Lenny Dykstra

Mike Fish of has nailed the player they used to call "Nails." Put simply, Lenny Dykstra's life is one big mess, and reports that he's some genius of a financial guru were greatly exaggerated. I hate to say it, but I hinted at as much about a year ago.

Read the whole thing, but it appears that Lenny Dykstra's life has spun out of control -- fights with family members, a trail of angry investors, employees, third-party contractors, lawsuits, all but criminal investigations and indictments. This is sad to see, but it also was hard to believe about a year ago that Dykstra was the flaming success some had made him out to be (including one fawning Philadelphia-area talk radio show host, who bragged about being invited to a big party introducing Dykstra's "Players' Club" magazine).

The whole thing, as it were, is very sad. It's not necessarily as though Lenny Dykstra's financial empire has crashed. It could be that it never was that good to begin with, with a trail of questionable decisions, but now they're all coming to a head from different vantage points, closing in on the former Major Leaguer and leaving him without any moves -- other than bankruptcy and a serious restructuring of his career ambitions and lifestyle.

And, as I wrote a year ago, the whole story of his glorious financial empire was hard to believe a year ago.

What a mess.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Eagles and Sheldon Brown

Eagles' Pro Bowl cornerback Sheldon Brown wants out of Philadelphia. Apparently he quietly asked for a trade a year ago, and now he is asking for one loudly. Brown has three years left on his contract, but he wants a new one because apparently the market has moved for star corners, and he doesn't believe he's well-compensated. Of course, as the Eagles (curiously) point out in their press release of this afternoon, that thought apparently didn't cross Brown's mind when the Birds offered him a long-term deal, a sizable bonus and the financial security that others in his draft class weren't offered at the time. Now, Brown didn't have to sign that contract, and, had he not, he could have earned a more lucrative payday when he was eligible for free agency. But he also could have suffered a career-ending injury and not cashed in. So, with agent in tow, he signed the long-term deal several years ago.

The Eagles response is curious because they have answered their star corner in a tough manned and continued the dispute in the public's eye. Naturally, they think they're right, and they do have a good argument. The question is whether their being right will benefit the team in the long run, or will they have a demotivated corner back for the second year in a row?

Sheldon Brown seems like a decent guy, but his plight raises a bunch of questions:

1. How flawed is the players' union's contract with the NFL? One, high draft picks who have proven nothing get ridiculously big deals at the expense of star veterans who might never "catch up" because they were low-round picks or free agents, didn't get a signing bonus, and then had to wait for free agency.

2. How selfish are NFL players? Brown had representation, he knew the risks, and he took a lesser deal than he would have gotten had he stayed healthy during the years up to free agency and performed at a high level. So why is he upset?

3. Are the Philadelphia Eagles unique in this predicament? It doesn't seem that they are, and, heck, they just traded for a left tackle who raised a stink in Buffalo, asked out, got his wish, and was traded -- ironically, to Philadelphia. The Bills enabled bad behavior and, tangentially, so did the Eagles.

4. How would you feel? I mean, suppose your a perennial top performer, you ink a deal early in your career, and then the market moves, so much so that your back-up, Joselio Hanson, gets a deal that is close to yours? Now, in the non-football real world, at some point management would realize a talent when it saw one and make sure that its star was paid at the top of the group that does the same job he does. In the football world, it's all about managing the free agency risk. I can see why Brown is ticked -- to him, lesser players are making the same if not more. But Brown seems to have gotten it wrong, hasn't he? After all, the game isn't to get paid more than the next guy, it's to get paid as much as possible before you get injured and get released. He might be measuring his success by the wrong yardstick.

At any rate, the Eagles have yet another unhappy defensive back. They lost Brian Dawkins to Denver and Sean Considine to Jacksonville, and they traded Lito Sheppard to the Jets. Sheldon Brown is no dummy, and he's forcing the Eagles' hand right before draft day because the Birds are somewhat thin in what has been a strong area for them under Andy Reid -- the secondary.

Sheldon Brown drew his line in the sand, and the Eagles have parried his attack and answered.

Stay tuned.

76ers-Magic Yesterday

Just one thought:

The 76ers put 37 year-old reserve forward Donyell Marshall into the game late in the fourth quarter. The guy all but has a neon sign on his forehead that exclaims: "I am going to shoot the three."

So what happens? Late in the game, Orlando fails to guard Marshall (well enough), and he hits a three.

NBA teams have something like 5 assistant coaches sitting on the bench. Shouldn't three of them have been screaming to the guy assigned to Marshall that he should stay closer to him than Epcot is to Magic Kingdom?

Dwight Howard might sell tickets, but the Magic have to tighten up their defense to get closer to a championship.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Phillies-Padres at Citizens Bank Park Last Night

It was a beautiful day in the Delaware Valley, and we went to the park to see the Phillies (hopefully) rebound from a disappointing loss the night before, where they blew a 7-1 lead to lose to the surprising Padres (none of whose starters, I believe, would beat out a Phillie for a starting position in the everyday lineup). It also was a long day for the Phillies' faithful, as the gates of CBP opened at 8 a.m. to enable fans to pay tributes to Harry Kalas. A memorial service followed.

About 9,000 fans turned out for the service, and many local and baseball luminaries turned out to pay their respects, including Hall of Famers Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt. This again was a touching tribute to a man who had touched the lives of so many during his 38-year tenure with the Phillies.

The Phillies enjoyed another sellout crowd, and we had to endure Brett Myers walking the bases full before getting out of the top of the first. (Note: My son, who is 9, threw fewer pitches in the first inning of his Little League game than Myers did last night against a team not noted for its offense). Memo to Brett: you are in a contract year, so if you want the multi-year deal and want the hometown team not to trade for Jake Peavy in a deadline deal (for those Cubs fans out there who think Peavy is a lock to join you before July 31, while the Phillies don't have tons of minor-league prospects to trade, you have only slightly more than the Astros, which remains at about zero), start pitching the way you did after you came back from AAA with about a third of the season remaining in 2008.

Anyway. . .

The Padres are a plucky lot. 1B Adrian Gonzalez hit a long home run over the center field fence, 2B David Eckstein embodies their grit, and, well, they did it two nights in a row. It was a see-saw game, it saw another bad outing from Phillies' set-up man Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge's first blown save since the end of the 2007 season, when Lidge was toiling for the Houston Astros (and "toil" is probably the appropriate verb, for, if not, the choice would have been "struggle").


1. Lidge was bound to blow a save sooner or later. So, he blew one last night. These things happen, but remember that the Phillies' bullpen had an incredible record in games the team was ahead after 8 innings last year, something like 88-1, and their bullpen has blown up two nights in a row. It was this same 'pen that helped propel them to their title in 2008. Yes, of course, the season is early.

