Thursday, September 30, 2010

And How Many Super Bowl Rings Do You Have, Tiki?

Around 2006, there was talk about how Tom Coughlin might have lost control of his New York Giants. The next year, he won a Super Bowl.

Now, I like Tiki Barber, and he was a great player. In 2006, he was in a position of leadership for the Giants, but he retired after that season and then the Giants won the Super Bowl under the same Eli Manning whose maturity/leadership at times Barber seemed to question before that year. Then, after Barber's retirement, Manning supplanted him as the leader of the offense, as every quarterback should. No offense to Tiki, but it might have been the case that his presence as the preeminent voice on offense eclipsed his quarterback and prevented him from emerging as a team leader.

Well, now Barber is talking about how Giants' coach Tom Coughlin might have lost his locker room.

Sounds like an old, familiar tale, doesn't it?

Could it be that Tiki Barber is right (this time)?

It's a young season, and while the Giants haven't gotten off to a great start, let's face it, their O-line is getting older, their big running back isn't bowling over people the way he used to, their defense isn't the same as it was in 2007, so the Giants might have personnel issues that go beyond Coughlin and the locker room. It might be that they're just not that good, it might be that they haven't gelled yet and that it's a young season.

Remember, in a 16-game season, sometimes panic buttons get pushed too early and, at the other end of the continuum, people can get too giddy too early too.

Most surely, Tiki Barber's comments will draw attention from beyond the New York fan base. The question is whether there is something to it.

Jeff Garcia: Having a Ball in the UFL at 40

This week's match-up has him facing Daunte Culpepper. If you hadn't followed the NFL for a few years, you would have thought that Culpepper's Vikings were playing Garcia's 49ers, but that's not the case. Still, it's the biggest match-up in the (short) history of the UFL.

Another Example as to How NFL Players (Will) Go Broke After Their Careers End

Dez Bryant's $55,000 dinner bill for taking Cowboys' teammates out to dinner.

This could be more evidence as to why some people think that Cowboys' receiver Roy Williams is a goofball (he set it up).

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Baseball's Attendance May Be Down Slightly, But What's the Problem in Tampa Bay?

The Rays are a good team. Check that, an excellent team with a good shot to win the World Series.

Yet, when they clinched a playoff spot the other night against the Orioles, they drew less than 18,000 people. What gives?

As this article from the New York Times points out, attendance was down in 2008 and in 2009 and is down one third of one percent in 2010. Sure, the economy hasn't gotten a whole lot better, but how do you explain this attendance in a city with a very good team? Sure, not every team can be the Phillies, who have sold out 123 straight contests. But to have a team in the thick of a pennant race and not sell more than 20,000 tickets let alone fill your home park?

There are probably many theories, from the fact that it was a school night to the fact that "what's the big deal, there was no doubt that they'd make the playoffs" to the economy. But could it be that Florida baseball teams have this problem -- many of the residents of the state come from other states and root for the teams where they grew up or lived (for a long time) before? So, could there be a bunch of Yankee and Met fans, among others, near Tampa and St. Petersburg? Phillies fans too? Or, is Florida a football state? Or, is there some other reason?

The Rays' owners and players have to be frustrated.

Especially when they watch teams in other cities that play before sellout crowds.

George Blanda

Do you remember George Blanda? Do you?

He was a kicker and a quarterback, he played in four decades, and in his mid-forties quarterbacked the Raiders effectively. He died a few days ago at the age of 83.

His is a story worth reading, especially if you're under 45, because you probably have never heard of him (unless you're a real student of the game). When I was (much) younger, you either saw or read of his weekly heroics. He was a physical marvel who defied Father Time, and, as John Madden has been quoted, he was very clutch. His tory kept on getting better than age.

He wasn't 6'6", couldn't throw the ball through a car wash and have it not get wet, didn't benefit from the advanced training methods or supplements of today, didn't have all of the videotape they do today (nor the comfortable chairs that they have at most teams' facilities now).

But he made the plays.


Eagles' Fans Should Give Donovan McNabb a Standing Ovation

He is the best quarterback in Eagles' history.

He led them to 5 NFC championship games.

He played very hard for a group of fans that is very difficult to please.

Yes, he's with the Redskins, and yes, they are a divisional rival.

But pro football is a business, and very quickly yesterday's heroes become funny looking aliens in opposing uniforms. It's hard to see Donovan McNabb in a Redskins' uniform and more difficult to see Brian Westbrook wearing the jersey of the (0-3) 49ers.

Sure, there was a lot of talk about McNabb, especially in recent years. That he wasn't as good a touch passer as he could have been, that once in a while he said the wrong thing (who hasn't?), that he wasn't as mobile as he used to be, that perhaps he could have done a better job of working things out with Terrell Owens (for what it's worth, I thought that McNabb was totally in the right during the drama with Owens), what have you. The fact remains that he put up great numbers, that he was a battler all the way, that he provided great moments and that he led teams to great seasons.

Eagles' fans should remember that this Sunday when the Redskins come to Lincoln Financial Field, and they should pay him the tribute that he's earned out of consideration for his entire body of work.

Cal-Berkeley to Cut Baseball, Men's and Women's Gymnastics and Women's Lacrosse

You can read all about it here.

Is this a sign of things to come at state schools, many of which are mired in budget crises? There used to be a saying (and perhaps it still exists) that trends would start in California. Will UC-Berkeley's move to eliminate these sports embolden other athletic directors to cut longstanding programs, such as baseball? And will current budget crises further underscore some of the hypocrisies of major college athletics? Heck, many big-time schools have thrown out the notion of the scholar-athlete or the well-rounded, renaissance person (despite the NCAA's advertisements to the contrary), because instead of offering many (read: dozens) of intercollegiate programs they offer, at times, a bare minimum (perhaps as low as eight) to satisfy the requirements for Division I. Put into better English, what I'm getting at is that for many of these programs, it's perfectly okay to pay football and men's basketball coaches millions of dollars per year, even as athletic departments jettison other varsity sports. Of course, many will argue that those coaches deserve the compensation they get because a) they bring in revenue (and no others do) and b) that revenue supports the rest of the program (and many programs barely break even, but that's okay because schools don't want to jeopardize their tax-exempt status by running too many for-profit programs).

But let's get back to the original premise -- there are budget issues everywhere, and these issues could result in high schools cutting back on after-school sports (thereby reducing community building and the chance of kids to identify with their schools), and I would suggest that Cal is only the tip of the iceberg. More varsity sports will fall at universities and colleges all over the country.

Which leads to my next post. . .

An End to Deadliest Catch?

It sure seems that way.

Discovery Channel is mired in a legal dispute with "bad boy" captains Andy and Jon Hillstrand, and they and Sig Hansen, the first among equals among the captains, are bolting the show. This dispute follows the death of Phil Harris, whose sons, Josh and Jake, were to take over their father's boat and remain on the show for the upcoming -- and seventh -- season.

Perhaps the sides can make amends and have a seventh season. If, for some reason, they cannot, well, it's been great cinematography and lessons in teamwork and (very) real people over the past six years. I found the show by surfing channels, and it was riveting.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Phillies Clinch -- It Never Gets Old!

