Another Ho-Hum Ending For The NBA

June 9, 2018

NHL more exciting, but not as loved

by John Furgele (The Puzzled 228)

The NBA suffered once again while the NHL flourished.  Look, we all know that the NBA is a league where dynasties—or semi-dynasties—exist. It’s no surprise to see one team win the finals more often than not.  For the fourth straight year, we saw Golden State play Cleveland and for the third time, Golden State won.

There is a pattern.  The Cavs remind me of the Philadelphia 76ers of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The Sixers reached the finals in 1977, 1980 and 1982, losing all three times, before ringing the bell in 1983; a team led by Moses Malone and Julius Erving.  The Cavs have one title in four tries.

In the 80s, the Lakers won titles in ’80, ’82, ’85, ’87, and ’88, while the Celtics won titles in ’81, ’84, ’86, leaving room for the Sixers in ’83 and Pistons in ’89.

We all know what Jordan’s Bulls did in the 1990s. The Utah Jazz sort of played the role of the modern day Cavs.  When Jordan was struggling to hit breaking pitches in the minors, the Rockets came in and won two in a row.

Basketball is much different than the five major sports (I’m including MLS Soccer, now).  You can win with two great players.  The Lakers has Kobe and Shaq, the Bulls had Jordan and Pippen and the lone Cavalier team to win had James and Kyrie Irving.  That’s the NBA.  The aberration may be the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, but they had Dirk Nowitzki, an underrated superstar and a very good supporting cast that included Jason Kidd and Jason Terry.

There are many people that tell me that they “don’t watch the NBA.”  Most of these are white guys in their mid-50s or older and it is not because of race.  Most find the games too boring, too predictable and too bogged down.  Baseball gets banged around for pace of play and start times, but NBA games start after 9 pm and drag out until midnight.  It has nothing to do with race; NBA players—99 percent of them—are good guys who do things in the community and stay out of trouble.  But, in an 82-game season that is followed by very predictable playoffs, it is has to capture and keep one’s attention; something that usually doesn’t happen.

Everybody says that the dynasties are good for sports and perhaps that is so.  Look at the Warriors.  For years, they stunk; they couldn’t make the playoffs and when they won it all in 1975, many fans weren’t even born.  When they reached the finals in 2015, they were liked, in part because they were new and exciting.

Now, they are the enemy.  They went out and got Kevin Durant and look like US Steel in the early 1900s.  An ESPN host called them the most hated team in sports.  Yes, that’s a bit harsh and really not true, but that’s what happens when a team wins time after time.  Only Yankee fans liked the 1996-2001 teams; the rest hated them.  Even the Buffalo Bills, a franchise that went 0-4 in Super Bowls were hated because most of America was “sick” of seeing them in that game.

In the NBA, it probably won’t change.  As mentioned, in a five-man game, two guys can make the difference.  As long as the Warriors have Curry and Durant along with supporting members like Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, they can certainly win another title or two.

The NHL is much different.  It’s more of a team game because of its set-up.  Alexander Ovechkin is the star of the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, but he plays less than half the game.  In hockey, teams roll out four lines (12 players) and six defenseman (6 players) and a goalie—19 guys seeing playing time   In a tight game, the fourth line might get skipped as might two defenseman, but with player changes going on every 45 to 60 seconds, the game can’t be dominated, even by an Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby.

For this reason, the NHL playoffs are much more captivating.  There is more drama, more tension, because, like soccer, it is hard for one team to “boatrace,” the other.  That doesn’t mean the NHL will soar in the television ratings.  Many call hockey a niche sport.  I think that’s unfair for a variety of reasons.  Hockey has been around forever, it has a national TV deal and games can be found on weeknights during the winter.  Don’t believe the “once they left ESPN, they lost their audience,” theory for even one second.  NBCSN and NBC do a more than adequate job of promoting, showing and discussing the games.

The problem with hockey is simple.  Most Americans have never played it, many have never ice skated and states like Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana and Oklahoma have never embraced it.  That’s a simple truth.  Basketball is played in these states, but hockey is not.  That said, we have seen how hockey can take off in “sun-belt” cities.  Nashville is now a hockey city and Las Vegas, in its first season, is already a hockey season.   Of course, there is resistance to this.  Many in the North and in Canada think that Gary Bettman has ruined hockey by taking it away from Canada and placing teams in Phoenix, Nashville, Tampa and Columbus.

The purists need to get over themselves.  Growing the game is important and Bettman has done this, making the owners who employ him lots of money.  Why would the guy in Calgary be upset that the Nashville arena sells out 41 nights a year?

All this said, the two winter sports are what they are.  The NBA relies on stars and because of this, dynasties form.  The NBA is a superstar driven league.  Steph Curry is a better shooter than JR Smith and always will be; he can get 30 points every night, Smith can’t.  In hockey, the hard working team can win because the game is set up as such.

I don’t expect people to leave the NBA for the NHL just because the NHL games are more exciting.  Basketball is the American game; we have the best players in the world and we dominate in international play.  Americans like that and it remains a reason why soccer and hockey will never get the huge national following.  As good as Americans are in soccer and hockey, we know that Canada, Russia and Sweden are better in hockey and 20 nations are better in soccer.

That’s why the middle-aged guy doesn’t watch the NBA playoffs.  It took 82 games and four rounds of playoffs to conclude what we knew back in October.  And, simply put, we don’t have time for it anymore.

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Chuck Knox is Wall of Fame Worthy

May 23, 2018

by John Furgele (The Nostalgic 228)

Why would anybody make a case for a coach who went 37-36 over five seasons to be included on the team’s Wall of Fame?  But, that’s exactly what I’m doing in reference to Chuck Knox, who recently passed at the age of 86.

Knox is best remembered for coaching the Rams and Seahawks, but his five years in Buffalo should not be forgotten.

Knox was known as the “Bud Grant of NFC and AFC Championship Games.”  Each year, his teams would play great football, but could never make it to the Super Bowl.  In the NFC, he always had the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys in his way and in the AFC, his Seahawks were just lacking in overall talent to get over the hump.

