Saturday, October 30, 2010

Honoring Barry Bonds

Lost, somewhat, in the NCLS and World Series was the Giants' having Barry Bonds throw out the first pitch and get publicly feted in San Francisco. True, most fans didn't see the heroes of years past play -- Hall of Famers named Marichal, McCovey, Cepeda and, yes, Mays. And, true, Barry is the best that they've had since then. All fans, naturally, remember him. His feats and prickliness were indelible.

So was his baggage, which continues to this day.

Was he worthy of this honor?

I don't think so. Put differently, if he was worthy of this, then most of the comic-book like steroid era heroes should be first-ballot locks for the Hall of Fame. Instead, the best pitcher (Roger Clemens) and hitter (Bonds) continue to be mired in legal problems. The most prodigious home run hitters not named Bonds won't make the Hall of Fame (at least for a while) -- Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. While the latter is trying to rehabilitate himself as the Cards' hitting coach, it remains to be seen whether this relatively humble contribution to the furthering of MLB and the Cards will be seen as a cleanser of past sins. One of the best hitters of that era -- Rafael Palmeiro, also won't make the Hall for a while and seems to be lingering in obscurity, his performance before the Congressional indelible for its insolence and its mendacity.

And Barry Bonds? Honored like a returning hero?

Is that the best the San Francisco franchise could do?


Would the MLBPA Have Agreed to Locker Searches?

Probably not, but so far the NFLPA has been silent on Texans' owner's Bob McNair's ordered search of players' lockers for banned substances. McNair has some reason to be cautious, as his last two first-round picks served four-game suspensions for using PEDs. He's protecting his investment.

Would the MLBPA, the best organized and run union in the world, have agreed to that, though? Even after the bloody nose they took in the court of public opinion regarding baseball players' use of PEDs, thus causing significant hitting inflation over the course of the past 15 seasons, at least up until 2 seasons ago?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Memo from the World Series: The Best Way to Win a World Championship is. . .

To just go out there and take it.

Which is precisely what the San Francisco Giants are doing, showing a can-do attitude and a spirit that says, "we're going all the way." They showed that spirit in the NLDS and the NLCS, and they've built upon that momentum to give themselves a huge advantage in the World Series. They were 9-41 with runners in scoring position against the Phillies in the NLCS, and they were 9-17 with runners in scoring position last night.

And their pitching is tremendous. The Braves of some 60+ years ago had a slogan, "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain." The Giants of 2010 could have a similar slogan -- "Lincecum and Cain and then pray for rain," but they can up the ante big-time on those Braves' teams, because it's Lincecum and Cain and then more of the same -- Sanchez and Bumgardner, to be exact. Good pitching, indeed, is trumping good hitting the way scissors beats paper.


Giants' skipper Bruce Bochy remains the "wizard del tutto wizards" by mixing and matching hitters and position players, and the Giants' pitching is second to none. The Giants' hurlers have seized the moment, as have the Giants' hitters.

Just by going out there and taking it.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Concussions: NFL Players Cannot Have Their Cake and Eat It Too -- Are the League and the Sport En Route to Becoming Obsolete?

NFL players have blanched at current league directives on head-to-head hits. A recent article in Sports Illustrated contains all of the old gladiator cliches, some macho, others misogynistic, but the bottom line from many players is that it's tackle football, it's a collision sport, people like the violence, it's a tough game, this is what sells tickets, etc. In the most recent edition of that magazine, current players expressed no concern about concussions and their lifelong effects.

Which is interesting, because all they need to do is visit with alumni of the NFL and see prima facie evidence of the long-term effects of headbanging (and spine-knocking, for that matter). The pronounced effects are there, so much so that former players like Mike Ditka have lobbied endlessly for increased medical and pension benefits for retirees, who, if they don't have trouble walking, have trouble thinking and functioning -- or at least many of them.

And why is that? Because of all of the hits to the head that the current players seemingly pooh-pooh (if for no other reason then a) they're defending their livelihood or b) they're in denial, as they don't want to admit that a life's worth of head-banging activity couldn't possibly cause long-term damage, because that, of course, only happens to someone else). So, on the one hand, you have the current players who decry a change in the enforcement of the rules and, on the other hand, a whole host of data (empirical evidence) and retirees (anectdotal evidence) that suggests that the short-term reforms could help alleviate the long-term problems that the retirees have. That said, the NFL's reforms cannot undo the lifetime of hits to the head that players incurred leading up to their NFL careers.

So, that brings us back full circle. Permit hits to the head (with some fines) and create more long-term damage. Don't permit them, and dilute the attractive violence of the game and fundamentally change the game. Permit them, and create more significant longer-term damage that could and should cost the league more money in pension and healthcare benefits and create a big class of former players whose average mortality rate is worse than the national average and whose future mental health is in jeopardy. (Note: that could happen, anyway, because of a lifetime's worth of hits that each player has suffered). Prohibit them, and reduce, perhaps, the amount of future, quality-of-life threatening illnesses of retired players.

This is a very serious problem. Players are faster and bigger. Training methods are more sophisticated. Research is more detailed about the long-term effects of the game. Those who run it had better take a long, hard look at the rules, equipment and training methods before -- in a hurry -- football becomes, yes, obsolete. I'm reading a book called The Innovator's Dilemma, which focuses on companies that made bad decisions that caused them to become irrelevant at a time when they were on top (many of them were in the high tech industry). That's an interesting premise, isn't it?

Remember, decades ago boxing and horse racing were at the top of spectator sports (as were the major sports). Boxing got corrupted, and legalized gambling made the attraction of horse racing -- which, at the time, had the only form of legalized gambling other than casinos in Las Vegas -- much less. Football is at the top of the sports business -- the most attractive draw out there. But if the Lords of Football don't address this problem quickly -- the spectre of crippled, demented former players could loom so largely that the attractiveness of the game could diminish rapidly. If obsolescence and irrelevance could hit mighty companies with people with large brains running them, it could also hit football.

Perhaps more quickly than you think.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Whatever Happened to King Kong Bundy?

I was new to the workforce, having graduated from graduate school. I returned to my hometown. Many friends had moved away, and, yes, it was a grueling job and I didn't have that much free time. So I occasionally peaked in at professional wrestling, if only because it was at the peak of its comic book-like heroics. My favorite tag team consisted of King Kong Bundy and Big John Studd, one of my favorites was Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, and there were the likes of Hulk Hogan, Brett "The Hitman" Hart, the manager Jimmy "The Weasel" Hart, Rowdy Roddy Piper, the British Bulldogs, George "The Animal" Steele, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, Chief Jay Strongbow, Terrible Terry Funk, Andre the Giant and many others.

Bundy was about 6'6", weighed about 450 pounds, was bald as a cue ball, and he and Studd, well, they were better than any defensive tackles the Philadelphia Eagles had (I exaggerate, because pretty quickly thereafter the Birds did have Jerome Brown and Mike Golic!). He was huge.

So, where are you, King Kong Bundy, and what are you up to?

Monday, October 25, 2010

If You Think that the Phillies Are Getting Old, Then The "Core Four" Might Be Ready for the Seniors Tour

Read here (in an article about, among other things, the Yankees' firing of their pitching coach and desire to re-sign manager Joe Girardi) about the aging Yankees. Are they getting old fast? If their core loses effectiveness, how will they establish a new core? How much will it take to re-sign Derek Jeter? Will they have to give him a 4-year deal at $15 million per (when he's worth perhaps a 2-year deal at $10 million per plus a mutual option for another $10 million, taking him to when he's 39 years old), but he's Derek Jeter, one of the best Yankees ever, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, en route to 3,000 hits, an icon, so the bet here is 4 years at $15 million per and the reason he gets it, among other things, is that the $15 million is tip money to the Yankees and Four Seasons-like money to everyone else.

How do you re-fortify? You have a terrific team, but you always need to tweak, tinker, renovate, innovate. Will that renovation mean a major addition, costing 5 years and $100 million for Cliff Lee? Or will the acquistions be more modest?

Let's fire up the hot stove!

Sports Line of the Day, from Dallas

I e-mailed a friend congratulating him on the Rangers' ALCS championship.

His gracious response (including nice words about "my" Phillies) included the following: "Who in Dallas would have thought that on October 25 the Rangers would still be playing and the Cowboys would be out of it?" Who in the world, for that matter?

There are said to be two sports in Texas -- football and spring football.

The Texas Rangers have made a very compelling argument for a third (with all due respect to a troika of NBA teams with a rich history).

Bengie Molina to Get a World Series Ring for Sure!

Molina is the Rangers' starting catcher.

He spent the first 3 1/2 months of the season with the Giants, before they traded him to make room for Buster Posey.

I suppose he wins either way, although. . . I think it would be bittersweet for him to get the ring from the Giants given that they would have defeated his current team to earn the ring.

Not such a bad situation to be in, but I do wonder how guys feel who get rings when they've been traded, been released or been left off the post-season roster.

A ring's a ring, I suppose, but there must be less than a full feeling if you're not on the active roster in the World Series and you weren't hurt or a September call-up.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Princeton Homecoming: Harvard 45 Princeton 28

My son and I attended Princeton's homecoming game against Harvard, and while the Tigers fought valiantly, they fell to their visitors from Massachusetts, 45-28.

The game saw 6 interceptions, some good kick returns, lots of offense, a botched snap on a punt that led to a Crimson score and great running by Harvard. While Princeton's fans and coaches (not particularly in that order) had to be encouraged with the offense, the defense left a lot to be desired and needs improvement. The Crimson ran with impunity, pushed the Tigers all over the field and came away with a convincing victory.

What's more compelling about Ivy League football, though, is the crowd, all 10,000 of them, so here are some observations:

1. Lots of sportcoats seen in the crowd. Would like to schedule a rugby match between the Princeton faithful and the members of the electricians' union in Philadelphia who tailgate on asphalt in South Philadelphia parking lots before an Eagles' game.

2. Lots of pants in colors not found in nature. A woman sat near us wearing mustard-colored corduroys. Sure, it was in the mid-50's mid-morning, but in the sun in the end zone mid-afternoon, it was plum hot out there. Where do these people come from? They don't really live near me, at least I don't think.

