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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Do as Torre says but not as he does

Former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre worked with SI reporter Tom Verducci on a tell-all bio that recently came out about Torre's tenure as Yankees manager. Verducci apparently compiled years of reporting and research on the Yankees for this retrospective, and Torre filled in as many blanks as he was willing to.

With distance from a job comes a candor about it that may not have existed during the job due to your standard terms of non-disclosure, and Torre's provided enough gossip logs for the media fire, making sure to throw in bits about the squad's behind-the-back disdain for A-Rod ("A-Fraud") plus criticism of owner George Steinbrenner.

Buster Olney, who managed quite a living out of writing about the Yankees, took note of a certain hypocrisy, whose key points I will note in obnoxious bold text:

It is Tom Verducci who wrote the actual words of the book, and over the past two days, Verducci has worked to underscore this point and to note that the fragments about Alex Rodriguez, Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenners are just tiny pieces of a book of almost 500 pages. The voice is third person, not Torre's, as it was the first time Torre and Verducci collaborated. A lot of the words are based on Verducci's reporting.

But here's the problem with that: It's Joe Torre's book. His name is on it. He got paid for it. He had a chance to read every word, every sentence, every paragraph. He had to approve every passage....

... in spring 2003, David Wells and a ghostwriter published a book, "Perfect I'm Not: Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches and Baseball," and Torre was furious, angry that Wells had aired some of the Yankees' dirty laundry in the pages. Wells tried to distance himself from some of the words in the book, saying they belonged to the writer, but the Yankees' manager would not accept that....


Joe Torre won a ton of media respect for his "handling" of the many understandable egos employed by the star studded New York Yankees, even producing the hyperbole of placing him among the greatest managers of all time.

But it's fairly easy to fill out a lineup card when your 25 players are among the league's best, thanks to an owner so rich and obsessed with winning that he handed his general manager a blank check to sign the best available talent on the market each winter. And as some media heads have noted, Torre doesn't exactly possess a magic touch. Torre's previous managerial records:

New York Mets (1977-1981): 286 wins, 420 losses (.405 win percentage)
Atlanta Braves (1982-1984): 257 wins, 229 losses (.529)
St. Louis Cardinals (1990-1995): 351 wins, 354 losses (.498)

It takes about .550-.560 to contend. Compare these records with the 1173 wins and 767 losses (.605) he compiled in his 12 years with the well-rolled New York Yankees. A look at the talent level of those 12 New York Yankee teams should tell you all you need to know about why they won, and it wasn't because of Torre's firm hand and menacing stare in the clubhouse. That firm hand and menacing stare oversaw 8 losing seasons out of his previous 14 with other clubs. He won with Jeter, Bernie, Posada, Cone, Tino, Mo Rivera et al and all the other All-Star free agents that came after them because any manager with a functioning brain could win with such a group.

The credibility of Joe Torre allegedly comes from a belief that he possesses an innate skill to derive winning from his talent, when in reality, Torre is just like any manager in that his record is typically only as good as the talent provided to him. Last season, his first as skipper of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Dodgers eked out a playoff appearance from an 84-78 record in a less-than-competitive NL West division despite allowing the fewest runs in the NL (4.0 per game, half a run below league average) due to a relatively anemic offense that scored 4.32 runs per game, 4th fewest in the NL. Where was the magic, Joe?

If that doesn't call into question the respect that media pundits believe Joe Torre deserves, then how about his hypocrisy in calling out David Wells for divulging clubhouse gossip in a book and helping squeeze the team into fining Wells $100,000 for it... then doing the exact same thing himself several years later, and even resorting to the same excuses as Wells (distancing himself from the book by blaming the ghost writer), excuses that he dismissed from Wells years ago?

Perhaps we can dismiss Torre's distanced excuses as well. Buster Olney has, and he probably won't be the last writer to call Torre on it. Either way, the facade over the myth of Joe Torre as a great man and manager has further faded, as well it should given the facts.