In 1973—his first season as head coach– the man who loved running the ball so much that he was referred to as Ground Chuck, led the Rams to a 12-2 record.  In the playoffs, they lost to the Cowboys in the Divisional round.  Over the next three seasons—74, 75, 76, the Rams would lose NFC Championship Games to Minnesota, Dallas and Minnesota respectively.  In 1977, his 10-4 Rams lost again to Minnesota, this time in the Divisional Playoffs, and even though he had signed an extension, owner Carroll Rosenblum had had enough of the losing and Knox was dismissed.

Ralph Wilson, the longtime owner of the Buffalo Bills had seen his team fall on hard times.  Despite having O.J. Simpson, the Bills made the playoffs once, in 1974, where they were crushed by the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Wilson’s relationships with coaches were always in question and after three straight winning seasons in 1973, 1974, and 1975, the Bills hit rock bottom in 1976 with a 2-12 campaign.  Even though they finished 3-11 in ’77, that team was worse than the prior year’s squad.

Wilson had a reputation for being frugal and that was always evident when he hired coaches.  Marv Levy led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls and because of that is enshrined in Canton, but when Wilson hired him in 1986, he got him on the cheap.  Levy was coaching in the USFL; how wanted could he have been?  When Wilson hired him, Western New York did not do cartwheels; that would take a few years.

Wilson’s hiring of Knox was the best hire he ever made.  Knox was in demand; and despite not getting to the Super Bowl, was a consummate winner.  When frustrated Ram ownership let him go, coming to Buffalo was on nobody’s radar, but before you knew it, Knox was the new coach of the Buffalo Bills.

The 1977 Bills scored just 160 points in 14 games.  By then, Simpson was done and the Bills traded him to his hometown 49ers.  The ’78 team finished just 5-11, but they had improved under Knox. True to his Ground Chuck moniker, the Bills averaged 4.3 yards per rush on 558 attempts.

The ’79 team improved to 7-9, but that’s a bit deceptive.  In Week 13, the 6-6 Bills beat New England in Foxboro in overtime to improve to 7-6.  Some were thinking playoffs and the next week, the Bills hosted the Denver Broncos.  In a close game, the Broncos prevailed 19-16, a deflating loss that they never recovered from as they lost their last two to end the year on a three-game losing skid.

In the 1970s, the Bills played the Miami Dolphins 20 times.  Their record:  0-20.  In 1980, the season opener was at Rich Stadium against the dominant Dolphins.  Despite five interceptions thrown by Joe Ferguson, the Bills defense dominated Miami and won 17-7.  The 0 for the 1970s skid was over and Knox was carried off the field by his players.

The 1980 Bills were good—very good.  They began the season 5-0 and in week 4; they dominated the Oakland Raiders 24-7 at home and the next week, won at San Diego, 26-24.  Thoughts of the Super Bowl danced in the heads of Bills fans, but the team sputtered in midseason and needed a final game victory at San Francisco to win the AFC East and earn a playoff berth.  Mother Nature greeted the teams with monsoon rains, but the Bills held off the pesky Niners—and Joe Montana—to win 18-13.

Ferguson played the Divisional Playoff game with a broken bone in his ankle, but guided the Bills to a 14-3 lead over the explosive Chargers in San Diego.  The Chargers rallied for a 20-14 win.  The next week, the Chargers lost at home to Oakland; a team the Bills had routed in week 4.  But, in just three seasons, Knox had the Bills on the cusp of greatness.

The 1981 Bills were not as good as the ’80 squad, but again, they made the playoffs, this time as a Wild Card with a 10-6 record.  In the Wild Card game, they jumped out to a 24-0 lead against the Jets at Shea Stadium.  Late in the game, they led 31-27 but the Jets were driving.  Another Simpson—Bill—saved the day when he picked off Richard Todd in the end zone to preserve the four point win.

The next week, the Bills faced the Cincinnati Bengals at Riverfront Stadium.  After falling behind 14-0 and then 21-14, the Bills rallied to tie things up at 21-21.  After Cincinnati took a 28-21 lead, Ferguson had the Bills driving deep into Cincinnati territory.  On a 4th and 3, he hit Lou Piccone for an apparent first down, but the Bills were called for a delay of game penalty.  On the subsequent 4th and 8 play, Ferguson’s pass was incomplete and the Bengals escaped and the next week, routed the Chargers in the Freezer Bowl; a game that saw the wind chill reach minus 59 degrees.

The Bills, under Knox looked like they would threaten in the AFC for years to come and in 1982 got off to a 2-0 start with wins over Kansas City and Minnesota.  Then, the players strike hit and the Bills were never quite right when play resumed.  Yes, they did get to 4-2, but then fell apart, losing their last three to finish 4-5 in the abbreviated season.

By now, Wilson began to meddle, and soon, the Chuck Knox Era in Buffalo was over.  The next year, under Kay Stephenson, the Bills would finish 8-8 with a talented team; a team that under Knox would have likely been 10-6.

Knox went to Seattle and turned the Seahawks into winners.  He took Seattle to the AFC Championship Game in his first year (1983) and in nine seasons in the Pacific Northwest won 80 games.

When you look at Knox, a couple of things stand out.  One is that he never lasted long in the unemployment line.  Next, was his ability to turn things around quickly. He revived the moribund Bills and breathed life into the expansion Seahawks, which before him had never made the playoffs.  After Knox left the Bills, they went 8-8, 2-14 and 2-14, before Marv Levy, Bill Polian, Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith came to town to revive the downtrodden franchise.

After Knox left Seattle, they went seven seasons without a winning record.  Things didn’t turn around until Mike Holmgren came to town in 1999.

To me, Knox should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  The naysayers will look at his record and poke holes in it, but that cat could coach.  His teams were always prepared and as a Bills fan in 1978-1982, you always thought a Chuck Knox coached team could win every time they stepped onto the field.

His 186 career wins are more than Levy and Bud Grant.  Sure, you can knock Knox for not reaching the Big One, but making it to a conference championship game is much harder than people think, both as a player and a coach.  Warren Moon never played in one; Dan Marino played in just three.

Knox should—at the very least–be on the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame.  The critics will point to his 37-36 overall record, but it is what he did in 1980 and 1981 that should be feted.  Before Knox the Bills never scared anybody, but he brought in guys that had swagger and in 1980, Western New York was “Talking Proud, “and linebacker Isiah Robertson “had a feeling that Buffalo was going to the Super Bowl.”

