Friday, March 30, 2007


Each week, as a writer with I get an email asking for a pithy response to a question posed for that week’s roundtable which then gets posted sometime on Sunday. With the Cleveland Indians season poised to begin next week, this week’s question naturally asked for predictions regarding the upcoming season.

Predictions, of course, are like nose hair in that most people have some. And it seems to be the role of those who write about the accomplishments of others to not only write about the accomplishments as they happen but to predict what might happen next. In other words, if there’s no news, invent some.

The last time anyone saw a prediction under this byline was related to the Cavaliers. In that column we noted, with great accuracy, that if the Cavaliers were as good as advertised they’d win 50-52 games, if not, they’d win 46-48 games. There was little genius behind that prediction, by the way. It was made under the simple analysis of what the schedule held in terms of how many back-to-back games they played, particularly when the second of the two was on the road. In other words, and for various reasons, the home advantage seems much more pronounced in the NBA than in any other sport and thus makes it much easier to extrapolate the schedule’s impact on the overall record.

In other ways, the NFL is almost as easy to predict. You rarely see anyone predict a team going 12-4 for example or 2-14, for that matter. Instead, you’re always safe if you predict that a respectable team will go 9-7 since most of them do. You’re also always safe if you predict that an acknowledged lousy team will go 6-10 or 5-11 since, again, most of them do.

Major league baseball, on the other hand, is easily the most difficult sport to handicap, whether it’s game by game or over a whole season. In the first place, 162 games is boat load of games by any measure. While that sort of marathon tends to ensure that the better teams will ultimately prevail, it also increases the variables one needs to consider in forecasting the upcoming season. Though baseball is the least physically demanding of the three major sports, the injuries nonetheless pile up. Outfielders run into walls or to each other. Infielders are prone to tough landings on ground balls in the hole or down the line or suffer the occasional spike to the leg. Pitchers eventually show the wear and tear of throwing curveballs since they were 10 years old. Catchers tend to show the strain of all that squatting. Runners pull hamstrings. Thus, much of the season can turn on the performance of players who currently reside in the minors or with other teams.

Another variable is the weather. Rain outs tend to get rescheduled as doubleheaders and doubleheaders tend to result in a splits. The use of the unbalanced schedule can be particularly rough on teams in good divisions and teams with an easy interleague schedule can get fat while their counterparts on the other end of the spectrum can get slaughtered.

If all this sounds like a cop-out for not participating in a rite of passage, you’d be wrong. There are still plenty of predictions to make:

First, I predict that Peter Gammons will predict a good year for the Boston Red Sox.

Next, I predict that there will be 132,654 stories about the deteriorating relationship between Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. In April.

Next, I predict that Larry Dolan will tell Indians fans that he won’t hesitate to spend money if need be in order to help put the Indians over the top. I also predict he’ll never see the need.

Next, I predict that Mike Trivisonno will conduct three interviews with Mark Shapiro during the season. I also predict that the toughest question Shapiro will get asked in any of those interviews is what he had for lunch earlier that day.

Next, I predict that the Kansas City Royals most current rebuilding plan won’t work, either. I also predict that they’ll consider another managerial change although I also predict that most fans inside and outside of Kansas City couldn’t even name their current manager.

Next, I predict that Ozzie Guillen, manager of the Chicago White Sox, will say something stupid every other day. I also predict that Guillen will be forced by Bud Selig to seek a refresher course in sensitivity training after he goes all Ann Coulter on a writer who happens to highlight any number of the stupid things he says.

Next, I predict that Peter Angelos, owner of the Balitmore Orioles, will express dismay over his team’s latest woeful performance. I also predict that Angelos will consider another managerial change although I also predict that most fans inside and outside of Baltimore couldn’t even name their current manager.

Next, I predict that someone will do an interview with Billy Beane about how he manages to keep the Oakland As competitive despite such a small budget. I also predict that within the first two sentences of the lead-in to that interview, the writer will mention “Money Ball.”

Next, I predict that there will be 456,794 stories pondering whether the home run record Bobby Bonds is about to set is tainted by the lingering suspicions that Bonds used steroids. In April.

Next, I predict that Bobby Bonds will act surly toward the next reporter that asks him whether he’s concerned that he might be prosecuted for committing perjury before the grand jury.

Next, I predict that ESPN’s Baseball Tonight will spend the better part of 4 hours of their All Star game coverage discussing whether the winning team in that game deserves to get home field advantage in the World Series. I also predict that one of the participants in that discussion will be a contrarian and insist that having home field advantage at stake makes the All Star game more meaningful.

Next, I predict that Bob Costas will give at least a dozen different interviews in which he says that having a wild card team in the playoffs detracts from the purity of the game.

Next, I predict that there will be 658 stories suggesting that managers in the National League have an advantage when it comes to the World Series because they are more used to managing without a designated hitter and are, conversely, more versed in the beauty of the old double switch.

Next, I predict that at least three managers will be fired during the season, possibly four.

Next, I predict that there will be 978,943 stories about how baseball is alienating its younger fans by kowtowing to the networks by starting World Series games at 8 p.m.

Next, I predict that at least four games in April and three playoff games in October will be interrupted by snow.

Next, I predict that at least 687 callers to WKNR (assuming they have that many different callers) will suggest trading C.C. Sabathia for prospects so that we don’t risk getting nothing for him when he opts for free agency. I also predict that all 687 of those callers will say that the Dolans cheapskates.

Next, I predict that following Jhonny Peralta’s first error, either one of the Indians beat writers or Terry Pluto will say that Peralta looks uninspired in the field.

Next, I predict that there will be 954 stories in which Omar Vizquel is referred to as an ageless wonder as he continues to play flawless defense and hit around .300 for the San Francisco Giants.

Next, I predict that the next time Manny Ramirez commits an error in the field or on the basepaths or takes his iPod into left field during a game, 4,567 commentators and/or writers will say “that’s just Manny being Manny.”

Next, I predict that there will be 886 stories pondering why teams in the north and the east don’t start their seasons in the south or the west in order to avoid bad weather.

Finally, I predict that the Indians will win 89 games.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

If Past Be Prologue...

When the Cleveland Indians were strong in the early and mid-‘90s, everyone knew it—the media and the fans alike. There were other good teams in the league as well, but going into those seasons everyone expected the Tribe to be good and generally they didn’t disappoint, except in the World Series.

This week, Sports Illustrated came out with its annual baseball preview addition. In it, they predict that the Indians will be the 7th best team in baseball, the 4th best in the American League. They have the Tribe winning the AL Central but losing to the Yankees in the LDS. But a sampling of various chat boards and call in shows demonstrates that many, perhaps most, fans hardly share a similar opinion. To them, they see a bullpen repaired with injury-prone retreads and a season in which too many “ifs” have to fall into place for the Tribe to get back to the playoffs.

Maybe this disparity in views is the result of the trained eyes of learned Cleveland fans, most of whom have a much better chance to observe the daily machinations of their team, as opposed to the national media types that flit from one story to the other. Maybe it’s simply a reflection of a general cynicism from Cleveland fans borne of a lifetime of disappointments. Maybe it’s the fault of the 1987 Indians.

After seeing the picture illustrating John-David Filing’s recent article on Cory Snyder from the 1987 Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue, it was time to sift through the personal archives for lessons learned That issue and the resulting aftermath offer a compelling explanation as to exactly why the fans are so skeptical now.