3. I saw an undergrad dressed as a tigress at an eating club before the game. Tall, in a skintight black outfit, with a tiger's tale attached. Didn't see how this was all too dignified for one of the most standard-setting universities in the world, unless a) she had lost a bet or b) she was pledging a sorority. I suppose that type of look makes the wearer memorable -- in someone's eyes, at least.

4. The band shows are confounding, because I believe that the band leaders of both schools write their shows not for the fans, but for each other. The humor can get lost on the audience unless they know the titles of the songs that are being played following the narrator's witty banter about the topic of the day. Texas (in terms of precision) and Florida A&M (in terms of music and precision), well, they are not.

5. During the national anthem, we could hear someone trying to sing The Star Spangled Banner in opera-like fashion from a few sections over. That beat the well turned out guy behind me with his trophy wife, as the guy tried to show off by singing the lyrics only to sing them out of order. Hard to tell if he imbibed too much before the game, but he was both off-key and off-lyrics.

6. I heard two fifty somethings discussing a business opportunity a few rows before me, and I heard the term "exit strategy" at least a few times. At Lincoln Financial Field, "exit strategy" means how you can escape the friendly confines expeditiously enough to avoid traffic jams after the game. In Princeton Stadium, it means how you, as a venture capitalist, can maximize the return on your investment. Which is better? The South Philly version or the Central New Jersey version?

7. Funny conversation between two friends of mine at the game, both alums, although neither knew each other. Call one Tad, who came from out-of-town to show his daughter the campus, as she's a high-school junior considering colleges. Tad traveled from far away, and he enjoyed the entire weekend, bonded with his daughter and wonders what her chances are. Call the other Mike, who came from out-of-town to catch part of the game and then attend to other business. Tad was very earnest in his daughter's interest in Princeton and most hopeful that she'll have a shot to get in. Mike, whose sense of humor can be very wry and direct, recalled a session he went to on campus when his teenaged kids were a lot younger. Said Mike, "So, we went to this session held for alumni on the admissions process, and the Dean of Admissions basically said to us, 'Find another school.'" Poor Tad, as that's not what he needed to hear on this beautiful weekend. But Mike might have been doing him a favor by giving Tad a reality check -- as the percentage of kids offered admission keeps shrinking.

8. It's surprising how many mental errors are made on a football field allegedly populated by members of MENSA.

It was a very enjoyable day. Game, then a walk to Thomas Sweet's for an ice-cream blend-in, then an enjoyable drive through Lawrenceville home.

In stark contrast to my beloved Phillies, I really didn't care one way or the other whether my team won or lost. The food was good, the company was better, and the football provided a convenient vehicle for conversation with good friends from out-of-town for an afternoon.

Of course, if the team were 6-0 and in the hunt for a title, the atmosphere would have been different. But, in some ways, I'm thankful that it wasn't, as it's nice to go and relax without hanging on every pitch, every shot, every play. That's probably not what the participants would like to hear, but that's the way it was for me yesterday.

Go Tigers!

Phillies-Giants, Game 6 -- And My Lost Opportunity

Hats off to the San Francisco Giants, who beat the "team to beat" to gain a chance to win their first World Series since 1954 (when they were in New York). The Giants have had a few chance since that time, the most recent opportunity being a loss in Game 7 to the Angels about a decade ago. While the Giants don't have a huge payroll or many marquis names among their position players, they kept on finding the right combination of pitching and hitting to beat the favored Phillies.

Last night, Phillies' fans thought that their team had the edge because Giants' lefty Jonathan Sanchez can have a tendency to be wild (he led the Majors among starting pitchers by walking 96 batters this year) and because they were in their home park. And, true to the script, the Phillies got to Sanchez early, knocking him out of the box after 2+ innings. The Phillies took a 2-0 lead, and Phillies' fans felt good about taking the NLCS to a seventh game. While Phillies' starter Roy Oswalt didn't have his best stuff -- he couldn't locate his curve and at times had trouble locating his fastball -- he gave them 6 solid innings while yielding only 2 earned runs after relieving a few nights ago in San Francisco. So, you'd figure that the combination of Oswalt's pitching and Sanchez's pitching would have been enough for a win.

Sadly for the Phillies, it wasn't. The Giants' bullpen roared to the occasion, bending intermittently but not breaking, and the Phillies continued their drought with men on base. You just can't keep on squander chances -- men on first and second with no outs a few times and the bases loaded once -- and win against your opponent in a championship series. But that's precisely what happened -- the team couldn't get the big hit, and, as a result, they are going home before they thought they would once the playoffs began.

Here are a few other thoughts:

1. H20 Wasn't All That It Was Cracked Up To Be. There's not much more to say on this point except to say that Roy Halladay didn't dominate (his performance in Game 5 was commendable after he tweaked his groin muscle), and neither did Cole Hamels (who struggled in Game 3, throwing more than 4 pitches per at-bat to almost half of the Giants' hitters).

2. It Was a Team Effort. While Ryan Howard will be singled out for not knocking in a run the entire post-season and for leaving 4 men on base in Game 6, you cannot pin the frustrations of the post-season entirely on him. The entire team struggled hitting with runners in scoring position. Some pitchers pitched better than others. But at the end of the day, the Phillies had their chance, and they couldn't knock in runs. Strand that many runners, and you're going home.

3. Ryan Madson Is Absolved. Yes, he pulled a silly stunt early in the season when he kicked a chair, broke his toe, and missed 2 months, but he pitched great after he returned and pitched well in the post-season. Yes, he gave up the NLCS-winning home run to Juan Uribe, but he was one of the mainstays who got the Phillies to the post-season, and relievers do give up hits and home runs. The timing, of course, was bad, but Madson is one of the best set-up men in the game and will continue to be.

4. The Oomph Seemed to be Missing from the Phillies. If you watch a video of the playoff run in 2008 and contrast it to the body language in the dugout this post-season, something was missing from the Phillies. Was it relaxation? Happiness? Confidence? Enjoyment? Hard to tell, but the team didn't show the oomph it did in 2008. That lack of oomph, at times, frustrated Phillies' fans. We all were waiting for someone to step it up and light up the entire team, but no one did. We thought it might have been Jimmy Rollins' steals in Game 5, but that didn't do it. And then few hit with men on base. It seemed like the Phillies were playing more to protect a reputation than to build upon one, and that's a lot of pressure to put upon yourself. There was a tightness to the Phillies that hadn't been present in 2008 or 2009, and no one stepped up to relieve the team of the burden they placed upon themselves.

In retrospect, Roy Halladay's no-hitter in Game 1 of the NLDS might have been a bad thing for the Phillies. The pundits had made them the favorites to win the World Series, and, as we know, many who go in as favorites go out as teams defeated along the way. Halladay's win might have given them a sense that the post-season would be easy, that the hitters could ride the wave of the "H2O" hype that, quite frankly, was a bit too preemptively celebratory. If you parse through the victory over the Reds in the NLDS, as a Phillies' fan you would have been more relieved than elated. True, the pitchers showed up big, but the hitters didn't hit, and the Reds helped defeat themselves more than you beat them (although a similar observations could be made about this year's Braves team). Did the hitters think that the wave of strong pitching would continue?

5. Who Does a Phillies' Fan Root For -- the Giants or the Rangers? Some would say that you root for the team that beat you so that it validates what a good team you lost to. For me, it's a choice between the story of redemption of the Rangers' skipper Ron Washington and centerfielder Josh Hamilton combined with the magic of Cliff Lee, versus the wizardry of skipper Bruce Bochy, the precociousness of catcher Buster Postey, the transcendance of a young pitching staff and the "scrap heap" aspects of the Giants' everyday lineup. There are compelling story lines, even if the executives at FOX Sports were probably rooting very hard for an East Coast presence in the World Series.

Both teams present sad ironies for the Phillies. If Cliff Lee excels, then Phillies' fans will feel even sadder (even if happy for Lee) because the team opted to trade Lee after acquiring Roy Halladay instead of coupling the two with Cole Hamels for what could have been one of the most devastating starting rotations in a few generations in the National League. Then again, most Phillies' fans would concede that if there is any non-Phillie worthy of a World Series championship ring, it's Cliff Lee. On the other hand, if the Giants win, then Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand would get World Series championship rings. Somehow, both are well-liked as Phillies alums by the Philadelphia faithful, although I would contend that Rowand is (much more) respected because of his grit and the memorable play when he ran into the center field fence to catch a ball, breaking his nose in the process. Burrell, on the other hand, went out with grace, but to many was an enigma who didn't make the most of his potential coming out of the University of Miami. Yes, he put up some good numbers, but he had significant holes in his game and was streaky to an extreme during his last two years in Philadelphia.

And, yet, who would have thought that Pat Burrell would be in a better position to earn his second World Series ring -- before Rollins, before Utley, before Howard? And who would have thought that he would have done so after failing in Tampa and getting released at mid-season? And, finally, who would have thought that he'd be more valuable to his team than Raul Ibanez is to the Phillies (and perhaps the Phillies could have used another righty bat to complement Jayson Werth and counterbalance Utley and Howard)?

Somehow, though, the former seems more agreeable than the latter. I want to see Cliff Lee win his first World Series championship ring. I am not jazzed about seeing Pat Burrell get one at the expense of his former teammates.

6. We Had Tickets to Game 7. I had explained that Game 7's are magical, that you never know who might step up, who might make an appearance coming out of the bullpen. And we had tickets, too, including one for me in the second row behind home plate should a Game 7 happen (a friend called at around 4:45 on the day of Game 6 asking me to join him for Game 7). The possibilities of a Game 7 intrigued us very much -- even if it were to be on a school night. Rooting for your favorite team knocks out a principle every now and then -- because Game 7's don't come around that often and, well, you just need to be there. You have to be there. Alas, though, it wasn't meant to be, with the result that we'll all get more sleep tonight -- even though we would have preferred not to.