Knox’s success in Buffalo was short; the player’s strike was crippling as was a sour relationship with owner Wilson, but that should now be water under the bridge.  Except for Levy, Wilson always struggled with strong headed coaches.  Many Bills fans consider Lou Saban the greatest coach in the team’s history, yet he and Wilson battled often.  Levy, ever the diplomat was the only coach to be in the good graces of the former owner.

Saban is now on the Wall of Fame, so too, is Levy and it’s time for Knox to get his name up there where it belongs.  Those two seasons put Buffalo on the football map and Knox was the guy that made it happen.

Greatness comes in two ways—sustained and fleeting—and most pundits prefer sustained.  But in this case, I’ll take the fleeting.  I was kid in 1980 and 1981 and I remember the Bills going from laughingstock in the late 1970s to a threat in those two seasons.  For the first time in years, Sundays meant something once again to Western New York football fans and the main reason for that was Chuck Knox. His accomplishments are often drowned by the Super Bowl runs in the 1990s, but as a football fan, 1980 and 1981 were fun years to be a Bills backer.

It is time to recognize what Chuck Knox did for Buffalo Bills football.  Sadly, he won’t be around to see it.

 

 

The Preakness Survives Another Year at Pimlico

May 17, 2018

They keep saying they’re going to move it, but for now, Old Hilltop keeps hanging on

by John Furgele (The Pure 228)

We all agree that the Preakness may be the “funnest,” of the three Triple Crown races and there are several reasons why.  First, as six-time winning trainer Bob Baffert says, it is the most relaxed of the three races.  The tension of getting a horse to the Derby healthy and ready is over.  That alone makes it more relaxing and fun.  Second, with the Derby over so, too is the end of the 20-horse field.  As Baffert stated, “we already have a Derby winner and because of that, this is more of a pure horse race.”  The Belmont is reliant on the Preakness and that can be good or bad.  The other mark against the Belmont is the 1.5 mile distance.  It certainly is the Test of a Champion, but it’s a distance that most horses run just once in their careers.  The Preakness, at 1 3/16 miles is a true challenge—longer than the oft-contested 1 1/8 miles but shorter than the classic 1 ¼ miles.

The Preakness has always been dubbed the “People’s Race,” and unlike the more sophisticated Derby, there will be more people in flip-flops and wedges than high heels.  There will be thousands of young people drinking unlimited mugs of beer for $20 (plus the $100 admission fee) and bands will be rocking away on the infield stage.  The pretense of the Derby has given way to a lighter, less serious tone at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

That’s another issue—Pimlico.  The race course is old, falling apart, and is located in a tougher section of town.  It is only open for 12 days this year, and the Maryland Jockey Club would love to move the race to the nicer, Laurel Park.  Each year, the pundits will ask if this is the last Preakness to be run at Pimlico, but 365 days later, they’re back at Pimlico once again.

The main reason they keep coming back is Pimlico, despite the tough neighborhood and poor accessibility can handle 130,000 plus people, something Laurel can’t do.  Sure, they could run at Laurel in front of 50,000 or 70,000, but why do that when you can get 130,000 plus people to maneuver and wedge their way into NW Baltimore?  Until the MJC figures out how to make more money at Laurel, Pimlico will likely stick around.

The track likely needs $500 million in renovations to remain remotely viable and truth be told, it doesn’t make sense to make the improvements for 12, 24 or 36 days of racing when Laurel Park has already been renovated. Unless you’re Santa Anita, Del Mar or Saratoga, spending that much on renovations is hard to justify because most prefer to watch and wager off-track.

The Preakness might be the least serious and most fun of the three, but it is perhaps the most important.  The Belmont Stakes can only wait to see the outcome of this the middle jewel.  If Justify wins Saturday, the frenzy will begin; it will be three weeks of tension, anticipation and dizziness.  If Justify finishes anywhere but first, the Belmont remains a classic American race with a little less air in the excitement balloon.

The track always looks nice on TV on the third Saturday in May, but I’m not there trying to make bets, use the bathroom or get something to eat and drink.  I’m also a traditionalist; I would hate to see the race leave Pimlico because of the great history and drama.  But, I am also a realist; and if they can build a new Yankee Stadium and move the team across the street, then the Preakness can certainly move to Laurel, a mere 29 miles away from Old Hilltop.

The fans seem to be coming to Pimlico’s defense.  Last year, over 140,000 people attended to go along with over 50,000 for Friday’s Black-Eyed Susan Stakes.  The fans are making it tough for the Maryland Jockey Club to just up and leave.

Some for now, let’s enjoy the lighter, “funner” race of the trilogy and see if Justify can make it to the Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line.

 

 

Horse Shortages: Are There Too Many Tracks

May 3, 2018

by John Furgele (The Worried 228)

They say that in spring, a “young man’s fancy turns to love.”  With April gone, winter is officially over, despite what the mercury reads.  May is perhaps the busiest month in the world of sports.  The NBA and NHL are deep into their playoffs; baseball is off and running, Major League Soccer is now in its 23rd season and can no longer be ignored.  NFL teams have just drafted and now will begin signing their picks that they made just a week ago.

Horse racing begins its Triple Crown with all eyes focused on the 20 horses that will run in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.  Harness racing is also in its busy season. With winter over, more tracks are preparing to open.  Places like Running Aces, Vernon, Tioga are raring to go or have just opened for the season.  On the surface, it looks like grand times for the sport, but in reality, that might not be the case.  Like every spring, the purses get better as does the weather, but not all share in that.  There is a horse shortage and one wonders how it can be addressed.

Buffalo Raceway is one of those winter tracks that have struggled in 2018 because of the shortage. It is a track for grinders that begins in January in cold and often snowy Hamburg, NY.  Most years, they run every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, but this year, they have been limited.  Many cards were canceled and currently, the track is only running on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  Larry Stalbaum took his horses away from Buffalo this winter which didn’t help, but that’s not the major reason for the truncated cards.

Monticello is another “grinder track.”  It races four days per week for 52 weeks.  But, it’s normal total of 207 days has been truncated by the horse shortage.  Quietly, the track removed Wednesday from its racing schedule and has been going on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.  It is easier to get information from North Korea than it is Monticello Raceway, but surely the reduced schedule is due to the horse shortage.

