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, August 27, 2015

The Buzz and Vibe of a Winner -- the New York Mets

I had great seats at the Phillies-Mets game last night at Citizens Bank Park, so good that I could see into the Mets' dugout and get a good sense of the team, the team that is leading the National League East over the heavily-favored Washington Nationals. 

The Mets went into the season with great pitching -- everyone knows the story of how this pitching staff has the potential to out-Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz the Atlanta Braves teams that were so great in the 90's and early 2000's.  The question mark was hitting, and for a while the Mets were the worst-hitting team in the National League.  Fast forward to right now, and they have been on a tear, thanks, in part, to the Quadruple A pitching staff that the Phillies have assembled in their poor man's style of trying to rebuild a franchise (I say "poor man's because it would appear that there are, in contrast, rich man's versions in the Cubs, Pirates, Astros and Royals).  The past three days have been glorified batting practice for the Mets, who set a franchise record the other night by hitting eight home runs against the Phillies in a come-from-behind 16-7 victory.

That victory perhaps was a statement on two fronts.  First, that the Mets can hit and can sustain their hitting.   Second, that the Phillies' surprise surge right after the All-Star break was just that, that the carriage turned into the proverbial pumpkin, and that a no-name bullpen with an anonymous group of hitters not named Howard or Francoeur only can take you so far before it craters. 

But what was more compelling to me last night was the buzz in the Mets' dugout.  I had seen that type of vibe in recent memory in the Phillies' dugout from say late 2007 through 2011 and particularly in 2008, when the Phillies won the World Series.  Roll back the tape, and you would see Shane Victorino energizing the whole dugout, Jimmy Rollins talking hitting with Charlie Manuel, Ryan Howard and his outsized smile, the intensity of Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley and for a time, the Old Master, Jamie Moyer, holding court over a young pitching staff, and particularly the precocious talent of Cole Hamels.  The team, collectively, was standing on the balls of its toes, ready to jump in, ready to battle from behind (which it did masterfully during the glory part of Manuel's tenure), and was talking shop the entire time.  That energy was something to see, and its an energy borne of success and confidence in knowing that you have control over your destiny and enough talent in the dugout to take control over it.

Last night, I saw David Wright as the sun in the Mets' universe, the rallying point for his teammates.  Players gathered around him as though is their sage, their sensei, their oracle, and Wright, to his great credit as a leader, didn't seem to pull rank or have an arrogance about him at all.  To the contrary, he looked comfortable in his own skin and more than ready for the role as the first among an increasingly talented squad that is primed to make its mark in the NL East for years to come.  Among those joining Wright in a small cadre of those talking shop was star pitcher Jacob deGrom, who was near Wright for most of the night, pitcher Jonathan Niese, who seemed to keep his teammates loose, the recently acquired veteran infielder Kelly Johnson, second baseman Daniel Murphy, pitcher Matt Harvey, and catcher Travis d'Arnaud.  Sitting behind the dugout it is hard to see who else might have been around, and I also give credit to third-base coach Tim Teufel, who seemed more than happy to engage the players when the Mets were in the field. 

In contrast, while some Phillies were up on the small fence that serves, among other things, to keep foul balls from plunking unsuspecting players, they didn't appear to be gathered around any leader, didn't appear to be talking shop, and appeared basically in personal silos, watching the game and left to their own thoughts.  That's not the fault of anyone in particular, as manager Pete Mackanin is doing a fine job and the front office has finally figured out that they need to rebuild and reload in a big way.  It's more testimony to a franchise that got drunk on its own glory, failed to plan for the future, and now has a lot of names that are new to one another.  Ruiz is a leader by example but not a rallying point, and his career is almost over.  Howard is a shadow of his former self.  Hamels, Rollins and Utley are gone; Victorino and Jayson Worth long gone.  Cliff Lee is on the disabled list, his career presumably over.  There just do not appear to be any leaders yet ready to rally the team around them.  Mikael Franco came up this year, is very young, and on the disabled list.  Odubel Herrera has shown some promise, just joined the team this year as a Rule 5 draftee and is still figuring out how to play center field.  Right fielder Domonic Brown's body language suggests that he'd rather be somewhere else; Francoeur, while energetic, is a journeyman, so much so that the outfielder actually pitched in eight games in the minors last season. 

