Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Closet Full of Skeletons

The calendar has barely turned the next page into the second quarter of 2008 and already my favorite story of the year has been published. I may ultimately change my mind come November or December, but right now it’s hard to imagine how anything can top the story in Monday’s New York Daily News that Roger Clemens may have had a 10-year affair with defrocked country singer Mindy McCready, unless it’s the story in Tuesday’s Daily News that McCready isn’t denying it. Now Clemens finally knows what it’s like to be on the business end of a fastball thrown at the head and somewhere a good portion of the baseball world is smirking.

When Clemens sold out his wife during his Congressional hearing by testifying that it was she, not he, taking the performance-enhancing drugs, it wasn’t necessarily hard to see something like this coming. But the smart money was on the dust settling first followed by a painful separation and the inevitability of Mrs. Clemens tearfully telling all to Dr. Phil or Barbara Walters, for a fee, that Roger had his share of Baseball Annies strewn about North America. In other words, Clemens having something akin to Magic Johnson’s love life wouldn’t have been much of a surprise. But an alleged affair that began when Clemens was in his late 20s and his target was still a few years from being legal was a scud. Even Woody Allen and Roman Polanski ducked for cover.

But really, should any of us be surprised? It may not be the Pythagorean Theorem but there is certainly a mathematical precision at work each time a high profile figure with a healthy dose of sanctimony eventually gets his comeuppance. In simple terms, the closer the ratio between the public figure and his public claims of pureness, the higher the likelihood that said public figure will fall by the same sword he wields. Indeed, increase the stature of the public figure and the more spectacular the fall becomes.

Plug in a congressman for example, multiply it by a public crusade against child abuse and exploitation and you get a disgraced Mark Foley resigning over sending sexually explicit messages to teenage boys serving as congressional pages. Plug in a U.S. Senator, multiply it by a public vote to ban same-sex marriages and it yields Larry Craig pleading guilty to disorderly conduct related to his wandering feet inside a stall in the men’s bathroom in the Minneapolis Airport.

In this context, Clemens is just the latest to get hoisted up on his own petard. But what makes this story so rich is how truly self-inflicted and well deserved this all is. Drinking from his own lethal cocktail of an overabundance of self-confidence, an incredible sense of entitlement, and an amount of hubris unknown to the average person, Clemens has been a walking text book in how woefully off-course one can easily veer when dispossessed of reality. So certain that he could spin a more believable yarn than a hanger-on like former trainer Brian McNamee, Clemens was completely blind as to how bad things might get for him when his story got challenged.

Immediately lawyering up and conducting an almost laughable public relations battle for his so-called reputation, Clemens tried to portray himself as the victim of a former friend motivated to lie to avoid prison. The problem is that no one really bought that premise. McNamee’s cooperation was reluctantly obtained in the first place and the only thing between him and prison is truthful testimony. The lies are too easy to discredit. But that’s not the only thing Clemens got wrong. He’s not nearly as beloved as he likes to think he is, a few fawning Congressional sycophants notwithstanding.

Clemens has never been known as a great teammate. He’s arrogant and standoffish, a me-first player in a team-first sport. He’s one of the original carpetbaggers always willing to sell his services to the highest bidder. In his last several years he didn’t even attempt to hide his contempt for his sport and his teammates by treating spring training as a ritual for those of lesser talent and stature than he.

But only the most hard core Clemens deniers think that his yearly retire/unretire ritual was motivated by a strong desire to spend more time with the family. Instead, it’s been openly whispered for years that this shell game was designed to allow Clemens to evade league drug testing in the off season (as if that should ever have been a concern anyway) and come back when he was finally clean.

The reason that these sorts of things were only openly whispered is because Clemens is Clemens. His on the field achievements are among the greatest in the game and cast a large shadow over whatever other baggage he carries. He never lacked for talent, only character, and now those flaws are finally coming home to roost.

It was touching how Clemens played the family card during his Congressional testimony even while missing the abject irony of also acknowledging that his former trainer was spending a little private time in the Clemens bedroom with Mrs. Clemens juicing her up for a Sports Illustrated photo shoot. It’s the same card he played as rationale for filing the suit the defamation suit against McNamee that ultimately is responsible for the revelations regarding his icky affair “family” relationship with a troubled B-list former country star. And as long as that suit continues, expect even more sordid revelations since Clemens’ supposedly stellar reputation is at the heart of the litigation. As they say in boxing, he’s lead with his chin and now it’s open season for anyone with an axe to grind, and there are plenty.

What Clemens doesn’t get is that it’s not defamation if it’s true. If Clemens thinks he was frustrated that more people didn’t buy his Congressional testimony, wait until he finally grasps that even less will buy his explanation of his relationship with McCready. As he’s sorting through this new mess, he should at least stop for the kind of personal reflection that has eluded him to this point.

If he does take that opportunity, then maybe he’ll begin to realize how far he’s sunk when he’s dealing with a public far more inclined to believe an admitted drug pusher—McNamee—and a convicted, drug-addled country singer than a seven-time Cy Young winner.

But personal reflection has never seemed to be much of a Clemens strength, which is why the only chance of a better story coming along this year than the current Clemens saga is if another Clemens skeleton comes dancing out of what’s turning out to be a huge, walk-in closet. And again, most of baseball is smirking.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Jerry Jones and His Deal with the Devil

It’s one thing to dodge the potholes in the road as they come along, it’s a whole other thing to put them in the road yourself. Yet that’s exactly what the Dallas Cowboys are doing by selling whatever might be left of their souls by trading for disgraced former Tennessee Titan’s cornerback, Adam “Pacman” Jones.

Assuming as we must that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones approved this pending transaction, what this proves is that Jones secretly harbors an inner desire to be the NFL’s new Al Davis. Jones, always a bit of a maverick anyway, is further confirming that status by deliberating infecting his team with a cancer that the Titans are only to happy to cure themselves of.

Sure, we’ll hear the usual manure from the usual suspects, in this case Jones as owner and as Cowboys general manager, that he’s both spoken to Pacman and is convinced he’s sincere about turning his life around. It’s essentially the same line George W. Bush used when he said he looked into the soul of former Russian president Vladimir Putin and that’s not working out too well either.