7. Consoling a 10-year Old Boy is Hard. My son cried after the game, frustrated with the Phillies' futility with runners in scoring position and the inability to make timely plays or get timely hits to win. His father, after Ryan Howard took the called third strike to end the game, got over the loss pretty quickly. The son couldn't understand why his favored Phillies struggled or why Howard didn't swing at a close pitch with the game on the line. The father reasoned that the Giants outplayed and outmanaged the Phillies and deserved to win, credited the Giants and called it a night, masking his disappointment that after such a heroic regular season the Phillies couldn't honor it better with better hitting, pitching, fielding (yes, fielding, which was bad at times) and managing. Perhaps the son's expression of grief is better -- he got it out of his system. After all, being a fan is mostly about emotions, about connecting with a team, having a hobby, having a release -- and when that connection falters, it hurts. You don't wake up with the bounce in your step that your team did well or that your team has a chance to do better. No, that bounce is now gone for the winter, gone while two other teams will vie for a prize that you thought your team would have fought for. Something is missing, and that's bothersome, no, it hurts. Yes, you're thankful for the Series win in '08 and Series appearance in '09, and, yes, you realize that people in Kansas City and Pittsburgh have had nothing to cheer about for the longest of intervals, but that fact doesn't offer much consolation, because you don't live there and those teams are not yours. It's just that your favorites -- the very professionnal Utley, the first baseman of the mythical strength, Howard, the future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Halladay, the catalyst Rollins and the soul, Ruiz -- all let you down.

And that's just not supposed to happen.

Not to a ten year-old boy.

Not to a true believer.

8. Quo Vadis? It's hard to say at this point, but pretty soon the writers who cover the Phillies will dissect the team and the season, talk about who's under contract, who's eligible for arbitration, whether the Phillies will sign Jayson Werth or offer an extension to Jimmy Rollins, how they'll rebuild the bullpen and how they will get younger. And they'll do so in great detail. (The one thing I'll wonder about now is whether Werth will simply take the best contract from the highest bidder -- even if it means going to an also-ran -- or whether he'll focus on teams who have a better chance of winning sooner than later. I read in ESPN the Magazine that Detroit is the favorite for Werth, but last time I checked, I didn't get a sense that the Tigers are all that close to contending. I would think that the Dodgers, Padres, Angels, White Sox, Red Sox, Yankees and Rays would all be better fits for Werth).

And, perhaps, the biggest question of all is how much further can this nucleus of players go? They've enjoyed much success -- NLDS in 2007, World Champions in 2008, World Series in 2009, NLCS in 2010 -- but the position players average more than 30 years of age (and I'd bet closer to 31.5). 6 of the position players -- save Werth and the offensively challenged Raul Ibanez -- missed significant time to injuries this season. Was that a fluke, or is it a signal that as players age, if they have a tendency to get injured they'll continue to have that tendency and that age dictates they'll get injured more? That's a concern that the front office will need to think about in the off-season.

An off-season that, after the ups and downs of the regular season, came much too quickly and ended with an effort that belied the grit and determination the squad showed all year, and especially after mid-July.

Sure, if you had said to me in mid-July "hey, you're team will make the NLCS" -- after all the injuries -- I would have said, "wow, really? I'll take it." But somehow, some way, it just wasn't enough.

Not for the fans, and, I'm sure, not for the team, either.

It will be a long off-season.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

NBA Outlook is Dismal

Read here and see what I mean.

Either there are too many teams or the players are making too much money or there is a little bit of both. The owners are gearing up for a lockout for next season or a complete shutdown of the entire season. The players' union is telling its players to save their pennies (and hundreds of thousands of dollars) so that they can ride out the armageddon that the next collective bargaining agreement could be.

Commissioner David Stern hasn't been fully clear on the league's strategy. At the same time he boasts of 600,000 basketball hoops going up in China, he laments the current economic structure of the league. And, no, he's not "outsourcing" NBA jobs to China; he wants demand for basketball to grow so much as to eclipse the popularity of soccer as the world's favorite sport. It's an interesting thought -- to expand all over the world -- but that's hard to do when your core is weak.

So, what's the strategy? Have a core which is the NBA and all sorts of hubs, or have the core be not the entire NBA (including players and teams) but the NBA's front office, which then would have many hubs, including the NBA USA. The latter seems to make more sense and seems to be where the NBA is going, or, where it should be going. The owners might see more revenue in 20 years from NBA's all over the world than from residuals from leagues all over the world and the NBA in the USA. Consider the huge populations in India and China, not to mention Russia and Brazil, and you'll understand why.

But that strategy will require a pivot, because right now the NBA is almost totally the U.S. market and the league that plays in the U.S. And those players who play in the U.S. create the worldwide demand for merchandise, so while the NBA fathers might want a bigger international footprint, their golden goose is the image that's projected with guys named Bryant, James, Nash, Stoudemire, Paul, Durrant, Pierce, Noah, Howard, Duncan and the like. Wreck the uneasy relationship between ownership and players and you'll damage your brand and create a credibility problem for any international strategy. (Apparently the relationship between the players and owners is so toxic that the league has advised vendors about potential demand for merchandise for next season -- and that outlook is dreary).

If you're an NBA fan, you should be very concerned. Your league's current economic model isn't sustainable.

Or so it seems.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Phillies-Giants, Game 5

What a weird night in gloomy SF weather, 62 degrees, 15 mph winds, drizzle, rain. . . Eric Karros of Fox was very sure that Tim Lincecum of the Giants would dominate, while Phillies' alum and Fox commentator Mitch Williams was equally sure that the series (and not just the Phillies) would be returning to Philadelphia.

The umps continued to make Rookie League mistakes, there was a fair bunt that wasn't, a botched throw, an otherwise outstanding pitcher who has trouble holding runners, a star pitcher pitching through both a tweaked groin and a tweaked strike zone (the former was his alone to bear, the latter a burden for both teams' hurlers), some at-their-prime stars stepping up, a few steals here, a key home run hit a long way late, and a bullpen that honored its team's regular season by being, well, lights out.

4-2, Phillies, thanks to, among others, a goofball call by the plate ump, a gritty effort by the tweaked Roy Halladay, some key hitting by previously out-of-sync Phillies, great pitching by Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge to end the game, and voila, the series is now 3-2, Giants, heading back to Citizens Bank Park for Game 6 on Saturday night. (I have tickets to Game 7 and hope to use them).

Still, you'd rather be the Giants, up 3 games to 2, as the odds favor that your team will go to the World Series while the Phillies will go hunting, golfing, racing alternative terrain vehicles or get some sun in the Bahamas, well, at least before your team will. Game 6 will feature Roy Oswalt gainst Jonathan Sanchez, and Game 7, if there is one, will be a rematch of Game 3, where Matt Cain was awesome and outpitched Cole Hamels.

What will happen? Well, the Phillies looked dead after Game 4 and dead at the beginning of Game 5, when the Giants took a 1-0 lead. But, they roared back, and now the pressure is on the Phillies to win three in a row and the Giants not to let the series get to Game 7, where anything can happen.

Good night for the Phillies last night, as they honored their regular-season efforts in a series where, quite frankly, they had been a different team from the one that led the Majors in regular-season victories, with 97. All the pieces came together, and they looked, well, like the Phillies of September, and not the Phillies, heretofore, of mid-October.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thoughts on the Phillies-Giants: That's Why They Play the Games

Many observations, as follows:

1. The Giants' starting pitching is that good. Phillies' fans hoped last season that the Giants wouldn't make the playoffs because no one wanted to face Lincecum, Cain and Company. Sure, the Phillies are slumping, but some pretty good pitchers are making them miss.

2. Buster Posey has a very bright future (and more upside by far than any Phillies' position player, as most of them are older than 30). It's rare when such a dynamic and influential rookie comes along, but Posey is tremendous.

3. Post-season series are full of the Bucky Dents of the world, and this year's version is Cody Ross (who killed the Phillies when he was with the Marlins).

4. How sweet must the revenge be for Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand? Three years ago, the Phillies had four outfielders, and it was obvious that the gritty Rowand would command (way) too much on the free-agent market (he got 5 years at $12 million per), so the Phillies let him go to make room for (a cheaper and faster) Shane Victorino. Burrell slumped pretty badly during large portions of the 2007 and 2008 season, and despite fans' frustrations drew praise for the way he handled himself when he knew he wouldn't return. Tampa Bay signed him to a 2-year, $16 million deal (before the recession of '08 hit, he thought he'd get more), but he wasn't fully healthy in Tampa and struggled mightily. Tampa Bay put him on the scrap heap at mid-season, and some thought he might be done. Instead, he sucked it up, went to AAA Fresno to show the Giants he still could play the outfield, and he's contributed mightily to the Giants' cause. And, to top it off, he's contributed more than the older player the Phillies replaced him with, Raul Ibanez.

5. Phillies' fans love Charlie Manuel, but last night he managed more like the guy who couldn't get the team to the World Series in the 1970's (Danny Ozark) than the Charlie Manuel of most recent memory. Why? For a few reasons. First, he elected to start Joe Blanton, who hadn't pitched in almost 3 weeks, instead of Roy Halladay on three days' rest. So what does Blanton do? He throws two wild pitches in the first inning to set up the Giants' first run when he only threw two wild pitches all season (in 175 2/3 innings). Then, he cannot go five innings, exposing the Phillies' bullpen. Compounding that issue was the fact that he pitched a fair-to-middling reliever -- Chad Durbin -- much more than a reliever who had a very good season -- Jose Contreras. Durbin was awful, and that decision cost the Phillies. Then, Manuel opted to warm up and use Roy Oswalt, which had many Phillies' fans livid, if for no other reason than if this were such an important game to go to such a big guy like Oswalt in relief on very short rest, why didn't Manuel start Halladay on short rest to begin with? Atop that, third-base coach Sam Perlozzo almost killed a rally by sending Carlos Ruiz on a not long enough single to center (indicating that the 3B coach had no faith that the next hitter, Chase Utley, would get on base -- which Utley did). Okay, so Manuel isn't Perlozzo, but he could have bunted a struggling Jimmy Rollins in the sixth with no outs and Jayson Werth on second to advance Werth, and he failed to do so. In contrast, Giants' skipper Bruce Bochy continues to manage like Merlin, moving players around, double-switching, substituting, as though he has an old car trying to win one more race and he'll borrow parts and fuel to get the car around the track one more time. Charlie is an excellent manager, but Bochy is outpointing him in this series.

