Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Boston Whine Party

Employee breaks rules.

Employer investigates.

Employee destroys information.

Employee refuses to cooperate in investigation.

In most cases, employee gets fired.  No severance, no nothing, just a quick and quiet exit.

Unless, of course, you are a star pro football player, your enabling fans and admirers tell you that everything you do is okay, and you are a member of a union that has a collective bargaining agreement with work rules that protect you.

Fine, the union will stand up for the player, and the player has money to fight the punishment.  And, yes, everyone is entitled to a defense.  But. . .

The NFL hired an investigator with impeccable credentials.  The investigator did a thorough job in investigating what happened.  The NFL also has major credibility problems, and if professional sports don't enforce rules that affect the integrity of the outcome of any came, what do they have?  Most certainly not the fans' trust or belief that the game is credible.  Baseball took a huge it because of the handwave it gave to the steroids problem until the public outcry became so loud (as did the bulk of the players).  Soccer has problems because of FIFA's bribery scandal.  And cycling became a joke when it became clear that international icon Lance Armstrong was a fraud.

Organizations show integrity when they take stands that could cost them money or tarnish their image temporarily, when they admit that they are human and vulnerable and, yes, this star transgressed and will be held accountable.  That's the way the system should work.  This issue about Deflategate should not be that huge a deal -- Brady did wrong, he made a big mistake, and he should get punished for it.  Period.  But instead, he's the saint, the league is terrible, the commissioner is Darth Vader, the league is inconsistent on punishment, and Brady is a victim.  Wow, that's something. 

The fact of the matter is that another team complained and that Brady and some cohorts in the New England organization did something wrong.  Look, it isn't even the first time teams in the league did something wrong this past season, as one if not two teams were punished for pumping in extra crowd noise during games this year.  And those stories came and went because, well, the behavior was wrong, their was no excuse and perhaps because the stories didn't involve one of the best quarterbacks of all time and the Super Bowl champions.  (Yet, steroids issues in baseball involved all-stars and the cycling scandal involved the best rider of all time).  Somehow, the whole conversation of this is skewed because of very difficult facts involving domestic abuse cases, the intertwining of off-the-field matters with the league's code of conduct policy, letting the justice system take its course and many tough situations.  I am not defending the league's handling of the Ray Rice case.  That said, how the league handled those matters should not cloud the league's or anyone's judgment about how it should handle a matter that affects the integrity of the game.

The issue here is that the league must take a stand that no player is above honoring the rules of the game and also fair play.  Sure, we can take shots at the league for enforcing "no celebration" penalties and "keep your shirt tucked in" rules.  But if the league cannot discipline Tom Brady, what message is it sending?  That you need to try to cheat to be great?  That if you pile up numbers you are so valuable to us that we cannot hold you accountable? 

Again, everyone is entitled to a defense, and Brady and the players' association are well within their rights to exhaust their remedies.  And perhaps the investigator and league got it wrong.  But if, on its face, Brady had a role in telling those equipment guys to deflate footballs (and especially in light of the fact that the Colts had warned the league about this before) and then perhaps destroyed evidence and failed to cooperate, he should be happy with a four-game suspension and just walk away.

But most people in the workplace would get fired.

Star or not.

There cannot be two sets of rules -- one for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and the Patriots and one for everyone else. 

And that is Roger Goodell's and the league's point.

And it's a good one.

The Phillies Trade Cole Hamels

A few funny things happened on the way to trading Cole Hamels. . .

1.  He threw a no-hitter in his last start for the team.
2.  The Phillies haven't been winners exactly in development talent or in getting it for star pitchers.
3.  It remains to be seen whether they'll have broken their jinx of making bad trades by getting a few future stars in this one.  History is not on their side.

