Monday, January 22, 2007

Now Taking the Field, Your Local College 9!, by DaSkeeza

I can’t believe it. Baseball season is just around the corner.

No, not major league baseball, college baseball!

Somehow I don’t think you’re real excited at that statement.

Maybe I can convince you otherwise.

With the college football and pro football seasons wrapping up and basketball season reaching mid-season form, a lot is going on in the sports fan’s head. Surely, with the explosion of punditry over the past five or so years, there is no shortage of opinion as to who is number one, who belongs, and who doesn’t belong.

Which is why college baseball may be an interesting way to clear a fan’s mind.

For one more year, the college baseball season will begin in late January. Since only western and southern schools can host games this yearly, the NCAA will move to a universal start date in the middle of February next season. Even then so, the early part of the college baseball season offers intriguing match-ups for fans.

Last season, the defending national champions Texas Longhorns opened their season with a three-game tilt against the University of San Diego . On paper, it seemed like a giant mismatch. The defending national champion up against a team from the dinky West Coast Conference that didn’t make it into the previous year’s tournament, why even bother? After USD swept the series, it was no joke.

Texas has its chance for redemption when the Toreros come to town to open the 2007 campaign. A couple of weeks later, they have a series with perennial power Long Beach State, who proudly boasts MVP 07 NCAA Baseball coverboy Jered Weaver as on of its alums (among others, like Jason Giambi).

College world series contender the pre-season #8 Vanderbilt also receives an early test, when they face both Rice and Arizona State in its opening weekend of play. And what of the defending national champions Oregon State ? A three-game series with Georgia in Athens in the second week of the season should have the Diamond Dogs out in full force.

But enough about the high-profile match-ups. Why college baseball, of all things?

With skyrocketing ticket prices, drug scandals, and greater distance from the fans, some baseball fans may feel a little alienated by the whole major league experience. Taking the family to a ballgame these days costs a lot of money. And once you’re in the ballpark, access to special areas is usually limited. That’s a tough reality especially if you have kids, who, as you probably know, can’t sit still for a nine inning game.

In college parks, however, the prices are a lot cheaper. Most tickets don’t exceed $15. Some parks have lawn seating on the baselines or in the outfield, perfect for picnics and children who want to run around the park. The stadiums are small and cozy, and the seats are close to the action (better chance for catching foul balls). With many schools opening brand new parks in recent years, seats that go for top dollar in major league yards are easily obtained in college stadiums.

And the players? The experience varies, but I find that most of them are willing to sign autographs and mingle with fans. After all, with their parents at just about every game, the players would be wise to.

So what about the aluminum bats? They’re not really such a bad thing, as most people who have played baseball (or softball) use aluminum for much of their careers. Only the small, elite group that makes it to college semi-pro leagues on up use wood. Furthermore, it makes offense livelier and solid pitching that much more difficult to accomplish.

I’ve come to find that no matter where you watch baseball, each ballpark has its own personality. The fans behave a certain way. The outfields have varying dimensions and different skylines in the background. The regulars cover the entire spectrum of personalities. But when you look into college baseball, you find that there are hundreds of places you can experience the game. And with the cozy and collegial atmosphere, the experiences of baseball as an institution are felt more in a college ballpark than in a major league ballpark.

While these early season match-ups are great, the postseason is a completely different beast worthy of its own, exclusive description. Where tickets to the NCAA’s basketball tournament and college bowl games are hard to come by, tickets to the NCAA baseball regionals and super regionals are usually easily obtained. This is when you see the college baseball experience at its best. You see the same passion and energy in the fans as you do in the MLB playoffs, but here you get to see it at point-blank range.

It all ends in Omaha in June, at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, where the eight super regional winners battle it out in the Men’s College World Series. This site is so ideal that for over 50 years, the NCAA has never moved the series. What better place to contest college baseball’s championship than a minor league ballpark in America ’s Breadbasket? (Granted, the minor league team that plays there takes a road warrior trip for the three or four weeks the NCAA needs the stadium. Since no major league team would consider doing that, the CWS probably can’t be held in a major league park). Home runs have always been plentiful at the series, and they have been a proving ground for several players that have on gone on to major league success. Of recent note, Oakland closer Huston Street , who, in his time at Texas , was the Mariano Rivera of college baseball, and had the stamina to even come in at the tail end of the seventh or beginning of the eighth to slam the door on Longhorn opponents. Those familiar with his exploits do not find it surprising that he claimed AL Rookie of the Year honors two years ago.

