Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Princeton Prevails over Kent State


1.  The Kent State bench is as animated a bench as I've seen.  Head coach Rob Senderoff is very demonstrative, and at times seemed like he was lecturing the officials.

2.  Good to see Pete Carril sitting with retiring A.D. Gary Walters.

3.  Spencer Weisz is accomplished beyond his year (freshman).  Particularly in the first half, Weisz had many hustle plays, some good rebounds and passes.  Look for him to be more of a factor going forward.

4.  Hard to figure what the coaching staff is thinking regarding forward Denton Koon, who seems to be the best athlete among Princeton's front liners.  It's probably the case that he's lost playing time to senior forward Will Barrett, who played beyond his comfort zone today.  My general view of Barrett has been that he's a big three-point shooter at 6'10", but nothing more.  Yet, today, he had 19 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and had a good game.  I still think he's a bit challenged defensively, but I might be missing something.  At game's end, when Tiger coach was making offensive-defensive substitutions, Barrett remained on the floor (Koon came in for Hans Brase).

5.  The Tigers played well together as a team.  There were many plays where the ball moved around quickly and there were multiple passes that led to inside baskets.  That type of determination and quickness of thinking helped them today.

6.  The Tigers' offense sputtered, though, in the second half, running down the clock to the mid-to-low single digits and then forcing the ball.  Somehow, either Kent State stepped up their help defense or the Tigers failed to adapt or ran out of gas a bit.  I think it was a combination of the three.

7.  The Tigers are a bit more interesting than they were last year, this despite the loss of Ivy Player of the Year, Ian Hummer.  Hummer was terrific, but at times I thought that the Tigers waited for him to bail them out when the shot clock ran down or deferred to him a bit much.  Also, last year the Tigers did not have either Jimmy Sherburne or Ben Hazel, both of whom are getting many minutes at guard.  Sherburne missed all of his five shots today, but Hazel is a decent three-point shooter who hit a few today.

8.  Last year, teams pressed Princeton because point guard T. J. Bray had to play almost the entire game, and the other ball handlers were a bit iffy.  This year, there seem to be enough ball handlers to nullify that option for the opposition.

9.  Bray his a terrific floor leader, a decisive passer, and determined driver, and an overall leader.  He sets the tone well.

10.  Princeton seems to have taken a page out of the book of Yale's James Jones.  Last year, the Elis beat Princeton twice because of a very good full-court trap and an offense that kept on moving.  The latter exploited a lack of quickness on the back line of the Tigers' zone.  Against Kent State, against both man and zone defenses, the Tigers kept on moving.  And it worked.

11.  A sign of a good team is that you can hold on and reverse a trend after blowing a 15-point lead.  Early in the second half the Tigers had many chances to blow it open, but Kent State kept on coming back.  Then, with about 1:45 to go, KSU took its first lead of the game.  But Princeton kept to its game, hit more foul shots than Kent State, fouled less, and eked out a four-point win.

While Princeton only finished fourth in the Ivies' pre-season poll, it's hard to figure that there are three Ivy teams that are better than they are.  Harvard remains the favorite, but Penn has struggled.  This Tigers' team, in contrast, has had an excellent pre-Ivy season, plays Liberty on Saturday and then Penn at the Palestra the following Saturday night.  It's important to go into the Palestra playing with confidence, and barring a collapse against Liberty (which did make the NCAA tournament last year), the Tigers should be in good shape for their trip to Philadelphia.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Clearing Off the Old Book Shelves

We just did a renovation project at our house -- it's been long overdue, and with our minimalistic approach to filling up a particular room (read:  we got rid of some bookshelves), we also have had to pare down the books that we've collected over the years.  I suppose one day historians will look back at paper and books and marvel how we learned, but for many books are a really personal, special thing.  Us included.

Sure, Kindles and iPads and such are green, which I'm sure is good, rain forests get preserved, etc., but there is something different about curling up with a good book in a big chair on a very cold day, cup of tea or coffee nearby, slowing down time and enjoying learning something.  Our books, I suppose, reveal the depths of our knowledge and values, and, once read, serve as reminders of something we learned or as totem, perhaps, of how accomplished we are (or not, depending on what's on the shelves).

At any rate, I have, over the years, donated books to our local book sale (without bothering to get a receipt or take a tax deduction, either -- it's not worth the trouble) as a means to help our library and, also to reduce the collection, so to speak.  Over the past week we donated over one hundred books, including, among others, the U.S. military historical novels of Jeffrey Shaara, plays that I read in college, historical photography books of Philadelphia, Ted Williams "The Art of Hitting .300," at least one copy of "A Catcher in the Rye," although few marvel about why J.D. Salinger was a recluse the way they once did say 25 years ago, the obscure Michael Chabon novel about something that happened in the 9th century (I confess I didn't get through it), some business-related books about Human Resources cultures (I confess that some of these I didn't get to reading), some classics from way back when, including Anthony Trollope's "The Way We Live Now," which foretold of the Bernie Madoff phenomenon about 125 years before it happened, and many others.

What also is a reflection of us is what we couldn't bear to part with -- everything by Richard Russo (if you say "who," buy a copy of "Empire Falls" and enjoy it), Stephen Sears wonderful histories of Civil War battles, and some very nice biographies of baseball greats that the North Carolina publishing house McFarland publishes -- among them, bookies on Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove and Hack Wilson.   I also kept books that people gave me, among them Bill Simmons' hilarious book on basketball, and books that friends wrote -- include a few thrillers that a college friend penned within the past ten years.  One of my favorites is an old copy of Lawrence S. Ritter's classic baseball book, "The Glory of Their Times."  Ritter, best known as a professor of money and banking at NYU, drove an old station wagon around the U.S. in the mid-1960's and interviewed baseball players from the turn of the 20th century.  My long-since-deceased father bought it for me when I was a young teenager, and I read it, spellbound and with great reverence.  And, there it sits, on a bookshelf, dog-eared but as a symbol of all that is right about childhood, father-son relationships and our national pastime.

I've kept Douglas Southall Freeman's four volumes on Robert E. Lee -- they won him the Pulitzer Prize and when I had a long train commute, I read every one of them, wanting to know what made Lee tick, compelled to fight as an underdog and for two years more after he lost at Gettysburg.   Those serve as a reminder as to what might have been had he headed up the Union Army when Lincoln and General-in-Chief Winfield Scott asked and for a long commute to a job whose lustre had faded about at the time that I had begun my reading.  Likewise, Robert Caro's amazing books on Lyndon Johnson survived the cut -- if you want to get an historical MRI as to how a master politician and legislative genius got head, these are the books for you.

It was a cold, overcast day, it needed to be done, and I had the energy to do it.  When you make up your mind to de-clutter, you just go ahead and do it and get a rush that you are making things simpler.  But then you slow down, reading an inscription of a blank journal that a friend from your graduate school days gave you, copies of First Day covers that you used to collect, programs from old games.  And you realize how fast time moves, what you've done, where you've been, and what you've accomplished.

All while slowing down time, very much so, to reflect on life, to reflect on your learning, and to reflect on the world around you.  We are not necessarily what we eat, with whom we associate or what we read.  But we are a reflection of all teachings, and books are a rich part of where we've gone, who we are, and where we've been.

And it was good to slow down time, at least for a while.  The end of the year -- and vacation days -- do that.

And that's a good feeling.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why Do Major Colleges Have Football?

I'm reading the book on major college football -- former SI writer Armen Keteyian is one of the authors, and one of the first points the authors make is that only 20% of the "big-time" programs make money.  So, if that's the case, and 80% of the programs lose money on football, why play it?

Everyone else has been faced with budget cuts.  Football is expensive -- insurance, equipment, stadiums, staffs -- you name it, football costs more per kid than any other player.  And this awful percentage doesn't even take into account FCS schools, almost all of which probably lose money (and make it up, in certain cases, by charging high student activity fees).  There are certain reasons cited -- getting the student body fired up, getting the alumni to donate -- but aren't these old bromides that lack empirical proof?

Atop that, kids get hurt over and over again, and certain kids, let's face it, get used.  They are kept eligible to glorify the school and help a coach keep his job.  But afterwards, they get discarded the way the old shoulder pads do.  See, for example, the Oklahoma State expose in SI.

So I don't get it.  I mean, I like my hometown pro team, and yes, homecoming at my school can be fun (especially because I can see old friends).  But in this day and age, why do so many schools go to the sometimes extraordinary expense to have a football program?  There are protestors on every university campus about everything -- and sometimes the issues do not even make any sense.  Where is the hue and cry about football when compared to the dropping of numerous sports for other kids?  Okay, so softball won't generate a dime for Temple University, and that gets to another line of thinking.

Why have intercollegiate athletics at colleges anyway?  Oh, sure, because Winston Churchill once wrote that the Battle of Britain was won on the playing fields at Eton, or something like that.  But does that mean that Eton had to beat another school, or was it through intramural athletic vigor at the heralded English boarding school?  Put differently, should universities be putting their extra dollars toward those programs and, say, not programs that might be better designed to help kids develop passions for careers that lead them to be good citizens and, yes, taxpayers?

The arguments can be endless, but the expenses can be great.  I didn't realize that so many programs lose money, but the reporting seems pretty detailed.  At any rate, I don't want to get anyone in the SEC or elsewhere all riled up during holiday season, but the questions need to be asked.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Amazing Year in English Premier League

So many teams are vying for the top spot.  And the perennial bellwether, the New York Yankees of soccer, Manchester United is at the bottom of the top ten!

Manchester City are the sluggers, great offensive firepower, just clocking the opposition now and perhaps -- with all their talent and money -- the team to beat.

Liverpool has emerged from the shadows, so to speak, of the top four and are pounding people.  With Lionel Messi injured, striker Luis Suarez, he of the sometimes questionable temperament, is vying for the honor of the best player in the world.  Great motor and a goal-scoring machine.

