Friday, April 30, 2010

Tinker to Evers to Chance, These Guys Ain't

Kyle Kendrick

Denys Baez

David Herndon.

If you see these three pitchers in the same Phillies' game, then you know the Phillies have been barbecued.

Or worse, because barbecue usually tastes good.

These three pitched against the Mets tonight, and with about an inning to go, the Phillies trailed 8-1. To make matters worse, when the Phillies activated closer Brad Lidge today, they had to put in erstwhile closer and regular set-up man Ryan Madson on the DL, because Madson kicked something in the dugout after blowing a save in SF the other day and broke a big toe.

Member of Mensa he ain't.

Member of Madson he is.

Right now, certain members of the Phillies' pitching staff are combustible. They need Madson back, they need Cole Hamels to stop throwing home run balls, and they need J.A. Happ and Joe Blanton back quickly so that the team doesn't have to suffer both Jamie Moyer and Kendrick in the starting rotation. They also need to ship David Herndon back to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Championship teams don't have relievers like that one them.

Baez was once big-time trade bait. Now he seems to be big-time shark bait, because if he doesn't stop pouring gasoline on mid-inning infernos the fans will shop him up and use him for chum for deep-seas fishing about 300 miles off the Atlantic Coast. He has to pitch better.

As for Moyer and Kendrick, well, the former at least has a chance to try to re-kindle his glory days and summon memories of them than can help inspire him to pitch until he's 50. The latter either will make a career for himself in the bullpen or become a AAAA pitcher, on the shuttle from an AAA club many times during what might prove to be a checkered career if he cannot locate his pitches for strikes consistently.

Hardly time to push the panic button in the Cradle of Liberty.

But if we hear Kendrick to Baez to Herndon with some frequency, the Phillies are in big trouble.

Book Review "The Bullpen Gospels" by Dirk Hayhurst

Hayhurst penned a diary about 3 years ago about his time in the Padres' organization, playing both at High-A Lake Elsinore in the California League and AA San Antonio in the Texas League. He writes the book using a good convention -- he changes the names of players who might be offended by some of his anecdotes and characterizations, and he uses the names of those who are figures of authority or can come off good. So, for example, touted prospects Kyle Blanks and Will Venable receive mention, but the formerly only in one instance and by his last name, and the latter only in one vignette, in the last inning of the AA championship series in the Texas League at a point when the bullpen was en route to blowing a 12-0 lead (finally, the baseball equivalent of clotting factors took route before the patient bleeded out).

Hayhurst at this point in his career was a journeyman reliever who was about 1 consistent pitch short of making an impact. Translated, he needed to figure out a way to fool hitters using more than a fastball; he had to get his slider to bite. What he reveals is how fragile an existence being a minor leaguer is, and how the minor leaguers develop a solid, if whacky, esprit de corps because they're 25 young men together for about 6 months, and, well, they are competing as a team on the one hand and against each other (sort of) for jobs with clubs in better leagues. In other words, have a few bad outings in a row, and you can get released or sent down to an inferior league.

So, in part, the book is a chronicle of a season of a minor league relief pitcher, and you get a sense of what it's like to play minor-league ball, make subsistence wages, try to get perks when you can and try to create your own fun in the bullpen, where a lot of the hilarity happens. Fortunately, though, the book doesn't end there, as Hayhurst went the extra mile and revealed a lot about himself, his past, his makeup, and how he attempted getting over the "pitching not to lose" hump that can separate those who don't make it from those who do (with the latter taking the attitude, "I'm worried about climbing the mountain, not falling off it.").

To call Hayhurst's personal life (at the time he was in his mid-twenties, single, chaste and a teetotaler, but with a sense of humor that would bely the latter two descriptions) dysfunctional would be generous. His family back in Ohio was hanging together by a thread, owing in large part to a bad accident that his father suffered that rendered him unable to work and depressed and angry as a result, and, as much so, to an alcholic brother whose destructive tendencies proved cancerous to the family. During the off-season, Hayhurst lived with his grandmother, who might be best described as Granny of the Beverly Hillbillies, but with a mean streak and without a filter for holding in some of her most cutting thoughts. That family life, and the frustrations of baseball, led the introspective Hayhurst to thinking that his life didn't have as much meaning as it could have.

There he was, a professional baseball player, doing something many kids dreamed of but weren't nearly good enough to do, and unfulfilled. He had no money, he didn't relish the semi-celebrity status he had in the towns where he pitched, and he was adrift. What's instructive about The Bullpen Gospels is how Hayhurst puts everything together and starts pitching with much less fear and more purpose, and how he does so through so very powerful and meaningful interactions both in the off-season and during the season that show him how to move forward with purpose. No, it's not a book about finding religion in a locker room in Shreveport after getting shelled, not at all. It's a book that mixes the humor of the minor leaguer's existence with his realizing that despite all of the uncertainty around him, he still can carve out a path toward satisfaction.

I don't think that Dirk Hayhurst is pitching right now; my guess is that he's writing.

Which is a good thing, because despite some pitching excellence, my guess is that a front-office person or two somewhere has told Hayhurst that his future probably lies in writing.

But something else tells me that, as with many former athletes, if he can get just one more chance -- at the age of 29 -- he'll drop what he's doing to take it.

And that something else also tells me that given Hayhurst's focus and sense of purpose, he might do better this time around than he's ever done before.

Great read. You'll laugh aloud at points, and you'll also get sentimental if not emotional. Most books do one or the other, but not both. That's the excellence that Hayhurst brought to the work -- he was true to his subject.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ryan Howard's $125 Million Extension

I love Ryan Howard, but. . .

He's not even the second-best first baseman in the National League (you'd have to give that nod to Prince Fielder).

He's going to be 36 at the end of this deal.

He's streaky and he's big, and the Baseball Prospectus gurus will tell you that big-bodied players don't last all that long. Then again, he's not going to turn into Bobby Bonilla (remember him?) or Mo Vaughn (hard to forget him, given his girth).

Still . . .

Here are a few things to think about:

1. Phillies' fans will be somewhat aghast, because, given the start of the season, with the bullpen's problems (the 2008 Brad Lidge can't get here fast enough) and the trade of Cliff Lee, the chorus will be: "Why Couldn't They Have Kept Cliff Lee?" That chorus will ring louder and louder, because, presumably, the Phillies argued that they didn't want to add $9 million to their payroll this year to keep Lee. This signing makes them look penny-wise and pound-foolish (no pun intended).

2. Phillies' ownership could counter "right back at ya," in that fans usually castigate the ownership for not spending the extra dollars to solidify the roster. It's hard to argue against ownership, given the big deals given to Roy Hallady and now Howard.

3. Chase Utley has to be next. He struck a team-friendly deal several years ago and now makes a measly $12 million a year, when, arguably, he's the team's most valuable position player, their only future Hall of Famer, and the best player on the team. It appears that he went easy on the Phillies previously, but you have to believe that he'll be out of here after 2013 if the Phillies don't do something. Expect that they'll do something.

