Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Most Sued Mascot in the Major Leagues

is. . .

The Phillie Phanatic.

It's probably a non-story in that it's not as though the Phanatic gets sued multiple times a year. It seems like he's been sued about 5 times in the past 20. You can judge for yourself whether the world is going mad for the Phanatic to get sued or sometimes his happy behavior can become overexuberant and injurious.

But still . . . many fans might say.

Then again. . . the 75 year-old woman with bad knees in Reading, Pennsylvania might say.

You be the judge.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Walking Wounded: The Philadelphia Philllies

J.A. Happ has been out since April 16. Ryan Madson has been out for about 6 weeks, ever since he kicked a chair that had the nerve to be made of metal and not marshmallow. Happ, by the way, is the one who went to Northwestern. For purposes of this narrow discussion, I'd bet that the Phillies' brass wished that Madson had so as to distinguish the physical principles of metal versus marshallow or foam rubber. At any rate, the set-up man has been gone for a while.

Carlos Ruiz is on the 15-day disabled list.

Chase Utley and Placido Polanco joined him today.

So, 37.5% of your position players from your starting lineup are on the disabled list.

Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero and Joe Blanton also spent significant time on the disabled list, as did Jimmy Rollins.

Replacing Happ is Kyle Kendrick, who is destined either to have a career as a long reliever or to be yanked up and down from AAA over the next four seasons before fading into the sunset or rehabilitating himself as a knuckleballer.

Replacing Ruiz is Dane Sardinha, a 31 year-old journeyman (Brian Schneider is now the starting catcher). Replacing Utley and Polanco on the roster are Brian Bocock, an AAA shortstop hitting .179 (remember, the Phils traded promising infielder Jason Donald to the Indians last year as part of the Cliff Lee deal), and replacing Polanco is veteran 3B Greg Dobbs, who had hit .040 as a pinch hitter and was 2 for 17 at AAA after being sent down about a week ago. Dobbs, of course, is saying that he's seeing the ball better, but what else is he supposed to say.

Yet, going into tonight's game in Cincinnati, the Phillies were only 3.5 games out of first place in the NL East.

So, tonight's starting lineup was the following:

Shane Victorino, CF (hitting all of .249)
Greg Dobbs, 3B (hitting all of .125)
Jimmy Rollins, SS (struggling since returning from the DL for the second time)
Ryan Howard, 1B
Jason Werth, RF
Raul Ibanez, LF (hitting .244 and usually looking outmatched)
Brian Schneider, C
Wilson Valdez, 2B (and he hit a 3-run homer tonight).

Not exactly the lineup that won the 2008 World Series.

The Phillies might be able to fake it for about the next 6 games before the entire league wakes up and licks its lips at the prospect of pitching to guys like Dobbs, Schneider, Valdez and Juan Castro, the Phillies' other back-up infielder. It could be that the Phillies make a move to get some infield help, or it may be that they call up slightly ailing Cody Ransom from AAA Lehigh Valley, where he had hit about 16 home runs the last time I checked. He could fill in at 3B.

It could be that the Phillies rebound and make a run for the playoffs. It could also be that this just isn't their year.

The time right before and right after the All-Star break will speak volumes.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Golfing with My Son (and Saving the Day by Going to Five Guys Burgers)

Golf is a humbling game. I mean, the ball doesn't move, does it? My kids played baseball and fastpitch softball this spring, and the ball moves, and the hitters and pitchers don't always know where it's going. But with golf, see, the ball is there. At your feet. You get to choose your stance, your club and when you're ready to hit. Should be a piece of cake, right? Replicate your swing, learn how to hit the ball with a metal wood, chip and putt, and, voila, you'l break par.

If only. . .

My son just took up the game. He's ten, he's enthusiastic, but he's not always the most patient. He doesn't take time to line up his putts or his shots, but, then again, he's only been out on the course three times and he's had some success at the driving range after taking lessons from an encouraging young pro. So, we went to our local chip and putt course with our wedges, seven irons and putters mid-morning today and tried to give it a go.

Suffice it to say we had our moments. I confess that I was slightly annoying, trying to teach him to take the time to line up his shots, particularly his putts. He wanted to get up there and smash it, but had I let him do that my homeowners' insurance company might have received a claim or two for damage to windshields of other patrons. It was also (at least) 95 degrees outside (when we returned to my car, the thermometer said 106 and there wasn't any water on the course, only our bottles of water that turned lukewarm pretty quickly). Still, we hit a few wedges, a few ships, a few puts, but by the end of the 9th hole we were gassed. It was that hot, and we were at it for over an hour.

So, how to make a fun day of it. We went to Five Guys Burgers. The franchises are relatively new to the northeast, but the burgers are cooked while you wait (as opposed to sitting there when you arrive), they put whatever toppings on for you, the sell the best french fries, they give you free peanuts, and you can get all sorts of iced tea to drink. All that was missing was the peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream. We transformed ourselves from sweaty, somewhat frustrated golfers to sated post-golf fun people in about 20 minutes. The whole family made the trip, and we had a great time. Okay, so you can't eat the burgers and fries all the time, but every now and then you can indulge and savor.

And savor we did!

Golfing with my son.

Hitting a few good shots.

Blasting the air conditioning after playing golf.

Going to Five Guys for a good lunch!

Good day!

Jackie Robinson Steals Home in the 1955 World Series

To this day, Yogi Berra will swear that he tagged Jackie Robinson before he touched home plate. The umpire saw it differently. You decide for yourself, but one thing is clear -- Robinson was one of the most exciting players in the history of the game. What a competitor!