Going back to the Mets, it seems that despite some major injuries much is going right for them now.  They have good pitching, and they have started to hit.  And it's a fine time to get hot bats at the end of August, where the games count the same as they did in April but have more attention paid to them and more incremental meaning as the teams march toward the playoffs.  That Wright has returned gives them their veteran presence; that players are rallying around him is exciting.  They look confident, and their body language and interactions in the dugout show it.  As did the humor of veteran pitcher Bartolo Colon, who in one at bat stood there with the bat on his shoulder, took three strikes, walked back to the dugout with an amused smile on his face and sat down.  His teammates smiled, too -- they know that the cagey old veteran was saving his energy for throwing strikes, which he did masterfully last night.

It's a tale of two teams, and what a difference eight years makes.  The Mets started their decline at the end of 2007, when they blew a 7-game lead with 17 games to go and ran into a freight train called the Philadelphia Phillies, who blasted Tommy Glavine on the last day of the season to win the division.  That last month of the season gave birth to a great run for the Phillies and the (always temporary in baseball) decline of the Mets.  Fast forward eight years, and the Phillies look like the one-time boomtown with empty storefronts abounding, while the Mets look like the new development with all the modern amenities.  Mets' fans should enjoy the journey here and now.  Their team looks primed for a good run.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Must Read: ESPN the Magazine Article on Chris Borland

This article brings out the Nostradamus in me.

ESPN calls him the most dangerous man in football.  Perhaps to try to be more grammatically precise, they could call him the most dangerous man to football.  Either way, his retirement after a great rookie season because of a fear of doing long-term damage to himself based upon current empirical (and walking) evidence should scare anyone who has anything to do with football.  You also might recall the comment of future Hall of Famer Ed Reed, who offered that he played football so that his children wouldn't have to.  And then there's President Obama, who stated that he wouldn't have encouraged his kids (if they were boys) to play football.

For some kids, football is the reason they go to school, it is a way out, but then that way out ends.  Why?  Because most cannot earn scholarships.  And, for some who do, they quickly realize that they might not like studying much after high school.  Others get hurt, and scholarships are "one year renewable."  And for those who play well, they might be able to play professionally in the Arena League or CFL or NFL.  But then for how long?  And then what?  It would be interesting to see the statistics on what players do after they football careers end and the breakdown of earnings based upon who has a college degree and who does not.  There are other metrics out there -- perhaps related to health -- that should be measured, too.

The Nostradamus in me says that what protects football are the fans' need for violence, the fans' need for an event that is easy to bet on because of the point spread, and those who played it years ago who are defending a culture because they cannot bear to admit that what they participated in is harmful long-term to those who participate in the game.  How many "I love football" types do you hear on the sports talk shows and on the major networks?  And they get paid to talk about the product on the field when they know from experience and from friends who played who just are not well now what the cost of that product is in terms of human health.  It can be staggering.

Theodore Roosevelt was courageous enough to reform the game at the turn of the 20th century, when people were dying in games because of flying wedges and the ability to get a running start from the backfield toward the line of scrimmage.  He called the powers that be together and told them to fix their problem, and rules evolved, as they have over the years and as has the equipment.  But now the game has morphed into where there is a long-term health problem.  Players are not dying on the field like they were in the early 1900's; instead, they are doing things to themselves that accelerates a deterioration in their health and the dying process.  That's more subtle, but that doesn't mean the problem is not as pronounced.  And for every person who played in the NFL who gets publicity about his problems, there have to be tenfold more who are feeling the effects of playing football from Pee Wee through high school or college, too. 

Perhaps there is no one with the courage to address this problem.  Sure, the NFL has a committee, and a group of former players resolved litigation, but is the Federal government, the NFL and each college taking it as seriously or simply treating this issue as a risk management issue and a cost of doing business?  Perhaps there is a need to innovate equipment, to compel players to wear a bodysuit that combines breathing technology, airbags and Kevlar to protect players from the worst of its, so that the hits get absorbed in a different way?  Perhaps there is a need for massive rule changes, where football becomes more like flag football.  It's hard to know what is getting done, but it makes me wonder what those who study societies will think about ours when they look back 100 years from now and ruminate on this game of football.

