Monday, August 24, 2009

What's your deal with Favre?

I notice that a lot of my sports posts have a grumpy, almost curmudgeonly tone. At the very least, argumentative. Hmmm. Just noting the fact, not analyzing it.

Anyway, I've come to argue with those of you who have issues with Brett Favre. You are angry. You're calling Favre names. You're impugning his character. Frankly, I don't get it.

I do get why Favre waffles.

On the one hand, when he plays, he gets the shit kicked out of his 40-year-old body every week. Every professional football player has to deal with this, but most of them are long gone by 40. It hurts. I remember how backyard football hurt the next day when I was 15, playing against guys who weighed 120 pounds. What Favre is doing hurts a lot. And it keeps hurting when the season is over. He's proven himself, and isn't that likely to get any further in football than he's already gotten. And I'm sure there are times he'd like to just kick back and forget about the NFL.

On the other hand, he gets paid 10 million dollars a year! Sure, he doesn't need it, but it's 10 million dollars a year! When do you stop providing for your family, or your descendants? Or have too much land, or too much to give to charity. There's always room for another 10 million dollars, isn't there? And he's playing in the N freaking FL! What a rush it has to be to hear those roars, to get all of that adulation, to matter to people. And while it still hurts in the offseason, it hurts somewhat less after a while.

So it's no surprise that he has mixed feelings, and has changed his mind several times. But everyone seems to think that he's changed it too many times, and that he should stop jerking everyone around, and make up his damn mind. But why, exactly? Is this really a problem for you or me? I can tell you that it hasn't affected my life one iota. My wife still loves me, I'm still employed, I have my health -- Brett Favre just isn't a problem for me. But he seems to be for you.

Are you worried about the teams that he might or might not play for? Guess what -- it's their demand for his services that's driving the whole thing! If they didn't want to employ him, and didn't keep dangling money in front of him, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Does he owe them a decision? No! It's supply and demand. If they don't want to wait around for an answer, they don't have to. They do wait around because he's good, and because he can put butts in the seats. They're waiting around to serve their best interests. So do me a favor and don't worry about the teams. They can take care of themselves.

Are you just plain tired of hearing about it? Bullshit! You click link after link about this subject, and read story after story about it, and watch segment after segment on television, and complain bitterly every time you do. Which is why they keep writing and producing all of these stories.

So it looks to me like you're complicit with the media and the teams and Favre himself for keeping this story going. As tired as you are of seeing Favre waffle, I can promise you that you're no more tired than I am of hearing you complain about it all.

Feel free to root for or against Favre this fall. But somebody has to play quarterback for the Vikings, and you can bet it will be the best guy that the Vikings can find for the job. And isn't that sort of the idea?

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Am I missing something here? Plaxico Burress has been sentenced to two years of prison for carrying an unregistered firearm. Two years out of his life because he shot himself in the foot. Mind you, nobody ever said he was threatening anybody, or intended to do anybody any harm. It's just that real criminals carry unregistered firearms, and Mayor Bloomberg and whatever that dipshit D.A.'s name is had a burr in their saddle about cracking down on this stuff.

So they took it out on a guy who shot himself in the foot. You can't really call it a victimless crime, because Plax victimized himself. But you can say that he didn't hurt anybody else.

This is your basic perversion of justice, in the interest of either politics, or precedent-setting, or I'm not sure what. But it has nothing to do with the spirit of the law.

I frankly don't blame Plaxico Burress for carrying a gun. Personally, I think it's a bit foolish, but he has seen multiple professional athletes, including a guy who played his own position on his own team, get shot at and in several instances killed by lowlifes who basically wanted their stuff. Given that backdrop, he had every reason to be fearful if not paranoid about being shot. I'm not in his situation, so I can't say exactly what I'd do. But I'd sure as hell be aware of the threat. Plax chose to protect himself with a gun.

No question Plax should have registered it. But he did register a gun in another state in the relatively recent past, so it's not like he has contempt for the law. He screwed up. He actually does a fair amount of screwing up. But he also seems like a decent guy to the people around him.

I can see punishing him for his mistake, especially since there is a real need to have handguns registered. But nowhere in this did I see a hint of common sense when considering Plax's character or his motivations. It was all about the mayor and the D.A. getting their pound of flesh.

So Plax shoots himself in the foot and hurts nobody else. Politicos throw their weight around and trash lives for no good reason. That's the real crime.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Why doesn't Pete Rose belong in the Hall? Because he wasn't that good!

