Thursday, January 31, 2013

Rocky Top Stone Broke

The University of Tennessee Athletic Department is $200M in the hole, according to Sports Business Journal.


I'll let that sink in for a minute.

That's almost one hundred million cups of airport coffee. That's enough to buy out A-Rod's contract and still have enough for a MLS franchise. That's eight hundred million chicken nuggets off Wendy's Dollar Value Menu.

That's how deep this amateur athletic program is in the hole. It's part of the ultra-lucrative SEC. It gets gobs of cash every year from conference television deals and bowl payouts and NCAA basketball tournament money and licensed apparel. It gets immense amounts of national television exposure to promote its brand. It is located 3 hours from the nearest professional football team and 4 hours from the nearest professional basketball franchise. Ticket prices that have gone up 20% in the last five years.

And it is $200M in the hole.

The reasons for this are varied. The football team has been equal parts lousy and unappealing for years now. The byproduct of lousy football is fired coaches, and with fired coaches come millions of dollars in coaching contract buyouts. It's expensive to keep up with the Sabans in the SEC, where the average athlete gets underwritten to the tune of $164K a year. They just poured a ton of money into improving Neyland Stadium, not that anybody's apparently going to games there. They've got a brand new $50M athletic center. They used to pay some money back to the university's general fund every year (they've stopped doing that). They get hit with a special local tax on athletic event tickets.

But still. Two hundred million. Barely two million in cash reserves. Annual debt service of $21M. Something like $18M owed to fired coaches. A "stressed" annual athletic department budget of $99.5M.

The next time someone talks about "revenue sports" in college athletics, think about Tennessee. Think about $200M. And maybe, think again.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Real Hall of Fame Selection Process

The Baseball Hall of Fame is now in the last stages of accepting applications from potential interns. Early word is that none of the candidates will be accepted, so as to avoid cheapening the historical efforts of previous interns*.

*Rumor has it that Murray Chass commented on one intern's acne. This is yet to be confirmed.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

US MNT vs. Canada

Super Bowl? Ray Lewis sprayed moose smack onto his gums? Alex Rodriguez freebased whale testosterone? Screw it, let's talk soccer.

Tonight the US Men's National Team played the Canadian side in a friendly* international game in Houston.  This is the final warmup for the US team before qualifiers begin for the 2014 World Cup, in February.

Some observations:

  • I like seeing these games on ESPN2 instead of in the ghetto of Fox Soccer Channel or NBC Sports Channel or Bill and Ted's Excellent Unpopular Sports Network. Bonus: it turns out that the US has knowledgeable soccer announcers. We don't have to use Martin Tyler every time.
  • The crowd was so drunk that they couldn't quite manage to keep the "USA, USA, USA" song (to the tune of Pop Goes the World) on key or in time.
  • After losing 4-0 in a friendly to Denmark last week, Canada is obviously playing for the 0-0 draw tonight.  They came out in a 4-5-1 that may as well have been a 9-1-0. The US is totally unable to get past them.
  • This is the first time since 2007 that the US MNT started a game entirely with Major League Soccer players.  It really shows. They haven't played much together, either, and are obviously disjointed, are mis-hitting the ball, overpowering clearances, and so on. Too many guys seem like they're trying to show off for coach Jurgen Klinsman instead of trying to help win the game.
  • The US goalkeeper, Sean Johnson, is getting practically no work except on Dwayne DeRosario counterattacks.
  • God, how I hate that soccer fans hurl streamers onto the field during play.
  • January in Houston: Hell? Or the Abyss?
  • The announcers just commented on how the US attack was unable to penetrate the Canadian defense, and my wife exclaimed, "Yes! They're flaccid! That's the problem!"
  • Eddie Johnson looks slower than I'm used to seeing.
  • Sub Joshua Gatt is trying to dribble through everybody, and falling down when he fails to do so.
  • I love when Graham Zusi plays for the MNT, because he doesn't consistently do well, and any time he screws up, I get to holler, "ZUSI! YOU GOT SOME SPLAINING TO DO!"
  • Juan Agudelo spent a lot of time looking for a missing contact lens, or something, on the ground just outside the Canadian 18-yard box. Sometimes it appeared that a Canadian player bumped him just before the crawling and wailing, but at other times there was nothing of the sort.
  • The Canadians had to sub out their center back, which tells you precisely the game they're playing.
  • A few Americans looked OK: Brad Chris Wondolowski, Brad Davis, and Kyle Beckerman. Not surprisingly, these are the guys who have played with the national team before.
  • Final score 0-0. I guess this was better than watching the Islanders smear the Penguins. Marginally.

* in soccer parlance, a friendly is a real, full-speed game that doesn't count in standings or toward a tournament results

CTE: Beginning of the End

Researches at UCLA announced recently that they've discovered a way to detect chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living humans.

CTE can cause memory loss, dementia, physical symptoms reminiscent of Parkinson's Disease, and  mental disturbance verging on psychopathy.  It's really bad.  While we can't quite say it's common, it seems to occur more frequently among former NFL players and others who've taken part in collision-type sports. Some players suffer from CTE after a lifetime of blows to the head -- though notably, CTE isn't caused by concussions. It seems to be caused by repeated "sub-concussive" blows to the head over a long period.

Until this study, the only way for a doctor to conclusively determine that you'd suffered from CTE was to take your brain out of your skull, slice it up, and look for physical signs of the 'tau' protein that is CTE's signature.

You might imagine that this limits doctors' ability to diagnose living players with CTE, and indeed it has only been tried on Terry Bradshaw* thus far.

But now... well this changes things immensely.

Within a couple of years -- or, I hope, sooner -- we'll begin to learn just how common CTE is among active football players.   This analysis may start at the pro level, but given the example of the late Chris Henry (a Bengals wide receiver who died at age 26, whose brain showed evidence of widespread CTE) we can expect studies of college players to come on the heels of the pro testing.

There are a couple of possibilities here.

