Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cue the amply-sized lady!

This is a bitter sweet post for me. I really didn’t know how I wanted this to go. I wrote two posts and half of a third before scrapping them all. None seemed to fit the occasion even though I admittedly don’t necessarily know what that means. Since this is the last post you are going to read here, I had delusions of making it particularly superb. The first of the discarded posts was about the irony of starting this blog as a disgruntled Michigan fan and finishing five years later as a disgruntled Michigan fan despite all of the change that I had hoped for coming to fruition. I didn’t like the finished product so I tossed it. After that I figured I’d go with a “slam dunk” and write about the Tigers shedding $92 million in payroll over the next two years. I wrote it and—for reasons I don’t fully understand—scrapped that one, too. I started and abandoned yet another post chronicling the competition between Sepp Blatter (FIFA’s President) and Bud Selig to see who can be the dumbest person in the world by holding out the longest on video replay. That was an easy decision, though. Part of my personal constitution is to not devote a final blog post to Bud Selig. I apologize to those of you who needed a Selig fix. Scrapping two and a half posts does not result in the most fulfilling feeling. However, the fact that I even had to let me know that I was doing this all wrong.

What I realized as I tried to chase the white rabbit of a magnificent final post is that there was no single topic that was going to be “worthy” of a final post. This isn’t “just another post.” I spent 696 posts over the last five years writing about various sports related topics. Today is about saying, “so long!” It’s about saying “thank you” again to all of the people who took the time to read and comment. It was never my goal to make this blog mainstream. I knew from the very beginning that I could probably attract a much larger audience if I kept the content narrow. But, that’s not what I wanted to do. I liked the freedom of writing about whatever popped into my head even if that was wondering “how many MVPs should Babe Ruth have won?” Even though it isn’t necessarily the status quo of the blogging community, I appreciate that you not only allowed me to post such diverse content but demanded it (Remember last fall when I got called out for writing too many Rich Rodriguez themed posts?).

When I started this thing, I lived in Germany, had a 6-month old baby boy, and was just starting my new job as a stay-at-home dad. Now I live in Michigan with a five-year old little man who’s about to start kindergarten and a 3-year old little girl nipping at his heels. It’s not easy being a stay-at-home parent. The work is endless and the appreciation is non-existent. There’s a reason why so many American parents gladly transport their children to daycare every morning and pay a king’s ransom to do so. It’s an amazing experience that I would not trade for the world but, to survive, you absolutely need an escape. This blog was my escape. This was my connection to the outside world. This was my chance to be a contributing member to society. It’s not going to be easy to say “goodbye.” I can look back at any and all of my posts and remember where I was and what the circumstances where in my life when I wrote them. Looking back at old posts is like an emotional time machine. However, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that this is the time to let it go. I’m really looking forward to not having to deal with the sudden fear that comes with realizing it’s Wednesday night and I don’t have a post topic in mind. I’m also looking forward to being able to think of something interesting without having to automatically spend a few hours researching and writing about it. And, I’m especially looking forward to spending more time with my kids. They’re rapidly approaching the age where nap time is no longer mandatory. That’s important because “naptime” is when I spent researching and writing 95% of my blog material. Now that will become their time.

One of the most difficult aspects of being a stay-at-home parent is watching your friends excel in various professions while you sit idly at home. I’m friends with more doctors than I can count on one hand. I know lawyers, engineers, writers, teachers, chefs, chemists, soldiers, police officers, firefighters, paramedics, paleontologists, filmmakers, administrators, computer programmers, principals, bankers, investment reps, financial analysts, business owners, and managers. You name it, I know someone who works it. I share engaging conversations with these people but what I don’t share is a fancy resume or a list of impressive career achievements. Instead, I’ve got 5,000 diaper changes and 3,000 prepared lunches under my belt. Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate in the real world. I often wonder what I’m going to do when my kids no longer need me at home. That’ll be here before I know it. This blog is all I have in the form of measurable accomplishments. I have no idea what a prospective employer will think when I reference what I’ve done here but one thing is for certain, I’m proud of it. Thanks for contributing to that feeling. It has been a pleasure. So long!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Irish Eyes are still not smiling.

One of the more controversial subplots of World Cup Qualifying and the subsequent 32-team field it produced was the way France snuck into the tournament or, more appropriately, the way Ireland was kept out of it. Back in November, France and Ireland met in a 2-leg playoff to decide one of the final four World Cup qualifiers out of UEFA . France won the first match, 1-0, in Dublin. Ireland was on its way to winning the second match by the same score when sportsmanship went out the window. International superstar Thierry Henry intentionally touched the ball with his hand in the goalie box which immediately led to the game-tying goal. The score gave France a 1-1 draw which was enough to avoid a shootout and advance to South Africa. The soccer world was outraged at Henry for the unsportsmanlike play and FIFA for not having an adequate system in place to prevent such blatant cheating.

As hard as it is to believe, amid all of the flopping and fake injuries in soccer exists a personal conduct code very similar to that of professional golf. Unlike the NBA or NFL where honesty is frowned upon in competition, the soccer community puts a great deal of emphasis on fair play which is why Henry was so roundly criticized for “getting away with” the infraction. An intentional handball is the cardinal sin in the world’s most popular sport. Not only should France’s goal not have counted but Henry should’ve been red carded and kicked out of the game. That would’ve given Ireland a tremendous opportunity to score again which would’ve sent it to the World Cup free and clear of having to win a shootout. At the very least, Ireland would’ve had the opportunity to advance via penalty kicks. Instead, Henry held on to his secret until after the game and France unjustifiably advanced to the World Cup.

Fast forward seven months to the opening Group stage of the 2010 World Cup and France is sticking it to Ireland yet again. I’m sure there are more than a few Irish lads who were rooting hard for France’s early demise but even the most bile-fueled fans cannot be happy with the way France has pissed away the bid it literally stole from Ireland. France began the tournament with an uninspiring 0-0 tie opposite Uruguay. The #9 team in the world followed that up with a 2-0 loss to Mexico. In just over three hours of soccer in this World Cup, France has netted zero goals. Unfortunately for the French, offensive futility is the least of its problems. “Les Bleus” are literally unraveling on the biggest of soccer stages. It all started when Nicolas Anelka—a striker for France—was booted from the tournament for a profane tirade directed at his coach. (In a twist of fate, Anelka is most responsible for France even being in the WC as he tallied the only goal in the first leg of the France/Ireland UEFA World Cup Qualifying Playoff in Dublin last November.) Anelka’s dismissal was just the beginning of what has become a total meltdown by France. In protest to their countryman’s treatment, the French team refused to practice on Sunday. That, in turn, led to the resignation of not only the team trainer but the team director. That was followed up by a meeting with the French Sports Minister who told the team that it faced a “moral disaster” and it had “tarnished France’s image.” So, the Irish are left to ponder the reality that France not only stole a World Cup bid from them but then promptly treated it with the significance of toilet paper. The country of Ireland surely wasn’t rooting for France to advance in the World Cup but never in its worst nightmares could it have imagined that France would treat the privilege with such disrespect. In a game built on sportsmanship, France may have found an even more egregious infraction than the handball that sent it to South Africa in the first place.

Surely, Ireland would’ve relished the opportunity to participate in what is perhaps the pinnacle of world sport competition. Ireland is a nation that does not have a rich tradition in the World Cup. In fact, it has only qualified for three World Cups in its 61 years of fielding a competitive soccer team. However, had Ireland made it to South Africa, it certainly wouldn’t have been as a “sacrificial lamb.” Despite such an unceremonious history, Ireland’s current team is no pushover. Sure its world ranking is an uninspiring 41st in the FIFA World Rankings but that seems to be more of a function of Ireland’s penchant to “not lose” rather than “win.” The FIFA World Ranking formula is not favorable to ties. The Irish are incredibly proficient at earning draws against quality teams. As a result, Ireland has only lost six of its last 36 matches. It boasts a 13-6-17 record over that span including wins over World Cup participants S. Africa, Paraguay, Algeria, Slovakia, and Denmark to go along with draws against France, Italy (2), Nigeria, Serbia, Germany and Slovakia all of which are in the 32-team World Cup field. Even Ireland’s losses have been impressive. Two were against the #1 team in the world (Brazil). In fact, in its last 36 matches, Ireland has lost just one game against teams ranked outside of the world top 40. Against teams inside the top 40, Ireland has played 22 contests over that span and lost just five. Ireland is certainly an accomplished and worthy team and would’ve been an uncomfortable sight for whatever group it would’ve been allocated to had it advanced to South Africa. The Emerald Isle undoubtedly deserves a fate far better than having its six million occupants nauseated by France’s indifference. If one thing is for sure, unlike France, Ireland would’ve come to play.

