Archive for June, 2009

Bettman Makes The Right Call

June 16, 2009

by John Furgele

There are some tired things in sports.  Perhaps the most is when a golfer tees off on a 610 yard Par 5, and as soon as he hits his shot, the gallery yells, “get in the hole.”  How silly is that?  And, we all know that nobody is going to make a hole-in-one from 610 yards out.  Can’t the gallery think of something more crative—and realistic—to yell after tee shots are hit. 

Another tired thing is booing commissioner Gary Bettman when he comes out to present the MVP trophy (Conn Smythe Trophy) and the Stanley Cup.  It’s more than tired and to boo him and not know why you’re booing him is even more sillier than the golf gallery.  There may be times to bash him, but when he is giving out the most cherished piece of hardware that the game offers? 

The NHL is coming off a fine postseason.  Many of the series were pulsating, with several Game 7s.  Pittsburgh beat Washington in Game 7 in Washington in the Eastern semifinals, and Carolina won two Game 7s on the road, beating New Jersey in the first round and Boston in round two.  And, Pittsburgh did the ultimate by becoming the first road team to win Stanley Cup Game 7 on the road since the Montreal canadiens beat Chicago in the 1971 finals.  Furthermore, the Penguins win was the first in a Game 7 of a championship series in baseball, basketball and hockey since the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series in Baltimore. 

The NHL is doing better.  Game 7 drew 8 million viewers to NBC last Friday.  That’s a good rating for the NHL and Friday night is never the best night for television in the United States.  Furthermore, the 4.3 rating is more than half of what the NBA finals garnered on ABC.  Usually, the NHL gets about 1/3 the rating that the NBA gets, so getting half is a step up.  And, let’s not forget that another 3.5 million Canadians watched on CBC.

NBC does a solid job covering the NHL.  They don’t send their big wigs to cover the games.  Remember when Al Michaels did the NBA finals?  NBC lets the hockey experts—Mike Emrick, Ed Olyczk, Darren Pang, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire—cover the games.  Many Americans might not know any of these guys—who are mostly Canadians—but they do know that these guys know hockey.  NBC and the NHL recently extended their contract to broadcast games.  There are no rights fees, but if your sport is to be taken seriously, it has to have a network presence and NBC feels that the NHL is worth air time. 

Of course, as soon as the season ended, the news turned negative.  Jim Balsille, the founder of Blackberry, wants to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and move them to Hamilton, Ontario.  Are fans more passionate in the Steel City of Hamilton than they are in Phoenix, Arizona?  Yes, but Bettman is making the right call by trying to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix.  As much as Canada loves hockey, moving more teams there doesn’t make sense. 

There are over 3 million people living in the Phoenix area, about the same number of Canadians that watched Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.  Moreover, Hamilton is too close to Toronto and Buffalo and the NHL doesn’t need three teams that close to each other.  There are three teams in the New York area and right now, the Islanders are teetering, the Islanders, winners of four straight Stanley Cups in the 1980s might move to Kansas City if they can’t get a new arena. 

Having a team in Hamillton makes the sport a bit too regional.  Some may argue that the NHL should be more regional, but that’s not the way to keep your sport relevant.  Hamiltonians are passionate hockey fans and would love to call a team their own, but many Hamiltonians attend Toronto Maple Leafs games and Buffalo Sabres games.  The Sabres claim that 20 percent of their ticket buyers come from Southern Ontario.  If Hamilton gets a team, those 20 percent will drop the Sabres in favor of Hamilton.  And, now you have another team hurting.  The NHL doesn’t want that. 

And, there’s no proof that the crowds will pack the Copps Coliseum in downtown Hamilton.  Sure, most of the seats will sell, but in today’s sports world, it is all about sponsorship and luxury suites.  Are there enough corporations in Hamilton to keep the team flying high?  And, even when the recession ends, there will be a new business model.  Companies will spend money to go to sporting events, but not as lavishly as before.  All one has to do is see the empty box seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. 

The big companies have learned a lesson and that lesson is that the bottom line matters.  No longer will companies take out loans to continue their debt and one of the easiest things to cut is the $250,000 or more luxury box at an NBA, NHL, MLB or NFL arena/stadium.  They might buy eight season seats and use them accordingly, but I’m not really sure if Hamilton area companies are going to line up to buy these luxury suites when they are trying to be thinner and more efficient. 

Boo Gary Bettman all you want, but this time he is making the right call.

Woe the Dreaded Pitch Counts

June 11, 2009

by John Furgele

A decade ago, when balls were flying out of parks and men were getting bigger by the day, the lament was that the pitching was so bad it would ruin the game.  Well, they were right, pitching is ruining the game, but it is not totally the fault of the pitchers.

Watching baseball today has become a painful experience.  Today’s game is managed by those who overmanage.  The Joe Torres, Joe Giradis and Tony LaRussa’s of the world love to put their stamp on the game by making pitching changes, and they are far from alone.  It seems as if everybody in baseball is married to the “pitch count.”

