Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Guy Can Dream, Can't He?

How about Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Ty Lue and the No. 11 pick for Kobe and Radmanovic? The Hawks then grab Mike Conley with the #3 pick (although I'm not sure that he's the right point guard to play with Kobe because the primary attribute that a Kobe sidekick needs is dead-eye shooting ability to make opponents pay for double-teams) and have the following starting lineup: Conley, Kobe, Childress, J-Smoove, Zaza. Or how about this: the Hawks use the #3 pick on Al Horford because they're admitting a mistake on Shelden Williams and then give Salim a greater role now that that they don't need a true point guard with the ball going through Kobe on most possessions, thus giving them a starting five of Salim, Kobe, J-Smoove, Horford, Zaza with Childress in the sixth man role. Either of those teams is a playoff contender in the East. If Lebron can get the Cavs close to the Finals with his crap-tastic supporting cast, then couldn't Kobe get the Hawks close with a supporting cast that isn't great now, but is getting better and might be dynamite in two years? A few other thoughts on the fantasy that will never happen:

1. The 800-pound elephant in the room is whether Billy Knight has the authority to make an enormous deal for a player like Kobe, given the legal wrangling going on between Belkin and Atlanta Spirit. Is it possible, from a legal perspective, that Atlanta Spirit would want or need Belkin to sign off on this deal?

2. Notice how the two players taken after Josh Childress are the potential centerpieces for Philly or Chicago to use in acquiring Kobe? Oy. (And I say this as an unabashed fan of Childress's game.)

3. I have absolutely no problem with Kobe demanding a trade. Mitch Kupchak has been inept in his efforts to surround Kobe with talent. Kobe will turn 29 before next season starts and he knows that he is reaching the second half of his prime years. Why should he be forced to waste those years playing with Chris Mihm and Smush Parker? Bryant has leverage because he's a terrific player who always plays hard; why shouldn't he use that leverage? The counter to this defense of Kobe has always been that he forced Shaq's departure in the first place, but it's now looking that that might not be the case, but instead, the Lakers floated that rumor as cover for their real motivation, which was to get rid of Shaquille before paying a guy with a suspect work ethic and his prime years in the rearview mirror a max deal.

4. It wouldn't be a Bill Simmons column without taking a shot at Atlanta as a "moribund NBA city," but look at his explanation that LA is a terrific destination for NBA free agents because of "the weather, the women, the wealth and the Hollywood scene." Insert the word "Black" in front of "Hollywood" and which city are we describing? Atlanta isn't a choice NBA destination right now because the team hasn't won since the Clinton Administration. (If I can figure out a way to blame George Bush for the Hawks, I surely will. Someone get Cindy Sheehan on the phone, stat!) Kobe would change that and he's smart enough to know that this will be a good NBA market with a winning team and a major star.

4a. After taking the obligatory shot at Simmons, I need to mention that his discussion of prior All-NBA players traded in their primes is very compelling. There's almost no way to overpay for Bryant, although the Joe Johnson-Josh Smith-#3 pick deal I saw somewhere yesterday comes close.

5. To throw more cold water on the possibility of Bryant coming to Atlanta, Chad Ford's suggestion that the more likely result is that Jerry Buss will fire Kupchak($) seems solid to me. The only way this wouldn't work is if Bryant sees the damage done by Kupchak as long-term and he feels impatient.

6. One positive thought: given the Hawks' (understandable) struggles in recent years to sell tickets, Kobe has more economic value to them than he does to just about any other NBA franchise.

7. Jeff Schultz's attempt to argue that the Hawks should not try to acquire Bryant are beyond weak:

In the culmination of a three-year franchise meltdown since Shaquille O’Neal was drop-kicked to Miami, the Los Angeles Lakers heard Bryant demand a trade on a radio talkshow.

On. A radio. Talkshow.

Now that’s class.

Yeah, that's a reason to decline to make an effort to acquire one of the top five players in basketball: he made a trade demand on a sports talk radio show. That has EVERYTHING to do with building a winning hoops team.

This isn’t about what kind of athlete Bryant is or what he could bring to a basketball team. It’s about what he has become. After three championships with the Lakers, he wanted to be The Show. Now he’s Sideshow Kobe.

Right, because most people would not react when they bust their rears for 80+ games every year, only to see their inept management base their plan for improving the team on the maturation of a 19-year old post project, all while declining every opportunity to bring in players who can help the team win now.

But there is also little question that the Bryant-O’Neal feud significantly played into the situation. Their relationship drove a wedge into a team that could’ve won more championships. It drove Phil Jackson to grab a candle and a harp and run for the hills. Bryant’s actions set the stage for O’Neal’s departure.

If you still don’t believe that, consider Jackson’s book, “The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul.” He referred to his relationship with Bryant as “psychological war.”

Jackson also wrote that he became so frustrated with his star that he approached general manager Mitch Kupchak in January about trading him. The key passage: “I won’t coach this team next year if he is still here. He won’t listen to anyone. I’ve had it with this kid.”

And Jackson believed what he wrote so much that he came right back to coach the Lakers after a one-year hiatus. And who was the first person to call Kobe to talk him down off the ledge after he made his trade demand? Phil Jackson.

You think: “Bryant and Joe Johnson. Wow!” But any Lakers trade demands probably would start with Johnson and the third overall pick.

Don’t. Even. Think about it.

The Hawks have a chance to do something right (draft Mike Conley Jr.) and go up.

If Jeff Schultz was writing in Phoenix in 1992, he undoubtedly would have written about how Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry were a good nucleus and if the Suns could just pair them with a good draft pick, they'd be on the road to success.

What annoys me most about Schultz's column is that he simply ignores Bryant's merits as a basketball player, namely that he scores 30+ per game and is one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the NBA to boot, not to mention the fact that no one has ever accused him of not playing hard. Schultz ignores the most important evidence and instead relies on the pop psychology factors that ought to be at the back of the bus when evaluating a potential Bryant trade. Unfortunately, that's where we are in modern mainstream sports journalism. The juicy bits from Phil Jackson's book and the choice of medium in announcing a trade demand are more important than 32.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.4 assists every game. Let's just have psychologists run teams instead of basketball pros.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Catching up mit Vickkampf

John Clayton doesn't think that Vick is going to be suspended($) because of the lack of proof that he was involved, at least at present. What I'd like to see from Clayton is an explanation as to how Pac Man Jones could be suspended early in the legal process (I don't think he's been indicted, has he?), but the NFL has to wait for the indictment process to play itself out in Vick's case. It couldn't have anything to do with Vick's stature in the NFL relative to Jones's, could it?

Surry County DA Gerald Poindexter (whom I have to remind myself not to refer to as "Buster") has declined to execute a warrant to search Vick's property for dog remains, which is either consistent with the charge that he's slow-playing his investigation for political/laziness reasons or it's consistent with the notion that he's being extra-careful to deny Vick any procedural defenses in the event that he does bring charges. In any event, the search of the property is not a major issue, since there is a wealth of evidence to show that dog fighting took place at the property. The key question is going to be who was present at the fights and who was funding and running the operation.

I suppose I should also link ESPN's anonymous source article, in which a "confidential source" claims that Vick is into dog fighting in a major way. I generally don't have problems with anonymous sources, since they provide most of the interesting political news that is ultimately accepted as true. (See, for example, the disclosures regarding the warrantless wiretapping program implemented by the Bush Administration.) I also think that this is yet more smoke that Vick was not merely a victim of not controlling his friends and relatives. All that said, I would have liked to have seen ESPN show their work by devoting some time to explaining why this particular source is credible. How do I know that this just isn't some guy who wants to lay the groundwork for notoriety and happens to know about dog fighting?

One other thought on the ESPN article: don't think that I didn't grin when I first read the article and it depicted Vick betting a significant amount of money on his dog while he was still attending Virginia Tech.

I should also link SI's piece on the investigation and on dog fighting in general, which is really well-done. It demonstrates that when SI and ESPN go head to head on investigating and writing, SI can be trusted to do a better job. If nothing else, the Vick episode has highlighted the prevalence and ugliness of dog fighting and George Dohrmann's piece does the best job of painting that picture.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Friggin' Phillies

The less said about the weekend sweep at the hands of the Phillies, the better. Tim Hudson came back to earth on Friday night, Buddy Carlyle pitched about how you'd expect a 29-year old AAA pitcher to pitch on Saturday, and Kyle Davies reverted to the form that he shows against pretty much every team other than the Mets on Sunday. Fortunately, Chuck James pitched well yesterday in Milwaukee and got both relief help from Rafael Soriano (who has been an absolute steal) and Bob Wickman and an extremely fortunate line drive right at Scott Thorman to eke out a 2-1 win. The win did little to reduce concerns about the team's slumping offense, which has produced 17 runs in the last six games. Over that stretch, the Braves are 2-4 and their two wins have both been 2-1 nailbiters. Chipper Jones's absence is quite noticeable.