One Possibility: Pro-Onset CTE Only
Maybe we don't see much sign of CTE until a player turns pro and starts to experience really galaxy-class physical abuse.  In that case, hey, carry on. We're all adults here. You want to expose your brain to that kind of damage in return for a shot at tens of millions of dollars? It's not a bargain I'd take but I respect your right to try it for yourself.

The NFLPA, in this scenario, will probably push for safety-related changes, but considering the schizophrenia** of the NFLPA (an organization dedicated to protecting the safety of the individual player who will deny that he's injured even as his fibula sticks out of his sock), they won't make much progress.  Owners will remind players that they made this choice of their own free will, and we'll all nod sadly and then cheer the next big hit.

More Likely: Amateur-Onset CTE
This is scarier.  If college players are shown to have CTE, we're going to have to take a look at high school players. And Pop Warner players.  A whole lot of parents are going to tell their kids to start playing soccer*** or running cross-country in the fall, instead of playing football.

As Gregg Easterbrook has said more than once, "there is no law of nature that says football must be popular."  Once large numbers of nervous parents start forbidding their kids to play football, the NFL's days are numbered.  It turns into boxing. (Remember boxing?)

A recent interview with President Obama suggests that Easterbrook isn't the only one who feels this way; Obama said, "I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you, if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football."

Before football starts a slow decline into boxing-with-shoulder-pads, the football-industrial complex will step up. We'll see rule changes and equipment changes at all levels to reduce or eliminate CTE risk.  David White, a commenter at Ta-Nehisi Coates's excellent blog at The Atlantic,  made some excellent suggestions for simple rule changes that could reduce CTE risk:
-- Doctors work for the league, not for the teams. And each doctor has a clear checklist on the sideline that a player must pass if they're suspected of being concussed...
-- Ban the 3-pt and 4-pt stance...
(and so on. Lots of good ideas there -- go check it out!)

I can imagine the NFL Player's Association working closely with the NFL, NCAA, and NFHS on this.  There's an enormous amount of money in football at all levels.  The sport needs to be made safe at all levels or it will vanish.  As Easterbrook pointed out in the article linked above, there's no law of nature that says football must be legal, either.

But I Want My Foobaw
A caller on last night's Pittsburgh AM drive-time sports show provided a rebuttal to all of these concerns about player safety.  Paraphrased, the caller said, "If you change football to make players safe, it won't be football, and I won't watch it."****

The NFL, NFLPA, NCAA, etc, must genuinely worry about this attitude.  NFL players are like sword-swallowers, stunt drivers, or fire breathers. The viewing public wants to watch football players do awesomely dangerous things at incredible speeds. That's why ESPN's "Jacked Up" segment was so popular a few years back. (ESPN removed "Jacked Up" because of player safety concerns -- players were committing dangerous, flagrant plays in order to get onto the segment.)

You must provide big high-speed hits if you want to stay in business; if you continue to encourage big high-speed hits you won't have any employees left.  This must keep Roger Goodell up at night.

The league was incredibly popular 25 years ago, when the average player was smaller, weaker, and slower than he is now. The hits were a little smaller. But the fans were there. Maybe you lose a few percent of your fan base if you limit the most dangerous plays, and "wussify" the league. But this is the way you must go if you want to have a robust player base in ten or twenty years.

Longer Term
If we can detect it, can we cure it? It's impossible to say right now, because until this month it wasn't possible to detect CTE in a living brain. If doctors can't detect it, they can't treat it.

Sports medicine has led medical science to some very impressive advances in surgical repair and physical therapy. Fixes to the ligaments in the knee, repairs to damaged shoulders, and so on have all been enhanced and refined by doctors who solved problems for athletes and sports teams.

But brain cells and structures aren't shoulders or knees.  I am skeptical of medical science's ability to cure CTE. I suspect that in the short-to-medium term, our best bet is going to be investment in prevention, rather than cures or repairs.

Hopefully that prevention can come without putting an end to football entirely.

* not really
** maybe this isn't the best choice of word here but let's carry on
*** yr obdt corresp helps run a youth soccer league and feels that this would not be the end of the world
**** my esteemed colleague Mr. Dansky refers to this as "the Golic defense"

The Sportsthodoxy Guide to Yuni and Uni

Today, the Philadelphia Phillies took one step closer to missing the playoffs by signing reputed shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt to a minor-league deal. This wouldn’t be a big deal, however, if it A)weren’t the Phillies, who have a habit of giving scads of playing time to guys who sign minor-league deals and B)weren’t Yuniesky Betancourt, who is so unspeakably awful as a baseball player that Joe Posnanski devoted several thousand words that would otherwise have been devoted to extolling the virtues of Bruce Springsteen to trying to come up with one single positive thing about having Betancourt as your shortstop. 
You don’t need a Beautiful Mind to figure out that this adds up to “oh, crap” for the Philly faithful. But for those of you who still don’t believe that this is worth worrying about, we here at Sportsthodoxy are happy to provide a comparison/contrast between Yuni and “Uni”, the baby unicorn from the late, lamented Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. Hang on to your batting gloves and bullywugs, it’s going to be a wild ride:

