Wednesday, May 30, 2007


With all of the attention Braylon Edwards gets as the Cleveland Browns team malcontent, just be glad of one thing: he’s not Michael Vick. The enigmatic, and that’s putting it charitably, quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons has been the kind of lightning rod for criticism and distraction that a wannabe like Edwards could only hope for.

Take a look at just the last year. In April, 2006, Vick had to settle a lawsuit filed by a woman who claimed that Vick allegedly gave her herpes. Remember this incident as we’ll come back to it in a moment. Moving forward to the football season, following a loss to the New Orleans Saints last November, which was the Falcons fourth straight loss, Vick gave the fans the one-finger salute.

Fans, in general, are a forgiving bunch. They’d root for Hitler if he was on their team and could rush for a thousand yards. But there is something about giving the fans the finger that they find hard to forget. That’s why the Falcons public relations department had to spring into action so quickly to write Vick’s apology, which appeared on their web site soon after the gesture. Said Vick Joe the public relations guy “First and foremost, I would like to apologize for my inappropriate actions with fans today. I was frustrated and upset at how the game was going for my team, and that frustration came out the wrong way. That’s not what I’m about. That’s not what the Atlanta Falcons are about. I simply lost my cool in the heat of the moment. I apologize and look forward to putting this incident behind me.”

The problem for Joe the public relations guy is that he violated the first rule of ghostwriting: know your speaker. And if Vick has proven anything since this incident, it’s that giving the finger to the fans is exactly what he is about and could care less about putting that incident or any other behind him.

Just a few short months later, in January, 2007, Vick came under police scrutiny when he tossed a suspicious “water” bottle away before boarding a plane at the Miami airport. Police, retrieving the bottle, said it smelled of marijuana and contained a hidden compartment that contained a “small amount of dark particulate.” Apparently, though, there was not enough of the “dark particulate” on which to draw any conclusions and eventually police declined to file any charges against Vick.

Still, it was unwarranted scrutiny for Vick and the Falcons, forcing the overworked p.r. staff to once again spring into action to explain why Vick found it necessary to carry such a curious container, particularly in an airport. This time, under the name of Vick’s attorney, a statement was issued that said, in part, “Michael intends to spend this offseason focusing on his family, working with his teammates and the new coaching staff to insure that the Falcons have a great season in 2007, and devoting time to his charitable interests.”

Indeed. Who knew that dog fighting was the charitable interests that Vick had in mind? In late April, police, conducting a drug investigation, raided a house in rural Virginia owned by Vick. Whether drugs were found isn’t know, but what they did find, according to ABC News were dozens of dogs, pit bulls mostly, a dog fighting pit, blood stained carpets and other dog fighting paraphernalia. According to a confidential source, Vick is one of the “big boys” of dog fighting and bets tens of thousands of dollars on individual fights.

Up until the investigation of Vick, no one heard much about dog fighting. On the list of societal ills, it probably doesn’t make the top 10 but as an extreme form of animal cruelty it is a felony nonetheless in every state but two. But clearly many see it as victimless and trivial and can’t see what all the fuss is about. At least that’s what Clinton Portis and Chris Samuels of the Washington Redskins essentially thought when they defended Vick and his “private” activities in an unguarded moment speaking to a reporter while the cameras were rolling. Both suggested that prosecuting Vick would be ridiculous and unfair. Of course, once the team and the NFL got hold of the quotes, Portis and Samuels, through the Redskins p.r. staff, quickly backtracked so as not to also implicate themselves in such activities.

Wherever one comes down on this issue, this much is certain: it’s not something that a team’s quarterback ought to be occupying his time with. It’s hard to imagine either Peyton Manning or Tom Brady having such a sordid hobby. The Falcons p.r. staff, clearly tired of dealing with Vick and the messes he creates, has almost stopped trying to defend him. In easily one of the most fascinating statements ever issued by any team anywhere, the Falcons said, in response to the ABC News report, “Michael was drafted by the Falcons in 2001. The allegations regarding him are still under investigation, and until we have facts related to the investigation, we are unable to respond further.”

No talk about pursuing any bogus off-season charitable endeavors. No happy talk about putting the allegations behind him. No assurance, actually, that they even expect Vick to be cleared of the charges. In that context, the curious statement about Vick’s draft status is all the more understandable. Given his history of making the team look ridiculous, the p.r. staff knew that is was the one statement that they knew would still be true a few weeks from now. The guess, though, is that it will ultimately prove to be the one true statement from which they’d most like to escape.

With all of these animal cruelty allegations hanging around, the lack of comment from Vick is probably understandable. But one thing is for sure, if you want him to talk just question his manhood.

In early April, a few weeks before the dog fighting allegations surfaced, a web site that purposely and clearly publishes fake news had a story suggesting that Vick is gay. It was clearly a spoof as the web site’s address,, would suggest. But the story circulated on the internet like only stories like this can, prompting Vick, just two days after the dog fighting allegations came to light, to call into an Atlanta radio station. Rather than address the more sordid issues, he used the forum to let the ladies know he’s still a player off the field as well. He told the shows hosts, “everybody who knows me, knows how I get down. It’s not even an issue.” The lawsuit he settled over allegedly infecting a woman with herpes should have been enough evidence of that. See? There is a circle of life.

Given Vick’s rather interesting off-season, it would hardly surprise if new Atlanta Falcons coach Bobby Petrino is re-thinking his decision to leave the relatively controversial-free Louisville Cardinals program. And to spurned Cardinals boosters, they’re probably relishing just a bit in the kind of trouble Petrino has seen since making his deal with the NFL devil. Still, it’s a tough situation to witness.

Which brings us back around to Braylon Edwards. His latest misstep, just days after he presented the “new” Braylon Edwards by donating a $1 million to a scholarship fund for inner-city students, was to be the only no-show on the first day of the team’s “voluntary” workout. Reports indicate that Edwards was in Ann Arbor attending a charity golf outing. Edwards, demonstrating the kind of backward leadership that makes sense only to him, refused to comment on the absence directly, leaving the coaching staff and the other players to repeatedly answer questions about his absence. With Edwards, he only talks when it suits him. In the rare moments his teammates actually need him to open his pie hole, Edwards usually disappears leaving them to dangle in the wind.

Edwards has been a marginally productive player in his two seasons with the Browns and is more noted for the many manifestations of his “me first” mentality, but for all the distractions he’s created in his short time here, the one thing Browns fans can be thankful of is that he’s not Michael Vick, at least not yet.

But that’s more a statement about the state of professional athletes these days. We’ve been reduced to parsing the severity of leadership lapses in order to keep perspective. When compared to someone like Vick or any number of the players on the Cincinnati Bengals, we may be grateful that Edwards is just a loud-mouth self-serving malcontent and not a societal miscreant with deeper demons. But in the end, what’s the difference? For teams trying to find their way out of abyss, any distraction is harmful. If Edwards is watching, this is really the lesson he needs

Monday, May 28, 2007

Youth Be Served

It’s been an interesting week or so for the 22-year olds among us. For many that age, which is to say four years removed from high school, they have already or will be soon graduating from college and looking for that first job. Parties will be thrown and toasts will be made as they begin their journey toward adulthood. No one expects much from them because, heck, they’re only 22.

Then there is LeBron James. To say he’s taken a slightly different path in his 22 years would be a slight understatement. Rather than toil in college, he went out and become an international superstar and icon, not simply a basketball player but a brand unto himself. But in the process, he raised the expectations of those around him to perhaps unrealistic heights, something no one typically expects of someone that age.