Click here for the link.

World Cup News for American Soccer Fans

If you've watched Germany, the Netherlands, Argentina and Brazil in the elimination round, you now know how far the U.S. has to go to catch up with the rest of the world.

Put differently, these nations are deploying speedboats to our row boats. I know that the U.S. has invested a lot in its program, that Bob Bradley is a determined coach, that the U.S. has some players worth of the top leagues in Europe.

Just not enough, and not enough top ones.

Until the future John Walls and Derrick Roses play soccer instead of basketball or football, U.S. soccer will continue to have a long way to go to catch up.

Nostalgia Time: Classic Ejection of Earl Weaver

This is probably one of the most classic ejections in Major League history.

Orioles' manager Earl Weaver gets run by umpire Bill Haller, who did a good job defending himself and offered one of the most classic comebacks in umpire history.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

U.S. Perspective: Is the World Cup a Microcosm for How the World Works?

How many bad calls can the premier international sporting event endure? Today, a missed goal call that went against England caused the English to change their tactics and lose to Germany 4-1. Had the referee and two linesmen had their eyes open, they would have allowed a beautiful shot by Frank Lampard that would have tied the score at 2. Instead, it was 2-1, and the English had to press the action, risking counterattacks, which is how Germany scored two more goals. In the Mexico-Argentina game, officiating blunders turned what could have been a thriller into a route.

Add these onto spurious yellow and red card calls and dubious off-side calls against the U.S. that might have cost the Yanks the opportunity to lose to Ghana in the elimination round, and you have to wonder -- is this the best the world has to offer? Is the world incompetent? Unable to get out of its way? Corrupt?

Sure, American sports are not perfect, but there's an increasing reliance on instant replay in the major sports leagues. An umpire recently apologized for erring in calling a runner safe, costing a pitcher a very rare perfect game. Today, an umpire apologized (in essence) for blowing a called third strike against the Tigers' Johnny Damon with the Tigers' down one with the bases loaded in the last inning. Both of those admissions and expressions of remorse add to the integrity of the game. Leagues take pains to train officials, evaluate them and then move them around to avoid attempts to extort or bribe officials. You hardly hear any grumbling about suspect calls in the United States, where you hear adages such as "the best officials are the ones you don't notice," "that call, however bad, didn't affect the outcome," or "they were making the same calls against or for both teams, so they were consistent if not perfect."

The United States probably has more prosecutors, policemen and people in jail per capita than any other country in the world. We hold our people and businesses to such high standards in an increasingly complex legal system that, with the exception of countries in Western Europe, go far beyond those of the rest of the world. We go to great lengths to make sure our businesses do not bribe foreign officials, and we hold public and private officials accountable in the court of public opinion, sometimes harshly and without the benefit of the passage of time to flesh out all of the facts. Sometimes, yes, we cannot get over ourselves, and our standards can be too high or even self-righteous. Many Americans get all of that, but they'll still strive for their ideals, however highly set, however flawed, but not corrupt or tolerant of incompetence. Okay, I've just written a mouthful, but my point is this -- we wouldn't tolerate -- as our showcase event -- a spectacle like this. Or would we?

FIFA cannot be happy with what's gone on so far. I've heard some commentators say that this is what goes on in the world of soccer, so new fans had better get used to it.

The question, though, is -- is it worth getting used to?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Baseball Day from Hell, Sort Of

Because of conflicting schedules, the four of us weren't able to go to a Phillies game together until today. We had our usual seats at the 1:05 "business person's" special versus the Cleveland Indians, where the Phillies (surprise, suprise) were going for a sweep (per the most recent edition of Sports Illustrated, they're still the favorites in the NL East despite being third, but, then again, isn't SI a golf and esoteric features type of sports magazine?).

The weather forecast was ominous -- 99 degrees, a heat and humidity index over 100, and precious little shade at Citizens Bank Park. Sure, we got about 5 feet of snow in these parts in the winter, but it can get hot as Hades here in the summer time. So, we ate a light lunch, put on sunscreen, wore light cotton (the Phillies' jerseys that two of us sometimes wear remained in the closet) and drove down I-95 to the game. All was going well until we exited the highway, when I heard a dragging noise beneath my car (hint: it's one of those whose warranty extends for five years or 60,000 miles, which sounds great, but you'd rather have a great car with the average warranty than a car that struggles to be average with a great warranty, trust me). A piece had fallen off beneath it and was dragging.

So, we pulled over at 3rd and Pattison, about 8 blocks away from the stadium. Dad gave Mom some cash and 3 tickets, and the rest of the family marched onward to the stadium while Dad remained in the car, air conditioning blasting, listening to the pre-game on the radio and then the start of the game. Meanwhile, the family made it inside the stadium and stayed in the concourse, as it was too hot to sit in the seats. They drank cold water, but my son started feeling woozy. They made their way to the first-aid stand.

Which, in the first inning, was beginning to overflow. The people there were cheerful, gave my son a cold compress for his neck, encouraged him to drink water, but my wife listened to the chatter all the while. A woman had passed out in the women's bathroom near left field, people were suffering all over. Friends texted my daughter that they were going to leave after two or three innings (the Indians must have intercepted these texts, because it was a "get away" day and they played as though they wanted out early, bowing 12-3). While I was waiting for my town and then riding with a chatty tow truck driver back toward my home, the rest of the family took a taxi to Philadelphia's Suburban Station to catch a train home.