4. The Phillies had a tough choice to make, and Howard had more leverage over them than they did over him. The reasons? First, can you say "Boston Red Sox," who will be desperate for a big bat sooner than 2010 but would have been waiting patiently for Howard after that? Second, Albert Pujols isn't leaving St. Louis. Third, with Jayson Werth's contract up after this season and Howard's up after 2011, the Phillies either had to commit to Werth now and risk Howard's walking or commit to Howard and let Werth walk. They couldn't have risked not doing anything with Howard before Werth became a free agent, or else Howard could have priced himself out of the market (see: Boston Red Sox, by this time desperate to keep up with Tampa Bay and New York) and the Phillies would have more holes in their lineup than they could possibly fill.

5. The Phillies will have some tough choices after 2011, but don't look for them to re-ink iffy Brad Lidge and aging Raul Ibanez. Look for them to use a bunch of money made free by the expiration of those contracts and Jamie Moyer's to re-ink Jimmy Rollins and find some other, younger players.

6. Is re-signing Werth out of the question? Probably, given that he'll command Jayson Bay-type money or better, and given that the Phillies will have committed eight figures a year to Howard, Hallady and Utley and will be paying Ibanez and Lidge eight figures apiece in 2011 as well. Remember, GM Ruben Amaro did say that not everyone can make $10 million a year (okay, perhaps in Yankee Stadium).

So, this will be the big news of the moment, as the Phillies continue to solidify their roster and build for the long term. Still, this signing is a risky one. As I said, I like Ryan Howard an awful lot, but the Phillies will need more consistent production from him for many years to make this contract pay off.

Phillies fans should be happy that ownership opened up its pocketbook. They will be even more disappointed, however, that they couldn't have found an additional (and relatively paltry) $9 million to have Cliff Lee as their #2 starter.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Book Review: "It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium" by John Ed Bradley

I had read Bradley's stuff over the years in Sports Illustrated, where the writers are anonymous enough that you have no way of telling whether they were just smart kids who like sports, they might have played something in high school, or they were actually varsity college athletes. As it turned out, Bradley played center for LSU in the late 1970's, and his is an interesting story to tell.

He grew up in a small town in Louisiana, his father a high school teacher and coach. He ended up with his father's size, played well in high school, and, because of his efforts, got the ultimate golden ticket for a Louisiana high school kid -- a chance to play football for Charlie MacLendon ("Cholly Mac") at LSU. I once heard the expression that "youth is wasted on the young," and that didn't seem to be the case for those who played football in Baton Rouge. What probably was the case that the experience couldn't last long enough and that some of the guys who played had a difficult time adjusting to life after college football.

Bradley sensed that this would happen as his last season was ending and before he graduated. He wanted to be a writer, a novelist, badly, so much so that he threw everything into this endeavor the same way he had given his heart, soul and skin on his chest to playing football. He vowed to look forward and (never) to look backward, and he was in a funk for several years after he left the locker room in Tiger Stadium. He turned down an opportunity to be a graduate assistant to Cholly Mac's successor, Jerry Stovall, refrained from staying in contact with the program or his former teammates, and only returned to Baton Rouge a few times since (the first invoked a panic attack and the next two were highly unsatisfactory). No, he wanted to write, so much so that he never settled down and had a family the way (as it would turn out) many of his teammates did.

His LSU football experience ate at him. Boy, did Bradley love (and, at times, loathe) everything about LSU football. He loved playing for Cholly Mac, he loved the overall experience and he thought very highly of many of his teammates. But there were times where he wanted to quit, where the intensity and regimen of it all was suffocating, and where the bruises and the agony of intense workouts pushed him to his limit. Deep down what he seemed to realize was that he would never have that experience again in his life -- one of a deep commitment, bonding and being the focus of an entire community again. That's a harsh thing to realize when you're in your early twenties.

But as time passed he realized that he couldn't stay away, and as he tells his life story, sometimes vividly and at other times opaquely, he talks with those familiar with his teammates, visits Cholly Mac (by all accounts a gentleman who really cared about his players) when his old coach is very sick, and checks out some former teammates. Fortune didn't smile on all of them -- several ended up in jail, one ended up paralyzed as a result of a freak accident, one died young and others settled into normal lifes, but their LSU football experiences left them feeling, well, differently. For some, playing football as LSU was the highlight of their lives (such as Ramsey Dardar, a one-time defensive lineman who played in the NFL but who ended up jailed as a result of a career in crime fueled by drug addiction). For others, such as lineman Big Ed Stanton, leaving LSU left them with a sense of loss that was hard to describe (even though Stanton worked in a family business, was successful, and had a good family to boot).

Bradley's is a gripping book, about a Louisiana boy who did all the right things (except, perhaps, pursue the right woman or choose a conventional career), fulfilled the childhood dream, but found that once he achieved all that it wasn't enough. Back in Louisiana now, it's hard to tell whether Bradley has achieved a sense of peace after all these years having written the book, or whether he's still out there searching for a happier medium, a more stable equilibrium, that will let him emphasize the positives of the past and enjoy the rest of his life knowing that the value of what he learned from Cholly Mac and his teammates outweighs the sense of loss from knowing, simply, that it had to end and that he didn't want to be one of those guys who, as he aged, only could trade in one currency -- sitting around and telling all who would listen embellished tales of the days when he played for the LSU Tigers.

We've all been there, not wanting to look back at certain things, and setting ourselves out on courses where we want to do better than most and find a uniqueness that sets us apart from everyone else. But, as we age, we realize that there is a rich value in a community of people -- for all its warts -- that is a gripping part of us, because that's what life is. It's not about the totems of writing critically acclaimed novels or winning sales awards or getting continued promotions. It's about where we're from, the paths we've traveled, whom we've met along the way and shared our lives with, and how each person, in some way, has enriched or changed our lives, regardless of whether they can't stop living in the old neighborhood mentally after having moved away physically a long time ago. John Ed Bradley realized that no matter how far he traveled with his writing career, Louisiana is home, and the LSU Tigers were an important part of his village and will continue to be for his remaining days.

And that there are many worse things out there than that.

Even if people keep on asking you what it was like, and even if some former teammates can't stop talking about a certain game or a certain play. After a while, instead of having those endlessly repeated stories sound like a nails on the blackboard, they become part of a montage of the music of one's life, sometimes exciting, sometimes not, but always familiar. And, after a while, no matter how far you've traveled, there's something very comforting in that, and those whom you think might have forgotten you or be mad at you for having taken your journey with a vow not to look back will welcome you with open arms, knowing full well that the village is at the core of all of us, especially when it's full of good, memorable people, shared, positivie experiences and good lessons.

It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium teaches us all of this.

Prescient Words from Tom Jackson on Tim Tebow

Whether or not Broncos' coach Josh McDaniels has found a new messiah in Tim Tebow might be a hot debate in Denver right now. But what ESPN analyst Tom Jackson said on draft day is (almost) uncontrovertible: Tebow cannot be a team leader if he's not the starting quarterback. And, unless McDaniels annoints everyone's all-American with the starting job, both Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn will have something to say about it.

I'm not sure that I agree that McDaniels has bet his coaching tenure with the selection of Tebow. What we do know is that a) many teams flop with more obvious first-round selections and b) drafting quarterbacks is an art, not a science. Otherwise, the most obvious selections always will be stars, and all you have to do is mention the names Ryan Leaf and Akili Smith (as well as Alex Smith and JaMarcus Russell, both of whom were atop the draft boards of the experts who get paid to evaluate draft classes) to know that this isn't the case. So, it could be that Tebow is a latter-day Joe Montana, with the exception that McDaniels was wise enough to see that Tebow shouldn't have been a third-round pick (like Montana) but a first-round pick (because of the potential value that he could bring). That said, you do wonder about McDaniels' drafting savvy, because it also appears that the Broncos could have gotten more value out of the draft by continuing to trade down and selecting Tebow with an even lower draft pick.