Yuni Betancourt
“Uni” the Unicorn
Mythical attribute is...
...his ability to play a decent shortstop
...the fact that he’s a unicorn
Horribly annoying when he...
...botches multiple routine plays, costing your team a run
...gets captured every episode and makes that annoying bleating sound. You know the one, like a sheep gargling Drano
Looks great from a distance, but when you get close you realize...
...he’s built like Matt Stairs
...he looks like a goat
Constantly needs to be rescued by...
...the Kansas City Royals, though they may finally have gotten tired of his shtick
...”Bobby”, the child barbarian with a magical club that makes earthquakes and no sense that he’s running around in a fur version of Sean Connery’s Zardoz outfit
Originally played for...
...Dungeon Master
Is mortally terrified of....
...hard ground balls and the curve low and away
...Venger. And possibly Tiamat.
Occasionally makes you forget how awful he is by...
...having a multi-homer game
...doing some kind of weird unicorny-magicky thing or other. 
Is called “Yuni/Uni” because...
“Yuniesky” sounds like a Russian spy in a Le Carre novel and “Y-Bet” sounds like a public service ad.
“Uni” is exactly the sort of abbreviation for “Unicorn” you’d expect a nine year old kid with a magic club to come up with.
Worst professional moment was...
...getting released by the Royals. Or possibly getting fined by the Royals. 
...having his horn magically stolen by an evil wizard who stored it in an idol with all the horns he’d stolen from the other unicorns, and with which he was going to fight Venger, and....err. Yeah. Gonna stop right here and pretend that never happened.
Could still recover and...
...become a league-average bench bat with multi-position versatility
...get a gritty reboot on Cartoon Network and then get canceled after one season like Thundercats did.
Will become a fan favorite in Philly if...
...he hits
...he ends up on a hoagie roll with Whiz, mushrooms, onions and sweet peppers
Is terrible at shortstop because...
...he’s overweight, has no range, doesn’t seem interested half the time, and shows bad instincts a quadruped.

Me, I'd take the unicorn. And I'd bat him sixth.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Your Handy-Dandy Guide To the Conspiracy Theories Around the AFC Championship Game

There are certain signifiers that one is taking one’s sports fandom too seriously. These include (but are not limited to): 
And last but not least, deciding that any time your team loses, it’s because of a conspiracy.

Media Day / Peyton Manning

At Media Day this week, would somebody please ask Peyton Manning if the Papa John's franchises he owns are going to provide healthcare for their employees? Nobody (else) asked during the regular season. I thought he might have time to address it now. I'm sure he'll be at Media Day. He doesn't have anything else to do. Except, I guess, cook pizzas.

The Lesson of the Pro Bowl

"I'm not watching the Pro Bowl! It's an exhibition! It's not real football. It's guys trying not to get hurt, and it doesn't matter." - Every sports talk radio jock in the continental US, right before the Pro Bowl

"I can't wait for football. I know it's only the preseason and the starters are only going to play the first series, but hey, any football is worth watching, doncha think?" - Every sports talk radio jock in the continental US, right before exhibition season starts

The lesson of the Pro Bowl is this: Context is everything.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Great Moments In Sports Marketing, Golf Edition

The slogan for the Waste Management Phoenix Open golf tournament (because nothing says "waste management" like tenderly manicured greens in the middle of the desert) is "Bring the Noise".

To a golf tournament.

To an event in a sport where players throw Gaga-level conniptions over the intimation that somebody coughed three holes away during their backswing.

To an event in a sport largely played at private clubs, hidden behind strict walls of membership and heavy tomes of proper member decorum.

Bring the Noise indeed. And it's going to be really funny when somebody does.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Some Advice For Manti Te'o

After hearing the train wreck of an interview with Katie Couric, who lobs questions in there with less oomph than Jamie Moyer in spring training, I can only say that whoever's putting together this poor kid's media strategy has less of a clue than Colonel Mustard with a 40 of Olde English 800 in the shed by the pool.

Right now, America wants to dissect this kid and his weird story that keeps getting weirder. There is nothing he could say that would not be analyzed, overanalyzed, and misanalysed, so the smart thing to do is to say nothing. The smart thing to do is definitely not to hand over recorded cell phone calls from one's mythical girlfriend, so they can be used to bludgeon you during an interview.

My father taught me this: the first rule of standing in a hole is stop digging.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Wins & Losses

Listen, hockey fans, or recent convertees to hockey fandom*. I know that many of you are fans of American football, a sport in which you only get 16 regular-season games.  In a sport with so few regular-season games, every win indicates that your team is ULTIMATE AWESOME MONGO POWER and every loss indicates that you SUCK FOREVER AND FIRE THE COACH WHAAARGARBLE.

But in hockey, even in this Godforsaken year, we still get 48 games.  Your team is going to lose some of them. Don't panic.

It may feel like five losses when your team loses to the Maple Leafs 5-2.

But I checked the rulebook! It still only counts as one loss. Even when you lose to the Maple Leafs 5-2. Even when -- and I double-checked this -- both your biggest stars score, in your home opener before a record sellout crowd. Still just one loss. Still got 45 games left in the season. Don't panic.  Hockey's not football.

* I don't know who this would be. Presumably the lockout alienated a bunch of casual fans. Typically such things don't increase fandom. But maybe you like Wil Wheaton or something and have decided that if a guy THAT cool likes hockey, you should check it out? I don't know. Moving on.

The Sadness of Frank Deford

This is what they call "low hanging fruit".
Yes, the job of the sportswriter has changed over the years. So, for that matter, has the job of just about everyone else. And while we here at Sportsthodoxy do not dispute that a great many sportswriters are fine, upstanding, hard-working folks (Mitch Albom and his treacly nonsense, and Jon Heyman and his careful retyping of Notes From The Scott Boras Underground aside) who do indeed pour their hearts and souls into their craft, we find ourselves slightly skeptical of the weight of Deford's premise. We do, however, remain impressed that Peter King of SI can in fact hammer out thousands of words a week, even if roughly a quarter of them are about Starbucks, and we will not mention that the magnificent Matt Forbeck and the steadfast Steve Long can churn out that much material every day without blinking.
And yes, this time of year is a bit slow on the sports calendar, what with the hockey season starting up, college basketball starting conference play, the NFL coaching carousel in full spin, the championships of the Caribbean winter baseball season and suchlike, and between Lance Armstrong's confession of lying and Manti Te'o's...something, it seems like the bad behavior is at the fore. Not like, say, the weeks leading up to bowl season, which any glance at College Football Talk can tell you is full of players getting suspended for various off-field exploits, or the annual off-season Parade Of Arrested Bengals, or the annual bouts of geshrying over steroids in sports like baseball, baseball and baseball, or, well, there you go, then.
But beyond that, it's a great piece.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

They Don't Want It For Ray

There's a lot of talk going around about how the Ravens want to "win one for Ray" Lewis.  About how he is the "heart and soul" of the Baltimore franchise.  Certainly in pregame warmups he is an enthusiastic cheerleader.  Coach Harbaugh let him on the field for the final snap of his last home game, as a tribute to his skills and legacy.