We smile and shake our heads knowingly when someone like Lindsay Lohan, barely younger than James, crashes and burns and ends up in rehab. If you don’t like your stars of the Hollywood variety, one can spend the day compiling a list of young sports stars that flamed out similarly. The fame, the money, the pressure, it’s hard to handle, especially at that age. But with James, it’s always been different. He not only has to handle the pressure and the fame and money but the barrel full, but he has to continuously exceed the increasingly unrealistic expectations of everyone around him or else be branded a failure.

It’s hard to say where James may end up in the pecking order of great players once his NBA days are done, but for anyone lucky enough to attend Game Three of the Eastern Conference Championship between the Cavaliers and the Detroit Pistons Sunday night, James provided his greatest service yet—he made even the casual among us care about pro basketball again. And whether he’s 22 or 32, matters little. What matters most is that he’s accomplished what seemed impossible and that’s something that can never be taken away.

And don’t think that James’ task is the result one big victory or because of any particular victory, actually. It’s really because James, in the way that he plays the game, has chosen to show anyone willing to invest a few hours of time that NBA basketball, played at the kind of level that only kids like James can play it at, brings the same indescribable thrills, the same giddy highs and the same depressing lows as any sport anywhere.

One of the most frustrating things to basketball fans is the great disparity between the regular NBA season and the playoffs. The intensity, such a key component of the playoffs, is hardly visible during the regular season. Football, with only 16 games, doesn’t have that luxury. Baseball, which seemingly floats along for months, has always had a different rhythm and, frankly, with its pace and its imperfect nature, it’s difficult to detect how hard a player is playing anyway. But NBA basketball, with its constant motion and fans sitting just feet away from the game, is a much easier read. That’s why it’s always been criticized for the seemingly causal attitude of the players during the regular season as compared to the different gear most are able to find once the playoffs hit.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that eight teams in each conference make the NBA playoffs. But with the resurrection of the Cavs under James, Cleveland fans are quickly relearning the real ways of the NBA. For example, what’s most apparent is that the players and coaches, the smart ones anyway, use the regular season as a means to an end--seeding for the playoffs. The Pistons, now playing in their fifth Eastern Conference finals, knew they didn’t need to win 60+ games this year to be considered great; they only needed to win 51 in order to get the top seed. Based on the make-up of that team, it’s apparent they chose to win 53. The extra energy necessary to win 10 more games in order to be compared with Dallas hardly seemed worth it in that context. It’s why Detroit has been one of the top teams in the league for years.

Dallas, which seemed on the precipice of greatness this year, regressed. Perhaps driven by the desires of its owner to be that showcase team, the Mavericks compiled a gaudy 67-15 record regular season record but found itself taking an early exit from the playoffs to a clearly inferior team, victims of an overconfidence borne by its regular season prowess. The same is true with Phoenix. Like Dallas, it ran hard during the regular season, winning 61 games, but was spent by the second round of the playoffs. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the final four teams all had victory totals in the 50s, but it seems unlikely.

It would be too much to suggest that James at his age has gotten the Cavs to the point where they can play to a seed, but it seems like they are on that road nonetheless. One gets the feeling, though, that if the Cavs really had been a threat to take the number one seed from Detroit, the Pistons would have simply won an extra game or two to hold their position.

But even if the Cavs don’t survive this particular series, there is no question that there is a transition taking place in the Eastern Conference and even if you don’t recognize it, there’s no question that the Pistons do. Right now, the Cavs are extracting a heavy price on Detroit again, just as they did last year in the playoffs. Should the Pistons prevail in this series, they aren’t likely to have much left in the tank against the Spurs, who look to prevail against a Utah team that is looking more and more like the Cleveland of the West.

Detroit, for all its experience, is starting to look its age. The average age of the Pistons starting five is almost 31 years of age. The average age for the Cavs starters, on the other hand, is 26. If that doesn’t seem like much, just consider that the average Pistons starter has played well over 400 games more than the average Cavs starter. That’s a lot of running up and down the court and bumping and shoving in the lane. Experience has its place, particularly in the playoffs, but there comes a time where experience is just a euphemism for age, particularly old age and that time may just be creeping up on the Pistons. And, like it or not, those bumps and bruises that healed so quickly at 22 linger much longer at 32. Detroit Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace now takes extended breathers during games. When he wasn’t in the game, forward Chris Webber sat on the bench with an ice pack strapped to his back. Tayshaun Prince, the relative youngster of the bunch, spent a fair amount of time with an ice pack on his leg.

Whether or not the Pistons can muster that last bit of energy to put themselves in the NBA finals, one can almost sense that they know their window is closing and it is James and his teammates who have their fingers on the sill. There was a point in Sunday night’s game where Wallace looked simply exhausted. The James dunk directly over Wallace earlier in the quarter was the precursor, but with 2:33 left in the fourth and the Cavs nursing an 81-76 lead, James had the ball in his hands on the left perimeter. As Wallace stepped out to throw an outstretched hand in his face, James sank a beautiful three-pointer sending the crowd into its 20th frenzy of the night and forcing the Pistons to call time. As Wallace walked toward the bench, he could hardly believe what had just taken place. Shaking his head in disbelief and headed for a quick rest, it was apparent nonetheless that Wallace knew the game was over. There was simply no way that his aging body could match-up to James this late in the game.

There has been much written about James this past week, a lot of which has been negative. Loudmouth commentators, paid to be provocative, called James out for passing to a wide-open Donyell Marshall. Those same commentators complain that James hasn’t taken the team on his back, whatever that means. The James supporters on the other hand have taken to trying to quell the uprising by reminding everyone of James’ tender age. Both sides have their points, but in the end its James’ age that may be the best thing going for him and his Cavaliers team. There is enough experience under the belt that he and his teammates are no longer in awe by the intensity of the playoffs. But there also is enough youth and naiveté that they can push themselves to enter new realms.

If winning a NBA championship process, there is no question that the Cavs are on the right path. They may not be able to get over the hump and into the finals this year, but they are a team, if not the team, on the come. And if that’s too much to ask of a 22-year old, just remember this: next year James will be 23.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Pass

If the Cavaliers are unable to get past the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, Cleveland sports fans add a new phrase to their lexicon, “the pass” as in the pass from LeBron James to a wide-open Donyell Marshall at the end of Game One Monday night. Until Thursday rolls around and Game Two is underway, “the pass” is likely to take on a life of its own, the length of which will greatly depend on the level of disappointment that results from this series.

To recap, as if that was even necessary, the Cavs were down by two with 12 seconds left. James had the ball in his hands and was driving toward the hoop. As the Pistons defense collapsed around him, Marshall was left all alone in the corner with seemingly enough time to order dinner and do a Sudoku puzzle. Rather than put the ball to the hoop against, among others, Rasheed Wallace, who already had about 48 blocks in the game, James instead passed the ball to Marshall. It was one of those moments. Detroit players and fans were holding their breath. The ball was moving in slow motion. As it clanged against the back of the rim and careened from the hoop and the outstretched arms of Sasha Pavlovic, Detroit players and fans could breathe again. Game One was in the books.

The debate on the message boards and talk radio, locally and nationally, are almost singularly focused on that final pass. The position that is now building momentum is that James is, in essence, a coward and not worthy of superstar status. The thinking goes that neither Michael Jordan nor Kobe Bryant would have made that pass and that someone who wants to be known as the King or the Chosen One can only earn those nicknames by taking the shot and finishing the game. It’s how legends are made.

