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Who’s Willing to Try the CFL This Year?

June 12, 2019

The WFL, USFL, XFL and AAF have come and gone, but the rouge is still alive up North.

by John Furgele (The Toque Wearing 228)

Are baseball games too long?  Are you tired of both the NBA and NHL finals stretching until mid-June?  Not yet a fan of Major League Soccer?  Not intrigued by the Women’s World Cup?  Are you missing football?

There is a remedy as the Canadian Football League kicks off its 2019 season on Thursday, June 13.  That is not an error—Thursday, June 13.  The 9-team CFL has been around for a long time.  In November, they will play the Grey Cup—the CFL title game—for the 107th time.  My favorite champion remains the Sarnia Imperials, an outfit that won titles in both 1934 and 1936.

The Imperials are long gone, but the 9-team, two-division league is ready to go.  For some reason, the CFL survives.  The Alliance of American Football appeared to be a threat when it launched in February, but couldn’t finish one season.  In 2020, the XFL will try for the second time to make a footprint in North American football.

The CFL differs of course, because it is a Canadian league, and is subject to that country’s labor laws.  Each team can have only so many imports on the respective rosters.  Many of the skilled positions—QB, RB, WR—are comprised of American guys, with Canadian guys usually playing slotback, fullback, offensive line, kickers and punters.  It’s not all like that, but it mostly is.

A league like the XFL/AAF could be a threat because one would deduce that American players would rather play in St. Louis over Saskatchewan, but there is risk, which the AAF players found out when that league abruptly folded.  The CFL is followed nationally.  It has a TV deal with TSN—the ESPN equivalent to the North—and also has a players union.  Chances are the CFL will outlast all of these other upstarts; they have before, so why wouldn’t that continue?

There are four teams in the East Division:  the Ottawa Redblacks, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Montreal Alouettes and the Toronto Argonauts.  The West Division features the defending champion Calgary Stampeders, Edmonton Eskimos, BC Lions, Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders.  Like the Green Bay Packers, the Roughriders are community owned and probably have the most loyal fans.

The league features 20 yard end zones, 110-yard fields that are wider and 12 men on the field is not a penalty.  But 13 is; ask the Saskatchewan Roughriders who thought they won the 2009 Grey Cup when Montreal kicker Damon Duval missed a 43-yard field goal as time expired.  The refs counted one too many Roughriders and when Duval got another chance, he was true and the Alouettes triumphed, 28-27.

The CFL does do one thing that NFL commissioner wants to do and that is play two pre-season games and 18 regular season games.  After years of denial, the NFL is not admitting that four—or five—preseason games are a waste of time.

The CFL is quirky, or is the NFL quirky.  Up north, the field goal posts sit just two yards in, so if a field goal is missed it can roll around in that 20-yard end zone.  Teams will put a man back there to field the missed tries.  That man has three choices:  run it out, down the ball and concede a single point or rouge or kick it out.  If he chooses to kick it out, the kicking team can get the ball and try to kick it back in.  A CFL contest could theoretically end up 1-0. Oh, that crazy, lovable CFL.

The CFL has had some talented players.  Joe Theismann began his career there, as did Jeff Garcia, Cameron Wake and many others.  Warren Moon may have been the one CFL guy that had the great NFL career.  In six CFL seasons (1978-1983), his Edmonton Eskimos won five Grey Cups (1978-1982) before he headed off to a Hall of Famer career with the Houston Oilers following the 1983 CFL season.

Doug Flutie did the reverse Moon.  After bouncing around the USFL and the NFL, Flutie decided to head to the BC Lions in 1990.  In eight CFL seasons, he would win the CFL MVP award six times, win three Grey Cups titles—Calgary, 1992 and Toronto, 1996-1997) and throw for 41,355 yards and 270 touchdowns in just eight seasons.  In 1991, he passed for 6,619 yards. Flutie was given another chance by the Buffalo Bills and played in the NFL from 1998-2005.

My favorite team in the CFL is the Toronto Argonauts.  Of all the teams, they are perhaps the least loved.  They play in a city that has Major League teams—the Blue Jays, the Raptors, Maple Leafs and even Toronto FC, but the Argos or Boatmen as they are sometimes referred as, always seem to win a title here and there.  My teams don’t win championships very often, but since I began following sports in earnest back in 1976, the Argos have won Grey Cups in 1983, 1991, 1996, 1997, 2004, 2012 and 2017.  Toronto fans lament that they haven’t won a major sports title since the Blue Jays in 1993, yet the “minor league Argos,” have managed to win five since that time.  I get it, but I don’t like it.

If you love football, the CFL is worth a shot. There are plenty of games on the ESPN family of networks and just about every game is on the ESPN Plus app.

So, if you’re tired of four hour baseball games with 26 combined strikeouts, the CFL might be your tonic—until September.

 

 

 

 

 

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Dear Gary West and Maximum Security: Come To New York

May 19, 2019

In case Mr. West forgot, the Belmont is June 8

by John Furgele (The Smiling 228)

It’s been an interesting two weeks for the sport of horse racing hasn’t it?  As we know, the sport gets four weeks of mainstream media coverage—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont and the Breeder’s Cup—unless there is something bad going on like equine fatalities at Santa Anita or elsewhere.

In the Derby, we saw the historic disqualification of Maximum Security and at yesterday’s Preakness we saw a horse run without his jockey.  With the Belmont coming in less than three weeks, what happens next is anybody’s guess.

While War of Will was blazing home to win the Preakness, Maximum Security’s owner Gary West was issuing challenges to all the horses that were involved in the Derby fiasco.  Without getting into specifics (they’re not worth the space), West is willing to pony up millions if some of the Derby horses can beat his horse in a race.

West is also suing to get the Derby title via the courts.  Because the stewards’ took his title away, he plans on appealing to the higher authorities.  I would think that the courts have more important things to do than hear arguments about a horse race but what do I know?

I have some advice for West—run your horse in the Belmont Stakes.   It looks like War of Will is coming if healthy, so why not join the party?  You thought you won one race; War of Will did win the other race, so let’s come to New York and settle the score.  That’s the challenge, the statement that you should be making.

