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Whom do You Wanna be Like When you Grow Up?

28 May

When professional sports playoffs occur, teams play each other between four and seven times to determine who the best team is, and because of that, the teams begin to know each other. The ebb and flow of a series allows for adjustments and then for people to complain about factors that people are against them in an attempt to adjust the outcome in the future. The teams can no longer surprise the other and, usually, the best team wins the game. This is one reason I like professional sports. They reward excellence. I get to see teams (particularly teams of approximately equal skill) go head-to-head in different environments with different circumstances as many as seven times, and upsets are usually because we over-estimated or under-estimated a team and not usually because of a lucky play or two.

The NBA Playoffs have been fascinating this year, setting many records for close games and close series. And just when you think home court did not play a role, home teams are winning almost every game in the conference finals. At any rate, these series are happening at a time in my personal life when I am bemoaning the wussification of society in general. I’m teaching a children’s Sunday School class and coaching a Bible Quiz team, and I sit in awe at the things that parents complain about and the things that parents allow their children to complain about. I detest it when people are always blame-shifting and not “manning up” and taking accountability for their own junk.

Against that backdrop, I come into sports watching them very differently than I did ten years ago. I watch them with my children (well, mostly my son and whichever of my daughters feels she can weasel her way into a later bedtime if she agrees) and hope to find teachable moments. I love it when people take personal accountability for how they perform. David DuPree says, “You have to respect the referees, and can’t blame other people for your actions. If you make mistakes it’s either on me or on you.”

So, with apologies to my Pacer fan friends, I must say that I have a new-found appreciation of the Heat. After Game 4 in which Miami led from tip to buzzer and never really felt in danger of not winning the game, Paul George blamed the refs. Roy Hibbert blamed the coach. Several players said Lance Stephenson had put them in a bad position, and overall, they just didn’t take blame. After Game 5, where LeBron James played less than half the game because of foul trouble, when at least four of the fouls look fishy to me, LeBron did not blame the refs. He said he wanted to play more, but praised his teammates for giving him a chance to win.

I will not comment on the potential benefits of complaining about the refs at this point. Instead I will say, that I want to keep a copy of that LeBron interview. I want to show it to my son. I want to tell him that this is how you act like a man and take responsibility. This is how you act. This is what I want you to do when you feel like you’ve been wronged. It’s the first step in peace making and it is a huge step in maturity. I personally believe you can learn a lot about a man by whom he blames when things go wrong. LeBron took the blame and did not complain. This is the way to behave in a world of finger pointing and blame shifting.


Sport Buffet Hall of Fame Treatise

8 Jan

I am not a voter for the baseball Hall of Fame. I’m not a voter of any Hall of Fame, other than the one and since I’m actually in that hall of fame, my vote can be considered of minimal value. However, I feel that it is regular fans like me, who get away from the sanctimonious stuff who could actually give a good account of what the Hall of Fame SHOULD be. See the Hall of Fame is both a museum and a celebration of those players who are great.

The Hall of Fame is, in fact, the culmination of a great career. This is where a person must develop their philosophy on what is important. Is it more important to attempt to preserve the “integrity of the game” or is it more important to honor what actually happened on the field of play. I suppose there are a variety of answers one could have to that type of question, but the fact is that every individual who is up for the Hall of Fame actually participated in the game. They have statistics, memory-inducing moments, and games and/or championship winning resumes that demand consideration. I think this mandates giving candidates consideration, based on what they have actually done like Tim Kurkjian expressed here.

The Bob Costas test, which he discussed on the radio, is a great one theoretically. Attempt to determine if they were generationally great players before/without the use of performance enhancing drugs and vote on them with that dichotomy in mind. I call this the McGwire-Bonds distinction. McGwire was a great home run hitter, but the lack of other elements (he was a poor fielder and base runner, he had virtually no doubles or triples, and his batting average was certainly not hall of fame worthy—though not terrible) makes his case primarily based on PED-enhanced categories, whereas Bonds won several Gold gloves, had great batting average and on base percentage, and was a fantastic base runner at the ages where people are potentially great base runners.

None of that is to say that even if you accept the McGwire-Bonds Distinction that you cannot think that Mark McGwire is a Hall of Fame player. It just says that the case for Bonds can be made if you take away his alleged steroid use and his numbers in steroid use enhanced categories. McGwire may still be a Hall of Famer in your mind, but basically, Bonds has to be. The opposing view is one that says it is the job of voters to police the sport.