When I was a young boy, all I heard was how the Phillies collapsed in 1964, up 6 1/2 with 12 to play, and they finished third in the National League. Then came the period from 1975-1983 (and I include the 1975 "Yes We Can" bunch because while they didn't go to the playoffs, they gave us a glimmer of hope for the future), when the team went to the World Series twice and won their first World Series (in 1980). Then there was the drought from 1984 through 2005, where they had a somewhat fluky year in 1993 and went to the World Series, battling hard with a tough Toronto squad before Mitch Williams yielded only the second walk-off home run in World Series history. The team showed some life in 2004, and for the past four years has won the National League East.

I watched the Phillies beat the Nationals in Washington last night to clinch the N.L. East, and it gave me a rush, even as the Phillies batted around in the top of the ninth, added four runs, and beat the Nationals 8-0. Cy Young favorite Roy Halladay needed only 97 pitches for the complete-game win, and what was remarkable was that a large majority of the fans at the park were Phillies' fans. (There have been times over the past two seasons where the Nats and Pirates have advertised their games in the Philadelphia markets, hoping to induce Phillies' fans to make the trip). The team sold out every game this season at home, and now has a streak of 123 straight sellouts. This is the type of stat you hear for some NFL teams and some college b-ball teams, but not usually for baseball teams. Citizens Bank Park is a joint that jumps; the team helps make the place electric.

So, as I watched Roy Halladay strike out the last (nameless) batter of the Nats, and then Carlos Ruiz rush the mound, and the players trot in from the outfield and the bullpen, I still got goose bumps. I also enjoyed watching skipper Charlie Manuel watch the players celebrate from the dugout before he went out to congratulate them.

Put simply, this was one helluva season, given all that the team's been through. Manuel should be the Manager of the Year, and each player should get a share of the team's MVP award. Right now, the team has the best record in the NL and the best record in baseball, pretty good for a team that was depleted with injuries for most of the season and was about .500 at the All-Star break.

How far can they go?

They're healthy, and they have a post-season rotation of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. They could come out flat in the Division Series, but this is a team of fighters, and their post-season, at least today, looks very bright.

It doesn't get old, and it's nice to wake up with a team like this to look forward to.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Remember Milt Thompson?

He waz the Phillies' hitting coach at the start of the year (and for many years prior to that). With the team in a slump, the Phillies fired him on July 23.

The Phillies are 44-17 since that time. Up until that time, they were 49-46.

Has Greg Gross, Thompson's replacement, been a Hall of Fame hitting coach since that time? Has he simply coached better than Thompson did? Or, is it a pure coincidence, in light of a) how well the Phillies have pitched during the season, b) the fact that hitters can be streaky and, of course, c) the Phillies were beset with injuries.

I think that Thompson was a victim of circumstances. After all, he's the same guy who served as hitting coach when the offense was torrid in '07, '08 and '09, so it stands to reason that while he might not have gotten credit for the great offense of those teams, he shouldn't get the blame for the tepid offense of the first two thirds of the 2010 season. Yet, he was singled out, and now he's gone.

And the Phillies might go very far this post-season.

If they do, everyone should remember Milt Thompson, and, if they win the World Series, the Phillies should give him a ring. Whether he'll take it or not is another story (although he did show up for Old-Timers' weekend, showing a lot of grace), but he'll have deserved it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Travel Versus Rec League, Part I

Last spring, one of our local rec leagues played their final game before about 200 people. Family, friends, assorted locals. It was a well-played affair, with one team winning 4-2. All of the kids live in our township. Hence the turnout and the good community atmosphere.

Believe it or not, though, a large majority of the softball games played on our local fields involve very few kids from the town. They're travel tournaments, and most of the kids on the travel teams come from other towns, sometimes as far as an hour or two away. Mind you, the fields aren't in constant use, but the travel teams have dibs on them over the local rec league, and the travel kids get the lion's share of the use of the pitching machines.

It gets a little more complicated because while the town owns the fields, the local association (whose by-laws say that the teams are for the kids who live in our "district", whose boundaries don't extend that far beyond our town) owns the machines and maintains -- to some degree -- the fields.

Needless to say, there is a travel versus rec debate, and it gets hotter as the local association lobbies the town for more fields and more facilities. Their reason -- we have the demand for it.

But do they?

Or is the demand because the powers that be want to recruit terrific teams and win games to show that the people who run the association are both good talent evaluators and coaches, regardless of whether they coach local kids?

There are few development programs for local kids. The town's fields don't benefit local kids all that much. Yet, in this day and age, when governments are scampering to find additional funds to pay pensions, among other necessary or contractually obligated things, these parents pack town meetings and request that tax dollars be allocated for more fields.

To me, there are three problems with this.

First, to paraphrase from Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992, "it's the economy, stupid." How can a town afford more fields? Some have lost their jobs, and many are making less. More fields seems like a luxury, an overly indulgent one at that.

Second, why the emphasis on pediatric recreation? How many towns do an adequate job of hosting running tracks, fields, community centers that can benefit the entire community, and not just kids? Many adults are out of shape. They pay the taxes; they should demand more from their governments for, well, themselves. The kids have better facilities in comparison.

Third, geography. Why pay for additional fields to host travel organizations whose kids aren't from your town and really don't care much about it? It's one thing to have a developmental program for kids in your town and to field teams populated with kids from your town, but quite another to let parents who want to be Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi on a much smaller scale hijack your programs and use your town's fields for their own benefit? (Funny thing is that they usually get their kids on their all-star teams, whether or not their kids are "A" players).

Remember, the "everyone does it" argument is a bad one. Prosecutors use it to take down a whole industry and mandate reforms. They don't give the fourth company they catch a break because they opted for certain behaviors because everyone else was doing it. Instead, they find a bigger treasure trove of targets. Analogize that logic to this situation, and I'll contend that just because many organizations get their players from all over doesn't make it right. It's one thing if there are user fees that accurately reflect the cost of what out-of-towners are getting, but quite another when they "free ride" so to speak on an innocent municipality (as many council people might not realize what the travel organizations are doing). The travel parents will tell you that they're paying about $1000 per year for their kids, but much of that goes to uniforms, equipment, entry fees for tournaments and insurance. Some might go to the sponsoring organization, but almost nothing goes to the towns that have ceded their lands to these organizations on an implied promise that the fields will benefit the town. Many times, that's not what happens.

Travel teams can be very good when they're coached well, when the coaches make sure that the players bond together and don't form cliques, and when the coaches actually teach the fundamentals and finer points of the game. Many do that, and the experience can be very worthwhile. I'm not knocking travel teams per se, but just questioning the travel and town relationships, whether they're worthwhile, and whether the travel teams should be paying a lot more for their fields and whether the towns should really see who is benefiting. Again, I take you back to my early example of the town league's championship game that was a festive night, versus the average crowd at a travel tournament -- about ten people on each side, most of whom have the "thousand yard" stare borne of how early they rose and the chores and other family members they left behind.

We're living in an age where it can be increasingly harder for people to find meaning and for people to bond together, especially where they live. Those who espouse travel will speak of excellence (and, in softball, of opportunities to get scholarships because of Title IX). Those who eschew it will say that it requires too much of a commitment, too much money, too much time, and too much of a focus on one thing at the expense of much else. Advocates for travel versus advocates for much better local programs probably will not agree on much, and debates will rage on. But will also come up is how towns allocate their resources, and they'll start hearing from many families whose kids get shut out from their local organizations and don't have as many opportunities to learn, grow and play because their local organizations are chasing something that at times is hard to explain and, in these times, is increasingly harder to justify.

