Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Inexplicable Nature of the Pittsburgh Pirates

For professional sports teams, the mantra is "you're in it to win it." Obviously, right? Why compete, why do anything if you don't put winning at the top of your list? Well...there is a team out there that apparently hasn't gotten the memo. I have no choice but to question whether the Pittsburgh Pirates subscribe to the whole "winning is important" idea. I say this because as I look at their collection of trades/offseason moves in the past decade, I'm left speechless...and not in a good way. It is the type of situation where you, as an onlooker, say to yourself "man, my 5- year old nephew knows better than that."

Now, I kid a little bit, but let's just take a look at what has prompted my bewilderment with the changes they've made to their team in recent years. While the city of Pittsburgh hasn't seen a winning team in 16 years, the Pirates have actually had some good players...the type of guys you try to keep to build your franchise into a contender. But so far, the Pirates have done the opposite. They've continuously traded their best players in exchange for "promising" young prospects. Here is a list of key players that the Pirates have let go in the past decade in chronological order:

-Brian Giles (left in '03 after 4 straight 30 HR seasons and 2 All-Star appearences in '01, '02)
-Aramis Ramirez (left in '03, combine his '01 & '02 seasons and you get a .267 average, 52 HRs and 183 RBIs)
-Jason Kendall (left in '04 after batting .319 and striking out the least per at bat in the MLB in '03)
-Xavier Nady (14 HRs and 40 RBIs in 75 games before being traded in '08. Promising hitter)
-Jason Bay (Traded 5 days after Nady. Hit over 20 HRs in five different seasons for Pittsburgh, including 2 seasons over 30 HRs. Over 100 RBIs twice, around a .280 batting average in those seasons)
-Nate McLouth (Traded in '09. Coming off an All-Star season in '08: 26 HRs, 46 2Bs, 94 RBIs, .276 average)
-Nyjer Morgan (Traded in '09. Struggled for a starting spot for a few years, finally got a chance this year and did well: .277 average, 27 RBIs in leadoff spot most of the time, 18 stolen bases)

Look, I know stuff happens in the league. There are a lot of factors that go into trades, signings, etc. But I look at the above group and see a lot of great players, especially outfielders.  The worst part about it is that a lot of these guys had quite a bit of gas left in the tank when they were shipped out of Pittsburgh.  Some of them, like McLouth, were just entering their prime!  It's like the organization doesn't want to achieve success.  And by the way, Pirates, if you're going to trade away one of your better players, at least make the deal with a winner.  They just traded Nyjer Morgan in exchange for WASHINGTON NATIONALS PLAYERS!  Come on!!!!  

I mean, let's break it down.  Giles was a monster for awhile, and from the left side of the plate, too. Jason Kendall made up for his lack of power at the plate with great speed and valuble defensive abilities at catcher. Aramis Ramirez was quickly becoming the power-hitting 3rd baseman that every team wanted. Jason Bay was their established veteran who hit for power and provided an important presence in the clubhouse. McLouth and Nady were the up-and-coming outfielders that seemed to be the answer the Pirates were looking for. And after all of the carnage (losing Bay, Nady, and McLouth), Nyjer Morgan provided a burst of speed and a consistent bat in the lineup.  But of course, he too wasn't in the future plans of the organization...not that I think they have any discernable plans anyway.  

It is crystal clear that the Pirates don't have trouble saying "all good things must come to an end" because that is literally what they do every season. The Pirates have shipped off virtually every valuable player on their team in recent years. The joke of the century was the fact that the Pirates GM, Neal Huntington, was recently featured in ESPN The Magazine in a piece about young general managers that were supposedly on the rise. Give me a break! He has stripped the team completely. And the worst part about it is that he and the previous Pirates executives have waited until the player in question has an unbelievable year...for a few of them, their best year!

Now, I realize that there is a lot strategy that goes into running a professional sports team...I'm not that naive. Dealing established players for prospects is something that every team does from time to time, but when you do it on a cyclical basis, all you're doing is wedging yourself into a constant rebuilding phase. You get good prospects, they grow up to be solid players and then right when they have personal success, you dump them for new youngsters?  That is not the way to run a team! The Pirates players have even recently spoken out against the moves and I don't blame them. It is deflating to see the best players in your lineup move on to bigger and better things.  As a player, you want to be able to come to the ballpark with confidence in the people around you.  I don't think the Pirates players have that feeling about the executives. 

Usually when management makes a move, you can see where it's going, whether you support the decision or not.  But Pittsburgh's major moves in the past decade have been senseless and I frankly don't see the reasoning behind them.  Normally, I would advise trusting the people at the top because they have more experience and access to more information than the typical outsider.  However, I'm beginning to question both of those things in the Pirates case: do you really have the experience to be doing this?  Do you trust the people feeding you information?  

The bottom line is that the management is butchering this team.  Honestly, some decent players have come out of the Pirates farm system like Andrew McCutchen and Freddy Sanchez, but with the organization's recent track record of trading away their lone bright spots, should they be asking themselves "Am I next?"  If that is the case, then I hope they get out of Pittsburgh as quick as they can...their team is going nowhere fast.      

Friday, June 26, 2009

Neal's Live Blog from the Cubs/Sox Game

I have been fortunate enough to be able to go out into the field and cover both Cubs and White Sox baseball this summer, so thought it would be cool to kind of do a "Live From The Ballpark" post. I have my essential duties before and after the game, but during the game, I can sort of sit back and relax, so I figured that this time I would do something constructive. Here it goes:

12:30- A perfect summer day in Chicago. I arrive at the ballpark and pick up my media credentials. As I walk in, Ozzie Guillen and Sox GM Jerry Reinsdorf are addressing the media out by the front desk...huh, not the usual protocol. I opt to avoid the media frenzy...don't even have my recorder ready.

12:35- Head up to the press box to put my crap down so that I don't have to lug it around the field when I try to get pre-game audio.

12:45- I get situated in the Cubs dugout while the Sox are taking BP. I sit down in the dugout with other media personnel and Cubs infielders Andres Blanco and Jake Fox. Both super nice guys.

12:57- After a decent wait, Lou is finally here, just dying to talk with us (cough cough). He is in rare form today, kind of goofy mood. I bet he got a good night's sleep last night. Answered every question well and provided some great sound bites for all of the radio shows tonight...funny shit.

1:15- Hang out on the field for a bit to watch the Cubs take BP and watch Aramis Ramirez take some grounders. He's almost ready to come back from his injury! Looked pretty good. Also some good people watching time. The Cubs/Sox series attracts just about every media outlet possible. It was crazy.

1:30- Press box time. It's F'in hot as hell, so I'd like to be in the shade. Grab a little food, grab some soda, see what the lineups are for the day. Wow, Theriot with a day off at shortstop...weird! Thank god Jake Fox and Micah Hoffpauir are in the lineup. They've been hitting very consistently lately....and with a lot of power too.

2:00-Hangin' out. Reading about Michael Jackson's death. Terrible event. He made some great music to dance to, especially "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." Many of you guys may already know that I've declared that to be one of the most fun party songs.

2:30-Most of the media are up here now. Some are calling into radio shows, others writing stories. There seems to be quite a buzz about Sweet Lou's pre-game media session. All of the media seemed to be salivating over the material that he was able to feed them today. There will definitely be some good newspaper columns tomorrow.

3:08- Top of the first. Man, Contreras is dealing! He has been unhittable in his last 3 starts. Strikes out Soriano and Bradley....which I guess hasn't been too hard this year, but let's give Jose some credit for his pitching.

3:12- Jermaine Dye takes Randy Wells deep. Cubs love giving up those early inning homers.