Purses are also down at Monticello.  Races that were once run for $5,900 are now running for $5,200.  Like most tracks that are tied to racinos, the purses are based on percentages of gaming revenue.  Monticello has a racino on its grounds, but just six miles away is a full-fledged casino and though it is owned by the same company who knows the real impact it has had on the track and the purses that go with it.

The most affected by the shortage is the Meadowlands.  The Big M is still the handle leader with most races generating over $200,000 on the Friday and Saturday cards.  But, this Friday, there are only 9 races scheduled—-9!  For a track that only races two times per week, that is scary. Saturday’s card features the Cutler Memorial Trot for older horses for $182,000, but even that day, there are only 11 races on the Big M card.

We know that not all tracks are suffering and we know that the higher the purses are the more interest by the horsemen.  Yonkers’ Empire City Casino continues to flourish; to the point where Yonkers offers the highest purses.  Open paces and trots have purses of $40,000 while preferred ones have $30,000 purses.  The best drivers and trainers want to race there and who can really blame them.

Not all tracks are suffering from the shortage.  Northfield Park in NE Ohio continues to run 15 races per card with eight or nine in each race.  How do they do this?  The purses are not much better than a Buffalo Raceway, yet each racing night, there are 14 to 16 races with up to nine horses entered in each race over the half-mile oval.  Some of that has to do with state sponsored stakes races, called Sire Stakes, and Ohio seems to manage this well.  Unlike New York, Ohio staggers its harness racing schedule.  Northfield is the track that runs all year, but the purses are lower.  Scioto, Dayton and Miami Valley spilt the calendar in thirds to avoid overlap.

New York doesn’t do this.  Monticello and Yonkers are the 12-month tracks and it is overlap galore from then on.  They have Buffalo/Batavia, Saratoga, Vernon and Tioga all running at the same time and with a horse shortage, how many times will Vernon have to cancel a card?

Nobody wants to see a harness track close or reduce dates, but what is the solution?  Laws in New York—and other states—state that a racino has to have harness racing, and each state’s gaming commission has to delicately balance the spreadsheets.  A track can’t just reduce racing dates unless the gaming commission approves.  We saw this at Plainridge Park in Massachusetts.  In 2017, they ran 125 cards; in 2018, they asked to run 100, in which the gaming commission said no.  The sides settled on 110 dates.

There seems to be more interest in owning Standardbreds.  There are more partnerships forming where one can own a horse for $250, $500 or $700.  While that number seems to be on the rise, the number of horses has decreased.  Incentives are nice, but they usually require some form of government subsidy; something most states have already given to harness racing.  Further subsidizing will not go over well with John and Jane Taxpayer.

New Jersey is suffering the most.  They have two racetracks—Freehold and the Meadowlands—but no gaming, and as a result, the incentive to breed in the Garden State has decreased.  Why breed in New Jersey when you can do it in New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania, all of which have purses and sire stakes money derived from racinos and casinos.  The two Jersey tracks complemented each other nicely.  Freehold was for horses on the way up or down, while the Meadowlands was for the big boys and girls.  It was always fun to see a horse do well at Freehold to the point where they would give Meadowlands a try.  The sport needs the Big M to be healthy and despite lower purses, the bettors still like the track.  But, how much longer can and will that last? Will the Meadowlands ever get a racino to help keep harness racing vibrant there?

Churchill Downs is the home of the Kentucky Derby and the Meadowlands is the home of the Hambletonian.  That means something in horse and harness racing.  I hope our leaders remember this and come up with a plan that works.

Levy Final Could Be One For The Ages

April 20, 2018

All eight are good; all eight can win

by John Furgele (The Excited 228)

The Levy Memorial is not just another race and this year’s $532,000 final could be epic.  There are eight horses entered and truth be told, you can make a case for all eight of them winning.  We all know that the eight post (Rockin Ron) is almost impossible and he may be the only horse to throw out, but the others….all have a chance.

Jordan Stratton has already said that the seven post for Bit of a Legend, “sucks,” but if any horse can win from there, it’s The Legend.  If there is such a thing as a stone-cold closer in harness racing, Legend comes the closet.  We have seen him rally from the back in the Levy legs and finish second to score the needed points.  The question is, can he overcome the seven post and win the race? I think he can and if the pace is fast, he is the one that can idle and surge at the end.  He did that in last summer’s Gerrity at Saratoga.  The field dashed and darted through blistering fractions and Legend stayed third or fourth and then surged home to win in 1:50.3 on the Spa’s half-mile track.  From the seven post, he will likely have to tuck in and move wide down the backstretch of lap two and then try to win from the outside, something he can do.

The mercurial one is Somewhere in LA.  He has a decent five post, but if you’ve seen LA run, he usually is engaged or disinterested.  When engaged, he is good as anybody, but it seems that for every good race, there’s a flat one.  Had he gotten the seven or eight post, odds are he would have finished last, so coming from the five, he should be interested and that could spell trouble for the rest of the competitors.

Western Fame drew the rail and that took him from having a good chance to having a really good chance.  Most expect him to set the pace and he is more than capable of wiring the field, but he can also idle and sit in the box and win that way, too.  And, with no passing lane, he won’t have to worry if he has the rail and the lead in the homestretch.  He keeps maturing, too; he was better at four than three and it looks like he’s better at five than four and this could be his time to shine.

Keystone Velocity is the defending champ and will be formidable coming from the three post.  All of these horses have performed in the clutch and the defending champion should and likely will have something to say on Saturday.  He hasn’t been great thus far, but he could be sitting on one.

Dr. J Hanover has looked the best in the prelims.  He has dominated and last week rested in preparation for the final.  He has the two post and is one that could get the lead and never give it up.  Last year, he paced 1:46.4 at Mohawk then regressed, but he looks like he has his top form again.

Two weeks ago, Evenin of Pleasure was dismissed at odds of 99-1.  All he did that day was run a game second to secure his spot in the final.  I don’t think he can win it, but he has a chance to get into the money.  Remember; fifth place nets $26,600.  His best chance is to get to the lead and try and hang on.  He almost did that in his last start where he finished second and come Saturday, there would be no shame in a runner-up finish.