Let the arguments begin and rage on.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The NBA Wants Its Players to Respect the Game More

This ought to be interesting.

The bet here is that technical foul records held by Charles Barkely and Rasheed Wallace could be in jeopardy.

Is the NBA moving to a standard where challenging a refereee's call will be like challenging the home plate umpire's call of a ball or a strike (which can result in an automatic ejection if the objection is too forceful)?

Now, the headline opens up all sorts of possibilities about how the players could respect the game better, so it's interesting that this topic is what the NBA has chosen to discuss. The referees are now in an interesting position, because no one pays to watch them, if they've done a great job, well, then you haven't noticed them, but now they're being asked to make themselves more noticeable by giving more technical fouls and potentially throwing players out of the game.

Perhaps the best solution is to toss some notorious gripers who also are future Hall of Famers out of games early. If the referees show that they're willing to do that, then the tenth man fresh out of the D-League or having gotten paid in depressed Greek currency from his former team in Athens probably will get a clue and not complain. The problem, though, with this solution is that the overall suggestion came from polling fans. Well, while the fans want to see less whining, how happy will they be when Joey Crawford runs a marquis player or two in the first half of a game that they've paid over $100 per ticket to see? Would they rather then see a) Lakers-Celtics with no griping (but with Messrs. Bryant and Garnett exiting the game in the first half) or b) the same game, with griping, but also with Kobe and KG? After all, wish lists of fans only go so far.

It's good to see that the NBA is listening to its customers and trying to improve the game. That's a big plus for any business, so let's be patient and see how this all turns out.

Phillie's Hard Slide, Phillies' Play a Wake-Up Call for Mets

It never was a friendly rivalry, and now it's getting worse.

Chase Utley slid very hard into second base on a takeout slide of Robinson Tejada. The Mets got angry, and, from what I heard on the Phillies' post-game show, Mets' pitcher John Pelphrey was very upset.

So, to retaliate, the Mets' skipper, Jerry Manuel, said that the Mets would do things like slide hard against the Phillies, "things like that."

This is the same Jerry Manuel who said that while on the one hand he didn't want the Phillies to clinch against his team, on the other hand it might be good for his young players to see what a good team's clinching is all about.

Perhaps Utley slid like a runaway freight train last night (he was going pretty fast). So, what did the Mets do to retaliate? They tried to ice the kicker. The Mets had men on second and third with two outs, and, as Lidge in the midst of his wind-up, the Mets called timeout to ice the closer. Lidge induced the hitter -- one of the many unmemorable Mets players -- to ground out back to him. Game over, or so he thought.

But then he learned that third-base umpire Hunter Wendelstadt had called time out, causing the Phillies' manager, Charlie Manuel to turn Phillies red and give crew chief Jerry Dale a tongue-lashing over the call of the time out. Fortunately for the Phillies', the Mets' tactic failed, Lidge struck out the last batter, and the Phillies now have a magic number of two.

Look, Utley's slide was pretty hard, but if the Mets are livid then if I'm a Mets' fan I have to ask myself "where was this passion, this drive, this commitment to, well, playing hard and winning?" all season. Sure, the Mets have been befelled by more injuries over the past two or three years than most teams. But the Mets' problems run much deeper than absent players. The Mets' don't have good leadership or chemistry in the clubhouse. If they're angry, that's not so bad, but they should ask themselves what they are angry about? A lack of cohesiveness? A lack of commitment to the details? A lack of having a bunch of guys who can rally the clubhouse and set good examples?

Compare and contrast the Phillies and the Mets, and there's no contest. The Phillies are full of veterans and have more than their share of leaders -- Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Roy Halladay, Jamie Moyer, to name just a few. Who sets the standards for the Mets? Who leads them? And don't automatically say the guys with the best numbers, because that always isn't the case.

The Mets' players should combine their anger at Chase Utley's hard slide with Jerry Manuel's suggestion that seeing a team clinch is a good thing and think about some things in the off-season. The Mets' front office should figure out who the leaders can be and talk with those players about setting standards -- getting to spring training early, talking in the off-season, getting together in the off-season, etc. A team whose players get along is a team where the players look forward to coming into the clubhouse, look forward to practicing hard and start to build successes together.

As for last night, neither team should make two big a deal out of what happened. One team needs to lick its wounds, finish the season, make some big decisions, and try to regroup for next year, with leadership at the forefront of the front office's mind. The other is en route perhaps to another outstanding post-season, and no player on a team out of the money wants to burnish a reputation for retaliating to a point where he ends a player's season or career. My guess is that the umpires will be all over the quotes and the comments from last night's game, talk about them with the managers before the game, and put both teams on a very short leash today.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Sporting News Names the 20 Smartest Athletes in Sports

3 Princeton guys, 1 Yalie, 1 Harvard guy.

Check out the entire list here.

Somehow, I think that the Cal Tech or MIT Ultimate Frisbee teams would beat out the entire list, but that's just me talking.

Intriguing list, as not all are pro athletes, and most are not Ivy League guys. And, one of the Ivy guys is a brawler in the NHL (which makes you wonder how smart the writers are or how bright the guy is or will be after years of taking blows to the head).

Dick's Won't Sell Vick Jerseys

Anyone want to comment?

My view is that he's paid his debt to society, that he's an NFL player, and that the chain should treat him the way they'd treat any other NFL player. The management team at Dick's differs because of what Vick did.

But that's a slippery slope, isn't it? Because Dick's sells all sorts of stuff, including guns and ammo, jerseys of all sorts of players, some of whom are better behaved than others, and supports a support that if played for along time, could cause significant to fatal neurological problems for its participants. I don't know whether it's a wise stand that Dick's is taking or not, and I'm sure that the management team is patting its back for taking a stand that is sure to lose it money and create big opportunities for Sports Authority and Modell's (the place to get all Phillies' championship wear, among other things).

Let's hope that if you're a shareholder of Dick's that they do full background checks on all applicants and don't begin to hire anyone with a criminal record (which, by the way, is illegal to do -- refrain from hiring someone with a criminal record -- in certain states in certain circumstances, to the best of my understanding). Otherwise, what's the difference between Michael Vick and Mandy in sneakers who once got busted for a DUI, possession of marijuana or something else?

Aha, the fellows at Dick's would say, Vick sponsored the brutal killing of dogs, while Mandy committed more socially acceptable crimes. But they probably wouldn't have to say that because they don't hire the Mandys either.

What do you think?

Calling All Cynics

Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays hit his 50th home run last night.

Steroids are gone, banished, tested for, kaput.

So what explains Bautista's sudden surge?

Could he be baseball's version of the unique "bolt out of the blue" that can strike someone down on a sunny day fifty miles away from a storm?

When We Anoint Our Gods Too Early

Five years ago, this was written about the next LeBron.

I just read an article in Sports Illustrated about the hoopla surrounding the same kid.

And he's already transferred -- because he didn't measure up at a Pac-10 school.

All this compels the question: did SI's hype when the kid was 14 set the kid up for failure -- by creating ridiculously high expectations for him and by perhaps swelling his head and the heads of those around him?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Philadelphia Area Sports Wrap

Ate a good wrap for lunch, so I figured to roll with it.

