Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Return of Ken Griffey Jr.

I’ve made it no secret to those I know that I’m not a big fan of the player Ken Griffey Jr. has become, though like many I was a huge fan of the player he used to be.

To be blunt, he is an older, fatter, slower, broken down version of himself, his defensive range has completely disappeared, he’s chronically injured and over the last couple seasons his hitting power has begun to disappear as well.

I’ve long since learned to separate my current perception of Ken Griffey Jr. with my perception of him in his heyday, which is not something I can say for most Mariners fans, which have openly pined for Griffey’s return damn near since the day he initially left and are understandably thrilled that he has returned under a one year deal. The team sold over 16,000 tickets in the few days after his announced return.

That said, despite his current liabilities, the signing didn’t bother me. The Mariners aren’t going anywhere this season, Ken Griffey Jr. will probably DH and he isn’t blocking the progress of any young talent by being on this team. His decline over the last few years coincided with playing the field every day even though doing so further wore down his broken down knees. Not having to play the field could help improve his leg strength and keep him fresh, though that’s only blind speculation. But also, let’s not discount any motivation Griffey could have to try and live up to the Seattle fanbase’s high expectations of him, in the highest emotionally leveraged situation he’s seen since… well, the last time he was a Mariner. There is a non-zero chance his hitting ability could rebound enough to somewhat resemble the great hitter he was before, even if chances aren’t likely that he will replicate his glory days.

I’m curious more than anything else about how Griffey’s next run with the Mariners will go. I doubt he will experience the same flameout that fellow has-beens Carl Everett and Jose Vidro experienced as Mariners. But once he shows he is anything short of the glorious slugger that fans nostalgically remember, I wonder how the team will respond to playing him everyday, and I wonder how those fans will respond. That alone gives me a reason to watch the 2009 Seattle Mariners as closely as ever.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nowhere Else To Go

The Oakland A’s were looking forward to construction of a new ballpark in Fremont, CA. However, squabbling with the locals over various factors led to delays that motivated the team to scrap the plan. Oakland returns to cavernously deserted McAfee Coliseum and goes back to the drawing board.

A’s GM Billy Beane had done a fine job of patching together competitive teams despite a lack of cash flow from the half-empty, outdated Coliseum that the team shares with the Oakland Raiders, and Beane was hoping for a new home that would kick-start the team’s revenue and allow him to acquire or retain the talent that would allow him to contend for the World Series. Alas, those plans have gone awry and the Mariners and Angels breathe a sigh of relief*, because Billy Beane with money would spell the end of the AL West as a competitive division.

* The Texas Rangers were too busy auditioning AA pitchers for their bullpen and gluing Michael Young back together to notice.

So, back at square one, speculation comes forth that the A’s will consider relocation, because relocation in professional sports is all the rage: Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, Houston Oilers to Tennessee, Vancouver Grizzles to Memphis, half of the NHL’s Canadian teams out of Canada, Charlotte Hornets to New Orleans, Seattle Sonics to Oklahoma City and the Montreal Expos to Washington DC. The Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins damn near hauled away before their cities cut them deals on new stadiums.

The A’s aren’t making a ton of money at McAfee Coliseum because it’s located in a crappy part of Oakland, which given it’s Oakland is like saying, “The herpes blister that’s leaking blood.” It’s also a football-first stadium, where the converted dimensions make for crappy baseball seating, most fans ending up far from the action, and the tarped off outfield seats give the place a more abandoned feel than the humid air and uniformly deep outfield and foul dimensions do. Also, as a result, there are no acoustics, and even when fans cheer loudly or the diehard fans bang on their trademark drums, the conditions seem to suck the sound away, which makes the crowd seem deader than a cricket match.

But at the same time, don’t let the Expos’ move to D.C. fool you: D.C. was probably the only potential move location that could have immediately welcomed a transplanted team. They had a baseball-ready stadium in RFK Stadium that, while not the prettiest of venues, it had enough seating to allow the newly-redubbed Nationals to sell some tickets in biding their time until Nationals Park opened. Other potential cities cannot say the same.