Here’s the problem with voting for the Hall of Fame being a way to police the sport. First, unless it is connected with being caught for doing the “crime” while playing, it undermines the policy. It undermines the sport itself. If we are going to make decisions like Ken Gurnick‘s decision where you leave out a whole generation, it seems to be a fair and consistent choice. By the same token, it also deprives the Hall of Fame of the recognition in an age of the game itself.

Realizing that baseball interest numbers are dwindling, it is a very poor decision to not recognize any period in your history to a group of potential new fans. People from my generation are entering the prime purchasing power of our lives and our memories, and the individuals who made them, are being excluded from the Hall of Fame. This naturally inhibits our interest in both the Hall of Fame and the game it memorializes. This is a bad move for baseball. On a complete tangent, I believe if the voters continue with this nonsense, someone will come up with a private hall of fame idea that will eventually replace Cooperstown as the memorial of baseball memories.

The second problem with trying to police the sport is you will definitionally be wholly inadequate at doing it. The idea of policing something is to do away with the problem. Not voting someone into the Hall of Fame does nothing to keep people from using Performance Enhancing Drugs during their careers. These careers are over, and very few people (if any) play with the primary incentive being to make the Hall of Fame. The incentive is to have fun, make money, be popular, or something that is more immediate. Therefore, you police the Hall of Fame, which is, by its very nature, a place that is a memorial of what happened. It’s asinine to believe that any memorial can ever improve the thing which it memorializes.

The third problem with policing the sport is knowing who is guilty of something worthy of exclusion. Sure, I believe Barry Bonds used Performance Enhancing Drugs. Excluding him from the Hall of Fame merely because I believe that means that I punish based only on my feeling. It is as unjust as a parent deciding to punish a child, merely because the parent believes that something wrong was done. And when you punish someone for something you “believe” happened, how can you ever be certain that you are punishing the right person and all of the correct people. The simple answer is you can not.

The fourth problem with policing the sport is that cheating is a sliding scale. Before replay (and even after it, to some degree), batters who knew they did not hit a home run tried to sell that they did, base stealers trying to spike fielders, outfielders feigned a catch, pitchers spit on a baseball to make it unbalanced in weight, catchers sold a strike, second baseman pretend to tag out base stealers, and first basemen obstruct baserunners views while pretending to make a play.

Deception is part of the sport. Deception is encouraged until it is caught. Aren’t all of these things cheating to one degree or another. Now certainly, none of them raise to the level of something that affects your entire being. But until outlawed, all of these things were part of the things players got away with. To classify everyone who does things that we now consider barbaric or illegal when it was accepted by the game is to not recognize the flaws of the game itself. And while today could have been a celebration of perhaps the best class of people to enter the Hall of Fame since the initial class, it is instead a debate on the morality of something where most evidence is circumstantial at best.

The game was flawed. Let’s fix it. Let’s make the punishment real steep. Let’s take multiple time offenders who falsify information and purposefully obstruct MLB’s intent to improve the game, like Alex Rodriguez, and eliminate them from the game permanently. That is a way that Major League Baseball can move forward and attempt to fix the situation. If any other players fit that category, give them lifetime bans. Exclude those people from the Hall of Fame. If we believe that people were only great because they cheated, we don’t want to honor that.

On the other hand, if you try to tell educated people of the forthcoming generations that the best players they ever saw never had a positive drug test, were linked in some conversation about improper drug use, and are therefore not worthy of being recognized as a great player in the best museum ever made, people won’t go to the museum that doesn’t hold those memories. Without nostalgia, the game begins to lose a foothold on the fabric of collective consciousness.
Without that, generations of baseball fans will find another way to spend their summers and the game will die.

Shear numbers tell us that if the Hall of Fame voters continue with this policing strategy for even just one more year, the backlog of great players that this generation of baseball fans remembers will be so great, that the tide will turn. Jim Caple noticed the math on this years ago, but the future of baseball fans is less enthusiastic than ever before, and that is frustrating.