And if the news couldn't get any worse, Mike Gonzalez is out for the rest of this season and a good chunk of next year with a torn elbow ligament. This is something I really don't like about baseball: it seems as if any time a pitcher has any sort of malady, the ultimate diagnosis is beyond the worst-case scenario. Lance Cormier experiences a little tightness in his triceps at the end of spring training and hasn't thrown a pitch for the Braves two months into the season. Mike Gonzalez experiences a drop in velocity and after three MRIs, it turns out that he is out for a year (and with Murphy's Law in full effect for pitchers, we can expect him to return some time in the next decade). And we haven't even mentioned my wife's least-favorite Brave Mike Hampton.

And it's not just Braves fans who get to experience this joy. Imagine being a Yankees fan, watching crappy start after crappy start. Your team calls Phillip Hughes up, he flirts with a non-no in his second start...and then promptly hurts himself and is out until G-d knows when because all pitching injuries have epic recovery times. These injuries highlight just how unnatural the act of pitching really is. They also remind us that John Smoltz is truly Der Übermensch, since he didn't miss a start after dislocating a finger on his pitching hand.

Catching up with the Primary Catalan Football Collective

Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Sevilla are heading down the stretch in the Primera for a classic finish, with Barca and Real tied with two matches to play and Sevilla only two points back and hoping for a slip-up. Barca have a massive advantage over Real in goal difference, but that will not matter a hill of beans in the event that the teams finish knotted, as the first tie breaker is head-to-head results and Real have a win and a draw against their arch-rivals. I'd like to be annoyed by the possibility of Barca not winning the title despite being even on points and way ahead on goal difference, but Barca have been weak this year against top quality opposition, so it would be fitting in a way if that was their undoing. To wit, Barca have a loss and a draw against Real, Valencia, and Chelsea, a win and a loss against Sevilla, and an extremely pyrrhic win and a loss against Liverpool. The interesting problem is that the conventional explanation for this season is that Barca have lacked the passion and commitment that they showed en route to winning the Champions League last year, but if that were so, wouldn't we expect Barca to play well against top opposition when the players are motivated and then poorly against the Osasunas of the world when they aren't paying attention?

In any event, that gets me to Saturday's 1-0 win over Getafe. The game was interesting to me because, for a red hot minute, Barca and their oft-complacent crowd got their passion back. Barca needed a win to keep pace with Madrid and they were playing a team that recently handed them a humiliating exit from the Copa del Rey and whose owner is an open Madridista who wanted his team to win to spoil Barca's title challenge. 40 minutes in, Getafe defender Belenguer baited Ronaldinho into retaliating for a series of kicks and pulls that Belenguer directed at the Brazilian and Ronnie was promptly (and almost certainly correctly) sent off. What followed was really entertaining, even if there were no follow-up goals. The crowd was roaring for much of the second half, pretty much up until the final ten minutes when Getafe finally starting making their man advantage count and put great pressure on Barca. Barca were creating chances on offense and they were sticking in a series of kicks to their opposition on defense. For once, Barca stepped down from their "we're better than that" pedestal and responded to dirt with dirt. It was terrific fun to watch.

One other thought on the match: I've killed Rijkaard and Neeskens in this space this year for poor tactical decisions in the second halves of matches, but they deserve total credit for a great one on Saturday. They sent Oleguer on for Belletti an hour into the match to shore up the defense on the right-hand side. When Manu skinned Puyol late in the proceedings to get to the byline and cross across the face of goal, thus creating one of Getafe's two great chances in the match, who was there to beat an attacker to the ball and nudge it to safety? Oleguer. I'm pretty confident in saying that Belletti, never known for his defense, would not have made that play. This was an instance of a substitution saving a match.

Now, we're down to two matches and La Liga will likely be decided by Real's trip to Zaragoza. Fortunately, Zara has plenty to play for an a bone to pick with Madrid. Phil Ball, take it away:

Added to the drama, Zaragoza must win to maintain their UEFA spot, since Villarreal have now steamed up the league into seventh place, and are only two points behind them. And Zaragoza are annoyed with Madrid for obliging them to sign a non-playing clause for Diogo (loaned out to them but one of their outstanding players this season) and for reneging on an alleged agreement in January whereby the promising young Rubén de La Red was supposed to be sold to them. In short, Madrid can expect a hostile reception. It's going to be a tricky game to win, but if they don't...

Something that's Been Bothering Me

In the lead-up to and aftermath of the Champions League Final, one characterization that's been bothering me is the sour grapes approach of dubbing Milan as cheaters. In terms of sour grapes, dubbing Milan as "cheaters" isn't quite as bad as an "I'm not sayin' there was a conspiracy, but..." post, but it still annoys me. In any event, because there has been a tendency to lump Milan's relatively minor sins in the Calciopoly scandal with Juventus's mind-blowing corruption, here is a little sanity from James Richardson of the Guardian:

Milan (-8), meanwhile, finished up in the top four and winners of the biggest trophy in club football. And here, permit me a quick word on the Rossoneri. Much has been said in recent weeks about the appropriateness or otherwise of having admitted them to the Champions League this season. After all, according to various commentators, they had been found guilty of match fixing in the Italian courts.

This is substantially incorrect. Milan were found guilty of unsporting behaviour, not match fixing, and not by the courts but by a "sports tribunal", a body that was (a) in an incredible hurry to reach a verdict and (b) able and willing to accept supposition in place of evidence. Put simply, the tribunal didn't have to prove Milan had done anything wrong. As such, the Rossoneri were condemned on the basis of a couple of ill-advised but less than earth-shattering phone calls in which their referee liaison officer talked about referees that the club liked to have, and those they didn't.

Match fixing it wasn't, unless we're up for charging everyone who's ever chewed Keith Hackett's ear off of a Monday. Still, in the mad rush of last summer it was enough to suggest to the tribunal that the Rossoneri probably had their own covert network of influence going with which to counter Juve. Twelve months on, and in the ongoing absence of any more damning against them despite a mountain of new evidence produced by Italian police, it looks a rather different picture.

I'm also feeling quite vindicated after justifying my allegiance to Milan in the Final, in part, by citing Liverpool's thuggy fans and then reading that a number of ticketless Scousers did their best to create Hillsborough the Sequel by rushing into the Olympic Stadium. I'm still sympathetic to the 'Pool supporters who didn't get in despite having legitimate tickets, but Liverpool yet again showed that a portion of its fanbase lives up to the reputation that Manchester United fans gleefully sing about:

You are a Scouser,
An ugly Scouser,
You're only happy,
On Giro day.
Your mum's out thieving,
Your dad's drug-dealing,
So please don't take my hubcaps away.

Incidentally, we desperately need chants like this in the SEC.

Friday, May 25, 2007

200 Wins for my Favorite Brave

It's just fitting that the money pitcher for the Braves for the past 16 years won his 200th game last night in a critical rubber match against the hated Mets, and it wasn't just any victory, but appropriately, it was a taut 2-1 win over his old buddy Tom Glavine.

(By the way, this point was made by Mark Lemke on the Braves' pre-game show last night and it's well worth repeating: where would the Braves and Mets be right now if the Braves could have found $8M to sign Glavine in the off-season when he indicated that he would take less money to return to Atlanta? You think that payroll isn't important in baseball? You think that the Braves wouldn't be the best team in the NL with a Smoltz-Glavine-Hudson top of the rotation to rival the Wickman-Gonzalez-Soriano trio in the bullpen? Liberty Media, I don't expect you to lavish money on the Braves such that you lose money on the operation, but if you could at least provide John Schuerholz with a little payroll flexibility such that he can take advantage of Hall of Fame pitchers who want to return to Atlanta, that would be great.)

Here is Smoltz's line from his last two starts: 14 IP, 0 ER, 10 H, 12 K, 1 BB. Oh, and those starts have come against the Red Sox (third in the AL in runs scored) and the Mets (third in the NL in runs scored). (By the way, I was somewhat surprised to see that the Phillies and Marlins are first and second in the NL in runs scored. The Braves are fourth in the NL in runs scored, so the NL East is apparently the hub of offense for the Senior Circuit this season.) I didn't think it was possible for my affection for Smoltz as a ballplayer could get any greater and then he starts turning in a season like this at age 40.

File this nugget away under the category of "Signs you're listening to a radio show hosted by a collection of carpet-baggers" (and I use that term with a bit of a sense of irony, given that I only moved to Georgia when I was nine and went to college at that noted bastion of Southern pride in Ann Arbor): Mayhem in the AM were discussing Smoltz this morning at the end of the 7:25 segment and the question was asked "where does he rank in terms of the greatest right-handers of all time?" Clemens was offered up as the presumed #1, followed by mentions of Pedro Martinez and Tom Seaver. As of the time they went to break, this guy's name had not yet been mentioned:

You're an Atlanta radio show, for the love of G-d!!! This guy won three Cy Young awards for the Braves! He was a six-time all star in Atlanta! He had consecutive seasons in which his ERA started with a one! He's not even worth a mention as the greatest right-hander of recent memory? We just assume that a Met, a Red Sock/Met, and a Red Sock/Yankee are all automatically better? I expect Steak Shapiro to miss the boat on this question, but I was really surprised that Chris Dimino didn't utter the words "Greg Maddux" as I was shouting at the radio while pulling into the office.