He was a pretty good catcher though.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Basketball: Where the fix is on

Last year, the University of Washington men's basketball team won 16 games in the process of missing the NCAA Tournament AND the NIT for a second straight disappointing season, and if coach Lorenzo Romar wasn't canned after last season (he wasn't), he was certainly on the hot seat to win this year, and win big, or go home.

Today, UW won their 15th game of the season with more than a month of regular season basketball left, following a surprising 86-75 victory at home over 13th ranked UCLA, amazing given this season looked like more of the same on opening day for UW following an inexplicable 80-74 loss at lowly Portland University.

It looks like an amazing, impressive victory... until you look at the box score, and a familiar problem with basketball at any level rears its ugly head.

Free throws:
UCLA - 10 made in 15 attempted
Washington - 36 made in 43 attempted

Fouls called:
UCLA - 28
Washington - 18

UCLA - road team
Washington - home team

The foul situation and free throws awarded gave UW such a decided advantage that Lorenzo Romar should have been fired if UW lost this game.

Some pundits rave about a team's ability to draw fouls. However, the so-called ability to draw fouls belies the point that a foul is a subjective penalty: a referee must decide a foul has been committed in order for a foul to get called.

Granted, UW starter Justin Dentmon got four fouls called on him, and spent much of the game on the bench himself. His team had to hold serve without the services of one of their best players. Bt this belies the point that the home team, UW, in front of a raucous crowd who came not just to see former star Brandon Roy's jersey retired at Edmundson Pavilion, but to see their then 14-4 ballclub, resurgent after last year's 16-17 disappointment, try and upend arguably the best team in the Pac 10 Conference in UCLA. There was a lot to gain in sending 15,000 home fans happy with a division lead-grabbing win over a top opponent. For now, let's just say one side stands to gain more from receiving the benefit of the doubt.

How officials elect to call fouls in a game varies from game to game. Watch enough games and you will notice a distinctive trend of certain teams getting favorable calls on both sides of the ball, which is statisically justified in surveying Top 25 NCAA Division I squads. For example, Duke, one of the perennial top college teams in the country, plays a game or two at Cameron Indoor Stadium, their home court, and key players on the opposing team get rung up on curious foul calls from vague, ticky-tack contact, landing on the bench with multiple fouls. Duke, meanwhile, contentedly jabs and shoves at their opposition, at times committing what typically would be blatant fouls in knocking the ball from their opponent's possession without a call from the official. After the inevitable Blue Devils' win, the TV pundits praise Duke's ability to take control of the game and shut down the other team's offense, while bashing the other team's erratic foul-prone ways and their 'inability' to stay out of foul trouble. Any officiating mistakes lead to slaps on the wrist, maybe a one game suspension or loss of postseason assignments, but nothing more.

Too often for comfort you get such a discrepancy of fouls called to one team's benefit, typically a home team with a great following with a lot to gain from winning, that cries come from the peanut gallery that the fix is on. We see a lot of favoritism in the NBA as well, dating back to the Jordan Rule, which is not to be confused with the late 80's Detroit Pistons' "Jordan Rules", which in a nutshell were to beat up Michael Jordan and take his wallet... though the Jordan Rule may be the NBA's response to Detroit's Jordan Rules.

The Jordan Rule was the unwritten rule that Bulls star Michael Jordan could basically make all the contact he wanted on defense or, say, take five steps before a dunk and the refs would never call him on it, or an opposing player would get a foul called if he so much as grazed Jordan's wrist while swiping at the ball... because it benefited the league as a whole for Jordan to succeed, so he got the benefit of the doubt 9 times out of 10. It's akin to, say, letting a former football player off the hook for murdering his ex-wife because he's a famous ex-football player. The Jordan Rule wasn't an active rule: simply an unspoken rule put to practice by all officials to benefit the NBA by enhancing its best player's image as a top player.

