SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Thursday, May 30, 2013

What a Difference Five Years Makes -- Phillies' Lineup in 2008 Versus Now

Then:

Rollins SS
Victorino CF
Utley 2B
Howard 1B
Werth RF
Burrell LF
Feliz 3B
Ruiz C
Pitcher

Now:

Ben Revere CF
Cesar Hernandez 2B
Rollins SS
Delmon Young RF
Domonic Brown LF
Kevin Frandsen 1B
Eric Kratz C
Freddy Galvis 3B
Pitcher

Then:  The press referred to the 2008 lineup as an "American League" lineup because a) the position players got on base (save, perhaps, Feliz, who had one of the lowest OBPs in the game), b) the batters hit the living daylights out of the ball and c) the lineup scared people.  Utley and Werth saw more pitches per at bat than any other hitters in the NL, and the on-base percentages were very good.

Now:  The lineup scares no one.  More batters have OBPs under .300 than over it, or so it seems.  The only hitter right now who scares anyone is Domonic Brown, who is distinguishing himself with his power (he does need to walk more).  Other than that, Revere is a great fielder but light hitter who doesn't get on base, Hernandez is a rookie, Rollins is nearing the end of his career, Young's OBP last year was south of .300, Frandsen is a journeyman, Kratz will finish a Starbucks "Venti" cup of coffee in the Majors by year's end and Galvis is a prospect who fans like but who might not hit.  Put differently, a top-of-the-rotation pitcher on a reasonable night won't yield more than two runs to this crew.

Then:  They were at the top of their game.  It was before the big contracts.  The starting pitching might not have been as good top to bottom (especially before Roy Halladay's injury), but the bullpen was outstanding.  They played so hard that no opponent's lead was safe -- witness some great games in '07 in August against the Mets, where Jayson Werth stole Billy Wagner blind on a particular day to win a game.  Watch the '08 highlight video, and you'll see a dugout full of leaders.

Now:  There are many big contracts.  There are the repetitive injuries that seem to come with age.  The bullpen has a good closer but is iffy everywhere else.  The lineup, well, we talked about that.

We knew it wouldn't last forever, but we saw moves that didn't make sense, that didn't get the team younger, that were so made to "win now" that they foreshadowed today.  And the Phillies didn't win any more "now," the Giants did. 

What a difference five years makes.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Rutgers Closes Ranks Behind Julie Hermann

The university president has told her that she'll keep her job.

That leaves many -- including ESPN Radio's Mike Greenberg -- wondering if he'll keep his. 

The reports continue to cascade about Julie Hermann's actions as women's volleyball coach at Tennessee in the mid-90's.  They have not relented. 

I've posted a few times in the past few days on this.  Is Rutgers doing what it believes is right, or, is it acting the way it is either because (a) it hopes this scandal will go away or (b) they have an outside crisis manager advising them that this is the way to handle the matter (and that it will go away)?

It would be interesting if the university's president -- Robert Barchi -- would make himself available to the media to answer questions about the process that led to Hermann's hiring and the process that led to his giving her a vote of confidence.  An athletic director, a head basketball coach and an assistant basketball coach have already lost their jobs, one on far less circumstances than what Hermann's been accused of.

What standards are Rutgers driving?  That it's okay to transgress so long as there has been a decade and a half interval where you've gotten good marks in a job that didn't require coaching young people?  That might be where they've landed, and I can see that, but it remains to be answered what they knew when they hired Hermann and how they distinguish her alleged behavior from that of fired basketball coaches Mike Rice and Jimmy Martelli. 

This one won't go away this easily.

Monday, May 27, 2013

College Lacrosse's Seminal "Blind Side" Moment Occurred Today -- Face-Off Men Rule

It wasn't that Syracuse was up 5-0 that we'll remember.

It wasn't that the Orange became the first team up by more than three goals in the first quarter of the championship game that went on to lose the game.

It wasn't that Duke stormed back and beat Syracuse soundly.

No, it was the way Duke stormed back.

The most valuable player of the game wasn't someone who led the Blue Devils in goals scored or assists.  It was the face-off man.

Brendan Fowler led the nation in face-offs won, setting an all-time record.  For that work, he was named a first-team all-American.  Today, he dominated the "X", winning 20 of 28 face-offs, giving Duke possession time after time after time.  He was the game changer, and he was the reason that Duke could come back and beat #1 Syracuse.  Fowler is a walk-on special teams player on the football team, with a pair of shoulders that resembles more a football player than a lacrosse player.  Atop that, he wrestled in high school.

Watching today's game will cause every Division 1 lacrosse coach to think out of the box about who faces off for him.  Get someone with the balance of a sumo wrestler, the strength of a nose tackle, the agility of a black-belt in karate and the determination of an undersized football player on an underdog team.   All Division I coaches will be looking for this kid, perhaps wanting to pluck him off the wrestling team or football team or both.

One of the premises of The Blind Side was that in order to win, football teams needed an athletic left tackle to protect a right-handed quarterback's blind side so that their star didn't get hurt and have to miss most of the season, thereby diminishing a team's chances for a good record and the laurels that go with it.  So, they found players like Walter Jones of the Seahawks, Jonathan Ogden of the Ravens, Orlando Pace of the Rams, and they transformed the position, making it one of the most highly paid in the NFL. Part of the motivation game from the Giants' Lawrence Taylor's gruesome hit on Redskins' quarterback Joe Theismann, shattering his leg.

Today, a #1 team went down in large part because its underdog opponent had a much better face-off man.  There wasn't a huge difference, say, at midfield and at attack, but when it came time to face-offs, Duke ruled.  Possession is a huge part of lacrosse, and you cannot score if you cannot win face-offs.  Brendan Fowler won so many face-offs that it's no surprise that Duke won as decisively as it did.

So, you can have good offensive players, but it won't do you much good if you cannot get them the ball.  Conversely, you'll need a more than ample supply of good defenders if you cannot win face-offs. That fact became so pronounced today that you'll see some of the best athletes facing off consistently for the top programs.

Even if, as Fowler does, they'll come off the field once they win possession and get the ball upfield to their attackers.  There is some irony in that -- that you can be the title game's MVP without scoring a goal or making saves and by coming off after your one play is over -- but that's the way the game is played right now.