NASCAR Must not Become Myopic

12 Sep

The race last Saturday was phenomenal drama. In fact, it may be the best race I have seen in several years. Going into the race, where five spots were available for the playoffs and about 10 people had a shot, is a great storyline. The fact that the two guys most directly battling for one spot (Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon) started together on the front row was astounding (not to mention the defending champ, who had only a “puncher’s chance” of getting in was starting third). It was, quite possibly, the most far-reaching drama in a single NASCAR race ever.

Then, the spin-out happened. My immediate reaction was that I thought it was just a little too coincidental that the person to benefit the most was the teammate of the guy who caused the caution. I also noticed (which I think was more coincidental, but still kind of ironic) that the man who was most harmed was Jeff Gordon, whom Bowyer seems to have it out for. At any rate, the thing that made this race special was not the race itself (it was exciting, but nothing ultra special), but rather the intrigue of who would make the Playoffs.

I understand that, on one hand, looking at improper action in this race, when much of it happens every race is seemingly nearsighted. On the other hand, the improper action was not based on this race. There wasn’t a concerted effort to allow someone to finish better in this race, because this race was so special. The effort was to improve the standing in this race so as to effect the entire season standings. Therefore, looking at just the results of this race is too short sighted of a view to take when establishing a punishment.

First of all, I am excited that NASCAR did something. I halfway expected them to ignore the issue, and the fact that they acted was very good, in my opinion. While I believe the 50-point penalty was good, as we sit right now, here is the situation. The penalty was given to three teams. One of the teams has a driver who isn’t even running for Sprint Cup points this year (the 55 team of Vickers). One of the teams has a driver whose points are getting reset so the negative to him is completely unfelt (the 15 team of Bowyer). The Truex penalty was huge, but, by the same token, a 1-point penalty would have been just as big to him in net effect.  So it wasn’t the size of the Truex penalty that made it effective, but rather, that there was a penalty at all.

When two of the three drivers don’t even notice the penalties, are the penalties effective? This is why NASCAR needs to change the rule from a penalty-driven sentence to one of logic. If you manipulate points to get into the playoffs (it probably only matters in the last race), you aren’t in the playoffs. End of rule. No exceptions. And the punishment shouldn’t allow denials to matter. When in-car audio juxtaposed with crazy hand movement makes it obvious to an average fan with a driver’s license, then he should be punished. Parenthetically, it is crazy to me that Bowyer denies that it is on purpose, yet felt the need to call Ryan Newman to apologize.

To me, I’d rather see Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard in the Chase, then have Clint Bowyer with a shot at winning after what he did. Yet, consider this. Martin Truex, Jr got a penalty, which put Ryan Newman into the Chase Playoffs. Now, that the evidence seems to be that Joey Logano received unfair help, NASCAR could be in a weird situation. Imagine they decide to penalize Logano something between 2 and 10 points. Then, all of a sudden, Jeff Gordon would be in, but Joey Logano would be the wildcard and Ryan Newman would be out. That’s a crazy scenario. And to let Penske go when Michael Waltrip Racing was punished so severely doesn’t seem like a good idea either.

This is why NASCAR needs to look at the manipulative drivers as something to punish in a different way. They need to not try to treat the race before the Playoff cutoff (or the final race of the year) differently. You cannot treat this race as if it is another race, when the preceding 25 races are nullified in some ways because of it. There’s a reason why pass interference on the last play of a “Hail Mary” game is a different call than a ten yard out in the second quarter. An NBA Finals game has a different setup than my high school conference tournament. When eyeballs are watching, action needs to be taken in different ways! NASCAR must make a decision that doesn’t treat this like just another race or else the next time a race comes with this much intrigue, people will lose interest, and that is what happens when they become too myopic.

Male Tennis Greats

20 May

Almost two years ago, I got the hankering to write about Tennis. For some reason the blog was never posted. Maybe it still shouldn’t be. But here is a commentary on tennis greats. I still agree with most of it, though the prism of the last two years gives us more clarity on Rafael Nadal and suddenly, a new contender may have emerged—Novak Djokovic!

June 30, 2011

Any time you discuss the best at something, it tends to turn into a trashing of the #2 and #3 person in the argument, so it will be with this. So, when asking the question, “Who is the best male tennis player ever?” must start with the fact that everyone in the discussion is very good. But, there clearly are objective standards that we can look at, and if we’re going to have this discussion, we must.

