Archive for May, 2012

A late Cycle can be explained by preparation for Qualifying Exams.  The good thing is that anyone would take a Cycle at any point in their career so get over it or die.  Pujols out of his slump and I am hitting my stride.  Four stories that caught my eye over the last week in Major League Baseball

Single: Interleague Play: The End of an Era.

Not exactly. Interleague play in bloc format will be ending after a proud sixteen year tradition that brought compelling rivalries to the forefront: Yankees/Mets, Cubs/White Sox, Mariners/Padres (?), and Tigers/Pirates (?).  The natural rivalries versus the “what do we do with the other teams” issue will be addressed by expanding interleague play to at least one game per night with up to two week (or weekends) of specific interleague play.  I find these changes to be  quite refreshing given the dominance of the American League, the imbalance of scheduling games against the same number of quality opponents (i.e. Jason Stark’s point that “the Braves have to play the Yankees six times. But how many times will the Marlins and Phillies play the Yankees? Zero, of course.”), and outdated league formats.

In 2013, the American and National League will have equal numbers of teams in divisions and throughout the league creating more balanced play between both leagues.  The American League will most certainly continue to dominate interleague play because, like basketball, good offense still outperforms good defense.  The designated hitter – an impediment for eliminating leagues all together for year round unbiased baseball – shifts the balance to hitting even in the pitching revival post-Steroids era.  Sports Illustrated writers Cliff Corcoran’s “Five Cuts” column lists the best and worst teams since the inceptions of interleague play in 1997:

Rank Team Intra WPct. Inter WPct. Diff
1 Tigers .451 .532 .081
2 White Sox .511 .580 .069
3 Twins .496 .561 .065
4 Marlins .477 .536 .059
5 Mariners .492 .545 .053
26 Diamondbacks .502 .455 -.048
27 Padres .490 .438 -.052
28 Astros .518 .465 -.053
29 Phillies .530 .460 -.070
30 Dodgers .531 .456 -.075

We should take pleasure in the rivalries and chance to see pitchers embarrass themselves at the plate.  Interleague play is fun and this positive first step to correcting a long-term flaw in baseball scheduling should be applauded.  Let the old system die and the return of AL managers butchering the double-switch begin.

Double: Walking Across the Stage

Discussions of graduation rates and sports usually focus on baseball and football, America’s most popular collegiate and professional sports.  Without fail these thematic conversations come with a racialized lens as sports becomes an outlet for urban males to succeed while simultaneously disproportionately ignoring their academic enrichment.  Baseball, a sport incredibly diverse despite its low percentage of black players, also lacks high college graduation rates but it doesn’t seem to get the same attention.  Yahoo Sports’ Ben Maller exposed the startling statistics: 39 total players (of the 917 that appeared in games this season) have four-year college degrees.  4.3%.  To be fair, may Major League players do come from other countries or are drafted from high school to a major league team/farm system for development which suppresses numbers but 39 total players is still shocking.

For better or worse, however, this does not bother me at all because I thought baseball – at the expense of more money – has the best amateur to professional pathway in major American sports.  The creation and legitimacy of the minor league system provides a clear lifestyle for development into a baseball player, pegging players to leagues based on talent and outside the delusions of grandeur in the “student-athlete” dichotomy of NCAA sports.  This does not mean that success in the big leagues cannot be acquired through college as several players do attend and get to the pros.  It does mean that if you want to play baseball, you can commit all of your time and energy into that game without fear of external repercussion.   Anytime your sport is a long term endeavor (more than 16 regular season games) fan interest will wane because the perception of significance is reduced.  Without the tournament, college basketball is niche audiences and not moving the meter.  Minor league baseball is the same way with scouts following players and players maturing both physically and mentally before reaching the top.  Most professional athletes emerged by deciding to enter the minor leagues and reach the top and saved college spots for players who are good at baseball but will also get an education.  What is there not to like about explicitly defining the terms?

(Addendum: It also helps that baseball offers the best retirement packages and least damage to the body.  This avoids narratives of players wasting their millions earned because of ignorance and “the game” using the disadvantaged to their physical detriment.  It all matters because when those conversations are not taking place, people do not think of educational shortcomings, and the 43.3% of MLB teams without a college graduate on their roster is a non-story).

Triple: You’re Fired.

13 year Major League Baseball arbitrator Shyam Das was fired nearly two weeks ago by Major League Baseball’s upper echelon.  It should be stated that the Collective Bargaining Agreement states that either MLB or the Players Association can at any point dismiss the arbitrator for – it appears – any reason it likes.  Obviously this creates a very interesting political balance on two fronts.  First, the arbitrator is only as useful as his/her objectivity.  The person must be unbiased to please both sides because occupying the role results in some level of balance.  Secondly, the MLB and players association in the event of firing can be incredibly powerful in selecting the next arbitrator.  If the MLB fires the person, the players association can make it incredibly taxing on management to pick another fair or “fair” replacement.

