Saturday, October 28, 2006

Dumbest Idea Ever

With the rain and cold at the World Series this week, I heard the following proposal more than once: Move the World Series to a warm-weather neutral site.

No chance of a Subway Series in Gotham. No more World Series games at historic Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. (OK, that last one is sort of a moot point.) Move all games to some plastic place like The BOB in Phoenix or Enron Field in Houston. (Or whatever their names are this year.) Forget about the loyal fans who supported the participants for six months, let's move the games somewhere with a retractable roof so the Fox Fall TV Lineup won't get messed up. Oh my, what's that, empty seats at a World Series game?

The idiots who are in favor of this idea think that baseball can follow the same business model as football, but they are so wrong. Football is much more of a TV sport. Baseball is best observed live. Baseball set an all-time attendance record this year, but has trouble getting TV ratings. To the TV networks, the fans in the stands are just props and extras in their fall programming. So what if they are freezing to death, they should be happy to be on TV! The Lords of Baseball shouldn't be allowing this to happen.

The problem is not the open-air stadiums in St. Louis and Detroit. With three rounds of playoffs subject to the scheduling whims of Fox, the games have gotten pushed back nearly to November, so of course it's going to be cold for a game that doesn't start until 8:23 p.m. The last time the Cards and Tigers hooked up in 1968 (the last year before divisional play began), Game 7 of the World Series was played the afternoon of Oct. 10, NINETEEN days earlier than what would have been Game 7 this year. The first World Series games scheduled at night were in 1971, and it's been all downhill since.

Start the regular season earlier, shorten it to 154 games, play a few doubleheaders, finish by Sept. 20, and don't let TV dictate the playoff schedule. After years of screwing over the customers who go through the turnstiles in order to squeeze every possible dollar out of TV, MLB should turn back the clock and play a few World Series games during the day when, believe it or not, it is warmer than in the middle of the night. To get the marketing gurus on board, call it retro, like outfield walls that are crooked for no particular reason.

Just please, please, please, slowly back away from the Dumbest Idea EVER.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Tony the Meddler

With the attention that Fox and ESPN give to it, a casual observer of baseball might conclude that teams have to apply for special dispensation to have a starting pitcher appear on "short rest," which they define as fewer than four idle days (pitching every fifth day). Remember that those appearances are usually only six or seven innings. Forgive the "back in my day" rant, but consider the last time the Cardinals and Tigers met in the World Series, 1968.

Bob Gibson pitched Games 1, 4 and 7 for the Cardinals. All three were complete games, not six-inning stints. There were no rainouts so he had only three days of rest between starts. What a Herculean effort!

But wait, two Tiger pitchers also started three games during that same series. Future jailbird Denny McLain got knocked out early facing Gibson in Games 1 and 4, but got it together with a complete-game victory in Game 6. The MVP of the series turned out to be Mickey Lolich, who pitched complete-game victories in Games 2, 5 and 7. His rest between the final two appearances was only two days, half of what Fox, ESPN and Tony LaRussa would consider normal.

Oh by the way, McLain pitched 336 innings in 1968 with 41 starts and 31 victories. This year, projected Cy Young winner Johann Santana led the American League with only 223.2 innings, with 34 starts and 19 victores. Not only is that fewer starts, but it is fewer innings per start (8.1 vs. 6.2). Today's LaRussa-ized managers are much quicker to yank the starter and turn the game over to the bullpen.

Today you have specialists who pitch only to left-handers, only in the eighth inning (the Setup Man), or only in the ninth inning with a lead of three runs or less (the exalted Closer). Using a Closer outside of a "save situation" is considered an insult to their status. Yankees Manager Joe Torre is hailed as some sort of genius innovator for using his Closer, Mariano River, to get four outs instead of just three every once in a while.

Dick Radatz, a reliever for the Red Sox in the '60's and a frequent commentator on local sports radio until his recent death, always said pitchers should pitch more innings to stay strong, not fewer. Radatz routinely pitched three innings to get saves. Among the seven complete games pitched in the 1968 series (including one by Gibson in a defeat), one Cardinal reliever managed to get a save. In Game 3, Joe Hoerner came in with one out in the sixth and pitched the rest of the game. He batted twice and even got a hit. That's enough to send LaRussa screaming from the room. The current manager of the Cardinals surely would have used at least three relievers and a couple of pinch hitters to cover that situation.