Let’s dispense with the most obvious points first. For the third straight playoff game, the Cavs disappeared in the third quarter. Whatever Head Coach Mike Brown is telling the troops at halftime isn’t working. The team lacks intensity and a game that was in their control was just as suddenly out of their control. There is also the little thing, again, of poor shooting, particularly at the foul line. The Cavs were 11-17, which put them in a huge hole considering the closeness of the game.

But even when these points are disregarded, the rhetoric doesn’t quite hold together. Despite their reputations, Jordan and to a lesser extent Bryant did work hard to get their teammates involved in the game, both during the regular season and in the playoffs. For his career, Bryant averages 4.5 assists per game for the regular season as well as the playoffs. Jordan averaged 5.7 assists during the regular season and 5.7 during the playoffs. Just on that, alone, there is no way to know what either would have done under the same circumstances although one suspects that if the Pistons had left, say, Steve Kerr that open under the same circumstances, the ball would have found its way to him.

In the case of James, he’s always been a different type of player than either of those two anyway. Since high school, he’s had the reputation of someone who is just as content to pass up in favor of a teammate with a better shot as to take the shot himself. That has continued in the pros, which is apparent from the simple fact that he has averaged 6.4 assists per game during the regular season and 8.2 assists per game during the playoffs. But his playoff assists average is hardly the astounding figure it appears to be. While any number of his teammates has stepped up during various playoff games, no one has done it consistently. That has resulted in opposing teams designing a game plan around letting anyone but James beat them. That puts the pressure on those teammates, and, by extension, General Manager Danny Ferry, to make sure that they are the kind of players who can and will make that shot. That just isn’t the case. Not yet, anyway. James hasn’t even had the benefit of a wingman like Steve Kerr, let alone players the caliber of Scottie Pippen or Shaquille O’Neal.

On the surface, that might seem to argue in favor of James taking that shot, but the truth is it underscores why it will always be difficult for James to take that shot. The less players there are to scare the other team, the more players that team can put on James, particularly at crunch time. And until those players step up and assume their roles on a consistent basis, there simply is no reason for opposing teams to do anything different then what they currently are doing to stop the Cavs.

Second, conveniently forgotten in this mix is the fact that James did virtually the same thing last year in the deciding playoff game against the Washington Wizards. With 14 seconds left and the Cavs down by one, Larry Hughes inbounded the pass to James who immediately and expectedly drew the double team. With the clock winding down, James found a wide open (sound familiar?) Damon Jones who hit the jumper with just four seconds left, sending the Cavs to the conference semifinals.

The difference? Jones hit the shot that Marshall didn’t. There was little if any complaining then by anyone that James was a coward or was afraid to take a shot with the game and the series on the line. The recollection is that James proved, once again, to be the consummate team player by finding an open man instead of forcing up a final shot.

But consider the fan reactions that might have been under either of two alternative scenarios. If James takes the shot and misses, fans would have been subjected to countless replays on ESPN and its various iterations, all of which would have drawn a huge circle around the wide-open Marshall, the same guy that scorched the New Jersey Nets the other night from the three-point line. If Marshall had hit the shot, fans would be falling all over themselves to compliment James for once again making the right decision and having enough courage to pass to Marshall with the game on the line.

In other words, it matters little how it all actually played out, except for the fact that, ultimately, the Cavs find themselves down one game against a very good and very experienced Detroit Pistons team.

There is recognition that underlying many of the comments today about James and “the pass” is the frustration of fans that a Cleveland team once again came up short. But misdirecting that frustration and the one person who single handedly rescued this franchise from the scrap heap is not the answer. It starts and ends, ultimately, with the recognition that playoffs are generally won by the better team. The Cavs, for all their accomplishments thus far, are still a very flawed team and until Ferry can find a way to eliminate more of those flaws, the deeper rungs of the playoffs will continue to be a struggle.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Is It That Simple?

If nothing else, you have to give Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro credit for one thing, he certainly knows his team. Going into the season, Shapiro told anyone who would listen that as shortstop Jhonny Peralta goes, so goes the team. Nearly one-quarter into the season, Shapiro couldn’t possibly be more dead-on.

It hardly seems a coincidence that Sunday, Peralta hit his 10th home run of the season and the Indians won their 10th series of the season. In each case, both Peralta and the Indians are months ahead of where they were last season. Peralta didn’t hit his 10th home run until the 88th game last year while the Indians didn’t win their 10th season until mid-August. Can it really be that simple?

Perhaps it is that simple, but if you scratch below the surface, the resurgence of Peralta may be the most visible sign of the turnaround but it is hardly the only reason or even the most critical.

Start with Paul Byrd. Last season, his first with the Tribe, Byrd was the sort of fringe free agent whose signing hardly raised an eyebrow among the fans. Perhaps it was due to circumstances beyond his control. Remember, the Indians had diverted most everyone’s attention by pursuing higher visibility free agents to anchor the back of the bullpen while alienating the reliable but scary closer, Bob Wickman, leaving him to hang in the balance. In the meantime, the Indians couldn’t quite find enough room in the budget for Bob Howry, a key set-up man, showed virtually no interest in re-signing Kevin Millwood after he stabilized the starting rotation the year before, and let Scott Elarton, an iffy fourth or fifth starter, at best, to leave for the pastures of Kansas City. This allowed Byrd to fly a bit under the radar.

But not completely. Tribe fans were told that Byrd was the kind of player, like Millwood, whose steady presence, if lesser pedigree, would too bring stability to a young starting staff. In particular, Byrd was a control pitcher who kept his teams in the game by consistently throwing strikes. But things didn’t quite work out that way for either Byrd or the team. Byrd was up and down from opening day on. Had he not been the recipient of great offensive support, his record would have been far worse than the mediocre 10-9 it was. Byrd was hit hard and often, particularly early in the season. His vaunted control simply wasn’t there.

But as the season wore on, Byrd slowly got better, just not decidedly so. His ERA, which started off in the 10+ range ended at 4.88. Still even with this improvement this was second highest ERA in his career, the highest he had in his last 10 years, and by almost a full run! Peralta, as an everyday player, may have been a more visible target of fan wrath last season but Byrd was no less ineffective.

This year, Byrd has completely turned it around and is the pitcher Shapiro originally envisioned. After Sunday’s win, in which Byrd went eight innings, he is now 4-1. His ERA is 3.55 and he has pitched at least six innings in every start. His control has been phenomenal. He has walked only three batters all season and two of those came in his first official start against Chicago on April 14, a game the Indians won 4-0. In his two no-decisions, he’s given up only three earned runs. Peralta, as an everyday player, may be a more visible reason for the resurgence of the Indians this year, but Byrd has been no less effective.

Next is Casey Blake. At times this season, Blake has reminded fans of Aaron Boone last year, which isn’t a good thing. Early in the season, Blake simply wasn’t hitting. On April 10, following the fourth game of the year, his average was .312. Eleven days later, he was hitting .188. By May 2nd, his average had climbed to .202. But since then, he’s been on a virtual tear (for him). Following yesterday’s game he’s hitting .255, which is essentially equal to his career total of .260.

Though Blake will never be much of an offensive force for the club, what is interesting is that he is hitting .282 batting in the second slot in the order this year. He’s also hitting .267 since being reinserted as the regular third baseman. In the field, Blake’s defense at third base has been terrific, particularly for a defensively-challenged team. Marte, in 13 games, had committed 4 errors. Blake has appeared at third base in more than twice as many games—32--this year and only has four errors. His fielding average is .945, a significant improvement over Marte’s .857. These statistics are the reason the Indians waited until the last possible minute to bring Marte back from his rehabilitation assignment. Simply, Blake, for all his shortcomings, has stabilized the lineup thus far in a way that Marte, whose upside far exceeds Blake, couldn’t.