Arsenal has made the Champions League sixteen years and running despite not having won a cup of any kind since 2004, when it went undefeated and had its "Invincibles" squad.  Mentor Arsenne Wenger has perpetually tried to keep the team (relatively) young and has them playing at a good pace.  That said, the Gunners have stumbled as of late, owing to a hectic schedule and a lack of the depth that others have.

Chelsea is another big money team, and they have talent to burn.  They are a bit thin at striker, and they haven't made up their minds as to what to do with their midfield.  From this vantage point, they aren't deploying their talent nearly as well as more and less talented teams have been doing.

Everton is also playing at a high level, owing to some veterans (Jagielka, Pienaar, Mirallas), some youngsters (Barkley, Coleman) and some key loanees (Lukaku, Delofeu).  They are playing at a very high-level and are now in fourth place going into this afternoon's/evening's Arsenal/Chelsea match.

You also cannot count out Manchester United, which has been playing better of late despite losing striker Robin van Persie to injury, not having the best depth, and adjusting to life without legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson.  David Moyes cannot be as bad a manager as some are saying, for he did a clever job building Everton despite a pronounced lack of resources at Goodison Park.

Then there are Newcastle, with a French accent, and Tottenham, Arsenal's arch-rival in North London. The former have been playing a good brand of soccer, and the latter parlayed the loss of all-world player Gareth Bale into the signing of five pretty good players.  The problem at White Hart Lane, as it were, is getting everyone to adjust to one another -- and fast.  That lack of adjustment cost manager Andres Villas-Boas his position.

And, there are others, too . . . Stoke City, now at the bottom of the top 10, and Swansea, which is on the borderline of the top 10.  All this, of course, makes for a great season in the Premiership.

Yes, I am a stalwart Arsenal rooter, but I see City's talent rising and Liverpool's magic (even currently without legend Steven Gerrard), although I find the former vulnerable to a good, mistake-free team, especially on the back line and the latter subject to some implosion should things start not to go well and Suarez's losing his temper (which probably is inevitable).  I am not sure Everton can survive a dry spell and injuries, and the loaned players will ultimately revert back to their clubs, with Chelsea probably already ruing the second consecutive year loaning of Lukaku.

So, my predictions:

1.  Manchester City.
2.  Arsenal (particularly if they pick up a striker in January to complement Olivier Giroud)
3.  Liverpool
4.  Chelsea
5.  Manchester United (yes, they shall rise)
6.  Everton

That's it for now, perhaps some wishful thinking on my part, but there are many teams jumbled with between 28 and 36 points after 17 games (about 40% of the season), and the excitement should continue to build.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Arms Race in College Football

How much is enough?

We live in a world where profits are fewer, profit margins are lower, guaranteed employment is far from a sure thing and businesses face increased competition.  In the current climate, people seem to be fighting for inches where decades ago with an average effort they were gaining dozens of yards.  Atop that, the cost of college has skyrocketed, making one wonder when some students will lead a movement to say "enough," demand relief from student loans that sap their confidence to buy homes and start families, insist upon internship programs at companies that do not require college degrees or insist upon access to public universities for costs that rival France's (read:  very cheap).  

Add to that background certain faculty members that challenge the United States' claim to exceptionalism and public fret about colonialism and imperialism, and it makes you wonder why they don't challenge (i) the exploitation of certain major college sports programs, (ii) the costs attendant to major college programs, especially football and (iii) the salaries of head coaches.  At some point, people should be asking, "why are they doing this?"

What brought this home for me was a discussion on talk radio today about Chip Kelly.  The conventional wisdom was that if Texas were to really want him, they'd pay him $10 million a year.  That's a lot of money, period, let alone for the leader of an extracurricular activity at a major university. And while I get the arguments that football generates revenue and can pay for an entire athletic department's budget, are head coaches really worth all that money?  Then again, if a football program brought in $40 million and they paid the coach $10 million, wouldn't that ratio track that of your average big law firm, where partners might get one quarter to one third of the billings they generate?

I am ambivalent about the whole thing.  Yes, I understand the economics, but I do not understand why any school feels compelled to keep up with this arms race.  Especially at schools where the players are kept eligible, don't advance toward meaningful degrees and get tossed aside when they get hurt (see, e.g., Oklahoma State).  Where is the outcry about that?   Why is it okay to spend all this money on a game when some kids almost bankrupt themselves to pay for college?  Universities, after all, are designed to help further the public good.  So the question remains whether by putting forth a top-notch football team with a coach paid like an investment banker serves the public good more than taking all the money it would spend on, say 100 football players on financial aid so as to reduce the burden for thousands.  Just a thought -- and one of those kids could help cure cancer.

Something tells me that the hue and cry will come more for kids who are treated as disposable than overpaid coaches.

But even that might not happen for a while, if the lack of outrage at SI's Oklahoma State series is any indication.

An American's Guide to the Barclay's Premier League

Since you probably see the BPL advertised on NBC and shown a lot on NBC's sports channel, since some kid you know probably plays soccer (and many prefer it to baseball, because of the action -- you don't stand around much), and since the World Cup is coming up in 2014, I figured it would be a good idea to share some highlights and what I find to be appealing.

1.  It's in English.  That's helpful.  I was on a business trip to France recently and watched some wonderful games -- Lazio hosting Napoli before a half-filled house, La Ligue's #2 team, Lille, besting the #3 team, Marseilles, and a "red zone" like presentation on Canal One -- all in French.  I know enough of the game to figure out who is who and what's going on, but this is in English.

2.  It's in England, but all over England, with a few caveats.  First, the best teams come from one of three cities -- London (Arsenal, Chelsea), Manchester (United, City) and Liverpool (Liverpool and Everton).  The latter two are closer to one another than they are to London (which also has West Ham, Tottenham, Fulham and Crystal Palace among the 20 teams in the BPL).

3.  It seems like owning a BPL team has become the signature trophy for the "A" list of international capitalists.  A Russian oligarch owns Chelsea, a Middle Eastern oil sheikh owns Manchester City, the Boston Red Sox's owners own Liverpool, the Glazers (who own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) own Manchester United (the New York Yankees of international soccer) and Stan Kroenke, who owns the St. Louis Rams, Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets, is the majority owner of Arsenal.  Paul Allen hasn't arrived in the BPL. . . yet.  

4.  There is no salary cap.  That helps the uber-wealthy, but disables squads in places that aren't on the beaten path and perhaps have no hope of making it into the Top 4 in the BPL (where you get cash and prizes; more later).  Arsene Wenger, the respected Arsenal coach who has guided the Gunners to 16 straight Champions Cup appearances, believes that the lack of cap hurts competitiveness.  He might be right.  I couldn't imagine being a fan of Fulham.  It's in London, but it's status in the Premiership is in peril.  Too frequently.

5.  There are no playoffs.  (There's a funny YouTube video on this involving the transfer of a U.S. football coach to Tottenham).  If you finish in the top 3, you automatically qualify for the Champions' League (which gets played during the regular season) -- and which draws the top teams from leagues around Europe.  If you finish fourth, you qualify for a play-in series to make it into the Champions League.  If you finish fifth, you make it into the Europa League, which is ostensibly what the FCS is to the BCS.  Put differently, the Europa League is for the best teams that didn't make it into the Champions League.

6.  You play a home and home with everyone else in the league. 

7.  You get two points for a win and one for a draw. 

8.  There are no penalty flags, no technical fouls, but there are fouls.  A foul involves the other team's getting possession or a penalty kick.  A rough foul will get a player a yellow card; pick up two in a game and that gets you a red card and an ejection.  Pick up five yellows over the season and that will earn you a suspension from the game after you picked up the fifth yellow card.  Commit a very rough foul or a foul that costs the other team a good chance to score -- and you'll get a red card and an automatic ejection (and with a red card comes a suspension from the next game).

9.  The bottom three teams get relegated to the next league down.  Translated, if your team finishes 18th, 19th or 20th, you'll be playing in English soccer's equivalent of the Nationwide Tour.  The top three teams from the Championship League, as the second-tier league is called, get promoted to the BPL.  And that means cash -- it could be worth 50 million English pounds.  Which the team will need to compete for talent to win enough in the BPL to stay there.  And staying there is hard.  Almost every team in the Championship League has had a stay -- sometimes long -- in the BPL

10.  The game does move well, and the athletes are very good.  The best U.S. athletes don't play soccer, but imagine Calvin Johnson as a goalie, Chris Paul as a central attacking midfielder, Allen Iverson as a wing, and dream on.  Some of the best international players -- if they are not playing for Real Madrid, Barcelona or Athletic Madrid in Spain, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Roma or Juventus in Italy, PSG in France or Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund in Germany -- are playing in the BPL.

11.  Among the best players in the Premier League are Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, Manchester City's Sergio Aguero (Diego Maradona's son-in-law), Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany, Liverpool's Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez (a goal-scoring machine), Chelsea's Oscar, Juan Mata and John Terry, and Manchester United's Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney.  Among many, many others.

