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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Monday, February 29, 2016

Baseball Needs Clocks

The most horrifying stat I have heard in a while in the sports world is that the median age of a baseball fan is 56 years old.  That's something.  On the one hand, many 56 year-olds have more free time and more disposable cash.  On the other, they might not be as likely to eat or drink as much at the park, and, well, the crowd is pretty old, which doesn't bode well for the future.

I have had frequent conversations with my sixteen year-old about this.  He is not a fan, although he'll go if I get good seats or if the hometown nine is interesting, which it has not been for about four years.  And, as much as teenaged boys engage with their dads in conversation, he offers a few keen observations:

1.  Kids do not follow baseball today, at least his friends.
2.  Supplanting baseball is international soccer, in part because the game always moves, in part because it's a global game, and in no small part because EA's FIFA Soccer is hugely popular and much more fun to play than any baseball game on a PlayStation or Xbox.
3.  Baseball is the game that his and his friends' dads went to with their fathers.
4.  It is hard to play and there is way too much standing around (isn't, he asks, the ball in play for only about 10-15 minutes of any 3 hour game?).
5.  The games are way too long.
6.  Some games are played in very hot weather, too.

Ouch for baseball.  That's for sure.  I loved going with my dad, found the game hard to play but with seven TV stations only (and really three if you did not count PBS or the UHF channels in town) there wasn't much to watch on TV.  We liked watching the MLB Game of the Week broadcast by Joe
Garagiola and Tony Kubek, because that was a chance to see a team that we didn't get to see often if ever. 

But the world changed.  The NFL took off.  Boxing died.  Basketball got Magic and Bird and then Jordan.  And baseball cancelled the 1994 World Series because of labor strife.  And then steroids took over.  And specialization among pitchers did too.  And the games got longer and longer.  Ads between innings, mound visits, batters stepping out of the box frequently. 

All combine to be taxing and boring.  (I recall, years ago, when Phillies' reliever Al Holland got so infuriated with the Mets' George Foster, who was notorious for fidgeting and stepping out of the box, that Holland walked halfway to the batters box from the mound and yelled at Foster, "Get in there and hit.").  That said, this summer, a friend and I drove up to see the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs.  In-between inning clocks.  Pitch clocks.  Interesting. . .

It was 95 degrees out.  Our seats started out in the sun, but then the shade took over in the third inning.  But the game moved.  The pitchers never took the allotted 15 seconds between pitches, and the innings began precisely when they were supposed to.  It was an enjoyable game -- and it was over in two hours and fifteen minutes.  Say what?  That's right.  2:15. 

The Majors should check that out.  That doesn't mean that the median age of a fan will morph suddenly to 35, but what it does mean is that those who are put off by how long a game takes might do a double take and return if they learn that the average game's length will be cut by one-third. 

Pitch clocks.  In-between inning clocks.

It's about time. 

Friday, February 26, 2016

Can the Princeton Tigers do it?

The Tigers are a half game out of the Ivy lead in men's basketball with three games to play, all home games.  Tonight, they'll take on a tough Columbia team whom they beat a few weeks ago in a come-from-behind game that was decided in overtime.  Cornell is next, and should Columbia not exhaust the Tigers or the Tigers look past them to the finale against Penn, Princeton should beat the Big Red.  If the Tigers were to win those two games (and assuming that Yale, without its captain and point guard Jack Montague, who withdrew from school the other day, defeats Harvard and Dartmouth this weekend), then the Tigers would need a win against their arch-rival Penn Quakers on Tuesday night, March 8 (and you might recall a few years back when the Quakers, led by their outstanding guard, Zach Rosen, visited Jadwin needing in a win to force an Ivy playoff, only to have a so-so Tigers team shellac them that night).  Put differently, it's usually tough to predict what will happen in a game against an arch-rival, and Penn gave the Tigers all that they could handle early this year at the Palestra.