Next up is Fausto Carmona. His pitching thus far has been the biggest, most pleasant surprise for Indians fans in years, particularly after the way he imploded in such a spectacular fashion last year when he was used in the closer role following the trade of Wickman. This truly is where luck comes in and is why, for all the statistics Shapiro and his staff may want to crunch, success is so difficult to predict. If not for the early season injury to Cliff Lee, followed closely by the eerily similar injury to Jake Westbrook, Carmona would be toiling at Triple A. But since losing his first start on April 13, in which he didn’t make it out of the fifth inning of a game against the White Sox, Carmona has given up only eight earned runs in six starts, culminating in last week’s brilliant shutout of the Twins. When Westbrook returns, the guess is that Jeremy Sowers, who has been ineffective all season, will find his way back to Buffalo while Carmona finds himself pitching in the All Star game.

And if Carmona doesn’t find his way to the All Star game, C.C. Sabathia certainly will. He’s already 6-1 and has pitched at least six innings in every start. His ERA is 3.65. Though he has two no-decisions, the Indians ultimately prevailed in both of those games, meaning that the Tribe has won eight of the nine games he’s pitched. By almost any pitching measure, Sabathia is among the elite in the league this year. When it’s Sabathia’s turn in the rotation, opposing teams go into the game knowing that they are at a disadvantage. In fact, the only thing Sabathia has yet to solve is how to pitch in Oakland, which isn’t much of a problem given the unbalanced major league schedule, unless the Indians face Oakland in the playoffs. But most importantly, this season, more so than in any other, Sabathia has stepped up his performance and established a presence on the mound that the Indians simply haven’t had in years.

Finally, there is the bullpen which, along with defense, was last season’s Achilles’ heel. Last year, the Indians scored almost 90 more runs than they surrendered. Using the Pythagorean Won/Loss statistic as developed by Bill James and published on, that should have yielded a recorded of 89-73. As we know, the Tribe instead finished at 78-84 and it wasn’t because of the starting pitching, either. But this season the bullpen has made a remarkable turnaround, although the exploits of Fernando Cabrera of late are a source of some concern. Closer Joe Borowski has performed as good as Shapiro hoped and better than most fans have expected. He has 13 saves in 15 opportunities, even if his few meltdowns have been particularly ugly.

But the closer role wasn’t really the problem when it mattered last year as much as it was middle relief. Recall that early in the season the Wickman simply didn’t see many save opportunities. And when he left, well, the season was effectively over anyway and whatever save opportunities came the Indians way were an adventure, to say the least. But one of the more telling statistics about the relief pitching last year is that its earned run average was .4 more than the starting pitching, which isn’t where you want your relief pitching to be. This year, the bullpen’s ERA is now .4 of a run less, which is nearly a run per game difference over the course of a season. That may not seem like much until you consider two things. First, the Indians starting pitching is even better than last year and second, last season the Indians were 18-26 in one-run games while this season they are 8-4.

The remarkable thing about baseball though is that for all the sum of its parts that it really is, sometimes it really is as simple as one player. Maybe Jhonny Peralta is the bellweather for this franchise for this season as Shapiro suggests. Maybe. But the suspicion is that Shapiro knows better, which is why so much time was spent in the off season reconstructing the bullpen. But however Shapiro wants to sell it, the truth is that for Indians fans, they can take at least take decent comfort in knowing that should Peralta regress to the indifferent player on display last season, the Indians, with even better starting pitching and greatly improved middle relief, are much better positioned than last year to withstand such occurrence.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Curious Generosity

Oh to be young, rich and a bundle of contradictions. In the last week or so, Cleveland Browns wide receiver has spent a great deal of time trying to repair a shaky and deserved reputation as a selfish malcontent. Of course, he spent nearly as much time also doing what he could to keep that reputation in tact.

Last Tuesday, Edwards was the prize of sorts in a contest run by the American Dairy Association and Giant Eagle named “Take Braylon Edwards to School.” As a result, there he was at Nordonia Middle School talking to a rapt young audience about the merits of drinking milk and working hard to achieve your goals. (See story here) While Edwards is no doubt a paid endorser for the sponsors, it still was a nice gesture and according to the report, Edwards was generous with his time while at the school. For someone like Edwards who has earned mostly bad publicity, it was a nice, feel good sort of story.

Edwards also has been generous with his money. According to a story this morning on ESPN and elsewhere, Edwards has pledged $1 million of his own money to fund a college scholarship program for Cleveland city school students who maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average through high school. The official announcement and the remainder of the details are expected to be announced on Wednesday. Again, this is more good publicity for someone who clearly needs to repair his image in this town.

Too bad Edwards’ generosity didn’t stop with his time and his money. Unfortunately for his fellow teammates and even Head Coach Romeo Crennel, Edwards was just as generous with his opinions, none of which could have made any of them particularly happy. In Sunday’s Plain Dealer, Tony Grossi reported on an interview Edwards recently gave to a show called “Movin the Chains” on Sirius radio. Among the pearls tossed by Edwards was his declaration that the Browns needed to go 10-6 in this next season to be considered a success.

Most assuredly, a 10-6 season will be considered a success. In fact, it is difficult to understate the seismic shift that would take place in this town if, indeed, the Browns were to miraculously post a 10-6 record next season. But Edwards feels as though even an 8-8 record, which would be a 100% improvement over last year, shouldn’t be considered a success. He cites an improved offense based on recent acquisitions (Joe Thomas, Kyle Brady, Jamal Lewis, Eric Steinbach) and the schemes of new coordinator Rod Chudzinski as the reason that expectations should be higher.

It’s hard to quibble with Edwards on this score and certainly having any player set the bar as high as possible makes great sense. And while it is as tempting as it is easy to detail for Edwards why the Browns would be lucky and hence extremely successful if they could double last year’s win total, particularly since, if the trends set in Crennel’s tenure hold, the Browns are due exactly two victories, we can leave that alone for now.

But if Edwards has any hope of being one of the reasons why the Browns ever win more than they lose in a single season, he’s simply going to have cease his annoying tendency of throwing teammates under the bus. In that same interview, Edwards was complimentary of the play of his quarterback Charlie Frye in the same way one is complimentary of a woman by saying “for a fat girl, she doesn’t sweat much.”

He admitted that Frye was put into a bad situation last year, which is an extreme understatement. With a wildly ineffective offensive line, an uninspired and ineffective running game, and an offensive coordinator situation that really put the function in dysfunctional, the Browns set the standard for placing quarterbacks in bad situations last season. But Edwards doesn’t necessarily attribute all or even most of Frye’s struggles to the “situation.” Instead, it’s an issue of pedigree.

According to Edwards “I saw some growth, but I still saw a kid that was coming from an Akron or a [Mid-American Conference] school and didn't necessarily have the knowledge or preparation of a Brady Quinn-type of collegiate QB. So I saw a guy that’s still learning, still has a long ways to go.”

You have to admire all that Edwards accomplished with that nugget. Utilizing an economy of words that has never suited him well, Edwards trashed Frye and kissed up to Quinn, even before Quinn has thrown his first pass in a pre-season game. It’s clear that Edwards isn’t a Frye fan and may never have been. But the truth is that Edwards is an Edwards fan first and foremost and he undoubtedly sees it in his self-interest to trumpet the arrival of Quinn if only for the belief that Quinn may be able to get the ball to Edwards more frequently than Frye.

