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The Fall Classic

In MLB on October 22, 2013 at 9:06 pm

By Chris Hallenbrook

The World Series is baseball’s ultimate showcase, not only for the talent, but also for the history of a game that embraces continuity with its past in a way that few sports can match. Toward that end, this year provides an ideal matchup, not only because the Red Sox (est. 1901) and Cardinals (est. 1882) have both played in their cities of origin for over a century, but also because of their October history together, having met in three previous fall classics that have woven together the fates of generations of fans in Boston and St. Louis.

1946 – Cardinals in 7. Stacked with Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr, as well as Hall worthy players Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky, this Red Sox team inaugurated decades of “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” Ted Williams was hit with a pitch in an October exhibition game, and played the World Series with a swollen elbow that held him to a mere .200 batting average. In Game 7, with the Red Sox down 3-1 in the top of the 8th, DiMaggio laced a two run double off the wall that missed going out of Sportsman’s Park by mere feet. Trying to leg for third, DiMaggio went down with a hamstring injury. In the bottom of the inning, Enos Slaughter would fly through the stop sign to test the arm of DiMaggio’s replacement, scoring all the way from first with the game, and Series, winning run (Pesky didn’t hold the ball. Leon Culberson was no DiMaggio, and Slaughter admitted he wouldn’t have tried it if the Little Professor was still in the game). For my grandfather, a 14 year old coming of age in postwar America, Slaughter’s Mad Dash was the first time the Red Sox broke his heart.

1967 – Cardinals in 7. This was such a watershed year for the Red Sox that losing the Series couldn’t ruin The Impossible Dream. The Sox had been so bad for so long that many thought the young Dick Williams was in over his head when during spring training he brashly declared that “we’ll win more than we lose.” A Yastrzemski triple crown/MVP campaign and a Jim Lonborg Cy Young season later, the Red Sox inched out victory in a four team pennant race on the last day of the season. The Red Sox were fantastic in that Series, with Yaz posting an other worldly 1.340 OPS and Lonborg allowing 1 run in 18 innings during his first two starts. But a 101 win Cardinals team featuring Roger Maris, Orlando Cepeda, Lou Brock, Steve Carlton and the legendry Bob Gibson were too much for the Sox. Lonborg made a valiant effort in Game 7, but working on two days rest he just didn’t have enough left to truly compete with the dominance of Gibson. My father, a 22 year old private just home from Vietnam, would watch The Cardiac Kids come just short, blissfully unaware that he wouldn’t live long enough to see their Idiot cousins finish the job.

2004 – Red Sox in 4. By now you surely know the story of the team affectionately known as the Idiots. (If not, go watch the “Four Days in October” episode of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.) The Varitek vs. A-Rod midsummer brawl. The 0-3 deficit. The Steal. The Bloody Sock. The Slap. The Comeback. The New York tabloids running headlines such as “Hell Freezes Over” and “The Choke’s On Us.” Momentum may only be as good as your next day’s starting pitcher, but this Red Sox team rode a wave of emotion (and solid pitching) to the franchise’s first World Series title in 86 years. I was a 17 year old high school senior, and within a week my classmates were wearing t-shirts that read “Now I can die happy.” My grandfather celebrated his first Red Sox World Series Championship at the age of 72.

2013 – This is the story that is yet to be written. Will Carlos Beltran add to his portfolio of post-season heroics? Will Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha remind the world that pitching wins championships? Or will David Ortiz add to the legend of Big Papi? Perhaps Koji Uehara will put a fitting capstone on one of the greatest seasons in the history of relief pitching. The only thing we know for sure is that with these two franchises, and these two teams, each winners of 97 regular season games and each fresh off a 6 game LCS triumph over a championship caliber opponent, it will be a Fall Classic in the truest sense of the term, and two fan bases will always remember where they were when “it” happened, whatever “it” may be.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @CHallenbrook.

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Dear Ben, I’m Sorry

In MLB, Uncategorized on September 26, 2013 at 3:31 pm

By Chris Hallenbrook

Dear Ben Cherington,

I’m sorry. This past offseason every time you made a major addition I criticized you for overpaying for aging, mediocre ballplayers. I was entirely convinced that your judgment was shot and that thanks to your inability to be bold the best the 2013 Red Sox could hope for was a return to the .500 mark. Well, so much for that. Here’s the rundown of this past offseason, my complaints and why I was wrong.

