Thursday, February 28, 2008

Follow the Money

On the surface, the two stories wouldn’t seem to have much in common. Chicago Cubs owner Sam Zell said earlier this week that he would definitely consider selling the naming rights to Wrigley Field. At roughly the same time, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was heard saying, again, that he believes NFL owners will vote to opt out of the current labor agreement.

Two different sports, two completely unrelated issues. Hardly. Like everything else in sports these days, the two stories share a common parent: money. In particular, the root is the ever spiraling cost of owning and running a professional sports franchise and what to do about it.

There was a time not all that long ago when old white men bought sports teams for the pure ego and hobby of it. That era was characterized mostly by the alarming lack of business acumen these owners brought to their hobby. Whatever rigor they applied to their “real” businesses, the ones that made them all the dough, was thrown out the window when they dabbled in sports.

But this didn’t necessarily cause them any great concern because the value of their teams continued to climb ever higher, seemingly defying all the laws of economics. Owning a sports team became the ultimate boom enterprise. But the downside, at least from a fan’s perspective, is that the economic health of their sports eventually grew worse. Most owners, more interested in stroking their egos than making good business decisions with their teams, wouldn’t hesitate to sign the next great superstar to an even more outrageous contract then the last great superstar. Ticket prices rose.

But eventually a different breed of owner started making their way into pro sports. Buying at ever increasing prices and taking on the kind of crushing debt that made the old white guys shake their heads, this breed grew up on budgets and business plans and didn’t see any reason not to translate that into their sports properties. Indeed, it was a necessity. This breed has no less of a desire to win than their forbearers; it’s just that given what they paid for their team, they aren’t as comfortable dipping into their personal fortunes any further in order to meet their debt payments, let alone such trivial matters as player acquisition expenses.

Zell and Jones are two such owners. Zell is a somewhat reluctant owner of the Cubs, having acquired them when he purchased the Tribune Co., the Cubs’ previous owner, last April for more than $8 billion. Zell’s interest seemed, at least at the time, much more focused on the media properties under the Tribune banner and not, necessarily the Cubs.

Most expect Zell to sell the Cubs sooner rather than later if only to retire some of the massive debt he took on to buy the Tribune Co. in the first place. But Zell is letting it be known now that he will sell the Cubs when he’s good and ready and, by the way, he plans to maximize his recovery by selling the Cubs and Wrigley Field separately.

There is good reason for Zell to wait and to sell separately. According to Forbes, the value of the Cubs franchise has been increasing at an average annual rate of 14% and increased a whopping 32% just between 2005 and 2006, not atypical figures whatsoever in either baseball or football. Needing money is one thing, but given these returns it compels Zell to wait a little longer to sell. In the meantime, why not create a tidy little revenue stream by selling the naming rights to one of the most famous stadiums in the world? For an owner more interested in money than history, it makes perfect sense.

For the baseball purist out there, Zell’s plans may be sacrilege but don’t blame Zell. Baseball’s ownership fraternity has never been all that keen on sharing revenue among themselves and thus it’s not a surprise that left to their own devices things like this would happen. With baseball having created an economic mess of itself for the last several years with no appreciable end in sight, now is hardly the time to begrudge even Sam Zell from making a little more money on the backs of fans. There are much bigger issues to solve in that sport first.

At first blush, it seems that’s what Jones and at least 23 other of his fellow owners are trying to do by opting out of the labor contract early, solving the big problems. Under its terms, the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement is supposed to expire after the 2012 season. But either the owners or the union can opt out of the final two years by giving notice by November 8th of this year. If that occurs, 2010 becomes the final year of the contract and it would be sans a salary cap.

But lest anyone think that this tactic has anything to do with eradicating the sport of a salary cap, think again. Though the owners once fought the concept, the presence of a salary cap does, from their perspective, achieve the desired result by acting as a sort of lifeline or net to those among them who would otherwise try to scale a mountain they have no business climbing in the first place.

What Jones and his brethren really want is a re-working of the cap. It’s no secret that the owners feel that the current collective bargaining agreement, which was actually an extension of the previous contract, was rammed down their throats by then commissioner Paul Tagliabue after several months of hard bargaining with the union. In fact, it’s not a coincidence that Tagliabue’s retirement announcement came just days after the contract was signed. He knew he had lost the support of many of the owners.

It’s not hard to see why. Putting aside the contract’s complexity just know that in 2010, assuming the contract were to stay in place, the players share of projected total revenues (itself an incredibly complex calculation) rises to 58%. That’s a pretty long arm into the owners’ rather deep pockets. Keep in mind, too, that the definition of total revenues was further expanded so that virtually any income that the owners generate gets included in the calculation.

Ever since Jones bought the Cowboys in 1989, he’s been trying to find ways to increase his own bottom line. When he tried striking his own marketing deals built off the Cowboys brand, he got cut off at the pass. Since then he’s been working from inside with an ever-changing fraternity that used to see him as a no-nothing maverick. Now he has the ears of a majority of owners who see the players getting an ever bigger piece of what they consider to be their pie. And the bigger the piece that goes to the players, the less that goes to the owners, many of whom are juggling huge debt.

None of this makes Jones or any of the other owners bad guys, but it does set football up for the kind of labor disharmony that is at the root of some of baseball’s biggest problems, including the lack of a legitimate, wide-ranging drug testing program. Upshaw has vowed that if the cap comes off, it will never return, a big promise that he probably can’t keep. Football owners aren’t quite the patsies that permeate baseball’s ownership ranks.

Whether Zell ultimately sells the naming rights to Wrigley Field and whether there is a period of labor unrest in football ultimately are just the visible and transient outcomes of a larger unspoken issue. But all you need to remember when trying to connect the seemingly unrelated dots in such matters is what the “Deep Throat” character kept telling Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward character in All the President’s Men: follow the money.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Another Bad Seed

It’s always nice when the acorn doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

If anyone thought that when Yankees owner and former Clevelander George Steinbrenner voluntarily stepped aside from the daily grind in favor of his two sons, Hank and Hal, baseball’s flagship franchise might be ready to find a better way to balance its self interest with the overall good of the game, think again.

In the short time since he’s become the de facto face of Yankees, Hank Steinbrenner, is proving to be quite a successor to the rather large and boorish shoes of his more famous father.

When Alex Rodriguez initially refused to extend his contract and instead opted out, Hank blew the first of what’s turning out to be many gaskets. He vowed not to negotiate any further with Rodriguez or his agent Scott Boras. A few days later, he was doing just that, ultimately signing Rodriguez to a new, equally ridiculous contract.

When the Minnesota Twins were busy trying to play the Yankees off the Boston Red Sox for the services of Johan Santana, Steinbrenner threw down an ultimatum, threatening to pull his offer off the table. The Twins didn’t bite but the Yankees stayed in the talks. In fact, well after Steinbrenner’s rant, the Yankees kept right on negotiating, up until the point that the New York Mets swept in and stole Santana from the Twins.