The Belmont is no easy task.  For starters, it is the longest race that these colts will ever run on dirt.  At 1.5 miles, it requires patience, speed and stamina and because Belmont Park is so massive, it can eat horses alive.  Most tracks are one mile ovals; some are 7/8 of a mile.  Belmont Park is 1.5 miles, meaning the horses come down the stretch only one time.  In races less than 1.5 miles, you will never hear the track announcer say “as they pass the stands for the first time,” because that doesn’t happen.

Maximum Security likes the lead; sometimes that doesn’t play well at Big Sandy (Belmont Park’s nickname), but if the horse can rate (settle), the race can be won from the lead.  We saw Justify lead from start to finish in his Triple Crown run last year, and American Pharoah did the same when he won the Triple Crown in 2015.

Closers usually don’t win the Belmont.  Why?  Because they’re too tired to close.  Once horses reach one mile, most are decelerating and are gasping for the finish line.  In the Belmont, you’re gassed, but there is still 48 to 52 seconds of running left.  That’s a long time.

That’s the other thing about the Belmont; the time spent running.  The Kentucky Derby winning time this year was 2:04.20; the Preakness, 1:54.34.  Last year, Justify won the Belmont in 2:28.18.  That’s a lot of “extra time.”

Maybe West knows this and is more comfortable in setting up a race at some other venue, perhaps at 1 1/8 miles. When I read the challenge, I was miffed because the best and simple thing to do is bring your horse to New York because “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

If West skips the Belmont it will be opportunity lost.  As much as I love horse racing, the casual fan doesn’t care about the Haskell, the Travers and the Pennsylvania Derby.  Most have never heard of these races and that isn’t changing anytime soon. But, the casual fan does know about the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, so why not show up at a race when people are paying attention.

I guess the easy thing to do is not so easy.

 

Pimlico Still Kicking—For Now

May 10, 2019

The 12-day 2019 meet is off and running

by John Furgele (The Sentimental 228)

Pimlico Race Course first hosted horse racing in 1870, making it the second oldest racetrack in the United States, behind Saratoga (1864).  That’s where the comparisons stop, however, because while one track flourishes; the other continues to languish.  The fate of Pimlico will be determined in the future; this weekend, we will celebrate Old Hilltop’s 2019 opening.

You can say what you want about the facility—poor location, limited dates, run-down, tattered, a political football—but the one thing about the track is that the racing surface has always been a good one.  The races, for the most part, are fair, and despite smallish purses and few dates, offers good competition.  The turf course is always groomed well and as a result, the racing is quite good.  In recent years, Pimlico has developed a nice nook for turf sprinting, most notably the 5 furlong distance.  In fact, one of the best races of the meet is the Jim MacKay Turf Sprint at 5 furlongs contested on Black Eyed Susan Day on Friday, May 17.  Maryland’s own warhorse Ben’s Cat won the race in 2011 and then won it four straight times from 2013-2016; the ’16 win coming at age 10.

Pimlico used to run more dates, but over time, with the facility crumbling, they have reduced the schedule while adding more dates at Laurel, 30 miles southwest.  It seems inevitable that at some point the Preakness will call Laurel home, but for now, Pimlico runs from now through Memorial Day.

There are 16 stakes races on the 2019 schedule, all of which will be run on Black Eyed Susan Day (May 17) and Preakness Day. (May 18).  The Pimlico Special is a Grade 3 event with an illustrious history and is restricted to four year olds.  The idea was to get the previous year’s Preakness winner to come back and run.  The race used to be run at the same distance—1 3/16 miles—as the Preakness, but this year’s race will be run at 1 ¼ miles.

The Black Eyed Susan Stakes is a Grade 2 event for 3-year old fillies that offers a $250,000 purse and is run at 1 1/8 miles.  Black Eyed Susan Day has become a big deal at Old Hilltop.  Last year, 48,265 were in attendance; the second largest to 2017, when 50,339 attended.

The Preakness is the big day for Maryland racing and it usually doesn’t matter which horses show up.  Last year, 134,447 attended despite torrential rains with total handle over $93 million.

The 2019 edition of the Preakness is cloudy to say the least.  Unless you’ve been asleep, the horse that crossed first in the Kentucky Derby, Maximum Security, was disqualified and will not be racing and the declared winner, Country House, is out due to illness.  That leaves things to the new shooters and some holdovers from the Derby in contention.

The casual fan struggles with the Preakness.  They get to know the Derby horses and then, most of them don’t run two weeks later.  That shouldn’t deter you.  The Preakness may not be as prestigious as the Derby (is any race?), but it more than stands on its own.  It’s no joke to win an American classic race. Ask the owners of Curlin, Bernadini and the super-filly, Rachel Alexandra.

The Derby relies on points to determine its field.  There are designated races that offer points to the top four finishers and the top 20 are invited to run for the roses on the first Saturday in May.

The Preakness is old fashioned, but old fashioned with a twist.  The field is limited to 14 and for the most part, earnings dictate who runs and who doesn’t.  But as a way to entice, there are some win and you’re in races.  The Frederico Tesio Stakes, contested at Laurel Park has always guaranteed its winner a spot in the Preakness, but the Tesio is not always a strong and deep race.  This year, Alwaysmining romped, but he will come to Pimlico with long odds.

A new twist was added to the Preakness this year and it was done in cooperation with Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, AR.  This year, Oaklawn did a couple of new things.  First, they extended their meet three weeks, concluding on Saturday, May 4—Kentucky Derby Day.  Second, they added a $300,000 race for 3-year olds, the Oaklawn Invitational with the winner given a free entry into the Preakness.  The inaugural running was a thriller with Laughing Fox, a stone cold closer, battling and then beating Night Ops in 1:49.78 for 1 1/8 miles.  The colt is trained by Steve Asmussen and both he and the owners have accepted the offer and are heading to Pimlico to run in the Preakness.

Pimlico will race Thursday-Sunday this week and Thursday through Saturday next week and will conclude with a Thursday-Monday card the week of May 20.  On May 31, Maryland racing shifts back to Laurel.

There are 187 racing dates in Maryland this year—168 of them are at Laurel.  The Stronach Group appears determined to make Laurel Park the place to be and we all know that Pimlico’s days are numbered.  Most believe that the 2020 Preakness will be Pimlico’s last hurrah and there is a small part of me that will be sad when that happens.