And while I'm acting grumpy, I need to mention Jason Stark's piece proclaiming Andruw Jones to be the third-most overrated player in baseball today. For the record, I can't disagree that Andruw's defense in centerfield has declined over the past several years as he's put on weight. Stark is right that Gold Glove awards are not a good measure of defensive abilities and Andruw has been receiving them in recent years based on reputation. Scott Boras is going to try to sell Andruw as a great hitter at a defensive position, but he plays more and more like a corner outfielder and we can only expect that trend to continue as he gets older.

That said, I'm not inclined to buy the criticisms of Andruw's offense. He has developed more power as he's gotten older and his offensive numbers have been excellent over the past several years. His OPS+ (OPS indexed for league averages) for the past two years were 133 and 129. There's no way to rationally criticize Andruw's offensive production over the past several years, nor can he be described as "overrated" offensively because he's never discussed as one of the best hitters in baseball.

The real weakness of Stark's argument is that he's totally inconsistent in how he evaluates players. For instance, he ranks J.D. Drew as the second-most overrated player in baseball because he's never made an all-star team, he gets hurt a lot, and he's gone over 30 homers and 100 RBIs once as a major leaguer. Well, let's apply those standards to Mr. Jones. Andruw is a five-time all-star. He's remarkably durable, having played 150+ games in every one of his full seasons as a major leaguer. He has six 30+ home run seasons and five 100+ RBI seasons. By the J.D. Drew measuring sticks, Andruw is one of the best players in baseball. So which is it?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Pippo's Big Night

After consecutive memorable finals, it makes sense that we were in for a stinker and last night's game wasn't very good. I came away with a little more respect for Liverpool, or at least for Rafa Benitez, who got his tactics exactly right. Liverpool pressed Milan very high up on the pitch, which prevented Milan from getting the ball forward to their midfield, which is their strength, and also created offense for Liverpool by creating turnovers. I'm inherently skeptical of English sides in Europe. I generally think of them as overhyped at home and then ready to be exposed by continental teams with superior technical skill. In this instance, Liverpool came with an advantage because Milan was not used to being pressed so far up the pitch, as is common in the EPL, and Liverpool had the better of the exchanges in the first half.

So why did Liverpool lose? Luck has to be one of the elements, as the first goal was critical and didn't appear to be the result of design:

The goal was probably legal, as it hit Pippo Inzaghi's shoulder and my understanding is that a ball off the shoulder is not a handball, and in any event, that would have been a very marginal call on which to disallow a goal. That said, it was certainly lucky.

In addition to luck, Milan simply had better players. They had Andrea Pirlo to take free kicks, which put them in position to get a lucky deflection. They had Kaka to wriggle free and force a foul from Xabi Alonso to set up the free kick. In the end, they had Kaka and Inzaghi to craft the one quality goal of the game once Liverpool were caught forward. In contrast, Liverpool's players found themselves in position to score goals and just didn't have the skill to score. Jermaine Pennant and Boudewijn Zenden were put in position to make plays by Benitez's scheme, but they fluffed cross after cross and Pennant shot poorly on Liverpool's best chance in the first half. For most of the game, Dirk Kujt was close to useless for Liverpool, other than doing his usual act of running a lot and going after the ball, as opposed to doing what a striker is supposed to do: score. (It is ironic that Liverpool and Milan both get their offense from their midfields as a result of suspect strikers and yet all three goals last night came from the two strikers.) Steven Gerrard had a couple good chances and showed why he's a midfielder and not a striker. (Gerrard did generate a good chunk of offense and I like him more as a withdrawn striker than as a right-sided midfielder, but I like him as a central midfielder more than either.) In short, Benitez put his players in position to win the game, but his players simply weren't good enough to exploit their opportunities.

So where does this Final rank in terms of entertainment and quality? I'm glad you asked. I've watched every final since Ajax's upset win over AC Milan in 1995 and here's how I would rank 'em:

1. 1999 - Manchester United 2 Bayern Munich 1
2. 2005 - Liverpool 3 Milan 3
3. 1997 - Borussia Dortmund 3 Juventus 1
4. 2006 - Barca 2 Arsenal 1
5. 2002 - Real Madrid 2 Bayer Leverkusen 1
6. 1995 - Ajax 1 Milan 0
7. 1996 - Juventus 1 Ajax 1
8. 2007 - Milan 2 Liverpool 1
9. 2001 - Bayern 1 Valencia 1
10. 2004 - Porto 3 Monaco 0
11. 1998 - Real Madrid 1 Juventus 0
12. 2000 - Real Madrid 3 Valencia 0
13. 2003 - Milan 0 Juventus 0

And a note in the obligatory "Liverpool fans misbehaving" category. Color me shocked that there were run-ins between Liverpool fans and the police after a group of ticketless Pool fans stormed into the Olympic Stadium, leaving fans with legitimate tickets outside and unable to get in. I'll say it again: the combination of English restraint and Greek efficiency was always going to be a problem. I genuinely feel bad for the fans with legitimate tickets who couldn't get in. There are few instances in life where I could see myself thinking "yes, overturning a car as part of a crazy mob sounds like the right idea," but paying 2,000 Euros for a ticket to see my favorite team play in the biggest game of the year and then being denied entry to the stadium would be one of those instances. Since I'm in the mood for lists, here are my five best sports-related tantrums:

1. 1988 - In my parents' bedroom after LSU 7 Auburn 6
2. 1996 - In a parking lot outside of Dyche Stadium after Northwestern 17 Michigan 16
3. 1996 - In my apartment in Ann Arbor after Cardinals 4 Braves 3
4. 2001 - In my condo during Ohio State 26 Michigan 20
5. 1998 - At my aunt and uncle's condo in the closing stages of Iran 2 USA 1

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

I'd Have to Say it was a Good Day

Kyle Davies didn't even have to use his AK.

Ice Cube, if you aren't too busy with your film career, could you drop a verse or two about the Braves clobbering the Mets and the Hawks delaying the export of their #1 pick to Phoenix, all while Bill Simmons presumably has an aneurysm because the Celtics didn't get a top two pick that they "deserved" when they only had a 40% chance of doing so?

I'm going to lash myself to the mast right now before the Sirens start calling in the next month: the Hawks need to take Mike Conley with the #3 pick. I realize that that might be a smidge high for him and he doesn't quite have Chris Paul's offensive game or Darren Williams's size and defensive ability, but he's ludicrously quick and a good passer. He'll be a perfect complement to Joe Johnson, who isn't superfast, but is a terrific shooter and will benefit from Conley breaking down defenses. I just don't want to risk trading down. If Knight really thinks that Acie Law or Jarvaris Crittenden are as good as Conley and wants to grab one of them with the #11 pick while spending the #3 on the best available player, then I might be willing to listen to that reasoning, but I highly suspect that Knight would be wrong in that assessment.

Billy Knight can do whatever he likes with the #11 pick. Ideally, Roy Hibbert or Spencer Hawes will be around and the Hawks can nab two starters in 11 picks, but if they aren't, I wouldn't be opposed to a "best available" pick at that stage. Maybe some team will be in love with a player who slid to that spot and Knight can swing the pick for a future first rounder so the Hawks aren't completely shut out of the 2008 Draft.

Knowing the Hawks, the way this will play out is as follows: the team takes Conley and he's good, but not great. After missing the playoffs in '07-'08, the Hawks win the lottery and Phoenix gets to grab Derrick Rose, who seemlessly replaces Steve Nash as the best point guard in the NBA. I know the Hawks haven't suffered quite like the 16-time world champion Celtics, but this seems like the Murphy's Law scenario for the local professional basketball collective.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What a F***ing Shock

Bill Simmons has invented a pseudo-scientific scale to justify the Celtics getting Kevin Durant. There's a surprise. And the best part is that his justification is that Boston has suffered more than any other NBA franchise since the mid-80s. I can't imagine why SportsGuy would have chosen the mid-80s as the starting point for suffering. Maybe because the Celtics won 16 NBA Titles before 1987, whereas no other franchise was in double digits? On that basis, I hereby anoint the Braves as the franchise that has undergone the most suffering since May 13, 2007 because they have lost six of eight, including three of four to the lowly Nationals.

This is why I hate Boston fans (at least to the extent that Simmons is representative of said class). It isn't enough that their NFL team has won three Super Bowls this decade. It isn't enough that I vaguely remember something about their baseball team winning a World Series in somewhat dramatic fashion. It isn't enough that their NBA franchise has more titles than any other. Their ingrained persecution complex, arising in part out of a complex regarding New York City and in part because of the Red Sox history of close-but-no-cigar, makes them insufferable.