France is certainly a villain here but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the absurdity of not using modern technology to correct officiating errors. Just in the last year, we’ve seen Ireland denied a chance of making the World Cup on an intentional handball, Armando Galarraga denied of a Perfect Game on an umpire mistake, and the U.S. Soccer Team denied of a goal in the World Cup—and advancement to the knockout stage that likely would’ve come with it—as a result of a phantom call. These are just three extremely high profile injustices among many more that occur routinely in competitive sports. Anyone who feels that sports should be soiled by officiating errors rather than use advanced technology that could easily eliminate the vast majority of judgment mistakes has no business being in an authoritative position on a sporting governing body. Citing “integrity of the game” as a reason not to use video replay is just another way of saying, “We are incredibly lazy.”

Friday, June 18, 2010

Patriotic Ties

I don’t know about all of you but I’m getting sick of being denied a return on my emotional investment into sports by referees and umpires. It’s rare enough to have that investment actually pay off. The gambling equivalent of the payoff would be akin to winning $250 for every $1,000 sunk into a slot machine. I’m already working at a heavy loss, here. I’ve learned to accept those losses, however. They are a known and accepted risk of reckless emotional investment into sports. What I can’t deal with is having the joy of a payoff brutally ripped away on the count of stupidity. I can’t cite statistical proof but the Red Wings have to have more goals disallowed than any other team in hockey. Then, of course, there’s the perfect game that was taken away from Armando Galarraga. I don’t even want to get into the timekeeping injustices that have occurred at the expense of the Michigan football program. As a fan living in Detroit, false jubilation has become an all too real part of the sports fan experience.

In some ways, you would think that would make what happened to the U.S. soccer team today easier to swallow. When you’re dealing with the bloated emotional units that come from being a diehard, unfortunately, it never gets easier. The U.S. was on the brink of one of the greatest wins in U.S. soccer history. After leaving the field at halftime down 2-0 to Slovenia, it came back to play a brilliant second half that was as exciting as the best college football showdown you will ever see. The U.S. played so flawlessly that the announcers were optimistically discussing a U.S. victory even when it still trailed 2-1. In retrospect, the U.S. tying the game was inevitable. Once that happened, it seemed very realistic that the U.S. would net the game-winner as it peppered the field with scoring chances. The scoresheet has no record of it but in the same way Armando Galarraga pitched a perfect game, the U.S. scored the game-winning goal. All it lacked was the proper referee to count it.

The U.S. was wrongfully denied a victory but the fact that it still managed a tie does offset the injustice at least somewhat. That’s because the U.S. is not only very much alive in the World Cup, it controls its own path to the knockout stage. If the U.S. defeats Algeria on Wednesday, it will advance to the World Cup’s sweet sixteen (it can also advance with a tie and a little bit of help). I don’t think there’s a player on the U.S. roster who wouldn’t have gladly taken a scenario in which the U.S.’s fate rested entirely on beating Algeria. Having said that, how good is Algeria?

For starters, here is how Algeria has fared in its last 20 games…

Upon further review, the world may want to reconsider the allocation of the “Group of Death” to Group G. Group C—the U.S.’s group—is more stacked than anyone thought it would be. In retrospect, however, this shouldn’t be much of a shock. Algeria and Slovenia—Group C’s perceived weak teams—earned their way into the World Cup by knocking off Egypt and Russia, respectively. Egypt and Russia—rated #11 and #12 in FIFA’s World Soccer Rankings—are perhaps the top two teams in the world not in the World Cup. Algeria and Slovenia were not supposed to even be in the 2010 World Cup field but earned their way to South Africa by outlasting two world soccer powers. The U.S. saw just how good Slovenia can be in the first half on Friday. Much like Slovenia, Algeria is no stranger to playing teams of the U.S.’s caliber either. It has played Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and Uruguay—all three are in the World Cup field—as well as four contests against Egypt just in the last year. Of course, that is on top of earning a tie against England on Friday. This team is battle-tested and will not be in awe of the U.S. squad.

The U.S. will likely come in as the favorite against Algeria much like it did against Slovenia. However, those who were not too distracted by the vast difference in population sizes between the U.S. and Slovenia, understood that if the U.S. was a favorite, it was by miniscule proportions. The same can be said of Algeria. If there’s one positive to look towards from a U.S. perspective, it’s that Algeria hasn’t played nearly as well of late as it did during World Cup Qualifying. In fact, the Algerians are just 1-4-1 in their last six games with the only victory coming against a UAE team on the outside of the world top 100. If we dig a little deeper, the news gets even better for the U.S. In those six contests, Algeria scored just one goal—total. Nonetheless, Algeria will be a strong opponent for a U.S. team that desperately needs to buck its trend of starting games slowly and falling behind early. Hopefully, the U.S.’s inspired second half play against Slovenia is a sign that it is about to do just that. With just one game remaining for each team in Group C, all four countries are still alive. That either makes Croup C the “Group of Death” or the “Group of Apathy.” As long as U.S. beats Algeria, I don’t really care which one it is.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

All Things Not "Conference Expansion"

With only a few posts left before I start cashing my blog retirement checks, opportunities for post topics are scarce. So, I decided to hit on a few different topics in this post to maximize content. Reader Jim provided me with the perfect opportunity by sending along a few questions. Without further ado, a little Q&A courtesy of reader Jim.

Q: 1. The likelihood that the Pistons do something, anything of note this offseason: would you put money on it? A lot of money? I would give up something valuable (e.g. beer) for six months if they could finagle Bosh away from the Raptors in a sign-and-trade but would also be happy if they struck a deal for someone like Paul Millsap.

A: This is my least favorite of Jim’s questions. Having to answer it depressed me severely…

I would not bet money on Joe Dumars putting his shoes on the correct feet let alone wager that he’ll get something of note accomplished this summer. In fact, I think I’d put a considerable amount of money in the other direction. Joe has been nothing short of incompetent since he convinced Danny Ainge to facilitate the trade that brought Rasheed Wallace to Detroit in 2004. The second the Pistons lost to the Spurs in the 2005 Finals, they began to slowly but very visibly deteriorate. Of course, there were probably more than a few “yippy skippy” fans who thought the Pistons were going to win the next 10 NBA championships but it was very obvious to the basketball savvy fans that the team was going to decline in a hurry. Although the Pistons made it back to the Eastern Conference Finals in ’06 and ’07, they were easily dispatched by the Cavs and Celtics. That was the point at which Joe D needed to take quick action if he hoped to avoid the same fate that his “Bad Boy” Pistons suffered some 15 years earlier. The Bad Boys went from back-to-back NBA Champions to 20-62 in just four years. Pistons management had no transition plan in place to offset a rapidly aging roster which led to the expedited decline. Zeke’s career-ending Achilles injury at the incredibly ripe age of 32 surely didn’t help but considering how little there was in the name of youth on the roster, the Pistons were beyond the point of salvaging.

Of all people, Joe D should’ve recognized the same signs of rapid decline that ended his championship run as a player. Yet, what did he do to prevent the same horrific fate that met his Bad Boys from happening again? The answer is, “very close to nothing.” The only thing that can even remotely be described as constructive was the Chauncey Billups/Allen Iverson trade. At the time, it looked like a brilliant cap move. Billups was easily Detroit’s most valuable commodity. Joe used Billups to bank $20 million (in the form of A.I.’s expiring contract) that would seemingly be available this summer to spend on perhaps the greatest NBA free agent class of all-time. Of course, like an elderly woman watching QVC, Joe D could not resist the temptation to blow all his money on the first thing he saw. Meanwhile, Billups turned the Denver Nuggets into a rising force in the West. Even in the one instance when Joe appeared to have a plan, it ended in disaster because he blew the second—and most important—part of the plan.

No thanks to Joe, the Pistons are saddled with horrible contracts and an abundance of redundancy on an unimpressive roster. There is virtually nothing in the name of trade value to be seen. Rip’s contract is totally unreasonable for a player who can barely be described as one-dimensional. Ben Gordon’s contract is even worse. Rodney Stuckey’s value probably peaked before last season when it looked like he might break out as a bona fide star. Now that it’s obvious that he is stuck between positions and doesn’t have a reliable jumper, you can expect NBA GMs to take a pass on Joe D’s likely high asking price. Any worth that Charlie Villanueva had as a potential breakout player is long gone after his miserable effort in 2010.