Face-off men rock.

Face-off men rule.

More on Julie Hermann

Julie Hermann last coached in 1997.

She left under bad circumstances at worst, questionable circumstances at best.

She coached at a time when being pretty harsh to the student-athletes was much more acceptable than it is today.

She came well-recommended to Rutgers after 16 years of athletic administration.  So much so that they named her their athletic director, after years of having served as the second-in-command at the Louisville athletic department.

Rutgers has an image problem.

Basketball coach, assistant, are shown on film as abusive.  Former member of department turns them in.    As it turns out, he might have tried to extort money from the department in exchange for not making the video viral.  Former athletic director adjudicated the problem in the fall, suspending the coach for several games.  As it turned out, it wasn't enough, at least in the court of public opinion and with the Rutgers administrations.  When the video went viral, Rutgers first fired the coach, then fired the athletic director.  Hired a venerated alum as the coach, only to learn that he didn't have a degree.  Then hired Hermann as athletic director, perhaps missing the alleged problems she had at the end of her tenure as Tennessee's women's volleyball coach or learning of them and then thinking that they weren't such a big deal because the alleged incidents took place over fifteen years ago.

Got all that?

The whole situation compels answers to a few questions:

1.  What did the Rutgers administration know about Hermann when they hired her?
2.  Did they know about Hermann's departure from Tennessee?
3.  If so, how did they parse it?
4.  If not, did they miss it?
5.  If so, how did that happen?
6.  Did Hermann tell them about it (assuming that somehow Rutgers didn't learn of it)?
7.  If so, what was discussed?
8.  If not, why not?
9.  If not, what does that say about Hermann?  That she was hiding something?  That she didn't think it was a big deal?  That she thought it was so long ago that if it mattered Rutgers would have found it?

And, after all that, the Rutgers' community must determine what should matter and why.  The reason, of course, is that they have to make a judgment whether Hermann's body of work over the past 15 years -- after coaching -- totally trumps what might have happened in 1997 and earlier (and, for purposes of argument, let's assume that the bad stuff happened).  If the bad stuff didn't happen, then Hermann's home free.  But if it did, how relevant is it?  On the one hand, if it happened, then Hermann perhaps was guilty of the same behavior that fired basketball coach Mike Rice was guilty of.  And then what message is Rutgers sending?  On the other hand, that conduct -- if it happened -- took place a long time ago, so doesn't Hermann's more recent body of work -- as the #2 athletic director at a big school -- mean a whole lot more and eclipse the alleged behavior that has been the source of all of the hue and cry?  Should it?  Shouldn't it?  At what point do you get a second chance?  At what point does the more recent body of work matter more?

So, that's where Rutgers finds itself.  A bunch of bad news and sorry stories emanating from the athletic department, and then at least one blunder (Eddie Jordan's lack of a degree) after it, if not two (depending on what happened during the hiring of Hermann and what happened when she was the volleyball coach).  The public is unhappy.  The people involved are well paid.  The public doesn't like coaches who are meanies.  The public doesn't like inconsistent behavior.  It also likes redemption.  It also gets tired of controversies.  It does expect background checks before hiring to be complete.

Much should happen in this matter in the next week.  Predictably,  Hermann's friends and supporters have rallied behind her.  The New Jersey press is on the matter, hard, because it's doing what the press should do -- question without playing favorites.  What remains to be seen is where Governor Christie and the Rutgers administration is and where they will come out.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Mike McQueary Might Have a Point

He was a whistleblower.

His contract was not renewed.

He has brought suit.

It will all boil down to what McQueary was told about his performance and what Penn State documented.  It also might boil down to whether the university can keep any settlement with him confidential.

This, as much, is clear:

1.  McQueary should be rehabilitated, quickly.  The Paterno family has spent much time, effort and money to rehabilitate Joe Paterno's image.  How successful they've been remains an open question.  But at the time McQueary witnessed the most famous shower scene since Psycho, he was a young grunt in a situation that none of us would have wanted to be in.  He did report what he thought he saw up, perhaps not to all of the right people.  But he reported it.

2.  McQueary should land a college coaching job quickly.  He was a big deal at Penn State by the time Paterno resigned and much before then.  Okay, he's memorable because of his bright red hair, so it's hard for him to blend in and not have people point and say, "hey, that's the guy."  But, so what?

Right now, it seems that he is in limbo, without a job.  That just doesn't seem right.  Is it that people have not forgiven him?  is it that anyone involved in the Sandusky affair remains radioactive?  Is it something more than that.

We're at a point in the world where it's sometimes hard to distinguish the appropriate level of remedial activity, the media is quick to rush to judgment, as is the public.  The result is that detached reflection is not all that available to decision makers.  As a result, people in authority can come to quick judgments, as could the rest of us, and they could be dead wrong.  We also can hold others to tougher standards than we hold ourselves, because it's easy to say "well, there is no way that I would have failed to do that" when you weren't there in the heat of the moment.  Atop that, people are human, they suffer lapses in judgment and they make mistakes.  Admittedly, the standards are higher for those higher up in the authority chain, and I get that.  What I am less clear on is what standard someone like McQueary should be held to and how will the public let him rebuild his life.  Or, depending on what happened, whether he should be coaching again.

There has been a hue and cry about university presidents, administrators and the beloved Paterno.  McQueary has fallen off the radar a bit.  What will become of him?

Rutgers' Problems Continue: Mike Rice's Behavior, Eddie Jordan's Resume and Now Julie Hermann's Alleged Behavior Years Ago

You can read about the Scarlet Knights' latest problem here.

Here are a few underlying premises to think about:

1.  Could it be that New Jersey just tolerates less out of its athletic officials than any other state (even if it seems to tolerate a lot from elected officials from both sides of the aisle)?

2.  Could it be that bad things come in threes, or in this case, fours, as, in addition to the items I outlined, Rutgers suspended its men's lacrosse coach this season for behavior that is too aggressive?

3.  Could it be that as former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said a few years ago, we've become a "Nation of Wusses?"

4.  Could it be that we're witnessing a major paradigm shift in the tolerated behaviors of major college coaches?  And, if that's the case, is it because we're becoming a friendlier people, less competitive people or because the immediacy of media reporting gives us information that we suspected years ago but now we can prove instantaneously?