2. The Phillies' honoring of Harry Kalas was nice. There is a sign on the left-field wall, his signature with the date of his Hall of Fame induction painted on the first-base line, and we all got to sing "High Hopes" -- his favorite song -- during the 7th inning stretch. All good stuff.

3. Raul Ibanez is a big upgrade over Pat Burrell. What I heard on talk radio the other day confounds me -- that you can't get a fan who calls in to say a bad word about Burrell -- but those fans are engaged in a) revisionist history or b) an ignoring of the facts. Pat the Bat was plum awful from September 15 through the end of the 2007 season and then was AWOL for August and September of 2008. He was a streak hitter, increasingly a liability in left, and as the newspaper industry has learned, if you don't evolve, you can become extinct. The Phillies needed to evolve in left, and while Ibanez is no spring chicken, his bat is showing up in a big and consistent way.

4. Hard to believe that when you get home runs from the 3, 4 and 5 hitters in the same game (Utley, Howard and Ibanez all homered), you'd lose the game. But that's what the Phillies did last night.

5. I like Tom McCarthy a lot, and I think that he'll do a great job as the successor to Harry Kalas. McCarthy is excellent, but Phillies' fans should approach their appreciation of McCarthy by hoping that he can be the best he can be and not be the next Harry Kalas. Harry was an original and a classic, but we can't pin unrealistic expectations on McCarthy. Also, Kalas was blessed with a great partner in Richie Ashburn, and while the insiders sing their praises of Larry Andersen, to me he's part of a baseball insider fraternity that doesn't relate well to the average fan. Put differently, McCarthy's the star of the team, and his remaining teammates are average (although I like Gary Matthews).

6. The Padres' cream road uniforms with blue lettering and trim are quite stylish. They are from southern California, after all, and they do look good. They paint houses with those colors in colonial towns in New England, I think.

7. Another sellout. Lots of red, a great fan base. It's just a shame that they didn't walk away from the park with a W.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Friday Night Lights" is Back for 2 More Seasons

You are missing out on one of the best series EVER to air on television if you haven't watched Friday Night Lights. Buzz Bissinger's book by the same title about high school football in Odessa, Texas was a classic, and the movie that followed was good. This series honors both and is just outstanding. The producers, directors and writers paint a great picture of very human characters in the Texas high school football scene, and the series transcends Texas high school football -- it's about life and how everyday people go through it, with its ups and downs. Sure, it somehow can't get past such TV luminaries as American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, 24 and others in the ratings, but it's an awesome show.

How good? My wife isn't a football fan, but she loves the show and has found it most compelling. So much so that we purchased the first two seasons on DVD and watched as many as three episodes in one evening. Now, I'll submit that it's a stretch to give this gift as a Mother's Day present, but for all of you wives and children out there, the first two seasons will make a great Father's Day Gift for dad. And you'll love watching the series as well.

The third season ended a week ago Friday night with a great episode that focused on the future of some of the main characters -- Coach Eric Taylor and seniors Tim Riggins, Matt Saracen, Lyla Gerrity and Tyra Collette. It did leave us hanging a bit, and I'm happy to report that NBC and DirectTV have re-upped for two more seasons of the show.

That said, the show has not been popular with viewers, and my guess is that it will start out in the fall on DirectTV and then come back to NBC after the New Year (the way it did for Season 3). In addition, each season will be relatively short, 13 episodes apiece. You can read about the details here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Phillies and Lefty Relievers

Last year, the Phillies went into the season with only 1 lefty reliever, J.C. Romero, whom they picked up off Boston's scrap heap the year before. Romero excelled for the Phillies, but during the 2008 season they realized that they would ruin Romero's outstanding left arm if they pitched him all the time.

During the season, the Cubs weren't happy with lefty Scott Eyre, an end-of-the-bullpen 37 year-old whose possibilities for the Cubs apparently were so remote that skipper Lou Pinella never got his first name right. At the time the Phillies acquired Eyre, his ERA was over 7, but he rebounded nicely for the Phillies, went something like 5-0 with an ERA under 4, and did stellar work en route to the World Series.

Unbenknownst to the Phillies, Romero had to attend a hearing in Tampa during the World Series on charges that he had taken a banned substance. Romero made a GNC-type defense, did something dumb, did ingest a banned substance, and is now serving a 50-game suspension. So, going into the season, the Phillies had one lefty reliever on the Major League roster -- Scott Eyre.

During spring training, starter J.A. Happ lost his competition to Chan Ho Park to be the team's #5 starter (in somewhat of a mystery, because Happ pitched well in the pre-season, as did Park, who got lit up in his Phillies' debut). Instead of farming Happ out, they relegated him to the bullpen, where he'll pitch when the starters get lit up early (unfortunately for Happ, Adam Eaton was released in spring training and Kyle Kendrick is pitching for the AAA Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs). So, they had two lefty relievers going into the season, but they weren't sure about Happ's ability to come out of the bullpen, as he had been a starter in college and in the minors.

They waited a bit to make this decision, and, in doing so, lost out on a chance to sign Joe Beimel, who was a workhorse in the Dodgers' bullpen for the past three seasons and who is faring well right now for the Nationals. They also whiffed on Will Ohman, who has excelled in the past for the Cubs and the Braves. Ohman somehow didn't get the three-year, $10 million plus deal that the braniacs in Baseball Prospectus thought he would get and signed a minor-league deal (I apologize for forgetting the name of the team). For what it's worth, Ohman was the premier lefty reliever on the market in the off-season.

Somewhat out of moves, the Phillies traded back-up catcher Ronnie Paulino to the Giants for veteran lefty reliever Jack Taschner, who had gotten lit up in spring training and wouldn't have been mentioned in the same breath with Beimel or Ohman, or even Scott Eyre. Now, in fairness, in the midst of a deep recession the team upped its payroll by almost 30% from last season's. Many teams reduced their payrolls. But still, figuring that the team had spent wisely to improve the roster and try for a repeat, you would have thought they would have spent some incremental extra money to sign a reliever of the caliber of Beimel or Ohman. Sure, you would have had a problem had both Eyre and either Beimel or Ohman pitched well when Romero came back, but presumably you could have traded one for value to an American League team in the hunt. That makes some sense, right?