Maybe these were just examples of the neglected son finally getting the keys to the car he was ill-trained to handle. Maybe, except that these episodes did signal that Steinbrenner won’t be much of an agent of change in stemming the tide of economic insanity that his father helped usher into this modern era of baseball. That hardly surprises. But where Hank could do some real good is on the issue of steroids. Unfortunately, that’s the real test he’s failing right out of the gate.

Exhibit A occurred when he claimed to be irked that baseball was supposedly being singled out while football in general and the NFL in particular were supposedly getting a free pass with respect to steroids and performance enhancing drugs. Unintentionally hilarious, Steinbrenner told the Associated Press last week “everybody that knows sports knows football is tailor-made for performance-enhancing drugs. I don't know how they managed to skate by. It irritates me. Don’t tell me it's not more prevalent. The number in football is at least twice as many. Look at the speed and size of those players.”

With nothing more than his own gut feeling to back this up, Steinbrenner completely failed to appreciate that as part of baseball’s ownership elite, he and his family are as culpable as anyone in this mess baseball finds itself in.

The last time anyone looked Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Jason Giambi and Chuck Knoblauch were all recipients of the Steinbrenner family’s largesse and all three high profile players are at the heart of the steroids scandal. And let’s not forget that it was the Steinbrenners, too, who employed Brian McNamee, an admitted steroids distributor. Steinbrenner also has been quick to embrace Pettitte’s illegal use, despite the growing body of evidence that Pettitte signed his latest contract with the Yankees, just days before the Mitchell Report was released, knowing but not disclosing to anyone that he would be named in it. If Steinbrenner is irritated, he needs look no further than the family album to figure out why.

But in case Steinbrenner isn’t into self-reflection, then he can at least look at the differences between football’s approach to steroids and that of his own sport. In that same story from the Associated Press, Greg Aiello, the NFL’s spokesman noted “we’ve had year-round random testing with immediate suspensions since 1990 and we conduct approximately 12,000 steroids tests a year.”

What Aiello didn’t say but didn’t have to was that the NFL and its union have mostly been out ahead of the steroids problem while baseball and its union had to literally be threatened by Congress with the loss of their antitrust exemption before embracing even a semi-meaningful testing program.

No one is foolish enough to think that simply having a testing program will completely eliminate the inherent stupidity of some players who think they are smart enough to beat the system time and time again. Indeed each and every NFL season brings its share of player suspensions. It’s just that the public perceives, and for good reason, that the NFL has had a relatively effective mechanism for dealing with its problem players.

Baseball, as everyone knows, has treated steroids with a wink and a smile. It didn’t start testing for steroids until about 10 years after the NFL. Moreover, it’s not as if baseball owners have ever taken a particularly strong stance against them, refusing to draw a line in the sand each time the players’ union refused to negotiate on the subject. By backing down instead of standing up, the owners let baseball’s steroids era flourish. It’s why, even to this day, the public still perceives that baseball’s system for dealing with illegal drugs is a joke.

The other thing Steinbrenner seems to be forgetting is that baseball, under the so-called leadership of Commissioner Bud Selig, purposely singled itself out by ordering the Mitchell Report in the first place. Having placed itself in that white-hot spotlight, it’s a little disingenuous for the likes of Steinbrenner to now complain.

But that won’t stop him of course. It’s a Steinbrenner trait. In comments to the New York Post last week, Steinbrenner said that Red Sox fans shouldn’t jeer Pettitte too loudly because “they [the Red Sox] had plenty of players doing this stuff, too. It’s just that those players weren’t mentioned in the Mitchell Report.” On the one hand, he’s probably right. Given the pervasive use of steroids in baseball, it’s rather doubtful that some members of the Red Sox didn’t have their own version of McNamee somewhere.

On the other hand, why would Steinbrenner think that Red Sox fans should act any differently than, say, Yankees fans? It’s not as if his hometown faithful are known for treating the opposition with respect and dignity. And it’s not as if the Yankees, along with their cross-town counterparts, the Mets, aren’t ground zero in this latest scandal. But in what is looking to be a Steinbrenner family trait, it’s better to attack than fix, deny rather than acknowledge.

At some point, hopefully before it’s too late, Selig and the rest of the thumb suckers that run baseball will speak in one credible voice on all the ills that infect their game. It’s the path to salvation for a sport in desperate need of some good news. But it looks like it won’t happen soon. Given the rather fast start Hank Steinbrenner has gotten himself off to, it looks like Selig and his cronies would have a better chance of nailing Jello to a tree.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Man of Action

The fiddling is over. Let the deconstruction of the move begin.

For those among us practically screaming for Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry to do something to improve the team, his boldness in overhauling half of the Cavs current active roster was a refreshing slap in the face. With the NBA’s trade deadline on the verge of once again setting on Ferry and the Cavs, Ferry’s moves today signal that indeed he well understood that a roster shake-up was needed.

For most, it was enough just to hear that Larry Hughes was traded. You can imagine many, not just me, upon hearing the news that Hughes was traded think (and to paraphrase Lenny Dykstra upon hearing that Von Hayes had been traded), “great trade, who’d we get?”

For the record, the trade is as follows: The Cavs get Wally Szcerbiak and point guard Delonte West from Seattle and Ben Wallace, forward Joe Smith and a second-round draft pick next year from the Chicago Bulls. In turn, the Bulls get Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes and Cedric Simmons from the Cavs, while the Sonics get Ira Newble, Donyell Marshall and Shannon Brown. The Sonics also got Adrian Griffin from the Bulls.

No matter what your definition of dramatic may be, this trade certainly qualifies.

I’ll resist the urge to take credit for goading Ferry into making a move, mainly because that would be ridiculous. And wrong. What isn’t ridiculous or wrong is that Ferry was unquestionably feeling some heat, both internally and externally, to make a move to improve this team. Failing to execute this year probably wouldn’t have resulted in his losing his job, but it would have put him on very thin ice.

As it stood a few days ago, Ferry seemed poised to once again disappoint those within and outside the organization by his inability to pull the trigger on a move. The arguments, as expected, poured in that there just weren’t enough tradable assets to make a difference. Frankly, it’s an argument I never bought and for which I feel somewhat vindicated given today’s trade. After all the Cavs made the NBA Finals last year. It seems incongruous to suggest that there could not be a way to swing a trade in that context.

Indeed it was incongruous. Trades in the NBA are difficult because of the salary cap and its often bizarre exceptions and permutations. Contracts, both in length and value, have to be considered far more in the NBA than any other sport. But other teams always seemed to find a way to make it happen and now Ferry and his counterparts in Seattle and Chicago found a way to make it work. And by making this move right now, Ferry established himself as a credible general manager throughout the league in the process.

This isn’t meant to suggest that to this point he’s been a joke. It is to suggest, however, that he’s been mostly a non-entity, making a lot of phone calls, talking to a lot of folks, not doing much of anything. Despite the relative inaction, he’s mostly been given a pass because when you have a player like LeBron James, it covers up a lot of other sins.

There likely will be plenty of instant analysis to go around as to the merits of this trade in terms of how it improves the team this year and how it impacts its ability to maneuver down the road. At first blush, though, there is no question that this trade gives the Cavs a veteran presence and a toughness that for so long has seemed to elude them. Beyond those broad strokes, trades of this magnitude usually resist quick analysis. Whether or not this was the right deal is something that will play out over the rest of this season and resonate at least into the next one. It certainly is dramatic and has great potential. But for now, the Cavs have at least on the surface given its fans a reason other than whether James will win the MVP to stay engaged for the rest of the season.