The only move Joe has left is to parlay the expiring contracts of Tayshaun Prince and Kwame Brown for a star player. I have more faith in Jim Joyce preserving a perfect game than I do that Joe can or will pull this off. Unfortunately, many NBA superstars have control over where they are traded and nobody is going to sign off on being traded to a team as ill-equipped to compete for an NBA Championship as the present day Detroit Pistons. I suppose there is always the possibility that Al-Farouq Aminu—or whoever the Pistons draft—turns out to be the anti-Darko but judging from Joe’s unimpressive draft history (Tayshaun Prince, Rodney Stuckey, Mehmet Okur and Jason Maxiell over 10 years does nothing for me), the Pistons are surely poised to take home the rotten eggs of the NBA Draft Lottery yet again.

The future is bleak to say the least. The Pistons will suit up one of the worst frontcourts in recent memory in 2011 and have $25 million tied up through 2013 by just the shooting guard position alone. I like Paul Millsap but one guy won’t change anything. The entire roster needs to be overhauled. Remember when the Celtics reportedly offered the Pistons Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen for Prince, Hamilton, and Stuckey? It seemed like an insult at the time but, looking back, that might have been the only way out of this mess.

Q: 2. The Johnson/Burleson/Stafford/Best Quartet: I just relocated to Maryland, think I should pay for NFL TV to watch these guys work? Nate was running his mouth about how good they were going to be, in your opinion is Nate actually going to be any good?

A: Burleson’s bravado is simply a continuation of a Lions pastime that provides media fodder around this time every year. Unfortunately for Nate the Great, the joke’s on him. In the same way that nobody prepped Rich Rodriguez on the history of the #1 jersey at Michigan (which, of course, did not go over well), nobody ever informs Lions off season acquisitions how absolutely horrible the franchise is. I’ll use a real life example to better illustrate my point. There is a position at a member of my extended family’s place of business that is quite simply the most frustrating job in America. Just in the past four years, three people have left this position and a fourth is set to do the same. Nobody ever tells the people interviewing how miserable this job is because they’d never be able to hire anyone. This is, of course, quite unfortunate for the person who ends up with the job. I’m afraid Nate Burleson is about to find out what it’s like to unwittingly sign up for the NFL equivalent of the worst job in America.

I could probably count on five hands the number of players who have mouthed off about “this” being the Lions year over the last 10 years alone. Every new guy who comes in thinks he is the answer for 50 years of futility. The Mike Martz era was the worst. Every offensive player from the Martz era was convinced that the Lions were going to have the best offense in the NFL. I’d say they were delusional if they weren’t cashing million dollar paychecks. So, “no,” I don’t think Nate Burleson is going to be any good. By that, I mean he won’t be any better than Shaun McDonald, Mike Furrey, Az Hakim, or Bryant Johnson. However, I think the offense has a chance to be something better than nauseating. I think there is a pretty good chance that Matt Stafford is (or will be) the best quarterback the Lions have had in my lifetime. I think there’s a pretty good chance that Javid Best is (or will be) the best running back the Lions have had since Barry retired. I also think that Calvin Johnson is the best wide receiver the Lions have had in my lifetime. This is a team with talent. The mediocrity on the offensive line will prevent it from breaking out too much but I fully expect this to be the most diverse and effective Lions offense since the Barry era. Plus, I think Ndamukong Suh is going to be such an influential addition that we might even see the best defense the Lions have had since the Barry era. The sad thing is that all of these “best since” accolades I’m throwing around are still not good enough to make this team worth getting excited over. That’s a sad indication of how bad things have been.

If I lived outside of Metro Detroit, I would not buy the Sunday Ticket just to watch the Lions. The Lions have been dead to me for a few years now. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped paying attention. It doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s possible that they will become undead and reacclimate themselves into my emotional spectrum again at some point. It just means that I don’t get excited or frustrated by them. I’m in “show me” mode until further notice. I’ve invested—and lost—way too many minutes of my life hoping that the Lions are going to get things turned around. However, if I were the kind of person who would do such a thing in the event that I reasonably expected the Lions to be a little more exciting and a little more competitive than usual, this might be the year I’d consider it.

Q: 3. THE University of Michigan vs. THE Ohio State University: Last season I briefly entertained the thought that Michigan could upset OSU, this year I feel very strongly about it. The chip on Michigan's shoulder must feel like a cinder block by now and I can only assume that despite the controversy, they have another years' worth of experience and recruits. We need the Maize 'n Blue to play like the SEC teams Tressell so fears, what kind of shot do you give us?

A: I love the enthusiasm but Michigan is not coming back from Columbus with a victory this year. Rich Rodriguez is still suiting up a roster extremely light on experience. There is a very good chance that he’ll be starting his 3rd different quarterback in three years. His stable of running backs is young and, for the most part, unproven. His downfield receivers are quite possibly the least talented the school has had in decades. And as you know, offense is supposed to be the strength of this team.

The worst defense in school history is virtually intact from last season except for the departure of one of the top five defensive players in school history. The defense could be considerably better this season and still be below average. That’s how bad things were last year. Assuming Ohio State is healthy (read; Terrelle Pryor), there is a 0% chance that Michigan will beat Ohio State in Columbus this year. There is a 25% chance that the final score will be closer than the 21-10 defeat in Ann Arbor last season.

That said, I still think Rich Rodriguez can win at Michigan if given the administrative support that he deserves. It is pretty obvious by now that he won’t get that support (see; Demar Dorsey). I fully expect that he’ll either be fired at the end of the season or he’ll hop the first train to SEC-ville the minute an opportunity arises. However, if by some miracle his employment status has improved following the 2010 season, I think it becomes quite reasonable to start thinking about a win over Ohio State in 2011. If Denard Robinson masters the Pat White-role, this team will be deep, experienced, and explosive next season. As far as this season, I am much more focused on how Michigan fares against UCONN, Notre Dame, and Michigan State. Winning those three games would significantly change things for Rodriguez. I know fans are anxious to beat (or even compete with) the Buckeyes but I don’t think this is the season to be concerned with Ohio State. In the event that Michigan heads into Columbus with a 5-6 record needing a victory to earn a bowl bid and—more importantly—preserve Rodriguez’s job, then he is in a whole lot of trouble.

P.S. I would’ve written a conference expansion post but—judging from the warp speed rate at which information is flowing—whatever I wrote would’ve been totally out of date two seconds after posting it.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Mr. Perfect*

On a day when Ken Griffey Jr.—one of the top 50 players in MLB history—retired, the Blackhawks and Flyers were trying to inch closer to their first Stanley Cup in 49 and 35 years, respectively, and Celtics vs. Lakers XII was fewer than 24 hours from beginning, none were the story du jour. For those of you experiencing more than an 23 hour delay on your satellite TV feeds, Armando Galarraga was robbed of a perfect game on Wednesday night. It was a gutbuster that left me stunned in my living room. With two outs in the ninth inning, I was on the phone with my brother in one hand and had my son pulled close to me with the other as we collectively awaited history. The excitement was more than palpable and I can verify that there were sweaty palms. My brother was listening on the radio so he was two seconds ahead of my satellite feed. I heard him yell with ambiguous intentions. I didn’t know what it meant. Given the confusion of the play, I don’t think he knew what it meant. All I knew was that in two seconds, I was going to be subjected to an emotional extreme. I just didn’t know which one. Ugh.

Most of you know how rare a perfect game is but I’ll let my good friend “math” put it into perspective. Of the 392,018 games in MLB history, 20 have resulted in a perfect game.” Account for two pitchers per game and the odds of a pitcher hurling a perfect game are .0025% or, 1 in 39,202. Needless to say, what happened last night was a big deal. Galarraga breezed through the first 26 batters tossing 62 strikes on just 80 pitches including 22 of 26 first-pitch strikes. Jason Donald, Cleveland’s #9 hitter, came to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning. All 26 Cleveland Indians who came to the plate before him fell victim to Galarraga’s impeccable control. Donald would do the same. Galarraga elicited a weak dribbler from Donald that rolled towards Carlos Guillen at second base. That’s when Jim Joyce—the first base umpire—made a gaffe that will unfortunately define his career while simultaneously denying Galarraga a perfect game. Considering all of the consequences, it was quite possibly the worst non-injury related play in the history of MLB baseball.