The issue featured Joe Carter and Cory Snyder. The headline was “Indians Uprising” and the cover also declared “Believe it? Cleveland is the best team in the American League.” It may not be quite on par with “Dewey defeats Truman” but it should have an honored place in the hall of fame of biggest sports journalism blunders of all time. Not only were the Indians not the best team in the American League, they were the worst, losing 101 games, 24 more than they did the previous season. In fact, they were the only team to lose 100 or more games in the major leagues that season. They finished a staggering 37 games behind the Detroit Tigers, who won 98 games. Sports Illustrated couldn’t have gotten the story more wrong if they had commissioned a chimp to write it. Maybe they did.

On the other hand, when you read the accompanying analysis it’s understandable how SI got from point A to point B when designating the Indians the team to beat. It’s just goes to show that you can get from point A to point B and still not arrive at your destination. Here’s what SI was looking at. First, Tony Bernazard was coming off a career year in 1986 when he hit .301 with 17 home runs and 73 RBI. Brett Butler in center was solid and reliable, both offensively (in terms of average but not power) and defensively, Julio Franco, a butcher (but still better than Jhonny Peralta last year) was at short but he was a solid .300 hitter. The middle of the lineup featured a young Joe Carter, who hit .302 and led the league the previous season with 121 RBI, Andre Thornton (more about him in a minute), Mel Hall and Cory Snyder. Hall was a terror against right handed pitching and in the second half of Snyder’s rookie year of 1986, he had 16 home runs and 51 RBI. Brook Jacoby played a solid third base and was a very productive offensive player, and Rick Dempsey was brought in to help stabilize an iffy pitching corps that featured starters Tom Candiotti, Ken Schrom, Scott Bailes, Greg Swindell and Ernie Camacho in the bullpen.

Although SI acknowledged that pitching, not offense, could be the Achilles heel, it’s interesting to note that Schrom had won 14 games in 1886, Candiotti won 16, Bailes, 10 and Swindell 5 after being called up the previous August. The rotation also featured 48-year old Phil Niekro. Thus, it really wasn’t the starting pitching that was the worry, it was the bullpen. Camacho, the closer, had only 20 saves the previous season but of greater concerns was his 4.08 ERA.

All of this provides a very interesting parallel to this year’s Tribe team. Again, offense doesn’t seem to be the problem. Starting pitching doesn’t seem to be the problem either. As with the 1987 team, it’s the bullpen, both the setup men and the closer. This naturally begs the question of whether this year’s team is headed for a similar collapse. Hard to say, but doubtful, especially when considering the monumental collapse that was the 1987 season.

For example, while current manager Eric Wedge is often criticized for the team’s slow starts, he had nothing on Pat Corrales. The 1987 team started 1-10. At the halfway point, they were 28-53. They endured two different 8-game losing streaks and a boat load of 4, 5 and 6 game losing streaks. Their longest winning streak was a meager 4 games and they had 3 other 3-game winning streaks. When you lose 101 games, that isn’t much of a surprise. It’s hard to imagine, on the other hand, the current Tribe team, with its lineup, suffering a similar fate.

Individually, it wasn’t a pretty picture, either. For example, relying on Tony Bernazard to again hit .300 was a pipe dream. As SI noted in its 1987 preview, somewhat cryptically it turns out, his .301 average in 1986 that this was a full 44 points higher than his career average. They call it an average for a reason and water tends to find its level. In 1987, Bernazard reverted to form, hitting .239, about 20 points under his career average. In other words, 1987 was merely a season long correction to his abnormal 1986 season.

Cory Snyder was also another major disappointment. His average dipped to .236. In fact, his 1987 on base percentage in 1987 was .273, only .001 percent higher than his 1986 batting average! Brett Butler, on the other hand, delivered similar performances in 1986 and 1987 while Brook Jacoby was better in 1987, hitting .300 as compared to .288 in 1986 and slugging 32 home runs, nearly double his output of 17 in 1986.

Which brings us to Andre Thornton. He’s a player that most Cleveland fans remember fondly. Often he was the only player worth watching on one dismal team after another. But in truth, despite his reputation as a slugger, he really wasn’t, particularly during this time period. In 1986, he hit only .229, had 17 home runs (as much as Brook Jacoby) and 66 RBI, 14 less than Jacoby. Thus, counting on him as a force in the middle of the lineup was probably more wishful thinking than anything else. As it turned out, he hardly played in 1987 due to injuries. However, Carmen Castillo and Pat Tabler basically filled the DH role and combined for 22 home runs and 117 RBI which was probably better than if Thornton had stayed healthy.

But while there were some positives, offensively the Indians were far worse than advertised. They hit .263 as a team, 21 points less than in 1986 and scored 742 runs, far below the 831 of the previous season, meaning that they averaged about .5 less runs per game.

And while the offense was unexpectedly faltering, the pitching was worse than imagined. The team ERA was 5.83, almost a run and a half worse per game than the previous season. What makes this even more astounding is that it was just 1985 when the Indians had set the franchise record for highest ERA with 4.91, meaning that the new record they set in 1987 was almost a full run higher. Bailes, Candiotti and Niekro led the team with 7 wins each. If the Tribe’s fifth starter this year has only 7 wins, that would be a major shock. Doug Jones led the team with 8 saves. In all, the team had only 25 total saves the entire season. While we may not know what this year’s pitching staff truly holds for the Indians, barring a slew of injuries (which may be happening, given Sabathia’s unfortunate run in with a line shot Wednesday), it would be hard to even come close to matching the haplessness of the 1987 staff.

But perhaps what really set the 1987 team in a tailspin is what really differentiates it from this year’s team, or does it? At the start of spring training, Joe Carter walked out of camp in a salary protest. According to the SI article, Carter, who was not arbitration eligible, had demanded a $437,000 salary. Lacking any real leverage, he lowered his demand to $387,000, which was double what he made in 1986. Unable to come to terms with him, the Tribe renewed Carter at $250,000 and he walked out for six days. When he returned he was still visibly upset and it clearly carried over to others on the team.

Consider, for example, Snyder’s views. He told SI: “We’ve got such a good thing going, why not pay a little more to keep the players happy? We’re just talking about fairness, not millions. We can keep a good team here for years. Why create a situation where as soon as a player gets the chance, he’ll move out? That’s not fair to the fans who’ve waited so long. I know I don’t want to leave Cleveland. I love it.”

Maybe that’s a reflection of the times; maybe that’s a reflection of all times. Either way, it seemed to doom what looked to be a promising season. And in many ways, it’s analogous to the tone set before last season began. The Indians seemed well positioned to challenge for the AL Central title based on how they finished the 2005 season. Many fans expected that the team might spend more in free agency to acquire the last remaining pieces and instead they and the rest of the team saw nearly the opposite. The payroll cutting, the decision not to sign Keith Millwood, and the poor choices made in who they did sign sent a message to the players and the fans from which they never did fully recover.

This past off season was a mixed bag, although it generally contained more positives than negatives. But there was no major splash, either. Whether justified or not, the fans, and perhaps the players, still have the sense that the Dolans won’t spend enough to push this team over the top. The looming free agency of Westbrook, Sabathia and Hafner, coupled with the recent past of free agents lost, only feeds that beast.

Hopefully the national media has it right and the locals have it wrong. But in fairness to the locals, they lived through the 1987 season while the national media stopped paying attention about 30 days in. Their cynicism is justified. While it’s highly unlikely that the Tribe will collapse like they did in 1987, it’s important to remember that no one on the 1987 season anticipated what was about to come, either.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Rappin' Randy

The NFL draft is closing in and that can only mean one thing: Randy Lerner is talking again. In what is becoming a ritual nearly as reliable as the buzzards returning to Hinckley each spring, Browns owner Randy Lerner recently made the rounds of the local dailies by granting interviews to the Plain Dealer, the Beacon Journal and the Canton Repository. Apparently he hasn’t been able to touch base with Jeff Schudel at the News-Herald to make the rounds complete but it’s bound to happen.