Shane Victorino – Coming off a pedestrian .255/.321/.383 season with the Phillies and Dodgers, it seemed utterly insane to be giving him $13 million a year for 3 years at the age of 32. I still think the contract was too rich, but his contribution to the team far exceeds his massively improved .295/.353/.453. He has been crashing into walls in right a la Trot Nixon despite playing with pain most of the season. In fact, since August the career switch hitter has been batting exclusively from the right side due to a bad hamstring, and has continued putting up big numbers and delivering the key hits despite not having faced right-handed pitching from the right side of the plate since his days in high school. He’s a gamer.

Mike Napoli – I put Napoli in the same boat as Victorino this past offseason, namely a declining veteran who should have been signed on the cheap, not for top dollar. But as with Victorino, he’s been a grinder, playing through plantar fasciitis, playing in more games than he has since 2010 and producing more than his .258 batting average suggests. Despite slumping across the summer months, he was white hot in April and May, helping the Sox to a badly needed quick start, and is now hitting well over .400 for the month of September. Talk about playing your best when it matters most.

Johnny Gomes – To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to this acquisition because I didn’t see him doing anything notable. Boy, was I wrong about that. Sure he’s only hit .238, but he has been a valuable fourth outfielder, ably filed the holes when guys got hurt and oh yeah, he has hit four pinch hit home runs with a .515 batting average in over twenty pinch hit appearances. He embodies the main cause of the Red Sox’s turnaround, which he articulated a month ago when he remarked that “Heart and hustle are two things you can’t fake. Bring those two things every single day and the baseball gods will reward you.”

Ryan Dempster – Oh yeah, I just loved bringing in a 36 year old pitcher whose career ERA versus the AL East was over 4.00. I’m pretty sure I wanted to have your sanity checked after that one Ben. And admittedly, I’m not too sure I’m willing to take this one back given his 4.46 ERA. Then again, the man eats innings, which is always a plus, and you turned Jose “Iggy” Iglesias into Jake Peavy, who has had nothing but filthy stuff since joining the Red Sox, so it all comes out in the wash.

The Bullpen – As Matthew Perry tells fantasy baseball owners “don’t pay for saves.” I used to say that Theo Epstein needed an Assistant General Manager in Charge of Shortstops. You need an Assistant General Manager in Charge of the Bullpen (or at least closers). Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan have done nothing for this team, and cost assets including Jed Lowrie, JJ Reddick, Mark Melancon and other prospects. Melancon is especially galling as you gave up on him after only one year despite the fact that relievers are notorious for their ups and downs, thereby allowing all Red Sox fans the joy of watching him post an otherworldly 1.38 ERA in 68.1 innings (and counting) for the Pirates. That said, you pulled Koji Uehara out of nowhere and watched as he retired 37 consecutive batters in one of the most dominant closing performances since Dennis Eckersley played in Oakland (further proving Berry’s point).

So all in all, you were right and I was wrong. What do you know, maybe you are more qualified for the job than I am…nah, let’s not push it. I’ll just stick with saying “I’m sorry.”

Confused and Grateful,

Chris Hallenbrook

PS – all stats were as of the end of day on 9/19/13

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @CHallenbrook.

Boycott the Little League World Series

In Media on August 27, 2013 at 8:33 am

By Chris Hallenbrook

It’s that time of year again folks, when the vultures from Bristol, CT good folks at ESPN descend on Williamsport, PA for the Little League World Series (LLWS) and when I change the channel whenever it comes on. To get one disclaimer out of the way right off the bat, I’m not one of those people who think you shouldn’t keep score in youth sports. I think competition can play a valuable role in the development of children, teaching them to win with grace, lose with dignity and recognize that to lose is not the same things as to fail. In fact, when I played “little league” (my town was not affiliated with the national association that is Little League Baseball) I was very annoyed the years we didn’t keep score because I could count the players who crossed the plate and knew how very badly my team usually lost (trust me, losing is worse when people try to BS you that you didn’t lose). My complaints about the LLWS and the industry it has spawned have to do with the level of competition, not the existence of competition.

First of all, there is the scope of the competition. The LLWS takes teams of eleven, twelve and thirteen year olds from all over the world and has them compete in a series of ever more demanding regional, national and international tournaments until a single “world champion” is crowned. This continually elevates the pressure with each passing game, making the stakes, in terms of the level of glory being held out to the children, higher with each passing moment. Now even at that age (and younger) I loved to compete, but I also loved going out for ice cream with my coaches and teammates afterward. Here the system says, “congratulations kids, you’re national champions, now let’s gear up for another tournament.” Great achievements thereby become merely stepping stones in the quest for the elusive goal of a world championship that most will not achieve. There is no need to push these children onward and onward to their breaking point as if they are Ender Wiggin. By all means, let children play for their city title, but let it stop at that.