Last night Jack Taschner relieved and summoned memories of ghosts of Phillies' relievers past by giving up two home runs to the Nationals. Yes, starter Joe Blanton gave up a bomb to Adam Dunn and Chad Durbin also gave up a gopher ball, but giving up two home runs with a chance to keep the game close just wasn't something the Phillies did last year, and championship teams don't do that. It does make you wonder whether the Phillies took a flyer on Taschner just to keep a seat warm for Romero, but after a few good outings the second lefty in the 'pen summoned the reasons why the also-ran Giants decided to part with him.

This situation bears watching. The Phillies jettisoned salaries when they cut Geoff Jenkins and Adam Eaton. They might not have the luxury of being that patient with Jack Taschner, and Phillies' fans hope that they won't regret not signing Ohman or Beimel.

Is the NFL Screwing the Jets and Some of Its Fans?

So sayeth the Jets' front office and Jewish fans, who are ticked that the NFL elected to schedule home games in New York on the holiest of Jewish holidays -- Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The first game is smack in the middle of the Jewish New Year's holiday, and the latter starts right before the beginning of the Day of Atonement (it's a 4:15 game, and Yom Kippur begins at sundown that night). The Giants, though, are on the road.

This is pretty insensitive of the NFL, as there are lots of Jewish fans in New York. Woody Johnson, the Jets' owner, is trying to reschedule the Jets' game on the eve of Yom Kippur to 1:00 p.m., so that it can end in time for Jewish fans to begin their religious holiday. As for the Rosh Hashanah date, it's unclear what can be done at this point, but the NFL has enough resources and brain power to do the right thing here.

The NFL should be embarrassed by this. It's 2009 already, and the whole world - the working world, the political world, the media world, the sports world -- is sensitized to cultural and religious needs. So why goof in such a blundering way?

The best resolution? Admit your error, reschedule the Yom Kippur game to 1:00 p.m., and juggle the schedule so that the Jets don't have a home game in the middle of Rosh Hashanah. That would be the smart thing to do.

Is Mark Sanchez a Beanie Baby?

The USC QB is the hottest thing since

a) the tulip bulb craze in Holland in the 1700's;
b) becoming an investment banker in Iceland in 2007;
c) the run in the late 1990's;
d) the rush to draft Akili Smith after one good season at Oregon about 10 years ago; or
e) lining up at the store to buy the Princess Di Beanie Baby also about 10 years ago.

Reports are that Sanchez is moving fast up the draft charts, possibly to Seattle at #4 (according to what I heard on ESPN Radio this morning). The reasons are not that Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer have become stellar pros. The reasons are that he has a good skill set and has impressed teams who have interviewed him with his football IQ, his intensity and his work ethic. The latter should not be underestimated, because it has often been the case that highly rated QBs who are asked to sit for a few years lose their work ethic or, if they get to play quickly, they don't think that they need to study (support for this contention is that 3 out of 4 QBs drafted in the first round over the past 20 years or so have not been successful). Matt Cassel, for example, who was a back-up his entire college career, wore his helmet on the sidelines to remind him that he had to keep his head in the game in case he was called upon to play. That strategy worked out well for Cassel, who had a good year in N.E. when Tom Brady went down and who inked a huge one-year deal this year after the Patriots tagged him.

Back to Sanchez. Is he the real deal, another Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco, or is this merely a feeding frenzy and a team in need of a QB is just as likely to get a good one in the sixth round as it is in the first? How many times have we heard that QBs are must haves, only to see them not play well. Sure, it's easy to point to a Ryan Leaf, but how about Smith, Cade McNown, David Carr (although the lack of a good offensive line on an expansion team limited Carr's potential), Vince Young (although the book on him hasn't been written) and many others. If I am a GM of a team with a first-round pick, I'd question myself as to why Sanchez is such a must have and then consider whom I would have considered had Sanchez not become the subject of such a frenzy.

The herd mentality of NFL drafters also had led the likes of Marcus Allen and Warren Sapp, among many others, to slip, only to have those players excel in the NFL. That's why those in charge of their teams' drafts have to be careful about the criteria they're using to evaluate any prospect. And they also should consider why a guy who wasn't considered a high first-round pick has risen so highly.

While buyers should be wary, why is it the case that NFL GMs make the same mistakes over and over again?

Broadcasting Mount Rushmore

I listened to Mike Greenberg and Buster Olney this morning on ESPN Radio. They were reflecting upon John Madden's retirement and were talking about who would be on their broadcasting Mount Rushmore. In addition, the Philadelphia Inquirer, in its writing about Harry Kalas, referenced the results of the balloting of the American Sportscasters Association on the top 50 broadcasters of all-time. Vin Scully was #1, Harry Kalas #41. Evidence of how credible this survey was -- Phil Rizzuto was #36 and Bill Walton #39.

Okay, so it's subjective, isn't it. I'm not sure that I have a Final Four, but I'll offer a top 10 (in no particular order of preference).

1. Tie between Red Barber, the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Mel Allen, the voice of the Yankees, when radio was king and the Brooklyn-Yankee rivalry was supreme. Both were master craftsmen.

2. Howard Cosell. No, I didn't particularly like him, but he revolutionized the sports host and paved the way for many others who have distinguished themselves.

3. Ray Scott. Okay, many of you haven't heard of him, but if you saw him on TV doing Green Bay Packers' football, Penn State football, the NFL or anything else, he was great at blending a distinct and dignified play-by-play style with the medium of television. The utmost professional.

4. John Madden. Enough has been written about Madden recently that you can find it on a Google search. Suffice it to say that he made color commentary an art, as he blended solid analysis with affability. Some color commentators are scolds (see: Packer, Billy) and others are affable without enough substance (see Siragusa, Tony), but Madden was top shelf in both departments.

5. Vin Scully. The voice of the Dodgers not only gets a longevity award, he gets another nod for his use of language and his skill. Another master craftsman. By the way, while ESPN's Jon Miller won't make this list, he's another one who is a pleasure to listen to and uses the language very well. It's a shame that his partner is Joe Morgan, who, while a bright baseball guy, can come off too much as an old-school, tough, kill joy baseball guy.

6. Jim McKay. He was a game show host in NYC before being tapped to host tape-delayed highlights of the 1960 Olympics from a studio in New York. That led to his being tapped to host the then-new Wide World of Sports, and that let to his being the perpetual host of the Olympics until his retirement. When you think of Jim McKay, you think of gravitas, grace, thoroughness, compassion and a unique ability to capture the moment. When I think of the best of all time, Jim McKay is right up there.

7. Jack Whitaker. Like McKay, another master who was great at finding and telling a story. He was an excellent reporter, good in the booth and studio. Another one who was a pleasure to listen to.

8. Chick Hearn and Johnny Most. The former broadcast for the Lakers, the latter for the Celtics, and that's a huge concession for me because I am a diehard 76ers fan. But basketball is a big deal in this country, and it's top guys should get recognized.