Even broadcasters can’t resist referring to pitch counts.  They other day Yankee radiocasters John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman brought up Rays pitcher Andy Sonnanstine’s pitch count in the fourth inning.  Waldman, far from the best analyst in the game, talks pitch counts all the time.  And, her partner, the full-of-himself John Sterling does the same. 

Pitch counts are ruining the game.  Today, once a starter gets past the fifth inning, pitch counts and panic usually sets in.  Here is an example I have seen way too many times this season.  The starter gives up two runs over five innings, but has pitched well the previous two innings.  In the sixth, the first batter hits a 66 hopper (or, a bounding ball as the classic broadcasters used to say) up the middle for a base hit.  The next batter drops a bloop into right field.  Automatically, the manager, feeling that the pitcher is spent, and with 87 pitches, figures it is time to remove the starter and let the bullpen try to get the remaining 12 outs of the game.  No longer does the manager say, “let’s see if Johnson can wiggle out of this,” even though the two hits were far from scorchers. 

As a result, pitchers are conditioned to think that getting through six innings is a sufficient day’s work.  After six, most feel that their day is done, and rarely, will they beg their manager to stay in the game.  Mets pitcher Johan Santana is perhaps the best lefty around, but he after seven innings, he is usually done.  Therefore, the seven inning pitcher can’t be angry at the bullpen if they fail to protect his win. 

Another obstacle that has to be overcome is the roles of the pitchers.  Recently, the Yankees decided to put Chien Ming Wang back in the starting rotation and placed Phil Hughes in the bullpen.  The experts call this a demotion for Hughes, but this used to be the way it was.  If you were good enough to be in the majors, but were the sixth best pitcher on the team; you went to the bullpen.  If you did well there, you earned starts.  But, because of pitch counts, many think Hughes would be better off starting at Triple A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, so he won’t lose his endurance.  How laughable is that?  Being a great starter against the Toledo Mud Hens is better than pitching the seventh inning against the Boston Red Sox? 

As for Wang, he calls himself a starting pitcher and says he doesn’t want to work out of the bullpen, but he has been so awful as a starter, the bullpen is where he needs to be.  Phillies pitcher Chan Ho Park is another starter who feels like being in the bullpen is the equivalent of unfair labor, but thus far Park has done well in the ‘pen, and manager Charlie Manuel is a smart man, he will keep him there.

The bullpen seems like the place to be.  As a reliever, you know you’re going to get work, not because the starter is awful, but because the manager won’t let the starter go past the fifth and sixth inning or past 105 pitches.  Somewhere, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan and Mickey Lolich are crying in their beers with the shame that is modern day pitching.

The exception may be Toronto manager Cito Gaston.  Gaston has always been a “feel manager,” one who will leave his pitcher in the game after a couple of bloops in the sixth inning.  Last week, he let Roy Halladay throw a 133 pitch complete game, something Torre and Girardi would never do.  And, Halladay gave up four runs that game and still stayed in the game.   In his next start, Halladay went the distance on 97 pitches and shutout the Kansas City Royals, with no ill effects from the “pitch count,” of the previous start. 

I hope against hope and pray that someday, the pitch count thing will end and baseball will go back to letting pitchers be pitchers.  There is hope with the Texas Rangers.  Their Vice President, Nolan Ryan, has declared that pitch counts no longer be kept from the minors through the majors; that whether a pitcher stays in or comes out of the game be determined by strength, not by some artficial number.

Hopefully, this makes Jim Kaat happy.

Nadal May Be Better, But Federer Best

June 8, 2009

by John Furgele

The title of this column is a bit clumsy, perhaps even awkward, but it is very true.  Tennis has two great players in Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, but in the end, Federer remains the true number one.  Federer captured the one title he needed to have when he dismantled upstart Robin Soderling to win the French Open title at Roland Garros Sunday.  For Federer, it was his 14th Grand Slam title, tying him with Pete Sampras, but more importantly, it was his first on the crushed brick in Paris, and no longer will there be complaints that Federer is not a complete champion.  He has now won on hard, grass and clay and that can never be taken away.

Critics may argue that Federer had an easy path after Sodering beat Nadal in the 4th round, and many may say that had Federer played Nadal in the final, Nadal would have won, but I’m selling that.  In sports, you have to play who’s here, not who should be here.  How many times have you heard statements like, “they aren’t the best team,” or “they didn’t have to play the best team to win.”  That is plain fodder.  You play who’s in front of you and that is one thing Federer is great at. 

Nadal may be better against Federer, but there are players who can beat Nadal on a given day.  Andy Murray dissected Nadal in the semifinals of the 2008 US Open, then Federer breezed past Murray in the final.  This year, in Paris,  it was Soderling who took out Rafa, only to get blitzed by the Swiss Maestro in the final. 

