Thursday, November 30, 2006

This Article Is Not About Michael Strahan

Last night (November 29) SportsCenter devoted what must have been a three minute-long segment to Michael Strahan and Plaxico Burress. First, let’s agree that a three minute report is a long one. SportsCenter usually reserves time slots of this length for meaningful playoff games or drug/violence-related activity off the field. Thus it would seem logical that the Strahan-Burress story was compelling enough to merit such attention. The way SC presented it, it sure must have seemed to an otherwise uninformed viewer like something worth discussing extensively.

I, however, had already watched parts of Mike and Mad Dog, a New York sports talk radio show that’s broadcasted daily on YES. I’d heard of Mike and Mad Dog before moving to New York. Now that I’ve given them a few listens/watches I can confirm that their interstate popularity is well-deserved. These guys are two of the most logical and level-headed sports commentators around. I’m consistently impressed with them.

It was from these guys that I first heard about the Strahan-Burress story. What actually happened? Strahan, when asked to comment on Burress’s lack of effort on the first Pacman Jones interception in last Sunday’s game, replied that no one should ever give up on a play. It was a very general comment, hard to characterize as instigative. Yet, SC reporter Kelly Naqi chose to present it in a different light, approaching Plax and asking if he had heard about Strahan’s supposedly invective comments. Then, Naqi went back to a surprised Strahan with Plax’s response. To this Strahan predictably reacted angrily, giving Naqi and SC the tantrum-toned sound bites they wanted.

This last part only became clear when I watched the SC segment, because Mike and Mad Dog judged both parties to be in the wrong, conceding that although Strahan should have been more restrained, Naqi unprofessionally and manipulatively incited acrimony where none had previously existed.

The worst part of the SC piece wasn’t that they devoted so much time to it, but that they spun it. They conveniently excluded Strahan’s original quote and failed to provide its exact context. They went straight to the video of Naqi questioning Plax and Strahan. Their presentation implied a purpose to Strahan’s original comments that simply wasn’t there. But once that purpose was accepted as truth by the viewer, then the clip of Plax’s self-proclamation of character, how that’s not his style, how he wouldn’t do that, that he doesn’t call teammates out, etc. seemed logical and served to elevate the level of contentiousness further.

Some may say that this was a big deal regardless, that it was a legitimate story no matter the exact context of Strahan’s quitter comments. Others, like Michael Wilbon in his PTI intro, only 30 minutes before SC aired, might say, “Today was a slow day. What are we going to do?” It was a slow day. And that is the only reason this story was even concocted and given such extensive coverage. The fact is that Plax quits on plays regularly. He’s more concerned with cocking his visor to a precise angle than he is with playing hard. That’s the real story, not the high-school-cafeteria-he-said-she-said periphery that SC covered.

This kind of story is emblematic of what has become of SC. It has become clear that at some point in the past few years there was an executive-level decision to focus SC more on the E (entertainment) than the S (sports) in ESPN. It seems that it has become the policy of the show to neglect genuinely compelling sports stories in favor of anything that could have a cross-over appeal to non-sports fans. Thus the rationale for the aforementioned story: when the audience to which they’re catering is considered, a story about bickering teammates is much more appealing than one about on-field effort.

It was a slow sports day, and instead of a more in-depth analysis of the few basketball games that were played the night before, or a handful of other directions which they might have chosen a few years ago, SC chose to make something out of nothing and effectively create their own news.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Off to the Races, by Mike Klein

The baseball season may be long over for the players, but as far as the GMs are concerned, this month (and the upcoming week in particular) are the playoffs. I'm talking about free agency, the MBLPA's knight in shining armor that burst from its mother's womb 30 years ago with such calm, shining eyes, announcing to the world that, "you can't push John Q. Shortstop around any more!" Anyone who has read Ball Four, Jim Bouton's seminal 1969 book about the real life of baseball players, knows that, prior to free agency, the players got the very short end of a very long stick. In 1969, the minimum major league salary for a ballplayer was $10,000 (about $56,000 in 2006 dollars), not terrible, but bad considering that before reaching the majors, players often toiled for many years in the minor leagues for much less pay. Bouton related tales of bully tactics the team owners would use to keep salaries down and felt (correctly) that the owners were getting rich at the players' expense.