I know pitching a baseball is hard on a human arm. But remember the days of Gibson and Lolich when asking pitchers to log a few innings was not considered unusual. Maybe it isn't all Tony LaRussa's fault, but he's the poster boy for modern managerial meddling.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Watch the Watchers

I read the New York Post sports section for its train wreck value. I like it on days like today when the back page says "Disgrace" in large letters, referring to the Yanks losing to the Tigers and getting cancelled out of the baseball season.

But today, in amongst the anguish over the Yanks and swooning admiration of the Mets, is Phil Mushnick's sports media column. Today's headline is "JUST SHOW US THE DAMN GAME!"

So I was watching the last half-inning of Dodgers-Mets on Fox, Thursday ... Check that. I was watching the fans in Shea watching - every postseason Fox figures that rather than the game, we prefer to watch people watching the game - when it struck me:

All of these networks, no matter how different they may look and sound, are essentially the same; they work off a copy of the same stupefying plan. They all do whatever it takes - spend a ton of money and energy - to prevent us from watching the game.

It's an indisputable fact: Among ESPN/ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox not one them has clearly established itself as the one that actually let's you watch the game.

I couldn't agree more. As Mushnick says, if it isn't Tim Robbins visiting the booth to flack his latest movie, it's endless inane network promos. And of course the countless crowd shots between pitches. If one is good, five are better.

It took me a while to figure out why I like to attend baseball games but almost never watch them on TV. It's all the garbage attached to the broadcast. When I do watch I make liberal use of the mute button, which suffices for most regular season baseball games. But of course during the post-season, that's not nearly enough to keep Fox from embarrassing itself. I would pay extra for a video feed with no announcers, no crowd shots (except for a wide shot between innings so we can see if there are empty seats), no Tim Robbins interviews, and minimal on-screen stats (limited to numbers that actually appear in the record book).

Oct. 15 update: Fox has fired analyst Steve Lyons for making allegedly insensitive comments on air. After hearing the comments I would conclude, “insensitive,” no, but “nonsensical, annoying gibberish,” yes. So perhaps Fox was just looking for an excuse to dump Lyons for conduct detrimental to the English language. Now if they could just come up with an excuse to dump the rest of their commentators....

Oct. 23 update: More proof that it's not just me. Today's Toronto Star:

But there are times when you wonder if the guy directing Fox's coverage forgot to take his Ritalin. Fox tries so hard to jam every second with replays, shots of dugouts, shots of fans that you wonder if you're watching a video game instead of a baseball game. While this no doubt serves fans with the attention span of your average 4-year-old, it often works against good baseball coverage.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

I am a Candidate

A few semesters back, the C.W. Post sports information office proclaimed in all seriousness that running back Ian Smart was a Heisman Trophy candidate. Smart did rush for more than 2,000 yards in both 2001 and 2002, but for those unfamilar with C.W. Post, it's a Division II school. How exactly does someone become a Heisman Trophy candidate? Apparently all that is required is issuance of a press release and the ability to keep a straight face.

August 28, 2002 -- C.W. Post running back Ian Smart – who was last season’s #1 rusher and scorer for all of college football in the country – was presented as a Heisman Trophy candidate at a press conference this afternoon at the new Pratt Recreation Center on the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University in Brookville, New York. C.W. Post Sports Information Director Brad Sullivan acknowledged Smart’s "underdog status" for the Heisman Trophy -– which is usually awarded to a major Division I running back or quarterback -- but felt that Smart’s production on the field was worthy of consideration despite the team’s Division II status. The Heisman Trophy is awarded to "the outstanding college football player in the United States."

I saw Smart play against Bryant in 2002, and I can attest that he was a darn fine Division II running back despite being a bit undersized at 5-foot-8. Smart did play in the NFL for Tampa Bay briefly in 2004, with his career highlight being a 25-yard run against Atlanta. He touched the ball three other times for 11 yards in a total of three NFL games, and he also spent some time in NFL Europe. Certainly he can tell his grandchildren he had a cup of coffee in the NFL, but it also demonstrates why the various NCAA divisions each have their own awards. The winner of the 2002 Heisman Trophy was quarterback Carson Palmer, and of course he played big-time Division 1-A football at USC. Smart didn't even win the Division II Harlon Hill award that year, finishing second.