Frye has many flaws, but attacking his pedigree as the basis for them is just more of Edwards talking first and thinking second. Frye is from the University of Akron, which is certainly not in the Big Ten. But it is in the MAC, a conference with a knack of producing NFL-caliber quarterbacks like Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich and Ben Roethlisberger, among others. So it is not as if Frye was plying his trade at Ohio Weslyan. And while the Big Ten and major independents play, generally, a tougher schedule than any MAC team, their schedules often overlap. Moreover, it’s not as if coming from the Big Ten or Notre Dame offers any greater chance of success in the NFL either. There have been dozens of wash outs at quarterback from virtually every kind of school and conference. Look at the starting quarterbacks in this year’s college National Championship Game. One quarterback, the Heisman Trophy winner, wasn’t drafted until the 5th round and the other went undrafted.

While it may be politically astute for Edwards to build a relationship with Quinn given how Edwards trashed his relationship with Frye for good during last year’s Cincinnati game, Edwards wasn’t nearly as astute when he also tossed a few bricks at Crennel, even if Crennel isn’t in it for the long run, either.

Of Crennel he said “I think Charlie Frye and Romeo Crennel are in similar situations. The reason I say that is they both got thrown in situations where it wasn't fair to assess them at that point, especially Romeo Crennel. You give him a team that is starving at different positions, it’s starving for an identity or even a framework. Now that we have the frame, now that we have what we believe to be our identity, now you can begin to assess this man. This is the year that you can look and assess his game.”

It’s rather nice when one who has accomplished so little himself is putting his head coach under the microscope. Crennel has his faults, many of which have been chronicled here and elsewhere. But the man is not lacking in accomplishments even if what made him accomplished is what prevents him from being a good head coach. Wherever one falls on the Crennel question, this much is certain, a player like Edwards who consistently over promises and under delivers should be the last one to call him out, particularly since Edwards is one of those who will help make or ultimately break Crennel’s career in Cleveland.

This off-season, both General Manager Phil Savage and Owner Randy Lerner have said that Edwards will be fine, that he learned a lot from his several outbursts last season and that he really is a good teammate. Maybe that was said in a preemptive way in order to get Edwards back on the reservation. If it was, then it worked, but only to a degree. The gestures Edwards made in being a good citizen this past week do go a long way to building a better relationship with the fans, something he sorely needs. But his takes on Crennel and Frye clearly underscore that Edwards hasn’t gotten the message completely and likely never will. The indifference toward his teammates that caused Edwards to be late for several meetings and to act like a petulant child for all to see during the Cincinnati game is still on display for all to see or hear, or at least for those with a satellite radio.

In many ways, the fact that Edwards isn’t afraid to speak his mind is a positive because it makes excellent fodder for columns like these. But for the Browns and their fans, that’s really the last thing they need. While this may not be a make or break season for the franchise, it’s close. And with all of the good will coming out of the draft last month, the last thing that anyone needed was for Edwards to continue to drop turds in the punchbowl.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Steroids Deniers

Baseball and its union talk a good game of trying to clean up the sport by eliminating the scourge of illegal drugs, but as long as the union is really in charge any chance for real reform is unlikely.

The “news” this morning that the Major League Baseball Players Association has refused a request to cooperate with former Sen. George Mitchell’s ongoing probe into steroids by supplying anonymous medical information is a surprise on the magnitude of Paris Hilton appearing drunk in public. The Players Association has long resisted any attempts to rid the sport of performance enhancing drugs for fear, apparently, that a decline in performance would portend a decline in salaries. As if that could ever be the case. As long as baseball is also populated with idiot owners like George Steinbrenner and impotent commissioners like Bud Selig, salaries will continue to rise to the point where there are only two or three franchises that can afford to field a team.

A point to clarify in all of this is that the Mitchell investigation was not seeking the medical records of any particular player, although most observers could easily compile a list of usual suspects if they had to. Instead, Mitchell and his investigators are trying to determine from the medical information the scope of the problem, which makes the request necessary. The union, led by Donald Fehr, has never much cared about the health of its members and the dangerous side effects that accompany the unauthorized use of performance enhancing drugs, thus they played the conspiracy card in rebuking Mitchell. They claim that “players” fear that Mitchell and his staff will spend time trying to use things like age, height, weight and blood type as a means of specifically identifying the users.

While theoretically possible, no one should believe for a moment that the union really harbors any such concerns. They simply don’t like letting anyone else control the agenda in baseball. But whether the Union wants to admit it or not, it is important to the integrity of the game that there is an understanding of the scope of the problem, something an anonymous review of medical records will help accomplish. Recall that folks like admitted users Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti estimated that more than half of all players used some form of steroids. That raises any number of questions not the least of which are whether those numbers are true and, if so, for how long they have been true.

But baseball fans shouldn’t hold out any hope that the Mitchell probe will contain anything substantive as long as Bud Selig is Commission and the union can rely on veterans like the Indians Roberto Hernandez to carry their water on such issues.

While the “news” that the Union wouldn’t cooperate hardly moved the surprise needle, what Hernandez told Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer earlier this week on this issue was disappointing or at least should be to Indians fans. Hernandez made it clear that he is no fan of the Mitchell probe and particularly the request for medical records. For a 42-year-old pitcher who has supposedly been there and done that, he came across as incredibly short-sighted and uninformed, at best, misguided at worst.

For example, he told Hoynes “One way or the other you're going to look guilty. What are they going to look for? We do have rights. I'm not saying I have anything to hide. But it seems like a witch hunt. It's starting to give baseball a black mark. Once you think it's dying down, two weeks later here it comes again.”

No one is questioning whether the players have “rights,” for whatever that might mean. But Hernandez needs to take a basic civics lesson. This isn’t a government-sponsored or initiated probe and thus any claims that the inquiry somehow violates some sort of Constitutional right to privacy, as his statement implies, is simply wrong. There are statutes that protect the privacy of an individual’s medical records and no one is suggesting that the statutes don’t apply or shouldn’t be respected. But the request is for anonymous information in order to understand the problem and does not constitute some sort of witch hunt.

Hernandez also said that while he doesn’t condone the use of steroids, they were not “illegal then.” Presumably he’s referring to anytime prior to the new drug testing policy that was put into place only when Congress held a gun to the union’s head, but even in that case he would, of course, be wrong. The unauthorized use of controlled substances like steroids or human growth hormone has always been illegal. Whether major league baseball tested for it may be a whole other matter, but use of the drugs was still illegal unless properly described.

Sadly, more laughable than either of these statements was the suggestion by Hernandez that the Mitchell probe is “starting to give baseball a black mark.” If Hernandez, and any other player for that matter, seriously thinks that it’s the investigation that is giving baseball the black mark and not the underlying use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs by the players, then the disconnect that currently exists between the players and fans will never truly be corrected.

But what is truly amazing about the Hernandez remarks was his refusal to even acknowledge that steroids have ever been a problem. He told Hoynes “Were there players [who used steroids]? Mostly likely. . . . You assume, but no one has any proof.” Really? No proof you say? The admissions of Canseco, Caminiti and even former Indian Jason Grimley aren’t proof? What about the several positive tests of both major and minor league players in just the past two years, none of which have been overturned? Or what about former Mets clubhouse assistant Kirk Radomski who pleaded guilty to illegal steroid distribution who said he handed out steroids to players like they were tic tacs? Even for those whose legal training is limited to watching Boston Legal, this constitutes proof.

In some respects, Hernandez and his views can be counted as those of just another knucklehead ballplayer. But Hernandez is or should be different. He’s been around the game longer then some of his teammates have been alive. General Manager Mark Shapiro brought him in specifically to be that veteran presences, someone to help mentor the younger players. If Hernandez is just towing the party line so as not to run afoul of the union, then he is a coward. On the other hand, if he honestly believes that there’s no proof players used steroids, then it’s fair to ask how can he possibly guide the younger players on this Indians team on the pitfalls to avoid. That’s just what that locker room needs, a steroids denier.