The crown jewel moment of the Jordan Rule came on the winning shot that sealed the Bulls 6th and final NBA title under Jordan. With the Bulls trailing and needing a go-ahead bucket with seconds left on an inbound play, Utah Jazz leading defender Bryon Russell covered Jordan, and Jordan gave Russell a blatant two handed shove that knocked Russell back a couple feet before taking the inbound pass and a resulting wide open three-pointer that he sunk to seal Utah's doom and Chicago's 6th title. No foul was called. A couple of pundits took notice but the media shushed it away in praising Jordan's dominance.

We see this sort of favoritism in officiating NBA stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Shaq and others. And the recent Tim Donaghy gambling scandal certainly didn't help the NBA's officiating credibility.

Be we certainly see it in college basketball. Never mind that the top schools have a lot of the top talent. Despite lacking fundamentals and chemistry, these teams also get a disproportionate advantage in foul calls. It can't all be a giant coincidence, and not every team they play (and many of these Top 25 teams do play other talented teams not known for foul trouble) loses their ability to play defense without fouling players. Eventually, the trend is too decided to simply call it a coincidence, or a product of some innate tangible ability to 'draw fouls'.

Now, this trend doesn't manifest itself every single time. For example, since I love picking on Duke: in Duke's January 17 win over 12th ranked Georgetown, Georgetown managed more free throws by a pinch but still lost. While there were relatively few free throws, there were still a healthy 37 fouls called, so you can't say this game had an officiating crew that kept their hands off. That said, the foul distribution was straight down the middle, and both teams had key players in foul trouble. However, that was also the game where Georgetown postman Greg Monroe got called for a dubious technical foul that allowed Duke to seize some valuable momentum with 15 minutes left. Even though they didn't get all the calls, Duke got a timely call that helped them win the game.

Still, this is not to say that refs fix every game and predetermine every outcome like pro wrestling. Hardly: many crews call a straight game and the teams on the court decide the game themselves. But you get a lot of games where the officials skew the calls in one direction for whatever reason: intimidation from the home crowd, the NCAA, their employing conference or the situation, a few hundred bucks on the home team at -130 to win straight up, etc.

The NBA is losing their fanbase in part because of a sloppy game where officiating, not the play on the court, decides far too many games. College basketball will always have a rabid following, but slanted officiating remains a problem that turns off casual fans. Many diehard fans blow off the need for better officiating, but as the quality of the pro game and the college game decreases despite a continually growing talent base, league officials at all levels ought to make a serious effort to overhaul how their officials call games, and let the players on the court decide the games.

It's nice to see UW win a big game against a Top 25 rival. It would be far nicer to see them win an evenly officiated contest where they did not receive such a blatant opportunity advantage. And I say this as a local fan who wants to see the Huskies succeed... with integrity.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Playing until the clock says 0:00

Two Texas private high school girls basketball teams, The Covenant School and Dallas Academy, played on January 13, with Covenant winning a 100-0 nailbiter.

It was a bit of a mismatch, and a lot of people on the periphery aren't happy.

Some details on the game itself:

A parent who attended the game told The Associated Press that Covenant continued to make 3-pointers -- even in the fourth quarter. She praised the Covenant players but said spectators and an assistant coach were cheering wildly as their team edged closer to 100 points.

"I think the bad judgment was in the full-court press and the 3-point shots," said Renee Peloza, whose daughter plays for Dallas Academy. "At some point, they should have backed off."

Dallas Academy coach Jeremy Civello told The Dallas Morning News that the game turned into a "layup drill," with the opposing team's guards waiting to steal the ball and drive to the basket. Covenant scored 12 points in the fourth quarter and "finally eased up when they got to 100 with about four minutes left," he said.


Dallas Academy, a school geared towards enrolling kids with learning difficulties like dyslexia and ADD, has to field a girls basketball team from a student body with only 20 girls total. And not all of them possess suitable athletic ability to even play sports, let alone well. The eight girls Dallas Academy did get to play this season... well, let's just say Louisiana Tech assistants aren't banging down the door to recruit them. The school hasn't won a game in four years.

