Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bring On Your Wrecking Ball

On Monday evening, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed live on the Jimmy Fallon show.  At age 62, Springsteen still has no idea how to just mail in a performance.  As vital and vibrant as ever, Springsteen showed everyone once again why he's the best that ever was.  The song "Wrecking Ball," which serves as the title track for his next album (available March 6th everywhere), seemed like a throwaway romp when he performed it on the last tour, ostensibly in honor of the tearing down of the Meadowlands.  And yet, with just a few word twists, it serves as an incredibly worthy anchor to what is going to be an epic album.  In context to the rest of the album, the protagonist stands defiant telling all the forces that serve to bring him, us, down to step to the line, take their best shot.  And even when you knock down the structure, the spirit always remains.  A powerful reminder, indeed.  I can't help but see this as the rest of the story to the wide-eyed teen that was running from anything and everything some 37 years ago. Now in his mid to late 50s, having survived the rattle and hum of every day life, he now knows that you can run but you can't hide. There are forces greater then us all that can take you down even when you've tried to do everything right.  And yet, and yet, not even the wrecking ball can tear us down.  Remain resolute, if you think you've got the balls.

Enjoy this video from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and please, please, please buy the album:

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Matter of Trust

Never has a moment in baseball made me feel more like Michael Coreleone in Godfather III then the rescission of the 50-game suspension handed down to last year’s National League MVP, Ryan Braun, when he tested positive for extremely high levels of testosterone.

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. I thought I was through with screaming from the rooftops about how poorly baseball is run and how foolish they've been in dealing with the drugs. Weren't they getting better? Hardly.

At this point, major league baseball remians popular by accident. It has a business model that makes no sense. It has too many teams that never have a realistic chance of competing. It operates under separate sets of rules between the leagues, which is idiotic. But perhaps its biggest problem is that it is presided over by Bud Selig, The Worst Commissioner in Baseball History™, a point I’ve made before and now need to make again.

My issues with Selig stem mostly from his fragile spine. He’s never once stood up for the game in a meaningful way by staring down narrow-minded owners who care only about their bottom line and not the health of the entire sport. And even in those rare cases where he could get consensus with the owners, Selig had no ability to take on a players’ union run by short-sighted shallow thinkers over any issues of substance, including substance abuse. By not standing up, Selig has fallen for almost every issue, not the least of which was baseball’s rampant drug problem, one of the worst scandals in American sports.

Selig’s apologists point to his leadership in bettering baseball’s drug policy as proof of his effectiveness while conveniently forgetting that Selig’s conversion on this issue came not of his free will but at the business end of a gun pointed at his head by Congress.

And yet, while baseball’s drug policy is indeed far better these days along comes a case like Braun's to put baseball and its approach nearly back to square one. Losing the Braun arbitration in the way they did makes it look as though baseball is being run by Peter Griffin. Maybe that would actually be better.

The Braun case more than demonstrates that baseball's brain trust can't even handle a urine sample effectively. How can it be trusted on anything reeking of even slightly more complication?

Let’s set the background.

Braun has claimed that his elevated testosterone levels aren’t the result of illegal drug use, which seems dubious if only because I’m still waiting for the first person to test positive to actually admit that they really did ingest illegal drugs.

Braun’s argument raised questions about the integrity of the testing process and was buttressed not by his actual test results but by the inherent distrust most people have toward drug testing in the first place. Anyone who has ever been subjected to a drug test, and by now that’s most of us, always fears the mythical “false positive” test. Despite the sophistication of the testing at this point that makes it nearly impossible to get a “false positive,” the potential for a false result hangs over the program like Billy Crystal hangs over the Oscars.

And so it is, sometimes to extremes, that we let irrational fears like these drive results that don’t seem plausible. Irrational or not, however, the fact remains that whenever there is any sort of hiccup in the protocol related to procuring and then securing the urine sample the results will always be suspicious. But that's not news. Nearly every drug testing case that is lost is because of an issue related to the testing protocol, no matter how small or insignificant of an issue it might be.

Had baseball’s deep thinkers remembered this while taking a more sober view of their case and acknowledged this fact before they ever decided to suspend Braun, this mess could have been avoided and Braun, if he is a drug user, caught under circumstances that could never have been questioned.