5.  Could it be that Rutgers is just an idiosyncratic place to work?  Or could it be that Rutgers is a thought leader in this area?

6.  And how many coaches who coached 25 years ago would survive the scrutiny today?  Perhaps Dean Smith and John Wooden, but Bob Knight might not have made it out of his first coaching job at the United States Military Academy.

The question here is whether someone concocted a story about new Rutgers' Athletic Director Julie Hermann or not.  Hermann says she does not recall the letter that her Tennessee volleyball team send to the Vol's then-athletic director.  If so, why?  Because it wasn't sent?  Seems unlikely.  Because it wasn't shown to her?  Interesting possibility.  Because her media advisors are telling her that if she ignores it there's bound to be another story out there that puts Rutgers in a bad light that will distract the media, they'll forget about it, it will become stale information and, therefore, the Rutgers administration will get a pass because of the passage of time.  Another question:  who is doing the background checking for Rutgers, did they find this incident and, if so, what did the Rutgers' administration think about this portion of Hermann's background?  That it happened so long ago that it was no longer relevant because Hermann had changed and had a good resume thereafter, or that it was not a big deal, period or that it was not a big deal because, if true, it happened at a time in college sports where "rough" talk from coaches was part of the norm?

All that said, one would think that Rutgers would have looked extra carefully for pristine candidates.  Mike Rice is not a bad guy; he did bad things, so they would want a coach who is both a good guy and who has no track record of bad things.  Perhaps they found that it Eddie Jordan, but then they overlooked whether in fact he's a college graduate.  Notre Dame quickly parted company with George O'Leary after his resume turned out to have benefitted from some creative writing.  Is Rutgers now saying that they don't hold themselves to Notre Dame's standards?  Or that the being a good guy matters more than resume integrity?  Or that, heck, the administration has battle fatigue and will forgive Jordan for that transgression?  Well, if they did that, then where is the line for Rutgers?  If they fired Mike Rice for his conduct with respect to his players (conduct that came to light when a whistleblower allegedly tried to extort money from the university in exchange for keeping the whole affair quiet), then what will they do with what The Newark Star Ledger reports about Julie Hermann?  And whither their former Athletic Director, whose transgression wasn't that he ignored Rice's conduct, only that he didn't punish it hard enough?

Rutgers has a mess on its hands right now.  If what's said about Hermann is true, then how will they react?  And what standards will they be driving?  By firing Rice and their athletic director, they sent a message that coaches have to be civil and above reproach.  Then they hired a basketball coach who erred in reporting whether he graduated from the school and an athletic director who, well, has some questions to answer.  If it turns out the allegations against Julie Hermann were a hoax or lies, fine, but if not, well, Rutgers will continue to have a mess on its hands.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

NCAA Men's Lacrosse Semis in Philadelphia

Great, cool weather day for the Division I men's lacrosse semis.  I am no lacrosse expert, but here are some notes:

1.  Duke's 15-14 win over Cornell wasn't a "nip and tuck" affair.  Cornell took a 5-2 lead, then Duke ended up 14-7, then Cornell rallied furiously before losing.  With a few minutes to go, it looked like Cornell might tie it and the game would end up in overtime, but whoever Duke's face-off man was seemingly did a great job in the clutch.

2.  Cornell's Rob Pannell proved why he is one of the best players in the nation.

3.  Duke's attack did a good job of pushing Cornell's defense closer to the goal, thereby creating easier shots for the Blue Devils.  At the end of the day, Duke forced the action more than Cornell did, and that was the difference.

4.  Duke's sophomore goalie, Kyle Turri, who looks a bit like a red-headed version of Landry from Friday Night Lights, outplayed Cornell's senior A.J. Fiore.

5.  Bill Tierney's Denver squad won the first half, got off to a great start, and looked very disciplined.  I don't know who played goalie for the Pioneers in the first half, but he was by far the best goalie on the field today.  The Denver goalie who played in the second half did okay, but the goalie who played in the first half, in hockey parlance, "stood on his head."

6.  That said, while Denver showed great discipline in quarters 2 through 4, they made way too many unforced errors in the first quarter, giving the ball up about 5 times.  Had they not done so and converted two of those possessions into goals, I believe that they would have gotten a bigger lead than the 5-2 one they had at half time and would have sufficiently demoralized Syracuse and beaten them.

7.  The Syracuse team travels well.  Syracuse lacrosse nation is vast.

8.  JoJo Morasco of Syracuse, along with Pannell, was one of the two best players on the field today.  Both he and Pannell play lacrosse the way Chris Paul hoops.  They are good feeders, but they also can bury you with their shots.  Morasco was the difference maker for Syracuse, willing them to win in the second half.  Even the great Pannell could not do that for Cornell.

9.  While the Duke-Cornell was a penalty-laden, physical game, the Denver-Syracuse game was not.  the first penalty was called with a few minutes to go, which was fine.  It was on Denver, and Syracuse scored on a power play.  That said, the refs horribly blew a full body check on a Denver player with the game tied -- they should have called a penalty on Syracuse but did not.  Still, to me, Denver's excessive unforced errors (passes over teammates heads, for example) in the first quarter ended up undoing the Pioneers in the long run.

10.  Great venue at the Linc in Philadelphia.  Went to the Cornell tailgate, visited with a friend whose son is on the Big Red team, at Chickie's and Pete's crab fries there, headed inside, bought commemorative t-shirts for the kids, watched two great games, and then ran into some friends who are Syracuse fans after the game.  It's a very collegial environment, but, yes, not a sellout at the Linc and not even close.  perhaps there were 40,000 people there, but capacity is about 60,000.

11.  Hard to predict what will happen on Monday.  On the one hand, when Duke got hot, they looked unstoppable and they have many weapons -- including a very exciting freshman named Chase Matheis).  That said, it's hard to bet against the tradition of Syracuse and the star, Morasco.  Also, 'cuse is known, at least this year, for its defense.  So, my prediction is that Syracuse will win a close one, 10-9.