I don't dismiss or knock Lewis's skills and legacy.  The man was an absolute terror on defense.  Tenacious, ferocious, smart, strong, and fast. A great defender.  And I get the impression that he never took a down off. If he was on the field, he was going full-speed.

But let me ask you something.

Let's imagine that you are, I don't know, a software engineer.  You have a big-deal project coming up -- a public application that is guaranteed a pretty wide audience. Your name will be in the credits. On the project is Doug, a well-known, respected application developer in his early 60s, who contributed heavily to a big project early in his career.

Your project manager tries to motivate you by saying: "Let's make this project kick some ass for Doug. Let's let Doug retire with a big win on his resume."

Does this motivate you? Will you write better software because it's Doug's farewell project?

Hell, no, you won't. You might think: Well it would be nice for Doug's last project to go well. But I have a career in front of me. I want this big project to go well for ME.

Ray's teammates want to win the Super Bowl because getting to the Super Bowl (and/or winning it) is worth...

... cash money ($88k for the winner, about half that for the loser)
... increased chance for sponsorships and promotions (ask John Madden)
... increased chance to make good money in free agency (ask Neil O'Donnell, who parlayed a loss in Super Bowl XXX into a 25% raise, which he, in turn, responded to with an 0-6 start with the Jets)
... increased shot at entering the Hall of Fame (ask Richard Dent, who might not have made it into the Hall without his SB XX MVP performance)

So, yes, Lewis's teammates think it would be nice if Ray got a win.  But Anquan Boldin's out there trying to win it for Anquan.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Big Money For Imaginary Girlfriends

One of the Great Concerns of the local talk radio crowd is why the SEC is just so darn much better than everyone else at college football. Cynics point to the old mantra of "if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying." Big 10 apologists, when not trying to reconcile their conference name with the fact that they haven't had ten teams since people knew who Blind Melon was, suggest that it's the fact that SEC teams have a distinct home-field advantage in the post-season since all the games that matter are played in the balmy south, and not in blizzard conditions in remote Midwestern towns. And then there are those of us who can do math, and this study. The one that says that the SEC spends an average - an average, mind you - of early $164K a year per athlete. The ACC, on the other hand, spends a paltry $103K per year per athlete. Now, assuming generously that football players get the average spent on them, and that we're only counting the scholarship kids, that's a difference of close to $5.2M per year. (Assume football players get above the average, and the numbers get even worse.) That's 5 million extra to spend on coaches, on facilities, on accommodations and perks and God knows what else, per team, per year. Five million a year, every year, eventually turns into a lot of money, and that's above and beyond the nearly $9M per year ACC schools are spending on their teams. The lesson is clear.

It's the money. It's the money poured into athletic programs that ensures the SEC - $30K/student more than their nearest competitors, the Big 12 - will continue to beat the rest of college football like a set of Rock Band drums during a freestyle section. It's the money that tilts what the merchants of college sports like to pretend is a level playing field. And it's the money that buys resources, the resources that attract players, the players that make wins, the wins that bring the cameras sniffing around, and the cameras that get all of us so involved in these 20 year old kids' lives to the point where we, as a country, spend a week wrapped up in an Important National Debate over a college student's imaginary girlfriend. There's roughly a zillion of those happening at any given moment, of course - the "imaginary girlfriend in Canada/Cherry Hill, New Jersey" was common parlance among the dating-impaired. But hey, there's all that money going into Manti Te'o, or around him, and so suddenly it's worthy of mention and obsession.

And in the meantime, pity poor Manti Te'o, who - regardless of whether he helped engineer this mischegas or not, surely had no idea of the clown show that was about to be unleashed on him. Because once you invest $100K a year into someone, they stop being a person, and they become a commodity, and the imaginary girlfriend becomes just another value-add.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Sportsthodoxy Guide To The Coachin' Harbaughs

Now that the matchup is set for the Super Bowl (We're not monetizing this thing, so we're going to say "Super Bowl" all we want instead of, say, "The Big Game" or "The Uper-Say Owl-Bay" or whatever the NFL's lawyers insist on) it has become clear that the major storyline for the game will be Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh. Having the two coaches of the two Super Bowl participants be brothers offers an unprecedented opportunity to beat the topic of fraternal competition to death, and we look forward to the full weight of Fox, ESPN, Sports Illustrated and others being turned to pumping a glorified, billion dollar version of "Mom liked me better!"

With that in mind, here's your quick guide to telling the two coaching brothers apart so that in the weeks to come, you can have a better grasp on which one of them you think is being overexposed at any given moment:

Jim Harbaugh
John Harbaugh
Best known for winning...
At Stanford
The loyalty of Ray Lewis
San Francisco 49ers
Baltimore Ravens
Has a star player who...
Is named Frank Gore
Might have once been drenched in gore
Lost last year’s conference championship game because...
He kept sending a kick returner with a concussion out onto the field
Forgot that special teams are actually part of the game
Quarterback in the NFL for over a decade, though not very well
Defensive back for the U. Yes, it was a shock to us, too.
Got his coaching break from...
Dad, and don’t think he’s ever going to hear the end of it
Andy Reid
Run in with authority...
DUI arrest in 2005
Once bumped a ref and got fined for it
Is going to win the Super Bowl because...
His head will explode during a sideline tantrum if he doesn’t
Ray Lewis has said that God wants him to. And even God is afraid of Ray Lewis

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Stan Musial, R.I.P.

We do a lot of snark here about sports, and a lot of it is justified. Consider the outrageous sums of public money spent to maintain college and professional sports programs, the ridiculous behaviors of those engaged in the games as participants, management or media, and the general whackadoodle behaviors of us fan types, the field of sports is what you'd call a target-rich environment. There is so much bad faith, bad business, bad behavior and bad thought going around that there's material everywhere you turn.