Braun based his claim of a false positive on what his lawyers argued was a broken custody chain in the handling of his urine sample. That’s not really true, but it’s true enough, which was also enough for neutral arbitrator Shyman Das.

The reason it’s true enough is simply that the person who took the urine sample for major league baseball never bothered to read Protocol 101. The same holds for MLB’s lawyers. From the time that the sample was collected until it was shipped (not tested, but shipped) was 44 hours or nearly two full days. The protocol in baseball is that once the sample is collected it is to be shipped immediately via FedEx to baseball’s testing lab in Montreal.

When Braun’s sample was collected, it was a Friday evening and supposedly after the local FedEx office had closed. So the collector let the sample sit in a container of Tupperware on his desk for almost two days, which reminds me never to accept an invitation to eat leftovers at that collector’s house.

You don’t need to know any more about the case than that to know that baseball should have just bit its lip and thrown out the sample and either re-tested Braun or lived to fight another day. No arbitrator was ever going to sign off on the results and the punishment that comes from them under that scenario. Again, it’s the fear of a false positive that mandates there be no screw up, no matter how small or insignificant in the testing process.

Anyone who has litigated a drug case, and I’ve done several of them, knows this to be the case. Yet baseball’s lawyers convinced baseball’s management that this fact didn’t matter and now they have a mess on their hands.

How did they get to this point? Because when you look at it holistically and not necessarily legally, you pretty much come to the conclusion that Braun had something illegal in his system. So you try to make it work because suspending the reigning MVP is a pretty big get.

In fairness to the collector, it wasn’t as if Braun peed directly into the Tupperware container. Braun peed into one of those brown bottles and handed it over. The collector immediately placed a seal over it, put that sealed bottle into a packet and sealed that packet as well and then put the packet into a FedEx box that he likewise sealed. To that point the protocol was followed and most of us know the routine. It’s just that with the FedEx office closed, the collector held onto it for 44 hours before sending it along. Once it arrived in Montreal, everything was completely in tact and sealed. There was no evidence that any of the seals had been tampered with or, by extension, that the sample was tainted.

That's pretty powerful stuff. But where major league baseball screwed up was in testing Braun at a time of day when the sample couldn’t be immediately shipped, though as Lester Munson, writing for ESPN, noted, Braun’s attorneys more or less debunked baseball’s claim that the FedEx office wasn’t open by highlighting several other FedEx offices nearby that were.

Because the sample sat in a sealed pouch for two days at the collector's house instead of in a lab, that raised more then enough doubt in the mind of the arbitrator on an issue that is fraught with doubts anyway. With the test discredited Braun’s suspension had to be overturned.

It's understandable how baseball got into this predicament. You combine a seemingly guilty looking player with a baseball hierarchy known more for missteps then efficient execution you end up with a recipe that yields a result pretty much in line with what they got. Yet if they had tested Braun a day earlier or maybe two days later, either of which would have been at a time when they could have found an open FedEx office, they could have nailed Braun and, in turn, looked serious about finally ridding the sport of drugs.

As it is, they look foolish instead. Maybe now Selig will understand that simply saying you have a world class drug testing program doesn’t make it so. As for ridding the sport of drugs, we’ll this is certainly a step backward. Unwittingly, by virtue of their own hubris, major league baseball has created the impression that they can’t be trusted. And that, really, is the sad legacy that Selig has written for the sport he claims to love.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Budget Fillers

There was a time in Cleveland when Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Omar Vizquel formed the heart of a team that gave Indians fans their most significant reason to cheer in decades. They were great players growing into the prime of their careers that several times put the Indians on the precipice of a World Series title that now seems further away then ever.

But players like Thome, Ramirez and Vizquel were never going to spend their careers in Cleveland. We can bitch about the reasons why but the truth is that the identity of a particular player and a particular team is as outdated as the reserve clause.

One of the byproducts of the system that Marvin Miller sold first to the players and eventually to the owners was a revolving door concept of player movement. You take two greedy parties—players and owners—whose economic interests naturally clash and eventually you end up a league full of players who, if there's any length to their careers, each probably average having played with 4 to 5 different teams by the time those careers are over.