If you live close by, try to get down there.  You'll have a great time.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Heading to NCAA Men's Lacrosse Semis in Philadelphia

In 1992, I recall going to a Phillies-Reds game at Veterans Stadium on Memorial Day weekend.  It was Saturday, we had friends in from out of town, and we went to Pat's Steaks at 9th and Passyunk (which the locals call "Pash-yunk").  It was about 90 degrees, we ate cheesteaks "with" on the metal tables cemented into the side walk, caught the local vibe and then headed to the Vet, where the Reds pounded the Phillies.  In '92, Dutch Daulton, Nails Dykstra and company looked much more mortal than they did the following year.

The following Monday, we woke up to a 63 degree day, a mist, and the first time Princeton had made the NCAA finals.  They were playing perennial power North Carolina.  Both the Tigers and the Tar Heels won high scoring games the previous Saturday.  I think one beat Hopkins and the other Syracuse, but I cannot remember for sure.  We decided to go, as the game was at Penn's Franklin Field, sat in the end zone on the East End of the stadium, watched the underdog Tigers race out to a 9-1 lead, only to have Carolina tie the game.  It ended up going into double overtime, when the Princeton faceoff man won the faceoff, scooped up the ball, sprinted downfield toward the goal, virtuallly unguarded, and scored the game winning goal. 

Sudden death for the Heels.

The birth of the legend of Bill Tierney, who came to Princeton after spending years as a Hopkins assistant.  His first of 6 national titles.

Fast forward to 2006, when the finals were also held at the Linc.  Again, a scorcher of a day, about 93 degrees, and UVA manhandled a game but undergunned UMass squad to win the title.  Memorable about that day was that they were out of kid-sized commemorative t-shirts, with the result that I bought an adult small for my then 9 year-old daughter.  It just began to fit her last year. 

Tomorrow are the semis, pitting unseeded yet very dangerous Cornell against Duke (with roughly 10 Philadelphia-area players on its squad) and then Tierney's Denver squad against a Syracuse team that was fortunate to hold off Yale last weekend (about as fortunate as Denver was to overcome a big Carolina lead at the half in the final minutes to earn the win and berth in the national semis).

The weather might hit 60, the rain should abate by the 2:30 start time, and the excitement should be there.  The Linc is easy to get to from the Northeast and Middle Atlantic regions, which remain the hotbed for lacrosse.  Twenty years ago and more, the three major areas were New York's Central Valley (near Syracuse), Long Island and Baltimore.  Those areas remain strong, but other areas have emerged, including the Philadelphia area, northern New Jersey and others.  My guess is that Duke will be favored over Cornell and Syracuse over Denver, but my pick is for a Cornell-Denver final with Cornell and its magical Rob Pannell winning the national title.  Denver will have to ensure that it doesn't fall behind the way it did to Carolina last week, because comebacks like the one they pulled off are hard to repeat.  And Cornell has to ensure that it's the team that beat Maryland and Ohio State in the tournament, and not the team that lost to Princeton in the Ivy semis by a goal about four weeks ago.  The bet here is that Cornell has the goods and the momentum, and that Bill Tierney is getting his Denver squad closer to a national title. 

It should be a great day at the national semis -- and this time there should be enough t-shirts that fit.

Why Didn't the Phillies' Brass See What the Fans Did?

The Phillies had full- and partial-season ticket plans available before the season for the first time in five years.  Last year, their consecutive sellout streak ended.  This year, they're averaging at least 8,000 fewer fans per game at Citizens' Bank Park.  They are one game below .500, and that's after playing a schedule that has included cupcakes, creampuffs and twinkies.

Carlos Ruiz missed 25 games because of a using a banned substance.  He's now on the DL.

Roy Halladay had what looks to be season-ending surgery after the arm equivalent of gimping through much of last season. 

Chase Utley will miss 2-4 weeks because of a mild oblique strain.

Ryan Howard's gait hasn't looked right since he blew a tire in an NLDS-ending at bat after the 2011 season.  He's "day to day."

Set-up man Mike Adams, signed as a free agent after dealing with arm problems, also is on the shelf.

Sound familiar?

Hope was the strategy going into this season, and either it was the best Phillies' GM Ruben Amaro thought he could play the hand he had or he was lying to himself big-time that the Phillies, who finished .500 last year despite missing Utley and Howard for huge chunks of the season, would get healthy, rebound, and make the playoffs.  Either way, Amaro has botched the job.

First, aging teams don't typically get healthier.  It was wishful thinking -- dating back to 2010, when the Phillies had many stars on the DL for chunks of the season (Utley and Howard included) -- to think that Howard and Utley would sail through this season being able to play 150 games fully healthy.  Strike one.

Second, it was wishful thinking to think that there was not something wrong with Roy Halladay, both at the end of last season and into spring training.  Strike two.

Third, it was wishful thinking to think that the years of depleting the farm system and not developing position players would not catch up to the team.  Sure, Domonic Brown is showing signs of delivering on his prodigious talent.  But the rest of the team isn't all that patient at the plate, doesn't walk enough, doesn't hit well enough -- and hadn't last year, either.  The excitement around Freddy Galvis stems mostly from the young infielder's defense and energy, but not from his bat.  Perhaps it's the best excitement the Phillies can muster, but with a paltry on-base percentage, Galvis will disappoint pretty quickly playing as a regular.  Strike three.

The fans saw it, perhaps because they have the ability to walk away from a $3,000+ commitment (starting with a partial plan) than it is for management to "blow up the team" (what, with the 10-and-5 rule and contracts that make an albatross a relatively easier burden to bear), and they finally broke.  They were concerned when the team got older by signing Raul Ibanez in 2009 and then an oft-injured Placido Polanco in 2010.  They were concerned when position players didn't pan out, too.  Yes, there was much, much joy, and no one will dispute that.  There were lots of good times at the Bank from 2007-2012, a golden age, as it were.

But live in the present management and the fans must.  The rudder is damaged, the ship listing, the excitement -- the buzz at the park -- gone.  In 2008, the team was on the rise, no one had a big contract, and they played like there was no tomorrow.  Management honored the fact that many of the stars were between 29 and 31 and tried to "win now," adding pitching and pieces, trading prospects (none of whom has turned into a Jeff Bagwell or John Smoltz), and trying to win a second World Series.  But injuries developed, other teams got hot, and seemingly lesser talented teams found chemistry, timely hitting, a better ability to get on base and even more "lights out" pitching to take the title away from the Phillies.