Without extensive knowledge of the firing, it DOES appear that Das’ ruling on the Ryan Braun case sealed his fate from league offices.  This firing should not be sold as simply a consequence of ruling against MLB like the firings of Peter Seitz and Tom Roberts after their separate rulings against baseball.  Das controversially reduced suspensions of John Rocker (for his loving words) and Kenny Rogers’ skirmish with cameramen.  This firing is because Das ruled against a system built to solve baseball’s biggest problem, steroids.  Das was the longest arbitrator in league history mostly because stability in rulings is invaluable knowledge when leveling penalties.  You know how far you can go and whether to push the envelope on some issues versus others.  MLB is clear about steroids: no room to negotiate.  Their system came under fire and an attempt to take down someone who tested positively in the face of science vanished.  Das ruled properly and firmly on the biggest issue and it cost him his job.

Aside: He is also the arbitrator for the New Orleans Saints bounty case.  What is he doing in two leagues?  Are there really no other arbitrators good enough to handle things individually?

Home Run: Injury Bug – Good, Bad, and the Ugly

Good: Carlos Beltran

Beltran has returned to form since returning to health at 35 years old.  He is playing supremely and can be argued to be the best player in the National League.  Tim Kurkjian’s ESPN The Magazine piece is quality reading on a player dismissed and marginalized for the Mets, now revitalized on the Cardinals.

Bad: Kerry Wood

Wood retired during the crosstown classic ending what was certainly meant to be the next Nolan Ryan.  The 1998 Rookie of the Year’s 20 strike out game is his most memorable moment, joining Randy Johnson and Roger Clemons as the only people to get 20 Ks in a 9 inning performance.  Wood reached 1000 strikeouts in fewer games (134) and fewer innings (853) than any player in baseball.  A series of injuries destroyed his career, ruining the greatest talent of 1990s.  Amazing to think of what could’ve been and how a Tommy John Surgery in 1999 really signaled the end.

Ugly: Joe Mauer

Despite being healthy, the man formally known for “Mauer-Power” continues to toil to the high expectations he established in 2009.  While healthy this season, Mauer has only two home runs and a slugging percentage that still draws the ire of Twins fans.  The ugly involves the Minnesota Twins fans who have lost all patience for their $23 million catcher.  Unlike the big city mentality of Yankees fans who are patient with Mark Teixeira and his annual poor starts and poor finishes, Twins fans still embody the small market mentality.  Paying Mauer all the money for little production will not be tolerated regardless of how tough the catcher’s position in baseball is on the body.  I doubt Mauer will regain the necessarily lower body strength to match his incredibly calm and fast hands through the hitting zone.  This accounts for the incredibly high ground ball rate for Mauer, a career high at nearly 60%.  (Courtesy of Twins Daily blogger Nick Nelson).   All of those features remain secondary to the astronomical rise and fall of Mauer with fans.  Every time a Head and Shoulders advertisement appears in Minnesota it will only remind them that one amazing year cost the team millions while Mauer profits in popularity and contractual obligations.  Mauer isn’t a bad guy but home runs will silence the boos from the home crowd, an ugly display for a tragic figure whose body is failing him when it matters most.

Basketball is a team game. Five players working in concert is paramount to winning at the highest level. Kobe Bryant blatantly disregarded that simple, well-known since-the-grade-school concept last night when the young and spry Oklahoma City Thunder unceremoniously knocked the slow-footed, ground-bound Los Angeles Lakers out of the playoffs.

Bryant was far from the main culprit for the loss last night. Terrible pick and roll defense, an ineffective bench, and very little production from the point guard position (1-7 FG, 8 points) were the main reasons for the loss but Bryant’s attempt at being a one-man show certainly didn’t help. To beat a team that is better than you (yes, OKC was definitely the better, talented team) requires every player on your team to be engaged and playing at their highest level.

Bryant wasn’t interested in incorporating his teammates (ZERO assists). From the start of the game, he was only concerned about himself. Rather than think “What can WE do get this win?,” his mindset resembled more like “What can I do to pull out this victory?”.

That same attitude contributed to the Lakers’ downfall in Game 2 and undeniably cost the Lakers game 5. Down the stretch in game 2, Kobe was held scoreless, took several questionable shots, and committed several critical turnovers. In the fourth quarter of game 5, Kobe missed eight out of 10 shots while Bynum, who played extremely well in the first half, was only afforded four shots in the second half.

Lambaste Pau Gasol all you want to for his passive, inexcusable mistake in the final minute in which he opted to turn down a wide-open 10-15 foot jump shot and make a cross-court pass that was picked off by Kevin Durant. But be aware that the blame for the Lakers losing the double-digit lead in the fourth quarter rests almost entirely on Bryant’s shoulders and his poor shot selection.

