Monday, August 31, 2009

The Magic of Jason Marquis

Every team that Jason Marquis has been on has made the playoffs.

He's on the Rockies now, pitching great, so perhaps if you're a GM whose team hasn't made the playoffs in a while, you should try to acquire the Marquis de Playoffs.

Read Tim Kurkjian's article on for the whole story.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

John Calipari: Where There's Smoke, There Seems to be Fire

John Feinstein certainly thinks so. Read here for his column about Calipari, who took both UMass and Memphis to the Final Four, only to see both schools have to vacate their successes because of funny business with players.

But is Calipari damaged goods?

Hardly. So damaged is he that one of the all-time best men's hoop programs, Kentucky, hired him earlier this year to try to restore it to its perch as a contender for a national championship every year. (If you were asked to name some of the all-time top programs, you'd name, in no particular order, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Indiana, UCLA, Duke). So, Coach Cal does wonders at Memphis, lands the Kentucky job.


Because all the powers that be in Lexington saw was the fancy boat with the gaudy performances specifications.

They neglected -- perhaps intentionally -- to look at the wake.

And it leaves one helluva wake, whatever port it travels to.

Excoriate Bob Knight and John Chaney all you want for their tempers, but they ran clean programs that didn't suffer from the types of problems that either Calipari created or seemingly follow him. Look, we didn't expect Kentucky to hire Knight (who may still be available) or a Jesuit, but in luring Calipari away from Memphis they certainly made some decisions about the type of program they want to run.

And it wouldn't appear that the decisions were all that hard to make, either.

Are we getting to the point where some of the distinctions between the elite Division I programs and the professional leagues are disappearing?

Former NBA Player is Now in U.S. Army in Iraq

His name is Tim James. He went to the University of Miami, played in the NBA and in Europe, and joined the army last year. He was deployed to Iraq in July.

Click here to read all about it, thanks to Comcast.

James' story is very inspiring, particularly on a day where I read a quote from former 76ers' general manager Billy King talking about former 76ers' star Allen Iverson. To paraphrase, King said that Iverson was a selfish player who didn't make the players around him better. My initial reaction was that I was sure that it didn't take King almost a decade to figure that out, but that as GM he had to balance his frustration with public relations. Still, I was interested in hearing that a few NBA teams have interest in the 32 year-old one-time MVP (who in my estimation needed about as many shots to get his points per game average as any other player in NBA history and, no, that's not a compliment).

Tim James is in the U.S. Army, helping the U.S. government finish a messy job before the Iraqis take over.

Allen Iverson perhaps still doesn't get it.

Not, of course, that I expect him to join the army.

It just would have been nice to have seen him set a great example for his teammates, lead better, take more responsibility and help his teammates maximize their talents.

Tim James' story is a stark contrast and a reminder that the best teams need all players -- and not just the role players -- to be unselfish and help mold themselves into a team.

To Specialist James -- Thank you and Godspeed.

An English Soccer Team for Americans to Adopt -- Burnley

If you're an American and interested in following the English Premiership, the top English football league (some of whose games are being televised on ESPN this season), The New York Times has a suggestion for you (which, to a degree, I endorse) -- root for Burnley.

Here's why:

1. English football works differently from American baseball in an important way. In England, the bottom three teams in the Premiership get sent down to the second highest league, the Championship League, with the top three teams from the Championship League getting elevated to the Premiership. Correspondingly, the bottom three teams from the Championship League get sent down (they call it "relegated" in England) to Division One, with the top three teams from Division One getting elevated (they call it "promoted" in England) to the Championship League, and so forth. In baseball, the Pirates, Royals and Nationals are in no danger of being sent down to AAA, and the best AAA teams have no chance of being promoted to the Majors. Sorry, Louisville, Columbus and Buffalo, but unless you get a Major League franchise, you're in AAA to stay.

2. Size doesn't matter. You can be a team from a town of 25,000 with a home field (they call it a "pitch") that is no more glamorous than a U.S. college's facility, have several good years in a row and, boom, make it to the Premiership, where, as the Times' article reports, your share of the global TV money is $50 million (still, you'd have trouble competing with the better-heeled owners of the larger clubs, because they'll have much better ticket revenues and those owners -- such as the Dubai-based consortium that owns Manchester City or Russian oligarch Roman Abramowitch, who owns Chelsea -- have significantly more personal money at their disposal). So, theoretically, a team from a farm town in the Midlands has a chance to make it to the Premiership and cast their lot against perennial superpowers Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal.

3. Which leads us to Burnley, a team that won the championship in 1960, hasn't been in the Premiership in 33 years and hails from a town of 73,000. If you're looking at the ultimate underdog, then Burnley is your team. And, they've already played David to Man U's Goliath, upsetting the New York Yankees of English football earlier this season. Yesterday, on ESPN, they fell back to earth, losing 3-0 at Chelsea where, at one point in the game, Chelsea had 15 shots on goal to Burnley's none. What's great about Burnley, though, is that they've built their team on home-grown talent and haven't had the luxury of spending big bucks to lure big-name stars to populate their roster since they've hit the big time. That said, their goal for this season is more modest than, say, Chelsea's. Burnley will succeed if they finish 17th or higher, because that means that they won't get relegated. Chelsea fans will deem the season a failure if their star-laden lineup (indeed, most of their starters are household names in the football world -- Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Petr Cech, John Terry, Michael Ballack) fails to win the Premiership.