3:18-Jake Fox doubles down the line for the Cubs. Man, this dude is locked in! Hit his 1st career bomb yesterday in Detroit. Great guy too, very good with the media. This is the guy that was leading nearly every minor league offensive category in the nation. We just need to find a consistent place for him in the field once Aramis Ramirez returns.

3:37- After a rare leadoff hit for the Cubs by Geovany Soto, what do you know ? A bunt caught by the pitcher, a strikeout by Soriano and a lineout by Kosuke Fukudome. Damnit!!

3:40- Good crowd on hand as always at the Crosstown Classic. Seems to be slightly more Sox today, which is no surprise seeing as we're playing at The Cell. Really great ballpark, especially since the renovations a few years back.

3:42- Scott Podsednik is up again. Singled in his first at-bat. This guy has been a monster for the Sox in the leadoff spot this year. Huge offseason pickup...and to think nobody else was going to sign him!

3:50- Game has quieted down. White Sox went 1-2-3 in the 3rd, Cubs haven't been able to string hits together. Wind seems to be blowing out though, Dye's homer didn't seem like it was hit that hard. Derrek Lee just singled. If it wasn't for yesterday, he would've had a 23 game hitting streak. I really think we're about to see some homers because of this wind.

3:53- What do you know!!! Jake Fox just went deep. 2-run shot!! This guy is unreal right now. He has 5 hits in his last 6 ABs with 2 HRs, 2 2Bs, and 5 RBIs. We need him in the lineup. The score is now 2-1 Cubs through 3 1/2 innings....I swear I'm writing this as I go. My home run prediction in the previous line was just a good call I guess.

3:58- Thome goes opposite field for a solo shot. The ball is flying out of here! We may have a slugfest on our hands. The weather is actually awesome now, not balmy like it has been. I think the lake breeze is helping a lot today. Wooo! Dye almost hit another one out, Soriano caught it a foot shy of the track and did his stupid little hop. He really needs to improve his fielding...and I don't think he will until he gets that knee fixed.

4:04- All of the media personnel snickers as Geo Soto nearly hits one out. "Your marijuana needs to make you just a bit more stronger," they say. Terrible joke. It was just discovered that he tested positive for weed during the World Baseball Classic. Woop-di-doo.

4:08-Milton with a great diving catch...I'd call that a Web Gem Nominee. Jake Fox also looking decent at the hot corner. They said that they've been really working with him on improving at the position. Whoa, whatta ya know! Geovany Soto actually gunned down a would-be base stealer...Gordon Beckham was the victim. His arm seems to be improving. Can't be worse than A.J. Pierzynski...last time I checked, he had thrown out only 8% of base stealers.

4:17- Top of the 6th now, Contreras tweaked his back after a pitch to Fukudome. That would be a terrible setback for him. By the way, he is to baseball what Greg Oden is to basketball. They each look like they could be 60 years old. Contreras is actually 37, but he looks elderly! Tied 2-2 through 5 1/2 innings.

4:24- Milton Bradley is now out of the game. Uh....ohhhh. Not another injury! Actually just got word that he may have thrown a tantrum in the dugout. Well, now Ryan Freel is in right field. The King of Small Ball, Scotty Pods, just laid down a perfect drag bunt down the 3rd base line. This guy is good!

4:36- Attendance is 39,015...only the 2nd sellout for the Sox this year. That is weak!

4:38- Geovany Soto says "In your eye!" to all of the people making fun of his marijuana admission. He just cracked a long 3-run homer to center field. 5-2 Cubs. Didn't stop the jokes from ringing through the press box. And oh by the way, before that, Jake Fox hit a single. His 2nd game in a row being a triple short of the cycle and we're only in the 7th. He'll get one more crack at it. This kid is amazing!

4:46- The old bunt down the baseline that the 3rd baseman waits to go foul and it never does. Nice leadoff single for Kosuke. Stolen base too! Wow the Cubs are actually manufacturing runs potentially?

4:59- Jake Fox at the dish. Could he go 4-for-4? Lines out to center....still a great game. We need him in the lineup on a daily basis.

5:00-Well that was kind of entertaining, but my live blog has to immediately come to an end. I have to go get post game sound in the locker rooms in a few minutes. Time to prepare! Still 5-2 after 8 1/2 innings.

After the game I was able to attend Lou Piniella's press conference as well as speak with Jake Fox, Geovany Soto, and Derrek Lee. All 3 guys are very cool. Lou was kind of pissed off despite the win because of a situation that occurred involving Milton Bradley. Big surprise! Bradley apparently threw his helmet down and busted the Gatorade cooler. So Piniella told him to go home in the middle of the game! Can't be good for team chemistry. The Bradley signing has really blown up in the Cubs face.

All in all, fun day at the park. Cubs and Sox. Ozzie and Lou. Gotta love it. Hope you enjoyed my "Cubs/Sox Live Blog."

Lou Says He Still Has The Fire, Doesn't Need To Show It

When a team struggles, people look for answers...and the Cubs just so happen to be in that position this season. The North Siders sit at one game under .500 (34-35) and seem to be playing about as inconsistent as humanly possible. Their performance this year has been nothing short of puzzling, so Cubs fans have started the Blame Train. For one reason or another, Lou Piniella seems to be a popular scapegoat. So today at U.S. Cellular Field, I was in the dugout before the game when Lou Piniella met with the media as usual. Only this time, Lou was ready to clear the air about people blaming things on him, which was a topic that he did his best to avoid up until this point.

So while the Cubs manager may seem quieter these days, he insists that his passion for the game hasn't wavered. "I've got as much fire as ever," says Piniella. "I just don't think that arguing with the umpires is going to help. I really would be making a fool of myself, like when I was younger." Sure, it may be surprising to hear that perspective from a man who was notorious for his tirades, but I understand what he is getting at here. He furthered his explanation by citing the fact that baseball is in a different era. Years ago, it may have been commonplace for a manager to sprint out of the dugout and put on an Oscar performance after a bad call, but maybe Piniella thinks that baseball has recently moved on from the base-throwing, dust-kicking, hat throwing antics.

"Arguing with umps isn't going to change anything," said Piniella. "If you want me to put on a show, I'll give you a show, but the league office is going to end up suspending me." I agree with him; I don't think he needs to go out there and argue. The bottom line is that a manager is hired to put the best lineup on the field, make the proper decisions during the game, and motivate his players as needed. Lou Piniella can't go stand behind his players at the plate and tell them when to swing nor can he can't go out there and pitch. It is up to the players. And the guy has done just about all he can do to try to get the team going. Whether it was changing the lineup, sending guys down, bringing guys up, or making situational moves, Piniella has tried everything that could possibly be a catalyst for this team's success.

I know that some culpability has to come with the manager's role, but when you have someone like Lou who has clearly tried everything across the board, it's exhausting to hear the amount of people calling for his head. You wouldn't believe how many angry Cubs fans we get calling into the radio show asking for Piniella to be fired. The question I always ask them first is "do you really think firing Lou Piniella would actually help the Cubs win more games?" Who else is going to come in? The manager of one of the minor league affiliates? Our pitching coach Larry Rothschild? Lou is the best person to have at the helm in this situation.

Firing coaches isn't always the best thing for a team. Exhibit A: Gerald Perry. The Cubs fired him from his position as hitting coach a few weeks ago because of all of the troubles they've had at the plate. Let's just say it hasn't made the wins start to magically appear. Perry ultimately took the blame for something that wasn't fully in his control. So when people want Lou Piniella out of his role as Chicago Cubs manager, I think that it's simply a cop-out. People want someone to blame, so they don't see why it shouldn't be the manager. But I don't think that is the way to handle a struggling baseball team...maybe in a different sport, but not baseball.