These problems are magnified by the fact that once the teams get to Williamsport, ESPN gets involved. ESPN means that cameras are everywhere, and they do far more than just broadcast these games on live national and international television. They bring teams onto SportsCenter (which is also aired live), play the highlights, provide fun facts about the players gathered in pregame interviews and even do postgame interviews with the key contributor from the winning team!!! In a culture that already makes individuals far too self-obsessed, ESPN seems to have found the perfect formula for creating narcissism complexes worthy of Alex Rodriguez.

Sure, ESPN has the basic human decency to not put crying children on live national television, instead only showing the celebration of the winning team, but why is it okay that they are getting to make millions of dollars off of middle school children???? And the sponsors? National brands sponsor the biggest games, such as “The United States Championship Game presented by Kellogg’s,” and we all know that corporate America wouldn’t be buying all that ad time in the ESPN broadcasts if it wasn’t profitable to do so. Now sure, I wore the names of local businesses on the back of my jersey when I played, it was how we kept the league affordable for parents, but my local sub shop wasn’t making millions of dollars off of my sweat and tears. The amount of money being made off this tournament is just perverse.

At that ladies and gentlemen, is why I refuse to watch the LLWS. I hope you’ll do the same.

 I invite you to follow me on Twitter @CHallenbrook.

Hall of Fame DH?

In MLB on July 12, 2013 at 10:30 am

By Chris Hallenbrook

With the Designated Hitter having now existed in the American League for 40 years, it is evident that it is not some passing fancy that baseball purists like Crash Davis can simply wish away. Since the position is here to stay, David Ortiz breaking the all-time record for hits by a DH raises the question: is there such thing as a Hall of Fame DH?

For the sake of reference, let’s begin by laying out the resumes of the two best everyday DHs the game has seen, Edgar Martinez, who this year received only 35.9% of the vote for the Hall of Fame this year, and David Ortiz. (Slash lines are batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage.)

Edgar Martinez was so good as an everyday DH that after he won five Outstanding Designated Hitter Awards, Major League Baseball threw up its hands and named the award after him. His career numbers: .312/.418/.515, 309 HR, 1,261 RBI (Stats junkies claim RBIs are overrated, but for a DH, driving in runs is the primary job. As a result, RBIs are as important to this analysis as any other accomplishment.) and 2,247 hits.

David Ortiz .287/.381/.551, 420 HR, 1,391 RBI and 1,953 hits (statistics are as of the end of day on July 10, 2013)

This first hurdle for arguing that either of them are Hall worthy is the worn-out old claim that since DHs don’t field, they only play half the game and therefore cannot ever rank among the game’s all-time greats. Interestingly enough, one never hears it said of American League pitchers that since they don’t hit they only play half the game and therefore shouldn’t be eligible for the Hall. Now there is not perfect symmetry to those claims, but I hope it shows something of the absurdity of diminishing a player’s accomplishments at their primary task due to rules that they don’t control. More seriously, let’s consider the case of Brooklyn Dodgers catcher and deserving Hall of Famer Roy Campanella. With career totals of .276/.360/.500, 242 HR, 856 RBI and 1,161 hits, Campanella didn’t make Cooperstown on his bat. It is of course necessary to remember that his MLB career started at the age of 26 due to the color barrier (he joined the Dodgers the year after Jackie Robinson did), but the point is that he is a Hall of Fame defensive catcher, not a Hall of Fame hitter. One doesn’t have to be an all-time great both offensively and defensively to be an all-time great.

So on principle an everyday DH should be able to join the immortals in Cooperstown, but do either Martinez or Ortiz meet the threshold? Let’s compare them to some other Hall of Famers. Legendary Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew hardly generated controversy by entering the Hall with totals of .256/.376/.509, 573 HR, 1,584 RBI and 2,086 hits. Both Martinez and Ortiz have much better slash lines than Killebrew, with Martinez having over 150 more hits and Ortiz likely to pass Killebrew’s hits total by this time next year. Martinez’s hit total also stacks up nicely with other no-doubt Hall of Famers, including Eddie Mathews (2,315).