You don’t have to venture too far into the realm of the internets to appreciate the liability that the Cowboys are attempting to take on by essentially taking over the cleanup of this toxic dump. In terms of rap sheets, Pacman’s alone rivals that of the current roster of the Cincinnati Bengals. And that was before the revelation earlier this week that Pacman was paying hush money in connection with his little, ahem, incident in Las Vegas.

Anyone who listened to even a part of Pacman’s radio interview a few weeks back with Michael Irvin, himself no stranger to trouble, couldn’t possibly have come away thinking that “yea, this is the guy we need to have on our team.” Anyone, except maybe Jerry Jones. Someone get him a transcript. Better yet, to appreciate Pacman is to hear him speak, so get Jones the tape. Pacman didn’t so much as own his former troubles as diminish them by laying blame in a somewhat whimsical fashion to his completely understandable obsession with strip joints. Except he likely couldn’t spell obsession and couldn’t define whimsical.

There are any number of variables that go into putting together a successful season. Talent is a given, but it isn’t the end of the rainbow. In a sport that depends on the ability to put a large number of players on the same page, the last thing a team needs is a bunch of rugged individualists, even ones with immense raw talent. One of the great secrets to the success of the New England Patriots hasn’t been overwhelming talent, but overwhelming teamwork. Whether it’s because the players unite behind the common theme of hating head coach Bill Belichick or some other reason, the Patriots are a team first.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, seem hell-bent on disproving the notion. They brought on serial gun nut Tank Johnson while he was still suspended. They also already employ one of the biggest distractions in recent memory, Terrell Owens. All Owens has done over the years and everywhere he’s been is burn every bridge he’s ever crossed, taking a fair share of collateral damage in the process. The fact that Owens hasn’t fully torched all of Irving, Texas thus far is more luck than maturity.

Then there is the matter of the traveling circus that vastly overrated quarterback Tony Romo has become. So proud, apparently, is he of having Jessica Simpson to squire around town that he seems incredibly oblivious to the distractions he’s foisted on his teammates in the process if the little side trip to Mexico he took with the vocally-challend Ms. Simpson during last season’s playoff bye week is any indication.

Sure, Romo would be a fool not to avail himself of the opportunity that his fleeting celebrity status has given him to take the measure of Simpson on a regular basis. But every question he has to constantly answer from a press that can’t tell the difference between news and fluff—“are they engaged?” “is she really as dumb as she seems?”—is another chance he doesn’t have to concentrate on more pressing matters of the day, like how to solve the Packers secondary.

But the Owens/Romo sideshows are about to seem like the halcyon days of yore once Pacman and his entourage arrive in Dallas, which may still be awhile if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell decides he’s still offended by the fact that Pacman felt the urge to frequent a Manhattan strip joint the night before his come to Jesus meeting with the league last year.

Pacman’s mere presence is going to force virtually every person associated with the Cowboys, save maybe the third string ball boy, to constantly respond to what will surely be an endless series of Pacman-related questions. The Dallas media might tire of asking the same questions and getting the rote answers somewhere around next December, but the questions will dog the Cowboys at every stop they make during the season. And that’s assuming Pacman heads straight home after practice. Pacman being Pacman isn’t Manny being Manny. Pacman being Pacman involves late nights, people getting arrested, lawyers being retained and pleas being bargained. In other words, the chance that Pacman won’t be involved in something somewhere is roughly the same as the chance that a clock won’t tick.

Jerry Jones has always come across as the kind of guy so impressed with himself that there is no problem too large for him to handle. Pacman promises to test the depths of Jones’ seemingly unlimited supply of self-esteem and the utter patience of Cowboys fans that have been sorely tested the last two seasons.

This all is good news, of course, for the rest of the NFL East. While Jerry Jones is making deals with the devil, the rest of the division is just going quietly about their business of actually improving the team dynamic.

And if this Pacman thing doesn’t quite work, there’s also some good news for Jones. Odell Thurman was recently reinstated and is probably available and Rae Carruth has to be up for parole sometime in the next several years.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Safe Pick and the Right Pick

If former Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long really wants to show some gratitude for the Miami Dolphins making him the number one pick in this year’s NFL draft, he could start by sending a few hundred thousand of the 30 some million dollars he’s getting in guaranteed money to Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns. If Thomas hadn’t made such a lasting impact at left tackle in his rookie season, the Dolphins would still be negotiating with either Darren McFadden or Matt Ryan.

It’s likely that many will read into Dolphins general manager Bill Parcell’s decision to make Long the first pick as a way of avoiding the lengthy holdout that is common these days when skill players are selected number one. Sort of like when the Houston Texans took defensive lineman Mario Williams with the first pick over Vince Young and Reggie Bush, two far more glamorous players.

There’s probably some of that, just as there’s probably something to the notion that linemen, even those selected first, cost a little less. But the breakout season that Thomas had in Cleveland cannot be overlooked either. When Parcells looks at the roster he inherited, he sees several holes that need to get filled. He could have gone in several directions, including quarterback. Most experts believe, for example, that the upside on Boston College’s Matt Ryan far exceeds that of current Dolphins quarterback John Beck.

If that’s true, it’s true in the same way that Brady Quinn’s upside seems higher than Derek Anderson’s. But when Parcells sees how Thomas (with a huge assist from Eric Steinbach) solidified a Cleveland line that had been a joke for 10 years, he starts to realize that the presence of Long is going to make Beck look a whole lot better, too. In fact, even newly acquired Josh McCown is going to look less like the journeyman he is playing behind Long.

One of the absolute truisms of football from the day it was invented until the last day it’s ever played is that games are won at the point of attack. Control the line, you control the outcome. I’d take a team with a good offensive line and Spergon Wynn as the quarterback every time over a team with a bad offensive line and Tom Brady behind center. You can’t run if there aren’t any holes and you can’t pass with a defensive lineman tugging at your underwear every play. The offensive scheme hasn’t been invented that can overcome an incompetent set of offensive linemen.

The strange thing though is that as surely as virtually every general manager knows this, it’s just as sure that most general managers wouldn’t take an offensive lineman with one of the first 10 picks in the draft, even with a loaded gun shoved into their eye socket. The last time an offensive lineman was taken with the first pick was nearly 40 years ago, in 1970 when the St. Louis Rams took Orlando Pace. The Packers came close when they took Tony Mandarich with the second overall pick in 1989. But exam the USA Today database on players drafted since 1988 and you’ll find far more offensive linemen drafted in the middle to late rounds than in the first three rounds.