Times have changed and as they say, nothing lasts forever.  You wish that Pimlico could be fixed up, that the crowds would swell and that they would race at least 40 to 50 days per year.  But reality is cruel, cold and unforgiving.

Let’s take the time to celebrate the 2019 Pimlico meet—all 12 days of it.  It may be short, but there is still some sweetness to it.

 

America: A Nation of Strugglers

May 8, 2019

The Derby takedown just another example of our boorish behavior

by John Furgele (The Puzzled 228)

The Kentucky Derby is in the books and let’s be real:  it wasn’t a great day for the sport or for America.  Once again, the weather was lousy with rain plaguing Louisville.  We had the controversial finish, which led to the disqualification of the colt that crossed first in Maximum Security.  We also got a glimpse into how angry Americans are with themselves, other Americans and life in general.

Americans demand to be right.  We will take no prisoners.  If we lean conservative, we will bash all liberals; if we lean liberal, we will bash all conservatives.  President Donald Trump could save a baby from a burning building and not one Democrat will praise him.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could save an elderly man from being hit by a car and not one Republican would praise her.  Not only have we stopped acknowledging good deeds, we have stopped acknowledging.  We state our opinions as if they are fact and if you don’t agree, then you’re the one that has the problem.

This divide reared its head on Kentucky Derby day.  As soon as the race ended, those that disagreed with the decision to take down Maximum Security went nuts on social media and if you defended the actions of the stewards, you were taken to town.  Those that believed the decision was the right one also went nuts and bashed back.

For some reason, one side can’t seem to see the other.  I watched the race; at first I was upset at the DQ.  I didn’t like it for many a reason, the primary being that I personally don’t believe you take down the race winner unless the infraction is so egregious and so obvious that it simply had to be done.  But after calming down and watching the replays I understood why Maximum Security was taken down.  I’m still not sure I agree with it, but I acknowledged it and believe it or not, can live with it. There is no need to tell somebody I don’t know and never will know via social media that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

We have become a society of whiners—we cry about everything and anything. When things go well, we hit Facebook and Instagram to tell the world how great we are and how great our lives are. If something goes wrong, we either go silent or we bash away using those above mentioned platforms. We saw it after the NFC Championship Game, the AFC Championship Game and now the Kentucky Derby. Simply, we, as a people, cannot accept things that we don’t agree with or with things that don’t go our way.

Those the defended the takedown are saying that the sport was lucky that War of Will’s and Maximum Security’s heel clicking didn’t cause a pile up of horses.   While that is true, you can’t use that as a reason for DQing the colt because it didn’t happen.  We hear that all the time in sports.  A baseball player hits one into the gap with one out.  He gets thrown out at second base.  Replays show he was safe, but the call isn’t overturned.  The next batter doubles down the right-field line and the fan says that they were robbed of a run.  That of course, is not true.  With the runner on second, the strategy changes and maybe the next batter grounds out to shortstop.  That’s what fans do; they create scenarios that are often fallacies. When the New England Patriots won the coin toss in the AFC title game and scored six points, those that were rooting for the Chiefs and hating the Patriots screamed—not fair.   But never once did a fan mention that the Chiefs defense was allowed to make a stop and get the ball back to their offense.  That requires thought, reflection and acknowledging the other side of a discussion.

The stewards received an objection; they took 22 minutes to review it and they concluded that the infraction warranted a take down.   Yes, we are allowed to react, but it can’t last forever. But, this is a different America.  The Democrats still can’t accept that  Trump defeated Clinton in the 2016 election, so they will appeal until somebody hears them—or at the very least—sides with them.

We are now getting this same behavior from Gary West, the owner of Maximum Security.  Not only will he not run the horse in the Preakness, he will appeal the takedown.  He basically is going to cry and cry until something happens.  Please Gary, for the sake of the sport you say you love, accept the decision.

We also are getting some curious behavior from Bill Mott, the trainer of 2019 Derby champion, Country House.  Mott certainly saw something and certainly encouraged jockey Flavien Prat to file an objection, which the jockey did.  It took 22 minutes, but Bill, you got your first Derby win as a trainer.

Nothing wrong with objecting.  All Prat did was protest; it was the stewards who made the decision.  Mott should be looking forward to the Preakness, but he appears to be looking for reasons not to run him.  He didn’t seem eager to run the colt on just two weeks rest, and now because the colt decided to get sick, he can scratch him.

We have to trust the trainer, so if Mott believes that running him back in the Preakness would compromise the colt, then you can’t run him.  What bothered me though is that the Hall of Fame trainer won his first Kentucky Derby and seemed less than thrilled to try for the Triple Crown.  After all the sport has been through, why not show some enthusiasm?  Why not fake some excitement?  Why not say, “while it’s not ideal to run back in two weeks, we are excited to run in the Preakness and prove that our horse is a great one.”  Instead, we get this.

Even Mott, a classy guy and Hall of Fame trainer needs to be right in 2019; he certainly doesn’t want to be told what to do.  And, that’s the problem we have today.  We know he doesn’t have to run the horse in the Preakness, we know the Triple Crown is not as big of a deal as some believe.  It has gained an aura about it and truth be told, it might be a bit overblown.  Most of us have just seen two of them occur with American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify last year. The causal fan watches the Triple Crown races and they want to see the Derby champion run in the Preakness. So, if the Derby champ is sound and healthy, please run him or her in the second leg.

We are a “Nation of Strugglers.”  Everybody seems to be suffering from it.  Is give and take gone?  Can we not exchange opinions without name calling, shouting and berating?  Here are some current strugglers:

-Americans

-Gary West

-Bill Mott

-Bob Baffert

Not only are we a “Nation of Strugglers,” we are a sensitive one, too.  We take everything personally as it’s a direct insult.  West is being sensitive as is Mott.  Bob Baffert said he was surprised that an objection even occurred.

“No one ever calls an objection in the Derby,” Baffert said. “It’s always a roughly run race. Twenty-horse field. I have been wiped out numerous times, but that is the Derby. I can see by the book why they did it. But sometimes you’ve got to take your ass-kickings with dignity.”

Baffert is hinting at our sensitivity.  He has a point.  If Prat and Court don’t object, Maximum Security is the Derby champion. We know Baffert would not have said this had Maximum Security caused his horses to go down, but once again—–they didn’t.