Joyce’s call and MLB’s official record books cannot change the fact that Galarraga was, in fact, perfect. Semantics won’t change what Galarraga did on the field on Wednesday night. In fact, he actually one bettered a perfect game by recording 28 consecutive outs. Obviously, it would mean a whole lot more to Galarraga, his teammates, and the fans if it were officially recognized as a perfect game. It would’ve been a historical accomplishment not only for Galarraga but for a Tigers franchise that was literally on the brink of its first perfect game in club history. Once Joyce interrupted his out call (check the replay to see him begin to call Donald out) with a double sneaky “safe” call, any chance for a perfect game went out the window. MLB is historically stubborn about reversing calls in games let alone after games. However, there is precedent for MLB intervention. In fact, the infamous George Brett Pine Tar Incident was overturned a full week after it happened. The “spirit (of the game)” was cited as the reason Lee McPhail (A.L. President in 1983) overturned that call. One would think that the same “spirit” of the game should apply to Joyce’s gaffe. Unfortunately, the MLB Commissioner is an idiot. MLB just announced that it will not overturn Joyce’s ruling.

MLB had a unique opportunity here. In nearly every controversial play in sports history, overturning a play following a game is not possible simply because removing just one play creates a domino effect of “what ifs” for every play that occurred after. This situation was different. Galarraga got the very next batter out and the Tigers won the game 3-0 and would’ve won the game 3-0 with or without Joyce’s mistake. Some will argue that overturning this one play would be akin to opening “Pandora’s Box” with every other blown call in MLB history. That’s simply not true. What made this game different is how easy the clean-up would’ve been. I’m not even sure the Cleveland Indians would’ve minded the call being overturned.

Even if Bud Selig wasn’t an idiot and MLB overturned the call, Galarraga was denied something on Wednesday night that he will not get back. A reversal would’ve set things right as much as things could’ve been set right but it wouldn’t restore everything that Galarraga was denied. Perhaps the most exhilarating aspect of a perfect game is the immediate euphoria that follows the final out. Nobody carried Galarraga off the field. Nobody gleefully sprinted to the mound from the bullpen. Hell, nobody even smiled. Galarraga will never get that special moment back.

The official scorekeeper for the game could’ve sent Galarraga home with a hell of a consolation prize. A perfect game is 10 times as rare as a no-hitter but let’s not minimize what it would’ve meant for Galarraga and his career to have an officially recorded no-hitter to his name. A MLB Scorekeeper has all the discretion in the world to make executive decisions on close plays. Once it became obvious after it was shown on replay that Donald was out, the idea of issuing an “error” on that final play became a possibility. Detroit’s official scorekeeper scrutinized the play but concluded that there was not an error. I don’t think Miguel Cabrera would mind a little extra scrutiny on a less-than-perfect throw to first base especially if it preserves a no-hitter for his teammate. However, the scorekeeper decided that there simply wasn’t an error. I don’t agree with his decision to not find an error to at least get Galarraga into the recordbooks but I can’t blame the guy for sticking to his principles. Unfortunately, once Joyce took away the perfect game, Galarraga’s fate was in the hands of Bud Selig. Selig knows a thing or two about scrutiny and criticism. It’s not often that life presents the perfect opportunity to make everything right. In one swift swoop, Selig had the opportunity to not only preserve Jim Joyce’s legacy as a top-tier umpire and right the worst wrong in MLB history, he also had the opportunity to repair his own image which has been beaten and battered for the better part of two decades. Unfortunately, like I said, Selig is an idiot.

Once the initial shock and anger died down on Wednesday night (or Thursday morning depending on how pissed off you were), there was still a considerable amount of venom directed at Joyce from not just Tigers fans but sports fans across the country. I understand that sports fans, by trade, are emotional to the point of being tortured when injustices are committed. Believe me, I’ve been there and was there last night. However, it’s important to keep perspective. Joyce made a horrible call. It was one of the worst calls in sports history because it needlessly derailed a perfect game. That pisses me off and it should piss you off, too. Just remember that it was a decision that was made in a quarter of a second. Jim Leyland said after the game that he (and the Tigers bench for that matter) did not know if Donald beat the throw until he watched the replay. Although I wanted him to be out, I did not know for sure if he was out until I watched the replay. Joyce did not have the luxury of replay. The collateral damage of Joyce’s mistake will reverberate through baseball for as long as the game is played. However, let’s not confuse mistake with premeditation or intent. Everyone makes mistakes everyday whether it’s going through a red light or forgetting to DVR your wife’s favorite TV show. Somewhere in America this year, maybe even this week, a highway patrolman mistakenly issued a speeding citation to a veteran driver with a previously perfect record. The police officer wasn’t vilified. The driver wasn’t showered with compassion. Nobody cared. The big difference between what happened to Armando Galarraga and what happened to that driver is that people care about baseball. Jim Joyce made a splint-second mistake. Let’s not compound the situation by making an even more damaging mistake by directing hate towards Joyce and his family. It could’ve happened to any of us.

The travesty on Wednesday night was that Armando Galarraga was denied an official perfect game. It wasn’t that Jim Joyce made a mistake. Save the hate mail and threats for someone with more diabolical intentions. Plus, Joyce has more than taken responsibility for his gaffe. That doesn’t mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) boo him every time he comes back to Detroit. On a lighter note, I think it’s safe to say the Galarraga for Willis rotation adjustment has worked out pretty well.

* I wanted to title this post, “Bud Selig is an idiot” but I chose to reference the guy who pitched a perfect game rather than a guy who is an idiot.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Closing Time

A few months ago in the aftermath of a post that was literally 20 times the length of my average longwinded post, I mentioned that I would be moving to a one-post per week format. I had initially planned for that to be a temporary move but clearly that wasn’t the case. There’s a reason why I didn’t return to my normal post frequency and the point of this post is to let you know that reason. My first blog post was on June 28, 2005. It had been a goal from early on to maintain this blog for five years. In just over a month, I will reach that goal. I’ve enjoyed having my own personal real estate on the interwebs but I am more than ready to retire this baby. I’ve thought about hanging it up at various points in the past but I never felt comfortable until now. I wanted “no regrets” and reaching the five-year mark assures that.

I’d like to thank my readers who surprised me time and time again by coming back. I appreciate your patience in the beginning when I was largely unsure of what I wanted this to be. I also appreciate your patience as I figured out how to write. It wasn’t always pretty but I’ve grown considerably as a writer from where I was five years ago. While it was my passion for sports that got this thing going in the first place, it was my readership that gave me the drive to put out a quality product. I’m not going to win any awards for excellence in writing but I like to think that I wrote some things that made people think. Without a vested readership, that never would’ve happened. I thank you, sincerely. It has been a pleasure to be a part of your weekly internet consumption and I take pleasure in knowing that, even in just a small way, I’ve contributed to the enjoyment of your lives.

I’ve had many readers and reader comments over the years and those were instrumental in fueling my material for the blog. I’d like to thank the following readers specifically for making this blog a part of your jaunt around the internet landscape…

Michael C., Redhog1, J.R. Ewing, Scott-O, Chensk, Lombaowski, Jeff in Cols, Dan, Jim, Lord Byron and the Steady’s, Eric, the Gaver, Tony P., Matt S.,Section 16 Big House, Kyle C., NickO, Big Ben the Giants fan, Robert Paulson, Hwood, Rat, Chris of Dangerous Logic, Mayur, Dieterface, Bojo, Sabir, Shawn, Justin S., Yale Van Dyne, Kyle C., Bill, Luke, Christy Hammond, Eric, Danny, and Seth.

I’d also like to thank my family—even the ones who have had no interest in any of the topics I’ve written about J--for humoring me and following along for five years. This has been an enjoyable experience and I’m glad I did it.

My last post will be on June 30th.

