Monday, October 26, 2009

Pitching a Holiday (Again)

It's time for National Baseball Day.

Posted By on Mon, Oct 26, 2009 at 9:24 AM

Major League Baseball recognizes it has a problem with selling the World Series. Better yet, Fox recognizes it has a problem in reaching a lucrative audience with its World Series broadcast. Thus the move this year to a schedule that has the Series opening on a Wednesday, instead of the Game-1-on-Saturday formula that's been in place for a generation. But the change isn’t enough.  

National Baseball Day would be a step closer.


A World Series game has not been played in the afternoon since Game 6 of the 1987 series. (That game was played in the Metrodome in Minneapolis, so even then there were no natural shadows on the field.) Games start in “prime time” on the east coast, often not ending till well past midnight — past the bedtimes of millions of kids from Maine to Miami.  

In the name of children coast to coast (and in the interest of our national pastime, clinging to relevance in many pockets of the country), the time has come for National Baseball Day. For a country obsessed with spectator sports, how is it that no federal holiday has been proclaimed to celebrate what so many millions do so often? And with no break between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, late October is ripe for a day with no school, no mail, no screaming alarm clock before the sun has risen.  

Here’s how the holiday would unfold: On the Wednesday that coincides with Game 1 of the World Series, the aforementioned schools and offices would close. Most importantly — pay attention, Fox — the game would start at 3 pm eastern time (noon on the west coast). Every child in the entire country with an interest in the game would be able to watch all nine innings, and before dinner. The television fat cats aiming to maximize ad revenue with prime time slots are missing a critical opportunity here: kids are a demographic, too. They — and more often, their parents — spend money. Maybe not on cars and beer, but certainly on video games, snacks, movies, and fast food. And when National Baseball Day is marketed the way it should be — for the kids! — smart-thinking sponsors will line up to be part of the outreach.  

I’ve interviewed professional baseball players who have little memory of the World Series from their childhood. They happened to develop skills in a sport that they watched considerably less than the NFL or NBA. (The latter has the good sense to televise national matinees throughout the winter and spring, even in the playoffs!) Major League Baseball, though, is compromising much of its future market by ignoring it when the Fall Classic is played. Remember the walk-off homers at Yankee Stadium during the 2001 World Series, only a few weeks after the horror of 9/11? Not if you’re under the age of 20 today. Derek Jeter and Scott Brosius did their thing after the witching hour in the Big Apple.  

Since a third round of playoffs was added in 1995, the Series has crept closer and closer to November. Now with the adjusted schedule, at least one game of the World Series will be played during the same month as Thanksgiving ... and that’s without any rain-outs (or snow-outs). With colder, wetter weather a part of the mix, wouldn’t daytime baseball make sense, simply for the brand of baseball we all want to see from the sport’s two best teams? (Baseball hats designed with earmuffs are an abomination.)  

Baseball isn’t for everyone, and there will be no obligatory viewing on National Baseball Day. Take your kids to a park or movie. If you don’t have kids, spend some bonus time with someone you love, maybe a special friend you need to catch up with. Or chill out and start some leisure reading you’ve been meaning to do. Just remember it was baseball that got you there.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Pigskin Perplexity

Posted By on Mon, Oct 19, 2009 at 9:36 AM

Explaining sports to my children is one of the joys of parenthood. The process takes me back to my own discovery of various elements — from a sacrifice fly in baseball to icing in hockey – that enhance my understanding and appreciation for the way a game is played.

But I’m giving up on football. I’d like to believe my sweet daughters will attend a few games with me in the years ahead, but as for keeping up with the action, they’re on their own. Football’s a funny game, with rules about as rigid as lemon meringue pie. Just when I think I’ve got it ... well, read on.

(To keep this as simple as possible, I’m going with NFL rules and regulations. We can discuss subtle differences in the college game when my head stops spinning.)

• The play clock exists to keep the game moving, 40 seconds from one play to the next. Watching a team huddle or send signals from sideline to quarterback is about as exciting as watching the line move at the DMV. But what happens when the 40 seconds expire, you on the edge of your seat to finally see a play? A whistle is blown and the referee crosses his arms (best signal in football): “Delay of game.” And the game is delayed ... further. Seems like punishing a talkative student by asking him to recite the alphabet.

• Every man playing tackle football is required to wear a helmet. But if you happen to drop that helmet a fraction in making a tackle — using it as a “weapon” — it’s an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. What gives? Why not remove the helmets from the equation? Now that would deter head-to-head tackles rather quickly. And now, with the new horse-collar penalty, a player cannot be tackled by the back of his shoulder pads. The message is clear: tackle if you must, but do it gently.