This trade also demonstrates a strong commitment by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. The Cavs have taken on a tremendous amount of salary by consummating this trade and also have limited much of the flexibility they thought they had going into next season. So what? It was going to happen at some point and there certainly was no guarantee that the supposed salary flexibility they had would have yielded any better results in the off season. By signing off on the trade, Gilbert let it be known that the “wait until next year” mentality that so often permeates Cleveland sports is not part of his operating philosophy.

But as with any change, particularly one of this magnitude, questions and more questions arise. Just a few for immediate consideration:

-Can head coach Mike Brown successfully integrate the new pieces with the old parts quickly and efficiently? It’s a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. Clearly this will be Brown’s biggest challenge in his young head coaching career and will go a long way to determining Brown’s real mettle as a head coach in the NBA.

-To whom will the fans now direct their enmity? Stated differently, with both Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall toiling elsewhere, who’s left to underachieve on such a grand scale? That’s actually hard to say. Hughes has been mostly a disappointment irrespective of his contract. Factoring that in, he’s been justthisshort of awful, always seeming to pull out a game or two that makes you think that he’s on the verge of breaking out, a sort of Kordell Stewart of the hardwood. Marshall never did provide much to get anyone excited about. In the pantheon that is the Cavs history, he’ll go down as one of the least memorable players of all time. Quick, what was his jersey number?

-What’s the impact on James? This will be hard to judge because almost nothing seems to impact James’ ability to perform on the court, no matter who he is surrounded by. Still, there is no question that James is more than just another player on this team. Virtually everything this franchise has done in the last few years has been with one eye on keeping James enthused about the team’s short, mid and long-term prospects. The strong guess is that while James had no official say in whether this trade got made, it was done with his tacit approval.

-How many air balls will Ben Wallace offer up from the free throw line in the post season? It was almost comical watching Wallace the last few years during the playoffs struggle with free throws. But he is an enforcer and does bring an attitude that the Cavs have had trouble projecting in the past. Put it this way, teams will now think twice about abusing James knowing that Wallace has his back.

There is no way to know whether this trade will make Cavs fans happy come June. Too many variables are at play, not the least of which is an incredibly strong Western Conference where there is every likelihood that a 50-win team won’t make the playoffs. But the Cavs are legitimately part of the conversation again, even if they weren’t very far outside of it in the first place.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Man of Inaction

Rome may not be exactly burning, but that doesn’t mean that Danny Ferry isn’t fiddling. Again.

The news that Mike Bibby and Jason Kidd, two point guards who might look quite good in a Cavaliers uniform, are headed somewhere other than Cleveland probably disappointed many but isn’t much of a shock. The NBA’s trading deadline is looming a few days from now and the Cavaliers again don’t appear to be very active there, either. The Cavs, under Ferry’s leadership as general manager, have been in status quo mode for so long now the franchise is essentially on auto pilot.

For the third straight year, the Cavs entered the NBA season with essentially the same lineup, opting again to “stay the course.” Sure, they added a few fringe players here and subtracted a few others there, but the core of the team today is the same as it has been for three straight years. It wasn’t a group good enough to with a NBA title last year and it isn’t a group good enough to win it this year, next year or any year for that matter. That doesn’t mean the Cavs aren’t a good team. They just aren’t a good enough team.

Right about now, there are a number of you reading this that are ready to attack, telling me how the Cavs didn’t have the right pieces to consummate either the Bibby or the Kidd trade and that may be technically correct. But that’s not really the point. You can deconstruct any trade, compare it to the Cavs current lineup and come up with any number of reasons why the Cavs could not have or should not have made a similar trade. It’s what Ferry seems to do with most of his time.

The picture that is emerging of Ferry is that he is risk adverse. It’s a far easier path to find reasons not to do something than to do it and right now, it’s the space Ferry seems most comfortable occupying. It’s a way of operating when your fear of failure is greater than your desire for success. If you looked at Ferry’s financial portfolio, you’d no doubt find it was heavily weighted with low-yielding bonds and few, if any stocks. He follows a strategy designed much more to reduce the number of dips than to increase the height of the peaks.

One of the more puzzling aspects about all of this is the silence of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. He’s a risk taker by nature, which is how he built his fortune. Maybe he thinks that Ferry provides the yang to his yin but at some point, if he’s not there already, Gilbert is going to wonder how Los Angeles and Dallas and Phoenix and even lowly Atlanta can manage to pull off trades of consequence while his team and his general manager are again sitting in the corner sucking their thumb.

This isn’t to suggest that Ferry has been completely ineffective as a general manager. His tough stances with both Sasha Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao in the off-season were exactly the right move. Signing either to above-market contracts may have felt good in the short run to some fans, but by using the little leverage that general managers rarely get, he helped preserve financial flexibility down the road.

But given Ferry’s aversion to the bold stroke, one should rightfully wonder if he’ll ever be able to parlay that flexibility he so rightly courted into a roster than can win a title. The seeds of doubt on that one are starting to germinate.

In many ways, the NBA is a far greater sink or swim league than any other. It’s odd mixture of a relatively hard cap and numerous, bizarre exceptions can work to make bad teams good and good teams great far more quickly than any other sport. But in the end, the spoils of victory go to those teams that can best manage the cap. Those who cannot, like the New York Knicks, can find themselves in purgatory year after year after year.

There is no question that Ferry is sincerely trying to manage the cap in an attempt to build that juggernaut franchise with a legitimate chance to with the NBA crown every year. Exactly when is the question. He has as big a head start as any team in the league with LeBron James in the fold. But as last year’s NBA Finals proved titles cannot be won on the backs of just one player. At some point, a more cohesive and complete team is needed or else you end up like the Minnesota Timberwolves with Kevin Garnett. Garnett will probably win a NBA title, but we now know it won’t ever be with the T-Wolves. Right now, it’s a road the Cavs under Ferry seem destined to follow.

Ferry’s sincerity notwithstanding, there is no doubt that he’s treading precipitously close to the danger zone when it comes to James. The popular theory is that James will bolt Cleveland the first chance he gets for the supposed more lucrative riches of a bigger market. It’s a theory that might make sense for a lesser figure, but not in the case of James. Those who know James respect his deep commitment to his roots and his desire to be part of a NBA championship here. James is already one of the most recognizable persons on the planet. Given that status, playing in New York, for example, will do little to further enhance his brand.

James already has far more money than he and several generations after him could ever spend. He’s in line, too, for much, much more that will come no matter where he plays. In other words, money isn’t the issue. James, like Tiger Woods, is motivated much more by accomplishments. He wants to win and win it all. If he leaves, it will be for the opportunity that affords him the best opportunity, not the one that only affords him the most money.