Is Baffert wrong for saying that?   Of course not, he is entitled to his opinion, just like Todd Pletcher, Mark Casse and Shug McGaughey, all of whom said that the takedown was the correct ruling are as well.

What we don’t need is for Baffert to scream at Pletcher and bash him, saying that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. We also don’t need Pletcher to do the same to Baffert.  Thankfully that hasn’t helped—-yet.

It was a tough decision, and for the stewards, an agonizing one. When I read Dan Wolken of USA Today say that if Maximum Security were a Baffert horse the result would have stood, I can’t believe his editor would let that into a column. I cringe when I read stuff like this because not only do I not believe it, I can’t believe it.

These are the same people who believe that the Patriots get all the calls, that college football wants Alabama in the College Football Playoff no matter what and the same people that demand that Notre Dame football should be forced to join a conference.

When presented with evidence and facts, people dismiss them.  When they are told that Notre Dame has its own TV contract and doesn’t need a conference that would force them to share revenues, they scream, “that shouldn’t matter,” or, “so what.” There is no doubt that Maximum Security violated a rule, but rather than acknowledge that the retort is “it doesn’t matter, he was the best horse, he would have won anyway.”  That’s the scary part of what is going on with society today.

If we’re going to have discourse, we must acknowledge what the other side says BEFORE we disagree and make our point.   Sadly that is not happening and to be honest, I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.  Trump won’t acknowledge, Ocasio-Cotez won’t either, so why would the rest of us?

Nobody gets out of here alive, but in today’s world, nobody is getting out unscathed either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tiger Woods: A Person Unlike Any Other

April 21, 2019

Far from pure, the golfer still commands the attention

by John Furgele (The Way Over Par 228)

He cheated on his wife. Numerous times and he did it in not so traditional ways.  After his divorce, he met skier Lindsay Vonn and after a few years of dating, cheated on her.  He has been arrested for DUI, gone to rehab and even in his prime was known for being frugal, surly and brazen.

Yet, he is loved.  This man of course is Eldrick Woods, better known as Tiger.

We are all flawed.  Nobody can sit back on any day and say that they’ve lived the perfect life.  Even the greatest of husbands make mistakes, ditto for wives.  When people say that they can’t root for Tiger Woods for “what he did to his wife, Elin Nordegren; I refrain from judging.  While we are taught that it’s wrong to commit adultery; there are always reasons.  We were not privy to the intricacies of Woods’ marriage, so why should we judge?

That said we all know what happened in 2009 when Woods came home late and was basically beaten up by his wife.  Being a public celebrity has its drawbacks and having your personal life aired out for all to see is one of them.

If you like Tiger Woods, you’ll make an excuse for him.  You’ll say that his personal life is his and you’ll separate the two.  If you don’t like him, you’ll call him a horrible person with low morals and not separate the two.

We’ve seen this before.  Former President Bill Clinton had sexual relations with an intern in the White House; those that hated him and his ideology demanded that he first be impeached (he was) and then removed from office (he wasn’t).  The same people that supported Clinton are the same ones that call current President Donald Trump a “scumbag,” for his infidelity and other transgressions.

We live in a polarized nation  for sure.

Woods is different than most.  For some reason, despite his massive flaws, America has rooted for him, has hoped that he would come back from the numerous injuries to his body. Even when he was linked and at the very least, suspected of using PEDs, America wanted him back.

Why?

Woods is one of those guys.  He transcends the sport of golf; in fact he just transcends.  Michael Jordan did that and perhaps nobody did it better than Muhammed Ali.  You can’t designate a transcender.  It happens and does so naturally.  Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer—those guys resonated with Americans; not just golf or sports fans, but all Americans.  Palmer did tons of commercials long after his prime and even has an iced team named after him.  Nicklaus, ever the swashbuckler was another.  He dominated the sport and had the charm to go with it. You can go and on.  Mike Tyson was a transcender; Evander Holyfield wasn’t.  There is an IT factor; it’s always existed and always will.

Woods was first shown to America when, barely out of diapers, he appeared on the Mike Douglas Show.  His father said he would someday dominate and you know what—Earl Woods was right.

Woods came onto the scene in 1997 at the tender age of 21.  I was 29 years old when he dominated The Masters.  I was in a sports bar in Baltimore, Maryland when I saw his triumph.  When you know exactly where you were when something happens, that my friends is a transcendent moment.   I have watched Woods since then, meaning that for 41 percent of my life, Woods has been a part of it.   When you think about it like that, it really says something.

He took over the game, he was black and he was arrogant.  He believed that he would dominate and from 1997-2008, he did, winning 14 majors in those 12 tour seasons.  His return has been one of fits and starts.  He would play well for stretches, than horribly, then would get injured, have some surgeries and after, people wondered if Woods was done with the game.

Americans are not in love with golf.  But four times a year, interest picks up and those four times correspond with the majors—The Masters, the PGA, the US Open and the British Open—-and when it does, people want to see the big names succeed.

Woods looked good enough Thursday, better on Friday and by Saturday evening, he was right there, in sight of the leaders.   Had the final round been in its usual afternoon window, the ratings would have been huge.  Mother Nature had other ideas and because those at Augusta National dictate to TV (not the other way around), they moved up the final round starting time to 7:30 AM ET.  Despite that change, the final round drew an impressive 7.7 rating/21 share.  At 2 PM, when Woods was closing in, the rating spiked to 12.1 and a 28 share.  That meant for every 100 TVs that were on, 28 of them were watching Woods at The Masters.

They were there to see Woods and when he tapped in that bogey putt to seal the deal, the patrons erupted as did millions of others that were watching back home.  Even those that hated Woods have bought in.  Sure, they hated him after 2009, but because he has had such misfortune, many Americans have turned and are rooting for the comeback.  We like to tear down our celebrities, but we also like to build them back up.  That was evidenced yet again on Sunday, April 14 at The Masters.  When you read things like, “I’ve never been a fan of Woods, but I was rooting for him at The Masters;” that certainly says something about the golfer’s appeal.

The people were there to see Woods do something that many believed couldn’t happen—him winning another major title.  Many who were at Augusta last Sunday were also there in 1986 when 46-year old Jack Nicklaus did the unthinkable by firing a 30 on the back nine to win his sixth green jacket.   Nicklaus never won another major and Woods may never either, but for one day, on Sunday, at Augusta, the conquering hero was back.