9. Dave Zinkoff. Now, okay, the Zink wasn't a sportscaster, he was a public address announcer, but he was by far the best at what he did, so much so that he deserves mention in this post.

10. Bob Costas. What a memory, tremendous on the facts, outstanding studio host.

Honorable Mention: Keith Jackson, Curt Gowdy, Dick Enberg, Chris Berman, Harry Kalas (whom I adored).

That top 10 list, by the way, differs from my personal Mount Rushmore, which I'll get to in another post.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Book Review: David Maraniss' "Rome 1960"

Maraniss wrote very good biographies of Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente, and his addressing of this topic is premised by the subtext "The Olympics That Changed the World."

The book is well-researched and generally well-written. He writes from a number of different perspectives -- the Cold War (where the countries behind the curtain were using sports for propaganda purposes), the end of amateurism (and the hypocrisy and sometimes cruelty of the International Olympic Committee's enforcement of a very pure interpretation of "amateurism"), the juxtaposition of racism in the United States against the preeminence of certain athletes of color (most notably Wilma Rudolph, Rafer Johnson and a boxer named Cassius Clay), the emergence of performance-enhancing drugs (apparently the Soviets were having fun with biochemistry at about that time), and the ultimate realization that the Olympics could make a lot of money by selling TV rights (these Olympics were televised sparsely on tape delay featuring a former game-show host named Jim McKay as the studio host; McKay would go on to be the dean of Olympic sports reporting and a masterful announcer).

Maraniss focuses on the autocracy and hypocrisy of IOC chief Avery Brundage (whom venerated NYT sports columnist Red Smith thought was a jerk), the determination of Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila (who won the marathon running in the city of a country that had conquered his country decades before -- and who ran barefoot), the grace of a cadre of women runners called the Tigerbelles from Tennessee State University, the leadership and sportsmanship of the preeminent U.S. competitor, Rafer Johnson, in the decathlon against his college teammate and buddy C.K. Yang of Taiwan (Red Smith was quoted as denigrating the decathlon, in essence saying that you took a group of guys who could do nothing particularly well and then put them in a competition of 10 events and glorified it over 2 days), the questions about judged sports, the efforts of the Soviet Union, the hard-luck track experience of Duke medical student Dave Sime in the 100-meter dash and 4x100 relay (Sime later became a well-regarded eye doctor in Miami), the domination of the U.S. Olympic basketball team (men's), the end of chauvinism by allowing women to participate more widely, and many more dramas and subdramas.

This is another great book from Marannis, a very good read, and a good mix of political and social issues.

John Madden is Retiring

Read about it here.

One of my favorite John Madden moments involved the 1983 NFC championship game between the Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Rams. The Redskins were terrific in that area (Joe Gibbs was their coach), and they were sounding beating the Rams late in the game.

By the fourth quarter, Bob Holly, two years removed from quarterbacking Princeton, was in the game for the Redskins (backing up Joe Thiesmann) and Jeff Kemp, three years removed from quarterbacking Dartmouth, was in for the Rams (John Madden had a son play for Brown and a son play for Harvard).

Madden noticed this and offered: "This is amazing. Who would have thought that in a conference championship game, you'd have quarterbacks from Ivy League schools in the game for both teams?"

The director was masterful. He cut to a shot of Redskins' defensive tackle Dave Butz, one of the league's biggest players, standing on the sidelines. The closeup showed Butz in his helmet, with some paint missing, with a cut at the bridge of his nose.

Madden: "And there's Dave Butz. He didn't go to no Ivy League school."

Perhaps not as good as Alex Karras's famous line from a Monday night game, when the cameras focused on Raiders' defensive tackle Otis Sistrunk (who didn't go to college). Sistrunk, who shaved his head, was sitting on the bench on a chilly night, steam coming from his head. The previous talk was about different players and their colleges. Then the camera found Sistrunk on the sidelines. Said Karras: "And there's Otis Sistrunk, University of Mars."

Most if not all wouldn't remember my Madden vignette, but Madden was great on the air, affable but fair, interesting, didactic, and seemingly an all-around good guy. As Michael Lewis wrote in his book "The Blind Side," about the evolution of the left tackle position in football and the emergence of (now possible first-round draft choice out of Ole Miss) Michael Oher from out of nowhere in Tennessee, the football guys are much easier to talk to than the baseball guys (he knows from experience, because he wrote "The Blind Side" after he wrote "Moneyball").

Madden was an all-timer, and he will be missed.

Greg Paulus Confirms What Michigan Students and Alums Already Know

That Michigan is a better school?

Perhaps, perhaps not.

That Michigan has a better football program?


Paulus will graduate soon from Duke -- in four years. He didn't redshirt, which means he has a year of eligibility remaining to play football at a Division I-A school, as bizarre as that sounds. Remember, he was a very highly recruited QB out of high school, and his brother is the starter at North Carolina. Paulus started for three years as Duke's point guard and came off the bench last year, drawing high praise for the way he conducted himself. While he didn't elevate his game to NBA status, he said that the opportunity to play basketball at Duke and for Coach K was well worth it.

But competitive athletes continue to have the competitive itch -- it probably remains with them forever. So, Paulus, like many others, was seeking another venue where he can compete on an elite level. And that's football, because he was so good at it years ago.

He ruled out Duke because Duke has a returning upperclassman as a starter, and because he only has one year remaining he'll need to find a place where he can compete for the starting spot. Michigan has a couple of freshmen and a junior coming off an injury. Last year's starter transferred.

This is a fascinating story, to be sure, and one that bears watching. Still, it will be odd watching Greg Paulus competing in anything other than a Duke uniform.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

And We Saw It Here, First, in 2004

In 2004, I wrote about two promising basketball players from Iran, Jabeer Rouzbahani and Hamed Haddadi. You can check those posts out for yourself here and here.

What I am reporting now is not new news, but the other day I was reading up on the NBA and learned that Haddadi is a member of the Memphis Grizzlies. Haddadi came of age in the 2008 Olympics, where he was the only player to average a double-double. Before joining the Grizzlies he played for Saba Battery in the Iranian Super League. He's not getting a lot of minutes now, and I doubt that Iran will become to the NBA what the Dominican Republic is to Major League Baseball, but this is an interesting development nonetheless.