12.  The World Cup is coming up fast, and the U.S. drew a "group of death" with Germany (among the favorites), Portugal (always dangerous) and Ghana.  Conventional wisdom has it that many South or Central American teams will make it to the "knockout" round of 16, including Brazil (11th in the world but the home country), Argentina (with the reigning "best player in the world," striker Lionel Messi), Ecuador (who got a very easy draw), Uruguay (with both Suarez and PSG's superlative striker, Edson Cavani), Chile, Colombia (one of the top five in the world, with another premier striker, Falcao), Mexico (who played terribly in qualifying and just eked in).  Among the others to watch are Germany (with an all-star starting lineup), Spain (the defending champions who add excellent striker Diego Costa to an already formidable lineup, but who looked a step slow last summer when they lost the Confederations Cup final to host Brazil) and Belgium (another team with an all-star lineup).  England, France and Italy always should be watched, but they probably won't make it to the semifinals in Rio in July.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Philadelphia Frustrations

Here goes:

1.  The Phillies.  They had the "wrong brothers" over generations.  In the 30's, 40's and 50's, when the Yankees had Joe DiMaggio and the Red Sox Dominic DiMaggio (an underrated and under-publicized player when compared to his immortal brother Joe), the Phillies had Vince, whom many thought would have been more successful had he been an opera singer.  Then, in the 80's and 90's, they had Mike Maddux instead of his more successful brother, Greg, who will join Baseball's Hall of Fame soon.  Mike is more successful now as a pitching coach than he was as a pitcher.  Finally, while his older brother was putting up huge numbers in Oakland and then New York, the Phillies ended up with wise-guy Jeremy Giambi.  Older brother Jason was the star, even if that stardom occurred during baseball's Steroids Era (which, I would argue, has been replaced with the "Double Secret Probation Performance-Enhance Drugs Era").

Atop that, the front office has decided to take a page out of the PGA Tour's book and start a Seniors' Tour all of their own.  On opening day, if they go with Cliff Lee, they will have 6 players 34 or older in their starting lineup.  Yes, they will have three position players under thirty (two under 25), but typically teams win when they balance the age groups and not when they decided to keep an aging core that keeps on getting hurt and whose performance has slipped.  Their lineup scares no one; their starting pitching is uneven, and their bullpen last year was nothing short of a disaster.  But somehow the front office thinks that they can reprise 2008, or at least summon images of that great season to keep putting people into the seats and paying almost $20 for a combination of beer and crab fries.  Memo to the front office:  how did that work for you last year?

2.  The Eagles.  They fire Andy Reid, and then he goes off to Kansas City and leads his team to a 9-1 record.  Truth be told, both parties needed a change of scenery, but it will be the Eagles' luck if Big Red leads the Chiefs to the Super Bowl while callers to sports talk radio write sonnets about the potential of QB Nick Foles (who, like Joe Montana, was a third-round draft pick).

3.  The Flyers.  First, they are so in love with their Revolutionary War Period (when they changed hockey by making it MMA on Ice), that they insist upon reviving it at every opportunity.  The thing of it is that the final "Rocky" movie, "Rocky Balboa," while poignant, lacked credibility for most non-Rocky fans because it's hard to fathom a sixty-year old battling it out with a 25 year-old light heavyweight in his prime.  The Flyers' brass still reminisce about that era, even if it was forty years ago.  Atop that, a couple of years ago they traded alleged party boys Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to different teams (and I will confess I don't remember who went to L.A. initially and who went to Columbus, because a) I am not a huge hockey fan and b) I used to think that they were interchangeable).  Sports talk hosts speculated that there were too many reports of the two talented front-liners having too much fun at Jersey Shore spots.  At any rate, both ended up in L.A., along with two other former Flyers, and two years ago they helped lead the Kings to winning the Stanley Cup.  Meanwhile, the Flyers haven't won one of those things since the Glory Days.

4  The 76ers.  I just read Dr. J's book (an honest, pretty good read for a sports biography, but he reveals, to my way of thinking,"TMI" about certain escapes, approaching but staying respectfully away from the Chamberlain Line), and he remarked how the 76ers had a good thing even after they won the title in 1983 but that Andrew Toney's problems with his feet persisted and the team blew itself up trading for Jeff Ruland (this trade, along with the Phillies' collapse in 1964, Donovan McNabb's vomiting on the sidelines near the end of the 2004 Super Bowl, the 76ers' blowing 3-1 leads in a few series against the Celtics from 1968 to 1982, Greg Luzinki's poor handling of fly balls against the Dodgers in a critical 1977 NLCS playoff game (and manager Danny Ozark's decision to leave him in there), the trade of Wilt Chamberlain for three Lakers and the trade of Ryne Sandberg and Larry Bowa to the Cubs for Ivan DeJesus, all will remain as indelible stains on the memory of the average Philadelphia sports fan older than 55).  In any event, they are primed to get two good picks this year, so what do they do?  They hire the best coach they can find, a Gregg Popovich protege, and they actually are winning games despite having a roster populated with the equivalent of what you might have in miscellaneous storage bins in the deepest recesses of your basement.  A couple of teams intentionally stripped their rosters to have a solid crack at Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker; the 76ers got there on merit, and, now, they could end up playing well enough to play their way out of a chance at one of the top five (supposedly transformational) picks.  I'm kidding, of course -- Brett Brown looks to be an excellent coach, but this snakebitten franchise needs a little more than just Brown's coaching.  It needs players.  And to get them, the Darwinism in the NBA suggests that you need to lose and rebuild.

It's the coldest day of the fall so far down here today.  The 76ers played heroically if short-handed in Indiana last night, the Eagles have a bye, and the Phillies continue to age.  Chip Kelly, hired in January, is the longest-tenured of the coaches of the four major sports franchises in the city.  Frustrations abound.  The Eagles are showing some promise, the Flyers not so much, the 76ers' future is tied to losing and the Phillies' tied to memories.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

On Richie Incognito, the Dolphins, NFL Culture

A lot has been said and written about what happened in Miami, and I'd like to offer my views:

1.  That everyone does it does not make it right.  The culture of sticking rookies with bills seemingly has gone too far in the NFL.  Witness Dez Bryant's getting stuck with a $55,000 restaurant bill a few  years ago in Dallas, and contrast that to ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary called "Broke" which chronicled how many pro athletes have gone broke.  It's one thing to ask rookies to bring donuts to the morning meeting and make that a ritual.  It's another to make them pay huge bucks.  Sorry, but none of us was raised that way.  In fact, we expect Dad to pick up the check, not the kids.  It's nice when the kids offer, but the thing is, in the NFL, it would be nicer if the the veterans resisted temptation because they can force their will on others and instead would lead a little more.  No, I'm not talking about coddling rookies in an every competitive league, but harrassing them into paying five figures for something?  That just doesn't seem right.

2.  Mike Greenberg was wrong when he said things that go on in Corporate America as to hazing are worse.  Sure, I"ve had to do crafts and make food at team-building events, but I've never asked anyone on my team to pay for anything, and I've not stuck someone with the bill, humiliated them, etc.  If things along the lines of what goes on in an NFL locker room were to go on at most, if not all, corporations, the people who perpetrate them will get written up and possibly fired.  Period.  Defending what goes on in NFL locker rooms because it's the NFL and it's always happened is Greenberg's way of avoiding an unnecessary (in his mind) fight with his partner, Mike Golic, and I'm not so sure that Golic would have wanted to be stuck with the bill that Dez Bryant got stuck with (then again, Golic wasn't a first-round pick, so it probably wouldn't have happened).

3.  The NFL hosts a collision sport, so I don't expect its players to be gentle all the time.  True, they're not running a sensitivity business, but they are running a team.  So, you aren't going to get "here, have a flower" hippies blocking for running backs," you're going to get guys who like to hit people hard.  Which means, perhaps, that it's harder for them to turn their manners off and on the way a greeter at a hotel might.  I get all that.  But I also believe that teams excel where the veterans know where to draw the line, know the difference between a rite of passage and hazing, know how to make key rookies feel part of the team quickly so that the team can make the playoffs and then advance as far as it can.  What has gone on in Miami has affected not only the offensive line play, but also the play of the team.

4.  That more Dolphins would welcome Incognito back than Jonathan Martin, the player he allegedly harrassed, says something about NFL culture and the Dolphins culture.  And it's not good.  We're a hypocritical society -- we sue, we publicly excoriate people who behave badly, we accuse corporations and leaders of all sorts of things, but in this case we'll want the aggressive Incognito (who has quite a history) back over Martin, who is the victim here?  What does that say?  It might say that Martin is out of position, might have been overrated or doesn't belong on the team.  Or it might say that NFL players would prefer a teammate who is a little out there because, well, being a nice guy/altar boy/Stanford student isn't critical to winning and being a badass is.  And Roger Goodell is worried (to a degree) about head injuries.  What about head cases?

5.  Is Incognito's career over?  Many have drawn that conclusion, but I am not sure that it's the case.  Sure, he seemingly has done some bad things, but so have many professional athletes.  Yes, it looks like this is bullying, and, yes, it looks like this is racial harassment.  Contrast this incident to Riley Cooper's idiocy with security guards at Lincoln Financial Field during a Kenny Chesney concert.  The video of his using a bad racial slur went viral, but the team got in front of it, Cooper apologize quickly, and the team's leader, Michael Vick, demonstrated great class, cool and leadership by forgiving Cooper and helping heal the situation fast.  This Miami incident is a little more complicated, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the Dolphins need to fire Incognito.  For example, if Martin forgives him and tells the team he doesn't want that remedy, the Dolphins might not have their hands forced unless they believe that Incognito needs to go so that they can build a better culture.  Then again, if they fire Incognito, they have to figure out how to integrate Martin back into the team.  My sense is that the locker room might not be nice to him, and that, in and of itself, could spark retaliation in many forms, including the legally actionable. 

6.  Should we rush to an overall remedy for the league on this type of behavior?  I'm a big critic of drawing up policies based on single data points.  I am concerned about sticking rookies with big bills, because I don't think that's what leaders should do.  Bring the donuts, bring the barbecue before the team flight, fine, but $15,000 for a Vegas trip or a $55,000 dinner?  Sorry, even for millionaires, that's a bit much.  That said, lots of things go on around the country that we haven't made rules or legislated for, and this is the first time in a while that this type of thing has come up in the NFL context.  Which means that for right now this is the Dolphins' problem, and not necessarily the league's.  And it's a messy problem at that.

