Monday, May 31, 2010
When the Cleveland Indians were busy trying to win games in spring training while other, more experienced teams were simply getting in shape, there was more than a few hints of optimism among local fans that perhaps this team was better than anyone anticipated.
Well past the quarter pole of another depressing baseball season and this team is exactly as anticipated. Not better, not worse, but right where a team with these kind of players ought to be. In last place and lucky to win 1 out of every 3 games.
If your glass is half full maybe you can put some of the blame on the injuries to Grady Sizemore and Asdrubal Cabrera, both out several weeks with serious injuries. But it's not like Sizemore was tearing it up before he went down. He looked mostly lost at the plate but at least was playing solid defense. Cabrera was one of the bright spots of the season.
Manager Manny Acta indicated the other day that after the All Star break, the shuttle between Columbus and Cleveland would be running full time and non-stop. That begs the question, of course, of why not now? One of the abiding mysteries of this season is general manager Mark Shapiro's dogged insistence on trotting out all manner of retreads along side the prospects he collected when raffling off the few good players the Indians used to have. Apparently the few Indians fans willing to pay to see this team will just have to be patient a little bit longer.
There's a tendency when things are going this bad for a team for fans to lose perspective. That's why I suspect more than a few people will think this is maybe the most miserable baseball season they've ever seen. I'm not going to argue with anyone who wants to ponder franchise lows, but in truth all this season feels like is just one of the dozens this franchise has put together in the last 5 decades.
You can pick whatever reference point you'd like, but personally I like to start with 1959, a year in which this team won 89 games and finished second in the American League, 5 games behind the Chicago White Sox. That year the Indians also finished 10 games ahead of the Yankees. It looked like the beginning of something positive.
It would be 6 more seasons before the Indians finished above .500. Their 87-75 record in 1965 was good for a lousy fifth place finish. Three seasons later they finished above .500 again, going 86-75 in 1968 for a third place. It would be another 7 seasons before they'd break .500 again. You get the pattern.
The thing to remember, though, is that in each of those blue moon seasons when the Indians would actually be competitive, the seasons that followed were absolutely horrendous. For example, after the Indians won 86 games in 1968, they won only 62 the next season. Then in 1971 they won only 60. Indeed their best season between 1968 and 1976 was when they went 79-80 in 1975. That's when the league didn't care much about teams actually completely a full 162-game season.
Then, of course, came the even darker ages. Between 1977 and 1991, the Indians lost 90 or more games 6 times and in 3 of those seasons they lost at least 100. There were also seasons of 89 and 87 losses. It was pretty hopeless, desperate times.
Then came the strike-shortened seasons of 1994 and 1995, the move to Jacobs Field and the beginning of what is now known as the golden age of the franchise. Since 1995, the team has been in the playoffs 7 times. In the 94 seasons prior to then, they had only been in the playoffs three times, winning the world series twice and losing, in devastating fashion, the 1954 in four straight despite having one of the best pitching staffs in baseball history.
It's pretty clear that the golden age was brief and has since ended and the only argument is when. When history is written, most will point to the 2007 season when the Indians collapsed against the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS after holding a 3-1 lead. It's not just that the Indians lost that series but it was the disheartening, soul-sucking manner in which it happened. Seemingly invincible in games 2, 3 and 4, the team collapsed and was never even in any of the next 3 games. I'd say it was a collapse of historic proportions but then I saw the Cavaliers lose to the Celtics this season in a similar manner so it's all perspective I guess.
You could actually make the case though that this franchise really turned in a much different direction as far back as 2001. After losing to Seattle 3-2 in the divisional series, the Indians have had only two winning seasons, 2005 and 2007. With the benefit of hindsight, both look more like an anomaly than a concerted effort to keep this franchise competitive with the top tier of the league.
Consider, for example, that following each of those seasons the Indians almost stubbornly refused to make an additional, but perhaps financially costly move or two to push themselves over the top. Each time the team regressed.
At the time it was just frustrating. But now, in context, you can see more clearly see that those moves would have deviated from the plan.
The plan was launched when Larry and Paul Dolan purchased the team. Hamstrung initially by a payroll they inherited, the Dolans wth Shapiro as their implementer have been in a long but steady retreat mode, convinced that baseball's spiraling economics could bankrupt them if they weren't careful.
Having become convinced that they couldn't change baseball's fractured economics, they instead have embraced them by becoming in word and deed a small market team that that would be competitive, if ever, when the moons aligned and prospects all got good at the same time. So far their reach hasn't come close to matching their vision.
Plagued by poor drafting and poor trading, Shapiro has mostly a mess in front of him at the moment and he can't find the his broom.
As you look at this Indians team at the moment is there any player that really excites you and makes you think that perhaps he's the next Evan Longoria or Albert Pujols? Players develop at different rates and perhaps it's not fair to judge players like Lou Marson, Luis Valbuena, Lou Marson, Matt LaPorta and Mike Brantley at the moment, but is there anything about any of their games that makes you think, hey, once this guy gets it figured out watch out?
Jason Donald brings a certain energy to a team in desperate need of some, like a can of Red Bull to a college kid around 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night and Trevor Crowe has had his moments. But right now the only two young players on this team that seem worth getting excited about are Shin-Soo Choo and Cabrera, maybe Fausto Carmona as well. If you want to stretch it, maybe Mitch Talbot, too.
The question is whether this is enough to build a team around. At the moment it hardly looks like it, at least in the hand of the current regime. Shapiro, who has been on his job long enough to be fairly judged, hasn't made the grade. For every one or two decisions that have turned out well, 10 others have been colossal mistakes. As general manager's go, he's essentially Luis Valbuena, meaning that he'd need his next 50 or 60 key decisions to be on the money just to get himself back to the Mendoza line.
Going into today's game against the Yankees, the Indians are 18-30 and already have no chance of finishing at .500. That will make it two straight seasons. One more and they will tie the longest such streak in the so-called golden era. It seems as inevitable as making it four straight the season after that.
Maybe this isn't the most depressing stretch of baseball Cleveland has ever experienced but that's only because this has been a franchise that's been historically depressing. There's simply too much bad baseball in its bloodstream to get all worked up about the current state of affairs.
You could say that the Indians of today are at least better positioned to emerge sooner than their counterparts of the 1970s because at least this team seems to have an overriding plan. But what's really the difference between a good plan poorly executed and a poor plan well executed? To the fans, not much.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
Thursday, May 27, 2010
It used to be that the biggest thing the University of Michigan football program worried about was whether or not it had enough firepower to compete for a national title. Now its chief concern is whether it can effectively stay one step ahead of the law.
After the Detroit Free Press last fall published a series of stories about various potential NCAA infractions within the Michigan football program under new head coach Rich Rodriguez, followed by the usual official but vague denials and the requisite teeth gnashing by the Michigan faithful, it turns out that the smoke really was coming from a fire blazing inside the program.
After conducting its own investigation, the University of Michigan slapped its own self on the wrist with a bunch of mostly meaningless “sanctions” as a way of wiping away the mess that Rodriguez visited upon its football program starting about 20 minutes after he got the job in December, 2007.
The story started when some of Rodriguez’s own players outed him and his staff for a variety of matters including having them practice in excess of NCAA imposed time limits. Once the NCAA got done with its preliminary investigation, it determined that Rodriguez exceeded the number of authorized coaches by 5, permitted staff members to monitor and conduct supposedly voluntary summer workouts, and had a graduate assistant coach lie to NCAA investigators about his role. The NCAA also accused Rodriguez of not monitoring his program closely enough and for essentially bullying the university’s compliance staff into not nosing around.
At the time the university promised to investigate but mostly downplayed the seriousness of the inquiry despite recent violations by its basketball program that threatened to turn the football allegations into a loss-of-institutional-control case. Rodriguez, ever the smarmy ne’er do well, admitted to nothing and said that hypothetically if violations occurred then it was all just one big misunderstanding.
Some misunderstanding. Fulfilling the prophecy of its knee-jerk reaction to the allegations in the first place, the university admitted that indeed infractions occurred, several in fact, but it’s all pretty minor stuff. Now a cynic might suggest that Michigan is downplaying the seriousness of this all because it doesn’t want to be labeled a repeat offender by the NCAA. But why be cynical? Let’s just give the big fat benefit of the doubt and let the facts do most of the talking.
At the very least, the investigation Michigan conducted revealed some sobering realities. Michigan has never had any allegations in the 100+ years of its program, that is until Rodriguez arrived. Moreover, it’s not as if Michigan admitted only to one or two items. There were multiple violations on a whole host of issues ranging from improper conduct of assistant coaches to poor recordkeeping to an internal compliance department that was subservient to the football program to an assistant who lied during the investigation. For all that to surface in the less than two years under Rodriguez doesn’t speak well for anyone associated with the university no matter how minor you think the violations might be.
As a result, Michigan self-imposed a variety of very minor penalties such as cutting practice time, cutting the number of assistant coaches and putting itself on probation. What exactly probation means isn’t quite clear because the university didn’t bother to explain it any better than that. Let’s just say that they didn’t vow to keep themselves out of any bowl games or cut scholarships or do any other kinds of acts that are usually the hallmarks of substantive probation.
The problem with the university’s response is that they are so busy detailing the differences between each cattail that they don’t realize they are in the middle of a swamp that Rodriguez brought to them. There’s a lot of “everybody else does it” to their defense even as they disclaim any attempt to justify their actions on the basis of other programs’ alleged violations.