Most of us love underdogs, and while I've followed Arsenal for ten years and had a great experience at their stadium with my son a week ago, I'll be watching Burnley closely too. Theirs is a compelling story, and it would be great to see a home-grown team from a town of 73,000 people mix it up enough with the big boys to survive their first season in the Premiership in over three decades. To give you some perspective, Burnley's elevation to the Premiership would be akin to a team from Napa, California, Medford, Oregon, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania or Rock Hill, South Carolina making its way through various minor leagues to the Majors (all numbers based on U.S. census data from 2008). That's how big a deal this is.

So, if you want to dabble in the Premiership and not root for any of the biggest names -- Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United (and even Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur), you should consider Burnley -- and have a little fun in the process.

Friday, August 28, 2009

When Does a Senior Manager Elevate a Problem?

This is a problem that faces most organizations. The people in the trenches try to solve problems together, don't want to go behind others' backs and talk to colleagues' bosses when a colleague isn't getting the job done or don't want to go to their own boss when a teammate is not getting the job done. The explanations are simple enough -- they don't want to be viewed as political or don't want to jeopardize the relationship with that person, with whom they'll have to work repeatedly. So, they suffer in silence, hope that things will get better, and the problem in all likelihood worsens.

The reason? By not elevating the problem, those in the trenches leave the senior people with fewer options simply because of the passage of time. Then, a crisis happens, and while we all know that a crisis is part danger and part opportunity, a solution in this case has to happen in a hurry. As I tell the folks with whom I work the most closely, emergency rooms are full of people who were in a hurry or didn't plan.

And all this brings me to the Philadelphia Phillies. Their closer, Brad Lidge, has a Mendoza-like problem, in that his ERA is about 7.00, which is just plum awful (although ERA for a reliever is an overrated stat, as are many stats for relievers). Anyway, he's blown about 30% of his saves, and for the Phillies to go deep into the post-season, they need him to pitch better. That, of course, is a simple solution.

The problem is that Lidge hasn't shown much improvement. Despite his woeful inconsistency (and when, really, isn't inconsistency woeful?), his manager, Charlie Manuel, continues to insist that Lidge is his closer. Manuel probably says this for several reasons, among them a) that he has no other possible closer (set-up man Ryan Madson didn't fare well when handed the role while Lidge was on the disabled list earlier in the year) and b) he believes he needs to keep saying so to keep Lidge's (probably fragile) spirits up. What we don't know, though, is what general manager Ruben Amaro and Manuel have been talking about behind closed doors. If we are to assume that Manuel believes what he says, then he's guilty of not elevating the problem.

Sports is a meritocracy. Lidge won't get his opponents' bats to drop or miss because he was "Lights Out" Lidge last season. Because that's the case, Manuel should be in Amaro's ear saying that he doubts that Lidge can do the job this season because the numbers don't lie. Amaro, a Stanford graduate, is bright enough to draw that conclusion on his own. But now the passage of time leaves him with few options.

He could have traded for another closer before the trade deadline on July 31. As I had blogged earlier, the Phillies had scouted George Sherrill of the Orioles (now on the Dodgers) and Chad Qualls of the Diamondbacks. Presumably, they could have acquired either to serve as a back-up closer or the main closer for the remainder of the season, and then give Lidge every chance to win the job back in the spring (after all, he has 2 years and $24 million remaining on his contract after this season). But it didn't seem that the Phillies had a sense of urgency about this problem in July, and the trade deadline passed.

The next deadline is August 31, and the dealing is more complicated because the Phillies would have to do a waiver deal. The question, though, is whether every team who has a chance to contend with the Phillies would block their attempt to claim a closer off waivers. My guess is that someone might, but not if the closer has enough remaining on his contract to make claiming that closer too big a risk. Recent reports in the Philadelphia papers have quoted Amaro as saying that the Phillies weren't going to be active before August 31. That said, watch, and the Phillies actually might end up with a guy like Qualls, but who knows?

Let's assume that Monday passes, and the Phillies don't bolster their bullpen (or, for that matter, their bench, where they could use another lefty bat as Matt Stairs has been 0 for the summer). Then, they're hoping that Brett Myers, who closed at the end of 2007 and did very well, finishes his rehab stints in style, joins the bullpen, and provides a much-needed lift. Myers, though, is by no means a sure thing. He's flighty, inconsistent, and immature. Of course, he thrives on the rock star-like atmosphere that surrounds a closer, he did great in 2007 and came up huge in 2008 when he accepted a demotion to the minors and came back and, for the most part, was lights out. Relying on Myers is not necessarily like trying to draw to an inside straight, but it's by no means like betting on Usain Bolt to win a 100-meter dash next week, either.

Time will tell whether Ruben Amaro and Charlie Manuel elevated the closer crisis and made it the type of priority that gets addressed and enables you to win a championship. By not making this issue a priority earlier, the Phillies are taking a bigger than necessary chance in their quest to repeat as world champions. Of course, we don't know what's been discussed and what's been said, but anyone who says that he's confident that Lidge can close much better than he has all season is on some type of attitude-enhancing substance. And suggests, of course, that he might be saying it because he wants to believe it and knows that no more help is on the way.

Are the Mets going to be up for sale?

So says the author about a book on Bernie Madoff, with whom the Wilpon family, who owns the Mets, had invested $700 million.

It's hard to imagine a family losing $700 million and still being "okay." The linked article, though, quotes the Wilpons as denying the author's speculation. Still, the whole affair makes one wonder as to what's true and what's not.