Bernie Kosar had his career cut short well before he should have in large part due to general manager Ernie Accorsi’s dogged insistence that offensive linemen are made, not drafted. In Accorsi’s world, indeed in the world in which he operated, drafting an offensive lineman before the fifth or sixth round was, if not folly, then certainly an outrageous luxury. Accorsi continued to try and build a line with late round picks and undrafted free agents because it probably worked for him once or twice. All the while, Kosar took a pounding that beat him out of three or four extra seasons.

While Parcells was probably looking at recent Browns history in deciding that Long was a far less risky pick, he could also have looked a little deeper to see how the Tim Couch pick worked out if he needed further convincing that Ryan, not Long, would actually have been the luxury pick.

Couch may not have ever become a top tier NFL quarterback under the best of conditions, but he never really had much of a chance either. By selecting Couch to play behind a line that was about as skilled as a collection of beer truck drivers pulled from the local union hiring hall, the Browns set themselves up for failure. By then ignoring the line literally until last season, the Browns continued to compound this massive mistake. (To be fair, Browns general manager Phil Savage did try to address the line before last season. The freak injury that still keeps LeCharles Bentley sidelined was a huge blow that was compounded when he then traded Jeff Faine.)

It’s hard to believe that Anderson is a Pro Bowl quarterback but the fact that he is speaks volumes about how quickly the fortunes can turn with a competent offensive line in place. If the Browns would have had any semblance of a defensive line (the other point of attack), they could have gone deep in the playoffs.

There’s a chance, of course, that Long will be much more Tony Mandarich than Joe Thomas, but that chance seems small. For one thing, this isn’t 1989. Steroids use is much easier to detect these days. Long may be viewed as the safe pick, just as Thomas was, but if he plays like Thomas, he’ll prove to be the right pick. With Long, there’s no reason to think that Beck can’t have something approaching the year like Anderson. Without Long and with Ryan instead, there’s no reason to think the Dolphins wouldn’t be back on the clock the minute the next season ends.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Pop Psychology

Ah, the life of the pop psychologist.

Turn on any sports radio talk show, local, national, in China, doesn't matter. Eventually the conversation will get around to the Cleveland Indians 2008 season and its horrible beginnings, in general, and then to pitcher C. C. Sabathia, in particular. Every person practicing medicine without a license, and probably just as many with licenses, all have a theory on why Sabathia is struggling so mightily.

Some blame it on the toll of last season when he threw over 250 innings. Some blame it on his ever expanding waistline. Possibilities, certainly. But by far the most popular theory making the rounds these days is that Sabathia's rather dismal start (and by dismal, I mean truly, madly, deeply, awful) is related to distractions surrounding his contract status. Anything's possible, including the idea that manager Eric Wedge floated the other day that if/when Joe Borowski gets healthy he'll come back as closer. But the idea that instead of concentrating on where to locate his fastball Sabathia instead is spending his time on the mound focusing on where he'll be playing next year and where he'll put all those millions doesn't hold much water.

Short of an injury, there really isn't much Sabathia can do to materially hurt his status as a premier free agent and he knows it. Professional sports has never followed the usual laws of economics, other than maybe supply and demand. And since the demand is always great for pitchers, particularly those with the foresight to throw from the left side like Sabathia, the market will always open it's ever-loving arms wide. In baseball, like every other pro sport, the only thing a bad year gets you is a little less of a raise. You have to be seriously bad for several seasons before the market starts to dry up on you.

The reason Sabathia cut off negotiations with the Indians without even responding to their initial proposal was because he could. Whatever was on the table will still be there, plus a good size more, whenever this season ends. And while the Indians will eventually reach a level beyond which they're budget just won't stretch, others won't be so constrained. Sabathia knows that, too.

Thus, whether he gets his brains bashed in start after start or whether he eventually finds the out pitch that he probably misplaced in his pantry, Sabathia doesn't really have much to worry about when it comes to his next contract. In fact, the only thing that's even arguably distracting to him is how many times he has to answer the question on whether his contract status is distracting.

As for his teammates, that's a whole other matter. Sabathia is a distraction and not just because he's pitching like Travis Hafner is hitting. He's a distraction because he's supposed to be one of the old guard, the leaders that Wedge and general manager Mark Shapiro were counting on to help the younger players through just these kinds of stretches. Instead, he deliberately made himself a lame duck all but guaranteeing that no one would be much interested in what he might have to say—about pitching or anything else.

Though games are played nearly every night, there really is a lot of downtime in the life of a professional baseball player. Those hours get filled up in any number of ways, one of which is surfing the Internet. They can read, or at least most of them can, and even those who can't understand that baseball is a business. They know full well what each other makes just as much as they know what the owner of their team can and cannot afford.

Translate that over to Sabathia's bench mates and you can see how the pieces start to fall in place. They know, just like the average fan does, that the Indians have positioned themselves as a mid-market team with a mid-market budget. They know the Indians history with their own free agents. And most importantly, they know full well that Sabathia sent the Indians a strong signal when he didn't respond to their contract proposal. To them, that's code for “who's got dibs on his locker for next season?”

That's not to suggest that Sabathia's teammates have abandoned him. But unless or until he sends a strong signal that he will sign with the Indians next season, they aren't going to be jumping in any foxholes with him either.

If you want to know why it was so important for Shapiro to open negotiations with Sabathia before the season started, it was just for that reason. He wasn't so much worried about Sabathia's mindset, but rather the reaction of his teammates. Had he waited to address the situation until after the season, it would have created speculation, but that's about it. Instead Shapiro took a calculated risk that right now looks like one of the biggest mistakes he made all of the last off season. By not getting a deal done with Sabathia, Shapiro all but guaranteed that the situation would linger, fester and distract. It's a pall hanging over this franchise that is making its presence felt on the field, particularly when Sabathia is on the mound and even more particularly when he struggles like he's been.