And America approved.

For Jamion Christian and Siena, One and Done Just Ain’t Right

March 22, 2019

Siena coach impresses, but bolts after one season

by John Furgele (The Angry 228)

Matt Egan couldn’t believe it.  The 33-year old Siena alum and season ticket holder has seen this before.  The college hires a coach, they win games and off they go to bigger and better schools that can pay them more.  If you’re a Siena fan, you’ve become accustomed to this.  Mike Deane, Paul Hewitt, Louis Orr, Fran McCaffrey.  These guys came to Loudonville, made their mark and saw other programs—bigger ones—come calling.  Deane left for Marquette; Hewitt, Georgia Tech; Orr, Seton Hall and McCaffrey, Iowa.

Siena deserves credit here, they’ve hired great coaches and because they’re a mid-major in conference that gets one bid to the Big Dance, it is expected that new coaches will use the school as that steppingstone to a bigger and better paying job.

Last May, Siena hired Jamion Christian.  He was young, eager and had coaching experience at Mount Saint Mary’s, where he had played.  He seemed like the right fit, the kind of coach that would dig in for a few years and try to make his mark and more importantly, bring Siena back to prominence in the MAAC.  He was getting married and he and his young family looked excited to put down roots in suburban Albany and make a go of it.

Last year, Siena was bad…..really bad.  Under the disheveled and often unprepared Jimmy Patsos, they stumbled to an 8-24 record.  Patsos was shown the door and in came Christian who oozed optimism from the get-go.

Expectations were low for 2018-19 season—very low, but the Saints were the surprise of the MAAC season.  In an 11-team conference, the Saints were picked to finish—11th.  Instead, they went 11-7 in the league and garnered the number four seed in the MAAC Tournament.  And had it not been for them falling asleep at the wheel against Iona on Feb. 13, they might have been the number one seed and with it, a guaranteed NIT berth.

After beating Rider in the MAAC quarterfinals, they were defeated by the current King of the Conference—the Iona Gaels.  Still, a 17-16 season was viewed as a tremendous success and those that follow the program had great optimism going forward.

Things can change and often, they change in a hurry.  When news broke out that Christian is leaving Siena after one season to become the head coach at George Washington University, it was shocking.

Christian has a right to pursue upward mobility.  George Washington plays in the Atlantic 10.  It’s a better conference, it usually sends multiple teams to the NCAA tournament and many times, its teams have made runs to both the Final Four (UMass, 1996) and several “Final Eights.”  You never say never, but the odds of a MAAC team making that kind of run is miniscule at best.

That said, this is disappointing.  Again, coaches are free to move and we all know that when the school is done with you, they will fire you at the drop of a hat. We know there is no loyalty in college athletics and who’s to say Siena wouldn’t part ways with Christian at even the smallest hint of scandal, controversy or poor performance.  Last year, Patsos was accused of being insensitive to a student trainer.  Had the 2017-18 team gone 24-8 they might have kept him around, but at 8-24, out he went.

Christian came and made promises.  He recruited kids to come here and buy in, in essence selling the rags to riches story.  You know what he told the kids.  “You can be part of something special.”  “You can help us turn things around and be remembered here forever.”  He had a star player in Jalen Pickett, who was voted MAAC Freshman of the Year.  Things did indeed look bright.

If this was the end of his third year and even next year, it wouldn’t smell so bad.  I’m not sure how Christian can look in the mirror and convince himself that he did the right thing here.  To leave after one year just doesn’t sit well with me and I’m not a fan.  I’m sure it sits even “less well,” with fans of the program.

“Next year is over before it starts,” said Egan.  “Christian will take Pickett and others with him to George Washington and it’s too late to bring good players in.  The 19-20 season will be a throwaway.”

In an ideal world, guys like Christian would come to a place like Siena and stick around for at least three seasons.  In that time, they can build a program, establish a culture and if they win enough, can land the big job somewhere else.  Deane put in 8 seasons before heading to Marquette; Hewitt three before heading to Georgia Tech and McCaffrey toiled for five before heading to Iowa City and the Big Ten.

You can’t legislate this and require that coaches stay at one place for at least two years; that’s not how capitalism works, but capitalism has its flaws, too.  At the end of the day, Christian probably had to take the job.  George Washington is betting that he can turn things around at a place that won the NIT title in 2016.

We all believe in idealism.  We believe that we would be the person who gives the hometown discount and signs the 10-year $200 million contract to keep playing in “Oakland,” even though “New York” is offering 12 years and $312 million.  The idealist believes that Christian tells George Washington no, citing unfinished business as the reason why.

Let’s face it, idealism is fading and fading fast in America.  What Christian did wasn’t wrong; but it wasn’t right either.

 

 

Was Horse Racing Too Quick to Abandon Synthetic Surfaces? 

March 9, 2019

Fatalities were down, but so too, was impatience

by John Furgele (The Concerned 228)

Here we go again.  Most of the time, horse rating is ignored by the national media.  There are exceptions, of course.  When an American Pharoah or Justify is running for Triple Crown glory, the national media converges; and, when that happens, the sport basks in the glow.

There is the opposite side when negativity takes over and garners the headlines.  The negative news is coming from Santa Anita Park, where, since Christmas, 20 horses have died on the new track, an average of 2.51 deaths per 1,000 starts.   Statistically, that may not seem like a lot, but it is and when that happens, everybody notices.

Some have died in racing and others in training, but it’s caused enough alarm for the track to close so the surfaces could be inspected.  A day after it reopened, the 21st fatality occurred.

We have been here before.  Lawmakers in California, concerned about horse safety, mandated in 2003 that tracks install synthetic surfaces.  Del Mar, Golden Gate and Santa Anita, as well as the now closed Hollywood Park went from dirt to synthetic and guess what?  Track fatalities dropped.

From 2004 to 2006, there were 3.09 fatalities per 1,000 starts on the California tracks.  After synthetic surfaces were installed, the number dropped to 1.94.  In comparison, there were 2.4 fatalities on the turf.

It looked like synthetic tracks—usually Tapeta or Polytrack—might catch on.  Woodbine, Turfway, Arlington, and Keeneland all joined in and installed synthetics and fatalities kept decreasing.