7.  What what I do if I were the Dolphins?  I'd have a lot of individual meetings, a lot of meetings with leaders, meetings with Incognito and his agent, meetings with Martin and his agent, and try as best I could to let the past be in the past, to get apologies, to heal and to win football games.  That said, a lot has happened, and this may not be possible given the past history.  But there is a cautionary tale here, one that I wondered about back in 2004 about alleged leaders of teams.  Back then, the Eagles signed Terrell Owens to play wide receiver, and he played great.  But he was moody and acted out publicly, and conflicted with the leader of the offense, Donovan McNabb.  QBs can be sensitive people, and McNabb wasn't the type to handle this type of conflict without help.  And while people now revere Brian Dawkins and Jeremiah Trotter, I don't think they did anything to settle the situation becuase they were friends with both.  That proved to be a mistake, no matter how close the Eagles got to a Super Bowl title in 2004, because the team imploded the following year.  Anyone who says, "well, he's an issue, but I seem to get along with him," might be bailing on a toxicity that could bury a team's chances.  I thought that happened in '05 with the Eagles, where some stern talk from Dawkins and or Trotter to Owens might have told T.O. to grow up.  The same could have happened in Miami, where, apparently, too many were afraid of Incognito or didn't want to get involved.  Even if people are "expected to take it," some can't, Jonathan Martin needed help, and, seemingly, others were more content to let the team implode than to say, "Hey, Richie, Jonathan's a different breed of cat, ease up a bit.  He's making the plays, but he's different, so be cool to it."  That comment might have provoked a conversation that might have led at least to an understanding.  Instead, the Dolphins have a mess on their hands, and it would be interesting to see if any player wishes he had spoken up, or if they are blaming Martin for being oversensitive in a league where to show weakness is to risk ostracism and unemployment.

The NFL shouldn't be rash here.  Careers are short, the pressure is great, and the culture is odd.  That's part of the lure, but there is a difference between ribbing and initiating on the one hand and hazing and bullying on the other.  It looks like a line got crossed here, and that's been bad for all involved.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Haunting of Philadelphia Sports Teams

Andy Reid's Chiefs are now 7-0. Shane Victorino hits grand slam to propel Red Sox to World Series. What will happen next? The town has been notorious for getting the wrong brothers DiMaggio (Vince instead of Joe), Maddux (Mike instead of Greg) and Giambi (Jeremy instead of Jason). Will Charlie Manuel end up managing the Nationals to a World Championship? Will something happen on the journey to Andrew Wiggins that let's lightning strike the best team in the lottery and give them the first overall pick? The Eagles passed on both Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson to take Nick Foles. The Eagles rejoiced when they "found" USC QB Matt Barkley on the fourth round, despite the pronounced lack of success of any Trojan QB during the past 15 years save a season of Matt Cassel in New England and some moments of brilliance (too rare) from Carson Palmer. Barkley threw three interceptions in relief of Foles yesterday. As for the Flyers, they still have the big dinosaur-like player approach that might have worked when vigilante justice did in the NHL. Two seasons ago, castoffs named Richards and Carter led the Kings to an NHL title. Both were good players; both underachieved in Philadelphia. Too frequent trips to the Jersey shore to party were attributed to their lack of focus, but who can argue that Southeastern PA area offers more distractions than Los Angeles? So, again, what will happen next?

Monday, October 07, 2013

"Flyers Hockey" is a Tired, Old Cliche

Welcome to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mike Sielski.  My guess is that the Flyers' brass will give you the Tim Panaccio treatment and try to have you sent to cover the Lingerie Football League as punishment for daring to assault such an icon as Ed "Mister" Snider.  Great column today.

And you are absolutely right.  It is time for the Flyers to change their approach.

But, instead, they trotted out another old Flyer to coach the time, one whose bona fides are that he's paid his dues, played for the franchise and is loyal to Ed Snider, who some locals reverently refer to as "Mister Snider" as if that were the utmost in respect they could show the man.  Snider should be loyal to Comcast's shareholders, to whom he does owe a legal duty, as opposed to his former players, to whom it is nice to be loyal, for sure, but at the end of the day when you haven't won a title in forty years you should try to change it up a bit.

Mike Sielski says it better than I could, and his column is a worthy read.  Flyers' fans -- a small and perhaps shrinking number -- should wonder whether it's wise to practice hockey's version of idolatry versus questioning whether "Flyers hockey" -- a bunch of dedicated, if too big and too slow players -- play physically but seemingly haven't adapted to more modern styles.  Instead, they'll continue to worship the man who brought two consecutive titles in the mid-1970's (before many fans were born).  Make no mistake, Snider's achievement was great, but it happened generations ago.

All institutions that thrive do so because they consistently emphasize what worked while concurrently trying to adapt and challenge old assumptions.  The Flyers -- the well-capitalized Flyers -- do not do any of that.  Snider to continues to run the franchise the way he wants to, and it looks like he will continue to do just that.

Expect to see former Flyers continue to populate important positions, a perpetual "Old Timers' Day" if there ever was one.

Just don't expect a title any year soon.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Eagles' Fans Should be Patient with Chip Kelly

There are many reasons for this statement.

1.  He just got here.  Not everyone gets off to a great start when he changes jobs.  Not everyone inherits a great group to lead when he changes jobs.  Not everyone can effect change in the matter of months.  Give the guy a break.  As Ray Didinger pointed out in Comcast Post-Game Live after yesterday's thrashing at the hands of the Broncos, their schedule is such that they could win their next two games, go 3-3 and then have the Cowboys coming into the Linc.  Remember, they are in the NFC East, which is not the NFL's equivalent of the SEC.

2.  His offense is second in the NFL.  Along the lines of "you are what your record says you are," a corollary is that "you are what your statistics say you are."  They have a good offense.  That's what the numbers show.  The man is an innovator, and I don't recall anyone jumping for joy over the concepts of "Moneyball," the "West Coast Offense," the Spread Offense or the "Read-Option."  Yet, somewhere, somehow, all have been successful.

3.  He is an innovator.  He focuses on the small details (save, perhaps yesterday, his special teams, which were horrid), such as the tempo of practices, when to hit and when not to, what his players should eat, etc.  He also is going around the block for the first time.  He'll catch up on defense and on special teams, even if he'll need new coordinators (likely) and new players (definitely).

4.  Let's not get overly nostalgic about Andy Reid.  Reid is a good coach who did a good job in Philadelphia.  Yet, by the end of his tenure, the team had a bunch of flaws, lost its focus, and had holes in its roster that seemed to persist over the years (and which Coach Andy missed or refused to address).  That this team is not playing well should be no surprise, because in the end you either have the talent to win or you do not, regardless of the coaching (and this team has very few stars).  That the Chiefs are playing well has depended on a) the anomaly that they had five Pro Bowlers last year on a team that won just twice and c) that they have tatooed the NFC East, which is playing at perhaps its worst level in memory.  So, before everyone gets on the Andy bandwagon or negatively compares Coach Chip, let's wait a while longer.  When asked about how they thought democracy was doing, Chinese governmental officials remarked, "Let's wait 5,000 years and see."  Touche.

5.  Did you really expect this team to go to the playoffs?  There are only two possible answers to this question -- "No" and "Heck, no."  Yet, given how the fans are reacting, you'd think that many thought that with a new coach this roster would be bound for the Super Bowl in the Giants' home stadium.  Better yet, given how terrible the division is, the Birds do have a chance, and this is one of life's odd twists.  This team is not a playoff team under most circumstances, yet there remains the possibility that they could get there.  Still, they are a few years away (and a few Chip Kelly drafts and adjustments) from being a very good team.

6.  Knock off all the talk that he's "Charlie College" and that this offense will not work in the NFL.  Evolution, innovation and adaptation are a good part of what life is all about.  Yes, he is asking for a fast pace from his players, and perhaps that means that offensive and defensive linemen will have to be less obese, in better shape and better able to rebound more quickly.  Those who complain that the players get tired might be complaining because some of their favorite trench players have bellies that pour over their belt lines by too big a margin to be considered "athletic."  These guys are professionals, and it's not like professional soccer, where the players play 45 minutes non-stop.  In football, the play stops on an incomplete pass, on TV timeouts, after scores, etc., even if teams do not huddle.  That should be plenty of time for players to rest, even if the ball is in play for say only twenty-five of the sixty minutes.  Divide that by two if you want to argue hypothetically that a team plays twelve and a half minutes on offense and the same on defense (given that nothing happens during the other minutes).  Do you mean to say that NFL players can't keep up a pace for that short a period of time once a week?  Even if they are getting hit?  Really? 

Give this offense time.  Kelly knows what he is doing and might be years advanced in his thinking.  In baseball, no one wanted to look at statistics as a predictor of performance; today, math gurus populate every front office, and a guy with the "good face" and a good athletic body might not achieve first-round draft status if he cannot make the plays.  In football, fullbacks and halfbacks used to run a lot, and passing was much more rare.  Today, the game is far different.  All Kelly is trying to do is innovate within the passing game.  That's great, novel, and, yes, flying in the face of traditionalists.  In two years, these same anxious fans will greatly appreciate that Jeffrey Lurie hired him.

7.  If you have owned a dog or had kids, you realize that you have to give them time to mature.  No one said that this coach would drop in and excel from the get go.  True, he should adapt faster than your four-month old puppy or your toddler, but he and his system will need some time.  Give Chip Kelly some time.

8.  John Wooden spent 16 years at UCLA before winning the first of his many national titles.  Think about that before you are ready to jettison Chip Kelly.  (It's probably true that had Pete Newell not retired from Cal at a young age Wooden might have had a very tough obstacle to overcome, but that doesn't mean he would not have won some national titles).  At no time do I think that people wanted to push Wooden out.  He had a system, he was determined, he had a vision, and he was dignified.  It's not fair to ask Chip Kelly to win consistently with this group.  And, finally. . .