But try as the union and its robotized drones like Hernadez might to divert attention away from the problem, it isn’t going away. Barry Bonds’ chase for Hank Aaron’s home run record only highlights the reasons why. Whenever one of the sacrosanct records in any major sport is being threatened, that is usually time for celebration and debates over the merits of the record holder and the person who threatens it. Certainly becoming the all-time home run king should be one of those times. But Bonds’ conduct has completely removed any joy from those proceedings and replaced them with a series of questions that the players and the Union and Bonds are never likely to answer.

Hernandez may think that asking these questions gives baseball a black eye, but the real problem is the fact that the questions keep coming up. Baseball may have made Hernandez a relatively rich man but the game he loves will never fully eliminate its credibility problem until it eliminates the reasons the questions get asked in the first place. For Hernandez and his brethren, the willing or unwitting participation in perpetuating the problems is ultimately a sin they will have to live with.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Economic Suicide

If you want to know what’s wrong with baseball economics, look no further than yesterday’s announcement by the New York Yankees that they’ve signed pitcher Roger Clemens to a prorated $28 million contract for the rest of the season.

Yankee fans, of course, are celebrating this event mostly because their pitching has been decimated by early season injuries and they currently have the fourth-worst ERA in the American League. There is also the perception of Yankee fan that Clemens brings the kind of experience, at age 44, that will turn the struggling team into World Series champions, something they haven’t been since 2000.

Red Sox nation, on the other hand, isn’t exactly celebrating, mostly because in their view they came up short again in trying to lure Clemens back to Fenway Park and the team that cast him aside years ago as being in the twilight of his career. Mostly, though, Red Sox fan is against the move for the simple fact that whatever is good for the Yankees is bad for the Red Sox.

In this case, though, the feelings of the Red Sox and their fans have a much greater and general application. The signing isn’t just bad for the Red Sox, it’s bad for baseball. In underscoring why it’s bad for baseball, one need not even get into any of the many side issues surrounding Clemens. For example, it’s always been odd that with Clemens observers have merely whispered about his possible involvement with performance enhancing drugs while simultaneously screaming from the rooftops about Barry Bonds. Of course some have pointed out how Clemens continues to defy odds and put up unbelievable numbers at an age where his skills should otherwise be diminishing, much like Bonds. Those same folks have also pointed out the unbelievable physical changes Clemens body has undergone over the years, again not unlike Bonds. And, of course, those folks continue to point out that by more or less retiring each season and then unretiring when the season is well under way, Clemens seems to avoid any sort of drug testing during the off-season.

It’s also of no consequence to focus on what the Yankees don’t get for their millions, things like leadership, for example. Not only does Clemens get the late reporting date, he also gets the privilege of not having to even be with the team on days he’s not scheduled to pitch. The only thing the Yankees get is about 18 starts and nothing more.

Both of those scenarios don’t enhance the game either, but whatever Clemens’ alleged involvement with performance enhancing drugs may or may not be or whatever his princess treatment entails, they represent only the secondary reasons why his signing is bad for baseball. The first is that it drives home how completely broken baseball’s economics have become and how that breach threatens the game.

Clemens’ salary may be pro-rated to reflect the fact that he is just now returning, but had he been with the Yankees on day one, his $28 million salary would have been higher than the current payroll of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and not just by a little, but by a full $4 million, or the equivalent of what the Indians are currently paying their closer, Joe Borowski.

Ok, you say, “well, that’s Tampa Bay, what do you expect?” But Clemens’ salary is only $2.5 million less than the entire Florida Marlins payroll, or a bit less than the equivalent of what the Indians are collectively paying Rafael Betancourt, Fernando Cabrera, Fausto Carmona, Tom Mastny, Kelly Shoppach and Jeremy Sowers. In fact, for what the Yankees are paying Clemens, they could have almost half of the entire Indians roster, give or take a Josh Barfield.

One can play that game in all sorts of ways, but perhaps one barometer to really consider is the list of the highest paid players in baseball. Considering the Yankees now have a payroll in excess of $200 million, it won’t surprise anyone that the list of the Top 10 highest paid players is dominated by the Yankees. With his new salary, Clemens will top the list, but barely. Close behind is Jason Giambi at $23.4 million, Alex Rodriguez at $22.7 million and Derek Jeter at $21.6 million. Also in the Top 10 is Andy Pettite, another free agent acquisition of the Yankees in the offseason, who is currently 7th on the list with $16 million. In other words, 5 of the top 10 players in all of baseball reside in the Bronx.

Even more astounding is the fact that the collective salaries of just those five players are almost $112 million. If they were a team unto themselves, they’d have the fourth highest payroll in baseball, which is about 84% higher than the Indians current payroll.

You can cut these payroll statistics all day and every day and still find more and more insidious ways in which the disparity works against the best interests of baseball. That may be amusing to some but to most it is fair to ask: where is Commission Bud Selig in all of this? Why doesn’t he step in to put a stop to the insanity for the good of the game?

It wasn’t all that long ago that baseball actually had a commissioner in Bowie Kuhn who viewed his job in the historical context in which it was created and thus stepped into a similar situation before the wheels fell off. The year was 1976 and Oakland As owner Charlie Finley decided to gut his three-time world champs by selling Vida Blue to the Yankees and Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Red Sox. Kuhn vetoed the deals because he believed that they weren’t in the best interests of the game. Finley threatened legal action but Kuhn didn’t relent. Eventually, Kuhn’s decision was upheld in court. Technically, Selig has the same power with respect to the Clemens deal. There is no chance he’d ever consider acting similarly, even though this is an arguably worse situation.

Of course, there are those who will argue that the Clemens signing is actually good for the game. But pressed for a cogent argument, the best that can be mustered is that every major league sport needs a flagship team, a foil, someone that fans in Boise, Idaho can get passionate about, either way. There is some merit to that and one need only consider the parity in pro football that breeds a good deal of disinterest in the casual fan.

It is also true that there is a certain amount of pleasure and satisfaction in knocking off the school yard bully, if only for a game or perhaps a series. It seems like sublime justice that with all the money spent, the Yankees haven’t won a world series since 2000 But beyond such fleeting feelings of superiority, the simple truth is that if that’s the best argument for the Clemens signing, the validity of the arguments against it are further underscored. Simply put, baseball cannot stand such financial disparity and survive healthy and intact.

Consider the impact this signing will have on the Indians and the pending free agency of C.C. Sabathia. The Indians awarded Sabathia with an above-market contract early in his career in order to retain his services for as long as possible while avoiding the scourge of a salary arbitration process that works only to further alienate a player from his current ballclub. But any goodwill the Indians engendered by such a move will become essentially irrelevant when it comes time to negotiate a new contract. When Indians general manager Mark Shapiro sits down with Sabathia’s representatives, the Clemens contract and all that flows from it will be the elephant in the room, even if they never address it directly.

It may be true that Clemens’ current salary isn’t likely to be the starting point in the negotiations with Sabathia, but it’s naïve to believe that it won’t have an impact. As we like to say, a high tide tends to raise all ships and as other pitchers creep up into Clemens’ salary range, the average price for a top of the rotation pitcher will quickly exceed the Indians reach, if it doesn’t already. Even taking out the Dolans factor in this equation, the bottom line issue revolves around the wisdom of devoting a disparate amount of the team’s payroll to one player.