Cobbling together the tidbits from each interview, we’ve learned the following:

  • If it’s Lerner’s call, Romeo Crennel’s job is safe. Lerner told the Canton Repository that the disruption to the organization by replacing the head coach is something he couldn’t even wrap his mind around. Lerner was less poetic to the Plain Dealer but no less emphatic, saying that it is not his perception that Crennel is a lame duck.

  • That when Crennel and GM Phil Savage took over, the cupboard was bare and they have spent their time since trying to fill it. Lerner was at his most candid in this regard, telling the Beacon Journal that the team had maybe “five or six or seven ” football players to speak of and he would leave it to debate who they were.

  • Lerner believes that a team needs a core of 35 players to be successful and right now the Browns have around 18. Lerner even went so far as to name the core players, saying: “I have (Joe) Jurevicius, (Orpheus) Roye, Kellen Winslow, Braylon Edwards, Kamerion Wimbley, Sean Jones, Brodney Pool, Eric [Steinbach], Jamal Lewis, Andra Davis, Charlie Frye, D'Qwell Jackson, Leigh Bodden, Josh Cribbs for special teams certainly if not other, Steve Heiden, and emerging players like Leon Williams, Lawrence Vickers, Jerome Harrison, Travis Wilson.'' Actually, that’s 19, which, by Lerner’s calculation means the Browns are roughly half way toward building their roster.

  • He likes the job Phil Savage is doing. He said the Browns are very focused on improving both the offensive line and defensive line and creating depth, particularly in free agency and that Savage is on track in that regard.

  • He is a big Braylon Edwards fan. Lerner told the Canton Repository that it’s a misconception that Edwards is a loner and not a team guy and that Edwards is an amazing athlete and well-liked. He told the Plain Dealer that Edwards is growing and maturing as a person and, as noted above, told the Beacon Journal that Edwards is considered a core player.

  • The addition of Jamal Lewis is something that can help jumpstart a change in culture from that of a franchise used to losing to one expecting to win.

  • He understands the frustration of season ticket holders and suite owners and believes that the Browns obviously need to win more games and provide and environment that people will look forward to.

  • Lerner has no plans on selling the team, despite his acquisition of the Aston Villa team in the English Premier Soccer League.

In many ways, the various interviews were refreshing if only for Lerner’s candor. Of course, it would be hard for him to find any sort of spin that could make his ownership to date look successful. As we noted previously, for all their success elsewhere the Lerners have been the least successful NFL owners as measured by won/loss record.

But if anyone was looking for some glimmer of hope that next season the Browns will make a miraculous turnaround, forget it. Lerner is realistic enough to acknowledge that a successful franchise needs at least 35 core players and that the Browns, even with the recent free agent signees, are still well short of that mark. Lerner also acknowledged that the upcoming draft will, at best, fill two more of those holes, still leaving the Browns well short of the talent needed to be a playoff team.

The real question all this raises is how long might it take for the Browns to get to Lerner’s magic number of 35. Giving Lerner the benefit of the doubt that the Browns do have 19 such players now (and that is giving Lerner a huge benefit of the doubt, by the way), by the time they break training camp that number may have crept up to 21, assuming that they found two key players in the April draft. That puts them 14 players short of Lerner’s goal. If the Browns had only 5 or 6 when Savage and Crennel took over and its taken them 3 seasons to get to 19, that means they are adding core players at the rate of, at best, five or six a year, meaning they are about 3 years away. And that’s assuming that the core players they have now are still with the team and playing well 3 years from now.

In many ways, even this seems like an incredibly optimistic scenario. Adding five or six core players a year is a pretty tall order for any team. The vagaries of the free agency pool combined with the salary cap create a certain amount of player movement that is inevitable. If Lerner is right and the Browns are starting to build depth, it’s also just as likely that they will lose some of that depth to free agency. In the last few years, the Browns really haven’t lost anyone they wanted to retain, mainly because they simply didn’t have those kinds of players on the roster. If their talent level improves, so will the chance they will lose some of it to free agency, meaning that they will have to find two players just to add one more core player to the roster.

But even more importantly, looking at Lerner’s list of core players, it includes Jamal Lewis who is on a one-year contract, Kellen Winslow, who is coming off of serious surgery, Joe Jurevicius who may be lucky to be playing three years from now and Charlie Frye, whose future as a legitimate starting NFL quarterback is very iffy. It also includes a kick returner (Josh Cribbs) and a back-up tight end (Steve Heiden). It would be fun to run this list by league general managers for comment. If given anonymity, most would likely chuckle at Lerner’s assessment.

Lerner admits that he hasn’t been successful and feels he, more than Crennel or Savage, is on the hot seat. He told the Plain Dealter that ownership, like coaching, is a performance-based privilege (don’t tell that to the Bidwells in Arizona) and if he can’t perform, why should he continue to own the Browns? It’s a legitimate question as well and one that is more likely to be answered before the one about when the Browns will truly get to a competitive level.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Misplaced Fears

After Wednesday night’s Cavs/Mavs game what have we learned? To the average fan, maybe it was it that the Mavs are simply a much stronger team or that the Cavs have trouble sustaining energy when it plays back-to-back games. But if you’re Plain Dealer columnist Bud Shaw, maybe it was that LeBron James just doesn’t have the appropriate fear of failure?

Shaw in his most recent column used the loss to Dallas on Wednesday, as well as the loss in Charlotte, to dump on James’ supposed inability to finish off games. But with the silent recognition that he wasn’t exactly the first to write that flawed observation, Shaw put a different spin on it by playing pop psychologist. According to Shaw, what separates James and Dirk Nowitzki and hence, why one team is better than the other, centers around a fear of failure. Nowitzki, the heart and soul of his team, is more motivated to succeed because failure bothers him more than it does James.

The column by Shaw was so ridiculous it could have been written by Bill Livingston. All it needed was some obscure reference to Philadelphia and an out-of-context homage to the cheese steak sandwich. But the biggest flaw in Shaw’s thesis is the underlying premise: the reason people are driven to success is because they fear failure. Ironically, Shaw doesn’t seem similarly driven but that’s a different column for a different day.

There is, of course, any number of reasons why a person is driven to succeed and it doesn’t always derive from the fear of failing. Pride, for example, comes to mind as a powerful force. Being true to one’s self and the desire to give forth one’s best effort at all times isn’t always done because the individual fears the results. Rather, there is tremendous self-satisfaction in a job well done that is separate and apart from any concern over what result is ultimately achieved.

Similarly, the attainment of goals or the desire to achieve the intended results are just as much drivers for success than their first cousin, the fear of the bad result. But the concepts are distinctly different. Perhaps that really is the root of the difference between James and Nowitzki. Their drive to be the best takes a much different path. That isn’t necessarily meant to praise one at the expense of the other, it’s just to illustrate that motivation and drive are an intensely personal issue that varies, often widely, by individual.

In the case of James, the fact that he does not lose sleep over a missed shot or opportunity hardly relegates him to the loser pile. But this is essentially the argument that Shaw and others before him have advanced: James just doesn’t seem to care as much as, say, Michael Jordan or, now, Dirk Nowitzki. As silly as this seems, it is now serving as legitimate discourse in the columns of your local daily.

But beyond a flawed premise, Shaw’s column is frustrating for his rather selective use of examples. He notes James’ failure at the end of the Charlotte game and essentially implies that it did not push James into some sort of otherwordly performance against the Mavs. But that is a rather poor way to describe James’ unusual cold streak during the first three quarters of the game. Maybe his shot just wasn’t falling. It happens. Just ask the aforementioned Nowitzki, who is shooting 50% on the season but was only 9 of 24 Wednesday night.