In light of the other moves in other sports, this may not seem like a big deal to you until you consider the logistic differences. All a transplanted basketball team needs in the short term is an arena with about 15,000 seats, and most big cities have one. If a football team wants to move, most cities have a college with a football stadium containing plenty of seats, at least 30,000 or so, if not a municipal stadium of similar capacity. In either case, a team can just inflate ticket prices and eat marginal losses until a new stadium is built.

But baseball is played on a specially designed field with specific dimensions. One side must be wider than the other to accommodate the outfield, and you need at least 320 feet of space between home plate and the foul poles (which themselves are about 452 feet apart), with another 50-60 feet behind home plate. You need dugouts in the right locations. You either need a baseball stadium or a stadium that can be converted into one, and most football stadiums cannot: they only have a narrow square field to accommodate football and soccer.

That said, the potential sites many have listed have baseball stadiums. However, these are minor league facilities with woefully inadequate features.

Las Vegas: Never minding that the hit of the recent recession has sucker punched their economy… Cashman Field, the current home of the AAA Las Vegas 51’s, is about as small time as you can get: It seats about 9,000 fans, with no seats beyond the outfield and no real place to install any, since the area behind the tall, ad-laden walls features trees and rolling hills. Also, the seats are mostly uncovered and made of cheap metal benches. Temperatures in Las Vegas can reach 110-120 degrees in the summer and stay there until the sun goes down, well after a 7:05 pm first pitch. Even if you pay to put a cover over the seats, you’ve only got 9,000 seats, and people still don’t want to go outside in that heat. Plus, there are no restaurants or amenities near the ballpark. Even with an MLB ballclub, you’d be lucky to get 3,000 fans a night to show up. Though I’m sure some investor would be very willing to build a park for a club, a team could die, either from treacherous attendance or from the heat, while waiting for a new park.

Portland: Historic PGE Park has been redone, but even then it’s got wonky, old school dimensions and only about 13,500 seats. The left field wall, only 315 feet from the plate, is right up against an elevated street (you can even see cars passing above during games), so there’s no potential for adding extra seats. Portland may have a few more amenities near the park, but the capacity is very low and probably couldn’t sustain a team long enough to build a new park… if you could get Portland to build one in the first place.

“Northern Virginia”: It’s never specified in speculation whether “Northern Virginia” means Richmond, the D.C. Suburbs or maybe even Virginia Beach even though they're a little "South". I guess it depends on who you ask. But in any case, any of the above locales that do have parks… have AA parks that might seat 15,000, with no nearby amenities. Richmond may tear down The Diamond but any replacement park probably wouldn’t include much more in seating or amenities.

As a result, now that D.C. has someone else’s team, it’s highly unlikely we see any other teams re-locate. No one else with significant baseball market has an MLB-ready park that could immediately take on a club. This likely was the reason the Marlins and Rays balked on a quick relocation and instead worked to negotiate with their respective municipalities. And given the situation, it's highly unlikely we see a baseball team leave its home city anytime soon.

Expect the A's to make a deal to build something somewhere in the Bay Area. They're certainly a lot of land to choose from.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mariners Minor League teams, parks and meta

While not necessarily a Seattle Mariners blog, Dead Cat's Bounce will feature daily coverage of the Mariners’ minor league organization. Each day, I will recap games within the system, and sometimes delve into details concerning certain players and organizations.

Other web resources also contain additional insider information from scouts and other personnel. Two such helpful resources include Jay Yencich’s Mariners Minors (which also includes daily recaps, more general but with more inside info as Jay gets it) and Jason Churchill’s Prospect Insider. I will admit I don’t possess the insider contacts of these two, and welcome you to read them both in addition to my recaps to learn more about our organization’s prospects.

I will also write with and participate in discussions on Mariner Central, a comprehensive message board focused on thoughtful discourse between members about the Seattle Mariners organization. I invite you to participate if interested.

We can’t know who to currently expect to join the minor league squads, because prospects and other players have yet to be allocated and may not be so up to each team’s respective Opening Day. Part of the idea with Spring Training is to shake out who should play where, if there is any indecision. Some prospects, especially top prospects, already know what level they will play at, even if we as fans aren’t aware of where.