If the Indians didn’t create the concept of “small market team” then they were at least at the forefront of the concept. When baseball’s runaway financial structure, driven by the kinds of dollars teams were willing to throw at players like Thome and Ramirez in particular, became too dizzying of a ride for less heeled owners around the league, teams either had to find a better way to make use of the money they had or become, well, the Kansas City Royals.

So for the Indians, like their West Coast cousins, the Oakland As, it was easy to say goodbye to players they never intended to keep and replace them with someone who might vaguely replicate their production at 1/10th of the price.

As a result, every off season in Cleveland is filled not with splashy free agent signingsbut a smattering of goodbyes followed by acquisitions like Casey Kotchman, Kevin Slowey and Cristian Guzman. Even Derek Lowe fits the profile. It’s the only way that the Indians can think of to keep a budget within reason while still turning a profit for their owners.

But it’s a myth that only teams like Cleveland and Oakland do these sorts of things. The Indians and As may do more of this kind of barrel scraping then others, but there isn’t a team in the major leagues that isn’t in the market for an aging veteran pitcher with a history of success and coming off of arm surgery. Heck, Bartolo Colon was a big part of the Yankees’rotation last season.

That’s why it’s fascinating to watch when players like Thome, Ramirez and Vizquel, players who were such a big part of local fans’ dreams, face their comeuppance. No longer are they prizes to whom teams are still willing to throw indiscriminate money toward but instead they are, in effect, some other team’s Kotchman, Slowey or Guzman.

When the Oakland As signed Ramirez earlier this week, it more than drove home the point. Ramirez is mostly a discredited two time violator of baseball’s drug policy. He could be signed on the cheap because he grew fat and remained stupid and he has a 50-game suspension that still must be served.

But the other reason the As would take a chance on Ramirez is for the same reason that aging baby boomers will still buy tickets to a Paul McCartney concert. McCartney may be 70 years old but his voice is still good enough to make you remember when it was coming out of a 25 year old body.

So it is with Ramirez. He could get as big as Prince Fielder but as long as the sweet batting stroke remains in tact, and As general manager Billy Beane assures us it is, then there is very little to be lost except maybe a half million dollars if Ramirez is a complete bust. As cheap as teams can be, they still think little of giving away $500,000 to a player who could credibly occupy a final roster spot.

Still there is a certain pathetic underpinning to it all, isn’t there? Assuming Ramirez’s lack of self-discipline extended to matters financial, the assumption is that Ramirez signed because he needs the money. He never came across as someone who loved the game given his abject indifference toward its formalities for so many years. It's the sad epilogue really to the far headier days when he and his agent dangled the disingenuous notion of his re-signing with Cleveland under a “hometown discount” before maxing out with the Boston Red Sox.

Take away the two drug violations and Thome’s story closely parallels Ramirez’s. He left Cleveland in much the same way, with his agent trying to portray Indians’ management as the bad guys for not paying him his “value” even as he chased the maximum cash that any other team was willing to pay him knowing full well it wouldn't be Cleveland.

Thome had great years with the Phillies and became a very solid 1 percenter in the process. But age and weight and injuries caught up with Thome and for the last several years he’s been a hobbled mercenary looking for a few bucks and a way to extend his career. He’s now on his fourth team since 2006.

It, too, seems just a tad pathetic. And yet there is something gratifying by the way Thome, like Ramirez, has had to humble himself to those he exploited now that he's just another spare part, a plug hole in some team’s budget, as he clings to baseball even after making well in excess of $100 million during his career.

Then there’s Vizquel. He didn’t get there in the same way as Ramirez or Thome but he’s there all the same. Never the splashy free agent that either Ramirez or Thome was it could well be argued that his value as a baseball player was at least as high as either of them.

Vizquel didn’t leave Cleveland because he was chasing free agent dollars. He left because general manager Mark Shapiro kicked him, his 37 year old body and his relatively modest $6 million a year salary to the curb in favor of a potentially promising Jhonny Peralta who worked much more cheaply. Since then Vizquel went on to start for the San Francisco Giants for years but now finds himself as a 45 year old trying to keep a million dollar salary coming in. As long as he can still field the ball on occasion and doesn’t make waves, he’s the perfect plug hole in some team’s budget as well.