We go back to when they traded Fergie Jenkins in the 1960's to the Cubs for a bunch of players, only to see Jenkins become a Hall of Famer.  True, the swap of Rick Wise for Steve Carlton in the early 1970's proved to be a stroke of genius.  It's hard to argue with that one, as it is that despite a trove of promising starters in the late 1970's/early 1980's (Jim Wright, Tony Ghelfi, Scott Munninghoff, Marty Bystrom), none of them panned out.  It's also hard to argue that despite the touting in the mid-to-late 2000's the team had one of the best farm systems in baseball, almost none of those prospects turned into much (example:  none of the four vaunted prospects sent to Cleveland in the 2009 Cliff Lee trade materialized into an everyday starter let alone a star, and for all the trades made to other teams in the 2007-2012 time frame you could argue that only Gio Gonzalez has had a career worthy of mention).  Atop that, the team is saddled with the wreckage (at least in memory) of getting four suspects for Curt Schilling (who went on to have a close to if not Hall of Fame career) and the poor prospects it received when it traded Cliff Lee to Seattle (the season before they then re-signed him as a free agent -- just witness the struggles of Philippe Aumont).  Put simply, the Cole Hamels trade is a triumph of hope over experience.

Yes, they're getting arguably the third, fourth, fifth, thirteenth and twenty-ninth best prospects from a team that is five games below .500 and a starter who won 18 games four years ago and then had two very major surgeries and hasn't been the same, are eating the $34 million remaining on his contract, sent close to $10 million in cash to the Rangers and still somewhat promising lefty reliever Jake Diekman, along with Hamels.  Huge trade, reminiscent of around 1983 when the Phillies sent five players, including Julio Franco, to the Indians for then phenom Von Hayes (who would have drawn great praise today for all of his good numbers, especially his on-base percentage).  Hayes never materialized into a Hall of Famer, and Franco actually had a better career. 

Oh, we'll talk about the stud pitching prospect, the catcher who can throw and hit the ball out of the stadium, the outfielder with the strong and quick wrists and the two other pitchers until we're blue in the face.  But the pitcher must not blow out his arm and has to project to be at least the #2 in the rotation.  The catcher has to be close to an all-star and at least in the conversation.  And the outfielder must be an everyday player who can have an on-base percentage that hopefully is at least ten basis points above the Major League average.  If they get anything out of the other two pitchers, fine, but they need regulars, and they need a few who have the potential to be stars.  Why?  Because the Rangers are getting a big-game pitcher like Schilling was who can help lead them to the ever-elusive World Series title (and they missed their window over the past couple of years).

It's hard to gauge this trade right now.  Initially, I was horrified, as early reports did not include the #3 prospect in the organization, the star pitching prospect.  Still, in a way, it's sad to note that a star pitcher coming off a no-hitter with a team-friendly contract (why -- because it lasts for 3-4 more years as opposed to the 7 or so that the star free agents are likely to get in the off-season) cannot draw a #1 or #2 organizational prospect from a contender.  Perhaps this is the best the Phillies can do, but the pressure is on.  The view here is that if this trade fails along the lines of the Schilling deal (or, even along the lines of the Hunter Pence and Roy Oswalt debacles, where Pence turned out to be a mainstay and the key minor-leaguer cannot shake injuries and where they gave up value for Oswalt, including a throw-in minor-league outfielder who is very good) then ownership has to sell the team.  It will have zero credibility save among its wealthy buddies on the Main Line, and it will have proven that it cannot regain the culture that it had created on the foundation of the Ed Wade era (as it was Wade who found us Hamels, Rollins, Howard and Utley -- or at least that happened around his watch) about eight years ago.  Sadly, you cannot fire the owners, but this trade will say a lot whether this ownership group can rebuild the team and recapture the magic that made Citizens Bank Park a very special place even five years ago.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Friend's Lament: Why aren't we as interested in baseball as we used to be?