As a result, they claim entitlement to Oden or Durant because (boo hoo hoo) the Celtics weren't good over the past few years and are a whopping two years removed from a divisional title and five years removed from a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. Cry me a friggin' river. The Hawks haven't won a divisional in 13 years and they have never made the conference finals in Atlanta. (Bill, do you think it's possible that Boston outdraws Atlanta in pro hoops because Boston fans grew up with Bird, McHale and multiple banners, whereas Atlantans grew up with Dominique getting no support and the team acting as a foil for the Celtics and Pistons? Sorta like the fact that Georgia clobbers BC in college football attendance because Georgians grew up with Herschel Walker and multiple SEC titles, whereas Massachusettsians(?) did not?)

I have rooted for the Hawks since 1984 when my family moved to Georgia. I've never seen my team play a game in the NBA final four. Don't talk to me about suffering. (Did I mention that it's a bad idea to go toe-to-toe with a Jew on an "I've suffered worse" issue?) To paraphrase William Munny, deserve's got nothing to do with who wins the lottery tonight. But if it does, Boston fans deserve Oden or Durant about as much Mike Vick deserves to be on the board at PETA.

Vickkampf: Clinton Portis is as Helpful an Ally as Italy

Professor Portis, what do you think of laws that make dog-fighting a felony?

"I don't know if he was fighting dogs or not, but it's his property; it's his dogs. If that's what he wants to do, do it."

Clinton Portis, devoted libertarian.

It's hilarious to me that "Portis" then issued a statement that he does not condone dog-fighting. I'm sure that "Portis" had a lot to do with that statement being issued. Seriously, why do teams even bother with statements like that that absolutely no one believes are the real beliefs of their purported authors? Is there a single sentient being who believes that Clinton Portis really believes the content of the statement?

Portis doesn't make this argument, but he got me to think a little about the laws that make dog-fighting illegal. Is it really rational to make dog-fighting a felony, but then to permit the slaughter of cows and pigs in oft-inhumane conditions? I suppose that the distinction is that cows and pigs provide food to humans, so there is some utility in their killing, but dog-fighting provides no utility other than base-level entertainment. And is the possibility of eating venison the reason why hunting is legal, but dog-fighting is not? There is probably also a distinction that dog-fighting is inevitably very painful for dogs, whereas a deer being shot by a hunter or a cow being slaughtered in a meat-packing facility creates less suffering for the animal, although I suspect that in practice, the difference is not too great. Finally, there is no reason why protection of some animals is illegitimate because we don't protect all animals in the same way.

Moving on from my mental exercise, the latest news in the case is that the police found several letters addressed to M. Vick on the property. Color me unimpressed by that revelation, as Vick's name is listed as the owner of the property, which means that he would have received junk mail there. I doubt that the Surry County prosecutor would base a case on a few stray credit card applications and a beige envelope from Publisher's Clearinghouse with Ed McMahon's smiling face on the outside.

If I were a betting man, I would guess that there are witnesses who saw Vick at the property and possibly at dog fights as well, but these witnesses will ultimately be reticent to testify. Vick will not be convicted of anything and may not even be indicted, but the evidence will be sufficient for Roger Goodell to conclude that Vick lied to him when he said that he was never present at the property. Goodell will then suspend Vick for a game or two, most white Falcons fans will conclude that Vick is a bad guy, most black Falcons fans will conclude that Vick was the victim of the justice system and the blood-thirsty media, and no one will come away satisfied.

Worst Headline Ever

The AJC's preview of the Mets-Braves series is titled Mets, Braves stack up evenly. The article then runs through the conventional stats for the two teams, which reflect that the Mets' starters have a lower ERA and a better record, their bullpen has a lower ERA, a better record, and a better save percentage, and their lineup has a better batting average while scoring more runs. Regrettably, I was not able to find the AJC's headline from June 7, 1942 in the archives, which was presumably titled "Americans, Japanese battle to standstill at Midway."

Saturday, May 19, 2007

I Paid 25 Quid for This?

We're 95 minutes into the FA Cup Final without a goal to show for our watching efforts. I can count the good chances on one hand. Most of the danger has been created from solo efforts from Arjen Robben and Didier Drogba for Chelsea and Wayne Rooney for United. There's been some decent wing play from the teams, but they're too timid to commit players to the box as target men and none of the fullbacks have made any effort to overlap and increase the danger. Cristiano Ronaldo, who was being touted by his manager as a mix of Maradona's dribbling, Ronaldinho's passing, David Platt's heading, Steven Gerrard's shooting, and Sean Casey's personality, has been anonymous. I'm bored right now as we head towards penalties.

These teams have played close to 300 minutes against one another this year with one goal for each side to show for their efforts. I had fun mocking Chelsea and Liverpool for their shit on a stick football, but Manchester United isn't a whole lot better. Their games against Roma and Milan were great entertainment, but this is the second straight FA Cup Final they've played that has been bereft of goals. Look at the lineup fielded by Sir Alex if you need confirmation. His wingbacks were Gabriel Heinze and Wes Brown, the latter of whom is a central defender who was never going to give United anything valuable going forward. Patrice Evra, United's best attacking wingback, is sitting on the bench.

Oh goodness, Ryan Giggs. How did you miss that chance?

The Man of the Match for me has been Paul Scholes. The only offense that United has created have been from precise long balls from Scholes. Mourinho must be eying Scholes covetously, imagining what his gutless, route one attack would look like with Scholes hoisting balls towards Drogba.

Where's that smug announcer who proclaimed in the closing stages of the Arsenal-Chelsea match that the EPL is the most exciting league in the world? Thand G-d this isn't the Champions League Final.

And we have our goal! Didier Drogba gets what must be the winner, and I have to admit that it was a quality goal. John Obi Mikel (irony alert!) started the move and Drogba played a great one-two to get Drogba the chance to nick the ball past van der Sar. That was some great one-touch football from a squad that isn't noted for it. See what you're capable of, Chelsea? Why do you always wait until the death to play properly? The unfortunate irony is that the goal might save Jose Mourinho's job, which means that Abramovich won't be bringing in a manger who will encourage his side to do more than grind out 1-0 results, someone other than the Portuguese George Graham.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Great Article on Terrible Officiating Decisions

I enjoyed this brief summary of everyone's favorite topic: times my team was screwed by the refs. I kept waiting for the reference to South Korea's fraudulent run to the semi-finals of the '02 World Cup, a run that was aided by officials at every turn. And as usual, the bloody Germans benefited, as they got away with an obvious handball to progress past the U.S. in the quarters and then had the benefit of Luigi Collina officiating their semi-final against South Korea when FIFA finally figured out that maybe it wasn't a good idea to have South Korea's home games officiated by rubes from Ecuador and Egypt who were intimidated in every possible way by the impressive Korean support.

This would be a great topic for the summer for the college football blogosphere: worst call you have ever seen. I will certainly be scouring YouTube for a replay of the third-from-last play of the January 1, 1998 Rose Bowl.

Piling onto the Suns/Spurs Debate

I don't have too much to add to jjwalker's entertaining invective against David Stern for suspending Amare Stoudemire and thereby rewarding the Spurs for cheap-shotting Steve Nash and inducing an ever-so-minor, but technically improper reaction by Amare. I agree that Stern is way too concerned about the appearance of "angry black men fighting" and that the hyperventilation over NBA fights as opposed to baseball or hockey fights is almost certainly motivated by conscious or unconscious racial bias.

The one point that I want to add is that I'm preconditioned to question whether the NBA's reactions are motivated by a desire to increase ratings. I watched too many fights involving the execrable Knicks in the 90s and each time, I always assumed that Stern would come down harder on the Knicks's opponents to make sure that the New York team advanced. In retrospect, I was probably wrong about the belief, but there was such a sense on my part at the time that the league and NBC were rooting for the Knicks. Maybe it was the net effect of watching one too many games officiated by Knick Bavetta.

In this instance, the NBA's decision is especially irrational because it doesn't even make economic sense for them. The Suns are one of the most popular teams in the NBA. Neutral casual fans like me won't go out of our way to watch the Spurs, who aren't aesthetically pleasing and are old hat, but we'll certainly watch the Suns, who push the ball up the court and involve one another on offense all the time. They're a throwback to the teams we grew up watching in the 80s. And if you don't believe me, look at where the Suns and Spurs rank in terms of road attendance. I'll watch the Finals if it's Suns-Pistons; I probably won't watch if it's Spurs-Pistons, who are the Chelsea-Liverpool pairing of the NBA.

In suspending Amare and swinging a finely-balanced series in favor of the Spurs, the NBA not only angered fans by overreacting to a minor incident, they took money out of their own pockets by increasing the likelihood that the Finals will have low TV ratings. In the end, the best way to view the decision by David Stern (or more precisely Stu Jackson, who gets skewered by The New Republic's Jason Zengerle as Isiah Thomas-lite) is that of a mindless ballpark usher who won't let you move to a different section, even when that section is completely empty and farther from the plate than the section for which you have a ticket. The decision is an example of mindless, bureaucratic application of rules without the slightest concern for interpretation, context, common sense, or even self-interest.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

What the Hell?