That Vizquel still clings to baseball as a bit player is a sad end to a glorious career. There's no reason not to take the money that some team wants to throw your way but it really is rather sad that in the pursuit of another dollar a player of his stature is willing to tarnish an otherwise glorious career.

In retrospect, it all seems rather ludicrous to have gotten so excited about trying to retain at least Ramirez and Thome, even as I still question Shapiro’s decision to jettison Vizquel when he did. Even if they all had remained in Cleveland and had put up exactly the same numbers as they did for their new teams, there is no certainty that the Indians would have won a World Series.

But even more to the point is simply that they more then prove that as much as major league baseball markets its superstars, the only real way to remain committed as a fan is to love the game more. Players come and go quickly, particularly these days, and their self interests will always break your hearts. But the game itself still endures and is the reason to watch. It’s the only way to be a fan in Cleveland and, frankly, every other city with a major or minor league team.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Lingering Items--Oncoming Bus Edition

One of the abiding questions for beleaguered Cleveland sports fans is whether or not LeBron James and Art Modell really belong in the same conversation. It's easy to equate the two sports pariahs because the similarities can be striking in the oddest ways.

From the classless and graceless exits to the sorry state in which they left their local fans it's quite natural to want to bury each up to his neck in his own private chamber  in Cleveland sports hell, drip honey on their foreheads and watch as rodents and fire ants pick them clean.

You'll never witness me asking anyone to forgive LeBron James for the shiv he stuck in this town's collective backs. But if presented with the Hobson's choice of pulling one or the other from in front of a RTA bus driven by a meth-addicted escaped felon, I'm pulling LeBron away every time.  Sorry, Artie.

And this was before LeBron's recent bout of maturity in the form of acknowledging that his noisy withdrawal from the local sports scene was a mistake. I don't begrudge any athlete chasing whatever dream comes his way. For James, the money was going to be there wherever he decided to play. Like any generational athlete what drives him is the elusive goal of immortality. In sports that's always been defined by championships.

What chafes about James is that ultimately he is not who we thought he was. We convinced ourselves he was Michael Jordan on limited evidence that came in the form of an ability to do things with a basketball that most of us can never fathom. When he left, we imagined with it all the championships he'd take with him. 

But the sad truth when it comes to James is that he's never going to be who he thinks he is.  He's not a king and he's certainly not Jordan. He's an overgrown kid who just happens to be really good at his sport. If or when that championship comes his way, he'll never own it like Jordan or Kobe. He'll have earned it on someone else's back.

Saying all this isn't supposed to serve as criticism, which is why James gets a pass when the only choice is to save the lesser of two evils. James is not a leader but instead one of the most talented followers in history. His inability to convince his superstar friends to play in Cleveland instead of Miami (although I blanche at the notion of Chris Bosh as a superstar) is all the proof you need of that.  His playoff collapses are just the icing on the cake.

In that context James chasing his dreams where the real alpha dogs take them makes sense even if it hurts. James reached the conclusion long before the rest of us that there was no reason to build a team around him. He works far better when it's built around someone else.

So James throwing the locals a bone by suggesting he could see himself playing in Cleveland somewhere down the road is pretty much the same thing Jim Thome said on his way out of town the first time, too. It was the kind of empty statement that athletes say to get to the next question.

Besides I don't expect it to ever come to pass anyway unless James ends up like Thome, a mercenary playing out the string of on a great career but unable to call it quits. But even then I still doubt it, at least if Dan Gilbert still owns the team. He strikes me as the kind of guy that James is not--driven to success and motivated by slights.  And that’s a good thing.


James doesn't exactly warrant a pass even as his situation at least has a thread of schoolboy logic to it. Modell, on the other hand, is a far different cat. In simple terms, he ran a franchise into the ground through the kind of stupidity the Lerner family can only dream about and then uprooted it for the sole purpose of trying to preserve it for the benefit of his idiot son.

There has been a lot of revisionist history afoot when it comes to Modell, mostly led by Modell directly or through those he has paid to be his dishonest messengers. Modell was always quick to try to blame a city he thought was more preoccupied with the Indians as the driving force to what he has claimed was an inevitability. 