To start out, below is a basic primer of the home parks for the Mariners’ affiliates, along with the typical scoring environment for each league:

Tacoma Rainiers (AAA): Cheney Stadium is pitcher friendly for the offense-friendly Pacific Coast League. Hitters’ numbers won’t necessarily depress, as they’ll still play half their games in the other hitting-friendly PCL parks, the spacious outfield can allow for a greater chance at extra base hits, and best of all… PCL rotations and bullpens are full of tomato cans:

1) Past their prime veterans trying to salvage their careers (Recent local example: Denny Stark)
2) Minor league veteran never-weres who have maxed out and are too good for the lower ranks, but nowhere near good enough for the majors (Recent example: Sean White)
3) Younger prospects in a level over their head, whether overpushed due to excellence at the lower levels, being challenged by their organization, or thinness through the organization’s highest ranks forcing their promotion (Recent example: Joe Woerman).

West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx (AA): Pringles Park is one of minor league baseball’s more neutral parks. We did see some good hitting at home from the Diamond Jaxx prospects, but the team also had some talented hitters (Prentice Redman, Michael Saunders), and the comfort of the home park, whether statistically discernible in general, cannot be discounted. The Southern League is fairly neutral in itself due to its humid locale near the Gulf and the Tennessee Valley… making it a good AA environment to see where your prospects stand.

High Desert Mavericks (A+): Mavericks Stadium is one of minor league baseball’s biggest launchpads, almost laughably so. The hot dry air of Adelanto, CA combined with the smallish dimensions of Mavericks Stadium makes home games a hitter’s dream and a pitcher’s hell. The org actively avoided sending most of its top prospects to High Desert, tried and failed to switch High A affiliations after last season and now remains in a place ill suited to developing hitters or pitchers: Pitchers of course can get destroyed (few put up an ERA that doesn’t look like the cost of a fast food dinner) and it can be tough to develop a pitcher while retaining his morale or gaining an accurate judgment of pitchers’ abilities. Hitters with any power hit so far better than they typically would that it’s likewise difficult to gauge how actually capable hitters are, plus there’s a similar ego risk of a player gaining an inflated sense of his own abilities as a result of the spike in XBHs and HRs. At the same time, this is a problem throughout the Cal League, most of whose teams play in higher altitude desert climates and thus see offense-friendly conditions.

Clinton Lumberkings (A): The new home of the full season A ball Mariners affiliate, after moving from Appleton, WI (which wanted to affiliate with the nearby Milwaukee Brewers). Most Midwest League parks trend similarly towards pitching and defense, and the end result is typically low offense, with hitters producing depressively low lines and pitchers putting up deceptively strong numbers. Expect the same in Clinton, with minor trend shifts indiscernible to casual fans.

Everett Aquasox (A-): The short season Northwest League (which starts a couple months after the above leagues, as do the leagues below) tends to slide towards offense in general, with a few outliers (Vancouver’s home park is nearly impossible to homer in, and the Tri Cities home park is very pitcher friendly for whatever reason). Everett Stadium, meanwhile, is very offense friendly, though many pitchers still capable of pitching well in offense friendly parks due to the fledgling power and hitting ability of most NWL players, many of whom are in their 1st and 2nd years of pro baseball. After the Mariners complete the 2009 Draft, a lot of those players will end up here.

Pulaski Mariners (Rk+): The Appalachian League tends to feature a lot of offense, and Pulaski is no exception. Like the Northwest League, a lot of Appalachian League hitters are young, new to pro ball and struggle in general, let alone against pitchers of reasonable ability. But pitching numbers tend to come out a bit more inflated in the App League, as do hitting numbers. Again, you’ll see a lot of draft picks land here.

Peoria Mariners (Rk): The Arizona Summer League is hitter friendly due to its presence in the dry, high-altitude Arizona desert. Most of the more ho-hum draft picks will end up here, as will rehabilitating players from higher levels and newly transplanted foreign prospects from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other locales.