Shaw also fails to mention that James essentially took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 17 of his 31 points. But for James’ performance during that period, the game would have ended in a blowout. But James can’t do it alone. The play of the bench Wednesday night was awful. At one point midway through the fourth quarter, the Cavs lineup featured three players (Marshall, Gibson and Varejao) who had yet to score. Talk about the key to the loss. But that telling statistic collides with Shaw’s premise so it was ignored.

Shaw also failed to mention the way in which James elevated his game and that of his teammates late in the third quarter and early in the fourth against Utah Saturday. Utah is a pretty fair team and seemed headed to a sloppy victory as the Cavs were seemingly sleepwalking again through another game. Then came a series of powerful, thunderous dunks from James that literally changed the face of the game and propelled the team to victory. But since no last second shot was needed for the victory, the game and James contribution to that victory doesn’t get mentioned in Shaw’s column, presumably because it collides with the premise.

There is no question that there have been missteps by James at key points in various games. In the first Dallas game, for example, James missed two relatively easy three-point shots that could have brought home a tough road win. But picking out these exceptions while simultaneously failing to note the other contributions paints a rather incomplete picture of one of the NBA’s best players. And as even Shaw should know, no matter what James personally accomplishes, until the Cavs have a roster that rivals that of Dallas, that picture will never be complete.

This is really one of the key takeaways from Wednesday’s night game. But there were plenty of others as well. The lack of team energy in the second of back-to-back games suggests that head coach Mike Brown still isn’t in full control of which buttons to push. Larry Hughes’ is mired in a miserable shooting slump of such proportions that he often seems loss. The Cavs bench is scary inconsistent and is likely to be their Achilles heel come playoff time. But if Shaw and anyone else ignores these and thinks instead that the key to the Cavs problems is teaching James to fear failure, then for them the wait for a NBA title in Cleveland just got that much longer.

Monday, March 19, 2007


To the extent that anyone is still searching for another reason why the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is the best event in sports, here’s one: it renders the weekly coaches poll irrelevant.

It’s true that Ohio State finished the season as the near-consensus number one team in the country. And to most that should have led to their being the overall number one seed in the tournament. But that is a minor slight at best as the Buckeyes hardly suffered for not being the tournament’s overall number one. The tournament serves as the best meritocracy in organized sports and gives one the sense that whoever prevails really does deserve the title.

The problem with the BCS system has been chronicled many times. But at its core, it is a compilation of numerous polls designed to hopefully pit the top two teams against each other. But since there really is no playoff, there is no way to know whether the NCAA got it right. But in Division I men’s basketball, the polls are almost irrelevant except perhaps to help decide which remaining fringe teams should get in the tournament. This is a good thing because if the NCAA ever bothered to actually examine, for example, the USA Today Coaches poll it might never stop throwing up.

Perusing the poll database (click here and the click on the “polls database”) reveals all manner of oddities that makes one glad that it is meaningless. Consider the case of Tim Floyd, a poll voter and the coach of USC. There are 19 votes during the season. The first establishes the preseason rankings and the regular season voting began on November 13. In the second to last poll of the year, which occurred on March 3, Ohio State received the first place vote of every coach but one, Tim Floyd. He voted Ohio State second and Kansas first. As you may recall, two days prior to that vote Ohio State played Michigan in Ann Arbor and won 65-61 to close out the regular season. While Floyd didn’t think the Buckeyes were worthy of the number one slot, the Buckeyes narrow victory over the Wolverines didn’t cause him to put the Buckeyes lower than number two.

This is important when you look at the final week’s poll. The only thing that happened in the interim was the conference tournaments. Ohio State won the Big 10, disposing of Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin in the process. Following that game, the last poll was taken (and the NCAA brackets were announced) and again Ohio State garnered the first place vote of every coach but one, Mr. Floyd. Ok, so he wasn’t impressed by the Buckeyes march through the conference tournament. But then how could he explain lowering them to third on his ballot? He still had Kansas first but elevated Florida to second, apparently feeling that the Gators victory over an inferior Arkansas team in the SEC tournament was more impressive than Ohio State’s victory over a much tougher Wisconsin team.

At the least this strange result begs for further analysis of both the poll and of Floyd.

Consider the week 1 or preseason poll. In that poll every coach but one voted Florida, the reigning national champ returning most of its team intact, as number one. The holdout? You guessed it, Tim Floyd. He voted Ohio State number one. In fact, he had Florida at number four, with Kansas number two and North Carolina number three. Week two saw exactly the same result. In week three, Kansas lost but Ohio State, Florida and North Carolina were still undefeated. It would seem that with the season still young, Floyd would have simply moved Kansas down, kept Ohio State at number one and moved North Carolina and Florida up accordingly. No chance. He did keep Ohio State number one, but moved Florida to number two (they had been four) and dropped North Carolina to number five (they had been three). He decided to elevate both LSU and UCLA into his top four.

Week four must have put poor Floyd into a real tailspin with Florida and North Carolina losing. He kept Ohio State number one, moved UCLA to number two, reached all the way down to Marquette as number three (based on the votes of the rest of the coaches they were ninth that week otherwise) and moved Kansas back to number four.

Then the bloom came off the rose. In week five Ohio State lost in Chapel Hill to North Carolina, 98-89. This sin really seemed to steam Floyd who dropped Ohio State all the way down to eighth on his poll. He must have felt, at least temporarily, that his faith in the Buckeyes was not being rewarded and punished them accordingly. The reason it was only temporarily is that, amazingly, the next week he elevated them back to number one. From number 8 to number one in one week! That must have meant that his number one from the previous week, UCLA, lost and/or that Ohio State had a really good week. You be the judge. UCLA remained undefeated and Ohio State beat, in short order, Valpariso and Cleveland State.

Maybe Floyd wasn’t paying close attention or maybe he just made a mistake. Either way, he stayed at it, keeping Ohio State number one, despite what virtually every other coach was saying, until they lost to Florida. That drubbing pushed them down to number seven on his ballot. He inched them back up to five over the next few weeks and then dropped them back to eighth following the loss at Wisconsin. Eventually the Buckeyes were inching their way back up the polls as other teams around them were losing, landing at number two in week 15. But that wasn’t good enough for Floyd, who had them ranked sixth. Even when Ohio State regained the number one position, they were not number one with Floyd, not even in that final week.

What all of this seems to illustrate more than anything else is not just the vagaries of the polls themselves but the vagaries of the coaches who vote in them, particularly Floyd. It’s hard to draw a conclusion, for example, that Floyd is anti-Ohio State. His failure to elevate Ohio State late in the season was a token, mostly irrelevant gesture. Perhaps a conspiracy theorist might suggest that when Andy Geiger was looking to fill the vacancy created by the Jim O’Brien flameout and didn’t hire Floyd, who was rumored at the time as a front-runner, he might be bitter toward the Buckeyes. But that doesn’t seem to hold much water given his views of Ohio State early in the season and the fact that he was voting Ohio State number one when no other voter shared that opinion.

But good luck trying to find an explanation. You can do a Google search on Tim Floyd and Ohio State and you won’t find one article explaining his voting methodology. You can go to the USC web site and you won’t find anything, either. In the end, the most likely scenario is that Floyd is just a first-class flake who doesn’t take his roll as a voter very seriously. This is why no one should take the polls very seriously, either. But if the USA Today hopes to have its poll retain any shred of credibility, a good start would be to dismiss Floyd. As one of the worst coaches in the history of the NBA, a coach who was dismissed twice in that span, it’s something he should be used to anyway.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

An Amazing Coincidence, Again

Because it’s the longest season, all of the participants in a team’s baseball season inevitably become a bit clubby with each other. That isn’t limited to simply members of the team and the coaching staff. To the contrary it applies to the extended family, including the media, at least as it’s practiced in Cleveland.