9.  Colleges are starting a unique trend of firing coaches early in the season.  USC fired its coach, so did UConn.  Meanwhile, there are calls to oust Mack Brown at Texas.  Put differently, many major-college coaching jobs will open up, and Kelly could be everyone's first choice.  Eagles' fans should support him, defend him and embrace him, so that he'll consider remaining in Philadelphia for a long time.  Otherwise, they'll push him into the arms of an elite BCS school, which would welcome him with open arms.  If we want Chip Kelly to go to Texas, let it be with the Eagles on a trip to Dallas, so that they can beat Jerry Jones' team in his own building.

Patience is a virtue. 

Eagles' fans need to remember that.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Lehigh 29 Princeton 28

Nice night to watch a game at Princeton Stadium.

Nice first half for Princeton, up 22-3.

Looked good for the Tigers.

But Lehigh didn't go into the game ranked #22 in the FCS for no reason.

The Mountain Hawks came back mightily, surviving a Princeton "answer" to win 29-28.

A few thoughts:

1.  Princeton's offense will get better, and it was pretty good last night.  That said, I thought that QB Quinn Epperly far outshines QB Connor Michelsen in terms of "tough" situations.  The latter had a tendency to lock and load on a single receiver last night, and at times looked pretty bad doing it.  He threw into double coverage early in the game for an easy pick, tried to pile drive a laser into a covered receiver on a failed two-point conversion and threw a pick with a few minutes to go to seal the game for Lehigh.  Even with that, his locking onto a receiver too early caused him to miss wide open swing receivers on the left side time and time again.  There were several occasions where the running back was so wide open that he could have run 30 yards upon an easy toss to the weak side.  Even with that, where was the offensive coordinator or another offensive coach?  Clearly, they had to see that and should have adjusted for it.  The Tigers didn't, and it might have cost them the game.  In contrast, Epperly showed a sense of urgency that seemed to suggest he moves the team more easily.  Finally, NFL gurus suggest that if you have two quarterbacks you have no quarterback.  It's hard to tell whether head coach Bob Surace and offensive coordinator James Perry are innovators versus coaches who are making things more complex.  I'll go with innovators for now -- they put up 28 points against a good team, and normally that should be enough to win.

2.  Princeton's defense was not good in the second half last night.  First, credit goes to the Lehigh coaches, who adjusted.  Second, demerits so to the Princeton defensive coaches, who showed the biggest blind spot of the night.  Lehigh kept on going to its left, picking on the right side of Princeton's defense.  Yet, time and time again, the defenders, particularly the defensive backs, played a containing sort of defense that had them too far off the ball.  At some point, you would have figured that they would have adjusted and jumped some routes to break up plays or create a turnover.  They did not do it, and it helped cost them the game.  Also, the Tigers ran a blitz package at least four times in the game to the Lehigh QB's blindside, only to have Lehigh run a screen pass toward that side that went for at least twenty-five yards each time.  At some point, you have to adjust for that possibility.  Again, expect that part of the Tigers' defense to improve.

The positive news is that they outplayed a good offense in the first half.  The negative -- they couldn't sustain it for two halves and they looked pretty bad in the second half.

3.  The Princeton players most likely to get repetitive motion injuries are back-up QBs Malik Hawkins and Garrett Gosse, who, somewhat frenetically, signal in the plays from the sidelines.  Those guys got quite a workout, as it's not so simple and a few baseball-like signs from the third-base coaching box.  These guys wielded their arms incessantly the entire time the Tigers had the ball on offense.

4.  It was one that got away.  You are not supposed to lose when you are up 22-3 at the half.  Early in the second half, with the ball, the Tigers should have embarked on a time-consuming drive to wear down the Lehigh defense, keep them on the field, and push them around a bit.  While the Mountain Hawks seemingly took their vitamins and halftime and came out with an aggressiveness they did not display in the first half, the Tigers stuck with Michelson and the passing offense, didn't have a particularly good set of downs, went three and out and only ran about seventy-five seconds off the clock.  That gave Lehigh a boost and got them going.

Fun night at Princeton Stadium, even with the loss.  The Tigers are innovative on offense, showed something on defense in the first half and have some good skill position players.   They just had difficulty closing this one out.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Princeton Has an NFL Player

Mike Catapano of Andy Reid's Kansas City Chiefs.

If What Sports Illustrated Says About Oklahoma State is True. . .

I have great respect for Sports Illustrated and its senior writer, George Dohrmann, who helped lead the detailed reporting about the football program at Oklahoma State.  Here are some observations after having read the first installment (of five):

1.  Let's not react or rush to judgment.  What SI reports is disturbing, but I learned a long time ago that reports and stories need some ample time for reflection before we all decide culpability and punishment.  Examples such as the Duke lacrosse affair and, more recently, the scandal at Penn State, compel a good measurement of detached reflection, especially where the harm has been done and encapsulated and does not continue.  That said, with respect to Oklahoma State's football program, I do not believe that anyone has any way of knowing whether the behavior that has been alleged has ceased.

Still, it's easy to gasp in horror at the allegations.  The current athletic director at Oklahoma State did go so far as to apologize to his fellow Big 12 schools, but let's wait to read all installments and hear what else comes out after the installments in order to have a full picture as to what might have happened at Oklahoma State.  Remember, there are sufficient instances in history where the facts look bad but what happened did not turn out as it initially seemed.  That said, this series of allegations might not fall into that category, but trial by newspaper and public opinion is a bad thing.  Just ask the average Penn State alum, who will believe to her or his dying day that NCAA President Mark Emmert goofed royally, punished the wrong people at Penn State, and conveniently overlooked a whole host of transgressions at other schools that more directly fell within the NCAA's purview (see, for example, the North Carolina football program under John Blake).

2.  That said, what if SI's story checks out and Oklahoma State is culpable?    The statute of limitations within the NCAA rule book has run.  At least it has run for transgressions that happened more than four years ago.  But the stain remains, and it probably becomes more indelible and deepens if the NCAA does not do anything about it (presumably, Oklahoma State will not -- it will not strip itself of titles, records, resources or anything else).  And it wouldn't seem like the NCAA can do anything about it.  And it doesn't seem that any Federal or state laws were broken.  So, if no action is taken, more cynicism about "student athletes" will become reality (for example, if you read Princeton President Chris Eisgruber's remarks on the pending retirement of twenty-year athletic director Gary Walters, you'll note his thinly veiled disgust for what much of the NCAA calls a "student athlete.").  At the end of the day, the NCAA will look worse, but some of the allegations might prompt attention from governmental authorities, particularly at the Federal level.

3.  The underlying, inconvenient truths about big-time college athletics.  There are many.  First, the business that is major college football and basketball could come under serious scrutiny from the Federal government particularly, in several ways.  Taxing authorities -- who are increasingly looking for more sources of revenue -- could challenge a university's 501(c)(3) tax exempt status and attempt to tax the living daylights out of any sports-related revenue (among other money-making activities that go on under the umbrella of these "charitable" organizations).  Put simply, BCS football is a big business.  Next, the games that get played with "student athletes" might warrant some form of legislation.  The BCS schools stack the rules in their favor, and the NCAA enforces that stacking.  Here are a few examples -- a) scholarships are one-year renewable, and b) no one says they have to prepare you for a job, c) it's hard to know who really graduates (and the argument for not paying college players is that they get a "free ride" for a "good education" which presumably "is worth a lot of money."  If you read the SI article closely, you'll get a sense that these programs for the most part don't give one royal good gosh darn about the student athletes.  Oh, they'll talk about it and the NCAA will put out press releases about the one lineman from Southeast Gutbucket State who is 4.0 in pre-med, but what about the kids who don't have good skills coming in, who get advanced for no reason, or who get dismissed or tossed out or non-renewed after buying a bill of goods from a coach who then leaves after a few years, perhaps with the program in shambles?  Coaches can leave, but kids can be held to their scholarship commitments.  This is part of the "don't get me started" conversation that feeds the cynics and skeptics and provides them with enough compelling arguments to put them into the "blunt realist" category and to put those who defend the virtues of BCS football and big-time basketball into the "pathological liar" category.  That's a hypothesis, and it's not as though the skeptics are asking the big-time programs to prove a negative.  To the contrary, show us the stats -- as to how many kids you "non-renew", what happens after a coach leaves, why does a coach leave, what do kids major in, how many graduate, what is their career path like after they leave.  If you do that, then the kids can do their due diligence and figure out which school is a good fit for them.  Absent that, you are asking impressionable young men to judge a book by its cover, or in this case, and in the cases of places like Oklahoma State and Oregon, a school by its glitzy facilities.  Let's face it, even the physics nerds in high school notice the hot girl whose skirt is too short and top is too tight.

4.  Atop that, you have the arguments about paying the student-athletes.  No less an authority and advocate than Jay Bilas has beaten the drum for compensation.  You have Mike Greenberg of "Mike and Mike" being sympathetic and Notre Dame alum Mike Golic being almost steadfastly against, taking the traditional argument that the scholarship and opportunity to get a good education should be enough.  In Golic's case, he came from a "traditional" family which presumably had sufficient money to be at least comfortable, and his kids probably had that benefit too.  But for the poor kid from a single-parent home that constantly worries about money, it's a tougher situation.  It's hard to reconcile his playing before a hundred thousand fans with his "only" getting $100 a month for laundry and incidentals.  Of course, if the systems were as pure as the NCAA advertises and perhaps Golic hopes, then the kids will all go to class, major in meaningful subjects (and not be subject to taking goofball courses like Jim Harrick's course on basketball when Harrick coached at Georgia) and have a path to a sustaining career (and not have his scholarship be subject to an annual renewal).   Then, the kids could be student-athletes and not worry about whether his scholarship might be revoked if he wants to take courses that could conflict with his ability to attend practice or his eligibility (presumably because the more challenging the workload, the more difficult it might be to remain eligible -- remember the nasty public fight then-Ohio State running back Robert Smith had with offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac regarding Smith's wish to be a pre-med major).  I appreciate where Golic is coming from, but it seems like the SI article suggests that the student-athlete should have difficulty trusting the system because of the pressure on coaches to win now at all costs, even if that means a) cutting kids mid-career or b) trying to get them to take the easiest majors possible to get them to focus almost solely on football.