6. If you had told me that the oft-injured, battered Phillies team of July would a) have the best record in baseball and b) get to the NLCS, I would have asked for some of what you were on and taken a large dose, and, yes, settled for that. That's true, and I think that most Phillies' fans would agree. That said, the way the Phillies have played dishonors the noble efforts of the late summer and September. They are pressing, lurching and struggling. True, the Giants don't want to go back to Philadelphia for a sixth game, but you'd rather be the Giants right now than the Phillies.

7. Do injured players continued to get injured once they've shown that they have had a tendency to get injured, and, do they get more injured as they age? If so, the Phillies will have some real (future) concerns with their lineup, as everyone is 30 or older, and many have been hurt for significant periods of time (Utley, Rollins, Victorino) in more than one season. Put differently, the Phillies will not be able to count on this lineup's staying healthy for 140+ games a season. But that's next year's problem. Tonight's is figuring out a way to beat Tim Lincecum. If they can hit Lincecum around a bit, then perhaps they'll shatter the Giants' well-developed and rightfully confident outer shell, and then anything can happen in Philadelphia. But right now the favorites look tired and the underdogs look like the favorites, and, yes, that's why they play the games.

Kudos to the Giants for not listening to the pundits and battling each game like there's no tomorrow. Some Phillies' fans are questioning whether the team got "dumb, fat and happy" after the success of the past four regular seasons, and I don't think that's the case. It's a team that probably peaked too early, a team that has gaps in the ways it hits, a team whose catalysts are not at full strength, and a team with gaps in its bullpen. That's the thing with some thoroughbreds -- they need the right track with the right conditions to win. In contrast, the Giants seem to be able to win anywhere -- with many fewer thoroughbreds in their stable.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Off With Their Heads?

Yesterday, Falcons' defensive back Dunta Robinson put a vicious hit on the Eagles' WR DeSean Jackson that left Jackson unconscious for 7 minutes and asking why he was being walked off the field after the head. Robinson's hit was a "head to head" hit, and it drew a flag. Last night, Rodney Harrison, the one-time Patriot great, said that every year he put away $50,000 to pay in fines for hits like that. He offered that suspensions would be a better deterrent than just fines, because a suspension would take the player off the field and take a paycheck away from the player.

That's a good thought, and the NFL has to do something to stop this behavior before a combination of

a) more and more data about former players with brain injuries surfaces;
b) more and more former players are unable to support themselves or take care of themselves properly because their benefits aren't good enough and their post-football earning power isn't strong enough; and
c) someone gets killed out there;

compels Congress to legislate. Students of history will recall that President Teddy Roosevelt reformed the game of football at the turn of the 20th century when there were fatalities that were caused by some practices that continue to be outlawed today (such as forward motion). Do the NFL, the lords of college football and the kings of high school football want that? Should the parents want that? Should the public demand it, because the "after" picture of "Glory Days" is quite ugly?

So here are a few suggestions:

1. The team of a player who makes a hit like the one Robinson made gets hit with a 15-yard penalty. Okay, that's obvious.
2. Automatic ejection for the player.
3. Automatic suspension for the amount of games the other player misses, with a minimum suspension (with loss of pay) of two games.
4. A $50,000 fine.
5. And you can figure out the rest for repeat offenders. Out for the year?

Critics of this criticism will argue that reformers will ruin the game and turn it into 2-hand touch. Hardly. Look, the evidence seems to be compelling about all sorts of awful injuries players suffer that cripple them for life. Something needs to be done about hits like these -- before someone gets paralyzed or killed, before we have too many former players who suffer mental illness before 50, and before someone does it for professional football.

Remember, we all love players who use their heads.


Not literally.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Phillies' Fans Shouldn't Despair

Phillies' fans shouldn't despair despite last night's loss in Game 1 of the NLCS -- for a variety of reasons.

1. Give the Giants credit, a lot of credit, as they fought their way through the traffic jam that was the NL West late in the season, kept their cool, and kept finding a way to make things happen, even despite a position-player lineup more laden with cast-offs than built with All-Stars and with having the guy who was their best position player at the season's outset -- Pablo Sandoval -- sitting on the bench. Give GM Brian Sabean and Manager Bruce Bochy a ton of credit for being able to put together lineups despite not having the marquis players that the three other teams in the post-season have. And that makes the Giants much more dangerous and very formidable -- these guys have something to prove, and they've gotten off to a good start proving it.

2. Cody Ross kills the Phillies. Joe Buck of FOX told the story last night that the Marlins had put Ross on waivers late in the season, and the Giants only picked Ross up to prevent the Padres, who at the time had a better record than the Giants and, therefore, came after them in the waiver selection process, from picking him up because they were desperately looking for hitting. The Giants really didn't intend to play Ross much, but he grew on them, and last night he seized the bright lights on the big stage with two home runs. I cannot recall specifics, but Ross was a tough out at worst and a very good hitter at best for the Marlins when they played the Phillies. This is what the post-season is all about -- guys like Ross who step up and grab the headlines when the bright lights are focused on anyone but the likes of him at the time the game starts.

3. As an interesting aside, is it a safe bet to say that last night's game marked the only time in the history of baseball that the #8 hitters in each lineup homered in their first at-bats? (Carlos Ruiz went yard for the Phillies in his first time up to tie the game at 1).

4. Series aren't made or broken in 1 game. Now, it may be the case that the Yankees take three straight from the Rangers in the ALCS, but you might have thought that the Rangers were damaged beyond repair after blowing a 5-run lead in Game 1, only to come back and take Game 2 7-2. The Phillies' defeat was far less devastating than that, and they're at home tonight before a friendly crowd.

5. Phillies' fans (at least some of them) will remember the 1983 World Series, when they took Game 1 from the Orioles and got all giddy that the Orioles (with their great pitching) might not have been all that they were cracked up to be and that the Wheeze Kids (who featured future Hall of Famers Joe Morgan and Tony Perez at the very end of their careers and also Pete Rose, who was close to the end) might have another championship in them for the Schmidt-Carlton era Phillies. Well, the giddiness turned into despair about a week later, when the Orioles won four straight and the World Series. Moral of the story: take one game at a time. Second moral of the story: it's not time to get anxious until it's really time to get anxious. Now, I'm sure that the pundits on TV will bandy about stats that suddenly make the winner of Game 1 the favorite to win the series, and the Phillies will have to deal with all of that. It's the job of both managers to keep their teams level throughout the series.

6. For what's it's worth, the home plate up, Darryl Cousins, had a tiny strike zone last night for both pitchers. If you're a starting pitcher, it's probably not comforting to have as the home plate ump in one of the biggest games of your career wearing glasses (just kidding). All that said, he pinched both pitchers, and didn't make a difference in the game (even if some Phils' fans will argue mightily that he missed a called third on a Giants' hitter that would have prevented a 2-run rally in the middle of the game that enabled the Giants to score their third and fourth runs). Bottom line: Cousins missed (or didn't miss) an equal number of calls for both teams last night, and that's baseball, so hitters and pitchers alike just have to deal with it.

7. Bruch Bochy made a great call in that inning by pinch-hitting Nate Schierholz for Pat Burrell (who must have done cartwheels over his performance against his old team last night). Schierholz scored from second on a hit to center; had Burrell been the runner, the third-base coach would have stopped him at third.

Hats off to the Giants, who came into an energized ballpark full of loud fans and took care of business in Game 1. It's now up to the Phillies to turn this back into a series that people will remember for it's drama and back-and-forth, and not for its failure to score enough runs despite being the (heavy) favorites.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Welcome to Fans from "Baghdad by the Bay"

Okay, so Herb Caen I am not, but I lived in Northern California for three years, during which time a) an earthquake leveled Coalinga, California, b) the Giants were in the NL West race during the last week of the season, only (i) to host less than 20,000 fans a night when the Astros (who would go on to win the division) came to town and (ii) to have Joe Morgan hit a home run against the Dodgers on the last day of the season to knock their archrivals out, c) "the play" in the Big Game between Cal and Stanford (this description is for those in Southeastern Pennsylvania, as everyone in Northern California knows what "The Big Game" is and refers to San Francisco (and not New York) as "The City"), and d) see the 49ers hit their stride. I haven't been back much since, but I remember my days there very well.

Here are a few observations about the Phillies-Giants series:

1. It's inexplicable to me that Pat Burrell remains beloved in Philadelphia. Yes, he was a member of the World Champions in 2008, but by the end of 2007 he was a statue in left field and for most of 2008 he didn't hit, and he also didn't hit in the World Series (save a double in Game 5 that, yes, was very much helpful). It's also (pleasantly) surprising that after a horrid 1 1/2 years in Tampa he resurrected himself with his hometown team.

2. The team that wins this series could do so by scoring less than 10 runs in 4 wins, perhaps as few as 7.

3. Both teams have terrific new parks. In constrast, their old parks were not so great. To be fair, Veterans Stadium was a curiosity when it opened in the late 1960's and a big improvement over Connie Mack Stadium, but by the end it was one of those space-age curiosities that was neither well-suited for football or baseball. Candlestick Park, on the other hand, couldn't ever have been well-suited for baseball. For example, in 1962, Stu Miller was blown off the mound in an All-Star game. In the summer of 1984, my father and I went to a Phillies game at the Vet in mid-August, and it was about 95 degrees with 85% humidity. A week later, I returned to Northern California, and a friend of mine and I went to see the Phillies (ironically) play the Giants at the Stick, where it was 55 degrees with a 25 mile-an-hour wind off the bay. In Philadelphia, we wore t-shirts and shorts. At the Stick, we wore long pants, many layers, took blankets and drank hot chocolate (and I've never had a good hot chocolate at any baseball game or football game, for that matter).

4. I rooted for the Giants as a little kid, because my father, who was born in New York, rooted for them and loved Willie Mays. I recall going to Giants' games with him at Connie Mack once upon a time. We switched our allegiance to the Phillies when a) they got better in the mid-1970's and b) it became increasingly impractical to root for an out-of-town team (although, today, with the internet and cable packages, it's much easier). I have a good friend who remains a Giants' fan to this day, despite growing up in New Jersey and living in the Philadelphia suburbs.

5. Okay, we don't have Anchor Steam, don't eat a lot of sourdough, don't have our own wine country, don't have cable cars, two baseball teams (although, truth be told, most San Francisco residents -- never, ever call the place "Frisco" -- wouldn't go to Oakland to watch a baseball game, even if the Hungarian sludge made its way from Lombard Street to the Marina District and toward ATT Park). But we do have cheese steaks, crab fries, the Liberty Bell, soft pretzels, Tastykakes, the Big Five, an electric baseball park and many other good things to offer. We also have passionate fans, and they bridge every socioeconomic, racial and ethnic group.