Arguably, the Lakers could be up 3-2 right now but instead, the offseason has come for them. This team was flawed and probably never had a legitimate chance to compete for the title. Their bench production was one of the worst in the league, outside shooting was a constant issue, and the lack of a playmaker besides Bryant wasn’t sufficiently addressed.

To compete for a championship in the future, the Lakers will try to ship out Gasol for several players and/or might try to trade Bynum for Dwight Howard, but the first step should be Bryant realizing that he no longer is good enough to be the best player on a championship team. He isn’t the same player that he was when the purple and gold defeated the Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals. His skills have diminished and will continue to do so.

Unfortunately, Bryant’s salary will be going in the opposite direction. The Lakers are scheduled to pay roughly $28 and $30 million to Bryant in the next two years. Good luck putting together a championship team when you owe that much money to a declining player who is no longer a top-5 player and whose salary accounts for close to half of the salary cap.

“Vaunted” (usually used when referring to a great defense): The actual meaning of vaunted is boast about or praise (something), esp. excessively, but every time a defense is above average some unimaginative sports writer throws vaunted in there to supposedly provide some emphasis for their statement

“High-Powered” (usu. used when describing a great offense): How does that not make you cringe? Does it even sound right to say out-loud?

“Prolific” –  Always used when discussing a quarterback or an offense. Never a prolific defense. I think it’s only because announcers and pundits are obsessed with alliteration and prolific passer always sounds better than anything else.

“He Just Loves Playing the Game”: Really?

“He’s a Winner”: So what happens on the days they lose? What are they now?

“Triumphant Return”: There is no such thing as a triumphant return in the middle of the season. Now this is a triumphant return.

“Defense Wins Championship”: Offense wins championships. You have to score to win. Unless your defense is scoring, this doesn’t make much sense. I know, I know. Good defenses put your team in a great position to win, but just look at the last five or six champions in every sport. Was it good pitching or good hitting? Was it more quarterbacks or linebackers that made the difference? Just saying. Out-dated.

“______s of the world”: I heard this the other day on NFL 52. “When you have the Drew Brees’, Tom Bradys and Aaron Rodgers of the world you always have a chance to win it all.” Why can’t you just say when you have an elite quarterback, you have a chance to win it all. The only time this is applicable is when there is someone who shares the same quality with the same name. Other wise it’s stupid. Just plain dumb. Although it’s not limited to only sports, this needs to go.

“He Just Wins Games” (also see: He’s Just a Winner): See Tim Tebow.

“He’s a Great Locker Room Guy: Every time this is said, the announcer/writer/pundit describes the player as if he’s 1/3 athlete, 1/3 cheerleader, 1/3 therapist. No one in sports has ever been signed because he makes all the players feel better about themselves.

“He Just Makes Plays”: Almost at every point of a game a play is made. You can make a play on the ball and miss. You can scored a touchdown and play is made. You can turn the ball over and that’s a play. Someone just made a play on you. Making a play goes both ways. Brett Favre made a lot of plays, many of them went into the hands of other players.

“We got back to playing our game” – As opposed to? This is just another way of saying, we actually executed our game plan. More simply, we played well or better.

“He does all the little things right” – The guy in basketball who does everything but score. The guy who has no specialty that you don’t want playing too long. You want to know why this is barely used in football, because they have one or two things they need to do well and if they don’t, they just don’t play.

“He’s scrappy” – Another way of saying a guy lacks athleticism or quite frankly is white.

“We’ve got to take the next step (level)” – Another way of saying “let’s do better”.

Any references to God after victories – God (depending on what side of the faith you are) does a lot of things. Picking winners for games is not one of them.

Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty

“Gotta give it our all” – Giving your all means death.

“Gotta leave it all on the floor”  – See above.

“Bring your A-Game”

“The Game of basketball” “This is the National Football League” –  We know the game. We understand the league, now get on with the rest of your comment/opinion.

Chuck Knoblauch Creeping on Ladies on the G Train in New York City

http://youtastelikenachos.tumblr.com/post/23487381466/this-is-a-story-about-a-former-new-york-yankee

 

Kyrie Irving Pulls his best Grandmama Impression

[youtube:www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DnKOc6FISU]

 

Jay Farrow Roasting Stephen A. Smith on Saturday Night Live

[youtube:www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PDjS_CaBOA&feature=share]

 

Bomani Jones on Roy Hibbert

[youtube:www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1fMjMyLXRg&feature=relmfu]

 

 

 

ALL II, Cheeks, and the Editor-in-Chief cover the NBA playoffs, Vilma vs. Goodell, the future of Josh Hamilton, and the most important coach in major sports (including Hockey). 