They talk about how Rodriguez has increased the number of so-called quality control coaches (essentially paid go-fers) from what is was under Lloyd Carr but then say, hey, every team has lots of them. Then conveniently buried in a footnote is an acknowledgement that virtually none of these quality control types have had the requisite training or certifications they needed to be engaged in the activities they supposedly were responsible for.
It begs the question, what were they really doing? The university doesn’t address this point despite how central that really is to the underlying allegations that these go-fers were essentially spies for Rodriguez and the rest of his staff when NCAA rules won’t allow them to be around, such as during supposedly voluntary summer workouts or extra film sessions.
Something that’s bound to get the notice of NCAA investigators reading the university’s response is how quickly the university was willing to throw its own compliance staff under the bus in favor of trying to preserve Rodriguez’s credibility, a nearly impossible task at this point. The university acknowledges that its compliance staff asked the right questions of Rodriguez when it inquired about what exactly these quality control coaches were supposedly doing and why certain forms weren’t getting filled out but then blames that same quality control staff for not following up when Rodriguez and his staff stonewalled them for answers. That’s like blaming an assault victim because the 911 operator forgot to dispatch his call to the police.
The university’s considered decision to blame the compliance staff and not Rodriguez is all part of the larger defense of Rodriguez. Specifically the university goes to great lengths to deny any allegations that Rodriguez failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the program despite the numerous violations it admits to.
The university attempts to reconcile the conflict between the numerous violations and their belief that they nonetheless don’t have a culture of non-compliance by essentially admitting that instead they merely have a culture of stupidity. They suggest that the NCAA rules are just so gosh darn hard to understand sometimes and that Rodriguez is trying, he really is.
I’d say the university is completely tone deaf both in its official response and in what it said during its recent press conference as to the seriousness of the allegations but they are abject apologists compared to Rodriguez. Forced by the NCAA to issue his own response to the allegations made against him, Rodriguez goes to great lengths to put it all into his version of context. And that version? Compliance isn’t a one person job. A lot of people didn’t do their jobs and poor Richard was just one cog in that wheel of misfortune.
Rodriguez tries to distance himself from most of what occurred by saying that heck he didn’t even know that people weren’t counting training hours correctly and gosh he had no idea that his staff wasn’t responding to the university’s compliance staff or geez he was completely unaware that the NCAA had a rule about that, go figure.
He essentially paints himself as a well-intentioned babe in the Michigan woods caught wholly unaware by all the intricacies of the NCAA’s reach. That would have all played better if Rodriguez was a first-time coach. He wasn’t and spent much of the introduction to his response trumpeting his Division I experience, pre-Michigan.
For all of that the university did issue Rodriguez a written reprimand, a copy of which wasn’t included in the university’s response. I assume, however, that as Dean Wormer would say, this isn’t going to look good on his permanent record.
The university’s athletic director, David Branden, was asked at a press conference recently whether Rodriguez would be terminated. Branden acknowledged that violation of NCAA rules could be grounds for termination but said that in this case it wasn’t warranted because the infractions, essentially, weren’t all that serious.
There’s probably some justification to that position. Yet a more compelling case can be made the other way. In his two years at Michigan all Rodriguez has done on the field is shame the program. Now he’s shamed it off the field as well. I understand trying to make something work. But eventually Michigan will tire of trying to force this square peg into a round hole and Rodriguez will be gone, off to somewhere that should be more used to NCAA violations. Maybe they’re all just waiting for the USC job to open up again.
Monday, May 24, 2010
The first real casualty of the failed Cleveland Cavaliers season has finally been identified and it is as expected, head coach Mike Brown.
It’s not much of a surprise Brown was fired because we live in a society where everything bad that happens has to be someone’s fault. And when someone’s at fault, heads have to roll. It certainly makes us feel better, as if somehow our own souls are purged when someone else loses his job. We can be pretty cavalier with other people’s livelihoods, can’t we?
And yet why do I still have the nagging feeling that of all the Cleveland head coaches over the years that deserved to be fired, Brown doesn’t even make the top 10?
Brown’s record, 272-138 speaks for itself. Of course, so does his playoff record of 42-29, which isn’t awful but which included just one NBA Finals (where the Cavs were swept by the San Antonio Spurs) and two very bitter disappointments in the last two years. And as the saying goes, it’s always easier to fire the coach than the whole team.
What we’re never likely to know in all of this is the real story behind why Brown was fired. Was he a hard-headed coach who couldn’t learn from his mistakes? Did he lose the confidence of a team even after getting it to the NBA’s best record this past season (and the season before that)? Is this somehow intertwined with LeBron James’ apparent need to find more fame and more fortune elsewhere?
Before we bury Brown in the graveyard of Cleveland coaches and move on to the next victim in line, pause at least to admit that Brown accomplished far more with James than Flip Saunders was ever able to accomplish with Kevin Garnett in Minnesota and Saunders lasted essentially twice as long with the Timberwolves as Brown did with the Cavs.
Consider, for example, that with Saunders and Garnett the Timberwolves won 50 games or more only 4 times in 10 seasons. Their best record in that time was 58-24. With Brown and James, the Cavs won at least 50 games in four of five seasons and in two of those seasons they won more than 60 games. In the 2007-08 season, the Cavs went 45-37, which was better than 5 different seasons that Garnett was in Minnesota.
The point I think is that those who would simply dismiss Brown’s record as an anomaly brought about by the presence of James fail to appreciate that so much more goes into having a winning team than just having one of the top two or three players in the league. It takes a capable head coach, someone far more capable than Saunders, for example, to win a lot of games.
Whatever James feels about Brown at the moment, James has to realize that it was Brown that brought James to this point. It’s one of those interesting debates that never gets resolved but it’s not hard to imagine James still waiting for his first Most Valuable Player trophy if not for the ability of Brown to take James’ game to the next level.
In the last few seasons James has emerged as one of the best defenders in the league but it certainly wasn’t always that way. James was never a defensive disaster like Mo Williams can be, but he was far from a finished product. James has had the benefit of working under two defensive minded head coaches in Brown and Paul Silas, but it was Brown far more than Silas that convinced James that the path of greatness could only be navigated if one is a complete player.
James is now that and more. I suspect, though, that in the rush to applaud the firing of Brown the focus will be far too much on the team’s most recent failure and not on Brown’s overall body of work.
I’m not suggesting that the decision Dan Gilbert ultimately made to fire Brown was wrong. It’s just that it’s far more complicated of an analysis than most want to acknowledge. In the press release announcing the firing, Gilbert acknowledged that Browns’ firing carried an element of risk but he nonetheless concluded that it was a risk worth taking in order to get the team to a higher level.
The last time I heard that kind of rationale, Mark Shapiro was firing Mike Hargrove and bringing in Eric Wedge. I doubt that’s the kind of switch out that Gilbert contemplates but that’s just the kind of risk a decision like this carries.
It’s a funny thing about these amorphous higher levels. You can tell when an individual achieves them but for teams it’s much harder. Whether or not they really even exist is a matter of opinion but most of the time they end up being reached as much out of luck as anything else.
James’ status, of course, complicates the replacement scenario greatly unless the Cavs already have concluded that James is gone. While the rumor mill has been in overdrive for the last two weeks, it is best to remember that most of those fueling that beast are those with a vested interest—professional talkers, people associated with other teams, that sort of thing.
Still it would be easy to reach that conclusion that James is gone by parsing his own words carefully. The problem for the Cavs is that it would be public relations suicide to acknowledge as much and start actually positioning the organization now for life post-James. They have no effective choice but to wait until it’s too late.
Thus the Cavs are probably going to be stuck in some sort of organizational limbo until James makes it official which likely means that about this time next year Gilbert is going to have to explain how one giant leap backward really is part of the plan of moving two giant leaps forward.
Meanwhile, the firing of Brown probably also solidifies Danny Ferry’s role as general manager. Those who wanted Brown gone can’t then lay the blame at Ferry for the collapse. Either you think Brown deserved to be fired because he didn’t do enough with the talent Ferry obtained or you think Ferry didn’t do a good enough job getting the talent and thus Brown was hamstrung. But both principles can’t co-exist.
If forced to choose which is more true than the other, you have to side with Ferry. Look at it this way, you could put James on the New Jersey Nets right now and not change a thing and that team isn’t going to win 60 games even if Phil Jackson is the head coach.
Ferry has done marvelous work winding his way through the various loopholes and intricacies of the league’s byzantine-like salary cap and found enough talent to get this team to 270+ wins in five season. Kevin McHale, his counterpart in Minnesota for most of Garnett’s tenure, needed almost two more seasons, that’s 164 more games, to win as many.
In all likelihood, while both Brown and Ferry can’t be simultaneously responsible for an institutional collapse they both can be simultaneously responsible for making the Cavs one of the best teams in the league and that’s what really has occurred. Now the question is whether or not Ferry and someone else can move beyond the lofty perches already in place. If not, then in about 5 years or so (maybe less), the Cavs will be bumping Ferry into the role of team president, one of his underlings will be the new general manager and the Cavs will be hiring their version of Manny Acta. And as fans all we’ll be able to say, once again, is that we’ve seen this movie before.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Thursday, May 20, 2010
There’s a burgeoning story about performance-enhancing drugs that no one is likely to much care about, but they should.