So much so, really, that it's possible to lose track of the reasons we actually like this stuff. And there are reasons, good ones - the shared experience of watching your team succeed or fail, magnificent feats of athletic prowess and will, and occasionally, the transcendence of an individual athlete whose performance and behavior are both beyond reproach.

Stan Musial was one of those guys. Remarkable on the field - 24-time All Star, 3630 hits, .559 career slugging percentage, 475 home runs, you name it - he was by all accounts, as remarkable off it. "Everyone I know in St. Louis has a ball signed by Stan" said Hardball Talk's Drew Silva. Story after story about him cheerfully signing autographs for all who asked, not for profit but because he knew it meant something to those asking. 71 years of by what all accounts was a happy marriage to the same woman. His well-known penchant for unleashing his harmonica skills at the drop of a hat. His ability to bring people together, as witnessed by the crowds gathered to pay tribute at his statue last night.

God knows, there are bigger problems in the world. There are people dying every day whose nobility should be noted, whose contributions should have been shouted from the rooftops. But that does not change the fact that, within the rather narrow purviews of this blog, Stan the Man was one of the greats, and his was a life well worth celebrating.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Earl Weaver, R.I.P.

I got into baseball in the late 70s, a time that can best be described as the Golden Age of cantankerous, aging managers. In Los Angeles you had Tony Lasorda, who had not descended into self-parody. Cincinnati had Sparky Anderson. Pittsburgh, you had Chuck Tanner - geniuses all, or so it seemed to a kid who got to watch the dugout antics of Danny Ozark on a regular basis.
And in Baltimore, you had the best of them all, Earl Weaver, the philosopher-king who'd hold press conferences in the nude, get prescriptions exclusively from Doctor Longball, unleash Brother Low on the world, and legendarily if apocryphally blister fellow Cheltenham alumnus Reggie Jackson into silence with a brutal, relentless application of logic.
He passed away today on an Orioles-themed cruise. The official report says that he died of a heart attack. A tiny part of me would like to believe that it was provoked by a cap-tossing, dirt-kicking tirade against the umpire of the shipboard shuffleboard tournament, that seeming to be the most appropriate way for him to go. The rest of me is just sad he's gone.
Bye, Earl. Nine-year-old me says thank you for the memories. Godspeed, and rest in peace.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Negotiation, Loria Style

Today is the day MLB teams and arbitration-eligible players have to submit their salary arbitration figures. Most cases never come to arbitration, and really, neither side generally wants to go there. The teams don't want to tear down their players whom they need to perform, the players don't want to get into a fight with their bosses, and agents don't want their clients to hear their shortcomings in gruesome detail. So, most times, players and teams get it done.

Then there's the Marlins. They have one arbitration-eligible player this year, relief pitcher Ryan Webb. He is expected, based on performance and service time, to wind up around $900K. And, according to inside sources, there is absolutely no truth to the rumor that the Marlins opened the negotiating process with the line "Have you ever seen a crisp fifty dollar bill?"

Conference Championships Linkfest

It's hard to come up with something to say about this weekend's NFL conference championships that hasn't already been said by better minds. Here are some of those better minds:

  • Mike Tanier at Sports on Earth -- "In the second half, [Falcons defensive coordinator Mike] Nolan became the Anti-[Dom] Capers. Instead of ignoring the read-option, he ignored everything else."
  • Andy Benoit at Football Outsiders -- "This brings us back to the Patriots’ rapid no-huddle. It’s the main force behind their ground game’s success –- especially in scoring position. A more-prepared Ravens defense might be able to respond to it schematically this time around, but what about physically? This is an older, banged-up defense that’s on the road for a second straight week and is coming off an exhausting double-overtime thriller. Will they have the stamina to handle New England’s tempo and high volume of plays?"
  • Gregg Easterbrook at ESPN -- "Traditionally, NFL coaches look down on college tactics as not super-sophisticated like pro tactics. Gaining 579 yards on offense seems pretty sophisticated. Where's my varsity sweater?"

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Fantasy; Sports

With the recent revelation that all-universe Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's dead Internet/Californian girlfriend never actually existed, we thought we'd take a minute to unveil five other sports figures who are in fact imaginary.

#1 Bill Belichick's fashion consultant. Enough said.

#2 Jon Heyman's fact checker.  Jon Heyman's story pushing Jack Morris for the Hall of Fame had some factual discrepancies.  To say the least.  A non-imaginary fact-checker wouldn't have let this stuff get past him.

#3 Brock Osweiler.  This phantom is listed on the Denver Broncos' roster as the backup to quarterback Peyton Manning. I see no reason to believe that he exists. They could have photoshopped an image together of him for the media guide. He has essentially no stats: 2-4 for 12 yards in a Week 4 blowout against Oakland? Did that game even actually happen?  Of course, that's three years of productivity for Tim Tebow, who is decidedly, disappointingly non-imaginary.

#4 The research and, y'know, REPORTING departments of NBC, ESPN, CBS, SI, and Fox Sports, all of whom let a freakin' Nick Denton website do the actual research that led to the revelation that Te'o's imaginary dead girlfriend had never existed.  Come on, guys.  I realize that you have very little incentive to discover actual facts, but please, do better.

#5 Gisele Bundchen.  You have to admit she's a fantasy of some kind.