Meanwhile, I was waiting in the suburbs on my first day of vacation in 6 months for the car to get fixed. Mercifully, the service people at the dealer know me and know the frustrations I've had with this jalopy (the way they look at me it's either that they pity me because I don't know the joke that they're in on or they know that the engineering of the model of my car is terminal but are forbidden to tell me; yet, their manufacturer is quick to send me surveys that are somewhat self-congratulatory about the quality of their service -- if only they asked about the quality of the car!). At the same time that I was riding back home, my daughter told my wife that she wasn't feeling great either. Fortunately, Suburban Station is underground, it was cool, everyone cooled down, drank cold drinks, and made their way home.

And, in so doing, they missed a hellacious thunderstorm that hit the ballpark in about the 7th inning that had gusts of wind so strong that one of them pushed a John Deere lawn truck that was being used to hold down the tarp about 20 feet. The rain was so thick that the broadcasters couldn't see the outfield, and it came so fast that the Indians' bullpen corps remained in the bullpen for most of the storm. They resumed the game an hour later to an almost empty stadium, and the Phillies' bullpen held the lead, with the home town nine winning 12-3. Among the highlights were the first well-pitched game by Joe Blanton since he signed his big contract and a home run by just called up Dane Sardinha, a 31 year-old journeyman catcher who was called up from AAA Lehigh Valley to replace Carlos Ruiz, who is on the disabled list. It was only the 33rd Major League game for Sardinha, and it was his first home run.

Finally, Dad picked up the family at the train station, air conditioning blasting, and everyone went home to rest. The Phillies won 12-3, but we missed almost all of it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Is the Fix in at the World Cup?

I'm old enough to remember the final men's basketball game in the 1972 Olympics, where a befuddled at best and corrupt to the core at worst referee gave the game to the Soviet Union, taking a win away from the American team. That game haunts people of my generation to this day, because the outcome was egregious.

Fast forward to today, where a linesman called what appeared to be at best a phantom off-side call against the U.S. after the Americans scored a goal in the first half. Unless I missed something, no one was offside, and the goal should have counted.

Fast forward to late in the second half, where, despite many chances, the U.S. team was tied 0-0 with the game entering the injury time phase. Had the game ended in a draw, the U.S. team would be on a flight home by now, with England and Slovenia advancing. Instead, on a fast break two minutes into extra time, the best U.S. player, Landon Donovan, scored a goal off a rebound, giving the Americans a 1-0 victory and, perhaps, saving the credibility of World Cup soccer and, perhaps, soccer, in the United States.

Why? Because had the U.S. drawn Algeria and headed home, anyone with any interest would have had the right to say, "Well, the international referees hate the United States, the officiating is either corrupt or incompetent, and since you can't get an honest count, why bother watching? It's a farce." And the evidence would have supported them. Had the U.S. headed home, Americans would have migrated from the game in droves, owing in large part to the horrid officiating.

Instead, the U.S. is the fun underdog to watch. They play hard, they're feisty, and they're up against a stacked deck of the people who run FIFA and the officiating crews. Sure, you would favor the Americans in Olympic basketball, but the rest of the world seems to see the U.S. as an unworthy interloper and wants the U.S. team gone from their sport in the worst way. So there's the U.S. team, friendless, the relatively new kid, battling uphill for respect. Americans love an underdog, and they'll respect greatly a team that has gotten bad calls twice in a row and still has overcome them. It's a great story, at least for now.

Because something tells me that the palpably inept officiating will continue into the elimination rounds. And then the U.S.'s Cinderella season might come to an abrupt end because of yet another phantom off-sides call, a poorly judged yellow or red card, or something even casual observers have not seen before. I hope that I am wrong about that. In any event, anyone with any integrity at FIFA has to be annoyed and should be primed to take some action. If we expect the play in the World Cup to be top notch, we also should have the same standards for officials.

Normally I take the view that officiating evens out, because the best officials are the ones you don't remember because they do a competent job. But in this World Cup (and in the qualifying game between France and Ireland where a Thierry Henry handball inside the goal mouth decided the game in France's favor), we are noticing the officials more and more. And that's not good for the World Cup or the game. There are many good referees, and they should take a stand with FIFA to make sure the inept ones don't tarnish their good names.

To date, though, outside the vuvuzuelas and the implosion of the French team, the story is the officiating.

And that's never a good sign for any event, let alone perhaps the premier sporting event in the world.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ode to a Softball Playing Daughter on Father's Day

I can't begin to report how many weekends in a row I've taken my daughter to travel softball tournaments, how many 5 a.m. wake-ups, how many 7 a.m. warm-ups for 8 a.m. games (they play 3 games on Saturday for seeding and then in a single-elimination tournament on Sunday).

Anyway, my daughter's team has played teams named Twisters, Rage, Explosion, Venom, Psycho Chicks, Lady Lions, Storm, Hurricanes, Bandits, you name it, and they've beaten the teams they're supposed to beat and lost to the teams they're supposed to lose to (translated: the team has been together for about 9 months, and some of the girls have been playing travel for less than a year; in contrast, the better teams have been together for 2-3 years and have players with many more years of experience).

Well, on a hot Saturday they went 1-2 and ended up playing at 8 a.m. on Sunday in the single-elimination round. They were in the 8-9 seed game, meaning that if they won they'd be playing the #1 seed three and a half hours later. They have trouble hitting, can pitch well at times, and have their moments in the field (but also their lapses). The best teams don't beat themselves in the field (and are very familiar with situational plays), bunt well, run aggressively and don't throw many wild pitches. So, they went out and won the 8 a.m. game, which led them to a potentially tough game against the #1 seed. The reputation of the #1 seed was that they pitched well, fielded well, and executed well, but it wasn't that they were loaded with hitters.