From 2009-2014, there were 2.07 deaths per 1,000 starts on dirt; 1.65 on turf and 1.22 on synthetic.  Keeneland saw a precipitous drop from 1.98 to 0.33.  Santa Anita saw its fatality rate drop to 0.90.  It looked like things were heading in the right direction. Even PETA was for them, fairly quiet.

As more and more synthetic surfaces emerged, so too, did the complaining.  Handicappers couldn’t figure out biases on synthetic; others thought synthetic played more like turf and more turf horses seemed to be having success on Polytrack and Tapeta.  Trainers and owners didn’t like it because it was fake and races like the Bluegrass Stakes and Santa Anita Derby, key prep races for the Kentucky Derby were not getting the strong fields as tracks that raced on dirt.

Santa Anita hosted the 2008 and 2009 Breeders Cup on its synthetic surface and horse racing fans didn’t seem to mind when, in the 2009 Breeder’s Cup Classic, the fabulous filly Zenyatta ran down all the boys to win in glorious fashion.

Joe Drape has covered horse racing for the New York Times for what seems like forever.  He did some research and found that field sizes did not decrease on synthetic tracks nor did betting.  It seemed like as long as there was a wager and money to make, handicappers were going to do their best to figure it out.

This is when horse racing might have stubbed its toe.   Fatalities were down, betting and field sizes remained consistent, but the bellyaching continued.  The big trainers and owners didn’t want to run on “fake dirt,” and the historians were struggling with comparing the great dirt horses with the potential of great synthetic horses.  Some claimed that synthetic surfaces caused more soft tissue injuries than dirt.  Supporters of the fake dirt claimed a soft tissue injury was much better than a fractured leg.  Soft tissue injuries are no joke; they don’t cause the horse to be euthanized, but for most, a soft tissue injury ends a racing career.

The debate was on.  The problem was the lack of uniformity.  The Triple Crown races were dirt races; Saratoga, Churchill, Belmont and Gulfstream were dirt tracks while Keeneland, Santa Anita and Del Mar countered with synthetic.   If horse racing had a national governing body, they could have made all tracks switch to the safer surface.  If all tracks were synthetic, then it would get easier to train, handicap and run races.

As we know, that didn’t happen.  In 2010, Santa Anita went back to dirt.  They were afraid that the Breeder’s Cup wouldn’t return, so dirt was brought back and guess what happened?  Fatalities went up.

From 2010-2013, Santa Anita, which had a 0.90 fatality rate on synthetics, saw its numbers spike to 3.45 then down to 2.94, 2.89 and 2.11 respectively.  But, they got the Breeder’s Cup back in 2014 and 2016 and Del Mar, which also went back to dirt in 2015, hosted in 2017.

Saratoga is the summer place to be, and because over 1 million fans flock to the Spa over its 40-day meet, eyes are watching.  In 2015, there were 13 fatalities.  That number rose to 16 in ’16 and then 21 in ’17, before dropping to 11 in 2018.  We need to be fair.  Not all these fatalities occurred in races in front of 35,000 fans.  Some occurred in training while others died in the barns.  Still, when horses die at prominent meets and venues, those that think horse racing is inhumane are out in full force.  The February breakdown at Aqueduct goes relatively unnoticed, but an August one at Saratoga draws PETA and others.

What if all tracks agreed to switch to Tapeta? Or Polytrack?  Would you have abandoned your love of horse racing?  Or, would you have adapted and figured it out?  I’m not advocating for synthetics, but to me, the numbers are glaring and stark and simple—there are fewer deaths on tracks that have synthetic racing surfaces.

What I hated was the inconsistency.  Saratoga was dirt, yet Del Mar was synthetic. We see this in baseball—one league makes pitchers bat, the other uses designated hitters.  Personally, I prefer the DH, but I want one rule for both leagues.  The same can be said for horse racing.  If every track had synthetic, Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott would have adjusted, but it isn’t easy running a horse on Tapeta and then on dirt.  Something had to give and in the end, the industry went with tradition and most tracks chose dirt.

Today, we are down to five—in addition to Woodbine; Arlington, Presque Isle (PA), Turfway and Golden Gate Fields (CA) are the only tracks in North America running on synthetics.  Woodbine is the Canadian track and because of that, has a good stable of horses each year.  The Queen’s Plate is Canada’s most prestigious race.  It’s been run 158 times and if your horse is Canadian bred, it’s THE race to win.

Turfway Park does host the Jeff Ruby Steaks (formerly the Spiral Stakes) and the winning horse does get 20 points toward Kentucky Derby qualification, but the remaining tracks host, for the most part, claiming and small pursed allowance races.  Animal Kingdom did prove in 2011 that a horse can win a Derby prep on synthetic and then win the Derby on dirt when he did the Spiral-Derby double.

I would have liked ALL tracks to give synthetics a try.  What if all tracks saw equine fatalities decrease?  If the Kentucky Derby, the Travers and the Breeder’s Cup Classic were all run on Tapeta or Polytrack, would the naysayers have gone away?

Horse racing is what it is.  Tracks compete to get the best horses they can.  Saratoga competes against Del Mar; Keeneland against Belmont and Finger Lakes battles Thistledown. For the purists, the decision was easy—dirt.  Others thought about safety and chose—fake dirt.

We know that horses need to run to make their connections money.  A horse that isn’t running is costing its owner money.  But sports are trying to take the athlete into consideration.  The NBA limited the number of back-to-back games and the NFL has made several rule changes to help reduce concussions.  The new Alliance of American Football has outlawed kickoffs.

It looked like horse racing was at the forefront of the movement.  Synthetic tracks were installed and equine fatalities went down.  But in the end, the sport catered to the humans; the ones that spend the money in the game.  I’m not saying what they did was wrong, but once again, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened had Saratoga and Churchill switched to a synthetic surface.  My bet is that all would have followed suit, but that didn’t happen and now all but five are running on dirt.

For now, Santa Anita is taking the heat.  As expected, there are groups that are calling for the end of horse racing—everywhere—not just Santa Anita.  The last thing the sport needs is to have a big crowd and to see the tent go up to indicate an euthanization of a horse.  Many that see that never return.

I’m not sure seeing 21 horses perish at Santa Anita since December 26 will lead to significant reform in the industry.  Sixteen years ago, it looked like significant reform was being made, but 10 years later, it stalled/ended.