Everyone, for example, is used to WTAM’s talking troll Mike Trivisonno serving as the house shill for the city’s professional sports teams. After all, WTAM pays huge money to each team for the privilege of carrying the games and all manner of pre and post-game shows. Consequently, it shouldn’t surprise anyone when Trivisonno, while interviewing infielder Josh Barfield the other day in Winter Haven, referred to Manager Eric Wedge as “Wedgie.” It’s how the players refer to their manager and, hey, we’re all friends here, right? But it did serve as a reminder that the relationship between the media and the sporting figures they cover is often more cozy than most of us would like.

But Trivisonno isn’t a journalist. Heck, he’s barely a broadcaster. So it’s not exactly sporting to pick on such an easy target. But how, then, to explain it when similar symbiosis develops not only among members of the media and the people they cover but among media members themselves?

There are enough stories arising out of spring training on a daily basis that would normally render the odds of any two reporters having exactly the same feature on the same day infinitesimal, let alone three reporters. But among the media elite covering Cleveland, convenience, cooperation and camaraderie are the rule. There was a time when they would be the exception.

If you are one of the dwindling few who happen to read more than one local newspaper each day, you’ve likely noticed this phenomenon but either didn’t make the connection or just didn’t care. When reading the various feature stories punched out by each newspaper’s beat reporters, one is often left with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu all over again. But it’s not because the same reporter is writing the same story again and again. It’s because different reporters for different newspapers are writing the same stories, often at the same time, again and again.

Wednesday was the most recent but hardly the first or only example. The headline in the Plain Dealer for a story written by beat reporter Paul Hoynes was “C.C. Makes Pitch For Young Blacks.” Sheldon Ocker of the Akron Beacon Journal countered with “Baseball Losing Black Kids.” Andy Call of the Canton Repository checked in with “C.C. Wants to Do More to Boost Baseball in Inner Cities.” The gist of each story was exactly the same: C.C. lamenting that young blacks are gravitating toward basketball and football and not toward baseball.

Only a fool would think it merely a coincidence that three reporters, supposedly competing (if only via their papers’ internet sites) would happen upon the same story on exactly the same day. More likely, much more likely, is that sloth and laziness has replaced drive and initiative when covering what can often be a boring and mundane spring training. Maybe it was Hoynes this time that happened upon Sabathia and began chatting about the issue when Ocker happened on by. Call, seeing Hoynes and Ocker with Sabathia maybe thought something big was happening and listened in as well. Any other combination is just as likely as well. That’s the nature of how these things work and the fact that whoever had Sabathia’s ear first and let the others stay is shocking.

This is not to suggest that the underlying story is unimportant. Indeed, if you happen upon a little league game in nearly any suburban city (good luck finding a little league program in the inner city), the make-up of every team is overwhelmingly white. That may be a reflection of the lack of diversity within the suburbs, but it’s also a reflection of the fact that baseball does not hold the same appeal for young blacks as it does for young whites. But Sabathia’s observations were hardly news. They were merely the kinds of statements, as a reporter, you hope to elicit from your subject when putting together a feature story. It’s the kind of thing that hopefully sets your reporting apart from the competition.

It’s important to contrast this with the job each reporter has to cover each day’s game and the press conference thereafter and any other hard news story. When covering the same story, a certain sameness is inevitable. But those rules don’t apply to feature stories. These are the kinds of interesting sidelines that are supposed to give readers a deeper and more thorough understanding of what is going on and why. That’s what makes this such an odd and appalling development. It’s pretty clear that Hoynes and Ocker in particular don’t see themselves in competition for a story. If they did, then whoever got to Sabathia first would have made sure that no other reporter was around when Sabathia was talking.

It would be one thing if this was the first time this has happened. But it happens on a consistent basis and not just with feature stories. Hoynes and Ocker, for example, run nearly identical columns each Sunday that feature them giving snarky answers to the legitimate questions of readers. Clever. Cute. Derivative. You also see the same thing each week during Browns season, the same player seemingly being the subject of the same feature by different reporters for different newspapers on the same day.

There are probably a million or more reasons why newspapers are suffering, an observation noted here before. But one of the reasons on that list should not be reporter laziness. In some ways it seems that the Plain Dealer and the Beacon Journal go out of there way to alienate their readers and drive them to other sources for more information. Thankfully there are other resources.

This isn’t meant to sound like simple shilling for The Cleveland Fan web site, but far and away the best coverage to date of the Indians preseason has been by Tony Lastoria. In various features he has broken down the starting rotation, the bullpen, the infield and the outfield. On his own dime he went to Winter Haven and his two features since his arrival contain far more interesting information than both Hoynes and Ocker have provided, combined. Hoynes, Ocker and Call are supposedly professional journalists. Lastoria is a rabid fan who, right now, is eating their lunch. You have to wonder whether any of the editors at the various papers are even paying attention.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Star Chamber

The final bracket is barely revealed on the CBS NCAA tournament selection show each year when analysts and pundits of all stripes begin debating/complaining about who didn’t get in. To its minor credit, the NCAA sends the chairman of the selection committee; this year it was Gary Walters, to appear before the cameras to explain some of the more marginal selections. But in the end, the process remains so much a black box.

Depending on whose ox just got gored, the answer we’re given is that a particular team got left out because of its non-conference road record or because of its RPI score or because of its conference record or because its conference is weak or because of the cut of their gibe. In the end, the only thing certain is that there is a bias for teams that play in major conferences and a near universal lack of respect for teams that don’t.

On some level, maybe that’s fine. But if that’s the case, why not simply say so? No one ever claimed that the NCAA tournament featured the best 65 teams, mainly because of the automatic bids. And this isn’t to knock giving every conference an automatic bid. But almost half the field is made up of at-large bids and given the amount of money at stake for the participants one would think the selection process would be much more transparent.

In fact, when it comes to the NCAA virtually nothing it does is transparent, which makes little sense given the power it wields. Fans, coaches, players and even most administrators are left grasping for straws as to what is taking place and why. The irony, of course, is that the NCAA mandates transparency of its member schools by demanding the slavish adherence to a Byzantine set of rules that impact nearly ever aspect of a sports program’s existence. Yet, the NCAA refuses to be similarly bound, particularly when it comes to selecting teams for its annual March money grab. As a result, teams like Syracuse, Drexel, Air Force and even Akron this year are left searching for answers that will never come. By listening to interviews with Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Keith Dambrot, you just feel the frustration and no it isn’t coachspeak.

The guess is that the NCAA doesn’t want its selection process to be automated to the point where it loses its human touch, nor should it. But having a set of solid guidelines would hardly be the death knell. The problem though is that by reserving for itself ultimate flexibility in selecting the field, the NCAA leaves teams wondering from year to year exactly what it will take, outside of winning their conference tournament, to get into the NCAA tournament.

This isn’t a small concern. If teams knew how much their non-conference road record was weighted, both in terms of teams played and games won, more competitive non-conference games would be scheduled. Syracuse, for example, might avoid playing Canisius in favor or, say, playing Texas Tech, in order to enhance its status. And fans of nearly every program with NCAA tournament aspirations would benefit. But without any sort of real road map, coaches and athletic directors are left to their best guess work knowing that what might have worked this year may not work next year when the make-up of the selection committee changes.

One would have thought, for example, that given the success of George Mason last year, the selection committee would be kinder to the mid-majors this year. In fact, they were less kind, reserving only six at-large bids for the so-called mid-majors this year. This is akin to simply writing off dozens of programs out of the gate on the theory that they can’t be competitive with the majors anyway.