Mach it So is much respected with morning line odds of 4-1, but I just don’t get any vibe from him, which means he’ll probably win.  I will be intrigued to see what the bettors do as post time nears.  I can’t see him being that low on Saturday; I expect his odds to be closer to 20-1 than 4-1, but at Yonkers stranger things have happened.

I’m not much on handicapping, but since I know all these horses and know them well, I’m going with this scenario:

Bit of a Legend

Western Fame

Somewhere in LA

I think Legend is the ultimate gamer and will rise to the challenge like he did at the Gerrity and the Molson Cup at Western Fair in 2017.  I love the rail for Western Fame and that should only help an already super horse and I think Somewhere in LA will be engaged enough to be secure a top-three finish, but if they finished sixth through eighth, it would shock no one; the field is that good.

The Levy is race 10 on a spectacular card with $1.3 million in purses.  In addition to the Levy, the $373,000 Matchmaker will be run as well as consolations for both the Matchmaker and Levy.  There is also a $30,000 Preferred Handicap pace, a $40,000 Open Handicap pace, as well as a $30,000 Open trot and a $40,000 Blue Chip free-for-all for mare pacers.

It should be a good night for Yonkers; which has seen a dramatic increase in handle this year.  Despite the excellent card, they will be up against the Mighty Meadowlands which continues to handle $2 and sometimes $3 million on weekends.  That said the best races of the night are at Old Hilltop in Westchester County.

 

 

 

 

March Madness Times Two

March 14, 2018

There should be an NCAA and an ACAA for college basketball and college sports.

by John Furgele (The Divide and Conquer 228)

There used to a time when the NCAA embraced the mid-majors.  Remember when George Mason made the Final Four?  They were one of two teams from that conference (the CAA) to get into the tournament.  The Missouri Valley Conference used to send more than one team and so, too, did the Mid American Conference.  Even the MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) got two teams in 1995 when both St. Peter’s and Manhattan made the field. And, to enhance that reward, Manhattan upset Oklahoma in the first round.

Things have changed and there are two reasons why.  Once the NCAA got the $11 billion TV deal, the event changed.  Now, they had to market the big names and big schools.  Directional schools and schools named after people like George Mason, James Madison and William and Mary were no longer going to get a shot.  Why take Davidson and St. Bonaventure when most don’t know what state these schools are in?   Remember the undefeated St. Joseph’s team?  They got a number one seed and Billy Packer screamed about it for days.  In 1979, Indiana State was a one seed.  Today, Loyola went 28-5 and got an 11 seed.  Same conference.  Different times.

Even the NIT is bad.  LSU gets in and a very good Toledo team, with 23 wins is done for the year. It looks better to have LSU and TCU as your NIT champion than it is to have Duquesne or George Washington.

The second factor is football.  Once football took over college sports, the football schools want football teams to be in the basketball tournament.  Are we surprised Alabama is in this year with a terrible 19-15 record?  It’s easy to sell Alabama, not so easy to sell Saint Mary’s.  Why take Middle Tennessee when you can take eight schools from the SEC and nine more from the ACC.  The basketball tournament has become an extension of the football season. In sum, the NCAA basketball tournament is really a football tournament.

Even the mid-majors who do make it, get seeded low or get other teams seeded in the way to make for a difficult path.  When Wichita State went undefeated in 2014, they were seeded first, but the committee seeded Kentucky eighth, knowing that the Wildcats were more than capable of pulling off the “upset.”  And, when Kentucky did just that, those that run the NCAA were happy because it is better to have the brand advancing than the state school named after a city.

I am not sure what can be done.  I throw up my hands every time I hear a panelist say that this mid-major needs to schedule tougher and that the Ionas has to schedule and beat great teams.  But, Duke is never going to play at Marshall and Syracuse is never going to play at St. Bonaventure.  The Big 12—every game is a tough one—but if that conference is so tough then why does Kansas have an Atlanta Brave like stranglehold on it?  A good conference sees different team win it once in a while, but in the Big 12, Kansas wins it every year; yet 7 of the 10 schools make the field.  Once the mid-majors begin conference play, their strength of schedule goes down, the exact opposite of those that play in a Power 5 conference.

Even when St. Bonaventure, Wichita State, St. Joseph’s, Dayton, and Gonzagas of the world make the tournament, they are always given lower seeds because they are not Power 5 schools and they don’t play football.

I am not sure what can be done.  I have been a firm believer that there should be a split in Division I athletics—the Power 5 should form their own alliance—call it the ACAA (American Collegiate Athletic Association) and the rest of the schools should stay in the NCAA.  It would work well for football because it already exists and the NCAA division could be made up of existing Group 5 and FCS schools. In football, East Carolina, Marshall, Central Florida and even Boise State can never win, or even make the College Football Playoff.  Last fall, UCF went 13-0 and at season’s end, was ranked eighth. So, is a break really that far-fetched?  In many ways, it already exists.

In basketball, you could expand the ACAA to include the Big East since that conference gets too many bids as well.  You would then have 75 teams in the ACAA. Both the NCAA and ACAA could have 32-team fields.  CBS and Turner can broadcast the ACAA, while ESPN or Fox can handle the NCAA.

We all know that the chance of this happening is dead on arrival, but should it be?  The problem will be money.  The reason the old 16-team Big East broke up was due to dough.  Because it was a conference, the football schools had to share monies with the basketball-only schools.  That meant Seton Hall got money when Connecticut played in the Fiesta Bowl. The football schools didn’t like that, and the basketball schools felt like what was once a basketball-first league lost sight of its mission.  Thus, the breakup—the American Athletic Conference for the football schools and the Big East for the basketball schools.

America would never embrace two basketball tournaments.  There has been talk of the Group 5 football schools staging its own championship playoffs, but there is reluctance because as popular as college football is, would America support two football tournaments?  If the leaders are hedging on football, then of course, they are hedging on basketball

Once the tournament begins nobody really cares and despite all the complaining, we are usually debating three to five teams each and every year.  Some thought Oklahoma State should have made it over Oklahoma; others thought Notre Dame was more deserving than Syracuse, while a third crew was left wondering how the ninth place team in the Pac 12, Arizona State, made the field over the second place team, USC.  That’s the problem.  There was little talk of Saint Mary’s, Middle Tennessee, and even Old Dominion, a team that went 25-7 in Conference USA and missed out on the NCAA and the NIT.