As they say, shutting the barn door after the horses have left prevents nothing.

 

There’s Tons of Soccer, Even in America

February 17, 2019

by John Furgele (The Kickin 228)

Soccer.  The World’s Game.  The Beautiful Game.  The game that everybody outside the United States loves and can’t get enough of.  Had soccer been invented in the United States, it would be a smash hit for Americans are very loyal to things that are….American.  Look at football and baseball.  Baseball games have hours with very little action, but in the summer, there are 33,000 at Yankee Stadium watching on a Saturday afternoon.  Football is often bogged down by incompetent officiating, poor quarterback play, tons of penalties and replays, yet 41.1 percent of the country watched Super Bowl 53.  And, that 41.1 rating is considered sub-par.

Soccer is a phenomenon.  Think about how much soccer is played.  Football plays from September through January with two teams playing The Big Game in February.  After that game, there is no meaningful football for seven months.  In Soccer, the English Premier League starts in August and ends in early May.  Each team plays 38 games and the only months where there is no EPL action is June and July—that’s it.  And, most teams keep busy in June and July with exhibitions, called friendlies and various international competitions.  As much as Americans love football, they need that break and there are many that are skeptical that spring football (the Alliance of American football now and the AAF and XFL in 2020) can survive.

Soccer in the USA is doing well.  The game will never be a ratings success on national TV, but regionally, the games do well and live attendance is also good.  Major League Soccer keeps expanding and 2019 will see 24 teams take to the pitch.  Even MLS has a short off-season.  Last year’s MLS Cup was played in early December; the ’19 season begins on March 2.  That will change this year with the league ending on October 6 with the playoffs completed by early November.  Still, the league is only idle for four months.  And, if you don’t think soccer is popular, attendance for the 2018 MLS Cup in Atlanta was 73,019.

Most of you didn’t realize that indoor soccer is also alive in the USA.  The Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) features 17 teams in North America and the league recently “grabbed” some headlines when the San Diego Sockers signed the iconic Landon Donovan to a $250,000 contract.  No USA player is more decorated than Donovan. He played in 157 games, called caps for Team USA, and in 14 MLS seasons, played on 6 MLS Cup champions.

Indoor soccer and hockey share the same dimensions.  It is demeaning to say this, but indoor soccer is played on a hockey rink and like hockey, it is 6 on 6 with many substitutions.  Players jump over the boards just like those with skates do and the boards are in play.

For those that remember, the Major Indoor Soccer League was quite popular in the 1970s and 1980s, and back when ESPN needed programming, televised MISL games were commonplace.  That league lasted 14 seasons and averaged 7,644 fans per game and 9,049 for its playoff games; both of those figures are quite respectable.

The MASL began in 2008 and has seen attendance rise steadily.  Last year, the league averaged 4,100 per game.  This year, Utica, NY has a team called Utica FC and has sold out several games this season at the 3,825 seat Adirondack Bank Arena.

Soccer fans are loyal and Donovan is a star.  On Friday, he made his debut with the Sockers with 8,492 in attendance.  Star power is star power, regardless of sport.

Indoor soccer is a niche sport and perhaps calling it niche is too strong.  In fact, when I tell people that the MASL exists, the first reaction is, “Really.”

The Sockers were 12-1 before Donovan arrived and now, they’re 13-1.  In the 14-year history of the MISL, the Sockers won the title 8 times (in their 9 seasons of play).  Many that follow the MASL think the addition of Donovan makes the Sockers a lock to win the Ron Newman Cup (named after the late coach of the Sockers), but as Lee Corso often says, “Not so fast my friend.”

There are plenty of good teams in the MASL.   The aforementioned Utica City FC is 11-4; the Milwaukee Wave is 12-2; both Rio Grande Valley and Monterrey are 8-3 and the three-time defending champions; the never count-them-out Baltimore Blast are 9-5.  Teams play 24 games, so a lot can happen over the next two months.

I’m not advocating that you all visit MASL.tv and watch the live streams of the games, but it wouldn’t hurt to take a peek here and there, just to see how Donovan, the teams and the league is doing.

 

Can The AAF Succeed When Others Have Not?

February 15, 2019

The league had a nice start, but will Americans watch Triple A football?

by John Furgele (The Wise 228)

The Alliance of American Football debuted last weekend with four games, two Saturday and two Sunday. The 8-team league features 43 games—40 regular season and three playoff games—with two games on Saturday and two more on Sunday.

I’m sure the haters will be out in full-force quite soon because for some reason, Americans can’t handle minor league football.  We accept AHL hockey, G-League basketball and minor league baseball, but minor league football struggles.  Yes, the main issue is that those other sports do not have national TV deals that force you to watch the games. It’s one thing to watch a Utica-Rochester AHL game on a regional sports network than it is watching San Antonio battle San Diego on CBS.

On Saturday, February 9, most saw the San Antonio Commanders host the San Diego Fleet.  The game was not a thing of beauty, but it was crisp.  It kept moving and was over in 2.5 hours.  One thing was obvious and that’s the fact that there is a QB shortage in America.  As expected, QB and OL play was spotty at best and Week 1 showed that the NFL really needs a developmental league.  The AAF can do this.  Unlike the USFL, the XFL and the United Football League (google if necessary), the AAF has the backing of the NFL, at least in theory.  The crowd in San Antonio (announced at 27,000) was into the game and another 20,000 watched Orlando beat Atlanta in the Magic City.

Let’s give the league time and that goes for fans and officials.  Patience is a virtue and in the past, leagues have had none.  The USFL could have survived had they stayed in the spring and pared back what they were paying their players.  Instead, led by Donald Trump, they decided the take on the NFL by playing in the fall; something that never happened.

The league is set up for success.  Players are making $80,000 a year and they can make bonuses, too.  That’s not a lot of money for the abuse a football player takes, but it’s a lot more than what a minor league baseball player makes and its more than the roughly $43,000 minimum for an AHL hockey player.  If TV ratings can hover between 1 and 2 percent and stadiums average 20,000, the league should be okay.

This model works in the CFL.  That league has a TV deal, averages about 25,000 in attendance and its players make anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000.  Unlike the AAF, the CFL is Canada’s top football league with restrictions on how many foreign players can be on each team’s rosters.  For a Canadian kid, playing in the CFL is a dream come true; for Americans, the NFL is the goal.