The game started on an interesting note. With two outs, a runner on the opposing team tried to score from second base, and the catcher, after a pretty good throw, tagged the runner in a cloud of dust. The umpire called the runner out, prompting a yell from the opposing coach, "The tag was high." The umpire didn't respond, and then the coach yelled very loudly the exact same thing. That prompted the home plate umpire to take off his mask, walk toward the opposing dugout and say to the opposing coach, "I've heard enough out of you. One more time, and I'm throwing you out of the game."

At any rate, our girls stayed with the other team for two innings (the score was 0-0) and then we had an inning where a few errors compounded themselves and it was 5-0, the other team. Then, the opposition started working the clock (the games are limited to 1 hour, 30 minutes) by gathering the team for a huddle after the inning, getting the team back onto the field more slowly after they made 3 outs, and by coaching each hitter from the third-base box in a conference. Subtle things, but they add up. They were a good team and probably didn't need to resort to those tactics.

So, it was 7-0 going into the bottom of the fourth when the other team got a runner on base with two outs. It was 95 degrees outside. One of our players, who didn't take good care of herself between games, took herself out of the game because she was getting dehydrated. Our catcher, who was catching her fourth game in 24 hours, rubbed herself down with a wash cloth dipped in ice water between innings and kept on drinking Powerade and water. She also made sure to put her equipment in the shade between innings. It was that hot.

The opposing team's runner was on second base, and the ball got hit into the outfield. The rightfielder threw it to the first baseman, who was the cutoff player, and she threw a strike to the catcher, who, for the fourth time that day, held the ball in a cloud of dust and made the tag. The runner looked out by two feet. Almost right before the play ended, the umpire called the runner safe and then added, very quickly, "that's it, the game's over." Why? Because, at 8-0 after four innings, the mercy rule kicked into effect. (Apparently, the inning before, he had remarked to one of our coaches that one more run would end the game, so suffice it to say that he was looking for any excuse to get into the shade before the next game).

The catcher shook her head, firmly and respectfully, and quietly walked off the field before returning to line up and shake the other team's hands. Then she returned to the dugout, methodically took off her gear, packed up her equipment bag, took a few swigs of Powerade, and went to talk with her parents and brother. She had four close plays at the plate that day, include one where she thought she had tagged a runner out who tried to steal home (the pitcher had turned her back on the runner after getting the ball back from the catcher), but the runner created such a cloud of dust that it engulfed both players, thereby obscuring the umpire's view (the catcher is a partisan, refusing to admit when an opposing baserunner is safe, but her coaches offered that they thought that the runner got under the tag). Another time the first baseman made a relay throw that was on the backstop slide of the plate, only to have the catcher field the ball backhanded and make a swipe tag into a cloud of dust. Again, the umpire was obscured, and he bellowed, "show me the ball," to the catcher, making sure that the catcher hadn't dropped the ball. She had the ball, and the umpire yelled, "She's out." Coming back to the dugout, teammates congratulated the thrower, but not the catcher, but this time the tag eclipsed the throw, and those in the know knew (including some knowledgeable parents and the umpire, who said, "nice tag, catch").

A catcher has a tough job in these games, especially with a young pitcher who's learning and doesn't always know where the ball is going when she releases it. It's much easier to catch a pitcher who throws to a defined square than to catch one who makes you play hockey goalie to prevent wild pitches. You scoop up dirt, and end up with a patina of grime on you (including your neck and face) because of a combination of sweat, suntan lotion and the clay-laden soil that is indigenous to our area. You bake under equipment that for some reason is colored black and not white. You also have to listen to conflicting exhortations and attempted coaching from parents who sit too close, coaches and even teammates, who sometimes get on other teammates while forgetting their own inadequacies.

You take balls off your shin guards, chest protector and helmet, sometimes hit hard enough to snap your head back. Your shins contain the totems of your trade -- bruises from this collision, that blocked pitch or a foul ball. You chase runners back to bases and have to throw to bases where players forget to cover or your pitcher forgets to duck. You love the game, love calling pitches, and love helping your pitcher get confidence to throw pitches she's been working on, especially a changeup. You enjoyed the moment in the last inning of the game you won on Saturday where you called two fastballs in a row, both of which were swung at and missed, and then called for a changeup. The other team's hitter stood there like a recently twisted pretzel, frozen, because she was expected a fastball. The umpire called it a strike, and the batter sat down. You caught this pitcher twice on Saturday, and she shook you off only three times the entire day. Most people don't notice, but you take pride in that.

You try to hit as best as you can, working your way through slumps that sometimes happen, why, because you're young, and, also, because slumps happen to the best hitters. Yet, you make contact most of the time, because you get up their patiently and you battle. You might not always win, but you fight. You love the game.

You also thanked me, your father, for playing catch with you starting when you were little, talking situational plays with you, talking about strategy, talking about things to work on and, yes, for getting up at 5 a.m. on Father's Day and giving up most of that day to take you to your games on Sunday. But because of who you are, and because of how you approach the game -- how you prepare, how you work, how you shake off bad events, how you motivate yourself, how you lead -- there's no need to thank me. No, you gave me -- and have given me -- a great Father's Day present.


More on the French World Cup Team

It isn't pretty.

Colleagues were in France on business last week and reported that they put up screens in large parks for people to watch the game(s). They noted that the French people generally were derisive about their own team, suggesting that the French team hasn't had, and doesn't have, the support of the French people. I had heard reports of this when I was in France in the spring, and now the talk in Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Lille, Bordeaux and elsewhere cannot be pretty. Could Le Bleus be coming home after making it to the finals in 2006? Or, can they turn the negative into a positive and try to show the world that despite all of the negatives, they can come together as a team and win? We'll learn soon enough.

