Saturday, December 27, 2014

A (Belated) Thanks to Jimmy Rollins

When I was a young boy, the ghosts of 1964 haunted the Phillies wherever I went.  Little League dads talked about the micromanaging of Gene Mauch, heralded as a baseball savant who probably overmanaged his teams, how during the stretch he relied too heavily on Jim Bunning and Chris Short and how Chico Ruiz's steal of home in the bottom of the 15th inning of a road game in Cincinnati was the beginning of the end.  The team was up 6 1/2 games with 12 to go and managed to finish third.  That collapse stained the memories of Phillies' fans.  The teams were mostly terrible for the longest periods of time, save 1950 when the "Whiz Kids" caught fire, held off the Dodgers only to lose #2 starter Curt Simmons to an Army call-up and get swept by the Yankees.  After a thirteen year drought, they had something, only to see it keep jumping beyond their grasp to the point where antiquities scholars at Penn thought that Sisyphus or Tantalus had made a return to earth -- to 21st and Lehigh Avenues in North Philadelphia to be exact.

The team resurged in the mid-1970's, first thanks to the enthusiasm of an overflow second baseman from the Pirates named Dave Cash, who kept on saying "Yes We Can," to spur the team on.  By the late 1970's, the team had a core of players that featured two future Hall of Famers in Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton and some other all-star caliber talent among the likes of Garry Maddox, Larry Bowa, Manny Trillo and Bob Boone.  Finally, after some disappointments in the late 1970's, including a collapse in the 1977 NLCS against the Dodgers that summoned the ghosts of the '64 team to Veterans Stadium, they won the World Series in 1980.  They appeared, by some stroke of fate, again in 1983, but the Orioles overmatched them.  Then Schmidt and Carlton got old and some heralded pitching prospects -- now nameless, but at one time big names -- all fizzled, including one that went 5-0 in September of 1983 to help propel the team to the Series.  Position player prospects also didn't pan out -- OF Jeff Stone was a meteor, and 2B Juan Samuel, who had Hall of Fame written all over him, neither could lay off or hit the outside breaking ball.  By the late 1980's, the ownership group, led by President Bill Giles, was fielding a mediocre team in a rapidly declining multi-purpose stadium that seemingly always smelled like a combination hot dog stand/public restroom/subway and once called the club a "small market" team.  In fact, it was its management that was small-minded; the market remained in the top five in the country in terms of population.

Somehow, a team of goofballs, bullies, cast-offs and role players came together in 1993 to upset the Braves in the NLCS and to battle a great Blue Jays team hard in the World Series.  The team was exciting, true, but you would have liked them better if they formed your defensive unit for your NFL team rather than your baseball team.  There was something unlikeable about them -- they didn't have the grace and craftsmanship of the 1980 team.  They were smug, they were rough, and they just didn't care what people thought.  Their manager, Jim Fregosi, wore a jacket no matter how hot the weather and he also used closer Mitch Williams in the ninth no matter how well the hurler was throwing.  Catcher Darren Daulton was the spiritual leader, center fielder Lenny Dykstra the heart, with first baseman John Kruk the sergeant at arms.  Curt Schilling, then a young pitcher, emerged as a big-game pitcher and uber-talent, but he talked too much for the rest of the gang and was pretty much an outcast.  The part of the locker room where the leaders sat was called "Macho Row," and that's pretty much all you needed to know about them.  John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson and the Baltimore Orioles of the 1890's would have loved 'em.  Many Phillies' fans say they did, but that's only because they won and the city traditionally hasn't had many winners to cheer.

The team then staggered again until it realized in the late 1990's that the Vet was getting uglier by the year and the fans weren't coming to watch bad teams.  They targeted building a new stadium to launch in 2004 and realized before then that in order to draw fans, they needed to get some players.   Their farm system never has been that good, but they figured out ways to get the likes of Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.  Ironically, the oft-maligned Ed Wade found these guys, the same guy who was run out of town in the mid-2000's because apparently he did not do enough.  Sadly for Wade, he was not media savvy.  On the radio and before the media, he looked more like someone who was about to have a colonoscopy (perhaps without anesthesia) than he was someone who was one of the lucky ones to be able to do what he does for a living every day.  Put differently, Wade resembled the accountant who was about to give you some bad news.