But nothing about Modell moving the Browns was the least bit inevitable. Owning a NFL franchise is the same as owning a license to print money. You can be Dan Snyder stupid and still keep each of your loved ones in Gulfstreams. The only thing you can't be is Art Modell stupid and before you dismiss this as merely snark, remember that despite the ludicrous stimulus package that the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland gave Modell he still went through it like a brokenhearted teenage goes through Mars bars and had to sell the team anyway.

Modell could have sold the team to a hundred different buyers without ever sending Browns fans afloat. If he didn't like his deal with the city there were dozens of others who would have found a way to make it work in Cleveland. He moved the team because he was selfish and amoral. He could not have cared less about the psychological or financial impact that selfishness had on the thousands that helped finance a lifestyle that he didn't deserve.

Modell was a business owner who bled the city and its patrons for as long as he could and then skipped town to do it again somewhere else. James on the other hand was and always will be just a really good player. His leaving was felt because he’s an otherworldly talent and he was classless in his exit but the scale is just not the same and never will be.


Putting James and Modell in their proper historical context makes me tend to appreciate the entry level ineptitude of Randy Lerner a little more both for what it is and what it isn't.
The Browns have been awful under the Lerner family ownership. To that there can be no doubt. But at least we have the ability to scream from the rooftops about it. We've seen the alternative in Cleveland and as between an incompetently run franchise and none at all, there really is no choice.

No matter how poorly Randy Lerner has run the franchise, no matter how frustrating his impetuousness has been, there's virtually no likelihood that he abandons the city.  The one thing he has that trumps all is money and while even that can be fleeting, there's no chance he squanders a NFL team like Modell did.

That's really quite good news actually, probably the best of all news. The team is on solid financial footing.  Under Modell it was always a shaky existence.

The problem now is the abject inability to build off that solid base. Lerner's best qualities as an owner are his passion and his willingness to write a check. Unfortunately those are his only qualities as well. This team is still light years away from being a top tier outfit and so much of that starts with Lerner's poor stewardship.

Still, as much as Lerner frustrates me, he also makes me glad that he was willing to take over when his father passed away. While this town and this team could always do much better, we know firsthand it could be much worse.  And that's always something I try to remember each time the Pittsburgh Steelers treat us take our temperatures rectally twice each year.


With NFL draft speculation in full swing now, this week’s question to ponder:  Are the Browns’ needs at quarterback so vast as compared to the rest of its needs that it’s worth trading two number one picks for Robert Griffin III?

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Path to a College Football Playoff

The dominoes continue to fall and now it won’t be long before college football finally has a legitimate playoff to determine its national champion. The news that the Big Ten is noodling various playoff scenarios carries with it the significant implication that it not only can be swayed but that it will. To this point the Big Ten served as both the enemy of progress and the 10,000 pound elephant in the playoff advocates’ ointment.

There is this overwhelming unmet need of so many to crown a national champion in Division I football on the field. Initially it stemmed from the distinct possibility that the two ranking groups, the Associated Press and the United Press International Coaches Poll, since taken over by USA Today, left open the possibility that there could be, God forbid, a difference of opinion on which team really was the theoretical best for that year. Indeed they did disagree at various times, though it should be noted that it didn't result in rain falling upward or dogs playing with cats.

Despite all the supposedly smart men in hideous blazers paid by universities to wring hands and scratch brows over all things related to college football, no one could quite figure out how to deal with an incredibly antiquated and increasingly irrelevant bowl system that seemed to be an insurmountable hurdle to a national playoff system.

The preservation of this goofy bowl system, which is really a vestige of a bygone day where it was difficult and expensive for teams to travel anywhere but locally, always has been a curious thing. There’s no overriding reason, for example, why the Rose Bowl needs to continue to exist except to enhance the pockets of those who run it. Sure it’s tradition. So was the Maypole dance. Everything has its time and its expiration date.

What started out as a nice way for a handful of teams to celebrate an end to a football season has since morphed into an impossibly controlled crazy quilt of games that no longer celebrate any real success. All it takes to become bowl eligible is for a team to win half its games in a given season and as the number of bowl games propagate faster then Kris Kardashian Jenner the relevance gets even harder to find. Bowl games are now the equivalent of participation trophies that little leagues hand out so that no kid is left to feel bad because his team didn’t win.