1. Can Temple Beat Penn State This Weekend? It would be the first time that the Owls have done so since 1941 -- were it to happen. And that would be huge news for Coach Al Golden and the Owls. Sure, the Eagles and Phillies grab all the headlines, but this would be a (much) bigger accomplishment/story. The Owls have at least a puncher's chance in this one. They're solid, and it's not as though the words "national champion" and "Penn State" have been found in the same paragraph this year.

2. What to Make of Andy Reid's Decision to Go With Michael Vick at QB? Reid's decision falls smack within two tautologies -- the one that says that you have to play the best players, and the other that says that a player doesn't lose his job because of an injury. Look, Kevin Kolb didn't look great in the pre-season, and he didn't have a good first game. That said, his offensive line was battered in the pre-season and bad in his first game, and the play calling was worse. Still, Vick looked like the sleek Vick of old, a QB who went to the Pro Bowl three times and who led his team to an NFC title game. Kolb doesn't have those credentials. It's a short-term gamble, because a) Vick is unsigned for next year and b) you've probably blown your relationship with Kolb, who will get a chance elsewhere. Also, it's a gamble because you might have blown -- to some degree -- credibility with some players by not adhering to the adage that a player doesn't lose his job because of an injury. Few figured the Eagles for the playoffs this year, and most of those who did had them losing in the first round as a wild card. I'm not sure that the decision to anoint Vick makes them more than a 9-7 team anyway. Besides, the Eagles still cannot steal the headlines from the Phillies.

3. Are the Phillies the favorites to win the World Series? Peter Gammons about said as much on Sporting News Radio over the weekend, and with a rotation of Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt they look very formidable, and might look even more so if Jimmy Rollins can come back from a nagging hamstring injury. This team has the feel of 2008, and the Yankees don't look as good as they did in 2009. Yes, I'll say they're the favorites because right now they're the hottest team around, and because no one else seems to command that label. That said, they still have to make the playoffs, and they haven't done that yet. They look confident, and their home joint jumps. Contrast that to views of Atlanta last week, where there were many empty seats. Charlie Manuel should be named manager of the year for what he's achieved, especially because of all the injuries the team suffered this season. Also, oft-maligned GM Ruben Amaro made a great move getting Roy Oswalt from the Astros this summer. Having three #1 starters in the rotation who could (and did) go seven innings took a lot of pressure off the Phillies' bullpen, and now Brad Lidge looks (pretty much) like the Brad Lidge of old.

4. Will the 76ers be better this season? They should be. The Sporting News labeled second-year guard Jrue Holliday as the player most likely to emerge as the next star this year (or something to that effect). Pair him with top draft pick Evan Turner and swingman Andre Iguodala, and that's a pretty potent threesome. The big questions are at the 4 and 5, and if the 76ers don't figure those out well they'll miss the playoffs again. Still, the Holliday-Turner backcourt should be fun to watch.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Baseball Nostradamus

Where would you have picked this team to finish?

1. Its closer had an ERA over 7 last year and had a few stints on the disabled list.
2. Its set-up man kicked a chair and missed two months.
3. The #3-#5 starters (at least, the guys who filled these roles at the beginning of the season) have been inconsistent at best, and one of them went on the disabled list for the year before the halfway point of the season.
4. It doesn't really have an effective lefty reliever.
5. Everyone in the starting lineup spent a significant amount of time on the disabled list save one player, with one All-Star missing 2 months, another missing about a month, and two of the starting position players spending two stints on the disabled list.
6. Its leading pinch-hitter for years went something like 4-40 as a pinch-hitter before being designated for assignment.
7. A career journeyman, AAAA player started about 74 games as an infielder (he hadn't started as many games in his entire career before this season, let alone in a single season).
8. Its leadoff hitters combined on-base percentages are about .325.
9. One of the free agents it signed to firm up the bullpen proved to be more of pyromaniac than a fireman.
10. At one point in June, on a road trip the team got shut out in 3 straight games. and went scoreless for about 30 straight innings.

Give up?

It's the Philadelphia Phillies, who have 86 wins now, the most in the National League.

I know it could be romantic to name Dusty Baker manager of the year because the Reds are way ahead in the NL Central or Bobby Cox because it's his last year, but Charlie Manuel should be the National League manager of the year (barring a collapse by his squad). Put simply, he continued to patch together lineups with guys named Ransom, Sardinha, Hoover, Dobbs, Castro, Gload, Schneider, Francisco, and he put the team in a position to charge ahead once the injured stars returned. He's an excellent manager, and the results this year are showing.

If you told the average Phillies' fan that all of the above would happen and that the team would be 3 up with 15 games to go, they would have signed up for it. The last 2+ weeks ought to be interesting, and the Phillies, if past history under Manuel is any indication, should enjoy a fine run to the finish. Peter Gammons of Sporting News Radio has suggested that with a rotation of Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels, the Phillies might be the team to beat in the post-season.

We'll see.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Where France is #24, the U.S. #18, and Egypt #9

Any guesses?

It's FIFA's World Cup rankings.

The top 10?


Italy is #13.

Chris Stewart of Notre Dame -- Starting Guard, Law Student

Sometimes I've written that you just cannot make this stuff up.

Usually, it means that the story is so bizarre, weird or bad that if you wrote it in a novel people wouldn't think that it could really happen in real life.

Well, I'm happy to report that this story is pretty amazing, it's true, and it's probably rare. Chris Stewart, a starting guard on Notre Dame's football team, is a law student (he graduated from the undergraduate program by the time he became a starter as a junior).

Contrast Mr. Stewart with former Heisman winner Matt Leinart, who remained at USC for an extra year to enjoy college life and play football, all the while taking one course in the fall of his final year -- ballroom dancing. In this particular Notre Dame-USC rivalry, Notre Dame wins.

On summary judgment.

Is the End of Big-Time Football Upon Us?

This story, of former Eagles' fullback, Kevin Turner, is chilling.

As is this one, about the former Penn football star, Owen Thomas, who took his own life earlier this year.

As was the video of Eagles' middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, who stumbled around Lincoln Financial Field like a drunken sailor after a hit.

As are the many stories about former NFL players with all sorts of orthopedic and neurological problems.

Teddy Roosevelt almost banned football at the turn of the twentieth century because of the violence of the game (then, players were getting killed). Rules changed, and did equipment. The NFL had better get atop of, and ahead of, this issue fast. The statistics don't seem to be getting any better, and before there is too large a landscape scattered with the bodies and souls of guys who gave their all for others' enjoyment, only not to be functional in their thirties, forties and fifties, changes -- in terms of equipment, rules for players coming back from injuries, and rules within the game -- need to be made.

Because as we know with a fickle electorate, public opinion can turn on anyone and anything, including this favorite sport, quickly and decisively.

The Philadelphia Phillies, Cultural Promotions and Sensitivity

The Phillies are hold their German Heritage Night this Saturday, September 18.

That's the same day as Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement (and the most sacred religious holiday).

Now, Yom Kippur does end after sundown that night (it begins on Friday night, September 17), and World War Two (and the Holocaust) ended 65 years ago.

But wouldn't it stand to figure that the Phillies' brass might have been a little more sensitive on the point?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Would You Want Your Team to Sign This Free Agent?