The Mets have had one of the worst runs of bad luck in baseball history. They lost Carlos Delgado early, then Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes, and then David Wright gets beaned. Atop that, ace Johan Santana has a bad elbow (and, of course, the hindsight speculators noted in articles about Santana that the Red Sox and Yankees both were very concerned about Santana's arm when the lefty was on Minnesota's trading block several years ago) and setup man J.J. Putz has missed most of the season. Also, opening-day catcher Brian Schneider lost his job to a journeyman rookie, and veteran outfielder Gary Sheffield has shown that he is in his early 40's and a shadow of his former self. The parade of horribles is endless, this from a team that Baseball Prospectus had predicted had a good chance to win the World Series.

I wish the Wilpons the best of luck. As a Phillies' fan, while it's nice that the Phillies don't have the late-season anxiety (at least right now) that they have over the past four years, the rivalry with the Mets is a special one and tends, over time, to bring out the best in both teams (MLB killed the Phillies' best rivalry when, a few decades ago, they moved to 3 divisions and didn't keep the Pirates in the same division with the Phillies). It will be interesting to see what the Mets do in the off-season -- and what the Wilpons do.

Movie Review: Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29

I was up very early this morning and watched this movie, which is a documentary on the 1968 game between Harvard and Yale. Both were undefeated going into what's known as "The Game", and they hadn't done that since 1909. Yale was ranked 16th in the country and heavily favored. And, for 56+ minutes, despite four fumbles that they lost (two by fullback Bob Levin, and one apiece by running back Calvin Hill and linebacker/punt returner Mike Bouscaren), the Yalies showed why -- they were up 29-13. And then what happened is the stuff that makes the game as famous as it remains to this day.

The documentary is excellent, whether you're an Ivy League football fan or not, for several reasons. First, Ivy football then was much more serious stuff than it is now. No offense to those who currently play in the Ivies or who did after 1968, but the leagues weren't that far removed from their glory days of before the league started and many players turned down big-time schools to play in the Ivies. Second, and more importantly, is the craft of Kevin Rafferty, the filmmaker, who wrote a book on the same subject. He weaves into the documentary interviews with many players and footage from the game, with, which its calm play-by-play added drama to the documentary (of course, the events played a large part of it). The result is gripping, revealing and terrific.

Many interviewees were compelling. J.P. Goldsmith, the Yale safety, was one of the stars of the film, for his honesty and his good humor. Yale linebacker Mike Bouscaren comes off for much of the film as a rather ruthless, win-at-all-costs, humorless player (he's also a Yale legacy), but in the end what he learned from the experience was very telling. Brian Dowling, the Yale quarterback who hadn't lost a game since 7th grade, comes off introspective and yet as elusive as he was on the gridiron. Frank Champi, the back-up quarterback for Harvard who engineered the miraculous last few minutes, sounds like a reluctant hero, which he was. Harvard lineman Fritz Reed and fullback Gus Crim appear as amusing old battlers who liked a scrape and kept on coming back. Yale's Gallagher brothers, both defensive players, appeared as though they were standing on the sidelines and wanting to get back into the game, perhaps to dive a little longer and harder to nip Champi at the heels and bring him down. While Yale coach Carmen Cozza and running back Calvin Hill didn't appear, the film didn't suffer that much from their absence. There were many others who added to the rich fabric of this documentary, and I'm not doing them justice by not mentioning them, it's just that there are too many to remember.

Which is why, of course, you'll have to watch the movie. One person who wasn't all that impressive was Harvard's Tommy Lee Jones, who comes off very serious and more like an arrogant star than someone who was an Ivy League football player worried about tackling his opponents or fretting about a missed or mistaken call. Bob Levin, the Yale fullback (who dated Meryl Streep) was very thoughtful, and the story of Pat Conway, who spent three years as a Marine in Vietnam before returning to Harvard, is perhaps the most interesting.

This is a story well told. It would be worth your time renting it or, to contribute to the documentary film effort everywhere, purchasing it. You won't regret it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Report from London: Arsenal versus Portsmouth

My family is in London, and yesterday the boys went to the football match while the girls went to the theater. My son and I took the Victoria Line (after a detour) to the Islington-Highbury tube stop (that's the English vernacular for subway) and then walked about a mile to Emirates Stadium to see Arsenal, one of the stalwarts in the English Premiership (that's the top English soccer league for those uninitiated Americans who are reading this post), play in its home opener. The experience was amazing for many reasons.

First, I don't think anyone drives to the game. Which is impressive that the tube and the rail have to accommodate 60,000 fans who go to a North London neighborhood to this stadium, and the English authorities have figured out a way to get everyone in and out (mostly out, as not everyone arrives at the same time, but mostly everyone leaves at the same time) without getting people trampled. And they do just that. Still, given that I'm an American and given that many drive to games, this coordination is impressive.

Second, there is no tailgating, again, because there are no parking lots. So, many go to their favorite pubs before the games, hoist a few and get in the mood for some good football. As we walked down the street, we saw fans dressed in all sorts of Arsenal gear (mostly in jerseys) getting pumped for the home opener. Some, no doubt, were getting lubricated in addition to pumped. The variety of jerseys is pretty impressive -- they'll sell you a jersey with the name of any Arsenal player on it -- or your own. The two most interesting were "Genius" with the number 4 on it, as to suggest that Cesc Fabregas, one of the best Arsenal players (he wears #4) is brilliant (he is that, but he was substituted for at halftime because of a sore hamstring), or "Up the Arse" with a number I don't recall. Pretty amusing.