So if you love baseball as an institution and want to experience it in a significant yet inexpensive form, visit your local college ballpark this year. It’s cheap, fun, and perhaps a solid reminder of the real reasons behind America ’s fascination with its national pastime.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Rookie Impacts

In a year in which the Texans have the frontrunner for Defensive Rookie of the Year (DeMeco Ryans) and it’s not their first overall pick, its not surprising that this weekend’s final four all have one thing in common: rookies have played an integral part in their success. In the NFL it’s certainly been the year of the rookie, five of which will still be playing and likely making significant contributions on Sunday.

Of the four finalists, the NFC Championship game features the two teams that have perhaps benefited most from their rookies.

The 13-3 Bears won games because of their stellar defense, a unit that often had to compensate for the much-publicized struggles of Rex Grossman, and because of Devin Hester. He won two games on his own (Arizona, St. Louis) and sparked the comeback against the Giants with his record setting 108-yard field goal return. His effect on games has evolved to the point that last week the Seahawks squib-kicked almost all of their kickoffs, forfeiting the 30 yard line instead of tempting Hester with the end zone.

As for the Saints, Sean Payton has been able to construct the most eclectic offensive schemes in the NFL in large part because of the diverse talents of Reggie Bush and Marques Colston. Colston, at first just a complement to Joe Horn and Devery Henderson (how much could be expected from a 7th-rounder?), has emerged as the Saints best receiver. Bush’s gifts (speed, patience, vision, unbelievable cutting ability) are well documented and after a slow start he’s now consistently showing flashes of the brilliance we all saw at USC and on the YouTube high school highlight tape. But what has made him particularly valuable is that his skill set is such a perfect accompaniment to what Deuce McAllister can do. Payton has exploited these complementary parts to create innovative and oft-changing offensive sets, often playing the two backs simultaneously, sometimes both in the backfield, other times with Bush split wide.

While the Pats and Colts have relied less on their respective rookies, the AFC game has a second layer of rookie-focus within it beyond a personal measured impact.

The widely held belief is that back in April the Colts had targeted Laurence Maroney with their first round pick, only to watch the Pats trade up and snag him, and then had to settle for Joseph Addai. Addai has been no slouch (1,081 yards, a 4.8 avg., and 8 TDs), but the glut of first-year awesomeness and the year long disrespect of the Indy running game has left Addai and his rookie-leading rushing yards in the shadows of Vince Young, Maurice Jones-Drew, and even Maroney.

So what about Maroney? Has he just been coasting on reputation and plays that make Sportcenter more often than Addai’s? He’s played fewer games than any of these guys, missing two due to a back injury, but his impact can’t be understated. In a year in which the Pats offense had a sudden dearth of offensive weapons and lacked a home-run threat, Maroney was just that. It isn’t that he just took the pressure and additional pounding off of Dillon, but he also added that extra kick of power and speed too.

None of these guys will win Offensive Rookie of the Year, because that will probably go to Vince Young, as the QB position will likely be the trump card. Even without Young, the above five candidates would have plenty of competition from the deepest rookie class in recent memory: D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, Marcus McNeill, Jones-Drew, Leinart.

But one of these standouts will get themselves a Super Bowl ring. So let’s think of things within that context, how these rookies will impact Sunday’s games.

At the pace Bush and Hester have been going I’m expecting one “wow!” play from each. Bush now understands when he can afford to dance around and when to run straight ahead. Hester hasn’t had a TD in more than a month and had one called back last week. It feels like he’s due. Of course both of these things can be mitigated respectively by the Chicago defense (since Bush turned the corner only Washington’s D has stopped him) and Hester’s penchant for nervous muffs (how come no one mentions this?).

The best thing about this match-up is that it’s strength vs. strength, the Saints’ O vs. Bears’ D, and while Bush and Colston are part of their team’s strength, Hester can be the tie-breaker. Do I have a little hometown bias? Yes. In the end, it’s too tough to pick against the Bears at home in the winter time, global warming or not.

The rooks in the AFC game are a smaller part of the big picture, only because of the recent playoff history between these two teams. But it could still be a showcase to confirm or disconfirm popular perception about the two backs. Both the game and the RB battle will come down to this question: Have the Colts actually been stopping the run or have they been playing against inept offenses? For all of the attention focused on Manning and Brady, their performances will be a function of the successes or failures of their respective team’s rushing attack.

The return of Bob Sanders from a knee injury has widely been touted as the key to Indianapolis’ defensive surge. However, he was in Foxboro on November 5th making 11 tackles. In that regular season meeting Addai stumbled to a 2.4 avg. compared to Maroney’s 4.8. The Colts ran for 53 yards to the Patriots’ 148. Once you discount the Sanders factor, there’s little reason to expect a difference this time around.