Honorable mention: The one imaginary person who was surprised by the revelation that Lance Armstrong had doped; the person in charge of good taste at the NRA; the person willing to say 'no' to George Lucas.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Sportsthodoxy Guide to Statheads and the Tea Party

Recently, noted bow-tie enthusiast Ken Rosenthal compared the baseball stathead community to the Tea Party, implying that they had gotten so vociferous and unyielding in their debates over the Hall of Fame that they'd shut all possibility consensus down. Whether that argument holds true or not - there's something to be said about the you-damn-kids-get-off-my-lawn vitriol heaved by the Tracy Ringolsbys of the world as contributing to the general air of frostiness, not to mention Jon Heyman's factually inaccurate mash note to Malibu Fantasy Jack Morris, but that's neither here nor there. At Sportsthodoxy, we feel it is our duty to help you differentiate between the Tea Party and sabermetricians through this useful field guide:

The Tea Party
Baseball Statheads
...outdated tricorn hats and wigs
...outdated t-shirts from 90s power-pop bands
...near hilariously misspelled protest signs their parents’ basements
Prone to long-winded rants about...
...the Founding Fathers, never mind that they didn’t say half the stuff these guys say they did
...Bill James, founding father of sabermetrics, never mind that he’s working for the Red Sox
Fallback argument is...
...the Second Amendment
...WAR (because OPS+ is kludgy as hell, and WARP3 is proprietary)
Have an in-spite-of-his-meager-track-record crush on...
...Rand Paul
...Erubiel Durazo? Kila Ka’aihue? Daric Barton? Wily Mo Pena?  They're sluts, the lot of them.
Dream of...
...a smaller government
...a smaller BBWAA
Favorite flag is...
“Don’t Tread On Me”
“World Series Champions” pennant
Don’t like Jack Morris because...
...he did his best work in Detroit, which is a union town
...he wasn’t actually that great
Believe the Distributive Property is...
...a Socialist plot
...basic math
Hate government funded ballparks because...
...they’re a taxpayer financed boondoggle
...they’re a taxpayer-financed boondoggle

My God. Rosenthal is right after all.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Great Moments In Illiterate Nutbar Ex-Jock Columnists

John Rocker's latest idiocy proves precisely one thing: the only pitch he ever mastered was the screwball.

Two Conference Championship Storylines You're Tired Of Already

...and it's only Tuesday. This was going to be "Four Conference Championship Storylines You're Tired Of Already" but I just couldn't bear to watch any more SportsCenter.

Ray Lewis vs. Tom Brady: Could be worse. Could be Brady vs. Manning XIV.  That would be a sports-yak bloviation sludge tsunami that we would have to endure by clinging to a palm tree of NPR and classic-rock stations through all of drive time.  (And then hoist ourselves up onto the rescue helicopter of Big Bang Theory reruns and Cougar Town in place of SportsCenter.)
And at least this matchup, unlike quarterback vs. quarterback "matchups," includes players who might brush into one another on the playing field.
With all of that out of the way, do we need to hear again how Lewis "respects" Brady as a player and Brady "dreads" Lewis's dangerous sack-tasticity?  Ray Lewis wants to crush Tom Brady into paste on third-and-seven (and then ostentatiously pray about it). Brady wants to take advantage of Lewis's inability to cover a running back in the flat (and get back home to his supermodel wife). They both want to get to the Super Bowl and get another few million in endorsements. The game isn't about Tom vs. Ray.

Is Colin Kaepernick Football Jesus With A Chin-Beard Or What:  Judging by the outpouring of praise, we must assume that Kaepernick was the top quarterback of the weekend. Right?
Not according to Football Outsiders; according to their advanced statistics, Kaepernick was fourth, behind a different rookie -- who didn't even win his game!, an already-overexposed guy with a hot wife, and a QB whose unibrow appears in the Ravens Media Guide with the caption "really average, but we still like him."
Look, Kaepernick has great potential.  Really scary potential.  But let's not crown him Football Messiah until he's played a full season.

And now, back into the talk-radio mines. Send jerky.

Great Moments In ESPN Radio: Lance Armstrong Is Not A Famous Cyclist Edition

"Lance Armstrong is not famous because of cycling." - Mike Greenberg

Greenberg then proceeded to back this point up with the fact that he was an SI Sportsman of the Year and a folk hero because he had beaten a death sentence and gone on to compete in one of the most grueling sports in the world.

Or, as we humans put it: He was not famous because of cycling. He was famous because he was a famous athlete (whose sport was cycling) and who had beaten cancer (like many other people who were not famous cyclists and thus did not have their cancer battles publicized) in a public way (because he was famous for being a cyclist) and gone back to compete at the highest level of his sport (which happened to be cycling).

Just so that's clear.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Consistency In Action

According to ESPN's Jim Bowden, tickets are now available for the New York chapter of the BBWAA's annual dinner.

One can only hope that they will insist on steroid- and hormone-free beef for the main course.

Some Hockey Fans Wanted A Pony

Carolina is now hockey country.

I know that sounds weird. After all, it's NASCAR country, what with the sport being based out of Charlotte. And it's college basketball country, as anyone who's ever had their eardrums blown out by a Dick Vitale game call knows. It would be college football country, if any of the three local schools could manage to combine pointing themselves at the right end zone, hiring a coach who doesn't use the rule book for Kleenex, and a willingness not to run off the star quarterback to the land of dairy and badgers.

But it's hockey country, too. In seasons when the Hurricanes are even half-decent (which is to say: not lately), the local arena is the loudest in the league. Give the local fans, many of whom are transplants from up north - they don't call the town of Cary "Containment Area for Relocated Yankees" for nothing - something to cheer about, and cheer they will. Emphatically. (Also: people around here enjoy watching people clobber other people with sticks. But I digress.)

And coming into this season, there seemed to be a lot for Carolina fans to cheer about. The team made some intelligent, aggressive moves in the offseason. Their best talent was young and hungry. They'd cleverly broken their habit of recycling their old coaches - the Canes and Paul Maurice were the R-Pat and K-Stew of the NHL - and were prepared to give successful interim coach Kirk Muller the reins for a full season. Things, in short, looked bright.

Odds are, if you're reading this, you know that things didn't quite work out as planned. The lockout of the players by the owners, which wins hands-down for "dumbest labor dispute in the history of major US professional sports", knocked the season off the blocks. Sure, we're getting a 48 game speed dating round, but to be blunt, it ain't going to be the same game. Yes, the rules will be the same, but the short, crowded schedule, the newly contorted schedules, the shortened prep time the teams have and the wear and tear that players who've been playing in Europe have put on their bodies  - these all mean that the familiar, if not entirely level, playing field of an NHL season has been tilted. Whatever happens on the ice this year, it's going to be different than what would have happened if the original, full schedule had been played.