So if it's not the contract, not the weight and not the innings, how else to explain Sabathia's start? I may be working well out of my classification here, but to me, Sabathia looks like he's in a funk, nothing more. It looks worse because it's the opening of the season. Bury this stretch somewhere in late July and it wouldn't get anywhere near the play it's getting right now. He's just unable right now to finish off hitters like he and the rest of us are used to. Rarely are these things the result of any one factor. The chance that there is something mechanically wrong is just as likely as the chance that he's just run into a rash of very patient hitters and right now they are winning the battle. In baseball speak, he's giving in to the hitters. If the All Star break rolls around and he's 0-9 with a 22.87 ERA, then it may be time to sit him down for a heart to heart.
As for the rest of this team, the explanations are harder to figure, but one more game like they had against Detroit on Wednesday night and it will be time to shed payroll and play the kids, as the fans like to say. The main advantage (or disadvantage, depending on your perspective) of having the games broadcast in high definition is that you can actually look into the faces of the players. They looked beat well before that momentous fifth inning. That's the most important issue Wedge has to confront. Nothing is worse than a team that's quit.

Sabathia will come around and if Cleveland's luck holds, that means that he'll throw a no-hitter early next season wearing a White Sox uniform. But if Wedge can't get some life back into his players quickly, the season will truly be lost and all the curbside analysis isn't going to matter or change a thing. Like way too many seasons in Indians' history, come mid-May all the fans will be thinking about is how many days before Browns training camp opens.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


The only thing off was the timing. But even separated by about 45 minutes, the two events that defined Cleveland sports on Monday night were exquisite.

With just about one second left on the clock and his team down by one, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Devin Brown grabbed a rebound, tried the put back and was fouled in the process. As the ball was leaving his hand, the final horn sounded. But to those watching in real time, it looked as though the 76ers had escaped by the slimmest of fractions.

Philadelphia head coach Maurice Cheeks pulled a Brian Billick and hurried his team off the court even as the official reviewed the replay. It didn’t work for Billick any better than it did for Cheeks. When the 76ers reluctantly trudged back out of the locker room, it was with just enough time to watch Brown nail two free throws that gave the Cavaliers the victory 91-90 and the home court advantage in their upcoming playoff series against Washington.

The looks on the faces of the fans remaining in The Wachovia Center were not so much ones of disbelief as they were of resignation and inevitability. It was the same looks, frankly, that Indians fans were wearing about 45 minutes later. Once the replay confirmed that the foul call came with .2 left, 76ers fans just knew Brown would make the free throws and allow the Cavs to slip out of town with the improbable victory.

That same sense of dread permeated the sparse crowd at Progressive Field. When closer Joe Borowski entered the ninth inning with a one run lead, you’d have trouble finding anyone outside of manager Eric Wedge who thought Borowski would save that game. When Boston’s Julio Lugo led off with a double, it’s doubtful even Wedge had any faith in Borowski.

So when Manny Ramirez, of course, appeared in the batters box with David Ortiz, whose current weight far surpasses his batting average, standing on first, the only question was how deep in the count it would be before Ramirez sent a ball into the left field stands. Mercifully, Ramirez didn’t wait long, sending Borowski’s first pitch deep into the night to give the Red Sox the 6-4 lead and, ultimately, the win.

Borowski’s pitch to Ramirez was so slow and so fat, Katie Couric could have sent it to the warning track. Rachel Ray would have probably hit it out. And, just like the 76ers fans lamenting their team’s loss, Indians fans were hardly surprised by the Indians’ result. Borowski coming through would have been a far bigger surprise.

Of the two games, the Cavs victory was probably more important than the Indians’ loss, though it is few days too soon to tell. In the case of the Cavs, it wasn’t exactly a must win situation, but it was close. The victory gave this team that has struggled so mightily on the road this season a much needed home-court advantage against the Wizards. The way it ended may just turn out to be the event that helps this team gel in time for the playoffs.

Going into the 76ers game, it was Cavs fans that actually were feeling the sense of inevitability. To be charitable, the Cavs have struggled on the road. To be perfectly blunt, it would be a toss up whether the odds favored a Borowski save or a Cavs road victory. Throw in the fact that the Cavs were playing on the road the night following a tougher than it had to be home victory against the Miami Heat and the odds actually tip in Borowski’s favor.

But that’s really the point, isn’t it? Nothing has to be inevitable. The Cavs didn’t have to accept the fate their season-long trends dictate. Only they controlled how hard they would play, how deep they would dig and whether or not gaining home court advantage was meaningful. The end result may have been laced with luck, but it was surely the by-product of a larger effort earlier in the evening.

In the case of the Indians, the outcome was as much dictated by what transpired over the previous eight innings as it was by Borowski’s implosion, a fate they didn’t have to accept. The Indians left nine runners on base, four of which were in scoring position. Boston starter Jon Lester was hardly overpowering and was there for the taking. But at this point, the only thing keeping the heat off the Indians woeful offense is the far worse failures of the Detroit Tigers. As just an example, the Indians scored two runs in the fifth inning and then loaded the bases with only one out, chasing Lester from the game. But Julian Taverez came in and struck out both Ryan Garko and David Dellucci. Particularly fitting was that Dellucci was batting for Jason Michaels.

In other words, the game didn’t have to depend on Borowski, it just ended up working out that way. Which is why it ended up working out the way it did.

The real dilemma for the Indians now regarding Borowski is how to fix whatever it is that ails him. As expected, he’s now taking refuge on the disabled list with some sort of undefined arm trouble. But if/when he returns, working him back in won’t be easy. Though he saved 45 games last season, Borowski also proved that he basically can’t pitch in non-save situations. The bulk of his hefty ERA last season came as the result of his getting pushed around pretty hard when the game wasn’t on the line. But Wedge can ill afford to put Borowski back in to save a game, either. Look for Wedge and general manager to go into full stall mode by prescribing for Borowski lots of simulated games and lengthy rehab assignments. In the meantime, you’ll also see lots of bullpen by committee decisions until someone, anyone, emerges that can actually close out a game.

Beyond the outcomes of Monday’s games, the real difference between the Cavs and the Indians comes down to leadership. In LeBron James, the Cavs have one of the most definable leaders in the game. James’ presence, complemented mightily by his play, is uplifting to his teammates and allows them to not always accept the fate they’re handed.