Ironically, it wasn't the Moneyball team that beat them, but it's cousin across the San Francisco Bay that figured out a way to put together bits and pieces to build an elite team the same way Annakin Skywalker built his championship pod racer and win two of the last three World Series.  The Phillies -- with the stars and the big contracts -- turned into Moneyedball -- with a hefty payroll and players who seemingly lost some of that extra something, and perhaps it was the drag of the big pocketbooks they were lugging around.  Perhaps they lost some incentive because of the guaranteed money, perhaps they lost some of their zeal in training, and, yes, the nagging injuries got worse.  Whatever it was, other organizatons adapted, and the Phillies found themselves coming up just short.

As my teenager pointed out, in '08 they won the Series, in '09 they lost it, in '10 they lost in the NLCS, in '11 they lost in the NLDS and in '12 they completed the stepdown by failing to make the playoffs.  Now, they're trying to reverse momentum.

Without Utley.

Without Halladay.

With a gimpy Howard.

With almost no bullpen.

With almost no outfield.

And it's only May 24.

It will be hard to win with this lineup.  It doesn't scare anyone.

Opposing hitters will try to wait until the late innings to capitalize the way they did last year.

Fire sale signs beckon.

The Bank has more debts --  in terms of long-term contracts -- than deposits (in terms of fans).

It's still a nice building.

It has passionate customers.

But they thirst for a better product.

And they will wait a long time for it.

All because required forward planning that should have been thought through immediately after the 2008 World Championship season did not take place in sufficient detail.

Perhaps because the front office thought it would last forever.

Which in baseball is about five years.

Forever is here.

And it is not pretty.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Aggressive Play in the NBA Playoffs

Familiarity does breed contempt.

After a while, you just cannot out-run, out-jump or out-finesse another team.

No, you must get into their grills, hip check them when they run by and hope that you don't get caught, set a pick with your forearms, push people, hook people, start fights.

Sounds like the NHL.

The Bulls, quite simply, need to calm down.  Yes, they are short-handed, and yes, they still have some talent, but their losing of their cool will only hurt them.  Their heating up did not melt the Heat, who stood tall despite some ill-advised if not outright stupid play. 

But this is what happens in seven-game series.  You just get to know your opponents too well.  That doesn't mean that they irritate you (although Joakim Noah seems like a human irritant at times), it's just that it gets harder to figure them out. 

As Robert Duvall said in "Days of Thunder, "It's not rubbin', it's racin'." 

Perhaps it's not pushin', shovin' and thuggin', it's just basketball. 

But then again, the smarter teams seem to get around those who resort to a style of physical play that goes beyond the acceptable. 

The Bulls' coaches can complain about the officials all that they want to.  But the fact that they are complaining in and of itself demonstrates that their leadership is poor, because their players are focused on the wrong things, such as playing too angry.  Instead, they should be focused on having the players channel their passion, play tighter defense, and figure out how to cross up and confuse the Heat.  Sure, it would be nice to have Rose, Deng and Heinrich, but they are not there, and histrionics will not bring them back (or the Bulls back, for that matter).

The intensity is great, and no one wants to take away that.  But in the Bulls-Heat series, it's time for the Bulls to play smarter.

Rest in Peace, George Sauer

The former Jets' receiver is dead at the age of 69.

A reluctant football player. 

Would have preferred to be a doctor or writer. 

Quit the game because he became disillusioned with it.

Perhaps paid the price of taking the wrong path. 

Divorces. 

Not much family to speak of.

Alzheimer's.

Congestive heart failure.

Not the life of the fictional football hero, but the life of a conflicted man.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

What Next for Rutgers Men's Basketball -- Coach Jordan Has No Degree

Read all about it here.

Honest mistake?

Hard to not know whether you were registered or not for the coursework that led to your finishing your degree, right?

Will the Scarlet Knights simply turn scarlet and lump it, or will they part company with one of the heroes of the almost-undefeated 1976 team?

Once you take a stand on integrity -- which Rutgers should have done with Mike Rice -- it's hard to develop significant gradations without involving the best minds in your Philosophy Department?  What's a terminable offense?  What is not?

Stay tuned.

Why All the Fuss About Matt Barkley?

In the movie "The American President," the chief of staff (played by Michael J. Fox) once remarked to the President (Michael Douglas) that people dying of thirst in the desert might be so desperate that they would drink the sand.  

That scene came to mind -- and sometimes comes to mind -- when I think of Philadelphia Eagles' fans.  They can be as desperate as an employee of the U.S. embassy looking for the last chopper out of Saigon to emerge over the horizon and as optimistic as Sue Heck of Modern Family -- at the same time.          
A new tackle, a fast free agent, a new offensive scheme -- they'll latch onto it the way investors did to Bernie Madoff.  That's how desperate they are for a Super Bowl winner.

The latest in a long line of hopes -- from Mike Mamula to Jevon Kearse to DeSean Jackson to Nmadi Asomugha is fourth-round draft pick Matt Barkley, the USC quarterback who was the first player drafted on day three of the draft (last year, had he left college, he would have been in the top five players taken in the first round).  What's interesting about that, in and of itself, is that a college-educated press hails the decision to stay in college, instead of questioning the judgment of a guy whose career will be evaluated on his ability to make decisions within say three, four seconds of every snap he takes. So, out of the gate, one has to wonder what Barkley was thinking?

Was he thinking -- I really can get better?  Was he thinking -- boy, it's fun here in Southern California, the USC quarterback gets treated like a God, I want to be a kid for longer?  Either are okay, and my comments are not to judge Barkley the person, who by all accounts seems like a decent guy.  But it is to question the competitiveness, the "gotta/wanna/haveit" (as Sal Palantonio is wont to say) about Barkley.  Wouldn't you think that a guy who you want to play as though the house were on fire would have wanted to come out of college when his star was the brightest?  And doesn't the fact that he did not make you question his overall fire?  Atop that, he didn't get better last year; he didn't have a great season.