Look, all I'm saying is that the guy took us to division crowns the last two years. Now it's just a matter of actually playing up to our potential in the playoffs. Although the Cubs have struggled this year, they are still in the thick of things in the NL Central. "We are in it, we'll make a run, so just be patient," said Piniella in the dugout before the game. Hey, Lou has enough experience in baseball to be able to properly assess situations. So if he says that the Cubs still have yet to hit their sweet spot, then I'll take his word for it. Until then, people just need to relax and look at the season realistically. If you want to blame someone for the poor start, look at the guys with the bats in their hands. They are the ones who play the game...not Lou.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hansborough's Skill Set Won't Cut it in the NBA

When it comes to professional sports, athleticism reigns supreme. Dominant players in the upper ranks ultimately have success because they can jump high, hit hard, or run fast (among other abilities). Take a guy like Lebron James...he simply overpowers his opponents because is athletically superior. It's not the other guy's fault; it's just that he is hard to stop because of some of the things he can do on the court. In the end, that is the million dollar question: Can you stand up to the athleticism of the pros?

The reason why I'm bringing this up is because of an argument that I've heard many people having lately. As Thursday's NBA Draft approaches, there has been extensive media coverage of many of the league's potential newcomers. Blake Griffin, who will be chosen by the Clippers with the #1 overall pick, doesn't have any doubters regarding his athleticism. But others in the draft, and I'm going to go ahead and really go after Tyler Hansborough, may not be able to measure up to the league's premier athletes. Sure, Hansborough was the quintessential college basketball player...huge heart, maximum effort, mental and physical toughness, good student of the game. But he has never showed me the sheer atheltic ability and body size needed to succeed in the NBA.

Hansborough nearly reached legendary status at University of North Carolina with effort and passion as his driving forces. Those attributes made him a relentless player both mentally and physically and ultimately were the reasons that he was able to achieve so many great accolades. But outside of a handful of authoritative dunks, Hansborough never really showed above average athleticism. I'd even say that half the time he shot the ball, it looked like he was merely throwing it towards the basket, hoping for it to go in. Let's just say that "grace" should not be his middle name. Don't get me wrong, the guy made a hell of a name for himself doing everything it took to win...and he was rewarded for it. He was one of the centerpieces on two NCAA championship-winning teams under Roy Williams, so he is a proven winner. But none of that gets you anywhere at the next level. It's great that he loves the game of basketball and tries his ass off every minute he is on the floor, but the NBA is about physicality, size, and athleticism. You don't get an A for effort anymore.

While his effort may not be rewarded at the next level, his height will give him an advantage, right? Well let's see here...Hansborough is listed at 6' 10" in his NBA draft profile, but I've seen him listed several times at 6' 8" including his UNC player profile. I sure don't think he looks 6' 10", but let's just say he is. In the college game, a player is immediately considered to be at least a mild threat if he has that kind of size. In the professional game, it's more like "Okay, it's great that you're tall, but what else can you do?" Nearly everybody that plays the 3, 4, or 5 positions in the NBA is going to be pretty damn tall.

So if you now take Hansborough's height and throw it to the wayside, what else is he honestly going to do for an NBA team? He doesn't have a consistent shot, especially anything outside a mid-range jumper. He won't be able to make a living in the paint because he'll be guarded by players that are bigger and stronger. He's also not going to blow by anybody off the dribble because his ball-handling skills and speed are below average. Listen, I know I'm ragging on the kid, but there are too many people out there that truly believe Hansborough is going to be a household name in the NBA. I realize that if he works hard like he typically does, he will be able to improve under the tutelage of the nation's best basketball minds. But, in my opinion, you are sorely mistaken if you think Tyler Hansborough is going to burst on the NBA scene and make a splash. I think it will be a ripple at best if we're going to stick with the metaphor.

I understand the desire for your favorite college basketball players to succeed in the pros. I love following my favorite athletes from the college level, especially basketball. But sometimes your hopes for them are unrealistic. You also have to understand that the college game and pro game are very different. In college, effort, courage, enthusiasm, and passion go a long way, but in the pros the question solely becomes "are you athletic enough to compete?" Now I'm not saying any of those intangible attributes don't help you as a professional, but in the end, you need to be able to compete physically.

Hansborough is just another example of a player whose college game may not translate well to the professional game. It happens every year in sports. So as I look at this year's NBA draft field, I see guys like Hansborough, who did everything well in college, but may not succeed as a pro. On the other end of the spectrum, you take a guy like B.J. Mullens (Ohio St.) that looked like nothing more than a dead oak tree on the court last year. Mullens is expected to be a mid-first round pick because of his 7' 1" size. To be an elite player in the NBA, you have to have a specific set of skills and attributes...and unfortunately for guys like Hansborough, they may not have what it takes.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

2009 Season Will Be Lynch's Make-or-Break Moment

Indiana head football coach Bill Lynch came up big under pressure during the 2007 season.  His predecessor, Terry Hoeppner, who seemingly represented the program's ticket to success, died tragically of cancer after just one season at the helm.  So it was then-assistant head coach Bill Lynch that drew the job of taking over for the beloved Hoeppner.  It was always going to be a tall task for Lynch because Hoeppner's charisma, passion, and coaching style made him a tough act to follow.  "Coach Hep" as they like to call him in Bloomington brought strong hope to a previously lifeless football program.  And it was Lynch's job to uphold the promise that had set in the collective mind of Hoosier Nation. 

The pressure associated with the situation was great, but the new head man in Bloomington was up to the challenge.  Lynch was focused on the task at hand, going about his business with a calmness that seemed supernatural during such a hard time.  The Indiana players responded just as positively by performing well enough on the field to post a 7-6 record.  The winning season was good enough to clinch a berth in the Insight Bowl against a Big 12 opponent, Oklahoma State.  Despite a loss in the bowl game, Lynch's accomplishments dazzled Hoosier fans.  While the bowl game was the icing on the cake, there was no question that Lynch's crowning moment that season was Indiana's late-game victory against their intense rivals, Purdue.  Austin Starr's 49-yard field goal put the dagger in the Boilermakers, giving IU a 27-24 Old Oaken Bucket game victory.  If you're not familiar with the IU/PU rivalry, let's just say Lynch couldn't have picked a bigger game to win if he wanted to impress the Hoosier faithful.  And for that game to actually clinch the team's first bowl game berth since 1993 was impressive.  

Things seemed to be looking up for both Coach Lynch and his football program.  In fact, the unbelievable 2007 season led to Indiana's athletic department choosing Lynch to be the team's next official head coach.  Despite his great first-year efforts, many people familiar with the program were skeptical about the decision, feeling that IU could have perhaps gotten a bigger name.  But Lynch was apparently their guy and he was quickly offered a 4-year contract.  The question then quickly became whether or not Lynch would respond well to the pressure of a permanent head coaching position...the answer unfortunately slapped Hoosier fans in the face just months later...and not in a good way.  

Even after returning most of the players from the previous year, Lynch and his team struggled mightily last season.  The Hoosiers' schedule last season was favorable; the Big Ten gods allowed them to have a season free of both Michigan and Ohio State.  The out-of-conference games were against mid-majors at best.  But Indiana only notched one Big Ten win, and managed to get blown out in most of their losses.  The team looked lifeless and the swagger gained from the storybook season in 2007 was completely gone.  Lynch didn't have the answers to anybody's questions.  Frankly, I think both the Indiana fans and the Indiana athletic department (while they won't admit it) were left wondering if they made the right hire. 