School directors for both sides, district directors and the media have criticized Covenant for their merciless running up of the score well after the game had been decided, though, honestly, this game was practically decided before tipoff: Never mind that 3A Covenant was playing 2A Dallas Academy: Dallas Academy's team would have a hard time with a well-stocked junior high squad. These girls are just playing for the experience, and not too skill-equipped for competitive interscholastic high school basketball.

Even the winning school felt bad about the blowout. REAL bad.

Now officials from The Covenant School say they are trying to do the right thing by seeking a forfeit and apologizing for the margin of victory.

"It is shameful and an embarrassment that this happened," Kyle Queal, the head of the school, said in a statement, adding the forfeit was requested because "a victory without honor is a great loss."


******

One of sports' great arguments concerns the matter of running up the score. Once a superior team gets far ahead and has the game well in hand... do they continue playing hard until the game is over, or do they ease off the gas and give the losing team a chance to save some face? This is actually a heated topic in many a sports discussion both online and off. Some say you should never quit trying. Some say once you know you've got the game won, you should allow the other team to save some face.

The term 'running up the score' comes from the argument that continuing to play hard after the game's clearly been decided shows bad sportsmanship and disrespect towards the other team. The argument is that once the game is in hand, you should play your backups, run out the clock and give the other team some dignity, if not some breathing room.

Interestingly enough, the term and concept are unique only to sports in the United States. Granted, other popular sports around the world don't lend themselves to running up the score like American football or basketball do.

Soccer: Scoring a goal is very difficult in soccer, and it's rare to stake yourself to more than a 2-3 goal lead, a dominant margin of victory but hardly an embarrassing blowout akin to running up the score. Plus, you can only substitute a small handful of players per match (usually 2-3, no more than 4-5), so you still need to leave many of your best players on the field. Also, given the small handful of goals in a typical match, it's very easy for a losing team to suddenly score a goal and get right back in the match.

Baseball: Pitching and hitting are both difficult acts. Big rallies that produce 10 run leads are often quite flukish: yes, they can be a byproduct of talent, but you can't produce them at will against inferior opposition the way a football team can produce first down after first down against an inferior front seven. Like soccer, the other team can rally from seemingly large deficits with some luck, and if you pull starters, you can't put them back into the game, so pulling the starters can hurt you if the other team comes back.

You also can't necessarily 'ease off': a hitter must maintain his proper swing to not throw off his performance in subsequent games... and the other pitcher still has to throw strikes. If, say, hitters decided not to swing out of courtesy, but the pitcher can't locate, he could still walk a lot of guys and maybe force in some runs, which itself is even more embarrassing to the losers than if the winning team just continued hitting as usual.

Also, blowouts just don't happen that often in baseball. Every now and then you take a bad loss, but losing teams generally don't curse the other team for, say, making a 10-1 deficit a 15-1. They usually consider it their own damn fault for pitching and fielding like crap.

Cricket: Each side only gets 1-2 chances on offense per match, so running up the score IS the idea! You damn well better run the score up as far as you can, because you don't want the other guys running it up more than you do.

Boxing: Got a problem with the other guy piling on the scorecard? Can't fight back worth a damn? Take a punch. Go down. Stay down. Wait for the ref to count to 10. Problem solved.

But America has sports that facilitate scoring and operate on a clock, thus lending themselves to the possibility of looming blowouts that emerge well before the contest has concluded, which creates the winning team's dilemma: 'do we keep playing hard and make a big loss worse for them, or do we stop trying, just so they can get back some dignity?'

******

So, was Covenant as "disgraceful" as school officials claim they were in pushing the floor well after they clearly had the game won? I'll say yes and no.

No, it's not disgraceful to continue playing hard for every minute you're on the floor. There certainly may come a time where you meet your match and you'll want to have the experience of playing a full four quarters or nine innings or three periods, and you won't get it if you take the rest of the night off every time your game is decided well before the buzzer. Give Dallas Academy credit for never quitting and keeping their heads up when they clearly were getting their asses handed to them. But give Covenant credit for playing a full game instead of hot dogging the last two periods. Neither team quit trying, and there's more honor in that than the district may want to admit.