It is exciting to watch the Tigers, and inspiring given that they lost their center, Hans Brase, before the season.  But as good teams and programs know, an injury to a key player creates opportunities for others.  The Tigers are a team of small forwards and guards.  Centers Pete Miller and Alec Brennan have their moments, but they are not at Brase's level.  Forward Henry Caruso is a hammer with a velvet touch, a determined slasher who can shoot the ball.  Swingman Spencer Weisz is similar although less physical.  Small forward Steve Cook is more of a finesse player, but a deadly shooter, and guards Amir Bell and Devin Cannady can play lights out on an given night.  Cannady's performances have been so good that it is not too much of a reach to think that before he graduates he will be among the Tigers' top five all-time scorers.

First things first, of course, and that means defeating the Columbia Lions tonight.  The Princeton Athletic Department is calling for an "orange out" tonight, and it should be electric in Jadwin Gym.

RIP, Tony Burton

Tony Burton, who was memorable in his role as first Apollo Creed's trainer and then Rocky Balboa's, died at the age of 78.  Burton played "Duke" Evers, the sometimes fierce-looking but wise and kind trainer of Apollo Creed who ended up training Rocky after Rocky's trainer, Mickey Goldmill, played by Burgess Meredith, died. 

Great movies and genres are noted not only by the larger than life figures, such as Apollo and Rocky, but also those who are right next to them, such as Paulie (Burt Young), Adrienne (Talia Shire) and a few others, such as Duke. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Thought on the 2016 Version of Baseball Prospectus

Much thicker, much heavier than 2015.

Is there a reason why?

Just got my copy yesterday, acknowledge that I do not have the higher math skills the analysts/writers do, but it's good reading just the same.

Philadelphia Phillies -- Finally, A Cause for Optimism?

Great piece in today's Philadelphia Inquirer about the different look to the team's locker room.  No name plates for guys named Hamels, Lee and Utley.  How forbidding does that sound?  The only holdovers from the '08 champs are 37 year-olds named Howard and Ruiz.

That's bittersweet, that's nostalgic, and that's a rite of passage.  For too long the Phillies were on a see-saw between the past and present, forgetting about the future, and still clinging to drafting athletic types with limited knowledge of the strike zone (either how to hit from it or pitch into it).  The Ruben Amaro era at the end represented a stubborn holding onto an outdated baseball theology that compelled a look into a player's soul and not into his production.  And those who were doing the latter had bypassed the Phillies.

As in all 31 other MLB teams.

But with the advent of Lee MacPhail and Scott Klentak, the team offers some more hope.  The farm system, not even all that good after Howard, Hamels, Utley and Jimmy Rollins emerged, is now rated in the top 10 in all of the majors.  MacPhail and Klentak have adopted analytics methods, and majority owner John Middleton is committed to them.  Does that mean that the Phillies will play .500 ball this year?  No.  Does it mean that they could have a chance to do so in a couple of years?  Perhaps.  Could they contend for a division flag in four?  Why not?

The same way the Phillies had to part with Bobby Abreu in 2007 to make room for the next generation of leaders, the Phillies had to make way for their next generation, whoever they might be.  The Howards and Utleys were already approaching their late 20's when GM Ed Wade made his changes, so to speak.  There aren't many new leaders to be seen or heard right now, but most certainly some will emerge. 

There is no compelling reason to be optimistic if you are a Phillies' fan, but at least we're not dealing with the "same old, same old," of the past several years.

And it's Spring Training.

Every one is tied for first.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Cam Newton

ESPN the Magazine wrote a challenging piece several years back lamenting the disconnect between the quarterback's obvious physical gifts and his aloofness on the football team.  The latter became so pronounced that other leaders approached Newtown and apparently coaxed/instructed/demanded that the unprecedented QB act more like a leader and take over the leadership of the team.

Newtown has great physical gifts -- he can run better than most quarterbacks and can run over linebackers.  He has a great arm, perhaps not yet as accurate as some of the top quarterbacks in the league.  He excelled this year despite having a depleted receiving corps.  He helped lead his team to a 15-1 record.  And it looked like he had fun doing it, even if his critics would say that the celebrations were too frequent and too flamboyant.  Most gave him a pass because he is only 26 and still learning about what it is to be in the spotlight as an NFL quarterback.