Fast forward to this summer...Bill Lynch's Hoosiers are back on the field and preparing for battle.  Only this time, Lynch could be on a short leash.  Now I guess when I said "could," I really mean "should."  The fact is that Indiana's brass may not have the balls to ax Lynch even if he has a second straight brutal year.  But I think he should be on the hot seat.  When you go from a winning season and a great bowl game to a one-win Big Ten year, something obviously went wrong.  And as I said, the Hoosiers didn't even appear to be competitive.  In fact, Indiana dropped the most recent Old Oaken Bucket rivalry game to Purdue 62-10.  Don't tell me that the Boilermakers got that much better since the 27-24 win in Bloomington just a year before.   

Indiana football practically has a new stadium this year.  It features a beautiful addition with more seats, a state-of-the-art training facility, and an IU Sports Hall of Fame.  And on top of that excitement, there are still a great deal of Indiana football fans out there that still cling to the hope and energy of the 2007 run.  But one more bad season under Lynch could completely kill what the program still has going for them.  Lynch passed with flying colors in the wake of Terry Hoeppner's death, being able to downplay the great deal of pressure.  But then Lynch failed under the pressure of trying to prove himself as an official head coach the following year. For me, this next season will be the real test for Lynch.  Will he reach back and grab the fire from 2007 or will he revert to the embarrassment of last year?  

The Hoosiers won't get a break from the scheduling gods this year.  As a matter of fact, after a few cupcake non-conference tilts, Indiana will kick off the Big Ten season against the big boys, away at Michigan and home against Ohio State.  So while I won't be ready to crucify Coach Lynch after those games, the season as a whole will ultimately give me enough insight on what he can accomplish moving forward at IU.  And I'll put it out there right now...I'm skeptical.  I'd at least like to see him show some emotion this year!

I realize that very few people care about Indiana football in comparison to an SEC school or something, but the program is very close to becoming a mainstay in the Big Ten contender discussion.  I've got to give Lynch credit on his recruiting.  The classes the past few years have looked pretty good, but I feel like you can only wait so long for them to get going.  So as a fan, I really believe that the university needs to be very careful with Lynch because if they have another season full of blowout losses, the program could go back in the tank.  It would be a shame to see the nice new stadium addition go to waste and it would be awful to see the hope that Hoeppner instilled dissipate.  I think Bill Lynch is a good man with positive intentions and a great passion for football, but that isn't going to change the fact that I think he should be on a short leash this season.  Because when you've got a program on the brink of success, you can't afford to mess around for too long. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

If U.S. Soccer Wants Real Success, They Must Turn To The Experts

After watching the U.S. men’s soccer team play the other day against Italy in the Confederations Cup, I was left with a feeling of emptiness.  Something appeared to be missing; something that would bring a whole new dynamic to the team’s results.  So I thought for awhile, was it the players’ overall performance?  Was it the gameplan? Or was it poor coaching? 

While I consider all three of the above options to be part of the overall problem I have with the U.S. team, I decided on a bigger issue as the main culprit.  And it’s quite simple…the U.S. Soccer Federation has not made a big enough commitment towards success.  Now, yes that could include the coaching, the gameplans, and some of the player selections, but it starts from the top.  In my opinion, the people overseeing the operation have it all wrong.

Let’s start with the coaching position.  Bob Bradley, the current coach, had great success in the MLS.  Heck, I will even say that his time as head coach of the national team has gone pretty well so far.  But we often times in sports hear about someone’s “ceiling.”  By that I mean, what is someone’s highest potential?  For Bradley, I think he has nearly reached it.  All he knows is soccer.  He doesn’t know “football” or “futbol” or “calcio.”  By that I mean, his experience lacks an international flavor; it’s limited to America’s version of the sport. Since that is the case, I just don’t think he has much more to offer.  It’s not his fault, but we need more versatility to succeed. 

My proposal is to bring in a foreign coach with international experience.  And before you offer your rebuttal to this proposal, let me anticipate your question of “You really think a bigtime international coach wants to coach an American soccer team?”  Well yes I do.  I can see where someone is coming from if they cite the fact that most of the world thinks that American soccer is a joke.  But let’s think about this here.  In recent history, the U.S. men’s national team coaching position has been a great gig, not by winning standards, but more in regards to the lack of job pressure.  There has been HARDLY ANY pressure associated with the U.S. job.  There are low standards and low expectations, so the job security for the coach has been very good.  As long as you qualify for the World Cup out of CONCACAF, you’ve done your job.  That’s it.  And maybe if the U.S. Soccer Federation gets extra stern, you could be subject to a firing if you lose all 3 of your 1st round World Cup games.  Rough task…I think it would be a fun project for a foreign coach to tackle.  

There hasn’t been anything in a U.S. coach’s mind in recent years to suggest that they better get their act together and actually get something done.  The pressure is practically 100% off.  So what I’d like to see is a clear-cut message from the leaders of the Federation simply saying that mediocrity will not be good enough to keep your job.  In European soccer and in most of the international ranks, managers or coaches are on the hot seat constantly.  If you don’t win, you don’t remain coach.  It’s as simple as that.  Now, I don’t think we need to get that harsh because it’s important to develop your own style within the sport, but for god’s sake, the U.S. Soccer Federation needs to change their standard for success. 

I think an international coach is a start.  Take a guy like Guus Hiddink.  He is native of the Netherlands and as a player, he was a pretty good goalscorer in the Dutch First Division. As a coach, he led the South Korean national team to a 4th place finish in the 2002 World Cup, he took the Netherlands team to a 4th place finish in the 1998 World Cup, he led Australia’s team to the 2nd round in the 2006 World Cup, and he took the Russian national team to the semi-finals in the Euro 2008.  So this guy has successfully coached teams who speak 4 different languages on the international level.  Not to mention the fact that he just salvaged Chelsea’s season in the English Premier League this year.  There are other coaches out there like him too.  Ireland and England are both coached by Italian men.  Now take into account the living situation and the income that the U.S. coaching position would bring, and you’ve got a pretty sweet deal. 

As far as the American players go, I don’t think they are necessarily the problem.  There just needs to be someone, as I mentioned earlier, who is experienced enough to properly manage them.  There are a lot of U.S. players that play over in Europe.  Some of them have improved since moving overseas, and others have suffered due lack of playing time.  It’s very important to look at all of them, but you also can’t forget some of the players in the MLS.  The MLS is clearly at a lower-level than most European leagues, but they house a lot of players that possess great attitudes and impressive work ethics.  And sometimes, I think the U.S. team is missing that fire.  But it's all about choosing the right mix of players as your recipe for success.  Right now, it looks like our team lacks chemistry. 

The international manager is also probably going to be better in terms of understanding player roles and formulating game plans.  Again, these worldly coaches have seen it all, whereas the strictly American soccer-raised coaches don’t exactly see the whole picture.  Properly evaluating talent and creating a strategy to correspond with it is a very key aspect of coaching international soccer.  I think guys like Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley lack in that area….It’s not their fault either.  The people at the top are appointing these men and although they do the best they can, it just hasn’t been good enough. 

For years now, United States soccer has settled for “average.”  We’ve seen that mentality portrayed as recent as this week when the U.S. players were quoted as saying that the Confederations Cup was just a way to “see where they are in their preparation for the World Cup next year.”  How about having enough damn confidence in yourselves to say “hey let’s go out and win a few of these games!”  And even though the players are the ones saying those things, it speaks more to the overall mantra of U.S. national soccer.  So I say change is needed.  They’ve got to put their nationalistic hiring practices aside and realize that if they really want to do their country proud, they will actually get the guts to employ some international expertise…because after all, soccer is the WORLD’s game.           

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Two Risks That The Bears Should Be Willing To Take

Okay, okay, maybe the recent risk that the Cubs took on the North Side hasn't worked out so far. If I must spell it out for you, then I will: M-I-L-T-O-N. Of course, he still has awhile to turn things around and save Jim Hendry from looking like a complete moron. But the fact is, Bradley's explosive temper and high injury concerns flashed as bright as the Las Vegas strip when he was on the market, but the Cubs still opted for him.