DSL Mariners (Rk): Dominican Summer League teams often share a complex with several other teams, and only play games against other teams in the complex unless they win their division. The Mariners share the Santo Domingo North complex in Yamasa, DR with four other teams. Being 18-19 years old, DSL pitchers tend to exhibit erratic control, which bloats the walk rates and OBP of most DSL hitters. This is where the Dominican catchphrase, “You don’t get off the island with a walk,” comes from. It’s easy for players to sport high OBPs just from taking pitches, but to impress scouts, they have to hit and show some power. Few do.

VSL Mariners (Rk): The Mariners play in the 8 team Venezuelan Summer League out of the small town of Aguirre. Pitchers here tend to put my impressive numbers due to the undeveloped 17-19 year old hitters they face hitting mostly groundballs and trying to run them out. These pitchers also tend to walk fewer batters: whether that’s from better control or Venezuelan kids swinging at more pitches than their Dominican counterparts isn’t clear. That said, VSL pitchers should be taken with a grain of salt when they run impressive lines. Some hitters do run decent looking lines, but rarely show great power. And it doesn’t necessarily get them out of South America either, though that could be attributed to the difficulty of granting visas and exporting players from the hostile nation.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

National Crisis

Between fielding a poor team with thin talent and... well, that's enough of a problem in itself, baseball's Washington Nationals face the following problems going into Spring Training:

- Despite narrowly avoiding arbitration and agreeing to a one year, $3.325 million contract, the Nationals' relations with star 3rd baseman Ryan Zimmerman may be strained and could affect the possibility of retaining the team's best hitter over the long term.

- GM Jim Bowden's being investigated for suspicion of skimming signing bonuses from prospects. Smooth move, Jim.

- Veteran starting pitcher Odalis Perez, the Opening Day starting pitcher from last season and arguably the best pitcher of a crappy bunch, is threatening a contract holdout. If he refuses to report, the Nats' Opening Day starter in 2009 projects to be middling lefthander John Lannan, he of 15 losses and ~3.5 walks plus per 9 innings in 2008, not to mention 23 HR in 182 innings pitching mostly in pitchers parks.

- Investigative journalism has discovered that top prospect Esmailyn "Smiley" Gonzalez is not only four years older than previously thought, but Esmailyn Gonzalez is not his real name: that would be Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo, part of the coverup of the Dominican's actual age. Someone may well go to jail as a result of the fradulent transaction spearheaded by agent and former major league pitcher Jose Rijo.

- The Nats' top offseason acquisition: plodding 1B/DH/strikeout machine Adam Dunn. This signing came despite having talented but injury prone 1B Nick Johnson and expensive and troublesome but powerful 1B Dmitri Young on the payroll. Both come with baggage that make trading them difficult, and GM Jim Bowden now faces the difficulty of trying to deal one or both of them instead of letting both pricey, talented sluggers ride the pine or embarrass themselves in the outfield every day.

- Meanwhile, the team's best hope is owning the 1st pick in the draft after compiling MLB's worst regular season record (59-102) in 2008. It's doubtful even Stephen Strasburg, the San Diego State ace pitcher projected to be this year's number 1 draft pick, can save this tattered bunch.

Would Montreal be willing to take the Nats back if the Nats ownership asked nicely?

A hypothetical clubhouse conversation predicated on the notion that the Mariners' re-signing of Ken Griffey Jr will help the team build character

Junior: Kid, I notice you're struggling to hit consistently.
Rookie: Yeah, major league pitching's really tough.
Junior: It's okay, kid. I know a lot of people cut on you for that .200 average but we know you're better than that.
Rookie: Thanks, Junior.
Junior: I'm willing to work with you
Rookie: Really? Thanks.
Junior: We'll tap deep down and find the better hitter inside you.
Junior: What's the matter?
Rookie: Does that mean you're gonna touch me in the bad place?
Junior: What
Rookie: Oh god is this gonna be like the Cal League all over again?
Junior: No kid, I just meant we're gonna go to the batting cages after games and
Rookie: Because my counselor told me that it only happened once and it would never happen again

Friday, February 20, 2009

Al Davis and a $45 million wrecking ball

Execs taken aback by Asomugha, Lechler deals

By Jason Cole

INDIANAPOLIS – Reaction was swift and ugly Thursday to the deals the Oakland Raiders gave CB Nnamdi Asomugha and punter Shane Lechler over the past two days.