Fair enough.  And most gave him a pass after his troubling press conference after Super Bowl XV, where he resembled more the petulant child whose ice cream fell off his cone at the county fair and did not get replaced than a wealthy, star quarterback with media training who should have been able to absorb with some graciousness the media's questions about the game and what happened.  Instead, he pouted, he sulked, he made Bill Belichick and Greg Popovich look garrulous and he almost blamed his teammates for the loss before adding at the end of his longest statement that he made errant throws.  It was not Newtown's best moment.

The pundits the following day gave him a pass, or at least most of them did.  But there were a few articles about his failure of leadership.  Those who gave him a pass offered that he had some things to learn from the experience and that it is difficult to put yourself in his shoes given how hard he plays and how devastating a loss like that is.  Fair enough.  But then Newtown spoke the next day and exacerbated the situation.

Instead of taking the day to calm down and show up with a more measured approach, the Panther QB commented that he is a sore loser and that if someone showed him a good loser, they still would be showing him a loser.  Does that behavior compel another pass, or would someone be fair in calling Newtown out as a poor leader who failed to show grace under ultimate pressure and did not reveal as much character as he could have in the process.  Look, it's easy to be gracious in victory -- while you are taking a victory lap.  Getting up after a defeat is tougher, and society does measure people by how they deal with disappointment and come back.  By many measures, these 36 hours after the game were not among Newton's finest and summon memories of the ESPN the Magazine article about gaps in his leadership.

Newtown would be wise to consult some of the NFL's elders about how to handle situations like these -- such as Tony Dungy and Chris Carter.  There are better ways to handle situations like these, and one who adopts those better ways ends up getting more endorsements and cementing his legacy better than someone who does not.  Food for thought for the unprecedented QB -- in terms of physical gifts if not gifts in comportment.

One of the adages that emerged after the game was that Newton and the Panthers of course will be back.  Yes, they will show up next season, but a lot has to go right to return to the Super Bowl let alone win it.  In 2004 the Philadelphia Eagles had a young Donovan McNabb and lost 27-24 to the Patriots in the Super Bowl.  Many assumed that the team under Andy Reid would be back.  They were to never return.  Same with the '85 Bears, whose defense transcended imagination.  They did not return either. 

For the Panthers to return, a lot has to go right.  Players have to get healthy and others have to stay healthy.  The team needs to draft well, sign the right free agents and retain players who no doubt as free agents are more attractive because they played on a Super Bowl participant.  And then they have to work hard and hope that no other team surpasses them. 

And, finally, perhaps they need their quarterback to take his leadership to the next level. 

It certainly would not hurt.

The January Transfer Period in International Soccer

is like one big gossip column . . . in middle school.  Who is texting who, looking at whom, wants to be looked at, but no one actually comes to the middle of the dance floor.  Yes, there were a few transfers, but when you put then as the numerator atop a massive amount of speculation in the denominator, you realize what a waste of energy it is for fans to believe anything they read in the sports columns let alone read them in the first place.

The truth is that it is very hard to pry a star at a reasonable price mid-year.  First, if he's that good, his team probably needs him, so unless that team has a very deep roster at its position, it will be hurting itself.  An exception, of course, is if the selling team has significant enough money problems that it needs to make the sale to stay afloat or pay other players.  Second, if he's that good, the team will probably jack up the price because usually the suitors need "just another piece" either to win their league, qualify for Champions' League or, horrors, avoid relegation.  And, if the sellers can get teams to bid on the player, the price really will go up.  Third, there is the variable that the player's contract is expiring and that he will not sign a new deal.  Then, the sellers might settle for a reasonable price in order to avoid the player's departure without compensation after the season concludes.

There was lots to read, but very little action.  Naturally, once the season concludes, the top clubs will be off trying to improve their lots in any way possible.  That is, of course, if they can get people's attention given that Euro 2016 will be in force this summer.