He's in the prime of his career (say 30-31 years old).

He's a 5-tool player. Good defender, throws well, runs well, hits for average and hits for power. Atop that, he's got a good on-base percentage. This year, he's hitting close to .300 and his OBP is close to .400.

He bats fifth in the lineup for a very good team.

He has a World Series ring, too.

One more detail: he's 1 for his last 43 with runners in scoring position.

His name: Jayson Werth.

My guess is that the Phillies would like him back -- at the right price. After the past two seasons, you could have argued that he was worth "Jason Bay"-like money, say 5 or 6 years at say $17 million per year. But here's the thing -- is he really a #1 or #2 player in your lineup, is he a leader, can he help carry your team? Or, is he an outstanding complement to a core group, each member of which you could afford to lose less than you could Werth?

The core on the Phillies right now is comprised of the following players: Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley among position players, and Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels among the pitchers. Yes, Carlos Ruiz has been terrific, as has reliever Ryan Madson. And, by the way, Werth has been terrific in many spots. But the thing of it is that the Phillies cannot afford him, especially in light of what they're paying everyone else. Truth be told, they need to get a little younger, and with uber-prospect Domonic Brown waiting in the wings, Werth probably will end up elsewhere. Lots of teams need good hitting in the middle of the lineup, and they'll get that with Werth.

But they need to make sure that it's at the right price. Teams that are hungry for talent are likely to overpay in terms of dollars and years (see Aaron Rowand's and Barry Zito's contracts with the Giants). Werth's play merits a very good multi-year deal, probably in the low 8 figures a year, but you're talking 3 or 4 years in this economy at say $12-$13 million per. That's great compared to the rest of us mere mortals, but it's telling, perhaps, as to the finite differences between the top elite players and the very good ones.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Why There Could Be a QB Controversy in Philadelphia

Because the 2010 Michael Vick looked like the Pro-Bowl version of Michael Vick during his best years with the Falcons, and not the overweight, a few-steps-too-slow lumbering back-up that he portrayed last year during his redemptive NFL season. He played like a guy who remembered that he once was outstanding, he played like a guy playing for a contract, and he played like a guy with something to prove. If the Eagles do have the Pro Bowl Vick on their roster, they should seriously consider giving him more playing time.

Brutal Sports Talk on WIP Radio in Philadelphia Today

I actually (kinda) felt sorry for local loudmouth Howard Eskin.

First, left guard Todd Herremans is conversationally challenged.

Second, play-by-play man Merrill Reese, whose puffed up voice can sound like a caricature (think a less nuanced version of Marv Albert, and probably less intelligent, too), was off today. He couldn't remember where Herremans went to college, he espoused a self-important point of view (once evinced by an erstwhile color commentor, former Eagles' tackle Stan Walters) that a team shouldn't take an offensive lineman on the first round, he dissed the Raiders' Robert Gallery (okay, so while Gallery hasn't been a star, he's played for about 5 offensive coordinators during his career and had the unique distinction of trying to block for one of the all-time most clueless QBs in JaMarcus Russsell), and he said that future Hall of Fame tackle (and former Raven) Jonathan Ogden went to Southern Cal (bite your tongue, Merrill, he went to UCLA).

Third, believe it or not, the Mouth that Roared (Eskin) couldn't get a word in edgewise. Apparently, he knows to leave well enough alone and not try to one up or correct a local favorite in Reese, but I am sure it was painful for Eskin. Reese was plum awful and should stick to doing his play-by-play work. The portion of the show with Herremans was pure torture. Herremans sounded like he was in the midst of dental work (without anesthesia), and Eskin was like the guy on "Jeopardy" who knows all the answers but can't press the button fast enough to get called on.

Figures, a brutal game followed by brutal talk radio. We did learn, however, the injured Eagles' fullback Leonard Weaver likes to sing and sang at the Eagles' complex today, despite his season-ending injury. That was nice to learn.

Tough football weekend all around.

The NFL and Rung Bells

Hurt players won't admit it.

The NFL doesn't seem clear on players who get knocked silly.

So, how about a simple rule: the league and union pay for independent local doctors (who have experience with traumatic brain injuries) to staff each stadium. If a player is suspected of having his bell rung, that player gets evaluated. If that player comes out of a game, he automatically misses the next one (at a minimum). If that player is diagnosed with a concussion, he's out a minimum of the next four. Gets his bell rung again? Out for the year.

The NFL and players' union should not continue to put these players at risk -- where the size/speed differential is great enough to cause serious, long-term damage. In addition, if the NFL is serious about increasing the schedule from 16 to 18 games, it should consider the following:

1) increasing rosters from 53 to 65 players.
2) increasing the practice squad to 10 players, and having the teams be able to keep the players on their practice squad.
3) enabling teams to activate 55 players per game.

Yes, the owners might make less money because they'll have to pay more guys. But, hopefully, with some tighter rules on injuries, the NFL will prolong careers and help its players avoid devastating long-term effects of the collisions that the average player faces over the course of a career that could go all the way back to elementary school.

All of this is meant to spur a lengthier debate regarding concussions. It's hard to read stories about so many long-since-retired players suffering from brain injuries. The NFL and NFLPA should act in concert to save players from the league, each other and themselves before someone -- Congress -- does it for them.

Another U.S. Export: Allen Iverson to China?

Only in America.

So, once of France's heroes turned goofball, Thierry Henry, comes to the U.S. for the latter part of his soccer career. Then it's probably fair if after Stephon Marbury, the U.S. sends Allen Iverson to China. AI will probably test every temptation the People's Republic's government will have to inflict human rights abuses on a visitor.

In the People's Republic of China, the party is the thing.

In Allen Iverson's world, a party can be the thing.

Here's to hoping that AI learned enough at Georgetown, which has an all-world school of foreign service, to distinguish between the party and a party. After which, he should be sure to respect the party and take care not to have a party every night. I can see where this party thing could get kind of tricky.

The Chinese have done enough for America, haven't they, by purchasing billions if not trillions of our public debt. And now, here they come again, possibly taking away one of the hoops world's problem children from the U.S. It could well be that the People's Republic of China is about to change it's name to "1-800-Got-Junk?", but time will tell.

Let the Seniors Tour for Hoops begin.

In China.

Philadelphia Eagles: Talk About a Bad Start That No One Would Have Believed If It Were Scripted

Lose your starting QB to a concussion.

Lose your starting MLB to a concussion.

Lose your starting fullback (for whom you have no back-up), a Pro Bowler, for the year (torn ACL on a gruesome play).

Lose your starting center, who just returned from a knee injury after 8 months of being out, for the year (torn bicep).

All four are team leaders on a very young team that needs leaders.

Oh, and, by the way, your back-up QB plays so well that now you have a QB controversy. Why? Because that back-up once was a Pro Bowl player who looked fat and out of shape last year and looked like his former self on Sunday.

With all the problems -- plus horrid playcalling on offense in the first half -- you still rallied to within 27-20 and had a chance deep in your opponent's territory with under 5 minutes to go to tie the game.

But, still, the carnage. . . 2 concussions, 2 season-ending injuries. . . Yikes!

And, it used to be a cure when you could say, "well, at least we can get better by playing Detroit next weekend." Except, these aren't Matt Millen's Detroit Lions. These Lions can get after it.