A more recent player whose best know skills are quite apt for this discussion is Jim Rice. Jim Ed is in the Hall of Fame primary based on being a fearsome slugger who dominated his era and whom Commissioner Giamatti called “the Hammer of God sent to scourge the Yankees.” His stats? .298/.352/.502, 382 HR, 1,451 RBI and 2,452 hits. Both DHs under consideration can compete with his slash line (Martinez beats it on all counts), Papi has more homers and will likely surpass Rice’s RBI total in 2014, while Martinez ended his career only 205 hits shy of Rice’s mark.

Now some challenge whether Rice, elected in his final year of eligibility after a major push by the Red Sox organization to convince voters that his accomplishments measured up with those already in the Hall, should have been put in the Hall. Personally, I don’t think that matters as at the end of the day he is in the Hall. But to assuage those critics, let’s turn to Reggie Jackson, who we all agree is a no-doubt Hall of Famer. He’s in Cooperstown with a slash line of .262/.356/.490 that is inferior to both Ortiz and Martinez on all counts (albeit with 563 HR, 1,702 RBI and 2,584 hits, all of which dwarf both DHs). What is particularly telling is where Jackson made his nickname. When Mister October played in October the totals were 77 games, .278/.358/.527, 18 HR, 48 RBI, 78 hits (1.01 per game) and 2 World Series rings. For Señor October it is 66 games, .283/.388/.520, 12 HR, 47 RBI (that is one fewer RBI in 11 fewer games), 69 hits (1.05 per game) and 2 World Series rings. Ortiz’s postseason numbers thus compare very favorably with the most famous postseason performer in the history of the game, a fact that cannot be ignored in any Hall of Fame debate.

I could keep the examples coming all day to show that Martinez and Ortiz, who has a legitimate chance of joining the 500 home run club in the next few years, stack up with guys already in the Hall, but I don’t want to belabor the point. The bottom line is that calling a DH half a baseball player doesn’t make sense. The position is part of the fabric of the game now. It is time for the voters to wake up to the fact that this is the 21st century and vote in the man from whom the Most Outstanding DH Award is named for, and brace themselves for the fact that a second everyday DH, perhaps even better than the first, is getting ready to slug down Cooperstown’s doors.

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

In NBA on July 1, 2013 at 12:38 pm

By Chris Hallenbrook 

Those of you who read my last post know I think that the Celtics are doing the right thing by blowing it up and rebuilding through the draft. Accordingly, this time I’ll steer clear of the business side of basketball and speak with the heart of a fan, a fan who bleeds green.

This one hurts folks, it really does. Paul Pierce has been around this team for so long that I don’t remember what life was like in this town before the Celtics drafted him. He’s given his entire NBA career to this franchise and this city. He played his heart out for the Celtics and their fans for 15 years. As a result, he is the second highest scorer in Celtics history behind only John Havlicek, as well as 3rd in games played, 3rd in minutes, 4th in assists, 7th in rebounds, 1st in free throws made, 1st in steals and 4th in blocks. But Pierce’s place in franchise history, and fans’ hearts, transcends the numbers. He was one of the last players the franchise had who knew the legendary Red Auerbach, and the last one who was close to the King of the Basketball Gods. At the beginning of the horrendous 2006-2007 season, on the night that the Celtics observed the passing of Red and dedicated the season to his memory, an emotional Pierce took the microphone and proceeded to dedicate every moment of every game of the rest of his Celtics career to the memory of the Celtics’ legendary patriarch. There isn’t a Celtics fan alive who doesn’t wish Pierce had ended his career as a Celtics lifer.

Garnett may have only played six seasons in Boston, but he has forever carved out a place in Celtics history. His intensity and defensive presence are at home with the greats, as evidenced by his fast friendship with the incomparable Bill Russell. The stares, the blocks, the 18 foot jumpers, and especially tossing Pau Gasol around like a rag doll in the ’08 Finals will always play over and over again in the minds of Boston fans, inexorable parts of Banner 17.

So while my head may know this trade will further the rebuilding process, my heart doesn’t want to come to terms with the fact that The Big Ticket and The Truth won’t be coming out of the tunnel in green anymore. No matter what happens going forward, no matter whose jersey they wear, they will always be Celtics in my heart and in my memory. If I were to have the opportunity to say just one thing to them as they leave it would be this: “You’ll be welcome back in this town any time KG. Paul, there won’t be a dry eye in the house the night we raise 34 to its rightful place in the rafters.”