It's also interesting that there haven't been in-depth studies as to why some quarterbacks succeed and others fail. Sure, they have different physical gifts, and, yes, different Wonderlic scores, but what are the other variables that might affect them. Among them could be the following: the type of offense, the way a coach handles quarterbacks and the way the quarterback needs to be managed, how many quarterback coaches and offenses the quarterback has seen during his career, how decisive and aggressive the quarterback is (that is, if he has to make a bunch of reads in the NFL, has college prepared him for that), and how good of a playmaker the quarterback is. Did Jimmy Clausen really fall because no team other than the Rams wanted to select a quarterback that early, or because the other teams saw something negative about his game/talents/leadership that Mel Kiper (who had him rated as the fourth-best player in the entire draft) did not? Finally, there's the pressure of being a first-round pick. Sometimes, given how popular the NFL is and how starved some cities can be for winners, that status becomes a stigma that is hard to overcome. Remember, those drafted, despite the big money thrown at them, are only kids.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Funny Headline from Sporting News Online

There is first a headline, then a small vertical bar, then one word.

So it looks something like this: "Redskins Send Campbell to Oakland/Fantasy."

That evokes many comments, such as, I doubt whether any quarterback in the National Football League views going to Oakland as a fantasy. Or, is it fantasy to think that Jason Campbell can QB a franchise to the playoffs? On the latter point, many experts in the current version of The Sporting News opined that if he's in the right place, Campbell is a playoff-caliber quarterback. These same experts also offered that despite the giddiness in DC over the arrival of Donovan McNabb, McNabb won't be a sure thing unless the Redskins upgrade their offensive line.

Bottom line: going to Oakland isn't much of a fantasy.

Fantasy Island? Hardly.

Survivor? About right.

Do Eagles' Fans Believe Andy Reid's Comments About the Draft?

The NFL Draft is compelling theater for me. Grown men go into excruciating detail trying to distinguish themselves as experts by looking for (slight) differences between players. NFL teams spend buckets of money trying to find the right players; academics have demonstrated that the current structure of the NFL draft leads to bad picks at the front end of the first round and have suggested that trading down is better than trading up.

Andy Reid has been the coach and grand poobah of player decisions in Philadelphia for over a decade. He's at best an average drafter, getting outstanding value on the second round (DeSean Jackson) and third (Brian Westbrook) while striking out in the first round by trading up for Shawn Andrews and Jerome McDougle. Overall, I would say that he has a mixed record.

So I laugh every year when I hear him wax eloquent about getting the players he wanted when, normally, he overlooks the consensus "best player on the board" time and time again, and sometimes by a factor of many (take mid-round pick Joe Mays, an LB out of North Dakota State a few years ago -- he didn't even appear on some teams' radar screens, and, with good reason, as Mays seems totally outmatched out there). I don't pay too close attention. Yes, I admire Reid's results, but every year you can get disappointed when a pick fails to pan out, so I tend to withhold judgment for a few seasons. Still, it's amusing to hear grown men talk with great sincerity about how "we got who we wanted."


Everyone thought that the Eagles would take a safety (Earl Thomas) when they traded up to the 13th spot. The reports on Thomas were raves, and he seemed to be one of the most talked about players leading up to the draft. So, it was a bit of a surprise when they took DE/OLB Brandon Graham of Michigan with that pick. Yes, the Eagles love speed rushers when they can get them, yes, their existing stock of DEs is weak after Trent Cole, and, yes, Graham is a DE. What was interesting wasn't what Andy Reid said, but the reaction of Jon Gruden and Tom Jackson on ESPN. Their comments were much more compelling and were a better cause for optimism, because those two guys reacted reflexively about what a great pick Graham was because of his relentless motor (Jackson drew a comparison to Dwight Freeney). Still, you don't know what you've got until they start to play the games. Sure, Andy Reid should be happy, he made the pick and traded up for the guy he wanted. It just wasn't necessarily the guy the fans were expected. And, if Graham struggles and Earl Thomas becomes a star, yikes!

But such is the nature of the NFL draft. Hope springs eternal immediately thereafter.

The Sad Story of Taylor Mays and Pete Carroll

This was the most compelling story to come out of draft day.

It's the story of a loyal player, a popular coach, a decision to forego the draft (despite being told of being a top-15 pick), and the (relatively) disastrous season that followed. The first-round money is gone, but, more than that, so is the trust between a player and a coach.

There are probably more sides to the story than the article lets on, but at the end of the day football, including major college football, is a business. Because of deficiencies in the USC defense, Pete Carroll had to change Taylor Mays' defensive responsibilities after Mays had a great season the year before. Those changes left Mays somewhat exposed, and the player's beef is that despite numerous entreaties to Carroll about what to do to improve his draft status, Carroll's refrain was, "don't worry, you'll be fine."

As it turned out, that wasn't he case, as Mays went 49th overall, as opposed to going in the top 15 (as he was told he would the year before). There is a good lesson in this for all players -- you have to respect your coaches, but remember that they're there in college to win games the best way they can, and if you're a true team member you're going to play the position they ask you to play. That said, seek out many mentors and be honest with yourself about your skill set and your need to improve, because if you find the right mentors you're bound to find someone who will be frank with you and show you some things to work on.

That's not to say that Pete Carroll is dishonest, though. First, he was there to win games. Second, he had nothing to lead him to believe that by moving Mays to a different type of position that Mays' draft status would decline, especially because Mays is an unbelievable athlete. Carroll so much believed in Mays' athleticism and prior season's results that in his mind Mays was -- and is -- an outstanding player. If Carroll's guilty of anything, it may be that he didn't look at the way the NFL looks at things finitely enough to be as supportive as he could have been of a player who showed him loyalty by foresaking a top-15 spot in the prior year's NFL draft. Let's face it, if your school is a primary feeder to the NFL, you have to, as a coach, think of things like that or have someone on your staff who does. Call him your "career services" coach.

I hope that the two can reconcile. I hope that Mays uses his disappointment as a motivator to excel for the 49ers, allowing, though, for the doubting that there are certain things he needs to do better (as opposed to thinking that his athleticism can conquer all). I also hope that he lets his frustration subside and can forgive Pete Carroll, who doesn't appear to have meant him any harm.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Desperation in Boston?

Terry Francona says no.

Can the Red Sox hit enough to earn a playoff spot? Does their lineup scare anyone?

Last year, observers complimented the Philadelphia Phillies by saying that they were the only National League team with an American League lineup. Translated, that meant that the pundits were saying that the Phillies could flat-out hit.

So, can someone now diss the BoSox by saying that they have a National League lineup? Of course, they wouldn't be the only team worthy of that moniker, but did the Red Sox' brass think that the lineup that the team went into the season with can contend?

We'll find out.

How Far Has Tim Tebow Sunk (or Risen) in the NFL Draft?

This report from ESPN suggests that Tebow won't be in New York tomorrow for the first round.

The cited reasons: the logistical difficulties in getting family and friends there.

The probable reason: he's not going to go in the first round.