Sometimes in sports, there are risks that you have to take. And they wouldn't be labeled as such if there wasn't a chance that they might not work out. Unfortunately, Bradley is on the negative side thus far. Now, I've got another risk that a different Chicago team should highly consider taking. The Bears should make a trade for Brandon Marshall or sign Plaxico Burress. I understand that you might be laughing because of the idiocy these two men have portrayed in recent months. But I figure, why not? Live a little. I mean, the Bears have historically been a team with extremely small cojones when it comes to pulling off bigtime transactions. However, if the Jay Cutler move is any indication of a change, then the Bears might as well keep the train rolling and pursue a playmaker for him to throw the ball to.

I realize that in a blog earlier in the summer, I wrote that the Bears current receiving core is serviceable. I still wholeheartedly believe that. But take the recent developments involving Marshall and Burress and mix them with what I heard on the radio today about what the Bears would have to give up in a trade, I'm feeling good about this risk. Today, I was listening to ESPN Radio 1000 in Chicago and they were talking about trading for Marshall. The guys were saying that everybody they've talked to have said that the Bears would probably only have to give up Devin Hester and a 4th round draft pick. I nearly drove off the road! It could be early speculation, and I think that would be a little unrealistic. But let's just say Denver loved Hester that much for the sake of argument. It would be a no-brainer for the Bears.

Sure, Devin Hester has explosive talent, but ever since he started to focus on getting better as a receiver, his kick return skills didn't just diminish, they vanished completely! If the Bears wanted to wait around for awhile, I'm sure he could become an above average wideout, but when a guy like Brandon Marshall comes around, you've got to look long and hard at the situation. As good as Hester may get, he still has below average size and lacks versatility in route-running. Marshall has the prototypical NFL receiver mold and has a special connection on the field with newly-acquired Jay Cutler. Regarding Marshall's off-the-field incidents, he said that he was a changed man and wouldn't make any more mistakes (That is up to him of course, who knows if he actually means it). There is no doubt that he'd be a risk because from all accounts the guy is a complete nut-job. But the connection with Cutler and the meager assets the Bears would have to give up, I'd say that this risk is worth a very aggressive try.

The other possibility is of course Plaxico Burress. I could go on and on about how big of an idiot he is for shooting himself and then trying to cover it up by saying his name was "Harris Smith" at the hospital...but I'll leave it at that and move on. Besides that incident, Burress has for the most part been nothing more than a great receiver and a pretty loyal teammate. He hasn't continuously pulled a "TO" and left teams after a few years when he wanted a change, he was loyal to the Steelers and stuck with the Giants until...well you know.

While the Bears aren't swimming in money right now, they do have the funds to sign "Plax" to a deal if they wanted him bad enough. Both options (Burress and Marshall) are fairly viable and either player would make more of an impact on the Bears than they would on any other team in the league...hands down. Chicago had settled for a mediocre quarterback for a few decades until the Cutler acquisition. So all I'm saying, risk or not, why not end the period of settling for mediocre receivers too? It makes sense and the fact that Marshall already has a good relationship with Cutler is the icing on the cake.

Again, sometimes in sports you have to take risks. They might work, they might not, but the Bears could have never dreamed that Plaxico Burress would shoot himself and get released by the Giants or that Brandon Marshall would demand a trade this late in the game. When situations like these arise, a risk is the best option sometimes because you never know when it'll come around again. Take this as an example...The Patriots clearly thought Randy Moss was a risk because all they gave up was a 5th round draft choice. How'd that work out? Pretty damn well. So while you may sit there and nitpick by saying Moss is different, he's really not. That risk worked better than New England could have ever imagined, and the Bears could be next in line. But we aren't going to know unless the trigger gets pulled...and not by Plaxico.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Forget the Vikings, Please Stay on the Mississippi Homestead

A broken elbow. A broken forearm. A torn rotator cuff. A broken wrist. Some shattered fingers. Give me something that will end Brett Favre's career. First of all, let me preface this post by saying that wishing injury upon somebody is not usually my kind of thing, but in Brett Favre's case, it is the only thing left for me to turn to. As a newly christened sports media professional (unpaid like most right out of college), my job is to pay attention to sports, have opinions on them, and be able to express those opinions with verbal and written grace. So naturally, I watch a lot of ESPN. I read a lot of sports magazines and newspaper sections. And I love tuning into sports radio shows.

Normally, I don't get annoyed by the stuff I read or hear or see because I think most of it is pretty interesting, but every once in awhile, a sports story comes along that never seems to die off. And anyone who has been paying any ounce of attention to sports news in the last 2 or 3 years knows that Brett Favre can be put into the category of being "over-covered" by the media. My favorite example came from ESPN recently. Rachel Nichols, may I say one of the most over-worked reporters in sports, was stationed at Brett Favre's ranch, homestead, farm, plantation, whatever that hick likes to call it. With nothing more to really say about the situation between Favre and the Minnesota Vikings, Nichols actually said "You know John...we did see someone cutting the grass on a riding mower and thought it was Brett, but it was later confirmed by one of our guys that it wasn't him."

Ok...wait a second. When you start reporting on whether or not a dude is mowing his lawn, then you know you're over-covering him. Sure...Brett Favre was endearing and easy to pull for when he was in a Packers uniform. He was your blue-collar, tough, everyday guy that just so happened to pull off miracles on the field. But that doesn't mean that people are going to care about these little things later on down the road.

It all started with Favre's indecision during the end of his tenure in Green Bay. Was he going to retire? Was he going to play one more year? It was fine. Let the man decide what he wants to do. But then came the whole Ted Thompson situation where he wasn't sure if Favre was their main guy any more and he wanted to see what Aaron Rodgers could do. So long-story-short, Favre retires. Optimists said "Hallelujah!" Realists said "I wonder how many days it'll take him to come back?" Brett went to the Jets, threw a ton of interceptions as expected, and then his teammates started to turn on him. One emotional press conference later, he was "retired" again. But then Brad Childress, the Minnesota Vikings coach, had to get involved. The Vikings, who don't exactly have the greatest set of QBs right now, think that Favre might be able to help them. Now the speculation lies on Favre's newly-repaired shoulder and whether it will be good-to-go before the Vikings want to start moving forward with who they already have on their roster. So now we wait...

I'll tell you what...that was literally the shortest synopsis that I could give regarding the Favre saga. I'm sure I left some pieces out, but I started to sweat with anger writing about it, so I cut it short. Back to the media beating a dead horse (well i wish it was a dead horse, but apparently with Favre his "retirement speculation" horse is always alive) by covering Favre way too much. The thing I really hate about it is that you get your hopes up about it being over. The media might say "well the Vikings have set a deadline for Favre, so this thing could be finally over by the end of the week." But it never is...deadline...schmeadline....forget it. Or Favre will concentrate on killing and eating squirrels on his homestead in Mississippi for a few weeks, so nobody hears from him. The media start to think that he is actually retired...but NO!

My friends, there is only one solution. Brett Favre needs to somehow suffer a career-ending injury to his throwing arm, shoulder, wrist, hand, or fingers. I'm not being mean...as a matter of fact, I'd love for it to be something that he can fully recover from quickly, but that it some way prevents him from being competitive in the NFL again. I want the man to live a normal life from here on out. I think every NFL fan is so tired of his BS that they too just want him to stay home and relax. He deserves it. He was an NFL legend...one of the better quarterbacks to come along in decades. The ironic thing, though, is that he is the only person that doesn't realize that he'd continue to tarnish his reputation by trying to play another season. Keeping the media on their toes about all this is not helping people's opinion of him either. I'm not blaming the media necessarily, because I know it's their job to keep up with any developments. It is simply that Favre seems to enjoy screwing with them to the point that they have new stuff to talk about on a regular basis.