That's what can be very unique about professional sports. If you're athletically gifted and over 7 feet tall, the world is small enough that basketball scouts will find you in Iran, Nigeria (Hakeem Olajuwon), Tanzania (Hasheem Thabeet) and the Sudan (Manute Bol, although I'd concede that the likable 7'7" player wasn't that athletically gifted, but he knew how to block shots and change the opposing team's approach to the game). Similarly, if you can throw a baseball over 95 miles per hour, the scouts will find you too (the way they lucked in on the oldest rookie, Jim Morris, who had left the game, became a high school teacher and returned as a reliever in his mid-thirties for the Tampa Bay (then-Devil) Rays in the 1990's.

The NBA is truly and international league, as even the Iranians permit their kids to play a game founded in the land of Satan (and we're not talking about hockey player Miroslav's back yard).

St. Louis Finds Rhthym in Their Blues

A reader with great knowledge of the St. Louis Blues pointed out their remarkable run to a 6th seed in this year's NHL playoffs, worthy of a Disney movie. The Blues lost four of their top players and were running along the bottom of the league at mid-season. Since then, they've been among the NHL's best, finishing with a 9-1-1 run. And they're so hot and so inspiring that they've made a believer of veteran sportswriter Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

I can't say that I'm the biggest hockey fan, and it's not for any particular reason except that I like other sports better, was raised on basketball and baseball and don't have a ton of time for much else. That said, I love good teamwork and good stories, and the Blues have both. It would be fitting for them to continue their run all the way to the Stanley Cup. They had made the playoffs for 25 straight years leading up to 2004, and this marks their first appearance since then. As Cardinalpark posted in a comment to a different post, theirs is a great story.

So much so that I'll spend a little of my "sports time" following their progress during the playoffs, and they're worth a look if you're so inclined.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Harry Kalas: The Death of a Good Uncle

I had the day off today and, fitting, was driving my son to our local baseball complex when I heard that Phillies' Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas died before today's game against the Washington Nationals. He was 73.

I grew up listening to Harry Kalas call Phillies games with Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn at his side providing the color commentary. You have to remember that in those days there wasn't cable TV and home games weren't covered, so the radio was all we had. And, in Philadelphia, we were most fortunate to have a harmonious duo that knew their stuff, told great stories, had good senses of humor and knew how to make it sound exciting when it really was. His home run call "that ball is outta here" was something to behold, making great moments all the more enriching because of his cadence and his timing.

I had an old radio on the night table next to my bed, the type that you could set on a timer so that it could shut itself off after a while. On many occasions, I set the radio to the Phillies (and, in the off-season, to a great all-sports show on WCAU Radio hosted, by among others, Bruce Bradley and Don Henderson). I would listen to bad teams (when Kalas first arrived in Philadelphia, in 1971, the team was plum awful) and outstanding ones (the teams in the late 1970's were very good), and I would listen to him describe the pitches of Steve Carlton, the antics of Tug McGraw, the grace of Garry Maddox, the glory of Mike Schmidt and the grit of Larry Bowa. The man had a gift for description and for affability. He was a joy to listen to.

As importantly, it was he and Richie Ashburn who taught many fans -- including me -- the finer points of the game.

He also reminded me of a good uncle, the type that would show up unannounced to visit the family and would leave you feeling like a million bucks. I had a great uncle like that, the husband of a first cousin of my grandmother, and he would stop by and play baseball with us in our small backyard, acting magical because he would insist upon swinging the bat upside down. He would always make contact, to our amazement, even though he was dressed like someone out of central casting -- knit shirt, baby blue pants, white shoes, frequently toting a cigar. I loved that man, whom I called Uncle Eddie, and he would come inside and share stories with my father. Stories about seeing the great ones play, stories about his youth, when the family had nothing and no one seemed to mind because they had each other.

Baseball-wise, that's what many of us had -- each other. The Phillies weren't good when Harry Kalas first got here and they had a dark period from the mid-1980's through 1993, but we always had Harry and Richie. We couldn't measure the enormity of what we had at the time, but over time we knew we were listening to a special duo. They taught many of us the game of baseball, particularly the nuances, and they were good at making us forget about everything other than we were listening to a great game on a warm summer's evening. Harry and Richie were like our good, if sometimes zany, uncles, taking the time to entertain, amaze with their memories and educate us.

Fittingly, Harry's final season ended on top, when the Phillies beat the Rays to win only their second World Series. Today, during the Phillies' broadcast on Comcast, they replayed his final call -- of Brad Lidge striking out the Rays' Eric Hinske to win the game -- several times. I couldn't help but well up and wipe away a few tears, because the last of the trio that made baseball so alive and enriching for me -- Harry, Richie and my father -- is gone.

And how special they all were!

Harry Kalas left a rich legacy of outstanding professionalism and being a great guy. I met him a few times at promotional events, and he was warm, humorous and engaging. He was clearly having the time of his life doing what he did for a living, and, while doing it, helped us have the time of our lives just by being along for the ride.

Harry, we were privileged to have had you as our teacher, our muse, our entertainer, our guide, and, yes, our good uncle. May you rest in peace.

Seeing LeBron Up Close and Personal

Thanks to a loyal reader, my son and I had great seats to Friday night's game at the Wachovia Center between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The following are a few observations:

1. The Cavaliers' offense is terrific. I know that there are NBA bashers who contend that the bulk of the plays are clear-outs for the stars, but the Cavs really know how to whip the ball around the perimeter and find the open man. Their quick inside passing was impressive, too, and I thoroughly enjoyed the way they worked with each other. Credit to coach Mike Brown for getting a bunch of high-achievers to blend together for a fluid offense.

2. If the Cavs' Anderson Varejao could shoot the ball just a little bit, he'd probably be called Tim Duncan or at least rank among the elite power forward. The guys is a bit offense-challenged, but on that score the 76ers' center Sam Dalembert outpointed him. Poor Sammy just has a bad b-ball IQ, and while former GM Billy King did some good things on South Broad Street, inking Sammy to a long-term deal was not one of them.

3. That the 76ers got within 2 and kept the game within 10 was a tribute to their sense of teamwork, but they missed second-year forward Thaddeus Young. Put differently, it was painful watching back-ups Reggie Evans and Theo Ratliff trying to play offense. They might be good guys who are good to have on the bench, but they just can't play offense.

4. Signature play of the night was actually that of Sixer swingman Andre Iguodala, who isolated James with about 15 seconds to go before the half and then, as my nine year-old said, "served him" with an in-your-face jam a few seconds before time expired. Iguodala had 26 points to James' 27, but King LeBron rightfully said after the game that while he respects the 76ers' player, he was there to get the win.

5. It was curious to see the Cavs run several offensive plays with James standing idle on the right wing, as a decoy, not doing anything, not even setting a screen. He rests about a quarter of the game, so I don't understand Mike Brown's logic there.