As biased Americans who grew up in the 80’s, we often like to start with John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Objectively, they are great entertainers who brought people into the game, but they are merely top ten players overall. Andre Agassi is another American who was great. And if he hadn’t done relatively nothing from 1996-98, he might be higher. And the funny thing is, those are the years when most people have their “peak.” And people argue that there are no ill effects of marijuana! The long haired teenager-early twenties guy won three grand slams and reached seven finals. Then, the reborn shaved head old guy won five grand slams and reached eight finals. His overall win percentage is better than Sampras’s and if you exclude those three years, his grand slam winning percentage is better. Nevertheless, his wasted prime knocks him down the list.

Many people like to begin with Roy Emerson or Rod Laver. Now this is difficult for two reasons. First, I am not old enough to have seen them. Second, they won at least some of their grand slams in the amateur era. I won’t pretend to be the best at translating amateur era wins into Open Era wins, but I do think we can look at the numbers for what they are. They have won 12 and 11 grand slams. Both are impressive, but I think they fall just short of the man in the open era to whom they are most comparable–Björn Borg.

Björn Borg is a notch better than these two in my mind. He won 11 grand slams, but he did it on the two most opposite surfaces–clay and grass–almost equally. He did not win the US Open or the Australian Open, but I think this should come with an asterisk. He competed in the Australian Open only once (in 1974 when he was young). In the US Open, excluding 1974, he averaged five wins a tournament. He made it to the finals in four of the remaining years. So, while he never won the US Open, he was a threat to win it often. He competed in only 27 grand slams and won 11 and got second another five times. So, he won tournaments as often as he didn’t make the final. That is simply incredible. And when he retired, he had gone 39-3 in his last six grand slams. He may have been able to continue to win and certainly would have contended. He was the Jim Brown of Tennis. And while I have him above the guy with more grand slams–Pete Sampras–he clearly was not as motivated by history.

Pete Sampras’s numbers are very comparable to Borg’s in his three most successful grand slams, except he competed in all four grand slams. And while Borg only played on two surfaces for grand slams, Sampras played on three (if we consider all “hard” courts the same). Sampras was phenomenal on grass and was very good on hard courts. But his record at the French Open was between 64% and 65%. To give you a frame of reference, that is the same winning percentage at the French as Anna Kournikova (and worse than her overall grand slam winning percentage), who is not known as a great all time tennis talent. It isn’t so much that Sampras never won at Roland Garros, but that he never made a final. He was never just one match away from winning there. When you consider that almost 40% of the year is played on clay courts, I have a hard time considering him the best ever. In fact, in my mind, he is a more exaggerated version of the man who surpassed him in total grand slams–Roger Federer.

Roger Federer’s knock for a long time was that he never won the French. But unlike Sampras, he has always been good there. He has won over 80% of his matches there and he has made the final five times (and all four losses were to arguably the best clay court player ever). So, while he did win one, he’s been a threat often and has been consistently among the best on all surfaces. More overall grand slams than Sampras, a better overall winning percentage, and a better showing, by far, on the weakest surface for both (clay). As of right now, I have Federer as the best ever.

While it is difficult to evaluate people in the midst of their careers, there is one player who COULD pass Federer. That is, of course, Rafa Nadal. Right now, he has not passed him. He has a similar number of grand slam wins and entries as Borg. For years he was considered a clay court specialist, and has only lost once at Roland Garros (and that when he had an injury so pronounced he missed Wimbledon a month later). But, he hasn’t lost at Wimbledon since 2007. He’s 17-2 in his last three years at Flushing Meadows. His “weakest” grand slam is the Australian, where he’s won once and has an overall winning percentage of about 83%. With only 11 grand slams, he isn’t at that level yet, but he could be. Right now, he’s battling Borg and Sampras for 2.

The Bulls should trade Rose

9 May

People are arguing about whether Derrick Rose should return to the Bulls. This is definitely an intriguing debate with many different perspectives. I also have a perspective in that I tore my ACL and returned to play soccer just a few months later. Four months, to the day, after my surgery, I started my senior soccer campaign, where I was named all state. So, I know what it is like to come back from the injury (though not nearly at that level).