Brett Favre may not realize it, but there is no doubt that ending his career is in the best interest of himself and EVERYONE else in this world. Now i'm not wishing serious pain on the man nor am I hoping something really bad happens to him, but whatever transpires, I hope Favre decides that he is not suitable for the NFL anymore (maybe coaching, perhaps that will help ease the transition). When that day comes, the sports media people aren't going to know what to do with themselves. They could write about anything! Glorious! Glorious! Wait...let's not get ahead of ourselves, Brett may have a surprise planned.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Could Ryan Leaf's Life Be Any Worse?

If you've ever thought that you're life completely sucked, then just google "Ryan Leaf" and read about it him. There is no doubt that after reading about his trials and tribulations, you'll be able to take solace in the fact that there is someone out there who is much more miserable than you are. A little background information on Mr. Leaf...He was the star quarterback of Washington State University's football team, and actually voted as a Heisman Trophy Finalist for his accolades during the 1997-98 season. Leaf was then chosen 2nd overall by the San Diego Chargers (who traded up to get him haha) in the 1998 draft, just one pick after soon-to-be NFL legend Peyton Manning. To some, Leaf was regarded as being a better pro prospect than Manning at the time...oh dear lord, if the Chargers only knew what was about to ensue.

It only took 3 preseason games for the Chargers to see what Ryan Leaf was really going to end up being...a huge bust! Leaf somehow won his first 2 preseason games, but the third game saw him complete 1-of-15 passes for 4 yards and fumble the ball 3 times. The regular season wasn't much different; Leaf was benched 9 games into his rookie season after racking up a stat line of 2 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. After his benching, Leaf got suspended for engaging in a verbal altercation with his coach, he got suspended for playing flag football with his friends while he was supposed to be rehabilitating his injury, and he got into trouble because his coaches found out that he lied about his reason for skipping practice (he went to go play golf).
The guy did everything he could to look like a moron...and he passed with flying colors.

Okay, so being a highly touted NFL quarterback and completely embarrassing yourself and the organization is bad enough, right? Well, in all honesty, it was just the beginning for Leaf. He tried to make a comeback and had 3 short stints with the Cowboys, Bucs, and Seahawks...but they all failed miserably. At least the guy has a hot wife to go home to...think again. He married a hot San Diego Chargers cheerleader, but as fast as you can say "loser," they were divorced. Leaf then tried his luck at the coaching profession. A lot of times guys can have good coaching minds, but just can't put it all together in the pros. So Leaf said "Why Not? What do I have to lose?" Apparently just a tad more. Leaf scored an assistant quarterbacks coaching job at the "prestigious" West Texas A & M University. Didn't even know it existed until I heard he was there.

Leaf finally seemed to be coming to terms with his short NFL career that caused him to be labeled as "the biggest bust in NFL draft history." He was working with a quarterback at West Texas A&M, Keith Null, who was just a 6th round draft choice in the NFL. He was hired as the school's golf coach in 2007. But then came controversy. In late 2008, Leaf was put on indefinite leave from the school after asking one of his players for painkilllers. The incident started a chain reaction, and trouble would start to follow the former standout QB.

A few weeks ago, the problems started to mount for Leaf when he was indicted on burglary and controlled substance charges in Texas. He is connected to a Texas robbery that involved stealing high amounts of painkillers. To top it all off, Leaf, who was last seen in a drug rehab center in British Columbia, has failed to turn himself into authorities. Now, less than 10 years after being released by the Chargers, RYAN LEAF HAS A WARRANT FOR HIS ARREST AND REMAINS AT LARGE. It's one thing if he decides to face the facts and serve some time, but this dude is now in the category of "running from the police."

I'm not about kicking people when they're down, but his story is so miserable that I thought writing a chronicle about it would be interesting. And if you haven't kept up with this "unfortunate" man, then perhaps this entry has provided you with some top-notch entertainment. In all seriousness, though, this situation goes to show you that there is heavy pressure associated with professional athletics. As much as Leaf says that he came to terms with his short career, I'm sure it was just eating away at him. Hence, some serious problems started to arise in his life.

So here's to Ryan Leaf getting out of jail eventually and winning the lottery! We know for damn sure that he is due for something along those lines.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Cubs Chose Bradley, Paying the Price Now

After the Cubs were swept by the Dodgers in the NLDS last year, it was time for Jim Hendry to start thinking about the offseason.  The Cubs, a team blessed with the finances and resources needed to draw in big-name players, had an opportunity to bolster their outfield.  The organization and Cubs fans alike all knew that acquiring a consistent left-handed batting outfielder was almost a necessity.  Jim Edmonds ended up being a somewhat formidable stand-in last season, but he was never going to be a long-term solution.  Upon his departure, we were left with two left handed batting outfielders: the reliable Kosuke Fukudome and the unproven Micah Hoffpauir.  Fukudome normally has an outstanding on-base percentage and a good knack for hitting, but he lacks the pop that the Cubs were looking for in the offseason.  And Hoffpauir, a good option for the future, hadn't yet gotten the experience needed to be counted on day in and day out.    

So then it was up to the Cubs General Manager, Jim Hendry.  Historically known for making decent offseason acquisitions, Hendry started to flirt with the market.  After the dust settled a bit, it was clear that the Cubs would at least have the opportunity to make strong pushes for Raul Ibanez, Bobby Abreu, and Milton Bradley.  All three of them, at least at the time, seemed very similar offensively.  Under normal circumstances, you can expect a good batting average, some decent power numbers, and a high amount of extra base hits from each of the players.

However, the 3 lefties available at the time did have a few differences that were easy to assess.
Bradley was the one that stood out here...injury prone, temperamental, and hard to please. Ibanez and Abreu are the opposite with consistency and patience as their MOs.  The point was that, as an organization, you know what you're going to get with Ibanez and Abreu.  With Bradley, it was a complete toss-up and acquiring him would be taking a huge risk. But Jim Hendry, after putting little emphasis on signing Ibanez or Abreu, chose Bradley as his target.  If he only knew that the very risks associated with signing Bradley were going to come to light immediately, he obviously would have made a different choice.  But those are the types of things that you have to think about as a GM.  Hendry let his guard down and it's blown up in his face so far.  

To put it in perspective, Milton Bradley is currently hitting just .213 with 5 homers and 14 RBIs. The worst part is that he's been out of the lineup wayyyy too much because of injuries and in one case a suspension.  He's missed 13 full games and he has had 10 games with one at-bat or less...so you can see that he's been the antithesis of an everyday player so far. The others?...Well, let's just say that they're doing quite well for themselves, especially Raul Ibanez.  Ibanez is 2nd in the majors with 20 HRs.  He's already knocked in 55 runs and his batting average is a gaudy .325.  Abreu's hitting numbers don't blow you away: .296 batting average, 2 HRs, 28 RBIs.  But he is a perfect 15-for-15 stealing bases and has an on-base percentage of nearly .400.  If you put either player's numbers in place of Bradley's, the Cubs may not be limping along like they are this year in the NL Central.

Now, my argument goes beyond the numbers...sure it would nice to have Ibanez smoking the ball on a daily basis or Abreu making things happen on the basepass.  But Milton Bradley has been a ticking time bomb in the early stages of the season...big surprise right?  He wasted no time getting his first suspension for throwing a fit and bumping an umpire.  As stated earlier, he has been injured quite a bit, mostly coming up limping after running a play out.  And finally, he certainly hasn't made any friends in the Chicago media, to put it lightly.  