Still, he's worth drafting in the early rounds, if only because a) he's a big-time gamer and b) he's re-tooled his release to better suit the pro game.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Early Reactions to Travel Softball Tournaments

I just got back from a travel softball tournament. On Saturdays, teams play for seeding, and on Sundays, there's a single elimination tournament for the trophies. Here are a few observations:

1. The Trunk of Your Car Must Be a Well-Stocked Locker. Especially in the spring, when there's rain in the forecast, it's windy and say not going to get about 58 degrees. Accordingly, I had a pretty warm coat, rain gear (including rain pants), an umbrella, gloves, a scarf, a few hats, a cooler full of cold drinks, energy bars, first aid stuff (ice packs, Icy Hot, a first-aid kit), a spare pair of cleats for my daughter, blankets, the $9 on sale portable chairs purchased at Dick's sporting goods and a catching bucket (i.e., the type with a cushion on top in case I was needed to warm up my daughter before she got a chance to pitch). My daughter had her equipment bag full of stuff, too.

2. Remember the Primary Thing. Okay, so to paraphrase Jim Morris from "The Rookie," it's never "just one thing," but remember this -- softball is a kids' game, for kids, and it's supposed to be fun.

3. Remember the Two Commandments of Softball Parenting. The first is "Thou Shalt Not Approach the Bench." Put differently, it means "leave your daughter the hell alone." Unless, of course, you need to remind her to put on sunscreen or in case you see that she gets hurt. The kids put enough pressure on themselves, and you'll only add to it by approaching the bench to offer guidance to either your child or her coaches.

The second is, "Thou Shalt Not Draw Attention to Yourself as a Fan." Put another way, don't say anything to embarrass yourself or, worse, your kid. It's okay to cheer reasonably, but refrain from going psycho on the umpires on a close play and, especially, from getting on the other coaches or players.

4. Check Out the Area to Find a Restaurant or Too. And not so much for the obvious reasons, but for clean bathrooms. Not every travel venue has permanent bathrooms, which means that they deploy Port-a-Potties, which can get to be pretty disgusting by the end of the first day and clearly by the second day. It's not a bad thing to know.

5. Vendors Make a Killing on These Softball Teams. Take a look around -- at the uniforms, the jackets, the sweatshirts, the color-coordinated cleats, dugout "caddies" for the placement of helmets, pants, batting tees, batting nets, the gloves, the bats (some bats cost $300) and you'll see that there really isn't anything parents won't do for their kids. My daughter uses a $40 bat we purchased at Dick's, although some of her friends on other teams swear by their $300 bats the way first-time parents coo over their newborns. So I asked parents of kids on a 14-and-under travel team about the difference. Thankfully, they told me that they'll only make a difference if your kid's a good hitter because they're better made and allow for more pop when your daughter connects. They also told me ways to find last year's models on eBay for $150. I hardly realized that it could cost you so much to outfit a kid for softball.

6. It's Amazing How These Girls Dress in the Cold Weather. Some went sleeveless today (because many softball shirts are sleeveless) in weather that was 54 degrees and slightly windy. They are the girls, aren't they? Others took a more sensible approach and wore long-sleeved Under Armour underneath their game shirts. The one thing that does appear to bother the girls is that if the shirts aren't tapered, they're bothersome. So Under Armour is in, but cotton sweatshirts or t-shirts are out.

7. It's a Fascinating Game of Ritual, Repetition and Fundamentals. There are a few fundamental principles of fast-pitch softball beyond having an untouchable pitcher who can locate four pitches. They are (i) play flawless defense (or, in other words, don't give a good opponent more than 3 outs in an inning or they'll end up burying you), (ii) as a corollary to (i), make sure your kids know what to do in every single situation in the field and that they also have enough reps to charge the ball, take the cut-off, go back on fly balls (and many other things) and (iii) make sure that they know the strike zone, steal on every opportunity and challenge throwing arms whenever possible (and within reason). You don't want to give your opponents too many opportunities, and you don't want to help the other pitcher by swinging at balls out of the strike zone.

8. It's Helpful for a Team to Have the Same Pre-game Routine Every Time. A set routine helps the girls relax and builds their confidence. So, start with hitting grounders to some kids while others hit into a batting net and while the pitchers warm up with catchers, practice charging short pop ups, sliding, whatever it is. You probably can't overdo drilling. Your kids need to know to charge balls, come up throwing and think for themselves as to which base to throw to. The game moves too fast for the kids to wait for instructions.

9. There's a Lot of Talent Out There.

That's about all I can type now, as I'm thawing out from 1 and 1/2 days of watching games and trying to stay warm in chilly weather. My daughter's season just started, and we have many tournaments to go.

Phillies' Fans: What's the Name of the Group that Will Cheer Roy Halladay?

The best known was the "Wolf Pack," the group that cheered Randy Wolf on every time he pitched. There was also the "Coste Guard", in honor of back-up catcher Chris Coste, and "Padilla's Flotilla," in honor of the surly, headhunter pitcher Vicente Padilla. The son of a friend also started "Perez's Fezzes," after journeyman back-up infielder (and noted prankster) Tomas Perez. That friend had coined the best moniker for any support group, although he never suggested it publicly, the mellifluous "Pat Burrell's Fat Girls." Imagine the possibilities. . .

But now they're looking for a name for Roy Halladay's followers. I've heard "Doc's Nurses," "Doc's Interns," but while clever to a degree they're not catchy or all that memorable. Then there could be the "Happy Halladays" or "Halladay's Gifts," or, on a takeoff on a popular Christmas tune, "Homies for Halladay" after, yes, "Home for the Holidays." So far, there have been no plays on the star pitcher's first name, such as "Roy's Boy Toys" (who could give the Pat Burrell people a run for their money, and, besides, Halladay is married) or, well, I suppose that I might have exhausted the possibilities.

Then again, does it really matter? Remember that the Wolf Pack got its start at Veterans Stadium, when the Phillies weren't very good and when there were many empty seats, so much so that there was plenty of room for a group of 40 fans to go to the upper deck in left, put up their signs and make themselves known. Today, the Phils sell out, so it's hard to figure where such an ad hoc fan club might find a place to gather.

Finally, the way he pitches, it's hard to reason that only 40 fans would unite to support Halladay more vociferously than the other 44,960 or so who populate the Bank. On the days that he starts, everyone plays a role in watching Doc operate.

Will the Phillies' Fans' Chorus Begin?

The big question: do the Phillies have enough pitching . . .

to make the playoffs?

Right now, it's hard to say, when you consider that Cole Hamels hasn't reverted to 2008 form like some thought he would, that Kyle Kendrick is quickly establishing himself as a perennial AAAA pitcher who might have a 10-year career bouncing between AAA and the 25th roster spot, and that Jamie Moyer appears to be through. Atop that, the Phillies have in their bullpen two people about whom the stats whizzes at Baseball Prospectus have serious doubts -- one-time closer Denys Baez and Rule 5 draft pick David Herndon, who should be offered back to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim sometime soon.

Naturally, the Phillies' brass knows a lot more about this stuff than you or I do. Hamels should round into better form, but Kendrick has pitched terribly and what can you expect from Moyer at this point in his career? As for Baseball Prospectus, the last time I checked, the Lords of Baseball didn't pass a rule declaring it to be their bible. (Although if pushed, many general managers might do just that).