As for predictions, well, it's hard. The Giants have excellent pitching, but so do the Phillies. The Phillies' lineup is better, but the Phillies' lineup hasn't hit nearly as well this year as it did in 2008. The bullpen isn't as good as in 2008, either, but two things are more pronounced -- the team's starting pitching and the team's grit, which was always pretty good. This team has rebounded from more casualties than Lucky Leckie's platoon in "The Pacific", and with that comes a determination and confidence that they can overcome just about anything. That grit -- along with playoff experience and tremendous leadership -- from skipper Charlie Manuel to Jimmy Rollins, their first among equals, to the determination of spiritual leader Carlos "Chooch" Ruiz -- should give the Phillies the edge, perhaps in 6 games.

But here's the thing: the Phillies came out of nowhere to win in 2008. Remember, in 2007 they relied upon a Mets' collapse to make the playoffs, only to run into superior pitching from the Rockies to get swept. The following season, of the four teams in the NL post-season, they were the least talked about going in. The Brewers had acquired CC Sabathia from the Indians for the stretch run, the Rockies had a torrid run to make the post-season, and the Dodgers had acquired Manny Ramirez mid-season and he hit over .400 in the second half. Yet, the Phillies dismantled both the Brewers and Dodgers and made it to the Series.

Here's the point: teams that have been their before don't always get there again or, if they do, succeed when they're there. If that were the case, then the team that won the first World Series -- the Pirates -- would have won every one of them since 1903. The Phillies have the experience, the Giants the desire to show everyone that they belong in the conversation with the Yankees and Phillies. What will win out -- the desire to knock the veterans out, or the experience that says "we're far from done, and we want to establish ourselves as a dynasty." Both are compelling motivations, and with the marquis names among the pitchers, it should be a great series to watch.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Watching Middle School Girls' Volleyball

It's an old gym, one with the pull out bleachers that look like they came from the Nixon administration, a high ceiling, steel beams, and a floor that might predate Nixon (perhaps from the Lyndon Johnson era). The scoreboard doesn't always work, the officials are rather grey, and the other team didn't bring its whole squad, just 6 starters and one substitute. Two parents were there to support the visitors, while parents of about eight of the fourteen girls on the home team were present to cheer their girls on.

It's a pure game, a game that requires communication and teamwork, and a game whose roster reflects returning veterans and promising newcomers, none of whom has any connection to a coach or league president (unlike many travel sports). There aren't any travel volleyball programs for girls who aren't in high school, so they either pick it up in gym class or at a summer camp, the latter experience sometimes more resembling a glorified game of newcomb than volleyball. Lots of kids try out -- and I'm sure that some good jumpers and fast runners don't make the team, if only because the coach has a good way of seeing who's a team player and who cuts corners in drills. They practice hard -- they do aerobic exercises (dozens upon dozens of squats), and they practice bumping, hitting, serving and digging. The coach experiments slightly with his lineups. He has a core 4 or 5 players and has been trying to find the right player for the final starting position.

Today, my daughter's team played a weaker opponent. She's one of three captains, and she vowed at the beginning of the season to show better leadership than the eighth graders did last year for a .500 team (last year, the eighth graders didn't mix much with the seventh graders and didn't pass the ball to them; two of the captains from last year showed up today and were astonished as to how well this year's squad is doing). So, we hosted a party after the first game for the kids to bond, and the three captains go out of their way to encourage the rest of the team. The results are proof of the better leadership and teamwork -- halfway through the season, the team is 6-1, and the one match that they lost had two very close games. In that game, the team made too many mistakes to win. Today, they didn't call balls out (and therefore not go after them) that were in, and balls didn't fall among the players. They were prepared, they were hungry, and they got to every ball and had many good serves and returns.

What I liked about the match particularly was the smiles the girls showed after good points and after winning each of the two games. They had their game faces on when they needed to, and they were confident enough to try more advanced serving techniques, even if there was a risk of failure -- hitting the ball into the net or out of bounds. It's amazing what they can do -- set, serve, save, pass -- and they did it all pretty well.

As a parent, I just sat there and watched, silently rooting for my daughter and publicly applauding everyone for their good play. Volleyball is a great game, and you realize that even the best players can make mistakes. And then those who win come back from them.

My daughter played a key role today. The team had experimented serving overhand with mixed results, and after winning the first game handily her team was tied at 11 in the second game. The only reason the game was close was because her coach had instructed her teammates to serve overhand. But now it was her turn to serve, and I recalled something that my late father had offered years ago when watching a baseball game -- that it's much easier to win when your pitcher throws strikes. My daughter reverted to her underhand serve -- I advised my wife that it was brilliant on her part to switch tactics when the overhand serve still needs some work -- and she reeled off ten points in a row with low line drives and sank quickly after crossing the net. After her serve was over, the game was no longer close, and then her team pulled away. After the game my daughter advised that it was her coach who instructed her to serve underhand -- she had been ready to continue serving overhand.

This type of team sport is very rewarding. The kids enjoy it very much, you don't have to get up at 5 a.m. to drive 45 miles for a game, your life isn't dependent on every call of an umpire, and you don't have to worry where your daughter will play because his oh-for-the-spring daughter has to start somewhere.

Middle school sports are both a pure meritocracy and pure, precisely because there isn't a way for the parents to get involved and mess it up.

The pace isn't nearly as electric as good high school volleyball and college volleyball, both of which I recommend for their speed, teamwork and grace, but it's a very peaceful and enjoying time nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Pump Fakes: A Tale of Two AAU Coaches, Brothers, Mentioned in "Play Your Heart Out"

Click here for a relatively recent article about David and Dana Pump, two players in the game of coaching elite youth basketball players and steering them to college.

They describe themselves as cowboys and contend that they're "people" people and that others get jealous of them. Perhaps, but consider whether instead of cowboys they're bold pilots in a world that's increasingly policed by the lasted fighter technology the NCAA superpower can muster.

There's a saying that goes something like this about Air Force pilots: "There are old pilots. There are bold pilots. There's no such thing as an old, bold pilot."

Pump up the debate now.

Useful facilitators or leech-like middlemen?

It Must be the Medical Marijuana

Jed York, President of the San Francisco 49ers, says his 0-5 team will make the playoffs.

Allen Iverson Headed to Turkey?

I don't know what's more preposterous, that statement or the one by his agent, Gary Moore, which offered, "Istanbul is not that far from the U.S."

Read about the Answer's situation here.

This guy once was the NBA's MVP and had packed houses at 76ers' games changing, "MVP, MVP." He was the first pick in the draft when he came out of college.

Now it looks like he'll play in Turkey for $2 million (figuring in incentives) for one of the three best teams in Turkey.

This, then, is what the Seniors Tour for faded NBA stars in need of money looks like.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Must Read: "Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit and the Youth Basketball Machine" by George Dohrmann

George Dohrmann writes for Sports Illustrated, and the magazine recently published an excerpt from it. Buy the book -- it's one of the most important sports books of recent memory, as it focuses on the sordid underbelly of college basketball. Put differently, you might love college basketball the way people like sausage, but you don't want to see either of them made.

For almost 8 years, Dohrmann followed a bunch of basketball players (say, from fifth grade to the time they left high school). He had great access, and he reported that he told his subjects he wouldn't publish a book until they were going to college. He honored that promise, and the book that resulted paints a rich description of the desperation of some of the kids and their families, the profound hope that they have that their kids can get scholarships, the vulnerability of the kids, the (sometimes) drug-lord kingpin type aspects of elite travel team coaches, the corrupting influence of the shoe companies and the engagement of college coaches. If you're skeptical about the overall integrity of the college game and don't like being called cynical, this book might redeem you in such a way that you'll think yourself to be spot-on accurate.

I don't want to re-tell the story here, but in Joe Keller, you have a hard-luck story who wanted to be a basketball coach and wealthy at the same time. The story behind his road to achieving status in the youth basketball coaching world and bettering himself financially is better than fiction. In Demetrius Walker, you have a transcendant talent from a single-parent family who so much wanted to get to the next level that he wasn't always honest with himself about what he needed to get better, partially because those who "handled" him kept on telling him -- from a very young age -- how wonderful he was. In the group of elite travel coaches of high school-age kids, you have some unsavory middlemen painted as worthy of mob films (picture Don Fanucci in Godfather II), making sure they get to "wet their beaks" if kids go to schools that they steered them to. There are high schools and travel teams that are affiliated with shoe companies, so much so that the travel coaches (who have much more control over the kids and their parents than the high school coaches) discourage "their" kid from going to a high school that otherwise might be suitable for them because it's affiliated with a rival shoe company (think "Crips" and "Bloods", but over who wears whose designer shoes). And there are even college programs who have their boosters send "donations" to travel programs to help support their (ever so spurious) mission once a kid from a travel program enrolls in that school.

You'll read of wealthy fathers trying to buy influence, of kid and parents traveling superhuman distances to play for the "right" travel team that gets the "right" exposure, kids feted with too much "stuff" (shoes, shirts, sweats) at too young an age, with some kids making it to elite college programs, some making it to "non-major" college programs and some falling by the wayside. To some degree, the fact that the kids make it at all results from a) their determination (many ultimately figure out that many who try to help them are nothing more than manipulators looking for a cut), b) the determination of their parents, c) the good intentions of some coaches and d) dumb luck. All that said, in the end, talent does win out, and the kids who go to the elite programs do have great talent on the basketball floor.

But the road to an elite program -- or a high-major Division I program -- isn't all that straight a line for all the talent some of these kids have. It's not straight in that many kids end up on many different travel teams and at different high schools because of reasons that are hard to fathom for the average parent or kid who just wants a normal experience in his community, and it isn't all that straight because of money thrown the way of the kids and their families, sometimes in the form of goods, other times in the form of cash stipends. And the travel coaches aren't volunteers -- they are businessmen with territories and alliances with other coaches and shoe companies, all trying to enhance their prestige and, on many occasions, their purses.