At the end of the day, football runs the show.  We all know that, even Jim Boeheim knows that and he coaches at a basketball-first school.  As good as SU hoops are, SU football brings in more money.  Branding is important so we get why Alabama, Syracuse and Oklahoma are going to get the benefit of the doubt and the nod over St. Bonaventure, Saint Mary’s and Middle Tennessee, but it could be fairer.  Does the SEC need 8 teams?  Does the ACC need 9?  Does the Big 12 need 7?  The answer is no; if these conferences got 6, 7, and 5, that would leave room for six little guys to make the field, something that for many years, happened.

Is that asking too much?  Apparently, it is.

 

 

 

A Shootout for the Gold Medal? Really?

February 23, 2018

by John Furgele (The Shootout Hating 228)

This is a tale of two teams; for one, a tale of triumph, for the other, a tale of woe.  In these the 2018 Winter Olympics hockey is the ultimate team game.  The US women, as expected, played Canada for the Gold medal and won the game in a shootout.  The US men, a team that was cobbled together by USA Hockey once the NHL decided not to come over, lost in the quarterfinals to the Czech Republic in a shootout.

One team will be celebrated; lauded for its grit, guile and determination.  The other team will be criticized, as will USA Hockey, Gary Bettman, the NHL and others. It will be written that the US men lacked grit, guile and determination, the three things that women’s team had.

But guess what?  What was the one common theme between the US men and women?  Both teams saw their Olympics end in a shootout.  Had the American men found a way to score twice in the dreaded “breakaway thing,” they would be in the medal round playing the Russians—um, the Olympic Athletes from Russia.  Had the US women lost its shootout to Canada, we would be saying that it is a lousy way to decide the Gold medal.

The simple fact is that deciding a championship game via a shootout is dreadful, just dreadful.  Would the NBA decide Game 7 of its finals with a free-throw shooting contest?  How about the NFL using a field-goal kicking contest to decide the winner of the Super Bowl?

We all know soccer will use penalty kicks to decide some of their games, but soccer is a different animal.  They play 90 minutes and then 30 minutes of overtime.  There are only three substitutions allowed per team per game.  Once a player leaves the game, they’re done.  Even soccer doesn’t love this, but eventually, they have to find a way determine a winner before they, as Bobby Boucher said, “Died of the dehydration.”

Hockey is different.  Everybody who dresses plays. Shifts are short, between 30 and 45 seconds.  There are whistles, timeouts, and plenty of stoppages.  If the game is tied after one overtime, there is an intermission where the ice is cleaned and strategy discussed in the locker room.

In the playoffs, the NHL plays it straight.  Teams have five skaters and 20:00 is put on the clock.  If the game is tied after the fourth period, they move on to the fifth and if needed, the sixth and seventh.

The Olympics saw a 10-minute overtime and after no one scored, they went right to the shootout.    Why?  Why stop the regular game after just 70 minutes?  For Team USA, it’s a win, but is it a true win or is it just a tad bit hollow?  The rules were fair; they may not be the right rules, but they were fair because everybody knew them before the tournament started.  In that sense, Team USA earned its victory and the Gold medal.

Hockey used to have tie games and for decades they were fine with them.  In the old days, NHL teams would sport records such as 40-30-12.  That’s 40 wins, 30 losses and 12 ties; good for 92 points.  Easy to follow, easy to understand, easy to decipher. If a game was tied after three periods and 60 minutes, that was it.  Each team got one point and boarded a plane for its next city.

Now, figuring out team records is much tougher.  If you win a game, you get two points.  If you lose in overtime or a shootout, you get one point; a point for losing.  Now a team can be 38-35-9, good for 85 points.  But in reality, their real record is 35 wins and 47 losses, but because 9 of those losses were in overtime, they get points for losing games.  On the surface, the team looks like it finished two games over .500, when, in reality, they were 12 games under.

In the Olympics, teams received three points for winning in regulation; two points for winning in overtime/shootout and one point for losing in said overtime/shootout.  I can barely understand this.  Can you?

There was no excuse for the USA-Canada Gold medal game to end the way it did.  We can be glad that Team USA won and not be sad that Team Canada lost, but to me, it just isn’t an appropriate way to end a championship game.  And, if you think the IOC and IIHF will change the rules, please don’t hold your breath.  The one thing that these organizations have going for it is total arrogance.  They take bribes and even after the person to their right gets caught, they keep taking them.  They will never listen to common sense, let alone the common man or woman.

It was a great Gold medal game, won by Team USA in dramatic fashion.  That said, it could have been greater.

 

 

The NHL Players Are Not at the Olympics: So What!

February 16, 2018

by John Furgele (The Irritated 228)

It sure didn’t take long, did it?  Just two days into the Olympic hockey tournament, the wise souls that make up the media have dubbed the hockey insufferable.  They are already calling for the IOC to beg the NHL to send its players to the 2022 games that are to take place in China.  In fact, some probably think they should send them now to bail out this year’s tournament.

What about Slovenia’s 3-2 upset over the United States?  What about Slovakia beating the favorite Russia by the same 3-2 score?  Even Korea, not known for being a hockey-playing nation, held up well in a 2-1 loss to Czech Republic.

The media just can’t let anything breathe.  They have to go into instant react mode.  Everybody wants to be first; they want to be the first to praise, and in the case, the first to rip.  It is more important to be first than it is to be thoughtful these days and that’s sad. Thoughtful journalism has gone the way of the typewriter and dial-up internet.

We all knew that the level of play was not going to be what it was from 1998-2014.  The 2010 Gold medal game that pitted the USA and Canada might never be duplicated.  A loaded Team Canada and an equally loaded Team USA in an overtime thriller in Vancouver; the high point of the professional Olympic experiment.

What about the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in 1980?  That was a tournament for the ages and  believe it or not, the quality of play was not as good as it is now.  And, if you are old enough to remember, there were no NHLers at Lake Placid; Team USA was made up of college players and other amateurs. Yes, Team USSR was comprised of professionals, but so be it.  That made the Team USA win even more special.  The Olympics stayed with the amateurs in the 1984 and 1988 games before making the shift to allowing professionals to suit up.  It was happening with basketball, so why not hockey?