ESPN is reporting in great detail the case involving Anthony Galea, a Canadian doctor charged in U.S. federal court in Buffalo on Tuesday with drug smuggling and other related drug offenses. The story is big enough on its own, but it also has an interesting Cleveland connection.
Galea’s arrest is the result of an investigation that began last fall when his assistant, Mary Anne Catalano, his former executive assistant, was arrested at the U.S./Canadian border for trying to smuggle into this country a variety of performance-enhancing drugs. Catalano has become an informant, probably in an attempt to gain leniency, and has been a virtual treasure trove of information for the FBI.
According to the ESPN story, documents they obtained show that while Galea criss-crossed the country treating elite athletes with his own brand of voodoo and cocktails laced with human growth hormone, one of Galea’s most frequent stops was in Cleveland.
Galea allegedly was in Cleveland nearly a dozen times between July 22 and September 11 administering medical treatments of some sort to 11 different athletes never mind the fact that Galea isn’t even registered to practice medicine in this country.
Not surprisingly, this little gem of a story has eluded the notice of the local press. After all, there’s stories aplenty to write about D’Qwell Jackson and the fact that he isn’t attending mini-camp. It sometimes makes me wonder whether the local press has just given up on its own agonizingly slow death march toward extinction.
Because court documents don’t name the athletes allegedly treated by Galea, there’s no way to know at this point whether these athletes played for Cleveland teams or were just visiting. Likewise it’s not known at this point the sports they participated in though the timeline suggests that both baseball and football players were likely involved.
What is known though is that during this period, any number of Cleveland Indians’ players were either on the disabled list or nursing injuries, players like Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Anthony Reyes, Aaron Laffey, Asdrubal Cabrera and Rafael Bentancourt, to name a few. That doesn’t mean any of them were treated inappropriately. It doesn’t mean that any of them were ever seen by Galea or that they even know him. But it does mean that it is now fair game to ask the question, just don’t wait for the Plain Dealer to do it.
Likewise with the Browns. Although the Browns had just entered training camp during this time period, there were a number of its players being treated for a variety of ailments. This included Robaire Smith, Jamal Lewis, Shaun Rogers, Ryan Tucker, Brodney Pool and Jerome Harrison, among others.
Again, it’s important to point out that none of these players have ever been linked with Galea or that no questions have been raised about the appropriateness of any of their treatments. But given Galea’s frequent visits to Cleveland during this period, raising the question is completely appropriate.
Let’s also not forget that during this time period the Indians had home series against Detroit, Minnesota, Texas, Anaheim, Seattle and Kansas City. Given Galea’s geographic location, Toronto, and its easy access to Cleveland it could very well be that Galea was seeing players from these teams instead. It would be interesting to know which injured players from these teams were traveling with them from this time period but I doubt you can get anyone from the Plain Dealer interested in investigating that, either.
None of this is good news for sports fans in any of these cities, but as I said at the outset, most won’t see it that way, including the “established” media, save ESPN. Stories about performance enhancing drugs are nearly as common as stories about LeBron James’ free agent status. At some point people just tune them out.
But it is important because it goes directly to the integrity of each sport. When some players are being fed illegal drugs in order to enhance performance, the product on the field is fraudulent. The competition is no longer between teams with the best players but teams with the best enhanced players. That’s why the story breaking now, again by ESPN, regarding Floyd Landis’ years-too-late admission that he was a serial drug cheat, is eye-opening. For too long the French have been accused of being on a witch hunt and yet they were right all along.
The Galea story isn’t good news either for the commissioners of Major League Baseball and the National Football League. Once again their sports are tainted by another drug scandal, just emphasizing the point that whatever they think they’re doing to clean up their sports isn’t working as well as they’d like to believe.
Particularly shameful in this regard is the legacy of Major League Baseball. Under Commissioner Bud Selig, the league has become mostly a joke when it comes to drugs. I’ve seen several revisionists lately take their hand at trying to position Selig as perhaps the greatest commissioner baseball has ever seen. But every time I read one of these works of fiction they always seem to gloss over how weak-kneed Selig was in the war on drugs, particularly when faced with union opposition.
It was only the threat of Congressional action that got Selig really moving and even then the sport still has a weaker drug testing program than any other sport. Again that’s attributable to Selig’s almost abject unwillingness to back up tough talk with tough action. He’s never shown much of a willingness to take on a misguided union on these issues. Improvements have come at a glacial pace and been merely incremental.
Football has a slightly better story to tell, but only slightly. It embraced more stringent drug testing and harsher penalties well ahead of baseball. The problem, though, is that it hasn’t seemed to deter players hell bent on gaining an illegal advantage. Meanwhile, most seem to just shrug it off.
Consider, for example, that just a few weeks ago, Brian Cushing, the rookie linebacker from the Houston Texans, was revealed as a drug cheat. Cushing had won the Associated Press defensive rookie of the year award with 39 of 50 possible votes. That was before his positive test was known. Last week, in an unprecedented move, the Associated Press ordered a re-vote on its award and Cushing won again, although with far less votes.
The fact that Cushing won again feeds the perception that too many sportswriters are athlete-wannabees that help foster a permissive drug culture inside the locker room because taking a tough stance might not get them the access to the players that they think they need.
But perhaps even more farcical was the handwringing from some of those same sportswriters about a re-vote even taking place. To them, the unprecedented nature of the re-vote was a far more serious issue than the fact that Cushing’s performance was artificially enhanced. Talk about misplaced priorities from your working press.
That really is what underscores the entire issue here. The local beat reporters for both the Indians and the Browns haven’t even bothered with this story despite its Cleveland connection. If you can’t get the working press that covers these athletes on a daily basis to give a damn and be an agent for pushing real reform, what chance does the average fan have? It was this working press, both locally and nationally, that ignored the raging use of PEDs in baseball for years and now are repeating the same mistake by still rewarding known drug users like Cushing for performing at a level he might not otherwise have achieved without the PEDs.
Meanwhile, it’s not just football and baseball that are at the center of the storm involving Galea. It’s worth remembering that another one of Galea’s high profile clients is none other than Tiger Woods. When Woods made his now infamous mostly-wooden apology for being a serial cheater on his wife and family he did save real emotion in that well-rehearsed speech when he denied, without being asked, that treatments he received by Galea involved illegal drugs. Translation: It’s one thing to cheat on your wife, another on your sport.
Court documents seem to suggest that Woods is “Athlete D” administered to in July in Orlando with the so-called plasma rich platelet treatment. According to reports, this involves a process by which blood is taken from the athlete, the platelets are separated from the red blood cells with a centrifuge and then injected back into the athlete to accelerate healing.
It all sounds a little Battlestar Galactica but not illegal, except perhaps for the fact that it was done by someone not licensed to do so, someone like Galea. Whether Woods is a cheat depends on how you come out on the question of whether or not it’s cheating to have a legal treatment administered illegally. We know what Woods thinks but his judgment isn’t exactly unbiased. Of course the same goes for another of sports’ shadier characters, Alex Rodriguez, also a patient of Galea.
Eventually this story will go away. Galea will likely plead guilty to some sort of crime or two and the athletes involved aren’t likely to suffer either way. It’s funny. In this country a young person can be permanently rendered ineligible for federal financial aid for college if he or she is convicted of even minor drug possession charges. Meanwhile professional athletes, many the same age as these same college kids, find that even far more dangerous drug use on their part ends up being merely a minor speed bump on their way to backing up a Brinks truck to the owner’s suite.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
It seems like you can't swing a tattered “All Together” shirt around these parts these days without someone asking whether LeBron James will stay in Cleveland. Even people only remotely interested in sports are asking not even realizing, apparently, that the answer is of no great consequence to them.
Whether James stays or goes is a question that looks to paralyze northeast Ohio for the next 6 to 8 weeks. Work won't be getting done. Those orange barrels you see on the various highways? They aren't going anywhere anytime soon as construction workers pause to consider the fate of James. I imagine grass won't get cut, little league baseball games won't get paid and dogs won't get walked either. Obsessing 24/7 has gripped this area and it won't end until James does what James wants to do.
James' decision has taken on such a life of its own that no matter what he does it can't possibly work out well. When the whims of one player become bigger than the game itself, and believe me they have when the President of the United States weighs in, perspective hasn't just been lost, perhaps the game as well. In a lifetime thus far filled with seemingly impossible expectations to live up to James has always exceeded them anyway. But when those expectations are bigger than the game itself, well, James may have just met his match.
James' credentials speak for themselves. Walking through the growing Wikipedia entry of his career is hardly necessary. Everyone knows that James is currently the greatest basketball player on the planet, and I say that without even a touch of sarcasm. And perhaps he's just in the middle of a storied career so wherever he goes and whatever he does he'll be a transformational figure.
But last time I looked, James has been in the NBA for seven seasons now and in that time seven other teams have won a NBA championship without him. And while I'm not much for the prediction game, if he plays another 10 seasons (which may be a stretch) perhaps as many as 6 other teams without a player named LeBron James are going to win championships, too.
Thus what everyone is fighting for at the moment are those potential 4 seasons, maybe more, maybe less when a team with James may actually emerge victorious at the end of a very long season. It's a prize worth fighting for, surely, but it's not a cause worth dying for.
Michael Jordan played 15 seasons in the NBA and 9 times other teams without the previous greatest player ever won the championship. Kobe Bryant is in his 14th season and has seen 9 other teams without a player named Bryant have won championships. If the Lakers don't win it all this season, it will be 10. Magic Johnson, in his 13-year career, saw 8 other teams win it instead of his Lakers. I can do this all day if you want.