When teams like the Yankees aren’t forced to live within any kind of budget, whether imposed in the form of a salary cap or through common sense business metrics, it makes it very difficult for every other team operating under a different paradigm. Most teams with deep pocket owners, such as the Texas Rangers, still find it difficult to operate successfully when too much of your payroll is devoted singularly. That’s why the Rangers ultimately dumped Alex Rodriguez on the Yankees, the only team that could really afford the contract. A Rod may have been making the Rangers a more marketable team temporarily, allowing them to sell a few more tickets and jerseys, but ultimately it’s wins that matter and with his salary chewing up so much payroll it was difficult for the Rangers to complete the puzzle. In fact, though Rodriguez is long gone from the Rangers, they are still struggling from the forced neglect to the rest of their team that his outsized contract ultimately required, although they are closer now to putting together a more complete team than at any time when they had Rodriguez.

In the end, if Indians fans don’t realize it yet they soon will. The Yankees signing of Clemens and the ripple effect it will have on pitcher salaries throughout the league makes it much less likely today that Sabathia will be an Indian after next season. If anything, it hastens his exit via a trade. And this is a scenario that will no doubt be repeated throughout most of baseball as teams struggle with their own versions of Sabathia. If Selig really thinks this is all good for the game then baseball has an even bigger problem.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Edge

It all started with a cold snap.

The miserable early season weather, which included an unprecedented snow-out of an entire week of games in Cleveland and has caused the Dolans all manner of financial losses at the box office and concession stands, may actually turn out to be the best thing that has happened to the Indians in a long, long time. It seems to have fostered an us vs. them attitude that has allowed the Indians to develop a competitive edge not typically seen under manager Eric Wedge and has pushed the Indians to a hot streak that started two weeks ago and has continued into early May.

But it wasn’t just the presence of snow and cold that did it. Breaking it down to a much finer point, the first person to get under this team’s skin was, ironically, one of the better-liked individuals in recent Indians history, Mike Hargrove. Hargrove, as manager of the Seattle mariners, became the human snow delay by essentially preventing Paul Byrd from pitching an abbreviated no-hitter on a truly miserable opening day. In retrospect, it may have been better for Hargrove and the rest of baseball if Byrd could have at least finished pitching to Jose Lopez.

Most recall, of course, that Byrd had a 1-2 count on Lopez when Hargrove sauntered out on the field to discuss the snow that was flying, again. Hargrove’s sublimely-timed visit and the ensuing heated discussion allowed the intensity of the snow to pick up just enough that home plate umpire Alfonso Marquez and crew chief Rick Reed were forced to call for another delay. Ultimately this led to the game being called when the weather didn’t much improve. The game, which was to start at 4 p.m. was officially called at 8:41 p.m. The Indians lost a sure victory and Byrd lost a probable, though severely truncated, no hitter. But in the process, an attitude began to develop.

The way the rest of that weekend played out only allowed this attitude to further percolate. There were endless questions from the media, locally and nationally, to Byrd and Wedge and others about what took place, particularly given the perception that Hargrove was responsible for what took place. While Wedge and GM Mark Shapiro were appropriately politically correct in addressing Hargrove’s antics, Byrd was less gracious. In one of his milder statements he said, “the snow was coming for five minutes. If the count's 3-0, nobody is saying anything. They [Seattle] tried to get away with something, and it worked. Nobody was saying anything when I wasn't throwing strikes. I thought it was handled poorly.”

As the snow continued to fly that weekend, the front office, the players and the fans began watching the Weather Channel as if it were CNN, trying to figure out what would happen next. As prospects dimmed for any real improvement in the weather with the Los Angeles-by-way-of-Anaheim Angels coming to town, major league baseball did what it does best and muddied the situation further by telling Cleveland, in effect, that this next home series would be played in Commissioner Bud Selig’s hometown of Milwaukee. While not complaining publicly, you could almost hear the teeth grinding of Shapiro, Wedge and the players who now had to pack their bags. It would be hard for an attitude not to develop under this set of bizarre circumstances. Fortunately the Indians used this new found lack of respect for good and not evil by taking two of three from the Angels.

With a touch of swagger, the Indians were permitted to return home to play the White Sox, a key divisional rival made all the more hateful by a mouthy manager in Ozzie Guillen and an arrogant Chicago media breathing down their necks that is constantly compensating for the fact that they are not in New York. The Indians proceeded to take two of three from the Sox, just a week after taking two of three from them in Chicago.

Often the kind of edge that a team gets from such slights, perceived or real, is as easily lost as gained without something intervening to remind them why they were mad in the first place. As they embarked on their trip to New York, they knew they were facing a team decimated by injuries, particularly to their pitching staff. The Yankees were hardly barking, about the Indians or much else. Whatever edge existed seemed to be temporarily replaced by arrogance as the Indians laid a colossal egg, losing three straight. In fact, they really weren’t competitive in any of those games. And it wasn’t as if the Yankees were on a roll. In fact, that series has been the only high spot in an otherwise miserable early season for New York. Following those wins, the Yankees went on to lose 8 of their next 9 games.

Thankfully, though, baseball continued to pick on the Indians. First, major league baseball, under the skittish and indecisive leadership of the aforementioned Selig, continued to dilly dally around with the conundrum of how to reschedule four lost Indians home games against a team that is not scheduled to return this season. While major league baseball continued to fiddle with what was now apparently the hardest problem they ever faced, it wasn’t lost on the Indians front office or the players that responsibility for this situation rested solely with major league baseball and its schedule makers who made sure that two west coast teams, one that plays in a dome and another who plays in near perfect weather, were making their only trips to Cleveland at a time when the weather is always iffy.

Although baseball still hasn’t announced how the games will be rescheduled, word has leaked over the last several days out that at least one of those “home” games will be played in Seattle, bringing the total to four the number of games the Indians will not get to host this season. While that may be the best alternative among a set of really bad options, the fact remains that the major league front office created this mess and, in the process, gave the Indians another reason to believe that they weren’t being respected.

On the heels of this came the bizarre happenings in the game against Baltimore last Saturday night. Unquestionably, the home plate umpire made a mistake in waving off the run that had scored prior to centerfielder Grady Sizemore doubling up Miguel Tejada who, resembling one of the Indians, forgot how many outs there were and ran on contact and failed to return to first base after Sizemore’s catch. But it also is unquestioned that neither Baltimore nor the umpiring crew realized the blunder for several innings. When it was finally brought to their attention, the umps didn’t claim “rub of the green” as is usually the case. They put the run back on the board and Baltimore now had a 3-2 lead. You wouldn’t be alone if you were left with the feeling that this was something you’ve never seen before.

This eventually led to the protest that the Indians lost. While acknowledging that the umpires made a mistake, the essence of the Indians protest was that Baltimore didn’t lodge a timely complaint, which was true. This was a legitimate argument that has decent support within the rule book. Perhaps it didn’t help their protest that the Indians buttressed their argument by claiming that by putting the run on the board it caused Wedge to manage differently. Anyone with a set of eyes and the patience to watch this team through Wedge’s tenure knows that this may be theoretically true but realistically impossible.

Though denying the protest, Selig and crew did the Indians a favor by failing to discuss the basis for the denial, as if the protest was so frivolous that it didn’t warrant a two-sentence explanation. This only led to the perception that baseball either didn’t want to uphold the Indians argument on a technicality (the failure of Baltimore to timely complain) or simply didn’t want to have to reschedule still another Indians game, which seems more likely. Whichever, this gave the Tribe still another reason to believe they were being disrespected and allowed an edge that may have been dulling to once again sharpen.