Third, the stadium is pretty interesting. You don't have paper tickets; you have a smart card that you insert into a slot near the turnstile before entering. You also climb stairs (about 20 in all) to get to the entrance, and once you enter you hit the concession stands. The area under the stands, however, is rather narrow, especially for a venue that holds 60,000. The average U.S. indoor arena has more space to stand.

Fourth, the Arsenal stores are pretty amazing in their own right. We picked out the jersey that my son wanted (okay, I'm a nice dad, but this is his one and only trip gift). He selected a blue road jersey with a collar, and then we had Fabregas's name and number ironed onto it (for a small fee, of course). The people working at the store said the lines were longer than normal becuase it was the home opener. As you may know, the biggest sponsorship of a Premiership team is purchasing the space on the front of the jersey. For years JVC was the sponsor of Arsenal, then O2, and now Fly Emirates. I'm sure in five years when the Chinese government buys more of Western Europe's debt you can envision Man U selling its space to "People's Republic of China." But I digress. The stadium is Emirates Stadium, and the jerseys are very popular. Many in the stadium wear them. It's also okay if you don't wear home red; the home fans were very nice and courteous. Several offered to take photos of my son and me. Others were very forthcoming about sharing their interest and experiences.

Fifth, the stadium itself is beautiful. Everyone sits under cover, even if the cover for those downstairs consists of a glass overhang so that the sun can permeate but you'd stay dry were it to rain. Thankfully, it was a very sunny day, and we were in shortsleeves, wearing sunglasses and drinking cold bottled water (a bit cheaper, even with the exchange rate, than the $4 bottles of water at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia -- and in the U.S. you can purchase a case of 24 bottles on sale at Target for $3.99). The field is perfectly manicured, and the sight lines are terrific. We sat near midfield, toward the top of the lower level, and had a perfect view of the entire field.

Sixth, Arsenal plays an Elvis Presley's "Wonder of You" before every home game. It seems shmaltzy, and perhaps it's intended to be, but no more so than the Red Sox's playing of "Sweet Caroline" in the eighth inning or the Phillies' playing of "High Hopes" after games. Then, before the game, the public address announcer (who is terrific) announces the first name of each player, and the fans respond by shouting the player's last name. It's pretty cool. The fans also have their chants, which start up slowly and end in resounding roars, such as "We Have Fabregas" or "One Arsene Wenger" (they love the coach of the team, whom they call a manager). That had me ask the question, why don't Philadelphia Phillies' fans shout "We Have Utley" or "We Love Uncle Charlie" or other things. Anything, after all, is better than either the wave or shouting charge after a simulate bugle call that comes over the loudspeaker.

Seven, Arsenal is a very good team (the Brits would say "Arsenal are a very good team" because numerous individuals populate the team; I actually think the Americans are gramatically correct here). They play great in transition -- when they stop the other team they move downfield quickly -- with speed and coordination. Abu Diaby scored 2 goals, William Gallas and Aaron Ramsey (the latter is an up-and-coming star) and Arsenal prevailed 4-1. The score would have been worse had not Portsmouth's goalie David James, who is on the English national team, not made a few great saves (his reputation is for spacing out every now in key moments and making a big blunder). Portsmouth's fans are to be commended -- they showed up and populated a section wearing blue and banged their drum for the entire game. The owners don't deserve such loyalty. The Russian oligarch who purchased the team several years ago has jettisoned 12 players and is trying to sell the team; I wouldn't be surprised if the team weren't relegated to the Championship League (the AAA equivalent in baseball) after the season. They looked very overmatched.

Eight, Arsenal goalie Manuel Almunia looked to me to be 7' tall. In actuality, he's only 6'4". It's just that many Arsenal footballers are rather short, including Andrey Arshavin, who is only 5'5". He has a mohawk dyed blonde and looks scary from afar.

Nine, it was pretty cool to see tube cars full of red jerseys heading home after the match. Perhaps that happens in New York, but nowhere else. But New York doesn't have 5 Major League teams; London has Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham, Chelsea and Fulham (please weigh in if I have missed any). Apparently you don't want to be wearing your Arsenal jersey near Tottenham or vice versa -- that rivalry can be as heated as the Yankees-Red Sox.

All in all, it was an awesome experience. The game was terrific, the pace refreshing (no time outs or stoppage between innings), the people festive, the people sitting near us nice, and pageantry at the season's beginning a great thing to watch, especially seeing the team enter the field for the first time of the season. The Gunners will have a good year this season, and we'll be following them from the U.S.

P.S.: Today we were heading home on the tube and ran into some Fulham fans, who were heading to southwest London to the Fulham home pitch (that's soccer field for us Yanks) to see Fulham host Chelsea (which is owned by the uberwealthy Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich). I asked the Fulham fans whether their team had a chance today; he said he doubted it and if he wanted to have fun he would have stayed fun but that he roots for Fulham because "I have to." So, you see, football really is in people's DNA here. My guess is that generations of his family have rooted for Fulham, which has about as good a chance of winning the Premiership as Charlie Brown had of kicking the football that Lucy Van Pelt was holding for him. Still, they go, they sing, they have a pop at their pubs, and they enjoy themselves.