The Pats lost that game because of Brady’s four interceptions. Brady has never had more than two 3+ interception games in one season (playoffs included). That second game came last week against the Chargers. I’m taking Maroney over Addai, Brady over Manning, and a rematch of Super Bowl XX.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

What About Grant Hill?

Rewind your mind to the summer of 2000 and try to recall the commotion that surrounded the Magic’s signing of Grant Hill, the prize of the free agent class.

Six years prior, as a Pistons rookie in 1994, Hill was already part of the national consciousness after a career at Duke which featured two national titles, a third appearance, and the most famous lob pass in NCAA history. In February of that season he became the only rookie in NBA history to lead the league in All-Star votes. Four months later he was co-Rookie of the Year with Jason Kidd.

Twelve years later Jason Kidd is among the league assist leaders and a perennial All-Star. Grant Hill is a perennial afterthought. But as this season approaches the halfway mark, Orlando is currently slotted as a playoff contender, Hill has barely missed a game and is the team’s second leading scorer behind the man-child Dwight Howard. Averaging less than fifteen points per game isn’t exactly noteworthy, unless it’s viewed in the proper context. This isn’t a matter of how good Hill is now that he’s finally healthy, but rather his reclamation of a piece of the greatness that has been taken from him so habitually.

21.5, 7.5, 6. That’s points, boards, and assists per game over Hill’s first six years in the league. He was a triple-double waiting to happen every night. In those six seasons, his best running-mates were a past-his-prime Joe Dumars and an immature Jerry Stackhouse who hadn’t yet gone long enough without a championship that he was willing to subjugate his game for the betterment of the team. Allan Houston also made a two-year appearance to shoot and do nothing else. Under Alvin Gentry, the guard situation was so bad that Hill regularly brought the ball up the court. Replace his effervescent attitude with a scowl and he would’ve been the original KG.

Of course that attitude is what makes his setbacks that much sadder and his persistence that much more understandable.

When something happens with regularity it is human nature to tune it out, to let it fade to the background of your consciousness. In the NBA no player has incited this kind of conditioned apathy like Grant Hill and his non-compliant ankles.

Think back to the hype that surrounded those Magic signings of Hill and McGrady. It was going to be the beginning of a new era after four hapless and Shaq-less years. Remember, Orlando was thought to have a shot at Duncan too. That summer must have injected that city with the kind of hope and excitement and eager anticipation that only six year-olds experience on the way to its theme parks.

Then came the first broken ankle and the first rehab. Actually, it was the second rehab. Hill had in fact injured the ankle in the previous postseason and spent that free agent summer getting better. At the time it was considered minor; no one mentioned it much and it was rarely listed as a possible concern for his long list of suitors. This attitude persisted even when he missed 78 games that year with the same injury. Why wouldn’t it? Who could have imagined the next five years?

Year after year it was the same song with a different verse. These were the lowlights: six surgeries (including deliberate re-fractures), a staph infection which necessitated a life-saving trip to the ER, and a total of 357 missed games.

Imagine the strain that each injury must have put on his personal life and his family. He must have been a broken record to his wife and kids. Imagine the strength it took to not only to commit to recovery but to have asked your family to support what must have seemed like a lost cause.

For years, one of the pre-season’s top stories was about Hill’s rehab. The tone was hopeful and anxious each time. It was a hope fueled by his past success and compounded by the anxiety that came with the Magic’s $93 million investment.

It looked like he might have turned the corner in 2004, playing 67 games, putting up 20 points per. But just when the ankle seemed OK, the constant tweaking, and favoring of his other foot, began to affect the rest of Hill’s body. The constant overcompensation brought on hamstring, shin, and foot problems in the previously healthy leg. Thus Hill devoted this past summer, just as the six before it, to doctor visits and rehabilitation.

Of course the aforementioned tune-out syndrome is accelerated and intensified when an investment of emotions is involved. It’s hard to be let down for six straight years. That’s why Grant Hill’s current season is a non-story. Like the quiet hum of an air conditioner, he’s become ambient noise. After all, there’s still plenty of time for him to get hurt, or so it seems is the popular thought process.

Don’t you think Hill remembers what kind of player he was, the kind of ability he had, how bright his star had shone? It’s easy to see him on the verge of depression with each successive medical analysis. And yet every time it happened he braced himself mentally for the physical therapy marathon and re-upped. Hill’s story is unprecedented. His persistence and commitment are admirable.

For all those athletes that everyone ends up rooting for just because they get old and have been around long enough, here you have an even more compelling case. This isn’t someone who “deserves it” just because he’s been around a while, but because he’s had to fight harder than anyone else to stick around. Its not just playing on bad teams or for bad coaches, it’s a refusal to quit.