The Cycle covers four baseball stories that crossed my radar in the past week.  I cannot confirm that they will be the most important stories but I will guarantee that they will be interesting.

Single: Baseball Still Doesn’t Get It…Rule Change?

Major League Baseball’s Rules Committee decided to move forward a proposal making the third-to-first pickoff attempt a balk beginning in 2013.  I applauded MLB’s decisions to tweak the playoffs for more excitement and to fully integrate interleague play as a norm to regular season scheduling but this is a clear case of too much meddling.  Grandpa baseball (Bud Selig) would understand this better with the old cliché: If it aint broke, don’t fix it.  To my mind, no one ever complained about this move because it is, well, insignificant.  It is barely used to begin with, never works, and there remain bigger issues to deal with (like instant replay or people complaining about umpires- overrated-, or making sure my favorite sport doesn’t fall behind hockey in popularity).  Associated Press’ Ben Walker does get a quote from Boone Logan on how left-handed pitchers cannot legally use the move and that it is unfair.  Counter argument: it never works!  And if you are griping about that useless move, you need to improve your pitches.  It should also be noted that lefties get a much greater advantage as they look directly at runners on first and can be far more deceptive with their pickoff attempts.

This doesn’t speed the game up, there was no complaint to begin with, and this change seems utterly useless.  Glad to see the Playing Rules Committee staying relevant with concerns.

Double: Temper Temper….

Anger management seems to be the hot topic in sports.  Tiger Woods kicking clubs in majors.  Amar’e Stodemire punched a fire extinguisher.  Players throwing at each other on the diamond started as an issue but MLB anger took a turn over the past few days.  Bryce Harper, the world’s next big thing, kicked everything off by fighting a wall and losing!  Harper struck out three times on Saturday and his anger boiled over as he hit a wall on the way to the clubhouse.  The wall, opting fight instead of flight (because it’s a wall you know), bounced the bat into Harper’s face.  Ouch.

Tuesday also featured a bevy of outward expressions of animosity.  Brett Lawrie became enraged after two questionable strike calls and went on a tirade against home plate umpire Bill Miller.  The explosion featured a helmet thrown on the ground in the direction of Miller and it indeed hit him.  I’m not sure if the helmet bounced any other way we would be talking about big suspensions but this will no doubt get a letter from league offices – after discussions of other mundane things like changing the patterns of infield grass or something.

Bob Davidson and Charlie Manuel did battle on Tuesday dropping F-Bombs all over the place.  It’s amusing to hear some of the audio from the umpire because he certainly didn’t want to get in the way and didn’t want to take Manuel’s mess with less than two innings remaining.  Though I think the animosity at the beginning is genuine (though not very high) it looks like the two just put on a classic side show.  Davidson seems thoroughly amused with Manuel, even smiling after getting a break from the profanities.  Both went at it and well – everyone seemed happy afterwards.

Finally, David Wright and Mets manager Terry Collins had a minor disagreement as Wright was pulled from an 8-0 shutout to avoid being hit in retaliation after Ryan Braun was beamed following a Ricky Weeks home run.  Wright understandably wanted to stand up for his team but Collins pulled Wright to protect him from injury – something Wright understood but team is team.  Collins is probably wise to be protective of his best player as Wright is QUIETLY having an amazing, albeit, young season.  The start to this year is by far his best in years.  Despite only 4 Home Runs (he does play in the canyon that is Citi Field), Wright does have an MLB best .408 batting average and top ten in OPS.  To say Wright is a slow started is being kind.  2011 saw a .210 BA in April and May and .261 BA in 2010.  This looks like the beginning of a year that puts Wright back in elite territory, a welcomed relief for New York’s second team.

Triple: White Sox Diamonds in the Rough

Chicago’s second team, you know the team that has won a world series in the past 100 years, is under .500 but features some mega-comeback stories.  Despite a rough outing on Tuesday, Jake Peavy is the early AL Cy Young favorite with dominant starts against top AL opponents.  The 2007 NL Cy Young winner finally looks healthy after running the gauntlet of injuries (sore elbows, tendon injury in ankle, ruptured latissimus dorsi muscle, and tendonitis to name a few) and is looking to make a run to shed himself of the dreaded one-hit wonder title.  Peavy sports a 2.45 ERA (1.89 entering the Tigers game where he gave up 6 in 5.1), top three in innings pitched, and top ten in WHIP.  Peavy rediscovered the effectiveness of changing speeds on the fastball but also incorporated more changeups, something that keeps hitters fooled when his control is on.  Not sure if this is sustainable but getting through the early months with this performance must be a welcoming sight for Southsiders.