But in the midst of thinking about this, there's still room to get a good laugh. The most recent came from a discussion on local sports talker 99.9 (surnamed "The Buzz" - why are all sports radio stations "The Buzz", "The Ticket" or "The Big Hitter"? Why can't just one of them be "The Situational Left Handed Reliever Who Gets Murdered By Right Handed Batters"?) wherein it was indignantly proclaimed that all through the labor dispute, nobody thought of the fans.

This is amusing on a couple of levels, not the least of which being that 99.9 is A)owned by Capital Broadcasting, which happens to be a minority owner in the 'Canes and B)is the flagship station for the 'Canes radio network. Good on the hosts for demonstrating some independence, but c'mon. Of course the two sides thought of the fans. They thought of fans as customers. They thought of fans as revenue. They thought of fans as sources of revenue that teams might try to hide from the players' union, which nearly produced a deal-breaking setback. You get the idea.

What they didn't do was think of the fans as a sort of dewy-eyed romantic partner, working toward a solution in order to keep from having the Cam Ward jersey-wearing fanatics from sitting in their bedrooms and writing wistful Facebook entries about how much they miss hockey. Because, to be blunt, they had no reason to, and there was no benefit to either side to do so. For the owners, the threat that the fans would abandon the sport if the lockout went on too long was actually leverage - hey, players, sure we're asking you to take a pay cut, but it beats what you'd make selling cars in Kitchener. And if the fans get too mad about missing their hockey, well, there might not be any league at all.  As for the players, holding fan desires over their own professional needs would have been a suicidal negotiating position.

And that, on a basic level, was how it should have been. What the players owe the fans is good effort on the ice, particularly for the paying customers. They're not the ones who initiated the lockout; they weren't the ones sitting on season ticket money; they're under no obligation to sacrifice part of their livelihoods to people who pay for their services - and that's what a ticket or an NHL Leaguepass is, payment for entertainment services - except as doing so makes those folks more likely to ultimately continue funding their profession.

That's not what was going to happen here, nor was it what was being asked for. Fans who don't understand that the lockout was about business - hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of business - and are mad that they didn't get the goo-goo eyes as the process went along are deluded and, dare I say it, self-important.

If they're really that upset, then they'll vote with their wallets. They won't come back to games, they won't buy jerseys, they won't listen on the radio or watch on TV. And maybe some - a few - will. (Note: If you're one of the numbskulls who is still mad at the players for striking, which they did not do, the sport may in fact be better off without you) But most won't. They may stay away for a few games; they may wave protest banners from their seats; they may wait a year before renewing tickets. But baseball and football and basketball have all shown: the diehards come back. They always come back.

Which, in the grand scheme of things, is exactly why there shouldn't have been consideration of the fans in the negotiations in the first place.

Friday, January 11, 2013

2012-2013 NFL Divisional Playoff Preview

There is not much sense in my writing a playoff preview when Mike Tanier has written

This year, the Broncos kept nearly everything else the same, but replaced [a 235-pound] sack of topsoil with one of the five greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

So go read that instead. We'll be here when you get back. Arguing over which NFL head coach is most like David Hume ("screw it, let's go down to the pub").

Best? Or Just Healthiest?

It's obvious that key injuries can critically affect NFL teams (see: the 2011 Indianapolis Colts, and by extension, the 2012 Indianapolis Colts).
Despite the example of the Colts, there's always a danger of overfitting injuries to team failure. Injuries to Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy -- serious as they are -- didn't keep the Browns out of contention by themselves (there's a whole host of things keeping the Browns out of contention, and the three biggest are the Ravens, Bengals, and Steelers).
But right on the cusp of success you can see that a team's collective health can really make a difference. Let's look at an example from the AFC. We'll compare the Steelers (8-8, 7th place in the conference, did not make the playoffs) with the Bengals (10-6, 6th place, made the playoffs).
(Stats and numbers to follow. Fair warning.)
When the Steelers went on their season-ending 2-5 skid, starting with a loss to the Ravens in Week 11, they looked like the gonorrhea ward after a political convention. They never had fewer than 10 names on their injury report (except for week 17, when they won a meaningless game against the Browns with only ("only") 6 guys limping). The Steelers played just 2 games all year with a full roster. On average through the season, the Steelers injury report had 9.5 names on it every week. That's 18% of your guys out or playing hurt.
By contrast, look at the Bengals. They averaged 8.25 guys on the injury report every week, and during their season-ending 7-1 streak never had more than 10 names on the report (and 10 names only once, in week 10). Through the season the Bengals never had more than 2 guys out, and had 7 games with nobody out.
And let's not overlook the most critical position. The Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger for 3 full games, while Andy Dalton played every game for the Bengals.
The Pittsburgh sports intelligentsia -- by which I mean the callers to all four of Pittsburgh's drive-time sports call-in shows -- are pretty convinced that Roethlisberger wasn't anywhere near 100% when he did get back in, and the team's 1-3 record after his return suggests that they may be on to something.
Were the injuries the only difference? Of course not. The Steelers won a game for which they had 12 guys out or hurt (against the Redskins in Week 8) while the Bengals lost a game in which they only had 5 names on the injury report (against the Broncos in Week 9). But they may have made the difference in the margins here.

Your Handy-Dandy Guide To the Guys Who Failed To Get Into the Hall of Fame Yesterday, Part 2

The players we examined yesterday, by and large, got votes.

The players we will examine today, by and large, did not. But, since we don't want them to feel left out, here goes:

Who: Sandy Alomar
Hall of Fame Case: Catcher for the teams of the Cleveland Renaissance. 6-time All Star, Gold Glove and Rookie of the Year winner. Brother Roberto is in the Hall, and the Hall loves brother acts (See: Waner, Lloyd)
Why He Didnt Get In: Broke down more often than Sally Field at the Oscars. Only a handful of seasons with 400+ ABs. Spent half his career as a backup, and that’s kind of missing the point of the Hall.