I’ll be taking a break from my usual literary marathon this week. In its place, I’d like to bring attention to an old friend. It’s a topic that I wrote about on a number of occasions during my maiden year as a blogger. I’ll begin with a sad tale of misfortune. In 2004, I was so convinced that Jeremy Bonderman was embarking on a glorious, Hall of Famer caliber career that I invested in 105 of his autographed rookie cards over a period of four months. My rationale was grounded in logic—or so I thought. At the time, Bondo had just come off a season in which he hurled two complete game shutouts over the final five weeks of the season. His ERA over that span was just 2.33 to go along with a 1.05 WHIP, and a .195 BAA. Did I mention he was only 21? Just in these last couple sentences I’ve almost convinced myself that I should’ve bought even more than I did—but I digress. I thought I was getting way ahead of what was sure to be a mad rush for Bonderman rookie cards but as I painfully and mercilessly and endlessly found out, I was simply lining the pockets of 105 random strangers with eBay accounts. I wonder how many giggled as they packaged up the cards and sent them my way. The sad thing is that I was laughing at them for parting with such obvious gold for such a reasonable price. The great Bondo Experiment of 2005 ended in fiery disaster. It was a colossal blunder on par with any and all of Matt Millen’s worst mistakes. The other two players that I considered loading up on exclusively were Justin Verlander and Hanley Ramirez. Their cards were going for more than Bondo’s so I thought my bang-for-buck was going to be higher with the “sleeper.” You get what you pay for.

Bondo’s career nosedived the minute I decided that my collection was complete. His ERA+ from 2005-2009 was an unspectacular 98 and his WHIP was an even more unmoving 1.38. After missing most of the past two seasons, it looked like he was headed towards pitching obscurity and early retirement. He entered 2010 battling two other pitchers for Detroit’s fourth and fifth rotation spots. Nobody—including me—thought that he had anything left to offer a team badly in need of reliable pitching at the back end of the rotation. As it turns out, I was just as wrong about that as I was about Bondo’s Hall of Fame future in 2005.

Aside from one miserable start at Seattle in mid-April, Bonderman has been brilliant this season. His ERA is 3.78 which would be, by far, the best of his career. His WHIP is 1.21 which would also be, by far, the best of his career. He has given up just two home runs in 47.2 innings and has a K/9 rate above 8.00. If we remove the debacle in Seattle in his second start of the season—just his 2nd road start since June ‘08—then Bondo has posted a wicked 2.47 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP in eight starts. Not surprisingly, the Tigers are 6-2 in those starts.

The window for Bondo to pile up Hall of Fame stats has long been closed and, consequently, so has the window for Bondo to save my personal finances. What’s not over, however, is the window for Bondo to become a good major league pitcher. That wouldn’t put money back in my pocket but it sure would give the Tigers a fighting chance in the Central Division. Isn’t that really all that matters?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Precedents' Trophy

The Red Wings were abruptly bounced from the playoffs by San Jose last week. By Wings standards, the season was a failure by virtually every measure. For the first time in 19 years, the Wings did not have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. For the first time in 10 years, they did not win the Central Division Title. For the first time in 10 years, they had worse than a .650 winning percentage in the regular season (.622). There is certainly plenty of “negative” to focus on when the model franchise not just in the NHL but in all sport has a clunker of a season. However, despite the disappointing second-round exit in the postseason—and a relatively unimpressive regular season—the season wasn’t a total loss. On February 11, the Wings were just 27-21-12 and out of the playoff picture. Since an Overtime Loss (OTL) is just a nice way of saying “loss”, the Wings were essentially 27-33 heading into the Olympic break. They emerged from the two-week hiatus playing a different brand of hockey. They rattled off 16 wins in 21 games after the break to finish the regular season as the hottest team in the league. The show of force wasn’t just for kicks. The Wings were in danger of not even making the playoffs heading into the last six weeks of the regular season. Behind Henrik Zetterberg (22 points in 21 games), Pavel Datsyuk (21 points in 21 games), and Jimmy Howard (16-2-2, 2.2 GAA), the Wings climbed all the way to the 5th position. They quickly acquired the title of “team nobody wants to play in the first round.” Unfortunately, having to play “playoff hockey” for the six weeks leading up to the playoffs ended up taking its toll by way of the defeat to the Sharks.

Not surprisingly, the loss prompted a number of “chicken little” reactions. Art Regner even invoked the “end of an era” hyperbole before eventually providing context. On one hand, it’s easy to fear the worst when a team that has consistently been the model franchise in the NHL unexpectedly lays an egg for the better part of a season. However, we’ve been down this road many times before. The Wings have always had a penchant for first round duds. They lost in the first round in 2001, 2003, and 2006 when they were the #2, #2, and #1 seeds, respectively. They followed up their back-to-back Stanley Cups in ’98-’99 with what still stands as one of their worst regular seasons of the last 20 years. This team has never been shy about sprinkling in mediocrity with heaping pile of greatness. It comes with the territory in a sport as uneven as hockey. One fluke goal here or a skate in the crease there can dictate an entire postseason. I don’t think the Wings are any closer to the “end of an era” than they were the last time we went down this road in 2006 when they were blitzed by Edmonton in the first round.

In fact, I think there is every reason to believe that the Wings are going to continue to add to the successes of this era. If we let precedent be our guide, it’s not a stretch to envision the Wings right back in the Stanley Cup Finals as early as next season. The Wings entered this season as one of the heavy favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Even after a bumpy regular season, they still entered the playoffs as a chic pick to bring home the trophy. In short, the Wings are hardly past their expiration date. Henrik Zetterberg (29) and Pavel Datsyuk (32) are two of the top 5-10 forwards in the NHL and well within their prime years. And we still likely haven’t seen Johan Franzen (30) play his best hockey which is a scary proposition for the rest of the league. I won’t even get into the ray of hope that is Jimmy Howard’s potential in goal. The more the layers of the 2010 are peeled away and analyzed, the more it becomes obvious that the Wings accidentally had a poor season. If we look to recent examples in the four major sports of teams that followed successful stretches with unexpected down seasons, the results are very encouraging. Specifically, there have been six such instances of elite caliber teams that followed championships with unexpected down seasons. Each of the six teams won a championship, were expected to win or heavily contend again, and then suffered an unexpectedly poor season. There have been a number of teams over the years that have been one-hit wonders. This list features teams that were still largely intact and considered to be major championship contenders for not just one season but for the foreseeable future. In every scenario, the team went back to the championship game within three seasons. In all but one scenario, the teams went on to win a championship within three seasons.


The 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers

The Success:

The Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2005.

The Unexpected Struggle:

In the offseason, Ben Roethlisberger nearly died in a motorcycle accident. After recovering in time for the start of the 2006 season, Roethlisberger had to sit out the opener following an emergency appendectomy. In week 7, Roethlisberger suffered a concussion and was replaced. Not surprisingly, such turmoil at the most important position on the field had a major impact on the season. Roethlisberger never settled in as he threw a league-leading 23 interceptions. The Steelers struggled to a 2-6 record by the midpoint of the season which all but ended any shot at the playoffs.

The Rebound:

Like the ’10 Wings, however, the Steelers got hot in the second half. They closed out with a 6-2 record setting the stage for a return to form in 2007. Just one year after missing the playoffs all together, the Steelers won the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.

The 2006 Boston Red Sox

The Success:

The Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 with a 98-64 record. They were back in the playoffs again in 2005 after posting a 95-67 record.

The Unexpected Struggle:

The 2006-season brought a different story. After beginning the year as one of the favorites to win the World Series, the Sox struggled to an 86-76 record. It was the first time in five years that the Sox failed to win 90+ games. It was also the first time in four years that they had failed to make the postseason. This was quite a blow to a team that had just won the World Series two years earlier and still fielded one of the most potent lineups in the league. The Sox didn’t just randomly decide to stink in 2006. Manny Ramirez, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Jason Varitek, and Keith Foulke missed extensive time with various injuries and ailments. The Sox used 14 different starting pitchers in ‘06 which was in stark contrast to the championship-winning team from two years earlier that saw Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield, Derek Lowe, and Bronson Arroyo start 157 of 162 games. Boston also had to replace five of its eight everyday fielders including Johnny Damon who bolted to the Yankees in the offseason.

The Rebound:

After an injury-plagued ’06 campaign, the Boston starting rotation returned to form in 2007. Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield, Julian Tavarez, and Daisuke Matsuzaka started 140 of the team’s 162 games and the Red Sox won the World Series for the second time in four seasons.

The 2002 New Jersey Devils

The Success:

Just like the Wings did in ’08 and ’09, the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2000 and then lost in the Finals in 2001.