All of this has been great to experience.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Name on the Front of the Jersey

As a dad of two kids who are getting wiser and more impressionable by the minute, I tend to say things from time to time, use stories from the newspaper or anecdotes from history as teaching moments to give the kids the determination to push forward and succeed. Whether it's my son's frustration with Madden 10 (he was very tired on Saturday night and fared badly against me, saying the game was awful and he never would be good at it), or whether it's watching the movie "The Greatest Game Ever" about Francis Ouimet's defeat of Harry Vardon in the 1913 U.S. Open, I try to teach the kids some lessons about standing up to doubters and doing the best they can. (In the case of the Madden example, I asked my son if he thought it would have been wise for me to have given up playing catch with him when he was four because he dropped the ball more often than not, out of a view that I could have concluded he wasn't a natural and wouldn't be good at it. He's a good fielder now, and he agreed that I should have shown patience and was glad that I did). As for the movie, we discussed working hard and believing in oneself.

My kids, unbeknownst to me, call these "Dad-isms." Apparently, my nine year-old repeats them to his friend and their parents. One suggested that I write them down, so here is one attempt to do so.

Here are two of my favorites:

We were driving around today when the kids were joking that sometimes they repeated one of my favorites, taken from legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail." We discussed how we benefitted from preparation and how people and teams fail to do their best when they didn't prepare properly. Okay, so it wasn't anything too deep, but they're getting the point that if they prepare well, study harder, practice more, they'll have a better chance to succeed. My parents taught me many things, but I don't think that anyone ever said this to me when I was growing up.

And then we talked about the extracurricular organization that we participate in and that I blogged about here. My daughter returned from a summer camp today, and I explained to her the problems with this organization, where a leader who has badly erred on many levels thinks that he's bigger than his institution. I asked the kids what I said about sports uniforms, inspired by Penn State's football uniforms and given pause to think when my daughter's tournament team put the kids' names on the back of the jersey.

"That's easy, dad," my daughter offered. "The name on the front of the jersey is what matters."

"Not the name on the back," my son added.

"Well," I offered, "in this particular organization, all this guy seems to care about is the name on the back of the jersey -- his name, because he thinks that he's more important that the institution. So much so that he caused the group to split into two over him -- he and his future clearly became more important than the ideals the organization is supposed to stand for, community and decency. The best leaders, I pointed out, have great things said about them and don't have to remind the groups they lead about their importance or how good they are. This guy, I offered, must not have played on a winning team.

For if he did, he'd know the proverb about the name on the front of the uniform.

And that if you're building a truly great institution -- you need generations of great leaders and workers who pass along wonderful traditions to the next generations, who then do the same.

And not just one guy.

Because it's the name that goes on the front of the jersey that really matters.



Attending to all details -- even the smallest ones -- because that's how teams win.

And not just one guy.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bad Knee, Maybe, But Strong Heart

The Cavs signed veteran forward Leon Powe to provide bench strength once Powe's knee heals (and it's expected to by the All-Star break).

This is a guy who was in the same HS graduating class as LeBron James. He was a big star in his own right coming out of high school. Major injuries have limited Powe to reaching his ceiling, but his career at Cal and as a back-up with the Celtics demonstrates that this guy comes to play and can make a big contribution to his team.

This is another wise move for the Cavs, who are primed to provide a solid mix of players to surround LeBron and get the Cavs their first championship. It's not without risk, but if Powe gets healthy and can contribute in the second half of the season, the Cavs will be all the better for making this move.

Will the Temple Owls Go to Their First Bowl Game in a Long Time?

Sports Illustrated thinks so.

This is great news for Temple's head coach Al Golden, the entire staff and the players. Golden has turned around the atmosphere on North Broad Street in Philadelphia, and while the Owls are a far cry from pushing Penn State off the front of the sports pages in Philadelphia any time soon, they have improved.

This would be some story -- even in a town where the competition for attention from the sports reporters is fierce -- were it to happen.

Jamie Moyer is Human, After All

His public ventilation about his demotion to the bullpen upon the activation of Pedro Martinez disappointed many fans. Those fans thought that Moyer was all about team, first and foremost, and that he was putting himself before the team by saying publicly that the Phillies had misled him about his role. I'm sure that Moyer is disappointed -- he's a competitor -- but he wasn't producing well enough to remain in the rotation, as increasingly each start, inning and pitch was becoming an adventure. It's hard for any competitor to realize when he's not producing and might be worthy of replacing -- that's what makes a person a competitor in the first place, because he works hard with blinders on to do the best he can and eliminate distractions and naysayers from his mind -- but Moyer shouldn't have been surprised. He's been in the business a long time, and he saw the Phillies only last year farm out starter Kyle Kendrick, who had won 11 games for them earlier in the season. These things happen, even if it's sad to see them happen to an elder statesman, a class act (still), and one of the winningest lefties in baseball history.

I explained the situation to my kids' this way -- for teams to win, the best players must be given the chance to play, period. They shouldn't play because of their contracts, where they were drafted, their relationship with the coach or the front office, their agent's relationship with the general manager, or the fact that they're veterans and therefore have earned a permanent place on a roster. All pro sports are very competitive, and the Phillies had to be honest with themselves and had to ask themselves about a month ago whether they could make a deep run in the playoffs with the following rotation: Cole Hamels (having an off year), Joe Blanton (who is pitching very well), Moyer (very high ERA), J.A. Happ (having a great rookie year) and Rodrigo Lopez (coming off arm surgery) and without Brett Myers (who wasn't pitching that well when he got hurt). Now their rotation consists of Cliff Lee (who's pitched great since the team acquired him), Hamels, Blanton, Happ and Pedro Martinez (who had a decent first start about a week ago).