That said, I am not fully versed in what Bilas is contending, and I don't want to speculate.   He has said that college athletes should be able to make money in ventures the same way non-athletes do.  Kids work to pay for college, kids might sell paintings, be babysitters, serve as stringers for newspapers, what have you, and they don't lose their eligibility to be students.  So, the logic goes, why can't a Johnny Manziel sell his autograph, and why should his ability to sign things for money be limited to his school's being able to do so to raise funds?  Similarly, the kids collectively help put rear ends in the seats, the TV money can be staggering, as can the revenues from appearing in and winning a bowl game.  Yet, the kids have no say in how the business is run and whether they can share in the revenue, even if the value of the scholarship can get diluted because the scholarship is non-renewable and they can be shunted into goofy majors that do nothing other than help keep them eligible.  Which then means that they aren't "scholar-athletes" to begin with, just athletes who play for well-heeled college programs.

5.  Conclusion.  Out of a theory that the biggest lies can be the ones that we tell ourselves, when will we come to grips with the notion that big-time college athletics are hypocritical, create odd choices and compel odd decisions.  In The Blind Side, Michael Lewis essentially wrote that many kids on the Ole Miss roster under then-head coach Ed Orgeron were deficient academically, sometimes significantly so.  Put differently, many of them didn't appear to belong in college.  But the SEC loves its football, and football is a big part of the culture at SEC schools.  That's not to say that it cannot be or that it should not be.  It's just that all over the BCS, colleges, especially in these times, where funds are not abundant, should re-examine their missions and determine the type of athletic programs they have and what they stand for.  Because, for right now, every time a Carolina program gets dinged or an Oklahoma State program gets exposed, the average fan does not say, "Gee, those guys are dirty, but I am glad my school doesn't play like that."  No, I doubt that's the case.  Instead, I think that the average fans sighs and says, "Well, if they caught those guys for being so bad, you can imagine how many schools out there are doing similar things but just haven't been caught yet."

And it's not that some schools do not try hard to run clean programs.  They do.  But values change and differ in different places at different times.  Some schools circumvent the limit on assistant coaches by having a million or more dollars' worth of people with fancy titles who do now what assistant coaches used to do.  They build monuments to their programs, and they spend huge sums doing so.

All at a time where paying for college has become prohibitively expensive and where the average kid has to take out a staggering amount of loans that she/he will struggle to repay and cause him or her to change his life plans -- by delaying buying a house or a car and by having kids -- all of which are having, and will continue to have, profound effects on the future of the country (which now is also the world's best democracy).  No, out-of-control spending in major college football isn't a root cause of anything other than the problems that college football and universities are having, but it is a symptom of something greater than just problems with college athletics.

And it's up to university presidents to remember their public missions and honor them.

It's up to them to have the courage to do so.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

What if Clay Matthews' Flying Leap Knocked Colin Kaepernick Out for the Year?

QB runs out of bounds.

Star linebacker for opposing team takes flying leap, almost horse collars the QB.

A flag goes up.  Tempers flare.  QB's left tackle, the guy who protects the QB's blind side, gets a penalty for retaliating.

A few questions:

1.  Why wasn't the star linebacker ejected from the game?  The reasons:  1) a failed horse collar deserves as much culpability as a horse collar and 2) he left his feet when the QB was out of bounds, a clear late hit.  Just because the QB wasn't knocked out doesn't mean that the linebacker did not deserve to be ejected.

2.  What are the criteria for ejection?

3.  What if Kaepernick suffered a season-ending injury from the late hit?  Which, by the way, all major media tweeters thought was dirty.  Then what?  Would the linebacker's late hit be worth the $50,000 fine that the NFL enforcement cops would have hit him with?  Perhaps if not probably.  And what would happen if this were to happen in a playoff game?  My view -- eject the player and bench the opposing team's starting QB.  Otherwise, it's clearly worth it for a defensive player to take a cheap shot at the opposing QB.  The fines pale in comparison to what a win is worth.   And therein lies the problem.

I don't mean to sound harsh, but what's the deterrent?  I know that there are folks out there like Mike Golic who believe that the game is turning into touch football and that it's almost illegal for a defensive player to touch a quarterback.  I get all that, and that is not what I am saying.  What I am saying is that the league should look at the pure math of what is going on and then figure out that it is worth it for a defense to take out the opposing quarterback, because the risk for a late hit/questionable hit only is a fine, is not a suspension, and will not cost the late-hitting team the services of its first-team quarterback. Because that's not the case, the incentive for the star linebacker to take the shot remains.

That is, until the league's star quarterbacks go down, one by one, and we're left to paying top dollar to watch washed up former starters or average throwers take on varsity defenses and then have the games end in defensive struggles.

The NFl needs to figure out something out here before there are more flying leaps at quarterbacks.  Because the next time one happens, one of the league's best QBs will be watching the rest of the season from the press box.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Joys of a (True) Rec League

My son played intramural soccer for years in our local organization, only to bow out when the emphasis on "academy" and travel teams cannibalized the rec league and created an emotional caste system for kids (that is, some began to think that playing did not matter if they weren't on a travel team).      He moved onto other sports -- flag football, tackle football and fall lacrosse -- until this summer, when he suggested to us that he wanted to play co-ed recreational soccer for 13-18 year olds.

This matched his newfound passion for being a fan of international soccer.  He's a rabid Arsenal fan, knows the rosters of the Premiership teams well, knows strategy and tactics and, well, just wanted to get in on the fun.  Neighborhood kids have played in this league have raved about it.  If I am not mistaken, I believe that one neighborhood boy has met his future wife while playing in the league.  It's a great social mixer -- kids don't have to get coiffured, dressed up, spend money on clothes and food or go to a dance -- they just have to show up and play.

The ages range from thirteen to eighteen, basically eighth to twelfth graders, and there is a mix of boys and girls, bigger and older kids and younger kids.  They practice twice a week, and today, in their first game, my son got to play left back, center mid and goalie.  He contributed to a clean sheet, made a few good passes, and looked okay out there -- especially for someone who has not played in four years.  More important than that, the spirit of the whole enterprise was terrific.  The kids played competitively and tried hard, but there was no pushing, no hard slide tackles, no yelling at officials, just some good running and passing, a few good corner kicks, and a few good saves.

It was fun to watch.  There were no parents out there hoping that a travel coach would see them, that a kid would show some unknown brilliance that would get them a shot at a travel team, none of that stuff that can permeate rec leagues and travel programs and turn them away from an ideal into a toxic wasteland polluted with the bad habits of adults and children.  Instead, this was about community, it was about kids, it was about good weather, and it was a celebration of making sure that kids got a good run in, that they got exercise, that they mixed with kids they didn't know and had some good, old-fashioned fun.

We talk about obesity, we talk about diabetes, we talk about sedentary lives, about kids playing "first-person shooter" games and about being on social media too much.  What a better way to promote great habits to get kids out there with enthusiastic coaches, a single official, a soccer ball and a great attitude.  It's a great way to promote good habits.  If we had more of these leagues and kids and parents bringing these attitudes, we'd have a happier, healthier country.

When the right habits are promoted and the right attitudes are brought, it doesn't matter who won or who lost, just how the game was played and that it was played.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Following Twitter on International Soccer's "Transfer Deadline Day" Was Fun

It's like watching the returns of a close election, with various precincts reporting.  Lots of movement, and you're watching your favorite team land one of the biggest prizes of the whole transfer period  You're also watching to see if they could get anyone else (they tried) and how the rivals fared (some better than others).  Overall, it should be a very good race for the top 4 spots in the Premiership, with Everton perhaps making enough moves to make a claim that there should be a "top 7."

Manchester United will remain the favorite in Las Vegas and in London, and right at the deadline they signed the Belgian national Maroune Fellaini, he with the huge hair that resembles that of one-time New York Yankee and Cleveland Indian Oscar Gamble.  Fellaini will provide great muscle in the mid-field, although the key, to me, for United will be to motivate Wayne Rooney.  Put simply, United looked listless without him against Liverpool on Saturday.  Speaking of Liverpool, owner John Henry refused to sit tight, and by making some last-minute nifty adds and not selling the contract of striker Luis Suarez, Liverpool has one of its toughest squads in years.   Staying on the west side of England, Man City was quiet, and they have abundant talent.  They'll remain a contender, but they have to remember that while their roster will sell tickets and jerseys, that doesn't mean they can mesh and win a title or two.

Going east to London, there were three teams to watch.  Chelsea made its moves earlier, although they did ship potential future megastar striker Romelu Lukaku, who excelled at West Brom last season, to Everton, giving them another threat.  They did sign the Cameroon star Samuel Eto'o, who, at 32, still has some tread left on the tires.  But they failed to solve for thin depth at striker and didn't create clarity for midfielder Juan Mata.  Still, Chelsea is a team to beat.  Their bench could give many of the lower tier teams a run for their money and perhaps could finish mid-table.