The Indians simply lack that kind of leadership. C.C. Sabathia may be the closest thing to a unifying presence in the locker room as they’ll get by virtue of his tenure, but even the players know he has one foot out the door already. Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner are possibilities, but neither comes across as either imposing or passionate. The rest of the team lacks the requisite resume to be taken too seriously.

That doesn’t mean that the Cavs are headed to the championship this year and the Indians headed for an early fall. But as the results of each become more inevitable, it’s not hard to see why.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Another Chance to Get It Wrong

Major League Baseball is at the forefront of professional sports in ridding its game of illegal drugs, just ask them. Rob Manfredi, executive vice president in charge of labor relations said as much in commenting on what he termed further improvement to what already is professional sport’s best drug testing policy, at least according to Manfredi.

What prompted this most recent self-congratulatory nod was the announcement that Major League Baseball and the players’ union had reached still another agreement regarding its drug testing policy. As reported by ESPN.com, Manfredi said “Going into this negotiation, the commissioner was 100 percent correct that we had the best program in professional sports. These changes just solidify that kind of premier leadership position in my view.”

Hardly. Under the guise of strengthening the current drug testing program, the players union, under the misguided leadership of Donald Fehr, once again outbargained management by using Commissioner Bud Selig’s paper tiger of threat to suspend players named in the Mitchell Report against him by giving MLB the sleeves off their vest. Fehr ensured that no player named in the Mitchell Report would be subject to punishment. To get that concession all they did was have to negotiate around the fringes of a seriously-flawed drug problem that only its authors think is world class.

Nonetheless, ESPN’s major league baseball shill Buster Olney bought the party line when he said on Friday that only an idealist would continue to find problems with baseball’s drug testing policies. If by idealist Olney means anyone with a brain, then a bunch of us are guilty as charged. Olney and his ilk may be weary from the distraction of having to report about baseball’s drug problems, but that is no excuse for not holding baseball accountable for its thumb-sucking on this issue.

As for Manfredi, he probably never really read the Mitchell Report or the various and sundry articles and opinions of real experts who have an opinion that if not 180° different than Manfredi’s is at least 178. See, that’s the problem with Major League Baseball. It’s never shown leadership under Selig in much of anything, particularly when it comes to ridding its sport of drugs. Virtually every action it has taken of any consequence regarding performance-enhancing drugs, including this most recent amendment to the policy, has been under pressure from an outside source. Left to its own indifference, MLB would have simply let Fehr continue to control the dialogue. It’s what it did until Congress showed up.

Undeniably, the latest iteration of baseball’s drug policy is an improvement, but that’s only because it would have been impossible to take a step backward. As I noted just a few months back (see here), when the denizens of baseball first appeared before Congress after the Mitchell Report was issued, Selig took a rather meaningless “bucks stops here” approach given how performance-enhancing drugs were allowed to flourish under his watch. He didn’t so much fall on his sword as shrug his shoulders, which is his wont.

At that Congressional hearing, Selig and Fehr were grilled about some of the more obvious flaws in their program, a few of which they addressed in the new agreement, but not fully. For example, although baseball began banning and testing for amphetamines in 2006, they opened up a therapeutic use exemption that the players are now exploiting with impunity. In 2006, 28 players were able to find their version of Samatha Stevens’ Dr. Bombay to write them a prescription for Ritalin, the amphetamine of choice among discriminating drug users in baseball. In 2007, that number jumped to 107, a number which Congressman John Tierney of Massachusetts labeled as eight times the general population.

Manfredi, responding to that report, seemed flummoxed as much as clueless, claiming he had no idea why the number would jump so precipitously. If Manfredi is really that unsure of how that kind of jump could occur, then he seems uniquely unfit to be in charge of labor relations at the local Dairy Mart, let alone all of Major League Baseball.

Surprisingly, the latest amendment to the drug testing policy didn’t even address this issue. Here’s predicting that Manfredi will be equally surprised when the number of players using the therapeutic-use exemption continues to skyrocket in relation to the additional drugs banned under the amended policy.

One area that the parties did address were the embarrassingly low number of off-season drug tests that occurred, although slightly. Until this latest deal, baseball was permitted to conduct only 60 total off-season drug tests among the 1300 or so players. No need to call the MIT math department to run the calculations on the odds of being tested under that formula. Under the amended program, that number jumps to 375 tests in a three-year period, or 125 a year. That basically doubles the number off yearly off-season tests, theoretically doubling the odds of a player getting tested. That all sounds good but when you’re starting with 60 tests, doubling it is hardly marked improvement. The chance of being tested in the off-season still isn’t likely to scare any drug-using player straight.

Another key flaw in the previous drug testing program that was addressed, although not completely, was the fact that it was conducted in-house with the ability of either management or the union to fire the supposedly independent administrator at any time. Baseball still didn’t move the program to an independent outside agency, as recommended in the Mitchell Report, but did at least protect its administrator by adding a “just cause” provision before his removal by either side.

It sounds good, but in reality all the union needs to do in order to dump the administrator for one more to its liking is to trump up a reason to get rid of the administrator that goes beyond the current standard of not liking the cut of his jib. How hard can that be? After all, this is the same sport that pretty much accepted that the Indians’ Paul Byrd needed his dentist to prescribe for him human growth hormone in order to address a pituitary problem. Apparently Byrd’s gynecologist was unavailable.

But before we get too overridden with cynicism, let’s remember that baseball and its union decided that each of the top 200 draft prospects in the annual amateur draft would be subject to drug testing. If a player tests positive, he’s eligible for selection. If a player refuses, he can’t be selected. Under that rubric, why would a player ever refuse? Presumably, a positive test might impact a prospect’s draft position, but remember you’re dealing with major league teams here. Character, including prior drug use, is much further down the list of considerations in drafting or signing a player, above legal blindness, well below on base percentage or velocity.

Not surprisingly, the experts aren’t satisfied with baseball’s latest drug turn. According to the Associated Press, Dr. Gary Wadler, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s committee that determines the banned substances list sad “This still falls significantly short of the mark, no matter what internal bureaucracy they've patched together.” Wadler was particularly critical of the fact that baseball’s policies still do not call for blood testing for human growth hormone and for not turning the testing over to an outside agency.