Portugal 7 North Korea 0

Speculation as to whether we'll ever hear from any of the North Korea squad begins.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Controversy at the World Cup

Or should we say controversies.

First, there's the issue of the blown call that would have given the U.S. a 3-2 win over Slovenia and what looked to be a shot to advance out of its group into the elimination round.

Second, there's the implosion of the French team. My French colleagues held out little hope for Les Bleus after the embarassing way they reached the World Cup, and they went as far to say that they didn't think that the players cared all that much about the national team. Well, head coach (or manager, as they say in football) Raymond Domenech kicked striker Nicolas Anelka off the team after Anelka refused to apologize for a tirade. Then, today, the strength and conditioning coach quit, and the team itself refused to practice in solidarity with Anelka. The French team, not playing well anyway, is in tumult. They are embarrassing themselves and their country. Apparently, French captain Patrice Evra hasn't helped the situation.

Third, the referees seem to be blowing it beyond the U.S. game. The red card to Australia's best player, Harry Kewell, seemed overdone, and now Kewell will miss his team's next game. Then, today, the red card against Brazil's Kaka seemed absurd, given that a) the Ivory Coast player won an Academy Award for acting and b) the Ivory Coast team, to put it politely, lost its cool after getting blown out by Brazil (to put it impolitely, they played like a bunch of chumps at the end and tried endless cheap shots because they were outmatched).

Fourth, the prognosicators are getting it wrong, overestimating Italy (which drew with lowly New Zealand) and Cameroon (which, instead of reaching the next round, was the first team eliminated) and underestimating, among others, Uruguay, Japan, Slovenia, Denmark and Serbia, each of which has a decent shot to advance to the next round.

Still, for me, the abundance of yellow and red cards and some bad calls that I thought would be left behind in the qualifying rounds are starting to turn this World Cup into a major embarrassment. FIFA officials had better take note before the game loses more credibility.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

U.S. - Slovenia, 2-2 tie.

United States: 310 million people (and apparently 400,000 census workers)
Slovenia: 2 million people (smallest nation to make the World Cup).

Final Score: 2-2 (and, yes, it was controversial).

Just think of how good Slovenia might be if they had, say, 10 million people and the U.S. had only 300 million?

And What Happened to the Referee of the Ireland-France "Hand Ball" Game

If they're going to purge the referee who blew the call on what should have been the game-winner for the U.S. against Slovenia, what happened to the referee in the notorious Ireland-France game that cost Ireland a World Cup berth last fall?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Is Captain Fantastic Headed to Barcelona?

Arsenal fans have to be hoping that premier midfielder Cesc Fabregas won't be headed back to Spain any time soon. (As will my son, who has a road Arsenal jersey with Fabregas's name and number on it!).

But transfers happen all over European soccer, and if Barcelona is willing to offer a huge transfer fee, the Gunners might take it and use the money to fortify their team in other ways. Gunner fans haven't seen a title in several years, and they have to be hoping that Arsene Wenger and the owners are coming up with a way to crack Manchester United's and Chelsea's hold on the first two spots in the Premiership.

Watch Spain in the World Cup if you can. As to how good they are -- Fabregas is a back-up at midfielder. He's a starter on every other team in the world, and a star on most of them. That's how good Xavi and Iniesta are, and that's how deep Spain is.

Monday, June 14, 2010

FIFA Rankings Vis a Vis the World Cup

Among the highest ranked teams not in the World Cup:

Croatia (10)
Russia (11)
Egypt (12)
Norway (22)
Ukraine (23)
Israel (26)
Romania (28)
Turkey (29); and
Czech Republic (33).

Among the lowest rated in the World Cup:

New Zealand (78)
South Africa (83); and
North Korea (105).

Among the most populated countries:

China (84)
India (133).

So, about 1/3 of the world's population has bad soccer teams, at least for now.

If you want to read more about the rankings, click here.

Early observations: the Germans have played the best (by far).

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Does the Likely Collapse of the Big 12 Signal That Some BCS Schools Are Taking a Stand for Better Academics?

Read this article and see what you think.

My take: yes!

Here's why -- Nebraska didn't seem happy with the Big 12, its balance of power, or its policies. And I recall back in the day where they had a bunch of all-academic, all-league players and some academic all-Americans (one might have been all-American center Dave Rimington). The article cites that Nebraska likes the culture of the Big Ten better, and, last I checked, the Big Ten is a better academic conference than the Big 12 (despite what UT supporters will tell you about all the wonderful things going on in Austin).

So, where will those not aligned with Nebraska go? If they put football first, they should approach the SEC, which seems to put football above all else. That approach might suggest to Vanderbilt that it should bolt the SEC for the Big Ten too, where they'd have a natural (if somewhat expensive) rivalry with, among others, Northwestern.

Could you imagine Texas in the SEC? That would be something. The Pac-10 vacillates between high academic standards (Stanford and sometimes Cal and UCLA) to an absence of them. The Big Ten seems to hit the ball down the middle (or better), and you might expect Notre Dame to determine that it's time to come in from the wilderness and join the Big Ten, which would be another awesome get for that conference.

Right now, uncertainty reigns supreme, but the Cornhuskers have taken a stand -- for higher standards.

Friday, June 11, 2010

What Could Tom Izzo Be Thinking?

In college hoops, the coach can be the program, and everything revolves around him.

In pro hoops, the star players with the big contracts can hold the program hostage, and coaches last about as long as elementary school kids' sneakers.