The thing that proves I’m crazier than Derrick Rose is I went back in the game with the torn ACL and then played the rest of the [soccer] season and all of basketball season (and led the team in scoring several games, so I wasn’t just a token throw away) before actually having the surgery. So, I can say with the utmost confidence that if it were me, I would be on the court playing. I’m not sure if that is the precise reason that Rose is so much better than me, but he certainly takes better care of himself and his body than I do.

Having said all of that, I think the point that is being missed is that Derrick Rose is not the player the Chicago Bulls should build around. Rose is a great player. He won league MVP a couple years ago. And similar to the argument made by Gary Washburn (while I like the logic and argument, his conclusion makes him seem like a lunatic), you can judge a players worth based on the bottom line improvement to the team.

With Derrick Rose at an MVP level, the Bulls were the #1 seed and lost decisively in the Conference Finals. This year without Derrick Rose playing at all, the fell to the #5 seed and look to lose decisively in the Conference Semifinals. That is a drop-off, to be sure, but nothing like the drop-off experienced when LeBron James left the Cavaliers (or joined the Heat). In the three years since James left the Cavs, they have averaged 21 wins. The three years before, they averaged over 57 wins and 2 playoff series won). Similarly, Miami’s average wins in full seasons has jumped from 35 with no playoff wins to 62 and made it to the NBA Finals in each of the previous two seasons (and are favorites to return).

I certainly think LeBron is a far better player than Derrick Rose, but even still, a great player like Rose should have more of an impact on the team on which he plays. I believe the reason he does not is because he’s on the wrong team. Many are making the analogy between Joakim Noah playing with plantar fasciitis, Luol Deng trying to play after a Spinal Tap, and 5’9″ Nate Robinson playing with severe flu. Kirk Hinrich finished the game where he severely bruised his left calf. This team oozes toughness.

Further, when the Bulls were playing their best, they still rarely won because Derrick Rose was leading them on a scoring-fest. They won games because their defense is among the best in the league. Tom Thibodeau has the best defensive system in the league and he gets the team to buy into it like no other team in the league does. Derrick Rose is not known as a defensive stalwart, even when at peak health.

Derrick Rose is a great player. When he plays, the Bulls are undoubtedly a better team, but I would challenge you to name any great player in any sport, who led his team to a championship on a team where the style of the team did not also reflect his personal style. The Showtime Lakers, the Jordan Bulls, the smart Celtics (whether the iteration involving Larry Bird or Bill Russell), and the system Spurs are all examples of the style of the best player being the style of the team. Rose’s place on the Bulls is more like Iverson’s place on the 76ers team.

It may have taken this situation for the Bulls to accept it, but the fact is that as long as they are a team coached by Tom Thibodeau, they will not win a championship with Derrick Rose as their central player. The reason they give teams an approximately equal amount of fits, whether Rose is playing or sitting is because the team is not built around Rose’s tremendous skill set. They spend most of their time concentrating on that side of the court where Rose is less at home (defense).

I believe that whether or not Rose comes back this year is almost inconsequential. What really matters and should really be understood is that the team is built around toughness and defense. Rose gives both a good college try, but neither would be his forte. In a sport, where one player makes such a profound difference, the best chance at winning a championship is when you build around your best player, not outside of him. The Bulls are a very good team that may just be a piece or two away from a championship, but that piece is not Derrick Rose. At the same time, I think Rose could be a championship piece; he just isn’t for this Bulls team.

The State of the NCAA Tournament

28 Mar

A lot of people will claim that Florida Gulf Coast making the Sweet Sixteen is a sign that the tournament needs to be expanded. Even a condensed field would be likely to include conference tournament winners, so the better argument is that LaSalle is in the Sweet Sixteen (or that VCU was in the Final Four in 2011). So the argument goes that if teams at the very bottom can make a deep run in (or perhaps even win) the tournament, there should be more teams invited, as some of them have a shot also.

The flattening of the college basketball level doubtlessly means that there will be more “Cinderella” stories and that more teams have a chance to win the tournament. This is the premise under which Dicky V and many others would claim that we need more teams. The argument follows that we should include all the teams that have any chance of winning (or at least a chance of beating the teams that might have a chance to win).