Will they think it was civilized?  Will they think it was like Christians and lions in a coliseum?  Will they think that people must have been crazy to do this voluntarily?  Something tells me that advancing medical science will say affirmative to the last question.  And, if that's the case, why not take measures to reform the game dramatically now? 

How many suicides or cases of ALS or dementia must there be?  Of people in so much pain and so disabled that they have trouble functioning at way too early an age to have such troubles? 

Chris Borland is trouble for the NFL.  He did his own research and did not like what he found.  Sure, he won't be able to walk around and say he's a member of an NFL team and have all that cache.  And, he won't walk away now and make NFL money doing something else right away. 

But at least he can walk, and his walking away now gives him a much better chance of being able to walk well when he's in his sixties and seventies, will give him a much better chance of being able to know where he's walking, and will give him a much better chance to live a long and healthy life. 

He is giving up the opportunity to "be a football hero." 

But history probably will tell us that his walking away will help add to the quality of the lives of many and perhaps save some.

He is a dangerous man to the football industry.

And he is just one of the first.

More are coming.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Random Observations about the Sports World

Here goes:

1.  Great to see international soccer return.  Curious to see if any of the big teams will make a major move in the remaining two weeks or so until the clock expires on the summer transfer period.  Manchester City are playing like they have something to prove.  Chelsea have not gotten off to a good start and manager Jose Mourinho has not lasted in any job beyond three years.  Could change be coming to Stamford Bridge?  And perhaps this could be the year that Arsenal make a breakthrough (note the subject/verb alignment is the way the English do it).

2.  Has Jordan Spieth had an incredible run or what?  And does Tiger Woods have one more good run in him?

3.  Is MLS becoming the Seniors' Tour for great footballers from the major international leagues?  Kindly note that all players that come from across the ocean are well into their thirties, which makes them somewhat ancient by international footballing standards.  The Kaka of ten years ago only would have been seen in Orlando visiting Disney World, not playing football.

4.  Is there anything to make out of the NFL's pre-season?  Only that it is two games' too long.  Sure, it's fun to watch the younger players battle for roster spots, but the vets are desperately trying not to get hurt.

5.  Will history prove that every coach we like/honor/respect now will prove to have significant character flaws that will render him historically unlikable?  Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi ran brutal drills, Adolph Rupp was a racist and John Wooden wasn't as squeaky clean as he would have liked us to believe.  Bobby Knight's methods are legendary.  What will people say about Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban?  As for the footballers, perhaps that they didn't care about preparing kids for jobs outside pro football and for their long-term health.  Is that possible?

6.  Will LeBron win a title in Cleveland?  Does Kobe's insistence on making his max deal hamper the Lakers in a way that Tim Duncan's generosity in not insisting on a max deal helps the Spurs?  The answers are yes and yes, I think.  Basketball is just too far away to contemplate anything more deeply than that.

7.  Ah, baseball.  Yes, they still play it, but the powers that be should worry about their demographics, how hot it is outside and how long it takes to play games.    Was at AAA Lehigh Valley over the weekend and loved the clock for time between pitches and time in between innings.  MLB should adopt both and move their games along.  Also, for those who deny global warming, just try attending a baseball game in the Northeast in the summertime and 5 p.m. and have the temperature still be 90 degrees.  That didn't happen 30 years ago.  Baseball needs some more oomph and stars in this world of immediacy.  Other sports -- namely football and basketball -- benefit from the speed of media coverage and are more savvy about that coverage.

8.  Tennis.  Has it suffered in popularity because there are more choices for sports fans that ever before and, well, the equipment is so good that smash and score tennis without colorful personalities makes the sport almost unwatchable?  Had Serena Williams played twenty years ago she would have been THE story.  Not so today.

That's it from here.  Slow news day, slow summer day, watching to see whether Chase Utley allows himself to be traded and whether Sam Bradford's knee can hold up.  Yawn.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Case for Pete Mackanin

It's hard to hire a top-level employee.

You can hire a nationally known recruiter for a retained search.  You can have that recruiter gather references, check with influential people in the industry -- what's the person like as a leader, how does he/she communicate up, down and sideways, do people enjoy coming to work for this person and want to honor her/his leadership?  You can look at track records, you can have the person take all sorts of permissible "is this person a fit" tests, and you can have fourteen people interview him/her.  You can ask all sorts of questions, the most popular of which today are called "competency-based questions."  You can probe about all sorts of things, ask for examples of speaking truth to power, of turning a situation around, about finding a gem inside someone whose prospects others had dismissed.