The point here is not to slam James anymore than any of these other great players. Instead it's to underscore for all those currently losing sleep over the random thoughts of a multi-millionaire with more fame and fortune already than he'll ever need that there is light on the other side of all this.
I don't want to minimize what 4 or so NBA championships would mean to this town. This town's credentials as one of the most cursed speaks for themselves and walking through its Wikipedia entry on all of the many failures is hardly necessary either. I just think it's important to throw a little cold water on the faces of those that think this town and this team can't survive with out James.
The key here is not really James as much as it is Dan Gilbert. Those who think the downside of this whole dance with James is too unfathomable to ponder are forgetting that the Cavs will still have Gilbert as owner. He is an owner the likes of which Cleveland never has really seen before. His passion to win is more intense. He also knows how to constructively channel that passion in a way that makes him rare among moneyed owners who often treat their franchises like toys.
If James leaves, it won't because Gilbert didn't try to keep him. But if James leaves, the long-term health of this franchise is still in good hands. While I only have a gut feeling about James at the moment, I am far more confident that the real key to the success of this franchise lies in Gilbert remaining as owner more than it does with James staying for the next 4 or 5 years.
If Gilbert is dealt a setback in the form of James leaving, I doubt that he's going to go off crying into the night. Instead, he'll find a way to regroup and give this town a team worth rooting for, just like all those other towns that have thus far been without James and yet have found a way to slog their way through to a championship anyway. As we've seen thus far, you don't need the best player in the NBA on your team to win a championship, you just need a collection of really good players. Gilbert will find a way to make that happen.
That all being said, my gut tells me that James isn't leaving. It also tells me that he isn't staying without some changes. When I hear talk about how James and his “team” meaning his boyhood friends and other hangers on he's acquired over the years will be making this decision, it says to me that this is far more complicated to James than a decision about whether to take the money.
As he's said so many times, it's about being in the right situation, one that will bring him the multiple championships he so craves. That goes beyond just the players that surround him, but a supportive front office and a coach that he can respect.
The problem that's brewing though is that it looks like James and his “team” are in the process of actually trying to put it all together themselves as if this were just another endorsement deal. James and the “team” look to be trying to pre-package success, never mind the millions of variables outside of his control.
And yet why wouldn't they give it a try? All everyone is doing at the moment is feeding the beast. It doesn't even matter if James thinks this way because everyone else does: he is bigger than the game. Where you come out on whether or not that's a good thing might say something about the ridiculous proportions this issue has taken on.
If you don't think so, just consider that no one sees it as particularly unusual that James and his “team” aren't interested in reading the tea leaves to determine any particular team's future. They want to assure that future with a package of players, management and coaches of their own choosing that has James at the center of all that will eventually revolve around him and everyone treats it as perfectly normal.
In truth, you could actually see all this coming. Hamstrung by the constraints placed on younger players in the NBA, James thus far has mostly played the good soldier. He's kept his mouth shut, at least publicly, and did what he was told. James didn't choose Cleveland, it was chosen for him. It worked out well enough, certainly, but he just as easily could have been someplace else these last seven years.
Now his time has come and he likes the feel of the controls more so, I'm betting, then the controls of one of the several luxury sports cars he owns. You would, too.
And yet I still keep coming back not to James but to Gilbert. From a business perspective he's accomplished more than James. He does know what it takes to actually win. It's just a matter of time before that translates to the basketball court, with or without James.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Nothing like spreading mulch to spruce up the beds when it’s the leaky pipes that need fixing.
In what can only be described as a shift from selling steak to selling sizzle, the Cleveland Indians under the direction of president-in-waiting Mark Shapiro have turned their attention from the product on the field to the product around the field and they’d like it very much if you did the same.
Crain’s Cleveland Business reported this week that the Indians have solicited bids from various local and national architectural firms to, in the words of Indians’ vice president of public relations Bob DiBiasio, “reshape and revive [Progressive Field].”
The intention is to make the ballpark even more fan-friendly, which is code for making the ballpark the destination and not the team.
As a business plan, it’s a risky and bizarre endeavor. The Indians are currently last in attendance in the American League, trailing only Toronto. They also possess the second worst record in the entire major leagues and have a roster comprised of overpriced underperformers and middling prospects from questionable trades.
I don’t mean to be such a cynic, but my current working theory is that the Indians aren’t drawing fans because the team stinks. It would be one thing if they were losing most of their games 13-9. At least there would be some fireworks most nights. But they are losing games in such a mind numbing and tedious fashion that just hanging around for all 9 innings requires a level of endurance that most people just don’t have anymore.
Apparently, though, mine is just an unproven working theory. To the Indians’ deep thinkers, attendance would be greatly improved if there were a few more diversions to distract the fans from what’s actually taking place between the lines.
That’s why, according to Crain’s, the Indians are close to announcing the hiring of an architectural firm, likely Populous, formerly HOK Sport which built Jacobs Field, to spruce things up a bit. Talk about a solution in search of a problem.
Crain’s quotes DiBiasio as saying that the Indians are currently working on a strategic plan that “encompasses…the wants and needs of our fans from a variety of issues that matter most, including sightlines, culinary trends, comfort (and) the audio/visual experience to name a few.”
Ah, that’s what’s missing from Progressive Field, a world class audio/visual experience. Personally, if I were naming a few of the wants and needs of the fans, I’d start with a massive overall of the mix of players in the everyday lineup. But that’s just me. Maybe some others would identify a desire to overhaul the ownership and management structure that has convinced themselves that all this franchise needs to attract more fans is a ferris wheel in center field and a better brand of hot dogs in the concession stands.
The article goes on to note that with the Indians struggling to sell suites, they’ve taken to using some of that space for other needs such as a presidential suite and a “FanCave” that features video games, a billiards table, a wall of HDTVs and “other unique amenities.”
Not to rain on the Indians’ parade, but as John McEnroe might say, you can’t be serious? If a buddy of mine called me up and said “Gary, let’s head down to Progressive Field, plop down 10 bucks to park another 20 to get inside so we can play some pool while we watch the game on television” I’d look at him like I do my wife when she asks me if these pants make her butt look big, dumbfounded.
If you want to play billiards, drink beer and watch the Indians on television, there’s about 100,000 places in Lakewood alone where it’s infinitely cheaper and more convenient to do that than Progressive Field.
Perhaps the most unintentionally funny quote in the article came from Mark Rosentraub, a professor of sports management that Crains sought out for insight. Rosentraub surmised that the Indians were “looking at their underperforming areas and asking ‘How can we restructure?’”
I guess if you’re specialty is sports marketing, that might be how you think. But if your job involves actually running the Indians and you are indeed looking at underperforming areas, I’d start with their draft department. The only everyday player in the lineup originally signed by the Indians is Jhonny Peralta.
But why dwell on the tough stuff? It’s far easier I suspect to focus on underperforming areas like concession stands and video parlors as if that somehow holds the magic bullet for improving the financial bottom line.
The Indians supposedly are looking at teams like the Washington Nationals for inspiration. Oh boy. In Nationals Park there is a sports bar in left-center field where you can pay $20 for a ticket and free food. If it’s a rousing success, you could have fooled me.
Two weeks ago I found myself in the nation’s capital with a little free time one night and ventured over to National Park to watch Washington play Colorado. I wouldn’t say that the Nationals are struggling with attendance but I would say that on most nights, including this particular weekday, the Chuck-E-Cheese in Decatur, Illinois is more crowded.
I had a great seat, how could I not? After all, I bought my ticket at the box office about 10 minutes before the game started. Around the second inning I ventured up to their food court where they were advertising Italian sausage sandwiches. I tried to order one but was informed that they were already out. When I asked how that could be possible, the forlorn and completely underworked clerk admitted they hadn’t really made any because most of the time they just go to waste. I settled for a lousy hot dog made worse by bad mustard.
When I ventured out toward the vaunted left-center field bar, there were plenty of seats available. The few that were there were watching the Washington Capitals in the NHL playoffs seemingly oblivious that the Nationals were not only playing but, for once, winning. I surmised that they must not have even realized they were in a ballpark, saw what looked like a local sports bar, wandered in and treated the ticket price as a cover charge.
If this is the future the Indians see for themselves, then this franchise is in a far deeper mess than initially imagined.
You can only distract the fans for so long. Indians’ management is delusional if they think that attendance is suffering because Progressive Field has grown long in the tooth. If anything, the only thing to like about the team at the moment is that it already plays in a ballpark that is both beautiful and comfortable. About the only thing most people would change about it is the beer prices.
Look, I’m all for improving the “game day experience” and maybe a half dozen more fans per game may show up if a softer brand of toilet paper is installed in the restrooms. But as long as the words “game day” are in that phrase, sustained improvement in attendance will only occur when fans have a reason to watch this team. Until then, it’s just mostly worthless window dressing meant to distract the fans from the real problems, kind of like addressing the need for a right-handed hitter by signing the left-handed Russell Branyan.
Friday, May 14, 2010
As the Cleveland Cavaliers were putting the finishing touches on another bad loss to the Boston Celtics, a loss that left them still in search of a championship, about the only positive thought worth mustering was the fact that the loss provided the perfect bookend to what has to be about the most miserable 12 months in Cleveland sports history.
The only worry now is whether it’s really the end or only the middle of an extended period of darkness. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves for the moment.