4-5 against the Nats, 21-11 against the rest of baseball. 'Splain that.

Meet the New Season, Same as the Old Season

And now, moving on from criticizing the output of a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a writer for two of the finer publications in political journalism, we move onto a little lighter fare and easier prey: Stewart Mandel. I'm not going to say that his latest Mailbag is on the level of Joe Morgan's infamous "I don't have enough information on the subject about which I'm paid to know something" responses, but it's close in terms of uselessness. Let's take his answers one by one:

1. Conference Strength

Kudos to Mandel for being responsive to his readers and indulging them on the question of conference strength. Personally, I find arguments about conference strength to be overblown and usually poorly argued using small sample sizes and silly, anecdotal arguments. (I am prey to this exact problem. Do a search of this blog for "Heismanpundit" if you desire examples.) That said, the debate clearly drives hits and Mandel doesn't have the luxury of ignoring a hot-button topic, seeing as how he actually gets paid to opine as opposed to doing so in his free time.

The problem with Mandel's conference rankings is that they project 2007 to finish pretty much the same as 2006, both in terms of the order of the conferences themselves, as well as the order within the conferences. Lazy lazy lazy. Take the SEC for example. Mandel has the same top six and bottom one. Would it be so hard for him to project that certain teams will be better or worse this year? Here's a start: Arkansas will take a step down because they were senior-laden last year and played just about every big game at home, while South Carolina will take a step up as this year's Arkansas. Is it so hard to conceive that things might change a little in a sport where a quarter of the rosters turn over every year?

Or take the Big Ten. Mandel says that the league will be an elite of Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, with Penn State knocking on the door and then Iowa a notch behind them. Where have I seen this before? Oh yeah, it was last year's Big Ten!

2. Kirk Ferentz

Here's what Mandel has to say: Ferentz did a really good job when his teams were putting up double-digit win totals on an annual basis, but last year's team wasn't very good. It might have been a blip, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out this year.

There is a minute of my life that I'll never get back.

3. Virginia Tech-LSU

This is what happens when a sportswriter tries to invoke a non-sports concept:

That's going to be a good one, all right. I don't know who's going to win, but I bet the final score will be something like 10-9. I also think it's going to be an extremely important moment for the Virginia Tech community in its ongoing healing process. Assuming that's the "game of the week" nationally (Notre Dame-Penn State will get plenty of attention as well, but those teams aren't going to be ranked in the Top 10), I can only imagine how uplifting it will be for Hokies fans to see their school return to the national spotlight for something besides the recent tragedy.

This really bugs me. Mandel is far from the only opinionista to make this vile point, but I was terribly vexed (HT: Commodus) last year when the national media drove down my throat the concept that New Orleans was healing because the Saints were having a good season. No it wasn't. The Saints didn't rebuild the city or provide new homes or jobs for the tens of thousands of displaced residents. The Saints essentially became a cop-out symbol so the rest of American thinks that everything is fine in New Orleans, as opposed to the reality that the Federal Government has been inept from the outset of its Katrina response.

And the Virginia Tech shootings aren't even in the same ballpark as Katrina. A crazy guy got a hold of guns and shot 31 people. Yes, it's terrible, but turning it into some sort of kabuki theater of "grief" and "healing" is just annoying. Virginia Tech people would have been excited for the LSU game, regardless of whether the shootings ever took place. The notion that they need a football game five months later to get over the shooting deaths of 31 students when over 30,000 people are killed by guns every year in the United States is senseless to me.

And yes, I'm rooting for LSU. Call me heartless or a contrarian, but I'm rooting for the Tigers partly because they're an SEC team, partly because Virginia Tech's fans provoked a number of fights with LSU fans when the teams played in 2002 and Tech then delayed their trip to Baton Rouge for years, and partly because this off-season has convinced me that Virginia Tech seems to have an inordinate number of pricks on its football team, starting with the most prominent Hokie in the NFL.

4. Eighth-Year Seniors

Blah blah blah. I did like the bit on Glenn Sharpe.

5. Maryland's Quarterback Situation

Finally, a useful piece of information. Naturally, it came from someone else.

6. Use of "we" by fans

Agreed. Let's move on.

7. NFL coaches in college football

I generally agree with the point that many NFL coaches are too stodgy for college football and don't have the right skill-sets, namely the personality to recruit and keep players motivated and the political skills to handle the program's supporters. That said, the one piece of evidence that Mandel cites - last year's Cotton Bowl - is asinine. Nebraska lost that game despite allowing 178 yards to Auburn in large part because they gifted Auburn a touchdown on a failed fake punt reverse that set Auburn up for a 14-yard drive for a touchdown. Is the Cotton Bowl really the example Mandel wants to use to show that former NFL coaches are too conservative?

8. 2007 Celebrity Crush

Cheap excuse for a beaver joke, plus a disappointing lack of cheesecake.

9. Misuse of "cyclical"

How many times are you going to keep insisting that the relative strength of conferences is "cyclical" when you simply mean that it's mutable? If you can find a cycle in any of this, you should apply your talents to the stock market. For crying out loud, you're a professional writer.
--Kurt S., Chapel Hill, N.C.

Listen, smarty pants. I write about football for a living. Therefore, I don't have the foggiest idea what you're talking about. But once upon a time I did buy stock in a rising computer-software company. It had a funny name I kind of liked -- Microsoft. A few years later, I got a call from my stock broker saying I wouldn't have to worry about money anymore. Which is nice. It gives me more time to worry about the important things.

Like whether the Pac-10 is better than the Big 12 or vice versa.

(P.S. Parts of the aforementioned story were exaggerated for dramatic purposes. Greatly.)

I can't make heads or tails of this, except to say that Kurt is exactly right about conference strength not really following a definable cycle (maybe we should get Arthur Schlesinger on the case?) and Mandel's response is a total non-sequitur. I'll give Mandel credit for printing an e-mail that pointed out his misuse of the language, but shouldn't a graduate of Northwestern have a better defense than "I'm a football writer?"

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

College Football: Possibly the One Topic about which Gregg Easterbrook Knows Very Little

Anyone who has read Gregg Easterbrook's work for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly,, Goatherding Quarterly Digest, and See Sevastopol! Magazine knows that he fancies himself as something of a Renaissance writer, opining about just about everything under the sun. Interestingly enough, Easterbrook apparently is unfamiliar with college football, but that doesn't stop him from offering up the following gems in his Draft Review:

Here's the passage that motivated me to write this piece:

Lawrence Timmons looked good at Florida State in 2006, but he's a one-year wonder, only starting as a senior. A year ago in the draft, Philadelphia used the 14th overall selection on another one-year wonder from the Florida State defense, lineman Broderick Bunkley, who spent much of his rookie season on the inactive list, totaling six tackles. Florida State front seven guys tend to look good because the Seminoles overload-blitz so much; every member of the front seven gets a couple highlight-reel plays, and those long touchdowns allowed, well, blame them on the safeties. Miami and Florida both had safeties taken high this weekend; these schools play conventional defenses. Florida State plays a gambling defense that makes the front seven look good and the safeties look bad. Something for Steelers' coaches to consider if they discover Timmons has no idea what it means to drop into coverage.

All statements in this paragraph guaranteed to be wrong! Timmons left Florida State after his junior year, after seeing action as a true freshman and then seeing significant action as a sophomore. Florida State rotates so much that looking at starting experience for a defensive player is simply fruitless. Easterbrook cites Broderick Bunkley's lack of production for the Eagles and conveniently ignores Kamerion Wimbley, the Nole linebacker taken one pick before Bunkley who merely led the Browns in sacks with 11 as a rookie. He also ignores Ernie Sims, who was taken five picks before Bunkley and led the Lions in tackles last year. But Wimbley and Sims must be the only Florida State front seven players who ever experienced success in the NFL...except for that Derrick Brooks guy who is going to end up in the Hall of Fame. And that Corey Simon guy who was so good for the Eagles for years. Oh, and Darnell Dockett, who has started for the Cardinals at DT since being drafted. And then there's Tommy Polley, who started for the first five years of his career before injuring his knee last year. And Orpheus Roye, who has had an 11-year career. And Greg Spires, a nine-year veteran who has 17 sacks in the past three seasons.

And that's before we get to the complete mischaracterization of Florida State's defensive style. Might I recommend that Mr. Easterbrook crack open a tape of Mickey Andrews' vintage defensive schemes against Steve Spurrier's Florida teams? They're actually excellent illustrations of defenses that work without blitzing. Andrews dropped numerous players into coverage, sometimes rushing only two. Florida State's defense worked for years not because it gambled too much, but because the defensive linemen were unblockable and FSU could rotate them all game to maintain a rush into the fourth quarter.

Conversely, I don't know how anyone could have watched last year's Florida team and concluded that they play a conventional defense. Perhaps Mr. Easterbrook missed that subtly named National Championship Game, when Florida blitzed from the word "go" and cost Troy Smith millions of dollars in the process. Florida's defensive coordinators are Greg Mattison, who introduced the concept of the blitz to hidebound Michigan in the mid-90s, and Charlie Strong, who innovated the 3-3-5 defense at South Carolina.