George Dohrmann covers all of this in great detail. If you read this book, you will never look at college basketball the same way again. If you have a romantic view of NCAA basketball when compared to the pros, you'll lose it. If you have a romantic view of any college basketball coach, you might get skeptical that he's any different from the others the same way you might have wondered whether Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs even though he denied it but seemingly most other elite cyclists did. And you'll feel for the kids and their families, many of whom are underprivileged, many of whom are ill-informed, and many of whom are so blindly looking for basketball as a ticket out that they don't always figure out that the system isn't made to benefit the kids until it's too late. Fortunately, grassroots basketball, as it's called, begins at such a young age (say 10 now) that parents and kids can figure out truly toxic situations before a kid makes a big mistake and signs with the wrong AAU program or goes to the wrong high school.

And you'll come away asking yourself, why do we need all of this? Can't there be a better way?

And you'll never watch college basketball the same way again.

Because you'll always be wondering about the integrity of the process that got a kid to a certain school.

This is a must read.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Carlos Ruiz: The Phillies' Unsung Hero (Especially Outside Philadelphia)

Click here for Mike Jensen's excellent piece in today's Philadelphia Inquirer on the Phillies' catcher.

Many out-of-towners know who the Phillies' big names are, the core players -- Roy Halladay, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard (there are many other good players, of course). Most know that this year's Phillies were a team effort in every sense of the word, especially given the injuries to every position player not named Ibanez and Werth. But what most out-of-town fans don't get a sense of, precisely because they don't follow the team daily, is who else makes a big difference. They can tend to look at size, position in the batting order, power numbers, and they might not get a sense of the team. And I'd suggest that this is the case with Carloz Ruiz, the soul of the Phillies, revered in Philadelphia.

Those aren't boos you here when he comes up to the plate. They are cries of "Choooch," his nickname among his teammates. His batting average was over .300, and his on-base percentage was all-star caliber. His pitchers rave about his game-calling abilities. He just comes to work every day and gets the job done and then some. He'd run through a wall for his teammates, who, correspondingly, would do the same for him. Many elite teams have the big names, but what distinguishes them is how the players at the next level operate. Do they add something to the mix, or are the pitchers "innings eaters" and the position players guys with .250 batting averages, .310 on-base percentages and deficient with runners in scoring position?

Carlos Ruiz is a very important member of the Philadelphia Phillies. Okay, he isn't a future Hall of Famer like Roy Halladay, he isn't getting Ryan Howard's salary and he hasn't made numerous All-Star teams like Chase Utley.

All he does is help the team win games.

Philllies' fans know it.

It's time for all baseball fans to realize it.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Travel Annals: Would You Do This to Your Kid (and to Your Community)?

A local softball coach had a plan, one borne of frustration and disappointment from years gone by. He had dedicated some of his free time to the local athletic association, running a division of a recreational softball league for several years. He typically found himself in the championship game of a relatively small league (about 6 teams), and the observers noted that somehow he figured out who the best players were in the rec league and got more than his fair share of them. Perhaps the softball gods didn't like this, for his record in championship games is about 2-5. So, perhaps, in the rec league world, he's an Earl Weaver (very much relatively speaking). We'll call him Haman for purposes of this story.

About five years ago Haman coached a travel team with another fellow, one of the lords in the local world of travel softball. That experience didn't go well. The two didn't get along, and Haman's older daughter quit. She's now in high school, and she hasn't played softball for a while. But Haman continued to coach in the rec league, and his younger daughter continued to play. The younger daughter liked softball so much, though, that she opted to pursue soccer for her travel sport. Despite some whispering (which I took to be fawning) about the athleticism of the younger daughter, she ended up playing on a "C" travel soccer team. Translated, the "C" teams are typically put out there by the travel organizations if there's enough interest to have a team, but not because there's an abundance of talent in the organization (they sometimes are put out there to mollify local parents, who otherwise might be (rightly) miffed about their town's organization dedicating resources to out-of-town kids. In the fierce world of travel soccer, where organizations even recruit kids from elsewhere, "C" teams can tend to be opiates for the local masses). Writing has its harsh aspects to it, and this is one of them. It's great if the kids love the game, but if travel turns out to be for the parents because they have delusions about their kids' talents or ability to draw a college admission or even an admission and financial aid, well, then their priorities can be warped, especially if the child really has a better future in library science than in smacking softballs thrown at sixty miles an hour.

Anyway, Haman's daughter played pretty well in the rec league last year, but before you draw any conclusions that the rec league has ace fastpitch softball pitchers, think again. This daughter's good play was akin, perhaps, to being one of the top five hockey players in Ecuador. Again, the harshness of writing, because this girl, from what I can gather, is a good kid. So what does her dad, the coach Haman, do? Put on your seatbelt, because sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

You have to understand that the world of travel softball involves traveling -- for practices. Local organizations for the most part don't have local kids on their teams (I do not condone this and believe it's ridiculous at a number of levels). Oh, they might have a few, but parents drive around with their kids to tryouts in mid-to-late August (and get private workouts before that), all with a view of finding the right spot for their kid -- a place where the player can start (although most teams carry only 11 players, so all kids get playing time), a place where the team has good pitching (because in fastpitch if your team doesn't have good pitching, you'll lose, perhaps almost every game, and get mercy-ruled somewhat frequently), a place with good facilities and, hopefully, a place where there aren't too many coaches for the team and where those coaches are realistic about their daughters' abilities so that the best players play the most important positions, get the best positions in the batting order, and, yes, play. Because of old grudges, politics, perceptions about organizations, facilities, recent track records and many other factors, rosters can change dramatically from year to year. Great players can pick their teams, and sometimes they band together to pick an organization to give a team a solid, critical mass going into a season. Of course, the coaches who take that type of critical mass have to deal with Type A parents, stage parents of sorts, and expectations about playing time, positions in the batting order and what not. Think LeBron going to Miami, but on a much smaller scale. As for putting local kids on local teams on locally paid for fields? Well, so long as the coaches have an "in" with the organization, they could care less about that. They just want to win (some of their posts on the message boards where they recruit and on their teams' websites talk about all the good they'll do for the girls, but those posts can be nothing more than attractive bait for ever-too-eager parents who want nothing more than to position their kids for the next level and, ultimately, a college scholarship -- other kids and the local organization be darned).

So our local travel organization has room for two 14 and under teams. One was a no-brainer, although not without some concern. The organization was going to let a 12U coach (we'll call him LaRussa) elevate his team to 14U. The criticism for LaRussa was that he was going to elevate an entire team, thereby promoting some kids who just weren't that good and denying chances to other local kids who deserved a spot. While LaRussa has his detractors (again, remember, if you are going to place your kid on a team, get to know the coaches very well, because the kids will be spending more time with them than with any teacher and, perhaps, with a parent), he was acting consistently with past practice. That said, LaRussa did somewhat unceremoniously jettison his entire outfield because they weren't good enough, even if they had been with him for two years and chanted his mantra. While there are players who will move yearly to find the best spot for them, coaches will shed players quickly, too, because town loyalty and developing kids come second to winning. As it turned out, LaRussa shed three local kids from his outfield in exchange for three kids who don't live in the town. LaRussa had his team set, a team that he might fancy to be an "A" team, but a team that really has about 1 or 2 "A" players, some B+ players and then a bunch of B players. And, basically, the local organization lets LaRussa do what he wants -- he isn't accountable to anyone (and, then again, the local organization really isn't accountable to anyone either).

Then there's the story of the other 14U travel team. Logic had it that the organization would elevate its other 12U travel team, and there would be spots for newcomers, because only 5 of the 12 kids on the 12U team had to move up to 14U. Everyone thought that the coach of this 12U team -- we'll call him Zimmer -- would coach the other 14U team. To make it more logical, Zimmer is best friends with the commissioner of the league. Sounded like a logical conclusion.

The thing is, Haman lobbied the organization to form his own travel team -- and got it. Zimmer -- fed up with his parents and somewhat overmatched, especially as a teacher of fundamentals -- didn't want to be a head coach. Most, if not all, of the parents of the 5 kids on the 12U team who would have to move up to 14U, knew Haman, and most, if not all, thought that their kids would make his 14U team, especially if it would include Haman's daughter, who had never played travel ball before. Moreover, these five kids consisted of the #1 through 5 hitters, and these were the #1 and #2 pitchers, the starting catcher, the starting first baseman and the starting third baseman. But instead of elevating those kids and basing a team on town kids, Haman got permission to recruit an A+ team. So, he didn't look at four of the five players for his elite team. The one he kept? Oh, she's Zimmer's daughter, as Zimmer became one of his assistants. Zimmer's daughter was a defensive wildcard (sometimes her fielding was precise; other times it wasn't), had difficulty hitting midway through the season and tended to get on her teammates when they made errors. But she was Zimmer's kid, Zimmer was connected to the commissioner, and, as Kurtis Blow once rapped, "these are the breaks." The other four players -- they didn't really get a look and were told -- by both 14U teams -- "sorry."

By e-mail. Not in person. It was as if all of the 5 a.m. wake-up calls, 7 a.m. warm-ups, long drives, cold or very hot days, and their hard work, didn't matter. Yes, they were not "A" players, but neither were Haman's and Zimmer's daughters, either.

So Haman posted on the websites, and he recruited far and wide. He showed up at all sorts of games all spring, and he recruited families. Yes, he was out there recruiting families of 13 and 14 year-old girls. He held tryouts a week before everyone else did, and his daughter didn't show up for any of them. Zimmer's daughter did -- she fared so well that in one tryout she missed about 20 pitches from the pitching machine. And, when all was said and done, the team has 12 kids on it, only 9 from the town, and one coming from as far as 2 hours away. All for a kid's game. As for Haman's daughter, well, she was so enthused about this whole endeavor that she told a friend of hers that she didn't want to play, that she'd be overmatched and the worst kid on the team. From what I've heard, she's been out with injuries, and the person who informed me of that suggested that they were psychosomatic.

So Haman and Zimmer got their kids spots on the elite team, four players -- core members of the forgotten 12U roster -- figured out one of life's ugly lessons that politics can reign supreme and people can act harshly in their own interests -- and Haman recruited from other towns and organizations the local 14U softball version of the New York Yankees -- three #1 starting pitchers, a catcher who is a female version of Joe Maurer, a third baseman who hits more homers than A-Rod, speedy vacuum cleaners at short and in center. They're winning many of their games, and the two top coaches' kids are riding the bench or barely getting into games, and, when they do, they're at the bottom of the lineup.