Starting with the loss to the Orlando Magic last season, there has been almost nothing positive to root for in Cleveland sports. There have been little victories here and there, temporary respites really from the crushing reality of what it really means to be a Cleveland fan. But on a macro basis, it’s hard to imagine how things could get much worse.
The Cavs had a difficult series with Orlando last year in which its flaws were exposed. At that moment there was no certainty that Cleveland could find a way to close that gap only hope that the best and most passionate owner in Cleveland, Dan Gilbert, would somehow find a way to close that gap.
In the midst of the Cavs’ troubles that ended a season far too early once again, the Indians were embarking on their own brand of misery. It was only a matter of time before Cliff Lee, the reigning Cy Young award winner, would be traded and everyone knew it. Heck, the same thing happened the season before with CC Sabathia. Fans here are conditioned to the team’s sagging economics. The team finished 65-97, only one game better than the Baltimore Orioles.
But beyond just the trade of Lee, it wasn't as if the Indians gave their fans much of a reason to believe that this team would be any better any time soon. The players the Indians received in exchange for Lee were the usual prospects. Fans knew then as they know now that if they're lucky one of these prospects will eventually get good enough to trade for a new set of prospects so that the sad cycle can continue.
Grady Sizemore pulled up a bit lame in spring training last year and never seemed to get healthy. His season was just another downer on what has been a regression-laden career and eventually he shut it down in September. The only question anyone really had in all of that was why the Indians waited so long. They weren't going anywhere anyway.
Travis Hafner couldn't recover enough from his shoulder injury or the mental goblins that have inhabited him since his 2006 season ended. When he did play it all it did was remind you that he used to be someone special. Oh yea, it also reminded you that the Indians were on the hook for millions to him, choking off any chance at financial flexibility that a struggling under-capitalized team like this needs.
Then, of course, there was Eric Wedge. The now-former manager was his usual puzzling self, getting off to another slow start in April, sticking to long with and making excuses for players like Jhonny Peralta, afraid to ruffle the feathers of any of his players. Wedge was always to empathetic with the struggles of his players and quick with excuses about the team's problems. General manager Mark Shapiro finally had enough of what had turned into a one-note song and mercifully pulled the plug on his tenure, as if it would matter.
Indeed it didn't much matter. For reasons still never fully explained, Shapiro thought it would be a good idea to hire Manny Acta who had washed out earlier in the season with the even more awful Washington Nationals. It was a nice metaphor, actually. Instead of reaching up for someone with a history of success the Indians once again reached down for failure on the if/come. The next person that can explain cogently explain the difference between the Indians this season under Acta and last season under Wedge will be the first.
As the Indians season faded into the background of late summer, the Browns arose not like a Phoenix from the ashes but more like the groundhog in February. At least the season marked another new beginning for a team that hasn’t gotten any of its previous beginnings right. It didn’t get off on the right foot from the outset.
After deciding a hard re-start of its systems were once again in order, owner Randy Lerner rushed into hiring Eric Mangini, a failure in New York, because Mangini met Lerner's most important criteria: previous NFL head coaching experience.
After Mangini conducted a draft that was mostly bizarre, trading around the first round like he was Monty Hall on a bender, he eventually assembled a team of very average draft choices and spare parts that the Jets, his former team, were more than willing to let go.
This was only a prelude, however, to what was easily the worst quarterback competition in the history of organized football. Mangini painfully tried to structure it so that each quarterback had exactly the same number of opportunities as if he were a parent trying hard not to look like he favored one kid over another. In the end all he did was ensure that neither player would be ready for the season, something he spectacularly accomplished, by the way.
The season itself was a nightmare of historic proportions. It featured equal parts anarchy and insurrection as Mangini proved that when it comes to running a franchise he was in way too far over his head. Anxious to put his mark on every aspect of the franchise, all Mangini did was prove that he suffered greatly from little man's syndrome. He quickly made an outcast of his handpicked boss. But on the positive side he played the role of Captain Bligh well as seemingly dozens of his players were standing in line to play Fletcher Christian.
Lerner had finally seen enough and decided to search for what he termed a credible leader of the franchise. He landed on Mike Holmgren, thus creating the most positive thing to happen to Cleveland football in 10 years.
The team then ended on a positive note winning its last four games in the most improbably of fashion. It did it by repeatedly pounding the ball with Jerome Harrison, a running back that Mangini had marginalized early in the season. But when that season ended there still wasn't a fan that believed this was a team capable of competing for a spot in the playoffs anytime soon. In a breath of fresh air honesty, Holmgren essentially agreed.
But we had the Cavs to look forward to, or at least we thought we did. Gilbert and general manager Danny Ferry seemed to do just about everything right. They plugged a major hole in the middle by signing an aging but still marginally effective Shaquille O’Neal. They orchestrated trades in a way that brought even more pieces at almost no cost.
What was apparent but mostly ignored throughout the season was that this team seemed to lack any real chemistry. It’s focal point, as always, was LeBron James and the pecking order was established from there on down. O’Neal complied and openly seemed to be thrilled not to be the spotlight. And yet there was no real hunger with this team. It knew it was good and often won just by showing up.
An inkling of what was to come played out over the last 10 days or so of the regular season as the Cavs, content with having sewed up the league’s best record, rested and went through the motions on their way to losing out. It was equal parts arrogance and indifference, the two most glaring characteristics of their disjointed and down right weird series with the Celtics.
No one will ever be able to pinpoint one root cause to the Cavs’ failures. But if you’re in search of a theme, start with the arrogance that seemed to overtake this team. For a team that had never won anything, it sure acted as if it had. All of the wasted possessions, turnovers and poor shooting were the markers of a team that really hadn’t been taking care of its business for just more than one series.
It’s interesting to wonder whether, 12 months from now, we’ll be looking at things and remembering now as a time when things looked positively radiant by comparison. Perhaps, but there’s no need to wallow.
Sure the Indians aren’t going to get any better, but you knew that going in. The fundamentals of that organization are just wrong. The Browns, on the other hand, finally have a clear direction run by real honest to goodness professionals with a track record. It may not lead to the playoffs next season, but they are clearly on a path that every one can discern.
The Cavs are at a crossroads. Until the question surrounding James’ future gets answered, it will remain in organizational limbo. Right now the uncertainty gripping this franchise makes everything look bleak.
Whose to say though that faith won’t be rewarded? Who says James is even leaving? He hasn’t. Sure, Cleveland fans have been down this road before with the Indians and pick the free agent. But the Cavs’ situation is far different. They can offer the most money. They have an owner who has proven that he won’t spare any expense in the quest. We live in an age where a mogul like James’ physical location is mostly irrelevant. Rather than just assume he’ll leave, what’s to say that he won’t become the team’s biggest salesman and help it bring in a key free agent or two to make this team even better?
See, this is really what it means to be a Cleveland fan. You may be numb after all the tough losses during all these tough years, but we’ve always had the ability to find some semblance of a silver lining. We’ve hung in there this long. In the grand scheme of things, what’s another decade or two? We can do that standing on our heads.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Barely two minutes into the second quarter of Tuesday's night's game against the Boston Celtics, the Cleveland Cavaliers held a 29-21 lead. Eight minutes later the Cavs still had 29 points put the Celtics now had 37. It was that brutal, sloppy mess of a stretch that effectively sealed the fate of a the Cavs, a group of better players butting heads against a better team.
With just about everyone now writing the Cavs epitaph for a season that once held such promise and is now collapsing around them like a house of cards, it also will be that eight minute stretch that will define what went wrong overall.
It started innocently enough. After Mo Williams made a jump shot with 9:53 remaining in the quarter to push the lead to 29-21, the Celtics called time out. It was coach Doc Rivers' best coaching moment of the season. Out of that time out, Paul Pierce attempted a layup that was blocked by Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Ray Allen grabbed the rebound and the put back brought the Celtics to within 6.
Williams them missed a jump shot on the Cavs next possession. There was 9:14 remaining. It would be nearly a minute before they could get off another shot, a Shaquille O'Neal half-hearted hook shot that was rebounded by Kevin Garnett. It would be two more minutes before the Cavs could get off their next shot, a Williams miss. Three possessions later LeBron James missed a 3-pointer. Four possessions later Antwan Jamison missed a layup. James finally broke the ice 5 more possessions later by making two free throws.
In between all that silliness, there were turnovers galore and ridiculous fouls. The Cavs were literally imploding in front of a worldwide audience and there was nothing that seemingly could be done about it.
James, inexplicably, was passive throughout. Content to distribute the ball in what can only be described as a botched attempt to control the flow of the game, James sucked the life out of both himself and his teammates with perhaps one of the most passive performances of his career, especially considering what was at stake.
Tuesday night's loss was like watching air slowing escape from an overinflated balloon. It may not have been the most important game of the season, that would be this Thursday's, but it was the second most important anyway. And yet the Cavs were flat and listless as if they were playing their fourth game in five nights on the road in Sacramento. They looked like any Ohio State Buckeyes team playing Michigan while coached by John Cooper.
Meanwhile in his post game press conference James calmly explained that he wasn't worried. The team's back was against the wall, sure, but there was still room to breath. It's probably good that he wasn't in full panic mode, but the fans certainly were. Maybe that's because he knows what his future holds and the fans don't.
It was hard to read James in that interview. On the one hand his calmness in the midst of what most fans would consider a shit-storm is exactly the right trait you'd want a leader to have at exactly that moment. And yet you couldn't help but also read into it an indifference, almost an aloofness that has seemed to represent his on-court demeanor during these past two games, both embarrassing losses.