Fast forward to the winter of 2000-2001: Manny Ramirez gets a $160 million deal from the Red Sox, and Alex Rodriguez gets a (now infamous) $252 million dollar deal from the Texas Rangers. The deals are so big that, suddenly, and largely for the first time, the common fan thinks that free agency might be going to far. Then the Yankees (and later the Red Sox, Mets and others) started raising their payrolls to new heights (the Yankees reached the $200 million plateau in 2005, whereas a few years prior no team had ever hit the $100 million mark) and suddenly the idea of a "salary cap" is being thrown around both within and without the sport. A salary cap, of course would limit how much money the players can make, so it was almost a 100% certainly that a cap = players strike. In the end, none of this became a real problem because between 2001 and the current offseason (a) free agency cooled off and it looked like giant nine-figure contracts were a thing of the past and (b) the sport was making so much money that the owners were getting rich, even with the high salaries paid to players.

I should stop there for a minute though: "the owners were getting rich." Not all owners have been getting rich. Mid-sized market teams (Seattle, Cleveland, St. Louis) and big-market teams (Yankees, Mets, Giants, Dodgers, etc.) have been getting rich and, in particular, teams with their own TV networks have been getting rich (due to a loophole which allows TV revenues to go un-taxed by MLB). The small market teams have either been "sly, and gettin' by" (A's, Twins, Marlins) or "pretty much dead, ‘cause they couldn't stay ahead" (Devil Rays, Royals, Pirates, Nationals). Beside the residents of those latter teams’ cities, no one has seemed to mind much the inequality of the teams, using the crutch "if the A's can do it with a low payroll and smart trades/ player development, then it's the Devil Rays’ own fault they aren't competitive." This is partially true, the Rays and Nats in particular have been self-skunked by constantly asking for too much in trades and ending up with nothing (the non-trade of Alfonso Soriano this year was a case-in-point). These low-revenue teams have been helped by revenue sharing from the high-revenue clubs, but they've all been essentially lost causes without good, young, and inexpensive talent (something the more successful small-market teams have been awash with).

So why write about this now? Well, it's almost as if the 2000-2001 offseason was free agency's first nip of classy booze and this month is its 21st birthday. Alfonso Soriano, a soon-to-be 31-year-old with two good seasons on his resume, gets an 8-year deal worth $17 million per. Fat and ill-fielding slugger Carlos Lee gets a $100 million deal over six years. Gary Matthews Jr., he of the great glove and one offensive season that was better than below-average, gets $55 million over five years. Juan Pierre, who is getting older and increasingly less useful, gets $45 million over five. I won't even get into the $51.1 million posting bid the Red Sox made for Japanese ace Daisuke Matzuzaka, and the majority of big-name pitchers have yet to sign.

So the Devils Rays, Royals, Pirates etc. just went from 6-feet-under to 7. Big deal. I believe that the teams that will really be affected by this spending upturn will be the "clever"/lucky small market teams, and some of the mid-market teams that have been making a lot of money, but not nearly as much as the big boys. All these small, smart teams seem to get by with a mix of young players and moderately priced free agents (the Marlins seem to be the exception, fielding essentially an entire roster of pre-free agent players). Let's focus on the Twins: two cornerstones of their team the past few seasons were Johan Santana (a.k.a. the best pitcher in baseball – by far) and Brad Radke (whose body and right arm are now living in separate, but adjacent, cities). After the 2004 season, Santana signed a four-year, $40 million dollar deal. This deal bought out his last two arbitration years and his first two free agent years (he would have been a free agent this current offseason).

Santana is young (27) and won the American League Cy Young award unanimously this past month (he also won the award in 2004 and got robbed in 2005). Any guesses to how much this guy commands on the open market? Try $160 million over eight years, minimum. That same offseason, Radke signed a 2-year $18 million deal to stay with the only team he's ever played for. Now, I believe that Santana is a loyal player with good values blah blah blah, but I don't think for a second that he would have signed this extension if he knew what kind of money would have been on the table just two short years later. Likewise, if 2004 were 2006, Radke would have been in line for a much larger contract. I don't believe that the Twins can afford much more than they paid these two guys, and, while I believe that Santana and Radke would still have taken a pay cut to stay in Minnesota, I don't think they would have gone as low as Minnesota needed them to. Translation: Santana and Radke walk and the Twins are no longer a competitive team.