The Unexpected Struggle:

Also like the Wings, the Devils followed two consecutive Finals appearances with a disappointing season. The Devils finished with just 95 points in 2002 which was their lowest output in six years. This was quite a downward turn for arguably the best defensive team in the NHL. As it turns out, it wasn’t the defense that was the problem. The Devils allowed the 2nd fewest goals in 2002. It was an astonishing 90-goal drop-off in goal production from the previous season that proved to be their downfall. This wasn’t a team that had reached the end of its era rather it was a team faced with compounding (and temporary) issues. Despite having a solid core and one of the greatest goaltenders in NHL history, the 2002 Devils could not account for the offseason departure of Alexander Mogilny who provided a huge boost to the power play. In fact, Mogilny was so pivotal to the PP that New Jersey fell from 3rd in PP goals in ’01 to 26th in 2002.

The Rebound:

The Devils countered their offensive struggles by becoming even more dominating defensively. They allowed a league best 2.02 goals per game in the regular season and a league-low 1.62 goals per game in the playoffs on their way to their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.

The 2002 New England Patriots

The Success:

The Pats shocked the world in 2001 by beating the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl.

The Unexpected Struggle:

Unlike the present day Pats, the ’01 Patriots were the quintessential “team.” It relied on superior production from every unit to win football games. As a result, the margin for error was smaller than the average championship contending team. When the running game fell from 13th in rushing yards in ’01 to 28th in ’02, the margin for error proved to be too thin as the Pats missed the playoffs all together.

The Rebound:

Just like the ’02 Devils, the Pats used the #1 defense in the NFL to get back on track in 2003 and, you guessed it, won the Super Bowl again.

The 2000 St. Louis Rams

The Success:

Kurt Warner and the Rams provided one of the most astonishing franchise turnarounds in NFL history by winning the Super Bowl in 1999. Not only were the Rams not expected to contend for the championship heading into the season, they hadn’t finished above .500 in nine years. Behind Warner and Marshall Faulk, the Rams led the league in scoring and yardage and were front and center as the NFL’s new unstoppable offensive force.

The Unexpected Struggle:

With the same offensive cast returning the following season, the Rams were expected to repeat their successes in 2000. The “Greatest Show on Turf” was up for the task as the Rams offense was even more devastating than the previous season putting up the third highest single-season point total in NFL history. It was the defense that proved to be the fatal flaw. The Rams “D” plummeted from 4th in the league in 1999 to dead last in 2000. The Rams still managed to sneak into the playoffs but were unceremoniously bounced in the first round by New Orleans. While the offense was certainly talented enough to carry the Rams to another Super Bowl, it was a lousy defense that forced the Rams to begin the playoffs on the road which led to an early exit at the hands of New Orleans.

The Rebound:

The Rams “D” was back to 7th in the league in 2001 and it was no coincidence that they were back to the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons as heavy double-digit favorites.

The 1991 San Francisco 49ers

The Success:

Behind Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and a stellar defense, the 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1989 and followed it up with a 14-2 regular season in 1990.

The Unexpected Struggle:

Montana would miss the entire ’91 season with an elbow injury but expectations were still high with Steve Young—not only the best backup in the league at the time but one of the top quarterbacks in the league—set to take over. The offense had a hard time gelling initially with Young under center as the Niners started the season just 4-5. Young suffered a knee injury in Week 10 giving way to the team’s 3rd string QB, Steve Bono. Bono’s debut the next week at New Orleans was a disaster as the Niners produced their lowest scoring output in 14 years. Despite turmoil behind center, the Niners were still very much the same team that had racked up a 28-4 regular season record over the previous two seasons. This was clearly a case of a team having a hard time adjusting without its leader. By Week 12, everything started to come together. Bono and Young would lead the Niners to a 6-0 record to close out the season outscoring their opponents 189-94 over that stretch. There is little question that by the end of the ’91 season, the Niners were one of the top teams in the league. Unfortunately, even a 10-6 record wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs.

The Rebound:

While not making the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons was a disappointment, the Niners—much like the ’10 Wings—ended the season playing brilliantly. It was little consolation at the time but it no doubt foreshadowed a return to glory for the Niners. Behind Young—who took over at QB permanently the following season—the Niners would go on to make the playoffs the next seven seasons and win the 1994 Super Bowl.


A veteran team like the Wings isn’t accustomed to making excuses, but I have no problem doing it for them. The level of consistency that the Wings have demonstrated over the past 20 years is unprecedented not just in the NHL but in any sport. Wings fans have been spoiled and they know it. In fact, most assumed that the era was D.O.A the minute the hard salary cap was instituted in 2005. Detroit’s demise was cast prematurely then and people are doing the same now. The Wings didn’t magically turn into an old and talentless team in one off-season. Remember, they were the hottest team in the NHL over the last six weeks of the regular season. Let’s ignore the late-season surge for a second. The Wings are entitled to down seasons. We’ve seen it before. What people need to understand is this wasn’t just a random down season. It was inevitable from the get-go because of various factors beyond Ken Holland, Mike Babcock, and even the players’ control.

Each instance highlighted above where a team in its prime unexpectedly dropped off was the result of extenuating circumstances. The 2010 Wings trump them all in that department. First, no contending team in the NHL had to contend with the sheer amount of injuries the Wings had to deal with in 2010. In fact, based on the total number of games lost to injury, it’s a miracle they even made the playoffs. All told, the Wings lost 312 player games to injury. Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Tomas Holmstrom, Niklas Kronwall, and Dan Clearly all missed significant time. It wasn’t a coincidence that when the Wings finally got healthy post Olympic break, they were the best in the NHL.

Injuries weren’t the only factor. The 2010 Wings were a tired team. Over the previous three seasons, the Wings played 63 playoff games which were, by far, the most in the NHL. The next three highest totals were Pittsburgh (49), Anaheim (40) and San Jose (30). Aside from two teams—Pittsburgh and Anaheim—the Wings played more than double the number of playoff games over the last three seasons than every other team in the league. In fact, the Wings played the equivalent of ¾ of a regular season more than the average team in the NHL over that span. Compounding the issue was a brutal travel schedule. Since the Wings are an ill fit geographically in the Western Conference, a whopping 17 of those 63 playoff games were played at least two time zones away. Not to mention the Wings had seven players participate in the Vancouver Olympics which was the second highest total in the NHL. All of these factors contributed to an exhausted team. Tired legs and injuries were largely responsible for why the Wings found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture at mid-season. By the time the team got healthy, it was forced to play playoff hockey for six weeks just to get into playoffs. Even then, they had to play on the road in the first round three time zones away in Phoenix and again in the second round three time zones away in San Jose.

As well as the Wings played to close out the regular season, it’s amazing to think how much offensive production was lost in the off-season. Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson, and Jiri Hudler accounted for 82 goals in 2009 which was 28% of Detroit’s scoring. That sort of personnel loss is hard to deal with regardless of how talented the rest of the roster is. Those losses became an even bigger burden when the Wings were faced with mounting injuries. The depth that was the team’s cornerstone before had vanished. At the same time, Jimmy Howard took over the #1 job in goal making 2010 one whopper of a transitional season.

The 2010 Wings shouldn’t be remembered for underachieving. In fact, I would argue that—considering all of the factors involved—they ended up overachieving. The 2011 Wings should have no problem following the precedent set by the teams I referenced above. Jimmy Howard should improve on his stellar debut as Detroit’s starting goaltender. Jiri Hudler is expected to re-join the team after spending the season overseas. The early exit in the playoffs will give the team more than a month of additional rest compared to the previous three seasons.

The takeaway from 2010 is that it was a blip and not a trend. Take solace in the number of factors that were working against the Wings and then take even more solace in the way they finished the regular season. If precedent means anything, the Wings should be a heavy favorite to return to the Stanley Cup Finals in the next season or two. That doesn’t sound half bad for “the end of an era.”