The Celtics Finally Blow It Up

In NBA on June 24, 2013 at 9:59 am

By Chris Hallenbrook

Well folks, Danny the Dealer has struck again, with Ainge trading releasing Doc Rivers from his contract with the understanding that his new employers, the Los Angeles Clippers, will compensate the Celtics with a first round draft pick in 2015. This move serves as acknowledgment as what became painfully obvious as the aging Celtics got smacked around by the New York Knicks in the first round this postseason, the Big Three’s run was fun, but their window for winning Division Titles, let alone NBA Championships, has slammed shut.

It should have been evident to anyone watching this past year’s Boston Celtics, even shameless homers like the late Johnny Most, that this team is past its prime and no longer ready for prime time. It would be easy to blame the season-ending injury suffered by Rajon Rondo, but when he went down this team was 20-23. Having gotten “younger” with 35 year old Jason Terry and 27 year old Courtney Lee just wasn’t getting it done. The Celtics have to go into a rebuilding period, the sooner the better.

So if Doc was lukewarm about rebuilding, moving him (and his $7 million annual salary), is a good idea. The Celtics need to rebuild about Rondo, Jared Sullinger and Avery Bradley, while continuing to add young talent. The best avenue to do that is through the draft, and with the Celtics currently stuck in mid-to-late first round purgatory, stockpiling additional picks is a no-brainier. But the Celtics have limited assets with which to collect picks, Doc being one (Rondo, KG and Pierce being the others). So dealing him and hiring a cheaper coach to teach the younglings is a shrewd business decision.

My only complaint from a business standpoint is that the Celtics didn’t get enough for Doc. In exchange for one of only four active NBA coaches to have won an NBA Title (along with Popovich, Spoelstra and Carlisle) they received a single first round pick, and it isn’t until the 2015 draft. That’s right, it’s not in the draft this coming week or even next year; it is two years down the road. This means the badly needed young help that an extra first rounder can provide is three seasons down the road. Unfortunately for Celtics fans like myself, this likely means that Danny anticipates a lengthy rebuilding process. Furthermore, the location of the pick will be determined by the results of the 2014-2015 Clippers, who if they resign Chris Paul next month can be expected to make a deep run into the playoffs, making this nearly a second round pick (although I have a bad feeling that the Celtics’ own pick will be much higher, perhaps making up for it).

And how is it that Danny only got one pick for Doc? The three years remaining on Doc’s contract gave the Celtics plenty of leverage and with the non-compete clause they did not have to do this deal or risk losing him to “retirement.” Why not say “two first rounders or bust,” or stand firm on the original demand that they take a bloated contract (Lee/Terry) off Boston’s hands, given that the Celtics best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) was having a great coach? My best guess is that the Clippers used their continued highly public interviewing of other quality candidates to single to Ainge that they also viewed their BATNA favorably and were willing to walk away from the deal. So at the end of the day, I have to accept that two first rounders, or a salary dump, just wasn’t going to happen, but I can’t shake the feeling that while this is a good business decision for my Celtics, they sold too low.

An Ode to Defense

In Keep Updated on June 16, 2013 at 6:59 am

By Chris Hallenbrook

With the Stanley Cup Finals getting underway in Chicago, it seems like a good time to discuss what it is that wins championships. In all four major sports that (pitching and) defense win championships is such a truism that it has become clichéd. And yet, in all four leagues, fans seem to prefer offense, and the rules are being changed to give the people what they want. In baseball, they say that chicks dig the long ball (and Selig turned a blind eye to steroids because fans of both genders flocked to the power displays), the NFL has become an outdoor version of arena football, basketball caved in to those who love offense decades ago when they invented the three ball, and in hockey the 2005 season saw shrunk goalie equipment to facilitate more scoring and thereby boost TV ratings. The people have clearly spoken, and they love offense. Thus, the odds say that you, whoever you are dear reader, will think I’m crazy when I say: I love defense!!!

Seriously, I love defense. I love seeing a great pitching duel is baseball. A lot of people complain there is no action in them, but to me watching two pitchers dominate hitters is amazing, especially as they each know one mistake will be the game because the other guy is lights out. Great pitching beats great hitting, and it is beautiful to watch guys with nasty stuff make the sluggers look silly. Sure, I grew up in the steroids era, but the memories that stand out most are not the bombs Big Mac, Slammin’ Sammy and Company launched. It’s Pedro’s historic dominance in 1999, Nomar Garciparra going deep in the hole at short and making it look easy over and over again, Trot Nixon crashing into walls and coming away with the ball.