6. I have sometimes postulated that the team that has more assists wins 80% of the time and, as a corollary, the team with the better assist-to-turnover ratio wins about that much of the time. Well, the Cavs had 24 assists to the 76ers' 12, and they had 10 turnovers to the 76ers' 7. Translated, the 76ers had many shots where someone brought the ball up and shot it, particularly Lou Williams and Willie Green.

7. As for Green, just an observation, but it's hard to see how you can go that far with a so-so 6'3" combo guard getting as many minutes as he does.

8. I'd like to see a stat called the "penultimate" pass, as I've always believed that the guy who gets the ball to the guy who gets the assist deserves more credit because he's the first one to catch a defense off guard and, as a result of his heads-up play, helps create a mismatch or overload that enables the guy who scores to get a shot off. The Cavs excelled at this, and that type of passing will bode well for a deep run in the playoffs.

9. The Cavs have a similar version of Theo Ratliff. His name is Ben Wallace.

10. The 76ers' Mareese Speights looked like the most athletic big man on the floor, but he seemed to have lapses on defense that kept him glued to the bench for significant periods. Say what you will about Samuel Dalembert, but he rebounded and defended with authority during some spurts in the game. It's just that he's such an offensive liability that opponents don't have to go full throttle guarding him.

11. The 76ers' public address announcer, Matt Cord, has a great voice, but he does the visitors a disservice by announcing their baskets in a low, almost dismissive voice. He won't make anyone forget Dave Zinkoff, except for the fact that few in the crows probably remember Dave Zinkoff to start with.

12. Why don't they have portable poles to accompany the 76ers' dancers? Seriously, why would your wife or daughter think that job is something to aspire to? While I know that the teams want to fill every free moment with entertainment, the 76ers should re-think the dancing girls.

13. On the other hand, the acrobatic team that dunks off a trampoline is most impressive. Those guys can get up there and tumble, and the dunks were memorable. It's a shame that a few of those guys can't tutor Dalembert on his hops.

14. The Wach Center is a fun place, decent concessions, a nice pavilion to hang out before the game, and, yes, crab fries. I also signed a petition to get the U.S. Post Office to issue a stamp commemorating Wilt Chamberlain. That would be nice to see.

15. The 76ers seem stuck in stasis-land, they'll win about half their games, make the playoffs, go out in the first round and then have a pick in the middle of the first round. Yes, they'll get Young and Elton Brand back, but they're still stuck with Dalembert's contract, might lose Andre Miller, lack a true point guard and project as too small if they go with Brand at center, Young at power forward and Iguodala at small forward. That said, they have some good talent on which to build, and GM Eddie Stefanski will have some decisions to make come this off season.

All in all, a really fun time at the Wachovia Center. The 76ers were entertaining, and LeBron was even better, even if he did miss every underhanded shot from halfcourt that he tried before the game.

He still entered doing the "thing" with the baby powder, but make no mistake, it wasn't magic (and, okay, he's not Magic), but on most nights, he's the King.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Time of My Life

There's a lot of negativity in the world and, if you let it, a lot to feel bad or anxious about most of the time. There are leadership vacuums, there's demagoguery, and, yes, there's the feeling that you can be a hamster on a wheel in the working world when your retirement savings have plummeted and there aren't great signs that the markets are going to recover in a big way any time soon.

You have choices, though, as to what you permit to have power over you. No one will argue that these are tough times -- they're tough for people all around us and around the world. But that doesn't mean we should stop living or focus too much of our energy on things we cannot control, such as the whims of politicians or the tides of the financial markets. We also have our friends and our families, and that leads me to a short vignette.

I took a half day off yesterday, and the weather in the mid-Atlantic region was terrific -- sunny, low sixties, not too much wind. After having a long, fun and relaxing lunch with my family, I took my daughter to our local softball fields to practice. We were the only ones there, and I spent about an hour and a half hitting grounders to her, pitching batting practice and helping her get more power into her swing, and catching her pitches. She's eleven, young for her grade in school but big for her age, and she has some physical gifts -- she's strong with a strong arm.

So there we were, just a dad and his daughter, playing catch, fielding grounds and popups, hitting and pitching. It was a great practice session on a beautiful day. We were patient with each other (sometimes parent-child coaching sessions don't go as smoothly as either participant would like), laughed, and worked on improving her game. We talked about situations in the field, we talked about the approach to pitching (read: you want to get everyone out, even if they sit next to you in social studies and are nice), and the approach to hitting (you want to hit the ball with power past the fielders, even if they once were in your Brownie troop).

My daughter is growing up, getting bigger, getting more focused. It was fun to see her reel off a string of solid strikes that wended their way over home plate with authority, although we both acknowledge she has a ways to go in terms of consistency. Likewise, it was fun at the end of our hitting session to see her lash two hard liners right through the pitcher's mound, causing a dancing-challenged middle-aged man to jump quickly to avoid getting hit. Again, there was improvement, with room for more.

At the end of our session, we gathered our belongings, talked about what we accomplished, and then headed to a local ice cream and water ice joint. When we walked in, we heard David Cook's "Time of My Life" on the radio. It's a moving song, Cook sang it on "American Idol", and the Phillies used it to accompany the last part of their 2008 highlight film. And then it hit me.

Right then, right there, that it's moments and sessions like these that we need to strive for more often. Just a dad and his daughter, on a beautiful day, playing softball. No crowds, lines, traffic, bad news, just the outdoors and two people doing something they like with people they love.

Because at that moment, I realized how special that afternoon softball session was to my daughter and me, followed by the reward of a refreshing treat. Right then and there, I was having one of many times of my life.

Remember those moments, look for opportunities to have them, and cherish every one of them. Because it's those moments -- and not measurements caused by factors that we cannot control -- that make life so worth living and so enriching. You can control many of the important things in your life -- just be sure that you take the time to do so.

Because then, not only will you be living your own life, but you'll be deriving much enjoyment from it too.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Phillies-Braves -- Opening Night

The Phillies put on a good show on Sunday night -- before the game began. It's just too bad that the team on the field couldn't match the triumph that the people in the front office and behind the scenes put on before it.

I took my sixth-grader down there (yes, on a school night), because I wanted to share the celebration with her. So, for an 8:05 game, we got to the stadium at around 5 of 6, and found that our normal parking lot was packed. For any other game, we would have been one of the first ones there, arriving that early, but this was opening night for the defending world champions.

After grabbing dinner at Bull's Barbeque, we went to our seats, in the lower deck in right field, and watched batting practice. Many home runs came near us, if not right at us, and then we walked two laps around the stadium to people watch. Lots of red, lots of championship gear, a beautiful night in the low 60's. We picked up a copy of the media guide, a book so thick that it the wrong hands it probably would be considered a deadly weapon. It's all the more fun to read when your team won it all the year before.