The other astounding comeback is the resurgence of Adam Dunn.  The Big Donkey began his tenth season as the first in the American League and posted god-awful numbers.  .159 BA, .277 slugging, 11HRs, 42 RBIs, and an embarrassment to the organization and National League power hitters.  (With Pujols struggling, it is certainly justifiable to ask if being a National League slugger is as impressive as it looks.  Richie Sexson came to the American League from the Brewers and sucked.)  Dunn looks much better this year with 12HRs, 28 RBIs, and .613 SLG.  His strikeout rate is still high but he is still Adam Dunn.  The Sox paid him to hit the ball long and far and he has succeeded.  Manager Robin Ventura’s decision to play Dunn in left field during interleague play shows his value to the team and maybe it takes a year to get used to pitching in the better league!

Home Run: Stadium Dilemmas

This section had so much potential as I was going to reconsider the complications of the Ryan Braun positive test, off on technicality saga in light of a similar situation in my life.  But that can wait because the Wall Street Journal set off a million bells with a tongue and cheek piece on Wrigley Field.  Rich Cohen argues that Wrigley Field must be destroyed because it embodies the wretchedness of 100 years of ineptitude, bad luck, and scapegoating integral to modern American sports.  To be quite honest I hate that urine smelling, overrated, consistently drunk, lovable loser haven on my city’s Northside.  The place is an utter dump and if I can avoid it, I will never go there again to watch a baseball game.  If my Mariners were in Game 7 of the World Series and I could be at Wrigley to watch I would not attend (they would probably lose).  Horrible.  The fetishization of Wrigley as mystical and more special than any other place distorts the legacy of bass ackwards ownership, poor team construction, underachieving with a solid team, and fans who consistently award GARBAGE by showing up to that dump.  Bleachers on rooftops?  Amateur hour!  Old baseball stadium does NOT equal special team.  The Yankees won in Old Yankee Stadium because they had better players and more money to spend in the greatest market.  The Red Sox won in 2004 and 2007 because great pitching and timely hitting, not because of a stupid curse being removed.

This doesn’t escape a broader conversation of the role of stadiums in baseball, especially the cavernous parks drawing the ire of home team stars.  Petco Park is the leader of this maddening trend with a combination of the “marine layer” (changes in air off the coast making the air heavier and killing distance) and ungodly dimensions ruining batters.  Citi Field changed its dimensions going into this year resulting in at least eight home runs that would not have been home runs under the old configuration.  Undoubtedly, Marlins Park will bring in the fences with major complaints coming from power star Giancarlo Stanton (formerly Mike Stanton).

These huge ball parks appear to be built to give the home team some type of edge, especially during the Steroid Era.  Unfortunately, teams did not factor in 1) the emphasis on home runs would be important to their players, 2) the steroid era would in fact end, and 3) strategic baseball appears to be a secondary issue.  Home run hitting serves as the go to measure of equalizing games – unsurprising as American culture wants everything to happen as soon as possible all the time.  The downside is the huge parks are not lending themselves to alternative forms of run production.  Extra base hit figures show debunk the myth of large parks leading to more alleys for speedy teams to extend singles (and doubles) for an extra base.  It wouldn’t shock me if parks continued to shrink to accommodate fan’s need to see the long ball and remain attractive as locations for major sluggers.

All this goes to suggest that team management (on the field and in the bank books) drives success but Cubs fans will have it no other way.  Goofs!

 

Add this to the reasons why I prefer Roger “The Greatest of All Time” over Rafa Nadal: He acts like a champion and not a whiny brat.  Federer and Serena Williams won the Madrid Open last Sunday on the new, blue clay – a feature added to provide the viewer with a better experience (and to distinguish this tournament from the other clay court tournaments that people don’t watch).  Top players on the men’s and women’s sides complained that the new surface was too slippery, interfered with their training regimen in preparation for the French Open, and acted like old folks unwilling to adjust to something new.

“My criticism is not directed at the tournament but at the ATP, which should never had allowed such a change at a tournament of this scale,” – Rafa Nadal

“The only thing that is a little bit disappointing from a player’s standpoint is that this is decided without players agreeing on it…If you don’t have, especially, the top players testing the court and agreeing for this change that should mean something. The ATP should have done a better job in representing the players’ rights. I hope that we don’t have injuries and that we can have a decent week of tennis here.”  – Novak Djokovic

This is the same progressive body that did not want to switch to tiebreakers, use of instant replay, domed centre courts, or anything else that represents the modern game.  Federer and Williams, to a lesser degree, opted to focus on adjusting to the surface and playing their opponents.  Without question the quicker court speed and lower bounce, particularly off the forehand side- favor the champions’ game but both players worked through the challenges to succeed.  Nadal came in with a snotty attitude and left threatening to boycott the event (along with Djokovic); both lost in early rounds.  I imagine if their final result would be better we would get a little different narrative.  As a fan, the court contrast was better to watch and I did actually watch the tournament, something I didn’t do last year.  Sure they will need to make the top level less slick but the color should stay and players should adjust.  Flexibility wins titles.