But meanwhile, the town is paying for the fields, the local organization isn't doing anything to develop local kids, the local kids aren't getting a shot, and the coaches' kids are on a team they don't deserve to be on and one of them is miserable. The non-residents on the team love the facilities -- they're some of the best around. But what is this team, really? It's one thing if they are going to be together from year to year, but they're not, as they'll migrate elsewhere for a better opportunity on a heartbeat, because, most likely, some coach will recruit some of them hard for his 16U team the way Haman recruited them for his 14U team. The town will be just another sticker on their well-traveled equipment bags, unless Haman hijacks a 16U team and does with it what he wants. What is this team? It's an amalgamation of outstanding players (or, at least say 8 of the 12 are outstanding) that cares not for the town or the organization, just for themselves. And, seemingly, the coaches are the same way.

Teamwork? Loyalty? Values? What's being taught? Perhaps winning at all costs, in an "I had better get mine" sort of way.

Is all this what we want to teach our kids? Where are the association's leaders, you may ask? Well, the commissioner got his kid on the 12U team, and the head of softball did the same. So they, their buddy Zimmer, and Haman all got their kids on the teams. And what happened to the core four of last year's 12U team, the kids who were left on the side of the road? Two have parents who are willing to drive them 1/2 hour each way 4 days a week for practice and home games for an organization in another town. Two were left without a team, because for them the local teams were the only ones that their parents could afford from a time standpoint.

So, if you're a travel parent, beware. Those who run the league and coach the teams will get what they want out of it. If you're kid is not yet a star, or even if she is one, be very careful. Because those who run the organization and those who coach will get theirs -- even if it's at the expense of your kids. The core four who were left behind? Well, three of them have an upside (one because of her bat, one because of her pitching ability, and the other because of leadership and guts), while the fourth is a budding star pitcher (which goes to show you that the powers that be even will leave good players behind if it suits them). But, to their now former organization, they were just cannon fodder, chess pieces to be used in a rigged game that had no one advocating for them, taken advantage, to a degree, by those posing as leaders and mentors but who, in reality, did not care about their futures, at least not the way they should have.

So, if you're a travel parent, look out for your own kid and look out for your own kid hard. If you don't do it, no one else will, and the coaches aren't usually what they try to sell themselves to be.

Even if you win, because winning doesn't cure everything, winning isn't everything, and winning in this case might mean different things to different people.

So, if you're a town resident, look out for your own wallets and your own kids.

Because if you don't, someone will pick your pockets and then pick off your kids at the expense of someone else's -- someone else's who aren't grateful for your tax dollars and who have no conscience about your kids.

Reds' SS Cabrera Likely To Miss Game 3 Against the Phillies

The report says that he has sore muscles on his left side.

Are they sure they're not jaw muscles?

Cabrera, you see, got the booing treatment normally reserved for Scott Rolen and J.D. Drew at Citizens Bank Park after he offered that the home plate umpire had a very generous strike zone for Roy Halladay. Which is interesting, because Cabrera usually can't hit good pitching with an oar, anyway.

All in the Family: Brothers Constitute Entire Officiating Crew for Football Game

Neat story about the Scanlan brothers, who combined to be the entire officiating team for a high school football game in Pennsylvania between Spring-Ford and Pottsgrove.

Last Night at Citizens Bank Park

The family and I went there and sat in the upper rows of the upper deck on the right field line. Not so far away, as, say, the Weasley family and Harry Potter sat the Quidditch World Cup final between Bulgaria and Ireland, but far enough away so as not to see with a discerning eye whether, in the 7th inning, Chase Utley a) actually got hit by a pitch, b) was really safe at second base or c) missed third base when scampering to score after Reds' rightfielder Jay Bruce lost a fly ball in either the lights or a sea of Phillies' rally towels. We were close enough, though, to experience the electricity in the place, the timely hitting of Utley, the miscues in the field by not only Bruce, but also one-time Gold Glover Scott Rolen at third, Gold Glover Tony Phillips at second, and, of course, Utley.

It was a tale of two games, or, perhaps, a game of two acts. Act I was all Reds, as tall starter Bronson Arroyo pitched more like a crafty little lefty named Moyer throwing slop up there or a pitcher having a second life (picture knuckleballer R.A. Dickey of the Mets) throwing pitches that Hall of Famer Satchel Paige would have called "bat dodgers." Arroyo was good, and then he turned the game over to a bullpen that the overmatched WTBS announcers labeled was better than the Phillies (a friend texted me on this point). (As an aside, on that point the announcers probably were right, but in watching some of the games on TBS I couldn't help but notice how unprepared they were when making utterances about players and teams). When Arroyo exited, it was 4-0 Reds (and Phillips started off the game in the best possible way for the Reds, hitting a bomb off Roy Oswalt that quieted the crowd and made them realize that no, they weren't going to get two no-hitters in a row but, in fact, they could get tattooed by the proudful, league-leading hitting Reds, who, no doubt, saw this as a revenge game of biblical proportions).

Enter Act 2. So, the Reds came out with the fire and brimstone, but then the Phillies added their own twist of the moral of the story of Lot's wife -- don't look back, for something might be gaining on you (sure, that quote also is attributed to Paige). Why? Because in the Old Testament, Lot's wife looked back on the home town she gave up (Sodom) and turned into a pillar of salt. The Reds might have looked back to see where the Phillies that they thought they had stymied and left behind, and, well, their gloves turned into pillars of stone. Bad throws, missed tags, a missed fly ball, and before you knew it the crowd at Citizens Bank Park cranked up the volume, it was 6-4 Phillies and the wheels fell off what should have been the party bus back to Cincinnati, with the series tied at 1-1 and the Reds haven taken the home-field advantage away from the "team to beat" insofar as the post-season was concerned.

But that didn't happen. It wasn't because the Phillies hitters woke up, no, not really. It was because the Phillies' bullpen relieved an underwhelming Roy Oswalt (although, truth be told, how many pitchers really would want to follow a teammate who pitched only the second no-hitter in post-season play and face the best-hitting team in the league?) and excelled -- Romero, Durbin, Contreras, Madson and Lidge fared well, while Rhodes, Ondrusek, Chapman and Masset correspondingly didn't pitch as well. Yet, when all was said and done, it was the "small ball" aspects of the game that did in the Reds. Field the ball better, and they go home with a victory. Give this veteran, successful post-season team more than three outs in an inning, and they'll kill you. Which is exactly what the Phillies did.

It was a beautiful night for a ball game, we sampled some Bull's Barbeque all the way up in the (as of playoff time, not so) cheap seats, the hard drinkers mercifully were not in our section but had too much merriment about 5 sections over and were quickly ejected from the premises (in fairness, most fans were festive, wearing Phillies colors and saying things that they wouldn't be embarrassed in their mothers heard them). The 45,000 plus fans were merry upon exiting, something that I wouldn't have necessarily projected after 5 innings, a lackluster pitching performance by Roy Oswalt, and the dance of slumber that the Phillies' bats put on.

But here's the thing: this version of the Phillies keeps grappling, keeps scrapping, and keeps on coming back. You cannot count them out -- and while all of baseball probably knows it, the Phillies reinforced the point last night.

A few other points:

1. One of my simplest joys is to eat a bag of peanuts at the game. They taste great, and, I suppose, there's something about being able to toss the shells around with impunity that, well, for someone like me is about as daring as I get.

2. Phillies' fans should reconsider their booing of Scott Rolen. They should remember that Curt Schilling compelled a trade to Arizona in 2001 because the Phils had no chance of winning. Rolen turned down a long-term deal around that time and was dealt in 2002 (I think that we barely remember the players the team got in either of those deals, except Vicente Padilla might have arrived in the Schilling deal and Placido Polanco might have arrived in the Rolen deal). At any rate, then-manager Larry Bowa and GM Ed Wade got all over Rolen, who was portrayed as a villain who was dissing the city by not wanting a lucrative deal. I never took what Rolen said personally, and I allowed for the notion that he was speaking truthfullly -- management didn't want to spend for a winner. Well, after that, with the team languishing with second-tier talent and a new stadium in the works, management had what to me was a revelation -- that local fans will watch a great team in a cow pasture but won't (for long) come to a palace to watch the same second-tier talent. That led to the signing of Jim Thome and the acquisition of better talent, and look where we are today. I do think that Rolen was a linchpin to the future success, precisely because his tough stance was a wake-up call to an ownership team that once referred to the team as a "small-market" team even though it was (and located) in one of the largest media markets in the country (top 5 or 6). So, when you think about booing Scott Rolen, perhaps you should change your mind and start cheering him.

3. Lots of different jerseys last night out there, including a guy wearing a Ugueth Urbina jersey and a Tony Longmire jersey (I didn't know that they made either of them). Of course, there were plenty of others, along with jersey shirts that exclaimed "Rauuuuuuulllllll" and "Choooooch", among many others.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Era of the Pitcher

Matthew Futterman's article in today's Wall Street Journal suggests that the past two years points to this.

The numbers all point in this direction. Also, either the use of performance-enhancing drugs is down, thereby taking an edge away from position players, or, alternatively, the perception that this is the case is there and has a placebo-like effect on pitchers. I'd vote for a cocktail that's 85% the former and 15% the latter. Futterman also suggests that better athletes are becoming pitchers, too, and, thus, the results reflect (at least at times) superior athleticism.

All that said, what's compelling about this article is that there's no exact science to project how hard-throwing, athletic young kids will project as Major League starters. There were worries, for example, about CC Sabathia's weight and Tim Lincecum's size. Deep down, though, those who went with those two players (and many teams were interested) didn't question one thing -- the size of their hearts.

Which means, then, that some of the gurus who give you the various Gallup, Kolbe, Myers Briggs and Predict Index testing might want to come up with a test like that to go alongside the numbers that the Baseball Prospectus types crave (and, rightly so, because a track record of achievement is a good predictor of future things, or, at least as good as any). If crafted right, that test should give teams insight as to how the prospects in whom they've investing a lot of time and money approach fitness, preparation and difficult situations. My guess is that if you crafted such a test properly, many Major League stars would have similar profiles, so that you could then match up a prospect's profile with those of #1 starting pitchers and get some sense as to how he'll fare as he climbs the ladder. Then again, it would only be one evaluational tool among many that teams could use to review prospects.