Barkley's own personal decision aside, it's not as though USC quarterbacks have lit it up.  Matt Leinart stayed an extra year so that he could take a ballroom dancing class in the fall and QB the Trojans after he could have been a higher pick after his junior year.  He has been a bust.  Matt Cassel, his back-up, had a good year subbing for Tom Brady in New England but then fizzled.  Mark Sanchez has had an enigmatic career, playing well in playoff games but sinking pretty far, especially after last season.  Carson Palmer also came out with great promise, but he's been an average quarterback at best.

While many of the press gets giddy (remember, they also were giddy about Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell and somehow overlooked the raw power of Colin Kaepernick and the field generalship of a "too short" Russell Wilson) about the prospects for Barkley (one likened him to Joe Montana), the history of USC quarterbacks and of those who waited a season too long to get drafted higher calls into question whether Barkley is an "absolute steal" and whether he'll be a superstar in the NFL.

Right now, the psyche of the average Eagles' fan is a mess.  Michael Vick has been a disappointment, and at times Nick Foles looks wooden out there.  They have some talent at running back and wide receiver, drafted a promising tight end and might have a healthier offensive line.  But that line still needs work, and the defense is a mess.  Linebacking has never been a strong suit, a once-proud secondary draws more references to sieves than stone walls and the defensive line gets pushed around.   So what a better way than to get one's hopes up than to pump up the prospects of a fourth-round draft pick with an average NFL arm who might have been a victim of circumstances than to face the fact that Chip Kelly isn't Merlin, the lines need work and the identity of the #1 quarterback remains a mystery.

It's a lot to put on Matt Barkley or on any fourth-round draft pick.  It's especially a lot to put on a USC quarterback, too, given their history in the NFL in the past ten years.  Sure, Barkley could be the best of the lot, but that doesn't mean that the best of that lot turns into a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback.  Then again, Barkley is a pretty smart guy, and he probably has thought about all this, and he's saying the right things.  Playing for an offensive innovator like Chip Kelly is a great opportunity.  Playing for a team that got close but didn't get there and is desperate for a turnaround is another great opportunity.  Playing in a city that is looking for another star to latch onto -- someone not named Bynum, Utley, Vick or Pronger -- is yet another opportunity.  So, there is plenty of upside for Matt Barkley.

But Eagles' fans have to be patient.   Because right now Barkley is a fourth-round draft pick coming off a so-so year.  He might have potential, but as one-time Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty once said, "Potential means you ain't done it yet."  So everyone should modify his expectations about Barkley, how quickly he can emerge and what he can do.

Or else, he'll end up on a heap with John Reaves and Bobby Hoying, among others.

But right now, history, hope and hype are colliding in a football fan's version of nuclear fission.  What will emerge?  No one knows right now.  

But something tells me that history has a stronger gravity pulls than the combination of hope and hype.

And that's why they play the games.

When the Hometown Teams Are Not Faring Well. . .

Focus on the big events in your town.

Memorial Day weekend in Philadelphia brings the national lacrosse championships.  Philadelphia has become a much bigger lacrosse town than a few generations ago, when the Baltimore area, Long Island and New York's Central Valley dominated the lacrosse landscape.  The sport has grown, Philadelphia high school teams have gotten a lot better and routinely send kids to all major programs.  The event at Lincoln Financial Field promises to be a good one.

As if that weren't enough, an even rarer gem will surface at a more infrequent interval -- 35 years -- golf's U.S. Open.  It will return to Merion, the legendary course, on the week leading up to Father's Day.  That also promises to be a special event.

So, yes, the Phillies are aging, the Eagles are rebuilding and the 76ers and Flyers are non-entities, but at least there are some special events that will keep our interest, at least for a while.

Put differently, assuming that the Phillies will not be a contender, those events will keep people buzzing -- or should -- until July trade deadline talk and Eagles pre-season talk start to dominate water-cooler conversations.

Then again, astute observers, those who will put this analysis under a microscope, probably will disagree with me and they have a point.  The average Phillies and Eagles fan probably doesn't care much about college lacrosse and probably doesn't care a whole lot about the U.S. Open, either, so for them the countdown until either trade talk about the Phillies or the Eagles' start of training camp must be torture.  Five years ago, the conversations were much different.  Today, well, times for the fan of the local professional sports teams are pretty bleak.

But the lacrosse Final Fours will be an event, and the game is fast-paced, so. . .

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Tale of Two Seniors

One girl smiles a great deal whether she succeeds or fails.  She's enjoyed all-league status.  The other girl doesn't smile out there at all, has struggled during her career at the toughest position out there -- pitcher.  They are close friends.  While their softball careers to some degree diverged during their four years of high school, yesterday they found themselves in a contest that compelled both careers to diverge quickly.  And it's probably something they'll never forget.

On a hot, humid day on a beautiful field, a .500 team played a non-league game to end its season.  While is has some talent, the best teams in the state are located nearby, play in much tougher leagues, and eclipse -- in on-field accomplishments and media coverage -- whatever this team does.  The behemoths' rosters are populated with travel players who spend 11 months of the year honing their craft -- indoor fielding, indoor hitting, hitting coaches, pitching coaches, trips to warm-weather climates -- none of which most of this team's players do.  The team has a few travel players, a few who might have played a season of travel ball when they were very young, and a few good athletes.  But most of the girls don't play softball regularly enough to play at an elite level.

But that doesn't mean that they don't enjoy it -- the rituals, the inside jokes, the rallying at the mound the infielders do with a high-five after a putout, the relay throws and the occasional long bomb of a hit -- any less than the kids who play under the lights and make deep runs into state tournaments.  It may be true that their program isn't as committed to the things you have to do to become an elite program as the behemoths, but when they kids go out there, they try their best to win.  

The season had some ups and downs.  Basically, at .500, they beat who they should have beaten, didn't lose to anyone they shouldn't have, and lost to better teams, not really coming all that close except in one game at home where they blew a four-run lead after five innings.  That game -- early in a very short season -- turned out to be a pivotal one in terms of making the playoffs, which they did not.  

But all that said, they played through bitter cold days -- forty-five degrees with twenty-five mile-an-hour winds, rainy days (one so bad that the pitcher had trouble gripping the ball, although she did so without complaint)  -- and humid ones.  They played through streaks, they played through long innings for both teams, and they enjoyed it.  Playing a kids' game on nice fields where the stakes weren't for seeding in a travel tournament or whether a college coach or two might spot them -- but just for the love of the game.  