At any rate, the team showed signs of improvement, brought in Pat Gillick, the architect of those wonderful Blue Jays teams, and made room for Rollins, Utley and Howard to lead the team.  Fast forward to 2007, and Rollins was the MVP.  The next year, the team won the World Series.  Make no mistake, Rollins was the leader -- the first person the press talked to, the guy who took pressure off more reticent teammates, like Chase Utley, by talking to the press.  He was small in size but not in heart -- he was a great defensive player and made himself into a very good offensive force as well.  Many shortstops of his era were good fielders with light bats; Rollins spoke confidently and carried a big stick.  He put up numbers, both offensive and defensive, rallied the fellows and played the most important position in the field.  He did all well for a long period of time and should be remembered, forever, as one of the top Phillies of all-time.  From the 1915 team there was Alexander, there was Klein in the 30's, Ashburn and Roberts in the 50's, Bunning in the 60's, Carlton and Schmidt and, well, then Rollins and probably Utley, too, when all is said and done.

Jimmy Rollins was a maestro, had a strong arm, ran the bases well, hit, hit with power, walked the dugout and talked with everyone.  Among my fondest memories were periodic shots of his talking hitting and strategy with Manager Charlie Manuel, a noted hitting guru, in the dugout and his pre-game handshake behind second base with his double-play partner, Utley.  Together, they formed the longest-running double play combination in National League history.

Yes, he had his faults and his lapses, a few times where he didn't run out a grounder or pop up the way he should have, but he played for 15 years in a tough city and played well for much of it.  How many of us can say that we had so few "bad" moments on our jobs, moments where we failed to hustle or have a very good day?  But fans tend to hold others -- especially players who make enormous sums -- to higher standards than they themselves can possibly meet, but players are people too.  People who have issues with teammates, girlfriends, wives, family members, worrying about something.  We all have been there, and we all get distracted.  I probably have spent too much time on this, but if I have, it's only to defend Rollins and to refuse to permit those headlines from eclipsing what so far is a "borderline" Hall of Fame career.  (You can go to an earlier post about my musings on both Rollins's and Utley's being borderline Hall of Famers -- both need a few excellent seasons to elevate them into a serious Hall conversation).

I'll remember Jimmy Rollins for his leadoff home runs, for his great defensive plays deep in the hole, for his throws, his stolen bases that fired up the team, his confidence that he intended to convey to his teammates with the hope that they pick up on it, grab it, and follow him to victories.  He was not only a great player, he was a leader, the one that people rallied around, the one that refused to let vacuums exist and who seemingly was the one everyone looked to first and last.

Thanks, Jimmy Rollins, for the great play and for helping create some great memories for Phillies' fans. We will miss you, and we wish you much success as you finish your career in your home state of California.

Who Really Cares About Most College Bowl Games?

The answer is almost no one.

They are not scarce any more.

Home televisions are so good that man caves offer better shots of the game in a better climate and with more conveniences than the stadiums themselves.

And they are cheaper.

Note that I said "most," because there will be great interest in the "Final Four" concept that the NCAA conjured up to crown a national champion.  Those games could be compelling, although you could bet that Baylor and TCU fans might summon the mother of Tottenham Hotspur striker Emmanuel Adebayor to put a spell on the whole setup (apparently the player attributed his drought of goals to his witch doctor mother's having cast a spell on him).

So those who care are coaches and athletic directors who can tell recruits and their superiors "hey, we qualified for a bowl game."  The people in the program get to take a trip, as do their parents and relatives (although pity the siblings who get stuffed into airplanes and hotel rooms and get dragged along to functions when they'd rather be watching Netflix, playing on the PlayStation 2 or hanging out with their own friends).  The parents get to go to work and talk about the bowl, the trip, the program, their recruited athlete and perhaps not about the downside -- the broken promises from self-aggrandizing coaching staffs, the push to play while injured and perhaps the less-than-optimal class schedules that don't always provide a young man with an opportunity for a meaningful career, especially if the kid plays at a school that gives academic credit for playing the sport (and, some apparently do).

Sorry to be a post-holiday Grinch, so to speak, but the channels are littered with games that don't mean anything and that aren't interesting, precisely because there are way too many of them.  The FBS system rewards teams for play the way youth athletic programs reward eight year-olds -- everyone seemingly gets the same trophy, whether you are a difference maker or not.

And few, outside those connected with the programs in a significant way, care about almost every bowl game save a precious handful.  That should tell the NCAA and its member school something.  The irony is that these academic institutions don't learn too good, I mean well, because most football programs -- about 80% of them -- lose money.  So why should the NCAA care if these bowl games, an opiate for some small masses, break even or not -- it's the sponsors who pay, not the schools.  But really?  What team should want to go to a bowl game if they have finished 6-6?