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Zoom Zoom Riot

I didn’t want to jinx it, so I waited until it was over before posting on it. Prior to Monday’s blow-up against the Yankees, Joel Zumaya had pitched 18.2 consecutive innings to begin the season without issuing a single walk. That might be a ho-hum feat for the control freaks of the pitching profession like Zack Greinke and Roy Halladay. For Zumaya, there’s nothing ho-hum about it. The previous best walk-less streak of his career was just 12.1 innings. His next best stretch after that is just six innings. With Zumaya’s newfound affection for the strike zone, it should come as no surprise that he’s flashing shades of 2006 when he was the most feared pitcher in baseball. Part of his early success came from mixing 103 MPH heat with wicked off-speed stuff. However, a bigger part had to do with throwing strikes, or at least not being the worst pitcher in baseball at throwing strikes. Although injuries have certainly been a major factor in Zoom-Zoom’s struggles over the past three seasons, equally responsible was his penchant for issuing the free pass. Prior to this season, his career BB/9 was a horrendous 5.4 including an unfathomable 7.3 over the past two seasons. Even during his stellar rookie campaign, he was at a far from respectable 4.5 BB/9. Hitters might not be able to catch up to his heater, but they can sure avoid swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. That had been “the book” on big Z until this season. Remarkably, he is sporting a .9 BB/9 through 20 innings this season. As a result, he has been one of the most dominant relievers in baseball despite a robust and incredibly unlucky BAbip of .370. Most pitchers carrying around that stat are on their way to AAA. Zumaya’s control has made that a moot point. His 1.10 WHIP thus far is the best mark of his career—as is his 10.8 K/9. And, he has yet to give up a home run. All are signs that, at least for the time being, Zumaya has found the one thing that separates pitchers from throwers: control.

The Tigers are 19-15 and very much in the thick of the AL Central race. They have done this despite a frightening 5.49 ERA from their starting pitching. Fortunately, the bullpen has been, by far, the best in baseball. And, nobody has been more responsible for that than Zumaya. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has logged the most innings out of the pen not only for the Tigers been in the entire American League. His 2.24 ERA and .9 BB/9 have spearheaded a bullpen that not only leads the AL in innings pitched but also ERA. There’s no question that the unit as a whole has been fantastic. Jose Valverde has been sparkling in the closer role while Phil Coke, Eddie Bonine, and Fu-Te Ni have been ultra reliable. However, there’s also no question that Zumaya’s re-emergence as the most effective set-up man in the American League has restored order to the Tigers bullpen and, for the time being, has allowed the Tigers to play well above their means despite horrific starting pitching.

While it’s safe to assume that the starting pitching will eventually rebound, the same assumption cannot be made regarding Joel Zumaya’s health. Just 20 innings into the season, he is already approaching the most innings he has pitched in a season since 2006 (33.2 in ’07). Jim Leyland—to no fault of his own—has been relying on Zumaya heavily. He has pitched at least 1.2 innings in 9 of his 13 appearances. He has logged the most innings of any reliever in the American League and has thrown the 5th most pitches among relievers in the AL. Considering his injury history and knack for abruptly breaking down, it might be wishful thinking to expect Zumaya to still be pitching in September let alone July or August. Still, the law of averages would seem to dictate that Zumaya is due for a healthy season. Then again, I’m not so sure the “law of averages” is supposed to be applied to a 210+ pound man with a lengthy injury history hurling a baseball 100+ MPH. Cliché as it is, “so far, so good” is all I've got.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Mess with Texas

Considering Jim Delany and the Big Ten reiterated their original 12 to 18-month timeline just two weeks ago, I’m hesitant to believe the latest scuttlebutt on expansion that has Syracuse, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Nebraska, and Missouri coming to Big Ten country. It was only five months ago that Delany first issued a press release suggesting the Big Ten’s potential expansion interests. I can’t imagine that just five months after giving the original timeline, the Big Ten has already admitted defeat in courting the likes of Notre Dame and Texas. With the massive success of the Big Ten Network, the conference is in a position to be patient and picky. Big Ten institutions have the financial stability and the potential for growth that every school in the country would love to have. There’s a reason why other conferences—including the SEC—are waiting around to see what the Big Ten is going to do. Delany has everyone looking his way for good reason. Right now, he is the maestro of college football. No offense to the five schools mentioned above but if that’s all the Big Ten can attract given its impressive financial standing and academic reputation, then I think it’s fair to question both how much power the conference actually has and Delany’s status as a “maestro.”

The Big Ten doesn’t need to do anything. There is no timeline other than the artificial one that Delany put forward in his press release. Members raked in a mindboggling $22 million per year each from the Big Ten Network alone last year. Everyone in the Big Ten is sitting pretty right now. I realize that the primary—and in the end maybe the only—objective of expansion is to generate even more money through increased ad revenue from the additional live events that expansion would bring to the BTN. If that is the only objective, then Rutgers and Syracuse it is. However, I would think that there is something more to it than just making more money. Given their athletic prowess (or lack thereof) I would think that Rutgers and Syracuse would be fallback options. The Big Ten is about athletic prestige as much as it is about academic. The addition of Penn State made the conference stronger athletically. Subsequent additions should as well. Adding Syracuse and Rutgers would hardly accomplish that objective. They were 63rd and 92nd respectively in last year’s final Director’s Cup Standings. Indiana—the Big Ten’s lowest ranked school in the standings by a considerable margin—chimed at 55th. It’s one thing to invite schools that are not competitive in Olympic sports and another to invite schools that would make the conference weaker in the sport that pays the bills: football. That’s why I find it hard to believe that Delany and Co. have already given up on Texas and Notre Dame.

Maybe it’s a smokescreen. Maybe Delany is working any and all channels to Austin and South Bend as I type. Certainly that would be the very least to expect coming from the guy who had his hands all over the creation of the epically successful Big Ten Network. It just doesn’t make sense for college football’s current A-#1 powerbroker to be fast tracking fallback plans. I understand the allure of Syracuse and Rutgers from a financial perspective. The idea being, of course, to infiltrate the NYC market by stealing the top programs in the New York/New Jersey area. What remains to be scene, however, is how much pull those schools have in NYC. It would seem to be an awfully risky gamble to simply assume that viewers in NYC would collectively start watching Syracuse and Rutgers football when there has been very little previous interest. I have to admit that I’m coming from an ignorant place with respect to their potential drawing power in NYC. Maybe they’ll produce a ratings bonanza for the BTN. I could definitely be wrong but luring Syracuse and Rutgers seems like a feeble attempt to corral a market that just doesn’t have interest in local college football.

Despite his lofty position atop the college football landscape, Delany doesn’t have a genie in a bottle. He can’t simply command schools to the Big Ten. However, his primary objective—even above trying to convince Notre Dame to pursue the path of sanity—should be to sweet talk Texas into joining the Big Ten. I realize there are factors working against this. First, Texas has visions of achieving financial utopia with a network of its own. Second, Texas might find the geographic proximity to the SEC more to its liking. Or, it’s possible that Texas simply wants to remain the benefactor of the disproportionate revenue set-up it currently has in the Big XII. Whatever it is, there are many reasons why Texas might turn down an offer from the Big Ten. None of that should affect Delany’s course of action. If Texas wants to say, “no”, it should be after an onslaught of recruiting attempts by Delany and his Big Ten compatriots. Texas is the biggest fish in the sea by a long shot. Few institutions can equal UT’s athletic prowess. The Longhorns have finished in the top 10 of the Director’s Cup Standings for eight consecutive years. More importantly, no school in the country can come close to offering the sheer number of additional TV viewers. That’s what this is all about, right? The state of Texas has seven of the top 100 TV markets in America and unlike, say, California where allegiances are spread pretty thin , the University of Texas is the main attraction in the state of Texas. That’s 7.2 million additional households just from those top 100 markets for the Big Ten Network to penetrate. NYC and all its glory stands at 7.5 million. If you’re wondering about Texas A&M, my guess is that if Texas is off to the Big Ten, A&M wouldn’t be too far behind. Don’t sleep on TAMU’s credentials. It was ranked as the 22nd best public university by the US News and World Report and finished 13th in the 2009 Director’s Cup Standings.

DMA Rankings

Texas is a prestigious academic institution. It will not find too many peers in the SEC. That—along with the existence of the Big Ten Network—should be Delany’s primary recruiting tools. The Big Ten has 10 of the top 30 public schools in the country according to the U.S. News & World Report. Northwestern—the only school not on that list—is a private school and better than them all. The SEC, on the other hand, has just three of the top 30 public schools. Texas stands at #15. Based on that, it’s doubtful UT’s administration would be overjoyed by a move to the SEC. Clearly, forcing its athletic teams to travel to the Midwest for every road game is not something the administration would be overjoyed about, either. However, by adding Texas A&M, Nebraska, and Missouri , the Big Ten could soften that blow significantly.