But we weren't there to read, we were there to celebrate, and the home team pulled out the stops -- National Guard members unfurled a huge American flag on the field, members of the 82nd Airborne parachuted into the stadium, fireworks went off, and the team marched into the field from outside it, down Ashburn Alley, through the stands in left center and onto the field, through a gauntlet of fans. It wasn't the post-Series parade, but it was a nice honor, nonetheless, and it had to be a special kick for the likes of lefty reliever Jack Taschner (a journeyman whom the Phillies picked up a week ago) and Miguel Cairo (another well-traveled substitute), who found themselves on a winning team when a few weeks of bad innings or at-bats might have them looking for a job in Triple A. The Phillies also had some great video clips on their big scoreboard, accompanied by the Goo Goo Dolls "Better Days", with emphasis on the last verse, emblazoned on the scoreboard -- "Tonight, the world begins again."

We smiled, we laughed, we cheered, we shouted "Charlie" when skipper Charlie Manuel made his way onto the field, and then we cheered some more when each member of the team was introduced, with the loudest cheers predictably reserved for guys named Moyer, Hamels, Howard, Rollins, Utley, Victorino and Lidge. It was all good fun, and it was good to share that fun with a loved one.

The game, of course, was another matter. Derek Lowe pitched masterfully for the visiting Braves, proving that he was, at least for the night, well worth the big free-agent bucks the Braves tossed his way. When his sinker and slider are both working, Lowe can neutralize the hottest bats in the most hitter-friendly of parks. And that's what he did last night. The Phillies' starter, Brett Myers, on the other hand, had a rocky start and gave up three homers -- to Brian McCann, Jeff Francoer and rookie CF Jordan Schaefer (the last one was hit to center and marked the 99th time in Major League history that a player hit a home run in his first at-bat). After that, Myers settled down, and while Braves' reliever Mike Gonzalez had a rocky ninth, he whiffed Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez to end the game with men on first and second.

Phillies' fans, while disappointed, weren't surprised. The Phils have a history of losing home openers, and Myers honored that dubious tradition last night. Yes, the fans weren't thrilled, but they know that this time is resilient, that it has talent, and that it probably has fewer question marks than most of its opponents. Still, you want to win them all, and it would have been great to have honored the pre-game celebration with a post-celebration as well-executed as what preceded it.

Fun times at Citizens Bank Park last night, in good weather, too.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Another Reason to Dislike the Yankees

There are actually tickets that cost $2,500 per game in the Bronx.

When will the Congressional hearings on that phenomenon take place?

(Just joking on that one).

Baltimore Orioles' Fans Deserve Better

It struck me that Adam Eaton is a nice guy. He was gracious with the media and the fans, even after he stunk the joint out repeatedly during his two-year stay in Philadelphia. It's funny, because now-retired GM Pat Gillick was praised for building a World Series winner, but his biggest free-agent signing was of Eaton, a 3-year, $24 million deal that was one of the worst in recent Major League history. Eaton was terrible.

So what happened? The Phillies asked him not to show up for the post-season last year and tried to peddle him this past off-season. Find no takers, the front office uncharacteristically decided to eat his salary and release him (he's owed $9 million for the season). The Orioles took a chance on him (for the measly sum of $400,000 -- the Phillies will pay the rest of Eaton's salary), and now the 31 year-old Eaton is the Orioles' third starter.

That's right, the third starter.

On the plus side, Eaton was a first-round draft choice years ago, pitched well for the Padres but then lost his mojo. He clearly needs a change of scenery, and he's only 31. Plus, it's not like he couldn't make the Royals -- he failed for the team that won the World Series. So perhaps, by comparison, he has some baseball life left in him.

On the minus side, Eaton pitched very poorly last year. He's breaking stuff had no bite, his fast pitches not much velocity. He looked spent, got send down to the minors, pitched horribly there. So, six months later he's ready to be the #3 starter for a team in the very competitive AL East? How does that figure?

It doesn't. The Orioles have had 11 straight losing seasons for a reason. Baltimore once was one of the best baseball cities in America, and it has a rich tradition that the Angelos family has done nothing to enhance and much to erode. If you're an Orioles' fan, you can't go into the season with much confidence that your team will turn it around if you have Adam Eaton and Mark Hendrickson in your rotation. It's not personal, fellows, but it shows how bad the Orioles' farm system was and how in need they are that they've elected to salvage both of these well-traveled pitchers' careers.

But here's the think, O's fans -- Philadelphia is only about 2 hours to the north, they don't sell out every game, and you can see some good baseball for a decent price.

Watch for Lots of MLB Trades Before Trading Deadline

According to Jon Heyman of, at least one source has told him that many teams could be on the market to dump salaries before July 31 because of the economy. And while some people think that the stock market's performance in March (it's best performance for one month in seven years) is a harbinger that the recession will end in 2009, others are thinking that it will last a lot longer, perhaps into 2011. Moreover, the reckoning in the world economy has yet to take place, and there is talk that with all the money put into the stimulus package, inflation could go way up in a couple of years. Atop that, many people won't have the income they used to have or will need to save more for retirement because of the steep decline in the stock market in 2008 and early 2009. As a result, a combination of factors could give fans and sponsors less money to spend, and, yes, even baseball could be affected.

So, what does this mean for MLB? It's potentially not pretty for players and for teams, because gross income could fall and teams will have to watch their budgets even more closely. Let's wait and see what happens this summer, but Heyman wrote that one team -- the Tigers -- might stage a fire sale come July.

Allen Iverson in Decline

The one-time MVP of the NBA is done for the year, and his contract will expire at the season's end. Because of a bad back, Allen Iverson's season is over.

Since hurting his back, Iverson was coming off the bench in Detroit. He disliked it so much that he said he'd rather retire than come off the bench.

Iverson will be 34 in June. Many NBA teams are in financial trouble, and it's hard to see any team ponying up for anything close to a max contract for a somewhat spent guard who didn't grasp the team game during his career and is a poster kid for playing hard but not playing smart. He's hurting, he's difficult to coach, and, yes, for an NBA player he's old.

Watching any league's free agent market in the middle of this awful recession will be interesting, especially the market for one-time marquis names. The only way Iverson gets big money is if there's a team out there who is bad, devoid of gate attractions, and believes that AI can help put people in the seats. But if that's the case, all we'll see is an old player taking too many shots to get his 25 points per game. And what's the point in that?