But Wadler, too, is apparently just some wide-eyed idealist because if Major League Baseball says it has the best testing program in professional sports than it must be true. So drinks all around. Kudos to Selig, Manfredi and Fehr. It is cause for celebration, particularly if you’re a major league ballplayer. They should be gratified to know that while their leaders may not have materially improved their regrettable history with coddling drug use in their sport, they did manage to insure that as long as they’re in charge, every player will remain a drug suspect.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Truth Squad

If you follow a team long enough, there are just some truths you know. They may not be things you can necessarily prove or even things that the team would readily admit. But you know them nonetheless. And most of the time, unfortunately, the truths are as harsh as they are bitter.

When Art Modell owned the Cleveland Browns, for example, you just knew that the team would find a way to fall short in big games. Maybe it was because Modell tried to hard to bring a winner to town and thus misallocated his dwindling resources or maybe because he was too impetuous or maybe it was a little of both, but Browns fans knew they were always going to be disappointed under Modell one way or another. His decision to move the team to Baltimore was just the crowning blow.

With the Cleveland Indians these days and under this management, the list seems to be growing ever longer. First up is closer Joe Borowski. Irrespective of the fact that he saved 45 games last season, Indians fans know it would be a mistake to rely on him. They literally cringe at the thought of his getting the ball in a crucial game seven.

USA Today on Wednesday ran a feature on Borowski and Todd Jones, the Detroit Tigers closer, both castoffs of the Tampa Bay Rays and somewhat twin sons of different mothers. The point is that neither is an elite closer by conventional standards, which is the key to the fans indifference to their accomplishments.

According to Indians pitching coach Carl Willis, Borowski apparently has lost some velocity on a fastball that wasn’t all that fast to begin with. Whether or not that is alarming is a matter of context. Borowski, like Jones, doesn’t rely on heat. He relies on location and disrupting a hitter’s timing in order to get outs. He’s been relatively successful in that regard, but with him until the final out is actually registered you’re never really it ever will.

The situation with Borowoski actually reveals another truth that Indians fans really know. No matter what manager Eric Wedge or general manager Mark Shapiro might say to the contrary, you just know they’ve never really had much confidence in Borowski either. In fact, you really get the sense that the worst thing about last season to Shapiro and Wedge was not losing to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series but that Borowski led the league in saves. It kept them from looking elsewhere in the offseason. The USA Today story just highlights why they lack confidence in Borowski and in that, though, they’re not alone. As the USA Today story notes, both Borowski and Jones have been released twice.

The fact that Borowski wasn’t brought in the close out the Indians lone win in Anaheim earlier this week was chalked up by Wedge as more related to starting pitcher Jake Westbrook’s pitch count than the fact that Borowski had colossal meltdown the night before. Sure it was. Which brings up another truth, this one regarding Wedge.

Despite his age, Wedge is an old school by-the-book manager. The next time he goes with a gut instinct over what the Big Book of Managerial Strategy tells him to do will be the first time. That’s why his not using Borowski the other night was so significant in terms of underscoring his lack of confidence in his closer.

Any Indians fan can tick off at least a dozen instances off the top of their heads when a more instinctual manager than Wedge would have stuck with a pitcher with a hot hand over bringing in the next reliever in line simply because he was left handed as was the next batter. This isn’t a knock on Wedge necessarily so much as to highlight the disingenuous excuse he gave for not using Borowski. Fans aren’t that stupid, nor would they even necessarily disagree with Wedge or Shapiro about Borowski. So why sugarcoat it? It’s almost as if Wedge is afraid to reveal that there is more to him than the sum of his parts.

Just as Indians fan know that the support of Borowski inside the front office is shaky, they also know that Shapiro will continue to fall short in his quest for a more classic closer. It’s what he does. As important as that role is, Shapiro’s priorities have always trended more toward starting pitching and middle relief. When you’re wrestling with the kind of budget Shapiro has to work with each season, filling out the roster becomes a matter of priorities that all can’t get filled. Invariably, Shapiro will talk himself into spending money elsewhere even as he craves the next Goose Gossage.

Another thing that Indians fans just know is that Shapiro and Wedge have a preference for veteran role players rather over young players, almost irrespective of pedigree. To an outsider, this may seem like a ridiculous proposition and for proof they’ll point to center fielder Grady Sizemore and even second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera. You can argue this one all day with the guy on the barstool next to you if you want, but Indians fans would tell you and they’d be right that both Sizemore and Cabrera were reluctant additions that have worked out.

More typical of the kinds of players Shapiro and Wedge are more comfortable with are Jason Michaels, David Dellucci. At this point, most fans can no longer distinguish between Michaels and Dellucci. For the record, Michaels is the one with the lifetime .277 average, Dellucci is the one with the .260 average. Both are what might be termed “nice” players, but neither is anything special nor will they be capable of sporadic good play. Either is the kind of player that tends to fill out a major league roster, but having both of them isn’t exactly a luxury. It’s more an indictment.

Watching Wedge put both in the lineup recently is the quintessential Wedge being Wedge. Rather than watch a young player like Franklin Gutierrez struggle Wedge apparently much prefers watching established mediocrity do the same thing. Maybe they’re good in the clubhouse. At least that’s the excuse fans were fed when it came to Aaron Boone and Trot Nixon.

Another place this kind of veteran over youth thinking is playing itself out is in the Tribe’s fourth starter, Paul Byrd. Whether either Shapiro or Wedge want to admit it publicly, the fans know that Byrd is pretty much done. He can still get hitters out for the most part and will still give the team a bunch of innings, but what’s really the point?

Byrd was 15-8 last season, which is somewhat like Borowski getting 45 saves, so the case for not using Byrd isn’t easily made on the surface. But just as there are always those pitchers that never seem to get run support, Byrd was one of those pitchers that always seemed to throw on the days the Tribe’s offense came alive. His 4.38 ERA last season wasn’t particularly impressive so something else must have gone right.

What the fans really know about the Byrd situation, indeed the whole veteran presence thing that Shapiro likes to tout, is that this is a budget issue masquerading as a philosophical imperative. If there is one thing Shapiro has specialized in since he became general manager, it’s taking a flyer on some other team’s previously injured castoffs. They cost less than premier free agents and thus the risk/reward equation is tilted much more favorably toward the Indians. This is all well and good, for as far as it goes, but when the roster starts filling up with these kinds of players at the expense of developing the prospects the team otherwise highly touts, it gets a tad frustrating to the average fan.