However, yes, it was disgraceful for Covenant to keep the starters out there when the game was clearly in hand. Covenant has a bench with reserves: coach Micah Grimes should have given extended minutes to every girl on that bench. It's not like the 12th girl on the bench gets to play a ton. Yes, they should have run their offense/defense and tried to execute plays to their best, and it's quite likely the Dallas Academy girls would have still been overmatched against the weakest team Covenant could possibly throw out there. But it would've loosened the strings a bit, would have offered a lot more value to both teams than the extended pimpslap that resulted, and maybe the Dallas Academy girls could have scored a basket or two to save some face. There was no need to get Covenant's point guard 48 points or shut out Dallas Academy.

College basketball coach Billy Tubbs had a thing for letting his Oklahoma teams run up the score. When criticized about this, he offered up the following, "If they don't like it, they should get better."

Ultimately, sports are a competitive endeavor, and when you play a 60 minute ballgame, the idea is to give your best effort for 60 minutes. Teams get criticized for quitting during the game, and go figure society also criticizes teams for not quitting during the game. Some compromise by taking knees, running generic sets and playing the backups. I'm a believer that every player on the field should give their best as long as they're on the field. But once a game's in hand, the coach should do his best to get everyone on the team who doesn't regularly play some playing time, not only to give the other team a chance to save face against lesser competition, but to take the opportunity to get those infrequently used players some cherished action. They can try and use different strategic sets and see how they look in a low-pressure situation.

Blowouts can present an opportunity, not to run up the score, but to give others a chance, whether they're on the other team or yours.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Anquan Boldin's big deal about nothing

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP)—Arizona wide receiver Anquan Boldin laughed off the negative reaction to his nationally televised run-in with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, calling it “hilarious.”

Boldin’s shouting match with the coach on the sideline came as Arizona drove for the winning touchdown in Sunday’s 32-25 victory over Philadelphia in the NFC championship game.

Boldin didn’t stay on the field in the postgame celebration, making a quick exit through the locker room. He said that he did congratulate his teammates and left quickly only to avoid questions about the Haley incident.

Instead, he acknowledged after Thursday’s practice, his abrupt departure “made it worse.”

“For me it’s hilarious,” Boldin said of the criticism he’s received. “I mean, I don’t want to sit here and dwell on it because for me it’s in the past, but that’s something that goes on every week in the NFL whether people know it or not.

“Every week, somebody on the sidelines gets into an argument, but it’s in the heat of the moment, it’s part of football and once it’s done, it’s dead on all sides.”


Well, given we've never seen a team's 2nd leading wide receiver celebrate the biggest win in his team's history by quickly storming off the field, I can't agree that it happens everyday. And given the modus operandi of the mainstream media, it's no surprise that they would react to the incident with the typical textual histrionics.

The Arizona Cardinals had just earned their first ever trip to the Superbowl after winning a game they were not expected to win, weeks after clinching a(n albeit weak) division title few expected them to clinch. I would expect a more typical reaction to such an event to look like this:

Photobucket

Team leaders Adrian Wilson and Kurt Warner strongly defended Boldin.

“I think people are making a lot out of nothing,” Wilson said. “That stuff happens all the time. Q is very dedicated to this team, very dedicated to the players. I think it’s a non-issue.”

Warner said it was “crazy” for people to define Boldin’s personality by this one incident after “everything that guy’s done all year and the character he’s displayed all year long.”


Well, it's typically rash to define a person's being by one isolated event, though an event like walking out on your team right after they won a trip to the Super Bowl can tell you an intuitive lot about that person, just as much as coming back strong three weeks after a scary concussion.

It's not as crazy as Kurt Warner says it is. Almost everyone in an NFL locker room works hard all season, even the 53rd guy on the bench of the worst team in the league... so to differentiate a guy by saying he works hard is hogwash: unless you're extremely talented, you have to work hard in the NFL, or you're out of a job. Bragging about a guy's hard work, if anything, is the true big deal about nothing.