So a legitimate football playoff season has been hamstrung by the abject refusal of anyone with any guts to admit that the king hasn’t been wearing any clothes for at least two decades. Thus we’re left to act like the bowl games matter and that taking a back hoe to them would be tantamount to tearing at the very fabric that holds this country together.

Certainly the Big Ten’s Jim Delany, whose title is commissioner but who has always seen himself as much more of a deity, has been the biggest advocate for the current bowl system. In the past he has vowed that the Big Ten wouldn’t ever consider approving any sort of playoff system. I wonder what’s turned his head?

Well, let’s start with the fact that his conference has become mostly shut out from winning a national championship for the last 6 years. When the SEC sent two of its teams to play for this year’s national championship, Delany had to see it as the disaster it really was. The nation was left to witness a redux of sorts of the SEC Championship game, Delany's conference was losing its competitiveness and the spotlight and the situation doesn’t look to change any time soon.

But there is more. When horse-and-buggy thinkers like Delany put the clamps on any talks of a legitimate playoff system it’s not as if others didn’t still try to make something, anything happen. Thus was born probably the single dumbest creation in college football history next to the flying wedge: the Bowl Championship Series.

Through a convoluted point system that weighs everything from a team’s ranking in the more traditional polls to the color of its uniforms, the BCS tries to force a matchup of the two best teams in the country in one super, duper bowl game that takes place at the end of a particularly hellish week of other BCS-related bowls run by the very idiots whose interests run counter to the rest of the college football fan base.

The hope I guess was that by having the BCS align with the traditional bowls and their traditional conference alignments and then throwing millions of dollars at the conference anyone with any authority would look the other way at the inequities it caused. It's worked, sort of, except that all anyone really does is complain about the way it works.

It’s not just that the BCS system ignores teams/conferences it doesn’t deem sponge worthy that causes the problems, although that’s a big part of it. It’s the fact that despite all the rigor of its ranking process in the end those same guys in the hideous blazers get to ignore those rankings when deciding who will participate in the bowl they represent. The draft used by most fantasy football leagues makes more sense.

How did this lead to Delany’s evolution on the subject of a playoff? How about the fact that Michigan got to play in a BCS bowl game which Michigan State, easily the conference’s second best team and a team that handled Michigan during the regular season, did not.

No one outside of Ann Arbor thought this was fair and I suspect Delany heard an earful from most of the rest of the conference. The selection of Michigan instead of Michigan State by the Sugar Bowl was indefensible. It wasn’t based on on-field accomplishment but more so on which team supposedly traveled better. That’s code for which team had the more affluent alumni base that would buy tickets to a game that was played for absolutely no stakes and had even less meaning then that. And don’t get me started on Virginia Tech. How they played in anything beyond the Meinke Car Care Bowl remains a bigger mystery then Newt Gingrich.

In truth, it was only a matter of time before the inequities of college football started impacting the Big Ten in a negative way. Until recently, the Big Ten has had it mostly its way and had absolutely no incentive to do anything different then simply being the petulant child who refuses to get into the car so that the rest of the family can leave for vacation.

But the thing we know most about college football these days is that it’s not about the athletes and it’s not about the students. It’s about the money. State legislatures everywhere continually squeeze the budgets of the public universities that taxpayers help support and university presidents are forced to find new revenue streams as well as ways to widen the existing streams.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Delany’s whispered sanctioning of a playoff system comes with the notion that it would involve an additional home game for the top two seeds. The best teams in the Big Ten have stadiums the size of Rhode Island and fill them with an ease that even a touring Bruce Springsteen would admire. That’s a lot of extra money for a conference that splits its proceeds among all its members.

Now nothing comes easy when it comes to Delany and the Big Ten, which is why their kicking around of a 4-team playoff is akin to dipping one's toe in the tub to test the temperature. But Delany is smart enough to know that you can't be a little bit pregnant and understands full well the history of how the NCAA's basketball tournament went from a sleepy little 8-team tournament to the 68 team monstrosity it is today. Once you start there's no going back.

And just like that the bowl system is no longer the insurmountable hurdle to a more equitable system. It will take time and it won't be perfect immediately but make no mistake that the path is being paved. Who knew, except everybody, that money would solve all problems?