Nadal should take a long look in the mirror as his petulant gripping appears as self-serving and childish at best.  His case against the blue clay may appear genuine but as Jon Wertheim notes, Nadal does cry when not getting his way. “This year alone, Nadal has griped about Roger Federer’s sidestepping controversy and letting others take bullets. Nadal lobbied for a candidate to be the ATP’s CEO, based largely on the candidate’s willingness to endorse a loco two-year ranking system. Nadal resigned from the ATP players’ council. He’s thrown out numerous digs about the ATP’s scheduling and commitment mandates. And, of course, Nadal was vocal in his objection to the Madrid surface. Six-pack or not, that’s a lot of bellyaching.”

(Aside: Nadal supported a two year points ranking system which makes absolutely zero sense and favors…Nadal.  No one asked him to play most of his matches on clay and tear his knees up.  That’s on him.  If he is worried about preparation for the French, then train on red clay and move on with life.  He seems so snippy since Djokovic took his number one spot ending the short lived “Nadal Era.”  By the way, you can’t be better than Federer all-time without having an era.  His era lasted about as long as the Detroit Pistons “era” in the mid-2000s.)

Complaining and trying to throw one’s weight around is a natural distraction from on the court performance.  Perennial winners focus on the task at hand without the dramatics.  Federer and Williams did that and earned statement titles.  Federer regained his #2 ranking and has been the best player on the tour since the U.S. Open.  Williams obliterated the top two seeds, reminding everyone that ratings don’t matter in the WTA and she should be the favorite anytime she decides to show up.  What this means for the French is unknown but this blue clay pettiness represents the top players hitting a rough spot elsewhere in their play, a convenient outlet to vent while the legends charge to the crown.

The Cycle takes a look at the four most interesting stories from the past week in baseball.  The different components of “The Cycle” correspond to the difficulty of understanding the task at hand.  With that, batter up (and that concludes the crappy baseball metaphor portion of the post)!

Single: Bobby Valentine’s Master Plan and Everyone Fell For It

The most heralded sports mind baseball encountered before Joe Maddon.  The amount of times I hear that Bobby V and Joe Maddon are so intelligent (far beyond us simpletons because we don’t understand their decisions) leaves me more confused about the baseball media/culture.  I genuinely believe both managers are probably more intelligent than most other baseball people for two reasons: (1) they understand the tactics and game in ways that allow them to counter weaknesses before they are exposed and (2) they don’t care that they violate conventional wisdom in managing.  Valentine’s master plan is indicative of his brilliance.  Known as brash, arrogant, in the limelight and, well, intelligent Valentine assumed control of a franchise in tumult.  The Red Sox choked in the final months of the season to miss the playoffs, fired Terry Francona who brought home two World Series titles to a place that had no recollection of what that meant, absolutely tarnished Francona’s name reminding everyone that BoSox management is slime, lost their intelligent GM, and ended up with an overpaid, underachieving team.

Valentine immediately stepped to the forefront by “criticizing” Youkilis, a player who didn’t exactly help his case with his poor play and not in high standing within the clubhouse.  What this brilliant move did is the key: everyone turned to talk Valentine and ignored the inadequacies of the team.  Injuries galore leave this team depleted with Ellsbury, Crawford, and Youk on the DL.  Their offense, when clicking, looks pretty solid.  Entering May 9, the Red Sox are top ten in runs (4th); team batting average (3rd), on base percentage (8th), and slugging percentage (4th).  Big Papi is a world beater having his best start ever on a one-year contract.  Pitching, however, is their other atomic woe.  The BoSox find themselves in the bottom five of all major pitching categories: ERA (29th), quality starts (25th), WHIP (27th), and batting average (26th).  Bobby Valentine cannot hit nor pitch and with pitching figures like those, all of his moves look bad because his players are not executing.

The plan worked to absorb the brunt of the anger from fans and the media until the Red Sox got to the soft part of the schedule.  Unfortunately only being 12-17 means Bostonians recognizing that this team is simply not good enough.  Bobby V knew that from the beginning and people with eyes knew it too (Josh Beckett sports the best ERA at 4.45).  Bobby’s plan absolutely worked while his players don’t; the man was two steps ahead again and none of it will matter when they finish in third in the AL East.  He won’t be fired though because the big wigs get the big picture.  The media focused on the manager and everyone bought the show hook, line, and sinker.