Many people like to blame the Yankees and their insane payroll for "ruining" baseball's competitiveness. While I hate the Yankees, I don't believe any one team has the power to do such damage (the Yanks are 0 for 6 for world championships during their post-2000 spending deluge). The Yankees’ 2006 payroll was $199 million (actually a bit above $200 million if you use average annual values of contracts, which what baseball bases revenue sharing numbers upon). The Red Sox come in next at $120 million. After the Sox, about a third of baseball (11 teams) is clumped between $88 and $104 million. Put another way, the big-market teams spent an average of about $105 million on payroll in 2006. The current free agency market looks to have at least a 20% inflation rate over past markets (and this number may be a low estimate). The end result is that these big-market teams seem to be willing to spend an additional $250+ million on their payrolls, money that will be used on premium players, as well as to keep average-to-above-average talent away from competitors (and small market teams). A single Yankees team can only do so much damage, but if a third of baseball starts spending like they're from the Bronx, many teams simply will not be able to keep up.

So what to do about this? A salary cap doesn't seem to be the solution: (a) it would cause a players’ strike and (b) the money is obviously out there, so if it doesn't go to the players than it would go to the owners. Revenue sharing is a good thing, and I think there needs to be more of it. Additionally, as much of the big clubs' muscle comes from their TV networks (think YES, NESN), I think this revenue stream should also be taxed by MLB. Finally: more money from baseball should be earmarked for charity. If a certain portion of profits is going to charity, the money simply won't be available for the players to vie for. Sounds simple and stupid, but the owners are only spending all this money because they have it.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Letter to Eli Manning Following His Third Abysmal Performance This Season, by Sara Hatch

Dear Eli,

I’ve been a Giants fan all my life and I’ve been a fan of you since you came on the team. I lived through the Kerry Collins offense for many years so it’s nice to finally have a quarterback who can run an offense on the field. This season has been especially enlightening (I lived in England for most of last season and was not able to view your progress then). You’ve shown no less than some of the purest talent I’ve seen in my time watching the NFL. Let’s face it, you’ve got amazing potential. But frankly, after suffering through a third straight loss that I can’t hang on anyone but you, I’ve become a little concerned.

There are a lot of reasons that you guys have lost the last three games. The roster of injuries on this team is overwhelming, and I don’t think anyone really appreciated Luke Petitgout before he broke his leg. Brandon Short and Michael Strahan are instrumental pieces in the defense. No less than that, but Strahan has really become the cheerleader for the defense—firing them up on every play, pulling together on a bad run. Even through all the injuries though, you guys have still held strong. Antonio Pierce seems better now than at the beginning of the season. Fred Robbins gets mentioned several times every game. Even the secondary is starting to tighten up a little, although they have a long way to come. But Eli, you are the scale on which all these things balance. And you’ve been tilting off to the side for weeks.

There is absolutely no reason that you aren’t up in the top 5 quarterbacks in the league. You’re extremely talented. When you take your time and step up in the pocket, your throws are like heat-seeking missiles. You can thread the ball past two defenders and into the hands of Jeremy or Plaxico like it’s nothing at all. But then two minutes later you can throw the same ball and have it picked. When you’re on a roll, like a few of the drives in the Jags game last night, you’re near unbeatable. But something seems to come loose when things aren’t going the right way and you seem to lose all confidence in your playing ability.

It must be hard being a Manning in this league, living in the shadow of not only your father but Peyton too. You’ve probably grown sick the number of times you’ve had your stats compared to Peyton or been mistaken for him. I understand the frustration. But here’s the thing. There’s a thin line separating you from mediocrity and greatness, and that line is all in your mind. You have been incredibly lucky to end up at a franchise that wants to make you one of its marquee players. You have a rock solid defense and an offense that can knock your socks off when they’re firing on all cylinders.

Whatever you need to do, you need to calm yourself down in your head. You need to throw to Jeremy early and often. He might be a little bit crazy off the field, but he’ll fight to the death for any pass that you throw him. You two seem to have this unmistakable connection. When you need a clutch play, he’s the guy you can go to. Same with Plaxico on long plays. He’s tall enough to reach over most cornerbacks and safeties. He’s the guy who will make those downfield catches for 20+ yards. Even Tim Carter has presence and can be a great asset. And never forget that you have two great running backs with explosive power off the line. The Jags had you stuffed, but once Bob Whitfield settles in you’ll start getting more running options—leaving you to make the big plays and better control the offense.

There is no end to my faith in you. But right now, this is succeeding or failing on your back. There’s no doubt in my mind that some day you will be compared to Peyton not as a younger brother but as a rival or equal. You are that good. It’s time to step up.