The $80,000 is more than what the average American makes and by all means these players could use their college degrees and probably make more in sales or another endeavor, but think about this.  In Division I football, there are 260 teams (FCS and FBS) with 63 and 85 scholarships.  This is rough math, but there are at least 19,175 football players at the Division 1 level.  This doesn’t include Division II and Division III.  There are 32 NFL teams with 53 roster spots.  That means there are 1,696 jobs in the NFL.  The bottom line—there is room for another league, in fact, there is probably room for the XFL, too, which is scheduled to begin play next February.

The difficult part will be selling this to the players of the AAF and XFL.  CFL players are different.  Sure, many of them would love a shot at the NFL and its money, but most are content to be stars up there.  They don’t use the CFL to showcase themselves for the NFL.  They come in with a low salary, but if they have success, decent money can come their way.

Former Edmonton QB Mike Reilly is the classic example.  He has been a star for many years up North and as a free agent just signed with the BC Lions.  He made about $500,000 last year and reports say he will make roughly $3 million over the next four years.  He could make three times that as an NFL backup, but he seems content to be a CFL star.

This will be the challenge for the AAF and the XFL.   Most of these players will never get a chance in the NFL, but will some of them stay in these leagues long enough to help it build a brand.  The CFL has star players; players that have played in the league for 10 years or more. The fans in Edmonton know that year after, their star players would be returning.  If the roster turns completely over each year, is that good for the league? The fans?

Look at San Antonio WR Mekale McKay.  At 6-3, 206, he was the star in the Commanders 15-6 win over the Fleet.  Could he play in the NFL?  We will see, but what if he can’t?  Would a guy like him play 5 to 10 seasons in the AAF, make decent money and be a star, or do these guys give the league a year or two and if they don’t make it to the NFL, drift away into normal society?

The feeder league concept is all well and good, but stars drive the sport and sustained stars even more.  The CFL had Doug Flutie, Anthony Calvillo, Ricky Ray, Damon Allen, Mike Clemons Tony Gabriel, and many more.  Viewers knew who the stars were and watched games accordingly.  The USFL tried that, but they expanded too soon and spent too much money on player salaries.  The AAF seems to be positioning itself as a AAA football league; the XFL more like the CFL.  It will be interesting to see what happens.  There is room for more football; but which model lasts will be the $64,000 question.

Sunday Musings–Baseball and Football

February 10, 2019

by John Furgele (Your 228)

Baseball has a problem.  Here we are, days before pitchers and catchers report and two of the game’s biggest stars—Bryce Harper and Manny Machado—remain unsigned.  What other sport would that happen in?  If Connor McDavid was an NHL free agent, it would take mere minutes for him to be signed.  Ditto for Anthony Davis, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant in the NBA.  It is obvious that baseball owners are afraid to give these guys 10-year, $330 million deals.  You can’t blame the owners for that, but the best players need to be on teams well before Spring Training begins.

What is the resolution?  There will never be a salary cap in baseball, nor a max year deal, and we know that eventually, Harper and Machado will be signed.  That said, it looks bad for the game of baseball.

-In other baseball matters there has been more talk of making some rules changes, but baseball works like state and local govenments—slowly.  There has been talk of a pitch clock, a universal DH, an extra roster spot and so on.  Commissioner Rob Manfred says the clock is ticking to get any of this done before the 2019 season starts.  Why is that, Rob?  You have plenty of time to implement these changes.  Just get in a room with Tony Clark (the MLBPA Chief) and get it done. How much time is really needed to determine who the Cubs will use as their DH?  I’m amazed that guys this bright try to sell this to their fans and moreover, themselves.

Baseball needs help. I don’t care how good the regional TV ratings are, how good the digital platform is, the game is too slow.  The 2018 World Series—won by the Red Sox—was devoid of action.  The Red Sox got lots of credit for finding ways to score runs, but in their Game 5 clincher, all five of their runs were scored by the home run and in the regular season, six of Boston’s nine starters had over 100 strikeouts.  And, they were considered crafty!

The DH debacle is tiring—very tiring.  The “purists” claim that they  love NL baseball, that the double switch is the best thing since pizza, but watching pitchers hit is dreadful.  Last year, they batted .115 with a .144 OBP.  Baseball remains the only sport that has two sets of rules.  The purists don’t even believe that pitchers should bat anymore.  And, when you are paying pitchers $20 million per season to pitch, do you want them to risk injury batting and running?

-The New England Patriots are NFL champions once again and most of the nation is angry about it.  They get all the calls, all the breaks, they are arrogant, cocky, lucky, and they cheat.  We hear it all which I find sad and disturbing.  We live in a society where it is love or hate.  If you’re a Democrat, you can’t like ANYTHING a Republican says and vice versa.  When the Pats made it to the Super Bowl in the 2001 season, America rooted for the feisty underdog with the young QB—now they hate him and the team.  When you’re good that happens.  Today, if you say things like, “I don’t like the Pats, but I don’t mind if they win,” you’ll get blasted and unfriended.

Most were bored by the game—I wasn’t.  To me, it was compelling.  The game was tied 3-3 four minutes into the fourth quarter.  The Rams were being outgained and outplayed yet still had a great chance to pull off the upset.  The Pats then went to work, driving 69 yards for a touchdown and another 72 for the clinching field goal.  The Pats are funny.  They’ve played in 9 Super Bowls, won 6 of them, but every game has come right down to the wire.  Their 10-point win last Sunday was their biggest margin of victory in the 9 games.

Television ratings were down with Patriot fatigue being the prime reason.  Of course, people in New Orleans did stick to their guns with many not watching, but the NFL should love having the Patriots in the game because every game is close in the fourth quarter.  There are those my age (50) that remember when the Super Bowl was a Super Bore.  If you don’t believe me, check the scores of Super Bowls 8, 9, 11, 12, 15, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24, 26, 27, 28 and 29; those games were over early in the third quarter if not sooner.  The Patriots bring great drama to the Big Game, and their losses—all to NFC East teams—have been the best games of all.  In 2007, the undefeated Pats lost to the Giants; in 2011, the favored Pats again lost to the Giants; and last year was the epic victory by the Philadelphia Eagles.

You can slice it many ways, but the reality is—the Pats have been good for the Super Bowl and for football.