Double: Andy Pettitte Being A True Friend

I generally don’t care for these government trials against athletes lying to Congress about steroids.  The government has enough to be worried about and honestly not that many people care enough to warrant hearings, trials, and wasted resources.  This was true of the Rocket on trial for perjury to a Congressional hearing until Pettitte, the lead witness in the case, reminded people why they dislike the power of famous people.  Clemons’s attorney Michael Attansio asked if Pettitte clearly remembered his conversation with the Rocket regarding his admission to performance enhancement drug use.  According to Yahoo! Sport’s Les Carpenter (and the court transcripts) Pettitte clearly remembered this conversation on the previous day (and in conversations with Congressional investigators) but suddenly admitted his memory to only be “50-50” on the issue.  Uhhh, what the hell is going on here?

Pettitte and his reputation (especially compared to Brian McNamee) was the ONLY reason this case went to trial and now it is a disaster.  These silly trials make me sick but not as much as the abuse of the legal system by those who can get away with it.  Pettitte is scum and is defending one of the greats ever.  Both will walk away in ways that 99.5% could not dream of because they are more important and powerful than laws.   They are superstars and get special treatment.  I get it and it sucks.

Triple: Unwritten Rules and Baseball’s Confusing Traditions

Cole Hamels inexplicably threw at baseball sensation Bryce Harper and kicked off a fire storm of discussions around unwritten rules, self-policing, and other hand waving characteristic of America’s Pastime.  Hamels wanted to send Harper a message: Welcome to the Big Leagues; Don’t be a tool; Your hair cut is silly and stupid.  Whatever the message, this beaming was absolutely unprovoked in the moment and probably would not have been worthy of suspension.  Hamels later admitted that he purposely targeted and hit Harper and Major League Baseball purposely gave him a five game suspension.

The problem here is Jordan Zimmermann conveniently beamed Cole Hamels in the third inning – a clear retaliatory act for hitting Harper – and he gets no suspension at all.  The motive was there.  The player hit was there.  Everyone one knew it would be coming and it happened.  Zimmermann –either wisely or cowardly – denied throwing at Hamels but people are not stupid to go better.  To suspend Hamels and not Zimmermann is punishing either 1) honesty or 2) stupidity in saying what everyone knew.  I imagine it’s the latter and that does not make it better.  As someone not worried about fighting in hockey, I also don’t have a problem with hitting other batters in baseball; the game allows for policing itself and should continue to do so.  When MLB carelessly steps into the fray it does nothing to help the situation and sparks useless debates on baseball culture and arbitrary rulings from on high.  Let em play and move on.

Jamie Moyer accusing Chipper Jones of sign stealing is another matter altogether.  Jones suggested that Moyer accused the 40 year old Braves icon of relaying signs to Brian McCann last Saturday.  This set off Jones to go on quite the tirade calling out Moyer’s slower pitches (softball insult there) and calling hi paranoid because he pitched with the Phillies, a team Jones said is known for stealing signs.  Forget about old man versus grandpa, why call out the Phillies?  Accusations of sign stealing are never cool and not supported by the “unwritten rules” manifesto even if it helps your team win.  Now if Chipper gets beamed by Baseball Police Chief Cole Hamels during their next series, we all know why.  Rules are the rules unless they aren’t.  I guess.

Home Run: Mariano Rivera – The Great One

The greatest non-starter pitcher of all time tore his ACL while shagging balls during batting practice before the Yankees-Royals romp last week.  (No word if he is blaming the condensed NBA schedule for his knee injury.)  Fears of Rivera retiring led to commentators and sports fans alike waxing nostalgia on the legacy of Rivera as a consummate gentleman, “the best outfielder the Yankees had,” and a testament to the power of elite preparation paying off in the highest of pressure situations.  Many people took this opportunity to proclaim Mo as the greatest (or best) pitcher of all time.  Without doubt Rivera is the greatest closer of all time (and it is not even close, sorry) but to suggest any closer could be greater than elite starters is foolish.  The case for the value of a closer is as follows:

1)      Closers, especially the elite ones, reduce the game by at least one inning.  This in turns puts greater pressure on batters earlier in the games and may force mistakes on behalf of opponents trying to make something happen in fear of running out of outs.

2)      Closers pitch in the higher pressure situations.  Pitching one inning against three hitters traditionally to end a game may be argued as harder than pitching with more innings and the potential for your offense to support you.

3)      No room for error.  Similar to point two, you cannot mess up or you lose.

Admirable as these points are, starters are far more important (the Yankees signed Rivera as a starter and he failed at it).  The case is as follows:

1)      Starters pitch more innings creating greater longer term effects for the team.  Starting pitchers may not need an amazing offense or a dominant bullpen to get the job done.  Great starters go deep into games, absorbing innings that can save relief pitchers going forward.

2)      Did I mention starters pitch more innings!  Starters must go through the entire lineup multiple times meaning greater strategy, endurance, and skill is required to be successful through multiple turns in a lineup.  While closers MAY face the heart of the lineup, it is assured that starters go through them at least twice.