That’s why the situation with Ferry and James is on a collision course, even if no one in Cavs management wants to admit it. If the Cavs want to retain James, they are going to have to demonstrate in dramatic terms that they are committed to putting a team on the floor capable of winning it all. A new practice facility and a tricked-out locker room are always nice amenities. But if they don’t bring in the kind of players seriously capable of winning a championship, then they are all for naught.

Ferry can’t simply wait until James has one foot out the door to step forward with a move that might make a difference. With James captive for the next two seasons, the time is now. In fact, the Cavs and Ferry are operating on borrowed time as it is.

It might make a difference, though not much, if Ferry was more vocal with his intentions. True, he can’t run afoul of league tampering rules by discussing potential acquisitions, but it would be helpful if he articulated a plan with some clarity. Instead, he remains mostly silent letting few if any know what his plans might really be. Thus, we’re left mostly to discern the actions, or in Ferry’s case, the inactions.

The only question now is how long Gilbert can tolerate watching Ferry fritter away the opportunities that James presents. It can’t be much longer.

It may not be clear which team will win the NBA title this year as there are a number of legitimate candidates, such as Boston, San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas. The Los Angeles Lakers trade for Pau Gasol further altered the landscape in the NBA’s Western Conference, though whether they really have enough horsepower to compete in that conference or whether they are that conference’s version of the Cavaliers remains to be seen. What doesn’t however is that the Cavs have no shot at the title, not as presently configured.

For now and forevermore, at least under Ferry, the Cavs will continue to achieve goodness. Greatness is a few players and a better general manager off in the distance.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


The writers’ strike may be over, but that doesn’t mean that Cleveland has yet had its fill of repeats.

The “news” that Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia has shut down any contract talks supposedly until after the season seems to have gotten everyone’s panties in a bunch to the point that if you didn’t know better you’d think this the first time an Indians player took the money and ran. Hardly.

Reminding the fans that they’ve seen this movie before probably isn’t helpful or useful. But just note that in recent times Cleveland fans went through this drama with Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, and Jim Thome, to name just a few. And it probably does little good to point out that the team, indeed the city, survived despite the gloom and doom projections. The last time anyone looked, the Indians were one game from the World Series last season.

But that is hardly the point in the near term. For now, it is enough that another top level talent, a supposedly home grown talent, will likely be wearing an opponent’s uniform a year from now, perhaps sooner. Read the Indians forum on or listen to local talk radio (if you have the stomach) and you can plainly see the various stages of grieving that already are under way.

There are, of course, the fans who seem simply shocked by this latest development. These fans are my favorite because they are either too young or too naïve to know any better. To them, they simply can’t believe that Indians general manager Mark Shapiro or owners Larry and Paul Dolan would be goofy enough to let an elite pitcher like Sabathia get away under any circumstances. To them, a pitcher like Sabathia is a once in a generation talent and if he happens to fall in your lap, you grab on with all your might and never let go.

At the root of their shock is the quaint notion that a player, Sabathia in this case, will be all sentimental about his current team, agreeing to sign with them at a huge discount simply out of loyalty. These same fans thought that with Ramirez and they thought that with Thome and that didn’t work out to well, did it? The fact that these fans still think this way, given all that’s come before them, speaks volumes about the height of their naiveté. It’s not a criticism.

The older and wiser Indians fans, on the other hand, aren’t shocked by anything. How could they be? These fans saw the Indians build a team around Alex Cole, for goodness sakes. They lived through Sam McDowell drinking himself out of the league, Tony Horton’s promising career cut short by depression, Vernon Stouffer refusing to sell the team to George Steinbrenner, the 10-cent beer night riot, the sellout crowds on opening day and the 6,000 or so who showed up at every game thereafter, the hiring of baseball’s first black manager and the firing of baseball’s first black manager, Joe Charbonneau winning the rookie of the year and falling apart thereafter, Greg Swindell on the losing end of a 24-5 defeat in his major league debut, etc. etc. etc. The fact that any player would leave Cleveland for more money is not shocking to these fans, it’s expected.

But though it may be expected, and though the older, wiser fans may not be shocked, that doesn’t mean Sabathia’s imminent departure is any easier to take. That’s because for the older, wiser fans, the inability to sign Sabathia is just another two-by-four called reality smacking them in the mouth.

That reality is not necessarily represented by the dreadful teams and the near misses over the years, as that really is something Cleveland has in common with virtually every other major league city. Instead, the reality manifests itself in at least two ways.

First, while Sabathia might claim to want to stay in Cleveland and even mean it, his actions say otherwise, loudly. The Indians opening volley was reportedly a four-year contract for around $17 million a year. No one, not even Shapiro, figured that would get it done, but negotiations have to start somewhere and no one expects to get your best offer out of the gate. So the fact that the Indians offer, in context, was on the low side isn’t particularly troubling.

More telling, though, is that Sabathia and his agents never made a meaningful counteroffer before shutting down the talks. It wasn’t because Sabathia was at all offended by the initial offer, even in light of the Johan Santana’s recent contract with the Mets. It’s just that Team Sabathia didn’t feel the Indians were ever going to get close enough to talk meaningfully. In that case, no good could come from continuing the dialogue. All that would happen is that at some point Sabathia would actually start to get offended when the Indians subsequent offers didn’t approach Santana’s deal. At that point, the average fan would undoubtedly turn on Sabathia and no matter how he pitched, his turning down a contract for that kind of money would always be the elephant in the room. Why would a pitcher of his caliber want that kind of distraction during his free agent season?

Second, Cleveland is a small-market town, as we’ve been told over and over again, with small-market owners, as we’ve seen over and over again. The Dolans may be rich by the standards of the average fan, but they don’t have the scratch or the revenue streams that the owners in New York, Boston and Chicago seem to have and the Dolans have demonstrated no inclination to deficit spend from their personal funds.

While fans can lament those facts all they want, that doesn’t mean the situation is going to change anytime soon. An owner with the financial wherewithal of Randy Lerner would be nice, but there’s no guarantee that even Lerner would dip into his fortune year in and year out in order to compete dollar-for-dollar with the likes of Mike Ilitch in Detroit, let alone Steinbrenner or John Henry in Boston.

The truth is that the economic and physical realities of this market will always keep the Indians in this mode unless or until the baseball owners come up with a NFL-style form of revenue sharing. Don’t count on it. It is this truth, more than anything else, which is at the core of most fans’ frustration. It’s what keeps free agent elite players in their prime, like Sabathia, just out of reach. In fact, Sabathia’s situation is the classic case.

The Indians could afford to pay Sabathia $20 million a year right now. In fact, if that was his current salary instead of the $13 million he will receive, the Indians 2008 payroll would still be in the middle of the pack of the league’s 2007 payroll. So it’s not a money issue, per se. Instead, it’s the length of the contract he demands and likely will command that is the deal breaker.

Good sense backed by statistics tells Shapiro that a seven year investment in any player is unlikely to pan out. But for a franchise whose budget is limited only by its imagination, getting three maybe four years of primetime, Cy Young award caliber pitching is worth the gamble that the next three or so years thereafter may not yield much. No team likes to eat $60 or so million on the backend of a long-term contract, but certainly some teams are less affected by it than others and always will be. The Indians are not now nor will it ever be that team.