So its pretty hard for me as a Cubs fan to sit back and say everything is going to work itself out when there is such a blatant contrast in production between the three guys that were on Chicago's offseason radar.  Although I had doubts initially about Bradley, I eventually got behind Hendry and became optimistic that Milton would finally settle down.  However, it pains me to see that my initial doubts were clearly correct.  Not to mention the fact that Jim Hendry decided to ship off perhaps the Cubs most consistent player from last year, Mark DeRosa.  But that story is for another day.  

If you compound Bradley's underachievement with Alfonso Soriano's knee issues and inconsistency at the plate, the Cubs outfield has been very disappointing.  It just goes to show you that you need players on your team that you can count on.  An elementary school kid could have looked at Bradley's track record and realized that it wasn't a good idea to scoop him up, especially for $30 Million!!  When you have Ramirez hurt and Fonso and Soto struggling, you need a consistent bat.  Ibanez and Abreu define consistency, but apparently Jim Hendry had a different plan....a plan that could end up costing the Cubs as the season moves forward.    

Monday, June 8, 2009

Big Papi on the verge of disappearing

David Ortiz is having an awfully tough time this year.  As a matter of fact, if he performs at the same terrible level that he has been at for the last few months, I think his career could be doomed.  We're talking about a guy that used to appear nearly impossible to get out at one point. Big Papi is tremendously strong and his huge body just engulfs the plate, which normally makes it very hard for a pitcher to keep it away from him.  But those things are only going to help you if you're seeing the ball well and making contact.  And in that regard, he's in a real rut.  This guy couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat.

Ortiz already has 55 strikeouts this year in just 51 games.  He had 74 total strikeouts all of last year in 109 games.  Big Papi is striking out at an alarming rate and it's not like he's making the most of it when he avoids the strikeout.  He's batting just .197 with 2 home runs.  Instead of being neck-and-neck in home run totals with the likes of Teixeira, Pujols, or Howard, he's simply trying to smack more out of the ballpark than smurfs like David Eckstein and Scott Podsednik.  The point is that Ortiz's numbers are awful on paper and actually watching him up at the plate is even more brutal.  

The reality of his season is pretty cut-and-dry:  he's doing poorly.  But there's a secondary issue that annoys me; it can't be helping Ortiz's situation either.  The Red Sox, the fans, and the media seem to consistently make a point of coming up with new excuses for Ortiz's struggles. Really, the answer is simple...the guy is rapidly declining.  I've heard it all this year about why Big Papi is struggling...injuries, pitching matchups, spot in the order, sleeping issues, pressure, mechanics, and hot off the press today...dry eyes.  The excuses were plausible for awhile, but now its getting a little ridiculous. 

I understand that you don't expect a star to decline this drastically in a fairly short period of time, but there have been clear signs for over a year now that his dominance is quickly finding its way to the nearest exit.  So stop trying to dig up more reasons for Big Papi's lack of success.  If you look at his numbers over the last several years, they have steadily declined.  I mean this was a guy that used to instill fear in pitchers to the point where he compiled tons of walks and forced pitchers to get down early in the count.  His batting averages were usually over .300. But last season he hit only .264 and was hampered by injuries, which also should be taken note of because Ortiz is aging more than people realize.  He's 33 years old and normally people of his size end up having much shorter careers because of joint problems.

Another direct reason for his terrible slump, in my opinion, is the mental aspect of the game. Now I know that the idea of a mind game is rather novel and its well recognized in this argument, but I'm talking about something more specific.  I think that Ortiz's struggles have pushed his mind so damn far that if he doesn't turn it around in a month or less, his career could be over.  It's similar to a terrible day at the driving range or an uncharacteristically poor round of 18.  You play so badly that it puzzles you to the point where you begin to reconsider whether or not you're even good at all. 

Despite Ortiz guaranteeing that he'll "be back," he is experiencing countless mental battles in his head that are making him wonder if he's still capable of being an effective player.  That's why I think that if he doesn't start to regain some sort of success at the plate soon, his anxiety stemming from his severe struggles will eventually consume him.  Not to mention the fact that the Red Sox organization doesn't have time to sit around and wait for Ortiz to hit.  No organization wants a guy with as little confidence and as high of a strikeout rate as Big Papi. Even if he does get his swagger back, in reality he's a big lurch with imminent health problems and a declining career.

It's a shame because I like the guy's personality and I respect the dominance that he displayed for a few years.  And I hope he experiences a rebirth, but all of the excuses, mental issues, and lost confidence is the perfect storm for failure.  Sorry to say, but...Adios Big Papi.            

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Top 3 Easiest Jobs in Sports

Unless you're completely against getting paid to have fun, then you probably want to work in sports. I mean, it's hard not to like sports and everything associated with them...the athletes, the teams, the excitement, the stadiums, the partying, the boozing; its really the total package. So why not attempt to have a career in sports? That's what I'm trying to do. Now, most if not all jobs in sports entail working long and odd hours because the sport industry doesn't stop on the weekends, in fact that is where it actually thrives. But it's unfathomably more fun and interesting than your everyday 9-5 cubicle job. Side note: I have absolutely zero clue how people work in a mundane cubicle year after year and not end up hanging themselves eventually. Back to the topic...so sports jobs. Some are glamorous, some aren't. Some are high-paying, some pay hardly anything. Some completely wear you out, some don't. But at least with sports, you are likely to be in a work environment that is entertaining.

As I was thinking more about the topic, though, I realized that there are not only a lot of fun jobs, but there are some really easy jobs in sports too. And I don't want to debate about the management positions and sports media jobs becaue there are too many and it would take too long. But there are 3 jobs in my mind that are actually directly involved in the sport during games. What I'm going to do now is list these jobs off (not in any specific order)...

1) NFL Punter...Let's start off by conceding that there is some pressure involved with this gig. However, I would say the pressure isn't that of a kicker or even a long snapper. In reality, a punter is called upon maybe 2-3 times a game if they're on a good offensive team and maybe 5-8 times a game if they are on a bad offensive team, but they spend the majority of their time down on one knee with their helmet in their hands. To the viewer, a punt during a game looks tough. These guys kick the ball FAR and HIGH. However, that is all they practice. That's IT. While their teammates are off getting banged up and learning playbooks, all they're asked to do is punt the ball over and over on a practice field. If you've got the natural abilities to be a pro punter and that much free time to practice only one thing, then punting the ball in a game must be like riding a bike. VERDICT: Easy job, lots of money, minimal physical exertion. I'll give it an 8/10 on the easy scale.

2) MLB Bullpen Catcher...Okkayyyy, wow...what do I even have to say about this job? These men, many times former minor leaguers, have to strap on the catcher's gear, squat down, and catch balls from pitchers who need to warm up. I'm sure they might have a small coaching capacity, maybe they'll hand out a pointer or two to the pitchers, but other than that, they play catch for a living. They sit in the bullpen all season long and simply catch the ball...unreal. I'd love to do that, it would be incredible. VERDICT: Couldn't do it with your eyes closed, but close. If you can handle some heat hitting your glove, you're set. 9.5/10 on the easy scale.

3) MLB Bench Coach...I'm of course referring to the member of the baseball team staff that sits in the dugout every game. Well let's see here...despite the title, we know that he doesn't actually instruct the wooden bench to do things, he'd be deemed "special" if he was caught doing that. But really what decisions does he make? The manager makes all of the executive decisions and tweaks the lineup, the pitching coach gives the pitchers advice and makes bullpen decisions, the hitting coach works with the hitters and tells them how to make adjustments at the plate and finally the 1st and 3rd base coaches communicate with the runners and make some of the baserunning decisions. I've never been down in a professional dugout during a game, but I'm not sure what tasks are left after mentioning all of those. So as far as I'm concerned, the bench coach is there to smack some asses and drink some Gatorade. VERDICT: Considering the fact that I couldn't pinpoint exactly what they do, it has to be easy. 9.5/10 on the easy scale.