One solution being advocated this that the NCAA simply expand its field. Tennesse’s Bruce Pearl, for example, argues for an 80-team tournament. That is one way to solve the problem. Simply expand the field to the point where selection guidelines are irrelevant. But expanding the field also has the benefit of finally recognizing that the number of quality programs is significantly greater since the NCAA expanded the field to 64 teams over 20 years ago.

In the end, the NCAA basketball tournament is still the most consistently entertaining sports event of the year. There will always be a Cinderella team or two, a shocking upset or three and an elite team that gets hot at the right time. The national championship game rarely disappoints. So in that sense it would seem that whatever process the committee utilizes, it tends to get it right. But not everything should be judged simply on its bottom line. The process, too, is important.

But perhaps what makes all of this most amusing is that the NCAA’s basketball selection process makes the BCS system used in Division I football look positively progressive by comparison. Who would have ever thought that would be the case?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Clock

We can leave it to others to debate the bubble teams that ended up on the wrong side of the NCAA Basketball Tournament Selection Committee’s ledger. When you have a limited field tournament someone’s always going to get left out, which makes for a great debate. And wherever you come down on that debate, you still have to feel for the Akron Zips whose bitter loss Saturday night to the Miami Redhawks in the Mid American Conference tournament final in Cleveland left them sitting on the outside looking in for this year’s tournament.

In a way, the loss was quite fitting both because of where it occurred, Cleveland and because of who it happened to, a sports team in Northeast Ohio. Though the Zips enjoy good company in that regard, they can take precious little comfort in that.

Despite the relative success of the Mid American Conference over the years in the NCAA tournament, it is still viewed as a mid-major, meaning it gets little if any respect when it comes to awarding at-large bids. As a result, it gets the one automatic bid and then screams every year how one or two other deserving teams instead found themselves relegated to the NIT. In fact, the last time the MAC had two teams in the NCAA tournament was 1999 when, guess who, the Miami (then) Redskins and Wally Szczerbiak received an at-large bid after losing to Kent State in the finals.

The fact that it was highly unlikely that the MAC would get one of the 33 at-large bids only makes what happened Saturday one of more disappointing defeats you’re likely to ever see. The manner in which it occurred was stunning in its suddenness, like the bullet Leonardo DiCaprio took near the end of The Departed. With 30 seconds left and the score tied, Romeo Travis hit two free throws. The Zips, playing the kind of defense that served them well in this game and all season, forced a Redhawks miss. Junior Cedrick Middleton grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 6.6 seconds left. Middleton missed the front end of the one-and-one. Miami grabbed the rebound, the ball eventually ended up in Doug Penno’s hand and he banked in the most improbable three-point shot you’ll ever see just as the clock struck zero.

The celebration was momentarily short-circuited as the officials huddled with the television monitor to determine if the shot was made in time. After initially determining that the shot was timely made, Akron head coach Keith Dambrot, complained that the clock didn’t immediately start as it should have following the Middleton miss. According to various reports, the clock stood still for about 1.5 seconds while the Redhawks grabbed the rebound and dribbled their way toward the improbable shot and victory. Though the officials determined that Dambrot was correct and that the clock was not properly started, what the officials next did seems logical on the surface but actually makes little sense and cost the Zips the bid to the tournament. According to an official after the game, they timed and retimed the last play from the point where the rebound of the Middleton miss until Penno’s shot went through the hoop and concluded that this took six seconds. Given that there was 6.6 seconds when Middleton lined up for his free throws, the officials felt, apparently, that had the clock properly started there would have been .6 of a second left in the game. They then cleared and the Zips given one last gasp. The long inbound pass traveled out of bounds and the Zips were left to taste defeat for the second time in 10 minutes.

But if you stop to consider what the officials should have done instead of what they did, the error of the officials becomes that much more egregious. Instead of determining how long the play took, the officials should have determined how long the clock actually stood idle when it should have been moving. As noted, various reports put it at 1.5 seconds. If that is true, then Penno’s shot was untimely because, according to the replay, the ball left Penno’s hand with about 1.3 seconds left. In other words, Penno’s shot was likely untimely by, perhaps, .2 of second. That also clearly means that the entire play took longer than 6 seconds, irrespective of what the officials claimed afterward. Thus the Penno shot should not have counted and the Zips should have been declared the winners.

Of course, there has been any amount of games the outcome of which is the result of officiating errors. Fans will quickly recall, for example, Oklahoma’s loss to Oregon in football last season when the officials blew an onside kick call on the field and the replay official failed to overturn the indisputably wrong call. That mistake gave the ball back to Oregon which went on to score the winning touchdown. And while this may seem like so much sour grapes, the overarching point is that given what was at stake, the officials couldn’t afford to make a mistake when it mattered most. Even more disappointing is that under the rules, the officials get the benefit of replay and still didn’t get it right. These two teams were literally playing for their tournament lives and the officials blew it to the grand disappointment of another Northeast Ohio team.

The likelihood is that in the grand scheme what happened to Akron on Saturday night will matter little as neither Akron nor Miami were likely to advance very far in the tournament anyway. But the deserved victory would have matter greatly to the Akron players who worked so hard for the result and to the resurgent Akron program under Dambrot. And because the NIT has a smaller field and new selection procedures, Toledo, improbably, gets the bid despite not even making it to the tournament finals and Akron is left out in the cold there as well. Again, this may not mean much to most because it’s unlikely that the Zips would have advanced very far in that tournament either. But they do miss the chance to extend their season a bit longer and get a head start on next season.

So the Zips season ends, unfortunately, with the kind of disappointment that Northeast Ohio sports fans no too well. The only consolation prize for now is that they’ll have to be satisfied knowing that their loss is worthy of its own nickname—theClock--and now enjoys a permanent place next to Red Right ’88, the Shot, the Drive and the Fumble in the Northeast Ohio sports hall of horrors.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Weighty Matter

It’s well understood that professional athletes live in a bubble where little is their fault and there’s always an external factor to blame for something that goes wrong. Who hasn’t seen the pro golfer miss a critical putt only to then immediately tap down an imaginary spike mark? So, too, it is with C.C. Sabathia who is busy tapping down the imaginary spike marks that are to blame for the tender oblique muscle.

Monday’s story by Paul Hoynes in the Plain Dealer about Sabathia was a fascinating journey into the mind of today’s professional athlete. Sabathia touched on a number of subjects, not the least of which was the potential derivation of the oblique muscle he pulled each of the last two seasons that cost him several starts. According to C.C., his pulled muscle may well be due to the game of golf, which he took up five years ago.

As Sabathia related it: "It just wasn't working, me going out and shooting in the 90s and being on the [disabled list] in April," said Sabathia. "I want to stay healthy this year. I go down to the weight room every day and work on my core." Indeed, it must be the golf.

Sabathia has been a good pitcher for the Indians and if past performance is indicative of future results, the Indians can ill afford to let him get away. Except for his rookie year when he won 17 games, his won/loss record has been disappointing and frustrating. But by most other measures, including innings pitched, hits, strikeouts, ERA, he’s clearly established himself as one of the better pitchers in the American League if not all of baseball. Last year, for example, he had a 3.22 ERA and led the American League with six complete games. Given his talent, you have to think the won/loss record will improve, particularly if the bullpen improves.

But as Sabathia acknowledged, his health is critical to the success of the team. It may be a bit of an overstatement on his part when he suggested to Hoynes that his stint on the disabled list for the first few weeks of last season was a key to the Indians descent. At least as responsible was the poor defensive play on the left side of the field and an inflammatory bullpen. But certainly Sabathia’s early-season injury didn’t help.