Tough day for the Eagles, who, with their youth, are on a re-building mission, whether they'd like to admit it or not.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Pop Warner Football

The team gathered for its first time in the humid heat of early August, doing padless drills for two and a half hours a day, Monday through Thursday. For the next three weeks, they drilled --in pads -- the same amount of time. 19 kids, although some of them missed weeks for family vacations. 5 dad coaches, the head coach being the guy with the long hair in the pony tail, tattooes, backwards baseball cap, and a good mixture of enthusiasm, organization and firmness. The offensive coordinator put in the offense, going to far as to use a ruler to show the offensive linemen the proper distance between one another on the line. One of the dads worked with the linemen while the coordinator worked with the skill position players, the large enough quarterback (big enough to withstand a hit) running the wishbone with three speedy backs behind him. They ran laps, they caught balls, they ran formations, they switched positions, all with a view to getting ready for the home opener tomorrow afternoon.

The coaches planned, the head coach sometimes fretting because kids missed practices without their parents e-mailing to let him know, or kids got their late, disrupting the discipline he was trying to instill. The kids started to bond during scrimmages against other teams, chest bumping, high-fiving, or showing each other small courtesies such as helping others with their chin strips or by putting shoulder pads that popped out back under practice jerseys. Then they ran some more, or they worked on line play, leveraging themselves and trying to push their opponents around. My son is a 70-pound left tackle, one of the oldest kids on the team but one of the lightest (the heaviest kids must play interior line). He doesn't stop blocking until the whistle blows, and he takes great pride in getting leverage on his opponent and moving him around. Most of the time he does fine, but there are times when his man blows by. Such is the life of a first-time tackle football player protecting his quarterback's blind side and helping lead counter plays. He enjoys the teamwork, the structure, the activity.

Last night was the last practice before their first game. The kids had worked hard together for a month, and it was fun to see them receive the game jerseys with their names on it. Many shed their practice jerseys -- old, monochromatic mesh jerseys -- to don their game jerseys. They had worked hard for this small moment, and they cherished it.

Saturday afternoon marks the first game, and my son cannot wait for it to begin. It should be fun to watch.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Why the Mainstream Media Just Doesn't Get It

This story is an outrage. (And it should get a lot more play than it has). As are many stories that Time and Newsweek don't cover because they are lazy or cowards, or both.

It's easy for the ever-so-thin national news magazines, journalism's version of soon-to-be-extinct dinosaurs to cover all sorts of issues related to Israel because a) Israel is small, b) Israel has few defenders, c) Israel is a popular fulcrum for international frustration by nations who use it to deflect attention away from the much more significant horrors they wreak on their own people and d) Israel is a democracy and provides easy access to its people. Compare and contrast Israel, say, to any Arab nation, China, Venezuela, Russia and almost any African nation and you'll find a society that's open about its issues. So, the hypotethical, average journalist with international responsibility elects to cover it and pick on it because access is both easy and safe.

Criticize China and your access is gone. Go to Iran and try to probe, and your access will vanish, as might you. Ditto for Libya, Syria, Oman, Yemen and many other countries on this earth. Go to Cuba and Venezuela and take on Castro and Chavez and you might not come home. Yet, the biased coverage persists, and responsible journalists should be ashamed of themselves, because they're missing stories left and right to cover the easy and familiar and, yes, safe.

This is a sports blog and it will continue to be so. That said, let's analogize this story to the issue of steroids in baseball. The entire national media acted like a bunch of glorified fans -- they had access to the clubhouse, access to the players and the best seats in the house. So, they covered the easy and safe story -- all of the home runs and power hitting. Why? Because to cover the fact that many players were using artificial means to accomplish those feats would have cost them access and perhaps subjected them to physical harm. As for the former, the players would have shut them out and not talked to them. As to the latter, a juiced player whose living becamse in jeopardy because of accusations from a 5'6", 140-pound reporter wouldn't have taken too kindly to the tough talk. Lose the access, lose the effectiveness, lose the job. Lose the physical battle, and, well, no one wants to get punched in the face or worse. So, the supposedly "tough" sports media acted like a bunch of fawning toadies during the McGwire-Sosa inflated stats years, and then they ducked responsibility by saying "what were we supposed to do" or "everyone else was covering it the same way" or "everyone was pretty much doing the stuff, so what was the story?" and other pieces of contrived wisdom belied their intelligence.

What were they supposed to do? They were supposed to do their (bleeping) jobs.

The same is the case with journalists charged with covering international politics and diplomacy. Horrors go on everywhere in the world, including many places that aren't democracies and don't offer access to the media or to the citizenry. Yet, those nations get votes in the United Nations and condemn the one democracy in the crucible in order to take away attention from themselves. Where is the national media on those stories?

At home, on their couches, where it's safe, because they, lest they want to admit it or not, like to do what's easy and convenient, but not what's necessary and important. And, until they do, they'll miss story after story, they'll perpetuate anti-Semitism, among other things, and they'll continue to condone awful stuff because either no one cares about places like Sudan or Venezuela or because it's just too hard to get there and find out the real story. I'll take one other issue head on, my use of the term "anti-Semitism." The way the international media covers Israel perpetuates the term and the plague, because the media coverage of countries and their own internal rights issues is grossly uneven. Because it's uneven, Israel gets a totally unfair shake when compared to the Chinas, Venezuelas, Sudans and Arab nations. That unbalanced coverage, lock, stock and barrel, feeds into anti-Semitism. Because they make it seem like Israel is an empire, an evil empire, the worst empire, especially in comparison.

It's the Jewish New Year, and I'd like to wish my Jewish friends a happy and healthy New Year. And I'd like to take the gloves off regarding the titled coverate of "Newsweek" (which should be called "Opinion Week") and "Time," whose cover story in a recent issue helps define "asinine." Both should be demanded and expected to do better.

So what should the international media be doing about all countries not named Israel that have significant problems, particularly in the human rights arena?

They should do their (bleeping) jobs and, when they do, they'll find out that some places they romanticize are hellholes and that Israel, in comparison, isn't so bad, and by the way, does a pretty good job of things given the threats from neighbors who deny the country's right to exist and from terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

That's what they should do.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Who is the Real Coward?

Surely there are better ways to protest, aren't there?

After they get a taste of it, what will Reverend Jones and his flock burn next?

The Phillies Are in First Place!

The Pirates have taken 2 of 3 from the Braves, who have lost 5 of their last 6. The Phillies were 7 out near the end of July, and they're now in first. All despite having their bullpen (sans Ryan Madson, who did well) look about as sturdy as the buddies from "Hangover" the morning after, all despite having Jayson Werth and Chase Utley make boneheaded throws and the normally reliable (as the "bank", except, well, since 2008 that analogy probably isn't what it once was) Carlos Ruiz suffer a passed ball that caused the game to be tied at 7. But, Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez and Shane Victorino all hit well, and a timely hit from Placido Polanco but the Phillies up 8-7 in the bottom of the eighth. Ryan Madson once again pitched great in relief, and the Phillies are now up 1/2 game on the Braves.

A pretty amazing comeback given all the injuries that the team suffered during the season. Much baseball remains to be played, but the Phillies are the first team in the NL to have reached 80 wins. They will savor the victory at McFadden's, at Chickie's & Pete's, Bennie the Bum's and every tappy and gin joint from Oregon Avenue all the way up to Aramingo and beyond.