And now we go to North London, where Tottenham, still having failed to score a goal other than through penalty shots, loaded up on pieces in anticipation of selling Gareth Bale's contract to Real Madrid.  They have some real talent, but it seems like it might take a season for it to mesh.  And then there was Arsenal, war chest at the ready, but failing to make any signings.  They pared some excess players early in transfer season, releasing certain young players and some veterans.  They did agree to a loan of Italian goaltender Viviano last season and almost lined up Chelsea backup striker Demba Ba, but the folks at Stamford Bridge balked at providing the Gunners with another striker after they learned that Arsenal had purchased the contract of German center attacking midfield Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid.  Real Madrid agreed to terms for Ozil with PSG and Arsenal, letting Ozil pick.  So valued was Ozil in Madrid that fans at the press conference announcing Bale's arrival chanted for their club to keep Ozil, only to have a member of management shush them.  While Arsenal (according to Ian Darke and others) probably would have fared better to add a center back (given the injury to Thomas Vermaelen and some suspect play) or a center defensive midfielder, Ozil will give them tremendous depth from midfield up  With Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, the Gunners have some of the best midfielders in the Premiershop.  In manager Arsene Wenger, they have someone who can help harness all that talent.  It was a great day for the Gunners.

So who won?  Who lost?  It's hard to tell, and we'll only figure it all out in May, when it all will be over.  That said, now that Transfer Deadline Day has passed, here are my predictions for the top end of the league table:

1.  Chelsea
2.  Manchester United
3.  Arsenal
4.  Manchester City
5.  Liverpool
6.  Tottenham Hotspur
7.  Everton.


The Phillies are Worse Than the Mets

"You are what your record says you are."

Is there hope for the future?

Of course.

When will that hope manifest itself into another championship run?



Because there is no harmonic convergence of a bullpen, starting pitching and position players who are playing for contracts.  In 2008, you had an ancient leader (Jamie Moyer), a good mix in the bullpen, a closer having a career and Hall of Fame-like year (even if he won't come close to the Hall), and a great mix of position players who could get on base, all of whom were playing for contracts.

Today, your bullpen is bereft.  Your everyday lineup is an odd cocktail of youth and age.  Your starting pitching staff is the same.  Will your vets in the field and on the mound last long enough until some promising minor-league position players mature?  Doubtful.  When will a solid bullpen emerge?  It's anyone's guess.  So, there isn't as much cause for optimism as the brass would like a loyal fan base to believe.

Let's face it -- when will they stop inking position players who are "five tool" guys but who don't know the game and don't evolve into good players let alone stars?  It's getting a bit silly when you hear that the likes of Jeff Jackson through Tyson Gillies have all the tools when they cannot get out of AA ball.  It's been a long and futile list.  Even the vaunted farm system that yielded some good trades proved to be an illusion -- outside Gio Gonzalez and Gavin Floyd (both pitchers), how many guys turned into anything at the Major League level?

The answer is not many.  Sure, there is hope for Anthony Gose, Jonathan Singleton and Travis d'Arnaud, all playing elsewhere, but almost everyone who was traded did not succeed.  And that doesn't bode well for the future, either.  Sure, we can get excited about Jesse Biddle and Mikel Franco, but the local nine cannot bet its future on those guys.

Right now, with a month to play, there isn't much to root for.  Sure, we'll see the prospects, but as one-time Phillies' manager Jim Fregosi once said, "you really cannot judge a guy by what he does in September."  Why?  Because mostly it's AAAA players playing against each other or veterans mailing it in, worrying about their off-season plans unless, of course, they are on a contender.  So, what Darrin Ruf and others do in September might not tell us a whole lot.    Hopefully, though, it will.

But lower in the stands than the Mets?

What possibly can happen next?

Sunday, September 01, 2013

For Anyone Who Thinks Soccer is Boring. . .

They didn't watch either the Liverpool-ManU game yesterday or the Arsenal-Tottenham game today.    Liverpool honored its legendary manager, Bill Shankly, and then went out, scored early, and held off a somewhat listless bitter rival.  Somehow, ManU didn't seem the same without the fiery Wayne Rooney on the pitch threatening to score with every touch near the box.  Liverpool's red-hot Daniel Sturridge scored early, its new goalie Simon Mignolet played well, and they got the three points.

Tottenham went into today's match undefeated, 2-0, although it hadn't scored a goal other than on penalty kicks by its newly acquired striker, Soldado (and last game's was controversial, coming off what charitably can be called a dive by a fellow striker).  They have made a big splash in the international market, signing some good players, all the while waiting for their megastar, Gareth Bale, to be sold to Real Madrid.  Spurs have good players, although they looked to play a very right-footed game, starting almost every offensive run through their talented right back, Kyle Walker.

Arsenal scored in the first half on a textbook play, a great clear to past midfield from their captain, center back Per Mertesacker, to the most improved center midfielder in the game, Aaron Ramsey, who spun once and put the ball to the near-right side and on the foot of veteran midfielder Tomas Rosicky, who then sent it out wide to the speedy right winger, Theo Walcott.  Walcott dashed in about ten yards and hit a cross to striker Olivier Giroud, who, on a perfectly timed run, put the ball past giving Spurs' goaltender Hugo Lloris, who excelled in goal today for the visitors.  1-0 Arsenal, which is how it would end (despite all oddsmakers predicting a draw).

What fascinated the fans was that Tottenham put on a blistering surge late, peppering Arsenal's defense with run after run, pass after pass, but the Gunners' defense held up well enough for the victory in what they say is a North London darby (actually spelled derby) along the lines, in the U.S., of a "subway series."  The win gave Arsenal three points and thrust them into the EPL's top 10, tied with Spurs, as both now have two wins and one loss.

Meanwhile, the deadline for transfers is tomorrow, and Arsenal hasn't spent a pound of a vast war chest, while Tottenham has spent well on the likes of Soldado and the young Argentine striker Erik Lamela (not to mention the talented Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen).  Look for the Gunners to make a big splash by the time the deadline expires, adding a few more pieces to fill voids that injured players have created and to help them make a deeper run in the EPL.  Rumors abound, and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is a crafty old fox, so look for him to deliver some good news up for the faithful at Emirates Stadium very soon.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

American Stadium Namers Could Take a Page from the English Premiership League on Stadium Names, But Some of the "Jersey" Sponsors in the EPL are Cheesy

Citizens Bank Park?

Lincoln Financial Field?

AT&T Park?

Qualcomm Stadium?

Stamford Bridge.

Craven Cottage.

White Hart Lane.

Carrow Road.

Sorry, but I think it's more dramatic to have a big game at Stamford Bridge than bank-of-the-moment-with-kitschy-undignified-unmemorable-commercials stadium.  Just my opinion.

That said, American jerseys are much more dignified, because you never know who your jersey sponsor in English soccer might be.  First, many of the sponsors are not English, and, second, some are related to the gaming industry, which is not a particular favorite.  Manchester United, the gold standard in the sport, has moved from AIG to Aon in recent memory.  I just couldn't imagine that you would have Tide laundry detergent as the logo for the Boston Red Sox, or Wrigley Chewing Gum on the jersey for the Cubs, or some other commercial product say on the front of the New England Patriots jersey, be it Remington Shavers or McDonald's Hamburgers.  Of course, selling that space could be pretty lucrative, couldn't it?  You could imagine that the Yankees might be able to draw $100 million a year for the naming rights to the front of their jerseys.  And that, in turn, could put more in their coffers to buy better players, develop a better farm system, etc.

So, at Stamford Bridge you have a team that has "Samsung" emblazoned on their jerseys.  At Fenway Park, the closest to an English Premiership stadium name, you have the Boston Red Sox.  Not the PF Chang's team, or the Chevron team or the Brooks Brothers team.  I suppose that you cannot have it all, but there's something to be said for not having naming rights for the front of jerseys.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Great to See Cardiff City Upset Manchester City Today

This is a big deal, so much so that the fans stayed at the stadium for a while to let it soak in.

To give Americans a perspective:

1.  Unlike U.S. sports leagues, the English soccer league system (and others) involves both relegation and elevation.  So, every year, the worst three teams in the top league, the Premier League, get relegated to the next league in the pecking order, the Championship League.  Correspondingly, the top 3 teams in the Championship League get elevated to the Premier League (and what's particularly exciting is that there is a playoff game -- rather unique in English football -- for the last of the three spots and all the spoils -- revenue in the tens of millions -- for the third and final spot).

2.  Cardiff City had a great year in the Championship League last season and was automatically elevated, joining another Welsh team, Swansea, in the Premier League.

3.  Manchester City is starting to resemble the New York Yankees under George Steinbrenner, albeit without the pedigree (nearby Manchester United has the Yankees' premier pedigree, but now lacks the abundant funds that an oil-rich sheikh from the Middle East has bestowed upon Man City).  Lots of great players play for Man City, which two years ago won its first Premier League title in 45 years on the last day of the season in the final minutes.  Man City now views with Chelsea, owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramowitch, for the title of the big bad wolf among high spenders in a somewhat-out-of-control Premiership (when it comes to spending).  The second 11 in the Man City organization is more highly rated than the first eleven for Man City.

4.  So, you would have figured that today Many City, with all its international stars -- Belgian defender Vincent Kompany, Argentine striker Sergio Aguero, Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko and many, many others -- would have walloped its hosts and left them and their fans wondering about how big a gulf it is between the Premier League and the Championship League.  Instead, Cardiff City held on for a 3-2 win to shock the Premiership and the entire soccer world.

5.  The American equivalent?  Take the winner of one of the AAA baseball leagues -- Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Lehigh Valley, Sacramento, Albuerquerque, whomever -- with the same roster -- and go visit the St. Louis Cardinals, Tampa Bay Rays or Detroit Tigers and win a five-game series (a rough equivalent in baseball).  Could it happen?  Possibly, but unlikely.  That is what happened today.

6.  Of course, Man City will round into form and get its lineup set, and Cardiff City's lineup could get exposed, but for a single day today, Cardiff City played the giant killer, and the whole soccer world watched, with the sentimentalists and romanticists among them praying and hoping that the six minutes of extra time -- huge in the soccer world -- wouldn't enable Man City to come back for a tie.  The soccer gods smiled kindly on Cardiff City, and, in turn, its players and fans will smile widely for a long time.