The last game of the season was a see-saw affair, populated with close plays, bad calls (memo to file:  don't trust an umpire who cannot see his feet), great throws, good catches, physical errors, mental error, wild pitches, timely hitting, bases on balls. . . and the home team's pitcher, an outgoing senior, a girl who tried mightily to find her control the prior season only to fare better this season -- unable to finish the game.   She battled, but both she and her opponent struggled, and the result was that a sophomore relieved the senior, and the game went into the bottom of the seventh with the home team trailing 13-12.  

A freshman led off, walked, stole second.  The team's best player, a sophomore, popped out.  The #3 hitter, the starting pitcher's best friend, the kid who always plays with a smile on her face at third base, who enjoys every minute, rapped a double to right center.  Not born with speed, she ended up on second base, having knocked in the tying run.  Her joy while standing on second was palpable.  A two-time all-league player at third base, she carried herself with a humility that was as admirable as it was inspiring.  The girls just loves to play.  A wild pitch moved her to third base.

And up came her best friend, the pitcher, who had moved to second base when the second baseman relieved her.  A girl who struggled all day and at times during the season, but who battled gamely.  

She took a pitch, fouled one off, took another ball, fouled a few off, tried to get her timing.  Some fouls were cue-shot numbers that the bat barely touched, while a few others were line drives that were pulled into foul territory because she was ahead of a pitch.  After about nine pitches, she smoked a line drive into right field, scoring the joyous runner on third.  

Game over.

Season over.

Careers over.

Two close friends.  On a team that probably lost as many as it won (if not more), during their careers.   One had a lot of success during her career; the other had probably struggled more than she succeeded.  A program that once dominated its league, but does not do so any longer, as other schools have found one or two travel pitchers with blazing speed that most hitters in this league cannot catch up with.  But in the end, how much does it all matter?  They built character, they revealed it, they showed their frustration, but they continued to play, they laughed at times, and for them it didn't matter that they weren't in elite travel programs or on high school teams that the press flocks to.  

They play, purely, because they love the game.  They liked playing catch with their parents and siblings from the time when they were little.  They liked hanging out with friends they made on the team.  And they liked what they could accomplish individually with a hit, a catch or a throw, or, as a team, when on a given day different people in the lineup could contribute to a victory.

But on this particular day, everyone contributed.  A right fielder who sat on the bench most of the season hit a liner that knocked in two runs late in the game.  The second baseman leaped to her right, stole a double out of the air and turned it into a double play.  The shortstop who went into the hole and took away a single.  The center fielder who made a running catch in the top of the last inning to save a hit.  Everyone seemed to do something.

And all that led to the bottom of the seventh and two good friends.

One knocked in the tying run and then scored the winning run.  The other knocked in that run.

In four, five months they'll be off to different colleges to begin the next chapter in their lives.  

But they always will have this day, fitting punctuation to their high school careers, evidence of their ability and an important part of the foundation of who they are, something to fortify them when they need it, and to inspire them that when they're down and behind, they can pick themselves up an finish with a flourish.

Roger Kahn once wrote that fans will remember who won, who lost, and how the weather was.

For these two girls, their families and their friends, they'll remember a whole lot more.

It might not have been a playoff game, a league championship or a state playoff game.

No, it was none of that.

It was a whole lot more.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Succession Planning, Premiership Style

There's no secret to why Man U keeps on winning. 

They know what they want, and they go get it.

In this case, just a day after Sir Alex Ferguson told the world that he's retiring, they hired the man that everyone expected they would -- Everton's manager, David Moyes.  While Everton hasn't had the resources to be a perennial contender, Moyes has done the best he could with the rosters he's had. 

And that's been, well, pretty well.  So, to quote the lyrics of a famous Liverpudlian:  "Imagine. . .." 

Give Moyes the talent, the prognosticators believe, and Moyes will help guide Man U to a continued level of excellence.

Man U didn't announce Ferguson's retirement and keep the whole world guessing who they would hire.  They didn't announce his retirement without a specific plan of action in mind.  They knew who they wanted, and they got him.

With much less drama, say, than Chelsea and even Tottenham. 

Perhaps that's why Man U -- whoever owns them -- has been as successful as they've been.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

The Phil Jackson/Red Auerbach of International Soccer is Retiring

Sir Alex Ferguson, mentor of Manchester United, is retiring after this season.

Many American fans haven't heard of him.  Perhaps they've heard of Man U, but then again, perhaps not.  To put it in perspective, as best as I can, think New York Yankees, and think a combination of Casey Stengel and Joe McCarthy in terms of results.  Then again, if you're younger than say 65, the names Stengel and McCarthy won't mean much to you, either. 

Man U is the premier international soccer team brand (with apologies to Barcelona, Real Madrid, and, yes, even my favorite, Arsenal).

Alex Ferguson is a huge part of that brand.

This is big news.

He will be a tough act to follow.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Attention 14U Travel Softball Coaches -- Player Looking for Team

"I just got relocated from California and am looking for a team for my daughter.  She's a 13 year-old, finishing 7th grade, is 5'10", has home run power, but her passion is pitching.  She throws now in the low-to-mid 50's, can locate a fastball, change up, screwball and drop curve and is working on a rise ball.  We live in the Mercer/Bucks area, and we'd like to find an "A" travel team for her to compete on this summer.   We literally just arrived, so I'd be interested in any information you can share with me.  Thank you."

Interested?

I always wanted to post something like that on the regional softball message boards, making bets with my friends as to the "over and under" as to how many travel programs and then, within programs, how many travel coaches would contact me about, perhaps, the Sidd Finch of travel softball players.  After all, sending an e-mail doesn't cost much, although you must figure that if a dad had that elite a travel player, he'd have done his research and figured out which programs to contact.  Then again, all programs have their politics, their protected players, etc., but, then again, it would seem that most coaches would drop their worst pitcher to pick up a player like this.

And what does that say about travel programs?  About travel coaches?  About loyalty to organizations or the lack thereof?  Many would drop their best friend's kid if they could get a meal ticket like this who could help the team fare better on Saturdays (seeding day) and play deeper into Sundays (i.e., the more games you win, the better).  Many would take a kid with a 50-mile commute who couldn't practice with the team during weekdays instead of a neighborhood kid who practices hard if the player is a difference maker.  The reasoning?  "Everyone does it."  And since when is that a good reason?