If you're reading this, you've likely also read the recent discussion of whether Pete Rose should be reinstated and allowed into the Hall of Fame.

Most such discussions center around what a sleazebag he was, how he gambled on baseball, jeopardized the game, slandered decent people, lied his face off, and waited until he could turn a profit from it to finally tell the truth. Among other things. It's pretty clear that he's not a good guy, and this is more than enough reason for lots of people to be against him ever seeing the inside of the Hall.

But what rarely gets discussed is a simple truth that, thanks to his talent for self-promotion, is not widely understood. The fact is that Pete Rose wasn't a great ballplayer.

He was a remarkable ballplayer in many ways, and unquestionably a very good one, but he wasn't a great one. Consider:

He wasn't a great defender at any position. He didn't have great speed, or great hands, or a great arm. He could do a passable job at several positions, for which we must give him credit, but then so could Lee Lacy. Rose couldn't play shortstop or catcher, and spent most of his career at what are generally understood to be offensive positions, where you expect to have better-than-average hitters.

He earned a reputation as Charlie Hustle. What was that based on? Well, he did hustle, to be sure. But much of the fuss was about his habit of running to first on a walk. The fans loved it, and Rose loved the attention, but you get the same result whether you sprint or amble to first base on a walk. It didn't help his team, but it helped his reputation.

Another thing he got credit for was baserunning: he wasn't afraid to steal a base. Problem is, he should have been. He stole 198 bases, but was caught 149 times, giving him one of the worst success rates in the history of baseball among players who frequently tried to steal. The records were murky in the early part of the previous century, but if you look at records after World War II, I don't think you'll find another player with a worse percentage in as many attempts. (I couldn't find anyone with fewer stolen bases that was caught so many times.) This is worse than running out walks, which at least is harmless. By "hustling" on the bases, Rose was actively hurting his team. But again, the public loved it, and the legend grew. Helping your reputation at the expense of your team is not my idea of greatness.

By now, Rose backers are screaming about all of his hits. Of course, this is where he shines. He had lots of advantages, that helped him get far more chances at the plate than any other player in history -- he stayed healthy, he hit at the top of the order on some very good offensive teams, meaning that he got lots of at-bats (he led the league in plate appearances several times), and he didn't draw a large number of walks, which gave him more opportunity to pad his hit totals. He also played well into his mid-40s, long after he was helpful to his team. His production at offensive positions was downright poor for his last five seasons, so he never should have gotten the opportunity to reach 4000 hits, much less the record. We won't discuss the fact that many of those hits came when Rose was player/manager and was inserting himself into the lineup. But he sure did get a lot of hits.

Let's not forget that hits alone are a poor measure of offensive production. A relatively quick and dirty method for measuring offensive performance is OPS, or on-base plus slugging, which combines slugging percentage (bases per at bat, where a single is one base and a home run is four bases) and on-base percentage (roughly the number of times you get on by hit, walk, or hit by pitch divided by the number of plate appearances).

By this measure, Rose is 525th in the history of baseball as of this writing, according to Not far behind Jason Varitek. I came up with a count of 108 Hall of Famers among those ahead of him in that category, which means that there are 416 guys with a better career OPS who are not in the Hall of Fame. 416. And that's not counting the guys who hit almost as well as he did who were superior defenders. Get in line, Pete.

The argument will be made by many that Rose played in an era that was not conducive to hitting. He was active in 1968 (one of his two legitimately great seasons, by the way), which was possibly the worst year to be a hitter in the history of baseball. So let's consider only players who were active in 1968. By my count, Rose ranks 49th in career OPS among such players. Behind Mack Jones and Don Mincher, if those names mean anything to you. And far behind guys like Dick Allen, Reggie Smith, and Ron Santo, none of whom are in the Hall.

Of course, he gets credit for longevity (though not too much credit, for the aforementioned reason that he extended his career far beyond what it should have been), and you probably can't fairly say that he was only the 49th best player among his contemporaries. Or maybe you can, because we're ignoring defensive standouts like Brooks Robinson and Bill Mazeroski, to say nothing of pitchers.

What you can say is that when you add up hitting, fielding, and base-running, Rose was not among the very best players of his own time. And he is certainly not among the best players of all time.

He had many interesting records, and there's no doubt that he was good, but he just wasn't a great player in terms of productivity on the field. What makes Rose a Hall of Fame candidate in the first place is his fame, not his excellence. But if you want to consider him based on reputation, you have to consider all of the nastier sides of his character.