That's why they play the games.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Baseball Writers' Criticism of Ryan Braun is Hypocritical

Where were they when. . .

Lenny Dysktra showed up at spring training twenty pounds heavier looking buffed?

When Barry Bonds' head size grew four-fold?

When Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, sporting tight-end physiques, battled to break Roger Maris' record?

The list goes on and on.

So this morning I had to listen to Buster Olney, one of the Knights of the Keyboard, and one who totally missed questioning steroid-inflated performances, going into some depth on "Mike & Mike" about the faults in Ryan Braun's apology for using PEDs.

My first reaction was, "really, who appointed you judge and jury?"  Next was, "where the heck were you when this whole thing began, when you first began to see evidence?"  Next was, "you rode the wave, you enjoyed the heroics and the records, but you questioned nothing because you were afraid that a puffed up player might whack you or that the players' fraternity might shut you out.  Had you spoken up, the world would have reacted and revolted, and MLB could have ended this mess much, much earlier."








Hal Bodley apologized for his profession's major whiff at what could have been a huge story.  I have forgiven the miss, but I haven't forgotten.  So it strikes me as totally weird when Olney goes into some depth on this topic.  Sure, he has to cover it, but does he have to dissect it?

He's lucky that no one dissected his writing during the steroid era.  Talk about missing a ball put on a tee.  Who holds the Knights of the Keyboard accountable?

No one.

They have the best seat in the house.

They can be glorified fans.

They think they're protecting the game, but are they?  Aren't they protecting their good seat and the "in" they have with the insiders?

I'm not sure.  But the Steroid Era was disgusting, and they watched it but didn't cover it.

They were too busy elegizing those who were breaking records and cheating.

Instead of covering the real story.

I am not defending Ryan Braun.  He cheated.  But I don't really want to hear too much analysis from reporters who got away with Major League malpractice and still are around to cover the game.  That's equally bothersome.

Had they done their jobs, MLB would have cleaned itself up a while ago, so broad and loud would have been the public's disgust.  You wouldn't have had the Steroid Era, just a few steroid years.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

English Premier League on NBC

A few thoughts:

1.  Will Americans get up at 7:30 a.m. on the East Coast on a weekend to watch soccer?  I would venture to say that they will not do so in the other time zones.  It's just too early.

2.  I wonder if English soccer is going through what American baseball is going through.  The latter seems to favor -- when it comes to winning a championship -- teams that grow their talent at home versus teams that acquire great talent.  Compare and contrast, in baseball, the New York Yankees with, say, the St. Louis Cardinals, among others.  The former have bought players galore, and most recently that strategy hasn't worked for them.  The latter tend to be more patient, tend to have less money, and they've won the second most number of World Series save the mighty Yankees.   In the Premier League, Manchester City and Chelsea represent oil and oligarch money, while Manchester United (albeit with American ownership) has tended to grow its players at home more.  The latter has won more than half of the titles in the Premiership.  Man City did win its first title in 45 or so years a few years ago, but its great assemblage of talent fell short last season.  Put differently, Arsenal's coach, Arsene Wenger, has feared an "arms race" among some of the world's wealthiest people and has suggested a salary cap.

The same way we've wondered what's in it for perennial also rans in baseball such as Kansas City and Pittsburgh (both of whom are on the rise now, but who have suffered long droughts), you have to wonder what's in it for the likes of Fulham, West Ham, Sunderland and teams like that.  They don't really have a chance to qualify for the Champions League or win the Premiership.  Sure, their fans keep coming back the way you keep on celebrating holidays with family, but ultimately will they keep on doing so?

3.  While Aston Villa did outplay Arsenal and upset them, the referee in that game was abysmal.  It's hard to have a comparable discussion in U.S. sports, except, perhaps, for basketball referees.  Umpires rarely decide a game in baseball, and instant replay should help them solve for close calls other than balls and strikes.  Sure, a big play can alter an American football game, but both baseball and football are high scoring enough that calls usually don't determine the outcome.  Compare those games with soccer, where games frequently are decided by a goal.  Well, today, (the relatively young) referee Anthony Taylor lost control of the game, and made an awful call in the second half calling a penalty on Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny that gave Aston Villa  a penalty shot and, as a result, a 2-1 lead.  Koscielny also was issued a yellow card, which figured prominently about 10 minutes later when he was given a second yellow, which automatically results in a red card and an ejection.  While Aston Villa won 3-1, you could argue that Arsenal's aggressive play in the last third of the game resulted from its being down 2-1 and trying to salvage a tie.  That aggressiveness caused Arsenal to bring its defenders way up, and for the third goal Aston Villa took advantage of both having a man advantage and that strategy to score its third goal.  Absent the bad call by Taylor, you could argue the game ends at 1-1.

Atop that, Taylor didn't set a no-nonsense tone early, and particularly the Aston Villa players preyed upon his permissiveness.  Taylor seemed to have handed out an even number of cards, but it's hard to argue that Arsenal (despite Jack Wilshere's temper) was as physically aggressive as Aston Villa.  Put differently, you would have thought from watching the game that Taylor would have red carded a Villa player before an Arsenal player.

Aston Villa did get some outstanding play, particularly from its strikers and its goalie, the American, Brad Guzan.  Yet, the official's call was so crucial. . . well, it had a fundamental effect on the outcome. It's hard to see right now how that will play in the U.S., but, then again, unless there are hundreds of thousands of Arsenal partisans in the U.S., I doubt that the average viewer watched the match with the same eye it would for his favorite team in another sport.

4.  Was this game really a coming of age for Aston Villa, or was Arsenal just bad?  The latter had questionable play from its goaltender, two lunky defenders, suffered a bunch of injuries and had lackluster striker play.  While Aston Villa had a hand in that play, I am not sure how much the game said about Aston Villa as it did about Arsenal.

5.  The announcers were not all that memorable.  That's both good -- they are Brits and didn't say anything culturally stupid -- and bad, as they showed up more as "standard issue" broadcasters than say the pair of Ian Darke and Steve McMenamin, who led ESPN's team when ESPN had the rights.  This, of course, will change.  We don't require our broadcasters to be memorable; they worked well enough.

6.  The studio commentary needs some work.  The trio provided okay analysis, but none of the pizzazz that American football studio crews provide.  We also need to know the significance, historically, of those who are providing information.

It's great to see the English Premier League live on television in the U.S.

So far, so good.

Even if my Arsenal team got off to a disastrous start.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Washington Nationals Should Hire Charlie Manuel

When the Phillies were looking to replace Larry Bowa, they opted for first baseman Jim Thome's former manager, Charlie Manuel, who knows how to manage talent and did a great job with the Cleveland Indians, even if his Tribe team lost to the Florida Marlins in the World Series.  Manuel proved to be a good manager for a good nucleus of budding stars, guiding them to the playoffs in 2007 and to the world championship in 2008.  Had Brad Lidge had half as awful a season as he did in 2009 (when the Phillies lost to the Yankees in the WS and when Lidge had the worst season of any closer in ML&B history), the team might well have beaten the Bronx Bombers in the 2009 Series.  The team ran into the Giants' red-hot pitching in 2010, but had Cliff Lee been able to do what he was paid mightily to do -- be a stopper -- (he blew a 4-0 lead after 1 inning in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Cardinals, giving the Cardinals the confidence and impetus to go on to win a WS) -- they might have won three titles in five years.  Okay, so that's a lot, but they could have won two.

Manuel did a good job with motivated, talented players, reminding me of a comment that Sparky Anderson made when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame (and his introducer remarked that he was a great manager).  Anderson looked up at the sky while giving his speech and wondered aloud:  "Great manager?  I was blessed to have a  front office that gave me great talent, and I was smart enough to stay the hell out of their way."  Put differently, the '08 Phillies didn't need to be stamped out of a mold; they needed steering.

Any team sound familiar?

The 2012 Nationals flexed their muscles and announced their arrival as a major force in the Majors.  This year, they have flat out underachieved, and the rumors have swirled that Davey Johnson might be out as their manager.  They don't need a Billy Martin/Larry Bowa drill sergeant type.  They need someone who can appeal to the potential greatness that the Nats' core of position players and starting pitchers have.  The team has much more talent than the Phillies, and Manuel has had winning seasons in all but two of his years as a Major League manager.

He also looks to be in good shape, looking big, strong and more relaxed than in a while during his "exit" press conference (at which no one mentioned that he was fired).  Clearly, he had some difficulty trying to manage the various moves that GM Ruben Amaro had made, and the team had struggled for most of the season.  A leader like Carlos Ruiz got busted for the first 25 games for Adderrall use, and then set-up man Antonio Bastardo loses 50 games for his deployment of success in a bottle, vial or tube courtesy of the folks at Biogenesis.   Over the years, he juggled injury-prone lineups mightily, doing some fine work in 2010 particularly when at one time he won pretty consistently playing the likes of Cody Ransom, Juan Cruz, Juan Valdez and Dane Sardinha.  Players loved him and still do; he's patient, he's wise, and he knows when to draw the line and enforce discipline.

Translated, he's just what the Nationals need -- a proven, patient winner.  Sure, he won't win awards for dazzling speeches, but it's not how it's said, it's what's said, and his players respond.  He was beloved in Philadelphia, more so than Larry Bowa, whom the fans liked a great deal as a player, and perhaps even more so than Dallas Green, who managed the team to its last World Series victory before 2008.

Yes, he's getting up there in years, but (and I've been quoting him a lot lately), as Bill Parcells once said, "you are what your record says you are."  Now, that might be a bit more generous to Manuel as a Phillie (who had very good talent) and totally unfair to Terry Francona during his tenure (where he had to manage glorified AAA talent, plus Scott Rolen and Curt Schilling).

Charlie wins.

Washington has tons of talent.

Seems like an opportunity.