The only person Federer loses to is….Nadal.  In last year’s French Open final, Federer played his worst match of his career when the Spainard carved him up, which included 6-0 in the third and final set.  Then came the epic five set battle at Wimbledon, and to say that Nadal was better than Federer on that day could be made, but when it goes 9-7 in the fifth, aren’t we splitting hairs?  When Nadal beat Federer at the this year’s Aussie Open, many said that the torch had been officially passed to Nadal.

Because Federer beats everybody but Nadal, he is always in the finals.  He is now 14-5 in Grand Slam finals, with all five losses coming at the hands of Nadal (he has two wins against him; both at Wimbledon), but the difference is Federer is always there.  Ivan Lendl (8-11) and Federer are tied with 19 Grand Slam finals apperances.  As good as Nadal is, and he is great, Federer is more reliable the Nadal.  Nadal has yet to make a US Open final; Federer has won five straight titles.  Nadal has won one Australian Open title; Federer has won three.  Nadal has six Grand Slam titles and is only 22 years old, so there remains a chance that Rafa will also get to double digits in slam titles, but Nadal can get beat in the early rounds, Federer cannot.

Federer is 27 years old and many say that means his best tennis is behind him, but where is the evidence?  He made the Aussie Open final and lost in five sets, then won the French Open.  To me, that doesn’t mean that his decline has begun.  If you’re a tennis fan, or even a sports fan, yes, you were disappointed that Nadal didn’t play Federer in the French final and you hope that the two can make to the finals of both Wimbledon and the United States Open.  This is very unfair to the other talented players on the tour, but that’s what makes sports great, having a true rivalry, and because of that, most of us want to see Nadal-Federer in the remaining two Grand Slam finals. 

Of course, sports cannot be scripted and even though Nadal might have the upper hand when he plays Federer, I still believe that Federer will be in the both the Wimbledon and U. S. Open finals.  For Nadal, I’m not as sure.  If he can get there, he may win both of them, but Nadal can be beaten by others, Federer, as a general rule, cannot.  Federer has the best chance to win four slams each year because he’s always in the finals.  That cannot be said for Nadal, especially in New York.

This makes tennis a bit strange, because we really don’t know who the best player is?  Nadal has the better head-to-head record, but Federer is more consistent and is as close to a finalist guarantee as there is.  So, we’ll leave it the way we started…..

Nadal is better, but Federer is still the best. 

Make sense?

Be Careful What You Wish For

June 2, 2009

by John Furgele

For this week, we will look at various items, and we will start with the NBA.  Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose is making waves because of an allegation that somebody else took his SAT exam before he enrolled at Memphis.  And, to nobody’s surprise, John Calipari was the coach at Memphis when this alleged violation took place.  Even though Calipari has been cleared of any wrongdoing, it is fairly clear that Rose was not exactly college material, and once again, it shows Calipari’s—and all others—penchant for winning at any cost. 

But, the real shame goes to the NBA.  This is what you get with the silly rule that one must be one year past his high school gradutation to play in the NBA.  All this does is force kids that shouldn’t go to a college and pretend that their students for one year.  The NBA and the NCAA hide under the fact that playing in college helps both college basketball and better prepares the player for life in the NBA.  You and I both know that’s bull.

The Detroit Red Wings are playing the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second straight year in the Stanley Cup Finals, and for the second straight year, it looks like the Wings are much better than the Pens.  Many thought that the more mature Penguins would give Detroit all they could handle and some even believe that they can win, but through Games 1 and 2, it looks like we’re watching a replay of the 2008 final.  Detroit has won both games by 3-1 scores and the Pens don’t look like a team that will generate enough scoring to beat Detroit—again.  But, before we write off the Pens, let’s see how they do on home ice.  I firmly believe that a series doesn’t truly begin until the road team wins a game and if Pittsburgh can hold serve, then we may have an interesting series.  But, my gut tells me that Detroit takes a game in Pittsburgh and closes things out in five. 

Superfilly Rachel Alexandra will be skipping this week’s Belmont Stakes, and while they may upset some, it is the right call.  Could Rachel beat the boys again—of course, but she has raced five times already this year and deserves a rest.  She already proved that she could win a big one when she dominated the Preakness (she led at every fraction after the 1/4 mile), and she doesn’t need to injure himself. 

As for Mine That Bird, he’ll have Calvin Borel riding him again, and Borel has already guaranteed a Belmont win.  Because he’s a gelding, MTB can do nothing but run and kudos to his owners and trainers for letting him run again this week.    They could easily save him for races later in the summer and fall, but they’re trying to win a second Triple Crown race.  Personally, I will be rooting for Mine That Bird, but the Belmont is the ultimate meat grinder.  It is an enormous track and can swallow up even the best of colts, geldings and fillies.  It ate up Smarty Jones, who came up 1/16 short in 2004; it engulfed Big Brown, one of the biggest fraud horses of all time in 2008; and took down the likes of Spectacular Bid (1979) and many others.  There has been one horse who swallowed Belmont Park and that was the one and only Secretariat in 1973.  His time of 2:24.0 for the 1 1/2 mile race is still the record—by two full seconds.