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.