Now if only, somehow, some way, I could unload my tickets on StubHub for Wednesday night. Why they haven't moved -- at a reasonable price -- is a mystery.

Philadelphia Eagles: National Reports, Local Reality

I've followed the Eagles' summer pretty closely through my local newspapers. I'm more interested in the personnel moves than watching (meaningless) exhibition games, so pardon me if I didn't hit the remote to watch the Birds' and some anonymous third stringers do battle when the roster-challenged Phillies were hanging in there in the National League pennant chase. The papers gave me a picture that differs from those of national publications who don't live in Southeastern Pennsylvania or who are happy to run computer simulations as to how the Eagles will fare this season. What they say (to a degree) and what I've seen differ. Somewhat markedly.

ESPN the Magazine has the Eagles with one of the four or five best records in the NFC and making the playoffs. Many publications have the team winning 9 games. Give them a game somewhere, and that spells playoffs. Which wouldn't be too bad for a team that only has two players with over 10 years' experience in the league (one of them is the kicker, David Akers, and for those who really are interested, the other is defensive end Juqua Parker) and has 22 new players on its 53-player roster. Which also wouldn't be too bad for a team with a questionable offensive line (especially between the tackles) and an untested quarterback, not to mention a rebuilt defense.

Of course, this is the NFL, so anything can happen. The team can gel quickly (and, remember, what one writer said about the talent-laden Redskins -- they might find out down there that a roster full of 2006 Pro Bowlers might not be able to win today), get hot and have the high-octane offense that it's new group of skill position players suggests that it might have. On the other hand, it doesn't have an abundance of leaders, still has some weaknesses, and just doesn't have enough depth of experience together as a team to go more than 6-10.

Look, I'm an Eagles' fan, but I don't think that this team can make the playoffs, and I think it will be a good season if they can go more than 8-8. The reasons are rather simple, even in a league where you can't count on teams with groups of experienced veterans who've played together for a while (such as the Giants' offensive line) to guarantee that this isn't the year where they're closer to being ready for hip replacements than they are to auditioning for Superman. The Eagles have good runnnig backs, good receivers and an excellent tight end. The biggest question will be whether the offensive line can surge enough to spring Leonard Weaver and more importantly, tailback LaSean McCoy, for big yards, and whether they can provide Kevin Kolb (who should be more accurate than Donovan McNabb) with enough time to get the balll to tight end Brent Celek and wide receivers DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant. If the line comes through, the Eagles should put points on the board. . . and a lot of them. If the line fails, then Kolb gets hurt, Michael Vick will have to run for his life and the defense will be on the field for a long time. As for the defense, it's hard to say whether, for the most part, a year older, it's improved. Rookie Brandon Graham will have to show up big time for that to happen. Much of the hope for the defense is based on the return of middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, who missed all of last season. He's the leader, he's good when he's healthy, and he should fill the big hole that was left last year after he got hurt. The outside linebackers seem to be a mixed bag of journeymen and guys with something to prove, and the secondary should be a strong point.

So why so pessimistic? Well, for starters, I've always thought that a team wins in the trenches by showing how well it can push the other team around. I'm not sure that the Eagles' lines are good enough to do just that, and it's preferable to do just that than to run all sorts of packages that are designed to confuse the other team. NFL teams put so much effort into film study that eventually gimmicks get unmasked for what they are. So, it's better to have some 335-pound run stuffing defensive tackle with enough of a mean streak to sack the quarterback a half a dozen times in the season than to runnning exotic schemes. Sure, teams run those schemes from time to time, but old-fashioned line play seems to win out.

The offensive line is more of a concern, because Jamal Jackson is about an average center, and he just (and I mean just) came back from a knee injury. Left guard Todd Herremans is good when healthy, but that tag line also suggests that as his career advances so does his susceptibility to injury. Right guard Nick Cole is big and supposedly better at guard than center, but that's not necessarily a ringing endorsement. Left tackle Jason Peters doesn't play with the sense of urgency or authority that his huge contract warrants. When he's on, there's none better; when he's off, he has more snap count violations than any other lineman in Eagles' history, and some of us remember that mid-to-late 1960's through the late 1970's, so that's saying something. Right tackle Winston Justice has found a home, but he's not usually mentioned when the conversation turns to the league's best tackles. And make no mistake, it's hard to find yourself in the elite ranks when none of your linemen on either side of the ball makes those conversations.

10-6? 9-7? 8-8? The beauty of the NFL is that no one really knows. The local buzz, as I've read it, seems to suggest that the team really is rebuilding and won't make the playoffs. At least not this year.

Line play on both sides, improved play from the linebackers, and the emergence of Kevin Kolb. If all three of those things happen, there's no telling how far this team can go. But if none of those things happen, there's no justification for a playoff berth.

Definition of a (Costly) Stalemate

This morning's Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Philadelphia cannot get union conventions because two of the major hotels near the Convention Center are nonunion.

What the Inquirer also has reported over time -- and something which I know to be true from personal experience -- is that the Convention Center loses even more business precisely because the union climate within the Convention Center is so restrictive and difficult to deal with that almost all exhibitors would rather go to another city (although there are times, I'm told, where the unions can be very difficult in Boston and New York). Ask anyone who's in charge of setting up an exhibit for his/her company at the Philadelphia Convention Center and they'll tell you endless tales of woe about getting different unions to cooperate, getting people to work on time and not drag out work into time and a half and doubletime situations, and a bunch of rules that seemingly -- to them -- are as much designed to frustrate the exhibitors as they are to guarantee more work for the unions (which, my guess is, that certain exhibitors would tolerate if the work were done well, on time, and without incident or attitude).

So, return to this morning's story. Unions won't come because of nonunion hotels, and conventioneers who aren't unions might not want to come because of the unions. All of which, really, is too bad, because Philadelphia has a lot to offer (including, among other things, the delicious eats that the Reading Terminal Market offers right across the street from the Convention Center, as a well as, of course, about a 10-minute walk to Independence Mall, where the democracy that gave rise to the rights that the unions, the exhibitors and this blogger all are free to exercise all began).

Monday, September 06, 2010

Who Are These Guys? (Hint: They're All Professional Athletes and They Play in a Major Sports League)

You might not have heard of Tanner Purdum, Garrison Sanborn, John Donney, Jake Ingram, Morgan Cox, Clark Harris, Ryan Pontbriand, Greg Warren, Jon Weeks, Justin Snow, Jeremy Cain, Ken Amato, Lonie Paxton, Thomas Gafford, Jon Condo, David Binn, L.P. Ladouceur, Jon Dorenbos, Nick Sundberg, Patrick Mannelly, Don Muhlbach, Brett Goode, Cullen Loeffler, Joe Zelenka, J.J. Jansen, Jayson Kyle, Mike Leach, Chris Massey, Brian Jennings and Clint Gresham.