During a halftime interview on Friday evening, after James had put together an otherwordly first half to essentially send the Celtics to an early loss, James talked about how he understands full well that his teammates feed off his energy and approach. And yet these past two games, and especially Tuesday night, James acted as if he was just another bit part, standing around like the rest of his teammates waiting for someone else to take the controls of this runaway train. No one did.
Maybe James is just tired. Maybe all of the time and effort he puts into his game has left him tired and weary. Maybe the weight of the decisions he faces about his future are wearing on him more than he can even admit to himself. Maybe it's just a Celtics team playing the best defense of their lives. Whatever it is, though, James is clearly not the same person most fans are used to seeing.
There's little spark and command at the moment. He's become just another Austin Powers in search of his mojo but in no particular hurry to find it.
Then it occurred to me that perhaps what James is finally beginning to understand is what most fans of Cleveland sports already believe: you can't win a championship in this town. The Cavs under owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Danny Ferry have spared no expense in loading this team with more firepower than any other team in the league. And yet the Cavs now find themselves regressing. The better the players the worse the results.
It wouldn't be unreasonable for James to have concluded that it just isn't going to happen in this town, ever. That's what the fans were thinking anyway as they watched their latest best chance at an elusive championship slip through their fingers once again.
Last season the Cavs lost a tough series in the Eastern Conference finals against the Orlando Magic mainly because they didn't match up well against the Magic. The Cavs addressed that in the off season with the acquisition of O'Neal. Now they find themselves on the verge of being eliminated in the Eastern Conference semi-finals not by a team that presents particularly difficult match ups but by a team that executes better and is far more focused.
Perhaps that's what's both so frustrating and revealing about this moment in time. The Cavs know they are a very talented group. But like the brilliant kid in class who ends up with “Cs” on his report card, they seem to take it all for granted. Meanwhile the less brilliant among them are working harder and paying attention to all the little things necessary to be successful.
The Cavs are being outplayed by the Celtics in every meaningful category. The Celtics are committing less turnovers, dishing out more assists, grabbing far more offensive rebounds and committing less turnovers. More importantly, though, almost across the board, from field goal percentage to rebounds to blocked shots, the Celtics have performed better in the playoffs than the regular seasons. Except for free throw percentage and block shots, the Cavs have regressed from their regular season averages.
It's not even so much a question of blame so much as it is a question of responsibility. This Cavs team is made up of veterans who should have a complete appreciation for the pressure of the playoffs and all the bump and grind that goes with them. Yet when it matters most, these same players, including James have actually turned it down a notch as if they were worried that the pot on the stove would boil over and cause a mess.
If Tuesday night turns out to be James' last game in a Cavs uniform, which I still doubt, it will represent the biggest failure in his professional life, perhaps his entire basketball life. This city, this region counted on the Chosen One to finally deliver a championship that so many around here so desperately need and he didn't deliver, not even close.
If James does leave, I have no doubt that there will be championships in his future. He'll use this failure as the catalyst to the next phase of a career that will remain brilliant. But as usual it won't be n a hometown uniform. That's the way it works around here. Art Modell, as despicable of a Cleveland sports figure as ever existed, managed to win a championship once he left town. Almost any good player that once played for the Indians seems to have done likewise once they left. Now we're left to ponder for the next few months anyway whether that's our fate once again.
There is still a way for James to salvage something out of this wreck. Sometime before game six he could drop it casually into his next interview that no matter what happens he will be in Cleveland next year and for years to come. It would take the pressure off both James and his teammates. It would re-energize both the team and the fans at exactly the right moment. In short, it would be a brilliant move. But this is Cleveland and that's why it won't happen. Those kinds of things never do.
Monday, May 10, 2010
His most recent walk on the wild side in the rear view mirror, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger finds himself at a career crossroad. Meanwhile, most everyone else asks: When did the Steelers become the Cincinnati Bengals? Along about the time they wrung their hands mightily but still held their nose as team ownership and management decided, despite it all, to keep Roethlisberger in the black and gold for another season.
When last I visited this topic, I predicted that the Rooneys wouldn’t throw Roethlisberger overboard. In truth, it was a lay up as far as predictions go. In allowing Roethlisberger to remain employed with the Steelers, the Rooneys were just practicing the same kind of convenient rationalization that has permeated the Bengals thinking for years.
When the Bengals re-signed Chris Henry at the beginning of the 2008 season, they did so knowing that this was the same person that had been kicked off his college team and had been arrested on 5 different occasions while with the Bengals. But the Bengals were desperate for receivers and thus justified the signing by saying that they were now convinced that the player was serious about turning things around.
That didn’t work out too well for Henry or the Bengals. Last season, while away from the team because of a broken arm, Henry got into the ubiquitous domestic dispute with his fiancée. She tried to drive away from the dispute in a pick-up truck. Henry jumped in the back, fell out and died, a tragic end that seemed rather inevitable.
Roethlisberger hasn’t faced the same kind of criminal past as someone like Henry, but his past is pockmarked well enough. Roethlisberger may not be headed for the same kind of ending as Henry, but anyone that doesn’t think Roethlisberger is headed for even more trouble nonetheless is just conveniently turning a blind eye.
The Rooneys decided that Santonio Holmes, with his marijuana use and general bad attitude, was no longer worth the trouble and shipped his reckless soul off to the New York Jets for little more than a case of Advil. He’s now someone else’s problem. But then again the Steelers have other receivers on the roster. What they don’t really have is another quarterback.
That’s why the Rooneys are making excuses and minimizing the damage Roethlisberger is doing not just to himself but to their reputations as well. To hear them tell it, Roethlisberger is now on some sort of short leash with the only thing standing between him and a starting job with the Oakland Raiders is another episode of public drunkenness.
In normal times, the over and under on that is 30 days. But with all the paid lackeys on both the Pittsburgh and Roethlisberger payrolls, I imagine that they can keep him under wraps for longer than that. Forever is another question altogether.
It may be prime time in the NBA playoffs and the baseball season getting into full swing, but Sports Illustrated devoted their most recent cover to Roethlisberger, showing him on the sidelines as the unshaven mess he is on game days. It was a perfect metaphor for the unshaven mess he’s been on every other day as well.
The story they tell of Roethlisberger is something much more than a cautionary tale about how star athletes abuse the privileges thrust upon them for no reason other than their ability to bring smiles to the faces of grown men and women who gladly plunk down too much of the family budget to watch them play. It’s a lesson about how duplicitous those who should know better can be when it’s their wallet at stake.
The SI story about Roethlisberger is disturbing on any number of levels. The upshot though is that Roethlisberger has lost the ability to distinguish between real life and football life. He has essentially morphed into his stage persona of Big Ben in his private life and in the process has become a loutish, brutish doofus who seems to enjoy standingthisclose to the line between right or wrong or, perhaps, freedom and jail.
Teammates, some at least, will now at least whisper about Roethlisberger’s lack of focus and preparation. Others probably just shake their heads while Roethlisberger has surrounded himself with hired friends like the moonlighting cops swept up in the vortex as if Roethlisberger was Elvis and they were his Memphis Mafia.
What we do know is that like Elvis, no one dares tell Roethlisberger when he may be getting a little out of hand for fear of being kicked off the gravy train. Think about it. You’re a police officer in tiny Milledgeville, Georgia or Coraopolis, Pennsylvania or even a Pennsylvania State Trooper. You get to moonlight as a bodyguard for a stupidly rich NFL quarterback who likes to party and bask in the reflected glory. Can there be a better gig?
Actually, yes, but if these three had a discerning bone in their bodies they could see that. Instead they end up having the judgment of 13 year olds trying to steal cigarettes from the corner store. And to think that their day jobs are to protect the public from just this kind of conduct.
Facing a couple of lawsuits in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, one of which alleges he sexually assaulted a hotel worker, hasn’t seemed to made much of an impact on Roethlisberger. Neither did the motorcycle accident that almost took his life. He’s still reckless with women and with riding. Roethlisberger sees himself as bulletproof in every aspect of his life, so long as he completes the passes that lead his team to victory.
If you want to play pop psychologist, it would be easy to conclude that it’s all just one giant cry for help, that Roethlisberger has some deep-seated feelings of worthlessness that he temporarily salves by becoming the center of the universe. It’s more than that.
If he were a movie character, you could easily see him being played by Will Ferrell. The problem is that as inventive as Ferrell can be, I doubt he ever imagined playing a character this much over-the-top. Roethlisberger isn’t Frank the Tank. He’s Frank the Twenty-Ton Get the F--- Out of My Way or I’ll Vomit in Your Car and Molest Your Sister Tank.
According to the SI story, Roethlisberger’s reputation around Pittsburgh is starting to take a significant hit. It’s not a surprise. As much as we in Cleveland like to look down on our counterparts in Pittsburgh, they’ve always been like twin sons of different mothers to us. Their values tend to run similar as ours and despite all that Roethlisberger has accomplished for the Steelers, fans there are pretty much sick of his antics and would hardly have wept if the Rooneys had sent Roethlisberger packing. I’d like to think if the situation were reversed, Cleveland fans would be reacting similarly.
I also know that all it will take for Roethlisberger to reclaim his reputation in Pittsburgh will be to keep his nose clean, get the 6-game suspension reduced to 4, and then come in and win some games. It’s just the way those things work. It would work that way in Cleveland, too. Look how long Indians fans looked the other way with Albert Belle.
