Friday, March 30, 2018

Maurice Cheeks and the Hall of Fame

He was ice.  He could penetrate when he had to, hit the jumper when left open, find the open man -- always.  And he had some greats to pass the ball to -- Malone, Toney, and, of course, Dr. J.

And now he is going to basketball's Hall of Fame.  Very much deservedly so.

But what makes Maurice Cheeks so extra special was what he did as a coach.  Oh, he won't be remembered for a whole lot about his coaching, especially when compared to his playing, but on the night when he was coaching his first playoff game, he did something magical.

He did not draw up a great play, give an inspired pre-game speech, even suit up to help his team.  No, he did this.  That's right, in the midst of getting lost in his thoughts about how his first playoff game as a coach would go, a young teenaged girl forgot the words to the Star Spangled Banner.  She knew that she was in trouble with the song, clutched herself, looked sideways, well, to see perhaps if there was divine intervention.  Most of us would have wanted to drop through the floor, cover ourselves and not come out. 

But this young woman was lucky enough to have Maurice Cheeks.  Cheeks walked over to her, looked at her reassuringly, coached her on the words and guided this young person with a very nice voice to complete the national anthem.  It was a Hall of Fame moment, one that will bring tears to your eyes.

Why?  Because in a moment when he had every right to be selfish, to get lost in his own thoughts, to figure out about how he would work match-ups and substitutions and timeouts, Maurice Cheeks thought of someone else -- a young person in dire need.  And he walked over to her and in a most calming and avuncular fashion, guided her through an awful time.

That's what captains of the ship do.  That's what leaders do.  That's what people of great character do.

And that's what Hall of Famers do!

Congratulations, Maurice Cheeks -- we are honored to have you in our lives.

Matt Davidson -- 3 HRs on Opening Day for the White Sox; and Dan LeBatard and His Reaction to Ian Happ's home run

I was in this wonderful fantasy baseball league years ago.  Great group of guys, and normally we drafted before the season began.  That particular year, though, we drafted a few days after opening day (and yes, previous stats would count).  One of the hottest commodities that year was a Cubs' outfielder named Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes.  The reason was that Rhodes homered three times on opening day, guaranteeing to throw his price in our auction out of proportion because owners draft on hope and potential.  He even hit one off Doc Gooden. 

He also ended up with only 269 at-bats for the season, hit only eight home runs, hit .224 for his career and ended up in Japan.  Every year, though, during our draft, his name would come up, more or less in "buyer beware."

That is not to say that Matt Davidson is not a good player, will not be a good player, and will not have a good season.  It's just to say that after one game, it is hard to draw any conclusions at all, unless, of course, you are Dan LeBatard, the ESPN personality and Miami-area sports talk show host.  LeBatard's reaction to Ian Happ's season-opening home run off the Marlins -- on the very first pitch of the MLB season -- is priceless.

The odds are that the Marlins will not be as awful at LeBatard suggests (they could be close, though) or that Davidson will hit 486 home runs (to Giancarlo Stanton's 324). 

There remains a lot of baseball to be played.

We All are Scott Foster

The NHL has a bedeviling problem -- goaltenders who wear down and get hurt before and during games.  So much so that the league requires teams to have pools of goaltenders in tow with one "back-up" in the arena in case something happens to the other two.  The rule derives from an old hockey custom that if the goalie got hurt a team could grab someone out of the stands and have him play goalie.  Fast forward until today, and teams have people who played goalie at some level -- preferably college or junior or in the minors -- and who do something else now, ready for just this purpose.

Typically, these goalies don't see action.  A few have gotten to suit up and sit on the bench when one of a team's two goalies is unable for the game.  One even got to play for the final 7.6 seconds of a game this year. 

Last night, though, something different happened.  The Blackhawks were down to one "regular" goalie and had a thirty-six year old accountant, Scott Foster, who played some goalie in college, on the bench.  With about 15 minutes to go or so, the starting goalie started cramping, and the Blackhawks turned to Foster to finish a 6-2 victory over a play-off bound team.  Foster played flawlessly, drawing the admiration from a grateful Hawks' team, the fans, the league and frankly sports fans everywhere.

Great job, Scott Foster.  You did what everyone dreams of -- getting called upon, suiting up and helping your team win.  Great story!

Monday, March 05, 2018

The Joys of Spring Training

The chalk base lines.

The crack of a bat.

The pop of a ball into a mitt.

The high numbers of the prospects who are trying to make a name for themselves.

The alumni, gathered near a field, swapping stories of the old days.

The optimism of each team, even if the deepest, most thorough analytics tell a different story.

The discussion of the building of legacies.  Can Scherzer win a fourth Cy Young Award?  How will Judge and Stanton fare in the same lineup.  Will Crawford, Kingery and Hoskins be this decade's version of Rollins, Utley and Howard for the Phillies?  Is Mike Trout the best outfielder ever?  Who is a lock for the Hall besides Ichiro and Adrian Beltre? 