Grant Hill is 34. So far he’s healthy, the Magic are on the playoff path in large part because of him, and no one seems to have noticed. Perhaps this will be proven the right way to think, perhaps its naïve to expect a full season from Hill.

I suppose it’s even better to have it as a non-story, to be able to think about it independent of any sort of media crush and to appreciate persistence and a refusal to quit without being told to do so.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The US Should Embrace Soccer, But Not Because of Beckham, by Sara Hatch

David Beckham is coming to the US. He’s been a very gifted soccer player for both the England National team and various European clubs. He’s also losing his gifts and is playing at nowhere near the level required to be a star in Europe. Any soccer fan that pays of a modicum of attention to the sport worldwide has seen the Beckham move coming for months. Still, there’s been plenty of talk about the possibility of him reviving the MLS and therefore soccer’s popularity in this country. This misses the point though, because the best way for Americans to get into soccer isn’t MLS; it’s the World Cup.

The World Cup is the best fit for a society that already has overlapping major league sports. It comes once every four years in splashes of over-exuberance. European papers drone on endlessly about the relative merits of their national teams, with at least one bemoaning the horrible tragedy it is that their team, obviously the best in Europe, didn’t make it to the final tournament.

The World Cup also comes during the peak of summer. Any veteran sports fan knows that pretty much the only thing going on at that time is the doldrums of baseball, the time when it really doesn’t matter yet who’s winning what. There’s no other serious competition in the sports world that can hinder one from tuning into the World Cup. Unless, of course, you watch a lot of golf, but that’s a whole problem in and of itself. And in recent years the games have become easier to watch: in 2006, every game was shown in its entirety and on ESPN or ABC, whereas before American audiences could only watch parts of games, and then only on cable.

But probably the best thing about the World Cup is its character. It’s all about the good kind of patriotism, a word I’ve found it hard to espouse in the past few years. When I sit in front of a TV with thousands of screaming fans in some sold out stadium somewhere in the world and watch the American team (which has competed in the last two Cups and should into the future) run up and down the field I can’t help but be proud of my country.

The World Cup is truly global and the stories it produces can’t be repeated. In the 2006 World Cup, the warring factions in Cote D’Ivoire declared a truce when their team reached the tournament. Talk about bringing people together. For all the good things the World Series and the Super Bowl do, they’ve never reunited a war-torn African nation.

Those who really love soccer (and anyone who’s ever lived for any amount of time in Europe) might call it a travesty that a fan only follows the World Cup. But for a nation with too many sports, I’d call it more than progress if they could get behind that much. One month every four years…and the best competition you’ll ever see.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

The Best Team Won…Because It Always Does, by Gabe Sokoloff

Each championship system values different qualities: the BCS values the intangibles factored into a poll of coaches, the single-elimination NFL playoff values clutch performance, and the best-of-five/seven series MLB playoff values tenacity (to name three). Most of us prefer one above the others, and I am interested our ability to assess these systems.

Let me clarify my purpose from the outset. I am not interested in discussing which system is best. That discussion might go: "tenacity is important...but clutch performance is the true mark of greatness. So, the NFL’s championship system is better than MLB’s". Instead, I am interested in what it really means for a system to be good or bad. The point of departure is this puzzle: we judge a system as good or bad based on its ability to identify the best team, and yet we define what qualities belong to a “best team” by referring back to that system.

A quick side-note: the subject here is both on the dry side and is unusually 'meta' for sports journalism, so I want to explain why I'm writing this at the outset. My reason is that complaints about how “the best team didn't win it all” – how a championship system often fails to reward the most deserving team – ARE common fare in sports journalism. I think then that it is important to look beneath the surface of these comments and figure out what all these terms really mean, in the hope of allowing for more meaningful complaining, especially with the Patriots’ upset of the Chargers just behind us and another Super Bowl just in front.

So, back to the puzzle. Our first premise is that a system is supposed to reward the best team. This point isn’t too controversial. But we usually mean it in a particular way: we think that the system is not creating the best team, but rather identifying it, just as a timed Olympic race identifies who is the fastest man. The notion of “fastest man” is somehow outside, somehow bigger than the test itself, which is just a means of finding to the result that was somehow always there. Even without a race, one of those men is still the fastest. Similarly, we tend to think that, system or not, there is a best team, and the championship system is just a more complex stopwatch for this more complex race among teams.

Our second premise – that we define what makes a best team by referring to our system – is as intuitive as the first. Consider this: to be the best NFL team, no one would dispute that it is more important to have a good record in games than a good record in halves-of-games. But we think this because our system rewards teams that perform well for full games, not halves. Similarly, we all believe that a team’s greatness over a season is indicated by its won-loss record, not by its points differential. But again, we hold this opinion because our system specifically rewards those teams that perform well in full games and does not (directly) reward teams for their points scored/ points allowed.