I don’t have any inside information when it comes to expansion talk—or anything for that matter. For all I know, Syracuse, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Missouri, and Nebraska could be headed to the Big Ten tomorrow. What I do have is what I hope amounts to a decent amount of common sense. It makes no sense for the Big Ten to be wrapping up the expansion process early with Syracuse and Rutgers set to receive invitations. Anything short of Texas (and Notre Dame I suppose) filing for a restraining order against Delany should not deter the Big Ten’s pursuit of Texas. While he’s at it, Delany might want to get the king of secondary recruiting violations to make a trip to Austin. There’s no doubt in my mind that Jim Tressel could put together the right kind of financial package to get UT to sign on the dotted line.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

So what's it gonna be?

I’m a little confused by the Tigers. They have great pitching and hitting, and… horrible pitching and hitting. That’s really the only way I can describe this walking contradiction of a baseball team. The starting pitching has been worse than atrocious. Collectively, Tigers starting pitching boasts a 5.56 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP. While the starting pitching has been horrendous preventing runs, the offense hasn’t fared much better scoring them. The Tigers are one of the worst teams in MLB at advancing—and thus scoring—baserunners. They are dead last in stolen bases. Only two teams in the AL are worse at taking extra bases on singles and doubles. They are 8th of 14 teams in scoring runners from 3rd with fewer than two outs. They’re also 12th of 14 teams in advancing runners from 2nd base with no outs. Part of the problem has to do with the number of strikeouts they’re piling up. With 156 K’s, the Tigers have the 4th most in the AL. It’s difficult to advance runners without putting the ball in play. “Not advancing runners” might not be such a big deal if the Tigers hit home runs. Unfortunately, they’re just 11thof 14 teams in home runs. It’s difficult to score runs without power and speed. Most teams have the luxury of at least one of the two.

Most teams that struggle with starting pitching, advancing baserunners, and hitting home runs have “cellar” written all over them. Inexplicably, the Tigers are not in the cellar. In fact, they’re 13-10 and just 1.5 games behind the Twins despite playing 14 of 23 games on the road to start the season. How is this possible? Well, it’s crazy-complicated. As poor as the starting pitching has been, the bullpen has been equally brilliant. The bullpen sports a stellar 2.22 ERA over 81 innings. Jose Valverde, Joel Zumaya, Eddie Bonine, Phil Coke, and Fu-Te Ni all have ERAs under 2.00. The bullpen is the only reason the Tigers stand at 8th in team ERA in the AL despite such terrible production from the rotation. Detroit is dead last in the league in quality starts. That has translated into the bullpen pitching more innings than any other bullpen in the American League by a long shot. Fortunately for the Tigers, that hasn’t been a problem, yet.

The only other thing keeping this team afloat right now is its ability to get on base. As poor as Tigers hitters have been at advancing baserunners (and as poor as the baserunners have been at advancing themselves) they’ve been equally superb at getting on base. Unlike the boom or bust Tigers of recent years, this team can draw a walk. The Tigers are 2nd in the American League in walks and hits. The “hits” have always been there but the newfound proficiency in drawing walks has helped give the Tigers the highest OBP in the American League. That was not a misprint! The barrage of free passes has been led by Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, and Johnny Damon who all have at least 12 walks and a better than 1:1 BB:SO ratio. So, while the Tigers are abysmal at advancing and scoring runners, they are the best at putting runners on base. That dichotomy has not surprisingly resulted in a ho-hum 4.78 runs per game. One reason why such a high OBP has resulted in such a correspondingly low number of runs is that the players drawing all the walks are the players who are supposed to be driving in the runs. They can’t drive in runs if they’re standing on first. Drawing walks is a great quality even from power-hitters but Detroit’s 6-9 hitters have been so wretched that a walk from Cabrera, Ordonez, and Damon has been as good as an out for the opposition.

What we’re left with is a team that is hedging its bets in virtually every capacity. The relievers have bailed out the starters in a way that nobody could’ve predicted. The sheer number of baserunners the offense has generated has offset the dreadful rate at which the Tigers have both advanced and scored runners. Yet, somehow, the Tigers are three games over .500 and very much alive in the AL Central. As great of a development as that is, I don’t think it foreshadows anything moving forward. None of what the Tigers are doing right now is likely to last. The starting pitching will improve. Bullpen production will drop off. The offense will advance and score baserunners at a higher percentage. And, you can expect a sharp decline in OBP. The Tigers are producing at the extreme of virtually every measure. Extremes don’t last. Unfortunately, that leaves us in the dark in terms of what can be expected when these numbers normalize. It just all depends on whether the forthcoming improvements in starting pitching and driving in baserunners offset the inevitable return to reality in terms of the bullpen and OBP. In other words, I have no idea what’s going to happen. If there’s one thing I can say, it’s that this team is either good, bad, or average and I’d put money on that.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Identity Crisis

With Big Ten expansion looking like a mere formality, what would the Big Ten call a new 16-team mega-conference? Keeping the “Big Ten” name when Penn State was added brought enough ridicule. With the addition of five more schools, the name “Big Ten” opens up the conference to quite the public relations embarrassment. There’s a pizza joint down the street from my house called, “Belly Buster’s.” I never eat there because I can’t get past the name. I feel guilty enough as it is eating pizza. I have to suspend my understanding of nutrition and the human body for the five minutes it takes me to eat a large pizza or otherwise I’d never be able to put such an insane amount of calories in my body at one time. With a name like Belly Buster’s, it’s literally impossible for me to forget that I’m doing serious damage to my body while decreasing the number of minutes I have on Earth in the process. Although it seems catchy in theory, the name absolutely kills this place and I’m sure it keeps people from eating there. The Big Ten won’t exactly have difficulty making money regardless of what it calls itself. It could be called “The Big Worst” and not lose a cent. However, Jim Delany is ultra-sensitive about the conference’s reputation as evidenced by his awesome letter defending the Big Ten against the SEC in the perception battle. So, trust me when I say that being widely lampooned for having a 16-team conference called the “Big Ten” will get under Delany’s skin. Like Belly Buster’s, the first thing anyone will think about when they think of the Big Ten is how ridiculous the name is. So, Delany has two options: 1). Change the name to something that makes sense, or 2). Keep the name and find a new significance for the number “10.”

Ever since last December when the news broke that the Big Ten was going to look into expansion, message boards and fan forums have been littered with ideas for new names for a 16-team conference. Unfortunately, it’s a fruitless endeavor. A new name is out of the question. The Big Ten isn’t just an athletic conference; it’s a brand. It’s a brand that has, among other things, its own TV station worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Perhaps even more than the individual universities that make up the conference, the name “Big Ten” is the most visible attribute the conference has to offer especially after the creation of the “Big Ten Network.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that the conference is stuck with a contradictory name. The key could be to find a new meaning for “10.”

My first thought was to look at the number of states in the conference instead of “teams.” If Notre Dame and Pittsburgh are among the additions, then the end result will likely be 16 members across 11 states. In that scenario, the Big Ten can just claim that instead of having 11 members, it now has 11 states with no name change necessary. However, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh would both have to be involved for that scenario to work.

Another idea—and this isn’t a slam dunk by any means—is to associate “10” with the largest markets in the Big Ten region. To be fair, the only reason the conference is even looking at expansion is to significantly increase revenue. So it would only seem fitting to incorporate the Big Ten’s motives for expansion as the new interpretation of the “Big Ten.” It’s impossible to know exactly which markets are going to end up in the conference because we don’t know which schools, if any, are coming to the conference. As it stands right now, however, the Big Ten region boasts 7 of the top 25 markets in the country according to the DMA rankings…

It’s not unreasonable to think that three additional markets among the top 25 could be delivered via expansion. Depending on which schools get invites, we could see New York City, Boston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Kansas City or a number of Texas markets enter the mix. Either way, it’s likely that the Big Ten will have either 10 of the top 20 markets or 10 of the top 25 making for a fairly convenient explanation for remaining the “Big Ten.” Owning “markets” might sound a bit trivial but it’s important to remember this whole expansion conversation is about reaching new markets. The SEC only has three of the top 25 markets. So having 10 is no small feat and is certainly worth acknowledging.

Otherwise, I’m all out of ideas. A name change isn’t a realistic option. The name itself is a brand and brands don’t just change names. I could see something like “Big Ten +” or a derivative there of but it would make everyone’s job a lot easier if there was a convenient, built-in reason to continue calling it the “Big Ten.” At the very least, it would save everyone from having to read another sweet letter from Jim Delany in 2015 explaining that it’s “not nice” to make fun of conferences with contradictory names.

Powered by Blogger