"How many different ways can you say, 'What were they thinking?' " a team executive who declined to be identified said after being told the terms of Asomugha's three-year, $45 million contract.

"Insanity, stupidity, whatever you want to attach to it. Yeah, the kid is the best cornerback in the league. They paid for quality. I'll give them that. But that deal wrecks the league. Absolutely wrecks it. … I'm sure Al doesn't care, but it's deals like that that change the league for the worse."

Actually, that last point alone probably explains the move.

Sure, Al Davis just bloated his payroll by paying a starting corner $15 million a year... but by paying such a high price, he has performed a little sports economics trick called setting the market.

By paying a top corner like Asomugha $45 million over 3 seasons, every other talented free agent corner will demand that a prospective team pay them at least that much for their services. You know agents like Drew Rosenhaus will take this line of negotiation and refuse any deal for his players that isn't close to Asomugha's salary. Likewise, by signing punter Shane Lechler (a punter!) for 4 years and $16 million, Davis has set a ridiculous price at two positions.

Even if most teams balk at paying such a price to subsequent top talent at these positions... if one team with, say, a desperate need at a position caves and offers a particular top player the requested cash, that's all that matters: Aside from further solidifying the excessive market price, now that particular team has bloated their payroll by an excessive amount for the services of one player, while they still need to find a way to get 52 other players paid under the salary cap, and field a competitive NFL team in the process.

In effect, Al Davis' ridiculous contract for Asomugha screws the payrolls of his competitors. With every team working against the mandated NFL salary cap, they now also have to deal with top corners in the league asking exorbitant prices. As Cole mentions later in the article, the deal could also have a ripple effect on negotiations with top players in other positions, such as free agent defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth.

If NFL teams don't sign these players, they now have to scramble to procure other, often lesser talent, who themselves ask for bloated wages in comparison to the bloated salaries of top players such as Asomugha. Davis has set the market so high that it chop-blocks the efforts of his competitors to build a competitive team.

Couldn't other teams in the league just refuse to pay any corner that much and in effect bring the price down? Sure, never minding the risk of charges of collusion, which would be true if every team actively stonewalled said players. But again, all it takes is one GM caving in and offering the requested money to a top free agent, and it's all for naught.

Sure, you can also say Davis has screwed himself by setting high prices. But he's also got a top player (and a punter) locked up. The other NFL teams scrambling to fill roster needs not only cannot say the same, but now must do so at a premium. Al Davis, in effect, has taken a $45 million wrecking ball to several teams' offseasons.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Differences in opinion

As the news radio rattled off position changes for local college basketball teams in the Top 25 poll this morning, I realized the following: In the two major college sports, college basketball and college football, the respective Top 25 polls carry far different contexts.

In Bowl-level college football, your poll position is everything. You will only play 12-13 games in a season, and when a dozen teams all finish with zero or one loss overall, and football uses a computer ranking that primarily factors poll position to decide who will play for the national title... where you stand in the eyes of a few dozen pollsters means everything.

On the flip side, while Division I college basketball also has weekly Top 25 polls, those polls are largely just a perception barometer. The NCAA Tournament awards spots to 33 conference tournament champions, then uses a selection committee to analyze the remaining teams and select the final 32 participants based on a "resume": overall record, conference and schedule strength, teams beaten, teams lost to, recent performance trends, team makeup and so on. The polls carry little to no relevance, since the committee's research and analysis focuses on more concrete factors. Any rankings strongly considered fall in line with this research goal, focusing on team performance and level of competition faced (such as the Sagarin Rankings).

The University of Washington men's basketball team is probably disappointed with their fall from the Top 25 this week, but it's not going to break their season. If they gain steam with a run of solid wins at season's end, or win the Pac 10 conference tournament, they get into the NCAA Tournament no matter where they finish in the polls. And where they get slotted in the tournament will not depend on a poll ranking, but how that well-researched committee believes they measure up against all the other teams in the field of 65. Their fate comes down to how they actually play overall, especially against good teams, or to whether or not they can win a season ending conference tournament... not how they're perceived at a glance by pollsters.