3)      Without elite starters, elite closers would mean much less.  Starters give closers the leads that put them in save situations.  Starters account for more wins because they carry the heavier burden.

Our Editor-In-Chief and diehard Yankees fan argued endlessly that Rivera was the greatest ever (or at least in the top five ever) which I thought was ludicrous.  He challenged me to name ten pitchers better but told me to keep it confined to the modern era.  I arbitrarily set the beginning of modern baseball as 1961, notably the beginning of baseball’s expansion, the adoption of the current 162 game season and the completion of integration of all Major League teams.  Some will say that I only chose 1961 over 1969 (expanded playoffs, lowering of pitcher’s mound, invention of save, etc.) to include Bob Gibson on my list.  My response: So what!?  In no particular order (sans number one) I give you pitchers better than Mariano Rivera (all time)

1)      Pedro Martinez (I knew that Pedro was an all-time great but researching this post reminded me of how dominant he really was.  Pound-for-pound the best pitcher ever)

2)      Greg Maddux

3)      Randy Johnson

4)      Sandy Koufax*

5)      Roger Clemons

6)      Bob Gibson*

7)      Tom Seaver

8)      Jim Palmer

9)      Steve Carlton

10)  John Smoltz

11)  Tom Glavine

12)  Curt Schilling (for post-season play especially. I originally did not think of him but his post-season career is worth a ton especially if people hang their Rivera hats on his post-season work)

13)  Bert Blyleven (60 shutouts; 2.80 K/BB ration in over 4900 innings pitched; 3700 strikeouts; 3.31 ERA.  Longevity still means something!)

14)  Mariano Rivera

If you take out the two 1960s guys and begin the modern era at 1969 (probably appropriate) Rivera is 12th and that seems more than appropriate recognizing his skill set and longevity.  I hope he returns but if not we should recognize that one of the all-time greats is gone.  Please don’t go overboard though as closers will always be second fiddle to starters.

Special Pick Up Podcast discussing the concept of choking in sports.

He’s brash, racist, obnoxious, loathsome, but he’s carrying a dying sport on his back. There’s something to be said for that. When Tiger burst on the scene with his precocious game, the racial background and the excellence that only made him an overnight sensation, but made golf worth watching for the casual fan. Floyd Mayweather is no different, however unlike Tiger he embodies all that most people loathe about athletes and will never be regarded with the appreciation he deserves [as a boxer].

Mayweather flashes his money like a rapper. He doesn’t show off with credit cards, he shows off cash and gambling receipts. He lives in Sin City, seemingly where he belongs. He makes it obvious that he boxes for money, he often emphasizes the fact that he is a prize fighter. He doesn’t do it for “the love of the game”. He’s the epitome of materialism. Mayweather is anything but phony, he’s possibly all too real. He never backs down, he never wavers, he has no problem claiming he’s better than you and believes it too. He refuses to apologize for his offensive comments or his actions and takes sick pleasure in being villain. He also has no qualms about poking fun at your culture. Mayweather never seems be willing to play the victim either. Why? He makes more money being reviled than he ever could as a good guy. Truthfully if we are to believe he is as genuine as he claims, Mayweather isn’t a good guy. But that’s why he sells. We don’t like him. 2.5 million households don’t purchase his pay-per-view mega-fight with Oscar De La Hoya without at least 70% of those households hoping that De la Hoya destroys Mayweather. Manny Pacquiao doesn’t become America’s favorite boxer if Mayweather doesn’t continue to prove himself to be a man of questionable moral character. And most importantly to Mayweather, he doesn’t make $32 million in a glorified tune-up fight with Miguel Cotto.

[Not to mention he is the backbone of HBO’s series 24/7. Another notch in the belt of boxing’s self-proclaimed “Cash Cow”]

He inspires the vitriol that Jack Johnson once commanded;he has the charisma and commands the room much like Muhammad Ali and he attracts the interest of popular culture and dominates his sport like Tiger Woods in his prime. Unlike Ali and Tiger, Mayweather may not be as appreciated until after his career is over. What’s more impressive about Mayweather is that his appeal will subside as soon as he takes his first loss, but even with that pressure, he continues to deliver dominating performances against all of the best fighters of his era. His legacy is on the line with every fight. One loss drops him from one of the top 10 fighters of all-time to someone who might be regarded as highly overrated given his era. Yet, he still delivers.

Heavyweight boxing is dead. No one appreciates nor cares for the Klitschko brothers (especially American sports fans). Sergio Martinez can’t move the meter. Bernard Hopkins is too old and his age is more of an interest than his skills. Manny Pacquiao’s purse is partially due to his fighting style and largely due to his reputation as the anti-Mayweather. Mayweather is carrying his sport and even if Mayweather’s detractors hate his success, without his success boxing would be D.O.A.