As the season unfolds, eventually the fans will start to get comfortable again with the notion that this team’s best pitcher will be some other team’s best pitcher next season. By May, the only real debate will be whether to trade him for something now or ride him and get nothing later. And when the season closes and Sabathia does sign elsewhere, the fans can turn their attention elsewhere. Beginning next October, LeBron James will only have only two more years left on his contract.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hitting Rock Bottom

The theater of the absurd taking place in Congress on Wednesday in the form of the hearings over whether Roger Clemens did or did not use steroids and human growth hormone has, if nothing else, made the perfect coda for what has been one of the more interesting off-seasons in the history of major league baseball.

It started mostly with the issuance of the so-called Mitchell Report, the culmination of a lengthy investigation into baseball’s steroids era. Beyond confirming essentially rampant widespread steroids use across the baseball spectrum, it also shone a light on the seamy underside of the day to day workings of the average major league baseball locker room. Whatever you might think of former Clemens best friend forever Brian McNamee or New York Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, the fact that these two had ready and open access to the players for years is pretty damning evidence in and of itself how tolerant baseball management was of the seedy way in which its business was actually conducted behind the scenes.

One of the more interesting revelations from McNamee’s testimony on Tuesday was a comment he related from David Cone in the late ‘90s. Cone was then pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays and was their player representative. According to McNamee, Cone told him that the owners weren’t all that interested in testing for steroids, just that they wanted to appear interested.

It’s hard to know, assuming Cone made the comments, whether or not he actually believed that to be the case. But with the huge benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it sure looks like Cone was correct. Baseball both before and under the weak leadership of its worst commissioner ever, Bud Selig, clearly buried their heads in the sand on the steroids issue and their way too late commissioning of the Mitchell Report does little to negate its culpability in that regard.

Selig and the owners can pat themselves on the back all they want about how far they’ve come, but the truth is that they still have far to go. There still are flaws in baseball’s drug testing program and the fact that the owners are not now nor have they ever been willing to draw a definitive line in the sand with the union to get an unassailable program, even to the point of taking a strike if necessary, is really all you need to know about baseball’s commitment to rid itself of drugs.

This isn’t to let the union off the hook whatsoever, either. Donald Fehr, under the specter of protecting individual privacy, has steadfastly refused to cooperate with the owners on achieving a flawless and comprehensive drug program. In truth, he was protecting the players’ rights to parlay their illegal drug use into bigger and bigger contracts. Fehr’s conduct at every phase, from repeatedly refusing to discuss the issue meaningfully at the bargaining table to instructing the players not to cooperate in Mitchell’s investigation, is all you really need to know about the union’s commitment to rid the game of drugs.

In the meantime, while the powers that be have played their wink-and-a-nod game with the integrity of their sport, the collateral damage continues to mount. The one person I felt truly sorry for on Wednesday was the Clemens family former nanny. To bolster a claim that he supposedly was not at a party hosted by Jose Canseco in 1998 when steroids were discussed, Clemens sought out the nanny to back him up. Though he hadn’t spoken to her at all since 2001, he spoke to her recently, apparently to test her recollection that indeed Clemens was not there. Committee chairman Henry Waxman raised the issue that Clemens conduct in this regard seemed a tad inappropriate. As Waxman said, the proper thing would have been to turn over her name to the committee and let them interview her first, implying, correctly, that Clemens may having been trying to coach the witness.

Though this whole party angle is mostly meaningless, it provides incredible insight to what ultimately is likely to sink Clemens—his hyper sense of bravado. Clemens submitted an affidavit that he was never at the party. He then testified similarly several times until finally hedging later. Of course, he had to hedge when it was discovered that Clemens’ family was at the party. Clemens then offered that perhaps he stopped by briefly to drop them off and then pick them up. Ok, so he was at the party.

And that’s been the pattern throughout this mess with Clemens. He speaks in haughty, definitive tones but then hedges later. He claimed, for example, that he “worked his butt off” (an unfortunate metaphor if ever there was one) and that this unparalleled work ethic is the reason for his success, not shortcuts. In another breath, he admits to shortcuts like a regimen of B12 injections and to popping the painkiller idocaine as if they were tic tacs. He told 60 Minutes that he was advised not to talk to Mitchell when Mitchell asked to interview him but testified that he was never told Mitchell wanted to speak with him. He claims he was raised in a strict drug-free family but didn’t seem particularly outraged at the fact that McNamee administered human growth hormone to Clemens’ wife. He appears to vouch for the credibility of his latest best friend forever Andy Pettitte but then says that Pettitte obviously is mistaken when he claims that Clemens told him that he was using human growth hormone. And on and on it went.

The posturing of the various congressmen during the hearing also was interesting with some on the side of Clemens, others on the side of McNamee. It was interesting mostly because it wasn’t a time for anyone to take sides in the first place. Assuming that a congressional hearing was necessary to resolve the he said/she said allegations of the two protagonists, a mighty big assumption, the only side anyone should have been on was the truth. But just as it does with most of what it does these day, Congress again lost sight of the objective.

While it is virtually impossible at this point to actually prove Clemens took steroids and human growth hormone, it is instructive nonetheless to point out that if the Mitchell Report and McNamee, by proxy, is wrong on this point, it’s the only thing it has been wrong about thus far. As Representative Elijah Cummings asked somewhat rhetorically at the hearing, why would McNamee be truthful about Pettitte and Chuck Knoblauch, for example, both of whom confirmed McNamee’s allegations, and be untruthful about Clemens? Clemens, not surprisingly, didn’t have an answer, probably because there isn’t a good one.

The hearing was a bit of a battle royale between Clemens and McNamee but it’s unclear and probably unlikely that it will ever come to full resolution. Surely one of the two committed perjury and even if Clemens’ inconsistencies point the finger more toward him than McNamee, the chances that this ultimately becomes a criminal matter seem rather slim at this point. Where this issue will be decided, to the extent it hasn’t been already, is in the court of public opinion. And while some may have been persuaded one way or the other by today’s testimony, frankly both Clemens and McNamee came off as losers.

McNamee really has been nothing more than a glorified groupie to Clemens, Pettitte and the others who he “helped.” His usefulness in that regard now thoroughly compromised forever, he’s been discarded like so many other groupies who have come before him and is acting out not partly motivated by revenge. There’s nothing honorable in what he did then and certainly nothing particularly honorable in what he’s doing now. Remember, this is a guy whose initial default was to lie about his involvement in this whole drug mess in the first place. He only started squealing, like they all do, when the heat was closing in.

Clemens in many ways is just as dysfunctional. His dogged and unrelenting pursuit of pitching perfection blinded him to what was proper and what was right. If he didn’t know about McNamee’s little side business, then it was convenient and deliberate ignorance. If he tolerated his own wife’s use of human growth hormone, then he’s a hypocrite to boot. Clemens may have been more media friendly than Barry Bonds, but there is precious other little difference between the two. He is right in one regard, he’ll never get his reputation back nor does he deserve to.