However, let's say the University of Washington football team had a 10-0 record with two games left in the season. Where the pollsters decide to rank them compared to the other 10-0 and 9-1 teams would mean everything, because the poll rankings factor into whether the BCS committee selects them for the title game... or shuffles them off to the Rose Bowl to play the Big 10 champion for pride. If they won and those other 10-0/9-1 teams won as well, UW's win would have to "impress" the pollsters compared to those other teams in order to move up the poll or retain their high position. Whether or not they get to play for the national title is literally a matter of opinion.

I don't want to get into the college football playoff debate at this time. I just wanted to note the curious disparity in leverage between the polls in different sports. In college football, impressing a few dozen pollsters matters a great deal, while in college basketball the polls simply provide a novel barometer of where the nation's best teams currently stand, and a team's fate usually gets decided by researched analysis of their performance.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

On performance enhancing drugs in baseball

Along with the story earlier this week about released Federal docs with testimony that Barry Bonds not only tested positive for steroids on a few occasions, but had trainers injecting performance enhancing drugs "all over the place"... now we have a story that top shelf slugger Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids during his 2003 MVP season with the Texas Rangers.

Unlike many baseball fans, I have long since accepted the distinct possibility that many of the league's players have used illegal performance enhancing drugs over the offensive boom of the last 15-20 years. People have smeared his accusation given his general credibility, but I'm not sure Jose Canseco was all that wrong when he estimated that at least half the league is using (he's pushed the number as high as 85% before backing off). Some illegal drugs can't be detected in tests, like Human Growth Hormone. And there are dozens upon dozens of designer drugs available for the taking under the radar. Even with measures taken to discover and track down offending usage, to try and catch everyone is like trying to climb Mt. Everest during a blizzard and an avalanche.

The general perception of steroids is that they make you stronger or better, but they're not an instant pill of success. What they really do is accelerate recovery from wear and tear. Doctors legally prescribe them for exactly that reason: to help people recover from surgery, injuries or illness. Weightlifters inject them after workouts so their muscles recover quickly, allowing them to resume working out sooner. And baseball players, who throw, hit, run and field damn near every single day between February and November, can wear down from peak performance. Also, we all have a berserker mode: if we get mad or intense enough during physical activity, our physical performance level increases as adrenaline enters the bloodstream over a short term. Roids can allow a player to play at a higher intensity than is comfortable, then bounce back immediately and retain that enhanced level of intensity for longer periods.

It doesn't help every player: if you suck, the absolute best you can give may still not be good enough. A good player who uses them may not add enough performance to become a top player. A top player who already plays well in an even-keeled state and doesn't have to work as intensely to play well... but can play at an MVP or legendary level when he turns on the jets, may stand to gain more than the decent player who adds a few hits or strikeouts to his numbers, or that AA retread who sees no real improvement to his major league prospects.

And I think that's what has Americans so pissed off and/or defensive about the issue. Nobody really gives a crap about Yusmeiro Petit or Ryan Franklin getting caught roiding, because those guys are lost in the shuffle anyway. But tell people that Barry Bonds' historic home run records had some help, that the Mark McGwire vs Sammy Sosa chase was brought to you by juice, or that Roger Clemens' historic career lasting effectively into his 40's came thanks to some sauce... and that's when people get roiled up over players roiding up.

It's like telling people that the stuff that dreams are made of are too good to be true. It's akin to a child finding out that Santa Claus isn't real or that the tooth fairy was really their mom shoving a buck and a handwritten note in her best calligraphy under their pillow at 2 am. These are the sort of epiphanies that end childhoods. And even as people become more jaded in their adulthood, epiphanies like these don't necessarily hurt any less.

I understand the separate sets of reactions, the anger of those who accept it's happening and the denial to the death of those who refuse to believe it's true or that it's a fundamental problem... even if they're not fully informed. But we live in a world of inconsistent honesty, where many will go to extensive lengths to get an edge. Many will go to great lengths to hide any transgressions. Thousands of players come spawned from a world laden with corruption and deceit, and every single one of them competes with one another for their jobs, for millions of dollars and, of course, victory on the field. It's not a surprise that many turn to underground performance enhancers to get themselves whatever edge they can, even the best in the business.