SI called Roethlisberger’s recent apologies tepid. I’d say they were perfunctory but why quibble? As Henry and a boatload of others like him have taught us, it’s not the words anyway but the actions. Towing the line for those not prone to it is more difficult than playing the game they love. That’s why the odds don’t favor Roethlisberger’s longevity in Pittsburgh or the league, for that matter. He may prove to be the exception, but it isn’t likely and just like the rest of them he’ll have only himself to blame when he eventually finds himself out of the league and just another fat, drunk, stupid and broke anybody who actually used to be somebody.
Saturday, May 08, 2010
If you're the kind of person than tends to live vicariously through others, then Friday was your night. And who better to live through then LeBron James anyway?
After the embarrassing home loss of Tuesday night, Cleveland Cavaliers fans were openly questioning the desire and intensity of their team and, in some sense, themselves. How could a team this good not simply come out and impose it's will on an inferior opponent? Don't they have what it takes to be champions? Don't they realize that this is probably the best shot to claim a championship that most of them will ever see? If only I had worn my lucky shirt or screamed at the television screen a little louder things might have been different.
The run-up to Friday's game featured all sorts of soul searching. But in the end the fans' consensus was that this team had to somehow come out and take it to the Boston Celtics, whatever that means.
Now we know exactly what that means. Watching James in that first quarter Friday night, fans got to witness something that actually takes place far less often then we think: a player literally putting his imprint on a game and forcing an outcome from the outset.
There was a point early in that first quarter when the Cavs, aggressive though they were, committed four straight turnovers and all fans could possibly be thinking at the moment was, here we go again. If Tuesday night's game proved anything it's that wasted possessions are like a gift to the opponent. You only get so many opportunities to put the ball in the hoop. Squander too many of them and you'll find yourselves constantly chasing your tails, kind of like the Cavs on Tuesday and certainly like the Celtics Friday night.
But those four straight turnovers were merely a blip in a game that was far more perfect than Tuesday's game was dreadful. To the fans calling the talk shows and posting on the message boards, the ones telling James exactly what he had to do as if they were puppeteers merely pulling at his strings, Friday night's game was abject proof that certain players do understand what is exactly at stake.
When critics discuss important movies, they mostly talk about the auteur, the person who puts his or her stamp on the movie. Martin Scorsese is an auteur. People go to see a movie just because he directed it. Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood are auteurs. They can and do carry a movie by their presence.
It's the same thing in sports. Sometimes the auteur is the coach. Sometimes it's the player. In the NBA, it's LeBron James. He's not only the league's most recognizable player, he's achieved a rarefied status that few achieve in any walk of life.
Though it's not exactly a State secret, James has established himself as one of the great team leaders in the history of professional sports. Take James away from the Cavaliers and it's still a pretty good team. It's probably not a team that realistically competes for a championship but it is a playoff team nonetheless and perhaps even a team that gets into the second round of the playoffs.
With James, though, this team is special. He's the director and the star, playing a role that few if any could even imagine. He's the reason people tune in. Even Celtics fans on Friday night had to be amazed at what they were witnessing in that first quarter.
It's not just that James is the best player in the NBA and thus is bound to make any team better. It's more that he's such a great leader, such an inspiration to the rest of the team that they can't help but become better themselves.
This is no knock on head coach Mike Brown, but does anyone really think that J.J. Hickson would be seeing meaningful minutes on any other playoff team at the moment? Hickson's development is a product of James' mentoring much more than Brown's coaching. Mo Williams is a nice player but he's a far better player on this team with James. Is Delonte West still in the league if not for James?
Watching the Cavs absolutely dismantle the Celtics on Friday night was a singular pleasure mostly because it buried the lingering ghosts of Tuesday night's mystery. It told fans that their faith in James wasn't misplaced and that he is one of those few athletes that can actually be counted on to singularly turn back a potentially destructive tidal wave.
Now it's the Celtics' and their fans turn to question themselves. The biggest problem for them, though, is that they don't have someone like James to turn to for the answers.
It was hardly a surprise that the Oakland Raiders cut quarterback JaMarcus Russell this past week just as it won't be much of a surprise when some other team picks Russell up. It's not that Russell lacks talent, it's that he lacks desire.
The stories filtering out of Oakland, many of which were no doubt planted by the Raiders themselves in order to lessen the public sting of such a colossal draft failure, lays the blame for Russell's failures at his feet. By several accounts it's not so much that Russell made playing quarterback look effortless it's that he actually gave less effort. Falling asleep in meetings, not keeping himself in peak condition, not fully grasping the team's playbook are among the list of Russell's sins.
Russell's fate is reminiscent of former Browns' quarterback Mike Phipps. The Browns, in a trade that was as disastrous as any personnel move made in franchise history, shipped receiver Paul Warfield to Miami so that they could draft Phipps, a hot shot quarterback out of Purdue, with the third overall pick in 1970.
The Browns were still coached by Blanton Collier, one of the great minds in NFL history. The story Collier used to tell about Phipps gives a little insight to what the Raiders went through with Russell. After the Browns drafted Phipps, Collier took to personally trying to school the new quarterback, spending countless hours going over the nuances of the pro game. Collier said that after one classroom session in which he had been trying to explain all manner of the intricacies of running a pro offense, he looked down at Phipps' notebook and he hadn't even bothered to take a single note. Indeed, every page in the notebook Collier had given him was still blank.
In retrospect it turned out to be the most obvious clue that the Browns had made a mistake. Yet because the pressures teams faced then aren't nearly the same as they face now, the Browns kept Phipps for 7 seasons before setting him adrift. In that time, Phipps was mostly awful. He completed about 48% of his passes. He had 40 touchdowns against a staggering 81 interceptions. Phipps then went to the Chicago Bears where he survived 5 more seasons. He pushed his completion percentage to 52% during those 5 seasons but he only had 15 touchdowns against 27 interceptions in mostly part time play.
It's hard to imagine at the moment that Russell could possibly last 12 years in the NFL. Surely some team will take a chance on him, mostly because there are few really good quarterbacks in the league at the moment. But Russell isn't going to get magically better by simply going to another team, just like Phipps didn't magically get better by going to the Bears.
Russell will need to literally transform himself into another person, which will be nearly impossible. If, as the number one pick in the draft, he couldn't find the desire to succeed, why would he suddenly find it by moving on to another team?
That's what makes the NFL draft such a crap shoot. Picking the right players is about so much more than physical skills. Yogi Berra's words about baseball apply equally to football. Ninety percent of the game is half mental.
I've never been much of a fan of Bruce Drennan but you sometimes have to give him his due. After the Indians blew a 9th inning lead against Toronto the other night when second baseman Luis Valbuena booted a routine grounder that should have been the last out of a certain victory, it was enough to send Drennan into orbit, and that's saying something.
Drennan isn't exactly known for his subtlety, but from the opening salvo of “we stink, we stink” to his concluding words “did anybody remind them that his is the major leagues?” he put together what was as good of a stream of consciousness rant you're likely to ever hear. In those 5 minutes, he captured at the flashpoint the frustration that Indians' fans are feeling about players like Valbuena, Jhonny Peralta and Russell Branyan. Do yourself a favor and listen to it. You're bound to feel better:
With all the talk about whether or not Colt McCoy will play this season, the question to ponder is simple: Why does anyone think it will matter?
Tuesday, May 04, 2010
The best that sports provides is an escape from the sometimes grinding reality of day-to-day living. The problem arises when we treat that escape as if it was reality.
It’s easy to do. Picking up the local newspapers on Tuesday it was easy for your eyes to wander first to the news that the Cavaliers had their collective heads handed to them by the Boston Celtics in about the worst game a team as good as the Cavs could play.
The collapse may have been due to a variety of factors that range from arrogance to complacency. In the end, though and for whatever reasons, the Cavs played like an unmotivated mess.
It was a result that had been coming, actually. You could see it in final games of the regular season with the starters resting. You could see it in several games of the Chicago series just as you could see its roots in the first game of this series. The Cavs have become a team that plays like the game doesn’t really start until the 4th quarter. If the game is reasonably close, LeBron James will always find a way to make those baskets late that weren’t falling early. It’s worked in the past, so why not?
This time that extra gear abandoned them and all of the little things that contribute to a systemic crash were visited upon them in an embarrassing loss.
The nice thing, though, is that in sports there’s always another game to play and always a chance at redemption. That’s what makes it an escape.
The dose of crushing reality came in the rest of the Tuesday newspaper and perhaps provides the best reason to retain perspective about a mostly meaningless loss.
There was a tragic accident last week in Medina Township where a brother and sister, students in the Highland school system, pulled out of their driveway on their way to school and were struck by an on-coming car driven by another classmate. The sister died that day, the brother the next. The student in the other car survived with mostly minor physical injuries but with what promises to be a lifetime of mental torture.
The funeral was held on Monday and about 1,500 showed up at a local church. Most of the mourners were fellow students. Nearby, as the caskets were being moved from the church to their final destination, the family wept uncontrollably. I don’t know what they could possibly have been thinking, but a good bet is that they wondered, as Bruce Springsteen once sung in My City of Ruins, “how do I begin again?”