I believe this is a mistake. You see, if every team that has any chance to win is included in the tournament, what was the point of playing the regular season? The best teams always have the best chance to win because they are…the best teams. As the gap decreases between that top layer and the next teams, definitionally differentiation becomes more difficult. The more difficult it is to differentiate, the more important it is to use the maximum amount of information at hand to differentiate.

Clearly the regular season is the best source of this information about which teams deserve a shot. The conference tournaments already give every team a shot to make the tournament. These factors, however, have contributed to the most ludicrous of seasons. Who really is eliminated from championship contention in the college basketball regular season? This year, one of the “first team’s out” was Kentucky, who couldn’t even beat Robert Morris in the NIT. I’m not saying that Kentucky couldn’t have created some damage in the NCAA tournament, because I believe they could have.

The mere fact that we allow a team to be under par all year and then sneak into a tournament and potentially win as our way of crowning a National Championship is ludicrous. I am not advocating a system like NCAA Football, where there are good teams who had worthy seasons, which don’t make the playoffs because (wait for it…) there aren’t any. On the other hand, a system where making the playoffs is an accomplishment unto itself is better. You need look no further than the difference between the college football and college basketball regular seasons to see, a season that matters is just better.

I state that a reduced field is the way to go. There are still approximately 30 conference champions who get automatic invitations. If we restricted the number of “at large” bids to about 18, that would include the top teams who had earned a spot into the field. It would also mean that most of those teams around #20 would have to give a full out effort to win their conference tournament, thereby increasing the urgency there. It would also allow for six rounds, just that the top 16 teams would only need to win five games. Of course, that would take away the dream that one day a 16 would beat a 1, but truly few of us lose sleep awaiting this opportunity.

If the regular season were given immediately more significance, a North Carolina-Kentucky game in December might have more meaning (and therefore, more viewers). A regular season which involves people watching more games, increases the tournament where most of us are just introducing ourselves to the teams. A tournament with fewer teams would also do little to take away the “Cinderella” stories and would eliminate the glut from the major conferences. A team that went .500 in the Big East would no longer be a shoe-in. And when has the insistence on excellence ever been a bad thing?

Learning Life from Chris Webber

7 Mar

I was finally able to watch the documentary, The Fab Five, about the story of Michigan’s college basketball team in the early 1990’s. As a person who was on a high school basketball team during that age, watching this team is something I remember fondly. Some of the simulacrums of my youth and basketball playing stem from this team. So as a full disclosure, the video may be more influential to me than the average person, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Watching it made me consider the story of Chris Webber. Not the story of his relationship with Big Money Ed (where, for the sake of full disclosure, I’ll concede that I think most people give him more of a bum rap than they should), but the story of his basketball playing at the University of Michigan. It’s an interesting story to be sure.

Chris Webber was the best player in high school, graduating in 1991. He was a phenomenal player, often looking like a man among boys. Then he was part of this incredible class recruited to the University of Michigan. He was a tremendous talent. Watching him play on that team, I remember thinking how wonderful he was.

If ever there was someone who could take over a college basketball game by himself to make his team win, Chris Webber was at the top of this list. Specifically, in the two championship games, Chris Webber played his best when everything was on the line. In the second championship game, he played incredibly well in the second half to pull the team back into contention. He was the reason that the game was close.

Finally, he made a play for which most people remember him. He called a timeout that his team did not have, which made the comeback that he had spearheaded, impossible. I remember the devastation in his eyes, as if it were yesterday. I remember thinking (as a fifteen year-old) that the media was too hard on this guy who had done yeoman’s work and made a simple mistake.

But most of all, as I think of the story, I recognize the fallibility we all possess. I think of this massive man, who had the running, jumping, and dunking skills like no other power player I’ve seen, yet had the grace to play the game well. I think of someone who did everything so well, then making one mistake and becoming the scapegoat. I think that none of us is capable of doing everything by ourselves. And we all make mistakes, though not always in front of 35 million people.

I am just glad that I don’t have to completely answer for those mistakes I make. Because in my quest to make things happen, I rarely come anywhere close to the achievement. In short, I’m not able to do, in any field, what Chris Webber did in the NCAA basketball game. Fortunately, I don’t have to bear the weight of my failures alone. Amazingly, because of the gift of the gospel, I am able to be far inferior and have the imputed works of Christ answer for me. For that I am eternally grateful, as I do not want to bear the weight of my massive failures alone.