The player, of course, does not exist, at least not that I know of.  Given that there are about 310 million people in the U.S., it stands to reason that some girl somewhere moved to a softball-mad area, has skills and is looking for an elite team.  My advice to the parents is to protect your player if she's that good and try to get on the coaching staff.

But if she did exist. . . what would the "over and under" be?  10 teams?  30 teams?

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Is Charlie Manuel's job in jeopardy?

The one-time Yankee and Seattle Mariner Jim Bouton, author of "Ball Four," also wrote a book called, "I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad."  I thought of that title in the context of a line I once heard, perhaps from Whitey Herzog, or perhaps from a Jayson Stark or Buster Olney, that a good manager can win you perhaps 6-8 games and a bad one can lose you that many.  In many cases, you can be a great manager, but if you don't have the defense, don't have the hitters, don't have the pitching staff, it doesn't matter what moves you make because, well, you do not have the players.

Charlie Manuel wasn't as great a manager as they said he was when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, and he's certainly not as bad a manager as some are saying now.  He is, generally, a good manager, but in 2008 he had a bunch of peaking stars, many of whom lacked big contracts, and he helped maximize their effort with a weaker starting staff than he had in ensuing years but a better bullpen.  The team won 100 games in 2011, too, only to fall off the cliff last season when both Chase Utley and Ryan Howard missed most of the first half with injuries.   Even with that development, the team finished at .500.

But they Marlins have made them look bad two days in a row, and right now, as I write this, they are shellacking the Phillies 11-0.  This is a Marlins team that, were English Premier League soccer rules to apply, would have been relegated to the next league down.  But today, the Phillies are making them look like the '27 Yankees, or the Marlins are making the Phillies look like the '62 Mets.  Either analogy depresses the average Phillies' fan.

A few years ago, the team fired hitting coach Milt Thompson when they fell flat mid-season, only to rebound.  A few years later, they fired hitting coach Greg Gross.  Charlie's contract expires at the end of the season, but the team is lethargic, lacks a lot of zing, and perhaps a managerial change -- of one of the most popular managers or coaches in Philadelphia history -- is necessary to wake the team up.  I am not advocating this, but I wouldn't be surprised if the powers that be at Citizens Bank Park fire Manuel or GM Ruben Amaro or both.

A popular dance move right now is the Harlem Shake.

Something must be in Philadelphia's water, because each professional sports team has done its own version of the Philadelphia Slide.

Today's Phillies' game demonstrates that this one isn't electric.

It's radioactive.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Backwards Day

Remember days at school or camp when people did things backwards?  You wore your baseball hats inside out, shirts inside out, shoes on the wrong foot, ran bases the wrong way, stuff like that?  I didn't particularly like that sort of stuff, but it happened.  Perhaps Seinfeld got it right when he referred to "Bizarro World," but on his show it was hard to distinguish Bizarro World from the daily existence of the ensemble cast.

At any rate, the Phillies beat the Marlins last night (a nine that, instead of resembling a franchise that has won two World Series more resembles a terrible college team with a great player that everyone comes to scout), behind youngster Jonathan Pettibone.  That makes the Phillies 9-3 in starts by Pettibone, Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan, and 5-13 when aces Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are starting.  It's hard to forecast this stuff, let alone make it up.

Mike Missanelli had Phils' GM Ruben Amaro on the other day and asked him by when fans could tell whether the team was a contender, and Amaro said, "Give it another month."  It's what anyone would have expected the GM to say, what with the Phillies now playing to 8,000 empty seats a night (in addition to about 35,000 full ones).  Yet, the Phillies, whose early schedule of cupcakes almost eclipses the air time that Food Network gives to "Cupcake Wars," have squandered early-season opportunities by not beating up on opponents they should be beating up on.  And therein lies one of their many problems

The squad, as constructed, relies upon many ifs.  So, if a) the aces return to form (and cease to pitch like the seven of clubs), b) the non-aces continue to hold serve, to mix a metaphor, c) the lineup can string together rallies, and d) some players emerge whom we need to emerge (such as Ben Revere and Domonic Brown and relievers not named Adams and Papelbon), then perhaps they might be able to make a run.  But when too much has to go right with an aging team, it usually doesn't.

Then again, during the Phillies outstanding run from '07 through '11, they suffered more than their share of injuries.  I recall one time when they had Dane Sardinha, Wilson Valdez and Juan Castro batting 6-7-8 in the lineup and won consistently and when Cody Ransom hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the 9th to enable the Phillies to tie a game against the Reds in the bottom of the 9th that they went into trailing 7-1, and that led to a great winning streak that helped make their season.  Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz all missed significant time because of injuries, the team never quit and each time someone stepped up (including, in '07, Tadahito Iguchi, who played 2B after Utley went down, hit .300 and helped the Phillies make the playoffs).

They had the magical mojo then.

Can they get it back?

Or will they continue to slide, move backwards?

May will tell us a lot.


Friday, May 03, 2013

What Happens When You Don't Move Your Stuff Out of Your Parents' House

Some keep it.

Some toss it.

Some bother you about it, and either give up and keep it or toss it.

Almost no one tries to auction it off.  I mean, I got a good grade on a history final once and the professor compared me to H.L. Mencken.  I doubt that's worth anything.  My notes are probably illegible anyway.  My mother once brought me a bag of old baseball hats that I had accumulated over the years.  She should have thrown all of them out.

That said. . . if "you" are Kobe Bryant, your mom will try to auction the stuff so that she can buy a more expensive house in Nevada than apparently you were willing to pay for.   You can read about it here.  

On the one hand, some of the stuff seem to be Kobe's.  On the other hand, some of it has sat in Pamela Bryant's house for a while.  I doubt there's a law similar to "escheat" laws, where unclaimed property goes to the state after a number of years.  Is there a law which says, "hey, if your kids don't pick up their stuff after X number of years, it's open season for parents?"  Or do parents argue, "Hey, it's in my house, possession is at least nine-tenths of the law, and I own it, so there's no argument from my kid?"

Perhaps CourtTV will televise the case.

After all, it's the only court any Laker will be playing on at this time of the year.