Which rotation would you prefer? What would you have done if you were Ruben Amaro?

I'm sure that Amaro's and Manuel's decision wasn't easy -- Jamie Moyer is a good guy, a great competitor, a good teammate, but the Phillies had to make the move.

Even if Jamie Moyer was going to be unhappy about it.

Click here for Andy Martino's piece in today's Philadelphia Inquirer about Moyer's proving, after all, that he's human like the rest of us.

Why Are the Phillies Being So Patient with Brad Lidge?

If he were an NHL goalie and blew the percentage of saves he has during the season (about 1/3), a hockey GM would have been scrambling to find a new goalie or would have promoted the back-up. Last year, the Phillies' bullpen was the best in baseball and helped propel the team to become champions. This year, it's suffered from a long suspension because of a bonehead move (J.C. Romero, who is now hurt), injuries (to Chad Durbin, Scott Eyre and Clay Condrey) and poor performance (Lidge, who is in the first year of a 3-year, $36 million deal). The team has had some bright spots -- Madson, veteran journeyman Tyler Walker and converted starter Chan Ho Park, but it needs it's bullpen to get healthy and more effective -- and soon.

The Phillies need another solution -- and fast. The situation appears to be so critical that they risk missing the playoffs because manager Charlie Manuel doesn't know which Lidge will show up night after night. Lidge continues to say he's confident -- but what the heck is he supposed to say? He's acting like the starting pitcher who's thrown 133 pitches in 7 2/3 innings, has the bases loaded on two walks and a dink hit with no outs leading by three runs and tells the skipper that he feels great. Of course, players say that all the time -- but it's the manager's and general manager's job to see through the conversation and make the hard call.

The Phillies should have worked harder before the trading deadline to get an insurance policy at closer -- George Sherrill (now on the Dodgers, where he could tantalize the Phillies' predominantly lefty hitters in a setup role in the playoffs) or Chad Qualls of the Diamondbacks. Either that or they need to give Ryan Madson another chance to close or hope that Brett Myers can return soon to rekindle the closing magic that he showed 2 seasons ago (as his arm won't be stretched out enough to let him become a starter by year's end).

Because doing nothing and letting the season erode before their eyes just won't work -- not for a team with a currrent reputation for taking action, not for a team with this talent, not for a team which, if it fixes this problem and gets the hitters a little hotter -- could repeat as champions.

Should the Mets Fire Omar Minaya?

I say no.

The Mets did go into this season as the favorites in the NL East, having acquired J.J. Putz to be their set-up man and Francisco Rodriguez to be their closer. The foursome of Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado presented itself as one of the strongest in all of baseball. And, with Johan Santana, the team has one of the top starters in baseball and a stopper.

But then the wheels fell off the bus. Reyes, Beltran and Delgado have been out for most of the year, as has Putz. John Maine has been hurt, too, and the inking of Oliver Perez to a three-year deal looks now to be as wise as the Phillies' signing of Adam Eaton three years ago. Even Santana hasn't been as dominant as in past years.

So, Met fans have to ask themselves this question -- how many teams could sustain these types of losses and still contend? Could the Phillies have contended had they lost Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez for most of the season, along with Ryan Madson and Brett Myers (whom they did lose for most of the season)? Would the Phillies have contended with Eric Bruntlett at short, since-traded prospect Jason Donald at second, a platoon of John Mayberry, Jr. and Matt Stairs in left (both of whom have not hit well this season), Clay Condrey (who also has been injured a considerable amount of time this year) as the setup man and Rodrigo Lopez or Antonio Bastardo replacing Myers? It's hard to believe that they could have. Yes, their farm system is (much) stronger than the Mets', but that's only been a recent phenomenon.

So, Mets' fans have to be careful what they wish for. Sure, it's easy to get mad at Minaya for the Perez signing and for not having some better replacements for the injured players, but farm systems do have their peaks and valleys. It's also easy to say that the Mets should sack manager Jerry Manuel, but he can't defend, pitch or hit for the team. On paper right now, the Mets are a fourth-place team.

This has been a very strange year for the Mets. Their owners lost hundreds of millions in the Bernie Madoff scandal, and that must have had an effect on the team and its ability to compete for elite free agents. Many of the stars have been out for a long time. That doesn't usually happen, but, when it does, the fans should probably be more patient than when a lineup deep with stars falters.

Where the NBA is Better than Major League Baseball

The NBA doesn't let rookies and agents become bigger than the league. Now perhaps that's because the NBA and its teams have a better deal with its players' union than Major League Baseball does, but I question that because why should the MLBPA allow players who have yet to step onto the field make more than seasoned veterans -- by an absurd margin in the case of the very top draft picks?

It makes about as much sense as mandating that the league whose team wins the All-Star Game earns its champion home-field advantage for the World Series.

Or less.

Read this article about the Nationals (I would have preceded the team with the term "hapless", but that would have been redundant), their first-round pick Stephen Strasburg, the futility they are experiencing in signing him (and their missed opportunity from last season, when they failed to sign their first-round pick, and he again became a first-round pick, and, somewhat inexplicably, that guy still remains unsigned too). The agent in question -- Scott Boras.