Other than that, how was the play, Ms. Lincoln?

Here's an instance of a normally rational analyst engaging in talking head-esque hyperbole:

Quinn's a fine quarterback who was fired up for Miami and has the confident swagger no one since Marino has shown in teal.

I thought that this argument went out the window around the turn of the century when it was revealed that "Ryan Leaf should go ahead of Peyton Manning because he has more swagger" was a less-than-airtight basis for a draft strategy.

This one doesn't have anything to do with college football, but it is so inconsistent with the rest of the column that I had to mention it:

The most striking and original draft analysis came from Page 2's Ted Kluck, who broke down many years of first rounds and found that quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers (in that order) were most likely to be busts, while safeties, linebackers and cornerbacks (in that order) were least likely to become draft flops. First-round safeties, defensive tackles and linebackers had the best odds of reaching the Pro Bowl, while first-round cornerbacks, offensive linemen and wide receivers the longest odds to receive ticket to Honolulu. Kluck's conclusions were striking on several fronts. One is that quarterback, running back and wide receiver -- the positions that produce the most statistics, and hence the players you'd think we knew the most about -- were most likely to disappoint in the pros. Maybe the stats generated by "skill players" tell you more about their teammates than about them.

Easterbrook kills the Jags, Texans, and Dolphins for not taking Brady Quinn and then promptly touts the conclusions of an article that claims that first round quarterbacks are more likely to end up as busts than players at any other position. Easterbrook then guesses that quarterbacks' stats are really a reflection of the surrounding skill position talent, but in the instance of Quinn, he might want to consider the role of the system and coaching as leading to players being overrated. And keep in mind that Easterbrook dismisses the role of stats in evaluating college skill position players mere paragraphs after making the following claim:

Nobody took Chris Leak, who just led Florida to the BCS title. Sure Leak is 5-11, but in college and high school he threw for 26,086 yards -- most of those throws coming over the outstretched hands of guys just as big as NFL defenders.

For a guy who does a nice job of showing Mel Kiper changing courses every five minutes before the Draft later in his column, Easterbrook sure seems to do a good imitation of a Japanese carrier in sub-infested waters himself.

And this one has nothing to do with college football, but I thought it would be fun to correct Easterbrook on a matter of economics:

Actually, by the draft value chart, the Bolts won the trade, obtaining a choice worth 530 points for picks worth 500 points -- remember, you must divide by two the value for that 2008 selection, in order to discount to present value.

There is no rational way to discount for present value with draft picks. Future dollars are discounted for present value because of inflation. My $10 bill will be worth less in 20 years because wages and prices will be higher and there will be more money floating around in the economy. Draft picks, unlike money, do not change in value because the number and value of picks do not change from year to year. The #10 pick in the Draft is worth the same amount next year and the year after as it is this year. The picks might have diminishing value to general managers because they have the incentive to spend as many picks as possible in the present to preserve their jobs, but that's not a legitimate justification for teams treating future picks as being less valuable than present picks.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Vickkampf: the Virginia Prosecutor is Leery of Vick's Potential Counter-Assault

The latest Vick developments for today:

680 the Fan ran a radio report from a Hampton, Virginia radio station that alleged that a number of investigators in Surry County are angry at the local prosecutor for refusing to ask them about the evidence that they have compiled against Vick, such as statements from witnesses that they attended dog fights at the property in question and Vick was present for those fights. If true, the prosecutor's behavior is weak, but understandable in the sense that he's an underpaid government employee who is likely close to retirement and the last thing he wants is a knock-down, drag-out fight against the defense team that Vick would likely deploy. No one wants to be the next Marcia Clark. It's much easier for him to hardball criminals who don't have the money to defend themselves properly.

The whole scenario highlights what drove me so crazy about the racial reaction to the O.J. case. African-Americans generally rejoiced in the verdict because they viewed the matter through a racial prism, but if they took a step back and viewed the case as a matter of class instead of race, they would have realized that O.J. walking was an indictment of the system that rewards wealth at every turn. Likewise, Vick might not get prosecuted because his potential defense team is enough to deter most prosecutors from bringing charges. Thus, the result is the exact opposite of the "law enforcement out to get the black man" dynamic that I suspect motivates many African-Americans in their defense of Vick. In short, the legitimate issues that African-Americans have with the criminal justice systems are a matter of money rather than bias and Vick's case will, in all likelihood, demonstrate that fact yet again.

Ray Buchanan, showing his typically strong spine, is backtracking on the remarks he apparently made to Chris Landry of Fox Sports Radio. It's hard to imagine what motivation Landry has to lie about Buchanan's remarks. The best scenario I could come up with is that Landry might be friends with Jim Mora Sr., who also works for Fox Sports Radio, and the Moras are having their vengeance on Vick.

Mark Bradley has a typically strong effort describing the fatigue that any sports journalist would likely feel having to cover Vick's various off-field issues and his hollow denials of same:

In the grand scheme, it won’t be a grand jury indictment or a Goodell suspension that undoes Vick with this franchise. It will be the aggregate effect these untoward headlines have on those around him.

I saw the same thing happen with the Braves and John Rocker (who was, I should stipulate, infinitely less popular with his teammates than Vick is with his). They simply got sick of answering questions about him and his latest stunt.

And that’s the way it works. Vick can refuse to talk about anything but football, but industrious reporters will troop to other Falcons and ask, “What do you think about Vick?” It happened Friday, when the imported receiver Joe Horn spent much of his post-practice interview defending the quarterback with whom he hasn’t yet played a game.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Vickkampf: A Lightning Assault from...Ray Buchanan

Ah, the irony of a player whom most Falcons fans remember, in part, for wearing a dog collar to Super Bowl media day, has weighed in through the magic of double hearsay that Vick is into dogfighting "big time." Smoke smoke smoke.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


The Germans have a lovely tendency to reduce complicated concepts to single words, which often run on for 20 to 30 letters. It's the best language to help me conceive a title for yet another post on Michael Vick's excellent off-season. Don Banks, who was last seen claiming that the Falcons were going to trade up to take Calvin Johnson, has now piled onto Vick through a series of unnamed sources. Those sources claim, among other things, that Vick has been coddled by Arthur and Stephanie Blank, that he has a prima donna attitude, that his behavior has gotten worse since his mother moved from Atlanta to Virginia, and that Vick is most definitely interested in dog fighting. None of this is at all surprising, but the article is a nice summary for the time capsule of where Mike Vick's career stands right now.

Kudos to John Schuerholz

After last year, it's so refreshing to watch games like those of the last two nights against the Padres. The Braves get a good start, then the bullpen keeps the team in the game and holds the lead once the team rallies late. I could really get used to Gonzalez and Soriano (another one of those dark-skinned players that the Braves apparently shun) dominating in 8th and 9th innings for another 129 games. My only concern is that Bobby Cox is using both of them a lot, so are they going to wear down as the season progresses?

Anthony Lerew's start on Tuesday night was also a major encouragement. After the Mark Redman Experience, I'll take any sort of minimal competence from the fifth starter spot. Lerew delivered a good start and I don't expect five innings and two runs from him every night, especially once major league hitters start to get a sense for his approach, but he's already moved ahead of Redman. The bigger concern is that Chuck James has been struggling, but that really shouldn't be a huge surprise because his peripherals did not match up with his performance last year or in his first starts this year.

I'm also feeling a major Charles Thomas vibe from Willie Harris, another spunky, fast leftfielder from nowhere who will hopefully have a career year and lead the Braves to a divisional title. Maybe the Braves' adjustment to his swing has really turned him into a good hitter. It wouldn't be the first time that the team took a player from the Red Sox and improved his performance dramatically. (See: Renteria, Edgar.) Call it vengeance for Nick Esasky.

At this stage, the Braves, Mets, and Brewers have distanced themselves from the rest of the NL, although the Cubs' excellent run differential indicates that they are going to be a contender as well. The West, as usual, is a mish-mash of pretty good teams, along with the Rockies.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Rainbow Pinata

Forgive me for being a little late on this train, but the local media are having a great time demolishing the straw man that is the Rainbow Coalition's position that the Braves are negligent/racist because of the lack of African-Americans on the roster. The lack of merit of Rainbow's position is so obvious on so many levels that even sports talk radio hosts are quickly able to snuff out counter-arguments:

1. Baseball is a meritocracy in the sense that teams (especially teams like the Braves that do not have limitless resources) do everything they can to find talent and are punished if and when they don't. The Rainbow representative who was interviewed on 680 offered up the argument that the Braves haven't won a World Series since 1995 because their roster has gotten whiter. Yes, that must be it. It has nothing to do with the fact that the Braves had three Hall of Fame pitchers in their prime on that team and now they don't. The Braves also haven't won a World Series since I was living on my parents' dime and attending classes in Ann Arbor, so maybe we need to go back to that state of affairs so the Braves can succeed.