Then again, with all of the complicated rules, the loopholes, the apparent bending of them and the inconsistent enforcement of them, perhaps if you finish 6-6 you should be celebrated because you tried to do it the right way -- running an amateur program where most kids graduate and with degrees other than in something like resort maintenance.

I haven't watched a bowl outside of those with implications for decades now, and I do not think that habit will change.  Not with the English Premiership taking root (where each game seems to mean something), not with the entertainment value of basketball (you actually can see the players and the ball).  

This bowl system is a dinosaur.

Then again, with the increasing prevalence of concussions and life-long injuries. . . so might be football.  It's on top now, but sometimes that's when an institution is at its most vulnerable.  

Bowl games, though, should reward some form of excellence.

Right now, they do not.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Can Chip Kelly Win the Big One?

That question is starting to permeate in Philadelphia.

As well as how good a drafter he is, given that at Oregon he could build better facilities with the help of Phil Knight and out-recruit competitors.  In Philadelphia, he stretched to take Marcus Smith, an alleged edge rusher from Louisville whom most had in the late second or third rounds, in the first round.  So far, Smith has been a bust,  What makes that worse is that the Eagles' defense at times has been iffy. 

Chip is an innovator and he has won, and some would argue that he has done so without his optimal roster.  The secondary is not good, the linebackers inconsistent, and the back-up quarterback not good.  Bright spots have included the defensive line (one of the best in the league), the now-healthy offensive line (ditto) and certain skills position players (but not all of them).  The special teams have excelled.  There are many bright spots, but perhaps the Eagles need another draft and a key signing or two to fine-tune the roster, upgrade the secondary, get a few difference makers on defense and then step up.

Kelly's tenure has been good but not great, and if there is disappointment, it's because the fans fail to realize that even with bright innovators, change takes time to take root.

He has won big games before and will win them again.  Sadly for Eagles' fans, Kelly did not win the big one last Sunday, and that could prove fatal to the Eagles' chances for the post-season.  And that would put a huge damper on the overall progress Kelly has made since he came to Philadelphia two years ago. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Are the Stat Guys and Outcomes Predictors Ruining the Fun or Just Changing the Conversation?

I appreciate math people, I really do, but I confess that I am not all that good at math (even though friends of mine and I in the 70's figured out MoneyBall way back when via Strat-o-Matic cards, thinking that OBP for hitters and OBP and Total Bases Yielded for pitchers meant something).  Today, there is so much math around baseball in particular that you can settle arguments about who is better than the next guy via some type of calculation.  I suppose that empirical evidence should trump observations and opinions, but the latter are just so much fun.  When people used to talk about hot-stove or inside baseball they used to debate whether Mays was better than Mantle and historically how DiMaggio and Speaker matched up.  Today, they'll pull out a bunch of algorithms to prove one's superiority over the other. 

It's analytical, mathematical and clinical at one level, but does that type of stuff remove the intangibles, and, yes, the fun?  Or, does it spark a whole new level of discussion about which numbers really matter and why some calculations are fuzzy math while others bring home the goods.  In the days before the Society of Baseball Research guys (and pretty much they were guys) and the internet, one could wonder about the relative merits of say Lefty Grove versus Whitey Ford.  Today, there are a whole host of people who can break down the careers of both in so many ways that the discussion ends with the math; the words are rendered almost pointless.

Many who like baseball like it because of the math, even though today's metrics arguably replace out-dated ones that might not mean a whole lot, such as runs batted in, ERA for a relief pitcher and wins for a pitcher (I still maintain that had Frank Tanana pitched for anyone but the Angels, he'd be in the Hall).  That said, what's replaced them to a degree are numbers that are hard to explain and, therefore, hard to capture the average fan.  And while fans in San Francisco and Kansas City might have had a gripping World Series, the rest of the country yawned.  The numbers are better conceived, but harder to grasp.  The numbers that get grasped are that games take 3:30 and that the ball is in play for about 15 minutes.  Those numbers repel kids; baseball increasingly is becoming the game their grandfathers took their fathers to, or, alternatively, a side show to sports bar-like stadiums that permit the 21-35 crowd mingle on pavilions while showing only a slight interest in the game.  That doesn't seem to be a sustainable strategy.