The 1992 tournament was the first one where each team was cobbled together.  Team USA was made up of many guys who were playing in the AHL, the old IHL, European leagues and a few from college. They went 4-0-1 in the preliminary round. Their goalie was none other than Ray LeBlanc, he of the Indianapolis Ice of the then International Hockey League.  Was the hockey as good as it would be in 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014?  Of course not, but this rag-tag team of quasi-professionals were playing well and America was paying attention. Team USA beat France in the quarters, but in the medal round they came back to earth, losing to the Unified Team and then Czechoslovakia in the Bronze medal game.

By the time 1994 rolled around, everybody knew that the NHLers were coming in 1998.  Still, the ’94 Gold medal game was riveting.  How good was it?  When Peter Forsberg scored a one-handed goal against Canadian goalie Cory Hirsch in a shootout, he ended up on a postage stamp in Sweden, a hero for the ages.  If that doesn’t say anything, then nothing can or will.

I understand why many are crying.  From 1998-2014, we were spoiled.  We saw the best of the best play for their respective countries.  We saw Dominick Hasek single-handily backstop the Czech Republic to the Gold medal in 1998; we had Herb Brooks coaching Team USA in 2002 at Salt Lake City.  They played the Russians on February 22 with the winner advancing to the Gold medal game.  Exactly 22 years earlier it was Herb Brooks and Team USA beating the Soviets/Russians at Lake Placid.  Like 1980, Team USA would win, only to lose to Canada two days later and thus, a Silver medal.

2006 was a surprise with Sweden besting Finland for the Gold Medal and in 2010 and 2014, the Canadians flexed their hockey superiority by winning back-to-back Golds.

The 2018 tournament has barely started and the media are already bemoaning it.  Each team has played just one game and the critics are out in force.  We all know that the quality of play will not be as good as it was in the previous five Olympiads.  It will be more of an AHL feel than a NHL feel, but why is that bad?  Is watching AHL hockey worse than cleaning latrines?  Why can’t the media settle in and look for stories?  Well, that takes time, research and work.  It is much easier to go the rink, sit in the press box and mope about slow skaters, unskilled players than it is to hustle and look for angles.  There has to be some.  The Canadian team has several players on its roster past the age of 33.  Why not round them up and ask them what drives them; why they’re still toiling in the KHL, the Swiss league or the AHL and what does it mean to them to be representing Canada in the Olympics?

Team USA captain Brian Gionta played 15 seasons in the NHL.  He scored 289 goals, and assisted on 299 over 1,006 games.  Oh, and he won a Stanley Cup with the 2002-2003 New Jersey Devils.  In the summer of 2017, he signed a minor league contract with the AHL Rochester Americans—a practice only contract, so he could stay in shape and finish his hockey career in the Olympics.

So, tell me, what’s a better story; Gionta, the old Canadians, the attempt by former NHL player Jim Paek (born in South Korea) to make Korea a legitimate hockey country?  Or, is the better story to sit back and lament the “poor” play after six games of the tournament?  One story requires work; the other requires typing and donut eating from the press box.

I know I’m not the brightest, but I know that the Olympics are as much about storytelling as they are about the games.  Criticizing and scolding the NHL for staying home is not a story of these, the Olympic Winter Games.  The time to do that was over the fall and in December.  That time is over.  There is no need to write this narrative, save it for 2021 when the Beijing games draw near.

In ten days, the Olympic hockey tournament may not go down as the greatest of all-time, but it could be 1994 all over again if the scribes and broadcasters watching it would give it some time to breathe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Football Too Hard To Digest?

February 4, 2018

by John Furgele (The 228)

The Super Bowl is the biggest sport event of the year, but is there an expiration date?  This year, there were 281 concussions in the NFL, yet the games go on, with packed stands, crazed fans and despite a recent downturn, high television ratings.

When the game ends, those at the various networks will break it down.  On Monday, all the big radio hosts—Jim Rome, Colin Cowherd, Dan Patrick, et al—will offer their insights and analysis as to why the Pats or Eagles won or lost.

Many of us love football.  Unlike the other sports, football is special.  There are fewer games for one, so each game means more than an NBA game, which is 1 of 82.  There is a ritual for each as well.  Most of the games are played on Sundays, a day where the majority of America is not working.  Even the most ardent Boston Celtic or New York Yankee fan has to struggle to watch games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  They have stuff to do.

When I was younger, I would often close my eyes and imagine being a professional athlete.  When I swing (and yes, I still do) my Wiffle Ball bat in the living room, I pretend I’m connecting and driving a ball over the wall or into the gap.  When I run my three miles and kick hard in the last 300 meters, I am visualizing that gold medal that waits at the end.

Football is the one sport that I don’t ever pretend or visualize myself doing.  Why?  Because the sport is too violent and the hits are just too hard.  Going deep to beat the Yankees with my Wiffle Ball bat—yes—but catching a pass over the middle?  No.

When you think about football, it scares most of us.  On every play, there is hitting.  When you see a running back run up the middle, he gets hit by 6, 7, 8 or even 9 guys each time.  The rules protect the quarterback as much as they can; yet, he still gets pummeled, crushed and concussed during games.

Is anybody feeling guilt about watching football games at all?  A lot?  A little?  A smidge?  Or, do we overlook it because it is so entertaining and exciting even when it’s not?

When Junior Seau killed himself and the autopsy showed stages of CTE, did we question our love of the sport?  Or, do we see an 82 year-old Jerry Kramer speak with clarity and say, “see, he played football for 11 years and he’s fine?”

Where do you stand?  Do you love football as much as you used to, or are you concerned about the game?  It’s like smoking; people know it’s bad for you, but many still do it.  The same for drinking and the same for eating steak every day.  Is football like smoking for some, so bad that you are quitting it, or are you the person that despite its warnings will still indulge?

There are a lot of positive aspects to football.  It really is the ultimate team game; it takes 53 players to win a Super Bowl, but many who watch, would not let their sons play this game.  That is the conundrum of conundrums—you love the games, but you don’t want your kid to play this game.