Thus, given how critical Sabathia is to the overall success of this team, one wonders why he continues to look for the goblins in his golf game as the reason for the muscle pull instead of facing the hard truth that he is woefully out of shape and grossly overweight. Equally puzzling is why Indians management continues to coddle him by publicly aiding in the deception by suggesting that C.C. is simply big boned.

The guess here is that Rosie O’Donnell thinks she’s just big boned, too. But she’s also, as David Letterman said of former pitcher Terry Forster, a fat tub of goo and so, too, is Sabathia. There is a long and grand history of out of shape pitchers, not the least of which was the aforementioned Forster. Others such as Aurelio Lopez, aka Señor Smoke, Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain come to mind as well. But even at their heaviest, all looked positively Kate Moss compared to Sabathia. If you saw any of the highlights of Sabathia’s first pre-season start on Sunday, it’s pretty obvious that C.C. still has much more work to go on his core.

According to Baseball Almanac, the heaviest player ever in the major leagues was Walter Young, who weighed in at 315 pounds when he played briefly for Baltimore in 2005. But that dubious statistic is likely based on the weight as reported by the club. Cecil Fielder was officially only 240 pounds when he played, too, but it’s hard to believe that he was lighter, let alone 20 pounds lighter, than his son, Prince Fielder who is currently listed at 260 pounds. It’s not beyond the pale that there’s some fudging going on. Officially, the Indians list Sabathia a 6’7” and 290 pounds. We’ll buy the 6’7” part but Sabathia hasn’t seen 290 pounds since his rookie year. Maybe television adds 10 or so pounds, but it would be hard to believe that right now Sabathia is less than 325 pounds.

The truth, of course, is that this really isn’t a joking matter for any number of health-related reasons. Right now, Sabathia is 26 years of age and probably doesn’t give this issue that much thought. But if left unchecked, it will soon take its toll on him physically and well beyond a pulled oblique. At that weight, Sabathia is headed for battles with high blood pressure and diabetes, either of which could shorten his other promising career. Even more likely is a knee injury. As a power pitcher, Sabathia relies so much on his legs to drive through his pitches. But the weight Sabathia carries puts a great deal of strain on both knees and it would hardly be a surprise if that’s the next body part to give way. The only way to reduce the strain on the knees is to lose weight, something Sabathia has been reluctant to embrace.

Right now Indians management seems to be ignoring the issue. But as Sabathia inches closer to becoming a free agent, his weight will take on greater importance, at least to those being asked to open their wallets. If Sabathia doesn’t commit now to conditioning, he will make it tough on the Indians or anyone else to want to invest $15-20 million a year for five to seven years, which is the kind of dollars his record to this point would otherwise command.

Sabathia can continue to blame it on golf, but that hasn’t seemed to slow the careers of guys like John Smoltz or Roger Clemens, both extremely avid golfers. Sooner or later the truth can’t be avoided but for Indians fans sake here’s hoping that this isn’t the year.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Sleeping with the Enemy

We live in the age of the apology, no doubt.

Rarely does it seem like a day goes by when an athlete doesn’t step into it up to his ankles. Tim Hardaway is the most recent but hardly the only example. But it’s not Hardaway’s recent meltdown that got the juices flowing on this subject. It was the news item that the Browns are considering potentially signing recently released Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Joey Porter.

According to Mary Kay Cabot’s item buried deep in the bowels of the Plain Dealer’s Friday sports section, head coach Romeo Crennel indicated that the Browns might very well be interested in bringing Porter to the Browns. Crennel made the comments to Cabot before an autograph session at the Greater Cleveland Auto Show. Cabot probably didn’t need to rush and hunt down Crennel before the session as there likely was plenty of downtime during the session as well.

It’s not surprising that the PD completely misplayed this story. After all, your average high school newspaper editor usually exercises better news judgment. But enough is enough when it comes to the PD. This is a story worthy of 60 point type across the front page: Browns Considering Porter, Get Your Tickets Now!!!

As a player, Porter has talent that would be useful on this defense. But that is so much beside the point. The possibility of the Browns having both Porter and Kellen Winslow, Jr. on their roster at the same time is so compelling, many fans would likely pay just to watch the practices.

As Browns fans no doubt recall, Porter very publicly called out, or outed, in Porter’s view, Winslow last December following another Pittsburgh beat down of Cleveland. It was late in the December 7th game at Heinz Field and Derek Anderson had just completed a short pass to Reuben Droughns. Well after the whistle blew, Winslow blindsided linebacker James Farrior and drew a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness. The hit was ridiculous by any measure of player etiquette and was particularly ridiculous in the context of this completely meaningless game. It was just another bad decision by a player whose career thus far has been defined by bad decisions.

Ultimately, that drive resulted in a Browns touchdown (their only touchdown of the game) but the hit incurred the wrath of nearly every Steeler, none more so than Porter. After the game Porter didn’t mince words, saying “It was late, that’s what fags do. He’s [Winslow] soft. He wants to be tough but he’s really soft.”

Winslow was fined $5,000 for the late hit but Porter was fined twice that for his comments. League spokesman Steve Alic claimed the fine was the result of Porter’s “vulgar, inexcusable statements” to Winslow, presumably the reference to Winslow as a “fag” rather than “soft.” But of course the statements weren’t made to Winslow they were made to the media. What Alic’s statement left unanswered was whether the league would have levied the fine if, for example, Porter had simply referred to the hit as something a “homosexual” would have done. Presumably the more politically correct reference wouldn’t have been deemed vulgar. On the other hand it would have played into the stereotype that all homosexuals are soft so it might still have invoked the wrath of the league.

But whatever the actual reason for the fine, at least as amusing was watching high-minded sportswriters and commentators getting all twisted up in their shorts the same way they did when Ozzie Guillen essentially directed the same remark toward Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times after Mariotti was critical of various coaching moves made by Guillen. That’s the real arc of these things. Something stupid is said. The offender apologizes. Commentators pile on as if they can’t believe anyone would use such terms, even though many of those same writers probably use such and similar terms regularly in casual conversation.

But back to Porter. Even more amusing than all of that was the fact that Porter hardly backed away. Sure, he issued the obligatory apology, saying “I would just like to say it was a poor choice of words in the comment I made toward Winslow. If I offended anybody, I apologize for that." But when he got beyond the public relations speak, he added, "Like I said, I apologize to anybody I offended on it. I didn't mean to offend nobody but Kellen Winslow. Pretty much, that's it about that."

If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s really the apology Guillen gave to ESPN: “…"I shouldn't have mentioned the name that was mentioned, but I'm not going to back off of Jay.” In other words, both wanted everyone to know that they didn’t mean to offend generally only specifically.

But back to Porter. Though he was sorry for the way the comment came out, he at least explained where it came from. Buried in the apology was this nugget: "I guess how we used that word freely, me growing up using it, I didn't think nothing of it like that," Porter said. If this sounds familiar it should. It’s essentially the tact that Tim Hardaway used during his third apology for telling the world that he “hates” gay people. Hardaway said: “I am sorry for saying I hate gay people… When I was growing up and now, we say we hate broccoli, we say we hate potato chips, we hate. It’s just a form of how we talk….” To that, Browns fans could add “we hate the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

Maybe this is a form of how we all talk and how we all apologize. But if Porter does join the Browns, the apology story is likely to get a real workout. Porter’s comments to Winslow were hardly his first outburst. And that’s the baggage he carries. Given this can the Browns, even with a huge talent deficit, afford to sign Porter? True, having him on the roster will make for a very interesting training table if not locker room. And true, it is unlikely Porter will ever feel comfortable turning his back on Winslow in the shower stall. But given the relationship between Porter and Winslow and the entertainment value that their pairing would likely provide to an entertainment-starved fan base, the real question here is: Can the Browns afford not to sign Porter?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Legacy of Marvin Miller

The Veterans Committee failed, again, this year to elect anyone to the Baseball Hall of Fame. This may be of some interest to Ron Santo or Gil Hodges fans but for most the news invokes nothing more than a shrug.