If you want to consider Pete Rose purely as a ballplayer, you don't have to consider him at all.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Now *that* was a play!

Mark Buehrle pitched a perfect game today! That's quite a story in itself, but the part I liked best was the play within the play.

Going into the ninth inning, the Sox brought in Dewayne Wise as a defensive replacement in center field. Of course, everyone was on edge, wondering if Buehrle could pull it off, and when you're a defensive replacement in such a situation...well, that's a lot of pressure. You just cannot, can not, can not do anything but field perfectly if the ball is hit your way.

The ball was hit Wise's way.

What he did was not only a great play, it might have been the play of the year. Contrast this one with Jeter's play that I discussed in the previous post. The main problems with the Jeter play were that it involved questionable decision-making and ordinary physical feats. Here's what Wise's play involved:

(1) He had to get a great jump. No sooner was the ball off the bat and the camera got onto Wise than he was flying -- he clearly must have gotten a great jump.

(2) He had to take the right line. Nothing special for a defensive specialist, but he did take the perfect line, which is important when you have no time to spare.

(3) He had to run really, really fast. Wise ran really, really fast, faster than all but a very few human beings can. If he doesn't, he doesn't get to the ball.

(4) He had to take his eye off the ball to take a peek at where the wall was. Check.

(5) He had to pick up the ball again and find it, without hesitation. Check.

(6) He had to slow just a touch and gather himself for the jump so that he could arrive when the ball did. Check.

(7) He had to time his leap perfectly. Check.

(8) He had to do all that while maintaining concentration, knowing full well that he was going to hit the wall. Hard. He hit the wall. Hard. He maintained concentration.

(9) He had to catch the ball. Check.

(10) The ball arrived in his glove just as his body arrived at the wall, and the impact jostled the ball loose. Wise kept his eye on the ball, stayed with it, and gathered it in.

One out. Two batters later, and President Obama was making a congratulatory phone call to Buehrle.

Now that, my friends, was a play.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The most over-rated play of all time

For years I've been hearing people gushing about the play in the 2001 ALDS in which Derek Jeter caught a throw coming in from the outfield and flipped it to the catcher for the out. I'll bet if you asked 10 people to list the top ten plays of all time, at least five (and probably more) of them would include this play.

Here's the thing: it's not even a good play!

How did I arrive at this heresy? Let's break it down in terms of pros and cons.

Pros for the play:

(1) It was unexpected.

(2) It looked cool.

(3) It came at a big moment.

(4) It achieved the desired result.

Note that not a single one of these pros says anything about the quality of the play. They're really about the quality of the viewing experience. That's a very different thing.

Cons for the play:

(1) The reason it was unexpected was that Jeter seemingly came out of nowhere to make the play. Since the fielders all have assignments on plays like this, this means that he either wasn't where he was supposed to be, or he was where he was supposed to be but was late getting there. Either way, he should get no credit for the unexpectedness, and actually should get a slight demerit.

(2) The hop was pretty easy to handle, and the running flip to the catcher, while difficult for the average citizen, is within the capability of most any high school middle infielder, and is not difficult for a major league shortstop. It does look cool, and at least he didn't screw it up, but every day there are ballplayers making much more physically demanding plays. No demerits here, at least, but if we're looking for one of the greatest plays ever, we need something a lot better than this.

(3) I just watched it for the umpteenth time, and this time on YouTube so I could run it back and stop it as often as I liked. (The link I found was shut down in short order by MLB as a copyright infringement.) The footage I saw showed once again that the throw was right on target. The rightfielder, Shane Spencer, threw from well into foul territory down the right field line, and the ball bounced just on the right edge of the basepath. By the time Jeter intercepted it, it was in the middle of the basepath, and it was headed for the inside edge of the basepath, on a perfect path for the catcher to make the tag. The ball had lost some speed, but Jeter's flip was not fast, either, and even the brief transfer of the ball from the glove to his hand cost a valuable fraction of a second. What does it all mean? Jeter actually slowed the ball down, did not improve the angle, and in fact put the play at risk by injecting himself into the situation. The baserunner was dead meat even if Jeter never came close to the ball. By catching and flipping it, he made a hero of himself and made Spencer a forgotten man, but he did absolutely nothing to help the Yankees win.

So to sum it up, Derek Jeter was somewhere between slightly and grossly out of position, made a not-too-difficult physical play, and put the game in jeopardy by making himself a hero at the expense of a teammate. If you don't buy my argument about the difficulty of the play, fine -- but note that the more difficult his part of the play was, the more he put the overall play at risk!