As for major league baseball itself, it can’t act like this never happened simply by congratulating itself on the completion of the Mitchell Report. Baseball has an integrity problem that is no longer just a mile wide. It’s now clear it’s a mile deep as well. There is much it can do to rectify the situation, but acting as if this is all now in the past isn’t one of them. Baseball has now reached rock bottom. It’s time it admitted it and sought help.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Rocks Heading for the Windshield

Whether it is the side effects of winning, as Erik Cassano underscores in his excellent column, or the inevitability of all things Cleveland, the Browns seemingly idyllic “season of dreams” is quickly turning into a series of rocks headed for the windshield this off-season.

One of the first was the announcement last month that ticket prices were going up. The Browns press release was a model of ridiculous understatement and an example of the journalistic sin of burying the lead. It begins by noting that 20% of the “ticketed areas” will not experience an increase, leaving to the to translate that to the fact that 80% will, to the tune of $5 to $10 per seat. It’s the Browns first increase in three seasons, as they would readily tell you, leaving it the average fan to complete the punchline that it’s also the first time in that same period at least that any sort of increase was even justified.

This is not, however, to tweak the Browns about their spin control or fly speck their balance sheet. Most fans intuitively understand that prices increase, more often after a good season than a bad one. The bigger point is that irrespective of how they feel about it, fans will have to dig a little deeper. Whether the product will be worth it may depend on whether the rest of the rocks headed for that windshield actually connect and if so, how much damage they might do.

Entering into the 2007 season, Browns fans were legitimately excited about the possibility, at some point, that Brady Quinn would be ready to take over and eventually be the long-term solution to the quarterback situation that has lingered for as long as the Browns, Part 2 have been in existence. The debate centered on when he should be thrown into the mix, not if, with a bit of time spent on who best could fit the role of third-string quarterback, Ken Dorsey or Derek Anderson

All at once and out of nowhere at the same time, Anderson put together one of the best single seasons of any quarterback in Browns history. He completed 298-527 passes for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns. Only four other times has any Cleveland quarterback attempted more passes. Only five other times has any Cleveland quarterback completed more passes. Anderson’s touchdown total has only been equaled or exceeded twice. Just three times has a Cleveland quarterback thrown for more yardage.

The timing of these achievements couldn’t have been better or worse. On the one hand, it creates what folks like to call a “good problem.” On the other hand, it is still a problem.

But Anderson’s season, combined with his impending status as a restricted free agent, lays open a variety of options that, frankly, the Browns haven’t had in years.

For example, Anderson’s successfully completed season gives the Browns a highly tradable commodity, its first in years. So desperate are so many teams for a quarterback of any accomplishment that it’s likely the Browns can turn Anderson into a number one pick, at a minimum, and possibly much more via a trade.

But trading Anderson requires a leap of faith that Quinn can be at least as good, if not better, in the long term. It’s a leap the Browns have taken several times previously, starting with Tim Couch and ending with Charlie Frye, and have been wrong every time.

The NFL rolls are filled with players who were one or two season wonders. They’re also filled with players who came into the league without much of a pedigree and achieved great success anyway. Right now Anderson fits into the first category and is only a candidate for the second.

The Browns, typically, are trying to hedge their bets as to which is which by offering Anderson a contract that reportedly would span three years and pay around $15-20 million. That won’t get it done mainly because to this point Anderson’s agents think he is more deserving of the kind of contract and money that Tony Romo and Matt Schaub signed for last season. That translates to about $3-5 million more per year and for a few additional seasons than the Browns have currently offered.

It’s quite possible, actually, that the Browns really are letting Anderson and his agents make the decision for them through what most fans would agree are unreasonable demands. By voluntarily painting themselves into this corner, the Browns would then tender Anderson a one-year contract worth around $2.5 million in order to preserve their right to receive compensation, in the form of a first and third round pick, from a team just desperate enough to pay Anderson as if he were Romo or Schaub. It’s probably as much as they could get in a trade anyway.

If that doesn’t occur, then the Browns buy another season to make a decision. If it does occur, then Quinn gets the job by default and Browns and their fans are back where they were entering last season, hoping that Quinn is the real deal. But this time, they’ll have one eye on whatever team Anderson is with, lamenting each touchdown pass and cheering each interception. For a team coming off a 10-6 record and hoping for more, it introduces a new level of uncertainty that no one was anticipating.
The other option is that Browns general manager Phil Savage becomes quickly convinced that Anderson is no one-hit wonder and does give him a longer term deal. That decision would essentially put Quinn on the trading block, although whether the Browns could squeeze both a first and third round pick for him may be a stretch. Still, it’s a decent option, even if not the more preferable of the two.

While the damage may be significant, the quarterback situation has a relatively efficient manner of resolving itself. The same can’t necessarily be said about the case of Kellen Winslow. On the heels of getting into his first Pro Bowl, Winslow let it be known that he’d like his contract renegotiated. Who wouldn’t?

The fact that Winslow would go down this road likely was not much of a surprise to Savage. When Winslow fired his previous loudmouth agents, the Poston brothers, for an even bigger loudmouth, Drew Rosenhaus, a demand for a renegotiation with the subtext of a holdout was as inevitable as a Cavaliers loss to the Denver Nuggets. Rosenhaus has taken virtually every one of his clients down this road, the most notable of which was Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, Terrell Owens. In the process, Rosenhaus almost ruined Owens’ career.

Winslow has built up a great deal of good will with the fans over the past two years by racking up impressive numbers while minimizing his verbal outbursts. He’s not wrong when he notes that his performance over this span has established him as one of the elite tight ends in the league.

But the fans and the internet have a long memory and that doesn’t necessarily help his cause. Winslow didn’t endear himself to anyone when he crashed his motorcycle and missed an entire season and jeopardized his career. In fact, despite his performance over the last two years, he’s still suffering from the effects of that accident and by how much that might shorten an otherwise bright career is a significant unknown.

The fans stood behind Winslow with moral support. The Browns stood behind him with big bucks. But the way in which they did so actually gives Winslow more than a little opening for a self-promoter like Rosenhaus to stake out the higher ground, which is why this situation is so tricky.

The Browns used the hammer of Winslow’s blatant contract violation to wrangle through a contract renegotiation because of the significantly changed circumstances of his injury. Having now recovered sufficiently to perform at Pro Bowl level, the circumstances have again changed, this time in Winslow’s favor. It’s not unfair, even for an abject jerk like Rosenhaus, to suggest that what was once good for the Browns is now good for Winslow. Truthfully, it would be disingenuous in this case for the Browns to take the posture that contracts are meant to be honored, not renegotiated. We may not see Winslow holding out and conducting a press conference while doing sit-ups in his driveway, like Owens, but this could get ugly. The only questions now are when this rock will hit the windshield and how much damage will it do.

The only saving grace in all of this for the Browns is that having chosen to raise ticket prices, they now can use the extra money to buy plenty of insurance. With all the potential cracks coming to their windshield, it looks like they’re going to need it.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Lingering Items--Super Bowl Edition

The euphoria Cleveland fans are probably feeling at watching the Bill Belichick-coached New England Patriots get their comeuppance in Sunday’s Super Bowl will probably be replaced by frustration as soon as it occurs to them that the New York Giants had a record of 10-6, the same as the Browns, entering into the playoffs.