Ian Smart, 2002, click for larger image.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to Northern Illinois. This institution of higher learning is not in a lower division, it is in 1-A just like USC, but when it comes to Heisman Hype it may as well be in Division II with C.W. Post. Northern Illinois is a member of the Mid-American Conference along with other "directional" schools such as Eastern Michigan. Every once in a while a MAC team beats a Big Ten team, but the Big Ten teams still consider most of these matchups to be tuneup games. NIU has a fireplug (5-foot-7) running back named Garrett Wolfe who torched Ball State for 353 yards rushing and three touchdowns last weekend. Those totals don't include two TDs and 115 yards called back by penalty. Through five games, he's averaging 236 yards per game.

Ah, that's all very well and good against MAC teams, but how did he do against Ohio State? He did have a "below average" game against the top college team in all the land, only cutting up the Buckeyes for 187 yards and a TD.

"I’ve heard so much (junk) about how it’s just the MAC," (Coach Joe) Novak said. "We’ve got six MAC quarterbacks starting in the NFL. He’s done it against Ohio State, which no one else has done. He’s done it against Michigan and Northwestern."

Even though some voters such as Mark May say they are leaning toward Wolfe, most Heisman voters will go with a safe choice such as Ohio State QB Troy Smith or Oklahoma RB Adrian Peterson. The names change, but the same schools have been rotating the trophy for the past 40 years. NIU isn't helping matters with its lack of a hype campaign. Here's hoping that voters can look beyond the hype and the big-school bias and do the right thing. Otherwise this Heisman crap is just so repetitive and boring.

With the confusion about who qualifies as a candidate, I've decided to clear things up and declare retroactively that I was a candidate for the Heisman Trophy during my junior and senior years, 1977-78. The fact that I never actually played football for the South Dakota State varsity should not be considered a bar to my candidacy. At some point during those years I must have played in some intramural or pickup flag football games, so in fact I was a college student playing football and was therefore eligible for the award. In 1977 I finished 1,547 points behind the great Earl Campbell. I came quite a bit closer in 1978, only 827 points behind Billy Sims.

Yes, I got beat out by guys from Texas and Oklahoma. Damn big-school bias!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Kansas Comet

As a Saturday football game ended on one of the minor cable channels, they popped up a short feature to fill some time. It showcased the collegiate stars of 1964, Roger Staubach and Gale Sayers.

If you watch film from the '50's or before, there's an odd style to it that doesn't look modern. Maybe the film speed is out of snyc, or maybe it's the fact that the old timers were for the most part a bunch of smallish, slow white guys. Although the film was grainy black and white, it was obvious from evidence such as a 99-yard run against Nebraska that Sayers was playing thoroughly modern football in 1964. His pro career was equally flashy but regrettably short. Unfortunately for him, orthopedic medicine had not advanced as quickly as his talent.

I'm not going to say the guy is the next Gale Sayers, but there is an NFL rookie with 380 yards combined rushing and receiving with three TDs, and another 190 yards returning kicks. He is Laurence Maroney of the Pats, and the Bengals found out yesterday that he is a load when you have to tackle him play after play. Meanwhile the guy who is supposed to be the next Gale Sayers, Reggie Bush of the Saints, has comparable numbers of only 334 yards from scrimmage (mostly receiving), with 0 TDs, 57 yards returning kicks, and a fumble.

I've asked this question before, and I'm not above repeating it: If Bush was the all-time great college running back that the hype machine proclaimed, why wasn't he on the field during his team's most important offensive play last year, the failed fourth-and-two against Texas? Bush might be a star eventually, but in the NFL there is no Fresno game for padding your stats. Is there such a thing as an all-time great situational player? Maroney looks like an NFL running back jackhammering his way to the Rookie of the Year award. Bush looks like a third-down scatback who won't or can't run between the tackles.

Nobody ever called Gale Sayers a situational player. Maybe Reggie should get some film of the Kansas Comet so he can see what a true big-time running back looks like.

Oct. 18 update: So Bush is leading the league in receptions. That just proves he's not really a running back.

Nov. 7 update: Election day, time for some more Bush Bashing! Bush isn't even the most productive rookie on his own team. Marques Colston, the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month in October, has 44 receptions for 700 yards and seven touchdowns. Bush has more catches, 46, but only 312 yards and no receiving TDs. That's only 6.8 yards per catch, which is hardly "deep threat" stuff. The overpaid scatback has 207 yards rushing, but once again his per-attempt average of 2.6 yards is not very imposing. Colston is an unheralded seventh-round choice out of Hofstra.