(The Rainbow rep didn't even have the slightest understanding as to how anti-discrimination laws work. For one thing, he referred to them as "EEOC laws," which is wrong since the EEOC is an agency that investigates claims, rather than a body that passes laws. For another, he seemed to be making the argument that the laws prevent workforces from being lilly-white, but not the reverse, which is flatly incorrect. But hey, why would someone from the Rainbow Coalition actually need to understand anti-discrimination laws? I regret sounding like a Republican here, but sometimes, reality requires it. I suppose that Republicans find themselves in the reverse situation any time they discuss Iraq. Zing!)

2. Why would the Braves be prejudiced against African-Americans, but be fine with Caribbeans of African descent like Edgar Renteria and Andruw Jones? What racist is that discerning?

3. Why isn't the Rainbow Coalition complaining about the Thrashers not having any black players? The Rainbow rep I heard claimed that this was a decision that could be left up to Atlanta Spirit, which opened him up to the "so why isn't this up to the Braves' ownership?" counter. Personally, I have no problem with black organizations complaining of the lack of blacks in certain positions and not doing the same for whites. There's nothing racist about that. The last time I checked, whites weren't brought over here as slaves or denied the right to vote or attend properly-funded schools in many areas until the 60s. That said, the Rainbow Coalition ought to be able to express this point properly.

Generally, my problem with Rainbow's position is that it's clearly motivated by a desire for attention as opposed to a desire to actually help African-Americans who need the assistance. If there is one area in which African-Americans have been very successful in America, it's the sports world. (OK, music would be a close second.) Why in the world would we worry about African-Americans being denied access to one particular sport when they are dominant in numerous other sports (and when there are so many other areas in which African-Americans are under-represented and legitimately deserve attention). Isn't this like petitioning David Geffen to redress the fact that there are too few African-American rock bands on his label? Where's the modern Jimi Hendrix? Or Living Color? Or Fishbone? What? You mean African-Americans tend to go into other areas of music now? That can't be right!

All this said, there is a real feeding frenzy aspect to the coverage of Rainbow's meeting with the Braves that annoys me. The AJC and the local sports talk stations know that the race issue will get readers and callers very interested, especially to bash a position as transparently weak as that of Rainbow's claim here, and they give Rainbow more attention than they really deserve. This is an easy sports talk issue in that it does not involve a lot of brainpower and it appeals to the emotions of listeners, but it does more harm than good. In the end, Rainbow continues to be viewed as the spokesmen for African-Americans and African-Americans deserve better than to have their interests attached to this listing ship. (Insert standard statement of white guilt that I feel semi-uncomfortable speaking for blacks when I'm not black here.) Maybe my complaint is really that African-Americans lack credible leaders these days. Or maybe it's that the media like to have Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as easy whipping boys (Sharpton lecturing Don Imus on prejudice was an especially rich farce. Maybe David Lynch can lecture modern film makers on making clear, easily-understood pictures?) and that sucks all the oxygen away from leaders who would be far more credible.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Dumb Things Said on the Radio, Take 11

On the Rude Awakening this morning, the fact that Atlanta ranked sixth in terms of TV ratings for the NFL Draft was discussed. Where most Atlanta sports fans would enjoy that statistic and revel in another piece of evidence that the "Atlanta sucks as a sports town" meme is worthless, Perry Laurentino used the opportunity to argue that the NFL is surpassing college football in the Atlanta market. And the evidence for this argument? Naturally, Perry used the ratings for the Braves-Rockies game, which was not in the same timeslot and which was also equivalent to the ratings for the Draft (the ratings at the time when the Falcons picked were significantly higher), an NBA playoff game, an NHL playoff game, and a Busch Series race. That makes total sense. Of course college football is declining relative to the NFL, since there was so much college football content on in the same timeslot with which to compare. It also didn't occur to Mssr. Laurentino that college football fans might actually like watching the Draft since they, you know, actually know something about the players and can gain great enjoyment from the suffering of players from their rivals.

Incidentally, the issue of Atlanta as a sports town raises a couple additional thoughts:

1. Why isn't Detroit being labeled as the worst sports town in America in light of the thousands of empty seats at the Joe for the home playoff games of the top-seeded Red Wings? You mean it's possible for fans to get playoff fatigue when their team makes it year after year after year?

2. This article($) is simply outstanding. In a nutshell, Nate Silver took a stab at analyzing the true size of each Major League Baseball team's market, both in terms of the size of the metropolitan area as well as the surrounding states, to get a better sense as to which teams are truly big market teams. Here is the section on the Braves:

Atlanta Braves
Attendance Sphere: 5.5M (93, 13th)
TV Sphere: 15.6M (176, 2nd)
MSA: 5.2M (90, 12th)
Mike Jones: 6.5M (102, 11th)
States Won (TV): Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Mississippi

Note that the Braves rank 13th in their attendance market but 2nd in their TV market--it’s no accident that Ted Turner invented the Superstation. There are huge numbers of people in the South that are closer to the Braves than any other club, but not close enough to drive to games regularly. Atlanta itself has grown by 20 percent since the 2000 census, but that growth is along the city’s periphery rather than in its center, and the traffic in the region is terrible, so the Braves remain a television team.

This analysis goes a long way to explaining why the Braves' attendance lags behind the team's popularity: the Atlanta metro-area is far-flung and the Braves, not unlike the Cardinals, are a regional team that has a number of fans in the surrounding states. Given the love that the Red Sox get as a regional team, the Braves deserve a little credit for having similar characteristics.

Line of the Year

Take it away, Jorge Valdano:

"Football is made up of subjective feeling, of suggestion - and, in that, Anfield is unbeatable. Put a shit hanging from a stick in the middle of this passionate, crazy stadium and there are people who will tell you it's a work of art. It's not: it's a shit hanging from a stick."

But wait, there's more!

"Chelsea and Liverpool are the clearest, most exaggerated example of the way football is going: very intense, very collective, very tactical, very physical, and very direct. But, a short pass? No. A feint? No. A change of pace? No. A one-two? nutmeg? A backheel? Don't be ridiculous. None of that.

"If Didier Drogba was the best player in the first match, it was purely because he was the one who ran the fastest, jumped the highest and crashed into people the hardest. Such extreme intensity wipes away talent, even leaving a player of Joe Cole's class disoriented. If football is going the way Chelsea and Liverpool are taking it, we had better be ready to wave goodbye to any expression of the cleverness and talent we have enjoyed for a century."

If I don't use the "shit on a stick" line at some point during the college football season, you have the permission to send said feces and twig to my home address.

This article caused me to evaluate my feelings on Chelsea. I've grown to despise them over the past several years, in large part because of their rivalry with Barca in the Champions League, but thinking more clearly about why I do, it's all Mourinho. I first grew to dislike them because of Mourinho's unfounded accusations that Rijkaard had invaded Anders Frisk's dressing room at halftime of a Champions League game, an accusation that got Mourinho fined. Similarly, Chelsea's incredibly negative approach in the match was a farce; a team with as much talent as any in the world coming out with the intention of putting ten men behind the ball.

Fundamentally, my biggest beef with them is that Mourinho takes the best players in the world and then deploys a boring, simple style. The rumors of Dani Alves heading to Chelsea just make me laugh. What does Mourinho need an attacking right back for when all he apparently wants is long balls played towards Didier Drogba? Of course, this assumes that Chelsea retain the Special One. With the right manager (Guus Hiddink?), Chelsea would be a terrific advertisement for football. If Abramovich fires Mourinho and brings in a manager who will deploy that talent better, then more power to him.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Mike Vick's Winter of Discontent, Spring Edition

The national story that dog-fighting was apparently taking place at a house owned by Mike Vick in Virginia and that Vick was associated with a dog-selling web site is bad. The story that came out this morning from the journalist who is covering the story in the Seven Cities area was far worse. (Kudos to 790 the Zone for getting a really interesting interview.) Sadly, I didn't get the name of the interviewee, but here were the highlights:

1. Vick claims that he never went to the house, but neighbors remember him coming and going on a regular basis.

2. Vick regularly bought supplies at a local pet shop.

3. None of the residents of the house had jobs, but the dog-fighting operation that appears to have been run from the house requires a significant amount of money. In other words, they had to have a rich investor.

4. The authorities in the area are trying to compile as much information as possible before interviewing Vick. They are very interested because this appears to be a very large dog-fighting operation on a relative scale.

Translation: if even some of this is true, then Vick is going to be suspended for a portion of next year, the Falcons are going to cut bait on him (too bad the Raiders just addressed their quarterback situation), and Vick is going to lose all of his endorsements. If Vick really was involved in a dog-fighting operation, then few people are going to forgive him. This isn't a crime of passion or a momentary lapse that can be understood, if not condoned. This isn't marijuana use that, at the end of the day, really isn't a big deal. This crime would be concerted, regular activity by a guy who didn't need the money. As much as Vick has frustrated me over the past several years and as much as I've said to myself "we'll never win big with this guy because fundamentally, he's a quarterback with average accuracy and decision-making skills," I really hope that this situation isn't as bad as it sounded this morning.