And all of that might work.  Then again, there's the saying, "the person you interview on a Friday is not the same person who shows up on a Monday."  Translated, the person puts on his/her makeup and best face for the interview, is rehearsed, says all the right things.  His/her references say all sorts of good things, and chances are you didn't miss anything, but chances are retrospectively if you play back those references in your head after  a failed hire you'll probably focus on the things that you didn't hear but retrospectively you needed to.  It could be that the new position goes to the person's head, that the person is not a continuous improver and learner and sheds the modicum of humility you had thought was necessary for a leadership position.  It could be that despite your best intentions, it just plain out did not work.

But there's the question of the old-fashioned tryout.  Perhaps you are fortunate enough to hire someone for a junior position that's one level down, with a view toward promoting that person into the higher profile position within a few years.  During that time you can give that person all sorts of problems to solve, and watch his/her progress.  And if you like what you see, well, jackpot.  You can promote the person.  Chances are the whole organization will be pleased and support this person.  There is a chance that the person will fail because, well, the hot spot differs from the more junior spot -- more pressure, more responsibility and a different dynamic, as the person moves from a senior staff position say to "the" person.  But at least you have gotten to know the person and seen him/her develop a track record inside your organization.

Sure, there are great arguments for the Phillies not to remove the "interim" tag from Pete Mackanin.  Among them are he is 64 years old (which is, the last time I checked, a cause for action by Mackanin under Federal law) and the fact that he has been an interim manager three times without any team's having made him their permanent manager.  In other words, time might have passed Mackanin by, and it just could be that his becoming the manager of a Major League club is not meant to be.  After all, there are only 30 such positions, and it's not a shame not to have gotten one by even your 47th years in organized baseball.

What the Phillies seemingly need right now is a good organizational manager, one who has the ego that he can do a good job but one who doesn't have to profile himself before the media or become bigger than the team.  The team is not going to contend for years, so they need a mentor who can be patient with younger talent, communicate well with them, nurture them and help foster their growth while fully engaged.  He cannot be aloof like Ryan Sandberg or a drill sergeant like Larry Bowa.   He needs to be someone more like, well, Pete Mackanin.

Right now, the Phillies are 16-17 in games Mackanin has managed, and this among significant transition that had seen speculation regarding significant player movement and then the movement itself, as the team lost its most reliable outfielder, a stellar closer, and one of the best starting pitchers in the team's history.  Under his predecessor, the team was winning only a third of its games.  If anything, the Philllies' Major League roster has gotten worse, but the team has played with a vigor and energy that was lacking before Ryne Sandberg realized that there was more to managing a Major League team than just having had a Hall of Fame career and wanting to.  It's admirable that Sandberg rode buses in the minors to pay his dues and become a Major League manager; it's just disappointing that he failed to adapt to a dynamic where the players at the top level have much more leverage over the manager than they do collectively in the minors.  Managing in the Majors requires a much different skill set, it would appear, from managing in the minors.  The minors can suffer a dictator, even an authoritarian one who feels no need to communicate; the Majors demand someone who establishes his authority by using it sparingly and getting the players to want to do things for you and not disappoint you.

And that describes Pete Mackanin, a baseball lifer who has done his apprenticeship in organized baseball in many ways and even at 64 is ready for this job.  My guess is that he can ace the batter of tests and in-person interviews that the team will put candidates through.  But no candidate can do what Mackanin is doing right now, because none will have a similar opportunity -- to ace the the tryout.

Pete Mackanin is acing the tryout.  He merits the full-time job in Philadelphia.

There's a good rule in human resources that people should keep in mind.  You might not love the incumbent, but if the incumbent overall is a plus and is predictable there are far worse alternatives out there.  Right now, Pete Mackanin is a big plus and a known quantity.  Oh, the big club can bandy about a bunch of names and the fans can get excited, but there is no point to that right now.  The Phillies have a top candidate right inside their clubhouse.  They are getting good press for hiring Mackanin, for what he has done, and for their trades.  They should continue the streak, remove the uncertainty, and honor Mackanin and the team now.

Pete Mackanin should be an interim no more.

He's earned the full-time job.