We saw Rob Gronkowski get his bell rung in the AFC Championship Game.  If we see something similar in the Super Bowl, will that appall some so much that they will quit watching?  Will the ratings keep going down?

On a day where there is a lot of food, here is some food for thought.

 

Could the XFL Work This Time?

January 26, 2018

If done humbly, the answer might be yes

by John Furgele (The Alternative 228)

The XFL is back…in 2020.  Vince McMahon made that announcement today, stating that an 8-team league with 40 players per club will debut in late January or February, 2020.  McMahon’s new LLC, Alpha Entertainment will own the eight teams and as of now, no cities have been mentioned as potential candidates.

We all know about the first XFL, but the simple fact was that the league promised more than it could deliver and by the fourth week, the fans deserted.  The league screamed for attention and got it, but when the quality of play suffered, the attention—and the audience–went away.

The irony is by the end of the season, the play had improved, but it was too late; all the animals had left the barn.  McMahon promises that the second edition will be about football and solely football.

McMahon wants to succeed; this is guy who has never failed.  He took the then WWF (now WWE) to unprecedented heights.  Even today, cable ratings for the WWE remain solid and events across the country sell plenty—if not all—of tickets.  When the XFL failed, McMahon took it as a personal failure.  And, unlike most of us, he has the money to try it again.

He believes he can get it right this time and this time, the timing may be right.  I was one of the few that actually liked the original XFL and had the league been more humble, I personally think it could have succeeded.  But, that’s water under the bridge and here’s hoping that a smart plan of action can lure some fans to the fledging soon-to-be league.

The biggest problem that this “new” league faces is that American sports fans are programmed and these alternative leagues are not part of our programming.  Think about the fans’ sports cycle and we’ll use September as the starting point.  In that month, the kids are back in school and fans are thinking football and the end of the baseball season.  In October, it’s baseball and football; in November it’s football with a little bit of basketball and hockey.  At Christmas time, it is football with more attention paid to basketball.  In January, it’s NFL playoff time and once the Super Bowl ends in February, fans need a break; they need to de-program.  There’s a reason why February is the worst sporting month of the year.

In March, it’s March Madness and office brackets and when the national champion is crowned, the baseball season has begun.  In May, it’s the NBA and NHL playoffs along with Triple Crown horse racing and so on and so forth.

What’s the point here?  The point is that even though Americans love to watch both college and pro football, they are programmed to take a break and do other things from February to September.  This is why the USFL failed and this is why Americans have never taken to the CFL.  The CFL is certainly exciting with its wider field, three downs, 12 players on a side and multiple guys in motion.  But, because it is not part of the American program, it gets neglected by the sports fan.

The USFL was a good league with a good product.  Reggie White, Sam Mills, Jim Kelly, Kent Hull, Steve Young, Doug Flutie, Doug Williams, Herschel Walker and Bobby Hebert played in the league and these are guys off the top of my head.  Jim Mora and Marv Levy were coaches in the league, so too, was Steve Spurrier.

We know that the USFL was not as good as the NFL, but its top teams were of NFL caliber and despite that, the fans deserted it.  Before that, there was the WFL (World Football League) that tried and failed and we all know about the World Hockey Association and American Basketball Association.  It’s tough for a fan to think XFL football when they are programmed to watching NCAA basketball in March.  It’s like going to the beach on a sunny day in March; we are just not programmed to do it.

The only alternative league that really succeeded was the old American Football League, but that was 1960 when the league could find big markets that wanted professional sports teams.  New York, Buffalo, Oakland, Miami, Houston, Boston, Kansas City, San Diego, Denver and Cincinnati were all big enough and big-league enough to get involved.  That league did well; well enough to force a merger with the NFL.

Where does the new XFL go?  They will start with eight and logic says that they will go to towns where NFL football does not exist.  Orlando has already expressed an interest and with a refurbished Citrus Bowl (now called Camping World Stadium) and a smaller, more attractive MLS stadium, it seems like an ideal candidate.

Columbus also has a MLS stadium that seats 22,000 which would be much better than trying to secure the 100,000 seat Horseshoe that sits on the campus of Ohio State University.  The Alamo Dome hosted the relocated New Orleans Saints in 2005 when that team needed a home after Hurricane Katrina and has always longed to house a full-time tenant.  San Diego, Oakland and St. Louis have or will have lost NFL teams, so naturally they would be included on McMahon’s wish list, but because of Oakland’s stadium situation, the other city by the bay is likely out.

It is easy to see two four-team divisions—one in the east, another in the west and speculation has already begun.  Portland, OR, San Diego, St. Louis and San Antonio in the west with Memphis, Columbus, Orlando and maybe Philadelphia (nearby Chester has a MLS team) in the east for the inaugural season.  Hartford, CT could play games where UConn plays them, so why wouldn’t they be a candidate?  The New York Red Bulls have a nice soccer stadium in New Jersey that could be a nice fit as well.  Louisville and Raleigh also come to mind.

McMahon says 10 games in 2020; I’d like to see 12, but that could come in time if the league succeeds.  If McMahon is true to his word and keeps the focus on football, then I believe that the XFL has a chance to make it.  The one thing I didn’t like was all the attention given to those who kneel during the national anthem.  On a day where McMahon was announcing his new endeavor, politics had to come into play.  I certainly don’t want to ignore the issue that this has become, but to bring it up all the time is tiring and really not necessary anymore.  McMahon said the rulebook will state that the players need to stand for the anthem and this already got people angered on social media saying that it is unfair for a league to take away freedom of expression.  These are the same people that claim that they don’t watch the NFL because of kneeling—I kid you not!

These alternative leagues fail because their creators go in thinking they’re going to take down the mighty established league, believing that they can win over players and fans.  We all know Triple A baseball is not as good as Major League Baseball, but Triple A baseball survives because they market it differently.  The USFL thought they were going to take down the NFL and they went bankrupt.  If the new XFL can market itself correctly and take advantage of the country’s love for football, why can’t it succeed?

Vince McMahon is no dummy.  He knows how to market and he knows how to tell a story.  He tried telling us a story in 2001 and we didn’t like it.  My hunch says that he will tell a different one in 2018 and 2019 and by 2020, we will buy in.