And then we get to character, one of sports' favorite vague badges of valor. What is character? Anyone with a personality of their own has character. But let's not turn this into a great philosophical convo: Warner, here, is probably referring to the stones Anquan Boldin showed the team by coming back from a helmet to helmet collision that left him lifeless on the turf in week 4 against the Jets. Many players aren't quite the same after a blow to the head, so Boldin's return after three weeks, not to mention the 9 catches per game and 6 TDs he had in the next five games after his return, certainly deserves some note.

But so does walking out on your team in the middle of the biggest moment of their existence. Who does that? Maybe that blow to the head did have some after-effects, because it's not a decision that makes a lot of sense to most normal individuals.

Perhaps Adrian Wilson will be right in the long run: this will all be a big deal about nothing. The odds are on his side: how many scandalous sports incidents of yesteryear can you rattle off the top of your head? The talking heads wax philosophically indignant about what X Incident means to sports, but after a while, it's just a blip on a star player's radar... ultimately, just a big deal about nothing.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

An introduction to Dead Cat's Bounce

Welcome.

George Vecsey opens an otherwise grating article with a telling point.

We are supposed to bay at the moon over the burning issues of the day, maybe inept trades or expensive free-agent signings or the terrible injustice of the Bowl Championship Series.

But then I see people lobbing rockets at each other and lunatics killing innocents in the hearts of cities, and it's hard to be edgy over something as trivial as America's not having a college football playoff.


My name is Steven Gomez. I grew up a sports fan, obsessed as a kid to where I knew histories, stats and the like of many sports back to front. I've also been an avid writer my entire life. As the internet age blew up sports coverage like the Godfather, it only made sense that someone like me should end up blogging about sports.

So why haven't I? I know what the internet is and all, so can't say I had no idea. But I think Vecsey's quote captures some of the idea why. There are a lot of blogs, talk shows, TV personalities, drama-whores and the like competing for your attention and/or the advertising dollar. Many will go to great lengths to rage histrionic about any news item of consequence (I'm looking at BOTH of you, Jim Rome and Stephen A Smith). The writing and tone of a lot of blogs strains to find some sort of edgy take to any news item of relevance. Given the market was cornered, and I didn't share the same... well, passion, I saw no need to join the ranks.

After moving to Seattle in 2004, a lot of my blogging or writing over the last few years focused on local news and politics, national and world news and issues, personal news and issues. I wrote a little bit about sports here and there but never did I make it a focus. There's enough going on outside my door on a daily basis. In the grand scheme of things, the craziest things in sports on any level typically amount to a relative trifle. As George Vecsey invokes, there are (or were until about a few days ago) people in Gaza whose homes got bombarded with Israeli rockets. There are people on our streets robbing, mugging, killing and on a lesser scale screwing each other over every single day. Ultimately, does sports really matter all that much?

Let's be honest: it still does, to a lot of us. It is our escape from otherwise harsh realities and the various trials of our everyday lives, our teams bringing people of different ideals, cultures and divisions together to cheer for a common civic goal: the fate of a franchise (even if that franchise takes hundreds of millions of dollars away from local coffers and gives little to nothing back besides this ideological beacon of athletic hope). George Vecsey can cry crocodile tears. I'm going to start writing seriously about sports for a change, and let's see what happens.

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The name Dead Cat Bounce comes from a term originally from stock trading that has migrated to baseball sabermetric discussions. In baseball, a fading veteran whose performance has begun to erode may fire off one final stretch of fine productivity before his performance finally collapses for good... a proverbial dead cat bouncing off the ground, into the air and back to the ground again, never again to rise.

I would have called the blog Dead Cat Bounce but some douchebag on Blogger swiped the name in 2003, posted an entry or two and was never heard from again. So you'll have to settle for the more colloquially engaging moniker Dead Cat's Bounce, since, after all, the bounce does belong to the dead cat.

And likewise, as a veteran sports fan whose obsession has faded over the years, you can consider this blog the dead cat bounce of that lifelong obsession. May it bounce high before my interest fades. Maybe it comes back down quick. Maybe it'll never come down.

We'll see.

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