But for all these truths that Indians fans believe are self-evident, there is only one question they’re really interested in having answered and that is when, if ever, the skies will clear, the seas will part, and they’ll get their World Series pennant. It’s never easily answered, of course, but a good start will certainly come when the Indians stop living up to the truths that aren’t so much setting them free as holding them back.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Lost Weekend--Almost

Well, at least they avoided the sweep. But no one outside of Cleveland Indians announcer Matt Underwood actually believes, as Underwood said after the final out Sunday, that all is once again well with the Indians. Rather, had the Indians found a way to once again lose to the Oakland As, more than a few flat screens around northeast Ohio would have been in need of the Best Buy Geek Squad.

Until the Tribe found a way to squeak out Sunday’s 2-1 win, the highlight was the fact that only two of the three games found their way on local television. Sitting through two of them was more than enough to bring back a whole host of last season memories of what this team looks like when it doesn’t hit. It isn’t pretty in the same way that a head-on car crash isn’t pretty.

If there was a bright spot, and geez that would be hard to find, it had to be Cliff Lee, who pitched twice as well as the rest of the team played. For most of the game, it looked like it was Lee’s turn in the “hard luck loser” box pitching for a team that was treating Oakland’s Joe Blanton like he was Josh Beckett.

Sticking with the Cliff Lee theme for a minute, in a weekend that was discouraging on several levels Lee looked nothing like the pretender who was up there last year nibbling at the corners, treating every hitter as if he was David Ortiz and otherwise getting his brains beat in every five days until he took up permanent residence in Buffalo. In his first start of this season, Lee looked mostly confident and mostly willing to challenge the awfully young As lineup. If that seems like faint praise, it’s really not considering that the rest of the Indians lineup was much less willing to take on that challenge for most of the three game series.

A microcosm of the weekend’s offensive futility was the 7th inning of Sunday’s game. After Jason Michaels grounded out, Andy Marte and Kelly Shoppach singled. The As then walked Grady Sizemore, the only Indians player putting together decent at bats these days. Asdrubal Cabrera was up next and hit a perfect double play ball to As first baseman Daric Barton. Barton bobbled it long enough to keep the Indians out of the double play, although Barton was able to get Cabrera at first. The Indians, however, tied the game at 1-1. Give Cabrera the gift RBI.

With first base open, the As decided to intentionally walk Travis Hafner, which made some sense historically but not if you have access to the hitting charts of Hafner’s last 140 or so games, bringing up Ryan Garko, who traditionally hits Blanton well. After falling behind in the count, Garko walked on a 3-2 pitch to bring home the Indians second run. That brought on Santiago Casilla who proceeded to strike out Jhonny Peralta.

If you’re on optimist, you’d say at least the Indians took the lead. If you’re a realist, you know that this was the Indians best opportunity to break out of the offensive slump that’s gripped them over the last four games. Instead, they ended up with two runs as the result of an error (though it won’t appear in the box score as such) and a walk. The Indians didn’t come any closer to scoring the rest of the game and were left to protect what was a tenuous lead at best.

But the reason the Indians avoided the sweep is the reason they have a chance to be special—good pitching. When Lee was done after 6 2/3 innings, the pitching triumvirate that was so strong last season, Rafael Perez, Rafael Bentancort and Joe Borowski kept the As off the board. In truth, they were hardly challenged.

Indians Manager Eric Wedge, never one to register much of a pulse publicly, nonetheless hit the nail on the head, the best hit of the weekend actually, when he said that that the main problem with the offense is the lack of quality at bats. In each of Friday’s and Saturday’s losses, the Indians struck out 10 times. Not every strike out occurred while the Indians batter had his bat on his shoulder, it only seemed like it. And it wasn’t as if they were facing the Red Sox. Justin Duchscherer, which is at least as hard to spell as it is to say, baffled the Indians on Friday and teammate Dana Eveland, another pitcher unknown outside of the most hardcore of fantasy league players, did likewise on Saturday.

On Sunday, all Blanton did was what he normally does, give up hits. The only problem is that other than the aforementioned 7th inning, the Indians couldn’t string them together. In fact, as a measure of the lost weekend that the Tribe offense had, only twice in three games did it have two consecutive hits in an inning, the 7th on Sunday and the 6th inning on Friday. In fact, Friday’s 6th inning was a whole lot like Sunday’s 7th. Shoppach led off the inning with a single. Sizemore followed with another. Cabrera walked to load the bases, bringing up Peralta who hit into a double play, brining home a run. Hafner was up next and struck out looking, naturally.

The obvious counterpoint to all of this is that the season’s just six games old. There always are going to be stretches where it seems like every opposing pitcher is throwing softballs and stretches where it seems like they’re throwing BBs. The sheer length of the season is often underappreciated leading to drive-by analysis that lacks context. But on the other hand this is a team that is largely a carryover from last season and its weekend offensive struggles seem much more like a continuation of a pattern firmly established than a typical seasonal blip. If Tribe General Manager Mark Shapiro were more like Browns General Manager Phil Savage, he already would have seen enough, either David Dellucci or Jason Michaels or both would be on their way to Seattle and Ben Francisco would be on his way from Buffalo.

But the one thing that you can’t ever look like you’re doing in baseball is panicking. And that’s exactly what it would look like if Shapiro were to acknowledge what everyone can see is true—that without more offensive production from their outfield, the Indians are going to have a lot of hard luck losing pitchers this season.

It’s true that the Indians best hitter, Victor Martinez, sat out his fourth straight game, but his presence isn’t going to solve everything or even most things. Offensively, this is a flawed Indians line-up and will remain so as long as guys like Michaels, Dellucci and Andy Marte get significant playing time. Throw in the disturbing tendencies of Peralta to take weeks off at a time, Casey Blake being Casey Blake, and Hafner still unable to return to the form he had before he got married and you can see why the Indians scored six runs all weekend against a very average Oakland team.