In football and basketball, no one ever doubts that defense wins championships. It isn’t sexy, especially in basketball, but watching one’s team manhandle the other team’s superstar scorers is amazing. Now there are flashy defensive plays like the pick six or the epic blocked shot. But just as beautiful to me is the goal line stand, the tackle for loss, the nose tackle stuffing the run as if he knew the play before it was called. When the Celtics won the title in 2008, the way they played on offense was great, but it was the shutdown D, Perkins neutralizing Dwight Howard and the like, that was truly a joy to watch.

Last but not least there is hockey. Let’s just look at the Eastern Conference Finals. The Penguins were the highest scoring team in the regular season and were historically prolific in the playoffs. But then you have Jaromir Jagr putting Crosby on the ice and probably saying, “son, I have aches that are older than you,” and Gregory Campbell redefining “taking one for the team” when he broke this leg blocking a shot. How can you not love the toughness and dedication of guys who go to the ice to block pucks with their bodies before they can get to the goalie? There was a truly sensational series in the final minute of Game 4 where a Bruin was on the ice in the shooting lane, and a teammate who has between him and the net dove over him to get at the puck him as if throwing himself on a grenade. It doesn’t matter what sport it is, defense is where it’s at.

So call me a relic, call me what’cha will; say I’m old fashioned, say I’m over the hill, but while you tune in to watch the superstars run up the score, my heart lies with the defense trying to stop them.

Signs of the Sports Apocalypse

In Keep Updated on May 30, 2013 at 6:56 pm

By Chris Hallenbrook 

As you may have noticed, I’ve been on a bit of a break from blogging lately; my dissertation on Thomas Hobbes has been using up all my writing energies lately, and while the last thing this world needs is another book on Hobbes, I’m determined to give it one! Anyway, turning our attention back to the sports world, now that 2012 has come and gone, we have been saved from yet another round of “the world is ending this year” nonsense. But just as we thought we were safe, in 2013 the sports world is giving us plenty of reason to believe that the sports apocalypse may be nearing. Let’s review.

–          Joe Flacco is the highest paid quarterback in the NFL

–          Bill Belichick drafted for needs clamored for by the media and fans for the second year in a row

–          A punter being cut was newsworthy (Chris Kluwe)

–          California had more teams make the second round of the NHL playoffs than Canada did

–          The Arizona Diamondbacks are in first place (and have a legitimate MVP candidate)

–          Did I mention that Joe Flacco is making more money than Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and both Manning brothers

–          For once the NBA didn’t simply accept the highest bidder regardless of the consequences

–          Major League Soccer is bordering on relevance

–          The New York Yankees are letting the luxury tax factor into their decision-making process

–          Canada’s Stanley Cup drought has reached 20 years

–          Three players feature in the classic video game NHL 94 are still active

–          Both the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors won playoff series, and outlasted the Los Angeles Lakers

–          Stephen A Smith said something intelligent (just kidding!)

–          The Mississippi State softball team scored two runs on a dropped third strike when the other team jogged off the field and the batter circled the bases

–          The University of California, Davis intramural softball leagues force all batters to start with a 1-1 count

–          After recent lockouts in the NFL, NBA and NHL, MLB has become the model of labor peace

–          I rooted for Nicky Satan Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide in the BCS Title Game (as a Boston College fan, it is my sacred duty to root against Notre Dame)

–          Nick Saban’s reaction to all these Satan jokes indicated he might actually have human emotions after all

–          I was given the opportunity to write for a sports blog

–          The Phoenix Coyotes still exist

The System (Mostly) Works, Part 1 of 2

In MLB on May 12, 2013 at 1:06 am

By Chris Hallenbrook

May is still young, but already it has been a bad month for MLB umpires. From the Harper ejection (which was proper) to Tom Hallion and David Price sparing in the media to two horrendously blown calls on back-to-back nights, umpires have been the story of the past week and a half, and whenever officiating is the story that’s a bad thing. However, despite the screams you hear, the sky isn’t falling. In fact, I’m going to argue that the system is working quite well. Now, the aforementioned examples fall into two distinctly different categories: player-umpire interaction and getting the call right. Accordingly, in this piece I am only going to handle the ineptitude of Angel Hernandez and Fieldin Culbreth. The other two incidents I’ll return to next week.