As to whether or not this is a moral problem... it lies in the eye of the beholder. And that's where I plan to leave this conversation behind.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Major League Soccer: Back To The Minors

Recall that British soccer superstar David Beckham signed a big deal with the L.A. Galaxy of Major League Soccer, as part of the MLS 'Designated Player' campaign to bring in some foreign stars by allowing every team to sign a foreign player at a cost written off from the league's salary cap.

MLS has yet to show a consistent profit as a league after $350 million in collective losses since its 1993 founding. With the Designated Player rule, the obvious goal for MLS was to add some star power and credibility to the league. Along with the construction of many manageably-small soccer venues (teams previously had to play many of its matches in converted American football stadiums in front of sparse crowds), MLS got a boost from the DP rule, as talented stars such as Marcelo Gallardo (DC United), Juan Pablo Ángel (NY Red Bull), Cuauhtémoc Blanco (Chicago Fire) and of course Beckham came over for big contracts to add some star power and talent to their respective clubs.

Beckham was the centerpiece of this talent expansion. Beckham's arrival drew big crowds in L.A., even when dubious injuries prevented him from playing more than sparingly in his matches. Beckham's addition not only boosted Galaxy's finances, but the viability of the league as a whole, as clubs drew big crowds at their fields with fans paying to see Beckham on the road.

Despite this, MLS teams continue struggling to pay the bills, especially given the large contracts handed to these imported superstars. During this offseason, Galaxy took some money from Italian superclub AC Milan to loan Beckham's services to them, a common transaction in world soccer that typically benefits all sides. In this case, Galaxy gets valuable capital (in part to help pay Beckham's $32.5 million contract), Beckham gets some work in to stay in shape, and Milan gets themselves one of the best players in the world to help their midfield for a couple months.

Looks like the move will backfire for Galaxy and MLS, big time.

GLASGOW, Scotland (AP)—David Beckham wants to leave the Los Angeles Galaxy and stay with AC Milan after his loan to the Italian club is scheduled to end next month.

The 33-year-old English midfielder announced his intentions Wednesday after playing in Milan’s 2-2 exhibition tie at Glasgow Rangers. Beckham has scored twice for Milan and been included in the team’s 25-man roster for UEFA Cup games against Werder Bremen on Feb. 18 and 26.

His three-month loan is due to end March 8.

“At the moment my lawyers are not talking to the Galaxy,” Beckham said. “But I have expressed my desire to stay at AC Milan now, and it’s just down to Milan and Galaxy to come to an agreement.”

“I have enjoyed my time here,” he added. “I knew I would enjoy it but I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I have and do as well as I have.”

Beckham is about two years into a $32.5 million, five-year contract with Major League Soccer. The Galaxy had no immediate comment.

He's basically gone. Milan certainly welcomes him, and if Beckham wants to go, he will go and every side will find a way to make it legally work.

Now, like most superclubs, Milan is drowning in €€€€€€ and will probably not only eat Beckham's contract, but pay Galaxy a healthy transfer fee. The short term is not a huge issue for Galaxy. They'll find someone functional to replace him in the midfield (they already had to do so much of the time anyway due to Beckham's injuries) and should manage to stay competitive in 2009.

The big problem is that Beckham was by proxy the league's largest draw, and now he is gone. The big problem MLS battled as they struggled to stay afloat was credibility: MLS was seen as less than second rate to the EPL's, Bundesligas and Serie A's of the world. Signing a superstar like Beckham was seen as a coup by MLS, a sign that they were shedding their not-quite-second rate label and making their move to become one of the world's great soccer leagues. And then Becks, on a simple loan to a Euro club, now says he wants to leave, essentially to play for a real FC. It's the sort of Mickey Mouse dismissal that MLS had to be afraid of with these high priced designated players.