But baseball, like golf, always offers a chance for immediate redemption. For the Indians, they’ll have to find it in Anaheim against a team far better than the one they faced this weekend. And if all goes as it usually does in baseball, then the Indians will end up averaging 10 runs a game against the Angels. But if things don’t turn around then, don’t look for it for awhile for after the Indians board that charter plane following Wednesday’s afternoon getaway game, they’re headed back to Cleveland to face, again, that dynamic one-two punch of Eveland and Duchscherer and the mighty, mighty As.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A Matter of Economics

Call it a case of Cleveland envy. How else to explain the headline in Wednesday’s sports section of the USA Today saying that the Detroit Tigers are basically in a dead heat with the New York Mets for the second highest payroll in baseball?

Apparently the reality of coming up short against the Cleveland Indians last season in the only place that matters, the standings, was enough to send Tigers owner Mike Illitch back to his calculator and his bank book. The Tigers couldn’t beat the Indians last season with a payroll that was $34 million higher, so perhaps his thinking is that his Tigers can get it done this year with a payroll that is not almost $60 million more.

It’s not as if Detroit is enjoying an economic boom that is somehow eluding the rest of the country. If anything, the Detroit area is being hit harder than most. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Detroit metro area had the highest unemployment rate in the country in February at 7.7%. The Big Three auto makers continue to bleed money like a room full of hemophiliacs with a knife cuts. The foreclosure crisis hasn’t missed Detroit. In short, nothing about the Detroit area economy looks positive for the foreseeable future.

Yet there the Tigers are spending like Paris Hilton in a Louis Vuitton boutique, hell bent on winning a pennant whatever the cost. According to the analysis by USA Today, the Tigers 2008 payroll, which stands at $137.7 million, is but a mere $100,000 behind the Mets. The Yankees, of course, dominate at well over $200 million.

The finances of the Tigers aren’t exactly open for public consumption so it’s somewhat hard to know what extent Illitch may be dipping into his personal fortune in order to fund this project. But it’s fair to presume that he’s playing with more than just the house money. At an average ticket price in the mid $20 range in Detroit and an anticipated attendance of around 3 million for the season, the Tigers can’t make payroll on ticket prices alone. Luxury boxes, concessions and local broadcast rights fees figure into the mix but it still hard to fathom that those other revenue streams can completely make up the difference.

Thus while Illitch’s view on what it takes to get to the Promised Land seems rather obvious, it’s an economic model that not many other teams are able or willing to follow, certainly not the Indians. Wherever one comes out on the issue of whether or not an owner has an obligation to spend some of his own money to keep pace each year, it is at least clear that the Indians’ owners, Larry and Paul Dolan, like many others don’t view the quest for a World Series ring as necessarily compelling that sort of outcome. That’s not a criticism, just a fact.

Though that is always going to be an issue with a certain segment of the fan base in Cleveland and predates the Dolans, the one issue that really was grinding at many Cleveland fans was the Dolans’ acknowledgement that more money ultimately would be needed to get the Indians over the hump and that they would spend what it took to make that happen when the time was right. To many fans, the time never seems right.

As evidence, there was the surprising 2005 season where a final week collapse kept the Indians out of the playoffs. The Indians seemed on the verge but instead dumped payroll in 2006, angering both players and fans who thought the time certainly seemed right. But if you’re going to ding the Dolans for that, which is fair, you also need to acknowledge they slowly started to turn it around by signing a variety of its players to long term deals. Not all of these investments have yet paid off, but building from within is a legitimate business plan.

In furtherance of that plan from last season to this, the Dolans increased the payroll from $61.6 million to nearly $79 million, an increase of nearly 30%. The problem though is that the Tigers increased their payroll by over 40%. The Indians already were struggling to keep pace with their rivals. The gap just got bigger.

While you’re at it, you might as well throw in the other big spender in the AL Central, the Chicago White Sox. For 2008, the White Sox increased payroll “only” around 20%. Sure, that means that the Indians closed the payroll gap on the White Sox a bit, but it’s a rather ridiculous point of reference. In 2007, the White Sox payroll was over $108 million and this season it’s well over $121 million, meaning that the Indians trail still the White Sox in payroll by the equivalent of two Derek Jeters. They trail the Tigers by about three Manny Ramirezes.

The question that remains unanswered by either of these situations or, more generally, the massive payrolls disparities that exist in baseball, is how this ultimately will play itself out on the field. In other words, how meaningful is the payroll gap?

On pure talent, the Tigers and the Indians seem pretty evenly matched and both ahead of the White Sox. And the impending departure of C.C. Sabathia notwithstanding, the Indians seem well positioned to compete favorably with both teams on talent for the next few years as well. In that context, the payroll disparity between these teams seems rather irrelevant. In fact, a case can be made if the Tigers chase of the Indians can’t be overcome purely by spending, then Illitch is either a fool or closer to implementing a dramatic payroll cut sooner than most Tigers fans might realize. Given the recent commitment he made to Miguel Cabrera, the former seems more the case than the latter.

But even if it’s somewhat irrelevant as between these three teams, that doesn’t mean payroll disparity is completely irrelevant in baseball. The remaining two teams in the AL Central, Minnesota and Kansas City, actually cut payroll in 2008. Last season, both the Twins and the Royals had higher payrolls than Cleveland. This year, each is some $20 million behind Cleveland and some $80 million behind Detroit and no one gives either the Twins or the Royals much of a chance to compete for a divisional title. On the far end of the scale lives the Florida Marlins, whose team payroll is less than what the Yankees pay Alex Rodriguez. You could get better odds on Ralph Nader winning the presidency than you could get on Florida winning the World Series.

There is always going to be the debate over just how big a difference payroll ultimately makes. Every year, a smartly run lower budget team finds its way into the playoff mix while a corresponding high budget team craps all over itself, so the correlation between payrolls and victories isn’t perfect. But the trends between a high payroll or at least a consistently growing payroll and sustained success are unmistakable. Like the larger economy, in baseball the rich just get richer while the poor are left with cake.

For now, this may not be as much of a concern in Cleveland as it might be elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a concern, one that ultimately it impacts every fan. Unfortunately, until baseball as a whole begins to feel the same economic pinch that its fans are feeling every time they head to the gas station or the grocery store, don’t look for it to change. But if baseball doesn’t start doing a better job of policing itself, this may come to pass much sooner and hit much harder than the owners ever thought possible.