Greatest play ever? Not hardly. If you care about winning, it was actually a bad play. Sure looked cool, though, huh?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wrigley's not bad...

...but Fenway is still the best. I finally got to Chicago this past weekend. The White Sox weren't in town, but the Cubs were -- against the arch-rival Cardinals, no less -- so I was very much looking forward to my first visit to Wrigley. Carpenter vs. Harden made it even better.

It was...OK.

Of course you gotta love the ivy. The old-school scoreboard is nice aesthetically, but I did find myself wanting more information than I was getting. The charm of the apartments overlooking the stadium from Waveland and Sheffield is almost entirely gone, since commercial interests figured out that they could renovate, put up stands, and charge money. Almost every building has a shiny new set of stands atop it, and several have stands indoors as well. Ugly. Bleccch.

I was also mildly disappointed in the atmosphere. Maybe it was because the Cubs were losing, but there wasn't quite as much electricity in the stadium as I'd hoped. Cubs fans just don't seem as worked up about the Cardinals as Sox fans are about the Yankees.

In fairness, it's just one data point. And I do like Wrigley -- I'd slot it in around 5th or 6th on that previous list. But Fenway's still the best.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Fenway's the best

Full disclosure: I'm writing this fresh on the heels of a come-from-behind 4-3 Red Sox win over the Yankees. Which is hard not to like.

But still I maintain that Fenway Park is the best place I've ever been to watch a ballgame. If I'm counting correctly, I've been to 13 major league parks, and though almost all of them can beat Fenway for comfort and amenities, none of them can compare in terms of atmosphere.

Let's face it, the Green Monster is cool. The Citgo sign works for me, too. But it's also about the fans. They just care more. Not only are they louder, and more emotionally wrapped up in the success of their team, but they're more into it -- they know more details about the Sox, and their opponents, than other fan bases do.

Let's put it this way -- if I walk into a convenience store and the woman at the counter has a Boston accent, I can expect with some confidence that she cares about and knows about the Sox. Not just in a "go Sox" kind of way, but in a knows-who-they're-playing-tonight-and-maybe-who's-pitching kind of way. And she knows how Papi is hitting, and how Dice-K is throwing.

Of course you can find a few fans like that anywhere, but there are just plain more of them around here.

Best of the ballparks I've been to to watch a ballgame:

(1) Fenway Park, Boston -- 'nuff said.
(2) PNC Park, Pittsburgh --Beautiful, comfortable, cool, and a ballfield.
(3) Camden Yards, Baltimore -- See (2).
(4) Safeco, Seattle -- Lovely and relaxing.
(5) Crosley Field, Cincinnati -- Guessing here; I was just a wee bairn.
(6) Shea, Queens -- It was a pit, but the fans are good, and hey, I'm a Mets fan
(7) RFK, Washington -- Kinda ugly, but at least it had natural grass.
(8) Riverfront, Cincinnati -- Actually not bad for a concrete monstrosity.
(9) Three Rivers, Pittsburgh -- See (8).
(10) Metrodome, Minneapolis -- A dome is a dome is a dome.
(11) Kingdome, Seattle -- All you needed was the smell of rotting wrestling mats for this place to feel like a high school gym.
(12) Olympic Stadium, Montreal -- Seemed somehow even more artificial than the previous four. Mets fans made more noise than the Expos fans did.
(13) The "old" Yankee Stadium (2008), The Bronx -- The Yankees in their arrogance basically dump on the customers. We watched and listened to loudly clanging dumpsters out in center field throughout the game. No straws at the concession stand, even early in the game, for us rabble out in the bleachers. No cheap little TV monitors, like every other stadium has, so we can see what's going on while we're overpaying for bad food. Something dripping on us throughout even though it wasn't raining. They're just not that into their customers. I doubt the new one is much better.

Wrigley beckons in July...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

They grow up so fast

As a Mets fan living in Boston, it's been interesting to observe the behavior of Red Sox fans over time.

For years, of course, the dominant theme in the team-fan relationship was the Curse of the Bambino, the pall hanging over the team that made fans expect the worst in the end, even as the team was relatively successful.

The Sox could be great all season, but they were living on borrowed time, and the fans knew it. Eventually they'd lose, sometimes in spectacular fashion, and the gloom would deepen. All the while, the Yankees kept piling up World Championships and their fans kept taunting their rivals.