Honorable Mentions...NFL 3rd string QB (especially if you're behind Brett Favre or Peyton Manning), Language translator for a professional team (especially if you have a guy like Kosuke Fukudome, who puts talking very low on his priority list), MLB Bat Boy.

The Top 3 Easiest Jobs that I listed above not only seem like a breeze, but they pay very well because they are all considered official team members/staff. I'm sure that the lucky men in this nation who hold those positions are on top of the world. And can you blame them? They get to be directly involved in a professional sport on a daily basis with minimal expectations. So all you accountants, tax consultants, and technology analysts wedged in your cubicles...ask yourself this: Ya jealous?!?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why is the NBA's Maturity Level Plummeting?

The way things are supposed to work is that as you age, you get smarter, you get more mature, and you certainly use better judgement. Now this principle is normally applied to life in general, but it can also be easily applied to the behavior of athletes. One would think that by this "age" principle, college sports would have a lot more situations where the athletes exuded immaturity than in the pros. Well...if you look at the NBA and the on-court behavior of many of its players in the past year, then I think you'd find something wrong with the correlation between age and maturity. The incidents that I'm mainly referring to have occurred in the last few years; the incidents have seemed to increase in amount and intensity, though, in this 2009 postseason.

Until a few years ago, I don't think many people even knew about the technical foul/flagrant foul limit in the playoffs. The rule is that if a player racks up a total of 7 technical fouls in the playoffs, then they have to sit out one game. In the past, the rule was hardly the subject of any conversation, it just didn't seem to come into relevance. But this year, there were a number of players including Dwight Howard and JR Smith that were really testing their luck. Some of the fouls in question were hard, physical fouls and others were called because of players getting in each other's faces or complaining too much to the referees.

Now before I go on about how ridiculous some of these confrontations were, I have to concede one thing: the officiating has been a lot tighter in recent years. Ever since the brawl between the Pacers and Pistons at the Palace in Detroit, David Stern has made a point of telling officials to be a lot more strict in an effort to proactively limit the escalation of tempers that cause the brawls, fights and such. So, and it's a fair argument, the number of technicals and flagrant fouls could be partly related to the referees' buckling down on foul calls.

But this is where it gets interesting...the more strict calling of flagrant/technical fouls was clearly meant to be a deterrent with the idea that players wouldn't want to deal with the consequences (the consequences being easy points for the other team, fines, suspensions, etc) But players just DON'T seem to CARE. I would guess that maybe 80-90% of playoff games this year have involved some sort of skirmish, shoving match, or ultra hard foul. I'm not a supernatural being, so I can't watch every game, but it seems that every game, no matter who is playing, contains at least one if not many blatant moments of immaturity and thuggery (it's a word...look it up).

Rajan Rondo put on a show in the Bulls/Celtics series, Kenyon Martin has done his part throughout the playoffs, Dwight Howard and Rafer Alston have chipped in an elbow or two, Derek Fisher and Kobe have had their moments, and JR Smith showboated his way through the postseason. For most of these players, it isn't their first rodeo so to speak, and so its disappointing to see the immaturity coming from all of their dirty plays. And the aforementioned players represent only a fraction of what has been wrong with the behavior this postseason mainly and in the last few years as well. From what I've seen, I would label most of the college basketball players in this country more mature than a lot of the pros.

I understand that the battle for an NBA title brings out the highest degree of passion and desire amongst the NBA players, and for the most part it makes the playoffs a lot of fun to watch. But there is no room for a lot of the bullshit that we've seen. These men are not only grown-ups, but they're role models to millions of aspiring youngsters. And don't even get me started on LeBron walking off the court and shunning the media in the wake of their elimination from the Conference Finals. Say what you want about his explanation (a lot of people liked it oddly enought), but I don't buy it. LeBron, Dwight and Co. may still be very young, but they've been exposed to the spotlight long enough to know how to act. Hey...the playoffs have been very entertaining in my opinion, but entertainment isn't always the best thing for the game, especially when you have grown men acting like their playing "no blood-no foul" streetball half the time.

NBC's New TV Analysts are Polar Opposites

In this day and age, it seems like any retiring professional athlete or coach can get a shot in the broadcast booth if they want it.  As a matter of fact, I think ESPN has more former athletes as analysts than they know what to do with.  I mean, of course they have the staples: Mark Schlereth, Tim Legler, Barry Melrose, John Kruk, etc.  But there are so many other analysts that just seem to pop up in random episodes of Baseball Tonight or NFL Live or ESPN First Take.   Maybe that is what an aspiring young broadcaster like myself should have done.   Maybe I should've pushed much harder to try to reach the pro level in a sport because that seems like a surefire way to get into broadcasting.  

All kidding aside...we've got these TV or radio analysts that used to play or coach professionally, some of them are good, some of them are atrocious.  Part of me likes the way the networks hire these guys.  Hiring so often keeps the insight as fresh as it could be.  If you're bringing in a guy who just finished playing, he is going to be about as insightful as could be about the current state of the sport.  Hiring so many covers all the bases.  One guy may have great commentary on one area and the other guy may have an opinion that makes a different point.  Going analyst-by-committee seems to work a lot of the time, but it does kind of hurt the continuity of the broadcasts.  That is why, on the other side, its kind of nice when programs like CBS NFL Sunday keeps the same panel the whole year.  You know what you're going to get.  

But enough about the generic stuff...let's discuss NBC's new broadcast duo set to join the NFL Sunday night studio crew.  It was announced yesterday that the angelic Tony Dungy and the ferocious Rodney Harrison were hired by NBC as NFL analysts.  Before I get to how funny this is, I must say that both men are, from what I know about them, very good choices for this type of position.  Dungy has a great football mind and has a gentle way of communicating that would serve as a good voice for TV.  Harrison played the game as hard as it could be played for 15 years instilling fear in all of his opponents.  He'd be great to breakdown film.  

However, I found it HILARIOUS that these two were hired at the same time, let alone talked about in the same breath.  If you really want to break it down, Rodney Harrison is the AJ Pierzynski of football.  He was voted as the leagues dirtiest/most hated player several times.  Harrison was known for his crushing hits and constant trash talk.  And then you look at Dungy, who is gentle, quiet, and composed.  Hell, let's just say that if Harrison was an anvil or a wrecking ball, Dungy would be a feather.  The other ironic side of NBC's recent move is the fact that Dungy and Harrison were centerpieces in the cold-blooded rivalry between the Colts and Patriots in recent years.  Watching a lot of the games between the two teams and knowing fans from each side, I know that this rivalry was intense.  As nice as Tony is, I'm sure he didn't like Rodney too much.  And as hard as it is to dislike Tony, I'm sure Rodney still somehow did.

The two men are polar opposites, there is simply no other way to put it.  But they do have one thing in common.  They are winners.  Both of them have Super Bowl rings and both of them participated in the sport with an incredible passion each and every day.  And even though they are so different, I think that they will both serve as great analysts for the sport.  Their sheer difference was probably attractive to NBC and for that hiring tactic, I applaud them.  I think they'll each be able to give great insight on unique aspects of football.  I'm sure excited to see how it'll shake down.  

If you think about it, athletes, coaches, and GMs are in front of the camera so much during their careers.  They get plenty of practice answering questions and making statements, so over the years I'm sure they become very articulate, lose the nervousness, and get a feel for exactly what people want to hear.  That's what being a TV analyst is all about...so maybe former athletes and coaches are the best people to hire.  If they are good at what they do, then they're going to have long careers on the field...and of course in front of the camera.  Practice makes perfect.