So why is Tom Izzo thinking of going to the NBA? If he goes, he should make sure that his contract is bigger and longer than that of any player. Otherwise, he, too, can be toast in two years (if the madness of it all doesn't drive him to the insane asylum before that). And he won't get that big a contract, if for no other reason than no matter how good the coach, if you don't have the players you just cannot win.

Is he bored at Michigan State? Is LeBron James the basketball Siren that will cause him to dash himself on the rocks that are littered with the detritus of the coaching careers of many a good coach? Will LeBron stay for Coach Izzo/

Has he talked with Rick Pitino or John Calipari, both of whom failed miserably in the NBA, or even Coach K, who has turned down suitors before? If not, he should.

Good luck, Coach Izzo, but remember this, you are a basketball coach, not a magician.

University of Spoiled Children?

The findings about Pete Carroll's USC football program are not pretty.

Piano players at whorehouses usually know what's going on upstairs, and the linked article seems to indicate that the administration knew or should have known about some of the violations and should have done something about it.

Instead, it seemed like it was "don't ask, don't tell."

Whatever happened to "Don't lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do."

Oops, that's the motto of the United States Military Academy, which, last I checked, couldn't hold a candle to USC on the football field.

But I'd rather have those guys (and gals) defending the country any day of the week.

And grown men who cover BCS football have to ask themselves what they're covering -- amateur football or professional football that's called amateur football to make everyone feel good (under the guise that if you say something enough, it must be true). We glorify these players, and for what particular reason?

When I lived in California I would see bumper stickers that said, "My favorite team is _____________ and any team that is playing USC."

Now I know why.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Can the Nats Make the Playoffs?

If Stephen Strasburg is the real deal (and the way he pitched last night, he most certainly is), should the Nats make a play for Cliff Lee, who, presumably, will be dealt by the Mariners at mid-season for the right price (Lee is in the last year of his contract). That would make an awesome top of the rotation in the NL East and could help the Nats garner a playoff berth.


Monday, June 07, 2010

One of My Mentors Passed Away

The great dance choreographer Twyla Tharp once remarked that she had dozens of mentors, and all of them were people she had never met. When I read that quote in an article in Harvard Business Journal (sorry if I am "journal name dropping", but I had to attribute the source), I smiled, because I had always felt the same thing. In what seems to be an ever-increasing impersonal world, it can be hard to find mentors. (Perhaps as hard as it is for people who want to be mentors to find juniors who actually want to sit and take the time to discuss and listen).

Anyway, I felt a tinge of sadness when I read of John Wooden's passing. His life is to be celebrated for many reasons, including working hard and patiently for 16 years at UCLA before winning his first national championship and for the wisdom he bestowed on his players and, through his writings, shared with the world, including me. One of my favorite sayings of all time is "failing to prepare is preparing to fail." I deploy it at home and at work, because I can't stress enough the value of preparation. School work, games, real world work all go better when you take the time to plan in advance. Coach Wooden summed up this virtue succintly, and he did with his discussions on other topics. When I think about various principles that define me, I think about some of the wonderful people who spoke them, among them, John Wooden.

His life is to be much celebrated, an shining example of a life well-lived.

Rest in peace, Coach Wooden!

Greece, Spain and Manchester United?

The first two countries are laden with enough debt to dwarf the combustion that was the U.S. home mortgage market in 2008. The latter has about 750 million pounds of debt on it, and the Glazer family, which owns Man U, has about $1.7 billion of debt (against $2.9 billion of assets).

The debate rages as to whether Man U is healthy and whether the Glazers have enough debt. $2.9 billion of assets is good when those assets are liquid; when they're shopping centers in an over-developed United States, well, they might be worth half that. The big question is whether a) the Glazers are paying their debts as they become due and b) whether they can manage Man U and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers well.

Read this and see what you think. I think that if there is a "double dip" recession, more sports owners will be in trouble, perhaps more so than when the first dip hit.

Can a Renaissance Man Win in the NFL?

Tony Romo didn't qualify for the U.S. Open.

This raises a lot of questions:

1. Should he have tried in the first place?

2. Is he totally dedicated to football?

3. Are football players entitled to have hobbies?

4. If the answer to #3 is yes, then what type of hobbies? Competitive athletic hobbies? Competitive hobbies? Wood carving? Yoga in a chair?

5. Does the existence of this hobby suggest that he's distracted?

6. Should he have spent this time studying film, working with a trainer, etc.?

Just asking.

But there will be some people out there who think that this is a bad thing because it distracts him from football. There will be others who will demonstrate statistical proof that distracted quarterbacks don't win championships.

I'm not sure this means anything one way or another, except it shows that Tony Romo likes golf and is pretty good at it.

Most of us, in comparison, can't throw a spiral, and, if we can, can throw it about twenty yards, and then, if so, only about 10 times before reaching for Advil and ice.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Travel Team Diaries -- Vignettes

Okay, so I've been at travel tournaments, watching travel teams, talking with travel coaches, talking with travel parents, and I have the following to share:

1. I was talking to the parent of a kid on my daughter's team. The girl has a great disposition, and I remarked that she must be easy to work with. The dad replied: "She gets frustrated with me and doesn't like me to give her advice." We laughed, because other parents cite my daughter for a good disposition, but I go through the same issues. I will stick with my plan -- offer moral support, offer a listening ear, talking about the values of hard work and practice and listening.