(Backstory for those of you who don't know: the Red Sox didn't win a World Championship between 1918 and 2004. In 1919 the Sox sold Babe Ruth, a.k.a The Bambino, to the Yankees. Prior to the sale, the Red Sox had been a dominant team, and since then, the Yankees have been arguably the most successful franchise in all of American sports.)

But hope springs eternal, and you could feel the tension between hope and despair every time the Sox got close. Then, in 2004, a truly remarkable set of circumstances came together and enabled the Sox to finally defeat the hated Yankees en route to their first World Championship in 86 years. New England went bananas. You can't overstate the regional jubilation at this turn of events. The whole country felt it, and every time you ran into a Red Sox fan, you couldn't help but congratulate them. I almost got my shoulder torn off on a high five from a burly Boston transplant out in Seattle that year.

But then what? The defining characteristic of the Red Sox fan -- that determined, passionate loyalty against the backdrop of certain failure -- was now gone. Everyone had felt sorry for Red Sox fans, and the latter paradoxically took pride in their humility. But that didn't really work anymore.

It didn't change overnight. Deeply conditioned fans couldn't immediately shake the fear that 2004 was an anomaly, that the Yankees would resume their dominance and the Sox would have to wait another 86 years for the next one. That, plus the nagging suspicion that they'd dreamt the whole thing.

But not only did the Yankees fail to win (they haven't won a championship since 2000), but the Sox went ahead and won it all again in 2007. Now there could be no doubt that the Sox could compete with the Yankees on equal terms, and the old Sox fan paradigm was a relic of history.

While all of this was going on, the Patriots were the best team in football, and in 2007-2008 the Celtics put together a championship basketball team for the first time in years.

Now Sox fans, those lovable losers, had morphed into something quite different. Against all of this winning, New England fans started to actually expect their teams to win, and in fact started to get cocky. Cocky comes pretty naturally to a large segment of the Boston population anyway, and if you mix in bravado about the hometown team, the results aren't pretty. This did not ingratiate them with fans in places like Houston and Seattle and Buffalo, where wins come dear and championships come dearer.

But they were brought back to earth, first by the impossible Eli Manning-to-David Tyree completion in the Super Bowl that cheated the Patriots out of victory, and then by the upstart Rays beating the Red Sox both in the regular season and the playoffs.

Now, like everyone else, Sox fans are beginning to understand that neither is winning impossible, nor can they take it for granted. They're growing up in front of our eyes. Instead of obsessing over who the Yankees have signed, and how the Sox will lose, they can consider objectively the strength of the Sox bullpen, the issues within the Yankee pitching rotation, or the promise of the Baltimore's young players. In short, they've stopped ascribing Sox results to the fates, and started ascribing them to the quality of the team and their opposition. Just like other fans have been doing for years.

All that's left now is for Sox fans to endure a few losing seasons, in which the home team is just plain bad, something that the current generation of fans doesn't have much experience with (and which distinguishes them from most other baseball fans across the nation). But one step at a time. Sox fans are maturing...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The deal about fantasy baseball

OK, let me clear some stuff up:

(1) "Fantasy baseball" is the all-time worst name for anything. If I want to fantasize, I have way better things to imagine than fake baseball teams. And no, we don't think we're real general managers. We're just people who like baseball, like to compete at something, and have a good time flipping each other shit about it all.

(2) No, we don't think fantasy baseball is the same as real baseball, and we understand perfectly well that the best players in one are not necessarily the same as in the other.

But we have fun. Games matter that never would have otherwise. If you're a Red Sox fan, you wouldn't normally be too caught up in a Reds-Padres game in late August, with both teams 22 and a half games out. But when you have Jake Peavy pitching for the Padres and need Brandon Phillips to steal a base to give you a tie in that category, suddenly you care in a big way what happens.

We play in a head-to-head league, in which we play a different opponent every week, and the one-week results can swing wildly in either direction. We have ten categories, five each for offense and pitching. Through last Saturday, with only Sunday left to go, we were so close to our opponent that either one of us could have won nine out of the ten categories, depending on how things went. (We finished 4-5-1.)

So you get your hopes up only to have them dashed, or steel yourself for disappointment only to get a big rush when all of your guys come through for you. All kinds of weird micro-results occur, like a reliever blowing a save and then getting the win, or a manager taking a pitcher out too early or too late, or your star outfielder pulling a hammy on Monday so he's out for the whole week, or any number of other possibilities. Fantasy baseball can by turns be exhilarating and excruciating.

But you're not really getting this, are you? So then you haven't played it, have you?