According to the Akron Beacon Journal story, team jerseys worn by the brother and sister were draped on the caskets, a reminder that they once were active participants in one of life’s great escapes. But for these kids and their family, there is no next game, no chance for redemption. There’s just an emptiness, a void that will never be filled. It’s just the way reality works and it’s as sobering of a thought as I can imagine at the moment.
But then I scroll down a bit further on that same front page and read about the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. I was only 11 when tired and stressed Ohio National Guardsmen, put there by former govern James A. Rhodes, opened fire on a crowd protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.
Ten years later, when I was in college and studying journalism, I visited Kent State. It was the 10th anniversary of the shootings and the controversy at the moment revolved around a planned gymnasium on campus that would encroach on the site of the shootings. A rather large and eclectic crowd of protestors, older and mostly from out of town, carried signs and occasionally shouted “move the gym.” There weren’t a lot of current students taking part in the events of the day, mostly they were looking out of their dorm room windows in curiosity or walking with a backpack on their way to study somewhere.
What struck me most that day was how little the current students appreciated the enormity of those events. It had been just 10 measly years since kids their own age, upset with the direction of this country, took to the streets to make their voices known. It doesn’t really matter whether they were right or just naïve. It really doesn’t matter whether they acted like idiots and wrongly provoked the guards. What does matter and yet didn’t seem to on that 10th anniversary day, is that students just like them lost their lives on that very campus.
It’s now 20 years since that day and I have a daughter attending Kent State. She doesn’t have any plans to attend the 40th anniversary events. Her interests, like most kids, are more parochial. Next week are finals and she just doesn’t need the distraction at the moment. I shake my head but I do understand.
The four students killed at Kent never got a chance to realize any of their dreams. There was no next game to play or class to attend. There was no chance for reflection or redemption or regret, just emptiness. It’s just the way reality works.
As I ponder both of these stories still, there is a lump in my throat and a few tears in my eyes. Having your own kids makes you empathize with the parents whose kids were snatched away from them in such rapid and tragic fashion. Honestly, I can’t think of anything worse that can happen to a parent.
But the rest of the newspaper remains and I can’t help but eventually gravitate back to the sports page and read some more about the Cavs. I even got quite an unintentional chuckle when I pull out the Plain Dealer and read Bill Livingston’s column because it was mostly the polar opposite from what he wrote about the team after game 1. Two days ago the Cavs were beasts. This morning, I guess, they’ve lost their way. Given his schizophrenic nature Livingston seems to take too seriously the old saying that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. It’s fun to laugh even in the midst of such impossible and tragic circumstances.
In actuality there really is no great truth to be gleaned from the a loss like that only lessons. For the Cavs they can use that loss as a reminder to take care of and pay attention to all the little things that put them in the position they're in or they can wallow in self-pity and quietly slink into the off season with the their tails between their legs.
The point is, though, that it’s their choice. For those two kids in Highland and those four kids in Kent, they never got the chance to make such a sublime choice.
Sunday, May 02, 2010
If the Cleveland Indians have a set of goals for the season scrawled on a piece of paper inside the mind of general manager Mark Shapiro, it probably says “when you don't know where you're going any road will get you there.”
Here's a test: on any night watch the Indians for as long as you can stand and then try to write down exactly what you think they were trying to accomplish. On the list of things you're likely to write down, “win games,” if it appears at all, will be down at the bottom. For a team rebuilding that's understandable. The real problem is that at the bottom also will be “developing a team that someday will win games.”
During this past off season Shapiro spent a lot of time talking about how this team needed to get a better start out of the gate than in seasons past. Shapiro all but painted the picture that the team's slow starts was the primary reason Eric Wedge now has “former Indians' manager” as part of his title.
To that end Shapiro and the brain trust that brought you this roster went about supposedly revamping the spring training experience as if the only thing that stood between this roster and on-field success was a better cut of steak at the training table. Manager Manny Acta placed more emphasis on winning preseason games than did his predecessor (as well as most of the other current managers) and indeed from that perspective the Indians' spring was a success.
But a distressed room doesn't suddenly get a makeover just because you move a few lamps around. When the season started this team was still the uneven mess it looked like on paper in the off season and thus it shouldn't have surprised anyone that April again was miserable. It was bound to be.
Then again, we're likely to be saying the same thing at the end of May, June, July and August as well. By September fans will be so focused on the Browns that they won't notice whatever fate awaits the Indians' then.
The Indians 9-13 record at the end of April projects to a 66 win season. Since most figure this team to win about 70 games anyway, it seems like they are right on pace.
It would be one thing if this team was built with the intent of taking its lumps early while it gels into a competitive unit late. That's just not the case. It's a team that seems to have been built with only one unifying theme: don't lose too much money.
Even that task isn't going to be easy, not with a lineup featuring the Big Six.
The Indians as constructed are mostly a mess. Of the seven players on the roster making over $1 million this season, 6 of them are among the least productive. Unfortunately, three of those six look to be around for a few more years. The Indians have no other choice.
What it all adds up to is a cringe-worthy lineup with only the occasional bright spot or, in mathematical terms, a team that deservedly is on pace to win 66 games, for years to come.
I've railed against Russell Branyan being on this team plenty of times so no need to turn over those shovels of dirt again. Nothing he's done since his return changes that assessment. The best that can be said is that he's not guaranteed any money for next year. All he's doing on this team is eating up space and inhibiting the development of players that might actually have a chance to be on this team a year from now. His $2 million dollar salary is essentially a gift that Branyan would be wise to put in a CD. I hope he sends a thank you note.
You could say the same thing about Travis Hafner, except that his salary is now in the multi-millions, 11.5 of them to be exact.
It's actually hard to watch Hafner these days because so much of what he isn't now is wrapped up in what he used to be. It may be that injuries have robbed him of his ability to be productive any longer. It also may be that his lack of productivity at the plate is exacerbated by his contract, with 3 years remaining, that has become the millstone around this franchise that prevents it from putting a more cohesive lineup on the field. Hafner not only is collecting $11.5 million this season, which equates to about $100 per bad swing at this point, but the Indians are also on the hook to pay him $13 million each of the next two seasons. Hafner is like that stock you bought at $85 a share and held on to even as the company went bankrupt. What else could you do?
The sad fact is that the Indians could be as productive with Andy Marte and pick a player making the minimum as they are with Branyan and Hafner in the same lineup at about 1/12th the cost. This alone goes a long way to explaining the mess that is this lineup.
Yet if these two were the only problems then maybe things would look brighter. But then I watch Jhonny Peralta slumber through his existence at third base like the kid in the back of your high school science class who, when he was there at all, was usually sleeping.
Peralta, with his $4.85 million salary, is like a trust fund baby just gliding through life hoping the money never runs out. Fortunately, it might. He's due $7 million next season, but that's a club option which, if exercised, means Peralta has some incriminating pictures of someone stored in a safety deposit box. If neither Shapiro nor his hand-picked successor Chris Antonetti can't find someone to be as productive as Peralta for 1/10th the price then the Dolans should sue for malpractice.
You could make the case, weakly, that Peralta is still pouting over being moved to third base. But really he wasn't any better at short, either. He has occasional streaks where he's semi-hot at the plate followed by long streaks where he looks like he'd rather be any place else. Mostly though he continues to occupy a spot in the heart of a very weak offensive lineup because his guaranteed salary makes it impossible for the Indians to put anyone else there.
Branyan, Hafner and Peralta are mostly old stories at this point. Unfortunately another player that's becoming an old story is Grady Sizemore. Like Hafner, Sizemore's high water mark was 2006. Since then he's been on a steady and mystifying decline.
That might be fine if Sizemore were still earning league minimum. Instead he's making $5.7 million this year and is scheduled to make $7.6 million next season. In fact Sizemore's salary and productivity make a perfect “X” on the chart with the crossover point being that 2006 season.
There's no question that Wedge had trouble grooming Sizemore in the same way that Wedge had trouble developing most players. Yet at this point the problems with Sizemore seem to be beyond the grasp of nearly everybody. Except for the occasional spectacular play in center field, he looks nothing like the player that was poised to become the Indians' next superstar to be traded. Right now he looks like just another spare part among the many cobbled together in order to field a line up each day.
You can blame Shapiro for giving Hafner an outsized contract and for placing too much faith in a player like Peralta who never quite deserved it. You can find a healthy number of baseball executives that would agree with you, too. When it comes to Sizemore, though, there probably isn't an executive in baseball that would yet turn his back on him. And yet, where he seems to be headed is for a career that mirrors that of Rick Manning. That isn't awful, but it you shouldn't pay nearly $8 million a year for it either.
Then there's the money being chewed up by Kerry Wood as he sits in the spot where he's apparently most comfortable, the disabled list. But his $11 million for next season is a club option which means that if he somehow survives the whole season in Cleveland he won't survive the off season.
The same applies to pitcher Jake Westbrook, with his $11 million salary. He is the last of the Big Six as he's a free agent next season. His injuries caused him to miss all of last season but let's be honest, before that he was a career .500 pitcher anyway with an ERA well over 4.00. His history indicates he would never have received full value from what they were paying him anyway.
Fausto Carmona is the last of the 7 players making at least $1 million this season. Of the group he's been far and away the most productive. He's also the most mercurial of the group and always on the verge of being a few pitches away from the mess he's been the last two seasons or, stated differently, on the verge of making the Big Six the Big Seven.
Which means, of course, that as long as the majority of this group stays in tact, and it will, for the next few seasons, there's really no reason to think that April 2011 or 2012 is going to be any better.