True, the other clubs haven't lost their designated players (DP's), and it's likely many of those DP's see out the terms of their contracts and add significant on-field value for their clubs, while maybe even helping sell a few extra tickets. And Beckham certainly isn't doing this out of any malice, nor did he necessarily see his tenure with Galaxy as some stepping stone to a role with a top European club. But David Beckham was the crown jewel of the MLS Designated Player movement, the great world-recognized status symbol that MLS was on their way up the chain.

And now he's on his way out, soon to leave the Galaxy, and MLS, holding a bag full of transfer money with bills to pay, seats to fill and no idea what to do next.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Vague thoughts on Super Bowl XLIII

- I predicted a Steelers win that wasn't close, so give credit to the Cards for playing reasonably well and making a game of it. They actually made some big stops and sustained several drives. And the Steelers certainly didn't give them too many openings: that defense popped people in the mouth as advertised all night, and the Cards had to make big plays to get 23 points. Also, Big Ben looked MUCH better than he did in that Seahawks debacle, and probably had one of his best games of the season, without much rushing help from Willie Parker, no less.

- We've been spoiled over the last few years by some good, competitive Super Bowls that have gone down to the wire. Ten years ago, we would have taken any game that was at all close in light of blowout after boring blowout. Now we've reached a point where this 27-23 nail biter the Steelers took from the Cards almost pales in comparison to some past games: the Patriots' buzzer beaters over the Rams and Panthers... the Giants win last year that came down to David Tyree catching a 4th and long Eli Manning prayer with his helmet... the Rams-Titans Super Bowl that literally came down to Kevin Dyson and Mike Jones fighting for the last yard. This Super Bowl has to be, in terms of excitement and drama, in the top five, but ten years ago it would've been the best ever without question.

- We are fortunate to get a spate of exciting Super Bowls where (save for the Seahawks Super Bowl) there's not any real deux es machina from the officials, as they call the game clean and let the players decide. In fact, this year's Super Bowl has to be one of the best officiated Super Bowls I can recall, because the refs weren't any more flag happy than was needed, the flags that got thrown were right on, they made all the right calls on close plays, and let the players decide the ballgame.

- Yes, I'm including the final Cards play, where Warner's arm was moving forward as the ball came out and the refs called a fumble. Chris Chase thinks there's controversy, but replays showed the ball clearly squirmed from Warner's possession before his arm moved forward, and therefore was a fumble. The refs made the right call.

- Lost in the Cards loss is that Kurt Warner (31 completions, 377 yards passing, 3 TD) and Larry Fitzgerald (7 catches, 127 yards, 2 TDs, including the huge breakaway go-ahead TD with under 3 minutes left) had two of the best performances in Super Bowl history. Once again, Warner had no running game to speak of (33 total rushing yards) and had to try to win the game all by himself against the #1 defense in football. Yeah, James Harrison right-place right-timed him and took it 100 yards to the house at the end of the 1st half, and Warner's final play of the game ended with a Warner trademark (a fumble), but Warner made some great, quick throws, used his eyes to throw off the secondary, and took advantage of every opening that airtight Steelers defense gave him.

- Speaking of Harrison's difference maker to end the 1st half, his INT touchdown gives the Steelers the distinction of scoring both the longest TD (his 100 yard INT return) in Super Bowl history, as well as the shortest (Roethlisberger's 0 yard "TD" against the Seahawks in SB XL).

- If David Tyree's catch on 4th and long in the Giants' miracle win over the Patriots is the greatest catch in Super Bowl history, then Santonio Holmes' tip-toe catch that won the game has to be 2nd. What an incredible, perfect catch by the young Steelers wideout, and it came no less just one play after he let a potential game-winning TD slip right through his outstretched hands.

Holmes was a college star at Ohio State, but figured to be just another NFL journeyman when he got drafted and lost in the WR shuffle with Pittsburgh. But he emerged in this game with 9 catches for 131 yards, including the game winning TD. Four catches, including the winner, came in the game-winning drive.

Holmes brashly declared in an interview, on the presentation podium, "Great players step up in big-time games to make plays." Santonio, like any young player who has flown under the radar in his early career, still needs to show over the next few years that he is a consistent difference maker. But I agree: Holmes made the plays of a great player in the biggest game of his life tonight.