But Hal Bodley, in Tuesday’s USA Today, upped the stakes by suggesting that if Marvin Miller, the long time head of the players union, didn’t get voted in by the Veterans Committee there should be an investigation. Bodley’s point was that as the architect of what has become the most powerful union in professional sports, Miller’s influence on the game is profound. But according to the Veterans Committee’s rules, to be eligible a person such as Miller’s “overall contribution” to the game must be considered. Thus, while it’s hard to disagree with Bodley that Miller’s impact on the game was profound, whether that influence contributed to the overall good of the game is highly debatable.

It’s probably not necessary to talk about the history of unionism generally or it’s relationship to professional sports. Suffice it to say that when it comes to baseball, the owners got what they deserved when the players union gained much of its momentum under Marvin Miller. (For a good discussion on the history of the Major League Baseball Players Association, see here) The major sticking point when Miller arrived in 1965 was the reserve clause which, in operation, bound a player to his club until the club, in its sole discretion, released the player. Thus, for example, if a player had a two-year contract, at its conclusion his only choice was to negotiate a new deal with his current club or quit. Only if released by his club was a player free to play for another. He wasn’t otherwise free to sign elsewhere. Clearly the presence of this clause, standard in all player contracts, gave all the economic leverage to the clubs forcing the players into a take-it-or-leave-it situation. In the days of the reserve clause and even in the several years thereafter, it was not unusual for a player to get a pay cut if he had a poor year. He had no choice. These days, of course, the only thing a poor year gets is a smaller raise.

Miller’s major achievement with respect to the reserve clause was to get it reversed through binding arbitration. To understand how that happened and to fully appreciate its impact, recall that the most famous challenge to the reserve clause was by St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood, who sued the owners for allegedly violating antitrust laws. (An excellent four-part series on the entire Curt Flood matter can be found by searching the main archives on Federal antitrust laws apply only to businesses engaged in interstate commerce or businesses affecting interstate commerce. In most cases a business will likely fall into one or the other categories and thus be subject to federal law. Flood argued that baseball was a business in interstate commerce and that the clubs, as separate entities engaged collectively in interstate commerce, used the reserve clause as a means of stifling competition for player services. Typically, it is illegal for such businesses to conspire in that fashion and if found guilty they are liable for treble damages or three times the actual damage caused.

The battle Flood faced, however, was that at the time professional baseball was deemed to be exempt from antitrust laws through a series of Supreme Court decisions dating back to 1922. In essence, the Supreme Court had ruled in those days that baseball games were exhibitions and any impact on interstate commerce was incidental. This may have been technically true in 1922 but had long since ceased to be the case by the time of the Flood case in 1970. However, considering the Supreme Court precedent, the trial court in the Flood case was reluctant to rule to the contrary and thus upheld the antitrust exemption and dismissed the case. Eventually the case made its way to the Supreme Court which, oddly, upheld its prior decisions based on the traditions of the game. Of course this ruling was in spite of the major changes in the game since 1922, in spite of the fact that no other professional sport enjoyed a similar exemption, and, most importantly, in spite of the fact that baseball clearly was involved in interstate commerce. Consider, for example, how many different states each major league team must travel to in order to play away games. In fact, for nearly every major league team, every away game is in a different state. In spite of having virtually every legal reason to rule in Flood’s favor, the Supreme Court felt that it was up to Congress to change baseball’s antitrust exemption, not the courts. This anomalous result continues to this day.

Although Miller and the players’ union backed the Flood lawsuit and lost, the battle was hardly over. One of Miller’s first tasks when he took over was to negotiate into the collective bargaining agreement a binding grievance arbitration process, something common in most collective bargaining agreements. This allowed players to take contractual disputes to a neutral arbitrator. Two players, under Miller’s guidance, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, challenged the reserve clause as a violation of the collective bargaining agreement. This allowed the dispute to go to an arbitrator and in 1975, Peter Seitz ruled that the reserve clause only bound the player to his club for one additional year and not in perpetuity. This essentially put an end to the reserve clause and opened the gate for what would eventually become free agency.

The reserve clause was an antiquated concept that couldn’t stand and probably existed far too long. Free agency, properly implemented, is basically good for the game, the players and the fans, although not in equal measures. Still, it’s hard to find fault in Miller for working so hard to make this a reality. But the advent of free agency, in some fashion, likely would have happened even without Miller as Congress has often rattled the saber of eliminating the antitrust exemption as a way of getting baseball owners to do what they want, including toughen drug testing policies. But even if free agency never would have happened without Miller, it hardly seems like a sufficient reason in and of itself to enshrine him in the Hall of Fame unless you’re going to also enshrine the arbitrator who had the courage to render the actual decision.

The main sticking point on Miller though is the rest of his influence on the game, which hasn’t been nearly as good for the fans. Under his watch and that of his hand-picked successor, Donald Fehr, there have been five strikes by the players. The first strike, in 1972, resulted in the loss of 86 games. Its conclusion brought about salary arbitration, a system the fans are still paying for today.

The 1981 strike cost a whopping 713 games and a split season. Cleveland fans will recall that the season resumed on August 10 with the All Star game played in Cleveland. More importantly, it was this strike that really opened the breach between the players and their fans that free agency only exacerbates to this day. It really was the beginning of the haves vs. have nots system that still exists and is responsible, in large part, for the lack of true competitive and economic balance in the league, robbing the fans the full benefit that baseball could offer. Not surprisingly, following the strike attendance and television ratings dropped drastically.

The last major strike began in August, 1994 and resulted in the loss of the rest of that season, including the post season. In all, 938 games were lost. When the strike was settled just prior to the beginning of the 1995 season, a rough form of a salary cap and revenue sharing was in place. But for fans, if the bloom wasn’t off the rose in 1981, it certainly was after what happened in 1994. Baseball may still have legions of fans but few if any don’t completely understand that it is a business and that they are now considered the least important part of the equation.

It was also under Miller’s watch and more so under Fehr’s that performance enhancing drugs really began to shape the cynical way in which many modern day baseball records and, by proxy, the players who set them are viewed. Fehr, following the blueprint of his mentor, effectively squelched any effective drug testing program as an alleged violation of the players’ rights. Maybe so, but in the end it was the fans, again, who suffered for the loss of integrity in the sport.

This point here isn’t to criticize Miller for doing his job or to stake out some sort of anti-union stance. But never forget that Miller was a hired gun whose sole interest was in enhancing the status of his clients, the players. Miller never once tried to instill in them the importance of the fans to the health of the game and, as a result, the distance between the players and the fans, which began under Miller’s watch, has never been greater. For anyone who still doubts this premise consider the story just the other day in which Fehr, according to Gary Sheffield, basically told the players not to cooperate in former Senator George Mitchell’s probe into steroids. If the integrity of the game and the interests of the fans are truly critical then Fehr should be encouraging the players to ferret out the cheaters, not protect them.

Miller (and, by extension, Fehr) may have done right by his constituency, but he was hardly a guardian of the game for the greater good to anyone who considers fans to be critical. Put another way, if anyone can name one benefit any fan received out of any of the work stoppages propagated by Miller or how, in any sense, the fan’s interests have been served by the union’s refusal to seriously address drug issues it is then and only then when it will it be time for any serious consideration of Marvin Miller for the Hall of Fame.