If you witnessed either Wednesday’s or Thursday night’s game, that sharp edge was on full display. On Wednesday night, shortly after the protest was denied, newly-rich Jake Westbrook had to leave the game early due to an abdominal strain and the Indians trailing The bullpen kept the game close and the Indians ultimately prevailed in extra innings on a bloop single by Travis Hafner. Thursday night marked Cliff Lee’s return to the rotation and he promptly put the Indians in a 4-0 hole, although a shaky defense helped that cause. But a close play at the plate in which Toronto catcher Jason Phillips blocked the plate from Josh Barfield led to a few choice words from Phillips to Barfield and the intercession of David Dellucci, who was coming to bat. Dellucci took offense at Phillips irrational exuberance and a bench-clearing nearly ensued.

Following that exchange, Dellucci promptly made a stunning catch in left field and followed that up in the bottom half of the inning with a double. In the process, he personally took a whetstone to the edge that has now clearly developed on this team and that led to another victory, a 7-1 homestand and a streak that has seen the Indians win 10 of their last 11.

It’s hard to know whether these series of early season slights will continue to occur as timely as they have thus far. But even if they don’t it may just be enough for this team to at least develop a personality, something it has never done under Wedge. And that, just as much as anything else, is necessary if this team is going to be a serious contender this season.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Enjoy the Ride

For a town starved for any good sports news, the recent doings of Cleveland’s major league teams was, for once, simultaneously positive. Try to remember the last time that happened and in the process, don’t pull a hamstring, get a high ankle sprain, or incur a staph infection.

Going against trend, Indians Manager Eric Wedge has the team playing good baseball in April, instead of waiting until after they are too far gone to make a difference. The Cavaliers and Head Coach Mike Brown bucked a similar trend by sweeping the Washington Wizards in the first round of the NBA playoffs instead of losing their focus and playing down to the level of competition before finally advancing after a grueling seventh game. And the Browns, yes the Browns, bucking easily the biggest trend of all, re-energized its fan base by finding a way to actually get something done just when everyone had grown used to the inevitable hand-wringing over why, again, things just didn’t come together for them they way they had hoped.

For too long it seems hope has been the central strategy and approach of the Indians, Cavs and Browns. Each team in their own way has over promised and under delivered year in and year out. While it may be too soon and probably is to make any grand conclusions, fans can at least now see things coming together in a way that suggests that living in the abyss need not be a permanent state.

Consider the evidence. The meteorological impediments to getting this year’s Indians’ season going seemed to offer the kind of build in excuse that Wedge often looks for to explain another slow start. But to his credit, Wedge didn’t allow the team to dwell on the elements or the cards they were dealt, including a home series in Milwaukee and, instead, kept them more or less focus. As a result, they have plugged away, played good ball, beat teams they’re supposed to beat, and finished the month at 14-8 and in first place.

Sometimes, it seems that this team is winning in spite of itself. They play lousy fundamental baseball, committing too many errors and baserunning mistakes. They’ve developed an early knack for not getting the big hit. But the pitching is coming through in virtually all phases, helping to erase all manner of sins. In fact, to the extent there has been any disappointment whatsoever, it’s been with Jake Westbrook whom GM Mark Shapiro recently signed to a 3-year $33 million dollar extension. Perhaps Westbrook is feeling a little early pressure to live up to the confidence displayed in him by the extension. But if he struggles, the Indians have depth to handle that kind of disruption.

The Cavaliers have been a tease and a frustration all season. Entering the season with a status quo strategy that hinged on a healthy Larry Hughes, the Cavs nonetheless struggled to match last season’s 50-win total. The two biggest problems throughout were the lengthy mental lapses they seemed to take in nearly every game and the tendency to play down to the competition. In both cases, the head coach, himself a work in progress, seemed unable to find a way to correct either problem.

At playoff time, the biggest worry for Cavs fans in the first round was whether the Cavs would continue these trends and thus make an early exit, even though the Wizards were without their two best players. In some ways, those trends did continue. Several times in the Washington series the Cavaliers vacillated between truly great and truly horrendous basketball. They had a 17-point lead going into the second half of game 3 and watched it disappear faster than a box of Twinkies in Mel Turpin’s cupboard. And while they seemed to struggle in each game with Washington, despite the absence of Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, the Cavs did find a way to win each time, two of which were on the road. This sweep was huge as it gives them ample time to rest and prepare for what looks like the New Jersey Nets in round two.

As for the Browns, already so much has been written that little bears repeating. Still, the suddenness with which they were able to grab back the fans in such a dramatic fashion rivals only the excitement felt when the franchise finally returned in 1999. As everyone knows, the reality of an expansion team given little chance to ready itself for the rigors of the NFL hit once the regular season got under way and, for all the fits and starts in between, has continued to plague this team since.

That’s what makes what happened this past Saturday so scary and exhilarating at the same time. Fans simply aren’t used to anything dramatic-good happening to the Browns and can’t believe what seems to be their good fortune in landing three potential starters, all of whom can and should contribute almost immediately. The way in which this was all accomplished, of course, was not without its pathos. Following the drafting of Joe Thomas, the callers into both WTAM and WKNR were all over the map. While most agreed that Thomas was a good and safe pick, they were still upset with the gaping holes in the skill positions, particularly quarterback. Many were complaining that passing up Brady Quinn would come back to haunt them for years.

One particularly animated caller got off what was probably the best line to that point. Complaining about what seemed to be Savage’s decision to stick with quarterback Charlie Frye once Thomas was drafted, the caller remarked: “Great. Now instead of having only 2 or 3 seconds to stare down one receiver, Frye will now have 4 or 5.” You could almost hear a half a million heads nod in agreement. But when the trade was made and the pick of Quinn announced, the calls were nearly all positive, the picks of Thomas AND Quinn satisfying both schools of thought. And for the few days since, the calls remain mostly positive.

Of course, this being Cleveland, no one can ever truly be happy. You are beginning to see the initial stages of the inevitable backlash over trading next year’s number one pick, with many surmising that it’s likely to be a top 5 pick, again. That may be true, but it’s just as true that there is no way to predict what that pick would yield—another Gerard Warren or another Joe Thomas. What’s particularly fascinating about this school of thought is that those who make it lack any sense of irony. They distrust Savage’s judgment in surrendering the pick while simultaneously assuming that had he kept it he’d make the right decision with it next year.

The other interesting aspect of the backlash is that it really does, in many ways, represent the pulse and psyche that are Cleveland sports and its fans. There is a contingent out there that will bleed brown and orange or blue and red or whatever colors the Cavs are going by these days no matter the issue. You see that in every city. If you need proof, look at the Patriots fans that are applauding the acquisition of proven malcontent and team cancer Randy Moss or the San Francisco Giants fans who continue to applaud Barry Bonds. But there is also a healthy contingent, reared on one disappointment after another, that would just as easily complain if, say, the Browns won the Super Bowl. The complaint, of course, would be that there is no way they could repeat as champs the following year.

There is simply no way of telling at this point whether the Indians strong start portends great things for the rest of the season. Likewise, there is no way of telling whether the Cavs disturbing trend of losing focus will prevent them from advancing to at least the Eastern Conference finals. And there is nothing less certain, particularly right now, then whether first-day draft picks ultimately will pan out. This may be the calm before another inevitable storm or it may be the start of something good and unique for a change. But rather than expect the worst or hope for the best, it’s enough at this moment to enjoy the current ride and remember, as John C. Reilly’s character Gus Sinski said to Kevin Costner’s Billy Chapel just after he pitched a perfect game in the movie “For Love of the Game” “right now we don’t stink.”