Still, Phillies' fans aren't a patient group. They're very loyal (at least right now), and management has done a good job of building the roster for this season (GM Ruben Amaro doesn't get a "great" because many believe that the team should have kept Cliff Lee; right now, those doubters have the better argument than Amaro does, despite Lee's being on the disabled list in Seattle).

Let's see how the staff develops over the course of the next several weeks. But if Kendrick and Moyer continue to struggle, the chatter will intensify.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Firing the Coach Won't Cure the 76ers' Ills

More pathetic than trying to pin the entire fiasco that is the 76ers on now-former coach Eddie Jordan (apparently he was the 7th coach in the 7 years since Larry Brown departed) is that the media took to quoting center Samuel Dalembert about Jordan's fate.

Why on earth would they do that other than the fact that Dalembert was available? They've seen the guy play, and he has a horrible basketball IQ. Sure, he can block shots, but that's about it. And Andre Iguodala? He won't be found anytime soon near the definition of on-court leadership.

You don't win without good players. And, even if you have good players, you need good chemistry and good leadership. All the 76ers need to do is look across the street at the Phillies to observe first-hand a great blend of talent, chemistry and leadership. The 76ers don't have much talent, their chemistry is terrible, and their leadership is non-existent.

So, what do you do? You fire the coach. Yet, you have players who make more than he does and whose contracts are longer. Most of them aren't NBA starters; none are first options, not even Iguodala, who can have his moments. They don't defend well, and reports were that some showed up late for practice consistently. The future looks bleak.

Many blamed Jordan, but what about GM Ed Stefanski? He took a team that ran well and was in the top 5 in points in the paint and added a glue horse in Elton Brand. So, immediately, he put an expensive slow player amidst thoroughbreds. Then, he hired a coach whose philosophy is for a deliberate offense, but he didn't re-tool the team enough to make it work. Somehow, he asked Eddie Jordan to work his magic amidst a bunch of players who were poorly suited for his philosophy. Make sense?

The Wachovia Center was dead this past season. Season ticket holders took a bath in the secondary market. The team won't project to win more than 30 games next year. The Allen Iverson gimmick failed miserably.

What will they think of next?

Comcast Shareholders Must Protest

And if you're a basketball fan, doubly so.

What does Ed Snider know about basketball?

And what, perchance, does he know about hockey anymore?

Look, he put the Flyers on the map 40 years ago and the Broad Street Bullies were magical in the early-to-mid 1970's. But despite the Flyers' having spent a lot of money on talent since 1975, they haven't won a Stanley Cup in 35 years.

As for the 76ers, he didn't know anything about basketball to start with. So why does a public company, Comcast, have him making all the key decisions?

It really doesn't make any sense.

Yes, the 76ers fired the coach, and they may fire the general manager, but they also should fire the head honcho.

Before it gets too ridiculous.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Steelers Have a Tough Choice to Make on Ben Roethlisberger

First, they peddled Santonio Holmes for acting like a loser and gave him up for the equivalent of a practice-squad linebacker. The fact that the Steelers tossed him aside for a fifth-round draft pick should have told the Jets that they were buying trouble. We'll see if one team's junk is another's joy.

Second, they have the albatross around their neck, also known as Ben Roethlisberger. Sure, they've won two Super Bowls with him, but if the dignified and proud Steelers tossed Holmes away for a prayer for much lesser offenses, what will they do with Roethlisberger? Those in the compliance world say that you know when an executive displays the ultimate in character when he'll take a stand that costs him money, such as firing some key employees because of their transgressions. The Steelers are one of the classiest acts in the National Football League, yet their standard bearer is an embarrassment.

Mention the Steelers, and football fans will say things like, "The Rooney family knows what they're doing," "class acts," "more Super Bowl wins than anyone else," "great franchise," and things like that.

Mention Ben Roethlisberger and the non-verbal cues will be as powerful as the verbal ones. The former will include rolling of the eyes and expressions of disgust. The latter will include such endearing terms as "jerk," "pig," "harasser," and many other terms, some libelous, others unprintable.

Put the two together and you have at best a bad phase, behaviorally, in Steeler history, in the middle a dilution of the brand, and, at worst, a collision between the longstanding values of the franchise and the guy who has led them recently to two Super Bowl titles. It will be interesting to see how the Rooney family views all of this behavior, and whether Roger Goodell comes down on Roethlisberger like Dante Stallworth or Pac-man Jones. At best, Roethlisberger gets a four-game suspension. Somehow, I could see him getting a full season, even though despite his recent escapade he was charged with no crime. Then the players' union will be faced with having to file a grievance for Roethlisberger, so that they don't get Goodell set a precedent for a full-year suspension without a criminal conviction. That's where things could get interesting, but if the Steelers somehow opt for the potential for a title and the money over protecting their brand to its fullest, they shouldn't expect Goodell to do the same. He's all for protecting the strength of the NFL's brand, two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback or not.

That's why I think the Rooneys will act first, so that they can take the lead and show other teams how matters like this should be handled. They wouldn't want to let Goodell front-run them on a matter that's very near and dear to the hearts of head coach Mike Tomlin and the Rooney family. It may be that the players' union and Roethlisberger will file a grievance, but I'd venture to bet it will be as a result of what the Rooneys do, and not Commissioner Goodell.

At the end of the day, I think that the Steelers' brand will trump the monetary interest in Roethlisberger. Many great players have played in Pittsburgh, and all have thought that the name on the front of the jersey has meant more than the name on the back. One who strayed got sent to the Jets for a song. The more prominent one who has done at least three stupid things over the past five years has brought more shame to the franchise.

Expect a suspension.

And/or a trade.

Because the Steeler brand stands tall out there.

I hope that Ben Roethlisberger will relish playing for Oakland, or that he has his long johns ready for those long Buffalo winters.

Red, White (and Blue) Whine Cellar

The 76ers fired head coach Eddie Jordan. Click here for an article from one of the Philadelphia papers on the subject.

Sometimes a performance review is a reflection of the person being reviewed. Other times it's more of a reflection of the people doing the reviewing. Sometimes, it's a mixture of both. In this case, the review is as much a reflection of the wisdom of the front office in miscasting a coach as it is on the character of players who appear to be overpaid.

When you have the whining that the 76ers have had, you have a first-class ticket, non-stop, to the cellar.

Hence, the whine cellar.

The 76ers already have red and white in their color scheme. Drinking too much of it gives you their third color, the blues.

It's a mess in Philadelphia.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Something in the NYC/NJ Water Supply Re College Hoops

Put differently, there have been lots of coaching changes.

St. John's.

Seton Hall.



Iona (coached moved to Seton Hall).

Hofstra (coached moved to Fordham).

St. Benedict's (coach moved to Wagner; just kidding. St. Benedict's isn't a DI program (yet) --it's a high school).

And now, Rutgers, according to ESPN.

Rutgers whiffed on Jay Wright years ago when Wright left Hofstra for Villanova. They hired Gary Walters from the MAC (Kent State), he failed, and they hired who they thought was the next best thing -- Fred Hill, Wright's top assistant and chief recruiter at Villanova, who enjoys great ties with high school coaches in the NYC/NJ area and helped land some great recruiting classes for 'Nova. Atop that, Hill is the son of Rutgers' longtime baseball coach, Fred Hill, Sr.