The big difference, of course, is that the Giants got a chance to parlay its 10-6 record into a Super Bowl ring while the Browns were left once again watching from the sidelines.

This isn’t to suggest that the Browns could have made it to the Super Bowl. Hardly. The Browns, even at 10-6, were a seriously flawed defensive team that would never have survived the AFC playoff meat grinder. But on the other hand, the Giants win, coming off an 8-8 season the year before and a bad start that almost got its head coach, Tom Coughlin, fired three weeks into this season, demonstrates that indeed anything can happen come playoff time. This year, anything did happen.

The Giants playoff march was instructive for the Browns and their fans. Playing as underdogs on the road for three straight weeks, the Giants disposed of three supposedly superior teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers. The Packers win was particularly impressive coming as it did in such frigid weather and adverse conditions.

What’s interesting about the Giants 10-6 record is that they lost only one game on the road and five at home. Having become road warriors during the regular season it served them well for the playoffs. Compare that with the Browns. This past season, the Browns failed to reach the playoffs as much as for their inability to win a few very winnable games on the road as anything else. A victory in Oakland, Arizona or Cincinnati would have put them in the playoffs. Two or more victories would have given them a home playoff game. Having finally figured out how to win at home, the next step for the Browns is to win on the road. It’s hard to get to the Super Bowl otherwise, let alone win it.

The other point about the Giants playoff success is that it demonstrated exactly why the worst thing a franchise can do is listen to the insane demands of fans when their ill-conceived and outsized need for instant gratification is not met. If the Giants fans had their way earlier in the season, Coughlin would have been canned during week three and Manning would have been benched. In fact, when it comes to Manning, it’s charitable to say that this year’s Super Bowl MVP had an uneven season, at least until the regular season’s final game. Manning was no better, and in some ways worse, than his previous seasons.

Maybe it was because there were no immediately available viable alternatives or maybe it was because Giants owners tend to be old school, meaning they prefer to make such dramatic changes in the off season. Whichever it was, or even if there was another reason, patience ultimately prevailed and the team and its fans were richly rewarded.

As much as many Browns fans dislike it, that’s the exact message that Browns general manager Phil Savage has been preaching since he arrived and at every opportunity since. The recent extension he gave to head coach Romeo Crennel was done to drive home that point to the team and its fans. Argue all you want about whether or not Crennel deserved the confidence, but from Savage’s perspective he did and he now has the example of the Giants to point to when fans continue to call for Crennel’s ouster and not his coronation. There is something to be said for stability, even mediocre stability.

The faith that Coughlin continued to show in Manning even as he struggled is also helpful context to understanding the Brown’s current quarterback conundrum. Coughlin really didn’t have a viable Plan B at quarterback so in some ways he had no choice but to stick with Manning. But Manning also had a decent pedigree so it made sense that the team would wait as long as possible for him to develop. And when the light finally went on for Manning in the regular season’s final game against New England and then stayed on throughout the playoffs, that patience was richly rewarded as well. Now Eli Manning is as solid in New York as his brother is in Indianapolis. That is something that no one would have imagined even halfway through this season. Again, there is something to be said for stability.

The Browns have two reasonable candidates in Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn but it is simply unrealistic to expect that there won’t be struggles, irrespective of who, ultimately, is anointed the quarterback for the future. But if those kinks are to get worked out eventually, and if stability is to be achieved at that position, it will take an unwavering commitment to allowing the process to take its natural course. Keeping that commitment with young quarterbacks is difficult under the best of circumstances and can be nearly impossible for the coach to keep and the fans to understand when there is another viable quarterback just licking his chops in the background. It introduces a dynamic that Manning, for example, didn’t have to contend with.

Despite what Savage says publicly, it is difficult for any NFL team to tolerate having two starting quarterbacks. It’s true that a team needs depth, but what it really needs is a situation where it has a starter and an established back-up. There is simply no way that either Anderson or Quinn at this point in their careers will be happy carrying a clipboard and waiting for an injury much longer. The Browns may be able to maintain peace, love and harmony with this situation for another season, but not beyond. Given that, it makes more sense now to commit to one, move the other, and find an established back-up who is more than happy to collect a paycheck for taking a few snaps during the week and running the scout team. It’s also the example from the Giants that Savage has to internalize to move this team forward.


One of the keys to the Browns success this season was the rebuilt offensive line, anchored by Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach. Savage is to be commended for the improvements made and the results were dramatic. That being said, the Giants victory underscored the importance of the defensive line and highlighted one of the biggest differences between the Browns and the Giants, despite the teams having the same regular season record.

In the regular season, Tom Brady, like Anderson, was one of the least sacked quarterbacks in the league. The Giants, on the other hand, led the league in sacking the quarterback. When the irresistible force met the seemingly immovable object in the Super Bowl, the object moved. The pressure that Brady felt from the first play forward disrupted the Patriots rhythm and was the main reason history’s most prolific offense could manage only two touchdowns instead of the five they had averaged throughout the season.

Having a top offensive line will continue to serve the Browns well. But watching the performance of the Giants defensive line, Savage now knows beyond any doubt where he must concentrate his efforts this off season for the Browns to really take the next step.

Complain all you want about Belichick, but give the man his due when it comes to the rules. Until yesterday, you’d be hard press to find anyone, in or out of football, who knew that you could challenge a non-call.

Facing a fourth and two with 11 minutes left in the third quarter, the Patriots were in punt formation. As the ball was snapped, the Giants Chase Blackburn still was in the field of play, but just barely. Belichick threw the challenge flag, the replay confirmed, and a retroactive penalty was called. The five-yard penalty gave the Patriots a first down and allowed them to continue a drive. It didn’t result in any points, but had it made the difference you can bet that this move would be hailed near and far as the call of the game. You can bet just as much that the NFL’s competition committee would have worked to change the rule for next season. For now, it will probably just remain an interesting footnote.


The Browns’ Anderson and tight end Kellen Winslow II ought to send the Patriots Brady and Randy Moss postcards from Hawaii. It’s easy to see how the loss on Sunday soured Brady and Moss on playing in the Pro Bowl next Sunday, allowing Anderson and Winslow to make the trip instead. Sounds like a nice vacation for the two, but it also emphasizes how absolutely meaningless the Pro Bowl is and always will be. The players don’t care and the fans don’t watch. With nothing on the line and only injuries to be avoided, one wonders why the league even bothers with this charade. But on the plus side, at least the few fans that care won’t have to put up with Paula Abdul lip-syncing her way through another dreadful song in order to watch the game.

And finally, since this is the last “lingering items” for the season, a question to ponder this off season: If Danny Ferry was the GM of the Browns, would that mean the Browns would have to stand pat going into next season?

Friday, February 01, 2008

An Abuse of Power

There are any number of ways one might choose to conclude that the Super Bowl and all that comes with it has grown beyond surreal to out of control.

For some, the woman showing up at media day wearing a wedding dress and asking New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to marry her may have been the crowning moment. For others, it might have been the Britney Spears-like treatment that the media gave to Brady’s allegedly injured ankle over several days last week. But for me, it was when Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania decided to use the power of his senate office to avenge a grudge he still holds over the Philadelphia Eagles losing to the Patriots in the 2005 game.