Yes, there are all sorts of statistics in other sports, but in soccer the main ones are goals and assists, as in ice hockey.  In basketball, it's points, rebounds and assists, and in football, well, it's just whether your team wins enough to make the playoffs.  With baseball, it's harder to tell.

The analytics can be fun.

If only the average fan can understand them.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Why are 76ers' fans so patient?

The team is one and forever, having beaten the also hapless Timberwolves the other night, which must have gotten former 76er Thad Young to thinking that he is living in one of Dante's circles of hell because the 76ers traded him precisely to get worse, and then they beat the team that he's on, which also has Andrew Wiggins, who apparently was the object of the 76ers' desires when they adopted their strategy of losing last season, only to get another big man with a bad wheel, this time Joel Embiid.

Philadelphia fans can get a bad rap.  Sure, they aren't patient and yes, they can be profane, but that's what many fans are about today.  Perhaps they did throw snowballs at or boo Santa Claus in the early 70's, but reports from the game indicated that this happened because the man impersonating St. Nick was drunk and behaving badly.  At any rate, despite the fact that many are diehards, they are giving the 76ers a huge pass for losing badly, fielding a terrible team (even though it tries gives it the old college try, which makes you wonder whether a college team like Kentucky could give them a run) and not caring whether they win.  The front office has taken the love of drafting prospects to an extreme (where it's more fun to take someone with potential than someone with a proven track record, so seniors in the draft are doomed) and dangles the promise of a front line of guys named Noel, Embiid (who admittedly looked like the best college big on film since guys named Olajuwon and O'Neal) and Saric.

It's hard to know whether the diehards know that these three can be special, whether they have put their  fanaticism in abeyance because of the rise of the Philadelphia Eagles or that they have stopped caring to the point that they are not even complaining.  The latter would worry the front office the most, for while they have enough money to float the team, so to speak and carry it forward until the glory days return, most fans don't have the type of money to invest in season tickets and watch a team which, if it were in the English Premier League, would definitely be relegated to the next league down and be playing in smaller arenas in the 33rd through 64th largest cities in the United States.  Instead, they still demand NBA price and, as a bonus, fans get to see the visiting teams and their stars.

It's not as though the 76ers have offered discounts to fans for watching such an awful team or even lower prices now in exchange for higher prices a few years down the road.  The fans who do come like the arena, like the vibe, love the game and like the visiting teams.  Many who come are smart enough not to purchase season tickets (and whoever talks about fan loyalty to me is a bit silly given that management really isn't serving the fans all that well with the product they are putting out on the floor) from the team but to purchase individual tickets at cut-rate prices on StubHub.  Perhaps they are curious, perhaps they are buying the propaganda that management is putting out about how good the team can be in the future.

But here's a question:  don't most great teams have veteran leadership, and don't they have a mix of players, some of whom are veterans, some are younger and some are rookies?  It's hard to conceive that a bunch of young players the same age will be able to beat veteran teams consistently and become an elite team.  They will need veterans, and while it's understandable that they traded Thad Young, ultimately they will need leaders.  And that begs the biggest question of them all:  once Saric comes over from Turkey and Noel and Embiid are healthy, what veterans will they sign?  And who will come to the team?  Fans can assume that veterans might come to play with the young nucleus the 76ers are putting together, but if they do so they will demand a premium.  Why?  Because they are veterans, and they are the least patient of them all to win and win now, because they know how short careers can be and how few chances the average veteran has to play on a special team.  And I'd be skeptical of those who really want to come to Philadelphia initially unless they are proven winners, because it could be that they want the payday more than the rings.  And if they have won a title before, will they still have the hunger to win again?

Look, I know I am parsing this finely, but the 76ers have adopted a risky strategy that, while unique, has its risks -- that all players will be healthy, that all will be good, and that some veterans will come over as free agents to help form an eight- or nine-player rotation that can quickly climb into the top four teams in the Eastern Conference.  Right now, the fans are buying it because they did grow tired of rooting for a team whose upside was that maybe they would win 45 games and lose in the first round.  They grew tired of Comcast's ownership, of Ed Snider's mismanagement of the club  and of Comcast's treating the team as the poor stepchild to the Flyers.

All that's fine, and the new ownership has said the right things and brought more zing and oomph to the franchise.  But after a while, the fans will yell "call," and they will want to see a big-league team.  I don't know how long the fans will wait, but it won't be much more than beyond this season.