I'm no huge fan of Boras, but he's aggressively representing his clients, who, presumably, are acting of their own free will, know what they want and are prepared to be in limbo (to a point) if they do not sign. It's the system that exists that permits Boras and his clients to hold weak teams hostage. That system, if not fixed, could contribute to the perpetuation of those teams' weaknesses.

So now MLB has a 24-hour or so watch to see if Strasburg signs (and if other high picks will sign). It's one thing to see the drama play out for an eighth-rounder who is weighing a scholarship from LSU, Texas or Stanford, but it's another to watch it play out for a player who is described as a "once in a generation" talent.

But Stephen Strasburg should weigh his options carefully. Most people forget who David Clyde was, and J.D. Drew, one of the last famous holdouts, is not a future Hall of Famer (even if he's a solid Major Leaguer). Let the talent beware.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sometimes You Just Can't Make This Stuff Up

The Phillies' Brett Myers, on his way to recovery from surgery on a torn labrum in his hip, injured his eye.

How? Not quite "the cat ate my homework," but it's amazing how weird things happen to this guy.

Read here for the explanation(s).

In Support of the Michael Vick Signing

Michael Vick did some bad things. Very bad. The quarterback who was fearless in taking on his opponents was meek with his friends and, yes, helped enable them (and himself) for a while to get away with murder. There's no excuse for that.

But Vick was held accountable. He served almost two years in jail (according to legal expert and TV pundit Jack Ford, Vick probably served more time than others charged with the same crime). He lost everything -- possessions, money, career. And, he's contrite. So much so that he has legendary coach Tony Dungy in his corner supporting his attempts at a comeback and redemption. There will be an interview aired on "60 Minutes" tomorrow night where Vick will once again discuss his remorse, and he also did so at his press conference in Philadelphia. He now is entitled to try to regain his life -- even in the National Football League.

What more can a society ask?

Yes, some will say that while he's entitled to move on, he shouldn't be able to do so in such a public forum as the NFL, that the right to play in the NFL also is a privilege. They'll argue that the crime was too heinous to give him a second chance, and that because kids look up to football players as role models what type of the message is the league sending? My answer is that we are a government of laws, not of men, and if he's served his time, he's eligible to come back the same way convicted doctors, lawyers, teachers, plumbers, bricklayers and electricians are entitled to return to ply their trades after serving their time. Just because his craft happens to be as an elite football player shouldn't single him out. Yes, doctors and lawyers can be required to show other measures of good conduct before getting reinstated to their profession, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has set some standards for Michael Vick in that regard -- standards that Vick apparently has met or is in the process of meeting.

In contrast, I'm involved in an extracurricular activity where one of the leaders has transgressed. Not at a criminal level, but at a contractual level, at an ethical level and even at the level of how he's treated others. His transgressions have blown what at one time was a cohesive organization apart. Yet, instead of taking responsibility for his role in a (sometimes un-) civil war at this institution, he refuses to do so. He simply wants to move on as if nothing happened and as if he's entitled to do so, and he and his enablers haven't expressed remorse for their role (it was over him, and they "won" in that he is remaining on the job), apologized or admitted that they did something wrong in, among other things, rallying -- sometimes viciously -- to save him at almost any cost. And, yet, those same people are incredulous that the remaining members of the organization are still upset, refuse to move on and might quit (thereby putting the long-term finances of the institution in serious jeopardy). They don't get that to move on, you need sincere admissions, contrition and apologies - none of which are forthcoming. If anything, this guy and his supporters are painting this guy almost as a victim. The only victims here are the truth, community, dignity, decency and the Golden Rule. Go figure. No one has exhibited any physical brutality to dogs (or people), but no one has admitted wrongdoing, expressed any remorse or contrition. And the institution -- if you can call it that -- is staggering as a result.

So, in certain ways, while Michael Vick erred much more greatly, he's the better man than the guy I'm talking about for coming forward, accepting his penalty, expressing remorse, seeking out advisors who will be tough but fair with him, and moving on.

I give the Philadelphia Eagles credit for taking a smart stand here. Michael Vick is one heckuva football player -- at least the guy I saw play several years ago. And, as the trend in the NFL continues to having more and more multi-faceted players play the skill positions on offense -- the Antawn Randle-Els of the world in order to make teams harder to defend -- the more players like Michael Vick will be in demand and will excel. It was a good football decision, and it's a good decision from the standpoint of giving someone who was very troubled another chance.

Please rest assured that I don't condone what Michael Vick did. But I do think that he deserves a second chance because of the way he's been conducting himself since his release from prison.

As for the organization that right now I'm holding onto by a thread, well, Darwin believed that the fittest survived. And show me an organization with an unrepentant wrongdoer at or near its helm, and I'll show you one that might be on its last legs -- whether it knows it or not.

The Eagles? They'll be fine.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

What Was Ed Rapuano Thinking?

The umpire ejected Phillies' CF Shane Victorino in the middle of the game.

Victorino was standing in center field at the time; Rapuano was umping behind home plate.


Apparently, the arbiter was miffed after Victorino raised his right arm after Rapuano called a close pitch from Phillies' pitcher Rodrigo Lopez a ball. So, Rapuano tossed Victorino, who ran toward home plate faster than he goes from first to third on a triple. Fortunately for the Phils, Ryan Howard (and others) kept Victorino away from the ump. This after Rapuano, with two on and two out in the previous half, blew -- yes blew -- a called third strike on Howard that was halfway his shinbone and his ankle. For the Phillies, who admittedly are in a stupor, having to face Marlins' pitcher Josh Johnson is bad enough. Having to face Ed Rapuano (whom Phillies' broadcaster Chris Wheeler says is a good umpire) is double trouble.