• Football is a game of contact like few others. When the ball is snapped, men collide. But only until the quarterback throws the ball! At that point, it becomes competitive dance: which man downfield can contort himself mid-stride and grab the airborne pigskin without making contact with another player. There is no more subjective ruling in the land than “pass interference.” (Well, unless it’s “holding.”) With the possible exception of a batter hitting a baseball, no greater sense of timing is required by an athlete than a defensive back tackling a receiver. And the fact is, those safeties and corners who do this best are called for interference a lot more than the dancing d-backs (i.e. the great Deion Sanders) who prefer downfield ballet. Next time you run into a cornerback in a restaurant, give him a hug. (Just don’t lower your helmet.)

• Speaking of Sanders, the future Hall of Famer once said that when he’s returning a punt, he wished his teammates would simply lie down and let him run. Because as often as not, a blocker for a lengthy punt return is going to deliver an illegal block, bringing the most exciting play in football back as though it never happened. What’s worse, the offending penalty is likely to be 20 or 30 yards away from the returning ball-carrier, meaning whether or not the coverage player got planted on his face from behind had nothing to do with an athlete dodging seven or eight other would-be tacklers on his way to pay-dirt.

• The most egregious antidote to action in this hallowed game, of course, is the replay appeal. Whether initiated by a coach who disputes a call that his tailback fumbled before his knee touched the ground or a “booth review” that comes late in a game (or half), this is where millions of football fans get to do the same thing accountants (and too often, journalists) do 40 hours a week: sit and wonder. The NFL may have the right intent: getting the call correct, beyond human error. But what happens if a disputed play occurs after an official — a human — has blown his whistle? The play is beyond review. Human error, meet vicious cycle.

• Finally, we have the NFL’s “blackout rule.” Mandated for television broadcasts, this stipulates that a game that does not sell out will not be televised locally. Consider the logic here. If the Detroit Lions or Jacksonville Jaguars can’t market themselves enough (or win enough) to sell every last ticket to a home game, those fans not willing or able to buy a ticket aren’t allowed to see what they’re missing. It would be like a magazine refusing shoppers to buy its product on newsstands if they don’t subscribe. Pro football and television are the perfect marriage. But every bit as dysfunctional as the game itself.

Can’t wait 'til next Sunday.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Memphis Athlete of the Decade: #3 -- Chris Douglas-Roberts

Posted By on Tue, Oct 13, 2009 at 9:00 AM

It’s going to be interesting to see, as the years unfold, how the Calipari Era at the University of Memphis — and an era, it certainly was — is treated by historians. With the period’s peak season (2007-08) now “vacated” in the record books, there is sure to be collateral damage to the players from this era and, more specifically, that season. But with an optimist’s heart overriding a skeptic’s brain, I’d argue Chris Douglas-Roberts will become history’s unblemished face of the extraordinary on-court success of Calipari’s nine years at the U of M. A first-team All-American and a starter for three teams that reached at least the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament (with only one vacated), CDR is the third most significant Memphis athlete of the decade.

  • Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

He arrived from Detroit with an oddly hyphenated name, a member of the 2005 recruiting class that included Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier, and Shawne Williams. He took the floor wearing a t-shirt a size too big under his jersey, and was hardly a smooth end-to-end offensive dynamo like Derrick Rose or Tyreke Evans. But Douglas-Roberts was a scorer, in the mold of Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley. He could shoot (37 percent from three-point range for his career), but he was best with the ball in traffic, inside ten feet. Off balance, on the wrong foot, odd angles . . . it never mattered with CDR. He was in scoring position when the ball reached his hands.

CDR started 25 games as a freshman on a team loaded with the likes of Rodney Carney, Darius Washington, Joey Dorsey and his own talented classmates. He led the Tigers in scoring (23 points) in just his fifth game, a blowout win over Lamar at FedExForum. He was a key contributor for a team that went 33-4 and won its first Conference USA tournament title.

The 2006-07 season saw CDR emerge as the team’s top scoring option. He averaged 15.4 points per game and seemed to embrace the spotlight, canning a game-winning bucket at Gonzaga in February and earning C-USA tournament MVP honors as the Tigers defended their title in March. He fouled out of the season-ending loss to Ohio State in the NCAA tournament, the first such disqualification of his career.

CDR opened the 2007-08 season (add an asterisk here, if you must) by appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and ended it playing a central role in the heartbreak of a championship that seemed stolen at the time. In between, he merely led the Tigers in scoring 19 times, was the hero in a late rally at UAB that extended the Tigers’ season-opening winning streak to 25 games, catapulted his team to the top ranking in the country, and pushed the U of M to its first Final Four appearance in 23 years. He became the third Tiger to earn C-USA Player of the Year honors and finished his career ranked ninth in scoring. (Among those ahead of CDR, only Keith Lee and Larry Finch scored more points in their first three years.)