Let’s start with the home run that wasn’t. This should have been an easy call. Despite Hernandez’s protests to the contrary, instant replay was exceedingly clear that the ball struck above the yellow home run line. In fact, that the call needed to be reversed was so obvious that the decision to rule it a double smacks of the old “we won’t overturn our colleague even when he is so obviously wrong a small child would have made a better call” mentality that Major League umpires deserve credit for having largely eradicated over the last decade or so. Unfortunately this was no small botched call, the home run would have tied the game in the 9th, and in the absence of the HR the Athletics failed to score, thus falling 4-3 to the Indians. As a result, the screaming has reached an occasionally hysterical pitch, with Buster Olney (or “ESPN Insider and Senior Baseball Writer Buster Olney” as ESPN insists on calling him five times a day as if it is his legal name) going so far as to make the ludicrous suggestion that the game be replayed from the time of the home run. Yes, MLB rule 4.19 covering protests does in fact allow for replaying a game if the blown call significantly damages a team’s chance of winning, and yes this call falls under those criteria. But here’s the problem, as is well known the same rule states that the umpire’s judgment calls cannot be protested under any circumstances. This is done with good reason because every game is so rife with difficult judgment calls that the ability to play a game under protest as the result of them would lead to never ending cries for the commissioner’s office to intervene. Furthermore, which side of the yellow line the ball hit on is clearly a judgment call, so the question in this case is not how to right the wrong, but how to minimize the number of mistakes that are made. Could the introduction of an instant replay official in the booth a la NCAA football or a centralized war room in New York to handle all replays NHL style lead to fewer problems? Possibly, and these options are worth considering to reduce the duration of reviews. But it is hard to see how either system would have helped in this instance as all the information needed to change the call was available and the bigger problem seems to have been Hernandez’s refusal to use his eyes, indicating that MLB should discipline him, and do so publically as is done with players and managers, in order to send a clear message that such mind-numbing ineptitude will not be tolerated.

As for the Houston pitching change that should not have been allowed, this isn’t the crisis it’s been made out to be. Yes, it was a clear misapplication of the rules, and as such it was subject for protest. Mike Scioscia did tell the umpires that the game was being played under protest, and therefore if the Angels had lost the game the league office would have reviewed the game to see if the impact of the mistake warranted the game being replayed from that spot. Now, you may be thinking to yourself that you don’t remember the last time a game was replayed after being protested. That is the point. When it comes to administering the rules as written, the umpires almost always get it right, and when they don’t it usually does not change the outcome of the game. Accordingly, this is an isolated incident that does not indicate a need to change the system, especially given the discipline the umpires received. As the crew chief, Fieldin Culbreth was ultimately responsible for the mistake, and he has been suspended for two games and fined. The other three umpires on the crew were also fined for not saying, “um, boss, what the heck do you think you’re doing?” It is thus unlikely that MLB umpires are going to forget this rule anytime soon.

So all in all, these two blown calls lead to a lot of hand wringing, but little alteration of the current system, at least on the basis of these specific calls, is necessary.

The Hot Mess Jets

In NFL on May 7, 2013 at 1:56 pm

By Chris Hallenbrook

In the week and a half since the conclusion of the NFL draft, a seemingly endless amount has been said and written about who “won” and “lost” on draft night(s), despite that fact that no championship has ever been awarded in the war room. Pundits have droned on about which picks were bargains, which were reaches, what players found good fits with their team’s system and who are automatic busts. But let’s be honest, we won’t know if any of that is right or wrong for at least two years, if not more. To assess the state of teams at the moment, we need to look at the longer term trends. On that front, let’s take a look at one team that hasn’t done itself any favors lately, the New York Jets.

After reaching the AFC Championship Game in consecutive years, it has been a long day’s journey into night for the Jets. The decline has been fueled in no small part by the franchise’s mastery of the art of the self-inflicted wound. This was perhaps most memorably, and most mockably, put on display last season with Mark Sanchez’s (in)famous “butt fumble” against the Patriots when he ran into the backside of his own lineman and fumbled the ball away for another Pats touchdown. However, the wounds that have been more damaging for the club’s long-term future have been inflicted not by the players, but by management.