A good friend e-mailed after the All-Star game asking this question.  I offered the following:

1.  The strike of 1994 started the decline deep down.  How could both sides let the World Series get cancelled?

2.  Then there was the Steroids Era.  The owners let it happen, the non-using players knew it was going on and did nothing (if this were the Black Sox era, Judge Landis would have banned all of them), and the glorified fans known as many of the baseball writers chronicled and cheered the glorious offensive records that were being set, while conveniently ignoring whispers and the size of the average player.  What made it worse is that overall Major League Baseball did not apologize for this travesty.  Sure, there was the Mitchell Report and yes, the baseball writers are guarding the Hall of Fame with their lethal keyboards, but let's make no mistake -- that era was awful.

3.  Analytics have taken over the game for better and for worse.  "Moneyball" was great, showing that a little engine that could could outwit the big spenders.  It also showed teams that having a good face and being built like a tight end did not guarantee success in baseball, and that you could be built like Kevin Youkilis and excel.  But there are so many analytics today that unless you have a masters in math you cannot figure all of them out or calculate them.   And all those analytics do what math is designed to do -- to prove something.  Which means that while I might prefer Mays and you might prefer Aaron, there is some PhD in math from MIT who never played Little League who can prove who was better and why.  And there's fun in that for the math guys, but not for those of us who like the smell of the grass, the thwack of the bat, the thump of the ball into the mitt.

4.  It's hot out there.  Even at 7 p.m. in many parts of the country, the temperatures and humidity are high.  And that makes it no fun to watch games in such blistering heat.

5.  Tickets are more expensive, and so is parking and beer.

6.  The games are so gosh-darn long.  A game takes 3:30 to play, and the ball is in play for about 15 minutes.  There is only so much catching up one can do with friends over that long a period of time.  Forty years ago I went to a game at Vet Stadium in Philadelphia, Randy Jones of the Padres against Steve Carlton of the Phillies.  Game was over in 1:28.  Great game, home team won, hot day, but game  was short.  MLB should think about that.

7.  The offense is terrible.  Strikes zones seem bigger, pitchers throw extremely hard on every pitch (and injuries have not abated over time, which is sad given that if front offices can figure out analytics to guide their selection of players, they should be able to figure out physiology enough to keep their pitchers healthy.  Long gone are the days when Iron Man Joe McGinnity pitched both ends of long-gone doubleheaders for the New York Giants -- and he did not miss time because of arm injuries).  No, I don't want to return to the Steroids/Amphetamines Era, but OBP  is the lowest it's been in 35+ years.

8.  Even with the fun parks, the game seems antiseptic.  There is no Cal Ripken streak, no great  recovery by the BoSox after being 3 games down in the 2004 ALDS, no huge names with personality.  Sure, there is Mike Trout, but who else is there?  Miguel Cabrera is great but doesn't seem to have pizzazz, and Albert Pujols has tailed off.  A-Rod is damaged goods; Derek Jeter retired.  The newer phenoms don't have the buzz yet.

9.  Is baseball losing kids?  My son doesn't follow it, and many of his friends do not.  They love basketball and soccer (which has grown in the US tremendously, especially interest in international soccer) and football.  Baseball is the game that I went to with my dad.  Carlton and Schmidt are greats that I refer to.  Even I saw Mays, but he was at the end of his career.  Many great industries lose their preeminence when they think they are on top, and then fail to save themselves.  About 45 years ago boxing, tennis and horse racing were much more popular than they are now.  There's a lesson in that somewhere.

10.  There are so many choices for entertainment.  Baseball used to have fewer competitors.  Now there are great restaurants, other teams, big TVs with comfortable chairs and cable in the air conditioning of your own home.  Back then, a trip to the ball park was something special and more affordable. 

I still like the game.  My dad took me to Connie Mack Stadium in North Philadelphia when I was three.  I saw Aaron, Clemente, Mays and the hapless Phillies.  Parking was strange, the Vet then was new and space-age like, and the Phillies got better.  We talked baseball all the time, kept score, and looked forward to our father-and-son outings.  And because of that, I'll always be a fan. 

But it's just not the same. . .