The New York Times broke the story on Friday that Specter wants NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Specter chairs, to explain the so-called “spygate” incident. What Specter really wants to know is whether or not the reason his beloved Eagles lost the 2005 Super Bowl to the Patriots was because of any spying during the game. A more obvious explanation for the loss might be the Eagles four turnovers in the game, but some relationship to “spygate” makes for better grandstanding by a disgruntled public official.

Specter wrote Goodell back in November merely asking that he be advised if anything in his investigation of the Patriots showed that they were stealing the Eagles signals during the Super Bowl. It was a fair question that any fan might ask, but coming as it did on officialSenate letterhead was intended to make it appear as though “spygate” was now a federal matter.

But by asking the question as he did, Specter displayed his overall ignorance of the underlying scandal. Putting aside for the moment whether or not stealing signals in a football game is an issue that should ever show up on the radar screen of a U.S. Senator, the Patriots weren’t accused of stealing the New York Jets signals during the game for use in that game. Instead, what they were doing was taping the signals the defensive coach made and then the play that immediately followed for possible use in future games. To the extent it’s even useful to do this, which is highly questionable, it is more so against a division rival that you play twice a season.

Even more to the point, the signals that the Eagles defensive coaches may have been making in the Super Bowl were on public display for everyone in Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville to see. Thus, even if the Patriots were gleaning something useful from the gyrations of an Eagles defensive coach on that day, it would hardly be stealing; more like observing.

Specter seemed a little annoyed that Goodell didn’t respond immediately to his annoying little missive and followed it up with another far more insidious misuse of his public office. In his second letter, Specter introduced the notion that Goodell’s destruction of the case file following the investigation was “suspicious” and that his punishment of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was “insufficient.” Just guessing here, but Specter probably never makes that claim had the Patriots been forced to forfeit the 2005 Super Bowl and the rings instead given to a team that didn’t earn them, such as the Eagles.

If this all seems a little goofy, hold on, it gets better. In the Times story, Specter actually upped the stakes even further when he said that Goodell’s destruction of the tapes was “analogous to the C.I.A. destruction of tapes. Or any time you have records destroyed.” If Specter actually said that with a straight face, then it’s clear he’s lost any perspective or credibility he may have once had, not to mention engaging in a wasteful use of taxpayer money.

Oh where to start? In the first place, the so-called records that were destroyed were not part of an on-going investigation but instead were the work product of a completed investigation. It would be different, I suppose, if the Patriots had destroyed the evidence instead of giving it to Goodell, but by all accounts that didn’t happen. Consequently, all Goodell did, basically, was close a case file upon completion of the task undertaken. In that context, Goodell’s actions are hardly unusual, let alone suspicious.

Further, there is no reason to not give Goodell the benefit of the doubt on why he decided to destroy the case file and all that went with it. As he noted in his response to Specter, he destroyed the tapes and other information that the Patriots had gathered and also had the Patriots certify that no other copies existed, in order to ensure that no competitive advantage could be obtained by the Patriots. In other words, the investigation was complete and no rational reason remained to hold on to the material. Destruction, as opposed to locking the material in a cabinet where it could later come up “missing,” seemed like a reasonable approach to concluding the matter.

Second, rather than tossing out wild accusations against Goodall, Specter is the one that should be challenged on why he thinks it’s even appropriate to compare an insignificant football issue with a serious issue like an on-going investigation into the CIA’s alleged destruction of tapes it made of potentially unlawful interrogation techniques it used on suspected terrorists. If Specter actually believes the two issues are at all on par, then the good folks of Pennsylvania ought to consider recalling Specter now. He’s obviously lost his mind.

To Goodell’s credit Goodell offered a response to Specter that was far more dignified than he deserved. In it he noted that nothing in the investigation revealed that the Patriots stole the Eagles signals during the Super Bowl. As Goodell worte, the only other time the two teams even played during this decade was a preseason game in 2003. Probably to Specter’s chagrin, Goodell stated the obvious when he said that there is no reason to believe that the outcome of the Super Bowl was at all affected by improper taping of the Eagles defensive signals.

This gets us back to the underlying seriousness of the offense. Belichick and the Patriots were rightly punished for violating a league rule against videotaping the opposing team’s sideline during a game. They had been warned previously, continued in the conduct and paid a pretty heavy fine.

But simply because the NFL has the rule doesn’t mean that the rule itself makes any sense. It is more than fair to suggest that the NFL’s rule about taping borders on the idiotic. Even though Belichick obviously felt it would give his team some sort of competitive advantage when playing the Jets down the road, it’s hard to imagine how and I’ve yet to hear a cogent explanation from anyone, including either Belichick or the NFL, on that point. Moreover, it’s not as if a team couldn’t accomplish the same thing anyway by having a member of its staff watch the opponent from across the field, jot down each and every arm gesture or hand movement of a coach and then write down the resulting play. Notably, there is no rule against that nor could there be since, again, all of it is taking place in very public view on every sideline of every stadium every week.

But the NFL is well within its right to establish even goofy rules and enforce them, which it did in this case. But all that doesn’t give someone like Specter the right to overstate the seriousness of the situation in order to assuage his hurt feelings, or that of his constituents, over the failure of their favorite team to win the Super Bowl.

The other salient point that Specter glosses over is that neither Goodell nor the NFL were hiding the material they collected from anyone or trying to stifle any other investigation. Though government agents torturing suspects raises significant legal issues, a paranoid coach taping the public display of an opposing team’s defensive signals raises no legal issues whatsoever.

“Spygate” was and always will be solely a league investigation of a league matter and wasn’t conducted, directly or indirectly, under any sort of Senate or Congressional oversight or mandate. More to the point, the league wasn’t under any legal obligation to even announce that it was undertaking the investigation, let alone under a legal obligation to keep copies of its investigation on the off chance that an equally paranoid senator still holding a grudge might be interested in it several months later. Thus, despite the haughty language used by Specter, there was no destruction of records of an active investigation but the destruction of evidence gathered to ensure it wouldn’t be further misused. It’s akin, actually, to destroying drugs confiscated during an arrest following the trial and conviction of the perpetrator. As a former prosecutor, surely Specter understands this difference.

There is a place, certainly, for governmental oversight of major business enterprises like the NFL or Major League Baseball, particularly where the integrity of the game is threatened. But there is a huge difference between players or officials who gamble and thus might be tempted to fix games, or players who use illegal performance enhancing drugs that can unfairly alter the outcome of the game, than stealing otherwise visible coaching signals on the sideline. If that threatened the integrity of any sport, then baseball is exhibit A where a team trying to steal another team’s hitting or pitching signals is not only not frowned upon, but an acceptable form of conduct.

It’s nice that Specter could find the time in his busy schedule to use the power of his office and the taxpayer-funded resources of the federal government to weigh in on “spygate” and bring Goodall before the Senate Judiciary Committee. After all, it’s not as if a tanking economy or a foreign war with no end in sight that is bankrupting the economy and killing thousands of Americans demands much of his attention.