F*** 'em up, Rino

I adore this headline: Liverpool are an outdated long-ball side, says Gattuso. Money quote:

"I feel there is a noticeable difference in talent between Manchester United and Liverpool and that we have beaten the better side of the two," he said. "United have far more technical players, who are quick and able to do things on the ball. Liverpool do not have those individuals. What they have is a way of playing as a team. They are like an Italian team of 10 years ago. All they try to do is defend together, with everybody behind the ball and just one striker. Every ball is a long ball."

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Biggest Sigh of Relief in Athens since the Battle of Salamis

Hooliganpalooza has been averted, thanks to Milan 3 United 0. A few thoughts:

1. Yet again, I want to take this opportunity to thank Milan and United for coming to play as opposed to the trench warfare eyesore that was 210 minutes of Chelsea and Liverpool.

2. United fans will undoubtedly point to the injuries that their team suffered in central defense and they have a point. Wes Brown was twice to blame for the second goal and the recently healed Nemanja Vidic was routinely skinned by Kaka, although one wonders whether Kaka would have done the same to a healthy Vidic. Kaka is sitting on top of the world right now in the estimation of most observers, having wrested the title of best player on the planet from Cristiano Ronaldo in decisive fashion. Then again, momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher, so maybe Steven Gerrard isn't exiled to the right flank in the final and he reminds us of his own talent. To get back to the injury issue, United have a point, but on the other hand, Milan also played a back-up central defender for 135 minutes of the tie. More importantly, they can point to this fact: they were 5-1 winners when Gattuso was on the pitch and 0-2 when he was hurt in the second half of the first leg. Speaking of Rino...

3. It's a full crush on my part now. As I said last week, I'm a sucker for players who are defensively critical and who represent the emotional heart of their teams, hence my affection for Puyol for Barca over their attacking stars. The true fan always loves Gattuso or Puyol or Roy Keane or Patrick Viera. Gattuso was an absolute titan tonight, a perfect illustration of the importance of a defensive midfielder. He closed down Ronaldo's runs time and again, then started the Milan attacks with smart passes. He dominated the game without scoring a goal or getting an assist. He didn't even have to get dirty to be so effective. And to boot, he got all Keane-ish at the end when Paul Scholes screwed with him. In an alley fight instead of a football match, Scholes would be missing an eyeball right now after Rino sucked it out. I'm going to have to resist the urge to buy a Gattuso jersey on Ebay in the next week.

Screw with this guy at your peril.

By the way, Seamus Malin latched onto Gattuso's importance in a way that Tommy Smyth never did. There's a knowing air to Malin's commentary that just draws me in. I have no idea why he's on ESPN's #2 team, except that this is ESPN we're talking about and schtick will always win out over substance.

4. I never thought I'd say this, but Marco van Basten is an absolute fool if he doesn't recall Clarence Seedorf, who is playing at a higher level than I've ever seen from him. I've never liked Seedorf in the Oranje because he's failed to deliver for the Dutch time and again, but he's on fire right now. More importantly, he's an attacking midfielder who can pass the ball, which is what Holland lacked at the last World Cup. If I could dream for a minute that Marco and an in-form van Nistlerooy patched things up, couldn't the Dutch do very well with a van Persie - van Nistlerooy - Seedorf front line? Clarence might even oblige us with something like this:

The only Madrid goal I'll ever post here.

5. I really hope that this guy pops back in for a visit:

Anonymous said...
I hope you enjoyed watching Manchester United destroy Roma. Maybe you should wait for the second match before speaking up because you don't know jack sh*t about football and never will.


Kiss Roma's ass! They're just a bunch of losers as you are! Next time hope of shutting the f*ck up before hoping to see Manchester getting beaten by a bunch of wimps. Especially from a Barca fan.

The Cup is ours for the taking.

If by "Cup," you meant "F.A. Cup," then by all means, you're right.

A Little Heavy Reading

A couple articles caught my fancy this morning. One is a New York Times article describing an academic paper published by Justin Wolfers, a Wharton School professor, and Joseph Price, a Cornell grad student, that concludes that NBA referees are affected by subconscious (we hope) racial bias when assessing fouls. The authors conclude that the racial composition of an officiating crew can have a non-trivial impact on player performance, although the effect can really only be seen over the course of the 82-game schedule.

The NBA has done a counter-study that finds no racial bias. I like David Stern and the NBA, but does anyone really take this study seriously? Does anyone think that if the NBA commissioned a counter-study and it replicated the finding that referees have subconscious racial preferences, the NBA would then release that study? The one advantage that the NBA study has is that it can use a data set that takes into account the specific referee making a given call. (Wolfers and Price could only analyze the effect of the racial composition of a crew as a whole, since they did not know which referees made particular calls in a given game.) Naturally, the NBA will not make its data available, citing confidentiality concerns. If the NBA had a real interest in determining whether subconscious racial bias exists on the part of officials, it would make that call-specific data available subject to a confidentiality agreement, a tactic that is used all the time in litigation when competitors produce proprietary information to one another. My guess is that the NBA, in places that David Stern doesn't talk about at parties, will quietly increase the number of African-American referees over the next several years.

What interests me so much about the study, other than the fact that it jibes with my view of modern racism as being very subtle, is the fact that sports can be such a valuable ground for empirical analysis because of its defined outcomes. The results of a basketball game can be tangibly measured, so factors like racial bias can be measured with some degree of precision. This is why I quite enjoyed seeing Rush Limbaugh's demise as an NFL pundit. When Rush is "analyzing" political issues, he can get away with whatever he wants because of the imprecision with which most political issues are analyzed. When he brought his agenda to analyzing the NFL, he was exposed as a fraud within weeks because he went off on Donovan McNabb and his claim that McNabb was a media creation could be easily debunked with numbers. McNabb's merits can be reliably measured in a way that Barack Obama's cannot. This isn't to say that our analysis of the performance of sports figures is perfect (hence Michael Vick's multiple Pro Bowl appearances and Derek Jeter's multiple Gold Gloves), but it's certainly better than the measures of issues that, you know, actually matter.

[Update: John Hollinger makes a pair of good points in response, noting that: (1) the actual disparity in fouls is quite small; and (2) teams with more white players did well because the smarter teams picked up on the fact that European players were undervalued.]

I also enjoyed this opus by Jonathan Chait, a senior editor at The New Republic (and graduate of the University of Michigan), on the Netroots movement, which I view as similar to having Claude Lemieux on my team: their methods might not be totally ethical, but I like having them doing my dirty work for me because the other team has Ulf Samuelsson and if my team doesn't have a pest, then we're going to lose. I'm mainly thinking about the conclusion of the article, which describes how the Netroots have managed to put pressure on the mainstream media from the left that had never existed before.

I was also amused by this paragraph:

In point of fact, the most successful bloggers have been pulled into the warm embrace of the political establishment. Moulitsas consults regularly with influential Democrats in Washington. Presidential candidates hire popular bloggers or court them with private dinners. Last year, numerous top Democrats trekked to Las Vegas to attend YearlyKos, the liberal blog convention, where they sucked up to the attendees as relentlessly as if they were software executives. The climax of the proceedings was a party for bloggers thrown by then-presidential hopeful Mark Warner, costing more than $50,000 and featuring chocolate fountains. None of these things, however, have softened the netroots' sense of grievance and exclusion.

I want to know when I'm going to get to nosh from a chocolate fountain purchased by The Orgeron at Swindlepalooza in Tuscaloosa.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

This is All I'll Say about Chelsea-Liverpool

If you want more, here's Rob Smyth from The Guardian: "The primitive football served up by Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield was an appalling advert for the English game."

In the Realm of Least Surprising Headlines...

Braves place struggling Wickman on DL.

I'm somewhat releived by this news for a couple reasons. First, it means that Wickman's inability to find the strike zone or get hitters out over the past week had a physical cause, rather than Wohlers-esque collapse of confidence. Second, it means that Soriano and Gonzalez can now close games and they are both better than Wickman. I'm still a little angry at Wickman for trying to pitch for the past week with his back conditions, as he cost the Braves two games and was a nice catch by Francoeur on Friday night from costing them a third. His heart was certainly in the right place by trying to pitch while hurt, but he was costing the team by being so determined. In other words, his efforts were noble, but counterproductive. If the Braves are going to challenge the Mets for the division, they can't afford to throw games away. This is especially true for the bullpen, which has received a significant amount of the team's relatively limited spending and therefore needs to be a strength. The Braves' margin for error is very small, given the lack of depth in the rotation. Wickman's refusal to take himself out when his back started hurting cost the Braves two games that might come back to haunt them.

Because I'd like to end this post on a happier note, I looked at the box score this morning and noticed that Kelly Johnson has a .473 on-base percentage. .473!?! I know the sample size is small, but holy hell, he's been even better than I thought! The man-crush of 2005 has returned in spades.