At the top of this list is the Tim Tebow trade. While this trade could have been to the advantage of the Jets, it is clear now that Jets management never had a coherent plan for how to best utilize Tebow on the football field. As a result, his presence did little to make the team better, and they get nothing in return for cutting him, all this trade did was cost this team a 4th round draft pick and a 6th rounder. No big deal you say? They’re just mid-to-late rounders? The Jets certainly could have used this picks to acquire depth on defense, and let’s not forgot that Marcus Lattimore went to the Niners at the end of the 4th round. Sure the gruesome knee insure Lattimore suffered this past year makes it a chancy pick, but at #131 overall it is a calculated risk, and given the top two running backs on the Jets’ depth chart are Chris Ivory and Mike Goodson, it would have been a risk that could have aided the Jets’ offense far more than Tebow did.

The next wound is another blunder from the 2012 offseason, extending Mark Sanchez’s contract to the tune of an additional $40.5 million dollars, $20.5 million of it guaranteed. This was a puzzling move at the time, what with Sanchez already showing signs of being yet another USC QB bust and the Jets publically voicing concerns with the rate at which he was progressing. Now the move looks downright hideous given both Sanchez’s inept play and GM John Idzik acknowledging that the Revis trade came down to money. Revis was insisting on a raise of $4.5 million per year and just signed a 6 year deal with Tampa Bay, meaning that the extra money being thrown Sanchez’s way would have gone a long way towards keeping one of the best shutdown corners in the game in a Jets uniform. Instead, he’s in Tampa and the Jets secondary will have to move forward without a top talent who could have been an invaluable teacher for first round draft choice Dee Milliner. That makes this self-mutilation a two-for-one sale.

And then we have Idzik’s first draft, which, while marked with potentially excellent moves such as taking the aforementioned Dee Milliner at #9 overall, had a classic “you have got to be kidding me/leave it to the Jets” move in taking Geno Smith in the second round. Now admittedly I have not watched a lot of West Virginia football in recent years, so I do not consider myself qualified to speak to whether or not Pro Football Weekly was remotely near the mark when they called into question everything about Smith, from his talent to his leadership to his understanding of and commitment to the game of football. So let’s set aside that report and the claims that Smith is a diva. Instead, let’s simply focus on this offseason’s quarterback market. The Jets were far from the only team needing a QB going forward. The Bills had to acquire a new QB after cutting Harvard man Ryan Fitzpatrick, and with the ability to take any QB from the draft class they happily passed right over Smith. The Raiders passed on the draft entirely, instead making a trade to usher in the Matt Flynn era (although that may be a point for an entry on another franchise’s epic mismanagement). Most damning though when analyzing the Jets decision-making is the actions of the Kansas City Chiefs. Holding the #1 overall pick in the draft, the Chiefs had the ability to guarantee that they got their man to lead the franchise out the abyss. And yet they took one look at this year’s draft class and ran in the other direction, acquiring Niners’ veteran signal caller Alex Smith. Say what you will about Alex Smith, he’s a steady hand who isn’t going to lose you games, and a steady hand would be just what the doctor ordered for the Jets. The veteran Smith becomes an even more appealing option when one considers what the Cheifs gave up for him, a 2013 second rounder and a 2014 conditional pick. That’s right, the pick that was used on Geno Smith could have been turned into Alex Smith. Maybe Geno Smith has the higher ceiling, but what about the Jets’ recently history makes you think they are going to successfully nurture it out of him? So the Jets were the Jets and took the flashier player with more risk, and then, after having gone after a guy that every other QB needy team steered clear of, to add the icing to this self-destructive cake, what does Idzik do? He announces an open competition among all five quarterbacks who are left on the roster after the cutting of Tebow. (Why so many QBs on the roster? Who knows? But it makes the situation all the more comically absurd and apparently mismanaged.) So instead of creating an environment where Sanchez can help Smith adapt to the world of the NFL and warn him of the pitfalls that lie ahead, Idzik creates an environment where Sanchez and Smith have no choice but to view each other as obstacles and threats.

And there we have it folks. There may be a new GM in town for the Jets, and more coordinators coming and going then we can count, but when it comes to self-inflicted wounds, they are the same old Jets and there is little reason to believe things will improve in the near future. This is bad news for Rex Ryan, himself a symbol of the dysfunction, and one whose job security is minimal coming off a 6-10 season that many observers assumed would get him fired. My prediction: another losing season and the firing of Ryan, which itself won’t end the self-immolation of New Jersey’s #2 football team. So good luck Rex, and be sure to kiss Bill Belichick’s rings on your way out the door.

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