2. I was talking to a friend who coaches a 10 year-old travel baseball team. He said that dealing with the parents was horrible, because not every kid can play infield or pitch. He has parents who complain that their kid should be an infielder when the kid can't make the plays in practice and excels in games in the outfield, both by catching balls and throwing runners out. He spends hours with certain parents. Yikes! We talked about how the parents need to be honest with themselves and their kids, that playing certain positions doesn't make them less worthy than the kids who play others, and that at some point you have to put the best players out there to give the team a chance to win and the kids an incentive to work hard so that they can bat high in the order and play the position of their choosing. If a kid plays a certain position because his dad lobbied the coach, is a coach, is friends with the coach, what have you, the players will sense it and the team won't achieve.

I shared a story with him that Dean Smith, the former Carolina basketball coach, told in one of his books, about how during his career about half a dozen players would come to him to insist that they should be starting. On each occasion, Coach Smith reviewed the starting lineup with the objecting player, asking if that player thought he should start over any of the starters. Each time, the player responded that he should not, thanked the coach for his candor, and offered that he needed to work harder to get more playing time. At some point, travel parents should shed the anxiety that Jethro might not get a full ride to Clemson and focus on the journey -- that if he works at it, he might get better, and then good things can happen. Unfortunately, there's too much anxiety.

3. Port-o-potties are pretty nasty on the second day of a two-day tournament.

4. It's fun to have your tournament located near a "Five Guys" burger joint. Okay, so you can't eat that stuff too frequently, but the burgers are awesome, the fries even better. The peanuts are free, the kids can bond, good stuff.

5. If you want to make money in a new business venture, start distributing all sorts of training aids and equipment to parents of travel sports kids, touting your stuff as the premier way to give the player a competitive advantage. I saw all sorts of nets, helmet caddies, sliding shorts, batting tees, composite bats, you name it. Trust me, if you can get an endorsement from some top-10 college coach, you'll rake it in.

6. If your kid's an infielder and not wearing a face mask, consider getting her one for travel softball. Why? Because if you're playing a good program and their kids are wearing them and your kids are not, you might be making a mistake. Most stop signs get put up after an accident; here, it's wise to have your kid wearing your mask during the game. The reason -- a) you don't want your pretty girl to have maxillofacial surgery for no reason, and b) there can be rocks and pebbles that blow onto the dirt infield, giving the field the ability to create a bad hop. Be sensible for now.

7. Coaches try to pull parlor tricks regarding the rules -- they'll send their runners early, try to influence play calls on the bases if an umpire is out of position and challenge the other team's pitcher's motion, even if it's legitimate. Why? Because they sense if they can get into the other team's pitcher's head, she'll crack. Big tough guys, huh? It's junk coaching, is what it is when that happens. Most of the coaches are stand up guys who are positive for the girls and teach them how to win, but on occasion, there are jokers or good coaches who lapse into bad behavior. Remember, umpires and coaches make mistakes.

8. Hell hath no fury like travel parents. We watched a 14U game a few weeks ago during a down time for our team, and a cadre of travel parents gathered down the right field line to cheer their kids on. Only problem was that they didn't like their coach, so they were catcalling him at every opportunity. Sheesh, as you can only imagine what gets said at the dinner table.

9. Many girls' teams are named after natural disasters or tropic storms. We've seen the Tornadoes, Hurricanes, Storm, Tsunami, Nightmare, and, yes, the Witches, Luna Chicks and Psycho Chicks. Just observing.

10. The girls who play fast pitch accessorize. They use pre-wrap to wrap their hair (as you can find multi-colored pre-wrap on-line), and they do their nails, although usually this is an individual effort that tends to represent the individual's favorite colors and not team colors.

11. Parents of pitchers are very protective of their daughters, sometimes forgetting that they play on a team. Look, pitching is huge in fastpitch, and if you look the pitcher's parent is a coach, sometimes the head coach. It makes sense -- because pitching in fastpitch requires a huge commitment.

12. Make sure your kids have the right equipment. My daughter's team's catchers were injuring their thumbs because they didn't have the right glove. They got a new one, and in the past tournament they came through uninjured.

13. The best coaches communicate well not only with the kids but with the parents -- about what the team is working on, what the team needs to improve, privately what the individual player needs to work on, all the while being a good combination of challenging and supportive. I am convinced that at the 12U level, among others, psychology plays a big part in getting the kids to achieve more than they think they can. I just haven't patented a theory as to go about doing just that.

14. Bats are key. I didn't know that there are specialty bat companies named Anderson, DeMarini and Miken, where the average bat costs as much as many dinners out with the family. They are "composite" bats, help the good hitters, etc. Moreover, players are protective of their bats and don't like to share, at least many of them. I was pleased to see that my daughter let a teammate borrow her bat yesterday -- that's a good sign of leadership and coming together. But heck, it's not an inexpensive game to play.

15. Discussing games and strategy and which local programs do what is both seductive, intoxicating and addictive. Sometimes it's fun, but remember that we all have other things to do, and if you don't have every kid in such a program, you have to spend time with him or her, too.

Inspiration for Young Hitters: Teixeira Has 5-Strikeout Day, Sees Hitting Coach

Yes, this happened. Yesterday.

So, what does this excellent hitter do? He goes for help.

There's a lesson in this story for young players.

First, you'll have bad days. You must rebound from them.

Second, there's no substitute for hard work -- off a tee, during soft toss, off the machine or during live batting practice. Make every swing count.

Third, know when to go for help. If Mark Teixeira takes advice, then so should you. See out other hitters, seek out coaches, watch games, watch instructional videos, practice, whatever it takes and, most importantly, what works for you.

The pros go for help, and that should tell you something.