Sara Hatch

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Monday, November 27, 2006

"Your attention, please. . .", by DaSkeeza

I am a sports announcer.

No, you don't know me. I'm not on Fox, ABC, CBS, NBC or ESPN. I'm not on ESPN Radio, or the Jim Rome show, or anything like that. In fact, you've probably never heard my name or noticed me, and if that's the case, I've been doing my job well.

This is my 13th year announcing sports. True, some of it was in college radio, but the majority of it has been as a public address announcer.

So what's that, you ask?

The public address announcer is the voice of your local stadium, arena, rink, or whatever venue you watch sports at. He (or, in the case of the San Francisco Giants, she) welcomes the fans, introduces the starting lineups, reports on essential game information, and reads sponsor messages over the facility's sound system. And, if you happened to leave your lights on in the parking lot, I'll gladly tell you and all your fellow fans of that fact.

If you think about, the perks are great. I get in to games for free. I have access to all the areas the media does (meaning free food and drinks, sometimes). I sit courtside at the scorer's table for basketball, or in the press box for football, soccer, and baseball. Most of the time, I get paid for my services.

But before you think it's all gold, there are some hang-ups. Proving one's worth to those who hold the keys to the high profile gigs is a process similar to that of an aspiring actor. There are games that last forever in front of only a handful of fans, most of which are played while other games you are more interested in are going on. There's the whim of the public relations and marketing staffs, who, for one reason or another, may favor loyalty over talent. And, to cap it off, chances are that when starting out, an announcer will likely have to volunteer his services before being deemed worthy of a paying gig.

And what about that part about doing well if I'm not noticed? Think about all the great games you have seen on television or in person. Do you remember anything the public address announcer said? To be quite honest, if you did, then it probably wasn't that great a game. If I do my job poorly, people will notice and have a hard time focusing on the game itself. If I do too well and people notice, that probably means the fans were focusing on me and not the game.

Yet, it is my belief that even though you may be faceless as a public address announcer, what is said over the sound system has a direct bearing on the way fans experience the game. Over the next couple of months, I hope to let you in on how that process manifests itself through my eyes. I want to share with you all the experiences and revelations that I gather through my announcing work, and perhaps provide you with a perspective that will enhance your approach to the world of sports.

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The Classic Position, by Sara Hatch

When I was a kid, I loved pinball. It’s one of the oldest and simplest arcade games, but also one of the most fun. I was once reading a book where a father was describing the experience of playing pinball in a Paris café with his son. It was marvelous. It’s one of those classic games. I think my love of pinball is also the reason why I love running backs the most of any position in football. Watching the running game is like watching a game of human pinball.

If you asked me ten times whether I prefer offense or defense, nine and probably even ten times I’d say that I like defense more. A good sack of the opposing quarterback is one of the most thrilling things to see in football. But defense is a team effort. A safety can get a sack just as easily as a defensive end. And one player alone rarely accomplishes stopping a running back at the line of scrimmage. There are true defensive stars on all of the best defensive teams, like Brian Urlacher for the Bears and Michael Strahan for the Giants, but without a well-built defense around them they’d just be getting good tackles every few plays while mostly getting scored on from here till Monday. So, I find it hard to say that I love one position on the defense more than the other.

But running backs are pure pleasure to watch in action. A good running back will be supported by his offensive line, but he must also have the uncanny ability to see the holes that develop on the field. When I say that the run is like human pinball, I mean it. It’s a series of repetitive tasks: running towards objects that are trying to push you in the opposite direction. Most gains are little snippets, 5 or 6 yards here or there, constantly pushing closer to the goal line as boundaries are whizzed past. And then every once in a while there’s a brilliant convergence where all the pathways open up and it’s a clear line ahead. The goal is achieved. The touchdown is scored and you’re back at the beginning, ready to do it all again — to rack up more points.

The running game is fundamental and incredibly lethal. Indianapolis is 10-1 at this point but one key reason many fans don’t buy them as a Super Bowl favorite is their inability to defend against the run. It’s the running game that turns an offense from good to amazing, that gives the quarterback the ability to make throws on plays that look good, to set them up beautifully. So while the quarterbacks stand on the field ready to deliver those few laser strikes when coverage opens up, the running backs are there, bouncing off on down after down, relentlessly driving towards the goal.

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