The Phillies' fans joined in the debate by heaping boos on Rapuano; the fans in the tony seats behind home plate (those who were still there) were letting him having it on no uncertain terms. Fans throughout the park were chanting Victorino's name.

What was Ed Rapuano thinking? Good ump or not, you just don't eject someone from center field, especially in a 3-1 game, and deprive a team of a pinch hitter because they have to substitute for the ejected player. The supervisor of Major League umpires needs to review this game closely and scrutinize Rapuano's behavior. If he's a good ump, he's had a bad day (and not just on this call).

I'd also like to question the calmness of Phillies' skipper Charlie Manuel. The call from Rapuano was so stupid that I would have expected more animation from Manuel. Manuel remained calm, got an explanation, chuckled a bit, and went back to the dugout. Perhaps then Rapuano had a good explanation, but I would have thought an ejection would have served a purpose -- to fire up an uncharacteristically sleepy team.

It just goes to show you that unlike when you're winning 19 of 22, when you're losing say 8 of 11 or so, you notice each ball and strike call as if it were game 7 of the World Series. At any rate, the Phillies -- and Ed Rapuano -- need to do better.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

There's Nothing Like a Ball Game

I can't imagine what it must have been like to live during the times when there was only day baseball, how people got to the games and missed work, when there were afternoon newspapers and they mattered because they could give you reports on games in progress. I just can't imagine how it would have been to stop time like that with some frequency, catch the game, and enjoy the daytime.

At least, I can't imagine what it would have been like then. Today, I experienced what it would be like now, because I went with some friends to Citizens Bank Park for the series finale between the Rockies and the Phillies. It rained a bit in the morning, but the storm blew by and it turned out be 75 and party cloudly. The game promised to be a good one, matching up Aaron Cook of the Rockies (who went into the game 10-3) and Cliff Lee of the Phillies, who was making his home debut.

Both pitchers gave up leadoff doubles and runs in the first, both settled down, but in the end the Phillies prevailed 3-1. Lee outpitched Cook and pitched great, who gave up a solo home run to back-up catcher Paul Bako, the Phillies' bullpen pitched well, and Jimmy Rollins hit a single, double and triple. Chase Utley hit two long fly balls that send outfielders back against the fence, but both time those shots landed in the gloves of outfielders. 45,316 were on hand, kids under 14 got to run the bases after the game, and Phillies' GM Ruben Amaro announced that rookie hurler J.A. Happ (called Jay) would remain in the starting rotation despite rumors that he'd be moved to the bullpen to make room for Pedro Martinez. All good stuff for the home fans.

On the way to the game, I did something spontaneous. Usually, I head to my usual parking lot, get to the game early enough to watch some batting practice, and buy a hot dog and something to drink. Today, with a friend in tow, we detoured to East Snyder Avenue, not too far from the ball park, to John's Roast Pork, rated by some as having the best cheesesteak in all of Philadelphia. Now John's isn't much to look at, and the ambience is gritty (picture metal picnic tables cemented into the ground), and we had to wait in line about 25 minutes for a grill order (if you wanted a meatball sandwich, roast beef, roast pork (with broccoli rabe and provolone) or cutlet sandwiches, you could go to the front of the line). We ordered cheesteaks with (onions, for the uninitiated).

They were well worth it. My friend opined that this was the best cheesteak he had ever eaten (and he's shy enough time in the gym to know what he's talking about), and I agree. Great roll, great meat, great cheese, just terrific. And, very convenient to the ballpark. We parked on a nearby street, the place is open from 6:45 a.m. to 3 p.m., and it's a must stop for all of you looking for some nourishment before day baseball at the Bank.

But here's the thing of it -- we stopped time today. We left the office, went to a ball game, talked shop, talked baseball, ate peanuts, shot the breeze, some drank a beer or two, but we got off the treadmill that is the working world, the emails, the phone calls, the meetings, the documents, and we lived. We sat with all sorts of people wearing Phillies' garb, we sang "Take me out to the ball game" during the seventh inning stretch, we hoped foul balls would come near us. We witnessed the ritual handshake between Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley before the game starts, we saw a craftsman in Cliff Lee, and we saw what makes baseball great -- that it's a team game in that each day a different teammate picks the team up. Today light-hitting Paul Bako hit a blast to right center on a day with no breeze and humid air, and he helped make the difference. We saw grandparents with children and grandchildren, kids and adults eating ice cream in Phillies' imitation helmets, and, well, we enjoyed every minute of it.

Baseball is a great game to bring people together.

Day baseball is a reminder as to how the little things in life can be so powerful and, as a result, not so little after all.

Monday, August 03, 2009

This Just In

Phillies Think They Can Reclaim NL Pennant

As Gomer Pyle would have said, "Surprise, surprise, surprise."

Now, about having lost 4 of their last 5 on the road, going 8 of their last 67 with runners in scoring position and running into the buzzsaw that is the San Francisco Giants' pitching staff. . .

Of course they have the talent to go far, and, yes, they'll have a small skid every now and then. Right now, some of the buzz is that the Giants have great pitching for a short series. That's true, but their lineup won't make people forget the '27 Yankees, and they'll run into some formidable teams in the playoffs themselves, should they make it.

August and September should be fun for Phillies' fans, and, I suspect, they'll still be rooting in October . . . for as long as Brad Lidge can close games.