But great recruiters don't always make great head coaches, and Rutgers has struggled, well, since it went to the Final Four in 1976 (that's an overexaggeration, but they're still looking for the next Phil Sellers, with apologies to James Bailey and Roy Hinson). Hill hasn't worked out great, and that statement could have been made before his alleged outburst at a Rutgers' baseball game last week, in which he apparently lashed out at the umpires and at Pitt's head coach. That led to an investigation which led to the stalement in buyout talks with Hill.

The reason is pure economics. ESPN's Dana O'Neil reports that Hill will be let go, but the question is money. Rutgers offered Hill $600,000; the full value of his contract is $1.8 million. Hill has the upper hand for now; he has no incentive to make the deal (okay, so if he acts too obstreperously he'll jeopardize his chance to get another job, which, in a very forgiving country, means that he's damaged his trademark for about 6 months). The quicker Rutgers acts the better the chance it will have to keep a few players who might be looking to transfer and to solidify a recruiting class. Otherwise, the Scarlet Knights will risk relegation to the Northeast Athletic Conference, where they might have a chance to contend with Robert Morris and Quinnipiac.

Look for Rutgers to cut a deal with Hill this week. Among the reported candidates is Fran Fraschilla, who had an inglorious exit from St. John's more than half a decade ago and who apparently has rehabilitated his trademark through his work on ESPN, all the while maintaining his contacts in New York and New Jersey. Temple's Fran Dunphy gets mentioned, but he has a good gig going in a city that adores him, and while North Broad Street might not be anyone's version of Valhalla, concrete Piscataway bears little resemblance to a hoops hotbed either. If Rutgers were to go with Fraschilla, they'd be copying St. John's, which took the other available ESPN analyst, Steve Lavin (that's assuming, of course, that Dick Vitale isn't interested in making a comeback).

Here are some other names that Rutgers should consider:

St. Joe's Phil Martelli (again -- they might have even pursued him after the Hawks made their run to the Eastern finals several years ago);

The 76ers' Eddie Jordan (a solid coach amidst a bunch of goofballs and misfits with the 76ers; he played on the '76 Final Four team -- he was the starting point guard);

Temple's Matt Langel (he's assisted Dunphy for years and, in his early thirties, he has to be an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks).

As best I can tell, the coaching jobs at Manhattan, LIU-Brooklyn, St. Peter's, Fairleigh Dickinson, Monmouth, Rider and Princeton aren't in jeopardy, but it's been an amazing year in the NYC area in terms of coaching turnover.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Phillies Have Scored 32 Runs in Their First 4 Games

So imagine if they had kept Cliff Lee (and further imagine that he had not gotten hurt in spring training and emerged as their #2 starter). 110 wins?

Sure, the team has issues with the back of its bullpen, but with the extraction of Pedro Feliz and his awful on-base percentage, the addition of Placido Polanco and the renewed health of Raul Ibanez, the Phillies' lineup from top to bottom is very tough. Yes, they'll lose a high-scoring game or two (especially until J.C. Romero and a hopefully rejuvenated Brad Lidge return), but they'll win more than they lose.

Right now, all of the hitting is fun to watch.

Another Sign that Philadelphia Area Fans are Tough

Hard to believe, but. . .

I was at the opening day festivities for our local little league, a very nice affair that touched all the right bases. The emcee introduced every team and its coaches. All went well, but there was just one wrinkle.

Some of the leagues are populated with teams named after minor-league teams. But one is populated with teams named after major-league teams. So, when the Yankees were announced, there was (what I hope was good-natured and I think was) booing. Not blood lusty, not vociferous, more like razzing.

But still . . .

The one thing that you can say about Philadelphia area fans is that they're not apathetic. They have opinions -- and some times multiple opinions -- on everything.

Another Former NBA Player Goes Bankrupt

Derrick Coleman is broke.

What's even more surprising is that he listed only about $1 million in assets. Coleman had a long NBA career and at times drew a salary in eight figures. How do you spend/invest yourself into a predicament where almost all of that goes away?

It's a sad, and too frequent, tale.

Money Troubles for Soccer's Yankees?

Apparently the owners of Manchester United told their manager that they don't have the sterling to afford the transfer fee and salary of Valencia's David Villa, one of the best strikers in the world.

Spain is one of the favorites to win the World Cup, and Villa is one of the reasons why.

Previously, Villa had indicated a desire to move to Real Madrid and Barcelona, the perennial Spanish League 1 powerhouses. Recently, he indicated a willingness to go abroad. So, if not Man U, then where?

Man City?


Stay tuned.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Two People Philadelphia Phillies Fans Should Boo Routinely (and Two They Should Not)

The first is J.D. Drew. The reason: he dissed the city by refusing to sign with the Phillies. Perhaps Phillies' fans got revenge through Phila. native Buzz Bissinger's Three Nights in August, about Tony LaRussa. The connection -- LaRussa couldn't stand Drew, and Bissinger helped the skipper bury the player.

The second is this guy, who got into trouble with his mouth the other day. No, he's not a player. He's the umpire, Joe West. West's swagger never has been a favorite of Phillies' fans, who just don't want to notice the umpires (meaning that they're doing a good job). Reports were that he body-slammed a Phillie years back while breaking up a melee. Whatever the case, he gets roundly booed.

The two players that they should not boo are the following: Stephen Drew and Scott Rolen.

Here's why:

1. As for Stephen Drew, he's booed because he's J.D.'s brother. That's not really fair (after all, I think that it's only South American drug gangs who take out entire families when they have a problem with one person). It's pretty funny when you hear this booing for the first time, but it's really unwarranted.

2. As for Rolen, well, fans boo him because he turned down a long-term deal with the club and believe that he rejected the club. But, truth be told, the ownership that everyone loves now was at its cheapest ebb right around that time. Rolen was relatively quiet, but he confided to Curt Schilling, who shared Rolen's view that the ownership wasn't committed to spending the sums necessary to win a title. As a result, Rolen asked out of town and was obliged, as was Schilling. Both Rolen and Schilling aren't necessarily the easiest guys to get along with (and Rolen doesn't fare so well in Bissinger's book, either), but it's hard for me to get in a lather about Rolen's rejection of Philadelphia. Truth be told, both he and Schilling did themselves and the fans a favor.

They did themselves a favor because they weren't happy here and were honest about it (it didn't help Rolen's cause that skipper Larry Bowa jousted with Rolen publicly -- that was not Bowa's best moment). Remember, clarity can be offensive -- and Rolen was clear. Both Rolen and Schilling did the fans a favor because they sent a message loud and clear that the ownership had credibility issues with the fans. And that same ownership might have been tempted to field a mediocre team when it opened Citizens Bank Park, figuring that people would flock to a new stadium regardless of whether the team was a contender. So, instead, the club inked Jim Thome well before they opened the new park and then embarked upon a strategy that led to the 2008 World Series victory. I would suggest that none of this would have happened had Rolen and Schilling sung "Kumbaya" with Dave Montgomery and Ed Wade (the former of whom, with other organizations, would have been fired for keeping the latter around way too long, while the latter was fired, but several years too late). Had Rolen and Schilling stayed, you still might be talking .500 baseball in the Cradle of Liberty, especially since Rolen became very injury-prone after he left (on the other hand, Schilling became a borderline Hall of Famer, so perhaps they cancel each other out).