Then came April 7, 2008, in San Antonio. The Tigers held a nine-point lead with less than three minutes to play in the national championship game against Kansas, only to see the Jayhawks drop in one field goal after another, as the Tigers missed free throws that would have clinched the title. Having shot 72 percent from the stripe over his college career, Douglas-Roberts missed three of four attempts during this late-game collapse, allowing the game-tying heroics of Mario Chalmers at the buzzer. (He had made nine of 11 against UCLA in the national semis and drained his first five against Kansas.) We tend to like our athletic heroes to prove they’re human at times. CDR just did so on the brightest stage of his young career.

Douglas-Roberts was chosen by the New Jersey Nets in the first round of the 2008 NBA draft and averaged 4.9 points over 44 games in a rookie season hampered by injury. When he made a midseason appearance at FedExForum for a Tiger game, though, and was introduced to the throng of Memphis fans who will never forget him, the chants of “CDR!” were loud enough to emanate well beyond the current decade.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Cardinals Playoff Preview

Posted By on Mon, Oct 5, 2009 at 9:03 AM

It’s fitting that the St. Louis Cardinals will finish the current decade of baseball in the postseason. With six division titles, seven playoff appearances, two National League pennants, and a world championship since 2000, the Cardinals’ case for mythical “team of the decade” is already solid. Should they win the 2009 World Series, the decade would match the franchise’s glorious run of the 1960s (two championships, three pennants) and be second only to the 1940s (three world championships, four pennants). Add to the mix the favorites for MVP (Albert Pujols) and the Cy Young Award (Adam Wainwright) and you have a climactic conclusion for ten years of rather fine baseball.

Adam Wainwright
  • Adam Wainwright

But the fact is, St. Louis will be underdogs as the playoffs open this week. (The Cardinals will play Game 1 Wednesday in Los Angeles.) The defending champion Philadelphia Phillies have the best lineup, top to bottom, not wearing pinstripes. The Dodgers were wire-to-wire winners of the National League West and feature a balance of young hitting and pitching, not to mention a guy pretty familiar with championship flags in the dugout (manager Joe Torre). As for the wild-card Colorado Rockies, they merely went 74-42 since Jim Tracy took over managerial duties from Clint Hurdle. The Cardinals’ record against the three other NL playoff teams: 7-12 (with five of those wins coming against the Dodgers).

The concern for Cardinal Nation is that the team peaked too soon. Following the acquisition of Matt Holliday on July 24th, St. Louis went on a 32-11 run that buried the favored Chicago Cubs in the NL Central. But over the season’s last three weeks, the Cards were a pedestrian 7-14. Even Pujols has gone 21 games without homering. A reflection of a team on cruise control heading toward the postseason, or a sign of potential leaks in the ship?

As superior as Pujols is and as valuable as Holliday’s bat has proven to be since the big trade with Oakland, there are three names that will determine how far the 2009 Cardinals go this month: Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and Ryan Franklin.

No team survives the first round (a best-of-five series), much less three rounds of playoffs without at least two horses on the mound. Wainwright (19 wins, 2.63 ERA, 212 strikeouts) and Carpenter (17, 2.24, 144) give St. Louis a one-two starting punch the equal of any possible NL opponent. The games these two start will be especially critical, though, as the Cards’ third starter — Joel Pineiro — has stumbled of late, losing four of his last five decisions (and looking especially vulnerable last week in Cincinnati). As for Franklin, he had one of the finest seasons by a closer in Cardinal history (38 saves, 1.92 ERA), but was roughed up in September. (I sat in Busch Stadium and watched him cough up a game to the Atlanta Braves on September 12th.) Franklin’s not a conventional closer, with a single overpowering pitch. If he’s not hitting spots — outside the middle of the strike zone — the Cardinals’ postseason will be a short one.

• No previous Cardinal playoff team has been as Memphis-centric as the 2009 bunch. Five of the eight starting position players — Yadier Molina, Skip Schumaker, Brendan Ryan, Colby Rasmus, and Ryan Ludwick — spent significant time as Redbirds at AutoZone Park. (A sixth — Pujols — was the Redbirds’ playoff hero in 2000.) Among those five, only Molina played for the 2006 world champs.

• Parity, thy name is National League. Since 1998 (a span of 11 seasons, not including the current one), 10 different teams have represented the Senior Circuit in the World Series. Only the Cardinals have reached the Fall Classic twice over this period. For an 11th team in 12 years, the Dodgers would have to win this year’s pennant.


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