I've wondered over the years about Iverson after basketball, and I've worried for him. I just don't see what he'd do after he either no longer can play at the level he did or if he's no longer wanted. Allen Iverson is getting closer to that point in his life. He's played the game in an uncompromising fashion, but we're now living in a period where owners have to make hard choices and where difficult people decide whether to go along or to exit.

Even people who think that they're artists at what they do and that the rules for everyone else shouldn't apply to them.

In June AI will be 34 and looking for a new deal.

That's not an enviable position to be in.

Omar Minaya Did Not Major in Chemistry

Sure, some pundits (most notably, Sports Illustrated) are picking the New York Mets to win the World Series, but that's because pundits look at one-dimensional ratings.

On paper.

On paper, the Mets have the best starting pitcher in all of baseball, one of the best closers, and the third, fourth and fifth best position players in all of baseball (according to SI's rankings). Baseball Prospectus also rates the trio of Jose Reyes, David Wright and Carlos Beltran very highly, ranking them ahead, for example, of the Phillies' trio of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. And, while I'm a Phillies' partisan, I'd have to agree with that assessment. The Mets' trio is awesome.

But here's the thing -- something wasn't right with that team two years ago despite its talent, and something wasn't right about it last year. I don't know whether there are toxic personalities or whether there's a lack of leadership, but when you juxtapose the Mets to the Phillies you see a team that plays with less confidence and enthusiasm at key times and doesn't have the poise that the Phillies displayed last year. In other words, you can argue that the teams are close in talent, but the Phillies showed better chemistry last season.

Major League teams are together from mid-February through October, and the players spend a lot of time together -- in the clubhouse, on airplanes and in hotels. It's important that the group come together and, yes, have leaders, especially among the core group of star players. The Phillies had that in abundance last year; the Mets did not.

And now the Mets' add legendary malcontent Gary Sheffield to their mix. Sure, Sheffield had one of the most feared swings in baseball -- but that was years ago. He's a liability in the field, at a time where the stat heads are telling us that they can prove how much a difference defense makes. He doesn't like it when he doesn't play most of the time, and he's warn out welcomes in many cities. Okay, the Mets needed a righthanded bat (as do the Phillies), but at what price? Will Sheffield make that much of a difference, especially after he skates by balls in left or right or gets into a tiff with Manager Jerry Manuel because he didn't see his name in the lineup?

Maybe the Phillies, known for their better chemistry, wanted him, and maybe they didn't, but the point is that the Mets signed Sheffield, perhaps more out of hope that he can return to his old form than anything else. But outside Barry Bonds, how many players with great days behind them have fared well at 40? Not many, and you have the chemistry issues to boot.

Look, the Mets definitely have the talent to win the NL East, the NL and, yes, the World Series. But until their chemistry issues straighten themselves out, they won't have as smooth a ride as they could if leaders emerged. Adding Sheffield doesn't help solve anything; it just makes the problems more complicated to solve.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Michael Vick Deserves a Second Chance

Here's a story regarding the most recent hearing in Michael Vick's bankruptcy case.

We all know the story of the downfall of Michael Vick and the terrible things that he did. Vick has been punished for his crimes -- he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to jail, he's serving his time well, he lost his lucrative job and is under suspension by the National Football League. He had it all and threw it all away.

But he's almost done serving his time, and he was a good quarterback before he self-inflicted his own personal wounds. He certainly could help an NFL team (as I can't escape visions of Dan Orlovsky dancing around the end zone last year for Detroit, not knowing where he was and stepping over the end line for a safety).

Let's repeat:

Michael Vick did terrible things.

Let's repeat:

He is almost done serving his time; he has paid the price.

The NFL should re-state him.

An NFL team should give him a chance.

He shouldn't get chance because his ultimate redemption would be a good story. He should get a chance because he's gone through the justice system and done what he's been required to do. He should be able to try to earn a living the way he used to.

Again, I'm not suggesting he's a role model all of a sudden or worthy of emulation. I'm not suggesting that he should get rounds of endorsements. But I am suggesting that he should get another chance, and I am suggesting that there are many teams he could help.

The NFL should take my point of view and reinstate Vick and then let him try to make a team.

The question now is what will the league do?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Phillies to Sign Gary Sheffield?

Is this along the lines of "Air Raid, Pearl Harbor, this is not a drill!"

Yes, it's April Fool's Day, but this is not a prank. The Tigers, who owe him about $14 million for the season, released him yesterday (he's one home run short of 500). The Phillies, who owe Geoff Jenkins $9 million for the season, released him yesterday (they released pitcher Adam Eaton earlier in the season, thereby eating $8 million), and have been looking for a right-handed bat off the bench since last season ended (and since Nomar Garciaparra opted to remain in California). At any rate, speculation ran rampant yesterday that the Phillies would pursue Sheffield, and the Philadelphia papers reported this morning that the Phillies did talk with his agent, but they also quoted the team as saying that it was unlikely that the Phillies would sign Sheffield. Of course, those reports conflict with what I heard Buster Olney say on ESPN this morning, which is that this could be a good match -- the defending champions would be attractive to Sheffield (who's battled injuries the past couple of years) -- if Sheffield will accept a part-time role -- and that the Phillies could use a bat like his off the bench.

So, that's the analytical cocktail, but it begs one question -- team chemistry. The Phillies are an amicable, jovial bunch who combine all-out hustle with merriment. Charlie Manuel runs a happy camp, and the players respond by busting their guts for him and each other. Jamie Moyer sets the tone as an elder statesman, and the nucleus of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and lightning rod Jimmy Rollins set the tone for excellence (even if the latter had a few lapses last season). Sheffield's historical me-first attitude and petulance just doesn't seem to be a fit, and the last time a Philadelphia team had this type of diva in town the opera ended badly (See, Philadelphia Eagles and Terrell Owens).

I remember when the T.O. affair blew up. The pundits had a field day on ESPN, and Mike Ditka offered a memorable line: "The odds are that if you have a rattlesnake as a pet, it's going to come up and bite you some day."

Docile men don't make good baseball players, and in his prime Gary Sheffield could put more torque on his swing -- with results -- that almost any other player. But his shoulder aches, he's forty, and he can't do what he used to, even if his mind and his handlers might tell him otherwise. He has a huge "buyer beware" sign blazing in neon on his forehead, and the Phillies should tread carefully here. Yes, I agree with Buster Olney that this seems the obvious thing to do, but a less obvious thing might be to trade with a team with an extra righty bat -- someone who can hit for some power and is known as a good chemistry guy.

After all, if a historically financially careful team is willing to eat $17 million in salary during the worst economy in three quarters of a century, might it not be willing to go the extra mile and get the right righty bat, not the most readily available one.