So, Joe West is back to his old tricks, and Phillies' fans will get their shot at J.D. Drew in the third week of May. In a way, booing J.D. is still therapy for them. Or, at least, cathartic.

But they should given Stephen a pass and, based upon this post, consider cheering Scott Rolen.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

College Hoops Coaching Carousel

Good article from an Oregon paper about the (up until this point futile) search for a replacement for Ernie Kent at Oregon.

Good comment from Coach K about his view that Brad Stevens should stay put at Butler because it's a school he believes in whose values he respects. Many coaches who get tempted by big offers from greener pastures should take note of Coach K's comments. The reason: they'll end up doing to you what they did to the guy you replaced if you don't win and get to the tournament or Sweet 16 with some frequency and rather quickly. The landscape of collegiate coaching is littered with the carcasses of once-proud coaches who for some reason didn't make it at the next level, including Stevens' predecessor, Todd Lickliter, who achieved great results at Butler only to fail to replicate that success at Iowa.

They say that second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that there are no second acts in American life. How do we reconcile those comments? What makes one coach succeed at the next level (say Bill Self) and another (Lickliter) not? And, by the way, there are many more Lickliters out there than Selfs. The Darwinism of the collegiate coaching game dictates that -- there are only so many coaches who can get their teams to the Sweet 16 year after year. If there are 340 Division I men's hoops teams, it stands to reason that many who seek to climb to the top of the mountain will not make it.

But that doesn't mean that they can't do well at Robert Morris, Butler, Cornell and places like that -- and for a long while, too. Oregon seems to want to throw a lot of money around for a big-name coach, but that's a risky proposition. It's hard to know whether that guy will rest on his laurels, adjust to life on the West Coast and adjust to life at a football school. It may be that they should be searching for a more low-key hire, someone well-recommended by the titans of the coaching game, and someone who is young, hungry and a riser, a modern-day version of Coach K when he had about a .500 record at Army and moved to Duke upon the strong recommendation of Bob Knight. Oregon would be better served to find that guy.

There are many good coaches out there. The trick for the biggest-name programs is to find the right guy and not just the biggest name.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Stupidity from Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell on the McNabb Trade and Kevin Kolb

Click this to see what I'm talking about.

Okay, so get this, about 11 years ago Rendell led a chorus of boobirds who were disappointed when Andy Reid opted to take McNabb over Ricky Williams, one of the biggest goofballs in the NFL's recent history. Rendell was all over the pick, and he was wrong. Dead wrong. All McNabb did in his 11 years was lead the Eagles to 5 NFC title games and 1 Super Bowl (a record, by the way, that eclipses what Rendell has achieved within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and as an analyst on Comcast Sportsnet after the Eagles' games).

It might be time for McNabb to go, though, and try to achieve somewhere else what it became apparent he cannot do in Philadelphia. There's nothing wrong with that (and it's hard to bet against Andy Reid when Reid determines how much of a career any player has left in the tank. Football is a brutal, unsentimental business, with the result that you might have to jettison popular players because they just aren't as fast or accurate as they once were). I'll allow for Rendell's doubting on the wisdom of trading McNabb, but I'll slam him for what he then went on to do -- throw heir apparent Kevin Kolb under the bus.

Given Rendell's track record on quarterbacks, I would venture to say that Kolb will excel in Philadelphia and have a nice career. I like the governor, but he looks foolish with his comments and, yes, they lack leadership. Just what Philadelphia needs, another doubter, another naysayer. Hasn't the governor learned his lesson from when he demonstrated for Ricky Williams over a decade ago? And aren't there some huge, underfunded public pension obligations that need addressing?

Stick to governing, Governor.

Steve Donahue to Coach Boston College

So a friend who is a Cornell alum (and now in sports mourning) told me this morning.

The article he sent me indicated that Donahue turned down an offer at $700,000 per year for five years to coach Hofstra.

Which had me thinking -- $700,000 a year to coach Hofstra? Are the salaries of some college coaches out of whack or what? Are collegiate coaching salaries to universities what the majority says global warming is to the world?

Possible successors to Donahue (in no particular order):

1. Recently deposed St. John's head coach Norm Roberts, a class act by all accounts.

2. Recently deposed Iowa coach Todd Lickliter, who excelled at Butler before moving on to the Hawkeyes. Brad Stevens, the Butler coach, assisted Lickliter for 6 years and gave him a lot of credit for his development as a coach.

3. The top assistant at Northwestern, Mitch Henderson, who played on some great Princeton teams in the late 1990's and has assisted Bill Carmody at Northwestern for over 5 years.

4. The top assistant at Temple, Matt Langel, who played on some excellent Penn teams in the late 1990's and who has learned from the same masterful coach -- Fran Dunphy -- that Steve Donahue did.

5. Mike Brennan, formerly an assistant at Princeton and American, now an assistant at Georgetown, who played for Princeton with Chris Mooney (the Richmond coach) in the mid-1990's.

Donahue did an all-time job at Cornell. The iron is as hot for him now as it will ever be, so if he ever had designs to move on, now is his best opportunity.

NCAA Men's Final: More "Rocky" than "Hoosiers"

Rocky went the distance last night against Apollo Creed. Rocky fought his usual gritty battle, defending tenaciously, playing scrappy, staying with the more touted team, acting like the slugger fighting the boxer, going toe to toe, trading blows. Apollo, on the other hand, had trouble getting into gear, or, at least, the gear that he showed on Saturday, when he put the jets to a good opponent. He came out of his corner in Round 1 boldly, landed many blows, didn't take many, and an observer could have concluded that Apollo was on his way and that the Italian Stallion quickly would sink back to the oblivion of collecting debts for shylocks and hanging out with his loser brother in law in a moldy tap room with a broken Piels Real Draft sign hanging outside.

But someone forget to tell Rocky that he didn't belong, even though he was fighting in his home town on college basketball's big day. Apollo, to his credit, fought gamely, unable to make his superior tradition count for much. Rocky kept on counterpunching, kept on hanging in there, pulled ahead at one point, but, in the end, like in the movie, Apollo prevailed. As Apollo once said (I think in "Rocky III" at the time that Rocky was repaying the favor he owed Apollo, "You fight great, but I'm a great fighter."). The fighter with the great tradition prevailed, barely, on a narrow decision.

It was a great fight.

I thought that Kyle Singler made the narrow difference for Duke last night. He defended great, blocked shots, hit key shots and was all over the floor. Duke seems to want to prevent Gordon Hayward from beating them singlehandedly, and the Blue Devils defended him well. To Butler's great credit, they spread the ball around, defended aggressively and kept at Duke and on Duke. It was a classic game, one worthy of a championship.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Thank You, Donovan McNabb

So now it's old news that the Eagles have traded their quarterback, Donovan McNabb, to the Redskins for draft picks. The trade ends an eleven-year chapter in Eagles' history during which McNabb helped lead the Eagles to five NFC title games and 1 Super Bowl appearance.

McNabb did an excellent job in Philadelphia. He played well enough to be in the conversation regarding the identity of the league's top quarterbacks. Some, including ESPN's Mike Greenberg, will argue that he belongs in the Hall of Fame. He didn't always have enough weapons at his disposal (such as a "classic" running back or above-average options at wide receiver), but when he had the top receivers (and even when he didn't), he excelled.