So we see that our system does not merely ‘identify’ the best team, in the way a stopwatch identifies the fastest man, but actually shapes what we consider the best team to be. But if this is true, then what of claims like "the best team didn't win it all? How can the best team not win if the best team is, by definition, the team that wins? That's the rub.

Two quick suggestions for how the best team may fail to win come to mind, but neither holds up to scrutiny. The first is that practical considerations impose a finite length on a season and playoff and so our sample size of games is too small to reliably reward the deserving winner. But this view assumes, like in science, that a larger sample size is always superior to a smaller one. But sports are not science, and this view ignores the value of winning when it counts most. We all agree that a great team is not simply one that wins nine times out of ten, but the team that wins the one time that matters.

A second (and related) answer might be that sometimes the best team doesn't win because it is the victim of bad luck. Here, we must take a hard look at our term “luck”. I would divide “luck” into two categories, which I call “in-the-game luck” and “outside-the-game luck”. When a defensive back makes an interception he would make only one time out of one hundred, his team benefits from “in-the-game luck”. A team that wins a game on a blown call benefits from “outside-the-game luck”.

“Outside-the-game” luck occurs when something prevents the system from working properly, such as a blown call, or if a player breaks the rules and doesn't get caught (e.g. steroids). In this case it is true that the best team might not win, but it is not the system's fault; instead, the system’s rules were violated. In other words, if a team loses on a blown call, we do not have a case of the best team not winning, but rather a case of an asterisk-tainted “winner”.

“Inside-the-game” luck occurs when something very unlikely influences the game – say, when the opposing team’s defensive back makes a game-winning interception he would only rarely make. It is tempting to say that, in such a case, the best team would not win. But if a player makes a play he would make only one in a hundred times, it is still the result of skill in some sense, as it’s possible that most players (or at least most people) would only make it one out of a thousand times.

I think that “luck” is a perfectly sensible term that we use meaningfully most of the time. I only mean to argue that it is beyond the ability of language to separate out factors like luck and skill as clearly as we often think we do. The fact is, once you are talking about real-life teams playing real-life games, terms like “skill” and “luck” are clumsily pieced together, and break down a whole into parts in a way that can never really work that well. Luck and skill are everywhere and they are nowhere. We might want to believe that the truly best team is the one that would win in a luck-free environment, but “luck-free” is nonsense, as are the notions of a team whose “raw skill is highest”. For these terms to have meaning there must be things in reality to which they correspond, but in real life no such thing exists. In our imaginary case of the once-in-a-hundred interception the arbitrariness and ultimate impossibility of deciding whether it was a result of luck or skill is very clear.

Given this, it’s hard to say that “luck” keeps the best team from winning; it is rarely if ever that simple. So I can now state, hopefully even more convincingly than before, that what makes a best team best are results only, where “results” = a team's status as decided by a system, despite any claims about luck or skill. The statement “the best team did not win” is self-contradictory, and so then are critiques of championship systems that are based on that idea. A championship system defines, not identifies, the best team, and can therefore never be mistaken.

One final question: how do we reconcile this view with the fact that we simply DO tend to prefer one championship system to another? I myself have always preferred the NFL’s single-elimination playoff to the MLB’s best-of-however-many games system. My reason is that I like the idea that each team has only sixty minutes of play to show itself to be superior. For whatever reason, I value that highly – perhaps I myself find clutch performance more personally challenging than tenacity, and I value in others what I myself lack. Whatever the reason, my preference for one system over another is completely personal and has no objective basis, as is the case with anyone’s preferences. These matters of taste are irrelevant to whether a system rightly or wrongly rewards the best team. I hope the reader does not resent that I have taken such a roundabout way just to illustrate that our mere preferences are mere preferences.*

*In this article I have dealt only with those of our preferences between systems that pertain to the qualities of a team themselves. There are other completely different kinds of reasons for preferring one system to another. For example, one might hold that the college football coaches’ poll is flawed because coaches may be biased. This is not the sort of complaint addressed here (and a complaint that can, I think, have an objective basis).


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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Video Highlights - Divisional Playoffs Edition

The hit that everybody's talking about.

Ed Reed is awesome.

And some great stuff from UF's beatdown of OSU earlier this week. Anyone still think we should have had a rematch of two Big 10 teams in the national title game? On a related note, does it make any sense for OSU to still be ranked #2 in both major polls? Would anyone take them against LSU or USC at this point?

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