Who: Julio Franco
Hall of Fame Case: Machine-like hitter who excelled in his 20s, 30s and 40s, and who probably could still hit .270 with decent pop if he thought about it. Oldest position player to do, well, everything. 5 time Silver Slugger winner. OPS+ equals Craig Biggio’s.
Why He Didnt Get In: Didn’t hit enough home runs. Hall has a strict “no ageless death-warriors from the dawn of time” policy. Nobody’s convinced he’s not going to show up at spring training somewhere and win a job.

Who: David Wells
Hall of Fame Case: Pitched a perfect game. A better big game pitcher than Jack Morris.  Won more games than Catfish Hunter or Sandy Koufax. Ate three deserving Hall of Fame candidates whole while pitching in New York.
Why He Didnt Get In: Had an ERA over 4. Sweated all over Babe Ruth’s hat.

Who: Steve Finley
Hall of Fame Case: Star-caliber center fielder who popped over 300 home runs while playing in big parks. 
Why He Didnt Get In: Played with known juicer Ken Caminiti, had suspicious late-career power surge when he’d lost bat speed and started sitting dead red every pitch. Frequently confused with Chuck Finley, earning him the ire of voters who think the last few seasons of Burn Notice have sucked asphalt through a straw.

Who: Shawn Green
Hall of Fame Case: Slugging right fielder who won a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove. Nice Jewish boy who could totally have been something useful, like an orthodontist, instead.
Why He Didnt Get In: Was referred to as “Beavis” by his manager in Toronto. His last year as a beast was at age 29. Still has time to become an orthodontist after all. 

Who: Aaron Sele
Hall of Fame Case: Former overhyped Red Sox prospect who had a nice run around the turn of the century. Once pitched in New York
Why He Didnt Get In: Because only one idiot voted for him, thank God.

Who: Jeff Cirillo
Hall of Fame Case: High-average infielder for Brewers and Rockies. 2 time All-Star. Once hit .326 two years running.
Why He Didnt Get In: Could only hit while playing for teams whose uniforms were purple, leaving him a lot of terrible seasons playing for Seattle, San Diego, Arizona and so forth. “Most comparable” player is Joe Randa. ‘nuff said.

Who: Jeff Conine
Hall of Fame Case: Nicknamed “Mister Marlin”. Is the most popular player in the history of the franchise, which, admittedly, ain’t saying much. Was once a national racquetball champion, and no one else in the Hall of Fame can say that. Was All-Star Game MVP one year. OK, I’m stretching.
Why He Didnt Get In: Being the archetypal Marlin still means you spent most of your career as a Marlin, and it’s not like there’s been a hell of a lot of competition. 

Who: Reggie Sanders
Hall of Fame Case: Sweet-hitting, smooth-fielding outfielder predicted to be the next Eric Davis. 300+ HR, 300+ SB. Only guy to have a 20+ HR season for 6 different teams. Set record with 10 RBI in 2005 NLDS. 
Why He Didnt Get In: Injuries put enough drag on his career that he never got the counting stats he needed. Lengthy journeyman phase obscured how good he was. Looks really goofy on his Upper Deck rookie card.

Who: Royce Clayton
Hall of Fame Case: Highly touted Giants prospect who hung around for a long time. 71st all time in strikeouts. If you’re not a pitcher, this is bad.
Why He Didnt Get In: Played until he was 37 and never had a league-average season with the bat. 

Who: Roberto Hernandez
Hall of Fame Case: Possibly the archetypal ‘90s reliever - racked up a bunch of saves for one team, then bounced around for a decade afterwards. Had an ERA of 0.00 in the playoffs at age 41. Saved more games than Joe Table, which is why he’s higher on the list.
Why He Didnt Get In: Spent three years in Tampa rocking the van art-quality Devil Rays uniforms. Was rarely good enough for anyone to want to keep him around for more than a season or two. Not even interesting enough to make fun of.

Who: Ryan Klesko
Hall of Fame Case: Ginormous masher for some pretty good Atlanta Braves teams. Didn’t immediately lose all his power when he went to San Diego. Stole a bunch of bases. Better than you remember.
Why He Didnt Get In: “Better than you remember” still doesn’t necessarily add up to “pretty good”.

Who: Todd Walker
Hall of Fame Case: Superb college ballplayer at LSU. Occasionally mistaken for Larry Walker by voters who haven’t actually covered baseball since Michael Dukakis had a bright future ahead of him.
Why He Didnt Get In: Very few people actually confused him with Larry Walker

Who: Rondell White
Hall of Fame Case: Power-and-speed outfielder for the Expos in the Tim Raines mold. 
Why He Didnt Get In: Had some power and some speed, but not a lot of either. “In the mold” is a nice way of saying “not as good as”.

Who: Jose Mesa
Hall of Fame Case: 321 saves and a 2nd-place finish in the Cy Young voting one year. Kept showing up as the closer for contending teams. Had a beard that would kill a man in Reno just to watch him die. Official nickname was “Joe Table”, which was awesome. Unofficial nickname was supposedly “Wild Turkey”, after his beverage of choice, which is also awesome, but in a different way. Had legendary beef with slick-fielding hobbit Omar Vizquel.
Why He Didnt Get In: Once, while I was watching a Phillies game, the ninth inning rolled around and Mesa marched out of the bullpen. My wife, who was watching the game with me and who knew almost nothing of baseball at the time, looked at the television in horror. “Is that Joe Table? Why are they sending in Joe Table? What did the other pitcher do wrong?”
I think that sums things up nicely.

Who: Woody Williams
Hall of Fame Case: The Toy Story movies were awesome. 
Why He Didnt Get In: That’s not pitching, it’s throwing with attitude. And not very hard.

Who: Mike Stanton
Hall of Fame Case: Saved 27 games in 1993, then stuck around for another decade and a half. Played for the Yankees, Red Sox and Braves, nailing the trifecta of Most Hated Teams with rare panache. 
Why He Didnt Get In: Giancarlo-who-used-to-be-Mike, maybe. Mike, no.