Chances are that you might never hear of them. They're long snappers in the National Football League. The guys who snap the ball with a spiral between their legs back to punters and to holders on place kicks. You'll only hear about them if they goof up, and typically that would be not if they're team is leading by three touchdowns, but if their failure of execution in a key moment proves to cost their team the game. The most prepared teams seem to be the Steelers and Texans, who go three deep in long snappers on their depth charters. The longest tenured -- the Chargers' David Binns, who's been in the league for 17 years. The most interestingly educated? Probably the Cowboys' L.P. Ladouceur, who majored in earth and planetary science at Berkeley. The one with the most interesting hobby? The Eagles' Jon Dorenbos, who is a professional magician. Some were long snappers in college -- they weren't offensive linemen even there. One -- the Bears' Patrick Mannelly -- has the second-longest tenure with his team of any player in the NFL, about 12 years.

If you read these players' bios, they're scant, they're relatively anonymous, they've moved around a lot, they get touted for helping snap for Pro Bowl punters and kickers or helping them improve their accuracy. Or, making tackles on special teams. I didn't go through the bios carefully, but I'd venture to say that a large majority of them, if not all of them, are white.

You typically read about head coaches, about quarterbacks, skill-position players, "shutdown" corners and hard-hitting linebackers. You don't read about long snappers, and I'd bet that if you met one in an airport (assuming he had no gear), you'd assume he might have played somewhere, sells lumber or steel, and is, well, just a little larger than the average guy. You don't see these types in the other sports' leagues, but the NFL has become so specialized that there's a place for the hard-working guy who, well, for lack of a better explanation, couldn't play any other position in the league.

But before you dismiss this position as frivolous and not worthy of respect, you should read Jeffrey Marx' book The Long Snapper, and then you can decide for yourself just how easy this job really is. They toil with an abject fear of being found out, of their name's becoming a household word in their media market for something they did -- wrong, naturally. They don't get rewarded for success, at least, not the way skill-position players do. But, if they play mistake-free football for a while, they're future is set, and they could have a much longer tenure in the NFL than the average player.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sometimes It Just Takes a While

Both for the rest of a league to figure you out, and for your opponents to wake up.

In this case, there's a perfect storm brewing for the San Diego Padres, who just lost their ninth in a row and are barely hanging onto their lead in the NL West.

My cousin and I tend to text each other during Phillies' games. Sometimes the back-and-forth is fact-based, others it is fraught with exasperation about a) the Phillies' bullpen, b) Brad Lidge in particular, c) the injuries the team suffered, d) Jayson Werth's difficulties with hitting with runners in scoring position, e) the inconsistency of Raul Ibanez and f) why Shane Victorino's on-base percentage is low and why it looks like he's trying to hit home runs at almost every opportunity. During these sometimes humorous and always enlightening and stimulating exchanges, I wasn't so much defending the hometown nine as showing disrespect for the Padres, who, say, 6 weeks ago, had the best record in the National League and were something like an obscene 27 games over .500.

I don't recall the precise retort, but my cousin didn't think that the Padres would fade and thought that they would finish with the best record in the NL. He's a knowledgeable fan with a major "inside baseball" connection, but I just wasn't buying it. I reasoned that while the team had great pitching thus far and Adrian Gonzalez, it had many automatic outs in the lineup and a pitching staff that hadn't dealt with the pressures of being a front-runner the way the staffs of the most recently perennial contenders had (Yankees, Phillies, Dodgers, Red Sox, Rays). I just didn't see that if anyone were to make a run how the Padres would continue at their then-amazing pace. (I acknowledge that I look terrific in saying this right now, but I felt so then, despite the Padres' having two Princeton alumni on their roster -- in injured Chris Young and the outfielder, Will Venable, and that the 11th commandment on this blog is "Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Another Princetonian.").

Lest I digress. . .

It seems that the Padres' chariot is turning into a pumpkin (a reversible phenomenon if skipper Bud Black and the team's leaders -- Gonzalez, David Eckstein -- have anything to do with it) and that the Giants and Rockies (while not exactly the Yankees and the Rays) will try to make it interesting in the last month of the season. Still, losing 9 games in a row while the Braves are in high gear, the Phillies have shown great resilience and the Reds also in high gear doesn't bode well for the Padres. They've enjoyed a very surprising and great season, but they need to close hard and fast to honor all the good work they did up until 9 games ago.

And, they shouldn't get too bummed out. They're still in first.

But, are they like the excellent mid-major college basketball team that can stay with Kentucky for 32 minutes and be up by eight only to lose by 10 or more because the top-10 teams wear them down and show their superiority in the last 8-10 minutes? Or are they a Butler, who showed that it was a top-10 team and not just a mid-major having a good year?

The Padres have four weeks to show the baseball world that they are a playoff team.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Cards Cut Matt Leinart

I saw the trend here, first, in 2005.

The kid had nothing to prove in college, returned for his senior year, took one -- yes, one -- class -- ballroom dancing to remain eligible, and, why? Because he liked the college life.

Look, college life is fun, very much fun, especially when your the big man on campus, only have to take one course and have a lot of people either telling you how wonderful you are or kissing up to you. But what struck me was that Leinart didn't stick around because he was finishing up his pre-med requirements, ancient Greek poetry, or anything academic for which he had a passion. he stuck around, well, for the fun.

Sure, USC football was atop the world then, but, remember, if he was going to choose football as his vocation, he had nothing to prove. Nothing. So what should that have told the average NFL scout? That he was a serious competitor ready for the next level? That he wanted another year at AAA because, well, it beat going against the best competition?

This one wasn't too hard to figure. I wish Leinart well; he's just a kid. But it's probably the case that he has to grow up a bit and figure out -- very quickly -- that time's a-wasting and that somehow the hypothetical, average NFL scout or head coach now has it figured out that a former stockboy at a grocer store who went to a college only folks in his home state had heard of but with the hunger of the entire clientele of that store might be a better risk and project to have a better future than the gold-plated Maserati of a quarterback from an elite program.


Because no one ever swelled the head of the stock boy, who went out there and fought hard to earn it every day.

It's something that every elite recruit at a big-time program should remember. There's always someone who was overlooked who will knock your block off if you give them the chance.

Is the Phillies' Freight Train Getting Into Its Highest Gear of the Season?

Some numbers:

29-12, the team's record since July 21, the best in baseball.

23-14, the team's record in one-run games, the best in baseball.

18, the number of innings where the team has scored 5 or more runs, tied for the best in baseball.

2 #1 starters in the rotation and a third, their #1 starter 2 years ago, who's pitching like one despite a massive lack of run support.

A fully healthy starting lineup for the first time in a long time.

1 game out of first. The Braves have been in first since May.

The team also has a cumulative best record in September over the past 5 years.

In 2008, the team didn't hit well in the summer and had a 4-game series against the Brewers in Philadelphia in mid-September. The Brewers at the time were 4 games up in the wild card on the Phillies, and the Phillies swept them. They went 24-6 at the season's end to win the World Series (this record included post-season games), getting hot at the right time and combining good and timely hitting (although they did hit rather poorly with runners in scoring position against the Rays in the Series) to win the World Series.

Sure, I'm a fan, and yes, I'm looking forward to going to CBP tonight, because it's great to be part of an electric atmosphere, but they are 6-1 in their last 7, had a very good road trip (sweeping the Padres, taking 2 of 3 from the Dodgers and then winning a make-up game in Colorado coming from 7-3 down to go up 12-7 and then to hold on to win 12-11) and just won another 1-0 game. It's been an up-and-down season, to be sure, but it seems that the team is primed for a good part of an "up" swing to finish the season.