The hot stove yields to the warm weather of Florida and Arizona.  Rosters for the most part are in place, usually with only a few spots open.  The union and the owners still joust about an issue or too, this year that the game is too slow in the weather that climate change brings.  The younger fans, to the extent they remain interested, get bored quickly.  Can they speed up the game the way they do in the minors?  Joust they have done, and joust they will continue to do.  They probably fight about the Oxford comma in contract negotiations, such is the history.

Families go to spring training to get closer to the players, who are more wont to sign autographs before the games count. 

It's a wonderful thing, this spring training.  A way to slow down time, reminisce about the good times and speculate about the future. 

Have a hot dog, smell the popcorn, eat peanuts and toss the shells wherever you like. 

Just like they used to do it decades ago.

Friday, March 02, 2018

College Basketball Payola

Anyone and everyone in law enforcement will tell you that just because everyone does it does not make it right.  Which means, of course, that the payoff scandal that has enveloped college basketball will have consequences for schools and coaches with both the NCAA and Federal law enforcement officials.

Major college football and basketball programs are a far cry from what they were even thirty years ago.  There is a lot of money involved, period.  Sure, most DI football programs lose money; those that don't can make a lot of it.  College basketball has so exploded in popularity that networks pay billions to televise March Madness. 

So, there should be plenty of money to go around.  Right?

Wrong.  Dead wrong.

The reason that there is not plenty of money to go around is that seemingly everyone gets to wet his beak save the people ultimately responsible for the product -- the players.  Yes, they receive scholarships, but they are mostly one-year renewable deals, and in many programs they are shuttled into courses and majors that enable them to stay eligible so that they can play.  In certain cases, those courses are not all that rigorous and don't provide meaningful preparation for a life after the sport.  And players need that preparation, for only a very small number go on to play for money (legal money as it currently stands) after college. 

Colleges make money in many ways off these players, some of whom are poor.  Sure, they get the scholarship and a miniscule monthly stipend, but that's it.  And if they should get hurt, well, they're gone.  All of the caring that was shown to parents and grandparents during the recruiting process vanishes in one of the ultimate "what have you done for me lately" scenarios.  This is ugly underbelly to that pageantry that exists before, during and after each game.

Some will argue that the NCAA is paternalistic at best and racist at worst.  The reason -- baseball and hockey players -- most of whom are white -- are allowed to have agents while in college and can turn pro right after high school.  Somehow, the basketball and football worlds don't like that; college has become a monopoly, a requirement, regardless of the fact whether some of these great players want to go to college or belong in college.  The racism/paternalism that exists denies them the right to play for money right after high school and compels them to attend a college program for a year.  The silliness of it all is that the colleges have had to go along with it, turning some programs into a peculiarity because, for example, Kentucky this year has no seniors on its team.  It gets so many good prospects that to stay for four years would be a failure.  But why do many of those kids have to go to college in the first place? 

So what's the answer?  One the one hand, you have those who argue that the players should get paid.  It is hard to determine how much they should get paid and who should get paid?  Everyone on the team?  Every college football player, or only those at FCS schools?  Should there be a union (unadvisable, as the NFL's union has not been all that successful) or should each player be a free agent?  Should there be salary caps?  The list of issues is long, and colleges also then would need to worry about their tax-exempt status.  Would just those sports be taxes, or the entire operation?  Some will argue -- eliminate the one-and-done rule and pay the players, and problems will be solved in college basketball. 

But why should the colleges have to bear this burden?  Then again, why should the colleges be in the for-profit business of sports anyway?  Why must players go to college?  Why shouldn't they be able to go pro the way they can in hockey, baseball, tennis and soccer?  And why can't NFL and NBA teams have academies the way international soccer clubs do?  Players sign at an early age, move to near where the club is, get paid, get tutoring so that they can get their education through high school and then focus on honing their craft and just playing?  It seems to work in international soccer, so why not for basketball and football? 

Sure, many in the paternalistic world of college sports won't like it, as it could be the case that many of the top 50-200 players might opt for an academy instead of going to college.  They can focus on their sport and get money for their families, which some desperately need.  This also could mean that the SEC football schools and ACC hoops schools, among many others, might not get the top prospects.  But this also could mean that the sports could return to being interesting and fun extracurricular activities and then some more than big businesses.  I still think that without five-star recruits Nick Saban would be inventive enough to win a national title.  The question would be whether the players who do not go into academies should get scholarships and salaries or just scholarships.  The formation of academies in the pro leagues does not solve the problem over whether college athletes should get paid.

This is a complicated topic with no easy answer.  The current system clearly does not work.  And if you have a system where people feel they need to cheat in order to keep up or tread water, you need to reexamine the system to determine how to change it so that no one has to break the rules.  It's one think to punish the violators; it's another to change rules and the culture that surrounds the sports.  The powers that be need to focus on the problem they are trying to solve -- whether it's to clean up the current mess and keep the rules in place or to clean up the current mess and change the system or the rules so that the integrity of the games, which is on shaky ground -- can be improved and the coach and players inserted into a system that does not provide much temptation to cheat. 

The vote here is to end the paternalism, let all kids go pro out of high school, take a lot of the developmental work away from the colleges, have the NBA and NFL teams form academies, leave college for the ones who truly want to be there, share more revenue with those who go to college, and put in harsh penalties for those who violate the new rules.