It's a good article, and Futterman is onto something. The slugfests of the steroids era are gone, and, while, we haven't reverted to the days of Bob Gibson and his 1.12 (or so) ERA, we're moving more in that direction than away from it.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Randy Moss

The rumor was that Randy Moss had an altercation with an assistant coach this past weekend, and that this altercation prompted the Patriots to trade the future Hall of Fame wide receiver to Minnesota.

Not true, said Pats' head coach Bill Belichick. Belichick went on to say that Moss was a pleasure to coach.

Cris Carter, who played with Moss the first time the WR played in Minnesota, spoke to the situation on ESPN this morning. Carter said that typically good, competitive players challenge their coaches when the playcalling isn't to their liking. Further, Carter said, that if you were to have a "trade" list based upon players who challenge their coaches, each week that list would be as long as his sleeve.

Why? Well, first, the basic principle is that docile people don't make great soldiers. You need people who are tough -- on themselves and on others -- to catch the ball over the middle and do so ably over a long period of time. Second, football is a collision sport, the careers are very short, and the players are under a tremendous amount of pressure. Sure, you can talk of emotional intelligence and keeping cool under fire, but these are young men, not fully formed, and they aren't always in control of their emotions. So, some of the fiery ones and most competitive ones will speak out. For their sake, it's better to do that away from earshot of the entire unit, away from earshot of the press, and preferably behind a closed door. But that always can't happen, especially during the heat of a game. And, when it does happen, chalk it up to all of the above. After all, it's a tough game.

Brett Favre now has the target he's been craving, but it's still up to him not to throw the goofball (i.e., a Favre-ian interception at a critical moment in a game where the future Hall of Fame QB -- mostly at the end of his career -- has thrown a ball up for grabs with dire consequences). Moss will fit in fine in Minnesota and will want to leave a great legacy. This is a great deal for the Vikings.

Bill Belichick is a businessman, and he has a good sense of when a player is at a maximum value for his age, and then he likes to make trades for draft picks. At some point, though, you do have to keep players, you do have to have a good blend of youth and experience, and you can't keep on trading players (like Richard Seymour and Moss). Keep doing that, and you're perpetually a 10-6 team that might win one game in the playoffs. That's kind of harsh, but in fairness to Belichick, he's re-tooling a bit to take care of age issues that lingered as recently as two years ago. Once he re-shapes his team, they'll return to elite status in the NFL pretty quickly.

Because they're not that far from it right now.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

And Then There Was Cliff Lee

Who pitched a masterpiece against the Rays.

Imagine the possibilities for the Phillies in the post-season had they kept him.

But, then again, had they done that they wouldn't have acquired Roy Oswalt, who seems re-born since joining the Phillies.

But Halladay and Lee, wow!

Doc Halladay's Magical Elixir, a Tonic for All Phillies' Fans

So a funny thing happened on the way to Roy Halladay's first post-season appearance.

He threw a no-hitter (his second of the season).

79 strikes, 25 balls, 104 pitches, only 1 walk, only a few three-ball counts. He got the best hitting lineup in the National League to miss a lot. After the game, one of the things that Phillies' manager Charlie Manuel said, was "that was great managing, wasn't it?"

It sure was.

I had never watched a no-hitter before. In 1983, I almost went to Oakland A's final home game of the season, when Mike Warren pitched a no-hitter (it had rained all day and was miserable, so I opted to stay home). In 1990 I had tickets to the Phillies for a mid-week game in August, only to be out of town on business. Terry Mulholland threw a no-hitter that night.

But today I left work early, got home, and became entranced. Here were the Phillies -- the source of much frustration and some joy during my youth -- and they were no-hitting a team in the playoffs. And their ace -- a future Hall of Famer -- was doing it.

And he made it look easy.

Now, of course, the Reds might come out loaded for bear in the second game and send Roy Oswalt to the showers early, or, Oswalt might come back and, in competition with Halladay, throw a second no-hitter. Then again, the Phillies' hitters could send Bronson Arroyo packing early too. That's why they play the games, and the Phillies want to avoid the agony of a letdown by honoring Halladay's victory with another one.

But what a magical night. First game of the playoffs, game's at home, and the faithful get rewarded with a masterpiece.


Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Why the Phillies Will Win the World Series -- Or Not?

Here are the reasons for (and against):

1. They have the best 1-2-3 rotation in baseball for the playoffs. In Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, they have three #1 starters, each of whom pitched great baseball during the last six weeks of the season. Counter: Halladay hasn't pitched in the post-season before (and C.C. Sabathia, an ace, had two bad post-seasons before his first good one -- last year -- with the Yankees), and the Braves hit Oswalt hard in his last start. Also, #4 starter Joe Blanton has pitched well lately, but overall had a rather dismal season.

2. They've been there before, and they're vying to be only the third NL team ever to go to three straight World Series. They have a lot to play for (win this one, and they're the best NL team since the Big Red Machine of the 1970's. Win this one, and they're close to being a dynasty). That counts for a lot. Counter: This is not the same team as 2008. First, they've been battered with injuries all year. Now, Placido Polanco has an iffy elbow that will require surgery after the year, Carlos Ruiz was hit by a pitch in the season finale and is sore, and Jimmy Rollins is recovering from a nagging hamstring injury. Also, stars Chase Utley and Ryan Howard didn't play full seasons. Finally, they're bullpen was lights out in 2008; it hasn't been lights out this season (even if it's better than 2009's).

3. They hit like an AL team. Counter: That was more true in '08 and '09. This year the injuries and some major droughts take them out of the "elite" status of offensive teams. They are potent, but they haven't been consistent. Still, there's not an "easy" out in the lineup. Sure, you can look at utility infielder Wilson Valdez's numbers and cry out that he's a weak hitter, but he's been clutch during the year. Also, watch Jayson Werth with men on base. He has good numbers overall, but he has been subpar with men on base.

4. They have their full lineup reasonably healthy. Counter: See my counter to #2. Yes, they'll all play, but some of them are banged up.

5. Brad Lidge is pitching much better than he did in 2009 (when his ERA was over 7). Counter: Yes, but he's still a heart attack waiting to happen at times, and your 92 year-old Aunt Nellie with the orthopedic shoes and pacemaker might have outpitched Lidge in 2009, so beware of your comparisons. He's not the elite closer he was in 2008, but he's better than he was in 2009.

6. Ryan Madson is one of the best set-up men in baseball. He faded a bit at the end of '09, because he was the only Phillies' reliver not to have spent time on the DL. This year he did 2 months on the DL because he kicked a chair, then he came back to pitch great baseball. If the starters can go 7 or 8, the Phillies should be in good shape. Counter: Lidge still follows him, and that should trouble Charlie Manuel and the Phillies.

7. The Phillies' bench was spectacular this year. Boy, was it. Lose all the players they lost to injuries for the durations they did and still have the best record in baseball, you have a very special team. Everyone seems to chip in, including some guys not on the roster now, such as 3B Cody Ransom, whose game-tying 3-run homer with 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth against the Reds in July helped fuel the Phillies' turnaround from a moribund team to an electric one. Contributions from guys like him, Ross Gload, Dane Sardinha, Wilson Valdez and others kept the Phillies within striking distance of the Braves until the big guys returned. Counter: Lefty PH Greg Dobbs' average flirts with the Mendoza Line, and he is a questionable choice as a PH because his average as a PH isn't Major League worthy. That's the only negative.

8. Charlie Manuel should be named Manager of the Year for what he did with this team this year, precisely because of all the injuries. He'll be ready to manage in the World Series, and he's got one under his belt (and you can count on Dusty Baker to make a goofball move or two during the post-season, as he has done it before). Counter: Pitchers need to pitch, hitters need to hit and players need to be healthy. Charlie's job gets much easier if all of those things happen, but give him a lot of credit -- he's a great skipper for this group of guys, and they would crash through walls for him.

9. They have a good "up the middle" defense with Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino. These guys cover a lot of ground and make the plays. Counter: Rollins and Ruiz need to be healthy. Counter to the "counter": Back-up SS Wilson Valdez might have the best arm at SS in the NL, and he is excellent defensively.

10. Somehow, the rest of the Phillies' bullpen not named Lidge and Madson managed to get the job done. Counter: That's not exactly the most confident line of reasoning, is it? Chad Durbin, Antonio Bastardo, Jose Contreras, J.C. Romero and others aren't exactly awe-inspiring, but they just might have enough "oomph" to get the team home. Remember, when the Phillies played the Braves at CBP in the third week of September, the Braves dazzled stat head fans with how good each and every one of their relievers were. The problem was, their starters were iffy, and the Phillies hit the 'pen a bit. If the Phillies' starters can go deep into games, their bullpen can do just fine.

11. It feels like 2008 and not 2009 for the Phillies. Yes, it does, because a) the Phillies were on a tear in September, just like 2008, and b) Lidge is more like the 2008 Lidge than the 2009 version. Plus, in '09, the Yankees were clearly the team to beat; this year, the Phillies are. Counter: but didn't you write in '08 that you liked the Phillies's chances because they were flying under the radar screen? After all, the Dodgers were the NL favorites because they got Manny Ramirez before the trading deadline and he was on fire, the Cardinals had good pitching and Albert Pujols and the Brewers hadn't been there in a while and had obtained CC Sabathia for the home stretch. Few were giving the Phillies much of a chance. This year, they're in everyone's crosshairs. So, who are the Phillies of '08 now, so to speak, the team that few are paying attention to? In the NL, it's the Reds, isn't it, because the Braves' have Bobby Cox, the Giants have awesome pitching and the Phillies have been to 2 straight World Series. In the NL it's either Texas or Minnesota, precisely because neither plays in the same division with the Yankees.

Conclusion: That's why they play the games and simply don't anoint the team with the best record. The Phillies do have a good chance to win their second World Series in three years if a) the Big Three pitch as expected, b) they get on base and hit consistently enough, and c) the bullpen gives them a plus effort. Not too original, but true enough.

Play ball!