That Said. . .MLB Should. . .

Commissioner Bud Selig should do the right thing.

That said, both results could be deemed as right. On the one hand, there seems to be a great reluctance to alter results of baseball games, regardless of blown calls or oddities. It seems that this reluctance derives from either a) the logic that Professor Dumbledore deployed in warning Hermoine, Harry and Ron of the dangers of using magic to go back into time or b) the fact that results are results, and we live with the good and the bad, because the game has some measure (hopefully small) of human error and those who govern are very wary of setting precedents that could create future firestorms.

There's also the Chinese proverb that you don't win by being right all the time. Translated for these purposes, that means that perhaps Bud Selig should considering shedding his orthodoxy regarding record keeping, talk with the umpire and umpires' union, the Tigers, the Indians and whomever else and award Armando Galarraga his perfect game. Why? Because what happened last week in baseball was a celebration of the highest motives of people and a display of their best instincts. An umpire admits a mistake. The victim of the mistake showing forgiveness and grace. His team's fans likewise. The best way to put a bow on this affair would be to award Galarraga a perfect game and to celebrate the outstanding contributions that those involved made to the game, especially in a time in our world where people are won't to shirk responsibility and sometimes create a smokescreen around their mistakes instead of admitting to them.

Armando Galarraga and the Detroit Tigers deserve that, as do the Tiger fans.

As does umpire Jim Joyce.

As for the Indians, how could they possibly say no? And, if they were to, should Commissioner Selig listen to them?

No, he should not. So, now that the dust has settled, Bud Selig should finish the drama with a flourish and award the perfect game, making a good week, well, perfect.

Lessons in Sportsmanship

You would have thought that those who coach baseball everywhere would have learned some lessons from the almost perfect game in Detroit last week. You would have thought that those lessons would include apology, forgiveness, honesty, grace under pressure and all the good things that are preached from pulpits -- religious and secular -- with great frequency (even if they're practiced only a fraction of the time).

The dramatis personae:

Jim Joyce, veteran umpire and a member of a petulant union that protects its members at every opportunity (then again, if you were a member of the umpires' union, you'd expect that protection given the abuse umpires take from fans, players and managers during the season).

Armando Galarraga, a journeyman pitcher who'd never thrown a complete game in his career, let alone a perfect game.

Detroit fans, who've had more than their share of disappointments over the years.

All ended up doing the right thing last week. Joyce, very publicly, gave and apology and expressed contrition over a bad call.

Galarraga was magnanimous in the face of a huge disappointment -- losing a perfect game owing to Joyce's blown call.

And the Detroit fans, who were gracious despite their disappointment and forgiving of Joyce the very next day.

That confluence of events shows what good people we can be if we put our minds to it. Humans err, but that doesn't mean they need to be publicly vilified, tarred and feathered or ridden out of town on a rail. People have grievances, but that doesn't mean they have to be profane and violent. Instead, honesty -- about the facts and emotions -- ruled the day. And what could have been a very ugly sore within the baseball world turned into a victory. All because those involved chose not to resort to the basest of human emotions -- anger -- but because they chose to dig a little deeper, put themselves in the other guy's shoes and treat people the way they'd want to be treated. The Golden Rule turned a leaden moment into pure gold.

So, you would have figured that everyone would have learned something like this, including the coaches in my son's little league game yesterday. Here's the situation -- runner on first, batter hits a ball that goes past the centerfielder, who throws the ball to the cutoff man. Cutoff man throws the ball home to nail the runner -- great throw -- but the catcher can't handle the ball, run scores, and the ball gets by the catcher. Catcher scampers after the ball, pegs it to third -- several feet before the batter gets there -- and there's no call.

It's clear to everyone there that the runner is out.

By a yard, at least.

Except the coach of the team at bat, who is coaching third base. Big (usually affable) guy. Signaling safe emphatically. Yelling "safe" a few times too.

The league deploys middle school kids as umpires. These adolescents have just begun to figure out who they are, and they're not about to take on adults (especially when they're not acting like adults, and especiallly when they're 6'4"). The kids get some training to be umpires, but the base umpire was out of position and hesitated to make the call. The coach of the other team is still demonstrating -- hell, we play to win, don't win? And, finally, the base umpire calls the kid safe.

There were catcalls, of course, and I was among them, though not at the umpires -- they're just kids, but yes, at the third-base coach, the coach of the other team. Why? Because he took advantage of a situation. Why? Because it wasn't a close play -- the kid was out by a mile. He should have learned from Jim Joyce, Armando Galarraga and the Detroit Tigers and been honorable about the situation, especially because the umpire didn't have a clue and the kid was so "out" that even the kids on the guy's on team said so. Instead, he muscled the weak -- a thirteen year-old -- all for the greater glory of one more out, one more run. I hope that he feels good about that, because it's actions like this by otherwise seemingly decent guys that have the parents aghast at grown men behaving badly in kids games.

Last year, our local league for kids this age group had 16 teams in it.

This year it has 10.

There are probably many reasons for this, but the chorus that I hear from the parents is that the parents themselves get fed up with the drama that amateur Tony LaRussas create in games that should be designed for good, clean competition. Yep, I want my kids to play hard and play to win too, but I also want them to learn to play fair, to shoulder disappointments, to pick themselves back up after making an error or striking out. Good lessons, all. The ones, though, that can stick in the kids' minds after the game, though, are precisely incidents of stupidity that can be very hard to explain.

Especially when they can involve seemingly good, decent people that you like.

Especially when they turn off more and more kids.

Especially when, well, it's a kids' game. By kids, for kids.

Isn't it?