It's easy to knock Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid, to call them losers and to say that they failed because they didn't win a Super Bowl together. Most of the time, the coach takes the lion's share of the blame. In Philadelphia, McNabb gets a disproportionate share of it, despite, at times, glaring weaknesses at linebacker, defensive line, wide receiver and punt returner (among others). He doesn't deserve all of the negativity. The team had a great run under him, but in today's event-oriented world he's deemed a failure because he didn't win a Super Bowl. If that's the criteria, then most people in the world are failures. Donovan McNabb was not a failure; he was a success. Just not successful enough for Eagles' fans.

Thanks, Donovan McNabb, for all that you did for the Eagles. You are a true professional, and you had a great run. The fans didn't know what they had in you, and they might miss you more retrospectively than any of them might be willing to admit today.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Must See Documentary: "The Street Stops Here"

I blogged 5 years ago about Adrian Wojnarowski's excellent book, "The Miracle of St. Anthony," about Bob Hurley, Sr. and the boys' basketball program at St. Anthony High School in Jersey City. This afternoon, amidst yard work, playing catch with the kids and other things, I found this documentary on public television, about the 2007-2008 Jersey City team. Six kids got Division I scholarships, but the lessons that they learned at St. Anthony are much more important than on-court success. Many commuted a long way to play for Coach Hurley and come from difficult situations and tough neighborhoods, but they came together under the aegis of a caring disciplinarian. It's a great film, and I won't tell you how the season turned out. Try to find it on your local PBS station -- you won't be disappointed.

13 of the Players on the Phillies' AAA Roster are 30 or Older

Click here and see for yourself.

Memo to the uninitiated: if you're looking for your team's prospects, better to look at the AA and High-A rosters. At AAA, you basically are dealing with insurance policies.

Among the names you might recognize are Scott Mathieson, Brandon Duckworth, Ryan Vogelsong, Mike Zagurski, Paul Hoover, Cody Ransom, John Mayberry, Chris Duffy and DeWayne Wise.

What to make of this? I actually haven't the foggiest.

Tragedy for a Family and Notre Dame

Notre Dame's top football recruit died a few days ago when he fell from a hotel balcony while on vacation.

ESPN reports that he might have been drunk.

What a tragedy.

We weight many adages and tautologies in society, some of which conflict. We're human, and we do this every day. For example, we hear that "patience is a virtue," but sometimes at the same time we hear "he who hesitates is lost." Young people hear all the time that "just because everyone does something doesn't mean that you should do it." But then they also hear that "youth is wasted on the young" and "you only go 'round once in life." Most youths aren't that philosophical, don't always show good judgment and aren't always strong enought to stand up to peer pressure. Many think that they're bullet proof, that the stories that they read only happen to others, and that they can handle anything.

And then you hear stories like this. A kid with a bright future. A kid with a golden ticket.

That's not to say that kids shouldn't have fun. I'm not about to invoke any edicts like the ones that populated small towns in Footloose about the inadvisability of dancing. But when will we evolve as a species that people don't continue to commit the big mistakes that others do? When will tragedies like this cease.

Look, there is a lot of heartache out there. There are times when kids need to blow off steam and have fun because there are parents, teachers, coaches and alumni with high expectations. But that doesn't mean that our young people need to party like there's no tomorrow. They do need to have fun the same way they need to understand discipline, the value of helping others, cleanliness, ethics, the virtues of saving money, and many other things. They just need to learn or remember to do so in a way that doesn't lead to the horrors that the James family and those close to Matt James must be experiencing.

So, if you're a coach, a parent of a team leader, the team leader, or, quite frankly, anyone involved with the team, take a stand against bad judgment. It's not acceptable to say that "boys will be boys" and what they do in their free time is a right of passage. Quite frankly, "boys being boys" can be quite scary and can lead to all sorts of unintended consequences. It's hard to stand up to the ones we love and care about -- it's much easier to get up for a game against the archrival. But it's necessary, and if we love these kids and care about them, we, too, have to take a stand.

Or else tragedies like this will continue to happen.

And we will have learned nothing.

"Let's Win One for All the Small Schools Who Never Got the Chance. . ."

That's what many of us are thinking, those of us who root for the likes of Cornell, Northern Iowa, St. Mary's, St. Joseph's (remember the run to the regional final with Jameer Nelson and Delonte West), Richmond, Siena, Coppin State, College of Charleston, Davidson, Gonzaga, Loyola Marymount, Princeton, Penn, Jacksonville, Dayton and a whole host of schools out there with proud hoops traditions that aren't in BCS or "Power 6" or "Big 6" conferences. Those fans are breaking out all their good luck charms, lighting candles, saying prayers, making offerings to pagan gods and doing whatever else they can to help Butler defeat Duke. This is a classic case of a mid-major program against one of college basketball's bellwethers, a case of the 32 year-old former marketing executive at Eli Lilly just ten years ago to a guy who's won 3 national titles and might be a bigger institution at his school than his school is a big-time institution, and that's saying something. The choices are pretty stark -- go with the underdog, or go with the institution. CBS, of course, couldn't have scripted it any better (and they're thanking their lucky stars that a program with national appeal -- Duke -- made it to the final game).

As for yesterday's games, Butler out-attrited Michigan State in a game that no one seemed clutch enough to win. Michigan State fouled too often to close the small gap between it and Butler, while Butler was so futile trying to make a field goal during the last half of the second half that it looked like it was refusing a victory that was put on a platter for it. That's not to say, however, that both teams didn't play valiantly. Butler played great defense, rebounded well and shot well enough from the foul line to win. Its best player, Gordon Hayward, always seemed to be around the ball at the big moments, the sign of a star. Michigan's big man, Draymond Green, also excelled. The frequency with which his name was called -- mostly for good things -- demonstrated what a key he was to the Spartans' success. In the end, despite the fouling and the futility of making field goals, both teams battled nobly and helped turned the game into a very good one. Yes, the shooting was not good, but the effort was there. I look forward to seeing Butler on Monday night.

Duke played the best basketball of anyone yesterday. They showed the best sense of urgency, and they continued to attack the glass relentlessly. While Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler combined to score something like 57 points, I thought that Duke's catalyst was 7'1" center Brian Zoubek. Zoubek's line was 6 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists, but he played with great intensity, banged the boards hard (doing a great job on the offensive end) and set picks of a kind that haven't been set for a while (as in, "once they were set, they stayed set," reminiscent of an earlier time when the likes of Bob Lanier and Wilt Chamberlain, among others, buried unsuspecting opposing players). Michigan State had no answer for the chaos that Zoubek helped create at both ends. All that said, Duke's offense was balanced, the shooting was great, and West Virginia, an athletic and energetic team, just had no answer for the Blue Devils.

So, based upon yesterday's performance, you'd venture to guess that Duke should be a 9-point favorite, that Butler has an injury problem, and that Butler's coach, Brad Stevens, is not match for Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. And you might be right. But it also could be the case that Duke just played its best game, that Butler will continue to grind opponents down with its good defense and that the Bulldogs will have enough left in Indianapolis to defeat the Blue Devils in what would have to be the all-time upset in the NCAA finals. Then again, Duke is playing outstanding basketball and has sufficient confidence to build upon and turn into another national title for Coach K.

Two terrific teams are in the final game on Monday night. It should be great basketball.